Washington Failing to Understand Iran’s Opposition

by , April 27, 2011

WASHINGTON – The popular uprisings that have brought turmoil to Arab countries across the Middle East and North Africa have also underscored Washington’s dearth of knowledge about forces on the ground in authoritarian states in the Middle East. One of the largest questions bedeviling policy makers has been the composition of various emerging opposition movements.

The same uncertainty, meanwhile, has been plaguing those in the U.S. dealing with policy questions around Iran for decades, most recently with Iran’s embattled Green Movement. Nearly two years since a popular protest movement in the wake of a disputed presidential election, Washington still wonders: Just what exactly is the Green Movement?

The sudden and vocal opposition was immediately fêted in the West, especially in capitals, as a viable opposition to not only reelected hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but also the regime as a whole, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei even targeted by protesters’ slogans.

Though the movement was beat back by the authorities’ brutal crackdown, causing some to question its viability, many in the West continue to celebrate Iran’s Greens, often ascribing their own views to the larger, disparate opposition.

“The Green Movement seems to be a collection of hopes and dreams of Iranians outside of Iran and policy makers here in the United States,” said Nagmeh Sohrabi, an assistant director at Brandeis’s Middle East studies department.

The exiles and policy makers—among whom, Sohrabi points out, are many who don’t want a military solution to Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West—base their characterization of the movement as “what they want it to be and don’t take into account the reality on the ground.”

While most conferences about Iran in Washington tend to draw their expertise from the city’s navel-gazing think tanks, at last week’s conference at George Washington University, where Sohrabi spoke, most of the panelists throughout the daylong event were Iranian academics from outside the beltway.

With a granular knowledge of the politics and people of their land of origin, the academic experts—credentialed by means other than how many times pundits quoted them or their contacts with policy makers—delved seriously into questions about Iran that usually get short shrift in Washington. Their studies of and contacts in their own country of origin uniquely positions them to answer broad questions about the Green Movement.

Sohrabi proposed that Washington’s discourse tended to be limiting instead of taking a broader approach: “There are multiple ideas of what the Green Movement is. We need to be more careful about what it is and what it isn’t. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be all these things at the same time.”

Hawkish pundits have also been among the chief cliques in Washington assigning their own motivations and aspirations to the Green Movement writ large.

For example, senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute Josh Block, promoting a new Iran task force he co-chairs, has displayed this tendency. Block, for most of the previous decade, served as the ubiquitous spokesperson for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an organizing hub of the U.S. pro-Israel lobby, which has consistently pushed for harsher economic measures against Iran.

Contrary to some neoconservative hawks like Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Block acknowledged in an interview with the Washington Post that a threat of or an actual military attack on Iran could be damaging to the country’s opposition.

But Block also told neoconservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, who supports attacking Iran and downplays the repercussions for the opposition, that he is certain what the opposition movement seeks: “It seems obvious the Iranian people want regime change. They voted that way in 2009.” (Block did not respond to a query for clarification.)

Block’s analysis of the vote and its aftermath captures none of the nuance presented by Iranians and Iranian-Americans at George Washington last week.

Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human-rights lawyer and Nobel laureate who is now based in the U.S., spoke directly to these issues in her keynote address at the conference.

“Within [the Green] movement, people with different ideologies exist,” Ebadi said. “There are different groups. Some think we have to throw the regime out. But some others think this will not be possible without bloodshed, so the best thing is to do is use the present constitution.”

“The Green Movement is a democratic movement, not ideological,” she said.

Indeed, those Block cited who voted in the election—as opposed to an overlapping set of people who marched in the post-election protests—were the ones who voted for reform candidates. Iranian politicians in the reform camp are exactly those whom Ebadi mentioned who seek to make changes within the framework of the existing constitution.

Ebadi did note that more Iranians associated with the Green Movement are shifting into the regime-change camp because of the intransigence of authorities to respond to the reform camp’s demands, but this transformation is far from complete.

Only the sort of projection Sohrabi discussed could account for Block’s assessment that not just protesters but Iranian voters in the 2009 election voted for regime change. The leading opposition candidate in the race, former Iranian Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, ran on a reform platform.

Even as she sees the shift in the Green Movement, Ebadi herself still believes that the constitution has provisions that, if enforced, could enable reforms and that outright regime change would likely bring violence she seeks to avoid.

Furthermore, Ebadi warned against threats of military action against Iran, let alone an attack.

“The worst solution is a military attack. Remember that democracy is not merchandise to be exported to a country,” she said. “Democracy cannot be purchased and sent to another country. For these reason, wars and military attacks of non-democratic countries should be forgotten. The dictators actually like to be attacked by foreigners so, under the excuse of national security, they can put away their opposition.” 

(Inter Press Service)

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