What is the Green Movement in Iran and how successful was it?

By Ekaterina Soubeva, JCU alumna

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After the presidential election in 2009, the Green Movement had its momentum, which, however, passed very quickly. When the protests started the Green Movement has a kind of a union, composed of different groups, both secular and religious. At the beginning these groups were united by a common interests – civil right, social freedom. The movement had a strong start and on June 15th there around 3 million protestors on the streets of Tehran. This was unexpected by the regime. However, the strong momentum very quickly passed when the former president Rafsanjani, a firm supporter of the Mousavi campaign, announced that he had reached an agreement with Ahmadinejad, thus showing his support for the regime. (N. Ansari) This was a critical point for the Green Movement. The leaders of the movement were taken by surprise by the slogans on the streets, which asked for a regime change and an Iranian Republic, which was never part of the Mousavi or Karroubi’s plans. There was a clear division inside the Green Movement, with different groups having different demands. The biggest division was between the seculars and the religious groups. The religious groups wanted a refolution, to reform the regime from the inside, without changing the system. On the other hand, the more secular groups were asking for a regime change. Taking advantage of the disagreements with the Movement, the regime used all its power to crack down on the protestors, even jamming communications. The Green Movement might have started as a protest against seemingly unfair elections but now it is about a lot more than that, it is ‘about religion and the nature of government in Iran’. (A. Ansari) The regime also fears the Green Movement as it reminds of other ‘color’ revolutions that have been supported by the US. The choice of the green color is not a coincidence. Green was used during the Mousavi’s campaign before the elections and after his defeat it was taken by the Green Movement as its own color. But green is also the color of Islam, which indicates that the protestors are not opposing Islam and its role in politics but the regime itself. This is why Ali Ansari during a lecture in Vienna urges people not to forget that the leaders of the Green Movement might be reformists but they are also part of the regime, they support the Ayatollah and the system itself. Ansari sees a future for the Green Movement if they expand their reach and try to connect with the elite not just the masses.

It is important to consider the Green “Revolution” in the context of regional dynamics, especially the Arab Spring, which happened straight after the Green Movement’s protests in Iran. The Green Wave is sometimes said to have inspired the events of the Arab Spring. In his interview for the Council on Foreign Affairs, Vali Nasr explains why the Green Movement did not result in a regime change and compares the protests and results in Iran to what happened in Egypt during the Arab Spring. Nasr argues that the Arab Spring in 2011 in Egypt, managed to do what the Green Movement in 2009 in Iran could not – to have a sudden burst of mass protests that catches the regime off guard. In Egypt the military was not able or unwilling to react quickly enough to the protests and the regime fell. In Iran, however, the regime managed to take people off the streets in two days, which prevented them from effectively challenging the regime. The population of Iran is also a lot more dispersed, not concentrated so much in Tehran, which makes it easier for the military to deal with the protests. Another important factor that Nasr mentions is that the Iranian military and police were more prepared for crowd control. After the Iranian national football team qualified for the 1998 and 2006 World Cup Finals, the streets of Tehran were flooded by crowds and the authorities lost control of the city during the celebrations. In 1997, the reformist President Khatami unexpectedly won the elections, which sparked massive student uprising in 1999. In response to these incidents the military and policy implemented a new policy with reaction centers established across the city and response teams on motorcycles. Another important tactic that the Iranian government used to stop the protests of the Green Movement was to appeal to different segments and thus break off the movement. However, Nasr makes an important point that should be mentioned and recognized. The leadership of the Green Movement did not want to denounce the supreme leader or change the regime. The leadership of the Green Movement was interested in creating more space for civil liberties and social movements within the regime, which is why according to Nasr the full power of the people on the streets was never fully unleashed. Social media had a big role during the protests in Iran but for Nasr the biggest contributor was the newly established middle class, which was an essential part of the Green Movement and is still essential part of Iranian society. This middle class combined with the growing youth population of Iran, aver 60% of Iranian population is below 35 years old, (Pew Research Center) have very specific requirements for better economic opportunities, better relations with the rest of the world and more political freedoms, which seems incompatible with an authoritarian regime. (Vali Nasr, Council on Foreign Affairs Interview) The Green Movement experience in Iran might have provided some technical and logistics lessons for the uprisings in Egypt but essentially the question whether the military was unable or unwilling to intervene and protect the regime remains the main difference between what happened in Iran and in Egypt.

