The Technological Revolution: Freedom, Change, and Democracy in Iran
Jahan Navidi explores the pivotal role that technology has played in promoting widespread social change in the aftermath of the disputed Iranian Presidential Election.
By JAHAN NAVIDI from The Sydney Globalist
“If Iran sleeps tonight, Iran will sleep forever” – Twitter Update, June 12, 2009
For the past few months, the world has been glued to the television set, gazing in amazement as thousands upon thousands of Iranians have flocked to the streets, expressing their discontent and chanting: “Down with the dictator.” These protests – totally unprecedented in the last 30 years – demonstrate the people’s discontent with the current regime in Iran. Through their defiance of the ‘Supreme Leader’, Ali Khamenei, and in spite of his request for an end to the protests, many continue to risk life and limb in pursuit of freedom.
The disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has shaken the very foundations of the Islamic Republic, prompting the most widespread protests seen in the country since the Revolution of 1979. Chants such as “Where’s my vote?” and “Down with the Islamic Republic” have become commonplace, and what was once taboo is now readily spoken in public. For the first time in 30 years, the paradigmatic negative image of the Iranian people presented by the Western media has been replaced by an image of a people struggling to attain freedom and democracy. But what do these protests represent? Are they the beginning of another 1979-style Revolution? Or are they merely a product of Western propaganda, aimed at destabilising the oil-rich Persian state? Arguably, these suggestions are unfounded. Rather, it is plausible to argue that the significance of these protests lies in the progressive Revolution that they have inspired, led by perhaps the greatest weapon of all: technology.
In a country where 68.3 per cent of the 71 million-strong population is under the age of 34, the youth have emerged as the face of this power shift, with technology as their primary medium for achieving freedom. Formidably armed with the tenacity of Twitter, the ferocity of Facebook and the yearning of YouTube, Iranians face off against the brutality of the Islamic Republic as they attempt to break down the barriers of religious extremism and communicate their inspiring pursuit of freedom to the world.
Arguably, the election of Ahmadinejad in 2009 is not solely responsible for this tumultuous uprising. Rather, the elections ignited 30 years of dissatisfaction with a repressive regime that has denied even the most basic civil liberties to its citizens. Iranians have experienced crackdowns on the clothing of women, regime dominance over private and public life, and a fundamentalist enforcement of Islam by their Government. This article aims to contextualise the mass demonstrations through an exploration of Iran’s historical path towards democracy and the West’s role in inhibiting this process.
Foreign Involvement and “The Great Satan”
Scholars such as Stephen Kinzer argue that the 1953 U.S.-backed overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, profoundly shaped Iranian resentment of the West. In 1951, the election of Mossadegh as Prime Minister was vehemently rejected by the UK, which opposed Mossadegh’s nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, known today as British-Petroleum, and then the world’s largest petroleum company. While Iranians rejoiced at the prospect of finally gaining wealth from their mass oil deposits, the UK looked to the U.S. to orchestrate a coup d’état against Mossadegh, with a view to ushering in a new leader more conducive to Western interests.
Mossadegh’s removal caused widespread discontent and hatred amongst the Iranian people, who believed they had been denied the right to their democratically elected leader: a fundamental value the West claimed to promote. Ignoring Iranian anger, the U.S. restored Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, a steadfast nationalist, as the absolute ruler of Iran. For 26 years, the Shah’s authoritarian regime terrorised the Iranian people, and thousands were killed for their political persuasions.
Iran’s current election crisis has therefore been the product of almost a century’s worth of deprivations of fundamental civil liberties, such as the right to free and fair elections, which should be representative of the will of the Iranian people.
“Down with the Dictator, Whether He is the Shah or the Doctor [Ahmadinejad]” – Protestor’s Chant
The Shah became a champion of the rich, utilising Iran’s pre-Islamic faith to promote Persian culture and to introduce Iran to the West. His famous celebration of Cyrus the Great’s founding of the Persian Empire at Persepolis was lavish and mesmerising. Yet he ignored his people’s cries for basic civil liberties. This has emerged as a common theme throughout Iran’s history. Today, protestors expressing their discontent with the election result have drawn a direct parallel between the authoritarianism of the Shah, and the dictatorship of the Islamic Republic.
Nevertheless, the Iranian people turned to religion, which seemed a reprieve from repression and poverty under the Shah. But religiosity, in turn, would result in a brutal regime that made the Shah’s dictatorship look like an inclusive democracy by comparison. What developed was the Islamic Republic, spearheaded by a man named Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, with the support of two current titanic players: Ali Khamenei and Mir-Hossein Mousavi. By 1979, millions of Iranians had flocked to the streets, calling for the removal of the Shah. It was not long before the Western-appointed and undemocratic Shah announced that he would be going on an indefinite vacation, never to return to Iran again. Meanwhile, Khomeini’s influence began to grow expansively, as his promises of civil liberties, free electricity and wealth for all Iranians began to permeate all aspects of the Iranian national psyche. Exploiting religion as a means to oppose the Shah’s crumbling regime, Khomeini’s Iran became an attractive alternative.
