Supporting the Sakharovs and Sharanskys of Iran’s ‘thriving’ Green opposition

In a dual strategy of repression and counter-mobilization, Iran’s embattled regime has arrested hundreds of opposition activists following the recent Ashura protests, while rallying conservative forces against the democratic Green movement. Some reports even suggest that the hardline Revolutionary Guards Corps is preparing a coup.

Thousands of government supporters at a Tehran rally called for the death of Green movement leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the hanging of anti-government protesters.

The pro-regime Coordination Council for the Dissemination of Islamic Ideology called for protests denouncing the Ashura demonstrators. Public sector workers, schoolchildren and some industrial workers were reportedly bussed in and compelled to attend.

Emad Baghi, winner of the Martin Ennals Award for human rights, is among those arrested, along with Dr. Nushin Ebadi, sister of Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi; women’s rights activist Haleh Sahabi; Somayeh Rashidi an activist in the One Million Signatures Campaign;  and democratic advocate Heshmat Tabarzadi.

“These names may be hard to keep track of,” the Wall Street Journal notes. “But so, once, were those of Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and Sharansky.”

“If the government continues to opt for violence, there very well may be another revolution in Iran,” Tabarzadi recently wrote. “One side has to step down. And that side is the government – not the people.”

The speaker of the Majlis, Iran’s Parliament, Ali Larijani, has called for the “arrest of offenders of the religion and the harshest punishment for anti-revolutionary figures”.

Velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists) is a pillar of the Islamic Revolution, said Larijani. If not for velayat-e faqih, Iran would have lost the 1980-1988 war with Iraq.

Unlike the movement’s putative leaders, many in the Green opposition are convinced that the Islamic Republic cannot be reformed, and are agitating for a democratic secular republic.

It is not only the Ashura day protests but the thousands of acts of daily dissent and civil disobedience that confirm that the Jonbesh-e Sabz, or Green Movement, is “alive and thriving” writes Tara Mahtafar of Tehran Bureau and Inside Iran. 

This “far-reaching movement encompasses a vast swathe of Iranian society”, she argues, as reflected in families of political detainees who continue to demand the release of their relatives; the Mourning Mothers solidarity group holding weekly vigils; and factory workers barricading highways.

Tehran City Council has asked the Central Bank to withdraw money from circulation because so many bills are ‘defaced’ with dissident slogans, including many that are run through printers to be imprinted with the face of Neda Soltan

The democratic West has denounced the repression under way in Iran, but rhetoric is insufficient, Iranian democrats argue, when European states in particular have consistently prioritized trade over confronting the regime:

[S]ix months after the emergence of powerful yet peaceful resistance that is bringing down one of the most brutal dictatorships of our age, the international community still has not been able to put the needs and wishes of the millions of freedom-loving Iranians at the center of its Iran policy. Words of solidarity mean nothing if they are not followed by tough action.

The international community’s inertia has prompted an international network of expat Iranians called United4Iran to start a campaign aimed at mobilizing international opinion through a postcard campaign targeting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the winner of June’s disputed election; and Revolutionary Guards leader Mohammad Ali Jafari.

“The diaspora wants to play a role in bringing the violence to an end,” said an organizer. “We are highlighting the human rights situation in Iran and the three figures that are behind it.”

Statement of Conscience highlights Afro-Cubans’ plight

Afro-Cubans like Antúnez are increasingly prominent leaders within the emerging democracy movement. Credit: Directorio

Afro-Cubans like Antúnez are increasingly prominent leaders within the emerging democracy movement. Credit: Directorio

Veteran liberal journalist Nat Hentoff reveals the Castro brothers’ big dirty secret – the prevalence of institutionalized racism in Cuba – as detailed in the under-reported Statement of Conscience by African Americans:

  • Afro-Cubans are experiencing strong and growing instances of racism on the island, with their 25-odd civil rights movements reporting a wide range of discriminatory practices in hiring, promotion and access to Cuba’s socialized medicine and educational system;
  • Young black Cubans bitterly complain of aggressive racial profiling conducted by police, and Cuba’s jail population is estimated to be 85 percent black, according to black Cuban civil rights activists;
  • 70 percent of Afro-Cubans are said to be unemployed. In such conditions, a vigorous rebirth of Cuba’s black movement, banned in the early years of the Cuban Revolution, is occurring. Cuban authorities are responding with violence and brutal civil rights violations.

The statement was prompted by Brazil’s black leader Abdias Nascimento’s condemnation of the Cuban authorities’ imprisonment of Afro-Cuban civil rights leader Darsi Ferrer.

Afro-Cubans like Jorge Luis Garcia Pérez (aka “Antúnez”) are increasingly prominent leaders within Cuba’s emerging democracy movement.  Antúnez was one of five Cuban dissidents honored by the National Endowment for Democracy at a Capitol Hill event this year.

Addressing the meeting by phone from central Cuba, he welcomed the Democracy Award as an indication of the “prestige and recognition which the political opposition has gained.”

China – ‘economically prosperous, ideologically bankrupt’ – not a superpower anytime soon

China may be an increasingly assertive autocratic state, but it is not a superpower and won’t be one anytime soon, argues Minxin Pei.

It has transformed itself from an impoverished and demoralized society into a global economic power, he writes. But demographic trends, environmental degradation, and flagrant corruption are undermining the sustainability of its economic model, its political integrity and its international soft power.  

He clearly has a point on corruption. China’s national audit office reports that officials misused or embezzled some $35 billion in government funds in the first 11 months of 2009 alone.  

