The Humanizing Legacy of Iran’s Green Uprising

My piece at Informed Comment: June 12, 2019 marks the tenth anniversary of what sparked the Green Uprising in Iran. While many have noted that it was a “failed revolution” because it was unsuccessful in abrogating the controversial election results or toppling the state that ratified them, it enjoyed many subtle victories, one of which matters today in terms of US-Iran tensions: The uprising humanized Iranians.

On June 12, 2009, millions of Iranians went to the polls to participate in the country’s tenth presidential election. While there were four candidates, the real race was between the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the reformist, Mir Hossein Mousavi.

For the first time in contemporary Iran, a candidate’s wife was also actively involved in the campaign. Zahra Rahnavard did not merely stand beside her husband during speeches, but gave her own fiery orations, giving voice to issues like human rights and gender equality that resonated with Iranians in general and women in particular. As such, women were an integral part of both the pre-election campaigning as well as the post-election uprising.

The night of the vote, the state proclaimed its favored candidate, Ahmadinejad, the winner. With widespread allegations of fraud, Iranians refused to accept the result leading to a tumultuous next day. It was, however, the second day after the election results that the movement really began to take shape with mass participation and increasing discipline—with even marches conducted in total silence. By Monday, June 15, a massive crowd of around three million gathered in the capital.

The following Friday, the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave a rare sermon as the gravity of the occasion summoned him. He affirmed the Guardian Council’s ratification of the results, blamed the protests on outside powers, concluded that the uprising’s continuity threatened national security, and ruled that a full-scale crackdown would be in force the following day.

An ominous sign, foreign journalists were ordered out of the country so that nobody would be able to cover what was ahead. The Digital Age, however, had arrived, and Iranians wielded their camera-equipped-phones to capture events as they unfolded on the streets of Iran; they televised their own pixelated revolution.

It was the next day after what activists termed Khamenei’s “Sermon of Blood” that the movement claimed a poster boy—except that it was not a boy but a 26-year-old woman. Neda Agha Soltan’s dramatic death was filmed and uploaded onto YouTube, and the footage of her death was picked up by international media and broadcast to the world—with one writer calling her murder “probably the most widely witnessed death in human history.”

Her killing also served as a testament to the state’s repression, and the movement’s tactics evolved. Instead of protesting everyday like before, protesters emerged only on political holidays when the state encouraged people to come out and show their support for the government that instituted those very days. One such day was the anniversary of the seizure of the US embassy—what one American writer likened to Iran’s equivalent of the Boston Tea Party (but with hostages) since it was through the embassy that the US and Britain overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953. Green Movement activists appropriated these state-sanctioned holidays in order to castigate that very state, and the uprising endured sporadically in such a manner until February 11, 2010.

Many legacies of the Green Uprising abound. First, the political taboo of publicly criticizing Khamenei was shattered. Second, activists upended and reprogrammed all of the state’s symbols of legitimation against that very polity. For instance, protesters came out on the anniversary of the American embassy seizure not to condemn the US—as was the norm for the preceding three decades—but Russia, which was one of the first countries to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his election “win.”

The third legacy is relevant to Iran-US tensions today. The manner in which Iranian activists filmed and broadcast their uprising via social media humanized Iranians. Before 2009, Americans largely saw Iran through the prism of its government, terrorism, and angry, zealous, bearded hostage-takers—not the heterogenous and dynamic society that at the time was home to over 70 million people. Through impromptu citizen journalism, Green Movement activists shattered that narrow lens and gave the world a panoramic view onto their country. This wider scope made war with a seemingly Iranian monolith all the more difficult to justify, leading one commentator at the time to recognize: “Imagine the revulsion if such air strikes, as they regularly do in Afghanistan, led to the unintended deaths of dozens or more of the very Iranians who are being cheered in the streets today.”

10 years on, the humanizing legacy of the Green Uprising matters today as the Trump administration is sanctioning Iran with the stated goal of affecting “regime change” under the premise that Iranians deserve better.

The most problematic aspect of this savior complex, however, is that it is harming the very Iranians the administration is purported to be helping. Sanctions are expected to cause inflation to potentially reach has high as 40 percent this year. Iranians are already suffering the consequences as their life savings have evaporated overnight. Spiraling inflation has caused a shortage of life-saving medicine and has affected daily patterns of consumption, such as costing workers a third of their monthly salary to buy two pounds of meat for their families. Not only are they consuming less meat, but Iranians are hosting their friends and families less frequently as decreasing numbers of people can afford to do so, which is fostering a sense of isolation for many, especially the elderly. To be sure, the sanctions are negatively affecting the very fabric of Iranian society.

The sanctions are also having a detrimental effect on Iranian culture, as sanctions-induced inflation is harming Iran’s famed film industry by cutting budgets and funding sources thereby facilitating a sharp drop in production.  Even newspapers are suffering at a time when Iranian journalists already face a repressive environment, but now have to contend with ink and paper shortages.

