Jackson Diehl on Iran's unlovable opposition

A female demonstrator protests against Iran's presidential election in Tehran.
A female demonstrator protests against Iran's presidential election in Tehran. (Ben Curtis/associated Press)
By Jackson Diehl
Monday, November 2, 2009

Iran has been controlled since June by a hard-line clique of extremist clerics and leaders of the Revolutionary Guard who believe they are destined to make their country a nuclear power that dominates the Middle East. It follows that their opposition -- a mass movement that has been marching to slogans such as "death to the dictator" and "no to Lebanon, no to Gaza" -- is bound to be a more plausible partner for the rapproachement that the Obama administration is seeking.

Or maybe not. The enduring nature of Iran is to frustrate outsiders who work by the usual rules of political logic or who seek unambiguous commitments. The West relearned that truth last week as the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dragged a straightforward plan to swap its enriched uranium for fuel rods into a swamp of double talk and counterproposals. And I was reminded of it in a recent conversation with one of the leading representatives outside of Iran of the "green revolution," who seemed determined to convince would-be Western supporters that they were wasting their time.

Ataollah Mohajerani, who has been a spokesman in Europe for presidential candidate-turned-dissident Mehdi Karroubi, came to Washington to address the annual conference of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The mostly pro-Israel crowd was primed to cheer what they expected would be a harsh condemnation of Ahmadinejad and his bellicose rhetoric, and a promise of change by the green coalition.

What they heard, instead, was a speech that started with a rehashing of U.S. involvement in the 1953 coup in Tehran and went on to echo much of Ahmadinejad's rhetoric about the United States and the nuclear program. Mohajerani, who served as culture minister in the liberal Iranian government of Mohammed Khatemi in the 1990s, distanced himself from the current president's denial of the Holocaust and remarked at one point that Iran "should not be more Palestinian than the Palestinians."

But he went on to assert, as per the current regime, that the countries seeking to freeze Iran's nuclear program themselves possess nuclear weapons, as does Israel; that Israel had contracted to supply nuclear weapons to Iran's former shah; and that Ahmadinejad's threats to destroy Israel were no different than what Hillary Clinton had said about Iran during her presidential campaign. Asked whether Israel had a right to exist, he refused to respond.

As for Western support for Iranian democracy and human rights, "the green movement has no expectations whatsoever," Mohajerani declared with a sarcastic smile. "When we say we have no expectations, then our expectations will be met." On the contrary, he warned against "taking advantage" of Ahmadinejad's weak regime to strike a deal "that would not be in Iran's interest." The suggestion was that the opposition would consider any concessions to the West by Ahmadinejad illegitimate -- a position that was borne out by statements last week by green-movement leaders attacking the uranium swap plan.

Mohajerani's speech infuriated not just the Americans but also liberal Iranians in his audience; one of them, scholar Mehdi Khalaji, later pointed out that while Mohajerani might speak for Karroubi, he did not represent the vast numbers of younger Iranians who had joined the street protests. "The true leaders of this movement," he argues, "are students, women and human rights activists, and political activists who have no desire to work in a theocratic regime or in a government within the framework of the existing constitution."

That's probably true. But the fact remains that, were Karroubi and fellow opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi somehow to supplant Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the main changes in Iranian policy might be of style. "We don't disagree with whatever Ahmadinejad says," Mohajerani told me in an interview after his speech. "The point of disagreement is mainly the election," in which there was blatant government-sponsored fraud.

Mohajerani is a sophisticated man; he studded his speech with references to Faulkner, Whitman, Dostoyevsky and Kafka. He concedes readily enough that Iran's opposition is a coalition of many disparate elements, some of which are considerably more liberal than he is. Maybe that's the reason for his other discouraging message -- that the green revolution should not be expected to succeed anytime soon.

"The green movement is not a 100-yard race to determine the leader after a few seconds. It is a long marathon," he said. "We need generations to take part in this race. One generation takes the liberty gained by the previous generation and keeps running." I later asked him how people in the West should think about the disparity between the decade or more he said real change in Iran would require and the one to three years that may separate the current regime from a nuclear weapon. "This is a real problem," he replied. "I have no prescription for this crisis."

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