Iran protesters: Strength in decentralization, says former White House Iran aide

Gary Sick, who was the chief White House aide during Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the hostage crisis that followed, says the Green reform movement has a surprising strength. Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Iran Thursday.

As Iran cracks down on opposition protesters and jails dissidents, Gary Sick, a close Iran watcher since he was chief White House aide on Iran at the time of the Islamic Revolution, has a counterintuitive take on the prospects for the Green Movement: The movement lacks a leader, and to his mind, that's a plus.

“I personally think there is great strength in the fact that they don’t have one person at the top,” says Mr. Sick, who sat on the National Security Council for presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan. “There is no leader to arrest. They arrest a bunch of people and a bunch more show up the next time.”

Iran has arrested hundreds of political dissidents – and executed some of them - since the disputed June election that returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. Iran currently has more journalists in detention than any country in the world.

Yet while Burmese dissidents rally around Aung San Suu Kyi and Tibetans revere the Dalai Lama, Iran’s opposition Green Movement is leaderless. This is an asset to the movement, though it also means that the protesters lack a clear ideology or agenda, spelling confusion for US foreign policy.

Sick, now a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute, says what the Green Movement means for US foreign policy is still unclear. Because it lacks a clear leader, the world knows nothing substantial about its political agenda.

“I think neither the media nor anyone else has thought very seriously about what would happen if [Iran's] ruling elite is replaced by a group of people who see themselves as reformers,” Sick says. “I think what will really happen, in the process of the chaos if the regime is brought down, is you will end up with a much more oppressive group – a more radical and demanding group.”

To be sure, he says the power of the still nascent movement is being taken seriously in Tehran. "The government in Iran is incredibly scared," says Sick. "They’re aware of how serious the threat is from the opposition.”

Thursday's rallies

While Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad waved to tens of thousands of supporters in central Tehran on Thursday during rallies to mark the 31st anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution, reports spread of widespread arrests and targeting of the opposition movement’s nominal leaders – moderate former president Mohammad Khatami, and former presidential candidates Mehdi Karoubi and Mirhossein Mousavi, who were both defeated in last summer’s election.

Sick says targeting Mousavi and the others is unlikely to quell the Green Movement, which has swelled since its inception last year despite a harsh government crackdown. The opposition calls for government reforms include a request that the supreme leader be chosen by elections.

Unlike the 1979 revolution, when Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was overthrown and people rallied around Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as he delivered sermons and instructions from his exile in Paris, the Green Movement "is much more like a mangle of nerve centers interacting with each other, communicating with each other on a live basis,” says Sick.

Moreover, the Green Movement is likely to be as nationalistic and supportive of uranium enrichment and an independent nuclear production facility as the current regime, he says.

Ahmadinejad announced Tuesday that Iran had begun enriching uranium to 20 percent, a level considered “high-enriched” uranium and on the way to the 90-percent enrichment required for a nuclear weapon. Though technical analysts have expressed doubt this is true, the West and Russia criticized Iran for pushing ahead with its nuclear program.

More sanctions ineffective

President Barack Obama warned this week that more sanctions for Iran are likely, though Sick doubts they'll prove useful. Instead, he advocates further negotiations on how the West could help Iran purchase medical isotopes on the international market instead of producing the fuel itself.

“We’ve been putting sanctions on Iran since the '70s. They’ve now got a nuclear program. That’s not a sign of a successful policy. And what’s our continued response? Sanctions. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that’s probably not going to solve the problem.”

Along with opposing the White House's calls for sanctions on Iran, Sick promotes a hands-off attitude toward Iranian politics. While the Green Movement calls for democratic reforms, Sick says the best the US can do is stay out of Iran’s business.

“If we start meddling in Iran, that will be discovered very quickly, and that will undercut the legitimacy of the opposition. It’s a homegrown thing, and that’s its strength,” he says. If the West interferes, “first, we’ll probably do it badly, and second of all, whatever we do will be used against us and undercut the people who are in the opposition.”

Despite the Green Movement’s calls for compromise, Sick does not foresee Ayatollah Khamenei giving way: “Every time that they’ve come up to this, the regime has instead made the decision to hunker down, circle the wagons, and get tough.”

CNN, which is monitoring social media for citizen reports from Iran, has this video with scenes from today's anti-government protests:

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