Several thoughtful people have commented on an unusual element in the Iranian revolutionary movement, aka “The Green Path of Hope.” Although there is a troika (Mousavi, Karroubi and Khatami) that inspires many of the movement’s participants, there seems to be a lack of top-down leadership. Indeed, Mousavi has been at pains to say that the people are the true leaders, that he is not creating a political movement but a “social network,” and that the strength of the Green Path derives from the spontaneous and creative actions of millions of Iranians.
It sounds a lot like the thesis put forward in the recent book, The Starfish and the Spider, which argues that top-down organizations are less successful than those that give maximum freedom to their people. If you decapitate a spider, it dies, but if you lop off an arm of a starfish, it regenerates. In like manner, despite a massive crackdown from the Iranian regime–thousands of arrests (now termed “kidnappings” by Iranian Tweeters), scores of executions, mass rape and other forms of torture, show trials and stern intimidation from political and military leaders, judges and clerics, the Green Path moves on, with its next publicly announced challenge to the regime set for December 7th. Meanwhile, demonstrations and strikes continue across the country.
In the runup to the June 12th “elections” (at which time I noted that the Islamic Republic of Iran does not have elections, it has circuses) I said that one could not imagine a less charismatic leader than Mir Hossein Mousavi. His campaign appearances were lackluster, his debate with Ahmadinejad unimpressive, and his demeanor bespoke what he was: an architect and artist, a former bureaucrat who had left government twenty years before. If there was a charismatic figure in the campaign against Ahmadinejad (whose charisma is well known), it was Mrs. Mousavi. And that, I insisted, was itself a revolutionary development in a theocratic tyranny based on misogyny. It wasn’t only her presence that shook up the Shi’ite establishment and inspired the crowds, but the things she said, notably her attitude toward head coverings. She wears the veil, she said, and she believes that all Muslim women should. But–and here is the revolutionary message–if a woman doesn’t want to wear it, she should be free to go without.
So it was that Mousavi, quite unexpectedly, found himself created the leader of a revolutionary mass movement. In that sense, I entirely agree with Mehdi Khalaji when he says that if you want to understand what’s going on inside Iran today, don’t look to Mousavi, Karroubi and Khatami; look at the people. The movement came into being around the troika (in which Mousavi is first among equals). And the movement by now has an ideology, a strategy, and a lot of momentum. It aims to bring down the Islamic Republic–that is the clear meaning of the nightly rooftop chants against Khamenei–and replace it with a new government that will be independent of the Shi’ite elite. It intends to do it without violence, insofar as that is possible, and it is counting on the force of numbers to accomplish its mission.
There are lots of starfish in this movement, and the regime knows it. That is why, with all the brutality that has been unleashed, the mullahs still recoil from arresting the troika. They know that such an act would fill the streets, and they also know that many members of the security forces would stand aside, or even join the revolution. They are groping for a solution, hoping that eventually the people will lose hope and give up. Meanwhile, they reveal their sadism on a daily basis, which makes the people even angrier.
But even a movement like this one cannot flourish without good leadership. Anyone looking at the behavior of the anti-regime crowds cannot help being enormously impressed with their discipline. Slogans are prepared and chanted, signs and banners are brandished at the security forces, green arm bands, head bands and wristlets appear at just the right moment. This points to organization, not pure spontaneity. The regime leaders constantly tell the Iranians that the whole movement is controlled from outside Iran by some malevolent force. They may well believe it, but it is not so. Incredibly, I do not know of any foreign government that has contacted the Greens, and very few foreign leaders have condemned the repression with any significant vigor or continuity (Sarkozy being the exception that proves the rule). It is the regime that has foreign support, from friendly tyrants in Moscow, Beijing, Damascus, Caracas and Pyongyang. In his quiet and determined way, Mousavi has created an impressive organization, and although it is very difficult to communicate with his followers (Mousavi is under virtual house arrest, especially at moments of high tension), somehow he and his people have found ways to do it.
They also do something very Persian: they speak in code. Mousavi has been very careful not to say what everyone believes he means: the Islamic Republic must come down. If he were to say that, or any number of other incendiary things, he would give the regime cause to accuse him of treason. So he doesn’t say it. He says that the Constitution must be respected, although perhaps there is room for some modification. The whole country understands the meaning, but literal-minded analysts can say that he isn’t really calling for revolution. You have to watch the winks and nods to understand what’s going on. This isn’t the time for lit crit 101; movie critics will do better.
Years ago, from the immediate post-war period through the 1960s, there was a considerable literature on revolution, but it seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent years, even though we are living through one of the most revolutionary periods in human history. I think this is because the Left, having lost its revolutionary vocation and having become an apologist for the communist tyrannies of the Cold War, was unwilling to acknowledge that “conservatives” had become the most effective defenders of liberty. Since Reagan had to be denounced as a reactionary, it was impossible to recognize that he, Thatcher and John Paul II subverted the Soviet Empire and contributed to revolutionary successes in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Today it is very difficult to find anyone on the “progressive” side of the spectrum who recognizes that Iran fulfills all the conditions for full-scale revolution. Most everyone is hypnotized by the nuclear question, and the potential world-historical event–the fall of the Islamic Republic, with the attendant blows to jihadist organizations from al Qaeda to Hamas and Islamic Jihad–is ignored.
Most of the writing about Iran recalls the bad old days of Kremlinology, when Sovietologists spun out fanciful theories about conflicting factions within the Kremlin, and “explained” Soviet behavior by reference to domestic politics, instead of recognizing the thing for what it was: an evil empire. President Obama contributed to that sort of confusion on Monday, in an interview with Reuters. Kicked yet again by an Iranian regime that has no intention of doing anything that would prevent or delay its development of atomic bombs, the president whistled in the dark:
An unsettled political situation in Iran may be complicating efforts to seal a nuclear fuel deal between Tehran and major world powers, President Barack Obama said on Monday.
Obama told Reuters in an interview that the United States had made more progress toward global nuclear non-proliferation in the last several months than in the past several years.
“But it is going to take time, and part of the challenge that we face is that neither North Korea nor Iran seem to be settled enough politically to make quick decisions on these issues,” he said at the White House.
Blast those annoying Iranian revolutionaries! How dare they screw up our negotiations?
Funny world, isn’t it? The Islamic Republic teeters on the edge of history’s garbage dump, a fascinating revolutionary movement bids to change the world, and peace prizes are given to an accomplice to evil–Mohammed al Baradei–and an American president who won’t throw his moral weight behind tens of millions of Iranians who are risking their lives to be able to have a government like ours.