Iran's Green Movement: One Year Later

How Israel’s Gaza Blockade and Washington’s Sanctions Policy Helped Keep the Hardliners in Power

Iran's Green Movement is one year old this Sunday, the
anniversary of its first massive demonstrations in the streets of
Tehran. Greeted with great hope in much of the world, a year later it's
weaker, the country is more repressive, and its hardliners are in a far
stronger position -- and some of their success can be credited to
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and sanctions hawks in the
Obama administration.

If, in the past year, those hardliners successfully faced down major
challenges within Iranian society and abroad, it was only in part thanks
to the regime's skill at repression and sidestepping international
pressure. Above all, the ayatollahs benefited from Israeli
intransigence and American hypocrisy on nuclear disarmament in the
Middle East.

Iran's case against Israel was bolstered by Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu's continued enthusiasm for the Gaza blockade, and by
Tel Aviv's recent arrogant dismissal of a conference of Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatories, which called on Israel to
join a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Nor has President Obama's
push for stronger sanctions on Iran at the United Nations Security
Council hurt them.

And then, on Memorial Day in the United States, Israel's Likud
government handed Tehran its greatest recent propaganda victory by
sending its commandos against a peace flotilla in international waters
and so landing its men, guns blazing, on the deck of the USS Sanctions.
vote at the U.N. Security Council on punishing Iran produced a
weak, much watered-down resolution targeting 40 companies, which lacked
the all-important imprimatur of unanimity, insofar as Turkey and Brazil
voted "no" and Lebanon abstained. There was no mention of an oil or
gasoline boycott, and the language
of the resolution
did not even seem to make the new sanctions
obligatory. It was at best a pyrrhic victory for those hawks who had
pressed for "crippling" sanctions, and likely to be counterproductive
rather than effective in ending Iran's nuclear enrichment program.
How we got here is a long, winding, sordid tale of the triumph of macho
posturing over patient and effective policymaking.

Suppressing the Green Movement

From last summer through last winter, the hardliners of the Islamic
Republic of Iran were powerfully challenged by reformists, who charged
that the June 12, 2009, presidential election had been marked by
extensive fraud. Street protests were so large, crowds so enthusiastic,
and the opposition so steadfast that it seemed as if Iran were on the
brink of a significant change in its way of doing business, possibly
even internationally. The opposition -- the most massive since the
Islamic Revolution of 1978-79 -- was dubbed the Green Movement, because
green is the color of the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, among
whom losing presidential candidate Mirhossein Moussavi is counted.
Although some movement supporters were secularists, many were religious,
and so disarmingly capable of deploying the religious slogans and
symbols of the Islamic Republic against the regime itself.

Where the regime put emphasis on the distant
Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Levant, Green Movement activists chanted
(during "Jerusalem Day" last September), "Not Gaza, not Lebanon. I die
only for Iran." They took their cue from candidate Moussavi, who said
he "liked" Palestine but thought waving its flag in Iran excessive.
Moussavi likewise rejected Obama administration insinuations that his
movement's stance on Iran's nuclear enrichment program was
indistinguishable from that of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
He emphasized
instead that he not only did not want a nuclear weapon for Iran, but
understood international concerns about such a prospect. He seemed to
suggest that, were he to come to power, he would be far more cooperative
with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The Israeli government liked what it was hearing; Israeli Prime
Minister Netanyahu even went on "Meet the Press" last summer to praise
the Green Movement
fulsomely. "I think something very deep, very
fundamental is going on," he said, "and there's an expression of a deep
desire amid the people of Iran for freedom, certainly for greater

Popular unrest only became possible thanks to a split at the top
among the civilian ruling elite of clerics and fundamentalists. When
presidential candidates Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and their clerical
backers, including
Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanaei and wily former president and billionaire
entrepreneur Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, began to challenge the country's
authoritarian methods of governance, its repression of personal
liberties, and the quixotic foreign policy of President Ahmadinejad
(whom Moussavi accused of making Iran a global laughingstock), it opened
space below.

The reformers would be opposed by Iran's supreme theocrat, Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei, who defended the presidential election results as valid,
even as he admitted to his preference for Ahmadinejad's views. He was,
in turn, supported by most senior clerics and politicians, the great
merchants of the bazaar, and most significantly, the officer corps of
the police, the basij (civilian militia), the regular army, and
the Revolutionary Guards. Because there would be no significant splits
among those armed to defend the regime, it retained an almost unbounded
ability to crackdown relentlessly. In the process, the Revolutionary
Guards, generally Ahmadinejad partisans, only grew in power.

