The Ashura protests in December 2009 surprised and elated supporters of the Green Movement, and thus endowed them with a sense of momentum leading up to the 31st anniversary of Iranian Revolution on February 11th – or 22 Bahman in the Iranian calendar.
Ashura was remarkable not for the number of protestors, but for the marked shift in tone and atmosphere it generated. Gone were scenes of demonstrators streaming down Tehran’s boulevards brandishing the peace sign in silence. Enter scenes of furious Iranians charging at security forces and ripping posters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei – who had erstwhile remained (publically at least) an infallible figure.
A sense of anticipation and optimism thus infused the Green Movement. A deluge of Green posters, slogans, and emotive songs flooded the digital world; some even predicted 22 Bahman would see the incumbent regime cracked.
They were wrong.
I say this with the heaviest heart, because I too had awaited 22 Bahman anxiously, hopefully. I nervously twisted the green wristband sent to me from family in Iran and slept fitfully as 22 Bahman approached.
But to support the Green Movement – in the delicate capacity I have to do so from outside Iran – means to be honest about its strengths and weaknesses.
To date, the Green Movement has impressed me with its many strengths. It is a grassroots initiative directed from the bottom up; Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi serve more as symbols than leaders. While many have interpreted this as a failing, I think it corrects the disconcerting tendency toward hero worship plaguing past Iranian political movements. Iranians have shown that they are too politically mature to vest their hopes in one leader, and then sink into apathy when that leader cannot live up to impossibly high public expectation (Obama lovers, take note!).
Moreover - contrary to the customary charge against it - the Green Movement is not a distinctly upper middle class, North Tehrani phenomenon. Protests has been visible in much smaller, poorer cities - and the demands and language of the Green Movement still speak to more religiously oriented Iranians. Hence the cooptation of religious anniversaries and the continued use of Allah-u Akbar (God is Great) as a by-line for protest.
In addition, the complaints of the Green Movement brought long-standing social, cultural, and political taboos into the public sphere and finally submitted them to scrutiny and debate. Never before could torture and rape, for example, be discussed with such openness. The underbelly of the Islamic Republic was, for the first time in 30 years, exposed.
But the Green Movement has shortcomings. Its tactics are nebulous - and in the case of 22 Bahman, ill-conceived. Ebrahaim Nabavi for example, encouraged Iranians to hide symbols of Green support, attend pro-government rallies, and then sabotage them by revealing their own posters and signs. But the Greens were drowned out by the droves of government supporters bussed in by the regime, and ultimately ended up looking they too were Ahmadinejad loyalists.
Another crucial issue was the sense that the Green Movement was on some sort of teleological trajectory toward success. Balatarin, one of the most popular Iranian news sites, estimates that 15,000 individuals were reporting the protest from home. Many decided, it seems, decided to stay at home and contribute indirectly rather than storm the streets. One can hardly blame them, given the punishment being meted out by the government. And Iranians are all too familiar with the consequences of dissidence, after enduring many decades (before and after the Revolution) of political arbitrariness. It’s just that the heightened belief in inevitable success sharpened the sense of let down following 22 Bahman.
Within hours of the rallies a glut of self-congratulating statements gushed forth from government supporters. These included declarations that Mousavi had run away hidden under a veil after being turned on by his ostensible followers and ludicrous assertions that 50 million people (i.e. most of the Iranian population) had attended pro government rallies.
But the current government knows that 22 Bahman was a victory, particularly in terms of optics. Massive pro-government rallies contrasted with scattered clashes with the opposition. That is what casual observers – and most outside Iran are – will remember. The government will now likely seek to capitalize upon its momentum, which may include intensifying tactics to scare off the opposition (including more executions) and even possibly even arresting Mousavi and Karroubi.
I still believe, however, that the victory may be a distinctly short-term one for several reasons.
22 Bahman may prompt the Green Movement to critically evaluate and refine its strategies. Rather than being discarded as a defeat, 22 Bahman should be seen as a test for the Green Movement’s ability to evolve and mature. Time – not one disappointing protest – will be the true judge of the movement’s strength. Moreover, if the government decides to leverage its momentum to detain Mousavi and Karroubi or execute more political prisoners, it could well galvanize Iranians to flood the streets once again.
It should also be remembered that severe divisions continue to plague the extant political establishment. Last week Ayatollah Dastgheib – a member of the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that oversees the conduct of the Supreme Leader - castigated Iran’s hardline security forces for their ‘unislamic behaviour’. The grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Revolution, also accused state media outlet Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) of distorting Khomeini’s speeches. Ahmadinejad has also come under domestic criticism for his economic policies. His budget was submitted two and a half months after the deadline set by parliament and controversially sought to drastically reduce subsidies for domestic energy, foodstuffs, and some public services over the next five years. Critics say the legislation will bloat inflation – officially estimated at 13.5 percent but reckoned to be much higher in reality.
Hence, the combination of a divided political elite, popular dissatisfaction and a sick economy remains fundamentally intact. It could take years for those three elements to produce profound change in Iran, but they are also unlikely to simply evaporate. The focus of the post-22 Bahman debate should thus not be what went wrong – but what can be done better next time.