Don't expect political upheaval in Iran
By Trudy Rubin
TEHRAN — Outside the leafy, fenced campus of Tehran University, students look warily at police cars patrolling nearby, but are ready to talk about last week's demonstrations.
The disruptions were started by Azeri students, members of an ethnic minority that was infuriated by a cartoon in a government newspaper depicting a cockroach speaking their language. But the protest spread to youths angered by the hard-line government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which has expelled campus activists and pushed out reformist lecturers.
Were these demonstrations the prelude to widespread popular upheaval that some in the Bush administration believe is imminent — and will lead to Iranian "regime change"? Will President Bush's pledge of millions in financial aid to opposition groups inside Iran speed the process?
The answer to both questions is "No."
While discontent with the clerical regime is widespread, protests are sporadic and not linked by any organized movement. As for public pledges of U.S. funds for opposition groups inside Iran, such offers can hurt more than they help.
The student movement, which brought tens of thousands to the streets in 1999, is demoralized after the failure of Iranian political reformers over the last eight years.
"The movement, which had been very strong, has split, and there isn't a new coalition yet," says Abdollah Momeni, leader of Iran's most prominent student group, Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat (the Office for Consolidation of Unity). "This is a time of transition."
Momeni is a tall, self-assured 29-year-old who wears a cell-phone earpiece and constantly fields calls and text messages. He has been jailed twice and is appealing a five-year prison sentence. He says students are struggling to regroup but face harsh repression for any political activity.
Students had banked on the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, whom they twice propelled into office. His failure convinced many that Iran's system could not be reformed from within because hard-line clerics could block elected leaders. So Momeni led a campaign to boycott the last election.
The boycott helped Ahmadinejad win, but Momeni isn't sorry. He says that "Ahmadinejad is a very good representative of the regime" whose behavior makes clear the need for change.
But the student leader frankly admits that "there is no organized opposition" in Iran at present. The lack of strong civil society groups or opposition parties is "our weak point."
Despite current unrest among ethnic minorities and frequent worker strikes, aggrieved Iranians don't seem able to join forces. Azeri grievances sparked the student protests last week, and thousands of Azeris are demonstrating in the city of Tabriz, yet students at Tehran University talked only of their own problems.
Nor are there any substantial linkups between unhappy students and workers. I'm told this by both Momeni and by Alireza Mahjoub, the general secretary of Worker's House, the most important worker's syndicate, which opposes Ahmadinejad.
Iranians with grievances against the system are atomized and, at the moment, without leaders. They get little or no media coverage, so they often don't even know about each other.
"The main difficulty for the democratic movement inside Iran," Momeni says, "is that they have no media to be in contact with the people. What they do is like one hand clapping."
Also, Iranians are not eager for the bloodshed that would follow a major political upheaval, especially when they look at Iraq next door.
So will Bush's proposal to fund Iranian opposition groups help the prospects for change?
"It's a bad idea," Momeni says, echoing every regime critic who spoke to me in public or in private. "When they (U.S. officials) announce a budget to help the Iranian democratic movement ... the Iranian government will accuse activists of being agents of outside forces."
Statements of support for Iranian democrats are useful, Momeni says, and more broadcasts into Iran could be helpful. Scrutiny by international human-rights organizations may have some impact. But high-level talk of regime change by outsiders leads to a backlash against activists inside.
And such talk presumes a revolutionary climate inside the country that does not exist.
Momeni believes many Iranians are unhappy with the system, but Iranian democrats are still figuring out how to mobilize such frustrations. Momeni insists Iranian democracy must come from the inside. Those outside should take care not to harm the process in the name of providing help.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach her at email@example.com.