Monday, November 23, 2009

Iran's Green Movement Reaches Out to U.S.

Nov. 23, 2009
By Robin Wright
After more than five months of going it alone, Iran's opposition Green Movement is reaching out to the United States for help. Via public and private channels, the Obama Administration has received several appeals in recent weeks to take a stronger stand against human-rights abuses in Iran, avoid military action and impose more aggressive and rapid-fire sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards and its vast business interests.

The opposition's outreach comes as the Administration weighs the next move in its diplomatic effort to resolve the nuclear standoff with Iran. Tehran has effectively rebuffed a confidence-building deal that would ship out the bulk of Iran's enriched-uranium stockpile to be converted into fuel rods for a medical-research reactor — which would also have added about a year to the time frame within which Iran could weaponize nuclear material. The deal would have offered more time for longer-term diplomatic negotiations. As a result, President Obama has begun trying to rally international support for a new round of sanctions. (See pictures of people around the world protesting Iran's election.)

Washington has struggled since the disputed June 12 presidential election to figure out how to engage the regime without undermining the opposition. Now it has begun to hear answers from the Green Movement itself.

The most public message has come from Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the exiled revolutionary filmmaker turned dissident who claims to speak on behalf of the Green Movement, during a Washington visit last week. He told U.S. officials and Iran experts Thursday that the military action would only strengthen the hard-line regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. "Dialogue is definitely better than war," said Makhmalbaf. (See the top 10 players in Iran's power struggle.)

At the same time, Makhmalbaf warned that the West should not "trample" on the Green Movement by fully embracing Iran's regime if it eventually reverses course on nuclear talks. He and other prominent opposition members are also urging the White House to more actively condemn the brutal crackdown since the election that gave Ahmadinejad a second term despite opposition claims of widespread fraud. The limited reaction has allowed the regime to believe the outside world is indifferent to what is happening inside Iran, he said.

Makhmalbaf said even modest steps are important, such as publicly mentioning opposition victims like Neda Agha-Soltan, the student shot dead during the June uprising who became an opposition symbol. (Obama mentioned her death, but not by name, the day he won the Nobel Peace Prize.) Washington also needs to recognize and respond to opposition statements, like the apology from Iran's leading dissident cleric, Ayatullah Ali Montazeri, for the 1979 U.S. embassy takeover. Montazeri was once heir-apparent to the revolution's founder, Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, and his gesture on the 30th anniversary of the seizure was a risky step that passed largely ignored by Washington.

As the Administration begins lobbying its international partners for punitive new measures against Iran, Makhmalbaf and other opposition figures have urged the U.S. to focus primarily on the Revolutionary Guards. The élite unit is a growing political and economic behemoth, and its leadership is critical in propping up the troubled regime. They are not supporting other measures under consideration, like curbs on gasoline imports Iran relies on for domestic consumption, because these would mainly hurt the Iranian public, opposition figures have told U.S. officials.

"We need certain sanctions to hurt the regime, but not the people," said Makhmalbaf, who urged Washington to quickly impose a series of sanctions on the Guards since incremental steps allow them time to develop alternatives. The award-winning filmmaker, who now lives in Europe, said he was sent to Washington by the opposition; his talk at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was attended by senior officials from the National Security Council and the State Department.

Iran's refusal to accept the deal that required shipping out nuclear material for reprocessing in Russia and France, say Iranian analysts, is partly linked to the divide between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. The President, they say, is more interested than the Supreme Leader is in improving relations with Washington, a major coup that could earn Ahmadinejad badly needed international legitimacy. But he refuses to compromise on Iran's right to enrich uranium, a position with strong support from across the Iranian political spectrum.

Khamenei, meanwhile, is said to reject improving relations with the United States as anathema to essence of the Islamic Revolution. At the same time, analysts say he was initially more open to a compromise on a short-term deal.

Ironically, however, one reason among others for Iran's reversal after initially approving the deal was that Green Movement leaders had criticized it. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the opposition candidate who claims to have won the disputed election, criticized the proposal negotiated by Ahmadinejad's team at Vienna, warning that if implemented, it would negate the work of thousands of Iranian scientists. Opposition figures and analysts say his response was merely an attempt to play spoiler and prevent the regime from benefiting politically from a deal with the West. Still, nuclear diplomacy with the West has effectively become a political football in Tehran, complicating President Obama's quest for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Tehran Braces for a New Political Showdown


Nov. 2, 2009
By Robin Wright
A new showdown looms in Iran this week, as the regime and its intrepid opposition gear up for what may be their biggest street confrontation since the protests that followed the disputed June 12 presidential election. The latest face-off is scheduled for Wednesday, when Iran commemorates the 30th anniversary of the U.S. embassy takeover by radical students. In an ironic twist, however, instead of the traditional festival of America-bashing, students across the country are being summoned to mark the event with a protest against their own government.

