Iran: What Is the Green Movement?

Caught in the intoxicating effects of a violent moment in the history of a nation, one is particularly susceptible to reactionary outbursts.  But it is exactly during such moments that intellectual discourse must prevail over ideological cacophony.  And the cacophony about the causes and consequences of the recent unrests in Iran has been deafening, exactly because too many think tank pundits, embedded journalists, and uninformed native informants are busy cashing in on the “Iranian Studies” industry and/or plotting and scheming to subdue a country that has been punished for its radically independent foreign policies for a long time now.  They told us, about one year ago, and rather definitively, that Iran was in the middle of an irreversible revolution.  They were wrong.

It is equally wrong to assume that the green movement stands for an “Americanized” Iran.  It is not geared toward re-negotiating Iran’s pro-Palestinian stance or its opposition to the policies of the Israeli state.  Neither is it anti-nationalistic.  Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mohammad Khatami, and co. would not abandon Iran’s nuclear energy program.  In the grander scheme of the dialectic between state and society in Iran, the green movement is the latest manifestation of the quest for government accountability and freedom of expression, not more, not less.

These demands are both contemporary and steeped in a history of resistance to the arbitrariness of the state that goes back to the Tobacco revolts of 1891, the constitutional revolt of 1906, the Mossadegh interregnum between 1951-1953, the opposition to the Shah’s “White Revolution” between 1960-1963, and the Islamic revolution of 1979 itself.  In all these major upheavals in Iranian history, society took on the fight with the state in order to renegotiate the political order in favor of the people.

The green movement is the latest product of the political and socio-economic demands of influential strata of Iranian society, expressed by a whole range of women’s rights activist, intellectuals, academics, artists, and professionals.  They are driving what I have called a “pluralistic momentum” in Iran from the bottom-up, from society to the state.  This pluralistic momentum is entirely structural, partially institutionalized, and scattered along class lines and a range of political convictions.

The green movement has attempted to capitalize on it politically as a reincarnation of the “Second Khordad” movement that was named after the date of Khatami’s election in 1997.  So the political expression of the green movement is a pronounced will to power.  As Mehdi Karroubi stated in an interview when he became the speaker of the parliament in June 2000 during the presidency of his ally Khatami: “I think [the reformist-conservative rivalry] is a natural political rivalry over power and government.  The debates are about power.”

Today, the major problem is that this ongoing competition over the power of the state is defined in zero-sum terms by the right-wing constituencies supporting the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  As a result, for the first time since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, Iran has a president that perceives the other side as vicious enemies, rather than adversaries whose existence needs to be tolerated.  We fight against them until they leave the battlefield!  Iranian politics has moved from an agonistic to an antagonistic mode.

In the summer of 2009, the Iranian Right created a dangerous precedent: it turned politics into a battlefield in the truly destructive sense of the term.  Politics as war by other means.  Power politics as totalitarian strategy.  Earthly power as an end in and of itself.  Today, Iranian society is paying dearly for the emergence of this understanding of power that is seditious, rather than transcendental: it creates categories such as friend and enemy, rather than overcoming them.  It fortifies the boundaries between different strata of Iranian society, rather than acting as an interlocutor between them.  And all of that during a period when the national security of the country is threatened.

So what is the green movement?  At the time of writing, it is the political “other” that has made the re-election and the current policies of Ahmadinejad possible.  For the Iranian Right, it is the adversary whose presence calls for mitigated violence.  But in the final analysis, the green movement or any of its reincarnations are as much a part of the Islamic Republic, as the supreme leader, the Baseej, the Revolutionary Guards, and President Ahmadinejad.  When it becomes impossible to govern the country without the collusion of that “enemy,” the Iranian right wing is likely to accept that in the long run power can never be effectively monopolized.  If it remains color blind, however, the state will continue to suffer from political schizophrenia.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam has taught comparative politics and international relations at SOAS since 2005.  He is the author of Iran in World Politics.  His newest book entitled A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilizations will be published in November 2010.  This article was first published by on 22 April 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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