Iran: from protest to politics

The contest between Iran’s state and the opposition movement that arose after the presidential election of June 2009 is now at a critical point. How confident is the regime, where is the “green movement” going, and what should the international community do? openDemocracy writers examine the impasse.
David Hayes
19 February 2010



Farhang Jahanpour: What happened, where now?

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 assessment of events and in Iran suggests few similarities between the two experiences. The true import of the green movement’s challenge lies elsewhere.

To read more, click here...

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

Also by Farhang Jahanpour,

Iran: what happened, where now?(16 February 2010)


Aziz Motazedi: The next anniversary

The commemoration of the thirty-first anniversary of the Islamic revolution in 2010 was held under very different circumstances from previous years. For the first time, another voice (albeit a weak one) was heard among the pro-government throngs. It belonged to the uninvited guests, the supporters of the “green movement” in Iran.  

The annual event, the very early years after the 1979 revolution excepted, has always been an occasion tightly controlled by the government. This requires careful planning. In Tehran, the people prepared voluntarily to participate are rather scarce, so the regime cannot rely solely on their presence. Thus, the regime gathers a significant number of its supporters from Tehran’s suburbs and environs, who are supplemented by government employees and their families; they are given free transport and promised food and a financial reward to become party of the official rally in Azadi Square. 

The planning this year had to be mindful of the continuing public demonstrations of the opposition movement, including their efforts to use official events as a cover from which to launch protests. Some elements of the opposition managed to circumvent the high level of security, with the result that the regime’s gifts to the crowd on 11 February 2010 included not just sweets and soft drinks but tear-gas, batons and paint-bullets (to identify targets for subsequent arrest).

There may be some benefit in the latest event, in that some loyal citizens whose knowledge of the green movement may previously had been only second-hand and slanted by the biased reports of state television must have acquired first-hand experience of their fellow-Iranian “adversaries” - and of the behaviour of the security forces.

But the opposition has suffered an upset. It is now moving on to a phase of self-criticism and re-evaluation, aware that the state’s power and experience demands a revised strategy of protest.

The Islamic Republic is basking in its success, claiming that the revolution’s thirty-first anniversary was also the funeral of what it calls the “green sedition”. But this state has in the past often boasted of a complete victory, and been proved wrong. Now it must plan for the thirty-second anniversary.

Aziz Motazedi is an Iranian novelist and essayist. He has lived in Montreal since 1995. His website is here

Also by Aziz Motazedi:

Iran: revolution for the hereafter(25 August 2009)


Mahmood Delkhasteh: A promise unfulfilled

The Iranian power-elite has once more deceived its opponents by using them to claim a propaganda victory. The significant numbers at the official anniversary celebration of the 1979 revolution in Tehran on 11 February 2010 (if fewer than claimed by the regime) and the lack of significant public protest, can indeed be regarded both as a success for the state and a setback for the opposition. But in a longer perspective this outcome was foreshadowed by the events that followed the presidential election of June 2009.

At that time, weeks of political freedom and lively debates between presidential candidates inspired millions of people to vote in hope that the regime really could be reformed. These hopes were stung when they heard a near-instant announcement that the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had congratulated the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his “victory”. 

The humiliating sense of having been used and the bitterness of broken dreams of change provoked a collective refusal to accept this gigantic fraud, and fuelled the largest and most spontaneous demonstrations in Iran since 1978-79. The regime responded with contempt and an iron fist.

The ensuing weeks of brutal repression taught protestors both that the regime would not tolerate any formal opposition, and that their hijacking of state-organised events could be an effective and economical way to make their continual presence known. The most daring such confrontation took place during the religious festival of Ashura in late December 2009, when protestors effectively took control of parts of Tehran. 

This anniversary of the revolution presented another golden opportunity for the movement to subvert the regime’s political space. The rulers of Iran thus intensified their systematic terror-tactics - imprisonment, beatings, harassment, showcase executions - to prevent this from happening. The message was plain: stay away from the anniversary celebrations, or face harsh consequences.

How did the movement’s reformist leaders and intellectuals respond? They called on their supporters to blend into the crowd, and only when they reached the president’s platform to flaunt their green credentials. But the regime deflected this tactic by barricading Azadi Square with metal gates and filling it in advance with loyalists transported from outside the capital. Many “green-movement”activists were left feeling frustrated and demoralised.

Why, after so much experience, did the greens on this symbolic day find themselves being counted among the regime’s backers rather than as its visible adversaries? The tension within the movement, which can broadly be described as a “reformist vs radical/revolutionary” one, is an important factor.

Many green activists will settle for nothing than less than total political freedom. But the movement’s leading politicians and intellectuals equate “revolution” with violence and despotism, and “reform” with non-violence and democracy. In a censored climate, their voices are the ones that seep through to the outside world (via outlets like the BBC Persian service and Voice of America) and then back into Iran.

This discourse may have developed through a mixture of projection and self-defence. Many of today’s reformist intellectuals were involved in violent suppression of the freedoms that emerged after the 1979 revolution; but instead of accepting responsibility for their actions they have come to transfer it to the “monster” of revolution itself. In addition, the reformist leaders and their associated intellectuals remain ideologically and emotionally “inside” the regime. They advocate democracy and have a relatively freedom-based interpretation of Islam, but cannot follow the logic: the need to separate religion from the state, which would amount to the “revolution” they dread. 

The result is that the leadership is trapped between the regime and its supporters. It is likely to chastise the desire for regime-change among many of the grassroots activists as too “radical”. This prevents it from mobilising the movement’s actual potential. In effect the leadership’s dual identity - as at once opposed to and inside the elite - traps the movement in turn. In this situation, there are two options: either the figureheads and strategists of the green movement embrace their followers’ more radical ambition to replace the totalitarian state with a democratic one, or the movement will have to bypass them and chart its own course. 

Mahmood Delkhasteh is an independent researcher who specialises in the Iranian revolution of 1979, in which he was a participant

Also by Mahmood Delkhasteh:

The archaeology of Iran’s regime(2 July 2009)


Nazenin Ansari: A time to rethink

For the first time in thirty-one years, Iranians across the world and across the political spectrum welcomed the anniversary of the Islamic revolution in 1979 as an opportunity to assert their sovereignty. The result may not have been what most of them wished for, but their expectation was justified in one respect: 11 February 2010 has indeed turned out to be a defining moment for the Islamic Republic and the “green movement”, as well as for the international community.

The manner in which the regime enforced control and the huge cost of its operation confirm that it recognises its failure to command genuine popular support. But the greens too now recognise the limits of their capacity, not least that their dependence on domestic communication-networks to mobilise their supporters makes them vulnerable. As a result they understand that it is time to refocus their efforts: to propose more defined ideas, to articulate ultimate goals, to refine tactics, and to establish other (non-internet-based) means of communication.

In the approach to 11 February, green voices in Iran campaigned hard with the intention of bringing millions of their supporters onto the streets. Some even announced plans to storm the dreaded Evin prison to free political prisoners, and to seize the state’s broadcasting facilities. Their allies abroad disrupted official Iranian engagements and organised demonstrations in major capital cities. The most fervent greens had such high expectations that they genuinely believed that the final victory was in sight.

To read more, click here....

 Nazenin Ansari is diplomatic editor of Kayhan, a weekly Persian-language newspaper published in London. She She is vice-president of the Foreign Press Association (FPA) in London

Also by Nazenin Ansari:

Iran's pre-revolutionary rupture(8 December 2009)


Sanam Vakil: A phantom victory

“Revolutions are born out of hope”, wrote Crane Brinton in his classic work The Anatomy of Revolution. The entire cycle of events in Iran since the contested presidential election of June 2009 - including vibrant demonstrations that have drawn worldwide attention - suggests that Iran is not in a revolutionary condition. At the same time, the state is facing the most serious challenge since the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

The convergence of widespread social and political disenchantment, elite fissures, economic dislocations and international pressure together present a severe test of legitimacy. Even if the state proves able to quell the opposition “green movement” and suppress dissent - as it was able to do on 11 February 2010, the thirty-first anniversary of the revolution of 1979 - it is guaranteed no respite.

The green movement that emerged during the election campaign of Mir-Hossein Moussavi in 2009 has offered a formidable challenge to Iran’s state. Its eight months of intermittent but passionate and varied protest has  revealed a resilient movement fuelled both by public anger and widening political cleavages among the Iranian elite. The popular outrage over the election gradually spread into the expression of larger political grievances, including the state’s coercive policies.

At the same time, the divisions within the Iranian elite are deeper than ever. The hardline cadre around the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - which includes the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - uses the ideology and tradition of the revolution as weapons in its attempt to retain a monopoly of power, while the reformist factions and pragmatic backers around Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi (both reformist presidential candidates in the 2009 election) Mohammad Khatami (Iran’s president, 1997-2005) have rode the social demand for political change.

