The Greens in Iran are a Movement, not a Coup

Small protests broke out around Iran on June 12, the anniversary of the 2009 presidential election, which protesters say was stolen by the country’s clerical Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on behalf of his favored candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Associated Press has video:

What was the Green Movement? A debate rages among Iran-watchers. Partisans see it as a sign that Iran is on the verge of a massive democratization. Critics see it as an exaggerated hiccup, barely more important than the student protests of the late 1990s, which amounted to nothing. Which interpretation is right has implications for US foreign policy. If the regime is tottering, the Obama administration can afford to batter it with sanctions and ignore it, hoping to help it fall. If it is strong and enduring, then it will have to be dealt with and probably direct negotiations are called for.

The reality lies in the middle. Named in honor of the color associated with the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, among whom presidential candidate Mir Hosain Mousavi is counted, the Green Movement is a social movement that protested what its followers saw as the stealing of the June 12, 2009, election by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his patron, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It is certainly the largest social movement in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It is frankly ridiculous to class it with the earlier small student demonstrations.

Sociologist Charles Tilly defined a social movement as a cluster of groups that challenge the state in a sustained way, engaging in an attempt to effect some change in the status quo. A movement is not an organization and so lacks the institutionalization and reporting lines of a political party’s electoral campaign. If that distinction is kept in mind, we can call a social movement a sort of campaign for some goal.

The civil rights movement of Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates is probably the best example of a successful social movement recognizable to most Americans.

The social movement attempts to demonstrate that it has large numbers of committed members, that it is united, and that it should be taken seriously.

To this end, the social movement engages in public political action, including demonstrations, processions, rallies, making statements, and sometimes violence and contention. But it also appeals to cultural symbols as part of these contentious gatherings.

The Green Movement failed in its initial goals, which were to force an aboveboard investigation of fraud in the June 12 election results, and possibly the holding of a new election. It is now sometimes forgotten that the movement did not seek the overthrow of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was about who should be president, and about insisting that the electoral institutions of that republic– the presidency and the parliament– be chosen through popular sovereignty without intervention from the appointive institutions (the supreme clerical Leader, the judiciary, the security forces).

The Greens probably did, however, succeed in weakening the legitimacy of the regime. Whereas before June, 2009, few Iranians would have been willing to say that supreme clerical leader Khamenei is a crook, a significant number now doubt his probity. That number is not a majority, but it is a vocal minority. In that sense, the debacle of the 2009 election saps Khamenei’s authority just as the priest pedophile controversy has much weakened Pope Benedict among Catholics. Those analysts who discount cultural movements and the whole idea of legitimacy as underpinning authority will be unpersuaded that this change is important. But I believe it is, in the medium to long term though not in the short term.

The movement failed to attain its short term primary goal for two major internal reasons:

  • The security establishment of the Islamic Republic remained united and rallied to Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. A split in the military or the paramilitary institutions would have created a condition of multiple sovereignty, which Tilly sees as typical of revolutionary situations. But although the political elite split, unevenly, the generals did not.
  • The security establishment developed tools for combating the repertoires of social action deployed by the Greens. Did they use cell phones, texting, twitter and facebook to gather flashmobs, spontaneous urban crowds? Then cellphone signals were cut, web pages were blocked and facebook pages were infiltrated. Did they assemble in large numbers? Streets were cut off and crowds were controlled. Did they mount processions? Basij civil militiamen were sent out on motorcycles to disrupt them, beat them and arrest the recalcitrant. Did they gather in rallies to denounce the regime? They were assaulted by police. The beatings and torture and occasional executions to which some protesters were subjected served to signal that the regime was willing to raise the cost of protest to the maximum. The ways in which the regime attacked family members of prominent dissidents also terrorized would-be challengers.
  • The downside for the regime is that it must now depend more on power (i.e. imposition of rule by force) and less on authority (the likelihood that a command will be obeyed voluntarily). Regimes based on brute power are less often long-lasting than those based on authority.

    I argued at Tomdispatch that US and Israeli hypocrisy also helped the hardliners internationally.

    The Greens could not split the generals and they could not withstand the onslaught of the dedicated security forces. They could have nevertheless won, perhaps, if a majority of parliamentarians and major clerics on the Guardianship Council were to swing behind their demand for new elections. No such swing occurred. The speaker of parliament was willing to criticize Ahmadinejad, but not to try to unseat him. The Guardianship Council in the end stood with Khamenei.

