The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future

Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, Editors
Melville House Publishing
ISBN: 978-1-935554-38-7
A Review by Susan Froetschel
Protesters against oppression and corruption often look to historical movements, relying on tales from other lands and periods for inspiration or even borrowing specific techniques.  
In Iran, such a citizen movement emerged after the 12 June 2009 election. Hundreds of thousands marched in the streets, asking the government to abide by the constitution, ensure a fair count and embark on needed reforms. The government insisted that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won 83 percent of the vote, and by week’s end the military fired on protesters and arrested thousands.   
This reviewer began reading “People Reloaded” during the last week of January 2011, as protests swelled in Egypt’s streets. So the collection of 53 interviews, letters, essays and statements carried more meaning than the editors may have intended. 
Unlike the Egyptians, the Iranians are isolated from the international community, trapped by leaders who stoke anger over an old enemy – the West, and the US in particular – and historical machinations throughout the Middle East for nationalistic purposes. 
Most essayists insist the Green Movement’s goal is not revolution, but adherence to the Iranian constitution, avoiding narrow interpretations of religious doctrine. “The hardline Islamists have always feared that these values might not be able to hold firm if the nation opened up to the outside world,” wrote Asef Bayat in a compelling essay. “In fact, part of the Islamists’ critique of globalization is linked to their deep anxiety over losing their self-worth in Iran itself. These rulers could only open up to the world if they possessed a much stronger degree of political and ideological self-confidence at home.”
Power’s understanding of freedom often lags behind the people’s understanding. As society and controls change, Asef notes, the meaning of words like “azadi,” or freedom also evolve. Freedom constantly pushes at boundaries: Its meaning cannot be constrained to one idea, group or time period – and religion cannot be interpreted by a few to limit the people’s participation in decisions that control public life.
Iranians worry about losing a rich Islamic heritage to Arab-style imports, suggests Christopher de Bellaigue. As a shift from constitutional rule to absolutist rule becomes more transparent, Iran’s leaders rally around a shrinking band of so-called “true” citizens, and this only galvanizes the quest for reform and freedoms.  
Excessive focus on recent history and Ahmadinejad’s leadership frustrates Iranian writers who point to the nation’s ongoing struggles since adoption of the 1906 constitution. The briefest introduction to Iranian history reveals why the people’s yearning for democracy equals their deep mistrust for the United States and other foreign powers. After the 1951 election of Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran made plans to nationalize the oil industry, controlled by the British government since 1913. The US and Great Britain orchestrated a coup, replacing the democratically elected prime minister with a monarch on a peacock throne. A quarter of a century later, Iranians revolted, overthrowing the monarch and cutting ties with Western powers. The US retaliated by funding Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Iran in September 1980.   
Yet Iranians are also weary of anti-Americanism and negative politics that produce little progress or policy changes, notes Iranian trade unionist Homayoun Pourzad in an interview with Ian Morrison.
The essayists chafe at criticisms of opposition candidates coming from outside Iran,. The opposition candidates tout impeccable revolutionary credentials, circa 1979, notes one of the wittier essays by Ervand Abrahamian, and yet all favor better relations with the outside world – a stance that should make the nation a difficult target for bombs from the West.
“Ahmadinejad wants the Israelis to launch an air strike,” adds Pourzad, adding that a country that has fired on its own people won’t hesitate on military escalation. “Even if [US President Barack] Obama verbally condemns an intervention in Iran by another nation, Iran will use it as a pretext to expand the fight, and things will rapidly get out of hand.”     
A flaw in the collection is unnecessary repetition among the essayists and a passion that overlooks key developments in the Green Movement.  Too often, the writers engage in unnecessary recital of some basic details to the collection’s detriment.
To be fair, the book does not strive to be a history and instead serves as a guide on Iranian opposition politics, understanding the goals and strategies of the Green Movement, and analyzing methods for participation within Iran’s current system with the goal of change. There are also lessons on authoritarianism’s creeping ways: “[I]t is vital to keep in mind that we have witnessed a great emancipatory event which doesn’t fit within the frame of a struggle between pro-Western liberals and anti-Western fundamentalists,” writes Slavoj Žižek. “If we don’t see this… we have lost the capacity to recognize the promise of emancipation, we in the West will have entered a post-democratic era, ready for our own Ahmadinejads ….” The same could be said of the Egyptian revolt that overthrew Hosni Mubarak.
Governments increasingly embrace a form of capitalism de-linked from democracy, and Žižek warns, “The virus of authoritarian capitalism is slowly, but surely spreading around the globe.” In demanding or preserving rights, Iranians and citizens of any nation must be vigilant on multiple fronts, note Morad Farhadpour and Omid Mehrgan.
The bad news for Iran’s current leaders is that the Green Movement is no longer about a rigged election, suggests Muhammad Sahimi, but rather the future of Iran. People Reloaded, as a whole, shows that the Green Movement is keenly attune to other movements in South Africa, the American South and their own history, studying methods and resisting external interventions. As Nader Hashemi notes, Palestinians leaders relied on powerful outside forces to influence Israel, and “the collective plight of the Palestinians remains far worse today than when the Oslo [peace] process began.”    
Books such as this will help the Green Movement stand as a model for future protests in Iran and elsewhere. In the Green Movement’s quest for reform, supporters display patience, a belief in non-violence and willingness to unite behind one candidate. As many writers point out, eloquently and fervently, the Iranian people deserve reform of their own design. Efforts to impose change from the outside – “other than the humanitarian obligation of support,” as expressed by opposition candidate Mehdi Karoubi in an interview with Laura Secor – can only fail.
Iran’s leaders continue to cling to control. Yet they should know from their own experiences, better than other leaders throughout the Greater Middle East, that reform delayed is revolution.
Protesters against oppression and corruption often look to historical movements, relying on tales from other lands and periods for inspiration or even borrowing specific techniques.
© 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization