On Jan. 28, in the aftermath of the unprecedented mass demonstrations of late December in which millions of protesters challenged riot police in running street battles, the Iranian government publicly hanged Mohammad Reza Ali-Zamani and Arash Rahmanipour. Human rights organizations worldwide condemned the brutal executions, decrying the authoritarian regime’s unequivocal attempts to silence dissent. The government alleged that the two innocents had committed mohareb, or enmity against God. In a desperate effort to monopolize political power through unspeakable state violence—frightening show-trials, police brutality, and mass imprisonment—the Islamic Republic of Iran contends that the civil unrest currently engulfing the country is the struggle between God and His enemies. The grassroots demonstrators have responded vociferously and unwaveringly: the fundamental conflict is not between God and His enemies but between the despotic dictator and the people who have risen finally to dismantle the roots of tyranny.
In June 2009, a fraudulent election which led to the alleged defeat of presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi triggered mass urban protests which startled the entire Iranian body politic, from the frustrated middle classes to the highest echelons of clerical power. The protestors—soon deemed the Green Movement—demanded free and fair elections and the expansion of basic civil liberties, rapidly becoming a unique political phenomenon unseen in 30 years. Out of the sea of these nameless thousands, Mousavi emerged under the banner of internal reform, arguing that the current regime had abandoned the central tenets of the constitution. The regime refused to compromise with the grassroots demonstrators, and in the following six months government forces strangled dissent with ruthless impunity, stifling communication and imprisoning those suspected of encouraging the nascent protest movement.
Nevertheless, on Dec. 27, millions of demonstrators returned to the streets in city after city, fearlessly confronting the regime’s armed forces, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij militias. The mass protests coincided with the Islamic holiday of Ashura, a holy day of inestimable significance in which adherents condemn oppression and demand the end to social injustice. Aptly, that day, the demonstrators who united in strengthened numbers did precisely this.
The demonstrations on Ashura were similar to those of June in form and strategy, being largely self-organized and unarmed. Grassroots demonstrators used social networking technologies as a tool for activist organization, and the lack of a central authority in organizing the protests reinforced the mass democratic character of the movement. However, in terms of their content, the protests of Dec. 27 were significantly different from the earlier demonstrations of last June, showing that the movement—which has, at times, resisted categorization—has begun to demand far more than a fair vote.
First, what in June appeared to be a primarily middle class phenomenon has expanded to include members of all social groups throughout Iran, proving that the grassroots movement has, in part, transcended political factionalism to address the wider national discontent with dictatorial rule. Second, demands for the removal of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei from power, and most importantly, the demonstrators’ direct challenge to the absolute rule of the cleric (velayat-e-faqih), show that what began as the immediate objection to undemocratic electoral policies has rapidly become a comprehensive rejection, on principle, of the theocratic regime. Above all else, the Ashura protests, in stark contrast with the post-election unrest of June 2009, signaled the radicalization of popular democratic elements, which in this critical moment have necessarily seized the reins of direction from the traditional leadership of Mousavi.
Since June, Mousavi has uneasily wavered as the unwitting figurehead of a movement that is fast contradicting his own political intentions. Although Mousavi admirably denounces the despotic tactics of the current regime and endorses the expansion of civil liberties, he also refuses to challenge the basic constitution of the IRI or abandon his steadfast loyalty to the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini. Mousavi is precariously situated on the fault line of a political conflict that questions the foundation of the very status quo in which he was a key player.
The Western media lionizes Mousavi’s role as a political activist, naively neglecting his participation during the darkest days of the IRI. During Mousavi’s term as Prime Minister from 1981 to 1989, religious elites comfortably consolidated power while millions of young soldiers were killed in the Iran-Iraq War and millions more suffered in a political atmosphere characterized by violent repression. Infamously, in 1988, while Mousavi served in office, an estimated number of between 10,000 and 30,000 leftist political dissidents were put to death in horrifying mass executions. It is difficult for human rights organizations to conclude an accurate estimate of innocents murdered during this time due to a lack of proper documentation. What is certain is that throughout these events Mousavi remained a consistent supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini.
For many, this political history is difficult to forget, and calls into question Mousavi’s ability to represent a meaningful break with the IRI. Because of his past, and his immediate political concerns today, it is unlikely that Mousavi will be compliant with the increasing radicalization of the grassroots movement which he helped spark. In order to progressively seek a break with the regime, it will be necessary that the democratic movement distance itself from the reformist rhetoric of Mousavi. The events of Ashura represent this current shift, as protestors abandoned Mousavi’s typical call for peaceful protest and internal compromise and instead actively confronted police and chanted anti-clerical slogans. Even the color green, once so unavoidably noticeable in the June protests, was conspicuously less prevalent in the events of Ashura.
But if we can only attain an accurate description of Mousavi by critically examining his history, then a sober appraisal of the protest movement is likewise only attained once it is located within the larger historical narrative of Iran. The social struggle in Iran today also identifies the inescapable politicization of historical memory; senior clerics, Mousavi, and grassroots demonstrators, all contend to redefine, rewrite, and reclaim the meaning of Iranian history as their own. Always, the year 1979 is imprinted indelibly within the political imaginations of those involved in today’s events.
