Dr. Mustafa El-Labbad, an Egyptian researcher of Iranian affairs, considers the emergence of a real Iranian opposition on the domestic front to be the most significant outcome from the recent protest movements. El-Labbad said that the Iranian opposition has demonstrated more than once that it exists, and that its actions are not dictated by external forces. El-Labbad gave an interview to Al-Shorfa during a visit to Beirut:
Al-Shorfa: Much has been said about the protest movements in Iran and about their effects. What are your thoughts on the subject?
El-Labbad: I think both sides are exaggerating. Those talking about the current Iranian regime's imminent collapse as a result of these popular movements are unrealistic. Likewise, those saying that the protest movements have no effect on the system, and that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is strong, and so is his regime, and that those who took part in the protests were agents of the West, this is an unrealistic assessment too.
Al-Shorfa: After the formation of a real opposition, how do you view this?
El-Labbad: No doubt, the Iranian opposition has become a strong factor in domestic politics. Analysts can argue about its size and strength, but what's been confirmed is that we are now talking in terms of a government and an opposition. In terms of its weight, the opposition has made its presence felt during the last 7 months on more than one occasion, and its activities have not stopped. It does this on every occasion and in more than one city.
Also, it has been proven that its activities are not dictated from outside as has been said, and that they are not agents, since activist agents would not be able to organize all these demonstrations in more than one city at the same time.
Al-Shorfa: What about the regime's strength?
El-Labbad: The regime is still strong, especially now that the security forces are in the hands of President Ahmedinejad who also enjoys popular support. But his real strength comes from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran), which changed from being a tool in the hands of the regime when it was first established after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, to being a partner in government, side by side with the clerics and the Bazaar (merchants). Hence, we now talk about a governing trio: the religious establishment, the revolutionary guards and the Bazaar. The Bazaar is no longer a tool in the hands of the regime, but a partner in government and it has control over 20-25% of the Iranian economy in the form of businesses and big corporations such as the Iranian Telecom company, in which they have a 51% stake, and hotels, big car dealerships, farms etc. Regarding Ahmedinejad's popularity, this is not his main source of strength, but he is the front for the Pasdaran.
Al-Shorfa: Let us get back to the popular movements. Do you expect them to grow?
El-Labbad: The Iranian experiment of 1979 developed incrementally, starting from Tehran, on to Isfahan and the rest of the cities. At first, some organisations went out in the streets, and other social organisations joined them. Then the protests extended from Tehran to Isfahan until this protest movement grew bigger and they were joined by other protests. The regime could not find a solution except to send the security forces to clamp down on them, and then there was civil disobedience which led to the success of the revolution.
Today these are the first steps of opposition, and there are different segments of society, and the movements progressed from Tehran to Isfahan, but until now it has not been able to attract wider segments of society. The regime has not yet been forced to use its security arm which would result in a wider conflict. This means that there is no imminent danger or threat. The opposition has made some progress, and external factors will also play a role.
Al-Shorfa: You mean sanctions?
El-Labbad: Yes. But there are questions regarding these sanctions, and on whom will they be applied? Some are saying that they will affect the Revolutionary Guards and not the people. In this case, it will empower the opposition. As for the oil sanctions that are being mentioned, this will strengthen the regime in addition to the fact that oil sanctions will not pass in the Security Council, especially because Russia and Iran have common interests regarding oil.
There are talks about economic sanctions on institutions financing the Iranian nuclear program and the Revolutionary Guards. These sanctions will have a legal effect in the sense that it would be said that Iran has refused international propositions regarding the nuclear issue, and the sanctions will not have immediate effects, but the US-Iran talks would be suspended.
The Iranian opposition considers that the more the regime is isolated, and the more the world severs ties with Iran, the more will it become active, but beyond that interference in internal affairs from outside would not help the opposition.
Al-Shorfa: There is much talk about technical and technological harassment and persecution from the regime against the opposition, such as banning websites and emails.
El-Labbad: Yes. According to statements by opposition leaders, the regime always shuts down the telephone system in order to prevent the opposition from organising their activities. In this regard, the opposition says that it does not want the West to interfere in their internal affairs, but instead to use their advanced technologies in order to prevent malicious activities against their websites. In the end, one cannot speculate on the internal political struggles in Iran from outside the country, because the parameters change on a weekly basis.
Mustafa El-Labbad is Director of Al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo and Editor-in-Chief of Sharqnameh Magazine, which focuses on Iran, Turkey and Central Asia.