The Election and Protests in Iran
by Dr Farhang Morady
Since June 2009 Iran has experienced a social movement that has become a centre of major debate for the international media, academics and activists. The incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supposedly received more than 62% of the vote, 24.5 million, compared to 11 million votes for Mir Hussein Mousavi, his leading opponent. In the days following the election, what had begun as a factional dispute within the Islamic Republic sparked mass demonstrations involving some 3 million people in Tehran (according to the city's mayor) as well as in other cities. The demonstrations and rallies have continued at regular intervals since then, some of them reminiscent of the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Just as in the 1979 revolution the democratic movement in Iran has slogans promoting independence, freedom and justice, showing that under the Islamic Republic, the Iranian population has continued to struggle for freedom. Iranians have also witnessed the fake populism of Ahmadinejad for more than five years, especially the youth, who make up 70% of the population. People currently suffer from higher levels of unemployment (10%) and inflation (25%) and their lives are made more difficult by social restrictions and constant harassment by the Basij, the religious police. Meanwhile the gap between rich and poor continues to grow: under Ahmadinejad’s presidency wealthy Iranians continued to benefit as the top 10% of the population received 34% of the national income whilst the bottom 10% received only 2%.
The use of state force, arbitrary arrests, killing of protesters, the closure of opposition newspapers and websites, and the televising of show trials of known opponents, has yet to dampen down the people’s defiance and anger. The mass upsurge has preoccupied the regime as it has damaged their ideological legitimacy and credibility both within their national borders and beyond. Although the trigger for this movement was the questions over the election’s legitimacy, the huge street protests must be viewed against the background of economic, political and social frustrations encountered by Iranians in their everyday life.
The magnitude of this mass movement has widened the splits within the Iranian ruling elites. Broadly speaking, there are two major groups: firstly, the Islamist Conservatives, Osulgarayan, (principalists) a combination of right wing conservatives and traditionalists. The dominant faction is headed by Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supported mainly by the pasdaran Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Basij, volunteer paramilitary organisations and security services. Secondly, there are the Eslahtalaban, or reformists, now in opposition, led by ex-presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, the ex-parliamentary speaker, Mehdi Karoubi, and ex-Prime Minister Mir Hussain Mousavi.
Clearly there are splits within the regime, but it is hard to dismiss the millions protesting in Iranian cities from immediately after the election of 13th of June until now. The Iranian regime’s response to these protests has resulted in many deaths, injuries and imprisonment of ordinary people: students, academics, journalists and human rights activists. The scale of the protest movement has been repeated in major cities in Iran, which raises the question of whether the Islamic Republic would survive such a huge popular challenge. In response to this challenge, will it use ever-greater coercive state force to handle the protests? The democratic movement is not just from within an ‘urban modern secular middle class’, represented by religious reformists led by Mousavi. It also includes the working class who are not just against the state’s economic policies but also the constant political and social repression.
The leadership of the social movement in Iran has disassociated itself from the influence of Western governments, which makes more sense, as the West is more concerned with the development of Iran’s nuclear energy. Equally, the opposition movement in Iran are not against the Islamic Republic of Iran’s constitution, nor do they support recognising the State of Israel. They simply want to have economic, political and social reforms in Iran.
They emphasis that the only force that is capable of bringing progressive change in Iran is the Iranian people themselves through their own strength and perseverance, without direct intervention by the U.S. or by encouraging Israel to attack Iran. There is no need for any covert operations by intelligence agencies, as this would only harm the grassroots democratic movement in Iran.