The Middle East Channel

Iran’s Green Movement and the grey strategy of patience


Iran's Green Movement has been laying low for the past few months after massive coercive measures carried out by government-sponsored forces, but many believe that the embers of the movement continue to burn. The "people are just waiting for a spark," Mehdi Karoubi, a presidential contender and opposition leader recently told Der Spiegel. Former reformist president Mohammad Khatami has warned that the new Persian Year, which started on March 20, will be the "year of social crises" if the Ahmadinejad administration's "mismanagement" and "strategy of lies" continue. But many analysts wonder whether the Green Movement has a strategy to capitalize on such opportunities, or even to survive in the face of government repression.

While it may be an exaggeration to say that the decentralized Green Movement has a single "strategy," the approach of its top leaders suggests that their hopes lie in exploiting the "Grey Zones" in Iranian society through a strategy of patience and endurance. The Green Movement already enjoys the support of millions of restless young and female Iranians, many of whom hope for radical change. But Mir Hossein Mousavi and other top leaders are fixated on what they calls the "grey area" made up of religious associations and traditional factions that do not quite support the Green Movement, but are also quietly unhappy with the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. By pledging unconditional loyalty to the foundations of the Islamic Republic, the leaders of the Green Movement opt to attract or at least neutralize these "moderate conservatives" and many influential figures in various religious and political circles.

This strategy rests on the ability of the Green Movement to broaden its appeal into those conservative "Grey Zones." It has already created an unprecedented gap within the conservative establishment. Capitalizing on their impeccable revolutionary resumes that date back to the consolidating years of the Islamic Republic, the leaders of the Green Movement have striven to push the fault-line as deep as possible into the conservative camp so that when the next crisis hits, they can draw deeper into society for support.

If it was an election that brought millions of people to the streets last year, the next round of protests could be triggered by social and economic problems and the skyrocketing inflation rate that is predicted to occur if President Ahmadinejad succeeds in removing subsidies on basic commodities. The failure of Ahmadinejad's social and economic policies may create dissatisfaction among the lower social strata that are reportedly his main constituency. Khatami has argued that only the "return to the law" and a more inclusive political process in which all factions are "hand in hand" could weather this looming storm.  

Many reformists believe that the record-high oil cash flush of the past few years, Iran's perceived foreign policy successes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Gaza, and the continued expansion of Iran's nuclear program have made Iran's leaders over-confident. If things go worse for them, would the establishment be willing to compromise with an opposition that does not miss an opportunity to emphasize its loyalty to the constitution of the Islamic Republic? So far there is no sign to suggest that the conservatives are eager to negotiate with the internal opposition. But, they wonder, perhaps a sharper crisis would compel Ayatollah Khamenei to shift his support from ultra-conservative elements to more centrist factions.

Iran's political evolution offers some support for this hope. In the 1980s, Ayatollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic, consistently ensured a balance between two political factions: the Right (conservatives) and the Left (radicals). After his death, the former managed to remove the latter from the political scene. But this did not last long, as the Left reinvented itself and came back as reformists in a landslide election in 1997. It took Ayatollah Khamenei eight years to remove the Left/reformists from the political arena once more and replace them, not just with the conservatives, but this time with an ultra conservative faction consisting of a younger generation of revolutionary figures such as the current president. If Ayatollah Khomeini expunged the liberals, Marxists, and other political groups after the revolution and then struck a balance between the two wings of his Islamist faction, his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, has removed the reformists, the "new liberals," in order to strike a balance within his own faction between the "traditional right" and the "new right."

A brief look at Iranian newspapers from the 1980s can give us a sense of how lonely the Supreme Leader may be these days. These papers were often covered with pictures and statements of the then top five leaders of the country: 1) the late Ayatollah Khomeini, whose family is now supportive of the opposition; 2) Ayatollah Montazeri, an architect of the Islamic Republic and later long time dissident cleric whose death back in December on the holy day of Ashura gave a major boost to the Green Movement; 3) Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful head of the Majles and de facto number two politician in the 1980s, now the head of two important bodies: the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts. Rafsanjani facilitated Ayatollah Khamenei's ascendance to leadership in 1989, however he now backs Mousavi; 4) then Prime Minister Mousavi, who enjoyed the unequivocal approval of Ayatollah Khomeini for eight years even in the face of numerous unsuccessful attempts to be removed by then President Khamenei; and 5) Ayatollah Khamenei, who in the 1980s was only a ceremonial president with limited authority but is now by far the most powerful man in the country.

Today there is no question that Ayatollah Khamenei is in full control of Iran and its much-dreaded military and security forces that can make life difficult for the U.S. and its regional allies. But it is no secret that his domestic challengers are the last children of the revolution who cannot be devoured so easily. Currently, President Ahmadinejad and his far right allies control Iran's executive branch, while the Larijani brothers, who are seen as more "moderate" elements closer to the traditional right, dominate the judiciary and legislative branches. The ever-existing tension between these two sub-factions primarily evident in fiery debates in the Majles (parliament), proving that there is little mutual respect between the two camps. Nevertheless, this new balance between the "new right" and the "traditional right" cannot easily replace the old political equilibrium. The permanent removal of the Left/reformists is seen as simply too big for Ayatollah Khamenei to swallow.

Equally afraid of massive bloodshed or a sudden collapse of the entire system, the opposition leaders are today pushing for a shift to "moderation," where the old balance is re-established. But this time, based on more "rational" social, economic and foreign policies. Many supporters of the Green Movement may wish for more radical change to bring about a secular political system. But for now they seem to continue to back the current opposition leaders and hope that guaranteeing the implementation of the current constitution, despite its shortcomings, could pave the way for other, more fundamental, changes. And it is precisely the fear of a slippery slope that has prevented Ayatollah Khamenei from making any shift to the center. But the opposition believes time is on its side and that its "grey" strategy of patience combined with the vital role of the new media in spreading its message will eventually force Ayatollah Khamenei to make a stark choice between existential crises and a "return to moderation." In the meantime, the opposition will need to ensure that the Green Movement itself does not lose momentum and become grey. 

Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar is an adjunct lecturer at George Washington University and a scholar at the Middle East Institute.

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The Middle East Channel

Iranian economy’s biggest vulnerability: Iran

"When your adversary is making a fool of himself, get out of the way." So said Pat Buchannan last year in response to conservative hawks pushing for U.S. intervention in the wake of Iran's controversial Presidential election. At the time, those words made a lot of sense. Better for the U.S. to not give the Iranian government a handhold as it descended into infamy by making itself the focus of attention. Buchanan's advice could just as easily apply to the now-urgent question of U.S. economic sanctions. As a congressional conference committee begins to put the finishing touches on an Iran sanctions package, it's worth considering the evidence that the biggest threat to the Iranian economy is actually the regime itself. Economic sanctions might actually rescue the regime from its own failings, and produce the opposite of what their backers expect.

Iran's economy may not be on life-support, but it is in pretty terrible shape. While the statistics reported by the Iranian government paint a rosy picture, the reality is quite different. Iran's real per capita growth rate was 3.5 percent per annum from 2002-2009, but this period of growth coincided with a period of a steady rise in oil prices, suggesting the "government has not been very successful in achieving diversification of the economy." Inflation is also on the rise, reaching 10.4 percent in April. Though that's much lower than the annual rate of 30 percent from last year, the current government has consistently struggled to contain rising inflation (which is often attributed to President Ahmadinejad's redistribution of oil revenues). Actual inflation may be much higher. Looking at prices in downtown Tehran, the real number might be hovering around 20 percent.

If that wasn't bad enough, Iran continues to struggle with pronounced inequality. Virginia Tech Economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani notes that between 2005 and 2007, at a time when Iran was experiencing respectable economic growth, "the income of the top 20 percent rose more than four times as fast as that of the bottom quintile." Here again, rising oil prices appear to have had a negative effect. "The influx of oil revenues, which trickle down Iran's unequal structure of access to power and position, always seems to worsen the distribution of income," writes Salehi-Isfahani.

Iran's economic circumstances are sometimes attributed to sanctions, and sanctions proponents might be tempted to seize on the weakness of the Iranian economy as evidence that punitive measures are working to undermine the foundations of the regime's support. But this leaves out the role that Iran's own leadership has played in bringing the country's economy to such abysmal straights. Estimates are that the Iranian regime is involved, either directly or indirectly, in 70 percent of the country's economy.  Former minister of commerce, minister of finance, and ambassador-at-large in Iran, Jahangir Amuzegar, slams the Ahmadinejad administration for having "established a dysfunctional economic environment" and for "worsening the business climate." 

President Ahmadinejad once supported large consumer subsidies, which had been a significant contributing factor to rising inflation. Now, recognizing that his own policies have come to roost, Ahmadinejad has proposed a $40 billion cut in state subsidies. But if done improperly, such a cut could result in sky-rocketing prices in Iran's subsidy dependent energy sector. Iran's currency is also believed to be kept at artificially high levels, increasing imports to what Amuzegar calls "unprecedented levels," with attendant effects on Iran's domestic producers.

Skeptics could charge that Iran's oil and natural gas sectors ensure the regime's survival, even as the government's leadership does fundamental damage to the Iranian economy. However, as PFC Energy Partner and Gulf energy analyst Fareed Mohamedi has observed, the picture of the country's energy sector is quite mixed. Iran's oil supply is steadily diminishing. Perhaps more importantly, its ability to influence world oil markets may be hemmed in by growing production by non-OPEC countries, particularly Iraq. In Iran's vaunted natural gas industry, the picture also remains unclear. Mohamedi observed that worldwide, natural gas production, exploration, and technological innovation will likely increase in the years ahead, possibly reducing Iran's clout in that area as well. As is the case with the economy writ large, Iran's leaders have behaved irresponsibly, failing to pursue the diversification necessary in case of a decline in energy prices.

So where do the sanctions being considered by congress fit in with all this? Congress's sanctions are designed to place an economic stranglehold on Iran, in particular, by exploiting what is thought to be an Iranian dependence on imported refined petroleum. As petroleum costs rise, Iran will begin to feel the pinch. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of such sanctions doesn't quite match the hype. Gal Luft has cautioned that Iran's petroleum dependence is not what it appears.  Thanks to combination of investments in domestic refinery infrastructure, pursuit of energy alternatives and effective rationing schemes, Iran is projected to be gasoline self-sufficient by 2012. This suggests that while the sanctions up for consideration may have a short-term effect, over the medium and long-term, the squeeze put on the Iranian economy is likely to be negligible. But the regime is sure to blame its economic woes on western sanctions in order to distract from its own mismanagement.

The overall picture is one of an Iranian economy that is heavily straight jacketed already. The current government is largely to blame. Based on the regime's track record of incompetence and the consequences of that incompetence for the Iranian economy, the U.S. would be wise to take a step back, allowing Iran to continue on its present course. As its position grows weaker, the U.S. position would grow stronger, shoring up American diplomatic leverage or at least making Iran easier to contain or deter. The U.S. would also sidestep accusations that its policies had contributed further hardship to the Iranian people. Congress is searching for the most effective means to weaken the Iranian economy; the best approach may be for it to do nothing at all.

Patrick Barry is a Policy Analyst at the National Security Network. He is a contributing writer for Democracy Arsenal.

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