The Iranian Green Movement: A Promising Uprising to a Failed Revolution
The Green Movement originated in Iran during the 2009 presidential election. What started as a peaceful demonstration spread all across Iran and led to a violent reaction from the Islamic Republic. What started as a protest against the heavily manipulated election results transformed into revolt against the Islamic Republic for responding brutally to the peaceful protests. President Ahmadinejad was running for reelection against Mir-Hossein Mousavi, many of whom thought would be reform Iran if he won. Mousavi’s platform was based on a reform of civil society, more rights granted to women and an end to sanctions to help businessmen. The Green Movement began weeks before the actual election occurred, and only intensified once the results were announced and President Ahmadinejad was reelected. Iranians hoped the Supreme Leader Khamenei would call for a recount, but when he stood by the election results, the people lost all hope in their Islamic “Republic” and demanded justice. The Green Movement was a peaceful uprising but the regime’s response was anything but. Their response created even more opposition to the Islamic Republic. However, the regime managed to stop the movement before it transformed into a full-on revolution. The next possible step for Iran is difficult to determine. Elections are closely monitored and clearly rigged, therefore it is unlikely a reformist would be elected to the presidency. Some theorists claim that one way to change the current system would be through mass mobilization, but that has failed as well. Perhaps the next step is a change from within or for outside nations to exert influence over Iran to force change.
Iran is not unbeknownst to revolutions and uprisings. It has seen its fair share of mass mobilizations against the government. The most radical occurred in 1979 and reshaped the entire political system. The Pahlavi Dynasty was overthrown and a Republic based on Islamic principles was implemented. While the actual revolution was relatively peaceful, the aftermath was violent and many of those that supported the Shah were persecuted. As a result of the revolution, a new theocratic constitution was established with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, as the sole leader of Iran. The position of president was included in the constitution as well as a Council of Guardians. The positions were created as a means to support the Supreme Leader. The election process in Iran is “democratic” in that free elections are held, however the journey to become a candidate for president is far from democratic. The election process is highly-regulated and often, candidates that are seen as “reformist” are disqualified because of their ideas. The Guardian Council is composed of twelve individuals. Six are appointed by the Leader himself, while the other are appointed by parliament. However, the Head of the Judiciary creates the list of nominees for president and he is elected directly by the Leader. To be considered as a presidential candidate, one must file a nomination with the Guardian Council. The Guardian Council then vets the candidates, usually for purposes that do not reflect their adequacy to run a country but rather on their devotion to Islam and to the Supreme Leader. The candidates that make it through are then put on the ballot. The Supreme Leader controls much of the process through proxies. Even though the elections are “by the people,” they are highly-regulated and far from democratic.
The legitimacy of the government in Iran prior to the 2009 elections was rocky at best. Many Iranians were disillusioned with the current government which they believed to be corrupt, dictatorial, and suppressive. Unemployment was teetering around twenty-three percent, while economic growth had been declining rapidly since 2007 from eight percent to three percent in 2009. Iran was given more sanctions by the United Nations, which only made Iranians question their governments ability to handle foreign policy. The youths and women in Iran especially felt that their freedoms were limited. Due to the economic problems Iran was facing, youths felt that they had no future because of the lack of employment opportunities presented to them upon entering adulthood. Women were not given the same rights as men and many felt it was time for a change from the status-quo.
Mousavi was a formidable opponent for several reasons. He had received considerable support from the Rafsanjani family and other wealthy mullahs who were tired of how President Ahmadinejad was ruling the country. Many ayatollahs were upset with the President for not consulting with them about important issues. Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, was a prominent women’s rights activist who helped campaign for her husband. She called for an end to harassment by the police as well as equal rights for women. This appealed to not only women, but the greater public who had been subjected to unnecessary violence by the police. Another reason Mousavi was considered a good candidate was because he was not considered “too” reformist. He had served as prime minister under Ayatollah Khomeini previously and was devoted to his religion. This helped him appeal to a broader range of Iranians. Due to the number of Iranians that showed up to each rally and the discontent with the current state of the government, most Iranians were certain that Mousavi would win the election. When the results were released, the public was shocked and outraged, and protests began that night.
The Green Movement emerged prior to the election as a force to support Mousavi. It consisted of mainly the upper-class until the election results were released, then the movement began to dissipate into the middle and lower classes. The Green Movement itself was extremely broad based. Religious Iranians and reformists were involved in the protests, despite their basic ideological differences; the original main goal was to get the government to issue a recall. The movement transformed into attacking the Islamic Republic for its oppressive behavior. The Green Movement identified seven characteristics: the movement is peaceful and against violence, it is democratic and will uphold human rights, it is independent and not planned by any foreign government, it is not a revolution nor is it attempting to be one, the leaders of the movement and its supporters chose green specifically as a color, the movement is against using religion, and it is an ethical movement. The goals and attributes of the movement were meant to signify that those involved wanted change to the Iranian government, but did not want to do so violently.
