The Green Movement in Iran

A Divided Coalition

The Green movement in Iran is still hoping that its tactic of applying pressure on the government from below, while negotiating at the top, will produce results, and that the government will show willingness to compromise. But the Iranian writer Faraj Sarkohi believes that the options remain limited for a movement which seeks to reform the despotic regime from within

Green Movement protest rally (photo: AP)
A former bearer of hope: The middle class continues to support Mousavi, but many members of the lower class have turned away from the Green movement

​​Iran's Green movement, which was founded a year ago, has met with considerable support in the US and Europe and in their media. But in Iran, the movement has lost the majority of its supporters from among the poorer elements of the Iranian population.

Currently, the leaders of the movement, Mir Hussein Mousavi, Mehdi Karubi and Mohammad Khatami, are organising their candidacies for the next parliamentary and presidential elections.

The wide coalition which grew up in opposition to the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and his supporters has changed from being a campaign to change the official election results into a broader protest movement.

Although it was put down violently and exiled into the virtual world of the internet and the foreign media - and although it remained restricted to the middle class in the big cities - it invigorated the political atmosphere, changing radically and irreversibly the nature of the debate among the Iranian population and in the ruling circles of the government.

Alone against the regime

Within the Green movement, the coalition was made up of very disparate partners with different aims and aspirations. Its leaders still aim for a reform of the despotic structures within the framework of the existing system. This will only be possible if the religious leadership, the influential political and military institutions and the security services are subject to sustained pressure and make voluntary concessions.

Dissident protest in Iran (photo: AP)
Politically powerless: Sarkohi argues that the Green movement's demonstrators don't have the power to push back the oppressive structures of the regime and its millions of supporters

​​But the Islamic Republic's regime has never had the slightest scruples in putting down oppositional and critical elements with violence whenever it seemed necessary. It continues to have the will and the power to deploy its repressive capacity at any time.

The most active elements in the movement – parts of the middle class in the big cities – go further in their demands than their leaders. They dream of democratisation, or at least of an end to religious interference in citizens' private lives.

But this group of around 5,000 to 10,000 people does not have the power to roll back the oppressive institutions of the regime and its millions of supporters, however strong their support may be in foreign media and however active they may be themselves on the internet.

Lowest common denominator

The reputation of the powerful economic and political circles around Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the current chairman of the Assembly of Experts, has been severely damaged by economic corruption, and they are now fighting to hold on to their political and economic privileges. This was the group which provided most of the finance for Mousavi's election campaign.

Mahmoud Ahamdinejad (photo: AP)
Conservative clerics did not see Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as their favourite candidate for the presidency, on account of his political and social views

​​The conservative clerics of the first generation of the revolution did not see Ahmadinejad as their favourite candidate, on account of his indifference to religious laws such as the clothing rules for women. And they were annoyed at the removal of some of their privileges. That's why they joined the coalition which supported Mousavi.

Religious reformers, who were the main supporters of the anti-Ahmadinejad coalition, had no alternative to Mousavi, even though – like the powerful circles around Rafsanjani – they were concerned about his plans to nationalise the economy.

None of the representatives of the religious reformers – not even their leader Mohammad Khatami – could have beaten Ahmadinejad. The majority of the voters were disappointed by the religious reformers after Khatami's two terms as president. They wanted an end to the corruption of those in power, as well as a just distribution of oil revenues. Ahmadinejad's popularity was based on precisely these issues.

During his eight years as prime minister from 1981 until 1989, Mousavi was a passionate supporter of the nationalisation of the economy. With his populist, left-wing programme, his insistence on Iran's right to enrich uranium, and his opposition to Israel, his political position had many similarities with that of Ahmadinejad. Indeed, sometimes he seemed even more radical.

Initial tactical successes of the coalition

The political coalition supporting Mousavi, with its neo-liberal economic programme, tried therefore to hide Mousavi's left-wing populist tendencies behind a Green Islamic flag. The middle class in the big cities, which wanted greater social freedom, saw the Green flag as a symbol of a "velvet revolution" which would lead to fundamental changes, and offered Mousavi their support.

Election day in Iran (photo: AP)
The reformers' Pyrrhic victory: Mousavi initially succeeded in getting both the middle class and the poor to back his programme

​​The urban middle class has made up around 5 to 7 million votes in all the elections of the past thirty years. Even the official results this time gave Mousavi 14 million votes. That means that Mousavi must have received not just the middle-class vote, but also that of significant parts of the poorer classes, as well as those of some members of the Pasdaran and the Basiji militias, and those of loyal fundamentalist supporters of the left-wing aspects of Khomeini's policies.

The official figures gave Mousavi a majority in Tehran and several other big cities. The millions who demonstrated against electoral fraud in the first few weeks following the election show how much support he had.

Although the second generation of Islamic Republic politicians, who come mainly from the military and the secret services, supported Ahmadinejad, they too did not see him as their ideal candidate.

