Before there was an Arab awakening, there was an Iranian one. It started three years ago, on June 13, 2009. Some have since called it a revolution; others have been more guarded, referring to it instead as a movement, connoting a sense of continuity.
On June 13, 2009, then incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed an election victory over his main opponent, Mir Hussein Mousavi, and other candidates in what the opposition claimed was pure and unadulterated fraud. Then, 30 years of suppression suddenly boiled over into a green wave of anger with Iranians taking to the streets in the most massive anti-regime demonstrations since the country’s 1979 revolution.
The image of the Islamic Republic had taken a hit; what first was raised as an issue of election fraud soon turned into a demand for reform and broader civil liberties. But within just a few weeks the opposition began to crumble as a violent government crackdown against protesters took the lives of more than 30 of them. After that, the protests were declared all but dead.
But was what many saw as a revolution over as well? Or did the moment really mark the beginning of a civil right movement in Iran, just making its first steps on what would likely be a long and arduous path?
It should be noted that prior to the post-election protests, the Mousavi campaign was known as Mowjeh Sabz or ‘Green Wave.’ Its stated intent was the removal of hardliners like Ahmadinejad whose views and tactics were deemed to be ill-suited for a 21st century Iran. When Mousavi’s defeat was announced on June 13, his political campaign took to the streets demanding the annulment of Ahmadinejad’s victory.
When the Islamic regime’s security services cracked down on protesters, the Mowjeh Sabz expanded into a social movement demanding the civil liberties originally espoused by the Islamic Revolution. The violent crackdown compelled some Iranians to call for the demise of the Islamic Republic altogether, while others demanded only for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to step down. Nevertheless, such extreme views were representative only a minority, as the majority viewed reform as something inherent to the Islamic system, something that did not require an all-out revolution. Many thought that any means of radicalizing the Green Movement could have easily spelled its complete demise.
The protests, rather than the more subliminal demands for reform were what prompted Western media to coin the term “Green Revolution”, while internally it assumed the contours of something more akin to a civil rights movement.
The demands for reform covered economic opportunity, social mobility, basic freedoms (albeit not defined), social justice, political participation, and respect and dignity for the Iranian people. But it was the very setup of the Islamic Republic that obstructed the road to any quick results.
In 1979, due to growing discontent with the Shah over various social and economic issues, Iran experienced a revolution that created what is now known as the Islamic Republic of Iran. The leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini created a system of governance for Iran that was based on a velayat-e faqih or “guardianship of the jurisconsult”. The velayat-e faqih doctrine is defined in both absolute and personal concepts, where the Supreme Leader holds both executive and supervisory powers. According to Article 110 of the Iranian Constitution, the Leader has the ability to “determine the general policies” and “supervise over” the Islamic regime, can declare “war and peace and the mobilization of the armed forces,” as well as appoint and dismiss the head commanders of the Revolutionary Guard, police forces and heads of the judiciary. In contrast, the president plays only a role in appointing military heads, but does not have much influence over routine activities.
Protesters hold a picture of reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi during a silent demonstration against the results of the Iranian presidential election, Tehran, June 17, 2009 (Reuters photo).
In order to preserve the velayat-e faqih, there is a high level of institutionalization under the factions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Initially, the Guard’s principal role was to guarantee the internal security of the country and protect the Islamic system, although its role has also overlapped with Iran’s Artesh (regular military). The IRGC is made up of various paramilitary arms, including the Basij Resistance Force (people’s militia), the Quds Force, and Bonyads (charitable foundations) – which run the Iranian economy. The IRGC has impeded any popular participation in politics by use of intimidation and often times violence, frequently through the use of the Basij and Kommiteh or “Islamic police”. These law enforcement apparatuses were also key in combating the protesters who emerged following the 2009 elections.
