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Presidential Elections Demonstrate the Resiliency of Iran's Green Movement

By Muhammad Sahimi

The Green Movement, which seeks to make deep and irreversible changes in the structure of Iran’s political system and move the nation closer to a democratic country, was born during Iran’s last presidential election on 12 June 2009. While many believed that the reformists’ candidate, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, would win the presidency, the government declared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the winner, leading many to believe that the election had been rigged. Massive demonstrations broke out in which millions took part. It was then that the Green Movement demonstrated its strength and broad social support. It succeeded to organize mostly peaceful demonstrations on streets almost continuously for over six months. Large demonstrations broke out in Tehran and other cities on December 27, 2009, the anniversary of the Ashura Day - October 10, 680 A.D., the day in which Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, the Shiites’ third Imam, and a most revered figure in Shiite Islam, was murdered by his Sunni opponents in Karbala in the present day Iraq - which turned violent, with the security forces almost losing control of the situation. At least 12 people were killed, including Sayyed Ali Mousavi, 42, Mir Hossein Mousavi’s nephew who was killed with a bullet in his heart. Except for one other day, that was the last large-scale demonstration by the Green Movement. Counter-demonstrations by the security forces and the Basij militia broke out three days later.

Overall, at least 125 people, mostly young, were killed (in June 2010 the author listed 107 of them); thousands were arrested, hundreds were put on show trials (see here, here, and here), “convicted,” and given long jail sentences and about a dozen were executed [see here and here, for example]. The country went into a deep crisis, the military/intelligence forces, led by the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps [IRGC], took complete control of the street and transformed Iran into a national security state, and a total state of siege began to dominate the nation. After nearly four years, Iran has not recovered from the crisis.

In February 2011, the leaders of the Green Movement, Mousavi, and former Speaker of the Majles [parliament] Mehdi Karroubi used the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia as an excuse and called on the people to demonstrate in solidarity with the people of the two nations. At least one million people demonstrated in Tehran alone on February 14, 2011. The ruling hardliners put Mousasvi, Karroubi, and Mousavi’s wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard under strict house arrest, from which they still have not been released. The hardliners declared victory, and announced jubilantly the “death” of the Green Movement, as the movement disappeared from the streets.

In August 2010, about a year after the birth of the Green Movement, the author analyzed the achievements of the movement. They were, among others,

Demonstrating the ineffectiveness of the doctrine ofVelaayat-e Faghih (which means literally “the one whose command is above all others”), represented by the rule of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei;

Revealing the true nature of theosoolgaraayaan [the principlists], who are in fact Iran’s bonyaadgaraayaan [fundamentalists] (but refer to themselves as the principlists because they recognize the negative connotation of fundamentalism), and are conservatives and reactionaries that, above all, are willing to do anything to cling to power;

Gaping fissures in the ranks of the osoolgaraayaan;

Note: A version of this article was published earlier by Iran News & Middle East Reports,

Fissures in the IRGC;

Fissures in the ranks of the clerics;

Demonstrating the transformation of the IRGC into a political-security organization (not to mention their involvement in the economics affairs), despite their vehement denial; and

Creating a movement that is nonviolent, uncharismatic, is neither religious nor nonreligious, and is pragmatic, instead of being idealistic.

Four years after its birth, the presidential elections of June 14 have provided another opportunity for the Green Movement to demonstrate its resiliency. Although up until a few weeks days ago the Movement was seemingly nowhere to be found, its presence and achievements that the author described three years ago are now everywhere. Consider the above enumerated achievements, and the following state of affairs that only confirms the achievements:

Aside from a small minority that still believe in it, the true nature of the Velaayat-e Faghih and its ineffectiveness in addressing major problems of the Iranian society - a young, educated, dynamic society with a literally rate of near 90 percent, average age of 36, 100,000 bloggers, and one of the highest rates of computer usage in the world, but also a nation with a massive brain drain precisely because the regime of Velaayat-e Faghih is not capable of responding to their legitimate aspirations - have become glaringly clear to the people.

In addition to their greed for preserving their power at any cost, and despite controlling all levers of power for the past eight years, the osoolgaraayan have shown that they are not capable of running the country competently. Even if we set aside the issues of political and social freedom and respect for human rights, the terrible state of Iran’s economy and the vast and unimaginable corruption and nepotism are the best evidence of the osoolgaraayaan’s inept economic policy, if it can be called as such.

What better evidence does one need for the fissures in the ranks of the osoolgaraayaan than the fact that they could not agree on one, or at most two candidates for the presidential elections of June 14, even after the reformists and moderate and pragmatic conservatives closed their ranks behind a single candidate, former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani? This is in addition to the fact that some of the osoolgaraayaan support the outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and are essentially sitting the elections out, some around the reactionary cleric Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi had another candidate, former Minister of Health Kamran Bagheri Lankarani, but were forced under pressure to accept the current chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili as theirs, and some, such as the Majles [parliament] deputy Ali Motahhari have declared their support for Rouhani. At the same time, whereas in the past both Rouhani and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani were not considered as supporters of the reformists or the Green Movement, their firm positions against the osoolgaraayan and support for at least some of the Movement’s goals during the Ahmadinejad era made them increasingly acceptable to the Green Movement and the reformists. In fact, it was the Movement that moved the two men toward the people, not the opposite.

