The Message From the Streets of Tehran
LONDON - On Wednesday, the 30th anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran, the streets of Iran were filled with ordinary citizens demonstrating not for the humiliation of the United States but for peaceful political change in their country.
This citizen offensive, under the banner of the Green Movement, comprised Iranians from all walks of life and all political perspectives, including republicans, religious nationalists, monarchists and socialists.
Not a few Western analysts remain skeptical about the staying power of the Greens and their ability to bring about a political transformation of the country.
They point to the lack of a distinctive opposition leader in the face of a robust security-intelligence apparatus. The realists in Washington note that neither street demonstrations nor increasing internal divisions within the regime have brought about a significant change in behavior.
But this is a superficial and impatient reading of the internal situation in Iran. Iran is less stable and secure than at any time in the past 30 years, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government has been forced to fight on several fronts simultaneously.
It is battling over the nuclear program with the international community, which is starting to coalesce on sanctions. On the domestic front, the regime is being challenged both by ordinary citizens in the cities and restive minorities in the provinces.
New communication technologies and outlets such as VOA-Persian News Network, Radio Farda and BBC-Persian Service have helped a sizeable number of Iranians to overcome the regime's monopoly of domestic media.
More Iranians are engaging with one another inside Iran and with Iranians outside the country about politics, social freedoms, human rights and democracy.
By the time the presidential election took place last June 12, Iranian civil society had matured to the point that people could come together in a Green Movement led not so much by an individual leader as by the aspirations and actions of the movement's supporters and foot soldiers.
Observers have noted that the absence of a single opposition leader and command structure has been a source of the movement's tenacity.
The Ahmadinejad government's hard-line response has opened a third battleground by increasing cracks within the clerical establishment, the political organs of the state, the intelligence apparatus and even the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's speech endorsing his choice of Ahmadinejad shortly after the disputed election seriously undermined the legitimacy of the office of Supreme Leader.
The elite infighting is difficult to disguise. In addition to the publicized clash that arrays Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad against Mir Hussein Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi and former president Mohammad Khatami, there are also conflicts among the hard-liners, many of whom operate in secretive corners of the state machinery.
More than a few technocrats and government officials who had embodied the civilian, political and intelligence organs of the state are now being sidelined and disenfranchised by a second-generation of ideologues from the security apparatus. Some of these newly disenfranchised individuals are joining the ranks of the Green Movement, bringing with them invaluable inside knowledge.
The Ahmadinejad government is now in a corner and fears the potential for the Green Movement to transform itself from its current rebellion to something like an alternative government.
It is no surprise that the Ahmadinejad government sees engagement with the Obama administration as a way to block any symbiotic relationship from developing between the Green Movement and the international community.
While President Obama has from time to time voiced sympathy and admiration for supporters of the Green Movement, curiously, the administration has cut funding for U.S.-based organizations such as the Human Rights Documentation Center and the Boroumand Foundation.
One of the slogans shouted on the streets of Tehran on Nov. 4 was "Obama: Ya ba Ghatela Ya Ba Ma" ("Obama: either with the murderers or with us"). The protesters perceive that international engagement with Mr. Ahmadinejad has come at the expense of their human rights.
Many Western analysts believe that the Obama administration needs to reach some kind of accommodation with the Ahmadinejad government because the only alternative is a military strike.
But many in the Green Movement respond that experience has shown that Mr. Ahmadinejad is neither willing nor able to change course. Instead, they would like to see the international community exert pressure on the regime through a progressive set of smart, vigorous and targeted sanctions and more forceful advocacy of human rights.
According to their thinking, this two-track approach would not only make the Ahmadinejad government think twice before arresting and abusing Iranian protesters, but also strengthen a movement that can increase domestic pressure on the leadership of Iran to make pragmatic choices on the nuclear program, such as ratifying the Oct. 1 Geneva deal on exporting enriched uranium.
For instance, oil workers might complement sanctions by striking at those domestic refineries that Mr. Ahmadinejad is depending on to compensate for embargoed gasoline from abroad.
Speaking up on human rights might also allow, in the words of Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, "human beings to live in freedom and with dignity."
Nazenin Ansari is the diplomatic editor of the London-based weekly Iranian newspaper Kayhan. Jonathan Paris is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center.
First published in The New York Times