Iran’s Green Movement reformist leaders are being widely eulogized on social media on the 11th anniversary of being put under house arrest.

But while some Iranians may pine for the heady days over a decade ago when reformists were seemingly on the ascent, conservatives are widely expected to sweep presidential elections in June, further consolidating their hold on the Islamic Republic.  

As moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s final term draws to a close, many of his ambitions and promises will go unrealized, not least his vow to win the release of reformist luminaries Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and Zahra Rahnavard.

It isn’t clear to most how Iran’s moderates and progressives can steer themselves out of their political tailspin.

Indeed, the likely prospect of a thumping hardline victory at the ballot box could set Iran on a trajectory similar to the one set in train by anti-Western firebrand ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

His 2009 electoral win gave rise to the Green Movement, which saw millions take to the streets to express dismay over perceived manipulation of the results.

Campaigning for a second term after cranking up Tehran’s nuclear brinkmanship, which strained relations with the West to near-breaking point and galvanized an international consensus against Iran, Ahmadinejad faced off against two reformist candidates: Mousavi, a former prime minister, and Karroubi, a former speaker of parliament.

Mousavi’s wife Rahnavard, a university professor and women’s rights activist, was also a prominent figure during the campaign season and accompanied him at rallies and other public appearances, seldom seen in Iran’s patriarchal society.

Their fight for progressive causes would lead to all three forfeiting their liberty. Many Iranians fondly remember Mousavi’s premiership from 1981 to 1989 and lauded his handling of the job during the nightmarish years following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran. 

Mir-Hossein Mousavi addresses his supporters during a massive rally in Tehran’s Imam Khomeini square, June 18, 2009. Photo: Ghalamnews/AFP

On the hustings, Mousavi took an unequivocal stand against the bungled foreign policy, economic populism and sociocultural practices of his rival Ahmadinejad.

The Mousavi-led reformists vociferously criticized Ahmadinejad for suppressing the media, students and political activists, as well as for isolating Iran on the global stage. The hardline incumbent was widely believed to have little chance of outflanking his progressive challenger, who opinion polls had widely projected would win.

So many Iranians felt something was amiss when news broke of a landslide victory for Ahmadinejad, who clinched a staggering 62.6% of the popular vote against 33.7% for Mousavi, who enjoyed popularity in big cities and among the middle-class.

Mousavi and Karroubi refused to concede defeat and demanded a full recount of the vote.

As reformist supporters staged peaceful street protests, donning green headscarves and clothing after Mousavi’s campaign color, state media broadcaster Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) took the side of Ahmadinejad, the favorite of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and constitutional watchdog the Guardian Council.

The Guardian Council acceded to a partial recount of only 10% of the ballots and eventually concluded that no irregularities had taken place. Protests dragged on even after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei congratulated Ahmadinejad on his re-election, calling it a “divine assessment” and encouraged the nation to back the incumbent.

But as supporters of Mousavi and Karroubi continued their resistance on the streets, authorities unleashed a harsh crackdown targeting journalists, student activists and reformist politicians while blocking social media platforms Facebook and Twitter.

Scores of arrests followed with thousands of protesters jailed throughout the country. Among those taken into custody were high-profile reformist politicians close to the campaigns of Mousavi and Karroubi, some of whom openly questioned the veracity of the election results.

The detainees included Behzad Nabavi, a former deputy speaker of parliament; Mohsen Mirdamadi, a former lawmaker and the secretary-general of the Islamic Iran Participation Front; Ebrahim Yazdi, a former deputy prime minister and a leading figure of the 1979 revolution; former vice-president Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, and Mohammad-Reza Khatami, the brother of the former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, who Ahmadinejad succeeded in 2005.

Supporters of Iran’s defeated presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi dressed in black during a mass protest on June 18, 2009 in Tehran Photo: AFP/Stringer

Despite repression and a deadly crackdown, street protests, acts of civil disobedience such as boycotting goods advertised on state media, and the public exhibition of green symbols persisted for months. Iranian authorities confirmed the deaths of 36 protesters between mid-June 2009 until the movement died down in December 2010.

PBS, the American public broadcaster, in a report titled “Martyrs of the Green Movement,” documented the names and particulars of 110 Iranians, mostly under 30, who were killed during political violence in the intervening period, which ended with the smothering of popular hopes for change.  

The state’s squelching of the Green Movement and developments that unfolded over those chaotic days greatly weakened Iran’s reform initiative, which had crystallized around ideals of improving the state of the nation’s economy, foreign relations, civil liberties and social rights in Iran’s conservative and highly religious society.

In April 2010, Ahmadinejad’s Ministry of Interior decertified the country’s largest pro-reform political parties, the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF) and Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution of Iran Organization (MIRO), both of which had endorsed Mousavi at the elections. A revolutionary court in Tehran then proceeded to abolish the two parties.

The elimination of the two influential parties and imprisonment of several of their high-profile members was just one of the many vindictive steps the Ahmadinejad administration took in cahoots with allies in other establishment sectors.

