People Power

03.05.13

Bernard-Henri Lévy on Mansour Osanloo and Regime Change in Iran

Bernard-Henri Lévy on why Mansour Osanloo—the Iranian Lech Walesa—could pose the most dangerous threat to the ayatollahs’ stranglehold on power.

A portentous event occurred last week in Iran that seems to have gone virtually unnoticed by the media, both in Europe and in the United States.

Mansour Osanloo, president of the Tehran bus workers’ union (Sharekat-e Vahed) and the best known, most respected labor leader in the country, announced that “the conditions for regime change exist today in Iran.”

Sent via Skype from an undisclosed location, Osanloo’s solemn statement was distributed by a London television station set up several months ago by a man whom I believe to be the most serious external opponent of the ayatollahs’ regime: Amir Jahanchahi. An Iranian political refugee, Jahanchahi is the founder of the Green Wave opposition movement and author of The Iranian Hitler: Ending Ahmadinejad’s Dictatorship, published in Paris in 2009.

Osanloo’s recent statement and its dissemination are important for at least three reasons.

They are important, first, because of the personality of Osanloo, viewed morally, operationally, and politically. This labor leader, who has been arrested several times, tortured, held incommunicado, and forced to spend most of the last five years behind the bars of the regime’s grimmest prisons, is, morally, the Iranian Lech Walesa. Operationally, he may have the power, by shutting down Teheran’s mass transportation system, to paralyze the Iranian capital and the metropolitan region. Politically, this is the first time that he has taken such a firm and radical position, according to most serious observers.

Second, they are important because of the link forged—through Osanloo and the political leader in exile, Amir Jahanchahi—between elements of Iranian civil society that, in the deep recesses of the country, aspire to freedom and groups in London, Paris, and the United States that are preparing for the transition. No doubt you have heard the aspersions cast at these groups of intellectuals, lawyers, and businessmen who are allegedly cut off from their base and representing only themselves and their nostalgia for a bygone Iran. Well, that’s over. And the fact that this Persian Walesa, this representative of the workers of a nation bled white by dictatorship, this potent symbol for a people weary of the hardships induced by sanctions brought on by the fight-to-the-death stance of a suicidal regime with its back to the wall, the fact that this man has chosen the Green Wave to spread his message of hope is a priceless indication of the coalescence of  forces within the country and in exile without which no revolution can succeed, a coalescence that may already be at work in Teheran.


And third, the news from Osanloo is important because of what it tells us, in the run-up to the June presidential election, about the state of mind of an opposition that has learned some lessons from its failure five years ago and, alas, from the grim five years that have followed. Despite an intense public opinion campaign, those years have brought no news of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani since the commutation of her 2010 sentence to death by stoning. Jafar Panahi, the courageous filmmaker, is prohibited from leaving the country for the next 20 years! And the major opposition figures? Most of them are still in prison, and even the most timid signs of dissidence are relentlessly snuffed out. To the disappointments of those five years, here is the opposition’s new response: More pragmatism, fewer flowery words and pious sentiments, a greater concern for effectiveness, and, at the intersection of the domestic resistance and the opposition in exile, a strategy of appealing to the people and fomenting democratic rebellion.

I would not be at all surprised if the Green Wave’s calls to defect were widely heard and heeded.

I would not be surprised if, between now and June, strikes were called and the calls were taken up.

I would not be surprised if others of Osanloo’s stature defected and, in so doing, echoed and amplified their comrade’s voice.

I know that the Green Wave has established contacts with members of the clergy in Qom and Teheran. I know that it has opened channels through which the least compromised elements of the Revolutionary Guards can be reminded that it is five minutes to midnight in Iran and that very little time remains for those who would avoid the fate that typically awaits  the hired guns of a fallen dictatorship. I would not be at all surprised if the Green Wave’s calls to defect were widely heard and heeded.

When those who have nothing are joined by those who had believed that they were everything before coming to realize that propping up a shaky regime could, in the end, prove fatal, then the time is indeed ripe for change.

That, in a nutshell, is the state of play. The task confronting the friends of Iran is to wait and, while waiting, to lend a hand. Because, like the Iranian opposition, we must not let this opportunity slip by. Above and beyond the fate of a long-suffering people, above and beyond the destiny of one of the world’s great civilizations that today groans in the barbarians’ grip, it is in Teheran, at this very moment, that the future of democracy in the region and the prospects for war or peace on the planet will be decided. It would be lethal for us all simply to watch this match play out from our seats in the upper deck.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy