by Mohsen Moheimany
PhD student in Political Science and International Relations, Dublin City University
Eight years after the 2009 post-electoral widespread protests, the main streets of Iran once again became the venue for another turning point in the history of this country. The geographical and behavioural patterns of these protests attracted more excitement and attention from commentators and analysts to it as a very influential, or determinative, movement that will lead to a big change. However, the predictions and analysis turned out to be mistaken very quick.
This analysis discusses the two sides of the conflicts between society and the state in Iran through a comparison between the 2009 protests and those of 2017. These two sides, which played role in both protests, include: (1) the ‘popular forces’; (2) ‘the regime institutions’. Contrasting the position of these sides provides an insight into the different dimensions of the two aforementioned protests and explain why the ‘Green Movement’ in 2009 was more influential than 2017 protests, while the earlier was not as intense as the latter.
- The Popular Forces
In 2009, the rise of the people took place in response to the electoral fraud through which Ahmadinejad was re-elected. At the frontline of protests was the ‘Reformist camp’—a democrat stream that was born two decades before that. This political camp was the main coalition consisting of 20 big political groups of the country. After the election, as they were not suspicious about the reliability of results and procedures, they called for street demonstrations with the purpose of questioning the ‘well-planned rigging’ of the presidential election, as the defeated reformist candidates claimed. Along with the candidates, several outstanding political leaders from the reformist camp, such as ‘Khatami’ the former president and the leader of this camp, supported the dissidents in the streets, and too warned them not to take violent behaviours. Further, several critical political parties, such as ‘The participation front of Iran’ and ‘Mujahedin of Islamic Revolution’, joined this movement, which later became known as ‘Green Movement’; this was purely political in nature, outlining a democratic-oriented discourse with certain slogans. The composition of participants was political as included the middle class, with mostly civil and political interests and affiliation, and their political colour was harmonically green, with the symbolic slogan of ‘Where is my vote?’. The biggest actions of the ‘Green Movement’ were managed in July 2009, especially when they organised a ‘silent protest’ with more than 3 million people on Azadi street in Tehran.Based on a democratic discourse, the movement was demanding accountability and reform from the regime fundamentalist leaders in the unelected authoritarian institutions. Eventually, however, the tension between this movement and the regime authoritarian sections steered to full repression followed by the securitisation of the political arena over a couple of years.
In 2017, everything on the popular force of the protests differed to that of 2009. The failure of Ahmadinejad’s 2005-2013 populism-oriented policies, along with the intense international sanctions on Iran, brought the economy of the country to its knees, as major indicators For one decade, the living situation of people became tangibly worse; however, this released its long-term effects during Rouhani’s government (2013–date)—a fact that was more evident in ‘purchasing power’ and ‘gap in class’. The bad economic situation, despite political hopes for Rouhani’s undergoing reforms, shrank the ‘family food basket’ of the society. Whilst Rouhani’s government freezes the inflation rate and the GDP showed some growth, in the new proposal budget document, the cabinet decides to increase fuel prices, as well as some tax-increase, which shocked the ‘market’s pulse’ in the ending months of 2017.
As the Rouhani’s policies had Reformists’ political support, this camp did not seek to weaken the tenure government by encouraging economic critics against the new controversial policies. Thus, they sought to calm society. However, the Rouhani’s opposition camp, including hardliner Mullas, semi-military forces and authoritarian institutions, did not keep quiet but decided to take action in the closing days of 2017. They had continuously sought a proper opportunity to undermine Rouhani’s government, with the widespread dissatisfaction of people providing a chance for them to ‘give a try’. They anonymously gave a virtual call for a demonstration on December 28, 2017, in Mashhad—the historically religious centre of Iran and the political base of the hardliner clerics—with thousands of people taking to the streets and chanting against the economic policies of Rouhani’s government. While this was intended for the conservative camp, it was only the beginning of a big tide of dissident.Later, people spontaneously continued the protests, which spilled into other small and large cities—this time targeting the ‘Islamic regime’ in their slogans, shouting with hatred against ‘Mullas’—something unexpected and unintended for the organisers—and attacking buildings and police forces.
In contrast to the 2009 protests, which was organised and constituted by reformist camps and through actual social networks of political groups, the 2017 protests were completely unknown and managed by spontanous social media users. In terms of organisation and discourse, the 2017 protest was a mass riot—leaderless and unorganised.
