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Iran's Schizophrenic Green Opposition

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On the 31st anniversary of Iran's 1979 revolution, the Green movement made a mistake. It was a much smaller blunder than that made during the June presidential election, when many people flooded the polling stations in the hope that the regime could be reformed, only to wake up the following morning to learn that the supreme leader had congratulated Ahmadinejad on his "holy" electoral victory.

This time, in response to the regime's systematic attempts to terrorize its opponents by and turning Tehran into a giant barrack filled with armed units, Green strategists designed a Trojan-horse project, instructing their supporters to dress like regime supporters, infiltrate the official anniversary celebration crowd, and then to flaunt green symbols and chant green slogans upon reaching the president's platform.

Many Greens were confused by the suggestion and decided to stay home, and those who turned out were frustrated by being unsure who was who, and began to leave. Later they managed to organize smaller, more spontaneous demonstrations in different part of Tehran and other cities. But it was too late to have an immediate effect. The regime was able to declare its second "divine" victory.

This victory later proved to be hollow, as Google satellite pictures showed how the regime had resorted to a Goebbelsian lie by exaggerating participant numbers by a hundred times in Tehran. Closer photographs showed that many demonstrators were doing anything but listening to Ahmadinejad's speech, from lying around to playing football. Still, the question remains: after so much experience, how did the Greens find themselves walking next to people who had been bussed in from across the country to be counted as regime supporters, and thus playing a hand in securing another short-term victory for the regime?

One possibility is that the movement is in the throes of a schizophrenic identity crisis. Generally speaking, it swings between two tendencies, from reformist agendas toward revolutionary ones, and back again. As long as this tension is not resolved in the direction of revolution, the movement could weaken drastically. Many rank-and-file Greens, being content with nothing less than total freedom, are revolutionaries at heart. But the intellectuals and politicians of the movement have created a discourse that equates revolutionary change with violence and despotism, and reformism with nonviolence and democracy. In the present climate of censorship, their voices are the loudest. They have been successful in colonizing media outside Iran, like BBC Persian service and Voice of America, which are then beamed back into the country. Even from outside, then, what people hear on the whole are the perspectives of a reformist agenda.

Although there are many reasons why these perceptions of revolution and reform have become so popular, the discourse itself has developed partly through projection, and as a mechanism of self-defence. Many of today's reformist intellectuals, for example, were involved in the violent suppressions of the freedoms that emerged after the 1979 revolution. However, rather than accepting responsibility for their actions, they blame the "monster" of revolution that has since caused so much suffering and bloodshed. Their narcissism has split the social reality: they need no forgiveness as they perpetrated no wrongdoing; rather, they claim, it was the God-like, all-powerful "revolution" that made them do it. This is why, without exception, they are extremely economical with truth and leave their skeletons in the cupboard.

Another problem, which emanates partly from the first, is that reformist leaders and intellectuals are both ideologically and emotionally drawn towards the regime. They advocate democracy and have a relatively freedom-based interpretation of Islam, but do not accept that the only way to operationalize this is to separate religion from the state, and thus to advocate an alternative regime. Until this is understood, the movement will resort to tactics that the regime can exploit.

Finally, there is a deep-seated tension in the Green movement between intellectuals and supporters. Whenever this tension is suspended, the movement express its real desire for regime change, but when it is emphasized, the movement's authoritative "fathers" chastise its supporters for being too "radical." Hence, as long as the movement holds onto its reformist identity, it will be unable to mobilize its actual potential, as many Iranians are still perceive the struggle as one between the regime's elites and not one of people's rights. The Green Movement needs to shed its phobia of revolution, overcome its schizophrenic character and form a more coherent identity that is based on a demand for total freedom. The leaders and intellectuals of the movement must either adjust to the demands of supporters to replace the totalitarian regime with a democratic one, or the movement has to bypass them. There is no need for a new and complete revolution. Today's opposition just has to bring the 1979 revolution to its logical conclusion, which was the establishment of a democratic state.