Neither Crushed nor Co-opted

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A remarkable message from a leader of Iran’s Green movement shows that the opposition, though suppressed and threatened, not only survives but is sketching the outlines of a democratic future.

Last June, as the anniversary of last year’s contested presidential election approached, events suggested that the democratic opposition had lost its momentum: opposition leader and former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, after urging his supporters to protest in the streets as they had before, rescinded his call. Many Iranian democrats derided the about-face as defeatist, while observers in America took Mousavi’s gesture—and the reports that only four hundred people were arrested in Tehran on June 12, the anniversary—as the death knell of the Green movement.

Two days later, however, Mousavi issued a working draft of what he called the Covenant of the Green Movement. Though the document has drawn little attention in the Western media, its message is notable for both what it articulates and what it leaves unsaid.

This covenant is Mousavi’s most defiant critique of the status quo, calling the regime “institutionalized corruption hiding behind a pretense of piety.” He laments that Iran has the world’s highest per capita rate of executions and that government officials plunder public coffers. The people’s suffering and heroism, he says, have torn asunder “the curtain of hypocrisies and duplicity manifest in the behavior of those wishing total domination (tamamiyatkhah)” in the regime.

At the same time, he offers clear strategies and goals for the democrats, placing himself and the Green movement within the century-old tradition of Iranians advocating for modernity, democracy, secularism, and the rule of law.

The Green movement places itself within the century-old tradition of Iranians advocating for modernity, democracy, secularism, and the rule of law.

For more than a hundred years, the defining battle of Iranian politics has been between those who advocate, in the tradition of John Locke, for popular sovereignty as the only legitimate source of authority and those who believe in divine legitimacy. The battle between these two paradigms was first joined in 1905, when a constitution was written that made monarchy—once a divine gift, with the king claiming to be “shadow of God”—dependent on popular will and limited in scope. Opponents of this view include Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his concept of velyat-e faqih—which claims that one man, the faqih or jurist, rules in the place of the last Shiite imam, who is now in hiding. They are forceful proponents of divine legitimacy.

Mousavi makes it clear that he is on the other side. The Green movement, he writes, wants nothing short of “popular sovereignty.” In the face of a regime that “breaches and disdains the law,” the movement’s ultimate goal, he says, is free and fair elections, with no vetting process, to finally establish the will of the people.

The people’s only path to victory, Mousavi argues, is sustaining a vast, democratic movement that is inclusive, pluralist, averse to revenge and violence, and prone to dialogue and forgiveness. While he acknowledges that in any future Iran religion “will have a presence,” he advocates the independence of “religious institutions from institutions of the state.” This is the clearest call for genuine secularism that has been heard in recent Iranian political discourse.

The Green movement, Mousavi says, respects international standards of human rights and believes in full equality before the law, “irrespective of ideology, religion, gender, ethnicity, and geographical location.” This beguilingly simple proclamation stands in sharp contrast to Iran’s current sharia-based legal regime that systematically privileges men over women, and Muslims over Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, and members of the Baha’i faith. Mousavi also advocates a foreign policy that is “rational and transparent” and that favors dialogue and “diplomacy over adventurism and chicanery.”

While Mousavi acknowledges that in any future Iran religion “will have a presence,” he advocates the independence of “religious institutions from institutions of the state.”

Secular Iranian intellectuals have articulated many of these ideas before. Some, in fact, were among the demands that spurred the 1979 revolution. The coalition that toppled the shah and brought the ayatollahs to power that year was an unwieldy coalition of incongruent ideas and forces, of which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Khamenei represent the most reactionary. Through the Green manifesto, Mousavi stands for that coalition’s democratic elements.

His humble disposition, his invitation for critical dialogue about ways to improve the manifesto, and his defiance in the face of constant threats by the regime and its thugs all signal a turn in Iran’s democratic movement. This once-radical prime minister, beloved by Khomeini, has come to represent the aspirations of Iran’s prudent democrats.

The world faces a choice: the Tehran regime, with its brutal policies at home and its confrontational nuclear policy abroad, or the possibility of a democratic Iran with an accountable foreign policy. Other nations must serve notice that any attack on Mousavi will isolate the regime—not unlike apartheid South Africa. A democratic Iran is the only solution to the world’s Iran problem.