    One final possibility would have been for the movement to become so popular that it was able to put large numbers of people in the street sufficiently often, and to mount strikes and other crippling forms of contentious action with sufficient regularity, to make the ordinary functioning of the government impossible and so to force a compromise. But they were unable to maintain the momentum of the second half of 2009 in the new year, and could not be so disruptive throughout the country as to force the regime to the negotiating table.

    Unlike the US civil rights movement, which had as its major goal the repeal of Jim Crow laws, the Green Movement has no single, simple, legislative object that could easily be implemented by parliament and the supreme leader. It has not been able to force Ahmadinejad to resign or to force new elections.

    This failure to achieve a practical political change at the top in the course of a year does not indicate that the Green Movement is unimportant or dead. It can survive and be influential if it finds new tactics or repertoires of sustainable collective action that cannot so easily be forestalled by the security forces, and if it identifies some simple, practical change it wants legislated other than the holding of new elections. It should be remembered that the Civil Rights movement in the US took about a decade to succeed legislatively, and much longer to effect real social and cultural change.

    If it is a movement for free speech and political transparency, then it should put forward a program for legislation that would implement these ideals, and keep the pressure on the regime to enact it.

    In the meantime, the Obama administration must face certain realities:

  • The regime seems fairly stable in the short to medium term and so presents Washington with an ongoing political reality that must be engaged rather than ignored
  • Direct negotiations with the regime no more constitute a betrayal of the Greens than did direct negotiations with the Soviet leadership represent a betrayal of Soviet dissidents such as Sakharov.
  • There is no reason to think that were the Green Movement to come to power, it would suddenly mothball the country’s nuclear enrichment program, so that one of the main points of contention between Washington and Tehran must be addressed in any case.
  • It must be understood that a US or Israeli military strike on Iran would certainly cause the Iranian public to rally around the regime and would effectively destroy the Green Movement and any hope of internal political change.
  • 25 Responses

    1. This is an interesting blog not just about what happened today, but about how young Iranians are thinking these days. This is an excerpt:
      - چیزی که من امروز دیدم یک حکومت نظامی ناب و خالص بود. خیلی وقت بود می دیدیم اما نمی خواستیم باور کنیم. ما الان داریم زیر زور سرنیزه و باتوم و گاز اشک آور زندگی می کنیم. اشک های مدام ما گواهه. اما داریم ادای انسان های آزاد رو در میاریم. ماشالله به روحیه.
      چون با دوستان قرار گذاشته بودیم رفتم. منتها از ته مسیر به اول راهپیمایی(پیاده روی) کردیم. از آزادی به سمت انقلاب. اما مگه می شد شعار داد؟ نگاه های خشن مأمورا و تجهیزاتشون بهمون یادآوری می کردن که ما در چه جایگاهی قرار داریم. جایگاه متهم و جانی و شورشگر و وابسته به بیگانگان و زندانی و اعدامی بالقوه…
      Read the rest here: link to z8un.com

      HRANA Report: 600 men and 300 women in ‘detention’
      link to iranian.com

    2. Resilience of the Our People

      The fact that the state mafia has been state of emergency for the past year, is proof in an of itself that it knows its days are numbered.
      After 31 years of a brutal dictatorship, and after a whole year of murder, rape, executions, torture and imprisonment and after turning the who,e country into a military fortress on the anniversary of their fake “elections”, our brothers and sisters in Iran are STILL on the streets demonstrating.

    3. Protests on June 12 anniversary
      Students chant slogans against regime, fraud elections

      AFP: Iran’s opposition issued fresh calls for freedom on Saturday as the anniversary of a presidential election that sparked deadly street unrest passed off without major anti-government protests. Demonstrators stayed away after opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi cancelled plans for new rallies against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad because of safety concerns. But the authorities still deployed thousands of security personnel in Tehran to quell any dissent, with police and the feared Islamic Basij militia out in force, especially around Tehran University and Sharif University >>>

      Tehran University, Basijis attack students:
      link to iranian.com

    4. “Because whether it is threatening the nuclear non-proliferation regime, or the human rights of its own citizens, or the stability of its own neighbors by supporting terrorism, the Iranian government continues to demonstrate that its own unjust actions are a threat to justice everywhere.”–Barack Obama

    5. I thought the President was doing well in the polls before the election. What evidence other than US propaganda is there to suggest the election was stolen?
      Just comments from anti-Ahmadinejad groups?

