The opposition movement that spontaneously rose up against
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has lost momentum in the
aftermath of the regime's crackdown on popular protests over the
disputed results of the presidential election. Faced with
intensifying violence from the regime's security forces, the
opposition has been forced to abandon mass rallies and is preparing
for a protracted campaign of civil disobedience.
The Obama Administration should make it clear that it stands
with Iran's democratic opposition and lead an international
coalition to pressure Tehran to unclench its fist from around the
throats of its own people.
The massive protests that convulsed Iran in the days after the
June 12 presidential election have petered out in the face of
unrelenting repression. More than 600 people have been arrested,
including dozens of journalists. Although the official death total
stands at 17 protesters since the demonstrations began, CNN has
reported that it received unconfirmed reports that as many as 150
protesters were killed on June 20 alone.
Iran's ruling regime has flooded the streets of Tehran with
uniformed police, riot police, secret police, and the paramilitary
thugs of the Basij militia. These forces have used guns,
tear gas, and clubs to brutalize and intimidate Iran's opposition
forces. But dwindling crowds of protesters do not signal the end of
the opposition but merely a new stage in the struggle.
Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad's chief challenger in the
election and now the de facto leader of the opposition, has shown
great resolve and is unlikely to give in. Although his followers
have been deterred by the threat of violence from participating in
daylight rallies, they continue to gather on their rooftops in
Tehran each night to chants of "Allahu Akbar" ("God is
great") as a sign of protest. Sporadic unrest is likely to continue
in cities and universities for the indefinite future. Periodic
outbursts of protest will probably erupt at the mourning ceremonies
that occur on the third, seventh, and 40th day after the deaths of
protesters, according to Shiite tradition.
Iran's ruling regime has shown itself to be out of touch with
and cruelly indifferent to the popular opinion of its own people.
By resorting to brute force, the regime has lost whatever
legitimacy it had in the eyes of many Iranians. But as long as the
Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, retains the undivided loyalty
of the security forces, particularly the Revolutionary Guards, the
regime will not be toppled by protest rallies.
A Change in Tactics?
The loosely organized opposition movement currently is debating
a change of tactics, such as moving from mass rallies to smaller
symbolic protests or considering civil disobedience actions such as
labor strikes or boycotts. Ultimately, the opposition's prospects
for success may depend on mobilizing support in key economic
sectors, such as the bazaaris (merchants), labor unions, and
the oil industry. Oil workers played a crucial role in bringing
down the Shah in the 1979 Islamic revolution and could provide
considerable leverage over the current regime, which is dependent
on Iran's oil earnings for over 80 percent of export revenues.
There also are cracks at the top of the regime, as well as in
its foundation, that the opposition could exploit. Powerful members
of the old guard revolutionary leadership, such as former President
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali
Montazeri, have sided with the opposition against Ahmadinejad.
Rafsanjani may be able to use his insider connections and his
leadership of two important institutions--the Assembly of Experts
and the Expediency Council--to undermine Ahmadinejad's position
within the regime. Montazeri, who was once Ayatollah Khomeini's
heir apparent before falling out of favor and being placed under
house arrest, could further erode the already fractured religious
legitimacy of the regime.
What began as a spontaneous test of willpower on Iran's streets
has now evolved into a protracted test of staying power. The
outcome of the power struggle will ultimately depend on factional
politics within the regime, the loyalty of the internal security
forces, the fortitude of opposition leaders in the face of extreme
pressure, and their ability to inspire key groups to join a broad
coalition of Iranians in risking their lives to bring major changes
- The spontaneous outpouring of protest reflects a deep
popular dissatisfaction with the regime. What was surprising
was not that the election was fraudulent but that Iranian people
reacted so strongly to the regime's deceit. Popular support for
Mousavi, who lacks personal charisma, mushroomed because of a
backlash against Ahmadinejad, not specific support for Mousavi's
program of limited reform.
- The only vote that counts in Iran's authoritarian system is
the Supreme Leader's. The June 12 vote was not a true election
but a selection of candidates that had been pre-screened by
officials loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei. Khamenei may have overplayed
his hand by moving quickly to endorse the questionable election
results despite the protests. But according to Iran's revolutionary
constitution, the will of the Supreme Leader trumps the will of the
people on all important questions.
- Genuine reform is blocked within Iran's Islamist political
system. Ayatollah Khamenei, who lacks scholarly credentials and
never felt at home with high-ranking clerics who resented his
political power, has become increasingly dependent on the
Revolutionary Guards, where he found his protégé,
Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad has placed an estimated 10,000 loyalists,
including many cronies from the Revolutionary Guards, in critical
positions throughout the state bureaucracies and revolutionary
organs of the regime. This amounts to a slow-motion coup by the
Revolutionary Guards. By stonewalling reform efforts, Iran's
hard-liners have created a situation in which popular pressure for
tearing down the Islamist system will inevitably mount.
- The regime cannot be trusted. A regime that deceives,
represses, and kills its own people cannot be trusted by the United
States to fulfill any agreement that it makes with outsiders.
President Barack Obama's gradually evolving message on Iran
belatedly included criticism of the regime's repression and human
rights abuses. His Administration, however, continues to cling to
wishful thinking about the possibility of negotiating a sustainable
rapprochement with Iran's ruling regime.
Unfortunately, this effort is doomed to fail because hostility
to the United States, which the regime considers to be the "Great
Satan," is an ideological cornerstone of the Islamic Republic. The
chances of negotiating an acceptable resolution of the standoff
over Iran's nuclear program, which were minimal to begin with, have
now been considerably reduced.
In the long run, a free Iran is the best hope for peace and
security in the volatile Middle East. The Obama Administration
should therefore not turn its back on the Iranian opposition in a
vain effort to strike a deal with the regime. This would undermine
not only American national interests but also American ideals. In
the words of one Iranian dissident: "Obama claims to be like
President Lincoln. Then he should uphold the principles of
The Administration should seek to rally international support
for increased sanctions on Iran's renegade regime. European allies,
in particular, could do a lot more to pressure Tehran to halt its
repression of its own citizens and freeze its nuclear program. The
Obama Administration should press its European and other allies to
impose the same level of economic and travel sanctions that the
United States has imposed on Iran.
If these sanctions do not dissuade Tehran from continuing on its
present path, then Washington must prepare for a nuclear Iran. It
should invest in missile defenses against Iran's growing ballistic
missile force and deploy missile defenses to help protect its
allies from that threat. The United States should mobilize an
international coalition to contain and deter Iran while imposing
rising economic, political, diplomatic, and possibly military costs
on the regime for flouting its responsibilities under the Nuclear
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that Obama Administration officials must
abandon wishful thinking and deal with Iran as it is, not as how
they would like it to be.
Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies,
a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for
International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
For more on Iran, see The Heritage Foundation's Iran Briefing