Iran’s December Rising: A Dress Rehersal for Revolution

by Webster Brooks

Iran’s “December Rising” by opposition forces against the government bore all the markings of a dress rehearsal for the revolution to come. The protests that started in the holy city of Qom where Grand Ayatollah Hossien Ali Montazeri (87) died of natural causes on January 19 quickly took on the character of a national revolt. Demonstrations and protests spread to Mashad, Isfahan, Shiraz, Arak, Tabriz, Najafabad, Babol, Ardebil, Arumieh and Tehran. Calls to overthrow President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei’s regime were met by deadly force that claimed eight lives, including the assassination of opposition leader Mir Hussien Moussavi’s 43-year old nephew Ali Moussavi outside his home on January 27. The December Rising clearly demonstrated the transformation of Iran’s opposition movement from an agency of reform to a movement struggling to win state power. The brutal counterattack sanctioned by Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad foreshadowed another critical development; the Revolutionary Guard’s growing control over the levers of government and Iran’s transition to a classic police state. Grand Ayatollah Montazeri’s death and the December Rising heightened divisions among Iran’s clerical establishment that has wavered between supporting the opposition movement and remaining loyal to the ruling elite. A tilt of the nation’s clerics toward the opposition movement could swing momentum to Iran’s democratic insurgency as Iran lurches down the path of revolutionary confrontations in the weeks and months ahead. 

Grand Ayatollah Montazeri was an architect of Iran’s 1979 “Islamic” revolution and Ayatollah Khomenei’s designated successor until exposing the “Imam’s” role in the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987. As one of the most powerful and respected figures in the clerical establishment Montazeri was highly critical of Iran’s leadership, calling them dictators and issuing a fatwa condemning the government. He frequently clashed with Supreme Leader Khamenei, a lesser ranked scholar in the clerical hierarchy whose powers and qualifications as “Supreme Leader” he openly challenged. In June, Montazeri sided with the opposition calling President Ahmadinejad’s re-election “a fraud,” directly contradicting Khamenei’s ruling that Ahmadinejad was the unquestioned victor. Fearing the Grand Ayatollah’s death would serve as a clarion call for opposition forces to resume their offensive against Khamenei’s faltering regime, the government took the unprecedented action of banning reformist ayatollahs in Qom and Isfahan from participating in mourning ceremonies for Montazeri. In July the influential clerics of Qom’s “Association of Researchers and Teachers” issued a statement blasting the elections as illegitimate. Since July, the erosion of support for Khamenei among clerics in Qom, Isfahan and Mashad has significantly undermined the Supreme Leader’s legitimacy and tarnished the integrity of the “Islamic” state. The ruthless measures carried out by the government in the name of protecting “Islam” have been profoundly disturbing to a broad cross section of Iran’s clerical establishment. Indeed, the violence unleashed to quell the December Rising during the Ashoura observances commemorating the death of Imam Hussein outraged many in Iran’s clerical establishment. Historically, violence even in wartime has been strictly forbidden during Ashoura. The government attacks prompted opposition leader and former Majlis Speaker Mehdi Karroubi to say “What happened to this religious system that it orders the killing of innocent people during the holy day of Ashura?” Further, the ascendency of the Revolutionary Guard dictating foreign, national security, nuclear and economic policy is leading to the marginalization of the clerics as the standard bearers of Iran’s Islamic republic.

 Increasingly, Supreme Leader Khamenei is surrounded by hardline clerics, right of center politicians, the Revolutionary Guard and Basij militia, all calling for direct confrontation with the opposition. On December 29 and 30, pro-government demonstrators marched in Tehran, demanding that Mousavi and Korroubi be put to death for sedition against the state. Iran’s IRNA news service released a story claiming that Karroubi and Mousavi fled Iran after the government crackdown on the opposition; a claim both men denied on their websites on December 30. With momentum swinging to the opposition, the crackdowns, bloodshed, show trials and executions will not only continue but grow worse in the days ahead as Khamenei’s regime grows more isolated.

 Should a significant section of Iran’s clerics “crossover” to support the opposition coalition of youth, students, middle class entrepreneurs, workers, artists and journalists, Khamenei’s regime will rest solely on the naked terror of the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij. At that juncture, mass defections within the military and militia could spell the doom of the current regime. Whether the opposition can move beyond the boundaries of reform to organize a movement capable of seizing power remains to be seen. The emerging leadership of the opposition is young, secular and confronts a formidable adversary. Uniting a broad based front of divergent interests requires patience, the willingness to compromise and a clear vision of the new order to be established. Today, Iran’s opposition lacks a leadership core, a united front and a revolutionary program. But the chaos engulfing Iran is maturing into a revolutionary crisis in which every sector, class and ethnic group is being drawn into the political maelstrom-a crisis that may present a rare opportunity for the opposition to break through and seize power. Irrespective of the outcome, Iran is advancing to higher stage in its long journey to develop its own unique democratic experiment. Even if the Khamenei regime survives, Iran cannot return to the status quo. The decisive hour of confrontation for Iran’s new democratic movement may come sooner rather than later. 2010 could well be Iran’s year of living dangerously.*****

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