The Historical Context of The Green Movement
In order to comprehend Iran's current political situation, for instance the business of reformists or principalists, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRG), and the people's methods of struggle we must put the Green Movement into the context of Iran's history of the last 100 years. Those who have dismissed the Green Movement as another project of CIA or New York Times columns have no clue about the similarities in methods and demands of the people in the Green Movement and those of the Nationalization of Oil, Constitutional and 1979 Revolutions. The street protests, the resistance songs and slogans, the tradition of holding funerals for the martyrs of the Green Movement as a way to resist and to awaken more people's political consciousness are all continuations of those in previous national struggles for justice in Iran and are deeply rooted in people's life practices.
This is not to say that the current resistance movement or the former ones for justice in Iran have been isolated from the rest of the world and have't been learning from international and regional anti-colonial, anti-dictatorial, anti-occupation, or anti-racism movements, or that they haven't been inspiring other movements in the rest of the world. It's rather to point out the baselessness of neo-orientalist accusations by commentators mostly living in North America, for example, that the Green Movement is aimed to please the 'white man' or that it is set up by the 'white man'. These kind of accusations are not considered criticism within the Green Movement, and are interpreted as hostility towards the resistance culture and suspicion towards the people's ability to stand up for its basic rights. Let's not forget that this is a nation that has been severely injured by direct and indirect atrocities ofimperialist forces; these include, to name a few, the US-Britain Coup of 1953, the invasion of Iran by Iraq and the continuation of that war for 8 years (from 1980-to 1989), the theft of Iran's national resources by Britain, the economic sanctions imposed on Iranian people after the 1979 revolution by the US, the threats of wars against Iran by US-Israel, the invasion of Iraq-Afghanistan-Pakistan by the US, which is militarization of the region and the subsequent effect on Iran's political atmosphere, the Bush administration's hostility towards the reformists when they were in power, giving significant importance to nuclear energy, and the international fuss around Ahmadinejad's ignorant Holocaust slogans instead of solidarity with the Iranian people's demands for justice, the occupation and invasions of Palestine and Lebanon by Israel, and so on.
Neo-orientalist commentators who often claim to be fighting the empire by trashing the Iranian people's movement for justice are suspicious of a population, like the people of Iran who have been oppressed by imperialists and brutal governments, to be able to have demands and desires for justice and democratization of the socio-politics of their country. The neo-orientalist commentators tell themselves "wow, this sounds too fancy to be genuine". In a sense it's similar to a racist police officer in the US who doesn't believe a black man has earned his expensive house or car and might even arrest him as a thief. The police officer might suspect the black man to have stolen a white man's car or to have broken into a white man's house. The police officer knows of institutional racism and the long history of black men working for almost nothing, so she/he tell her/himself "wow, it seems too fancy for a black man to have earned this, he must have worked 24 hours/day for more than his lifetime to earn that car or house, so it must have been stolen". Similarly, when Iranians heroically shout in the streets that they would rather die than submit to tyranny (Irani mimirad zelat nemipazirad), some commentators can't believe them to be genuine and think that they are trying to please the "white man" or sneak into his territory; supposedly justice and democracy are the "white man's" earned belongings).
