Discovering MENA: The Iranian Green Movement: Four Years After and an Election Ahead

A key presidential election will take place in Iran this Friday 14th of June. The last Presidential elections were held in 2009 and set themselves up as a turning point for democratic hopes all around the world, embodied by what many soon started calling the “Green Movement”, in a country often dubbed “authoritarian” or even “dictatorial”.

Indeed, Iran’s elections have increasingly become more and more controlled by the regime since the 1997 vote, when Mohammad Khatami won over the Supreme Leader’s anointed candidate, a former parliamentary speaker. Likewise, in 2005, the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (the Revolutionary Guards) and the Basij (paramilitary volunteer militia to defend Khomeini´s intentions) are believed to have heavily intervened to ensure the incumbent President´s victory against former President and co-founding member of the Islamic Republic, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who, just as he has been doing nowadays, was then seeking a comeback.

Ayatollah Rafsanjani was two weeks ago disqualified from this year´s elections by the Guardian Council, partly because many officials associate him with the Green Movement itself (although he has proved over the years not to be especially insistent in his criticism of the regime).

What happened in 2009 and what is this Green Movement? The Presidential elections were held on June 12 and were met with a wave of enthusiasm: the voting had to be extended until later because the turnout was unexpectedly high, as over 80% of those registered to vote did so; and up to 476 people, men and women of all origins, had applied for the possibility of being candidates.

The Guardian Council only approved four of them: incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and three challengers: a conservative, Mohsen Rezaee, former Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard; and two “reformists”, Mehdi Karroubi, former Speaker of the Majlis (Iran´s Parliament) and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the last Prime Minister of Iran. The vote was marred by large irregularities and people, who were convinced Mousavi was going to win, were deeply shocked by the results announced by Iran´s official news agency.

Mousavi himself issued a statement accusing the Interior Ministry and the Guardian Council of widespread election fraud. Both him and the other contenders united in urging their supporters to engage in peaceful protests. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the nation for uniting behind Ahmadinejad, though, labeling his victory as a “divine assessment”.

The results were allegedly investigated, and the final reports concluded there had been no irregularities. That was the last straw. Huge protests covered in green and under the slogan “Where is my vote?” broke out and increased in size, gathering millions of Iranians, not only in most Iranian cities and towns, but also around the world. Smart phones, Facebook and Twitter played a key role in bringing together youths – and not that youth – from all over the country.

The International Community was swift to react and several Western countries expressed concern over the authenticity of the results. Many public figures directly supported the protests and declared the votes were fraudulent, even though they were later to suffer the consequent repression. That was the case of cinema directors Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi, both condemned to imprisonment, singers like Mohammad Reza Shajarian, the whole Iran national football team (who wore green wristbands in their game against South Korea to support the movement)… and even religious figures like Grand Ayatollahs Yousef Saanei and Sayyid Ali Mohammad Dastgheib Shirazi.

Even though he first acted somewhat cautiously, after days of growing both in size and in relevance protests, Khamenei denounced them as illegal, and demonstrations were met with stiff resistance from government forces, with many reported deaths, hundreds of arrests and thousands of people injured. The Green Movement, which took its name from a green sash given to Mir Hossein Mousavi by Mohammad Khatami, was not going to be silenced this time and over the next six months turned into a nationwide force demanding the democratic rights originally sought in the 1979 Revolution.

But the regime was not ready to relinquish in the least and grew more and more repressive and violent: arbitrary arrests, show trials, persecution and harassment, shutdown of several media outlets, censorship, banning of social media… The crackdown was so pervasive that leaders of the movement had to call off any kind of public demonstration.

Back then, the Green Movement´s supporters merely asked for the holding of free fair transparent elections. They were striving for democracy. Their parents had, up to a certain extent, had a say in the shaping of their beloved country. The regime of the Ayatollahs was depriving them from that possibility and had been increasingly muzzling them for years.

