Dispatch | The Underground Fire
26 Jul 2012 17:00
Will June 2013 see another eruption?
[ dispatch ] We will rise again. That's the message from supporters of Iran's opposition Green Movement less than a year before the country's next presidential election. The previous one, held in June 2009, that saw President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hold office shook the nation and put the world on watch. It lead to the emergence of the Green Movement and the biggest protests since the 1979 overthrow of the Shah. Analysts debated whether Iran was on the verge of revolution as millions of protesters, who believed Ahmadinejad and the wider government apparatus stole victory from reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, swept into the streets of cities across the country.
In the three years since, those Iranians have been silenced or forced to silence themselves as they fell back into the rhythm of normal life, left to deal with the political fallout, the arrests of loved ones, and the country's deepening economic problems. But these people are far from content. They're wondering whether the coming presidential elections will provide them with the catalyst to make themselves seen and heard again.
Activists say that what has happened away from the street protests and other obvious shows of dissent tells the true story of opposition. Defiance, they say, has spread into daily existence, into the very culture of the Iranian people.
Sitting in a café in Tehran, Kamran says both sides crossed a line. An activist who identifies with Iranian nationalism, he uses the word "revolution" because that is what he says began in 2009 and that is why there is no turning back, irrespective of who wins next June. "It may not matter who is allowed to run, who wins could already be decided. But there's a wider struggle, a much deeper one, and this is something they couldn't end with the protests," he says.
He still openly wears a green plastic wristband with "I am Neda" emblazoned on its side, a reference to Neda Agha Soltan, the young Tehrani who was shot dead during the 2009 protests by government forces. To Iranians, and indeed the larger world, her image and name came to symbolize the uprising.
"We are still here, resisting in everyday life," he says, fiddling with the green band. He explains how the opposition and its supporters, forced off the streets, have developed their own brand of subversion, from ridicule of the regime's leaders in jokes distributed via text message to vocal disparagement of government supporters, particularly the paramilitary Basij, from anti-government slogans spray painted quickly on walls and buildings around Tehran in the middle of the night to explicit challenges on Internet forums and blogs, from boycotting parliamentary elections to the celebration of anything pre-Islamic or nationalistic (including A Separation's victory at this year's Academy Awards, which opposition activists adopted as a pretext to attempt an anti-government protest in Tehran's Mellat Park). Those who wish for change say this is the best resistance they can engage in until the time is right for more direct action. Or until "we become green again," as one Twitter message put it.
Ali Mazrooei, who now lives in exile in Belgium, is a former MP and international spokesman for one of Iran's most prominent reformist parties, the Islamic Revolution Mojahedin Organization. Mazrooei says opposition in Iran goes well beyond those who identify with the Green Movement.
"It's not silence. It's like a fire burning underground. There are protests against the system even in the prisons. They are writing letters, making statements -- it shows that the opposition is alive."
Kamran knows this well. He was first jailed after the 1999 student protests at the University of Tehran, the first major uprising since the 1979 Revolution. His father, also an activist, is currently in jail awaiting trial, accused of anti-government activities. "They've jailed my father, my friends, me. I spent weeks in solitary confinement, I've been tortured, so there is nothing more they can do but kill me. They cannot scare me anymore."
Outgrowing the reformistsCertainly not everyone agrees. People are afraid, there is widespread disappointment, and most people don't use the word "revolution" when speaking about 2009. They see it as a failure.
But there are still public displays of dissent, most recently during 25 Bahman in February, a response to the anniversary of the Revolution three days earlier, and 22 Khordad in June, which marked the anniversary of the disputed election. This year, the number who turned out to protest was small, perhaps in the hundreds at most on Enghelab Street near the University of Tehran. The Iranian security establishment, well versed in anti-demonstration tactics, deployed riot police at key locations around the capital to scare off protesters. Those brave enough to take their dissent to the streets on those days, even if simply to wear green, made their presence felt for an hour or so before disappearing into the hustle and bustle of the city.
What, if any, impact the reformist movement will have on the coming election is open to question. Two of its most prominent leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and the cleric Mehdi Karroubi, are under house arrest; many have been jailed or, like Mazrooei, exiled; and over the past several years, the movement's once most prominent figure, former President Mohammad Khatami, has lost his credibility with voters who seek change, most recently when he backed out of his commitment to boycott the March parliamentary elections.
There's also the fragmented nature of groups who identify with the reformist platform to consider. Mazrooei sees this as an obstacle. "Many people call themselves Green. Mousavi and Karroubi have emphasized the rule of law, the constitution, but not everyone in opposition agrees. It's a problem because if everyone was united, we would have more forces; the problem is people have different strategies."
At a basic level, most voters who want democratic change don't identify with any official group. Saying one supports (or supported) the Greens in many cases simply means that one wants reform, and not necessarily a reform movement lead by Mousavi and Karroubi. And that has been another outcome of the failed 2009 protests: the divide between regular Iranians and the government has increased, but so too has the divide between the people and their former reformist champions. It is now at the point where many regular Iranians say they couldn't care less about any of the reformist leaders, whom many see as part of the reviled establishment anyway.
Opposition activists argue that the two men have become increasingly irrelevant. "It wouldn't surprise me if the government released them and even let them run in the elections," says Kamran, "because the government knows we have outgrown them. What we want now is much more than they can give us."
Another Tehrani, Tanaz, says she protested during the elections and only once since. Now she doesn't see the point. Tanaz adds that, regardless of who runs for president next June, she probably won't vote. "They're all the same, they're all part of the system, it doesn't matter what face they have, they cannot change the government and are not the solution." She says that coming to this understanding is one of the main reasons the masses no longer risk arrest by protesting as they did after the elections -- their leaders are not worth risking their lives over, especially when they can't deliver what people demand.
Kamran says the only way forward is to play the long game. "So many people are frustrated that there is no change. But I'm not that impatient because I look at Iran: Our history spans thousands of years, so what is three since the start of the new revolution? It took the French almost 100 years after their revolution to establish real democracy."
Video: According to the Iranian Students News Agency, people gathered on Monday in the main square of Nishabur, a city of 270,000 about 600 miles east of Tehran, to protest the astronomical price of chicken. Photo from summer 2012: Graffiti on wall reads "Death to Khamenei."