Who's Really Running Iran's Green Movement

Here’s a hint: It's not Mousavi, Khatami, or Karroubi.

Nearly six months after the demonstrations that followed June's disputed presidential election, Iran's pro-democracy "green movement" is as strong as ever. Rallies took place in downtown Tehran today, having been in the works for months through Twitter, blogs, and word of mouth. Iran, it seems, is on the verge of having a new, unified opposition party.

But the solidarity on the streets hides wide -- and growing -- splits within. The ostensible leaders of the movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mohammad Khatami, and Mehdi Karroubi, are former high-ranking officials of the Islamic Republic who would likely keep much about the Islamic Revolution in place. Contrast this with the young men and women on the streets, and you see differences that go beyond the generational. The protesters are aiming to bring down the very system of which their leaders are a part.

Despite being lauded as modernizers, opposition front-runner Mousavi and his two green movement colleagues are deeply loyal to the ideals of Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and advocate a theocratic political system. Had Mousavi come into office following the June 12 presidential election, he would not have challenged the political order. He would have tried to fix the Islamic Republic's internal and external crises through slight policy tweaks. Nor would the West have seen an "opening" of the sort that some suggest. Indeed, Mousavi's rivalry with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has little to do with the current regime's foreign policy and far more to do with internal power struggles, economic policy, and, to some extent, cultural agendas. A new leader would not have fundamentally changed Iran's position on nuclear policy or its regional role. The reason is simple: Everyone who ran for president concedes that foreign-policy decisions should fall to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

So how did such moderates end up at the helm of a revolution? By accident. None of the reform candidates could have predicted that, following the mass vote-rigging during the presidential election, a popular movement would arise. These "leaders" had only a small role both in organizing and creating the movement, but they were swept into power by a spontaneous and improvised groundswell. The government had carefully vetted candidates, keeping anyone too reformist from running. So the grass-roots movement was left with a choice between two evils: Mousavi, the lesser one, and Ahmadinejad.

Mousavi reluctantly became the symbolic leader of the green movement, but he, Karroubi, and Khatami remain aloof. Today's demonstrations, for example, were imagined and promoted by bloggers and leaders of human rights and women's movements for at least two months. It was only last week, after these plans were well circulated (and the Grand Ayatollah had warned against them), that Mousavi issued a statement calling for demonstrations on Nov. 4.

So today, these three former officials find themselves at the helm of a movement whose views they do not necessarily represent. That gap -- between the green movement's leaders and the people in the streets -- is widening. Even in the midst of protests, there is growing discord. For instance, Mousavi and Karroubi have both criticized slogans like "No Gaza, no Lebanon -- I sacrifice my life for Iran" as "extremist," despite their being a widespread feature of current popular action in Iran.

But the most fundamental split comes over what the movement makes of the Iranian Revolution. Mousavi and Khatami have reiterated their desired goal of returning to the ideals of late Ayatollah Khomenei and the original principles of the Islamic Republic. But those in the streets are conscious of the failure of past reforms and have little hope that the Islamic Republic -- a system in which the supreme leader has the authority to veto both Islamic and national law -- can be saved. And the green movement remains motivated by the notion of human rights and citizenship, both absent in Iran's Constitution. Hence, the part of the movement that first began to peacefully protest against the vote manipulation in this summer's election finds itself diametrically opposed to Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard under him.

Khatami, a former president himself, is certainly cognizant of the split; in a recent speech, he tried to distinguish between those participating in current protests, who reject the entire existing system, and his own followers, who prefer to work within the political structure of the Islamic Republic with a ruling jurist above all.

But the bulk of the movement agrees less with the so-called leaders and more with the Islamic Republic's young third generation, who form 70 percent of the Iranian population and make up most of the demonstrators. The true leaders of this movement are students, women, human rights activists, and political activists who have little desire to work in a theocratic regime or in a government within the framework of the existing Constitution. This movement is much broader than the reform movement of the 1990s, when Khatami was president. Then, the number of people demanding reform on the streets never exceeded 50,000. According to Tehran's conservative mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, more than 3 million people protested in the wake of this year's June 12 election.

If you want to know the unconventional nature of this movement -- and what the people who have bravely taken to the streets really want - don't listen to Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khatami.

Since the true representatives of reform owe little to them, a successful green movement would likely push them aside anyway.