The unique setup of the Islamic Republic created a regime that mixes elements of authoritarianism and democracy, causing for it to be a semi-democratic system. Given these circumstances, the fact that Iran had experienced a revolution 33 years ago and that the Islamic Republic’s powers were spread out over various branches of government made it harder to dissolve. Also, it differed from the set-up of many Arab regimes where the majority of the power resided in the hands of autocrats, as exemplified by Egypt under Hosni Mubarak. According to scholar Farideh Fardi of the Woodrow Wilson Center, “Iran (in 2009) was more like 1989 (Tiananmen Square) China than 2011 Egypt or Tunisia…. The regime was able to maintain its unified will to defend itself against what it considered to be an existential threat.”
Still, Iran has not been the same since the post-election protests of 2009. Granted, the calls for reform ignited by the Green Movement have to a degree been silenced, in part through the government’s prophylactic strategy of spreading fear through the abuses to which incarcerated protesters and other activists are subjected. Today, the Green activists have little motivation or direction to take on the regime, other than maybe demanding the release of Mir Hussein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard or Mehdi Karroubi. Nevertheless, the activists have reached one goal. They attained high ground in the realm of morality by revealing to the world the real face of the Islamic Republic and by slowly chiseling away at its legitimacy. Furthermore, they have even damaged Khomeini’s velayat-e faqih by exposing the rifts that have been percolating between the President and the Supreme Leader.
So, what does the future hold for Iran’s Green Movement? Will it bear fruit in the long run? Sudden change, as many of the Arab awakenings have shown, is not always successful. Tunisia might be an exception, but events in Libya, Egypt and, most certainly, in Syria are illustrating that change is never an easy feat. Maybe the slow approach as seemingly employed by Iran’s opposition will prove more effective.
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Holly Dagres, an Iranian American, is a commentator on Middle East affairs with particular focus on Iran. Currently living in Egypt, she is a researcher at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and pursuing a master’s degree in political science at American University in Cairo.
By Kevan Harris
Ask Iranians what caused their country’s 1979 revolution, and usually a little folk sociology comes out. Iran under the Pahlavi monarchy was a “pressure cooker,” they say, and the top eventually was blown off. Authoritarian political rule coupled with rapid social change meant the revolution was inevitable. Around the country, I have been told this story many times from academics and armchair intellectuals to aging aunties.
Of course, as Jeff Goodwin recently pointed out, no set of political opportunities existed under the Pahlavi dynasty in the 1970s which could have provided an opening for successful mobilization from below to trigger a revolution. Yet a series of widening protest cycles over 1977-78 eventually paralyzed the state’s coercive apparatus, forced a fissure among political elites, and engineered a fiscal crisis. It was state breakdown theory in reverse. Even Theda Skocpol admitted that if any revolution had ever been “made,” Iran’s came closest to the description. But as Charles Kurzman persuasively argued, not only is the 1979 Iranian revolution unexplainable with our current theoretical toolkit of social science, it was also “unthinkable” to most of the participants making it.
The pressure cooker theory, in other words, suffers from the fallacy of retrospective inevitability. One could construct a case for Iranian exceptionalism—oil, Islam, luxury carpets, a superior pistachio, etc. But recent theoretical work has shown that the entire field of social movement studies somewhat suffers from this fallacy. Doug McAdam and Hilary Schaffer Boudet, for one, get downright medieval: “the field has grown so narrow, so movement-centric throughout the years as to distort the original phenomenon of interest—for example, contentious politics—in much the same way that Ptolemy’s model of the universe misspecified Earth’s position in the cosmos.” James Jasper argues that the conceptual reliance on political opportunity structures to explain social movement outcomes “not only allows but also probably encourages vague overextension.” If we only study successful social movements, then mobilizing shifts that occurred on the way to victory can retrospectively look like pre-existing political opportunities.
Failed movements, however, are another matter. In 2009, I ended up in the middle of the Green movement, the largest protest wave in Iran since the 1979 revolution. Formed out of a shock re-election of the Islamic Republic’s incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, which many perceived as fraudulent, the Green movement’s number of participants rose quickly during its first week and then slowly de-mobilized into a dwindling core of militant but ineffective street protests within a few months. At first, participants demanded an election recount, but as the state clamped down on demonstrations, some Green movement members called for more wide-reaching political changes. Yet after six months, it was over.
