Are Iran's democratic stirrings truly a thing of the past? Ever since the so-called Green Movement coalesced in the wake of the country's fraudulent June 2009 presidential vote, Western observers have rushed to write its epitaph.
Over the past year, more than a few Iran watchers have argued that the internal contradictions within Iran's opposition movement doom it to failure and that, as a result, Washington has no alternative but to engage with Iran's ayatollahs. Similarly, some media outlets, in reporting the Green Movement's lackluster showing during Ashura celebrations in mid-December, have suggested that Iran's once-vibrant democracy drive has run out of gas. Still others have concluded that, at least when it comes to mobilization and mass protest, the Green Movement should now be considered largely defunct.
But is it? Unquestionably, the wave of opposition that swept over Iran in the summer of 2009 has receded significantly. Organizationally, Iranian democrats' lack of sustained leadership and the absence of a unifying common vision have served to undermine their long-term cohesion. Practically, these opposition activists gradually have been cowed into passivity by the widespread brutality of the regime's domestic militia, the Basij. Any yet, if the Iranian government's recent machinations are any indication, the powers-that-be in Tehran are far less certain than are Western foreign-policy experts that Iran's democratic impulses have withered on the vine.
To wit, Tehran's chief prosecutor, Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi, announced plans this month to prosecute Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Kharroubi, the thwarted presidential candidates who went on to become the titular leaders of the Green Movement. "Leaders of the sedition will definitely be prosecuted," Mr. Jafari-Dolatabadi has confirmed, warning that "[t]he accusations against the sedition leaders are more than they think and they will understand when we issue our list of charges."
His comments came on the heels of a major speech by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in which Iran's cleric-in-chief condemned the "seditionists" for having "hurt the Islamic Revolution and the people" by "conspiring and giving hope to the enemies." The broadside was seen by many as clerical sanction for a domestic purge. Not surprisingly, Iran's judiciary apparently is now under intense pressure to launch a legal offensive against the leadership of the Green Movement.
As part of that effort, regime authorities have formally forbidden Iranian opposition leaders from traveling abroad. Mousa Qorbani, a member of the Judicial Committee in Iran's legislature, recently told a state-run television program that Messrs. Mousavi and Kharroubi, along with reformist former president Mohamad Khatami, have been deemed "mohareb" (opponents of God) by the Iranian regime, and as a result "are henceforth barred from leaving" the country.
Iranian conservatives are even seeking to rig next year's legislative elections on the premise that pro-reform candidates are "traitors" who want to overthrow the current clerical regime. High-profile hard-liners such as Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati—who heads Tehran's influential constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council—have called for barring politicians from participating in the March 2012 polls if they advocate even incremental changes to the functioning of the Islamic Republic.
This flurry of renewed anti-opposition activism speaks volumes. If the Green Movement were truly a spent force, Iranian officials would be far less preoccupied with containing and discrediting its remnants. And if Iran's reformist politicians were as marginal as they are commonly portrayed, their political participation would pose no challenge to the legitimacy or the stability of the Islamic Republic.
That Iran's leaders appear to believe otherwise suggests that they understand well what many in the West do not: the Green Movement itself may be on the ropes, but the larger urge for democracy that it represents isn't dead. It is simply hibernating.