by Shima Vezvaei
Today, Iran struggles with economic recession, a recent currency devaluation, and demands for greater social freedom from inside as well as a debilitated nuclear deal, sanctions, and the push for regime change from outside. What has become ever more dangerously fragile is not the government of Hassan Rouhani but the country’s narrowly functioning democracy.
It has been nine years since the results of the 2009 presidential election led to mass protests that lasted for almost two years. What has been called the Iranian Green Movement started in the month of Khordad (the third month in the Persian calendar) with silent demonstrations in which millions of people went on the streets in Azadi (freedom) Square in Tehran and other cities across Iran with a basic question, literally and symbolically: “Where is my vote?” Khordad, which begins in May and ends in June, is the embodiment for many Iranians of change, reform, and resistance.
Government security forces shut down the Green Movement. They arrested the opposition leaders in February 2011 and silenced the protesters. The man who could have saved Iranian democracy, opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, remains under house arrest.
Rouhani’s moderate government and the reformist parliament have failed to fulfill their promise to end Mousavi’s house arrest, a promise that gained them the public support to win the elections in the first place. The other powerful and not-very-democratic entities of the state, dominated by hardliners and neoconservatives, are doing everything within their power to prolong the illegal house arrest.
Trump’s pulling out of the nuclear deal has basically gifted these hardliners with a golden hammer to damage the functioning of the Rouhani government. The hardliners are, moreover, exploiting the language of social justice and equality for their own ideological agenda in the upcoming elections, as they, too, have learned how to play the game on social media and national television. “I have come to the conclusion that elections, in general, are a pain in the neck,” said Ezzatollah Zarghami, former military general and former head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, in an interview with Arman newspaper as he announced his candidacy for the next presidential race. They seem to be preparing the ground to abolish the executive presidency in Iran. Ayatollah Khamenei himself has given the green light to shift from a presidential to a parliamentary system on multiple occasions.
Sadly, the hardliners have a point when it comes to the undemocratic way the presidential system has handled the economy. Rouhani’s economic policies are the latest example of a long, undemocratic, technocratic, ethnocentric process of development in Iran that started in the 1990s and has systematically widened inequalities and benefitted certain social and economic classes. As a result of these disparities, the underrepresented and disenfranchised protested in the streets to express their legitimate economic and social grievances in early 2018.
“Reformist, conservative—this story has come to an end!” This chant during the latest Iran protests epitomized a visible and growing anti-establishment sentiment among some Iranians. Given the oppression of activists, opposition politicians, civil society organizations, and journalists as well as the demolition of political parties, it’s no surprise that the majority of remaining reformists in the political system constantly look for scapegoats for their failures.
Mir Hossein Mousavi, however, was that charismatic outsider who targeted corruption more than any other issue during his 2009 campaign. He talked about the redistribution of wealth and democratizing powerful institutions by including all political forces, including minorities and the lower class. More importantly, unlike any of the current opposition figures, he was popular among all three post-revolution generations of different social, cultural, political, and economic background, not to mention vital segments of the military that were forgotten or hidden in the shadows.
The time has changed. It is not obvious how the fourth generation of revolution—the Internet generation that was too young to vote in the 2009 presidential election and has no firsthand memory of those mass demonstrations—feels about the state of the Green Movement in Iran. What is certain, however, is they are bolder, less forgiving, and more radical. They are participants in an alternative online public sphere different and significantly stronger than the one that existed nine years ago. They have demonstrated their new sensibility through their resistance to the blocking of the Telegram messaging app, their push for freedom of clothing for women, and their support of women’s and minority rights more generally.
As another Khordad is coming to an end, isn’t it time for the Islamic Republic to realize that keeping grassroots opposition leaders under house arrest is undermining the very political system that keeps the current leadership in place?
Shima Vezvaei is a Berlin based journalist and media analyst.