What Went Wrong?

Why did Iran’s pro-democracy movement stall?

The Iranian protests are a distant memory

Earlier this week, I asked one of the few foreign journalists still working in Tehran about the mood in the Iranian capital. He dubbed the lead-up to the first anniversary of the June 12 election “the calm before the nothingness.” I spent most of the last year in Iran, and that sounds about right to me.

For those interested in Iranian democracy, the last 12 months have been a tremendous disappointment. It’s easy to blame the regime’s crackdown, but there is plenty of blame to go around.

An old friend I talked with soon after I arrived in Tehran last May refused to make any predictions about the coming elections. “As bad as Ahmadinejad is,” he said, “no one here really cares.”

The decision to make a fuss over the Islamic republic’s 10th presidential election was a last-minute one, catalyzed by a series of live televised debates that brought previously taboo political topics into living rooms all over the country.

For what may have been the first time, Iranians were invited to engage in a political dialogue, an invitation they accepted by showing up at spontaneous street rallies in the nights leading up to the election. At the time, many of my Iranian friends who were observing events from abroad saw the rallies as little more than a street party—apathetic Tehranis letting off a little steam. Among the throngs, though, it felt quite different from anything I had experienced there, and as the election neared, people’s participation in the protests, and the significance they attached to them, grew.

I’m sure the TV executive who suggested the debates, which opened a floodgate of expression that backfired on the establishment, is now out of a job—if he’s still alive. Still, it was the first sign of many that, despite fascistic tactics in its handling of dissent, cultivating the image of a kinder, gentler Islamic republic is part of the regime strategists’ long-term plan.

Of course, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the winner of last year’s street fight, is still able to communicate his message, a luxury his opponents Medhi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi—who have, effectively, been silenced—don’t enjoy.

In the end, that might be for the best. A journalist who works for the domestic Iranian media told me, “No one is happy. Everyone wants things to change, but when there is no guidance, there can’t be a united effort, and an opposition movement cannot survive.” Speaking of Mousavi and Karroubi, he added, “They failed to lead us, and now it’s too late. Nothing will happen on the anniversary”

In other words, two tired revolutionaries who are still incapable of admitting the many failures of the Islamic republic that they were instrumental in creating cannot bring about a social and political transformation.

A true Iranian civil-rights campaign needs a more inclusive leadership. Although 75 percent of Iranians are Persian or Azeri Turk, both mostly Shiite groups, the remainder are a diverse mix of tribes, and they didn’t figure in last year’s protest movement, probably because the leaders of the green movement don’t see these groups as wielding much power. Although groups like the Kurds and Baluchis inhabit many of Iran’s sensitive border regions, they’ve long been neglected by the central government and considered ungovernable. As long as religious and ethnic minorities are politically ignored, how can a civil-rights movement succeed?

Since the 2009 uprising, people in Iran have told me they feel abandoned not only by their own leaders but also by the United States and other major powers, which have chosen to focus solely on the question of Iranian nukes.

While the rhetoric being spewed by both Tehran and Washington is as heated as ever, the feeling on the ground is that the two nations are simultaneously closer to armed conflict and to reconciliation than at any point since Iran’s 1979 revolution.

The problem with negotiations is that Iranians fear they would end up losing either way. If the two countries could agree to at least begin mending fences, human rights would likely be the first issue to be sacrificed on the way to a deal.

This is a no-win situation for President Barack Obama, partly because Iranians—whether they are members of the current regime, ordinary citizens at home and abroad, or leaders in the diaspora—are a hard people to please. They don’t compare themselves with countries they have anything in common with—places like Egypt or Turkey—instead, they use Europe and the United States as their measuring sticks.

Asking people who have never known the taste of freedom to imagine what a liberated Iran would look like is not a fair challenge. But the millions of Iranians in the diaspora could use the coming year to help their brothers and sisters in Iran define what they want to achieve. Of course, this would require Iranians to be more than victims, a role they play well and one that temporarily earned Iran the world’s pity last summer, at least until Michael Jackson died.

Accepting that they are in this alone and that change is their collective responsibility is something Iranians must do for themselves. That is exactly what I saw happening in the nights leading up to last June’s election and the days that followed. Right now, that’s ancient history.

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