Iran's Green Movement Five Years Later -- 'Defeated' But Ultimately Victorious

A supporter of main challenger and reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi shouts from the crowd amidst a festive atmosphere
A supporter of main challenger and reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi shouts from the crowd amidst a festive atmosphere at an election rally at the Heidarnia stadium in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, June 9, 2009. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

June 12 is the fifth anniversary of the birth of Iran's democratic Green Movement. Though the open resistance of this popular movement has been suppressed, it has been morally vindicated in the intervening years and remains as a constituency imbedded in Iran's body politic, ready to emerge once again when the opportunity arises.

And the opportunity will surely arise. The Islamic Republic of Iran is not your usual authoritarian state. As a hybrid of religious dictatorship and competitive elections, the regime generates its own opposition, see-sawing back and forth between conservatives and reformists. One day, the balance of power will shift decisively toward democracy and against the Ayatollahs.

It is precisely because competitive elections within a religious dictatorship are so meaningful that the election five years ago in 2009 was so passionately contested.


On that day in 2009 Iran's 10th presidential elections were held. Over 39 million people, representing about 85 percent of the eligible voters, cast their votes. According to the government's claims, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received 62.6 percent of the votes, while his main opponent, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi received 33.75 percent. The disbelief that these results were accurate ignited the widespread protests of the Green Movement.

Unlike in previous elections, the results were announced too quickly. Mousavi and the third candidate, former Majles (parliament) Speaker Mehdi Karroubi both demanded nullification of the elections. Their supporters in Tehran and other large cities filled the streets, shouting "where is my vote?"

After the demonstrations by hundreds of thousands continued for a week, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei rejected the demands by the protestors, accused the United States and other Western powers of interfering in Iran, and demanded an end to any protests. In his sermon during the Friday prayers a week after the elections, Khamenei's words were regarded by many as sanctioning a violent crackdown on the demonstrators.

In the end, it took the regime about nine months to put down the Green Movement. Ten thousand people were arrested, and many of them faced charges. At least 110 people were killed (although the regime claimed only 33 people were killed, of whom 16 people supposedly belonged to the Basij militia, the paramilitary force controlled by the Revolutionary Guard). Many prisoners were tortured and Stalinist-type trials were held for them. Some of the prisoners were forced to "confess" that they had worked with foreign governments.

But, Mousavi and Karroubi, the leaders of the Green Movement, continued their protests. Using the political upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt as an excuse, they invited the people to demonstrate on Feb. 15, 2011. At least a million people demonstrated on that day in Tehran. Then, on the order of Khamenei, Mousavi, his wife, Dr. Zahra Rahnavard (a university professor), Karroubi and his wife, Fatemeh Karroubi, were put under house arrest. Fatemeh Karroubi was released later on, but the other three are still under strict house arrest.

The Revolutionary Guard chief, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said recently that his forces took three "fundamental and strategic" actions against the Green Movement: widespread arrest of the strategists and leaders of the protests, confronting the demonstrators with force in order to prevent their street actions, and cutting off means of mass communication between them, such as cell phones, SMS, etc.


The Green Movement may have been repressed, but it was only seemingly defeated. Its original demand, cancellation of the 2009 elections, was never realized. Ahmadinejad continued as Iran's President, and left office last year after eight years of economic and political failures. He left a ruined Iran for his successor, Hassan Rouhani.

Over time, the goals and demands of the Green Movement expanded and evolved. In the age of electronic communications and YouTube, any group of a few hundred people can claim to represent the "demands of the people." Some have even called for the intervention of foreign powers and the imposing of harsh economic sanctions on Iran. In interviews with Farsi-speaking, foreign-based televisions, then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton even promised that if the U.S. receives a request from Iran's opposition leaders, it will provide the type of "help" that the U.S. gave the Libyan people during their struggle to topple Muammar Gaddafi's regime.

For their part, Mousavi and Karroubi have courageously resisted the pressure by Khamenei and his supporters, and have also continued to insist on peaceful democratic principles. The vast majority of their supporters have continued doing the same, but a small fraction has called for toppling the regime by any means.


Although under Khamenei's leadership the Islamic Republic seemingly defeated the Green Movement, it ultimately failed morally. The reasons are fourfold.

Resorting to force against peaceful demonstrators. The regime did not accept testing its own claims about the elections by cancelling them and holding new ones, and instead used naked force as the ultimate arbiter of its dispute with the nation. Using force is always a sign of political weakness of a regime's political legitimacy. In fact, by resorting to force, the regime violated its own constitution and encouraged the people to break the laws. This represents the biggest moral failure of the state.

