Opinion

In Iran, longtime 'reformers' stifle true revolution

The common view is that violent repression shut down Iran's peaceful Green Movement in 2009, when protesters took to the streets over rigged presidential elections. But Iran's entrenched 'reformers' deserve much of the blame. And they still stand in the way of change.

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A wave of revolution is sweeping through the Middle East. But not in Iran, whose people tried their own uprising two years ago and failed.

The common view is that mass arrests, violent repression, and a telecommunications blackout shut down the peaceful Green Movement in 2009, when protesters took to the streets over rigged presidential elections. But Iran's own "reformers" deserve much of the blame. And they still stand in the way of change.

By reformers, I don't mean the wide swath of Iranians who demanded their vote be counted. I am referring to those who participated in the 1979 revolution to overthrow the shah, and who are – or have been – part of the strict theocratic regime that emerged. The revolution was led, in part, by democrats, but went hard-line after a violent coup.

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Gradually, these elites came to recognize the theocracy's lack of legitimacy and isolation within Iranian society at large. They support a more democratic regime. Such reformers include prominent figures: former President Mohammad Khatami, cleric Mehdi Karroubi, and Mir Hossein Mousavi, the presidential candidate who many believe was the rightful winner in the 2009 contest against incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The reformers also include religious nationalists forced from power (but still in Iran), and secular and leftist organizations and elites outside the country. They all share the belief – or at least project the view – that social revolution leads to violent, extreme outcomes and is to be avoided.

For 20 years, this group has argued that the best course for change is to work within the existing system. This, despite the overwhelming evidence that the regime is unreformable – not least because the Constitution gives the Islamic supreme leader the power to overrule the vote of an entire nation.

Unfortunately, young Iranians have grown up with this false hope of internal reform, along with the skewed view that revolutions generally result in violence and dictatorship. They see the Iranian revolution itself as the prime example.

To be sure, the security crackdown on protesters in 2009 discouraged participation in the Green Movement. But much more discouraging, I believe, was the cautious message of reformers once the chant of protesters changed from "Where is my vote?" to "Death to Khamenei" (Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) and "Independence, Freedom, Iranian Republic."

The new slogans arose after the supreme leader gave an ultimatum to protesters to go back home or face a violent crackdown. But reformers, too, rebuked the demonstrators' rhetorical switch, which amounted to a call for regime change.

Mr. Karroubi and Mr. Mousavi disowned the new demands, confining themselves to supporting a recount. Mousavi went so far as to insist on "the impeccable implementation of the Constitution" (a call for proper counting, perhaps, but also one that underscored the ayatollah's authority and the tired message of internal reform). Karroubi talked about "the golden years of Khomeini" – Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late founder of the 1979 revolution.

Reformers may well denounce the idea of revolution because they're haunted by their past. Many of them participated in the violent crushing of the democratic wing of the 1979 revolution and in the 1981 coup against the republic's first president, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. Both events resulted in mass arrests, torture, and executions.

Two decades later, these reformers likely fear that overthrowing today's regime would inevitably expose their own historic role in it, depriving them of a position in a future government. Why else do they fail to explain that the path to reform has backfired after so many years? In 1997, voters supported reformist cleric Mr. Khatami for president, but have ended up with a hard-liner, Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Iranians are paying a high price for allowing reformers to play politics with their future. Real change cannot take place within this repressive, regressive structure in which autocratic clerics constitutionally have the last word. Intransigence is again visible as the supreme leader threatens to eliminate the post of president.

To create an unstoppable social movement for change, the young must shed their fear – and ignorance – of revolution. Rebellion need not be violent. After all, the 1979 revolution to overthrow the monarchy was peaceful, a victory of flowers over bullets as protesters carried roses to shower on soldiers in a sign of solidarity.

After the revolution, a 28-month "spring of freedoms" ensued – until the violent coup ended it. Yet Iran's youth are not taught about this interim of relative freedom, not even by reformers. After all, the reformers participated in repressing it.

A renewed sense of purpose must spur a collective dynamism in Iran and generate a leadership that does not depend on the reformers. Women, especially, should be tapped. They showed the way to university reform that opened for them the closed gates of higher education.

Only when a new generation turns from the sour song of discredited reformers, will Iranians discover their own voice – and their own power.

Mahmood Delkhasteh is an independent researcher, columnist, and political activist based in England. He is working on a book based on his doctoral disseration, "Islamic Discourses of Power and Freedom in the Iranian Revolution, 1979-81."

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