Iran: The Green Movement Lives On
By Kelly Golnoush Niknejad
It seemed like a peculiar time for Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, prominent leaders of Iran's Green Movement, to call for protests. After all, it wasn't just Iran's venomous hard-line press that had long declared the democratic movement dead. In the absence of street protests for more than a year, the Western mainstream media had ruefully pronounced that the Islamic Republic had succeeded in violently repressing the nascent reform movement. But the two leaders, despite being placed under house arrest by the regime, urged their followers to take to the streets on Feb. 14 for the largest protests since the muzzling of the Green Movement in December 2009.
True, the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt sent ripples throughout the region. But the Islamic Republic is its own peculiar animal, and the odds were stacked against a significant turnout by the opposition. Despite Iranian officials' grandstanding about the events in Egypt, contending that they were inspired by Iran's own 1979 revolution, they refused to grant opposition leaders a permit to demonstrate in solidarity with the brave people of Egypt.
The stakes were high -- in a word, death. If you didn't get shot on the street, there was the distinct possibility of falling prey to Iran's version of swift justice. The rate of executions has increased -- in mid-January, the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran put it at one every eight hours.
That punishment has now been extended to a Dutch woman of Iranian descent arrested during the 2009 post-election protests and a web developer facing execution for allegedly building an adult website.
The death sentences sent chills beyond the sphere of political activists. "Now we don't know exactly what he has done," a musician in Tehran wrote me a few days ago, "but if it is only designing a website that is considered immoral by the government and getting a death penalty for it, then it is truly terrifying."
But despite the enormous risks, tens of thousands of Iranians streamed into the streets of Tehran and other cities for the Valentine's Day protests. "It was beyond anything we had expected," a Tehran Bureau correspondent in the capital told me. "I was all over on foot and on the rapid transit buses. The crowds were EVERYWHERE."
There were reports of scuffles, confrontations, and even severe beatings throughout the city. At least one protester was killed. But on the whole, the security forces were restrained. "It seemed like the Basij were ordered not to act until ordered," our correspondent added. "They just stood around looking bewildered. When the riot police would drive by on their bikes, they just put the fires out."
And perhaps most significantly, it appeared that Iranians from working-class neighborhoods were involved in the protests for the first time.
"I see the frustration over higher prices for fuel and basic food stuff and the jadedness of people toward the laws and regulations attacking their very foundation," a friend from affluent north Tehran wrote me in an email. "And I see the strength of the moneyed -- the privileged importers (ghachaghchis), the big developers, the quasi-government businesses -- keeping their grip on the economy by enriching the ruthless to rule the innocent. The tragedy is beyond description."
Iranian state media did its best to demonize the protest movement. The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting repeatedly showed a clip of the former shah's son Reza Pahlavi praising Monday's protests and Voice of America and BBC Farsi analysts supporting the demonstrations. "In between the clips, [Iranian media featured] pictures of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi [with] a backdrop of a Star of David and U.S. flag," reported a Tehran Bureau intern who watched state TV coverage of the protests.
The protests raged into the night, but few expect them to spill over into successive days. Conditions in Iran are far more repressive than under the autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt, and Iran is far less susceptible to international pressure. The question on everyone's mind was whether anybody would show up in the first place. In that sense, the Feb. 14 protests opened a window of opportunity for the Green Movement and showed that its leaders can still bring their followers to the streets.
Kelly Golnoush Niknejad is the founder and chief editor of Tehran Bureau, now in partnership with PBS's Frontline.BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images