The first months of 2011 have been marked by people’s struggle for democracy across the Arab middle east. In contrast to the moment of hope and opening there, the dominant sense in Iran is one of frustration and closure.
It is not so long since millions of Iranians took to the streets in vigorous protest at the fraudulent presidential election of 12 June 2009 under the capacious banner of the opposition “green movement”. In the event it faced intense state repression, and made its own share of strategic and tactical errors. The result is that almost two years on the movement’s vitality is drained and its momentum lost. But this is not by any means the end of the story: for from the ashes a bolder and more resolute opposition force can emerge.
The green movement that emerged from the 2009 elections in Iran is now history. Its original aims buckled under the strain of their inherent contradictions, its leadership has been swept away, and its originating hope is now acknowledged as having been false: the full application of the constitution of the Islamic Republic could not after all be used to support free expression and fair elections.
The protest moment
The green movement has in its short life undergone several transformations. At its height it was a union of distinct groups (both secular and religious) aspiring to social freedom, democracy and human rights. Most of these groups, whatever their place in Iran’s political spectrum, chose to participate in the 2009 elections by supporting (directly or indirectly) one or other of the opposition candidates, Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Even the Constitutionalist Party referred the decision to participate or not to individual choice; an exception was the Worker’s Communist Party, which argued for a boycott.
The next transformation followed the announcement of the disputed election results. People from all walks of life took to the streets without prior structure and organisation. The huge protests in Tehran on 15 June 2009, numbering 3 million people, broke new ground. The force of their spontaneity took the regime by surprise.
By 20 June, the two presidential contenders had begun to challenge the regime of the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in stark terms. Moussavi told a crowd in Tehran’s Imam Square: “I have prepared for martyrdom; if I am arrested, go on national strike.” Yet within a month, the seeds of dissension had begun to take root.
A key moment was when Iran’s former president Hashemi Rafsanjani - who at the time both headed two of the Iranian power-structure’s institutions, the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council, and played an important role of figurehead for many greens inside Iran - reached an accord with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The deal was that in return for persuading the new opposition to swear allegiance to the constitution of the Islamic Republic, he could maintain his position within the political establishment. On 17 July, Rafsanjani led the symbolically important Friday prayers for the first time since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “re-election” of a month earlier.
This was a turning-point, since - unlike Egypt's opposition in 2011, or indeed Iran's revolutionaries in 1979 - it revealed that Iran's current secular and non-secular groups had failed to unite behind a single central demand. There were instead multiple claims, from “Ahmadinejad is not my president” to “where is my vote?” and “down with the Islamic Republic.”
The dominant faction was composed of religious greens, who sought to bring about change within the parameters of the constitution. By thus seeking an "inside track" to reform, the religious greens transformed their civil-rights movement into a power-struggle between camps vying for dominance in the Islamic Republic. In contrast, secular greens insisted that the regime could not be reformed from the inside: it had to be changed, in a process instigated and completed by Iranians. This faction's respective thought-leaders held many meetings (including via Skype, Paltalk, and other forms of telecommunication), though the focus was often less to plan coordinated action than to deliberate over political, legal, and social matters in the hope of resolving differences.
While the greens engaged in such disputes (which ranged from sanctions to the commemoration of International Women’s Day), the regime in Tehran consolidated its position through repression and the imposition of a state of siege. Its international allies Russia and China came to its support by providing expertise to combat the threat of non-violent revolution, including armoured anti-riot vehicles and satellite technology to jam communications. The situation was made worse by the reveltion that Haystack, the software created to help activists to circumvent the government’s filtering system (and granted an export license by the United States government) was found actually to expose their identities.
It appears now that the strategy of the movement’s senior leaders (and regime loyalists), of winning in as cost-free a way as possible, has backfired. Hashemi Rafsanjani has been virtually eliminated from the upper echelons, and Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi are under house-arrest. Their followers have lost all confidence.
The next opposition
The resilient protest-wave of 2009 and its aftermath have transformed Iran’s intellectual landscape and debilitated - if as yet far from destroyed - the Islamic Republic's political foundations. The regime may have succeeded in quelling the massive street protests, but it has been unable to eliminate the sources of discontent among Iranians.
The uprising was as much for good governance and economic prosperity as it was for social freedoms and democracy. These the regime cannot deliver; and its own excesses - naked brutality, increased corruption and a tighter state of siege - are deepening its factionalism. Moreover, the burdens of economic sanctions are multiplying and the withdrawal of subsidies is increasing inflation and unemployment.
The regime is also coming under increasing pressure in the international arena. It has increasing difficulty in finding its bearings among the political uncertainties of the Arab sandstorm; and Tehran’s decision-makers are facing a more punitive response from the international community over their abuse of human rights.
These circumstances create space for an emerging opposition committed to the objective of regime change conducted by Iranians in their own interests. This objective is even more evidently on the right side of history in 2011 as it was in 2009. This new Iranian force is intent on broadening its appeal, finessing its organisational structure, and developing a strategic plan. Those who risked their lives by taking to the streets in Iran in 2009 can take pride in the fact that their democratic spirit and bravery helped inspire the wind of change across the Arab middle east. They still aspire to reclaim their country and their destiny.