Arab spring, Persian winter

Iran’s Green Movement prides itself on having ignited Arab upheavals, but the opposition has thus far proved to be much more successful.

Iranian Flag (R)_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Iranian Flag (R)_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
It is still too early to tell whether the waves of change sweeping over the shores of North Africa and the Middle East will erode the foundations of autocracy or, conversely, whether they will merely substitute secular authoritarianism with Islamist totalitarianism. It is clear, however, that no regional regime is immune to their impact, not even the Islamic Republic of Iran, the self-proclaimed vanguard of the permanent world revolution.
Iran’s pro-democracy movement, the Green Movement, prides itself on having ignited the Arab upheavals by staging large-scale demonstrations in Iran in the wake of the fraudulent June 12, 2009 presidential election. The Arab upheavals, in turn and to some degree, revived the Iranian opposition at a time when the regime’s suppression of the opposition seemed total.
On February 6, Hojjat al-Eslam Mehdi Karrubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the leaders of the Green Movement, in a joint letter asked the Interior Ministry for a permit to demonstrate “in solidarity with popular movements of the region, especially the liberation-seeking revolts of the people of Tunisia and Egypt.”
Not surprisingly, the permit was denied, and the two opposition leaders, together with former president Mohammed Khatami, were put under house arrest. Ignoring the demonstration ban, the opposition rallied on February 14 and March 1 with calls for Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i to follow in the footsteps of the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators: “Mubarak, Ben Ali, it is now the turn of Seyyed Ali [Khamene’i]", “Khamene’i, Mubarak, congratulations with your marriage!” and “Whether those in Iran with motorcycles, or those in Cairo with camels, death to the dictators!”
However, the regime in Tehran had learned valuable lessons from the post-presidential election antiregime demonstrations. The Intelligence Ministry unleashed a new round of arrests of protest organizers who had not been detained during earlier demonstrations. In affected neighborhoods, the cell phone network was cut off and the speed of the Internet was reduced to a bare minimum, which further restricted communications with the outside world. Apart from this, coordination in containing the protests between law enforcement forces, the Basij Resistance Force, the Revolutionary Guards, and vigilante organizations was far more synchronized than during earlier demonstrations.
Leaders of the Green Movement, on the other hand, do not seem to have learned any lessons. As the opposition in the Arab world mobilizes the public for street protests, Karrubi and Mousavi ask the Interior Ministry for a “demonstration permit.”
As the opposition in the Arab world urges the demonstrators to remain in the streets, Karrubi and Mousavi urge the demonstrators to go home. As the opposition in the Arab world calls for overthrow of the dictators, Karrubi and Mousavi continue to talk of reforming the regime within the framework of the constitution. As the Arab opposition calls for democracy, Karrubi and Mousavi call for a return to the “era of the Imam,” referring to Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s reign of terror in the 1980s. In this light, it is hardly surprising that the Arab opposition has proved much more successful than the Iranian opposition.
The waves of change are indeed sweeping across the shores of the Middle East and North Africa. However, the Islamist regime in Iran is better geared to suppress internal dissent than other regional autocracies and, therefore, has better prospects of surviving the crisis – at least for now. But as long as the regime is unwilling or incapable of allowing Iranians to become masters of their own destinies by liberalizing the Iranian political system, the results may be increased repression and the surfacing of more radical opposition movements inside Iran.
The writer is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

This article was first published by and is reprinted with permission.