The Green Movement was the most widespread expression of opposition to the Islamic Republic of Iran since its inception but it failed. What ensued during 20 months in 2009-10 that the movement persisted is a lesson in the Islamic Republic’s vulnerability and its capacity.
The movement shook Iran’s foundations. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei admitted “the sedition was a great challenge” and blamed the movement’s leaders for taking the system to the “edge of the cliff.”
Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) declared: “The Islamic system went nearly to the border of overthrow.”
The rapid mobilisation, scale of protests and swift radicalisation of protesters undermined the regime’s ability to mount a single pro-government demonstration for nearly seven months.
The movement arose from several factors. The revolution’s leadership betrayed its promises to provide political freedom and improve people’s living conditions. Instead, the leaders imposed a theocracy and restricted social and cultural freedoms enjoyed by Iranians before the revolution.
Additionally, widespread corruption by Shia clergy, coupled with rising inequalities, belied the leaders’ promises. The rulers seized vast political and economic resources but, instead of benefiting the populace, they controlled the assets in their own interests.
The movement was triggered by the presidential election in 2009. Initially, protests focused on the vote’s outcome. Despite pre-election threats from the IRGC to avoid a velvet revolution, 3 million people protested on June 15, 2009, asking: “What happened to my vote?”
A week after the elections, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei admonished the opposition to stay off the streets or risk violence. He warned that opposition leaders would be held responsible for bloodshed and chaos if they did not stop the demonstrations.
In response, protesters were radicalised, shouting slogans such as “Death to the dictator,” “Death to Khamenei,” “Khamenei is a murderer; his leadership is revoked” and “We didn’t give our lives to compromise and won’t praise the murderous.”
Others targeted Khamenei’s son: “Die, Mojtaba, so you don’t become the supreme leader.”
Faced with radicalised protesters and massive repression, the movement’s leaders halted calls for additional demonstrations. However, protesters found opportunities during anniversaries and official celebrations. Approximately 2 million people demonstrated in Tehran on Quds day (September 18). Eschewing the official slogans (“Death to America,” “Death to Israel”), participants shouted “Death to Russia” and “Death to China.”
The regime intensified its crackdown. In the 50 days following the presidential election, authorities executed 115 people without announcing their crimes. They fined protesters for shouting “Allahu Akbar.” Some universities banned the display of green objects.
Khamenei declared that questioning the election was “the biggest crime.” Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati concurred: “The Quran, Islam and the leader must be preserved. We should have no mercy towards those who commit evil. Despite having Islamic kindness, Imam Ali killed thousands in one of the wars.”
Intense repression weakened the opposition and curtailed protests. However, the eruption of democratisation movements in the region created an opening for the Green Movement to re-emerge. Movement leaders denounced the Islamic regime as another monarchical system and called for a march in solidarity with regional movements.
Initially, the Islamic regime hailed the region’s movements as anti-American but moved to repress the Green Movement decisively.
Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard and Mehdi Karroubi were confined under house arrest. Khamenei dissolved the two reformist parties. Political repression put an end to protests in February 2011.
The Green Movement revealed a near-fatal rift within the Islamic regime. During the conflicts, portions of the IRGC refused to support the country’s leaders and the regime was forced to rely on the paramilitary Basij to repress the movement. Jafari admitted: “Had the Basij not existed, we don’t know what might have happened and it is possible that the seditionists might have achieved their goals.”
However, the movement failed to alter the nature of the Islamic regime due to leaders who were reluctant to alter the existing institutions; a disjunction between the leaders’ goals and those of protesters who demanded fundamental changes; and the failure to forge a broad coalition that included workers and bazaar merchants.
Nevertheless, the movement polarised the Iranian state and society more than ever before. The regime’s demands to comply with theocratic rules have been met with widespread passive resistance in all areas of religious, social and cultural life — the very foundation of the theocracy. The regime has responded with endless repression, setting the stage for a further round of conflicts.
Misagh Parsa is a professor of sociology at Dartmouth and the author of Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed, (Harvard University Press, 2016). This article had been incorrectly attributed earlier to Mini S. Menon.
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