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The “Arab Spring” and the “Iranian Summer:” the Failed Revolution of 2009 and Its Consequences

By Michael ZOLYAN
Political scientist

The so called “Arab spring” to some extent overshadowed the summer events of 2009 in Iran, where the controversial presidential elections were followed by mass protest movements. However, Iran is still in the focus of attention of international community, as a whole, and our society, in particular, but it is mainly due to its nuclear program, or the foreign policy in the region. If the internal situation in Iran is spoken about, then mostly concerning the disagreements between the President and spiritual leader.

The Greens’ Movement, which, according to many observers, two years ago should have been the force to determine Iran’s future, has found itself out of the political processes. It is true that the “Arab spring” had its impact on the Iranian opposition as well, but all attempts to raise a new wave have been neutralized by the authorities easily enough. However, regardless the future fate of the “Greens,” the summer events of 2009 had their indelible trace not only in Iran, but also the whole Middle East.

The mentioned Iranian events are presented in quite a primitive manner in many countries of the world. There are two main approaches: some consider those events in Iran as a “conspiracy that was hatched abroad,” and the others insist that it was democratic revolution against the Islamic order.

First, about the “foreign conspiracy.” Many in Armenia and post-Soviet countries, following the popular conspiracy theory, are inclined to consider the Iranian events as a result of some conspiracy, which was managed from the West and aimed at overthrowing the independent and anti-western regime of Ahmadinejad by pro-western forces. Explaining the mass public movements by conspiracies of some third forces is a dubious approach as it is. Probably, it is possible to organize an armed revolt or a military coup, which might be presented as an expression of the “people’s will.” But it is very unlike that there is, and will ever be, such a “technology” (one of the basic terms of the post-Soviet conspiracy theory), that would allow special services of any country to urge thousands of people to get out to the streets for mass protect actions in another country, if the uprising has no serious prerequisites inside the given country.

But even if we just theoretically suppose that in some cases the conspiracy theory can have something in common with reality, apparently the events of 2009 in Iran are not the case. And even if we forget for awhile about the fact that millions of people took part in the rallies, representing various social categories and estates of the Iranian society, only the mentioning the oppositions leaders would be enough to understand that they cannot be called agents of foreign services: ex-Prime-Minister of Iran Mir Hosein Musavi,  who was one of the key figures in the times of Khomenei, ex-Presidents Muhamad Khatami and Hashemi-Rafsanjani (the latter, not so openly) were among them. The opposition was also supported by Ayatolla Husein al-Montazeri, who was considered closest associate and most probable heir of Khomeini.  There were also hundreds of famous people among those who supported the opposition:  they either took an active part in the Islamic revolution, or held high and medium positions in the administration of the Islamic republic. So thinking that all these people were managed by secret services of some countries would mean believing that the most part of the Iranian political and intellectual elite is under the immediate influence of the foreign forces.


The said above does not mean at all that the West or foreign forces do not have their interests in the internal affairs of Iran. The West really sympathizes the opposition, although treating it with reservations (in particular, because most the opposition activists support the Iranian nuclear program and even criticize Ahmadimejad for his too tractable position in this matter). The western mass media are trying to present the opposition movement positively, and some western leaders even made statements, condemning for violence against the opposition. However, the U.S. leadership was quite cautious and did not express any strong support to the opposition, because the United States tried to preserve the opportunity to continue negotiations with Ahmadinejad on the nuclear program.

On the other hand, Russia and China sympathized Ahmadinejad, again with some reservations. These countries provided substantial moral support to Ahmadinejad immediately after the election, congratulating him on the occasion of his victory. After that, soon after the controversial election, Ahmadinejad was received in Russia, which he visited to take part in the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in the town of Yekaterinburg, and it was a substantial support for him. Russia’s assistance to Ahmadinejad filled the Iranian opposition with so much indignation, that in addition to the slogan “marg bar dictator” (“death to the dictator”) they started to use another one “marg bar Rusie” (“death to Russia”) in the opposition rallies. However, regardless the position of the third forces, it is obvious, that they just tried to influence the development of events in Iran and get some profits, meanwhile the reasons of the events should be searched inside the country.

The second model, according to which the events of 2009 in Iran are represented, can be characterized the following way: the democratic, pro-western opposition struggles to topple the system of the Islamic republic. This approach presents the situation in Iran quite primitively, not reflecting the whole picture. It is true that most of the participants were struggling for democracy, but various groups inside the opposition had different perceptions of democracy. Their perception of the future of the Islamic republic is also not clear at all.

As it has already been mentioned, most of the opposition leaders are representatives of the political elite, which came to power as a result of the Islamic revolution, and although they made some attempts to transform the political system in the country, there was no task of overthrowing the Islamic republic as it is. Many opposition activists explained the essence of their struggle the following way: our goal is to make the system of governance correspond to the name of “Islamic Republic of Iran,” ensuring it to be not only “Islamic,” but also “republic.”    So the opposition leaders really struggled for the democracy, but their understanding of democracy obviously was different from the western concept of democracy. Today it is difficult to imagine how it would all develop, if the opposition won in 2009; however, most probably, instead of the disassembling the Islamic republic system, there would be the return to the moderate liberal policy of the Khatami times. Another question is that the development of events, regardless the leaders of the opposition, might have led to more drastic changes.