This is why it is not only the regime in Tehran -- but also the reformist "leaders" who pretend to lead this movement -- that fear the success of the green movement. Democracy in Iran will emerge only through a rupture with the late Ayatollah Khomeini's ideals and Islamic ideology -- concepts to which the accidental leaders of the green movement are still loyal.

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The Avoidable Death of Afghan Democracy

Elections could be the country's undoing. Or, it could be a good start for much-needed reform.

Hearing the news of President Hamid Karzai's win by default in the Afghan election, I remembered what an Afghan friend had told me about the death of his cousin, a tribal leader in Afghanistan's troubled south, who had endorsed and taken part in the recent election. When his cousin's body was found, the eyes had been gouged out and every bone was broken. 

Unfortunately, my friend's cousin wasn't the only victim of Afghanistan's electoral tragedy. Democracy took a serious hit as well. Electoral fraud was rampant -- an injustice to every Afghan who took the risk to cast a ballot in August's presidential vote. Today, Afghan democracy needs more than reform; it needs an overhaul. I saw this firsthand as political advisor to Peter Galbraith, the top U.S. diplomat in the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, until he (and I) left following the mess last month. Luckily, there are solutions available.

What went wrong in August is hard to count on two hands. When election outcomes -- particularly at the local level -- are decided by those who can stuff the most ballots, it is these unsavory characters who end up benefiting from the process, rather than the electorate as a whole. The ballot-stuffers demand payment (often government posts) for their "services," further degrading the government's work. Surely, this is the opposite of what democracy is meant to deliver.

More, the free and fair governance promised by the United States and its NATO allies promises an endless sequence of such elections -- one almost every year according to the Afghan Constitution. On top of voter disillusionment, this election cost the equivalent of 2.5 percent of Afghanistan's GDP, more than most European countries spend on their entire defense budgets. How likely is it that Afghanistan will keep this system when foreign donors stop funding it?

Fixing all this will take fundamental institutional change. As it stands, Afghanistan's electoral body is headed by someone appointed by the president. That's an appointment Karzai should agree to forfeit in favor of someone who is truly independent and chosen through consensus. If this means constitutional change, so be it. The loya jirga, or tribal convention, that such amendments would require could take the opportunity to reform the over-ambitious elections timetable as well.

In the meantime, Afghanistan can build on the one solid achievement these elections have had. More than a million fake votes were found and discounted. And though there were no doubt many more -- maybe hundreds of thousands -- this was a much more determined effort to root out fraud than any time before. Now, the Election Complaints Commission (ECC) which carried out the fraud investigation, most of whose members are non-Afghans appointed by the United Nations, should conduct further investigations to determine who carried out the fraud, and impose fines. (It has the right to do so, penalizing with up to $2,000). That follow-up matters because it is not the first time that ballot-stuffing and strong-arm tactics have determined the outcome of Afghan elections. Most recently it happened, very blatantly, in 2005's Parliamentary elections. Until now, it has been tolerated, emboldening the fraudsters and disillusioning the voters. Prosecutions would send a powerful message.

The Afghan parliament has proposed making the ECC wholly Afghan in the future. This year's experience is not encouraging. Because the campaign is so ethnic in character, few Afghans are wholly neutral. As long as foreign countries are funding elections in Afghanistan, they can demand that the ECC remain as it is as a precondition for funding. Indeed, this foreign involvement could be used as a model for another and even more useful institution. 

Or course, electoral fraud is a symptom of an even bigger problem: corruption, the Afghan government's biggest enemy and the insurgency's best friend. Mullah Omar, head of the Afghan Taliban, was quick to capitalize on the elections fraud as propaganda, listing it alongside other examples of government corruption. Karzai himself denounced corruption in the Afghan government in November 2008 and now has promised to tackle it in his new term of office. Here is a suggestion: He can use this election fraud investigation as a start.

In fact, the Afghan government could replicate the ECC's structure and set up a similar body to investigate government corruption. As a body made up mostly of foreigners (ideally from countries which themselves have stringent anti-bribery laws), it would be much more resistant to the normal tactics that are used to thwart such investigations, for example, intimidation and bribery. It would need the power to enforce small fines like the ECC does, and ideally its powers would go further. If it is called foreign interference, well, it is mostly foreign money that is involved. 

If the Afghan government can use the lessons from this election to build some protection for the Afghan people against fraud and corruption, then those who died and suffered because of the last vote will not have done so in vain.

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