In Other Words

The Real Impact of the Elections

Far from being a wipeout, the Green Movement was a historic success. Too bad no one was watching.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

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Iran’s June 2009 presidential election — which pitted the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi — and its aftermath took most Iranians and observers of Iran by surprise. The conventional wisdom got many things drastically wrong: the nature of the election, the nature of the regime’s intentions, and the nature of the public’s outrage.

Few analysts anticipated that the presidential election would turn into a real race centering on the issue of significant change versus the status quo: After all, Mousavi was an insider, an active supporter of the Islamic Revolution. But commentators should have noticed how much Mousavi’s campaign reflected changes in Iranian society. Women played a much more visible role in his campaign — a first in Iranian history. Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi’s wife, appeared at his side on the campaign trail, gave interviews, and addressed the crowds. She was more outspoken than her husband on a number of social and political issues, including women’s rights. Rahnavard’s presence and her message galvanized not only Iran’s women, but also its youth and its broad middle class. Mehdi Karrubi, the other reformist candidate, responded with an announcement that he would appoint a woman as his foreign minister to negotiate with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Even the conservative candidate, Mohsen Rezai, took on an advisor for women’s affairs.

Commentators understandably assumed that the vote would not see massive fraud. In previous elections, candidates were carefully vetted and the spectrum of choices was severely limited, but tampering with the vote count did not take place on a significant scale. On this occasion, however, massive vote fraud appears to have occurred. When the results were announced less than 24 hours after the polling stations had closed, giving the incumbent an improbable majority of over 60 percent, Iranians reacted with disbelief.

No one foresaw the protests that followed, and most were probably surprised by the ferocity of the government’s response. The regime clearly decided that it would rather pay the price of worldwide condemnation than allow the opposition movement to continue to grow or to allow opposition leaders to come to office. Some among the hard-liners in the regime must have seen the opportunity to silence the reformers and moderates in their midst once and for all, and they seized it.

In the mass trials that followed the crackdown, government prosecutors accused (and their judges then condemned) their own comrades-in-arms of scheming to overthrow the regime through "a velvet revolution." To me, this was another astonishing turn of events in an astonishing year. In 2007, when I was arrested, jailed, kept in solitary confinement, and subjected to months of interrogation by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, I was accused of working to bring about a "velvet revolution" in Iran. I found it hard to believe that the regime was now bringing the same charge against men with impeccable revolutionary credentials who had high-profile careers in the Islamic Republic. In my interrogations, I had felt the overwhelming sense of paranoia and fear among Intelligence Ministry officials that the regime would be overthrown by a foreign-inspired movement. I never imagined that the regime would direct this accusation against prominent insiders, much less call a peaceful protest movement over a contested election "seditious," resort to mass show trials, and risk international opprobrium and its own legitimacy because it concluded that the protests put its very survival at risk. But everything over the last year should have taught me never to underestimate the unpredictability of a regime that believes even limited reform will snowball into a demand for massive change.

Read on:  "The Twitter Devolution," By Golnaz Esfandiari

Iran’s June 2009 presidential election — which pitted the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi — and its aftermath took most Iranians and observers of Iran by surprise. The conventional wisdom got many things drastically wrong: the nature of the election, the nature of the regime’s intentions, and the nature of the public’s outrage.

Few analysts anticipated that the presidential election would turn into a real race centering on the issue of significant change versus the status quo: After all, Mousavi was an insider, an active supporter of the Islamic Revolution. But commentators should have noticed how much Mousavi’s campaign reflected changes in Iranian society. Women played a much more visible role in his campaign — a first in Iranian history. Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi’s wife, appeared at his side on the campaign trail, gave interviews, and addressed the crowds. She was more outspoken than her husband on a number of social and political issues, including women’s rights. Rahnavard’s presence and her message galvanized not only Iran’s women, but also its youth and its broad middle class. Mehdi Karrubi, the other reformist candidate, responded with an announcement that he would appoint a woman as his foreign minister to negotiate with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Even the conservative candidate, Mohsen Rezai, took on an advisor for women’s affairs.

Commentators understandably assumed that the vote would not see massive fraud. In previous elections, candidates were carefully vetted and the spectrum of choices was severely limited, but tampering with the vote count did not take place on a significant scale. On this occasion, however, massive vote fraud appears to have occurred. When the results were announced less than 24 hours after the polling stations had closed, giving the incumbent an improbable majority of over 60 percent, Iranians reacted with disbelief.

No one foresaw the protests that followed, and most were probably surprised by the ferocity of the government’s response. The regime clearly decided that it would rather pay the price of worldwide condemnation than allow the opposition movement to continue to grow or to allow opposition leaders to come to office. Some among the hard-liners in the regime must have seen the opportunity to silence the reformers and moderates in their midst once and for all, and they seized it.

In the mass trials that followed the crackdown, government prosecutors accused (and their judges then condemned) their own comrades-in-arms of scheming to overthrow the regime through "a velvet revolution." To me, this was another astonishing turn of events in an astonishing year. In 2007, when I was arrested, jailed, kept in solitary confinement, and subjected to months of interrogation by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, I was accused of working to bring about a "velvet revolution" in Iran. I found it hard to believe that the regime was now bringing the same charge against men with impeccable revolutionary credentials who had high-profile careers in the Islamic Republic. In my interrogations, I had felt the overwhelming sense of paranoia and fear among Intelligence Ministry officials that the regime would be overthrown by a foreign-inspired movement. I never imagined that the regime would direct this accusation against prominent insiders, much less call a peaceful protest movement over a contested election "seditious," resort to mass show trials, and risk international opprobrium and its own legitimacy because it concluded that the protests put its very survival at risk. But everything over the last year should have taught me never to underestimate the unpredictability of a regime that believes even limited reform will snowball into a demand for massive change.

Read on:  "The Twitter Devolution," By Golnaz Esfandiari

Haleh Esfandiari is director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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