Lost in the Labyrinth: The Green Revolution and the Islamic Republic of Iran – By Joel Hernandez

Demystifying the Green Revolution would illuminate the actual impact of the uprising on Western-Iranian relations, which was limited.

Joel Hernandez, Fletcher MALD 2013, is a first-year Master’s student at the Fletcher School of law and Diplomacy, concentrating in Conflict Resolution and Human Security. He is originally from Barcelona, Spain, and grew up in France and the United States. Joel received his B.A. in History from Rice University.

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The 2009 Iranian Presidential election was a momentous event in the history of the modern Islamic world, with sweeping implications for the internal politics of Iran, broader Middle Eastern politics, and Iranian relations with the Western world. It is tempting, in hindsight, to portray the Green Revolution as an abortive first iteration of the Arab Spring. Such a conclusion, however, oversimplifies the Green Revolution’s historical and political context, overlooking both its intent and its potential, and unfulfilled, consequences. Although the Green Revolution undoubtedly provided inspiration for the soon-to-follow Arab Spring, and allowed for an invaluable trial run of the online organizing tools that would empower it, both the nature of the Iranian uprising, and of the political apparatus’ response to it, differed vastly from their Arab counterparts.

To be properly understood, the Green Revolution must be contextualized within the evolution of the Islamic Revolution and the Byzantine political system that it created. The Green Revolution simply never held the same transformative intent, or potential, as the Arab Spring would. Even if it had attained its political objectives—with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad admitting to widely suspected electoral fraud and ceding the Iranian Presidency to Mir Husain Mousavi, and with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei acquiescing to this—the resulting political reconfiguration would have been far less sweeping than the transformations that the Arab Spring would bring to Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, or Syria. The Green Revolution should thus be read in a less exalted light, as an internal convulsion of the Iranian political order that briefly spilled into the street, rather than an explosive surge of ‘people power’ seeking to radically transform the Iranian political order.

The implications of the Green Revolution, with regard to Iranian foreign policy and Iranian relations with the Western World, are thus far less momentous than one might have thought in the heady rush of the uprising. In fact, the mere suggestion that the Green Revolution might have transformed Iranian relations with the West is oversimplified – the product of flawed assumptions that the Western public frequently makes about Iran. As Trita Parsi explains, American attempts at diplomatic engagement with Iran repeatedly stumble on the “futile search for a sole authoritative Iranian partner [which] often causes diplomacy to be rejected before it even begins… there are many power centers in Iran – including the supreme leader’s office, the parliament, the president’s circle of advisors, the National Security Council and influential clergymen – all of which need to be included in in the process.”[1]

Had the Green Revolution succeeded, a different man might today hold the Presidency of the Islamic Republic. To suggest, however, that the shift from Ahmadinejad’s hard line to Mousavi’s moderation would have diffused throughout the mostly unelected Iranian political apparatus is simply unrealistic. In order to support this argument, we must begin by examining the Iranian political system within the context of the values and demands of the Islamic Revolution. This will allow us to demystify the Green Revolution, and thus buttress the argument that its impact upon Iranian-Western relations would have been limited at best.

I. Iran Confidential – Entering the Political Labyrinth

The sad truth of the Green Revolution, more than its ultimate failure, is the fact that it most likely never stood a chance significantly altering the Iranian political order. The reason for this lies in the unique distribution of power in the Islamic Republic between elected political leaders, unelected spiritual leaders, and the respective appointees of each group across the bureaucracy and security apparatus. The Green Revolution is incorrectly explained as a clash between a progressive urban middle class, protesting its disenfranchisement and the consequent electoral defeat of the reformist Mousavi, and the hard-line backers of Ahmadinejad, blessed by the clerical establishment, backed by willing cooperators in the Electoral Commission, and under the cover of the strength of arms. The sheer complexity of internal Iranian politics, however, does not allow any such simple or dichotomous interpretation. Instead, the Green Revolution showcases the simultaneous, off-and-on conflicts among five separate, yet interwoven power centers: the frequently-clashing Neo-Principalist, Principalist, and Reformist political factions; the Clergy, and Iranian public opinion.

