It's easy to assume that the general silence in Iran last weekend - marking the first anniversary of last year's fraudulent elections - implies that the Green Movement (the modern face of Iran's nascent democratic movement) is all but dead. However, there's a lot to interpret in that silence. On Saturday, the streets of Tehran were saturated with Iranian security officials, including members of the Revolutionary Guard- quasi-military loyalists to the Iranian government. A regime so confident in its stability and dominance would not likely take such desperate and burdensome measures. Indeed, Iran's opposition leaders understandably called off protests to avoid needless violence.
As the Green Movement enters into its second year, it is clear that the democratic movement in Iran is more vibrant, more powerful, and more creative than ever before and that frustrations by the Iranian people are slowly nearing a tipping point. Two important lessons can be derived from the movement's first anniversary.
"It's the economy, stupid:" In 2005, Iranian Presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi almost came from behind to stun the presidential favorites by promising to pay every Iranian family the equivalent of $60 if he were elected. Mr. Karroubi, a candidate again in 2009, understood what every American politician currently understands: political success and economics are inextricably mixed. Fast forward to 2009, after increasing unemployment, a falling Tehran stock market, an insolvent banking sector, and falling real estate prices, the Iranian economic crisis (and Ahmadinejad's contributions to it) was one of the most poignant causes of the massive June protests.
In the past year, Iran's economy has deteriorated further. For example, despite capital shortages, Iranian banks continue to issue million dollar no-interest loans to members of the Revolutionary Guard while limiting cash withdrawals and credit to ordinary Iranians. Iranian banks selectively foreclose against private sector corporate loans while refinancing or extending credit to government-affiliated businesses. The government even canceled all Nowruz (Iran's New Year) bonuses in March and froze payment of wages to employees for a period of at least 5 months. Indeed, Iran's morbid economic state can be illustrated simply by the following numbers: inflation is at 40% percent --even though the regime is in the process of removing subsidies on basic goods--, unemployment is at 25%, and property prices have fallen by 60%.
These conditions have paralyzed the Iranian economy and gradually disenchanted Iran's working class, traditional supporters of Ahmadinejad. The success of the Green Movement in 2010 may depend on how effective it is on capitalizing on this trend. For the world, this also means resisting aggressive rhetoric or broad sanctions. The Iranian people should see that their economic woes are the product of poor leadership and not allow Ahmadinejad and the Islamic regime to scapegoat foreign powers as they traditionally do to curb internal criticism.
Iran looks a lot like the Soviet Union did in the late 1980s: Putting aside Iran's de facto one-party system and the concentration of almost 70% of the economy in state owned entities (characteristics which by themselves makes Iran resemble the Soviet Union); since at least 1990 the Iranian government has engaged in precisely the same control over information and censorship that both symbolized the Soviet Union and ultimately led it to its demise.
As noted by Scott Shane, a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun in Moscow during Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, "[t]he secrecy and censorship, banning and jamming that fenced the Soviet citizenry off from the truth about their own history and the outside world had long been viewed in the Kremlin as a necessary bulwark against subversion." Once Gorbachev relaxed controls on information, rapid changes took place in Soviet culture: people not only had the opportunity to learn the truth about Soviet history but were able to publicly criticize the government for mismanaging an economy, causing death and famine, and overall eroding the "Leninist faith."
The Iranians don't need a Gorbachev; technology in the 21st Century has provided a much more salient substitute. The Iranian people are sophisticated and have creatively used social networking and microblogging sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, to organize and gain strength. The importance of these resources can not be overstated. They have provided both a window into the regime's crimes and a loudspeaker for the Iranian people. The Iranian regime even launched a "Cyber-Army" in late 2009 in an effort to re-double censorship efforts. Indeed, if the world wants to help the Iranian democratic movement it would be most effective by hindering the government's increasing efforts to censor or control the internet.
While certainly not exhaustive, these two trends highlight key obstacles in the regime's strategy to suffocate a vibrant grassroots movement. The events in 2009 were a preview and should not be seen as an anomaly; it was an explosion of continuing and increasing frustration with the government's ineptitude, corruption and totalitarianism (all which have increased in 2010). That the Iranian government will fall as a result of its own mismanagement is not a question of "if", but simply of "when."
Nema Milaninia is a lawyer specializing in international human rights law and Executive Director of the International Studies Journal. He writes frequently about law and politics in Iran.