Mass silent protests were expected last Sunday 12 June in Tehran’s Vali-Asr Square, to mark the second anniversary of the ‘stolen election’, which enabled Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to stay in power for four more years. ‘There are deeply authoritarian characters in the Iranian regime who wouldn’t hesitate to use extreme violence against protesters,’ Dr Nader Hashemi, assistant professor of Islamic Politics at the University of Denver, had warned last week. ‘There are also loyal ideological troops who, if ordered, would massacre everyone in the Square in the name of nationalism.’
There were no mass protests on Sunday and no massacres. Instead, security forces were deployed in large numbers to prevent people from gathering. They dispersed protesters with electric batons and made numerous arrests.
But this was not the mass rally that the Coordination Council of the Green Movement had hoped for when they called on Iranians to participate in silent protests across the country.
It’s ironic that even though many analysts regard Iran’s Green Movement as the key catalyst for the Arab Spring, the movement itself has suffered some serious blows recently. The main opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, are under house arrest; the Iranian government’s effective strategy of targeted arrests of student activists, intellectuals, journalists and lawyers weakened the Movement’s organizational capacity; fear of arrest and violence, the wider fatigue and loss of political momentum may have conspired against the mobilization of large numbers of demonstrators on Sunday.
And while Iran’s rulers publicly express support for the pro-democracy uprisings in the region, privately they are deeply concerned about the effect they will have on both internal and regional politics. The regime is deaf to the Green Movement Coordination Council’s demands which include the release of political prisoners and the movement’s leaders, the holding free elections and tackling high prices and unemployment.
Another potential problem for the Green Movement is the mounting tensions over Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions.
Since the 2009 elections, ordinary Iranians have prioritized the democracy issue over the nuclear one. But there is still huge popular support for the country’s civil nuclear programme: nuclear fuel production is regarded as a sovereign right and a source of great national pride. Many Iranians believe that Western allegations that Iran is developing nuclear weapons are being used for political purposes. ‘International attempts to punish Iran for pursuing nuclear fuel production simply strengthen the legitimacy of the government’s stance to defy those attempts, as well as the very legitimacy of the government itself,’ says Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council.
In May, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released two reports which claimed that Iran is continuing to stockpile low-enriched uranium in defiance of UN sanctions and is failing to provide adequate transparency to resolve outstanding questions on its nuclear programme. Last week, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said that he had received ‘further information related to possible past or current undisclosed nuclear-related activities that seem to point to the existence of possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.’
Iran’s president Ahmadinejad dismissed this speculation and accused Amano of taking orders from Washington. Two days later, Iran announced it would shift its production of higher grade uranium to an underground bunker and triple its production capacity.
Moreover, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his desire for military action against Iran fairly clear during his speech to the US Congress last month. US President Barack Obama is undoubtedly under increasing pressure to take a hard line against Iran not only from Congress, but also from his own party.
Like the conservative Iranian leadership, neo-conservative policymakers in Washington are concerned by the sudden and unprecedented rise of people power sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. They may pay lip-service to pro-democracy movements, but the loss of influence in the region resulting from the Arab Spring has convinced them that the need to attack Iran and reassert US power is more urgent than ever.
‘Both sides are exaggerating Iran’s nuclear capacity for their own motives,’ said Saba Sadeq, the head of the BBC Persian last year. The mounting tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions simultaneously serve the interests of both Western neo-conservatives and Iranian hardliners, so there’s a danger that they may soon come to a head.
But the political landscape in the region has shifted significantly since then, and the main losers of this confrontation will be, undoubtedly, Iran’s pro-democracy and civil society movements. ‘The Iranian leadership would benefit from an Israeli military strike,’ says Dr Hashemi. ‘And it would spell disaster for the Green Movement.’
Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist, broadcaster and political analyst. He chairs the Westminster Committee on Iran.