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Iran Analysis: Leadership in the Green Movement

New EA correspondent Elham Gheytanchi writes:

The civil unrest that swept Iranian cities in the aftermath of the contested June 12th 2009 election escalates despite the Government crackdown. Violence has been intensifying. On Ashura (27 December), armed plain-clothed forces associated with the Basij paramilitaries beat and killed demonstrators who were also mourning the 7th day of the passing of dissident cleric Ayatollah Montazeri. Hundreds of human rights activists, journalists, opposition clerics, and women’s rights activists were detained on Ashura and the following weeks.

The question is now whether the state can suppress a grass-roots movement, albeit one without a leader, that has blossomed into broad and heterogeneous movement well-known to Iranians and to the world?

Hardliners have until now successfully headed off any attempt at organizing and institutionalizing progressive movements, while the Basij and Revolutionary Guards have freedom to organize, recruit and prosper. In the past, hardline elements in the Iranian state succeeded in suppressing the students’ semi-organized movement as well as the reformists who came to power in the 1997 election that led to the presidency of Mohammad Khatami.

Khatami’s failure to deliver reform first became evident in 1999 when the student uprising in the University of Tehran was violently crushed and the perpetuators went unpunished. In an open letter in 2004, Ayatollah Montazeri wrote to Khatami that he had let the Iranian people down by giving into the pressures exerted by the hardliners in the government. When the Alumni Association of the Office for the Consolidation of Unity (Advar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat) tried to organize students, the Iranian authorities arrested their leaders and indefinitely detained many of their activists. Nonetheless, for many of those hopeful for change, it took the second term of Khatami's presidency to convince them that, given the unwavering support of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the hardliners would not relinquish their hold on power.

The most dynamic part of the women’s rights movement, the One Million Signatures Campaign to Change Laws Discriminating against Women, did not emerge under Khatami’s watch. This grass-roots movement has prospered during Ahmadinejad’s presidency (from 2006 onwards), despite his government proving itself to be harsh in its treatment of women. The Campaign works horizontally, without a leader and as a network of activists, and it has succeeded in becoming a widespread movement active in sixteen provinces in Iran.

Similarly, when Mousavi first started his presidential campaign about a month before the election --- the time allotted for presidential campaigns by the Iranian Constitution --- he asked his supporters to create “setads” or stations that could work independently. “Pouyesh” and “Setad 88” were examples of these independent campaign centers, part of a horizontal network of pro-Mousavi campaigners, comprised mostly of young and enthusiastic students. Later in June, when the demonstrators marched in the streets asking, “Where is my vote?”, Mousavi asked of his supporters that each one of them act as a news medium and spread information about protests, marches, demands and future actions among their family members, colleagues and in their communities. The horizontal structure served the Green Movement well, as the state-backed media refused to cover demonstrations and later denounced protesters as “agents of Western powers” or supporters of the “monafeghin” --- a derogatory term meaning "religious hypocrites", referring to the MKO (Mujahedin-e Khalq) stationed in Iraq.

As the Iranian state intensified its crackdown on protesters, Mousavi issued his 17th declaration on 1 January. This pointed to what has long been the case in Iran: civil rights movements forge ahead without much central planning or leadership. Mousavi stated that the Green Movement, like the One Million Signature Campaign, does not have a leader, and that the Ashura demonstrations took place without his leadership and without appeals from Mehdi Karoubi, other protesting presidential candidate, or Khatami.

As the use of naked violence by plainclothes forces on the streets reaches its peak, and state television and hardline newspapers show protesters’ faces in order to identify and arrest them, there is even more reason for the Green Movement to continue its existence without a leader or leaders. The stakes are high, and Mousavi has maneuvered cleverly by declaring himself not as a leader but as a strong supporter of mass protests. His proposals communicate a strong message to the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards: “You are directly responsible for the bloodshed.” The protestors showed their preference for non-violent methods on Ashura as they marched adjacent to the famous Pasteur Street where Ayatollah Khamenei lives and where Ahmadinejad’s office is located, without attacking his residence. They have done so without a leader.

The history of community organizing in post-revolutionary Iran shows that grass-roots movements flourish under harsh political conditions, relying on a horizontal structure and without much central leadership. Labor unions, city councils, students’ committees, teachers’ unions and women’s rights activism have been suppressed by the hardline-controlled Ministry of Information. There is a deep conviction in the ministry that any attempt to organize Iranian citizens for reform is led by foreign powers determined to destroy the entire Islamic Republic. Under these circumstances, the Green Movement has behaved much like women’s rights movement, which has avoided centralized leadership and instead has mobilized ordinary people beyond what was previously thought possible.

Reader Comments (7)

The grassroots leadership in Iran is not horizontal. It is fluid. It is a function of whomever has the greatest visibility of the situation on the ground at any given time. And it changes as the situation and the visibility of the situation changes. Please see my blog entry here: No lack of leaders in Iran

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermanydrums

I have always said that sooner or later, the Regime would do something REALLY stupid.