The country is “economically prosperous but ideologically bankrupt,” he contends, and faces long-term challenges to its territorial integrity.

China is not even a nation-state, “but a multi-national empire with huge chunks of its territory (Tibet and Xinjiang) inhabited by secessionist-minded minority groups.”

Liu Xiabao’s case raises profound strategic questions

Liu Xiabao

Liu Xiabao

Beijing’s conviction of Liu Xiabao will only strengthen the country’s emerging democracy movement, argues John Lee.

“There is a growing awareness within China that the Party’s apparent confidence and moral assuredness is a façade,” writes Lee, author of “Will China Fail?

The regime prosecuted Liu in an effort to intimidate other would-be critics because “Charter 08 refuted the Communist Party’s central argument that the slow pace of reforms was preferable and supported by the Chinese people.”

Liu has been president of the independent Chinese PEN, the freedom of expression advocacy group, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.

The democratic West should not regard Liu’s trial as remote from its own concerns, writes Perry Link:

China is rising; there is no doubt about that. But what kind of China will it be? A repressive China ruled by a wealthy, powerful, and self-protecting—but nervous and unstable—elite, or something closer to what the supporters of Charter 08 have in mind? The answer to this question will have repercussions around the world.

While Chinese dissidents appreciate that they must rely on themselves, Link writes, they truly appreciate foreign support. They are grateful for the US State Department’s call for Liu’s immediate release, but disappointed at the Obama administration’s “supine posture toward the Chinese government on questions of human rights.”

“Those who advocate peacefully for reform within the [Chinese] constitution, such as Charter 2008 signatories, should not be prosecuted,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a keynote speech recently.

The administration would employ “principled pragmatism” in engaging states like China on strategic interests while still raising the persecution of Charter 08 activists, she insisted.

But President Obama’s response to the challenge of authoritarian China is “a matter of defending the democratic value system of the West against a challenge for ideological leadership in the 21st century,” argues Wei Jingsheng, a dissident who served 18 years in Chinese prisons, and recipient of the 1988 NED Democracy Award.

Liu’s case is an opportunity for President Obama “to save face and stand up to the hard-liners’ untoward arrogance,” he contends. “Such a strong stance will weaken the hard-liners while strengthening the voices of peaceful reform within China.”

It is vital that the President of the United States vocally criticize human rights abuses and openly side with dissidents, writes William McGurn, if only to highlight autocratic regimes’ “lack of moral legitimacy.”

Iran’s Green movement needs strategy and leadership

With events in Iran approaching a tipping point, the Green movement needs a coherent plan of action and a disciplined leadership, writes Abbas Milani, director of Stanford University’s Iran Democracy Project.  

Iran’s democratic movement exhibits “the three characteristics of a velvet revolution—nonviolent, nonutopian and populist in nature—with the nimble organizational skills and communication opportunities afforded by the Web,” he writes.

Criticizing apologists for the regime, he insists that recent events have confirmed that the problem with Iran is the Islamic Republic itself, a fact that is becoming evident to broad swathes of Iranian society:

[T]o the people of Iran, who have long suffered the consequences of the regime’s political despotism, its ideological sclerosis, and its economic incompetence and corruption, recent events are only egregious manifestations of what they have endured for three decades. It is the slow, sinister grind of this structural violence that has now turned nearly every strata of Iranian society—save those who owe their fortunes to the status quo—into the de facto foe of the regime.

But the regime is unlikely to go quietly, says Carnegie’s Karim Sadjadpour. “The political elites of the regime have nowhere to go outside of Iran and therefore will not give up power without a fight,” he argues. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei believes that the Shah’s apologies and concessions paved the way for the 1979 Islamic revolution which overthrew him.

The regime has stepped up its repression in the wake of the recent protests. Human Rights Activists in Iran reports that up to 1,100 people arrested are being held in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison.

The Obama administration has unequivocally condemned the violence against protesters and called for the release of those “unjustly detained.”

“For months, the Iranian people have sought nothing more than to exercise their universal rights,” said President Barack Obama. “Each time they have done so, they have been met with the iron fist of brutality, even on solemn occasions and holy days.”

An understated factor in the current democratic upsurge is the youthfulness and Internet-savvy nature of the Iranian people, Milani argues.  New social media like Twitter have become a focal point of the protests, reports suggest.

But other observers argue that Web-based activists – aka ‘slacktivists’ – can inadvertently play into the hands of autocratic forces.

“Dictatorships across the world now use their own tools to hunt down online protesters,” says this report, citing the nationalized communications company through which Iran’s government controls the internet:

Using a state-of-the-art method called “Deep Packet Inspection”, data packages sent between protesters are now automatically broken down, checked for keywords, and reconstructed within milliseconds. Every Tweet and Facebook message, in other words, is firmly on the regime’s radar…. As a result, the crackdown in Iran has been easier than ever before. Once the Revolutionary Guard intercept a suspect message, they are able to pinpoint the location of a guilty protester using their computer’s IP address. Then it’s just a question of knocking on doors – and confiscating laptops and PCs for hard evidence.

As recently noted, the hard-line Revolutionary Guards and the intelligence ministry “each have their own, separate Internet-monitoring units that track prominent political figures and activists,” a Wall Street Journal investigation has revealed.

The regime’s cyber-suppression confirms fears that the web is a double-edged sword for democracy activists, facilitating international communications and cyber-solidarity while also allowing autocratic governments identify and intimidate those same activists.