Sunday, February 21, 2010

Kamran Afary and Kevin Anderson: Behind the 2009 Upheaval in Iran

Behind the 2009 Upheaval in Iran
By: Kamran Afary and Kevin Anderson

I. Not a Mere Election Protest

The Friday, June 12 election was widely expected to be a somnolent affair in which
Ahmadinejad coasted to a second term over some lackluster opponents. Instead, the Moussavi campaign quickly heated up, jarring not only the conservative establishment but also sparking a new and supposedly apathetic generation of youth into action. At a rally at the University of Tabriz, Moussavi appealed to youth alienated by the morality police. Students complained of political and gender repression, including cameras in classrooms to prevent conversation among students of the opposite sex.

The Zahra Rahnavard factor also took on great importance, reported Robert Dreyfuss: "Moussavi had another not-so-secret weapon: his wife, Zahra Rahnavard. A noted intellectual and sculptor, Rahnavard campaigned alongside her husband, sometimes holding his hand. Clearly a liberated woman, she called for an end to the much-despised harassment of women by the cultural police and backed equal rights for women. At a vast rally in downtown Tehran, I watched her mesmerize the crowd. 'We are going to make a revolution in the revolution!' she cried. Women in pink lipstick and with blond highlights in partly uncovered hair shouted beside women in black chadors" ("Iran's Green Wave," The Nation, 7/20/09 <>)

Rahnavard has been part of the Islamist establishment, but has evolved in a feminist direction in recent years. Independent women's organizations also sprung up during the campaign: "Thirty-four Islamist and secular feminist groups coalesced to form the Women's Movement Convergence, for instance, with nearly 700 activists gathering to hammer out a common platform. A week before the election, the Convergence held a debate with the representatives of the reformist candidates in the Office of the Islamic Revolution's Women to assess which candidate would be most consistently committed to women's rights" (Kaveh Ehsani, Arang Keshavarzian and Norma Claire Moruzzi, "Tehran, June 2009," Middle East Report Online, 6/28/09 )

Nothing helped to discredit Ahmadinejad more than the two weeks of television debates among the presidential contenders, which interrupted regime conservatives' monopoly over the broadcast media. The mass debates on the streets during the late evenings following the debates were crucial in convincing a large majority of the population to participate and to vote against Ahmadinejad.

During the TV debates, Moussavi attacked Ahmadinejad's practice of massive Stasi-like surveillance. He repeatedly denounced Ahmadinejad's bullying of activist students, and pledged to rein in the so called "morality police" who harass young people, especially women. For his part, Karroubi questioned Ahmadinejad about his statements (which he latter had denied) that he was protected by a "halo" from the 12th Shia Imam (the Madhi or Messiah) during his 2005 UN speech. Karroubi, a cleric who holds the rank of ayatollah, termed this the most crass charlatanism. In the June 6 debate, he also quoted a former head of Mossad, who had exulted on Israeli Arabic TV that Ahmadinejad's provocative language actually helped Israel: "If Mossad were to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on someone who would ensure Israeli interests -- no one could do this better than Ahmadinejad." Karroubi added, "Every sentence that Ahmadinejad says against Israel makes things easier for Israel in the world."

After each debate, young and old, men and women, gathered in the streets of Tehran and the provinces to show support for their candidates and argue for or against their policies. The debates emboldened people to openly characterize Ahmadinejad as a compulsive liar. One could argue that a new form of Iranian rap/hip hop was born on the streets during these days. Comic chants and call and responses attest to this. Here is one example: One group would chant: "Should I say it" (mocking Ahmadinejad's ham-handed question to Moussavi during the debate before holding up a copy of Rahnavard's doctoral diploma to question her qualifications). The other group, posing as Moussavi, would say: "Go ahead, say it." Then they all would chant "2X2=7, 2X2=10. 2X2 equals whatever I want it to be." For the first time since the 1979 revolution, the streets of Tehran and other cities were filled with people debating policy with gales of laughter as a form of comic relief.

Four days before the election, on June 8, Ahmadinejad held a boisterous rally of tens of thousands in central Tehran, many of them members of the Basiji militia and their families instructed to attend. But that evening, Moussavi supporters created an even larger outpouring, a human chain that stretched for twelve miles along Tehran's major north-south axis, Vali Asr Street. The fact that they were able to mount this event in more working class South Tehran as well as more affluent North Tehran showed the breadth of their support.

The vast crowds and intense anger stirred up by the brief two weeks of open election campaigning undoubtedly shocked and frightened regime conservatives, who a month earlier had been expecting voter apathy and another low-turnout Ahmadinejad victory, as in 2005. Although the office of the president has limited real power, Moussavi's campaign tactics seemed to suggest that he and Rahnavard would, were he elected, continue to use popular mobilizations to press for change. Moreover, with the opposition crowds growing by the day, there was probably worry as to what would happen had the election gone into a second round, which would have meant yet another week of boisterous reformist rallies. Thus, it is likely that this led regime conservatives to pull the plug at the end of the first round of the campaign, giving Ahmadinejad his stolen "landslide" in an improvised fashion.

There was a brief lull and widespread disbelief immediately after Ahmadinejad was declared the winner on Saturday, June 13. But within hours millions began asking, "Where is my vote?"

As vast numbers of people from all social classes took to the streets to protest the stolen election and its endorsement by Supreme Religious Leader Ali Khamenei, the world media seemed surprised at the movement's scope and persistence, even in the face of severe repression by the Basiji militia. During the week of June 15, demonstrations in Tehran were drawing over a million people, something not seen since the days of the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution. The street protests subsided somewhat by late June in the face of beatings, gunfire, and mass arrests of organizers. By late June, many experts and pundits were predicting that the movement on the streets would collapse or that people like Moussavi or Rafsanjani would compromise with Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. Instead, massive crowds of protestors have continued to appear when circumstances have allowed, as seen in the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets on July 17 as Rafsanjani denounced the repression of protestors in a major public sermon during a Friday prayer service broadcast nationwide over the radio. Moreover, after repression did not stop mass participation in the protests, even the regime conservatives began to argue publicly among themselves.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

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