II. The Neo-Principalists: Bombast, Masquerade, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

The standoff between the Principalists and Neo-Principalists is a natural place to begin this analysis, as it lies at the crux of Ahmadinejad’s political polemic. The Neo‑Principalist faction, led by Ahmadinejad and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is conservative and authoritarian, but also distinctly pragmatic and committed to economic rationalization. The Neo-Principalists have made a rapid ascent in Iranian politics over the course of the ‘Masquerade Coup,’ which began with their “election to political office in the 2003 City and Village Council elections, 2004 Majlis elections, and 2005 elections… paralleled by their covert penetration of the economy and state institutions,”[2] and culminated in their President’s contested 2009 re-election.[3] Understanding that the legitimacy of the Iranian regime cannot rest solely on divine right, the Neo-Principalists seek to improve Iran’s economic competitiveness, and bolster its image on the global stage, at a material and geopolitical level. As Roozbeh Safshekan and Farzan Sabet describe,

“The Neo-Principalists seek to develop Iran’s economy to both enhance the state and build greater legitimacy among the population. To this end, they are attempting to make the Iranian economy globally competitive through the privatization of Iran’s large state sector, development of infrastructure and technology, and the creation of a cheap and docile labor force.”[4]

Although the Neo-Principalist objectives of boosting Iranian competitiveness by removing costly subsidies and holding down labor costs are sensible on a macroeconomic level, they are far from popular among the Iranian public. This dynamic was put on full display when gas prices across Iran quadrupled overnight in December 2009, as a result of Ahmadinejad’s late 2009 effort to do away with unsustainable energy subsidies. The subsidies had been costing the Iranian treasury more than $100 billion per year—yet neither former Presidents Rafsanjani nor Khatami had been able to remove them. Although popular reaction turned out relatively tame, “security forces with riot shields took positions at gas stations in Tehran, bracing for a possible repeat of the unrest that followed the introduction of gasoline rationing in 2007.”[5]

Given the inherent unpopularity of austerity measures in a population that relies heavily on government subsidies, the Neo-Principalists cannot simply rely on the never-ending goodwill of the Iranian voters, and of continuous at the ballot box. Consequently, in order to maintain power, they are required to sell their rule to the Iranian public by legitimizing authoritarian rule and economic hardship within a broader, more exalted narrative—the divine-right narrative that their pragmatism naturally eschews. Thus emerges the alliance between the Neo-Principalists and the Principalist Supreme Leader—an alliance which, given the chasm between their economic philosophies, appears illogical. Politics, ultimately, make for awkward bedfellows.

III. The Principalists: Old Man Khomeini and Old Man’s Old Man Khamenei

Most visibly led by Supreme Leader Khamenei and Majlis Speaker ‘Ali Larijani, the Principalists were the leaders of the 1979 Revolution, and continue to act as its standard-bearer in today’s Islamic Republic. Principalists adhere to traditional Islamic principles in opposition to both the economic realism of the Neo-Principalists and the civil-libertarian tendencies of the Reformists. The first pillar of their governing orthodoxy is the protection of the clergy’s political role in the Islamic Republic. Explains Yousra Fazili:

“Conservatives, or Regime Loyalists, are united by a belief that there should be more government control of the economy, more clerical control of government, and a more aggressive foreign policy that seeks to support world-wide Shi’a movements. Socially, they favor strict adherence to their definition of Islamic rules and regulations, and the unchecked power of the office of the Supreme Leader, believing that he derives legitimacy from God, not from the people.”[6]

Principalist economic orthodoxy is “stridently anti-capitalistic, opting instead for social welfare for the poor… greater prosperity for the average man… and [appealing] to the lower classes with promises of redistribution of wealth.”[7] Because of their insistence upon loyalty to the Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) and their “steadfastness to the principles of the Islamic Revolution, Principalists have been unable to present a social, political, and economic vision that can attract a mass following and have thus become increasingly irrelevant.”[8]

The threat of irrelevance notwithstanding, Khamenei began pushing back against Ahmadinejad in 2011, opening a series of corruption investigations against the President’s ministers, and sparring with him over Cabinet appointments. This left Ahmadinejad scrambling “to repair a politically reckless rift with the country’s supreme leader that is leaving him isolated and embattled.”[9] The 2012 Parliamentary elections confirmed the Principalist resurgence, with Khamenei’s allies winning three-fourths of contested seats and establishment newspaper Kayhan running the headline “Principalists win big.”[10]