As for the “ordinary” members of the opposition movement and sympathizers, their circle is quite wide: they represent various categories of the Iranian population, having different perceptions of their struggle. For example, there were residents of big towns, representing the middle estate, westernized secular young women, for whom the movement was a chance to eliminate the gender discrimination, imposed by the Islamic republic. On the other hand, besides thousands of secular intellectuals and artists, among those, who condemned Ahmadinejad’s policy and their supporters, there were also representatives of the Shiah clergy, by various reasons having critical   moods toward the Khamenei and Ahmadinejad regime. Undoubtedly, all these categories had their own different perceptions and goals of the struggle, and such perceptions were not always in correspondence with the western concept of democracy.

Anyway, the “Green Movement” failed to win, but the history shows that from the long-term perspective even the defeats can have a powerful impact on the course of events. For example, the wave of revolutions of 1848-1849 (Spring of nations) in Europe ended with suppression of the revolutions, but the authoritarian regimes, against which they were aimed, losing legitimacy in the eyes of Europeans, did not last long. They were forced to take the path of gradual reforms, and having turned into constitutional autocracies or collapsed, being unable to compete with more progressive systems. The attempts of revolutions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 were also suppressed, but they were crucial for the Soviet system, demonstrating the bankruptcy of the Soviet ideology. If before that the Soviet system of the state socialism seemed quite attractive for the substantial part of the western community as an alternative to the capitalist system, then the events of 1956 and 1968 demonstrated clearly enough that the system is based on force, and it started losing the legitimacy as a system, reflecting the will of “people’s masses.” The student movements in 1960s and especially in 1968 in France and some other western countries failed to achieve any serious political success, but they contributed to transformation of the system of values in those societies.

The same way the failed revolution of 2009 in Iran can have quite serious consequences. Today it is difficult to comprehend and evaluate these consequences, but we can make some suppositions.  The summer events of 2009 played an important role in preparation of the “Arab spring” of 2011. And not only due to the fact that in Iran the first attempt was made to use the phone messages and Internet sites, in particular, social networks and Youtube for organization of multi-thousand rallies. What is much more important is that the summer movement of 2009 in Iran showed the societies of the Muslim countries that a peaceful, non-violent movement can become a powerful force, capable to challenge even the strongest state system.

There have been such mass movements in the Muslim countries before, but, as a rule, they were aimed against the West or the dictators, supported by the West. In 2009 the movement was for the first time aimed against the regime, which had been shaped as a result of the Islamic revolution and confrontation with the West. It became another sign for the societies in the Middle East that the reasons of the problems and the ways for their solution should be searched within the depths of their own societies, and there is no need in trying to blame the colonial policy of the West and Israel for all troubles.

Today it is difficult to say what kind of consequences will the events of 2009 in Iran will have. Some perceptions on this matter can be found out of the experience of the formerly Communist countries. In 2009 the political system, which itself was born as a result of the revolutionary movements of the masses, became a repressive force, suppressing the revolution movement. In this sense the influence that the events of 2009 had on the Iranian political Islam can be compared with the consequences of the events of 1956 and 1968 for the countries of the Soviet socialism. As the experience of the Communist system shows, when the system, which was born by the revolution and built its legitimacy on the revolution, takes on the repressive role, it can face serious problems.

It is difficult to say what kind of a way out bill be found by the Iranian political elite in the current situation. Maybe the best way could be the consent between the reformers and conservators, into whom the Iranian political elite has been divided, because such consent would allow reforming the country without shocks. Probably, the Iranian political elite would prefer the “Chinese path,” i.e. e. to preserve the closed political system with liberalization of the economy, but it will be much harder to realize this option in the conditions of the economical sanctions against Iran by the West. The safest way may seem the so called “South-Korean” variant: the complete destruction of the internal opposition under the pretext of mobilization against the common enemy and construction of the absolutely closed political system. This option, I think, is not only undesirable for Iran and the whole region, but also unlikely. In Iran, there is a contemporary developed society, capable to find the way out even from the current complicated situation.

And finally, a couple of words about the possible impact that these events might have on the relations between Iran and Armenia. The model of relations, existing now,  has been conditioned by the geopolitical interests of the two countries, and does not depend on which forces would come to power in Iran. The relations between Iran and Armenia were established in the times of the moderately conservative President Rafsanjani, developed when the reformer Khatami was in power and continue developing while the President is the radical conservator Ahmadinejad. But the situation in the region can get much better, if the Iranian political elite is able to reform the political system of the country and settle the relations with the West. Such development can have a revolutionary impact on the whole region, changing the configuration of forces in the South Caucasus. In this case Armenia may have the possibilities, which it is hard to imagine even today: from the economical and energy projects up to settlement of the conflicts and formation of a new security system. However, it is a topic for another article.

A supporter of defeated presidential candidate Mousavi is beaten by government security men as fellow supporters come to his aid during riots in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, June 14, 2009. (AP Photo)