Iran's Green Movement: 5 years later

Iran's presidential election on June 12, 2009 was as fateful as it was controversial.  In no uncertain terms, the official results showed incumbent candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad winning in a landslide, but a great many people – prominent among them his opponents in the election, Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi – alleged fraud, with Moussavi even insisting on the accusation to the point of declaring victory himself.  This led to a massive breakout of protests and civil unrest in Iran and the birth of a popular action – widely regarded as the political offspring of Moussavi and Karroubi – that has come to be known as "The Green Movement."

Like any legitimate political initiative undertaken by the masses, in spite of some isolated savage zealotry from the less evolved, the Green Movement has always been overwhelmingly characterized by peaceful protests staged by those who appreciate human rights and democracy.  These people have shunned violence as a political tool and rejected it for use in their movement as they voice their dauntless but bloodless opposition to a tyrannical regime.  Indeed, Mir-Hossein Moussavi himself, one of the godfathers of the action, whose preferred campaign color gave the Green Movement its name, has left no room for doubt in calling for all demonstrations to remain strictly peaceful.  His directive has largely been heeded, despite the fact that many of those joining this rising wave care little for the implicit victory of Moussavi or Karroubi, focused entirely on simply speaking out against Ahmadinejad's supposed win.

This is not difficult to understand, because Iranians are not a violent lot.  In fact, greater than 50% of Iran's population consists of young people under the age of 35, and like most young people in the twenty-first century, these are by and large modern, progressive individuals who prefer intellectual discourse to brute force.

Nevertheless, even from essentially peaceful beginnings, the Green Movement has tranquilized over time.  Never an overly bloody affair, a popular action that – it must be admitted – was once characterized by civil disobedience has striven in recent years to attain an air of legitimacy.  Originally, the very leaders of the movement urged protests that had been specifically denied permission by state officials, but now the emphasis is on legal activities that obey the law rather than openly defy it.  The youth of the Green Movement's constituency can perhaps be credited for this shift, as the introduction of advanced communications technologies such as the internet – utilized primarily by those of tender age – into the effort has resulted in an increasingly keen awareness of public perception.  This is common sense, as lawless action has no credible place in a movement whose goal is to undermine what is seen as a lawless regime.

And why not?  Ironically, the Green Movement questions the validity of no significant sector of Iranian political power.  The authority of the president in Iran is minimal.  The country, in fact, is actually ruled by the supreme leader – a position created in the 1979 Islamic Revolution and currently held by the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – whose edicts are essentially beyond review.  Under the supreme leader, a so-called "Guardian Council" of 12 jurists sits to oversee legislation, while an Assembly of Experts consisting of 86 Islamic scholars ranks below them.  In theory, the Assembly of Experts is charged with monitoring the supreme leader and judging the wisdom of his decisions; in practice, no such oversight takes place.  An intermediary branch called the Expediency Council also exists, below which – finally – can be found the president.  As can be seen, the president's role is largely one of international showmanship.  The Green Movement within the establishment is merely dissatisfied with the "face" of Iran, and seeks to cause no upheaval beyond that, whereas the masses who are a significant part of the movement seek to replace the Islamic Republic of Iran with a democratic and preferably secular regime.

But what support has been bestowed by the international community on a movement so fundamentally concerned with legitimate action, nonviolence, and the rights of human beings?  From the United States, little has come, as American President Barack Obama largely failed to oppose Ahmadinejad.  Despite supposedly favoring reform in Iran, Obama has repeatedly dignified and validated Ahmadinejad's position, and has sadly chosen to do this in place of more meaningful action such as directly supporting the people of Iran, whose liberties he claims to respect.  This could reasonably have been achieved (and still could be achieved) through encouraging the further development of technologies in Iran that empower that nation's people to continue speaking up for and helping themselves.  Instead, Obama and many other world leaders have proposed the possibility of economic sanctions and even the threat of military force in the hopes of undermining Iran's government.  But these are baffling and nearly incomprehensible tactics, as the real end result of either (or, heaven forefend, both) of these ideas would simply be to visit untold and undeserved suffering on countless numbers of innocent Iranians.

No one is suggesting that the solution to such enormous problems as the struggle of an oppressed people for basic human dignity has quick, simple solutions.  But there are meaningful steps that could be taken by the United States and others, beginning with the abandonment of hawkish war talk and self-defeating economic sanctions as well as the insane policy of dignifying the Iranian regime.  It is the people of Iran who must be empowered, not a head of state (who, as previously discussed, is in fact merely a "face of state") whose legitimacy is questionable at best.  No, this will not be easy, but doing the right thing rarely is.  Those who support the Green Movement (especially within Iran) have faced a terrifying uphill struggle against all odds from day one, against an entrenched enemy who despises and disrespects them.  Yet they persevere, carrying on without regard to the difficulty of their task.  If they can face a seemingly impossible challenge with courage and resolve, can the free world afford to do any less on their behalf?

Slater Bakhtavar is an attorney, journalist, author, and political commentator. He is author of Iran: The Green Movement.

Iran's presidential election on June 12, 2009 was as fateful as it was controversial.  In no uncertain terms, the official results showed incumbent candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad winning in a landslide, but a great many people – prominent among them his opponents in the election, Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi – alleged fraud, with Moussavi even insisting on the accusation to the point of declaring victory himself.  This led to a massive breakout of protests and civil unrest in Iran and the birth of a popular action – widely regarded as the political offspring of Moussavi and Karroubi – that has come to be known as "The Green Movement."

Like any legitimate political initiative undertaken by the masses, in spite of some isolated savage zealotry from the less evolved, the Green Movement has always been overwhelmingly characterized by peaceful protests staged by those who appreciate human rights and democracy.  These people have shunned violence as a political tool and rejected it for use in their movement as they voice their dauntless but bloodless opposition to a tyrannical regime.  Indeed, Mir-Hossein Moussavi himself, one of the godfathers of the action, whose preferred campaign color gave the Green Movement its name, has left no room for doubt in calling for all demonstrations to remain strictly peaceful.  His directive has largely been heeded, despite the fact that many of those joining this rising wave care little for the implicit victory of Moussavi or Karroubi, focused entirely on simply speaking out against Ahmadinejad's supposed win.

This is not difficult to understand, because Iranians are not a violent lot.  In fact, greater than 50% of Iran's population consists of young people under the age of 35, and like most young people in the twenty-first century, these are by and large modern, progressive individuals who prefer intellectual discourse to brute force.

Nevertheless, even from essentially peaceful beginnings, the Green Movement has tranquilized over time.  Never an overly bloody affair, a popular action that – it must be admitted – was once characterized by civil disobedience has striven in recent years to attain an air of legitimacy.  Originally, the very leaders of the movement urged protests that had been specifically denied permission by state officials, but now the emphasis is on legal activities that obey the law rather than openly defy it.  The youth of the Green Movement's constituency can perhaps be credited for this shift, as the introduction of advanced communications technologies such as the internet – utilized primarily by those of tender age – into the effort has resulted in an increasingly keen awareness of public perception.  This is common sense, as lawless action has no credible place in a movement whose goal is to undermine what is seen as a lawless regime.

And why not?  Ironically, the Green Movement questions the validity of no significant sector of Iranian political power.  The authority of the president in Iran is minimal.  The country, in fact, is actually ruled by the supreme leader – a position created in the 1979 Islamic Revolution and currently held by the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – whose edicts are essentially beyond review.  Under the supreme leader, a so-called "Guardian Council" of 12 jurists sits to oversee legislation, while an Assembly of Experts consisting of 86 Islamic scholars ranks below them.  In theory, the Assembly of Experts is charged with monitoring the supreme leader and judging the wisdom of his decisions; in practice, no such oversight takes place.  An intermediary branch called the Expediency Council also exists, below which – finally – can be found the president.  As can be seen, the president's role is largely one of international showmanship.  The Green Movement within the establishment is merely dissatisfied with the "face" of Iran, and seeks to cause no upheaval beyond that, whereas the masses who are a significant part of the movement seek to replace the Islamic Republic of Iran with a democratic and preferably secular regime.

But what support has been bestowed by the international community on a movement so fundamentally concerned with legitimate action, nonviolence, and the rights of human beings?  From the United States, little has come, as American President Barack Obama largely failed to oppose Ahmadinejad.  Despite supposedly favoring reform in Iran, Obama has repeatedly dignified and validated Ahmadinejad's position, and has sadly chosen to do this in place of more meaningful action such as directly supporting the people of Iran, whose liberties he claims to respect.  This could reasonably have been achieved (and still could be achieved) through encouraging the further development of technologies in Iran that empower that nation's people to continue speaking up for and helping themselves.  Instead, Obama and many other world leaders have proposed the possibility of economic sanctions and even the threat of military force in the hopes of undermining Iran's government.  But these are baffling and nearly incomprehensible tactics, as the real end result of either (or, heaven forefend, both) of these ideas would simply be to visit untold and undeserved suffering on countless numbers of innocent Iranians.

No one is suggesting that the solution to such enormous problems as the struggle of an oppressed people for basic human dignity has quick, simple solutions.  But there are meaningful steps that could be taken by the United States and others, beginning with the abandonment of hawkish war talk and self-defeating economic sanctions as well as the insane policy of dignifying the Iranian regime.  It is the people of Iran who must be empowered, not a head of state (who, as previously discussed, is in fact merely a "face of state") whose legitimacy is questionable at best.  No, this will not be easy, but doing the right thing rarely is.  Those who support the Green Movement (especially within Iran) have faced a terrifying uphill struggle against all odds from day one, against an entrenched enemy who despises and disrespects them.  Yet they persevere, carrying on without regard to the difficulty of their task.  If they can face a seemingly impossible challenge with courage and resolve, can the free world afford to do any less on their behalf?

Slater Bakhtavar is an attorney, journalist, author, and political commentator. He is author of Iran: The Green Movement.