There Is No Head Of The Iranian Opposition Movement. And That Is A Good Thing.

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 1, 2010

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Those who analyze the protests that have gripped Iran since the perpetration of voter fraud in the country oftentimes point out that while the Islamic regime has a definite leadership class, the opposition movement is relatively leaderless. This lack of leadership supposedly makes it more difficult for the opposition to achieve its political aims.

I am sure that this is an appealing theory for some. I’m just not sure how right it is:

. . . Mr. [Mir Hossein] Moussavi issued a statement on his website, Kaleme.org, which took a broad swipe at the government for its use of force against civilian protesters. It also criticized the government’s handling of the economy and foreign policy and its failure to address institutional corruption.

Mr. Moussavi offered a prescription for the government to restore its lost legitimacy that called for the release of political prisoners, the repair of electoral laws, as well as freedom of expression, assembly and the press.

Then he addressed head-on those who in recent days have called for his arrest — and execution — along with other opposition leaders, like the cleric and former parliament speaker, Mehdi Karroubi.

“I’m not afraid of being one of the post-election martyrs who lost their lives in their struggle for their rightful demands,” he said in the statement. “My blood is no different than that of other martyrs.”

But Mr. Moussavi also acknowledged what has become increasingly evident during recent events, that neither he nor Mr. Karroubi is actually in charge. Presenting himself as more of an analyst than a participant, Mr. Moussavi framed Iran’s internal conflict as one between the leadership and the people. It was a tactical move that apparently sought to take the opposition’s weakness — its lack of organization and leadership — and present it as a strength.

“I say openly that orders to execute, kill or imprison Karroubi and Moussavi will not solve the problem,” he said in the statement.

I recognize that this is spin on Mousavi’s part. But the spin has the virtue of being correct. It is clear as day that neither Mousavi nor Karroubi can control the actions of the Iranian opposition movement. At best, the two of them can try to play the “there go the people; I must follow them for I am their leader” game as best they can, but quite obviously, playing that game does not imply the exercise of actual leadership in any way, shape, or form.

Which means, of course, that the regime can garner no amount of satisfaction from the following, entirely trenchant observation:

“In terms of longevity, this could go on for some time but could also unravel quite quickly if the government loses its nerve,” said Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history at St. Andrews University in Scotland. “In this respect Khamenei is the key, he’s the equivalent of the Shah and is similarly weak.”

The regime cannot hope that opposition leaders lose their nerve; precisely because there are no real leaders of the opposition. The opposition is a clever and calculating mass. It need only wait until those at the top of the regime finally fall apart. The regime can try to prevent the opposition from winning by continuing its brutal tactics, and hoping that the opposition is intimidated into silence. But how has that plan worked so far?

  • mrram

    A nice argument, but it fails to deal with the central analysis as to why the opposition needs leadership. It's a simple matter of coordination: if the opposition has no credible and feasible alternative for governing the country, then why should you as an individual put your life at stake by going out to protest and face up to the well-armed and brutal basiji? Why should you choose to risk death and torture if you don't know what for? In game-theoretical terms, it's a classic coordination game: no one likes the current equilibrium (Khamenei/A'jad) but no one is sure enough that everyone else is willing to converge on an alternative, because in this case, it's unknown.

    That's why the opposition needs to be able to spell out an alternative to the current regime/current leadership, and that's why they need a clear leader who can communicate that alternative. If that alternative is persuasive, it will ignite the opposition further and carry the day.

  • Pejman_Yousefzadeh

    The opposition has spelled out a clear alternative; one that involves a more liberal democracy, more freedom of expression, and a government that won't steal votes. And there are plenty of Iranians who are putting their lives at stake “by going out to protest and fac[ing] up to the well-armed and brutal basiji.”

  • mrram

    Hello mr. Yousefzadeh, thanks for your reaction, but I am afraid I disagree a bit. The things you mention are not really an alternative, they're a general direction for an alternative. Let's take “more liberal democracy” for example. What does it mean: more freedom within the structure of the Islamic Republic or does it mean the complete abolishment of the velayat-e-faqih? We have no clear idea about what either Mousavi (who, I agree with you, is more of an accidental leader) or “the sea of green” wants on this pretty important question.

    I don't doubt that every day, there are very courageous people who are going out there on the streets to protest this bad, dictatorial regime. I feel humbled and inspired by them: I always wonder if I would have the same courage. I really don't know.

    But for every protester who is there, there are also people who are not going out to protest. And this is where the coordination game starts to count: when a certain percentage comes out (let's say: 40% of the population is literally on the streets, as was the case in 1979) the regime can not survive, no matter what. The mass protests are just too big: for every individual that a basij kills, there will be two more attacking him. Every soldier who fires into a crowd can be sure that he is probably killing his own brother, sister, or nephew or niece. The calculus of violence changes.

    That percentage has not been reached yet, unfortunately, because there are still too many people who do not know exactly what the alternative is. Rallying cries like “more democracy” are good, but what does it mean? Many moderates do think the velayat-e-faqih should stay, and many moderates think it should be abolished – but what position will you be joining when you join the protests?

    I am not the only one saying that it is not a full blown revolution yet: this dialogue says the same: http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/24910 My hope is however that the opposition in 2010 will build up enough power. So, eventually we are on the same side, we just disagree on the political analysis

  • Pejman_Yousefzadeh

    The opposition has spelled out a clear alternative; one that involves a more liberal democracy, more freedom of expression, and a government that won't steal votes. And there are plenty of Iranians who are putting their lives at stake “by going out to protest and fac[ing] up to the well-armed and brutal basiji.”

  • mrram

    Hello mr. Yousefzadeh, thanks for your reaction, but I am afraid I disagree a bit. The things you mention are not really an alternative, they're a general direction for an alternative. Let's take “more liberal democracy” for example. What does it mean: more freedom within the structure of the Islamic Republic or does it mean the complete abolishment of the velayat-e-faqih? We have no clear idea about what either Mousavi (who, I agree with you, is more of an accidental leader) or “the sea of green” wants on this pretty important question.

    I don't doubt that every day, there are very courageous people who are going out there on the streets to protest this bad, dictatorial regime. I feel humbled and inspired by them: I always wonder if I would have the same courage. I really don't know.

    But for every protester who is there, there are also people who are not going out to protest. And this is where the coordination game starts to count: when a certain percentage comes out (let's say: 40% of the population is literally on the streets, as was the case in 1979) the regime can not survive, no matter what. The mass protests are just too big: for every individual that a basij kills, there will be two more attacking him. Every soldier who fires into a crowd can be sure that he is probably killing his own brother, sister, or nephew or niece. The calculus of violence changes.

    That percentage has not been reached yet, unfortunately, because there are still too many people who do not know exactly what the alternative is. Rallying cries like “more democracy” are good, but what does it mean? Many moderates do think the velayat-e-faqih should stay, and many moderates think it should be abolished – but what position will you be joining when you join the protests?

    I am not the only one saying that it is not a full blown revolution yet: this dialogue says the same: http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/24910 My hope is however that the opposition in 2010 will build up enough power. So, eventually we are on the same side, we just disagree on the political analysis

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