Don't Forget Iran

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on July 2, 2009

I have been (ruefully) joking recently that if only Iran were able to remind people of Farrah Fawcett or/and Michael Jackson, the protests in the country would get the attention in the news that they deserve. Of course, the relative lack of media coverage does not mean that there is a lack of newsworthy activity in Iran right now.

The most newsworthy item is the fact that opposition leaders in Iran are in danger of being arrested for speaking out against the fraud and violence perpetrated by the regime:

Three of Iran’s most prominent opposition leaders flagrantly courted arrest yesterday by denouncing President Ahmadinejad’s Government as illegitimate, one day after the regime said that it would tolerate no more challenges to the election result.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, the former Prime Minister who lost the election, said that the suppression of dissent was tantamount to a coup. “It’s not yet too late,” he declared on his website. “It is our historical responsibility to continue our protests to defend the rights of the people . . . and prevent the blood spilt by hundreds of thousands of martyrs from leading to a police state.”

Ayatollah Mohammed Khatami, 65, a popular former President, accused the regime of mounting a “velvet revolution against the people and democracy” and called the security crackdown “poisonous”.

Mehdi Karroubi, 72, another defeated presidential candidate, said that “visible and invisible forces blocked any change in the executive power”. He added: “I will continue the fight under any circumstances and using every means.” The regime responded by shutting down his newspaper.

As the report suggests, the opposition leaders appear to be trying to make themselves into “living martyrs.” Martyrdom is, of course, a powerful and emotionally effective way to rally more support in Iran, and if I were a member of the regime, I should be careful about turning my opponents into martyrs.

But apparently, the regime has no such concerns:

Iran’s Basij militia has asked prosecutors to investigate the role of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the defeated opposition candidate, in protests that broke out after the presidential election he maintains was rigged.

The government militia that enforced much of the crackdown against protesters last week, accused Mousavi of several crimes including undermining national security, which could see him jailed for up to 10 years.

The semi-official Fars news agency said the Basij sent the country’s chief prosecutor a letter accusing Mousavi of taking part in nine offences against the state, including “disturbing the nation’s security”.

“Whether he wanted to or not, Mr Mousavi in many areas supervised or assisted in punishable acts,” said the Basij letter, which also accused Mousavi of bringing “pessimism” into the public sphere.

I suppose the calculation here is that if the opposition is deprived of a leader, it will not be able to go on. But the regime may underestimate the degree to which new leaders will spring up from the opposition movement if the movement is energized by the sight of reformist candidates and politicians suffering at the hands of the regime merely for speaking out in favor of freedom and democracy. The arrest of Mir Hossein Mousavi may not be as shocking as the fire that consumed the Cinema Rex. But any effort to shut down the opposition by persecuting its leaders may well have the opposite effect.

Then again, perhaps the opposition is galvanized already:

For decades, hard-line members of Iran’s cleric-led government controlled the judiciary, military, intelligence and state media. But reformists also had wide public support and room to push for more moderate social and political policies.

That delicate balance worked for both sides, providing an outlet for people who chafed at the Islamic regime’s austerity and isolationism, while ensuring that the core system, created after the 1979 revolution, would not be seriously challenged. The reformists did not advocate a revolutionary overhaul. The general view was that Iranians did not want another revolution.

But the recent protests attracted hundreds of thousands into Iran’s streets, resulting in at least 17 deaths and many more injuries. The hard-liners have tightened their grip, leaving the reformists to decide whether they should keep playing the old game or whether the rules have changed so much that the game no longer exists.

Note that last sentence. Revolution is being contemplated. And when revolutionary thoughts enter the public consciousness, they become rather difficult to drive away. To be sure, there remains a question as to whether the populace has the stomach for a second revolution in the course of thirty years. But there is a clear sense amongst the reformists that people like Mohammad Khatami, the immediate predecessor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, made a mistake in trying to effect reform by working within the system. Going outside of the system is much more palatable now.

Finally, it is worth noting that the Obama Administration still doesn’t want to “meddle” in Iran, even though it is perfectly content to “meddle” in Honduras. Yes, I know that these are two different countries, with two different histories, but Central America is no more fond of American imperialism than Iran is, and the Obama Administration’s forbearance is doing nothing to encourage the reformists, or discourage the regime from attacking the reformists/accusing the United States of “imperialism.”

All of which makes the Administration’s decision to sit on the sidelines rather incomprehensible, doesn’t it?

Don’t forget Iran. It remains in the news, even if the Obama Administration would prefer that it go away.

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