It's sometimes assumed by neo-orientalist commentators that people who are struggling in the Middle East are either white man's agents, or ignorant fundamentalists against the outside's world. In the former case, the question is asked: "how dare they ask for human rights and justice, our personal belongings, when the rural areas in Iran love the econo-political oppression imposed on them by Ahmadinejad?" and in the latter case, "why do they hate us so much?". Hamid Dabashi has said it so perfectly:" Perhaps the single most important problem with American politics, policymakers and pundits -- left or right, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican -- is that they think that anything that happens anywhere in the world is about them or is their business. The imperial hubris that seems definitive of the DNA of this political culture wants either to invade and occupy other people's homelands and tell them what to do, or else disregard people's preoccupation with their own issues and impose, demand and exact "engagement" with them, whether they want it or not."(read more here)
I quote parts of Reza Fiyouzay's article in order to put the June 2009 election into the historical context of the last 30 years. It can be observed that the project to eliminate the reformists from power is not anything new to Iran's regime:
"An early coup d'état that took place in the life of the Islamic Republic occurred in June 1981 with the 'impeachment' of Banisadr, the first post-revolution president, by the parliament at Khomeini's instigation; Banisadr went underground and eventually escaped from Iran, and currently lives in France. Later, in April 1982 there was a coup against Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, a close aid to Khomeini during his exile in France, and a foreign minister; he was accused of plotting to kill Khomeini and summarily executed. There was also a famous coup against Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, one-time designated successor to Grand Ayatollah Khomeini for the position of Supreme Leader. Montazeri had both revolutionary and impeccable religious credentials (as a Grand Ayatollah, which is like a PhD in the field). Given his supremely high qualifications, he was causing constant headaches for the heads of the theocratic setup.... Further, when after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, a vast wave of rushed political executions engulfed Iran's political prison houses, Montazeri was among the most high-ranking critics of these mass killings... By the end of March 1989, Khomeini had heard enough, and declared that Montazeri had 'resigned' from his position. " (read more here)
Some commentators have mocked the people of Iran for not being organized enough, and for having leaders that do promote a progressive political agendas. For instance, As`ad Abukhalil once mockingly questioned "Have you seen any real accounts of Anarchists in the Iranian movement thus far?"
Before mocking a population and dismissing its struggle for having to put up with reformist leaders who have to keep repeating Ayatollah Khomeini's name for gaining legitimacy or because it's related to their past and is their ideal, we have to remind ourselves the trajectory of political activism and the fates of activists in Iran at least during the last 30 years. Before mocking Iranian protesters for not having real anarchists among the protesters, it's fair we ask ourselves what happened to the pre-revolution political activists that once were the most active and progressive in the region.
During the last few years of the Iran-Iraq war (which took place in 1980-1988) many of the political activists who had different agendas than the establishment were executed in mass, forced into exile, prosecuted, or silenced in that climate of fear. Then we have the post-war reconstruction period during the presidency of Rafsanjani (1989- 1997) which resulted in dissatisfaction of many people throughout Iran as a result of the growth of economic disparity, unemployment, privatization, and the state's socio-political repressions. Political activism was not cost-free even for those who lived outside of the country; for example, the Mykonos Restaurant Assassinations of 1992, in which 4 Iranian-Kurdish were assassinated by the regime's forces in Berlin, Germany, turned out to be planned by intelligence minister, Ali Falahian, with the knowledge of the supreme leader and the president, Rafsanjani. In 2004, Ahmadinejad who was the mayor of Tehran wrote a letter to the mayor of Berlin telling him that the commemoration held for the victims in front of the Mykonos Restaurant is an insult to Iran. Another example of an assassination that took place outside of Iran was the murder of Fereydoun Farokhzad in 1992. During the 1990s, we have the intelligence ministry's infamous Chain Murder in Iran of more than 80 political activists, writers, poets, and translators who were critical of the regime.
