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Iran: Protests against election results or the entire establishment?


Kurdish Herald Vol. 1 Issue 3, July 2009 -

by Sayeh Hassan


Particularly in the final days of campaigning, the real race was clearly one that would be a choice between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi. Mousavi ran on a platform of reform that included such buzzwords as ‘equality and fairness’ and ‘freedom of expression’. In total, an estimated 46.2 million Iranians cast their ballots. Not surprisingly, many Iranians, hopeful for change, supported Mousavi and voted for him on Election Day, June 12, 2009.


Given the unpopularity of Ahmadinejad among the Iranian people as well as the historic televised presidential debates in which analysts described Mousavi as coming out the clear winner, the expectation of many was that Mousavi would pose a serious threat to the incumbent president come Election Day. In addition, less popular candidates were expected to considerably change the margins in favour of Mousavi. In particular, it was expected that the ethnic Arabs in the province of Khuzestan and Iranian Kurds in the province of Kermanshah would turn out in support of candidate Mehdi Karoubi, who made ethnic rights a key item in his campaign for presidency.

Many Iranians from Tehran to provinces in the east and west were shocked after an announcement came almost overnight that Ahmadinejad had won by a landslide, with more than 60 percent of the vote, a shock that would turn into frustration and ultimately a challenge of the government establishment.



Massive demonstrations emerged in many major cities in Iran including Tehran, Shiraz, Tabriz, Esfehan, Kermanshah, Karaj and Zahedan, becoming the largest protests since the Islamic revolution. Demonstrators were met with violence by Islamic Revolutionary Guards, plainclothes paramilitaries, and other police and security forces. Footage of demonstrators beaten and arrested quickly spread across the Internet as Iranians took advantage of social networking websites to dodge regime efforts and censorship. While official government sources have confirmed the deaths of approximately 20 people in the protests, non-governmental sources claim that the number is closer to 200, while several thousands have been arrested and are subject to torture.

Demonstrations in Tehran continued into the month of July on a nightly basis, although not in such large numbers as were observed in the first two weeks after the election. As many poured into the streets shouting slogans such as “Death to [Supreme Leader] Khamenei” and “Death to the Dictator”, chants that were unthinkable in Iran just months ago, an important debate has emerged in Iranian society about whether protests persist in opposition to the election results or whether people are or should be protesting the entire system of government in Iran.


Iranians protest alleged election fraud.


A question within this debate begs to ask what the difference would be between an Ahmadinejad presidency and a Mousavi one and what types of changes would have taken place.


To answer this question, it is crucial to first examine Mousavi’s history as a politician. Early in his career, Mousavi was in charge of the closing of Iran’s universities immediately after the revolution in order to conduct a cultural re-education. He also served as the prime minister of Iran from 1981 to 1988, a time period dominated by the executions of thousands of political prisoners. In the summer of 1988 alone, independent sources confirmed that nearly 10,000 political prisoners were executed after quick three-minute show trials. Despite this dark past, Mousavi has never shown any sign of regret about the executions, nor did he make any mention of the status of the current political activists in Iran’s prisons.

This is not surprising since Mousavi has been an integral part of the Islamic Republic since its founding days and has never before challenged the establishment nor the founding principles that were laid down by Ayatollah Khomeini. Some analysts inside Iran appropriately noted that Mousavi had become a “reformer” almost overnight but that any reform would have to take place within the laws and framework of the current regime.

Of course, even if Mousavi were sincere, a quick look at the powers of the president versus that of the supreme leader sheds light on the fact that the major decisions in Iran are made by the latter. The supreme leader appoints the heads of many powerful posts - the commanders of the armed forces, the director of the national radio and television network, the heads of the major religious foundations, the prayer leaders in city mosques, and the members of national security council’s dealing with defence and foreign affairs. He also appoints the chief judge, the chief prosecutor, special tribunals, and with the help of the chief judge, half of the 12 jurists of the Guardian Council – the all-powerful body that decides both what bills may become law and also who may or may not run for president and parliament.

Video uploaded to Internet captures the killing of an Iranian women amidst the protests in Iran


These realities have made it difficult for many Iranians to understand just what powers are left to the elected president, and have certainly played a factor in encouraging many to take to the streets to protest something far greater than election results. One indication of discontent with the entire system is that the slogans that Iranians have been shouting in the streets of Tehran are no longer solely directed at Ahmadinejad, but at the Islamic government as a whole.

In some parts of Iran, discontentment with the entire system is affirmed by actions other than protest and demonstrations. In the province of Kurdistan in Iran, the majority of people simply boycotted the election. Kurdish oppositional parties such as the outlawed Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran asked their sympathizers in the region to join the boycott. Many Kurds in Iran followed such requests with the notion that, regardless of who is elected, it would not make any fundamental difference since either president would have to work within the laws and framework of the current regime.


Even while Karoubi campaigned very heavily in the Kurdish areas of Iran and even used pictures of Massoud Barzani, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, to win the sympathy and votes of Kurds in Iran, the majority of Kurds in the Kurdistan province did not turn out to vote.


Promises of equality or freedom of expression made by candidates such as Karroubi, and even louder by Mousavi, are meaningless with a presidential post that does not possess the power to make such things happen. Any law promoting equality between men and women or minorities would have to be approved by the supreme leader, and the approval of such a bill would be highly improbable. On the same note, the promise of freedom of expression or freedom of press would face similar obstacles, especially given the fact that the head of national radio and television network is appointed by the supreme leader. Therefore the chances of any real reform or change taking place in Iran would be extremely difficult regardless of who may be the president. Still, many Iranians placed their faith in the system when they voted. However, that faith has all but faded as evident by the millions of protestors in the streets of Iran and loud calls by the people for an end to a system in which one dictates and the rest follow in fear of retribution.


Sayeh Hassan is a criminal defense lawyer practicing in Toronto, a pro-democracy Iranian activist, and is currently involved in writing articles and translating news to highlight and draw attention to the human rights abuses in Iran. She holds a degree in Psychology and Mass Communication, and an LL.B.


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