cross-posted from Foreign Policy
By Trita Parsi and Reza Aslan
Iran’s popular uprising, which began after the June 12 election, may be heading for a premature ending. In many ways, the Ahmadinejad government has succeeded in transforming what was a mass movement into dispersed pockets of unrest. Whatever is now left of this mass movement is now leaderless, unorganized — and under the risk of being hijacked by groups outside Iran in pursuit of their own political agendas.
In 1999, students in Iran demonstrated against the closing of reformist newspapers. The unrest lasted a few days and was brutally suppressed. The demonstrators were almost exclusively students. No other segments of society joined their ranks in any meaningful numbers. With their limited appeal to other segments of society, the demonstrators failed to grow in numbers and attain their political objectives.
The demonstrations following the Iranian election on June 12 share few if any characteristics of the student uprising of 1999. What we have witnessed taking place in Iran is a mass movement attracting supporters from all walks of life, all demographics, all classes, and even all political backgrounds. Even supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have expressed discomfort with the developments in Iran, arguing that they voted for Ahmadinejad because they thought he would be a better president, and not because he would be a better dictator.
Indeed, the post-election demonstrations have neither been an uprising of intellectuals and students nor die-hard anti-regime elements from northern Tehran. Instead, the masses that poured in the streets included large numbers of people who often have been loyal to the Iranian government and who in many ways have a stake in its survival. (We can call them Iran’s political middle, or its swing voters.) This is precisely why this movement has constituted such a threat to the Iranian government — not once since 1979 has such an alliance of Iranians come together.
Knowing very well that the opposition’s ability to attract Iranians of all backgrounds constituted a major threat to the government, the Iranian authorities moved quickly to peel away layer after layer of people from the movement to reduce it to a much smaller and more manageable core of regime — not Ahmadinejad — opponents. The Ahmadinejad government’s tactics were predictable: It combined a most brutal clampdown on protesters with propaganda alleging that the opposition movement was orchestrated by foreign elements and exiled opposition groups.
The Mousavi camp sought to counteract these measures and retain its ability to attract a diverse array of Iranians by grounding its slogans and resistance in the language and symbolism of the revolution itself. Mousavi, in a direct challenge to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, presented himself and the movement as the guardians of the revolution, and protesters in the street recycled slogans from the 1979 era, including the chant “Allahu Akbar.”
Although successful at first, the discipline has clearly broken down. This should be no surprise — the movement is by now in effect leaderless. A source close to Mousavi says that the first and second circle of people around Mousavi have all been arrested or put under house arrest. Mousavi himself has limited ability to communicate with his team and his followers. The lack of leadership is visible on the streets, where demonstrators exhibit unparalleled will and courage, but lack direction and guidance.
Indeed, the lack of organization and execution is perhaps the most convincing evidence that the anti-Ahmadinejad movement is completely homegrown and void of any attempt to emulate the velvet revolutions of Central Asia and Eastern Europe. What is driving people to the streets is their sense of frustration and anger — not a well-devised plan and training in clever nonviolent resistance techniques.
The leadership vacuum does not bode well for the movement’s prospects of success, particularly when it comes to attracting those Iranian swing-voters to its side once more. And this creates openings for external meddling — just not the kind you think.
Exiled opposition groups, whose political agenda sharply differs from that of the protesters in Iran — indeed, many of these groups urged people not to vote in the elections — have sought to fill the vacuum left by a beheaded and directionless indigenous movement. Though the outrage of these exiled groups against the Iranian government’s brutal violence is genuine, their efforts to impose themselves on the political scene have caused great frustration among opposition elements inside Iran. At a time when the movement in Iran is paralyzed, efforts by exiled groups — groups that scorned the protesters only weeks ago for choosing to participate in the elections — to fill the leadership vacuum are viewed as nothing less than a maneuver to hijack the movement.
This is playing right into the hands of the Ahmadinejad government, precisely because it would weaken, if not eliminate, the indigenous movement’s trump card: its ability to attract the Iranian swing-voters back to its side. If the exiled opposition groups and their neo-conservative backers in the United States prevail in aiding the Ahmadinejad government, what started out as the largest Iranian mass movement since 1979 may end up as little more than the student demonstrations of 1999. Which is to say, an instance of hopes raised, then dashed.

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