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You’re listening to Iran’s Weekly Wire; I’m Roland Elliott Brown.
Six years ago, millions of Iranians filled the streets in spectacular protests that caught the whole world by surprise.
The protests began over claims that the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had stolen Iran’s 2009 election.
Most of the protesters wore green, which was the campaign color of Ahmadinejad’s more liberal rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi. They shouted the slogan, “Where is my Vote?”
But soon, protesters started challenging the very legitimacy of Iran’s political system. They called Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, a dictator.
The situation looked like it could turn into a revolution. But Instead, Iran’s security forces cracked down hard, and the Green Movement died.
So what do Iranians think about the Green Movement now? Earlier this month, IranWire asked iPOS, a Virginia-based polling service, to talk to people across Iran.
They called 1,048 Iranian adults across the country. And the responses were surprising.
A clear majority – 59 percent — said there had been no fraud in the 2009 election. Only 19 percent said the government had rigged the elections.
Just 31 percent of respondents knew that the movement’s leaders are still locked up. Both Mir Hossein Mousavi and another presidential candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, have been under house arrest since 2011.
So how is it possible that popular passions and political memory have faded so quickly?
I asked Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews, what he thought of those findings.
[Ali Ansari] I think the second result is more illuminating, than in some ways the first, because it shows how much over the last 5-6 years, how effective the management of news has been within Iran. It is quite remarkable that below 40 per cent even know that Mousavi and Karroubi are under house arrest. I think if you'd done this poll maybe 2 or 3 years ago, the results may have been significantly different. But it's really a consequence of the fact that if you pump out a certain narrative, and give yourself long enough, people are focused on other things. It probably does reflect to some extent the ability of the government to control its message.
Iran’s control of domestic media may help explain why memories have faded.
But more significant is that the government has regained control of the whole political process.
At the height of the protests six year ago, it was almost impossible to imagine Iranians turning out to vote again in the same political system. Iran’s elections are indirectly managed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—the same man the protesters called “dictator.”
And yet in 2013 they did vote. They elected President Hassan Rouhani.
Rouhani has saved Iran’s political system. Here’s Ali Alfoneh from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies:
[Ali Alfoneh] His emergence is a sign of the regime trying to correct the imbalances within the system. Mr. Rouhani is the symbol of the regime trying to restore public confidence in the ability of the regime to correct itself and the polls, the voting ballots, being the instrument of change within the regime. They have also managed to restore to a degree public confidence in the ballots being the only way of changing the system in Iran, rather than street protests, and I have to say this is a huge victory for a non-democratic government like that of Iran.
In the short term at least, it seems unlikely that there will be more large protests in Iran.
According to the iPOS poll, Iranians are now deeply divided on the subject of street protests. Only 39 per cent of respondents said they approved of them. 40 per cent opposed them.
In 2009, security forces beat thousands of protesters, and arrested hundreds. Some were tortured in prison. A few, like Neda Agha Soltan, were shot dead by snipers.
But snipers aside, only 35 per cent of respondents said they opposed the police response. 40 percent said it was justified.
So why have Iranians chosen Rouhani? He’s not a liberal like Mousavi. And he’s not offering any of the major reforms Mousavi’s supporters expected.
One reason might be that Iranians are just not as liberal as outsiders liked to imagine in 2009.
Another reason could be that the Green movement itself was deeply flawed. Here’s Ali Alfoneh.
[Ali Alfoneh] it was clear to me that the Green Movement had several problems. They were mobilizing the upper middle class Iranians in major population centers, people who were interested in politics and demanding political freedom. but they did not appeal to the economically disadvantaged classes in Iran.That was the first weakness. The second weakness was that there was a division between the leadership of the Green Movement and the members of the Green Movement, meaning that the leadership, Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karroubi, genuinely wanted to correct the political system within the framework of the constitution, while many of their supporters actually were revolutionaries. They did not want to reform anything or get rid of the system. And third, the regime had the capability, and even more importantly the intention, the will, to suppress the Green Movement and survive.
And Iranians also saw what happened after the so-called Arab Spring. Here’s Ali Ansari:
[Ali Ansari] there is probably an awareness that the Arab Spring has turned very sour, it hasn't certainly been as successful as they may have hoped 2 or 3 years ago, that maybe they got a lucky escape, from their point of view they are sort of thinking perhaps it was better that we didn't push it too far. I think the lessons of the movement are still being learned, and they are quite mixed, and it reflects as I said their perception of what is going on the in broader Middle East. I think if one of these Arab Springs had actually proved to be very successful, say in Egypt or further afield or certainly in Syria or other places, then the lessons drawn about the Iranian experience would have been quite different.