The Green Uprising failed to undo the election results, but it succeeded in many other ways. The one success that stands out in the context of the Trump administration starving an economy that today sustains over 83 million people is that it showed the world that Iran is a country of people with hopes and aspirations like many others.

Today, the humanizing legacy of the Green Movement demands an alternative method of conflict resolution than war and sanctions.

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Pouya Alimagham is a historian of the modern Middle East at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of the forthcoming Contesting the Iranian Revolution: The Green Uprisings (Cambridge University Press). Follow him on Twitter @iPouya

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America’s Standard of “Normal Nation” in the Middle East

My latest piece – Lobelob: On June 2, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the United States would be willing to engage with Iran as long as “the Iranians…behave like a normal nation.”

Aside from the condescension of talking to Iranians as if they are children who need to “behave,” Pompeo’s remark begs the question as to what it means to act like a “normal nation.” A brief look at US-Iran relations before the Iranian Revolution and a short survey of America’s long-time allies in the Middle East today help shed light on how America’s foreign policy establishment defines “normal” behavior.

Iran under the Shah

Before the revolution in 1979, Iran was ruled by Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi—an autocrat installed by the United States and UK after they orchestrated the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953. Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq had defied imperial Britain by nationalizing the country’s oil resources for the benefit of the underdeveloped nation. A trained lawyer, he even successfully defended his case at the World Court—a legal decision that the British rejected.

After the coup, the United States helped the shah establish the notorious internal intelligence agency, SAVAK. The CIA trained SAVAK personnel in the most brutal forms of modern, scientific torture to ensure the longevity of the shah’s rule against a population that increasingly saw him as an American puppet. As a result, according to Amnesty International, the shah’s regime became one of the world’s worst violators of human rights. The Iranian opposition, which had long reeled under SAVAK’s heavy boot, predictably blamed the United States for the shah’s repression.

After Britain announced the withdrawal of its naval forces east of the Suez, then-President Nixon went to Iran in 1972 to meet with the shah to ensure that America’s ally in the Persian Gulf would fill the void. President Nixon offered to sell the shah the most sophisticated American military hardware short of nuclear weapons to become the policeman of the Persian Gulf. The shah eagerly obliged by building the most powerful military in the region. By 1976, the United States was selling more weapons to Iran than any other country in the world. In turn, the Iranian opposition criticized the shah’s multi-billion-dollar arms purchases as a waste of the country’s wealth.

The shah also had an interventionist record that aligned with American strategy during the Cold War. Bogged down in Vietnam, the United States looked to outsource the fight against Communism to right-wing regimes like the shah’s. In the early 1970s, Iran dispatched soldiers across the Persian Gulf to help put down Marxist insurrections in places like Dhofar, Oman—interventions that were supported at the time not only by the Americans, but the Saudis as well.

In sum, a “normal” Iran before 1979 was an autocracy that ruthlessly repressed dissent, bought billions in American weapons, protected U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf by intervening in other countries, and even had a Western-backed nuclear program.

Other “Normal Nations” in the Region

Cold War strategic considerations perhaps prompted the United States to consider such “behavior” as “normal.” Yet, a survey of America’s allies in the post-Cold War Middle East illustrates how the precedent of the shah is very much consistent with what the United States considers to be “normal” today.

Saudi Arabia is an apt starting point given that U.S.-Saudi relations go back as far as Roosevelt’s presidency. Today, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—with the backing of the Trump administration—are spearheading the bombing of the poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen, contributing to what the UN considers the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The Saudis and Emiratis are also the leading force in the blockade of America’s other ally in the Persian Gulf, Qatar. They are supporting some of the most extreme jihadis in Syria—though this support has lessened after the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen diverted resources and attention. Mohammad bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, is also credited with ordering the assassination of the U.S.-based Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, when he visited a Saudi consulate in Turkey.

Long before the upstart crown prince, Saudi Arabia had been deploying its oil wealth to spread its puritanical, hard-line interpretation of Islam across the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State were born, in part, from this ubiquitous Saudi ideological conditioning.

Moreover, although President Trump alleges that the Iran nuclear agreement was not stringent enough, his administration quietly signed agreements to sell nuclear technology to the Saudis. What’s more, two American allies in the region, Pakistan and Israel, the former of which borders Iran, possess nuclear arsenals.

In terms of other “normal nations,” Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories has endured for more than half a century with no signs of abating. Instead, the Israeli government frequently announces plans to build more settlements in the West Bank.

America sends billions of dollars in annual military aid to Israel and Egypt. The latter has jailed thousands of dissidents since the overthrow of its democratically elected government in 2013. The home to one of the most iconic uprisings in the Arab Spring has become its seeming deathbed. The current Egyptian government is exponentially more authoritarian than the one preceding 2011. According to Human Rights Watch:

Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi secured a second term in a largely unfree and unfair presidential election in March, his security forces have escalated a campaign of intimidation, violence, and arrests against political opponents, civil society activists, and many others who have simply voiced mild criticism of the government. The Egyptian government and state media have framed this repression under the guise of combating terrorism, and al-Sisi has increasingly invoked terrorism and the country’s state of emergency law to silence peaceful activists.