The religious leaders too would have preferred another figure from the same group: Ali Larijani, the current speaker of the parliament. Larijani lost to Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections of 2005, but he is already preparing himself to stand again in the next elections in three years.

The role of the West

Iranian foreign and nuclear policy is not determined only by the country's religious leader, but by a complex web of power which includes the president. The Obama administration of the United States and European governments currently prefer negotiations with Iran to the former US policy of regime change and military threat.

But Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel outbursts make it difficult for the US and Europe to justify talks with him. The West would prefer any other partner to Ahmadinejad. The Green movement seemed to offer a chance of replacing him, or at least weakening him. But that was a strategy that failed.

Although books and magazines are not published in Iran in large numbers, the historical memory of the majority of the people includes many negative memories of foreign interference in their country and attempts at domination. Three decades of government propaganda emphasising US and European double standards on human rights and nuclear policy – propaganda that has often been confirmed by political reality – have left their mark.

Persian-language media outside Iran offer support to the Green movement with a one-sided and often scarcely professional picture of events in Iran. They often omit to mention the demonstrations in which millions of people show their support for Ahmadinejad. Such reporting is often welcomed by supporters of the Green movement, but it only confirms the conspiracy theories of government supporters who believe that the foreigners are all against them. That has worked into Ahmadinejad's hands.

The one-sided viewpoint

The picture portrayed by western media stems above all from the reporting of journalists who show the small, prosperous middle-class in the big cities as if it makes up the majority of the population. On the other side, the position of the real majority – the poorer classes – is scarcely ever described.

Young Iranian woman during a pro-Ahmadinejad rally in Tehran (photo: AP)
Their influence has been underestimated: both before and after the presidential elections, the regime has managed to mobilise many members of the traditionalist and poorer classes of society

​​The Persian-language internet has given the Green movement almost a monopoly of its attention, but most Iranians have no access to the internet. Its use in Iran is largely restricted to the young, and especially those in the middle and upper classes.

Millions of people in the big cities initially took part in the protests against the official election results. But the size of the demonstrations shrank little by little, until there were just 5,000 to 10,000 people taking part, demonstrating in the universities and in the more prosperous residential areas.

Initially the movement had no slogans that could have attracted the poor. Its symbols and values came from the western-oriented middle class.

Many of Mousavi's poorer supporters slowly left the Green movement. The distance between the lower classes and the Green movement grew further as the protests began to concentrate on the young people of the middle and upper classes.

Change of strategy and decline

Mousavi has recognised this over the last six months. He's been trying to regain the support of the lower classes by standing up for a return to the "values of the days of Ayatollah Khomenei," for "social justice" and for "rejection of any submission to western pressure on the nuclear dispute." The tactic has come late, and has led to criticism from some elements in the Iranian opposition and the urban middle class.

Mir Hossein Mousavi (photo: AP)
Mir Hossein Mousavi no more wants to give up on uranium enrichment than his rival Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

​​The leaders of the Green movement have claimed that millions would go out on the streets if the authorities would permit peaceful demonstrations. The claim cannot be verified as long as demonstration are banned and risk being put down violently by the regime.

The Green movement describes the demonstrations by millions in favour of Ahmadinejad and the country's religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as state-organised and consider them irrelevant. There's no doubt that they are organised by the state, but no-one is forced to take part.

The violent repression of the pro-Mousavi demonstrations has certainly contributed decisively to the reduction in attendance. But the numbers who attend the pro-government demonstrations show that the government has held on to its supporters, and doesn't merely depend on its power and its repressive institutions. It's still able to mobilise the masses if it needs to.

Pressure from below – negotiations at the top

The leaders of the Green movement still hope that the tactic of applying pressure from below through the people while negotiating at the top will produce results, and that those who hold power in the Islamic Republic, as well as the influential military and secret service elements, will be willing to compromise. But the possibilities are limited for a organisation movement which wants to reform a despotic political structure and its constitution from within.

With their slogans directed against the religious leaders of the Islamic Republic and actions like tearing up pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini, the opposition demonstrators have over the last year broken some of the central politico-religious taboos of the Islamic Republic.

Criticism of the religious leader's despotic privileges has increased among the people, and the leaders of the religious reformers are joining the active parts of the Green movement in calling for changes to the constitution.

Political issues have returned to Iran, the people's demands have become more radical, and Iranian society has without doubt taken an important and irreversible step on the way to democratisation.

Faraj Sarkohi

© 2010

Faraj Sarkohi founded the cultural magazine "Adineh" ("Friday") in 1985 and remained its editor for 11 years. He is currently based in Frankfurt where he works as a writer. He won the Kurt Tucholsky Prize for politically persecuted writers in 1998 and is an honorary member of the German PEN Centre.

Translation: Michael Lawton

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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