Reassessing the Green Movement

A few weeks ago, Iranian protesters took to the streets in the largest numbers since the disputed 2009 presidential elections. Secretary Clinton cheered them on, while President Obama and National Security Adviser Donilon criticized the government's brutal crackdown. Maybe our leaders are trying to make up for their delayed response to the upheaval in Egypt, or perhaps the tide of pro-democracy movements in the Middle East has swept up even the pragmatists in the Obama Administration. But either way, the Iranian protesters aren't going to change a thing.

The protesters, known collectively as the Green Movement, were mobilized following the 2009 presidential elections. Using the campaign color of presidential nominee and former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the Green Movement flooded the streets when conservative incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was pronounced the victor. While Ahmadinejad almost certainly did not win the presidency by the margin touted by the supreme leader--supposedly coming in with sixty-three percent of the votes--he may have won the plurality. The son of a blacksmith, Ahmadinejad has cultivated a man-of-the-people image that still resonates with many Iranians. Millions of votes may be unaccounted for, but that doesn't mean the Green Movement represents a majority.

Even if the protesters did have the numbers, the leadership of the movement is not in the market for a revolution. The leaders, former chairman of the parliament Mehdi Karroubi, former two-term president Seyed Mohammad Khātamī, and Mousavi, have worked within the bureaucracy since the country's revolution in 1979. These men were not only architects of the Islamic Republic, but benefitted from and sustained the system. During the unrest following the 2009 elections, Mousavi called for the "implementation of the constitution," not a rewrite.

Mousavi's supporters wanted a fair election. Denied that, they want Ahmadinejad out. But unseating Ahmadinejad won't reform Iran's foreign policy agenda as Iran is not a run-of-the-mill autocracy. The office of the president is constrained first and foremost by the supreme leader, then the Assembly of Experts, the Majlis, and the Guardian Council. Ahmadinejad's inflammatory and anti-Semitic comments have infuriated the West, but at the end of the day the mandate of the Iranian president does not include control of the country's foreign policy and regime change has never really been on the protesters' agenda.

Were a reformist like Mousavi to take office and become incredibly influential--having the ear of both the Majlis and the Supreme Leader--Iran's nuclear program would still continue to grow. The U.S.-Iran relationship has most recently been defined by U.S. opposition to the expansion of the Iranian nuclear program. But during his campaign, Mousavi actually assured Iranians that nuclear enrichment would progress in his presidency and most Iranians, including the protesters, support the program as a point of national pride. The Green Movement may be more likeable than Ahmadinejad, but our strategic interests are no more aligned.

While the United States may want to support popular movements abroad as a matter of conscience, there needs to be a bit of introspection--democracy does not mean pro- U.S. Since the revolution in 1979, Iranians have defined themselves in opposition to the United States and U.S. involvement in the 1953 coup (in which the CIA ousted the democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh and returned control of the country to U.S. ally Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavi) has not escaped Iran's popular memory. The protesters in the Green Movement are no less affected by this history than the average Iranian. Any U.S. support for the movement will likely just play into the hands of the conservatives.

The Green Movement doesn't have the power to or the interest in restructuring Iran's political system. Even if they are wildly successful and manage to oust Ahmadinejad, we're looking at infinitesimal change with zero benefit to the U.S. The Green Movement is a red herring.