The rise of tensions between the U.S. and Iran in light of the supposed Iranian attack on two American oil tankers and the constant insecurity surrounding Iran’s nuclear capabilities have solidified a vision of Iran as a foreign nation, a Middle Eastern autocracy that eschews Western values entirely; it was not long ago, however, that Iran’s global position was almost completely altered by an unprecedented, country-wide social movement. The 13th of June marked the tenth anniversary of the Iranian Green Movement, a reformist, democratic movement spurred by the contentious 2009 presidential elections.
In the 2009 Iranian elections, conservative incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated reformist candidate and former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi in an apparent landslide victory. Immediately, claims of election fraud swept the nation, as dissident employees of the Interior Ministry anonymously reported election rigging, while Iranian news website Ayandeh reported numerous polling stations recording impossible turnouts of over 100%. Outrage over the purportedly rigged election resulted in massive protests across the nation in response to what was seen as the most blatant denial of the democratic rights acquired in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, in which the Iranian monarchy was overthrown and replaced with an Islamic Republic overseen by the Grand Ayatollah, the highest order of Shiite religious and legal authority.
The protests immediately gained traction through the savvy use of social media to spread their message, and almost overnight broad discontent coalesced into the Green Movement, a diffuse social movement led by Mousavi and fellow presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi. According to its charter, the Green Movement demanded “free, competitive, and fair elections,” as well as “the independence of the judiciary” and “nonintervention by military forces in political and economic affairs.” The Iranian autocracy was suddenly threatened by the deafening cry democracy’s restoration. Reports of the attendance numbers for Green Movement protests vary wildly, a 15 June 2009 rally in capital Tehran boasted anywhere from hundreds of thousands to three million demonstrators, but images of streets flooded with students and other protestors wearing and holding green conveyed clearly the massive number of Iranian citizens discontented.
The Green Movement’s primary activity was the orchestration of large, nonviolent demonstrations on national holidays, made evident by the 7 December 2009 protests on National Students Day; however, the Green Movement was met with forceful opposition as quickly as it arose. Over 100 Green Movement leaders were arrested, ultimately confessing to several crimes against the state in televised trials; reports of tear gas being used on demonstrators were given to Reuters, and riot police were seen wearing gas masks; Newspapers, websites, and all forms of media outlets were placed under control of the government, and Iran became the country with the highest number of imprisoned journalists. Perhaps the most tragic and disputed event of the Green Movement came when Mousavi’s nephew, Seyed Ali Mousavi, was found shot and killed. No group has officially taken responsibility for Seyed’s death, but it remains a potent example of how drastically the goal of democratizing Iran was swept into a maelstrom of censorship and violence. Failure to mobilize on 11 February 2010 in the midst of threats of immense state violence represented the effective death of the Green Movement, and what once portended sweeping changes to the political landscape of Iran was gone.
It is impossible to predict to what extent the Green Movement’s success would alter the current state of Iran’s global relations. While Mousavi’s formal stance was always “working within the framework of the Constitution,” more radical protestors endorsed a complete restructuring of the Iranian theocracy. Similarly, levels of trust in the West and the U.S. varied among Green Movement activists. The Green Movement may have culminated in the same tensions between the U.S. and Iran that exist today, but it is an important reminder that a specific course of events has led the global order to its current status. In an era of seemingly unresolvable conflicts, the Green Movement symbolizes, if not the way forward, the possibility of change.