IV. The Reformists: Mir Husain Mousavi and the Color Green

The Reformist movement, most prominently represented by Muhammad Khatami and Mir Husain Mousavi, and congealed into an imperfectly cohesive movement in the Green Revolution, is the little engine that wishes—but can’t—of Iranian politics. Its overarching goal is to tilt the Islamic Republic in the direction of greater republicanism, while preserving its Islamic nature. The main pillars of the Reformist agenda include the protection of civil liberties—notably freedom of speech and press—the promotion of the legal, economic, and sociopolitical rights of women,[11] and the devolution of powers held by the office of the Supreme Leader to the office of the President. Reformists essentially believe in protecting “civil society, achieving change through grass-roots social organizations (such as non-governmental organizations, or NGOs) and strengthening democratic institutions.”[12]

It is nonetheless important to recognize that there are limits to the reformism of the Reformists. In October of 2009, when Ahmadinejad reached a deal with Western powers to swap Iran’s low-enriched uranium for fuel rods to power its research reactor, Reformists did not hesitate to abandon their past support for enrichment suspensions, and Mousavi eagerly joined conservatives in criticizing the deal.[13] In domestic politics, it is Ahmadinejad and his advisors, and not the Reformists, who have gained recognition as “iconoclasts on such issues as the presence of women in sport stadiums, the permissibility of satellite television, and the wearing of the veil.”[14] Ahmadinejad clashed with conservative clerics in 2011 over his government’s lax enforcement of laws requiring women to wear the veil, stating on live television “he preferred education about the veil over enforcement of the law.”[15] Altogether, Ahmadinejad has proved “at times and on certain issues such as women, youth, the clergy, and local rural authorities… more radical than even the reformists.”[16]

Notably, Reformists do not seek to subvert—much less overthrow—the clerical apparatus at the pinnacle of Iranian politics. Rather, they prefer to “resolve the tension between divine rule and popular will by arguing that God speaks through the democratic will of the people.”[17] Reformists believe that Islamic government and democracy are compatible, indeed a natural combination, and ultimately “have faith that their compatriots will sustain a religious state with democratic principles.”[18]

Since the advent of the Revolution, Reformists have always held a grip on at least one lever of power. Mousavi was Prime Minister between 1981 and 1989, during which time he enjoyed Supreme Leader Khomeini’s support against then-President Khamenei’s frequent opposition.[19] After the death of Khomeini and the abolition of the office of the Prime Minister in 1989, Mousavi joined the Expediency Council—an unelected, supervisory body that resolves disputes between the Majlis and the Guardian Council, and advises the Supreme Leader—and acted as senior advisor to Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami. Khatami’s presidency, between 1997 and 2005, might be characterized as the apex of the Reformist movement. Principalist opposition to Khatami’s reforms, however, and the hostile geopolitical environment generated by the Bush Administration’s Middle East diplomacy and strident rhetoric stifled Khatami’s presidency and with it the prospects for Reformist change.[20]

V. The Mullah’s Robe – The Clergy and the Political Order

Hovering over this triangular conflict, the Iranian clerical élite continues to struggle with the political power—traditionally abjured by Shi’a clergy—which it was handed in 1979, courtesy of Khomeini’s “[turning of] the understanding of Shi’a philosophy on its head.”[21] Shi’a clerics are uniquely entitled to generating independent thought and religious interpretation, and “free to interpret Islamic law because of their training and experience.”[22] While this juridical sanction gives clerics an unusual degree of freedom of thought in modern-day Iran, it also makes for a distinct lack of common purpose among Iranian clerics, who are caught between the Shi’a ethic of averting governmental power and their newly-attained position of power at one level, and their “unwillingness… to trust the people of Iran as an electorate to decide the fate of their nation rather than the monopoly of power currently enjoyed by a specific clerical elite,”[23] at another level. Régime-outsider clerics are thus in no position to do much more than promulgate occasional, discrete fatwas—and definitely should not be looked upon to act as a political counterweight to the powerful Guardian Council, which interprets the Iranian Constitution, evaluates whether legislation conforms to Islamic values (and holds veto power over bills that fail to do so), supervises elections, and vets candidates for public office.