In an atmosphere with such a high cost for political activism, the reform movement came to being in 1997, starting from the landslide election victory of former president Mohammad Khatami. Many people with different agendas than those approved by the establishment, although cautious, one way or another joined the reform movement and found it a way to politically express themselves and to become politically active again. For instance if you were a socialist student in Iran, it was much less costly -- prior to the June 2009 election in which the reformists were removed from power -- to associate yourself with reformism rather than open socialism. Being part of the reform movement also gave legitimacy to political activists as they would be considered less of a threat to the ruling elite and instead would be considered respectful of the econo-political order while seeking just a little bit of reform. Thus the citizen reformists come from different sociopolitical beliefs and agendas and not all of them are particularly in love with the interests of Iran's current ruling elite nor do they all find the regime's constitution 'holy' and untouchable. The following dichotomy is false: reformist citizens (in love with the establishment, except with some criticisms) vs. revolutionaries (meaning those who believe that the establishment has produced deaths, poverty and injustice, and thus meaningful reform is impossible and the constitution needs serious change). It's worth mentioning that the border between reformist people and those disappointed with the entire establishment and its ideologies is fragile. For instance, post-June 2009 election protesters switched their slogan from "where is my vote?" to "down with supreme leadership" and "down with dictator" as the state's violence mounted. Let's not forget that the citizen reformists are not socio-politically homogeneous and many former reformist politicians, currently imprisoned or free on bail, have become naturally too radicalized (as a result of state's ruthless violence against peaceful protesters) to be called reformists, even if they don't openly claim so. Mr. and Ms. Leverett label the revolutionaries as "counter-revolutionaries", the exact term used by Iran's hardliners to describe the group. The hardliners call the establishment that protects their political and economic interests a revolution and those who are critical of that order are called counter-revolutionary.
The wave of reform led to relative freedom for the media, although the individual reporters were not indemnified. For example, Akbar Ganji, an investigative journalist, reported comprehensively on those involved in Chain Murder of Iran. Ganji was consequently arrested from 2001 to 2006, which overlapped with the second term of Khatami's presidency, 2001 to 2005. Economist magazine explains well in a paragraph how the reform movement failed:
"Dozens of newspapers opened during the Khatami period, only for many to be shut down on one pretext or another by the judiciary. Clerics who took advantage of the new atmosphere to question the doctrine of velayat-e faqih were imprisoned or otherwise cowed. Even as political debate blossomed, Iran's security services cracked down on religious and ethnic minorities. A number of the regime's critics fell victim to murders traced later to the interior ministry. In 1999 police reacted to a peaceful demonstration for freer speech by invading Tehran University, beating and arresting hundreds of students and killing at least one. In the majlis (parliament) much of the president's reforming legislation was vetoed by the Council of Guardians, a committee of clerics appointed by the supreme leader to ensure that laws conform with Islamic precepts" (Read the whole article here)
The reformists were, of course, part of the establishment prior to the 2009 June election when a bloody military coup took place to eliminate them from power. When they were in power, the reformist politicians often sacrificed the hope of reform and their popularity among people to remain in power. Reformists trying to stay within the establishment, which prevented meaningful reform, had a few advantages and many disadvantages for reformists themselves and the people of Iran. A disadvantage was that the reformists placed the burden of the dark historic events of the system on their shoulders and those of the reform movement; the reformists often tried to justify these events in order to not cross the red lines of the regime. Please note that many reformist politicians were themselves in power when those atrocities took place and thus a truthful narration of history would also challenge their political history and their lack of protest to those events when they took place. Some burdens on the shoulders of reform movement include the mass murder of political prisoners during the 1980s ordered by Ayatollah Khomeini, and the absence of criticism of Ayatollah Khomeini for his oppression, the elimination of different political groups such as religious-nationalists and leftists, the continuation of the Iran-Iraq war after the liberation of Khoramshahr, and so on. Thus Ayatollah Khomeini remained one of the strongest red lines for the reformists. The reformists often referred to Ayatollah Khomeini for gaining legitimacy, for codedly criticizing the supreme leadership of Khamenei, and for reminding the system that they are the true owners of the establishment. Thus reform was clogged with a huge contradiction between the progressive agenda urgently demanded by the people and the advertisement of the oppressive period of Ayatollah Khomeini as a golden era. The contradiction of the reformist ideology was recently clearly displayed when Ayatollah Montazeri passed away in 2009 and the high ranking reformists mourned for him, participated in his funeral, and showed passion for his cause. Ayatollah Montazeri's popularity among people was mostly a result of him standing up to Ayatollah Khomeini's orders of mass executions of the 1980s and Montazeri's criticisms of the continuation of the Iran-Iraq war after the liberation of Khoramshahr. Ayatollah Montazeri also supported the Green Movement. How can reformist figures respect and acknowledge the act of Ayatollah Montazeri standing up to Ayatollah Khomeini and at the same time not be critical of Ayatollah Khomeini and his decisions?