When discussing the Green Movement it is important to look at the Presidential election of 2009, which sparked the protests. The 2009 presidential elections were won by the incumbent, Ahmadinejad, but the results were challenged by Iranians with huge protests, which marked the beginning of the Green Movement. The opponents of the conservative Ahmadinejad were two reformist candidates – Mousavi and Karroubi. The Iranian people were not satisfied with the results and there was a widespread belief that the elections were fixed. The protests spread across the country and the main slogan was “Where is my vote”, which was a clear evidence that the population wanted the regime to justify the results but also sounded like an accusation that the election was fixed. The Green Wave was composed of different social and civil groups, including women feminist groups, youth and middle class people. The Green Wave was an expression of the existing conflict between reformists, in the face of Green Movement and the conservatives, backing Ahmadinejad. It is important to underline that there are very few political parties in Iran as only Islamist parties are allowed to exist, but the main division is between two loose coalitions – conservatives and reformists, which were both part of the former Islamic Republic Party. Both sides are supporters of the regime but see it in a different way, so there is no real opposition inside the country. However, during the protests there were even slogans such as ‘Freedom, Independence and Iranian Republic’ and ‘Not Islamic Republic’, which clear indicates that the movement went too far even for the understandings of the reformists and this might be the reason the government stopped the protests so quickly. (Abdolmohammadi) The Green Movement protests showed that Iranians might be ready for a change and this will be crucial for the future of the Islamic Republic, for the policies the government implements but also for the reformists, who may use the Green Movement impact to gain more influence inside Iranian political sphere. Another important factor will be the choice of the next Supreme leader as rumors for the sickness of Khamenei are spreading.

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To assess how successful the Green Movement was we have to fully understand its structure and aims. The movement did not have a charismatic leader like Khomeini was for the 1979 revolution, however the reformist candidates from 2009 elections, Mousavi and Karroubi, were on the forefront of the protests. After the announcement of the election results and the beginning of the protests the two de facto leaders were put under house arrest in order to suppress the uprising. However, ‘there appears to be a core of student leaders, recent graduates and people who were students in 1999’, who were working hard to sustain the momentum of the movement. These students wanted to remove the regime in a non-violent way by creating a dialogue which would prove that Iranians did not to live under the regime anymore. They were also hoping for support from Iranians living abroad. One of the youth activists, who managed to escape from Iran after a couple of arrests said: ‘The Green Revolution group is composed of reformist supporters of Khatami, Karroubi and Mousavi spread across Turkey, France, Belgium and also inside Iran’. (Athanasiadis, Slavin) The main problem is that most groups that are part of the Green Movement are lacking organization and structure, which makes the whole movement weaker.

One of the biggest protests during the Green wave was on the 27 December, 2009, on the Ashura holiday. The police and the special security forces, called Basij, seemed unable to sustain the protestors. However, the success was short lived and the main reason for the unpreparedness of the police was that the protest was organized on an official holiday, which as unexpected but later proved a strategic tactic of the Green Movement. (Mahtafar) The main resource for organization of the protestors was grassroots networks and social media, which proved not enough in the absence of strong leadership or leader. Mousavi, even though a reformist is not against the regime – he is promoting a refolution not a revolution. Mousavi publicly denounced the oppressions and the terror tactics that the military used against the protestors but did not denounce the regime or the Islamic republic itself, on the contrary he expressed his support for the Islamic Republic. (Jones) This might be because of pressure put on him by the regime or it might just be an expression of his trues belief that the Islamic Republic is the right choice for Iran. But what is important is that such kind of oppression against the protestors could push them to more radical views, which the regime definitely should avoid and the simplest way for the regime to remain in power and also incorporate the demands of the Green Movement is to reform. Even Khatami, who was one of the main supporter of Mousavi’s campaign announced that he recognizes the administration of Ahmadinejad ‘but we have to combat extremism’. (Jones). It seems that there is a gap between the people on the streets and the so called leaders of the Green Movement. The leaders – Mousavi, Khatami and Karroubi have all expressed their support for the Ayatollah and the regime but the people on the streets have raised slogans for Iranian not Islamic Republic and an end to the current regime. The main question remaining unanswered is whether the Green Movement represents the will of the people or its momentum is used by the reformists who lost the elections. Ultimately, however, it is in the hands of the people to change the status quo. The only concern for the regime would be to avoid the radicalization of the protestors and this is the main reason behind the search for compromise that all three of the Green Movement leaders have expressed. Karroubi’s announcement was that nobody wants the regime to fall ‘because it is not clear what would come out of it’. (Jones) This might be referring to the fact that during the Revolution of 1979 there were different ideologies working together to get rid of the Shah, communists being an essential part of them but eventually the Islamists were the one who came on top and took the power. Günes Tezcür, in his research examines the moderation theory and applies it to the situation in Iran. Tezcür divides the moderation theory into three aspects. The first one is that once a radical group forms a party it automatically moderates its views. Then he examines the effect of a strong oppressive regime and argues that the survival of the radical group depends under a strong regime depends on moderation of its elements. Lastly, he discusses the effect of organizational resources on moderation. In his research Tezcür focuses on the Justice and development party in Turkey and the Reform Front in Iran. (Tezcür) By comparing the development of these two parties in different settings, Tezcür manages to establish a relationship between moderation and democratization. This means that the way towards democratization ultimately has to go through inclusion of all political actors and this process in Iran has just started to develop with the rise of the Green Movement.

