Celebrated in June 2009 as a model of nonviolent protest against autocracy, the Iranian Green Movement has lost much of its strength and mobilizing capacity inside Iran while the Arab Spring has toppled regimes across the region.
In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak is under arrest. But in Iran, the two defeated candidates in the disputed presidential elections of June 2009 who played such an important role in giving birth to the Green Movement – Mir Hossein Mousavi a former prime minister, and Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric and a former parliament speaker – are the ones under house arrest and denied any contact with the outside world. Unlike their predictions and those of many Iranian dissidents and protesters, the hardliners and especially the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps appeared in a far stronger position.
What happened? And where does Iran’s Green Movement stand two years later?
No doubt, the price of speaking truth to power was higher than expected for the Iranian civic actors. It resulted in massive arrests, Stalinist-style show trials, torture, rape, and murder. Also, the nature of Iran’s system, with its power split between two centers – the president and the supreme leader – has complicated and slowed down the process of change.
Even so, the Green Movement has achieved its goal by gaining the moral high ground, revealing to the world the true face of the Islamic regime, and draining away much of its political legitimacy. Further, it has hastened the end of Khomeinism by exposing the existent political rifts within the Iranian political power.
The current political crisis in Iran – mainly between the president, his advisers and ministers, on the one hand, and the conservative principalists in the Majlis and revolutionary guards, on the other – has brought the state to a standoff that is unlikely to end in a peaceful and amiable manner.
A fracturing regime
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has now made the mistake that another Iranian president, Abolhassan Banisadr, made 30 years ago when he was forced from power and had to flee into exile: challenging the political institution of the supreme leader. This time the challenge derives from the dual authority that is embedded in the Islamic Republic’s constitution.
The Iranian constitution gives predominance to sharia and authority based on the divine will, but also incorporates the will of the people and their sovereignty. It is mainly because of this dual sovereignty within the Iranian political framework and the split at the top between “quietist” clerics and “absolutists” that the republican uprising of the Iranian population emerged in the first place. The republican principle of popular sovereignty is what led presidential candidates Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karroubi and their clerical backers, including Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, to challenge Ayatollah Khamenei’s authoritarian methods of governance.
This is the first time since the revolution in 1979 that an ever-widening rift among the top clerics endangers the theory and institution of the absolute authority of the jurist as advanced by the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Thus, the fracturing of the Iranian regime hinges not only on the future of the protests but also on the forthcoming crisis for the succession of the supreme leader. The most likely scenario, unfortunately, is that the hard-line principalists, who currently occupy the key positions of power and influence around Ayatollah Khameini, are best positioned to shape the future of political power in Iran. But a range of external and internal factors could change the context in which the struggle for succession will take place.
The struggles of the people
What preoccupies the ordinary Iranian nowadays is the deteriorating economic situation. What Iranians worry most about are rising prices and scarce jobs. Unemployment officially hovers around 11 percent, with some estimates that it will rise to 15 percent this year. According to the International Monetary Fund, Iran’s labor force is reported to be experiencing the highest “brain drain” in the Middle East. More than 180,000 highly skilled and educated Iranians leave the country every year seeking jobs in Europe and North America in order to escape Iran’s repressive environment.
Add to this a more serious test for the Islamic Republic’s energy reforms, as electricity and water bills are far less subsidized than in previous years. Though the present rise in oil prices gives the Iranian government a temporary backup, it is not enough to stop the disintegration of the economy. It is clear that the worsening economic situation not only escalates tensions within the Iranian regime, but also further tarnishes the regime’s legitimacy.
The regional context is also a factor. Violent repression against Iranian civil society and the fractures within Iran’s ruling class have eroded the image of the regime as the vanguard of the resistance against oppressors in the Muslim world. The recent revolts in the Arab street against corrupt dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere were more akin to the nonviolent demonstrations in Tehran than to the truncheon-wielding Basiji thugs who put down the revolt. The regime has based much of its international appeal upon being a righteous Islamic answer to corrupted regimes around the Middle East; yet, now the government’s anti-democratic domestic policies are steadily sweeping away its legitimacy as “popular” and “Islamic.”
Like Egypt and Tunisia, the Iranian regime is challenged by the “youth-quake” – since two-thirds of Iran’s population is under the age of 30 – who view rampant corruption as robbing them of their future.
As all these factors come into play, we don’t know what spark might set off the next wildfire of nonviolent protests spread widely by the social media. But each wave that asserts the republic principle of popular sovereignty further weakens the legitimacy of the Iranian theocracy.
Will peaceful reform come to Iran?
For now, the Green Movement is defining itself democratically by exposing the intellectual weaknesses and political brutalities of the Islamic regime, calling for freedom of political prisoners, and basic human rights. Like the other nonviolent democratic movements in the Middle East, its fundamental demand is non-ideological: dignity. For this reason, like the other movements in the region, it is also largely leaderless. This is both the movement’s strength and weakness.
Thus, two years on, the Green Movement is currently in a state of “wait and see,” preparing for the next opportunity to make its presence felt.
The ultimate question for Iran is whether the political system can be reformed in a peaceful way through the ballot box. What would be left of the Iranian dream of democracy if the popular demand for change cannot be met in a peaceful manner?
Iranians may have to wait another generation for this dream to become reality. Whatever the outcome, the future of democratic struggle in Iran will determine the course of the Middle East in the second decade of the 21st century.
Ramin Jahanbegloo, one of Iran’s best-known dissidents, headed the contemporary studies department of the Cultural Research Bureau in Tehran until his arrest in April 2006. He was released that August and now lives in exile in Canada, where he teaches at the University of Toronto.