- The regime side
In 2009, the major institutions of the political regime of Iran—both elective and appointive—were completely under the rule of the conservative camp. Following the presidential election, the strategy of all security, military and religious institutions were consistent and organised: suppressing dissident groups, opposition leaders and protesters in order to stabilise and consolidate the presidency of Ahmadinejad. Hence, since the first week, harsh controlling strategies were used against protesters—despite it taking a long time to settle the well-organised protests. In order to extinguish the fire of protests, for months, security forces arrested critical figures and opposition leaders, with police cracking down demonstrations and religious institutions seeking to delegitimise the actions of opposition forces for ordinary people. The result of the ‘systematic suppression’ policy of regime leaders was thousands of detainees and deaths.
However, in December 2017, the regime institutions were divided between the reformist camp in the elective institutions of parliament and president office, and the conservative camp in the appointive institutions of judicial branch, plus religious and security organisations. This division and lack of political unity at the regime level, subsequently, disaggregated its policies against the December protests. At the elective side, reformists were unhappy about the growing riots, but they had a moderate and cautious opposition stance; but, at the appointive institutions, conservatives did not even present any concerns but remained silent for the first few days. The conservative figures in the regime took advantage of the situation and publicly blamed Rouhani’s policies as the cause of wide dissatisfaction in Iran. At the regime-supported section of civil society, an activist affiliated with the Basij force—the semi-military organisation—tweeted: ‘Comparing with 2009 protests, this time the protests are like a joke and does not concern us’. Until the protest grew unexpectedly and until the crowds on the streets chanted against the regime and Mullahs, the main security forces did not receive any order for ‘crack down’. The initial ‘welcoming attitude’ of conservatives made the Rouhani’s statesmen and reformist camp suspicious about the origin of the protests: ‘Whoever has triggered the riots, will be burnt by it, too’— the Vice-president told this pointing covertly to the hardliner Mullas in Mashhad city, especially to Ayatollah Alamolhoda, the representative of the Supreme Leader in that city.
While at political level, both camps were either confused or silent about the protests, only police sought to control the flood of demonstrations. Up to the third day of the protests, the reactions of the ‘hard core’ institutions of regime were still strange, Sharif, the deputy general of Sipah (IRGC), the revolutionary guard of Iran that cracked down the 2009 protests and used to be not tolerant about public protests, announced no need for intervention by Sipah this time. However, as time passed, things changed. Two days later, General Kowsari, a commander of Sipah overtly and strongly warned the protesters to stop going to streets: this statement revealed the shifting policy of the top security forces versus protesters.
Whereas in 2009, the regime leaders and security forces were completely ready and coordinated in taking action and statement for dealing with the protests, in 2017 protests, the head of regime did not have a harmonic and consistent voice and action in terms of choosing a stable policy.
Two protests: Different Consequences
The 2009 protests on the streets of Iran lasted for approximately one year, with its long-term consequences staying longer, including the securitisation of politics, changes in political coalitions, and the strengthening the institutional power of religious and army organisations. Because the movement was quite political, deep-rooted, and organised, the concern and reaction of regime were hard. However, the 2017 protests emerged quickly on streets with no organisational and fractional background in the real world, and with lack of support in civil society, which took only the dispersed presence of masses, and eventually settled quickly in one-week time. This quick emergence and decline was owing to the lack of organisation, discourse and leadership, and also non-consistent diversity in its composition. However, as academicians and political groups warned afterwards, the riots were a sign of wide dissatisfaction in the society, which should be taken seriously.
In terms of the conflict between the regime and society, it seems that, despite the intense authoritarian trends in the Islamic section of Iran’s regime, civil society forces are still influential in determining the political equations. This means that if a movement begins and continues with the leadership and organisation of political parties and civil society organisations in Iran, it is expected to leave deeper effects than a spontaneous mass protest. The dual nature of the Iran’s politics is a push-and-pull game between authoritarian and democrat forces, both in the regime structure and civil society forces. At the end of the day, it can be said that the movements on streets, whether organised by masses or political organisations, cannot induce regime change but only leaves several effects of the political conflicts and coalitions within the current regime. The hidden fact that justifies this is the complicated politics of Iran, and the strong institutional roots of the Regime.