Why did Iran's Greens fail?

Iran's Green movement failed ultimately because its leaders chose failure

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The Green movement is at rock bottom
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Peter Kohanloo
On 4 September 2012 09:02

Iran’s establishment Greens cynically attempted to use last week’s ballyhooed meeting of the Nonaligned Movement in Tehran to resuscitate their political fortunes. Their spokesperson recently penned a letter addressed to the U.N. Secretary General, pleading for him to visit Green leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both of whom are under house arrest. They also invited Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to publicly express solidarity with both men.

The results were predictably negative. Instead, Mr. Ban Ki Moon chose to sit down with the clerical regime’s supreme leader for tea and diplomatic niceties, and Morsi declared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – the man who opposed Mousavi in 2009 – to be his “dear brother” as state-run media journalists clapped in approval.

One could argue that such lackluster results definitively prove that Iran’s Green movement is finished. But the truth is that the Green movement had already collapsed in the summer of 2009.

Much ink has been spilled since then in attempting to explain the movement’s demise. Several theories have been advanced, including the Iranian people’s reluctance to start another revolution, their cultural unpreparedness for democracy, and the lack of charismatic leadership, among others.

Some of these claims may have merit but none gets to the heart of the matter: The primary factor behind the Green movement’s disintegration was its leaders’ inability to formulate a coherent and decisive vision for fundamental change. This was, in other words, a political failure above all.

So what went wrong? Why did the Green movement fail? Was it the bitter experience of 1979 that made Iranians apprehensive of regime change? Or are they simply not ready to handle democracy? Did it peter out because of inadequate leadership? Or did a lack of support from Western democracies seal its fate? Or was it finally the regime’s brutal crackdown that played a decisive role in crippling it? The answers to these commonly asked questions can help us better understand the Green movement’s historic rise and its inability to reach its full potential.

Some argue that Iranians actually fear a complete political transformation that would replace the current regime. For example, one Iran observer noted that “when you carry out a revolution, you know against whom you are revolting, but not necessarily for whom you are waging the revolution. Iranians have little appetite for another revolution. As unpopular as their current government is, they prefer gradual and manageable change.”

The argument is that Iranians would rather put up with the current regime, with which they are familiar, instead of an unknown alternative. This apprehension is supposedly born of the bitter experience of 1979, which brought a far worse tyranny to replace the shah’s autocracy.

This is a reasonable argument on the surface. Yet a deeper analysis suggests otherwise. In Iran, reformism and gradualism had already been tried during former President Mohammad Khatami’s tenure. They failed to alter the regime’s fundamentally repressive structure. This was partly due to the Islamic Republic’s constitution, which gives the unelected supreme leader ultimate say on all matters of state. It was with the supreme leader’s blessing, for example, that the appointed Guardian Council, which serves as the regime’s constitutional watchdog, vetoed most of the reformist bills approved by parliament throughout Khatami’s presidency.

Moreover, the constitution ensures that only regime loyalists can run for office through its filtering mechanisms. Constitutional hurdles, however, were not the only reason reformism failed. For example, Khatami’s refusal to intervene even on behalf of his jailed political allies demonstrated his reluctance to seriously challenge the system. Iranians’ experience with the rigged 2009 election only confirmed their suspicion that reform is impossible within the regime.

Chants such as “Death to the Dictator” and “Death to Khamenei” suggest that people were hungry for more than the status quo. All the evidence suggests that instead of fearing change, Iranians embraced it; they rejected piecemeal reform that retains the Islamic Republic’s basic character while making improvements at the margins.

Another common argument is that, even if they do not fear radical change, Iranians are just not ready to handle liberal democracy. This perception is primarily based on anecdotal interactions within society. According to this view, widespread lying, cheating, and other unethical behavior, even Tehran’s famously chaotic traffic, are indications that Iranian society cannot function according to democratic and liberal norms.

But we shouldn’t let anecdotes fool us. A recent study conducted by a team of Iranian and Israeli social scientists revealed that Iranians, on the contrary, possess many of the basic traits necessary for establishing a democracy. Using an index that gauges liberal inclinations based on values instead of political beliefs, the researchers interviewed a representative sample of 914 Iranians and corroborated their findings using responses from 160,973 individuals in 62 nations.

According to their data, Iranian society has more potential for representative democracy than even well-established Asian democracies, such as India and South Korea. Although there are certain civic shortcomings within the population, the society as a whole has the foundation necessary for democratic self-governance.

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