Before there was an Arab awakening, there was an Iranian one. It started three years ago, on June 13, 2009. Some have since called it a revolution; others have been more guarded, referring to it instead as a movement, connoting a sense of continuity.
On June 13, 2009, then incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed an election victory over his main opponent, Mir Hussein Mousavi, and other candidates in what the opposition claimed was pure and unadulterated fraud. Then, 30 years of suppression suddenly boiled over into a green wave of anger with Iranians taking to the streets in the most massive anti-regime demonstrations since the country’s 1979 revolution.
The image of the Islamic Republic had taken a hit; what first was raised as an issue of election fraud soon turned into a demand for reform and broader civil liberties. But within just a few weeks the opposition began to crumble as a violent government crackdown against protesters took the lives of more than 30 of them. After that, the protests were declared all but dead.
But was what many saw as a revolution over as well? Or did the moment really mark the beginning of a civil right movement in Iran, just making its first steps on what would likely be a long and arduous path?
It should be noted that prior to the post-election protests, the Mousavi campaign was known as Mowjeh Sabz or ‘Green Wave.’ Its stated intent was the removal of hardliners like Ahmadinejad whose views and tactics were deemed to be ill-suited for a 21st century Iran. When Mousavi’s defeat was announced on June 13, his political campaign took to the streets demanding the annulment of Ahmadinejad’s victory.
When the Islamic regime’s security services cracked down on protesters, the Mowjeh Sabz expanded into a social movement demanding the civil liberties originally espoused by the Islamic Revolution. The violent crackdown compelled some Iranians to call for the demise of the Islamic Republic altogether, while others demanded only for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to step down. Nevertheless, such extreme views were representative only a minority, as the majority viewed reform as something inherent to the Islamic system, something that did not require an all-out revolution. Many thought that any means of radicalizing the Green Movement could have easily spelled its complete demise.
The protests, rather than the more subliminal demands for reform were what prompted Western media to coin the term “Green Revolution”, while internally it assumed the contours of something more akin to a civil rights movement.
The demands for reform covered economic opportunity, social mobility, basic freedoms (albeit not defined), social justice, political participation, and respect and dignity for the Iranian people. But it was the very setup of the Islamic Republic that obstructed the road to any quick results.
In 1979, due to growing discontent with the Shah over various social and economic issues, Iran experienced a revolution that created what is now known as the Islamic Republic of Iran. The leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini created a system of governance for Iran that was based on a velayat-e faqih or “guardianship of the jurisconsult”. The velayat-e faqih doctrine is defined in both absolute and personal concepts, where the Supreme Leader holds both executive and supervisory powers. According to Article 110 of the Iranian Constitution, the Leader has the ability to “determine the general policies” and “supervise over” the Islamic regime, can declare “war and peace and the mobilization of the armed forces,” as well as appoint and dismiss the head commanders of the Revolutionary Guard, police forces and heads of the judiciary. In contrast, the president plays only a role in appointing military heads, but does not have much influence over routine activities.
In order to preserve the velayat-e faqih, there is a high level of institutionalization under the factions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Initially, the Guard’s principal role was to guarantee the internal security of the country and protect the Islamic system, although its role has also overlapped with Iran’s Artesh (regular military). The IRGC is made up of various paramilitary arms, including the Basij Resistance Force (people’s militia), the Quds Force, and Bonyads (charitable foundations) – which run the Iranian economy. The IRGC has impeded any popular participation in politics by use of intimidation and often times violence, frequently through the use of the Basij and Kommiteh or “Islamic police”. These law enforcement apparatuses were also key in combating the protesters who emerged following the 2009 elections.
The unique setup of the Islamic Republic created a regime that mixes elements of authoritarianism and democracy, causing for it to be a semi-democratic system. Given these circumstances, the fact that Iran had experienced a revolution 33 years ago and that the Islamic Republic’s powers were spread out over various branches of government made it harder to dissolve. Also, it differed from the set-up of many Arab regimes where the majority of the power resided in the hands of autocrats, as exemplified by Egypt under Hosni Mubarak. According to scholar Farideh Fardi of the Woodrow Wilson Center, “Iran (in 2009) was more like 1989 (Tiananmen Square) China than 2011 Egypt or Tunisia…. The regime was able to maintain its unified will to defend itself against what it considered to be an existential threat.”
Still, Iran has not been the same since the post-election protests of 2009. Granted, the calls for reform ignited by the Green Movement have to a degree been silenced, in part through the government’s prophylactic strategy of spreading fear through the abuses to which incarcerated protesters and other activists are subjected. Today, the Green activists have little motivation or direction to take on the regime, other than maybe demanding the release of Mir Hussein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard or Mehdi Karroubi. Nevertheless, the activists have reached one goal. They attained high ground in the realm of morality by revealing to the world the real face of the Islamic Republic and by slowly chiseling away at its legitimacy. Furthermore, they have even damaged Khomeini’s velayat-e faqih by exposing the rifts that have been percolating between the President and the Supreme Leader.
So, what does the future hold for Iran’s Green Movement? Will it bear fruit in the long run? Sudden change, as many of the Arab awakenings have shown, is not always successful. Tunisia might be an exception, but events in Libya, Egypt and, most certainly, in Syria are illustrating that change is never an easy feat. Maybe the slow approach as seemingly employed by Iran’s opposition will prove more effective.
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Holly Dagres, an Iranian American, is a commentator on Middle East affairs with particular focus on Iran. Currently living in Egypt, she is a researcher at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and pursuing a master’s degree in political science at American University in Cairo.