Iran: what happened, where now?

Tehran’s rulers have pushed back the protest-wave that followed the fraudulent election of June 2009. But the achievement of Iran’s opposition movement is already immense - and it now faces the regime with a fundamental choice, says Farhang Jahanpour.

The passing of eight months since the fraudulent presidential election in Iran on 12 June 2009, and the coincident thirty-first anniversary of the Islamic revolution of 11 February 1979, is an appropriate time to assess the current political situation in Iran; and especially the record of the “green movement” that acquired an incipient identity during the election campaign and emerged as a force in the series of protests that followed it (see “Iran’s stolen election, and what comes next”, 18 June 2009).

The official commemoration in Tehran of the 1979 events, and the absence of substantial mobilisation by the opposition, is significant only in relation to the false expectation that this moment would in some way signal the end of the Islamic Republic. Indeed, some observers have compared the current protests to the revolutionary wave that resulted in the relatively speedy downfall of Mohammad Reza Shah's government. However, a realistic appraisal of events in Iran suggests few similarities between the two experiences. The true import of the green movement’s challenge lies elsewhere.

The task

In order to try to define how the green movement has changed Iran, it is worth outlining in a little more detail the differences between 1979 and 2009-10. The most obvious fact is that, although the revolution’s final phase was precipitous, its end was also the climax of decades of anti-regime propaganda and activism - led not least by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from 1963, and by many leftist groups such as the Tudeh and the Mojahedin-e Khalq.

By the revolution’s last days practically the entire nation had been mobilised against the Shah's regime, and even those who had most benefited from that regime felt themselves neither to be indebted to the system nor to have a particular stake in it; rather, they thought they could maintain their privileges and social position regardless of whatever form of government came to power (and in the worst outcome they could leave Iran and lead comfortable lives in the west).

In addition, Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978-79 was successful in portraying the Shah as a “lackey” of the west and appealing to Iranians’ sense of patriotism and national independence; the slogan of “freedom and independence” was indeed one that the entire nation - from hard left to hard right - could rally under, with Khomeini's charismatic leadership as the glue.

Here are two notable differences with 2009-10. First, a definite segment of Iranian society - members of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the basij militia, intransigent clerics and their circles, the devout lower classes - do have a major stake in the system and think that they have nowhere else to turn.

Second, the Iranian regime has characterised the post-election protests as western-instigated and part of an intended "velvet revolution". It is also using Iran's nuclear programme as a lever to win support in a way analogous to the popular oil-nationalisation policy of Mohammad Mosaddeq, the prime minister of 1951-53 who was later ousted in the coup d’etat that restored the Shah to power. This populist argument that the west is trying to deprive Iran of its legitimate right to scientific development has no parallel with 1979, when western powers such as the United States and Britain (the coup-backers of 1953) were among the Shah’s strongest supporters.

These contrasts suggest that the task of the green movement in Iran is if anything even harder than that faced by its predecessor in 1978-79. In this light, and in the context of less than a year’s development, the movement has made some remarkable advances that not long ago would have been unimaginable. Above all, it has posed the greatest challenge to the clerical regime in its thirty-year existence and has given rise to a national mobilisation that promises some fundamental changes in Iranian society.

The achievement

The overall impact of the green movement can be defined in terms of six notable achievements.

The first is to have given rise to a grassroots campaign that seeks to bring change from below rather than impose it from above. Some observers see this, and the associated absence of a single charismatic leader as a weakness, but it is actually the opposite. If the movement were dependent on one leader, it could be defeated or undermined by his arrest or removal.

True, the movement has a figurehead, the leading reformist candidate in the 2009 election: Mir-Hossein Moussavi. But Moussavi has consistently stressed that he is a fellow-participant in the people's movement rather than its leader. Mohammad Reza Khatami, the head of Iran’s largest reformist party the Participation Front (and brother of the reformist ex-president Mohammad Khatami), has in a similar vein said that the green-movement leaders are trailing the people.

The second achievement is the fact that the green movement has triggered a change of attitude and discourse in Iranian society. Iranians have begun to “see” differently in many directions - towards the government, the symbols of the regime, the religious establishment, the west and liberal democracy, and even towards Islam. This phenomenon is less visible to foreign observers, but it is profoundly important.

The third is that the green movement is a pluralistic one that respects differences of view. Ayatollah Khomeini's main weapon against the Shah was his constant advocacy of vahdat-e kalemeh (the unity of word), by which he meant uniform obedience on the basis of his word. The present movement is calling for unity in diversity. Moussavi was right to say that the green movement was not a party but a network. In other words, it is composed of different groups in society that have come together to demand change.

The fourth achievement is that it provides a channel through which the Iranian people can express their political maturity. The new generation is acquiring a degree of judgment that is rare and impressive in the context of Iran’s modern history. As a a young man quoted in an interview expresses the change well: “We must fight against the power, policies and mentality of the regime, which neither tolerates any criticism nor allows any independent thought, by adopting a culture and way of thought that is different from it."

The movement understands that in order to confront the regime it is necessary to allow criticism and differences of opinion. Thus it has remained calm and composed, and is thinking of strategic rather than tactical gains.