VI. Stuck in the Middle with You – The Green Revolutionaries

The people that took to the street following the June 2009 election were a unique group, representing diverse tendencies imperfectly brought together by Mousavi’s candidacy. Although there was a “distinct plurality of those who support the Green Movement (including secular, religious and those in-between),”[24] the organizational center of technology-savvy, secular middle class youth emerged from “the universities, notably the semi-private Azad University,” to which “most of the lower middle-class youth did not have direct access.”[25]

This disconnect would prove to be the Green Revolution’s crippling weakness. The relatively narrow scope in the socioeconomic origins of the protesters limited their ability to speak for all Iranians, and the weakness of their leadership limited the appeal of the movement. Mousavi, after all, had become the ruler of the Green Revolution by default more than by virtue; ultimately, however, even a more inspiring leader would have become ineffective once the régime had cut off his or her ability to communicate with their base, as was done to Mousavi, Kharroubi, Khatami, and other Green Revolution leaders.[26] Equally importantly, neither Mousavi nor the protesters had significant organic links to the military establishment. This is perhaps the most significant contrast between the Green Revolution and the Arab Spring uprisings that would follow in 2011. Fear—of the ruthless the Basij, who beat and shot protesters in the streets, and of rape and torture in the régime’s nefarious Kahrizak prison—effectively decapitated the uprising.[27] This fear explains the profound disparity between the decisive failure of the Green Revolution and the success of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where soldiers deployed to contain the uprising made common cause with protesters, leaving their leaders no choice but to step down.[28]

VII. Implications Abroad – Relations with the Great Satan

Although the failure of the Green Revolution was a tragedy in its own right—both because of the fraudulent subversion of the electoral process, and because of the 72 deaths and thousands of arrests sustained by supporters of the Green Revolution—it should not be seen as a death sentence for diplomacy between Iran and the West. A successful outcome to the Green Revolution might have sidelined the authoritarian Ahmadinejad and replaced him with the more pragmatic Mousavi. Yet, for all of Ahmadinejad’s bombast, the Neo-Principalists could well be the negotiating partner that the West needs in Iran. As Safshekan and Sabet explain:

Although they use the US and Israel as political piñatas, Ahmadinejad and the Neo-Principalists have shown that they are pragmatists and have no ideological qualms with normalizing relations with the United States as long as it is in their interest and on their terms.[29]

To be certain, the fallout from the 2009 election contributed to limiting Ahmadinejad’s ability to follow through on the nuclear agreement he struck in October 2009 with the Six Powers. Although Iranian negotiators agreed to a fuel swap that might have built up sufficient confidence to improve relations with the West, Ahmadinejad “failed to move ahead because of strong opposition from conservative politicians.”[30] Ultimately, he failed to overcome the opprobrium of “domestic opponents, including the parliament speaker, lawmakers and the leader of the political opposition,” with “the strongest criticism [coming] from Mir Hossein Mousavi.”[31]

Moreover, as regards relations with the West, there is no reason to consider Mousavi a more natural ally to the United States than Ahmadinejad. Had the Green Revolution succeeded, a President who has shown flexibility in negotiations with the United States, modernized the Iranian economy, and openly sparred with Supreme Leader Khamenei, would have been disgraced, making way for Mousavi, who has proved much less willing to challenge Khamenei and the Principalists than the Neo-Principalists. Had Mousavi shown this willingness, there is little reason to believe that the Supreme Leader and his Principalist followers would have given him free rein to pursue improved relations with the West.


To be certain, the Green Revolution was far from a routine event in Iranian politics. Ultimately, however, it was a product of the byzantine political order created by the Islamic Revolution, rather than a revolt against it. The Green Revolution proved more limited in scope than the Arab Spring revolts that would follow it, and not a significant game-changer with regard to Iranian-Western relations. The political order of the Islamic Republic of Iran is a product of Cold War-era geopolitical tensions, where the Islamic Revolution’s fear of being pincered by either a Western or a Communist reaction demolished the political viability of the democratic center. The resulting exercise in self-protection shuffled a trinity of power centers—a politicized clergy, a militant armed force, and a rarefied revolutionary leadership—to the helm of political power.

By all means, the Iranian people deserve the leadership of popularly elected leaders; Ahmadinejad’s tampering with electoral results and violent suppression of peaceful protests is inadmissible and revolting in and of itself. However, it would be mistaken to view the Green Revolution as a panacea with regard to Western engagement with Iran. Had it succeeded, the Green Revolution would have replaced the figure in control of the Presidency, without for that matter transforming the underlying power structure—a power structure that remains misunderstood to Western leaders. As Trita Parsi explains, the Islamic Republic’s autocratic nature conveys a unity of command that allows for dialogue with a single interlocutor.[32] The challenge for Western diplomacy remains—as it was prior to the Green Revolution, and as it would have remained under a Mousavi administration—that of identifying the underlying sources of Iranian political authority, so as to open productive lines of dialogue with Iranian political players.


