On a recent trip to Tehran I visited a friend I hadn’t seen since June 11, 2009. We had met on the eve of that year’s presidential election, and my friend, a prominent campaigner against the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had alluded somewhat unnervingly to the possibility of vote-rigging and violence.
Ahmadinejad’s landslide “victory” was indeed denounced as fraudulent by his moderate and relatively pro-Western challengers, Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi—along with millions of their supporters who took to the streets in demonstrations over the following week. On June 20, after a sermon the previous day in which the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned of “blood, violence, and chaos” if the demonstrations didn’t stop, the security forces intervened with live ammunition, beatings, and waves of arrests.
My friend was among those who were jailed during the systematic crackdown that began that day, and that continued for the following two years or so, throttling the protest movement. Unlike many others who had been detained, he had not buckled under pressure to recant. Nor, he told me, did he feel ill-will toward the man, another high-profile detainee, whose denunciation had given the authorities a pretext to arrest him. My friend had spent a year in jail, including several months in solitary confinement. He was grayer than I remembered, as he talked to me while sitting in the same chair he had occupied that evening in 2009.
What is the significance of that thwarted election and its excruciating aftermath? The question seems almost academic now, for many of the goals of the opposition movement have ostensibly been achieved. Ahmadinejad is out of power—his second and final term ended last summer—and the country’s current president is a moderate, Hassan Rouhani, who has pledged to improve relations with the West, and whose current nuclear diplomacy with the United States and other world powers is a means to that end. Outside the country, and particularly in the US, there is little talk of 2009; the Obama administration’s approach to Iran was defined not then but in 2012 and 2013, when sanctions against the country were tightened considerably and the Iranians were brought reluctantly to the negotiating table.
And yet, if you want to understand the current diplomatic process and its prospects of success, the 2009 election has to be your starting point. It allowed Iran’s hard-liners to undertake a ruthless purge of reformists whom they regarded as traitorous, and to demonstrate to ordinary Iranians their unbreakable determination to retain power. These ordinary Iranians got the message, and it is one of the ironies of the 2009 protest movement that although several million people demonstrated in the streets, their movement disintegrated rapidly under…
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