Since the end of last year both claims and attributions of leadership of Iran’s Green Movement have increased. It is worth noting that, from its inception, the Green Movement placed heavy emphasis on being inclusive, pluralistic, self-determined, and without leaders. This article highlights the difficulties that arise from anyone claiming to be a leader while remaining anonymous, and therefore impossible to contact. This anonymity, though an essential safeguard, presents enormous challenges for potential followers or anyone wishing to open a channel of communication.
Along with many of my friends and associates, I read the article “Iran’s Greens Call on Diaspora to Speak with One Voice” with interest. It raised many questions, a few of which I will explore here. The article in question will doubtless spawn a fresh round of the lively debates we have all (some more reluctantly than others) grown used to; I am confident anything I leave out will be commented on elsewhere.
The letter confirms that Iran is undergoing an economic crisis, which it is suggested will combine with Khamenei’s growing unpopularity to swell the ranks of grass roots opposition inside the country. This increasing discontent is further heightened by negative but inevitable comparisons being made by some Iranian people between themselves and those in neighbouring Arab states, where civil unrest has already brought remarkable change to some, and continues to rage in others.
Apparently the essential questions about how and why their Arab counterparts appear to be succeeding while Iranians have not, though asked, remain unanswered. The author then goes on to say that if the Green Movement does not prevail it will be the fault of those “claiming to be Green leaders or leaders in opposition outside the country” and their failure to address some, if not all, the issues in the newly-published Green Movment manifesto . It bears explanation here that the manifesto itself refers to Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who are both in Iran, as Green Movement leaders, and the group who wrote it describe themselves as activists. It was an editor’s note by insideIRAN, a project of The Century Foundation, that prefaced both the manifesto and the letter describing the authors as leaders.
While appealing to the diaspora for unity, the writer further explains that his group rejects "the outdated and failed policy of the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami” who, it goes on to say, is apparently “the one person who has the charisma and ability to lead the Green Movement inside the country”. The one person? I find that exceptional, as I am sure many others will.
If I have understood correctly, the article is written by one of a group of intellectuals and activists, presented to us by insideIRAN as leaders in the Green Movement in Tehran, who is placing responsibility for the success of the Green Movement inside Iran on the shoulders of those outside. Not all 5 million of them, only those who also call themselves leaders of the Green Movement or the opposition and are based abroad. We can further narrow the field as the article also rules out any dealings with the MKO or NCRI. If the hapless Mr Khatami enjoys any support from outside I assume that group must consider themselves put on notice to switch allegiance. Who does that leave us with, Reza Pahlavi?
Why not leaders inside Iran? Why not the group who penned the new manifesto? In his closing paragraph it seems the writer relents sufficiently to declare that failure of those outside to quit their endless infighting and debate and take decisive measures will be a disaster of shared responsibility.
It’s certainly time to break the endless cycle of fruitless dialogue and navel-gazing, but I sincerely do not want to see it replaced by an equally pointless ‘blame storming’ activity. What has always been missing is a clear understanding and definition of what the Green Movement is, and an accepted goal. The initial declaration of pluralism and the rejection of leadership in the classic or accepted sense created a dilemma: protecting individuals with actual authority, but leaving the movement vulnerable to manipulation by insinuation. The original unifying goal of reclaiming stolen votes has not been successfully replaced. All attempts to redefine the movement on an intellectual level – as being for reform, or for secular democracy, or regime overthrow, etc, have dissolved into disagreement. The good news is, it can be achieved, through careful planning, consultation, and constructive organisation. One only has to look at work of the Local Co-ordination Committees of Syria, Lebanon and Yemen to find current, working examples.
Based on my personal experience, I have found that anyone who wishes to be both anonymous and credible has to work extra hard. From observation I have learned that if they also wish to assume leadership and issue directives, then they need a bullet-proof communications strategy for gathering feedback, otherwise they are only shouting into the wind. Talking without listening is not communicating; it is actually creating a communication vacuum.
My message to the anonymous author of this letter, to be shared with the dozens of associates who penned the new Green Movement manifesto, is as follows:
If you want to describe yourself as an intellectual and be seen as a credible leader, it is necessary to demonstrate those qualities, of intellectual fortitude and leadership, in abundance.
If you want to address a heterogeneous group of people of disparate means and views, you will get more positive attention if you avoid using divisive language. By this I mean, don’t label yourself an “intellectual” but then resign those masses whose support is essential to the success of your shared goals to a “lower class”. Show people some respect.
If one of the causes of dissatisfaction among the majority of ordinary citizens is loss or lack of dignity, take steps to be inclusive, to extend your hand to them as equals, and bestow dignity. A word of caution: do not attempt to fake a genuine commitment to egalitarianism.
Since I read your article, I have not been able to shake off the notion that using a ten-week tour of the country as an opportunity to build relationships with groups of fellow-Iranians – including the Kurds, Azeris and Balochs – rather than returning with scary stories of "separatist tendencies" would have been more constructive for the movement.
Those villages and small towns and villages so easily dismissed because "history is rarely made in these areas" are filled with people whose votes, you will recall, were bought with potatoes in 2009. The sons of these jobless towns now wield batons on the streets of Iran in riot gear or Sandis-stained beige jackets with "Made in China" labels.
If you imagine all your demands will be met without discussion, without debate, without reaction or response, then you risk a great deal. Issuing directives and not allowing for debate is the hallmark of dictators everywhere, surely something to be avoided at all costs by anyone who wishes to fight a dictator. Even if such leadership as you describe exists outside of Iran, and all they lack in order to effect permanent social and political change in Iran is your call to action, how can they succeed if they are unable to communicate with even one of your group, much less these nascent green cells that you describe?
It would be tragic to show the world that there are articulate, politically aware, socially motivated activists inside Iran who have managed to group together, formulate a manifesto, and share it with those outside – against all the efforts of the regime to prevent such events – if we can’t take that one essential, additional step and find some way of opening a dialogue.
Finally, I offer you this guide  to building and organising a community. I truly believe you need it.