The Meaning of the Green Movement

By: Yadullah Shahibzadeh

It seems that the Green Movement, since its eruption in June 2009, has created more misunderstanding than clarity for a number of analysts of Iranian politics. The misunderstandings can easily be detected in the contradictory remarks they make on the nature of the movement and its historical origin. The perplexity of these analysts with the nature and origin of the Green Movement is revealed in their misreading of the relation between the structure of the Movement’s main argument and its democratic content. The Movement’s democratic argument is based on two premises; first, there was a popular revolution that produced a constitution which declares that all Iranian citizens have equal political rights, secondly there are Iranian citizens who now demand these political rights. The constitution made specific promises such as freedom of expression, of assembly, of demonstration, of organization as well as free elections.  And now the people want to realize these very promises. It was the people’s action on the streets during the revolutions in 1979 which legitimated the constitution. Now the people have come out en masse and  demand these rights from their government. They claim that every citizen of the Iranian society is a potential member of the governing power. The consistency between the form of the Movement’s arguments and the forms of its actions cannot be understood unless the sequences of events since the Iranian revolution are fully understood. We cannot expect the analysts of Iranian politics whose conception of democracy is limited either by ‘culturalism’ or neo-conservative ideology or a combination of both to understand the core of the movement’s argument, and its forms of expression. However, we should expect that he or she makes statements which are not contradictory. As soon as these analysts try to explain the democratic content of the movement they disconnect it from its historical condition of emergence. By giving a critical interpretation of two statements of an analyst of Iranian politics published recently, I try to reveal both the contradictory nature of these statements and shed light on the nature and origin of the Green Movement.

[Abbas] Milani believes the main reason for the creation and expansion of the Green Movement is that the founders of the Islamic republic failed to live up to their promises…”If you look at the statements of [Ayatollah Khomeini] in the months leading to the revolution, it was all about democracy. He promised a democratic government. When the Velayat Faqih principle was [adopted], people realized that a historic promise had not been kept,” he says.[1]

And only a few days later our analyst makes the following comments;

Today’s great struggle in Iranian politics pits Mousavi against Ali Khamenei. It was that way from, more or less, the birth of the regime…Genuine ideological differences undergirded this rivalry.[2]

The first statement claims that the leaders of the Iranian revolution made a promise, and that promise was democracy or a democratic government, but that promise was broken from the moment the Velayat Faqih principle was adopted.  This means the Green Movement must be understood as an attempt to realize the broken promise of democracy given during the revolution. What our analyst tries to say is that the Islamic Republic has been an oligarchy since its appearance, the leaders who took the government did not share it with its people. The analyst does not specify what makes a government democratic. The basic principle of a democratic government is the right of every citizen to govern or the rights of every citizen to political and ideological contestation. No doubt, the Islamic Republic since its consolidation has not recognized the full political rights of a great part of its citizens but this has been justified until the  late  1980s on the pretext of the oppositional political forces’ reluctance to recognize the Iranian constitution as well as the monopoly of central government over the means of violence. This actual reciprocal misrecognition of the Islamic Republic and its opposition in the first two years after the revolution created a picture of Iran as a country on the brink of a civil war, a consequence of which was Saddam Hussein’s dream of an easy victory in his war against Iran in 1980. This reciprocal misrecognition has never been fully addressed and which is at the heart of the great misunderstandings concerning the nature and the origin of the Green Movement.