To read more, click here...

Sanam Vakil is a adjunct professor and visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). She is writing a book on women’s activism in Iran

Also by Sanam Vakil:

Iran’s political shadow-war(16 July 2008)


Potkin Azarmehr: Inside and outside

The Islamic Republic is its own worst enemy - and its best friend is the opposition outside Iran. This comment, made to me many years ago, has come back to my mind in these days of turmoil in Iran.

Most informed observers of Iran have known for a long time that the vast majority of the Iranian population - and most of all the young generation - want change. The reason why it has not happened yet can be explained in part by divisions among the opposition. There have been many examples in the Iranian past of popular upsurges of anger or civic initiative which have won broad support without being able to have a transforming impact. The student uprising in July 1999 is one example, the referendum campaign of 2005 is another.

This time, it looked like being different. The four weeks of relative freedom during the presidential-election campaign of 2009 gave millions of Iranians a taste of joyous freedom. The strength in numbers they found then gave them the confidence to behave as free and bold citizens - and made them feel all the more betrayed and angry by the deceit of the election result.

The civic mobilisation that had occurred before the election thus continued after it in the weeks of protest that followed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “victory”. But the indiscriminate repression that followed brought many more people onto the streets. The regime - its own worst enemy - united Iranians in opposition to it. Now it did not matter if you voted in or boycotted the election, nor even if you voted for Ahmadinejad: to be “against the coup” was enough.

The spontaneous mass movement showed its confidence and instinctive wisdom in appropriating the discourse of the regime for its own use. The chant of Allah-u-Akbar at night from the rooftops of houses, and of Ya Hussein during demonstrations, turned the state’s weapons against it. The breach of every religious sanctity by the Islamic Republic led Ayatollah Montazeri rightly to say:  “This state is neither Islamic nor a Republic”. The regime had lost its political legitimacy, and now it lost its religious legitimacy.

What became known as the “green movement” passed the test of survival and endurance over the months that followed, in the face of relentless repression and violence. Now, however, the events of 11 February 2010 - the thirty-first anniversary of the 1979 revolution, when the state was able to present the official rallies in Tehran as a success - makes clear that the movement is a crossroads.

The path ahead for the opposition inside Iran is now a matter of intense debate. The precedents referred to above suggest that unity is essential to achieving decisive change. Here the diaspora can play an important part in helping the green movement to overcome obstacles, keep information channels open and keep hope alive. In the past, political divisions among the diaspora have - recalling the second part of the comment I began with - prevented it from realising its own potential and provided succour to the regime. Now is a time when it must lay unnecessary differences aside and use its numbers, resources, funds and organising skills to help its compatriots at home create a free, democratic and peaceful Iran.

Potkin Azarmehr is a writer and blogger based in London. His website is here


Nasrin Alavi: A coming of age

What is happening in Iran cannot be reduced to a story of politics or power, nor understood only in terms of words and actions. The change that is underway is also taking place at a deeper level of sensibility and emotion - felt by many millions but only rarely expressed in ways that easily translate into the public arena.

There are valuable ways of acquiring a surface feel for this change. One is to access some of the wealth of visual images and other communication networks that are a central feature of the Iranian protest-movement that has grown since the contested presidential election of June 2009.

On 16 February 2010, for example - the week of the anniversary of the revolution of 1979, marked by a huge official demonstration in Tehran - an anonymous video of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan on 20 June 2009 was given the prestigious Polk award. John Darnton, curator of the Polk awards described this record of the shooting of an innocent young student passer-by as the “iconic image of the Iranian resistance”. He added: “This award celebrates the fact that, in today’s world, a brave bystander with a cellphone camera can use video-sharing and social-networking sites to deliver news.”

A few days earlier, the award for the World Press Photo of 2009 was given to an intimate photograph taken (by Pietro Masturzo) on one of the boiling nights that following the election, when residents of Tehran would climb to their rooftops and voice their dissent in cries of Allah-o-Akbar.

Ayperi Karabuda Ecer, the chair of the jury that chose the photo, said that the photo had touched her “both visually and emotionally". Indeed, Iran’s prodemocracy movement has been the source of many such poignant images. Another such, unforgettable for many people inside Iran is one of a young man called Sohrab Arabi. It was taken on the day that he was to disappear.   

To read more, click here...

Nasrin Alavi is the author of We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs (Portobello Books, 2005).

Also by Nasrin Alavi:

Iran: a blind leap of faith(2 June 2009)

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