Sunday, June 12 marked the second anniversary of Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election that sparked massive public demonstrations, resulting in the arrest of more than 5,000 people and a surge in politically motivated executions. To mark the anniversary last year, Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi toyed with organizing big protests but ultimately called them off as authorities made it clear that no dissent would be tolerated. This year, there has been even less room for protest. Both Mousavi and Karroubi are under house arrest. They and their wives have been held since February, without any charge or trial, after calling for protests in solidarity with the Arab Spring. The Coordination Council of the Green Path of Hope, the Green Movement’s decision-making body, invited Iranians to participate in a “silent march” through the heart of Tehran on Sunday. Thousands braved their way into the streets, walking quietly and wearing green scarves with their hands and faces painted green, some with photos of Mousavi pinned to their clothes. But far fewer than the million people the Green Movement had hoped for appeared. Still, the government took no chances. It lined the streets with security forces that in many spots seemed considerably to outnumber the silent marchers.
While critics contend that the Green Movement is effectively dead, Iran’s government doesn’t think so. It continues to arrest even peaceful protesters and deals harshly with any dissidents. In the past few weeks, two high-profile activists have died protesting the regime. Reza Hoda Saber, a dissident journalist and Green Movement activist, just died of a heart attack in Evin Prison in Tehran after a 10-day hunger strike. His strike was to protest the death of Haleh Sahabi, who died after a beating by security forces at the funeral of her father. Some have been calling Haleh the new “Neda,” after Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose tragic death at the height of the Green Movement demonstrations was captured on video and watched around the world.
Earlier this spring, I interviewed Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, who insisted that “Iran is like a fire under the ashes. Any wind can again blow the flames.” The biggest wind to rattle the region in decades has been blowing with the Arab Spring, but sadly that has not been sufficient to unleash the people protests necessary to bring down the brutal regime in Tehran. As the Arab Spring turns to fall in many places–the ongoing civil war in Libya, the bloody fighting in Syria, and the disintegration of Yemen–any chance of its reviving the Green Movement in Iran has long passed. Instead, Iran’s embattled protest movement will have to find a different energy.
As the Green Movement struggles to define itself, the coalition of hardliners running the government in Tehran is beset by infighting and growing economic challenges. A few months ago, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly bragged that “Iran is among the few countries in the world where no one goes to bed hungry.” He also claimed that he would eliminate unemployment within two years. He was roundly mocked at home for these patently empty statements. Young Iranians remain particularly frustrated, not only with a lack of personal freedoms, but also with their bleak economic prospects. No one can predict what will be the spark that sets off the flames of Iranian protest again, but it is likely to be fueled by a desire for both greater freedom and better economic opportunities.