The Fractured Power
How to Overcome Tribalism
Ten years ago today, shortly after Iran’s presidential election on June 14, 2009, millions of people took to the streets of Tehran chanting, “Where is my vote?” The protests that came to be known as the Green Movement shook the Islamic Republic like nothing had since its founding in 1979.
Among the unforgettable images from those days were those of women and men marching side by side, not only protesting the dishonesty of the election results but also refusing to submit to the government’s repressive presence in almost all aspects of their lives. They did so at great risk. State security forces, including agents of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, arrested thousands of protesters, dozens of whom lost their lives. The movement’s leaders—former presidential candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi and political activist Zahra Rahnavard—have remained under house arrest since 2011.
By the end of 2009, the state largely succeeded in quashing those public protests. And ten years later, the Islamic Republic’s basic character remains unchanged. The authorities still respond to the people’s demands for change by trying to silence them. Multiple intelligence agencies, all beyond the reach of justice, compete with one another to stamp out peaceful dissent; the executive branch operates under the shadow of an unelected, all-powerful “supreme leader”; the judicial system serves as a handmaiden to the security apparatus; and policymakers remain preoccupied with women’s dress and moved by a deeply rooted anti-Americanism.
For all its violence, the Islamic Republic appears to have produced little more than a vicious cycle of repression and defiance that erodes its legitimacy and authority.
For all that, the Islamic Republic did not succeed in pulling out the roots from which the Green Movement sprang. Even as the cost of dissent remains high, a new generation of Iranians—including women, youth, students, workers, and ordinary citizens from all socioeconomic strata—continues to demand civil and political liberties. And although those who raise their voices are subject to arrest, detention, forced false confessions, torture, and denial of due process, significant numbers of Iranians have remained undaunted in the exercise of peaceful dissent. Indeed, for all its violence, the Islamic Republic appears to have produced little more than a vicious cycle of repression and defiance that erodes its legitimacy and authority.
The Islamic Republic was born from repression and has yet to risk ruling without it. Before the revolutionary state was a decade old, it had already executed thousands for their political views and activities. Since that time, thousands more have spent years in prisons for political reasons. In recent years, however, the Internet has made this repressive project more difficult for the state to conceal and justify.
Unlike in the past, when the government could easily control and manipulate news, today both activism and the steps the state takes to repress it can be magnified and amplified through social media. The circulation of such news has raised domestic awareness of human and civil rights violations, making state propaganda increasingly ineffective and revealing the falseness of the government’s narratives. The result has been a steady chipping away of the legitimacy of state institutions and officials. This change in the internal dynamic of the country, and the huge deficit of trust in the state, is one of the most important developments under way in Iran. Trust in the country’s state TV, once the jewel in the crown of state propaganda, has plummeted in recent years, according to ranking officials. A recent poll by IPOs showed that some two-thirds of the Iranian people judge the country's banks, courts, and judicial system to be corrupt; more than half feel the same about the nation's police.
Activists have fed this changing internal dynamic by consistently choosing nonviolence as their main strategy for dealing with a repressive regime. The choice is a wise one, because the Islamic Republic has a long history of discrediting, demonizing, and crushing groups that promote violent resistance. The government can rally people behind the flag to delegitimize armed opposition. But these tactics don’t work with peaceful activism—in fact, when the state treats peaceful protesters the same way it would armed insurgents, it winds up facing censure not only from the majority of the country’s civil society activists but from the international community as well. Important countries with which Iran maintains ties, including Brazil, Japan, and many European states, have repeatedly voiced concern about the Islamic Republic’s high rate of executions and its persecution of peaceful activists. International news media regularly—though not effectively or consistently—question Iranian officials who travel abroad about the state’s silencing of dissent and imprisonment of activists. Those Iranian officials who deny these rights violations invite mockery and criticism.
In 2013, the United Nation’s Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed a special rapporteur to monitor the human rights situation in Iran, demonstrating international recognition of the severity of the human rights abuses in the country. The rapporteur has documented such abuses as juvenile executions, the persecution of religious minorities, and the harassment and imprisonment of prominent human rights activists. These reports have put global pressure on the country by singling out the authorities responsible for the abuses. At critical junctures, international opprobrium has dovetailed with domestic pressure to bring about real change. For example, sustained work on Iran’s death penalty laws by Iranian activists such as Narges Mohammadi (currently serving a ten-year prison sentence for her efforts), together with international pressure, resulted in a dramatic drop in reported executions, from 977 in 2015 to 253 in 2018, according to Amnesty International.
In recent years, the Internet has made repression more difficult for the state to conceal and justify.
Indeed, Iran is not immune to pressure. The ferocity with which the authorities have persecuted human rights lawyers, who bring abuses to both domestic and international attention, reflects their fear of exposure and their urgent desire to evade accountability. Prominent defense attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh is serving 12 years for defending women who removed their hijabs in public as a form of civil disobedience, and for protesting the judiciary’s denial of the choice of counsel to detainees held on politically motivated charges. Mohammad Najafi is serving 13 years for defending prisoners and speaking out against violent abuses and deaths in prison. Abdolfattah Soltani, originally sentenced to 13 years for defending political prisoners in court, was released only last November after serving more than seven years behind bars.
Lawyers and activists are not the only ones who persist in struggling for basic human rights in Iran. Ordinary people across the country—especially workers—have continued to mount peaceful protests against such abuses as unpaid wages, prohibitions against organizing effective and independent unions, and the imprisonment of independent labor leaders. Industrial equipment workers, sugar industry workers, teachers, bus drivers, and many others have held protests throughout the country over the last decade. Earlier this year, labor activist and union representative Esmail Bakhshi brought international attention to Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan Province, where for years workers from the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Agro-industrial Complex have protested unpaid wages. Videos of Bakhshi speaking to workers and criticizing the security forces’ aggressive attempts to quash their protests received millions of views online.
Bakhshi’s case revealed the cost of such activism—and thus how notable it is that peaceful protest has continued unabated in Iran. Bakhshi was arrested on November 18, 2018, and detained for roughly a month in an Intelligence Ministry–run detention center in Ahvaz. Upon his release, Bakhshi wrote an open letter in which he described his severe torture while in state custody. Another detained activist, independent reporter Sepideh Qoliyan, corroborated his allegations. For speaking out, both were re-arrested in January 2019 and interrogated for months without access to lawyers. Their ordeal has done little to discourage workers from raising their voices, however: in just the last six months, in various parts of the country, teachers, bazaaris, dam workers, Ministry of Agriculture workers, and railway workers have gone on strike or protested unpaid wages.
If the Iranian government hoped that by raising the cost of activism and dimming prospects for change, it could convince Iranians to go home and stop trying, it was apparently mistaken. The lesson of the state’s violent crackdown in 2009 is one that Iran’s state and supreme leader have yet to learn: denying the demand for justice and human dignity will not silence but strengthen it.