Many of the reformist politicians had other shortcomings such as their attitudes towards women's rights, equality for all sexual orientations, and so on. Many of the reformists didn't consider such struggles legitimate as they were in contradiction with the reformists' Islamic beliefs and Iran's constitution, which some of the reformists treat as holy scripture sent from the skies. Some important figures of the reform movement who cared about human rights, like Ayatollah Montazeri, found women's demands for equality un-Islamic. Golbarg Bashi has conducted a comprehensive interview with Ayatollah Montazeri in which he disagrees with the removal of discriminatory laws against women because he claims their removal would contradict Islam.
Prior to the 2009 coup, an advantage that the reformists and people had as reformists being somehow "opposition" within the establishment, was that people could conduct socio-political activism without being considered "treasonous" (barandaz in Persian); many journalists, activists, and students paid a high price for their activism but the payment could have been much bigger if they were not considered reformists.
It was after the birth of reform movement that the women's rights movement, student's movement, outspoken demand for independent unions, the emergence of new pop-singers from inside the country, a boom in book-publication industry, etc., got new momentum. I am not suggesting that the reformist politicians mobilized these movements and waves, but rather it was the tiny little space which was opened by the reform climate that the desire of people for social-political activism and art exploded.
Reformists continued the neo-liberal economic policies, which they inherited from the previous president Rafsanjani. Khatami, unlike other presidents, decreased the underground economic activities as much as he could. However, those who were in favor of more socio-political freedom and human rights were disillusioned with any possibility of meaningful reform from within the establishment. Those who were in need of bread and butter were dissatisfied with the policies of the reformists, and workers continued to be oppressed and were denied the right to have an independent union. Reformists disregarded the different social classes' demands and were mostly concerned with socio-political freedom. The latter was restricted by the political structure anyway. Their naive economic slogan, with which they were so preoccupied, was that without a free-economy (meaning privatization and other neo-liberal economic policies) the democratization of Iran's politics will be impossible.
During the 2005 presidential election, the members of IRG and Basij forces made sure that their favorite candidate becomes president. That was officially the beginning of the involvement of military forces in high official politics. Ahmadinejad ministers were mostly chosen from IRG members and the privatization policies of Ahmadinejad made IRG more of an economic player than ever.
Abrahamian explains the victory of Ahmadinejad as such:
"The conservatives won in part because they retained their 25% base; in part because they recruited war veterans to run as their candidates; in part because they wooed independents on the issue of national security; but in most part because large numbers of women, college students, and other members of the salaried middle class stayed home. Turnout in the Majles elections fell below 51% - one of the worst since the revolution. In Tehran, it fell to 28%." (from here)
The Green Movement was born after four years of Ahmadinejad's presidency. Four years of arrest of women's rights activists, workers, teachers, unionists, bloggers and other political activists. The food and housing prices sky-rocketed. Many workers had been unpaid for several months, had been forced to be part-time instead of full-time, and small businesses were bankrupted as a result of the administration's sweeping privatization policies, importation of cheap products, mismanagement of the state, and harsh economic sanctions imposed on Iranians. Ahmadinejad's political policies were in favor of creating international crisis and fuss through, e.g., nuclear energy and Israel-Holocaust related slogans to cover up the shortcomings at home and distract attention to a common external enemy. Women were once again the target of state's forces for not having "Islamic" enough clothes or appearances. Workers had no right to peacefully protest. For example, in 2007, striking bus drivers were attacked and many were arrested. Another example was the attack and arrest of many Afghan and Iranian workers during the May Day protest of 2009. Meanwhile teacher and worker unionists such as Mahmoud Salehi, Mansour Osanloo, etc., were arrested for their union activism. Mohammad Maljoo explains that:
"After Ahmadinejad assumed power, collective action by Iranian workers has subsided, despite strong popular dissatisfaction with the economy. Working people increasingly resort to disjointed, individual and quiet protests; what looked like a budding movement for social justice in 2004 now looks like a non-movement. What explains the downswing in labor activism? The commitment of working people to pursuing their collective interests has not flagged, but under Ahmadinejad, the political opportunities for collective protest have been severely restricted. Ensconced in power by elections in 2004 and 2005, hardline conservatives are more willing than their predecessors to employ the force of the state to break workers’ movements. Pending adjustments to the law governing worker-employer relations appear to tilt the playing field further in the favor of management."(read more here)
Hopefully it's obvious that those disillusioned with the reformists, from all parts of the social class spectrum, could not be in favor of Ahmadinejad in 2009 June election.
