Viewpoint: The End of Iran's Green Revolution

When Michael Jackson pushed Iran from the front pages and protests simmered down, both the Iranian government and the opposition tried to figure out their next moves. The government realized that the burst of citizen fury over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's controversial reelection was not limited to students, secularists, or the rich groups they've never relied upon for support and that bore little resemblance to Iran's silent majority. So officials began a campaign to persuade those Iranians that the unrest was being guided by Iran's enemies. Meanwhile, the opposition, mindful that the accusation might stick, chose a strategy emphasizing Islam and the rule of law while opposing government moves in court. The resurgence last week of protests (unprompted by opposition leaders) makes it look like the opposition is as strong as ever. In fact, though, the character of the protests makes one thing clear: the government is now winning the battle for the streets.

Before and during the Jackson-induced media lull, the message got away from the opposition and was badly warped in the Western press. Inside Iran, throngs gathered on the streets not because they wanted liberal democracy but because, in the words of Ali Larijani—the conservative speaker of the parliament and a close ally of the Supreme Leader—"the majority of Iranians don't believe the election." Anger is why Iranians coursed through the capital: young, old, bearded, clean-shaven, chador-clad, pious, secular, and Chanel-wearing fashionistas all wanted to register their disapproval of what they believed to be a rigged vote. It was that simple.

But overseas, reporters strained to Tiananmen-ize the protests and draw bogus analogies to 1979. In newspapers and on TV, they yearned to see the demonstrations as a rejection of the Islamic regime altogether. In doing so, they badly crippled the movement, because the easiest way to lose credibility in Iran is to be seen as a threat to the 'Islamic' state. It's exactly what the government needed to demonize the opposition—and particularly the organizers of street protests.

Largely impotent exile groups—ones like the monarchists or the Mujadheddin-e-Khalq (MEK), based in Iraq and Paris—joined the frenzy and excitement of a brewing revolt. But by expressing solidarity, they linked their names to genuinely disenfranchised voters and discredited them. Nothing could have been more sickening to Iranians who braved batons and bullets than to see the head of the MEK (a largely despised pseudocult on the U.S. terrorism list that supported Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War) hold a press conference in Paris with a poster of the brutally murdered protest-martyr Neda Agha-Soltan as her backdrop. And nothing could have pleased the enemies of reform in Iran more. Prince Reza Pahlavi, son of the former shah, called another press conference in Washington and shed what many Iranians saw as crocodile tears, which was no less harmful to opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. In Brussels, a famous and well-meaning filmmaker (and a self-appointed spokesman for Mousavi) told the European Parliament that if nothing is done to confront Iran, it would shortly have nukes. Tehran's propaganda machine could not have asked for a greater gift. In all these ways, the revolution has been hijacked.

Even so, it wasn't clear just how much damage had been done until the protests resumed last week. What we saw was exactly what the hardliners in Tehran wanted us to see: young, upper-middle-class Tehranis demonstrating against their government—some of them fleeing the scenes of protest in $100,000 SUVs. There were few chadors, fewer families, and no broad cross section of people that Larijani had admitted "don't believe the election." Perhaps ordinary Iranians who don't believe that Ahmadinejad is their president have been cowed into submission by the riot police and the threat of jail; but perhaps also some of them are now more convinced that nefarious foreign hands are guiding the revolt.

Iranians, like people all over the world, simply wanted their votes counted; most didn't want the destruction of their system. Now, the "green wave" is no longer what it started out as, and as a result, it is far less of a challenge to the government. All the reformists can do is search for less exciting ways to continue their fight.