Legacy of martyred flowers committed me to life,
Legacy of martyred flowers,
Don’t you see?
-Forough Farokhzad, Only the Sound Will Last
Since the close of polling late Friday, and the hasty confirmation of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s second term in office, protests have broken out across Iran. Many Iranians, who consider the landslide victory for Ahmadinejad a symbol of their country’s deeply corrupt political system, have endeavoured to force the government to nullify the results and hold another election. In what can only be considered a classic case of state-repression, police and Revolutionary Guards have soaked the streets in blood; shooting into crowds of peaceful protestors, arresting scores of demonstrators, and targeting constituencies known for their criticism of the government. Just yesterday, the Guardian conservatively reported that as many as twelve students from universities throughout the country lost their lives as they courageously and openly opposed state forces.
In a brash attempt to validate the legitimacy of the political structure in Iran, those in the Guardian Council and Ministry of Interior (its civic counterpart) confirmed Ahmadinejad’s win and congratulated democracy. Ahmadinejad seized the opportunity to describe his election as a mandate from the people, before the people unequivocally mandated a recount!
Media would have us believe that the crucial issue concerning the recent election results in Iran centers on the question of whether or not the election was rigged. While general curiosity and speculation around this issue is a healthy aspect of the debate, it cannot moderate the far more profound lessons to be learned from the mass protests throughout the country.
Were the elections rigged? Probably. It is more than likely that the higher voter turn-out for this election came in favor of change. This was not true in the 9th Presidential Elections, four years ago, where an unknown, conservative, Tehrani mayor, Ahmadinejad, was challenged by the highly controversial cleric-turned-businessman, Rafsanjani. The election was mostly boycotted or dismissed by many reformists minded voters, and the aspect of its rigged results by way of the candidates having been hand-picked the Guardian Council (as is policy), was ignored in Western-language press.
This new eruption of protest over the still hotly contested election outcome has animated the already decades long debates within Iranian politics over civil and political rights, participation and inclusion. Just like many other countries, specific issues and rights in Iran are held like captives to particular names on the ballot. For example, a vote for Mousavi is a vote for greater freedoms for women. A vote for Ahmedinejad is a vote against the liberalization (privatization) of Iran’s economy. Though many Iranians remain sceptical of all the candidates allowed to participate in this highly contestable and prodigious style of electoral engineering, elections are not entirely hollow, as the protests demonstrate. Iranians, like many of their counterparts in throughout the world, were made to choose between issues and candidates that did not necessarily represent the broad spectrum of their politics, concerns, or aspirations.
However, it is not the regiment outcome of Iranian elections that is at the heart of the protests, though this is certainly a concern. These protests, dissimilar to the swell of similar outpouring in the late 1990’s, are made up Iranians from many different backgrounds, and varied political, religious and social opinions. This is precisely the reason the executive levels of the Iranian government have, with its decades of training in repression of domestic discontent, met the protesters with the full force of state power.
Though the contestability of the elections is disputed, what protesters, Ahmadinejad and the Guardian Council seem to all recognize is that the immediate future of the Islamic Republic of Iran remains unsecure. The democratic dilemma that the state has ensured through its dubious electoral processes is kindling increased opposition not just among the parents of the Revolution, but most pronouncedly in those twenty-somethings born after 1979 who represent the manifest success of the Islamic Revolution. The government’s campaign to mold model Islamic citizens has not only fashioned a profound crisis of loyalty to the religious ideals of the revolution, it has nurtured action that many have silently prayed for – as the public sphere, the last bastion of the religious elites grip on power, was shot open by their own guns Sunday.
This is not to make the mistake that Iran is moving towards, or desirous of, a secular revolution, it might very well be the opposite. However, the iron-clad grip on power that many of the religious elites have enjoyed since the Iran-Iraq war is gradually unravelling at all ends. Today, reformist-minded voters in and outside of Iran, who watched as their political aspirations were dashed time and again by during Khatami’s tenure, vigilantly braved the vast, violent and manipulative forces of the state and dared not be silent once again in the ballot box. Those who bravely opposed the regime objected to the misuse of religion for political ends – and so the protests continue.
In the thirty years since the fall of the Shah and the gradual installation of an Islamic theocratic government in Iran, opposition movements have bravely attempted to reclaim spaces in the political landscape of the country. These movements have nurtured democratic ideals in an attempt to assert the human and political rights of the poor, ethnic minorities, and women amongst others. Over the past two years Iran’s women’s movement most manifestly known as the One Million Signatures Campaign has sought to amplify the disparities felt by women on every level of Iranian society. Prior to the Saturday protests, this campaign was the largest and most vocal dissident movement in Iran.
For those of us concerned over securing some notion of the truth about what happened in Friday’s elections, or who continue to be confused over the myriad of political mud-slinging in the media over what the protests are really about, we can be assured no easy answers.
Iran is a country struggling to sustain vast differences of opinion over political allegiances, social policies, and the fine lines that govern the morals of their state system. Do not mistake the events currently taking place in Iran as a fight for democracy, or even a better representation of the will of the people. What is happening in Iran is a fight for a slightly fairer electoral process. If political pundits, Western-language journalists and solidarity activists wish to support Iranians in their fight for freedom, they should take notice of the few who have been executed and exiled, whose lives have committed the many you see in the streets today to life.