One of the new trends of the anti-worker administration of Ahmadinejad is the increase of temporary workers asConn Hallinan's article explains:
"One employer strategy is to increase the number of 'temporary workers.' According to Amin, 'temps' now represent upwards of 60 to 70 percent of the workforce. They have no benefits and are largely at the mercy of arbitrary firings and periodic layoffs. The trade union movement is trying to organize these 'temps,' a risky undertaking in the current climate created by the government. 'We have a police state and we can’t organize ourselves,' he says." Read more here.
Prior to the June 2009 election and its aftermath, many full-time workers who were forced to take temporary positions without benefits during the Ahmadinejad administration, and many workers who went without receiving their paychecks for several months and who risked termination or imprisonment for organizing and protesting against their hard life conditions, started realizing that the principalists are worse than reformists in achieving economic justice: under principalists the reformists' tiny little open space to organize and protest was harshly shut down. Organizing and protesting will have less human cost if reformists, rather than principalists, would be in power which would benefit middle class activism such as the women's movement and worker activists.
Mousavi was known for caring about economic justice. This aspect of Mousavij, to some extent, filled the empty space between working classes and the reformists.As Peyman Jafari has explained:
"The selection of Moussavi as the candidate of the reformists was a conscious choice. The leaders of the reformist movement decided to tap into the disgruntlement of the working class. Saeed Hajjarian, the strategic brain of the reformists, admitted in 2004 that the reformists had represented the interests of the middle class. After their defeat by Ahmadinejad's populism in 2005 the reformists understood they had to change.Moussavi, who had served as prime minister in the 1980s and was widely associated with egalitarian politics, seemed the perfect man for the task. He held his first meeting as a presidential candidate in March in Tehran's Nazi Abad - a working class neighbourhood. He was greeted with the chant "Mir Hossein ghareman - hamiye mostazafan" ("Mir Hossein hero - supporter of the downtrodden").During his campaign he promised a "future without poverty". Just before the elections the Iranian Labour News Agency conducted a survey that predicted a 54 percent victory for Moussavi. Among the participants 71 percent of professionals, 69 percent of workers and 62 percent of students supported the reformist candidate."(Read more here)
Middle class people who were disillusioned with the possibility of meaningful reform during the last few years of Khatami's presidency were subsequently fed up by the Ahmadinejad administration's repressions of women's clothing and media, economic hardships, and his Holocaust slogans and conference, with the consequent international humiliation. People believed that Ahmadinejad's adventurous statements fuel the propaganda machine of the imperialists, warmongers, and those in favor of economic sanctions against Iranian people. Thusfor the sake of the survival of Iran's civil society, another chance was given to reformists during the June 2009 election despite the failure of reformism by the end of the second term presidency of Khatami.
