The Arab Spring has challenged the statute of tyranny in numerous countries in the Middle East. Countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have successfully ended years of despotism, while the people of Syria, Yemen and Bahrain are on the path to freedom.
Iran’s political system
Iranians challenged the tyranny present within their ‘Islamic Republic’ long before the advent of the Arab Spring. The Islamic Republic of Iran considers itself to be highly democratic and on face value it adheres to the most basic tenant of democracy, elections. Every 4 years, Iranians engage in presidential elections, which are often highly competitive. Elections in Iran are not a one sided affair, reformists have the ability to pull off surprising victories. This is best illustrated by the presidential victories of the reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and 2001. Despite offering its citizens the right to vote, the Islamic Republic has deprived its citizens the real essence of democracy. Elections for President of Iran mean very little when one considers the subordinate position of the president in relation to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Supreme Leader of Iran is not chosen by the people, but among a selected number of clerics known as the Assembly of Experts. It is the clerics in Iran who hold the real reins of power, not the elected officials of government such as the President. To illustrate this point, one only needs to look at the Council of Guardians (an unelected council of clerics and lawmakers), who have the ability to block candidates from running for parliamentary elections and presidential nominations based on their Islamic credentials. At every general election, thousands of Iranians are disqualified from running based on the rulings of the Council of Guardians.
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iranians have tried numerous times to reform their regime. The reform movement gained increasing prominence under Khatami but conservatives within the Iranian regime brutally subdued its growth. Hardliners spearheaded by conservative Ayatollahs such as Khamenei, Misbah Yazdi and Jannati, ordered Iranian security forces to suppress many student protests in the 1990’s. With the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2004 the conservatives in Iran had effectively subdued Iran’s growing reform movement. However, the Iranian reform movement was not finished as many Iranians desired basic democratic rights such as freedom of speech, thought and association.
The disputed June 2009 Presidential Elections
The Iranian reform movement gained great momentum after the disputed June 2009 Presidential elections. The source of conflict emanated from the landslide victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who regained the Presidency of Iran with more than 60 % of the vote. Iranians refused to believe the possibility of Ahmadinejad winning such a landslide victory. Their doubts were well placed as the presidential elections were predicted to be a close run race. Ahmadinejad had eroded considerable popularity within Iran as a result of mismanaging Iran’s economy. Under his tenure inflation within Iran has skyrocketed in conjunction with unemployment. Many Iranians questioned the integrity of the Interior Ministry in its counting of the electorate votes. Before the publication of official results, many independent analysts had tipped the reformist candidate, Mir Hussain Mousavi, to be ahead in the election polls. Mousavi was expected to win by a small margin or to lose by a small percentage. No one in Iran, even Iranians within the conservative faction expected a landslide victory for Ahmadinejad.
The legitimacy of Ahamdinejad’s landslide victory was opposed by all Presidential candidates, including the conservative nominee Mohsen Rezaee (Former General of the Revolutionary Guards). The reformist candidates Mousavi and Karroubi called for the presidential election to be annulled and repeated. Their stand sparked huge reformist protests within Iran and led to the birth of the Green Movement. Repeated violent clashes occurred between peaceful protesters and the Iranian security forces. Iran’s conservative clergy (the real holders of power within Iran) sided with Mahmood Ahmadinejad and ended any chances of an electorate recount. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei legitimised Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election victory through the powerful Guardian Council. Simultaneously Khamenei instructed Iran’s security forces, the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia to crush the Green Movement with brutal force. Through the employment of heavy handed tactics, Iran’s conservative theocracy was able to stifle the reformists once again.
Arab Spring reignites the Green Movement
Since the end of 2009, the activities of the Green Movement had become largely dormant. The Iranian regime was no longer facing large scale protests in major cities such as Tehran, Shiraz, Mashhad, Yazd and Isfahan. The Green movement was slowly decaying in 2010, its spark fizzling as a result of mass arrests. The Iranian regime had successfully imprisoned numerous reformist politicians, journalists and students. Reformists were given mock trials and thrown into notorious political prisons such as Evin. Student campuses were mercilessly attacked by the Basij militia and reformist newspapers were forcibly closed. The heart of the Green movement was slowly being beaten into submission by the conservative Ayatollahs.
Conversely 2011 heralded the coming of the Arab Spring and the shackles of tyranny within the Middle East began to tremor. Inspired by the Arab Spring, Mousavi and Karroubi called on Iranians to demonstrate solidarity with Egyptian and Tunisian pro-democracy protestors. The Green’s answered the call of Mousavi and Karroubi in their thousands, marching on the streets of Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz on February 14, 2011. Protesters shouted slogans such as, “Death to the Dictator,” and “Mubarak, Ben Ali, now it’s your turn Seyyed Ali” (meaning Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In Tehran, protestors scribbled on paper money, ‘End executions, stop dictatorships” and spray painted “Tahrir Square” on traffic signs. The Iranian regime employed its usual tactics of repression and brutality against the pro-democracy protestors. Iranian security forces used assault and gunfire to contain the peaceful protests; this consequently resulted in the death of three protestors and the arrest of hundreds of Iranians.
By engaging in such heavy handed tactics, the Iranian regime is practising its long policy of political hypocrisy. The Iranian theocracy continues to suppress the human rights of its own citizens, while claiming to support the ideals of the Arab spring. Just a week prior to domestic protests, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei embraced the pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt as an “Islamic Awakening” similar to Iran’s own 1979 revolution. Additionally, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad heaped praise on pro-democracy protestors in Egypt, supporting their right to express their own views about their country. In contrast, Mr Ahmadinejad delivered a stinging rebuttal to freedom of speech towards his fellow compatriots. In the aftermath of Iran’s solidarity protests with Egypt, Mr Ahmadinejad declared, “You may see hostilities against the government. The opposition supporters know that they would get nowhere. They just wanted to tarnish the Iranian nation’s brilliance. It is a shining sun. They threw some dust towards the sun,” he added. “It is funny. By throwing dust at the sun, the dust will return to their eyes.”
The disappearance of Mousavi and Karroubi
Despite issuing such fearless statements, Mr Ahmadinejad alongside Ayatollah Khamenei, fear the resurgence of mass protests led by the Green Movement. Alarmed by the success of the Arab Spring in neighbouring countries, hardliners within the Iranian regime moved quickly to counter the Green Movement. The continued survival of the Iranian regime depends on its ability to permanently silence the Green movement. Khamenei has chosen to achieve this goal by removing Mousavi and Karroubi from Iran’s political scene.
In the immediate aftermath of Iran’s solidarity protests with Egypt and Tunisia, hardliners began to apply pressure on Mousavi and Karroubi. Both men were branded as ‘corrupters on earth’ by conservative elements in the Iranian parliament (majlis). The Iranian judiciary can apply the death penalty to any individual convicted with the charge ‘corrupter on earth’. Fifty conservative MP’s chanted, “Death to Mousavi, Death to Karroubi”, on February 15th 2011.
Ayatollah Khamenei knows the open execution of Mousavi and Karroubi would be suicidal to the longevity of theocracy within Iran. Khamenei can ill afford to make Mousavi and Karroubi martyrs, as their deaths would galvanise all sections of society into the arms of the Green Movement. Instead Khamenei has chosen the far more discrete policy of house arrest, a tactic that has proven effective against previous reformist opponents, such as the late Ayatollah Montazeri. Following the protests on February 14th, both reformist leaders were placed under illegal house arrest. The respective homes of Mousavi and Karroubi were surrounded by uniformed and plain-clothed security forces that prevented any possible access to the reformist candidates. The house arrest of the reformist candidates has been confirmed by their next of kin. Mir Hussain Mousavi’s daughters have wrote on opposition website Kaleme.org that, “We went to our parents’ home, and from the iron gate installed at the entrance of the alley to their home we were stopped by the security, who said that you can’t go.” Both Mousavi and Karroubi have lost physical as well as digital contact with the outside world as the Iranian regime has cut their houses from any form of telecommunications.
The position of Mousavi and Karroubi worsened on 24th February 2011, as a result of security forces forcibly transferring the reformist figures from their homes to an anonymous “safe house”. Furthermore, the abduction of the reformist figures was accompanied with the forced kidnapping of their wives, Zahra Rahnavard and Ms. Fatemeh Karroubi. Many in Iran blame Ayatollah Khamenei for the kidnapping of Mousavi and Karroubi. Their fears are well justified due to the presence of the Supreme Leaders executive deputy, Vahid Haghanian, during the raid on Karroubi’s house. A statement issued by Karroubi’s official website, Sahamnews.net, states “ On the night of the kidnapping, Vahid, a top official in the supreme leader’s office, was present in Mr Karroubi’s house and he personally commanded the whole operation of evicting Mr Karroubi and his wife from their own house and taking them to an unknown location.” Many human rights groups have been alarmed by the current position of Mousavi and Karroubi in a safe house, as it places the reformist candidates outside the scope of the Iranian judiciary, or any monitory legal systems in Iran. The Revolutionary Guards and Iranian intelligence agencies are well-known for using safe houses in order to extract confessions from detainees, without scrutiny or pressure from legal bodies.
Neither Karroubi nor Mousavi have been seen or heard by the Iranian public, since their abduction. Their disappearance has crippled the ability of the Green Movement to launch co-ordinated widespread pro-democracy protests in Iran. Without Karroubi and Mousavi the Green Movement suffers from a huge leadership vacuum. Consequently Iran has failed to keep up with the pace set by pro-democracy movements in neighbouring Arab countries. Nevertheless, if the Arab Spring proves to be successful in neighbouring Syria, a key ally of the Iranian regime, the Green movement might once again find a spark of inspiration.
Mohamed Irani is a British-Iranian student writing under a pseudonym
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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