Dispatch

The view from the ground.

The Green Movement will continue to challenge Ahmadinejad

Western observers have it wrong -- the movement still poses a serious threat to the regime.

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

As the one-year anniversary of Iran's June 12 election approaches, the feeling on the ground, at least in major cities, is that the current political and economic situation cannot continue. Although many people are disappointed that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains in power and that the groups behind the coup continue to try to increase their political and economic hold on the country, the general feeling is that "There is fire under the ash," as we say in Persian. In other words, the popular rage and fury over the rigged election and the use of violence and rape and the popular demands for change remain. Any spark can set this fire off once again. The coup government knows only too well, judging by its own actions.   

Surprisingly, despite the disturbing news of more arrests and continued use of torture, there is a general relative sense of optimism that we are witnessing the slow, gradual breakdown of the Ahmadinejad government. For Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Moussavi, the first anniversary is important in as much as it underscores the fact that despite the most pessimistic predictions, the Green Movement is still a force seriously threatening the coup government. At the same time, unlike some Iranian diaspora figures who predicted a quick demise of the Islamic Republic in the months after the June, 2009 presidential elections, Karroubi and Moussavi understand that they and the Green Movement are involved in a relatively protracted struggle to achieve their goals. Both men are confident of their ultimate victory.

As someone who is living in Iran, it is important to counter the many myths that are often perpetuated in the West.

As the one-year anniversary of Iran’s June 12 election approaches, the feeling on the ground, at least in major cities, is that the current political and economic situation cannot continue. Although many people are disappointed that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains in power and that the groups behind the coup continue to try to increase their political and economic hold on the country, the general feeling is that "There is fire under the ash," as we say in Persian. In other words, the popular rage and fury over the rigged election and the use of violence and rape and the popular demands for change remain. Any spark can set this fire off once again. The coup government knows only too well, judging by its own actions.   

Surprisingly, despite the disturbing news of more arrests and continued use of torture, there is a general relative sense of optimism that we are witnessing the slow, gradual breakdown of the Ahmadinejad government. For Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Moussavi, the first anniversary is important in as much as it underscores the fact that despite the most pessimistic predictions, the Green Movement is still a force seriously threatening the coup government. At the same time, unlike some Iranian diaspora figures who predicted a quick demise of the Islamic Republic in the months after the June, 2009 presidential elections, Karroubi and Moussavi understand that they and the Green Movement are involved in a relatively protracted struggle to achieve their goals. Both men are confident of their ultimate victory.

As someone who is living in Iran, it is important to counter the many myths that are often perpetuated in the West.

The role of communication technology, such as the Internet and mobile phones, in the present and future of the Green Movement continues to be debated. One side argues that one of the keys to strengthening the Green Movement is to create conditions to advance this technology. The other side uses the example of the Arab world to show how these technologies provide more possibilities for the state to crush social movements than to oppose them. Thus, we should not be too optimistic about the future of the Green Movement, so the argument goes. Although the basic premise of this argument — namely that technology has enhanced the state’s ability to crush threats to it — is sound, its conclusions in regard to Iran do not withstand deep analysis.

Any comparison between Iran and Arab countries in this regard is faulty for two basic reasons. First, Iranian contemporary history has been marked by popular revolts and movements (1892, 1906-1908, 1953, 1963, 1978-79, 1999, 2009-present) which have been absent in the history of the Arab world. Second, one of the main reasons for the Green Movement’s ability to continue to worry the government is the unbridgeable divisions within the elite. Arab authoritarian states, such as Egypt, Syria, or Saudi Arabia, have never experienced such elite fragmentation, which helps explain their ability to contain and crush social movements. A socio-political link has crystallized between a part of the Iranian elite and a large cross-section of society which ensures the Green Movement’s continued existence. History shows that societal mass dissatisfaction alone rarely can bring about fundamental political change. Elite fragmentation and/or paralysis are needed.

Many Western observers of the Islamic Republic entertain unrealistic expectations about the rate of change in Iran. First, one must take into account that before last year’s presidential election, no large-scale socio-political opposition movement existed in the country, which gave belief and hope that change could be achieved through the electoral process. Only after last year’s electoral cheating and the failure of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to address the concerns raised by Moussavi, Karoubi and the millions of people on the streets immediately after the election, did the Green Movement begin to obtain an infrastructure constructed primarily from the grassroots.

What deserves attention and praise is that despite mass arrests, killings, rapes, and show trials the Green Movement not only survived but succeeded in developing a form of infrastructure which continues to evolve. The view on the streets in Iran is that it is far too early to argue that the Green Movement is no longer a political force.

Moussavi, Karroubi, and many on the ground in Iran, given their first-hand experience of politics and society, understand that victory against the despotism of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei is not a short-term event but a process which began only in June of last year. The Velvet Revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe and the ‘color’ revolutions in the republics of the former USSR conditioned observers in the West to expect an authoritarian government to collapse after a couple of demonstrations. The dynamics of these countries fundamentally differ from those of Iran. 

While the government’s attempts to limit access to outside sources of information and the ability of Iranians inside the country to exchange information and to communicate with each other have certainly produced results, society is finding ways around the restrictions. For example, those with the time and ability to work around these restrictions, disseminate information and news through regular email, traditional social networks, such as family, friends, work colleagues, and places of recreation. Those obtaining news and information from these places in turn disseminate them among their own social networks. This writer has been following traditional tea houses, gyms, computer and/or DVD/CD shops in central and south Tehran, Shiraz and Tabriz which serve as centers of dissemination in soft and hard-copy form of news and information — in particular the statements of Moussavi and Karrubi and plans for collective action.

The challenges facing the Green Movement remain formidable and a long, uncertain path awaits it. But the continuing outrage over electoral cheating and the use of violence against   the people, the worsening economic crisis, and the deep, unbridgeable elite divisions, combined with international pressure ensures that the Green Movement and its leaders will continue to challenge Ahmadinejad. This is the symbol of positive political change in the Islamic Republic.

The author is a professor in Tehran.

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