The Green Movement was initiated from a disputed election which was meant to completely eliminate the reformists from power (note that the authorities started arresting the reformists prior to announcement of the election results). The Green Movement's assumed leaders are a former president, Mohammad Khatami, and two of the 2009 presidential candidates, Mousavi and Karoubi, who were approved to compete in the presidential election by various factions of the state. Given the state's harsh repression, I don't think there was any other way for Iranians to make a pro-justice movement. I also don't think that the people's movement, known as the Green Movement, could easily come up with non-state figures as its leaders because, firstly, many non-state political activists and groups are smashed, and secondly, because they would easily be prosecuted and associated with forbidden political groups and foreign agencies by the state. Let's remind ourselves that with all the semi-legal conditions of the Green Movement, more than 100 protesters have been killed and thousands have been arrested and continue to become arrested.
People in the Green Movement try to slowly grow the movement sapling within semi-legal atmosphere to firstly push the former official reformists to take more progressive stances regarding current and historical events (for instance, Mousavi denounced the executions of four Kurdish socialist activists and a political prisoner from Shirazand Karoubi stated that he would defend the rights of Marxist political prisoners since Marxism isn't a reason to not defend their rights or to not visit them), secondly to gradually find new leaders and figures from different classes of ordinary citizens and guilds of the society in Iran, thirdly to further politicize different layers of the society (who have been depoliticized as a result of the state's 30 years of oppression and economic hardships) by raising awareness about the state's violence against innocent people, fourthly to discuss different discourses of social class, gender, ethnic and religious minorities, and so on in the movement, and fifthly to once more unite people after their division by the state into insiders vs. outsiders, revolutionary vs. counterrevolutionary, Islamic vs. un-Islamic, poor vs. rich, and so on. Even political activists who live outside Iran have united, despite their different political affiliations, over democratization and justice in Iran.
Meanwhile, those critical of reformists' econo-political stances who support Iranian people's movement for justice should, with the help of the current semi-legal climate and politicization of the society, openly introduce more progressive discourses to the movement and help the working classes and ethnic-religious minorities to articulate their collective demands into the movement. The working classes have been struggling before the Green Movement was born. As Jamshid Asadi has explained:"How is it [the presence of the workers in the Green Movement] not visible? Have workers at Haft Tapeh sugar factory and members of the Vahed Bus Company Union not been active in recent years? Has Mansour Osanlou, the president of Vahed Bus Company Union’s executive committee and one of Iran’s most prominent trade activists, ceased his resistance for a single moment in the past few years?Let me offer some examples of labor movement activities during Esfand 1388-Farvardin 1389 [February-March 2010]. In this period, workers at Simin and Milad factories (subsidiaries of Qaemreza Industries) in Isfahan, the Telecommunications Industries (ITI) in Shiraz, Qaemshahr Textiles in Mazandaran, Alborz China in Qazvin, as well as workers in several other cities convened and staged demonstrations protesting unpaid wages in front of the Governor’s office and other official institutes in their districts.Also bear in mind that the persecution of trade activists has continued during this period — Homayoun Jaberi and Qolamreza Khani, two Tehran Bus Company Union members, are two examples. The elected representative of Kian Tires has also refused to sign a letter of agreement with the Ministry of Labor. These are cases that have occurred in the last 40 days — I can cite more!" (Read more here)
We have to emphasize the prior June 2009-election struggle and current presence of women, working classes, worker unionists, and ethnic-religious minorities in the Green Movement, and include their needs into the main agendas of the movement. Mohammad Maljoo explains here that "...a new period started after June 12. However, the outlook is still not clear in labor discussions or in many other arenas. A unique feature of this period is that labor actions are more prominently placed on the agenda than in the past. Among workers, there is a potential for coordination with the civil rights protest movement. The plan to impose targeted monetary subsidies [to phase out existing subsidies on basic goods and gas-tr], or the ratification of the amendment to the labor law, can link labor actions to the recent movement and the middle class. In this context, the formation of various workers organizations is within sight. Of course this is a possibility."
It's naive and irresponsible to disregard the power of Iranian people in the Green Movement and leave their passion for justice unsupported because of the reformists' hegemonic presence in the movement. We need to support the people in the streets, universities, and prisons, and raise awareness about the violence that is invisible to mainstream media, while including working class demands and social justice in details into the movement.