A year later, it's clear that the hardliners have won decisively
through massive repression, deploying basij armed with clubs on
motorcycles to curb crowds, jailing thousands of protesters, and
torturing and executing some of them. The main arrow in the opposition's
quiver was flashmobs, relatively spontaneous mass urban demonstrations
orchestrated through Twitter, cell phones, and Facebook. The regime
gradually learned how to repress this tactic through the careful jamming
of electronic media and domestic surveillance. (Apparently the
Revolutionary Guards now even have a Facebook Espionage Division.)
While the opposition can hope to keep itself alive as an underground
civil rights movement, for the moment its chances for overt political
change appear slim.

Nuclear Hypocrisy

Though few have noted this, the Green Movement actually threw a
monkey wrench into President Obama's hopes to jump-start direct
negotiations with Iran over its nuclear enrichment program. His team
could hardly sit down with representatives of Ayatollah Khamenei while
the latter was summarily tossing protesters in filthy prisons to be
mistreated and even killed. On October 1, 2009, however, with the
masses no longer regularly in the streets, representatives of the five
permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany
met directly with a representative of Khamenei in Geneva.

A potentially pathbreaking nuclear agreement was hammered out whereby
Iran would ship the bulk of its already-produced low-enriched uranium
(LEU) to another country. In return, it would receive enriched rods
with which it could run its single small medical reactor, producing
isotopes for treating cancer. That reactor had been given to the Shah's
Iran in 1969, and the last consignment of nuclear fuel purchased for
it, from Argentina, was running out. The agreement appealed to the
West, because it would deprive Iran of a couple of tons of LEU that, at
some point, could theoretically be cycled back through its centrifuges
and enriched from 3.5% to over 90%, or weapons grade, for the possible
construction of nuclear warheads. There is no evidence that Iran has
such a capability or intention, but the Security Council members agreed
that safe was better than sorry.

With Khamenei's representative back in Iran on October 2, the
Iranians suddenly announced that they would take a timeout to study it.
That timeout never ended, assumedly because Khamenei had gotten a case
of cold feet. Though we can only speculate, perhaps nuclear hardliners
argued that holding onto the country's stock of LEU seemed to the
hardliners like a crucial form of deterrence in itself, a signal to the
world that Iran could turn to bomb-making activities if a war atmosphere

Given that nuclear latency -- the ability to launch a successful
bomb-making program -- has geopolitical consequences nearly as important
as the actual possession of a bomb, Washington, Tel Aviv, and the major
Western European powers remain eager to forestall Iran from reaching
that status. As the Geneva fiasco left the impression that the Iranian
regime was not ready to negotiate in good faith, the Obama team
evidently decided to respond by ratcheting up sanctions on Iran at the
Security Council, evidently in hopes of forcing its nuclear negotiators
back to the bargaining table. Meanwhile, Netanyahu was loudly demanding
the imposition of "crippling" international sanctions on Tehran.

Washington, however, faced a problem: Russian Prime Minister and eminence
Vladimir Putin initially opposed such sanctions, as did
China's leaders. As Putin observed, "Direct dialogue... is always more
productive... than a policy of threats, sanctions, and all the more so a
resolution to use force." Moreover, the non-permanent members of the
Council included Turkey and Brazil, rising powers and potential leaders
of the non-permanent bloc at the Council. Neither country was eager to
see Iran put under international boycott for, from their point of view,
simply having a civilian nuclear enrichment program. (Since such a
program is permitted by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, any such
Security Council sanctions on Iran represent, at best, arbitrary acts.)

By mid-May, Obama nonetheless appeared to have his ducks in a row for
a vote in which Russia and China would support at least modest further
financial restrictions on investments connected to Iran's Revolutionary
Guards. Many observers believed that such a move, guaranteed to fall
far short of "crippling," would in fact prove wholly ineffectual.

Only Turkey and Brazil, lacking veto power in the Council, were
proving problematic for Washington. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
of Turkey leads the Justice and Development Party, which is mildly
tinged with Muslim politics (unlike most previous strongly secular
governments in Ankara). Viewing himself as a bridge between the
Christian West and the Muslim world, he strongly opposes new sanctions
on neighboring Iran. In part, he fears
they might harm the Turkish economy; in part, he has pursued a policy
of developing good relations with all his country's direct neighbors.