Many revolutions tend to become violent to further their cause, but the Green Movement did not succumb to this. Its non-violence aspect was its most profound because it managed to garner attention worldwide and spark a significant reaction internally. Ironically, the tactics used were similar to ones implemented during the 1979 Iranian revolution. Slogans, emblems and chants used during the 1979 revolution were inverted so that they were still recognizable as they were originally, but the message was inherently different. A symbol of a single hand typically stands for collective action, but also has religious connotations representing the Prophet Muhammad and his family. In the 1979 revolutions, the single hand was shown with images of a clenched fist, symbolizing the suppressive Pahlavi dynasty. Protesters would dip their hands in blood and mark buildings to symbolize the deadly brute force of the regime. In 2009, the single handprint was used again, this time using the green that Mousavi’s campaign employed. The index and middle fingers of the hand formed a “V” for victory and peace. This symbol was a tactic meant to incite not only an inclination of religious undertones, but also was meant to simultaneously spread peace and the message that Mousavi was the true victor.
Mousavi’s campaign adopted the color green for his campaign and subsequently, that became the color of the movement. The color green was used for several specific purposes: it is the color of Islam, it appears on the Iranian flag, and it is associated with the prophetic family. While the Green Movement was not religious in scope, the “green” symbolized the religious importance of Iran that many Iranians felt was vital to the nation. The older generation had survived the 1979 revolution and despite its inadequacies, felt that their work in the revolution should be for something. The youths (who made up roughly two-thirds of the population in 2000) were less likely to be influenced by religion and more so by individual freedom were moved by the color green because it was apart of the Iranian flag, which indicated they supported Iran despite its flaws. The color green was also used because it is the opposite of red, the color associated with blood, violence, and the Islamic Republic’s oppressive tendencies. The green in the The Green Movement was meant to symbolize the possible peace and democracy that could emerge. Green was a fitting color because it was the movement’s desired outcome.
Another tactic was the use of slogans that attacked the regime’s blatant disregard for free elections and eventually the oppressive nature of the Republic. “Where is my vote?” emerged on the day the results announced Ahmadinejad won in a “landslide victory,” and questioned the Republic’s “democracy.” The protest was largely grassroots—it began to develop and spread from town to town and as it became more popular, the chants began to shift. When the government responded violently, the chants became more about the growing resentment with the President and with the Islamic Republic in general. Slogans like, “death to the dictator” were in direct response to the belief that President Ahmadinejad had too much power and was abusing it. Written out, dictator was painted in red to signify the regime’s violence and suppression, while “death to” was written in green. This juxtaposition of the colors indicates that the death of the dictator would bring peace and democracy to Iran. Eventually, the chants emerged to “freedom for Iran,” which indicated the dissatisfaction with the election results had developed into dissatisfaction with the entire Republic.
The protests remained non-violent throughout, but the regime’s response became progressively more violent. During a protest at Tehran University, many students were injured which only lead to the protests spreading faster. The next day, a million people marched to Tehran’s Freedom Square to protest. The Islamic Republic began to realize though the protests were peaceful, too many people were joining in. As a result, Khamenei banned all street demonstrations and warned of “bloodshed” if they were to continue. The Republic sent out Revolutionary Guards to deal with the protesters, whom they called “terrorists” and threatened to kill anyone participating in them. Newspapers were shut down, radio forecasts jammed and those close with the opposition were jailed. The Republic started a campaign to convince Iranians that the Green Movement was western-backed, a tactic that was meant to play on the memories of the U.S. involved coup d’Etat in 1953, going as far as to force public figures to publicly confess that they were involved in the foreign-backed plot.
The Islamic Republic managed to regain control of the situation through fear, manipulation and violence. While the Republic’s legitimacy has severely been affected by the Green Movement, it still remains in power. The protests did not transform into a revolution for several reasons. First, the Islamic Republic had more support than the shah had in 1979, allowing for more control over the Iranians. This includes the Revolutionary Guards and the Basijs who threatened, arrested and sometimes killed protesters to maintain “peace.” This iron-hand type of control allowed for the Iranian Republic to suppress the opposition while also garnering even more control in a pseudo-militaristic state. Now, seven years later, the Iranian Republic has managed to maintain control of the state, despite its waning legitimacy, even during the Arab Spring. The prospects of a revolution are slim. Arang Keshavarzian believes there are two ways the regime could collapse: one particular elite faction could takeover from within the state or an opposition group could take control. The protests in 2009 already created an opposition group with a leader, Mousavi, and a streamlined goal, but this failed. Perhaps more protests could arise in the future and due to the lack of legitimacy that Iran’s government currently has, the opposition would fare better. Iran is strict on election monitoring groups to survey the election process, and would likely not allow any type of democracy promotion organizations to encourage active voter participation to avoid a repeat of 2009. The strategy to move forward would be to have the United Nations, the United States and perhaps other allied nations to convince Iran to rethink its outside election-monitoring process. If Iran was more transparent with the way it counted votes, Iranians would be more trusting of their government and therefore more inclined to think it legitimate. Sanctions could be lessened as an incentive for Iran to adopt this policy. While the prospects for freer and fairer elections in Iran is not likely, there is a possibility that nations could use incentives to convince Iran to allow election monitoring organizations oversee the electoral process, as well lessen the control that the Supreme Leader has on the elections.
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