But the biggest blow to Iran’s reform movement, which had gotten off the ground after the election of Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997, was the decision in February 2011 to place Mousavi, Karroubi and Rahnavard under house arrest, a ruling that continues to remain in force more than a decade on.

Despite calls by international organizations and mediation attempts by authorities in Iran at various levels, the Supreme Leader still hasn’t overturned their detentions.

Several hardline personalities, including former IRGC commander Esmaeil Kousari and Friday prayer leader of Isfahan Yousef Tabatabai Nejad, have sternly warned that if Mousavi and Karroubi, who they have called the “heads of sedition,” are ever released from house arrest they would be put on trial for insurrection and sentenced to death.

A handout picture shows Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on October 8, 2020, attending a ceremony on the occasion of Arbaeen in Tehran. Photo: The office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Under house arrest, the three Green Movement leaders, as well as Karroubi’s wife, have no connection with the outside world, with visits by close family members permitted only periodically.

They live in darkness with no access to the internet or satellite TV. Only recently have they been allowed to make phone calls with friends, who must be pre-screened and approved by the authorities, and receive guests.

Those who visited Mousavi and Karroubi under house arrest have smuggled out new photos of them taken on smartphones, with the images going viral on social media. Iranians have reacted sentimentally to the photos, showing Mousavi, now 79, and Karroubi, 83, in much frailer and more enfeebled physical states than 11 years ago.

Mohsen Bayat Zanjani, the son of a prominent reformist cleric in Qom, was one of those who received a phone call from Mousavi. He tweeted a brief announcement about the surprise call by the former premier, writing: “The phone rang. I picked the handset up and said, yes. The response was, ‘This is Mousavi, Mirhossein Mousavi.’” His tweet was liked 10,000 times.

President Rouhani had pledged during the 2013 presidential campaign that securing the release of the Green Movement leader from house arrest would be one of his priorities. Having failed to fulfill that vow, many feel disenchanted and even betrayed by his tenure.

“It is highly likely that Rouhani talked about putting an end to the house arrest of the movement leaders in order to get the vote of the supporters of the Green Movement. By 2013 he must have known that his powers as president were limited and he could not challenge the Supreme Leader,” said Misagh Parsa, a professor of sociology at Dartmouth College in the United States.

Despite state media propaganda claims, observers agree the Green Movement never sought to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Rather, the movement and its leaders campaigned for structural reforms so that Iranians could enjoy greater civil liberties and economic prosperity.

Parsa, author of the 2016 book Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed, said that the Green Movement’s leaders were, however, seen as taking a step too far when, in one of their last statements before their arrests, they claimed: “the return of monarchical relationships in the name of religion, noted the erosion of people’s constitutional rights and expansion of the powers of the rulers of the Islamic Republic.”

“At that point, the regime viewed the statement as very challenging and ordered the arrest of the leaders,” added the academic. In the decade since the pro-reform uprising was quashed with an iron fist, observers of Iran now widely see that reform push at a standstill as Rouhani approaches the end of his second term as president.

“Reform within the Islamic Republic system is a thing of the past. The desire for change has grown exponentially, widening the gap between the populace and the government, but the strong majority of those who want change cannot see their demands being fulfilled in the confines of the Islamic Republic,” said Arsalan Kahnemuyipour, an associate professor at the University of Toronto.

“This situation cannot continue indefinitely. But, unfortunately, the widespread suppression of dissent means that change can only come at a hefty price for the Iranian people,” he added.

An Iranian girl walks next to a wall painting of Iran’s national flag while using her cellphone in a street, in Tehran, Iran, April 28, 2018. Photo: AFP

Kahnemuyipour sees the future of the nation as austere but doesn’t rule out a future conservative government getting back to the nuclear negotiating table.

“The next president will very likely be from the intelligence-military community and will show an iron fist to the people. [The government] might try to find ways of making amends with the international community, at least in the context of the nuclear issue, but they will continue with their regional politics and will further tighten the strings internally.”

With the continued confinement of the Green Movement’s figureheads, it is altogether unclear who will uphold the reformist mantle at the upcoming presidential election.

Some observers see Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s well-spoken and recognizable foreign minister, as the strongest potential candidate against conservatives at the June polls.

“A figure such as Mohammad Javad Zarif is highly likely,” said Zahra Tizro, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of East London and a Middle East studies analyst. “There’s a widespread consensus among the various factions within the reformist front on the suitability and electability of Zarif.”

But if the Guardian Council’s vetting and purging of pro-reform candidates in last year’s legislative elections are anything to go by, the already debilitated reformist camp will face structural obstacles in the run-up to the polls.

But, as some scholars argue, if the establishment concludes that it needs for the sake of its integrity, public image and survival to give reformists some room to run at the forthcoming elections alongside conservatives, the reformist camp’s future might not be completely dashed, even as its previous leaders continue to languish in home detention.