What does Iran think about the Middle East’s democracy wave? On the surface, officials in Tehran have taken an optimistic view of the anti-regime sentiment now sweeping the region, depicting it as an outgrowth of Ayatollah Khomeini’s successful revolution 32 years ago—and the start of an ‘Islamic awakening’ in which the Islamic Republic will inevitably play a leading role.
Privately, however, Iran’s ayatollahs must be quaking in their boots. Why? Because the current anti-regime sentiment being expressed in Tunis, Cairo, and beyond could end up breathing new life into their country’s own beleaguered pro-democracy movement.
That, at least, is what the Iranian opposition hopes. Activists from the so-called Green Movement—the loose-knit coalition of anti-regime and reformist elements that has served as the main opponent of the current government in Tehran since it coalesced in the summer of 2009—have taken intellectual inspiration from recent events in Cairo, which have reinvigorated their own urge for democracy.
Opposition organizers are now said to be planning a major public march in Tehran. Nominally, the rally is intended to showcase Iranian support for the democratic revolts now unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt. But Iran’s opposition elements have made no secret of the fact that they see the gathering as a litmus test of sorts for the future of the embattled drive for freedom within the Islamic Republic.
‘Any kind of event that involves the rise of the people and the fight against dictatorship in the Muslim world and in the Arab world is in our benefit,’ former speaker of parliament (and failed presidential candidate) Mehdi Karroubi, now one of the titular leaders of the Green Movement, has told the New York Times. ‘Next Monday will be a test for the Green movement—if the government issues a permit, there will be a huge demonstration and it will show how alive the Green movement is.’
To be sure, the chances of the Iranian regime actually permitting such a demonstration are slim to none. Having successfully beaten back the grassroots protests that emerged following the patently fraudulent re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009, the powers-that-be in Tehran remain wary of any instances of public dissent—and eager to make an object lesson of such transgressions. They have thus turned up the heat on the Green Movement in recent months through a series of not-so-subtle political moves.
Iran’s Justice Ministry, for example, has launched new legal proceedings and investigations against opposition leaders like Karroubi and former President Mir Hussein Mousavi, accusing them of ‘sedition.’ Meanwhile, the country’s powerful constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council, is now seeking to ban reformist politicians from participating in elections, arguing that even incremental changes to the government are tantamount to treason. And the regime’s security bodies have dramatically increased the pace of domestic executions, targeting in particular activists perceived to be enemies of the state. The message couldn’t be any clearer: opposition to the Islamic Republic carries a high cost.
For Washington, however, the new signs of life from Iran’s opposition represent a moment of truth. When the Green Movement first emerged to challenge the regime in the summer of 2009, the White House chose to sit out the fight. US President Barack Obama, hopeful at the time that Iran’s ayatollahs would finally engage in substantive dialogue over their stubborn nuclear effort, opted not to weigh in forcefully on the side of Iran’s protestors for fear of being perceived to be ‘meddling’ in the country’s internal affairs. And because he didn’t, the United States lost the moral high ground—and its ability to assist the emergence of a more democratic polity there.
More recently, however, Team Obama appears to have changed course. Since the start of the current turmoil in Cairo late last month, the administration has become a vocal (if inconsistent) advocate for a democratic transition in Egypt, putting pressure on aging strongman Hosni Mubarak to respond to the popular will and leave the political scene. In the process, it has provided an inkling that, for all its early wavering, the White House may have come around to the idea of democracy promotion.
How official Washington responds to the renewed stirrings from Iran’s opposition in the days ahead will serve to fan these hopes. Or it will dash them definitively.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.