Year In Review: Election Dispute Challenges Iranian Establishment
December 29, 2009
By Golnaz Esfandiari
This summer, a 24-year-old student took to the streets of Tehran to protest what he believed was a stolen election.
At the time, Hossein was merely demanding a repeat of the contentious vote that handed President Mahmud Ahmadinejad a landslide victory in the first round despite a strong showing by his main challenger, opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi.
Hossein, who declined to provide his full name out of security concerns, says he now wants more -- much more.
"It's not about Mir Hossein Musavi becoming president anymore," Hossein says. "The goal of young people such as myself, when we take to the streets, is no less than a change in the Islamic establishment."
Hossein's views, like those of many protesters, have evolved considerably over the past six months. And as that evolution took place, the Green Movement transformed from a base of support for Musavi alone to a movement that has united to represent the opposition as a whole.
On election day, Musavi, a former foreign minister and founding father of the Islamic republic, expressed hope for a better tomorrow.
"God willing," Musavi said, "with the nationwide participation of the public we will see better and more beautiful days."
After the vote, throngs of Musavi supporters, as well as those of reformist candidate Mehdi Karrubi, assembled in the center of the capital anticipating favorable results.
But those hopes were shattered within hours, when authorities announced that Ahmadinejad had scored a landslide victory, eliminating the need even for a second round.
The verdict -- coming alongside official word that the election had the highest turnout ever, at 85 percent of the electorate -- was unfathomable to those who voted against Ahmadinejad. They quickly joined ranks in protesting the election result, attracting many of those who boycotted the poll in the first place.
"Where is my vote?" became the rallying cry of millions now under the umbrella of the Green Movement, which denounced what it saw as a stolen election.
But as Musavi called for the cancellation of the vote, Green supporters on the street found that dissent came at a high price.
One student recalled a "terrifying" scene that developed when members of the Basij militia stormed Tehran University on June 14.
"I still can't believe what I saw," the woman, who asked that her name not be used, told RFE/RL. One of Ahamdinejad's supporters “was joyfully beating a student with force. The man I saw was laughing and telling the student he was beating [with a stick]: 'I wish your mother could see you when you're being beaten up like this.'"
Elsewhere, street rallies were met with force by Basij members and security forces who fired at protesters, beat them with batons, and used tear gas to disperse them.
Gunfire entered the equation on June 15, when a group of protesters attacked a Basij compound, some with containers of gasoline.
Gunmen fired from the building, seriously injuring several protesters; by the end of the day, a total of seven protesters had been shot and killed.
With participants bypassing state suppression of foreign media coverage by posting video and images on social websites, the whole world was watching.
Taking To The Streets
One woman who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity amid protests in Tehran on June 15, just three days after the election, laid out protestors' demands at the time.
"We want our vote to count; they have ignored our vote," she said. "Iran's leaders have to understand that we are here today so that Ahmadinejad and his band understand that they don't have [the right to do this]. People's votes should have a say in this country, and we know what we had written on the ballots."
The opposition had some reason for optimism, after the powerful Guardians Council expressed its readiness to "recount the disputed ballot boxes claimed by some candidates, in the presence of their representatives."
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, too, expressed his backing for a review of the vote-counting process. But he soon ruled out any vote-rigging, declaring on June 19 that the margin proved Ahmadinejad had scored a "definitive victory."
"Sometimes there's a difference of 100,000, or 500,000, or 1 million votes; then it is possible to say there could have been fraud," Khamenei explained. "But a difference of 11 million votes -- how can there be any vote rigging?"
Khamenei accused foreign powers, particularly Britain and the United States, of interfering in Iran's internal affairs, and ordered an end to the street protests.
"Struggling in the street after an election is not the right thing to do. But also, it challenges the principle of democracy and elections," Khamenei said. "I ask everyone to stop this. This way is wrong. If they don't stop this, then they will bear the responsibility and the consequences of this chaos."
That warning would not be heeded on the streets -- or on rooftops, where Iranians throughout the country voiced their discontent under cover of night.
In Death, A Heroine Is Born
When protesters gathered in downtown Tehran the next day in defiance of the ban, they encountered a fierce crackdown.
Officials said "terrorists" attended rallies armed with firearms and explosives. "Rioters," they said, set two gas stations and a mosque on fire and attacked a military post.
When the smoke cleared, at least 10 people were reported killed and over 100 wounded.
