02.08.10

Iran on the Brink

The Green Movement's leaders are calling supporters to the streets, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is rallying his side with nuclear brinksmanship—and the clashes expected Thursday for the Islamic Republic's 31st anniversary could spell civil war.

It began last summer as a protest over a disputed presidential election. It blossomed last fall into an awe-inspiring revolt against the very nature of the regime. Now, on the eve of the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Republic, as Iran braces for what could be the largest and most violent demonstrations since the election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, the country may be on the brink of civil war.

Thursday, February 11—or 22 Bahman in the Persian calendar—is the most important national holiday in Iran, a day in which the regime celebrates the 1979 revolution that toppled the dictatorship of the country’s Western-backed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Every year on this date, Iran’s religious and political leaders try to reignite the revolutionary fervor that gave birth to the Islamic Republic. Speeches tout the revolution’s accomplishments. Military parades show off the country’s newest weapons. The airwaves are filled with news and mini-documentaries about the corruption and human-rights abuses of the shah and the sacrifices made by the revolution’s leaders to force him from power.

It will be the first time that pro- and anti-government demonstrations will be going head-to-head since last summer. With neither side backing down, there is every reason to expect a violent clash.

Jason Shams: The Revolt About to Rock IranThis year, some of the revolutionary leaders whose sacrifices helped topple the shah three decades ago have promised to hijack the festivities to challenge, if not bring down, the Islamic Republic they helped to create. For more than a month the so-called Green Movement—an ever-widening coalition of young people, liberal political and religious leaders, merchants fed up with the state of the economy, and conservative politicians frightened by the expanding role of the Revolutionary Guards in Iranian politics—has vowed to use the anniversary to mount its most forceful challenge yet to the regime. Unlike previous demonstrations, which brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets all over the country, Thursday’s protests are being planned and organized by the presumed leaders of the Green Movement. Both Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, Ahmadinejad’s two main challengers in last June’s presidential election, have posted defiant messages on their Web sites urging supporters to come out en masse on Thursday, something neither man has done before.

Michael Adler: Obama’s Reality CheckThe most remarkable aspect of the current uprising in Iran is its lack of coordination from above. As many observers have noted, this is essentially a “leaderless revolution,” one organized by Twitter and Facebook rather than by any individual or group. In fact, some of the largest protests to date have occurred after Mousavi and Karroubi asked supporters not to demonstrate.

Yet after a recent spate of executions and random arrests aimed at silencing the leaders of the Green Movement, not to mention scattered and confused reports indicating a softening of their position toward the state, Mousavi and Karroubi have gone on the offensive. In a fiery statement posted on his Web site, Kaleme.org, Mousavi declared that the revolution that launched the Islamic Republic had utterly failed to achieve its goals. (He should know; he was one of the revolution’s leaders.) Mousavi then explicitly compared the current regime to the reviled dictatorship of the shah—this at a time in which the toppling of that dictatorship is supposed to be celebrated.

“Stifling the media, filling the prisons, and brutally killing people who peacefully demand their rights in the streets indicate the roots of tyranny and dictatorship remain from the monarchist era,” Mousavi wrote.

The government has responded in kind, promising to unleash the full force of the country’s security forces and show no mercy to anyone who dares to use the holiday to protest against the regime. Iran’s judiciary has announced that it will execute nine more protesters, an obvious attempt to frighten demonstrators into abandoning their plans for Thursday. (To date, between 30 and 70 protesters have been killed, and nearly 100 have been sentenced to jail terms of up to 15 years; another 200 protesters remain in detention without charge.) At the same time, the regime has promised to organize its own “counterdemonstrations,” busing in supporters from distant rural villages to take on the protesters. It will be the first time that pro- and anti-government demonstrations will be going head-to-head since last summer. With neither side backing down, there is every reason to expect a violent clash. Whether that could augur a civil war in the country remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad is trying everything in his power to change the subject. As Michael Adler reports in The Daily Beast, the president announced on Sunday that Iran will begin enriching uranium from between 3.5 percent and 5 percent to 20 percent, a move that experts believe would put the country in a position to reach the 90 percent enrichment level required to weaponize its nuclear program. Ahmadinejad followed up this statement with a promise to build 10 new enrichment plants in the next year.

These announcements are a joke; they cannot be taken seriously. Not only has Iran thus far barely managed to enrich uranium to 5 percent, it can hardly keep its one enrichment plant in Natanz—which took many years to build—up and running full time. The idea that Iran could build 10 more plants in a year while also figuring out how to enrich uranium to 20 percent is laughable. Ahmadinejad’s announcement is nothing more than a feeble attempt at nuclear brinksmanship, as the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner acknowledged when he called it “blackmail.” Iran’s hope is to return to the negotiations begun in Vienna last October over its nuclear stockpile on more favorable terms.

More than anything else, these announcements were intended for domestic consumption. With what promises to be a tumultuous and violent national celebration on the horizon, Ahmadinejad is desperate to rally the country behind him using the one issue on which all Iranians, regardless of their politics or piety, agree. Ahmedinejad hopes to elicit a belligerent response from the West, allowing him to arouse the people’s national pride. Which, by the way, may explain Iran’s surprising move last week, when it launched a mouse, two turtles, and some worms into orbit as a prelude to a promised manned space mission.

As Iran approaches what could be the defining moment in an uprising that few thought would last this long or become this strong, perhaps Iran’s leaders should keep their gaze focused on the earth. It’s shifting beneath them.

Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War (published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized World ). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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