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has
a similar charge against any strengthened punishment of Iran.
He has been motivated by a desire to alter the prevailing
North-dominated system of international relations and trade. Popularly
known as "Lula," the president has put more emphasis on encouraging
South-South relations. His country gave up its nuclear weapons
aspirations in 1980, but continued a civilian nuclear energy program and
has recently committed to building a nuclear-powered submarine. Having
the Security Council declare even peaceful nuclear enrichment illegal
could be extremely inconvenient for Brasilia.

On May 15th, Erdogan and Lula met with Ahmadinejad in Tehran and
announced a nuclear deal that much resembled the one to which Iran had
briefly agreed in October. Turkey would now hold a majority of Iran's
LEU in escrow in return for which Iran would receive fuel rods enriched
to 19.75% for its medical reactor. Critics pointed out that Iran had,
by now, produced even more LEU, which meant that the proportion of fuel
being sent abroad would be less damaging to any Iranian hopes for
nuclear latency and therefore far less attractive to Washington and Tel
Aviv. Washington promptly dismissed the agreement, irking the Turkish
and Brazilian leaders.

Meanwhile, throughout May, a conference
of signatories
to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was being
held in New York to hammer out a consensus document that would, in the
end, declare the Middle East a "nuclear free zone." Unexpectedly, they
announced success. Since Israel is the only country in the Middle East
with an actual nuclear arsenal (estimated at about 200 warheads, or
similar to what the British possess), and not an NPT signatory, Tel Aviv
"This resolution is deeply flawed and hypocritical... It singles out
Israel, the Middle East's only true democracy and the only country
threatened with annihilation... Given the distorted nature of this
resolution, Israel will not be able to take part in its

The hypocrisy in all this was visibly Washington's and Israel's.
After all, both were demanding that a country without nuclear weapons
"disarm" and the only country in the region to actually possess them be
excused from the disarmament process entirely. This was, of course,
their gift to Tehran. Like others involved in the process, Iran's
representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency immediately
noted this and riposted, "The U.S... is obliged to go along with the
world's request, which is that Israel must join the NPT and open its
installations to IAEA inspectors."

A Windfall for the Hardliners: The Flotilla Assault

With the Tehran Agreement brokered by Turkey and Brazil -- and signed
by Ahmadinejad -- and Israel's rejection of the NPT conference document
now public news, Obama's sanctions program faced a new round of
pushback from China. Then, on May 31st, Israeli commandos rappelled
from helicopters onto the deck of the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish
aid ship heading for Gaza. They threw
stun grenades
and fired rubber-jacketed metal bullets even before
landing, enraging passengers, and leading to a fatal confrontation that
left at least nine dead and some 30 wounded. An international
ensued, putting Israel's relations with Turkey under special

The Mavi Marmara assault was more splendid news for Iran's
hardliners at the very moment when the Green movement was gearing up for
demonstrations to mark the one-year anniversary of the contested
presidential election. Around the Israeli assault on the aid flotilla
and that country's blockade of Gaza they were able to rally the public
in solidarity with the theocratic government, long a trenchant critic of
Israeli oppression of the stateless Palestinians. Green leaders, in
turn, were forced
to put out
a statement condemning Israel, and Khamenei was then
able to fill the streets of the capital with two million demonstrators
commemorating the death of Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the
Islamic Republic.

The flotilla attack also gave the hardliners a foreign policy issue
on which they could stand in solidarity with Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and
the Arab world generally, reinforcing their cachet as champions of the
Palestinians and bolstering the country's regional influence. There was
even talk of sending a new Gaza aid flotilla guarded by Iranian ships.
Because Turkey, the aggrieved party, is at present a member of the
Security Council, this fortuitous fillip for Iran has denied Obama the
unanimity he sought on sanctions. Finally, the incident had the
potential to push international concern over Tehran's nuclear enrichment
program and that country's new assertiveness in the Middle East into
the background, while foregrounding Israel's brutality in Gaza,
intransigence toward the peace process, and status as a nuclear outlaw.

In the end, President Obama got his watered-down, non-unanimous
sanctions resolution. There is no doubt that Netanyahu's reluctance to
make a just peace with the Palestinians and his cowboy military tactics
have enormously complicated Obama's attempt to pressure Iran and deeply
alienated Turkey, one of yesterday's holdouts.

His election as prime minister in February 2009 turns out to have
been the best gift the Israeli electorate could have given Iran. The
Likud-led government continues its colonization of the West Bank and its
blockade of the civilian population of Gaza, making the Iranian hawks
who harp on injustices done to Palestinians look prescient. It refuses
to join the NPT or allow U.N. inspections of its nuclear facilities,
making Iran, by comparison, look like a model IAEA member state.

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