What Majd is arguing is that in order to assess the successfulness of the Green Movement we need to have a clear definition of a success that is based on the situation in Iran and that does not undermine the regime by assuming that it could easily fall. Majd makes a clear distinction between a revolutionary movement and a civil rights movement and tries to examine in which category the Green Movement would be better suited. He comes to the conclusion that the Green Movement is more of a civil rights movements that aims to increase civil liberties within the regime rather than change the regime. (Majd) From what we have seen so far it certainly looks like the Green Movement was more successful if we consider it as a civil rights movement and not a revolutionary one. It seems right to put it in the category of civil rights movements as even though there were some slogans for regime change among the protestors the majority of the people did not want a regime change. (Majd) The fact that the Green Movement still exists and continues to promote civil liberties suggests that it had some impact on the regime and makes it successful as a civil rights movement. At this point there are only two options for the Green Movement – either to become more radical and turn into a revolutionary movement, which will bring more oppression from the state and both parties will enter into a vicious circle of violence and terror or to continue its successes in the long run as a civil rights movements and strive for reform and change within the existing regime without violence. Even though there is a minority that have radicalized and are going for the first option, the majority of Iranians want a peaceful reform and more civil rights and freedoms within the existing regime. Whatever option Iranians go for, it has to come from within the country from society itself without any foreign support or intervention, which will only undermine the importance of the Green movement. Of course there are other, especially those from the diaspora, who believe that the Green Movement is a revolutionary movement, which ultimately will succeed. (Fakhravar) This belief is mainly based on the fact that over 60% of Iranian population is below 30 years, which means they were born after the Revolution and do not carry the strong ideologies of 1979. This, however, is a strong assumption, which underestimates the fact that even though these generations were born after the revolution they grew up with the regime itself.

The future of the Green Movement is not so clear. As discussed above there are two paths of development – either as a revolutionary movement or as a civil rights one. The first one will include violence and might underestimate the power of the existing regime. The second will look for a reform and more space within the regime itself. Even though the current president Rouhani is a reformist himself and has promised the release from house arrest of the leaders of the Green Movement – Mousavi and Karroubi, he is facing a lot of opposition form the Ayatollah and other conservative members of the Revolutionary Guard. The nuclear talks that are still going on are a positive sign that the regime might be ready to open up and reform so the Green Movement can use this opportunity and wider its reach within the Iranian society. Whatever change comes to the country it has to come from with the country itself without any foreign intervention or support. The Green Movement has the opportunity to grow and lay the basis for a refolution.

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Bibliography

  • Iason Athanasiadis and Barbara Slavin; The Green Movement is Growing; 2011
  • Tara Mahtafar; The Green Movement might fail for lack of Leadership and Organization; 2011
  • Keith Jones; The Leadership of the Green Movement are seeking compromise, not victory; 2011
  • Amir Fakhravar; The Green Movement is a Revolution that will Ultimately Succeed; 2011
  • Hooman Majd; The Green Movement is a viable civil rights movement; 2011
  • Abdolmohammadi, Pejman; Iran as peculiar hybrid regime: Structure and dynamics of the Islamic republic; British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies
  • Pew Research Center
  • Ivan Sascha Sheehan, PhD; What Is “Regime Change From Within?” Unpacking the Concept in the Context of Iran; Digest of Middle East Studies; Fall 2014
  • Ali Ansari; The Nuking of Iran’s dissent; The Guardian; 2010
  • Nazenin Ansari; Iran’s Green Movement: life, death, rebirth; Open Democracy; 2011
  • Günes Murat Tezcür; Muslim Reformers in Iran and Turkey: The Paradox of Moderation; University of Texas Press; 2010
  • Vali Nasr; Big Differences; Interview for the Council on Foreign Affairs; 2011
  • Hamid Dabashi; What happened to the Green Movement in Iran; Al-Jazeera; 2013
  • Akbar Ganji; Iran’s Green Movement Five Years Later — ‘Defeated’ But Ultimately Victorious; The World Post; 2014
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