Little by little, the movement expanded its demands, calling for the recognition of civil liberties originally espoused by the Islamic Revolution, explicitly referring to economic opportunity, social mobility, basic freedoms, social justice, political participation, and respect and dignity for the Iranian people.Contrary to the Movement, which views reform as something inherent to the Islamic system, and thus does not require an all-out revolution, many officials have no qualms when admitting they are far from allowing any kind of reform. They have a powerful reason: “it was exactly in the era of the reformists that the emergence of the Imam of Time [the Shiite Messiah] was postponed for hundreds of years”, the Supreme Leader’s representative to the Revolutionary Guard said.

The Movement continued its peaceful protests until 14 February 2011, when security forces carried out a brutal crackdown on those who dared to follow the example of their brethren neighbouring revolutionaries of the Arab Spring. Although both renounced any formal leadership in the Green Movement, Mousavi and Karroubi were widely considered as the leaders of the protests and came under house arrest, along with Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard. At that point, the Iranians were too afraid and the uprising did not gather enough steam.

The ones who spearheaded the Movement went separate ways, and the few who remained active in the political scene radicalized themselves demanding a total regime change and the departure of Khamenei from power, something most Iranians are far from demanding. Indeed, one of the reasons the Green Movement did not stretch to the whole country was its focus on middle-class Persian youth, failing to incorporate the rural population and other minorities within a very heterogeneous state.

Iran’s security forces are nowadays on high alert. They have been for years. This time, there have been no indications of widespread demonstrations. The regime has however been clamping down on everything from pro-reform gatherings to social media for months. Arrests and crackdown started well before the vote this time. Ahead of these elections, the authorities are not willing to run any risk and have not allowed for the creation of what we could call a “reformist political faction”.

The Islamic Iran Participation Front, the largest Iranian reformist party, was banned, together with the Islamic Revolution Mujahideen Organization, in 2010. Over the past four years, the requirements imposed on presidential candidates have thus narrowed. One likely representative of the reformists, who did not play an active part in the Movement but could have attracted most amongst its supporters, former President Khatami, said his group would not participate in the elections unless Mousavi and Karroubi were freed from house arrest. The regime is however aware that this move could only kindle more unrest, and probably resurrect one of their very own bêtes noires, for many believe these quasi-imprisonments are the only reason keeping people away from the streets.

Add to that the fact that even though it needs a front-runner likely to cooperate with rather than compete with Iran’s leader, many are afraid to anoint a highly unpopular or controversial figure, as unrest may break out again, in spite of the likelihood of the repression. To this effect. The only requisite for those so-called reformists was crystal clear: leaders of the reform movement would only be allowed to return to political activities if they publicly expressed regret over having participated in the 2009 protests.

Those who want real change in Iran were hence confronted with a catch-22 choice: either they boycotted the vote, either they participated to keep a presence and fight within the system. Amongst the candidates who have passed the Guardian Council’s filter, only Mohammad Reza Aref, a graduate of Stanford University who was a vice president under Khatami, is believed to uphold some amongst the Green Movement´s pretensions. So much for a reformist.

Many Iranians face a similar catch-22 situation: boycott the polls or turn to whatever they see as the least objectionable candidate. Why vote when no candidate actually embodies their beliefs and principles? And even if that was the case, why vote when everybody knows who will make the final choice. Even though the regime has been trying hard to avoid it with large selective handouts and cosmetic reforms, the majority of the population is struggling as a result of international sanctions and subsequent currency collapse, and they find it hard to find both the time and the will to think about politics. Many refer to the Green Movement as mere memories.

But is that assertion true? Is this “revolution” over or did the movement mark the beginning of something bigger, that is to say, an actual and organized opposition eventually capable of overthrowing the regime or better, its controversial leaders? Despite today´s silence, Iran has not been the same since 2009, for the Green Movement achieved one vital aim: targeting for the first time the sacrosanct morality of the regime, and revealing to the whole world the real face of the Islamic Republic, thus progressively eroding its legitimacy.

Only time will tell if Iranians are ready to dust off their green clothes and stand up for their rights. As for the case in Tunisia and the likes, right now it seems quite probable that only a black swan could light the fuse of renewed protests. The whole world will then be watching.