In 1979, left-wing student and working-class organizations spearheaded the mass opposition to the horrifying oppressions of the Shah’s US-backed monarchy. These progressive, autonomous elements, often espousing the establishment of a republic guided by democratic values and social equality, endured the brunt of long-term repression under the Shah’s rule. By 1979, these democratic movements united with clerical leaders, including the influential Ayatollah Khomeini, in total opposition to the monarchy, often sharing the rhetoric of anti-imperialism in their attempts to affirm the sovereignty of the Iranian people.
Soon after the overthrow of the Shah, however, a political struggle emerged between the left-wing elements that had once guided the revolution, and the increasingly reactionary partisans supporting Ayatollah Khomeini. By 1981, through keen political maneuvering and a willingness to liquidate dissent, Khomeini had effectively eradicated those left-wing democratic organizations from Iran, and instead established the IRI, based on the pillar of the absolute rule of the cleric. These were the beginnings of the theocratic regime that since has evolved into the current government: a multifaceted political hybrid which combines ideological coercion with draconian repression.
Countless critics have noted the striking similarities between the current grassroots movement and the revolutionary masses which toppled the Shah in 1979 as the world watched in awe. Yet beyond this immediately apparent historical analogy, it is perhaps far more important how the conflicting political groups today consciously contend to reinterpret the legacy of the 1979 revolution. The images, lexicon, and figures of that year have reemerged again and again in the civic unrest of recent months.
The regime constantly invokes its victories in 1979 to legitimate its current rule. It is no wonder that the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei lambasts the democratic opposition as “counterrevolutionary”, ignoring the purported legacy of 1979, and conspiring with foreign agents to subvert the progress of Iranian patriotism in a “velvet revolution.” Khamenei and other leading clerics venerate Ayatollah Khomeini as the father of an Iranian people, united by their belief in a conservative Islam and ultra-nationalist policies.
Mousavi, in turn, responds by conjuring the false memory of an Islamic revolution that laid a foundation for democracy and social progress that was only recently corrupted by wanderers from the original political goals of Khomeini. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Mousavi’s historical outlook is his unflinching commitment to the ideals of Ayatollah Khomeini, for in this choice Mousavi remains complicit with the terrifying crimes of that leader’s political program. Mousavi’s historical reinterpretation is also a perversion of actual events, a complete ignorance of the repressive policies that the IRI introduced during its earliest years. Mousavi rewrites history as a myth, hoping to arbitrarily locate a respect for justice within the IRI which has forever been absent.
The popular masses, finally, also reinvent the meaning of 1979. During the Ashura protests of last December, demonstrators chanted slogans used in the political riots of 1979. When protestors chant “death to the dictator” in their demand to depose the Supreme Leader Khamenei, they are also making an implicit reference to the former Shah who had also once enacted tyrannical measures to quell popular revolt. News reports acknowledged that photographs of Ayatollah Khomeini had been defaced and burned in the streets.
In order to further realize their hopeful political aims, the grassroots movement must actively and finally confront the complexities of the political past. Specifically, in negating the brutality of the current regime, the trajectory of this oppositional movement shows that it must also condemn the entire history of the IRI and the reprehensible political ideology established by Ayatollah Khomeini. The achievement of meaningful social progress for this movement necessitates a reevaluation of the 1979 revolution, in its identification not with the detestable legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini, but rather with that of the left-wing democratic groups which had initiated the opposition movement to the Shah.
In this historical debate, the mass demonstrators are also attempting to redefine the nature of Iranian identity. For these activists, their Iranian nationalism embodies the resistance to oppressive political regimes and the relentless pursuit to establish a democratic republic. The supporters of this vision of a secular republic are properly attempting not to repeat the upheavals of 1979, but instead to redeem those struggles that had once so tragically failed. In the practical objective to uproot the conditions of its oppression, the grassroots movement not only reclaims its past, but also transcends it.
The Ashura protests challenged conventional political thinking by liberating the space for social discourse and reconsidering political possibilities. The demonstrators, in their method of protest, are able to question the conforming ideology of the ruling elite and finally confront the actual facts of their current political condition and the pressing concerns raised by a deliberate recognition of their national history. The reformist program of Mousavi and the compromises of internal change become, at best, politically irrelevant, and at worst, obstacles to realizable progress.
Today, the groundbreaking political upheaval in Iran cannot be readily analyzed due to our limited political information and our unbridgeable distance from the events unfolding each day. Outside observers are impervious to the hidden political interactions and unseen narratives of the struggle now shaking the foundation of Iranian politics. Nonetheless, the advent of the movement for popular democracy can rightly be called not only an unprecedented current in the greater region, but also a moment of world-historical significance. If one considers evidence of recent months, then it is likely that the grassroots protestors are becoming a real vehicle for political change in Iran, and moreover, an example for social justice movements worldwide. Uniquely inventing a space for political action, challenging every condemnable action of the powers that be, and redefining the very identity of Iranian nationhood, this mass movement challenges our conventional notions of democratic organization.
The advancements made during the Ashura demonstrations has simultaneously become the impetus for further democratic protests in the future and the symbol of popular discontent that has forced the regime to fear the burgeoning power of the common dissenter. The events of the single holy day of Ashura proved, to paraphrase Iranian thinker Ali Shariati, that every day is Ashura. For this movement, the struggle to achieve social liberation is an empowering process that now, even in the face of the lowliest tyrant, can never be deterred.