“There are deeply authoritarian characters in the Iranian regime who would have no hesitation in using extreme violence against protestors,” said Dr Nader Hashemi assistant professor of Islamic Politics at the University of Denver recently, reflecting on how the Iranian authorities might react should tens of thousands gather in Vali-Asr Square to mark the second anniversary of the so-called ‘stolen election’. “There are also loyal ideological troops who, if ordered, would massacre everyone in the square in the name of nationalism,” he added.
In the end, there were no mass protests on 12 June and no massacres. Instead, shops in central Tehran were closed early and security forces deployed in large numbers to prevent demonstrators from gathering. Clubs and electric batons were reportedly used to disperse protesters and an unconfirmed number of arrests made. But this was not the mass rally that the Coordination Council of the Green Movement had hoped for when they called on Iranians to participate in silent protests across the country. In an additional blow to the movement, news had emerged that 55-year old dissident journalist and political activist, Hoda Saber, had died in prison from a heart attack after a 10-day hunger strike. While many Iranians may have been energised by the unfolding Arab Spring and emboldened by the demonstrations of on 14 February held in solidarity with Tunisia and Egypt and in defiance of the authorities, those demonstrations, which turned into the first anti-government street protests in more than a year, also resulted in the house arrest of the main leaders of the opposition movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi.
These house arrests combined with an effective strategy of targeted arrests of student activists, intellectuals, journalists and the lawyers who would normally represent them, has meant that the organisational capacity of the Green Movement has been severely curtailed. This combined with fear of arrest and violence together with a wider fatigue and loss of political momentum may have conspired against the mobilisation of large numbers of demonstrators. However, according to Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council, “it would be a mistake, however, to judge the health of the movement by its ability to pull people onto the street on any particular day.”
The demands set out by the Coordination Council are for the release of political prisoners and the movement’s leaders, the holding of free elections and action to tackle high prices and unemployment. Their core grievances, non-violent methods and democratic aspirations have much in common with other movements across the region. Indeed, many regard the Green Movement as a key catalyst for the Arab Spring. While Iran’s rulers publicly express support for the pro-democracy uprisings, privately they are deeply concerned about the effect they will have on both internal and regional politics, particularly if their beleaguered ally Bashar Assad of Syria were to fall.
Another potential problem for the Green Movement comes in the shape of the recent ratcheting up of tensions over Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions. Since the 2009 elections, the democratic issue has taken priority over the nuclear issue for many ordinary Iranians. However, there is huge popular support for Iran’s civil nuclear programme across a broad spectrum of opinion in Iran. Nuclear fuel production is regarded as a sovereign right and a source of great national pride and many Iranians believe that Western allegations of a weaponisations programme are being used for political purposes. According to Paul Ingram, “International attempts to punish Iran for pursuing nuclear fuel production simply strengthen the legitimacy of the government’s stance to defy those attempts, as well as the very legitimacy of the government itself.”
At the end of May, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released two reports which claim that Iran is continuing to stockpile low-enriched uranium in defiance of UN sanctions and is failing to provide adequate transparency to resolve outstanding questions on its nuclear programme. In June, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano’s said that he had “received further information related to possible past or current undisclosed nuclear-related activities that seem to point to the existence of possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme”. President Amadinejad dismissed this speculation accusing Amano of taking orders from Washington and two days later Iran announced that it would shift its production of higher grade uranium to an underground bunker and triple its production capacity.
President Netanyahu made his desire for military action against Iran fairly plain during his speech to the US Congress last month and Obama is no doubt coming under increasing pressure to take a hard line against Iran not just from Congress but from within his own party. Like the conservative Iranian leadership, neo-conservatives policymakers in Washington are concerned by the sudden and unprecedented rise of people power sweeping the Middle East. While they may pay lip service to pro-democracy movements, the loss of influence in the region resulting from the Arab Spring has convinced them that the need to attack Iran and reassert US power is more urgent than ever.
Assessing the state of Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme at a meeting in Parliament last year, Saba Sadeq, head of the BBC’s Persia service, argued that “both sides are exaggerating Iran’s nuclear capacity for their own motives”. A year on and the political landscape has shifted significantly largely down to the unexpected Arab Spring. The standoff between Iran and the West over enrichment may have been bumped off the headlines recently but it has not gone away. Indeed with mounting tensions over the nuclear issue simultaneously serving both the interests of Western neo-conservatives and Iranian hardliners, there is a danger that it may soon come to a head. The main losers as tensions mount will be the pro-democracy and civil society movements within Iran. “The Iranian leadership would benefit from an Israeli military strike,” says Dr Hashemi. “And it would spell disaster for the Green Movement.”
Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist, broadcaster and political analyst. He chairs the Westminster Committee on Iran.