It was a restless summer for Iran this year. The controversial results of the June 21 presidential elections engendered such anger that it became impossible for the streets to keep their years-long silence. With the harsh and bloody crackdown following the protests, the streets seem recently to have lost their temper, as we saw in the late June days; however, it is necessary to see that the populous demonstrations following the elections have raised the dust over the oppositional struggles inside and outside Iran, starting a new phase in the history of the struggle for Iranian democracy.
In line with the various interpretations of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its former and “re-elected” president Ahmedinejad, the comments on the uprisings were various. However, the recent actions of the “re-elected” government invalidate its own claims of legitimacy vis-á-vis the Mousavi-led opposition. This article is meant as a contribution to the discussions on the make-up of these uprisings and their meaning for the struggling peoples of Iran in particular and the peoples of the other streets of the world, who have generally lost their belief in change.
The restless streets of Iran also caused great disappointments. As one of the first world leaders celebrating the “victory” of Ahmedinejad, Hugo Chávez de facto issued a fatwa to respect the electoral results in Iran despite the glowing protests on the streets. While the Venezuelan President’s gift to Ahmedinejad, a statue of Bolívar, was left to decay in a quiet corner of a Tehran Park, the “People’s President” supported Ahmedinejad. However, secular fatwas were not only issued by Chávez. There were two types of fatwas in relation to our subject. One of them came from the “left.” According to the popular motto “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, Ahmedinejad received support from some left circles. The green bands wrapped around wrists, the green scarfs around necks at once became the signs of a colourful, velvet revolution, without any need for questioning. The young women and men being shot while throwing stones at the police, the workers and students marching in the streets resisting police coercion became puppets or pawns of the “velvet revolution”, as if no revolt is supportable in the absence of US intervention in the countries making up what is called the Middle East. The ambiguous “anti-imperialism” of Ahmedinejad has turned the protestors into “tools of imperialism”. Such a myth is being created around Ahmedinejad’s personality that he becomes the father of the poor and the disenfranchised, the charismatic leader of Iran against US imperialism. The bags of potatoes he distributed became the symbol of social justice, his denying the holocaust the symbol of anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism. However, the movement despised by the pro-Ahmedinejad left is supported by the Iranian left, namely the leftist guerrilla organisation Peoples’ Fadaiyan and the Communist Party, Tudeh.
Another side in the debate over the quality of the uprisings focuses on the personality of Mousavi. There were similar, totalising analyses in that respect as well. Ignoring Khomeini, the true leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran during his “reign,” Mousavi, due to his prime-ministership, was taken as the perpetrator of the crimes committed in the first years of the Islamic Republic, namely the murder of thousands of revolutionaries. However, if he had an image among Iranians, it was rather his talent in managing the economy during the war years. Moreover, judging the figures of the contemporary oppositional movement in Iran in terms of what they were doing thirty years ago not only leads to an essentialist stance, but also results in discarding a great number of people who have actively joined and formed the oppositional movement within Iran in the last ten years. It is true that the struggle for a regime change also takes place in the diaspora, but its impact on the internal struggle for democracy should not be exaggerated. It should be clear that if any kind of change in the ruling regime takes place, its primary agents will be the people living and struggling in Iran, whatever the composition of this movement is.
Besides, focusing on the identity of Mousavi in evaluating the make-up of the uprisings is another way of underestimating the will of more than a million people marching in the streets under severe threat. And if Mousavi became the leader of this movement, it was after his participation in the June 15 march of the people, following the first shots heard in the streets of Tehran, two days after the elections. As he himself admits, it was the will of the people that made him to go to the streets and protest. Furthermore, if we are to evaluate the uprisings according to the “leaders,” Mousavi is certainly not alone. Khatami and Karrubi have acted in unity, forming an oppositional “green” front and that is why their fellow party members are now being arrested and offices sealed.
