Azadeh Moaveni -- Iran's Opposition Awaits Leadership

By Azadeh Moaveni
Sunday, July 26, 2009

On June 15, five of my relatives -- the oldest 65, the youngest 22 -- spent four hours traveling across Tehran's sprawling metropolis to reach a demonstration against the country's election result. They first crammed into a creaky Iranian-made car, rode part of the way in a dilapidated bus and walked the final three miles. They strode quietly north along with an estimated 2 million others, hopeful that their show of peaceful force would convince the government to annul the election. The next day, the authorities began viciously attacking demonstrators. They dispatched plainclothes henchmen with pistols in their pockets to shoot randomly at civilians. Dissent, Iranians learned, could cost them their lives.

Immediately after the election, such protests evoked the grand marches of the 1979 Islamic revolution. But the scale of the dissent soon diminished. Clearly, the state's vicious tactics were partly to blame. But Iranians were not simply terrorized into staying at home. Rather, there was no leader inspiring them to take to the streets -- and put their lives at risk. The friends and relatives I have spoken to remain outraged over the fraudulent election. But they also remain perplexed by the opposition leaders. Many hailed from the regime's old-guard elite, and it was unclear how much they would be willing to challenge the Islamic system.

No one had an answer to this central question: For whom, exactly, would ordinary Iranians be willing to put themselves in danger? What sort of leadership is required to make violence worth it?

In the weeks that followed the initial protests, restless Tehranis recognized that they were outmaneuvered on the streets and sought to redirect their anger through civil disobedience. People looked to Mir Hossein Mousavi for guidance. He claimed he was the election's rightful winner, and a majority of Iranians, including his rival candidates, seemed to agree. He emerged as an accidental opposition leader, and many watched his transformation with eagerness. Nearly everyone I knew in Iran voted in the election. They believed that Mousavi stood every chance to win. My friends and family had seen how Ahmadinejad's tenure gutted quality of life for Iranians, young and old, poor and middle class alike.

But Mousavi did not win. And although many people I spoke with admired his defiance in the election's immediate aftermath, some faulted him as the government crackdown intensified. With militiamen chasing people into their homes and ordinary citizens being detained, people expected continual motivation and guidance from the opposition. "People need to be backed up strongly. They are afraid when they see no one is behind them," one friend explained. "They needed a voice to tell them, 'Go, we are with you.' But there was no such voice."

Mousavi does have admirers. They like the steeliness of his statements and admire his refusal to back down as the hard-line leadership closed rank against him. "He's done nothing to cool my regard," a cousin told me. "He has stuck to his word throughout and very courageously declared that he's not willing to give up the fight." But the people who respect Mousavi's determination are also wary of his strategy. He was challenging the Islamic system within its very confines. For all his talk about how the people's will must be respected, Mousavi offered no formula for how this might be achieved. His ambiguous vision made some Iranians, already frightened by the state's violence, reluctant to stay in the fray. "I was ready to protest peacefully for Iran improving a little bit," said one relative, who attended the first large protest but then stayed back. "But for the sake of Mousavi or Ahmadinejad? To me it's not worth it."

Iranians' ambivalence about Mousavi's leadership has also been reflected on their Facebook pages. The personal sites that bore the green logo "What Happened to My Vote?" began to change tone in early July. Many posted a picture of Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected prime minister and national hero who was ousted in a CIA-backed coup in 1953. Under the photograph, his famous statement of anxiety about Islamist politics is quoted in bold: "I hope that Shiite leaders don't have any serious intention of entering the political arena. If this were to happen, Iran will be at the brink of catastrophe."

Mossadegh was a secular nationalist who was fiercely protective of Iran's sovereignty. Invoking him as a symbol of the leader Iranians aspire to have reminds me of the 1997-2005 era of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami. I lived in Iran during a long stretch of that time and find the wistful references to Mossadegh eerily familiar. He reappears cyclically, at moments when Iranians despair of the leaders available to them, and of any chance to shed the Islamic theocracy that many consider corrupt and unaccountable.

But Mossadegh is not in Tehran today, at least not as anything other than a tiny Facebook icon. There is no real leadership to direct the lingering outrage; the intellectuals and former officials who form the opposition's brain trust languish in Evin prison. So many Iranians have stepped in, planning labor and transportation strikes and the flooding of the streets of Tehran with green paint. The more ambitious of those plans have yet to materialize, but smaller efforts are attracting support. I received the same e-mail from more than 15 people, urging residents of Tehran to plug in all their electric appliances en masse at 8:57 p.m. to overwhelm the city's power grid.

The latest scheme involves stamping paper currency with images of Neda Agha Soltan, the young woman who was shot and killed in the streets during the protests, with the hope that eventually Iranians will be reminded, while buying a watermelon or cigarettes, of the state's free-falling legitimacy. A friend of mine who has attended many of the protests said that people are mobilizing around these nascent plans, but that the kind of leadership that will channel their outrage into a long-term, coherent movement has yet to emerge.

The unwavering anger, however, is nudging Mousavi and his allies forward.

On July 17, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani ascended the podium at Friday prayers in Tehran. Mousavi announced he would attend the sermon -- his first official appearance since last month's election -- and urged Iranians to attend as well. After nearly a month devoid of such calls to action, with many fearful that Mousavi would capitulate to the hard-line leadership, the appeal resonated with tremendous force.

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