Iranians dig in for the battle they know could take years

A year ago Mahmoud Ahmadinejad crushed protests against him. But as these stories show, he did not break his opponents' spirit
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The Independent Online

Back in June 2009, few could have predicted the scenes. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians of all ages and from all walks of life spontaneously filling the streets to protest about an election result that returned to power the hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But after a remarkably free-spirited election campaign, marked by lively rallies in which women, unusually, played a vocal part, democracy activists felt they had historic momentum behind them.

The so-called "Green Movement" briefly enjoyed support from both the streets and the establishment. It seemed to offer a real challenge to the authority of the tightly knit ruling cabal, and even to that of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Now, on the first anniversary of the disputed election, and after a year of harsh crackdowns, prospects for change look rather different and depend largely on whether the disparate membership of the Green Movement has the capacity and the will to reorganise itself and sustain a longer campaign.

As Iran's nuclear and foreign policies continue to dominate the headlines, The Independent interviewed a selection of grass-roots activists, some of whom have had to flee abroad.

Although some show signs of despair, they are determined to find new ways of keeping up their opposition. It is difficult to say how representative their voices are. With heavy reporting restrictions inside Iran, and many people afraid to communicate with foreign journalists, it is hard to gauge public opinion accurately.

Many who took part in the protests have lost interest in demonstrating, either because they fear the repercussions or because they lack faith in the movement's ability to change anything. The forces ranged against it are formidable: the might of the security establishment; the continuing, albeit weakened, power of conservative ideology in Iran; and the populist economic policies of Mr Ahmadinejad. Nonetheless, political change is often, as the activists interviewed here are starting to realise, a long game.

'This struggle will continue'

Jalvah, researcher, 33

In June 2009 I was in prison. Just two or three days before the election, I was released and I voted. What has happened, or is happening, to the Green movement is sad but, in some ways, I can feel optimistic.

Sad because the price paid is so hefty, and the regime cannot tolerate the smallest objection. Hopeful because, slowly but surely, it was proven that change does not happen overnight. The situation is so complicated and interrelated, it requires more active participation and struggle.

I think this struggle will continue and expand. My hope is that the movement can develop a stronger social base and that they can follow up on their demands. I believe that struggle from below can achieve positive changes, and even become a tool for change towards democratisation.

'The movement is maturing'

Vartan, office worker, 45

I took part in the demonstrations against the dictatorship. Looking back the mood was very positive. The balance of forces was moving towards a change; in other words people wanted to have their say.

I'm not despondent about the Green movement. It is maturing, it's taking its time in understanding what the way forward is.The movement is on the right track and it's looking at a long-term struggle for the changes that different groups within it – women, students and others – want. My hope is that, using non-violence, we can bring about changes that will make a difference to people's lives, in particular to the 40 to 50 million (according to government figures) who live beneath or on the poverty line.

'Dictators raise the tension'

Zahra, 26, student

I am hopeful because I know Iranian people. The [anniversary] rallies have been cancelled but every night in different parts of Tehran people shout "God is great" and warn the regime.

When I get on the bus I see many slogans against Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. In many seats you can observe that people have written 22 khordad (12 June). The blood of those who died for the holy concept of freedom will never be wiped from the killers' hands.

I'm sure the struggle will work – maybe not this time, but in the near future. The government endeavours to admonish those who oppose them, but dictators are stupid; they just raise the tension.

'We shared the same pain'

Sahar, student, 29

I was in the streets with my friends and family. The day after the election I was full of anger but, when I saw the crowds, I really felt we were not alone – we shared the same pain and felt united. It made me proud to be one of the millions in the streets against the regime. I remember being astonished when I looked around me. I didn't expect the sorrow and anger to turn into such a force. But when they killed people I was scared. Yet the fear couldn't stop me. The Green movement has matured. It has its martyrs, prisoners, leaders and symbols. It embraces students, women and workers. The violence just helped to foster this movement. As a people we are not happy. The way to democracy is a hard one, but I'm still optimistic .

'We were cheated'

Muhammed, office worker, 28

I attended the nightly electoral gatherings last June and I felt we were cheated, which made me erupt in anger. I believe that people here in Iran need to be shocked into action by something like last year's election result. I mean that if people are shocked again by something bad, then next time no one will be able to control them any more . I am very hopeful, and I think fundamental changes will happen in Iran.

'Victory could take years'

Amir, former web developer, 27

I was employed in [defeated presidential challenger Mehdi] Karoubi's election headquarters. What do I think has happened to the Green movement? I think it is growing. Gradually it will find more supporters, because at first it was people in Tehran, and then other cities joined. I think people have reached a good level of political understanding. The movement's leadership is maturing. Mousavi's speeches are interesting, because he uses words that a year ago we never thought possible. So, overall, I see the movement growing positively, sometimes fast and sometimes slow. A movement may need years to achieve victory.