Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Iranian Dissident Says Planned March Will Test Regime


The New York Times

February 8, 2011

Iranian Dissident Says Planned March Will Test Regime


Mehdi Karroubi, an Iranian opposition leader, said Tuesday that a demonstration planned in Tehran next week, nominally in solidarity with the protest movements in Egypt and Tunisia, was a test both for the Iranian government and its opponents.

Since Tehran is painting events in Cairo and elsewhere as the long-awaited regional blossoming of its own Islamic Revolution, to deny a permit for such a march would show that its position in support of the Arab movements is fake, Mr. Karroubi said in a rare interview from Tehran, conducted via an Internet video link.

For the Iranian opposition, events in Cairo mirror the post-election protest movement in Iran in 2009, not the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and could give new life to the Green movement for political reform, which Mr. Karroubi said had largely been battered into submission by government oppression.

“Any kind of event that involves the rise of the people and the fight against dictatorship in the Muslim world and in the Arab world is in our benefit,” said Mr. Karroubi, 72, speaking in Persian from his home, where he is largely isolated. “Next Monday will be a test for the Green movement — if the government issues a permit, there will be a huge demonstration and it will show how alive the Green movement is.”

Both sides in Iran are invested in the outcome in Egypt because of possible repercussions at home. There is an imperfect connection between the two worlds: the ancient enmity between Persians and Arabs has extended into the modern era, amplified by the fact that most Iranians are Shiite Muslims while Arab countries are overwhelmingly Sunni.

But events in one can echo in the other. For instance, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has gained widespread popularity among Arabs in recent years for his tough posture toward the United States and Israel.

Tehran has tried to leverage its stance on the Arab-Israeli dispute into a means to influence Arab countries. Now it seeks to portray the political unrest in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere as the long-delayed rippling of the Islamic Revolution through the neighborhood. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave a prayer sermon last Friday lauding the demonstrators.

Mr. Karroubi, a former presidential candidate and Parliament speaker, said that all the news in the official Iranian media tends to highlight statements from Islamic organizations and focus on Western concerns that the Muslim Brotherhood is about to triumph in Egypt. Hence the pressure on the Iranian government to allow the protest march through downtown Tehran to go forward on Monday despite the risk that it could be transformed into an antigovernment rally of a kind not seen in a year.

“If they are not going to allow their own people to protest, it goes against everything they are saying, and all they are doing to welcome the protests in Egypt is fake,“ Mr. Karroubi said.

Some analysts and opposition members criticized the planned march and suggested that the government was unlikely to issue a permit, further demoralizing the movement. It is also unclear how many people might turn out, and there is some sense that the Green movement lacks the kind of clear aims that inspired protesters in Egypt.

“There is no consensus in the Iranian opposition of what they are trying to achieve — is it the reform of the Islamic republic, the end of the Islamic republic?” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It is tough to recruit people to the street for ambiguous ends.”

Mr. Karroubi, while conceding that public activism had faded in the face of a harsh crackdown, said the Greens were still working for the kinds of basic rights they have always sought: free elections, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.

The movement has tried to highlight the incongruity between the Iranian government’s oppression at home and the fact that it welcomes political protests elsewhere.

The Web site of Mir Hussein Moussavi, the other main opposition leader, recently displayed two pictures side by side. One showed the Egyptian police beating a protester, while the other was a similar photo of Tehran security forces. The Egyptian protester was labeled “heroic“ while the one in Iran was an “agent of imperialism.”

Mr. Karroubi said he was living under near house arrest, with two or three cars full of guards outside his house for most of the day, turning many visitors away. He had not talked with a foreign journalist in about six months, he said, although he has occasionally answered questions via e-mail. For the video interview, he wrapped a headset around the back of his neck because it would not fit over his white turban.

Mr. Karroubi said he was able to plan the call for a protest with Mr. Moussavi because the two had met recently at a wake, but otherwise they have had limited contact. They have not decided yet whether a march through downtown Tehran should be silent, he said.

Should the young Egyptian protesters succeed in fomenting change, that would bring added pressure on the Iranian government, Mr. Karroubi said. It would mean that both Turkey and Egypt, the most populous states in the region, are more democratic than Iran.

“It will show that Iran has been left behind, that it has not gone forward with the principles of the revolution that everything should be based on the vote of the people,” he said.

Still, he noted that while a failure of Arab protests would be a setback for the Greens, the reform movement would still continue.

“It could have a bad effect in Iran, but not that strong,” he said. “We have our own demands and our own desire for freedom in our own society — we were promised freedom with the revolution and never got it.”

Artin Afkhami contributed reporting from Washington.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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