The resistance of the Green Movement's leaders and a significant portion of the society against the regime have kept alive those elections as an "unsolved problem." The Islamic Republic has a long record of creating unsolved problems, and transforming them into potential reasons for public protests at many levels of the society. Moreover, once in a while new evidence emerges supporting Mousavi's and Karroubi's contention about the elections. For example, General Jafari told a gathering of the IRGC commanders that in the 2009 elections "there were considerable concerns among the revolutionary forces that the counter-revolutionaries that had penetrated the government during the reform era [of former president Mohammad Khatami] will get another opportunity to do the same." Jafari added that the ruling group thought that the elections will go to the second round (it happens if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the votes), and that it was not clear what would happen in that round. Thus, the IRGC was forced to intervene in order to block the possibility and prevent the reformists from returning to power.

Transformation of Mousavi and Karroubi into national heroes and the increasing public pressure for their release from house arrest and the release of all the political prisoners represent the third reason for the failure of the regime. President Hassan Rouhani has seriously pursued these goals, but has been facing strong resistance by Khamenei and the hardliners in the security and intelligence establishments.

Over the intervening years, the Green Movement has created connections and trust among many millions of people, hence creating a potentially powerful social force that can re-emerge, given an opportunity.


The Islamic Republic is a dictatorship, but not all dictatorships are similar. Iran holds regular elections for the parliament, the presidency, city councils, and the Assembly of Experts (a constitutional body that appoints the Supreme Leader). Although the Guardian Council vets the candidates and prevents a large number of them from running, the elections are still very competitive and consequential. For example, right from its inception, there has always been a struggle for the control of sources of power, wealth, and social standing. The struggle is real and the competition can be dirty.

The presidential elections have always provided an opportunity for temporarily mobilizing the public and bringing competing forces directly into play.

During the Khamenei era that began in 1989, the elections have always polarized the society, with the supporters and opponents of Khamenei making up the opposite sides. The people demonstrate their dissatisfaction with Khamenei by voting for the candidate opposed by his supporters.

The elections can always produce unexpected results -- the reformist Khatami's election in 1997, Ahmadinejad's election in 2005 and 2009, and victory by Rouhani last year are the best evidence for this.


The power structure in the Islamic Republic is such that it creates its own opposition. The late Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri was supposed to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but became his most important critic, and revealed great crimes and torture of the political prisoners. He was also put under house arrest for five years during the Khamenei era.

Khatami, once Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, was forced to resign due to his relatively liberal policies, but won the presidential elections in 1997 in a landslide. But, he is now banned from leaving Iran.

Mousavi was Khomeini's hand-picked prime minister and was imposed on Khamenei in 1980s when he was Iran's president. He was also a member of many important organs of the state during Khamenei's reign.

Karroubi was Khomeini's personal representative to many important state organs, as well as a two-term Majles Speaker.

Mousavi and Karroubi are the products of the Islamic Republic and the Green Movement was born because of their presidential runs in 2009.

During the entire Khamenei era, the political developments instigated by high officials of the regime have temporarily attracted many in the opposition in the diaspora, and have made them hopeful for the future. The presidencies of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Rouhani, as well as the birth of the Green Movement are the best evidence for this aspect of Iranian politics.

If a movement is created inside Iran, many Iranians living in the diaspora also join it and try to influence it. But, when the internal movement fails, the diaspora is not able to prevent its failure.


The struggle within the Islamic Republic power hierarchy is still continuing unabated. New political blocs and alliances are emerging in preparation for the next Assembly of Experts elections, and those for the Majles to be held in March 2016. Hardliners have also been making extensive preparations for the elections, saying publicly that they are worried that the reformists will win the next Majles elections.

But, because nuclear negotiations between Iran and P5+1 have still not produced the final agreement, and the West's most crippling sanctions in history imposed on Iran have still not been lifted, bringing the country out of its deep economic problems is difficult, and the future is still uncertain. Rouhani, Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Hassan Khomeini, the Ayatollah's grandson, are pursuing the release of Mousavi and Karroubi from house arrest. But, Khamenei and the hardliners, particularly some of IRGC commanders are opposed to it.

The Iranian society has undergone deep structural changes that make it impossible to take the country back to the early days of the Revolution of 1979. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs. What is important is transforming the dissatisfaction into effective political action.

Taking a look at the region around Iran and in the rest of the world, the Iranian people see two types of scenarios drawn the experience of other countries:

One is what has happened in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Libya that has destroyed the infrastructure of these nations, killing hundreds of thousands of people in the process.

But there is also the experience of Tunisia, South Africa, Chile, Brazil, and other countries that resulted in a more or less peaceful transition to democracy.

Mousavi, Karroubi, Khatami, and most of the political prisoners and opposition forces inside Iran are opposed to creating a situation that would bring to Iran what happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. They are pursuing a peaceful transition from the religious dictatorship of the Islamic Republic to democratic rule based on respect for human rights of the citizens, and are opposed to foreign intervention in Iran. Their goal is a peaceful transition to democracy, not inviting the destruction of Iran the way their neighbors have been destroyed.

The Green Movement and its supporters have not gone away. When the opportunity arises, they will be mobilized once again, bringing democracy closer to Iran.

This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei.