A threatened regime
Despite the regime’s defiant bravado, the 34th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution last month was a grim affair. Internationally, the country remains at loggerheads with the US and its partners. Iran’s pivotal ally Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has lost control over much of the country, threatening Iran’s vital overland supply route to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Relations with Turkey, a crucially-important supplier for the besieged Iranian economy, are strained by the countries’ clashing interests in Syria. Even ties with Hamas in Gaza are being undermined by massive Qatari aid and influence.
On the economic front, there is no relief in sight from the combined effects of unbridled corruption and Ahmadinejad’s economic mismanagement, which forced many private businesses into bankruptcy and escalated inflation even before the worst of the sanctions started to bite last year. Soaring unemployment, lethal air pollution levels and severe shortages of essential medicines1 are exerting unprecedented pressures on the public.
Israeli and US threats have provided the perfect pretext to escalate arbitrary arrests and executions of civil society activists and others who fall foul of the regime’s most reactionary elements. But while overt resistance has largely been quelled, potential for explosive protest simmers just below the surface.
Meanwhile, unprecedented levels of infighting within the regime’s own ranks present an even greater challenge.2 Supreme leader Ali Khamenei remains dominant but commands only a fraction of the authority of his predecessor ayatollah Khomeini. The sizable reformist camp has been prevented from convening a conference, let alone nominating a candidate for the June presidential elections.
Last November, Khamenei publicly warned president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that his tendency to publicise internal differences was tantamount to ‘treason’.3 Several of the president’s closest allies have already been imprisoned but his faction within the Revolutionary Guard and state apparatus is unlikely to disappear quietly.
The reformists have supporters in the Guard, too. A senior commander came under attack several months ago for publishing an article asking: ‘If the Shah had listened to his people, respected their opinions, and allowed them to speak their mind, would the Revolution have happened?’ His implied comparison between the Shah’s regime and the Islamic Republic stung.4
As the carnage in Syria continues and Iran faces escalating threats and discontent, no one is more aware of the need for a coherent opposition than Iranian dissidents themselves. Despite the repression, there is no lack of networks and organisations. Who comprises the opposition? What is being done to forge collaboration amongst them?
Who is who in the opposition?
Given Iran’s history and the interlinked crises it faces today, the vast array of opposition groups and figures is unsurprising. They range from grassroots networks such as the Green Movement to trade unions and the left, monarchists, national minority rights groups and Iran’s version of a wolf in sheepskins: the Mojahedeen-e Khalgh (MEK). Most advocate a secular constitution although the Greens span the spectrum on the issue. All claim to be champions of nonviolence, democracy and human rights. But the history, internal practice and associates of each often tell a more complex story. The darker that story, the stronger the tendency toward war and violent revolution.
Mehdi Karroubi, Mir Hussein Mousavi and Zahra Rahnavard, the Green Movement’s most prominent leaders, have been under house arrest for almost two years, cut off from the outside world other than infrequent contact with their children. Although many of their closest advisers are in prison or have gone into exile, other supporters have stepped in to fill the vacuum inside Iran.
But despite the reformists’ numbers and influence, organisers of the Reformists’ Coordination Council have been forced to cancel a planned two-day convention to agree their strategy for the June 2013 presidential election. Attendees were threatened with mass arrest unless they agreed three conditions: foreswear support for Karroubi and Mousavi, accept all current election laws and supervision clauses, and prevent members of outlawed parties from attending. Since the largest reformist parties were banned following the 2009 election protests, organisers would have had to ban themselves from the gathering!5
The reformist congress had been an attempt to test the waters for returning to the political arena and nominating candidates for the election. With the door to reform through electoral processes now slammed shut, will the movement find it easier to overcome differences over whether sufficient reform of the Islamic Republic is possible to bring about the democratic changes they advocate? Other disparities amongst them, such as neo-liberal tendencies vs an emphasis upon social justice, remain.
Mousavi, who served as prime minister during the period of mass executions in the 1980s and defended them in an interview in December 1988, has a past to answer for no matter how much his views have changed.
Tahkim Vahdat, the national student union, was founded on the basis of a decree issued by the revolution’s leader, ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Nonetheless, by holding free elections open to students throughout Iran, it developed into an independent, democratic organisation strongly critical of the state. Today there are more than three million university students studying in Iran. Since students from rural and impoverished areas are subject to positive discrimination in university entrance, the effects of the movement are felt even in remote parts of the country.
Since the mass protests in 2009, the imprisonment of many activists has severely curtailed activities on most Tehran campuses. But YouTube postings show the movement is far from dead. One recent clip from Shiraz shows some 150 students, men and women, crammed into a university classroom debating a biting critique of the security forces, joyfully applauded by most of those present.7
Broader civil society actors
Internet sites report a continual stream of arrests, torture, deaths in custody and executions of civil society activists in Iran. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that in 2012 Iran imprisoned 45 journalists, second only to Turkey with 49.8 In the past month, 17 more have been detained, and the renowned independent film guild, the House of Cinema, has been closed down.9
The women’s movement, human rights groups and defence lawyers are heavily represented in Iranian prisons, but manage to find creative ways to maintain contacts and push their causes. International attention has been important in achieving and publicising the small but important victories activists such as Nasrin Sotoudeh have won10. A human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh was one of several activists temporarily released from prison in January.
The US and Israel are providing equipment, training, and intelligence to newer groups in order to create internal pressures in Iran
Independent trade unionists around the country face harassment and imprisonment11, but occasionally score at least partial successes. Several groups, such as the Abadan oil construction workers and both Iran Khodro car plant shifts, came out in support of demonstrators in 2009. Many strikes and protests, though, are called to demand unpaid wages or job security. In January, for example, Safa Rolling Pipe factory workers in the city of Saveh staged an indefinite strike to secure six months of unpaid wages that, at the last report, had brought the factory to a halt for eight days. Teachers’ unions, the Iran Free Workers’ Union (IFWU), the Tehran bus workers’ and Dezful sugar cane workers’ unions, are among the largest and most active independent trade unions in Iran12.
Parties & trends
Historically, Iranian secular Marxists were divided principally between those whose strategy focused upon instigating mass insurrection through armed struggle (Fedaiian-e Khalgh and Kurdish groups) and those who concentrated on nonviolent means (Hezb-e Tudeh and Rah-e Kargar). But nothing seeds divisions within a movement as forcefully as defeat and decades of barbaric repression. These and smaller surviving groups shattered under the pressures of the past 35 years.
Today, they represent political tendencies which each retain a significant following both inside Iran, especially within the student and labour movements, and amongst the exile community. All known factions of the Fedaiian have long ago abandoned armed struggle and Marxist dogma. And there is a new initiative underway, aiming to develop a new, democratic, non-ideological party that will unite large swathes of the left.
Iran’s broad range of liberal groups and trends base their politics on varying combinations of nationalism and moderate interpretations of Islam. Generally promoting separation of religion from the state and respect for human rights, they’ve been outlawed as individual parties although prominent members are tolerated to a greater or lesser degree. Many fall within the banned Alliance of Nationalist-Religious Forces, a loose grouping with considerable influence. These include Nehzat Azadi whose leader, Mehdi Bazargan, was the Islamic Republic’s first prime minister but resigned in protest at Khomeini’s endorsement of the takeover of the US embassy.
A variety of groups, riven by personality conflicts and conflicts of interest, support Reza Pahlavi as the head of a restored monarchy. Fiercely nationalist, they claim Iran requires the unifying symbolism of a constitutional monarchy. Pahlavi himself says he aims ‘to reign, not rule’, portraying himself as a modern paradigm of democracy.
Mojahedeen-e Khalgh (MEK)
Years of assiduous lobbying, lubricated by generous payments, have produced a long list of US, UK and other EU politicians and journalists who advocate the MEK as ‘champions of human rights and democracy’ and ‘the principal Iranian opposition movement’. The list reads like a Who’s Who of neocon luminaries and right-wing conservatism, including John Bolton and the Daily Telegraph amongst its ranks.
The MEK leadership have become experts at using the Islamic Republic’s horrific record of human rights violations to cloak their own record of internal tyranny and cult-like control over their followers.
In 2005, Human Rights Watch published a scathing report condemning the MEK for human rights violations against its own members in their Camp Ashraf base in Iraq. These included prolonged solitary confinement, psychological abuse, coerced confessions, threats of execution, and torture13. Members who managed to escape or defect have published shocking accounts of how the leadership forced members into a cult-like mindset in which absolute obedience was paramount14.
Why do they matter?
Powerful factions within the US establishment have been grooming the MEK as a military force, and using it to carry out terrorist and espionage assignments inside Iran.
‘The MEK was a total joke,’ a senior Pentagon consultant told US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, ‘and now it’s a real network inside Iran. How did the MEK get so much more efficient?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘Part of it is the training in Nevada.15 Part of it is logistical support in Kurdistan, and part of it is inside Iran. MEK now has a capacity for efficient operations that it never had before.16’
Iran is home to six separate ethnic groups: majority Persian, Azeri Turk, Turkoman, Kurd, Arab and Balouch. Each of the minorities can make a strong case that it has suffered discrimination, neglect and lack of rights. Long-established groups addressing these issues, such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI), and Komala, have strong claims to legitimacy.
But as Seymour Hersh has revealed17, the US and Israel are providing equipment, training and intelligence to newer groups, whose origins are murky, as well as to the MEK, in order to create internal pressures in Iran. These groups include Arab separatist groups and the Balouchi group, Jundallah. All have been responsible for terrorist attacks.
Over the past six months, Komala, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI), and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) have been working to establish a united front against the Iranian regime and to isolate the US-sponsored Kurdish insurgent group PJAK18. The four groups all are heavily-armed and have fought each other in the past. Can the new front manage to expel or neutralise the PJAK, overcome old tensions and find a way to strengthen resistance to the Khameini regime without resorting to arms?
In every sector of the democratic opposition, efforts are afoot to develop working coalitions and a coherent democratic alternative for Iran. The more threatening the international environment, the more difficult that work becomes.
For peace activists the task is clear. We must advocate a policy of strategic engagement with the regime to lower tensions, focusing upon human rights and relations based on mutual respect and justice.