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Setareh Sabety Headshot

We Need a Plan B for the Liberation of Iran

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22nd Bahman (2/11/2010), which commemorated the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution and was supposed to mark its end with a massive opposition demonstration, was a big disappointment. Yet it was not in any way the death knell of the opposition to this regime.

The Green movement showed its utter lack of organization and effective leadership. The failure of assembling any significant number of people shows that the regime's clampdown is working. The murders, arrests, tortures and rapes are working -- at least temporarily. The regime's use of its rent-a-crowds from the provinces, deployment of a large number of security forces, the infiltration of plainclothes forces into the crowds and the road blocks were all successful in preventing any large assembly of people. Eight months of brutal treatment of protesters effectively reduced the number of those braving the streets. Key organizers and student activists, like Majid Tavakoli and those from Tahkim Vahdat, are behind bars. Even the Mourning Mothers were arrested and imprisoned for a while. The movement's leaders, with the exception of Karoubi, are in a state of semi-house arrest where their movements are so restricted that they can't do much. Frankly, from the day after the elections in June, the reformist leaders seemed to fear the anti-regime sentiments of their followers that they themselves had unclenched. No one else has managed to step in to fill the vacuum caused by their hesitance.

For 16th Azar (November) and Ashura (December), there was student leadership that organized demonstrations better than the cautious reformist leaders, but they were quickly stifled through threats, imprisonment and torture. An overwhelming number of those arrested or killed since June 12 are students, professors, and of course journalists whose pen the regime seems to fear more than American missiles. There are, therefore, many good reasons for the Greens' poor performance on 22 Bahman, many of which are excusable but some of which are not.

Since we cannot change the regime's brutal tactics, let us focus on what can be changed with regards to the movement's own strategy. One reason for the failure of 22 Bahman is that there was no plan B. A young university student wrote in an email that despite admonitions of her family and boyfriend, she went out to join the protests on Thursday. Everywhere she went, she was either prevented from entering by security blockades or failed to find the demonstrators till she finally gave up and came home very frustrated and disappointed. The same fate befell the ladies from my mother's Hafez reading group, who were prevented going south towards Azadi Square, and could not join the demonstrations anywhere -- they claimed that the presence of security forces was so overwhelming, it had cut everyone off from everyone else. They had shed their fear and braved the streets but they had no instructions where to go or what to do in case of a blockade. They had shed their fear of the regime but had nowhere to go with their newfound courage!

The geography of Tehran has been carefully manipulated to prevent the spontaneous gathering of large crowds in any one place. Large assemblies are now the monopoly of the state. What was different in 16th Azar (Student's Day) was that the demonstrations took place inside the Universities and were organized by student activists many of whom are now in jail. On Ashura (commemorating Martyrdom of Imam Hussein), it was easier to assemble because traditionally processions and gatherings take place locally in neighborhoods that are spread out and difficult to control.

All of this was known prior to 22 Bahman and should have been taken into account when the demonstrations were announced. However, there was no real planning, no telephone trees, no basic information networks. There was no plan B! There was no plan for what to do if the places of assembly were cut off by regime forces. Without a leader standing his ground and no plan B for those who have the courage to turn out, indeed, most attempts to stand up to this regime will be futile. This regime, though no communist China, is still more organized and certainly more brutal than the opposition.

Does the fact that Thursday was a failure make the need for a Green triumph any less urgent? NO! Not if you are on the side of those innocent people who have shed blood in this struggle for democracy and freedom. Not if you think that a democratic Iran will be an antidote to extremism in the region and indeed the world. Not if you think that those who cheat, beat, rape and kill innocents should be held accountable. Does the failure of Thursday make a reassessment of our approach a necessity? Yes! Yes, if you believe that strong leadership and clever planning are needed for a revolutionary movement to succeed against a foe who is brutal and who shuns all calls for local and internationally accountability.

It amazes me how some liberal thinking and progressive Westerners and expatriates are eager to announce the death of a movement that embodies such hope for democracy in Iran and the region. Even if this movement did not enjoy the backing of the majority of Iranians -- like regime apologists would have you believe -- it should be embraced and supported as the only hope for saving Iran from herself, and the world from Iran. Saying that the Green movement does not enjoy a majority following at this stage is like saying that the Chinese prefer Communism after the Tiananmen crack down.

What are the lessons learned and what needs to be done to breathe fresh air into the tired lungs of the Green movement, which I firmly believe enjoys the backing of a large yet silent Iranian majority?

International help in isolating, sanctioning, and pressuring this regime is necessary and urgent; it will give a much needed boost to the protesters. Sanctions will hurt the regime by both making it more expensive to stay in power and by making the people blame the government for economic hardships. I have heard often, especially since Ashura, Iranians living in Iran expressing the need for sanctions. Some refrains are: "They are killing and imprisoning us, never mind 'economic' hardship!" and "Only businessmen who don't live in Iran and don't have kids in prison are against sanctions." One woman I spoke to, who is a retired teacher in Mashad, was happy that 22 Bahman turned out the way it did because now the world would go ahead with sanctions and hasten the regime's fall. The hatred for this regime has been brewing for thirty years. It cuts deep and wide; there is no poll that can measure it -- you just have to take our word for it or go live there long enough to win your neighbor's trust. Mistrust on the level we Iranians feel is something very difficult for Westerners to grasp unless they have had lived under the Nazis or experienced the Gulag!

Strong leadership is another ingredient that has been notoriously missing in this movement. At this point, even if there is no leader we should invent one! Leaders don't make themselves -- people do. There are many who could qualify, though Mousavi or Khatami don't seem to want to go on hunger strike or do anything dramatic. Rahnavard could have joined the Mourning Mothers in front of Evin but she did not -- she is no Benazir Bhutto. These are times for dramatic gestures. Ms. Ebadi has been talking tough since June but not enough to make her a charismatic leader. Of all the reformists, I like Mohsen Kadivar's style best he is certainly the best speaker in the lot, but that turban of his turns people off and he is too far away in North Carolina to be of any use to the movement in Iran. For Mousavi to rise to the occasion and reclaim the leadership he needs to go on a hunger strike or go and make a stance in front of Evin prison. He owes the movement which has sacrificed its children a dramatic gesture, but like Khatami on 18th Tir some twelve years before him he will not deliver. Even as a reformist candidate he was reluctant; we can't expect him to be the revolutionary leader that the occasion demands.

Finally, this movement is painfully unorganized. Lack of planning is an Iranian flaw. That is why we need leaders to guide us. Why could we not have information cells to pass down info in groups of three like they did in Algeria when there were no phones or computers to organize people? Why could we not demonstrate in another city or another part of town on a different day? Maybe demonstrating on official holidays is also a wrong strategy for it gives the government time to amass forces and arrest organizers.

We have to devise creative and effective ways to organize and plan the next stage of this movement. Those of us Iranians cheering from abroad must not slacken our support. We must unite; we must lobby the international community to tighten the choke on this regime. We must listen to Shirin Ebadi and call for the imposition of diplomatic sanctions and we must not confuse Iran with Iraq and stand in the way of sanctions to cripple the Iranian economy. A crippled economy will help hasten the fall of the regime which will in the end benefit Iranians and the world.

We must stand behind a set of demands like the Ten Demands of the five intellectuals. We must put our differences aside and rally to the cause of freedom and democracy in Iran. If we fail, we have betrayed those who have shed blood and have been savagely abused by this regime. If we who live in freedom fail to do our utmost for this movement, we will have to share the burden of having allowed a monster like the Islamic regime to stay in power even after it had been severely wounded.