The second statement points to two important characters of the Green Movement concerning its origin and its ideological character. The movement is presented as an old struggle between two opposing ideological and political forces, each of which demonstrates a particular approach towards freedom and political equality.[3] While in the 1980s Mir-Hossein Mousavi as Iran’s Prim-Minister defended freedom and equality, the President, Ayatollah Khamenei fought for the particular interests of a conservative faction whose main concern was; how to make profit of the war, crush all political dissidents, and how to restrict the cultural and political sphere in Iran. Neither Mousavi nor Khamenei have changed their allies or changed the content of their dispute. This is what any reader infers from the article. Thus, the Green movement shows the peak of their political battle, when the public discovered that they were cheated by the undemocratic side of this old struggle, they decided to give their verdict by coming out to the streets and demand their political rights. But the article does not make clear; why did people care about this political struggle? One answer sounds like this; people say this was and still is our struggle. The question is not fully answered unless we understand, how Mousavi convinced the people, during the election that this very old struggle, between him and his allies on the one side and the conservatives on the other side, was about their own political rights inscribed in the constitution. His only argument was clear and simple; he remained true to the promises of the constitution and promised that he would fight with the people to make those constitutional promises a reality. His other promise was that he remained true to the previous political movement led by Mohammad Khatami unleashed by the 1997 presidential election. Hoping to generate a new political movement he integrated the promises of the revolution with the promises of the Reform Movement. By the standard of liberal democracies Iranian elections cannot be called entirely free and fair but presidential elections in Iran inaugurated two important political movements in recent years and introduced several leaders such as Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mohammd Khatami and Mehdi Karubi who fight for democracy in Iran.

This indicates that the Green Movement cannot be disconnected from the political experiences of its different agents generated by the culture of political contestation within the Islamic Republic. The statements made by the leaders of the movement which remind the Iranian people of the unfulfilled promises of the revolution are supplemented by the people chanting on the streets, on their roofs and in the university grounds, chanting the same slogans that were chanted during the revolution. The movement’s driving force is not only the declarations, interviews and speeches of the leaders and the political passion they arouse among ordinary Iranians, but the claims that they have remained true to the promises of the Revolution as well as to the Reform Movement. In response to the question of what the promises of the revolution were, the leaders of the Green Movement refer to the rights of citizens in chapter 7 of the Iranian constitution in which freedom of expression, of assembly, of social and political associations, and the rights to demonstrate and protest are protected. The leaders of the Green Movement argue that the demonstrators on the streets do nothing but exercise their constitutional rights. The demonstrators and the leaders of the Green Movement try to establish in every occasion the relation between the words of the constitution and their own actions.  They refer to the promises made, their democratic content and the popular demand for fulfillment of the promises. The demonstrators and the leaders of the Green Movement do not refer to what Ayatollah Khomeini wished for his people but to a legal document written by popularly elected constitutional parliament and for which the overwhelming majority of Iranian eligible to vote, voted for in a referendum in 1979. While some took the constitution seriously and considered it as a legal document to be implemented some others did not. Those who took the constitution as a serious legal document tried to participate in its implementation. The history of Iranian democratic politics since the early 1980s is the history of those who took the constitution seriously. This is why Khatamni and Mousavi are the only people who managed to create an extraordinary passion for politics and symbolized two political movements worthy of the name in the post revolutionary Iran because they took the Iranian constitution seriously.

The promise of the leaders of the revolution was not a democracy or a democratic government but a constitutional government. These two should not be confused with each other, because democracy is realization of political equality of anyone and everyone in a constitutional government. The degree of democracy can be disputed in every constitutional government.  Ayatollah Khomeini left behind when he died a constitution in which political rights of all citizens were promised, and a culture of political contestation which are the most important requirements for democracy. We should understand the post-revolutionary actual political practices in their own proper context, as an interaction between the promises made by the constitution and the political contestation within the political system that convinced the people to enter into political action either as activists of the Reform Movement during Khatami’s presidency or as activists of the Green Movement since June 2009.

[1] Abass Milani in an Interview with the Voice of Free Europe (Radio Liberty)

[2] Abbas Milani; The Mousavi Mission; Iran finds its Nelson Mandela , The New Republic ; February 17, 201

[3]The subtitle of the article I quote above is, Iran finds its Nelson Mandela and  Mandela fought for freedom and political equality of every citizen in the South African society.

4 Responses to “The Meaning of the Green Movement”

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