The social memory of the oppositional struggle in Iran, which is marked by disappointments, betrayals, and the pain arising from the loss of loved ones, does not have to be trapped in an “either all or none” viewpoint. Defining the uprisings as inter-regime struggles and dismissing their impact on change not only means engaging in faith-reading, but also involves a shallow approach to the regime and its prominent figures, namely the clerics residing in Qom. For example, Grand Ayatollah Montazari, Khomeini’s successor before Khamenei’s controversial rise in rank, who was in house arrest in the late 1990s, broke his silence early after the elections, supporting the objections to Ahmedinejad’s declared victory. However, he did not stop there. Publishing declarations and open letters during the protests, he gave full support to the people on the streets questioning the legitimacy of the regime. In his September 13 letter to the high-ranking clerics in Qom, he stresses that the “goal of the revolution was not to simply change names and slogans while the same oppressions, deviations and abuses practised by the previous regime continued in another form but under the labels of theocratic government and the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists”, and calls the clerics to act against any illegitimate act executed in the name of religion and Sharia. Montazari is an important figure, not only because of his high rank in the hierarchy of clergy, but also because of his firm opposition to Khomeini on grounds of the massacre of thousands of leftist guerrillas jailed after a mock trial questioning their Muslim faith in 1988. He is not the only cleric questioning the basic pillars of the regime, namely its claim to legitimacy and rule of law. Rejecting their contribution to the ongoing struggle would not only distort the character of the summer 2009 uprisings, but would also lead to a false interpretation and underestimation interpretation of the role of the clergy in Iran’s history of struggle against coercion.
The uprisings of summer 2009 started as a reaction against the stolen presidential elections; however, it resulted in questioning the legitimacy of the regime and making it possible to talk about taboo issues. One of the most frightening topics in the list of taboo subjects must have been the nature of the persecution experienced mostly by female political prisoners. Rape in prisons was known about but not “officially” and explicitly named as such before Karrubi’s letter to the former president and current head of the Expediency Council Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in the early days of August. Karrubi accused the security officers of the Islamic Republic of Iran of raping women and young men in custody. He also mentioned that he had documents proving that the security officers have killed detainees under arrest through torture.
Not only the rape itself, but also the threat of rape was used as a means of torture against political prisoners in the 1980s. And this controversial issue, controversial because of its existence as a method of torture in an Islamic Republic, is being articulated in the Islamic Republic of Iran after thirty years without “regime change.” Now, former women prisoners certify the existence of this phenomenon in prisons with testimonial videos circulating on the internet. And this was only possible with the atmosphere created by the people rebelling against the disputed elections and the courageous contribution of the prominent figures of the opposition movement, such as Karrubi.
After the elections, up to four thousands people were arrested and more than a hundred dissidents were tried in mass trials beginning on August 1. Among the accused former officials there were many with government positions during the 1997-2005 presidency of Mohammad Khatami, including his vice-president Mohammad Ali Abtahi. As of the present article, no sentence has yet been issued. However, the way the arguments were presented, the lack of relation between the accusations, the forced “confessions” of the pale detainees, some in prison uniforms, and the “mass trial”, were sufficient for creating the atmosphere of a “shock and awe” operation, whitch showed that the state had lost legitimacy, and had to resort to other means of staying in power. The trials involved such irrelevant accusations and confessions that even Jürgen Habermas’s 2002 visit to Iran was included in the indictment.
The state did not only respond to the uprisings with arrests. Neda Agha Soltan, the young woman shot on the street while attending a march, became the symbol of state coercion against the protesters. However, a list of 72 people, ranging from teenagers to people in their fifties killed after elections, were published by the oppositional news site Norooz and endorsed by the front led by Mousavi, Khatami and Karrubi. Although the official accounts claim that 30 people “had died” during the turmoil, the list of the oppositional front gives the details of the killed persons and the place and method of their murder. Accordingly, unknown graves are being found in Tehran’s biggest cemetery – Behesht-i Zahra.
Similar to the phenomenon of rape in prisons, unmarked and mass graves are not unknown in the history of the struggle for democracy in Iran. Mothers of Khavaran, the “cemetery” in which leftist militants killed in prisons were buried in the 1980s, have for years been resisting the government’s threat to destroy their children’s cemetery; and Khavaran was destroyed in January 2009. Despite their years-long struggle to make the issue visible, they could not stop Khavaran’s being turning into an anonymous park. However, the struggles on the streets and the determined resistance to the state’s policy of intimitation have now led officials to admit the existence of similar unknown graves in the Tehran cemetery.
This is the question: did anything change in Iran after the elections? The answer is, without a doubt, yes. If officials invite Karrubi to prove the existence of rape in prisons, if unknown graves in the Tehran cemetery is accepted as an issue that needs investigation, if Mothers of Khavaran have united with the new mothers who have lost their children in the summer of 2009 and have the courage to gather in parks every Saturday under the name of “Mothers of Laleh,” it means that something has changed. The fundamental change is the revival of the belief in change.