Iran - a fight on two fronts

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In July last year thousands of ordinary Iranians took to the streets to demonstrate against tyranny and repression. Now, as the West seeks to impose sanctions, Dominic Kouros argues that the democracy movement is still a potent force capable of leading a struggle for genuine liberation

When the Iranian people took to the streets in July to demonstrate against tyranny they were met with brutal repression. Six months on, the same people have refused to give up their fight. Meanwhile, global leaders are circulating plans to capitalise on the unrest. The people of Iran are challenging not only their own leaders but also the threat of crippling foreign sanctions and military engagement.

Last July's disputed presidential election was the catalyst that led to the instant emergence of a dynamic mass opposition movement. The latest round began on Students' Day on 7 December - a date to remember three students killed during protests against the bloody coup of 1953. In cities across the country students turned commemorative rallies into mass demonstrations, clashing with security forces and the pro-government Basij militia. Almost every day the universities have been alight with student protest.

On 19 December the news broke of the death of a leading opponent of the government, Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri. He was a leader of the 1979 revolution and was at one point widely believed to be named successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, the first supreme leader. However, in the post-revolutionary years, Montazeri became increasingly critical of the lack of human rights inside Iran. His funeral, in Qom, was marked by huge anti-government demonstrations.

A week later the religious festival of Ashura took place. Ashura is a massively significant time for Shi'ites as it remembers what is seen as the cruel and oppressive killing of Imam Hussein. His death is seen as an example of a small minority standing up to tyranny. This spirit encapsulated the mood of protesters as they took to the streets once again.

The government and conservative clerics threatened to "crush" those who wished to "exploit" a religious festival. Yet in all the major cities hundreds of thousands came out. Security forces and the Basij attacked the protests. Hundreds were arrested and nine people were killed, including the nephew of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.

This shows the movement is strong enough to continue to mobilise and to face the repression. But, perhaps more importantly, the demands now go beyond the disputed election. The movement has begun to create a number of unified demands for democracy and even a separation of religion from state. There are, of course, still various strands to the movement; it has always been a wide grouping. The election provided a momentary rallying call for all reformists in Iran but it seems they are trying to go further.

In January a manifesto, claiming to support the pluralistic nature of the Green Movement, was released by five prominent Iranian exiles. This calls for the immediate resignation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president and the abolition of the clerical voting system. However, it also calls for the recognition of law-abiding political, student, non-governmental and women's groups, as well as labour unions, and for freedom of all means of mass communication and an independent judiciary, including popular elections for the judicial chief.

The creators of this manifesto admit that there are many more demands but this was a modest attempt to theorise the movement. If any of these demands were to be met it would be a radical step.

From the outset the movement has caused huge ruptures at the top of Iranian society. Many of the movement's leading figures, such as Mousavi, have come from the ruling class, so it is no major surprise that they have been affected. However, cracks in the regime are not a new phenomenon. Before the protests sprang into life, many in the political establishment feared Ahmadinejad's "provocative" attitude towards the West and saw him as reckless.

For Ahmadinejad, standing up to the West has been a political tool rather than a dogmatic principle. When he was first elected in 2005 he promised to redistribute wealth as well as stand up to "the Great Satan". However, with inequality wider than ever, he has increasingly relied on goading the West to consolidate support at home. These splits became magnified in the face of a threatening opposition. Some sections looked to try to calm the masses through appeasement, although the official line from the supreme leader Khamenei was clear - to crush the protests.

There appear to be mounting tensions between the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the state itself. The Revolutionary Guards are apparently trying to take an increasing amount of control and are using their necessity to the regime during the protests to do so. They were originally set up with the aim of "defending the revolution" but in recent years have become a force of their own, taking control of certain industries during the period of rapid privatisation in the 1990s.

In the run-up to the 2009 election the conservatives in government had been far from united. A group of influential conservatives had pulled away from Ahmadinejad and created their own list of candidates. They were careful not to publicly display their differences but in reality a power struggle had emerged. These contradictions explain why the Green Movement was able to knock the regime back in such an effective manner. Meanwhile, Western leaders watch closely.

For all the talk of engagement from Barack Obama, there has been little change from the regime of George W Bush. The conclusions are the same: to isolate Iran and to pressure it into submission. The accusations have focused on Iran's nuclear programme. Iran is already under three sets of UN sanctions.

The latest deadline fell on 31 December and a meeting of six major powers took place immediately to discuss the next step. Senior officials from Britain, the US, France, Russia and Germany met, but China sent a lower-level diplomat, signalling its reluctance to back tougher sanctions. The official line from the meeting is that no decisions have been reached, but tougher sanctions are certainly in the pipeline.

For the West the fear is that a nuclear Iran will seriously alter the power map of the Middle East, with a bitter enemy becoming a serious power. In addition, Obama will not want to be seen to fail on one of his major policy objectives - dealing with the Iran issue. From the Iranian government's point of view, a confrontation with the West is the ideal way to unite the divided population.

The only obstacle to further sanctions seems to be China. China, which has a veto on the UN Security Council, has a strong trading agreement with Iran and does not want sanctions to affect this. However, China will be wary of isolating itself within the Security Council, especially now that Russia appears to be joining the sanctions bandwagon. Sanctions will begin to hurt the Iranian people: by damaging the movement, providing an excuse for the regime to crack down and afflicting the sort of damage felt by Iraq under sanctions.

This leaves the Iranian people in a perilous situation. A real concern is that a false dichotomy will be created like in other Middle Eastern states, where to support the regime is to be anti-Western and to oppose it is to support the West.

This is not what the Iranian people want - 31 years ago they disposed of a Western-backed dictator. But they also wanted democracy.

The annual Revolution Day takes place on 11 February, marking the 1979 revolution. More protests have been promised and, while there may be many differences between 2010 and 1979, the resolve of the Iranian people is the same. Whether the regime opts for appeasement or repression, this movement will not just go away.