The fissures in the IRGC ranks are so gaping that they cannot even agree on a single candidate in the presidential elections. Their most extreme elements, particularly those that are close to Khamenei’s son Mojtaba, support Jalili. The more professional soldiers in the IRGC ranks support Tehran’s Mayor and retired IRGC Brigadier General Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, while others support either former Foreign Minister and current senior foreign policy adviser to Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati, or former IRGC chief, retired Major General Mohsen Rezaei.

The clerics are badly divided. Many support the reformists and the Green Movements. Others called on Rafsanjani to run in the elections and after he was disqualified by the Guardian Council, they strongly protested it. They now support Rouhani. In fact, the number of clerics that support Khamenei and the osoolgaraayan has shrunk considerably and is now a small minority.

As described elsewhere [see here and here], because Khamenei never enjoyed a social or clerical base of support, from the time he was appointed as the Supreme Leader in June 1989, he began relying on the IRGC and the intelligence forces. But, while they now constitute Khamenei’s only significant base of support, the Supreme Leader has also given them a free hand in suppressing the dissidents, the Green Movement, and the outspoken reformists, establishing a national security state, and taking the control of the economy, both the official and the underground ones.

Most important of all is the nature of the Green Movement itself. It is neither religious, nor nonreligious. It is a social movement that encompasses all those, regardless of their religion, gender, ethnicity, and political views, that worry about Iran and its future and want their country to be run by a just and democratic system in which the rule of law is supreme and all citizens are equal. This was emphasized repeatedly by both Mousavi and Dr. Rahnavard before they were put under house arrest, which angered the hardliners, who accused him of planning to eliminate religion from governance. Not every supporter of the Green Movement has called for voting on June 14; some have called for its boycott. But, it is precisely the respect for the diversity of opinion that makes the Green Movement such a powerful social and political movement that cannot be easily defeated by the hardliners.

The Green Movement also rejects violence because it aims to achieve progress toward democracy lawfully, not through force. It emphasizes the significance of executing the laws without exception or special privileges for anyone. In fact, the movement's leaders correctly recognized that if the fate of the present struggle were to be decided by violence, the sure loser would be the Green Movement, as the hardliners are armed to the teeth and, as demonstrated repeatedly, will not hesitate to use violence. Thus, when the hardliners used violence four years ago, the Movement refused to do likewise.

The Movement is also not based on its leaders' charisma. In fact, it is a horizontal movement that relies on social networks. The house arrest of its leaders has changed neither the Movement’s direction, nor its determination. Most importantly, the Movement is pragmatic. It recognizes its strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of the hardliners. It does not set lofty goals that cannot be achieved in the short term. Ideals always sound wonderful on paper. But, one must confront the facts on the ground: The hardliners are armed to the teeth, control the nation's vast resources, have a significant -- albeit narrow -- social base, and are ready to fight to the end, simply because they have no place to go.

In the current elections, by supporting Rafsanjani the reformist and the Green Movement supporters forced Khamenei to prevent the former president from running and, hence, pay a very heavy political price for doing so; prompted protests by such major figures as Grand Ayatollahs Ali Sistani and Hossein Vahid Khorasani when Rafsanjani was disqualified; forced the osoolgaraayan’s candidates to attack each other during the presidential elections and even reveal some state secrets; helped the nation see on national television the fissures in the ranks of the hardliners; forced their candidates to acknowledge repeatedly the nation’s terrible state of affairs, and their shouts of “Mousavi, Karroubi, and the political prisoners must be freed” have been everywhere over the past few weeks in peaceful campaign rallies, even in cities and towns that played no major role in the birth of the Green Movement four years ago; see here, here, here, here, and here, for example. The supporters of the Movement clearly recognize that what is most important is to create a huge social wave that brings out the people out on street to express their aspirations, and frustrations with and opposition to what has happened over the past eight years, if not earlier.

Most importantly, the reformists and the supporters of the Green Movement demonstrated their pragmatism by agreeing to support Rouhani, rather than the true reformist, former President Mohammad Khatami’s First Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref. Rouhani is not the ideal candidate, but in the absence of Mousavi, Karroubi, Khatami, and then Rafsanjani, he is most likely to receive a large block votes and may even win the elections. The opposition clearly recognizes that what is most important at this point in time is creating a significant social wave that brings out the people out on street to express their aspirations and frustrations with and opposition to what has been happening over the past eight years, if not earlier.

As a young supporter of the Green Movement put it, “We [the Green Movement] are victorious, regardless of what may happen in the June 14 elections.”

Note: A version of this article was published earlier by Iran News & Middle East Reports,

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