It Ain’t Easy Being Green

Iran’s protest movement struggles to make its voice heard in an election where they have no good options.


In the Islamic Republic, life imitates art — or perhaps more accurately, fiction. Take Iran’s approach to democracy, for example. For many who remember the 1979 revolution and the purge and massacre of the opposition — including secularists, socialists, communists, and Kurdish groups — any notion that the country is a democracy is a storybook fantasy.

But to a generation of baby boomers with no collective memory of that period, it’s a different story. These Iranians came of age with greater access to higher education, satellite TV, and the Internet. The heady promise of a freer society presented to them by the "reformist" faction of the ruling establishment captured their imagination and turned them into a political force to be reckoned with. This bloc led the "Green Movement" protests following Iran’s 2009 election — but now with its leaders under house arrest or barred from running in the upcoming election, they find themselves trying to weather this period of even greater conservative dominance.

"Almost every public move made by the Iranian regime is designed to stymie any hope for change," one Iranian intellectual told me in an email. "And I can say, from a very personal perspective, that the regime has been successful."

The hopes of this young generation of Iranians were shaped by the presidency of Mohammad Khatami in the mid-to-late 1990s. Having paid lip service to democracy and put in place a mechanism, however flawed, to elect members of parliament and a president, the Islamic Republic inadvertently created a class of citizens who turned out to vote in great numbers — and expected it to matter.

But the Islamic Republic’s conservative establishment was quick to rein in this nascent pro-democracy movement. By the second year of his first term, Khatami had already capitulated to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The president even failed to take the side of the students when protests broke out at Tehran University in 1999, after a dozen or so reformist papers were shut down in a singe day. Many Iranians, disillusioned by the failures of the reformists, opted out of the 2005 election, paving the way for the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was a dismal time for this young generation of Iranians: Civil society diminished, newspapers were shuttered, and fewer permits were granted to make films.

But Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi’s campaign in 2009 energized reformists again — and the suspicious circumstances of Ahmadinejad’s re-election victory motivated millions to take to the streets to contest the whole thing as a fraud. In the brutal crackdown that followed, Iran’s façade of democracy fell for this young generation of Iranians. Tens of thousands of protesters were beaten, jailed, and even shot. From jail, credible reports of rape emerged. Government officials even acknowledged accounts of torture-murders at the Kahrizak detention center. Since then, Green Movement leaders Mousavi and former Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi remain under house arrest, and what remained of the street protests died off and moved online. 

A mere two weeks before the election to choose Ahmadinejad’s successor, the men and women who made up the Green Movement still find themselves shut out from official political life. Khatami threw his support behind former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – and for a moment, it appeared that the lifelong conservative politician could awaken the reformist bloc. In Tehran, Iranians chanted in support of his last-minute decision to run — a jovial outbreak of street protest that echoed the 2009 demonstrations. No wonder the authorities moved so quickly to extinguish it: Rafsanjani was soon disqualified from contesting the election by the Guardian Council, which whittled the field down to eight arch-conservative candidates.

The regime is also keeping international media on a short leash ahead of the vote. According to a foreign correspondent who was issued a seven-day visa to cover the election, which is slated for June 14 and may well be followed by a runoff a week later, "Everyone’s got to be out of Dodge by June 15 midnight."

Green Movement members are now debating whether there is a candidate remaining in the election whom they could support. Their options are the two relatively moderate conservatives left in the running: Mohammad Reza Aref, who served as vice president under Khatami and is a member of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, or former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani. At a rally for Rowhani over the weekend, Iranians chanted pro-Mousavi slogans — an act of defiance that got them arrested.

But given the bleak record of the past four years and the ruling establishment’s unwillingness to compromise on virtually any front, would any of them bother to vote in the first place?

I was skeptical. Our reporting at Tehran Bureau, however, suggested that many were indeed planning to go to the polls. As registration for candidates approached earlier this month, plenty of young Iranians, some eligible to vote for the first time, said they viewed this election as an opportunity to bring about change.

"I will vote because I can," said Arash, a university student who recently turned 18. "This is a chance to practice my democratic rights." He says those who fail to act are "living their lives like a herd of sheep by putting their fate in the hands of others. We have to try to make changes. By not doing anything, nothing will happen."

Other Iranians, however, are disillusioned with the process and want to deny the regime the legitimacy of high turnout. Parisa, 25, who still bears scars from the beatings she received during the post-election protests, is one of the boycotters. "For them [the regime], we are only important to make the election look sensational and successful," she said. "Just before the 2009 election we were practically dancing in the streets. But what happened right after that? I lost my job, our home phone was tapped for several years, and my family and I were regularly insulted. Until just a few months ago, we were all living in hell. We do not have any power against the mullahs."

Even at the epicenter of the Green Movement, members are divided on a boycott. "It’s meaningless to take part in elections when questions still linger from the last one, and when Mr. Karroubi, Mr. Mousavi, and other political prisoners have not been set free," one journalist closely aligned with Karroubi told me.

Beyond the dilemma of the coming election, the activists who made up the core of the Green Movement realize that the change they dream of will not come overnight, and they must settle in for the long haul. "I have maintained my spirits not by telling myself, as many of my compatriots do, that the regime will end soon, within, say, five or six years, but by accepting that any substantial political change in Iran will take at least twenty years to achieve," wrote the Iranian intellectual. "We are dealing with enemies much older and stronger than the Islamic Republic: patriarchy, economic exploitation, apathy, and all forms of dehumanization."

"For such a long-term project, I must steel my nerves and find my work where I can find it. This is the only type of hope available amidst conditions of constant defeat."

Kelly Golnoush Niknejad is the founder and editor of Tehran Bureau.