As I wrote in an article in Mobilization, the “protest wave seemed to emerge out of nowhere. But state repression alone cannot account for its rapid decline.” Studying this failed social movement generated three insights that point to larger theoretical and methodological issues in the field.
First, “going micro” inside social movements can provide a new set of lower-level mechanisms which more accurately draw out the patterning of protest waves. Green movement demonstrations did not develop from preexisting oppositional networks but were a spillover from the 2009 electoral campaign. Solidarity was mostly built through rituals that relied on pre-election symbols and slogans of oppositional candidates’ races. The free rider problem was temporarily solved through a mechanism I call brokered exuberance: “the micro-interactional process through which emotional transformation occurs, generating feelings of group solidarity and belonging that can temporarily paper over the inherent and palpable feelings of uncertainty present in collective action.” This was not an arena of individually autonomous rational calculation, but of chained affects, moral outrage, improvised tactics, and rapid reformulations of political strategy.
Yet such linkages of emotional energy did not universally transfer to all comers. Class and status markers of social distinction could trump moments of solidarity, as I witnessed in several protests. Spatial perceptions could give the impression of crowd power if a small enough city square or street filled up with protesters as far as the eye could see. But if a crowd’s energy did not fill up enough of the urban ritual space, police forces seemed dominant. To better understand failed (and successful) movements, as Jasper argues, we need to “drop to a more concrete level of reality, closer to empirical observations, in order to measure and compare.”
Second, “going macro” outside social movements can give the context for the political orientation of participants as well as interactions between protestors, antagonists, and fence-sitters. Following Andrew Walder’s call for investigating the “impact of social structure on movement political orientation,” I examined the growth in middle class occupational structure and dispositional habitus in Iran over the post-revolutionary era. Green movement participants may have seen themselves as completely severed from a loathsome regime, but their social power resided in the relative expansion of this class over the past several decades. This was irrevocably linked to the Islamic Republic’s developmental aspirations and state-building welfare and economic policies. The Green movement’s social composition and political ambitions were shaped, in part, by the modernizing efforts of the post-revolutionary state itself.
In addition, contrary to media accounts which claimed that an increase in state repression resulted in movement failure, I observed the inverse. Initially, spectacular acts of state violence tended to spur on waves of crowd-building emotional energy. A subsequent routinization of police control—mimicking riot police tactics in Southern Europe or Latin America—tended to demobilize a tenuously joined crowd. The state’s strategy moved away from the use of randomly violent street militias towards a greater reliance on trained and uniformed riot police, using more symbolic violence in lieu of spectacular physical violence. This can only be explained by unpacking the state itself, as more institutionalized actors in the Islamic Republic took charge of the government response in the wake of the Green movement’s rapid and unexpected escalation.
Third, failed movements are not necessarily fruitless movements. In Iran this past summer for another presidential election, I had an odd sense of déjà vu. An oppositional candidate was running against a conservative slate with the odds stacked in the latter’s favor. Political apathy suddenly turned into fervent support for the former in the final days of the campaign. This time, unlike 2009, the center-left candidate won. The Green movement, largely dormant for the past several years, had an important effect on the recent victory of Hassan Rouhani. Activists and sympathizers who had participated in the 2009 protests took it upon themselves to push a usually sheepish liberal faction to run a united coalition front at the polls. In addition, state elites were far less willing to risk another sketchy election outcome and rouse another set of demonstrations in a far more uncertain regional geopolitical environment. Every ballot cast was likely counted. In the end, Rouhani won a bare majority (50.7%) of the vote thanks to a “Green movement plus.” Given subsequent events this year and the promise of future changes, the 2013 election may be the most important ballot ever held in Iran’s post-revolutionary history. It would not have been possible without the 2009 Green movement, and in a (still tenuous) sense, represents a belated victory. There was nothing inevitable about it.