The Green Movement: Past and future

Abbas Milani

  • The opposition Green Movement emerged spontaneously two years ago to challenge results of the disputed 2009 presidential election. What is the status of the movement today?
The Green Movement was then, as it is now, part of Iran’s more inclusive and enduring democratic movement. Its emergence was only spontaneous in the unexpected trigger from a contested presidential election. Some observers, long before the June demonstrations, had predicted an eruption of a democratic movement. But the size and discipline of the demonstrations—estimated at up to three million in Tehran-- were a surprise to everyone.
Two years later, the Green Movement’s claims have been more than validated. The regime itself is questioning the validity of the 2009 election. And some 100 members of parliament (Majles) have signed a petition asking authorities to look into allegations that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies used millions of dollars to purchase nine million votes. Iran today is a veritable volcano that could erupt any time. Yet the Green Movement, with its desire to bring change within the current constitutional framework, is unlikely to play a leading role when that eruption comes,
  • What are the movement's demands two years later? Have they changed?
The Green Movement is currently in a state of hibernation waiting for the next opportunity to make its presence felt. The only demand that is accepted by all factions within the Green Movement and the larger democratic movement  is freedom for all political prisoners, particularly the leadership of the Green Movement. 
  • Have the opposition's strategies or tactics changed since the house arrest of its two most vocal leaders--Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi--in February 2011?
The Green Movement suffered from a failure to develop a sufficiently robust and representative strategic vision. It relied on tactics that proved ineffective, including waiting for a permit to demonstrate in the streets and occasional acts of defiance in which peaceful demonstrators had to face armed thugs and security agents. Its strategic failure was compounded by the lack of hierarchical leadership and the prevalence of a network of leaders.


  • Is the Green Movement still viable or effective, given the arrests of top leaders and thousands of supporters? Is it realistic to think that either Karroubi or Mousavi, both presidential candidates in 2009, will be able to win prominent positions again soon. If not, who is likely to emerge to assume leadership of the largest political opposition?
The Green Movement, and the larger democracy movement, had no effective leadership to begin with. Mousavi and Karubi were both nominal leaders, vessels to shape the inchoate demands of Iran’s democratic movement. Both the weakness and the power of the movement has been its non-ideological, non-hierarchical, non-violent, non-utopian nature. It is rooted in the simple desire for dignity and jobs, a chance to live in the twenty-first century and without constant government harassment.
For Iran, as a nation, the days of political messiahs—in the uniform of a general, a cleric, or a totalitarian political party—are ending. The reason for the tortured, prolonged, complex but inevitable path to democracy is due to the now ingrained distrust of false messiahs. But without centralized leadership, transitions are hard to manage.
  • In May 2011, former President Mohammad Khatami called for a national dialogue on forgiveness. How were Khatami's words interpreted by the regime and the opposition? Will he or any mainstream politician be able to bridge the widening political gap?
Former President Mohammad Khatami’s words were met with chilling indifference by both sides. Loyalists to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lambasted the former president for implying that either the people or the opposition experienced injustice. And the opposition was openly incredulous at the idea that the man whose forces terrorized millions should be forgiven. Khatami’s words were largely seen as a Quixotic effort to save the regime.
  • Given the conservative dominance of government, do reformers have any prospect of genuine choice in the March parliamentary election? And what does that election mean for Ahmadinjad's allies and future?
Iranian politics is currently undergoing upheavals. Over the past few months, President Ahmadinejad has boldly stood up to the supreme leader, while forces loyal to the supreme leader have just as daringly tried to isolate, weaken, and embarrass their once anointed president. They now consider Ahmadinejad and his coterie to be a deviationist line, arguably the greatest challenge to decades of Islamic rule as well as centuries of Shiite history.

In the regime’s own words, part of the fight today is over the future elections, which Ahmadinejad’s team hoped to hijack. But the steady attacks on Ahmadinejad by forces loyal to Khamenei put into question whether the president will even still be in office by the next election. The Green Movement’s aura continues to haunt the regime, in spite of reports about its premature death.

Read Abbas Milani's chapter on the Green Movement in "The Iran Primer"

Abbas Milani, author of “The Myth of the Great Satan,” is director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, where he is also a co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at Hoover Institution.

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