The Islamic Republic of Iran
By 1980, however, it had become clear that Khomeini’s promises were unfounded. As the Supreme Leader of all affairs, Khomeini was akin to the Shah: a leader with absolute power, dominating all political affairs in a burgeoning theocracy. Religious fanatics infiltrated all aspects of Iranian society, imposing radical Islam on democracy- seeking Iranians. What began as a quest for democratic freedoms became a descent into authoritarianism.
Indeed, Khomeini’s establishment of the infamous ‘Basiji’ – a formidable voluntary police force devoted to Khomeini’s Islam – gave him access to personal thugs, who believed that it was their divine and moral responsibility to enforce radical Islam on all Iranians. Unlike the Shah’s regime, women were forced to wear headscarves and Iranian society became a mockery of democracy.
It was during this period that Khomeini appointed the main player in the current opposition movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, as the Prime Minister of Iran. During his eight-year tenure, Iran’s human rights record was abysmal, and the Islamic Republic sought to solidify its rule through violence and force.
Meanwhile, the U.S. supported and overtly encouraged its long-time ally, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, to invade a fragile Iran. This prompted a bloody, decade-long war, in which one million Iranians were slaughtered. Iran, a mere shadow of the great Persian Empire and champion of human rights under Cyrus the Great, became a poverty-stricken country, dominated by religious fanatics who denied the most rudimentary civil liberties to its citizens. Following Khomeini’s passing, Khamenei was appointed as the new Supreme Leader, ensuring the continuation of dictatorship.
The Failed Reformist Movement and the Return of Conservatism
Elected consecutively between 1997 and 2005, reformist president Mohammad Khatami promised to improve Iran’s social infrastructure and civil liberties record, issues that lay at the core of the current demonstrations. Khatami’s rule, however, was constantly vetoed by the Supreme Leader and Iran became increasingly isolated within the international community as a result. This led to the election in 2005 of little-known conservative candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardliner who promised to realign Iran with the core values of Khomeini’s revolution. As part of his quest to return fundamentalist Islam to Iran, Ahmadinejad attempted to halt the reformist movement, and to utilise oil profits to help distribute greater wealth throughout the country, especially among the rural poor.
Under Ahmadinejad, however, Iranians continued to suffer the consequences of economic mismanagement. Oil revenues still eluded the bulk of the citizenry, with inflation exceeding 20 per cent and unemployment rising to record levels. Meanwhile, the conservative government continued to dictate the lives of Iranians in a “morality crackdown” that quashed civil rights movements before they could gain any momentum. Ahmadinejad’s anti-Western rhetoric drew increasing internal criticism, while United Nations sanctions failed to curb the regime’s nuclear program, increasing instead the economic and social hardship of the Iranian people.
“There’s a sense of identity, and bravery to express a desire for change” – Mir-Hossein Mousavi
This year, Iran entered the thirtieth year of the Islamic Republic and the thirtieth year of repression. With the 2009 elections in the air, widespread discontent with Ahmadinejad’s handling of the Iranian economy typified sentiment in the country. Mousavi, with the support of former reformist President Khatami, made a spectacular return to Iranian politics, running as a reformist candidate after spending 20 years in political wilderness. Unhappy with the many social freedoms lost under Ahmadinejad, Mousavi – somewhat ironically – promised to restore the Iranian economy and improve social conditions in Iran. Running on a platform of change similar to that of United States President Barack Obama, he campaigned heavily throughout Iran, often with the support of his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, capturing the support of young, freedom-hungry Iranians. Mousavi’s campaign utilised a new form of power never before seen in Iranian politics: that of the internet. As the third- largest blogging nation in the world, Iranian society is no stranger to the power of communication technology. Yet the 2009 elections marked the first time that the internet was used to influence the Iranian political scene.
Facebook profiles were devoted to Mousavi’s policies of change, YouTube channels captured the candidate’s campaign around Iran, and anti-Ahmadinejad blogging tirades became the dominant tools of political communication among Iranians. Mousavi’s tech-savvy modern politics appealed to Iranians in ways the Islamic Republic had never envisioned. The Iranian youth were confident of a Mousavi victory, and many concluded that a loss for Mousavi would mean the regime had resorted to widespread electoral fraud.
In response, the Iranian regime embarked on a mass-censorship scheme, blocking Facebook, YouTube, text messaging, and Mousavi’s general communication via the internet. The Iranian regime was attempting to silence the youth and their inspiring attempts to usher in mass social change under a repressive regime.
“I told you that in case of cheating in the elections there would be an uprising. Now, there has been cheating, and there is an uprising in Iran” – Protestors’ Chant
The release of election results on 12 June shocked even the most astute Iranian political commentators. Votes had been counted with impossible swiftness and ballot papers had been removed to an undisclosed location. Within one hour of polls closing, Ahmadinejad had claimed a landslide victory, with 63 per cent of the popular vote compared to Mousavi’s 33 percent.
