How Western Supporters Hurt Iran's Green Movement

Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed shah, hurt the protesters by associating himself with them. J. Scott Applewhite / AP

It was the summer of the "Twitter Revolution," it was 1979 redux, it was the beginning of the end of the 30-year Islamic regime in Iran. The year, we were assured, marked the demise of clerical reign; it was merely a matter of time before the Shia Humpty fell. Iran had a new face—youths who, armed with cell phones and Facebook accounts, were about to wipe the aged Islamic revolutionaries off the Persian map. And the world was momentarily bathed in their color, green—the color of candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi's campaign to unseat President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—in solidarity with the peaceful demonstrators who deplored their stolen election. There was no point engaging a regime that was on its way out, we were told, because the regime was fatally wounded not by Western sanctions or by a military strike, but by millions of its own citizens demanding to know, "Where is my vote?" It was June 2009, a year ago this week, and for several weeks, even months, those ideas seemed unassailable.

Obviously, they were wrong. And one reason, according to a senior reformist in Tehran who didn't want to be quoted by name, is that "the Green Movement has been hijacked." A raft of Iranian opposition groups and individuals, mostly abroad, have jumped aboard the Green train—in some cases even claiming the mantle of leadership—and their basic agenda (overthrow of the Islamic regime) invariably contradicts the Green Movement agenda (electoral transparency and civil rights). Statements of support from the much-despised Mujahedin-e Khalq, based in Paris, and the green wristband, or worn by the shah's son Reza Pahlavi, were godsends to the government, which has from the start labeled the Green Movement a "velvet" or "color" revolution backed by foreigners. Green leaders have taken pains not to advocate the end of their government, since this is clearly the regime's most potent charge against them. Though a few of their ranks may harbor seditious dreams, the movement writ large is about civil rights, not pro-Western revolution.

The government crackdown often cited Western critiques—particularly any statements of support by the U.S. and Britain—and its severity flummoxed the Green Movement. The government may have acted clumsily in conducting, reporting, and validating the election, but its crackdown banked on at least tacit support for the regime by many Iranians and therefore brooked no dissent. When the government quashed planned protests on the Feb. 11, 2010, anniversary of the revolution (with remarkable efficiency), it consolidated its authority enough to conduct business since then more or less as usual—it fought sanctions, signed a nuclear-fuel-swap deal with Turkey and Brazil, and even organized a nonproliferation conference.

Click the image to view photos of the changing face of Iran Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum

Still, efforts by the regime to discredit—and thereby destroy—opposition to conservative politics were bound to fail. Even the theological schools in Qum, which might be expected to produce the furthest-right thinkers, are not monolithic in their political philosophies; and at any rate the extremely youthful and highly educated population (70 percent of Iranians are under 30) is not predisposed to conservatism, as evidenced by the Green Movement's resilience. In order to continue to delegitimize the Greens as complicit in foreign plots, Ahmadinejad's government could easily use help from abroad. They got it in spades.

Commentators abroad who desperately wanted to help the Green Movement not only hindered but actively hurt it. To begin with, there was the sheer inanity of equating the Iranian opposition with revolution and a movement to overthrow the Islamic system (not recognizing that even Ahmadinejad, and certainly Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, still enjoy a fair measure of support). This is what Thomas Friedman—and writers like him, both American and Iranian—had in mind when he wrote, "An American Green Revolution to end our oil addiction—to parallel Iran's Green Revolution to end its theocracy—helps us [and] helps them." In so doing, they turned protesters who had risked life and limb into little more than tools of Western powers, which, as far as many Iranians are concerned, can never abide a truly independent government in Tehran—Islamic or otherwise. At one point in December 2009, Ali Larijani, the conservative speaker of Parliament close to Supreme Leader Khamenei—but known to harbor some animosity toward Ahmadinejad and some sympathy for the cause of the Green Movement—said on state radio, "U.S. support for the protesters would only harm their cause. The praise…will damage your reputation and clarifies the motives of this anti-religious group." The barrage of stories insinuating that the Green Movement was a new revolution, or that if successful the Greens would be sympathetic to the West, was harmful enough that the leaders repeatedly had to issue denials.

It's easy to see how a connection to the West is anathema in Iran. To suggest, as some, including Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman did, that the Greens cannot succeed without assistance from the West—whether through isolation of the regime, various forms of direct aid, or sanctions—is both unrealistic and deeply insulting. Since when have Iranians—from their constitutional revolution of 1906 to the Islamic Revolution of 1979; from the birth of the reform movement under former president Mohammad Khatami to the massive protests of the summer of 2009—ever been motivated by foreigners, or what is written in the pages of the Western press?

Iranians have never been gullible enough to believe that the legitimacy of their government comes from foreign recognition (look what happened to the shah) rather than their own votes. And the corollary is that, even if Washington and other Western powers engage with the regime, Iranian citizens will not simply give up their fight for what they believe are their constitutionally protected rights. (That is essentially the argument some polemicists and academic make when they say that the White House should keep its distance from the Iranian regime.) This much should be obvious from Iranians' behavior over the past 12 months, even if it is impossible to guess what Iran will look like over the next 12.

Majd is a journalist and author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, and the forthcoming The Ayatollahs' Democracy.