Monday, July 27, 2009

Iran's Protesters: Phase 2 of Their Feisty Campaign

Monday, Jul. 27, 2009

By Robin Wright

Phase 2 has begun. Six weeks after millions took to the streets to protest Iran's presidential election, their uprising has morphed into a feistier, more imaginative and potentially enduring campaign.

The second phase plays out in a boycott of goods advertised on state-controlled television. Just try buying a certain brand of dairy product, an Iranian human-rights activist told me, and the person behind you in line is likely to whisper, "Don't buy that. It's from an advertiser." It includes calls to switch on every electric appliance in the house just before the evening TV news to trip up Tehran's grid. It features quickie "blitz" street demonstrations, lasting just long enough to chant "Death to the dictator!" several times but short enough to evade security forces. It involves identifying paramilitary Basij vigilantes linked to the crackdown and putting marks in green — the opposition color — or pictures of protest victims in front of their homes. It is scribbled antiregime slogans on money. And it is defiant drivers honking horns, flashing headlights and waving V signs at security forces. (See pictures of Iran's presidential election and its turbulent aftermath.)

The tactics are unorganized, largely leaderless and only just beginning. They spread by e-mail, websites and word of mouth. But their variety and scope indicate that Iran's uprising is not a passing phenomenon like the student protests of 1999, which were quickly quashed. This time, Iranians are rising above their fears. Although embryonic, today's public resolve is reminiscent of civil disobedience in colonial India before independence or in the American Deep South in the 1960s. Mohandas Gandhi once mused that "even the most powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled." That quotation is now popular on Iranian websites.

Its impact varies, but Phase 2 has begun to exact a price from those who ignore the popular will. Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former member of parliament, told me that some companies have cut back on TV advertising, and some stores have dropped advertised brands. A new boycott of text messaging could be costing a state company more than $1 million a day. "There is optimism that protests will continue one way or another," says Farideh Farhi, an Iranian analyst at the University of Hawaii, "because people who are normally not rabblerousers are finding ways to counter the government crackdown."

The new camaraderie of resistance was visible at the July 17 Friday prayer sermon given by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani at Tehran University. Nonreligious Iranians turned up for political reasons. The devout showed them how to carry out the rituals, with strangers handing out newspapers as substitute prayer mats for overflow crowds. Men and women prayed together, a regime taboo. When Rafsanjani referred to detainees, the crowd interrupted by roaring, "Political prisoners must be freed!" Calling for support of Iran's Supreme Leader, who backed the crackdown, another prayer official intoned, "We are all your soldiers, Khamenei! We await your orders!" But supporters of defeated presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi shouted back, "We are your soldiers, Mousavi! We await your orders!" And when told to shout "Down with America!" the crowd instead chanted "Down with Russia!" — whose leaders had congratulated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his re-election and hosted him four days later. (See pictures of people around the world protesting Iran's election.)

The protests tap into a long Iranian tradition. The seeds of the 1905-11 Constitutional Revolution — which produced Iran's first parliament and constitution — were planted in the Tobacco Protest of the 19th century, when even women in the royal harem stopped smoking their water pipes to protest an exclusive concession given by the Shah to a British company. Protests, strikes and boycotts prevented Iran from becoming a British protectorate in 1920, secured the reappointment of reformist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1952 and — most significant of all — ended 2,500 years of dynastic rule in 1979 and ushered in the Islamic Republic.

The current uprising is nowhere near as widespread as that of 1979. Yet the activism is creating a new political space in Iran. The public is defining its own agenda, with Rafsanjani, Mousavi and other opposition figures responding to sentiment on the street rather than directing it. After meeting on July 20 with the families of people detained following the election, Mousavi warned the power structure, "You are facing something new: an awakened nation, a nation that has been born again and is here to defend its achievements."

As Iran's second phase of protests takes shape, the regime's future may depend on whether it heeds that warning.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tipping Point in Tehran

The Washington Post
A Gathering Opposition Faces a Weakened Regime

July 14, 2009

By Robin Wright
How much has changed for Iran in one occasionally breathtaking month. The erratic uprising is becoming as important as the Islamic revolution 30 years ago -- and not only for Iran. Both redefined political action throughout the Middle East.

The costs are steadily mounting for the regime. Just one day before the June 12 presidential election, the Islamic republic had never been so powerful. Tehran had not only survived three decades of diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions but had emerged a regional superpower, rivaled only by Israel. Its influence shaped conflicts and politics from Afghanistan to Lebanon.

But the day after the election, the Islamic republic had never appeared so vulnerable. The virtual militarization of the state has failed to contain the uprising, and its tactics have further alienated and polarized society. It has also shifted the focus from the election to Iran's leadership.

Just a day before the election, Iran also had the best opportunity in 30 years to end its pariah status. Since the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy, Tehran has sparred with five U.S. administrations. President Obama's offer of direct engagement is the most generous to date. He had the world's major powers and a growing number of Americans on board.

The tide has turned. At its summit in Italy last week, the Group of Eight industrialized nations "deplored" the post-election crackdown and urged "democratic dialogue" with the opposition. At his news conference there, Obama noted the G-8's "strong condemnation about the appalling treatment of peaceful protesters post-election in Iran" and "behavior that just violates basic international norms."

Given its advancing nuclear technology and regional influence, Iran believed before the election that it held the trump cards in any negotiations. Now, politically disgraced, it is the needy one. Yet Washington might also pay a price for engaging with a government that brutalizes its people. Any involvement could effectively bestow legitimacy on a disputed election and reject the transparency and justice that protesters are seeking.

The uprising has transformed Iran's political landscape. Over the past month, dozens of disparate political factions have coalesced into two rival camps: the New Right and the New Left.

The core of the New Right is a second generation of revolutionaries, called principlists, who have wrested control of the security instruments and increasingly pushed their elders aside -- at least for now. It includes Mojtaba Khamenei, the supreme leader's son and chief of staff; Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, a presidential adviser and campaign manager; Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejehei; Interior Minister Sadegh Mahsouli; Major Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari of the Revolutionary Guards; Basij commander Hasan Taeb; influential commentators such as Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the newspaper Kayhan; and industry titans like Mehrbad Bazrpash, the former cabinet minister for youth affairs who now heads Saipa, the automobile manufacturer.

The New Left is a de facto coalition of disparate interest groups that found common cause in anger after the election. The name comes from opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was considered leftist as prime minister in the 1980s, and the opposition's goal is to open up the rigid theocracy.

Its organization, tools and strategy are weak, but it is the most extensive coalition since the 1979 revolution. The New Left includes former presidents, cabinet ministers and members of parliament as well as vast numbers of young people (the dominant demographic), the most politically active women in the Islamic world, white-collar professionals and inflation-sapped laborers.

What was a political divide has become a schism. Many Iranian leaders served time together in the shah's jails; today, their visions of the Islamic republic differ so sharply that reconciliation would be almost impossible.

What happens next will be determined by three factors: leadership, unity and momentum.

The opposition is most vulnerable on leadership. The big unanswered question is whether Mousavi, a distinctly uncharismatic politician, can lead the new opposition over the long term. He was an accidental leader of the reform movement, more the product of public sentiment than the creator of it. Without dynamic direction, the opposition may look elsewhere.

The regime is most vulnerable on unity. Many government employees, including civil servants and members of the military, have long grumbled about the strict theocracy. In 1997, a government poll found that 84 percent of the Revolutionary Guards, which include many young men merely fulfilling national service, voted for Mohammad Khatami, the first reform president.

Momentum may be the decisive factor. The regime will need to shift public attention to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's second-term agenda. Though Ahmadinejad blames the outside world for the protests, he may focus on regional or international goals to win the legitimacy that his presidency is unable to get at home.

For the opposition, the calendar of Shiite rites, Persian commemorations and revolutionary markers is rich with occasions to spark demonstrations. The opposition also has supporters in Iran's parliament who are likely to challenge Ahmadinejad's cabinet choices and economic proposals. Further arrests and future trials could also spark new tension. With each flash point, the regime's image is further tainted, its legitimacy undermined.

Robin Wright, a former Post reporter, is the author of "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East" and is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Friday, July 10, 2009

U.S. Citizen in Tehran Arrested

Friday, Jul. 10, 2009
By Robin Wright
Iran's political upheaval has claimed its first American, with the arrest on July 9 of Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian American living in Tehran, according to an Iranian human-rights group and family friends.

As part of the latest security sweep designed to end nationwide protests against the disputed June 12 presidential election, Tajbakhsh was picked up from his home late Thursday following a day of renewed demonstrations, according to Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. His computer equipment was confiscated and his home ransacked, Ghaemi said.
Tajbakhsh, 47, was not involved in the protests, the sources said, but the Columbia University graduate had been among four dual citizens arrested in 2007 on charges of trying to foment a "velvet revolution" against the Islamic regime. He spent four months in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison before his release. Tajbakhsh, an urban-planning expert, taught urban policy at the New School for Social Research in New York City from 1994 until 2001. Before his arrest in 2007, he had served as an adviser to the Iranian Ministry of Health and been a consultant for George Soros' Open Society Institute.

The regime has repeatedly charged that the recent unrest is a plot by foreign powers, particularly Britain, to orchestrate an uprising against the theocracy. On the eve of the pivotal vote, Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei expressed concern about a "soft" or "velvet" revolution, the term originally used to describe the 1989 overthrow of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. (See the top 10 players in Iran's power struggle.)

The head of the country's Revolutionary Guards political division also charged that supporters of opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi were part of the plot. "Any kind of velvet revolution will not be successful in Iran," he warned in a comment on the website of the Guards, the élite wing of Iran's military created to protect the revolution.

The detention is being widely condemned. In Washington, Haleh Esfandiari, who also was detained in Iran in 2007, said the regime's "paranoia regarding a so-called velvet revolution planned from the outside and assisted from the inside has gotten out of control."

Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Iran's Intelligence Ministry "keeps trying to prove the unprovable." Esfandiari was released after a show of public pressure by then Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as well as a letter to Khamenei from former Congressman Lee Hamilton, the president of the Wilson Center and co-chair of both the Iraq Study Group and the 9/11 Commission. (See pictures of Iran's presidential election and its turbulent aftermath.)

After his release from prison, Tajbakhsh opted to stay and work in Iran, where his family lives, and deliberately avoided politics, friends say. "Kian knew his activities were being closely monitored by the government ever since his release from prison in 2007, so he was very careful not to give them any pretext to re-arrest him," said Karim Sadjadpour, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington and a close friend who has talked with his family.

The regime may be trying to implicate the U.S. in the unrest, analysts say. "What's significant is the fact that he was taken by the Revolutionary Guards and that he is, as far as we know, the first U.S. citizen to be detained. I think it's very plausible that Iran's hard-liners are trying to draw the United States into this," Sadjadpour said.