    6. Why was it so important for Khamenei and the security leadership to back Ahmadinejad instead of Mosavi? After all you would think that since the four people allowed to campaign for the position had been approved out of a cast of hundreds who were disqualified any one of the four would have been PERFECTLY acceptable in their opinion.

    7. “One final possibility would have been for the movement to become so popular that it was able to put large numbers of people in the street sufficiently often, and to mount strikes and other crippling forms of contentious action with sufficient regularity, to make the ordinary functioning of the government impossible and so to force a compromise. But they were unable to maintain the momentum of the second half of 2009 in the new year, and could not be so disruptive throughout the country as to force the regime to the negotiating table.”

      I think that was because it is primarily a middle class movement.
      It is a class which feels more and more marginalized, that is to say it has less power and say so within the power structure than it used to.

      The claim of stolen elections is and was the stepping-stone to their goal: a coup.

      As to whether the Government of Iran is a regime; one has to ask: was it so during the governments of Akbar Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, will it continue to be so after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

    8. As the IraqAfPakistan fiasco goes unsustainable, so does the need for social defenses that Iran erected to prevent ‘regime change’. Whether or not the current Iranian government can adapt will be interesting to see.

    9. To: Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
      The United Nations
      Mr. Khamenei is no good
      Iranian academic community worldwide write to UN Secretary General

      350 East 35th Street
      New York, NY 10016
      Date: June 12, 2010

      Dear Sir;

      link to iranian.com

    10. SOLIDARITY
      Golden Gate Goes Green
      People gathered in San Francisco’s Chrissy Field Saturday and marched past people hiking and biking along the beach and then up a hill overlooking Golden Gate Bridge. They carried a 2000 meter scroll which had been signed by Iranians in many countries. When the march ended, a group of people held up the pictures of people who had been killed in the protests while wearing shirts with the names of each person and how and when they died.
      link to iranian.com

      London embassy protest show
      Crimes reflected on Iranian embassy wall in London
      link to iranian.com

    11. The most significant achievement of the Green Movement in the past year has been to identify the problem areas within the Iranian political system. The current model of Velyate Faghih has deep roots in Shiite Islam and Iranian model of central government with strong head. From Cyrus the Great to the Khamanai faith of Iran has always depended on the King or recently on the Ayatollah. With the changes in the demographics, education, global inte connectivity, and host of other reason the central model is very much in doubt. All previous movements in that last 30 years has not been able to do what Green movement did in the last year in clearly showing the needs for very fundamental structural changes to the society. Clearly Iranians are not interested in another revoloution whereby all instiutions are dissolved and rebuilt. As any other rational society, Iranian are interested in evolutionary changes where they can control the experiement and manage the side effect of the changes. Even if there was no outside threats such changes are hard and difficult to define and implement. The difficulty is magnified when you consider that the movement has to navigate the threats from outside the country (e.g. Isreal, US…). The last thing the Green movement wants is to end up in the pre revolution time where the independence of the country’s leadership is in question.

      The movement feels time is on its side, hence it has been careful not to over react and has moved cautiously. Unfortunately US and Israel foreign policy seem to need Iran as boogieman to divert attentions from its failures. The propaganda emanating form this policy has been quite counter productive for the Green movement, but at the same time this is reality and it is one more challenging question that it has to address.

    12. “Regimes based on brute power are less often long lasting.” Is Iran’s best friend, Syria’s regime for 40 years one of them? By the way, Syria comment is the only site on your friends list that displays a warning for malware when trying to check it out. Why? Is it safe?

    13. The Green Movement has (so far) failed to prove that it is a popular “social movement” (in the sense Theda Skocpol defines that term). The disgust felt by general Iranians – including those who are reformist leaning – against those involved in current political agitations, as seen after the turmoil on last Ashura and as seen in the massive show of support for the Iranian political system on the anniversary of the Revolution on Feb 11, 2010, belie any implications that the “Green Movement” has made any significant ‘impact’ in Iran, socially or culturally.