Neda Agha Soltan, better known today simply as Neda, was among those killed on June 20.
The young woman became an enduring symbol of the Green Movement when, after she was struck by a bullet, her last moments were captured on a video viewed by millions across the world.
More than a month later, when mourners gathered at a Tehran ceremony to honor Neda and other slain protesters, they were met by awaiting police forces. Mourners said they were beaten with batons as they tried to assemble for the ceremony.
Basiji members later called for the extradition of Arash Hejazi, an Iranian doctor who attempted to save Neda and who later left the country to study in Britain. They claimed that Hejazi was Neda's murderer. Months later, in November, a Basiji commander claimed that Neda was killed by "someone from America."
Officially, Iran said only that Neda died under suspicious circumstances.
Evolution And Expansion
The authorities continued their efforts to suppress the movement, resorting to what some observers called "show trials" in which purported protesters admitted on national television how they had been led astray by foreigners.
One unknown woman gave a confession on June 23 in which she said she was “influenced by VOA [Voice of America] Persian and the BBC because they were saying that security forces were behind most of the clashes."
"Then I was curious, I wanted to go out and see what was happening,” she said. “I saw that it was us protesters who were making the riots. We set public property on fire, we threw stones, we attacked people's cars and we broke the windows of people's houses."
Over 100 detainees were eventually put on trial for launching a "velvet coup," with some forced to make false confessions.
More than 2,000 people are believed to have been arrested during the postelection unrest, including protesters, senior reformists, intellectuals, and others.
Three people died due to beatings they suffered while in detention -- which authorities denied for months before publically acknowledging the deaths in December.
Although the crackdown often forced the Green Movement inside, it continued undaunted -- picking its moments to resume its opposition to Ahmadinejad's presidency and evolving along the way.
The Green Movement's goals now include the release of all political prisoners, freedom of speech, and other democratic reforms. Some have even been calling for an Iranian Republic instead of an Islamic one.
Supreme Leader Khamenei, who by backing Ahmadinejad effectively endorsed the repression of the opposition movement, increasingly became the subject of protesters' chants, including "Death to the dictator!”
The Green Movement also managed to unify Iranians from different age groups and political and social spectrums -- including reformists, clerics, secularists, women's rights activists, students, and workers.
The opposition movement has continued spread through what members describe as networks that rely to a certain extent on the Internet and social networking sites.
For leadership, the movement turned to defeated presidential candidates Musavi and Karrubi, as well as former President Mohammad Khatami.
But as student Hossein notes, it is the people who are the real leaders of the Green Movement. "Musavi and Karrubi have been following the people, not vice versa," he says.
The Green Movement lost its spiritual father, dissident Ayatollah Montazeri, on December 19, sparking a new round of confrontation as supporters mourned his passing.
With the fresh confrontations has come a new wave of deaths and arrests, and a turning point that saw protesters fighting back, injuring scores of police and security personnel.
An estimated 300 protesters were arrested and eight killed during two days of mass demonstrations in Tehran and other cities coinciding with Ashura, the Shi'ite religious festival that marks the 7th century death of Imam Hossein, grandson of Prophet Muhammad.
A nephew of Musavi was killed in the unrest, and three of the opposition leaders aides were detained. Many other prominent opposition members or their relatives were also rounded up.
Genie Out Of The Bottle
Just six months ago no one expected that a significant numbers of Iranians would take to the streets to protest against the election results.
Ahmadinejad at the time dismissed the protesters as unimportant, even heading out of the country to attend an international gathering just after the election.
"They are like dirt and dust, the clear river of this nation will not leave any place for them to show themselves," he said.
Yet the protest movement rose to shake the Iranian establishment, plunging it into the worst political crisis it has ever seen.
Now, nothing is the same in Iran anymore, says a Tehran-based journalist who declined to provide her name out of security concerns. She, like Ahmadinejad, sees a river rising up in Iran, but one of change.
"It doesn't matter if Iranian leaders manage to build a dam to stop it, it has been already a wake-up call for the people of Iran," she tells RFE/RL.
She adds that the show of force by the Iranians against a repressive regime is already a "huge victory."
Hossein, the student whose demands grew in step with the evolution of the Green Movement, says the genie is out of the bottle and the use of force will not put it back.
A few years from now, Hossein says, “important events will take place." “I can't predict what price will be paid for the coming change and whether changes will come through this civil rights movement. I don't think that it will be without a price and without bloodshed."
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|