The views and opinions expressed in articles are strictly the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent those of Al Nakhlah, its Advisory and Editorial Boards, or the Program for Southwest Asia and Islamic Civilization (SWAIC) at The Fletcher School.

Works Cited

1 Trita Parsi, “How To Talk to Iran,” the Washington Post, January 13, 2012, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-obama-should-talk-to-iran/2012/01/12/gIQAUZz3wP_story.html&gt; (accessed December 23, 2012).

2 Roozbeh Safshekan and Farzan Sabet, “The Ayatollah’s Praetorians: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the 2009 Election Crisis,” The Middle East Journal, 64 (4) (Autumn 2010): 544.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., p. 553.

5 William Yong, “Gas Prices Soar in Iran as Subsidy is Reduced,” The New York Times, December 19, 2010, A6, <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/20/world/middleeast/20iran.html&gt; (accessed December 23,2012).

6 Yousra Y. Fazili, “Between Mullah’s Robes and Absolutism: Conservatism in Iran,” SAIS Review, 30 (1) (Winter-Spring 2010): 40.

Ibid, p. 47

8 Safshekan and Sabet, 546.

9 Neil MacFarquar, “A Divine Wind Blows against the Iranian President,” The New York Times, June 23, 2011, A4, <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/23/world/middleeast/23iran.html?pagewanted=all&gt; (accessed December 23, 2012).

10 Neil MacFarquar, “Elections in Iran Favor Ayatollah’s Allies, Dealing Blow to President and His Office”, The New York Times, March 4, 2012, A4, <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/05/world/middleeast/iran-elections-deal-blow-to-ahmadinejad-and-the-presidency.html?pagewanted=all&gt; (accessed December 23, 2012).

11 Fatemeh Sadeghi, “The Green Movement: A Struggle against Islamic Patriarchy?” in Negin Nabavi, ed., Iran, From Theocracy to the Green Movement, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), 123.

12 Safshekan and Sabet, 547.

13 Slackman, Michael, “Iran’s Politics Stand in the Way of a Nuclear Deal,” The New York Times, November 3, 2009, <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/03/world/middleeast/03iran.html&gt; (accessed April 13, 2013).

14 Adelkhah, 22-23.

15 Thomas Erdbrink, “Ahmadinejad and clerics fight over head scarves, “ The Washington Post, July 20, 2011, <http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2011-07-20/world/35236742_1_head-scarves-clerics-veil&gt; (accessed April 13, 2013).

13 Fariba Adelkhah, “The Political Economy of the Green Movement: Contestation and Political Mobilization in Iran,” in Negin Nabavi, ed., Iran, From Theocracy to the Green Movement, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), 34.

14 Fazili 53.

15 Ibid.

16 Safshekan and Sabet, 547.

17 Trita Parsi, A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 4-6

18 Fazili, p. 42.

19 Ibid., p. 41

20 Ibid., p. 42.

21 Jaleh Taheri, “The post-election protests,” in  Eric Hooglund and Leif Stenberg, eds., Navigating Contemporary Iran, (New York: Routledge, 2012), 164.

22 Farhad Khorsrokhavar, “The Green Movement,” in Eric Hooglund and Leif Stenberg, eds., Navigating Contemporary Iran, (New York: Routledge, 2012), 178.

23 Ibid..

24 Safshekan and Sabet, 556.

25 Derek Lutterbeck, Arab Uprisings and Armed Forces: Between Openness and Resistance (Geneva: The Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, 2011), 15-16.

26 Safshekan and Sabet, 553.

27 Mohamed El-Khawas, “Obama’s Engagement Strategy with Iran: Limited Results,” Mediterranean Quarterly, 22 (1) (Winter 2011), 97.

28 Glenn Kessler and Thomas Erdbrink, “Iran Counters UN on Uranium Plan,” the Washington Post, October 30, 2009, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/29/AR2009102900418.html&gt; (accessed December 23, 2012).

[32] Trita Parsi, “How To Talk to Iran.”


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