For three decades, students have massed every Nov. 4 at the sprawling former U.S. embassy — now a Revolutionary Guards training center and museum — that occupies several blocks in downtown Tehran to commemorate the young revolution's confrontation with the world's mightiest power. On that day in 1979, revolutionary students stormed the compound and seized 52 U.S. diplomats, holding them hostage for 444 days. The regime has long supported the event, officially dubbing it Pupils' Day and giving students the day off from school to attend.

Last year students paraded down the streets shouting anti-American slogans and burning an effigy of President George W. Bush. Now, for many Iranian students, the real issue is no longer the U.S. This year opposition leaders are calling on Iranians young and old to parade in front of the graffiti-covered embassy walls against their controversial President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei.

The world's only modern theocracy is clearly nervous. The regime announced last week that it would mobilize 3 million of its supporters to prevent the normally raucous festival from turning into a sustained anti-regime protest. The paramilitary Basij vigilantes will be deployed to keep the commemoration on message and to silence protesters. And, escalating the stakes, Ayatullah Khamenei warned last week that questioning the election results will now be treated as a crime.

An Iranian opposition website has published what it claims is a top-secret letter from the Islamic Guidance Ministry to the press urging censorship. "Given the possibility that groups opposed to the regime may engage in actions on the eve of Nov. 4, the anniversary of the seizure of America's den of spies, and may deviate public opinion from the ceremonies on the national day of struggle against world arrogance," the letter reads, "I request that you refrain from disseminating any news, photo or topic which can lead to tension in the society or breach public order."

The opposition has so far refused to back down. In a statement on Oct. 31 on his website, opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi called the Nov. 4 anniversary the greenest day of the year — in reference to the color adopted by his movement. The commemoration, he said, should be a "rendezvous so we would remember anew that among us it is the people who are the leaders."

In the wake of the ruthless crackdown that ended last summer's mass protests, the opposition has begun converting national holidays — when the public is expected to turn out on the streets — into opportunities for political protests. But the Nov. 4 commemoration is particularly sensitive because it symbolizes the power of the regime's biggest long-term problem — Iran's youth.

Young people were in the vanguard of the 1979 overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and in the embassy siege, they were way out in front of Ayatullah Khomeini and the revolutionary leadership. Students from three Tehran campuses plotted to seize the American diplomatic mission after the Carter Administration admitted the ailing, exiled Shah for medical treatment, suspecting that Washington wanted to restore Pahlavi to power, as it had in the coup of 1953. The student action only won the support of the new Islamic regime days after the fact.

The only other major challenge to the regime in 30 years was the 1999 campus protest that led to bloody clashes. Some 70% of Iran's population is now under age 30 due to a post-revolution baby boom spurred in part by clerics calling on Iranian women to breed an Islamic generation. But the first generation of children born under the revolution has come back to haunt the regime. Their political apathy in 2005 may have helped put Ahmadinejad in office, but their current activism in myriad forms has fueled a vibrant civil disobedience campaign that the authorities have failed to suppress.

In an unprecedented public rebuke, mathematics student Mahmoud Vahidnia last week criticized Iran's Supreme Leader to his face for living in a bubble, limiting freedom of speech and press and allowing élites to get a stranglehold on power through institutions like the Council of Guardians. State-controlled television terminated the broadcast of the meeting between Khamenei and Iran's academic élite, but thousands have since seen parts of Vahidnia's bold criticism on YouTube. Sporadic applause can be heard in the background.

The Nov. 4 anniversary previously had a unique role in Iran's foreign policy, often serving as a barometer of public opinion. During the past eight years, the rallies were intensely anti-American because of fears that Bush would launch a military attack. But in 1998, under reformist President Mohammed Khatami, one of the three masterminds of the embassy takeover offered an olive branch: Our dealings with the hostages were not directed against the American people and not even against the hostages themselves, Ibrahim Asgharzadeh told that year's commemoration. Although Iranians still felt wronged by U.S. policy, he said the time had come to invite all the hostages to return to Iran as guests. Regarding relations with America, Iranians must look to the future and not to the past. He received thunderous applause.

Many involved in the embassy siege later became leaders of the reform movement. Asgharzadeh went on to become a member of Tehran's city council. Mohsen Mirdamadi, another of the three masterminds, became a member of parliament and leader of Iran's largest reform party. As chairman of Iran's foreign affairs committee, he called for improving relations with the U.S. And as Iran prepares to commemorate the event that he helped plan, Mirdamadi today is among the more than 100 political prisoners who are awaiting the outcome of a mass show trial on charges of trying to subvert the revolution.