      At best, it is a “political movement” – sustained, somewhat organized, targeted at political institutions. “Somewhat” organized because it has failed to provide a clear political vision and objectives and has not consolidated a wide spectrum of political inclinations, yet. What the readers outside of Iran need to understand is that the so-called “Green Movement” is mostly a reified, monolithic caricature constructed by the intellectuals and journalists (many Iranians expatriates) sitting outside of Iran or those trying to speak to them from within Iran. Otherwise, there are all sorts of strands and opinions within the Reformist leaning Iranians: for example, some want to work within the contours of available system, some want to change it altogether. Some support the Islamic orientation of the system but with varied understandings of that orientation, others totally oppose it

      Going back to the issue of defining the current agitations/movement and evaluating their impact, the “Green Movement” is a political movement at best, in the limited sense that Tilly has defined movements. (I don’t think Tilly’s theoretical framework is very attentive to movements targeted at the “cultural” and “social” spheres – unless they directly relate to the political sphere. (This is true even after the theoretical revisions he did toward the end of his life.) The difference this distinction makes is in terms of asking a critical question that any student of social movement has to confront, “Does the Movement Matter?” For Tilly, as I understand, it matters as long as it has made an impact on political institutions/power.) Has the “Green Movement” made any significant political impact? I think that is an empirical question that requires a careful, objective examination, and can’t be answered through simple anecdotes or by focusing only on the narrative of those involved in current agitations/movement.

      Related to the point about the monolithic caricatures of Iranians and the Iranian politics, one thing to consider here, and this does not apply to Professor Cole’s comment but is meant in general, that one often notices an underlying assumption in this monolithic construction of “Good Iranians”: That the demands for reforms could be mapped on a continuum that ends at transforming the current system into a secular state. Those that demand only civil reforms are doing it either for tactical reasons, or they are under “false consciousness” and don’t realize that the ultimate source of all of their problems lies in their religio-political system. Now the more one’s demands are closer to a secular, democratic state (the kind “we” in the “west” like to see and supposedly have) the more they are closer to enlightenment and freedom. Strong currents of old school Orientalism and (Liberal/Conservative) Imperialism run through such assumptions.

    14. I disagree with any analogy to Dr. King and his movement in the 1960′s. Have you read his speech at the Riverside Church in NYC April 4 1967, the Green’s do not come from this economic point of view, that being those of the poor and disenfranchised. The Green’s appear to be very affluent and not of the masses.

    15. [...] for debate what exactly happened in the aftermath. Juan Cole discusses the controversy in a recent blog post. The Week in Green has been closely tracking the political situation in Iran. This piece covers a [...]

    16. The fact that all major cities were flooded with security and basij forces has everything to do with people not showing up. Of course they are afraid; unarmed and defenseless against an army of anti-nationalist thugs……..who…….. support he regime because they are subsidized by the regime….and will kill you without mercy……

      I suggest that regime supporters enjoy their time…..as….What goes up must come down! I am thinking……… paybacks are hell!

    17. I wonder why no one answered my question of why it was so important for Khamenei and those that backed Khamenei not to allow Mosavi to become President? This question has maybe been asked and answered before. But maybe I missed it or maybe I just do not remember. One year after the events is a little review not in order.

      Here is another thing not to forget. Those non Iranians who are defending Iran’s nuclear power program against US imperialist and zionist attacks are not defending Iran the government but Iran the people. Juan, I mention this especially for you becasue you have mentioned how much you dislike Ahmadinejad.
      The internal policies of the Iranian government may suck. Yet in the disputes between the US government and the Iranian government the US is 125% wrong and Iran is 110% right.

    18. I am a person who neither abhors or relishes violence. The Iranian government makes if very difficult for me to say what tactics should be used to drive them from power. Violence is an effective means in attaining ones political goals but with very harsh side effects. I think that if I were an Iranian I would neither endorse or condemn others who at this point choose to fight the Iranian government with violent means. I myself though would stick with non violent means at least for the time being.
      The leaders of Iran are making a false claim that they are the legitimate leaders of that country. Such claims have led to civil wars over and over again in human history. For false leaders to take over the reins of power is an enraging event. I am still enraged by the assissination of President Kennedy. The US has not had a legitimate government since that time. Yet when we look at what makes people in Iran angry about thier government it is the same gripes that people all over the world have, even in Europe, with the exception of how women are treated.
      Although women might be treated differently in western culture, western culture certianly does not seem to be a very good model for the development of our daughters either. Furthermore if one adds up the suffering that women would endure if there were a civil war in Iran I would have to question whether or not it would be worth it. I would advise Iranian women to immigrate to Canada or Australia or even Turkey, or Azerbijan, or Armenia. These are countries that I think Iranians could immigrate to without large sums of money. Voting with your feet is sometimes the best vote that there is. When there are two men in Iran for every woman then perhaps the Iranian clerics might be pressured in to treating Iranian women with a little more respect.
      Iranian Muslims should hear me because Sp4 Manning is my spiritual son. That should count for something. Iranian Muslims should hear me because Major Hassan is my spiritual cousin. That should count for something too. Iranian Muslims should hear me because I place truth and justice above national identity. That should count the most of all.
      In honor of
      Russel Means
      Che Gueverra
      Bobby Seals
      Sgt. Karim Akbar