Of late, there seems to have been attempts by the Regime to "cool down" 11 Jan. Now they do this

Could anything else be much worse than this to fire up protesters on 11 Jan?? Maybe it is deliberate??.

One posting elsewhere I have read said: "Looks like arrest at a protest is now a death sentence -- so DO NOT GET ARRESTED!!!"


January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBarry


Regarding death sentences, please note that these last two executions did not take their victims from the protesters. It's actually a trick by the IRI. They are very aggressive at members of MKO and Anjoman Padeshahi Iran (an anti-Islamist pro-Monarchy group). They are not afraid to sentence the members of these two groups to very harsh punishments due to the terrorist activities by both groups in the past. The two guys who were executed are both members of the Anjoman Padeshahi Iran and were arrested before the election. The trick employed by the IRI is that by executing these two guys, no one dares to blame the regime because they are the members of terrorist groups. However, the regime will frighten the protesters so that some of them may stop attending the protests.

I'm very suspicious of the way BBC is covering news related to the movement in Iran. They covered the news about Karroubi's latest interview with Fars News very similar to the way Fars News hoped foreign news agencies would do (as if Karroubi has accepted the announced result of the election). And they also cover the news about these two executions in a way that spread the spectre of the horror in the body of the movement (as if the IRI is executing the protesters).

January 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermajid


Have you any proof for the accusations against the so-called members of MKO or Monarchist's group, executed yesterday? Obviously you ignore all news about intimidating them and their relatives in order to get a "confession"!
And haven't you read today's Friday prayer by Jannati, in which he asks the judiciary to show no leniency and kill "rioters"?

"The judiciary is tasked with dealing with the detained rioters. I know you well, judiciary officials! You came forward sincerely and accepted this responsibility. You are revolutionary and committed to the Supreme Leader. For God’s sake, stand firm as you already did with your quick execution of these two convicts….

God ordered the prophet Muhammad to brutally slay hypocrites and ill-intentioned people who stuck to their convictions. Koran insistently orders such deaths. May God not forgive anyone showing leniency toward the corrupt on earth."

I really regret your indifference towards the killing of helpless Iranian citizens.

January 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArshama

You may be right - there now seems to be some contradictions regarding exactly when these two were arrested.

HOWEVER- I certainly suspect that the advice suggested elsewhere to NOT GET ARRESTED under any circumstances is good advice. I have seen quite a few videos where a smallish number of Security people (say around 5) attack a protester with batons - and basically the protester surrenders and allows themselves to be taken away. I have also seen other cases where the protester summons unusual courage and RUNS away very fast - and has either been rescued or the Security have been distracted elsewhere allowing the protester to escape.

Many years ago, I once did some training in deep sea yacht sailing. The instructor said that even though the training course compelled him to teach us about "man overboard" drills - his absolute advice was NOT TO FALL OVERBOARD UNDER ANY CONDITIONS - because at sea in poor weather conditions, you would be dead, regardless of the training. He did not want the training to condition our minds in any way that there was a possibility of rescue and thus make us in any way complacent.

Hence - the admonition - DO NOT ALLOW YOURSELF TO GET ARRESTED - is, I believe, good advice.


January 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBarry

Barry is right. "Do not allow yourself to get arrested."

As what I had said in my past comment, dont let yourself get arrested. Everyone must protect each other. Stand your ground. If you cannot stand your ground, at least protect your brothers or sisters. We had seen some video about this thugs running like chicken if you just rescue your fellow protester. They're cowards who beats those arrested protester very badly if you just watch them. And besides, you know what will happen to them if they are brought to jail. They became a pawn by this criminal regime ready to be sacrificed.


January 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCecil


I think my point was clear: there's a trick by the IRI going on the stage, and the movement should be aware of it. I never claimed that they are the members of MKO. I said they were the members of Anjoman Padeshahi. In addition, I seriously oppose the idea that members of MKO or the other terrorist group deserve the death penalty. I think the long-term guarantee for the lives of the Iranian citizens is conditioned by the victory of this movement. And the victory is dependent upon the hopes and courage of the people. So the movement should be sensitive to such a trick employed by the IRI to discourage its members.

Regarding their membership in the Anjoman Padeshahi Iran, I have to say that I am not sure. But the news agencies of the IRI tried to convince people that they were arrested in Ashura whereas some pictures of them in a court held during the summer exist which proved the claims of those agencies to be wrong. In addition, I remember one of the reformists who were in the same court mentioned that there were guys in the court who had no relations whatsoever with the election and its aftermath.

All is said and done, I am really interested to hear your words on how could you infer from my previous comment that I'm indifferent to the lives of the Iranian citizens. Why do you expect me to include all of my opinions in a single comment with only two paragraphs?

January 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermajid

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