Commentary: Growing Support for the Opposition


Published in German daily newspaper “Tageszeitung” (“taz”) on January 28 2010
Source (German):

by Bahman Nirumand
The regime has become weaker, but still keeps a grip on power. Regime opponents argue over the question what might be the right strategy.

Protestor in Tehran. Photo: AP

Is Iran on the brink of a revolution, or about to see a velvet regime change? The question is becoming more and more topical with every day the protests that started in June persist.
What seems certain is that the regime has widely lost its backing in the population. Even larger parts of the state elite have meanwhile sided with the opposition. Even several influential Grand Ayatollahs have distanced themselves from the regime – a great loss for a state that bases itself on Islam.

The rigged elections of June 2009, the brutal crackdown on the opposition, the tortures, show trials and coerced confessions have eventually discredited the state even in the view of pious believers. Apart from that, since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005, Iran has been stuck in a deep economical crisis, and in terms of foreign politics the country is moving towards escalation to an extent that could even result in war.

Yet for all the euphoria about the achievements, the successes of the opposition can not lead to the conclusion that Iran is on the precipice. The regime is still in command of the entire power apparatus, while the opposition is standing empty-handed. Not only can the regime use the power of the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij militias, the army, the police and numerous paramilitary organizations: Although the rulers have lost the support of some parts of the basis, they are still capable of mobilizing millions of people. After all, almost the entire economy is monopolized by the state. As long as there are oil revenues, the regime will be able to survive even deeper crises.

This power is confronted by an opposition that is heterogeneous, and has neither a clear leadership, nor a consistent structure. Although millions participate in countrywide protests, the demonstrations have not yet spread to the factories and the bazaar. Neither did they manage to cause divisions within the military, militias, police and other security organs.

What is also important to note is that the protest movement is based on powers who in parts pursue reforms within the framework of the constitution, in other parts, however, seek to achieve a regime change. Among those of the first group are, above all, the defeated presidential candidates Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, as well as the former presidents Mohammad Khatami and – provided he is considered part of the opposition – Hashemi Rafsanjani. They, and not the radical faction, have so far set the pace for the “movement of green hope”.

What is it that the opposition can demand, given the unbalanced power structure? How far can they dare to go, preventing, on the one hand, further severe losses, or even defeat, while avoiding to cause rifts between reformers and those who seek to establish a new state?

Mir Hossein Moussavi’s latest statement of January 1 has boosted this discussion. Moussavi stresses his commitment to the constitution, accuses the rulers of violating the constitution, and expresses concrete demands: The government must be accountable to the people, the parliament, and the judiciary for the recent events and all homemade problems. The election law needs to be reformed in order to gain the trust of the population, and to eliminate the influence of other organs and institutions. Moussavi calls for the release of the political prisoners, freedom of press, lifting of the bans on newspapers, and independence of television and radio. Finally, Moussavi demands to grant freedom of assembly, and the right to establish political parties, associations, and independent groups.

Moussavi writes that further demands can be added to those expressed in his statement. It is important to tackle reforms in order to solve the crisis, he adds.

The ultra conservative camp has harshly responded to Moussavi’s statement. They refer to his proposals as a new trick of the foreign intelligence services and their collaborators within the country, attempting to realize the plans for a velvet regime change.

Completely different reactions emerged from the camp of the so-called moderate conservatives. Influential voices from within their ranks called his proposals an attempt to re-establish national unity. Surprisingly, the state-run television, having so far almost ignored the protests, has recently begun to broadcast discussions in which even moderate conservatives and critical reformists are allowed to have a say. Those criticized the brutal crackdown on protestors and the arrests, and they blame the government of Ahmadinejad for the crisis. One journalist even declared that there is no freedom of press in Iran. So, while parts of the conservative camp is gravitating towards reconciliation, the ultra conservatives brutally confront the opposition. Is this a sign for a beginning rift within the conservative camp? Is it a done deal? Or rather an attempt to create cleavages within the opposition?

Within the opposition, however, Moussavi’s statement triggered controversial debates, above all, among the opposition abroad. Numerous people and groups supported Moussavi’s demands, among them five prominent reformists residing abroad: Abdolali Bazargan, Abdolkarim Soroush, Akbar Ganji, Mohsen Kadivar, and the former minister of culture, Ataollah Mohajerani.

However, in their response that was released on January 4, the “Five” assume that Moussavi was forced to reduce his demands to a minimum due to existing restrictions, and his proposals should be complemented. Thus, the authors call for the resignation of the government, fresh elections, rehabilitation and compensation for the political prisoners, full lift of censorship, including censorship of internet services, autonomy of universities, independence of the judiciary, and the prosecution of all those who were involved in the crackdown on the protesters and participated in torturing and shooting people.

No more compromise
For those who wish a regime change, however, these demands are not sufficient. This system can not be reformed, they say, adding that the rule of the clerics is not compatible with democratic structures. The almost unlimited power of the Revolutionary Leader, enshrined in the constitution, and the position of the Guardian Council, among others, are contradictory to free elections and civil and individual rights and freedoms. No compromise should be made at this point, the opportunity for moving on towards a democratic state must not be missed.

Others do accept these arguments, adding, however, that in their opinion the issued demands are appropriate for the very reason that they eventually go beyond the framework of the constitution. They believe it is unrealistic to raise more radical demands which, in addition, would cause rifts and drive parts of the opposition towards the regime.

Ezatollah Sahabi, the prominent politician and member of the group “National Religious Iran”, has recently in an open letter warned the opposition abroad not to radicalize the movement. Political demands should not be based on absolute truth alone, they must as well be implementable and have prospects of success.


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