Officially it doesn’t exist or, better still, it never did. And, yet, the official media in the Islamic Republic devote extraordinary space and energy to this non-existent “it”.
The “it” in question is the “Green Movement”, an umbrella name for a variety of groups and parties that refuse to recognise Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2009 re-election as President of the Islamic Republic. The best-known leaders of this diverse coalition, among them former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mussavi, are in prison, under house arrest or in exile. All newspapers that once supported the movement have been closed while those sympathetic to “it” are not allowed access to the state-controlled media.
And, yet, anyone skimming through the Iranian official media would notice that whenever the word “green” is mentioned, the Khomeinist regime sees red.
In a typical week, earlier this month, the official news agency IRNA ran 22 items to prove that the “Green Movement” no longer existed. The daily newspaper Kayhan, ran by the office of “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi, devoted 40 per cent of its editorial space to the same topic. In the meantime, weeklies owned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) offer sensational stories about the alleged involvement of the United States, Britain, France, Israel and even Holland and Norway in convoluted conspiracies to topple the Khomeinist regime.
The upshot to all this is that, despite the official assertions, the “Green Movement” continues to exist.
It exists in a number of ways.
To start with, the official media’s constant attacks indicates that the regime recognizes this movement as its principal opponent at the moment. For years, that position was reserved for monarchist and nationalist parties. Then it was the turn of the People’s Mujahedin to serve as the acknowledged opponent of the regime.
The official media’s attacks have succeeded in one thing: they have secured for Mussavi and his closest companion, Mehdi Karrubi, a dissident mullah, a moral status that neither Ahmadinejad nor “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi could claim at this moment.
Thus, as long as Mussavi and Karrubi have not publicly surrendered, the movement that they symbolise will continue to exist.
In politics as in war, a conflict is not over until one side admits defeat. In politics, as in war, action is not limited to combat at all times. There are times when the protagonists focus their energies on self-preservation. Live to fight another battle tomorrow, is always good advice. By rejecting repeated offers of a compromise, Mussavi and Karrubi have shown a moral backbone that few suspected they had.
Attempts by former presidents Hashemi Rfsanjani and Muhammad Khatami to persuade Mussavi to surrender have failed.
By putting Mussavi and Karrubi under arrest, the regime repeated the mistake of the military rulers of Burma. There, the imprisonment of opposition leader Aung Sang Suu-ky transformed her into a symbol of resistance to despotism in a way that the Rangoon generals never imagined.
What about the movement’s popular base? Earlier this month exiled spokesman for the movement called for “mass marches” to mark the anniversary of the 2009 presidential fiasco. However, the big demonstrations that the exiles had hoped for did not materialise. The largest crowds, in Tehran and Isfahan for example, did not exceed 2000, a far cry from the million-strong crowds of 2009.
And, yet, the non-existent “it” managed to achieve one of its key objectives: exposing the regime as a terrified beast that is made aggressive by fear.
Iranians did not see any large crowds. But they saw the armoured cars, the special units armed to the teeth, and the Baseej paramilitary units posted all over the place. They saw a regime trying to defend itself by preparing to kill people in the streets.
In other words, the non-existent “it” continues to exist as a threat to a growingly unpopular regime.
Last weeks events in Iran reminded me of a visit to Riga, the capital of Latvia, in August 1977. Coming out of the hotel I saw armoured cars and heavily armed guards all over the place. My Soviet guide informed me that Special Forces had to occupy the city to prevent protest marches marking Latvia’s Independence Day before its occupation by Stalin.
There was no need for any marches; the way passers-by looked at the military build-up was enough to tell a visitor what was happening beneath the surface.
Tehran doesn’t like it, but “it” also continues to exist by managing to spread its message thanks to Persian-language radio programmes beaming to Iran, not to mention the battlegrounds in cyberspace. Some pro-Green bloggers at home or in exile have become household names, providing an alternative to the official narrative. The regime is no longer able to monopolise access to information or the way it is interpreted.
The test of an opposition’s strength cannot be limited to the size of the crowds it is able to send into the streets at any given time. There are other tests, including the impact that a message has on public opinion.
Anyone familiar with the Iranian scene would know that, today, Ahmadinejad, whether he really won his re-election or not, enjoys less credibility as president than he did in June 2009. One reason Khamenehi may be trying to ditch him , or at least reduce him to the caricature of a president, is the fact that Ahmadinejad is subject to the law of diminishing returns.
That the non-existent “it” cannot be wished away is also indicated by the fact that it has sympathisers in virtually every walk of life. It has split the Shi’ite clergy into two camps: one that represents mullahs on the government payroll and the other consisting of clerics opposed to the Khomeinist regime. The military is also divided. One Revolutionary Guard commander revealed that during a tour of inspection last year he had been shocked by the number of pro-“it” slogans adorning the barracks. Many of the industrial strikes that dot the Iranian calendar are led by activists sympathetic to the non-existent ” it”.
One central tenet of Khomeinism as an ideology has been, and remains, its claim that it unites not only all Iranians but also the entire Islamic ummah. The continued existence of the non-existent “it” is a constant rejection of that absurd claim.