And many Iranians, who are struggling under heavy sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, are hoping Rouhani can ease their troubles. In that regard, at least he’s better than Ahmadinejad.
[Ali Alfoneh] I do believe that the majority of Iranians today, the most important issue for them is the nuclear negotiations, and the ability of the regime to reach peace with the world. They believe that some degree of nuclear agreement with the US hopefully will stimulate business rights in Iran, and also help their economy, and hopefully also lead to a lesser degree of repression. So there is some degree of cautious optimism.
Not that everyone’s on board.
The poll also revealed stark divisions in the way Iranians see recent history. While 89 per cent of respondents said they voted in 2009, there was little agreement about what afterward.
While 28 per cent of respondents called the protests “The Green Movement,”--which implies their sympathy--another 28 per cent denounced the protests as “sedition.”
I asked Ali Ansari if Iran is more politically divided now than it was before 2009.
[Ali Ansari] I think that’s probably certainly true. I think when you go through a period--and you have to also remember now, the country is under immense pressure, economically because of the sanctions and the international situation--I think there is a sense that whereas people may have been more willing to provide opposition previously, now they are less comfortable with the idea. So there may have been a case where people were having second thoughts about things, or moving in different directions, basically toeing the government line, or undecided. I think all of these things, because of what's happened, I mean we're talking about six year effectively, lots of things have happened, memories fade, but also there is probably a degree of anxiety in Iranian society that is being expressed in these polls.
And there was a lot of hedging in the poll too. On many big questions about the rights and wrongs of the Green Movement, people said they just didn’t know the answer.
Ali Alfoneh has a theory about that that.
[Ali Alfoneh] I generally believe that it has to do with the police society nature of the regime in Tehran and the awareness of the people of the repressive machinery of the state. They prefer to say "I don't know" so they are no overtly lying to themselves morally. It's more acceptable from their point of view, and it's the most cautious answer that they can give.
And Alfoneh is sceptical about phone surveys, because many Iranians fear being spied on.
[Ali Alfoneh] Iran, after all, is not a democratic country, and Iranian citizens are perfectly aware that they are being monitored by the intelligence services. How would they know that the person who is making a phone call to them to ask extremely sensitive political questions is not an employee of the ministry of intelligence, or the intelligence organisation of the revolutionary guards. Their entire career, their access to a university education, their entire life would be dependent on the answers they give to a complete stranger over the phone.
That’s an important point. But I also spoke to Ali Herischi of iPOS, the group that conducted the poll. He says good polling can correct for that.
[Ali Herischi] We don't believe that that was the case, of fear, in anyone's answer in any calls. We understand and we are well aware of these issues. However, our team has experienced this for the past 20 years, that they are involved in public opinion polling in Iran. So there are methods that we use to reduce the effect of fear. Based on the good training we provide to our pollsters, they can create a trust relationship between the interviewee and the interviewer, and then we get those answers.We can eliminate those answers that we thought it's a lie or it's not true But still, we cannot say 100 percent everyone provides a correct answer, but statistically we reached to a very reasonable answer provided in that report.
But while the poll may suggest that most people have given up on the Green Movement, many still implicitly supported it.
And the government is clearly not controlling the whole narrative. Their line on the Green Movement is that it was guided by foreigners. But only 6 percent of respondents believed that.
And while most people seemed not to know the fate of the movement’s leaders, only 6 percent agreed with the government’s policy of detaining them without trial.
So what is the Green Movement’s legacy? Here’s Ali Herischi from iPOS.
[Ali Herischi] Based on the polls we viewed we understand 20 to 40 percent of people are one way or another dissatisfied with the whole situation, it is a huge number about 35-40 million people. Still the government has failed to address the situation, and solve the issue.
And here’s Ali Alfoneh.
[Ali Alfoneh] I think the most important legacy is that Iranians discovered that it is possible, even in a powerful and repressive regime as Iran's, to surprise the ruling elites, to surprise the security services, to engage in mass protests which shake the country completely. The optimistic viewpoint is that it was at all possible to have such disturbances So I think that is a very very important lesson, and the Green movement now may be dead, but there are many Green Movements which future developments may bring about.
So what are the hopes of Iran’s reformers now? IranWire is always covering small protests, and brave Iranians who stand up for their principles.
Many Iranians are still optimistic about Rouhani’s diplomacy with the West.
There will probably never be a repeat of 2009. But ambition and idealism may yet bear fruit.
That’s all from Iran’s Weekly Wire. If you want to find out more about this story, join us on Twitter or Facebook, or visit IranWire.com.