      So what are the chances that a member of the Iranian Security Forces would ever read what I have just written and come to the correct conclusion that I am the one that they have waited centuries for? One in a billion or one in a trillion perhaps?
      The only way that we can know for sure is to leave it up and test them.
      Yes I am playing a game. One in which everyone deserving wins.
      Crazy? Well, humor me. It will help to build my insanity defense.
      Do you think that it is a bad time to for me to make outrageous claims?
      My advisors think otherwise. They actually saw the movie Sliding Doors.

    19. About regimes based on brute strength and not so brute.

      If “stability” is the only goal, Egypt, North Korea etc. show that you can achieve high levels of stability by refining state repression to a fine art form. But those are rather stagnant states, and I guess Iranians, ruling circles included, have more lofty ambitions.

      For example, Iran is investing a lot in education, including engineering and computer science.

      The model of repression that Iranian revolution is using is still reliant on having an enthusiastic mass movement. Also, the division of power between spiritual, judicial, executive and legislative can provide some mechanism to rotate out the corrupt and incompetent, something that Egypt does not have.

      I may also wonder if sanctions can have benefits for economy by forcing some degree of import substitution and protection for domestic industries. It is very hard to maintain industrial employment in oil-rich countries.

      So I guess that the spiritual leaders of Iran have a dilemma. They obviously want something better than a moribund repressive state like SA or Egypt. They also are scared of the decline in piety that can result from a more modern society. (It is well documented that exposing human flesh, especially female, leads to shark attacks on humans. Did you see any shark attack movie with modestly segregated beaches?) I think that for octogenarian clerics this is a very grave consideration.

    20. It is true that tactics that work in America may not work in Iran and vice versa. The Iranians are much smarter. Now is the time to build the networks of those that will take an Axe to the head of the beast if it does not reform. Everyone in the security services recently passed a key test. Now they face a new test. A test from forces that know their inner most thoughts and desires. The first task is to find me. I am surrounded by my enemies who are eager to see brought down. But they can not get to me becasue I am protected by a loyal squadron of bodyguards. Yet these bodyguards are not my followers. Alone I have charged in to the valley of death and have set the army of the enemy fleeing in all directions. Their retreat saved them from defeat on that day. But like the protagonist in the movie Sliding Doors their future fate is sealed. Only the course of their defeat is undecided.
      If a Major or Colonel in the Iranian Security Forces should accept me as their coworker I do not promise paradise at the end of their struggles. Those who struggle only for their personal salvation are not worthy of joining our struggle. If a Major or Colonel should join me in our struggle I do not promise power at the end of the struggle. Those who struggle only for power are not worthy of our struggle. If a Major or Colonel should join me in our struggle I do not even promise victory. Those who struggle when only when victory is possible are not worthy of our struggle. The only thing that I promise is a dangerous journey with many twists and turns that will finally lead to a new path, if you can get there. This new path is not the easyest path to follow, nor is it the hardest. It is the most scenic. Ask yourself if you are worthy of this struggle. Then pray for guidance to aquire your answer. Is it you that I am speaking to, or another in Columbia?
      You would think that my appeal would be made in Persian if it were true would yoú not? But did Mohammad make his appeal in Persian? The Koran commanded Muslims to Read! Tell me the names of Muslims that never learned to read? Things rarely work out the way that you were expecting.
      When I was returning from Mecca I thought that I would go home. But things did not work out that way. I spent me time lost wandering around Europe and America. Like a true Muslim I studied other religions WITH AN OPEN MIND and I became better for it. What are you capable of becoming? What are you capable of?

    21. [...] limitations and argues that the US should engage with the current regime in direct negotiations (Informed Comment). Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett accuse Western journalists of overestimating the Green [...]

    22. [...] “The Greens are a Movement, not a Coup,” says the erudite U. of Michigan professor, in a 2-minute read that places U.S.-Iran relations in crystal-clear perspective. His “Informed Comment” blog at juancole.com routinely illustrates why our traditional news media have lost their monopoly on the attention of people who want to be informed rather than entertained. [...]

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