The coup at home was not enough. Egypt, along with the Emiratis and the Saudis, are backing the renegade general, Khalifa Haftar, whom Trump has endorsed, as he attempts to topple the UN-recognized government in neighboring Libya.

Another “normal nation,” Bahrain—with the aid of Saudi Arabia and the UAE—repressed the most peaceful Arab Spring uprising of all. American support for the government, however, remained steadfast since the island country is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

As such, “normal” today, as in the past, means pro-U.S. dictators, Islamist governments but of the pro-American kind, military occupations, regimes that violate human rights, hosts to U.S. armed forces and high-end customers of the American arms industry, and governments that intervene in the affairs of their neighbors. To be sure, none of this should actually be considered normal.

In reality, Iran’s conduct is not different from its regional counterparts. It violates human rights, intervenes in other countries either directly or by supporting armed groups, and is authoritarian like its pro-American neighbors. The only thing not “normal” about Iran’s actions is that they do not align with U.S. foreign policy goals as they did in the past. In fact, they often obstruct them, and that’s the point—a “normal nation” is allowed to do seemingly anything as long as its actions accord with U.S. interests in the Middle East.

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A 2nd sanctions-related story from a friend with family in Iran

A friend of mine has a cousin in Iran who works as a lawyer. This cousin’s husband is an engineer who runs his own business importing and selling German appliances. They are both civilians; neither of them have any relationship with the Iranian government. Yet, the US-imposed sanctions on Iran’s financial sector has hit them hard.

The sanctions have caused a spiraling exchange rate, meaning that less and less Iranian customers can buy such products that now cost so much that they are out of reach. Consequently, the lack of sales has put his company and the jobs of his employees in jeopardy. The couple have a little girl and boy to support. Should the company go under, they can rely on her training as a lawyer in the short-term to keep the family afloat. Yet, the employees, some of whom are the main breadwinners of their families, may not have such fallback options.

These are the unforeseen consequences of the US sanctions on Iran that go unmentioned and uncovered by the US media and government.

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A sanctions-related story from a friend with family in Iran

Like many of us Iranians, a friend of mine has a lot of family in Iran. Unlike me, however, her mother and father are in Iran. They are retirees who own their own home. They no longer need to support their children or have related costs, i.e. diapers, tuition, school supplies, etc. Yet, the sanctions have negatively affected them. With their children now living as adults, these retirees spend much of their evenings hosting friends for dinner or being guests at their friends’ houses. With the cost of basic food items increasing exponentially as a result of the sanctions, these retirees have been hosting less and less gatherings at their home. Conversely, they’ve been invited to less gatherings because their friends are likewise unable to afford to have friends over.

These retirees–and I suspect many like them–are increasingly feeling isolated and alone, and my friend has noticed a deleterious effect on the mental health of her parents. Now imagine if these retirees were responsible for a family, like paying for the tuition costs of one or more child at a university, or didn’t own their own home and had to pay rent?

This is just another story that demonstrates how the US-imposed sanctions on Iran negatively impact such civilians in unforeseen ways.

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Sanctions on Iran

Friends and allies, I have a sincere request. The US sanctions are crippling the lives of countless Iranians, and we hear very little about their stories in the mainstream media.

Thus, I will be posting as regularly as possible about how the sanctions affect the civilians inside Iran. I invite you to share with me via direct message any news sources–English or Persian– you come across that demonstrate such inhumane effects. More importantly, if you have friends and family in Iran that have shared with you the real-life struggles that they face because of the sanctions, then I urge you to share their stories. If you are not one to divulge such information publicly then I completely understand. In that case, please get in touch with me, and I will relay the information on your behalf anonymously (a real-life sample to follow). People in the US and the English-speaking world must gain insight into such needless hardship.

As for the readers of such forthcoming posts, I hope you trust me the credibility of such stories. As a historian, I will be sure to seek the truth objectively and accurately.

As I begin to gather first-hand stories, here you’ll find a decent one-minute sample of a news source giving a small window into such hardships.

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The Transnational Legacy of the Iranian Revolution on its 40th Anniversary

My latest piece in The Fletcher Forum of International Affairs: “The 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution is upon us, and supporters and detractors alike are busying themselves with articles that expound their worldviews. What is lost in the cacophony of polemics, however, is the revolution’s impact beyond Iran’s borders. Iran’s 1979 revolution both empowered oppressed Shi’ite Muslims across the Middle East, and prompted a Saudi-led sectarian backlash—the modern roots of today’s Shi’ite-Sunni divide.”

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Georgetown University Talk: “Islam as a Discourse of Resistance in Iran: State Ideology vs Popular Protest in 2009”

Excuse the typos in the flier (I did not create the flier).

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Explaining Sectarianism Conference at Tufts University

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Association for Iranian Studies Conference at UC Irvine

I have since shortened the title of my presentation to “The Iranian Left’s Latin Roots: Protest and Protest Music.” Click here for the program.

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“The Roots of US-Iran Antagonisms via the History of Democracy in Modern Iran”

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