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.