It was at this historic moment that the Islamic Republic entered an unprecedented state of anarchy. Students embarked on their own campaigns of defiance against the Islamic regime. Millions of Iranians, young and old alike, poured onto the streets of major cities such as Tehran, Rasht, Ahvaz, Shiraz and Isfahan, and in subways, in universities, on rooftops, and in their cars they vented their discontent with the election results. The streets became a sea of green, as protestors demonstrated their indefatigable courage in the colour of the opposition.
Claims of a “rigged vote” appeared quite justified, given the attempts by the regime to limit communication between the youth on election day, as well as Mousavi’s unlikely loss in his home town of Tabriz. Indeed, some reports suggest that Ahmadinejad captured as little as 12 per cent of the popular vote.
Whilst it is difficult to determine with any degree of certainty whether the Islamic Republic fixed the election results, it is clear that the widespread protests reflect a deep-seated discontent with the outcome of the elections and the Iranian regime more generally. The protests represented more than an outrage at the election of Ahmadinejad. They represented the culmination of decades of suffering and pro-democracy sentiment since Mossadegh’s removal in 1953. For three decades, the Iranian people had remained quiet, for fear of repression. In 2009, change was imminent.
However, the Islamic Republic would not merely sit back and acquiesce to this shift in power. Sending in the infamous Basiji, the Supreme Leader ordered a crackdown on protestors, who were branded “terrorists” carrying out the work of foreign agents. As the protests continued to grow, the Basiji responded with violence, utilising tear gas, batons and guns in an attempt to silence the Iranian people. Whilst the Basiji armed themselves with weapons, protestors drew on the power of the internet, using proxies to unblock social networking sites and upload clips reflecting the brutality of the Islamic Republic.
Perhaps the most haunting image that came to symbolise the Iranian movement was the death of Neda Agha Soltan, captured on a mobile phone and uploaded onto YouTube. Neda’s death at the hands of the Basiji epitomised what the protests were all about: anger, repression and a desire for freedom. Her final moments as an innocent bystander were captured on camera.
“Rumour that they are tracking high use of phone lines to find internet users – must move from here now” – Twitter Update from Iran, 8:09am, June 24
Unlike the 1979 Islamic Revolution, technology has been critical in facilitating communication between Iranians seeking to organise mass demonstrations and spread the message of democracy throughout the country. With the click of a button, a mobile phone can capture footage of the Basiji engaged in acts of brutality. With the uploading of a video, the entire world can hear Iranians yelling: “Down with the Islamic Republic.” This is technology at its finest and it represents a new face of youth power that the Islamic Republic could not have anticipated.
Replacing the Iranian Regime’s propaganda, these new avenues of communication have provided a raw insight into protestors’ struggles in Iran. A phenomenal reconfiguration of people power in Iran, the ‘Twitter Revolution’, or ‘Persian Uprising’, has embraced the power of technology to transcend territorial boundaries, as people from all corners of the globe witness the Iranian struggle for freedom. Mainstream Western media began to rely upon Twitter updates and live blogs within Iran as their primary sources of news. Many users of Twitter even lent their support to Iranians by changing their avatars to green.
Inspired by the democratic efforts of the Iranian people, and motivated by solidarity, candlelight vigils all around the world have been held for those killed in the protests. The world has united in a “Where’s my vote?” campaign. Iranian expatriate singers such as Googoosh and Dariush, and entertainers Bon Jovi and U2, deliver messages of hope and peace to Iranians. The world has begun to realise that the stereotypical Western portrayal of Iranians over the past 30 years as “terrorists” is unfounded and that the regime in Iran does not represent the views of the Iranian people. The images of Iranians clamouring for freedom cannot be ignored as they continue to permeate the World Wide Web.
“I will fight, I will die, I will take back my vote” – Protestors’ Chant
Today, the protests in Iran continue to rage on in many shapes and forms. Although the numbers are not as large as they were on 12 June, it is clear that the people of Iran are no longer fearful of expressing their discontent with 30 years of repression under the Islamic Republic. Like the Persian Empire before it, Iran is locked in a battle that will define the path it takes in the years to come.
Outside Iran, the world is showing unprecedented solidarity with the cry for democracy. Although the life of Neda came to a shocking end, it is important to recognise that thousands of others have been killed on Iran’s road to democracy, often with the support of countries such as the U.S. and UK, which ironically now condemn Iran’s regime.
Unlike 1979, the technological revolution in Iran will not happen overnight. However, a progressive change has already begun. This change can be seen on the streets of Iran, in universities, and all over the internet. Three months ago, it would have been unheard of to protest against Ahmadinejad. Today, people can be found throughout Iran actively advocating the removal of the Islamic Republic. The power of technology has allowed Iranians to spread their message around the world with deafening clarity.
“The only question now is how the end will happen – peacefully, or with civil war” – Twitter Update from Iran, 11:10am, June 23
It is impossible to know when Iranians will achieve the ultimate goal of freedom. However, it is apparent that the world continues to be inspired by their brave and courageous efforts. People may speak different languages and come from different countries, but ultimately, the quest for freedom remains a universal one. The world is watching, and it is united for a democratic Iran. Iran is well and truly awake from the nightmare of the last 30 years and, this time, the movement is live and interactive.
This piece was originally published in The Sydney Globalist in November 2009.