The Fractured Power
How to Overcome Tribalism
Taking a cue from the Egyptian revolution, opposition activists in Iran reinvigorated their beleaguered movement on Monday, getting thousands of protesters onto the streets despite the regime's year-long crackdown and ban on demonstrations. Their chants were telling. Referring to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, demonstrators chanted, "Mubarak, Ben Ali -- it's your turn, Seyyed Ali!" and "Whether Cairo or Tehran, death to tyrants!" In an interview posted on InsideIran.org, a student who helped organize the protests said, "People don't realize how tense the situation is in Tehran. It is a powder keg and only needs a trigger."
Such sentiments were similar to those in 2009, when Iran also seemed on the verge of change after the so-called Green Movement took to the streets to protest President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection. At the time, members of the Green Movement were conflicted about whether an endorsement from the United States would help or hurt their cause. And for its part, Washington was hesitant to support the movement, fearing that it might taint the opposition if its involvement created the impression that the United States was behind the protests. In the end, the state cracked down, the protests lost momentum, and the movement failed.
The uprising in Egypt has put to rest some of the Iranian opposition's fears: observing the support U.S. President Barack Obama gave Egyptians at critical moments in their three-week uprising, many Iranian activists were convinced that Obama's backing of their cause would give the opposition the push it needs to confront its authoritarian rulers over the long haul. Of course, Obama waited days to endorse the Egyptian uprising, but when he did it sent the message that the United States would not pressure Egypt's military to keep former President Hosni Mubarak in power. This alone heartened Egypt's opposition. A similar endorsement could do the same for Iran's.
It is also far less true today than in 2009 that U.S. support would tarnish Iran's opposition movement: it is already clear that the Egyptian uprising and revolts unfurling across the Arab world are popular, local, and independent of the United States. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether the United States is prepared to lend the same support to the Green Movement that it did to the Egyptian protesters. Many inside the Washington Beltway believe that, despite the current flare-up, the Green Movement is long dead and not worth the risk of further alienating the Iranian regime. But the United States was too quick to write off the Green Movement in 2009 in the first place. Fundamental change takes time and, more than a lack of will, the Green Movement is plagued by a lack of means to confront a security apparatus far more effective and brutal than that in Egypt. Indeed, Iranians may need U.S. support to face their regime more than the Egyptians did.
After the protests in 2009, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps established a cyber defense command to counter online political activism, making Facebook and Twitter inaccessible to those without filter proxies bought in the West. On Monday, the regime banned Iranians from organizing; blocked BBC Persian, a main source of information in Iran (much as Al Jazeera is in the Arab world); and put the de facto leaders of the Green Movement under house arrest. Iranian leaders have announced that they will create a special court focusing on "media crimes," a move that will surely deter even more journalists and citizens from using the Internet to disseminate information about the protests. Even the regime's moderate conservatives, such as Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, have been quick to demand that opposition leaders face trial for the most recent protests, some even calling for their execution. Of course, the Egyptian government also shut down the Internet -- but only for one day during the heat of the protests. And unlike Egypt's military, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard cannot be counted on to sit on the sidelines.
Even so, tens of thousands of Iranians reportedly protested on February 14. But if world leaders were to support civil disobedience, for example by making sophisticated technology available to Iranians to counter the regime's manipulation of the internet, the momentum could build for future demonstrations even if the violent security forces started to crack down.
At the moment, Iran's opposition is far less unified in its goals than the Egyptian opposition was during its protests. Some factions want only to reform Iran's theocracy, while others (particularly the younger activists) want to dismantle supreme clerical rule altogether and establish a parliamentary democracy. The West's endorsement of the movement could strengthen Iran's opposition as a whole but only as long as Washington does not talk of trying to supplant the regime with a Western-style democracy. The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have made clear that Egypt will be a democracy that reflects the religious and cultural values of Egypt, and the United States should not try to dictate Iran's future form of governance.
Washington's public support, moreover, would deprive the Iranian regime of one of its weapons: anti-Americanism. For example, the Iranian government has tried to convince its people that U.S. sanctions are designed to hurt them, not the regime. Some Iranians have been left believing that the United States cares more about security issues -- in particular preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon -- than their well-being. But far from wanting the United States to back off entirely, a majority say that they would like closer ties with the West, according to a recent poll from the International Peace Institute.
To be sure, Washington has started to take a firmer stance against the Iranian regime as uprisings sweep through the Middle East. U.S. officials have even said that tougher rhetoric will now be part of Washington's official approach toward the country. And this is indeed a shift in policy; in 2009, the United States resisted even rhetorical support for the demonstrators. Speaking this week about Monday's protests, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "There needs to be a commitment to open up the political system in Iran to hear the voices of the opposition and civil society." U.S. officials have also noted the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime's support for the Egyptian uprising. Throughout Egypt's revolt, Iran's leaders praised the uprising as part of a new "Islamic awakening" in the region, crediting the unrest to their own 1979 revolution. In a statement condemning Iran's blocking of BBC Persian, Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said, "For all of its empty talk about Egypt, the government of Iran should allow the Iranian people the same universal right to peacefully assemble, demonstrate, and communicate in Tehran that the people are exercising in Cairo."
Opposition activists are seeking much more. They want the international community to draw attention to Iran's human rights violations. Indeed, in the International Peace Institute poll, 55 percent of all respondents said that the West should speak out against the regime's human rights violations. This is an area in which the government is vulnerable. Iran has managed to convince at least a sizable portion of the population that the crackdown and repression after the 2009 movement have been necessary to preserve the country. If the United States makes clear that it condemns repression and supports the aspirations of the Iranian people, it could inspire young non-ideological Iranians -- who have much in common with their Egyptian counterparts -- to confront the security forces. One step further, which some U.S. senators have already backed, would be to establish an independent UN human rights monitor to track the situation in Iran and publicize violations.
Iranians look with sadness and regret as they see Arabs liberating themselves from long-standing dictatorships. "For the first time in history, the Iranians are envious of the Arabs," said one activist, referring to Persians' historic sense of superiority to Arab countries. But Monday's demonstrations, just like those in 2009, are giving the Iranian opposition hope again. This time, with talks over Iran's nuclear program at a stalemate and fears of tainting the movement gone, there should be no debate about endorsing it. In a not-so-subtle rebuke during a visit to Tehran on Monday, Turkish President Abdullah Gül said that "without exception" all states in the Middle East must listen to their people and implement their demands. And if even Iran's allies can stand behind the protesters, the United States should be able to as well. At any rate, the more pressure the Iranian regime encounters from all angles, the more tools the opposition will have to confront the regime.
For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next. It is available for purchase in multiple formats including PDF, Kindle, and Nook.