The fifth achievement of the green movement is that its attitude to violence is the very antithesis of the regime’s. It does not use force against force; its strength lies in peaceful resistance, even in the face of brutal atrocities. There is rational calculation as well as principle here: people realise that they cannot match the regime's instruments of violence (its armed forces, Revolutionary Guards, police, plainclothes thugs and basij). But the movement’s non-violent opposition is also a potent weapon, for it exposes the lawless core of a regime that believes ultimately only in its own power. This has robbed the regime of its legitimacy in the eyes of a growing number of people, even among the religious classes.

The sixth and greatest achievement of the green movement is that it has turned the anniversary of the revolution into a nightmare for the regime, which had to use all its resources of intimidation and mobilisation to celebrate its own existence and prevent it from being embarrassed by its own citizens. It had to transport thousands of its supporters from around Tehran to orchestrated demonstrations; close down communication with the outside world; confine reporters to the vicinity of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech; and arrest dozens of opposition figures in a systematic clampdown before the big day (which included the execution of two young student activists).

The demands

The use of brute force by the regime to preserve its power is accompanied by violent language from government and security officials and pro-government clerics, which breaks all the bounds of decency and humanity (let alone of "Islamic compassion"). By contrast, the language of Mir-Hossein Moussavi and his allies is marked by moderation, statesmanship and a desire for compromise. 

Moussavi's interview with the reformist newspaper Kalemeh Sabz on 2 February 2010, before the 1979 revolution’s anniversary, was at once defiant and measured. He echoed the sentiments of the five fundamental demands he had issued in his seventeenth message on 1 January, which were as follows.

First, the government should be held directly accountable to the nation, the majlis (parliament) and the judiciary. This demand goes beyond the present dispute and in effect proposes a way out for the regime: abide by the constitution and make the government answerable to the people.

Second, hold free elections on the basis of a transparent and confidence-building electoral law. Here Moussavi is calling for new elections free from the control of the Guardian Council - and not simply to replace Ahmadinejad with a more acceptable figure from inside the regime. This would amount to a different form of government, a different political system and a different society. So far, this does not extend to a new constitution, for Moussavi has demanded only the implementation of its clauses on the rights of the people; but he has pointed out that the constitution is not eternal and may have to be amended.

Third, free the political prisoners and restore their honour by rejecting the government's conspiracy theories and false claims of foreign direction of the green movement. This would entail the regime accepting the legitimacy of the popular protest as a movement that stems from the heart of the society.

Fourth, allow the press and media to report and comment freely, a prerequisite for a healthy and real democracy. This would end the government's monopoly of the means of propaganda and allow the people to hear opposition voices.

Fifth, recognise the people's right to take part in legal gatherings, marches and demonstrations.

These demands are elementary, but they also go to the heart of Iran’s crisis.  If they are not met, the ambitions of many Iranians for even more radical change - the establishment of a secular democracy, the separation of religion and state, and the replacement of the regime itself - will surely grow.

The choice

The implication of this trade-off between the demands made by Mir-Hossein Moussavi and the more radical aspirations of many Iranian people is that if it does not accept the former, the regime may be faced with a far more radical internal challenge.

The choice confronting the regime is stark. It lost its legitimacy in the deceit over the June 2009 election, a trend confirmed by the increasing disaffection even of some pillars of the Islamic Republic establishment. This is illustrated by the actions of Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini and curator of his office. The anniversary of Khomeini’s death is an occasion when traditionally the supreme leader and other dignitaries visit his former residence and take part in mourning ceremonies. On the latest such occasion, Hassan Khomeini invited Mohammad Khatami to speak, and - when the government restricted the former president’s movements, blocking his attendance - cancelled the entire event in protest.

More recently, Hassan Khomeini sent a strongly-worded letter to Iran’s state broadcaster, chiding it for biased reporting and for distorting the words of his grandfather. He warned that if it did not correct its ways he would forbid it from using Khomeini's words again. On 11 February 2010, the anniversary of the revolution, the authorities arrested Mohammad Reza Khatami and his wife Zahra Eshraqi, Ayatollah Khomeini's granddaughter. When the regime makes enemies even of such figures, it is clear both how fearful it is and how it is prepared to deal with others.

The display of fervid control the regime was forced into on 11 February 2010 reveals its desperation. A foreign assault, which would unite all Iranians behind a power they hate, could yet give it an infusion of strength - all the more reason for the west to ignore Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's provocations, and oblige his government to face the people without false comfort. Mir-Hossein’s Moussavi’s demands offer the regime an opportunity to restore governance to a path of legitimacy. It seems unlikely that the regime will turn back from its self-destructive path.

About the author

Farhang Jahanpour, a British national of Iranian origins, is a former professor and dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan, and a part-time tutor in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford.

Read On

BBC - Iran crisis

Tehran Bureau

Juan Cole, Informed Comment

Ali Gheissari & Vali Nasr, Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty (Oxford University Press, 2006)

Ali Ansari, Confronting Iran (Basic Books, 2006)

Ray Takeyh, Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic (CFR, 2006)

Iranian.com

Rooz

Nikki R Keddie, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution (Yale University Press, 2006)

Michael Axworthy, Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran (C Hurst, 2007)

More On

Farhang Jahanpour is a former professor and dean of the faculty of languages at the University of Isfahan, Iran. He is associate fellow of the faculty of Oriental studies at the University of Oxford

Also by Farhang Jahanpour in openDemocracy:

Cartoons, caricatures and civilisations” (23 February 2006)

Iran’s stolen election, and what comes next” (18 June 2009)