Iran has witnessed a rare, if subdued, display of dissent just days before the June 14 presidential elections, evoking memories of the 2009 poll marred by violence and claims of fraud.
Crowds attending the funeral of a dissident cleric on June 4 – the same day Iran commemorates the death of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, chanted “anti-dictator” slogans.
The slogans were not new to journalist Delbar Tavakoli. She had heard them while covering – and even participating in – the series of anti-regime mass protests that erupted four years ago.
What is happening in Syria reminded people of the great dangers of taking foolish risks for political change - that is not to say the Syrian people are foolish - but it means that they have to be careful and calculate how to move forward.
But despite this recent expression of dissent, Tavakoli does not believe that brewing anger and frustration with the Iranian government will develop into a full-fledged movement, similar to the Green Movement that formed following the announcement of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as winner of the elections in June 2009.
Back then, Tavakoli and hundreds of thousands others chanted: “Where is my vote?” as they believed the voting was rigged. Protesters were met with a violent crackdown by security forces that led to dozens of deaths and hundreds of arrests.
Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, reformist contenders of Ahmadinejad in the poll and, later, the leaders of the Green Movement, remain under house arrest to this day.
Tavakoli fled the country out of fear of being arrested after she contacted BBC Persian to report the killing of the young protester Neda Agha Soltan, whose death was recorded by mobile phone and viewed by millions on YouTube, making her a figurehead of the unrest.
Even speaking to foreign media is cause for arrest in Iran.
“They arrested every person [associated] with the Green Movement, every journalist. Nobody is left,” Tavakoli, who now resides in the US, said.
“I do speak to some people in Iran now while being very careful. They are not [planning any action against the government] during this election,” she said. The risk of protesting became high and a repeat of the 2009 actions has become near impossible.
Ongoing, effective crackdowns
Since the unprecedented protests, “the regime learned its lesson”, Faraz Sanei of Human Rights Watch said. “The security situation has become so tight, especially as it gets closer to election time.”
“There are still a few opposition activities underground. Some newspapers are still printing. Some political parties are still speaking out against the government. But things have become so much more difficult.”
During 2010 and 2011, various groups have requested from the government permission to protest, but the interior ministry denied them permits and deemed all rallies that took place illegal. At best, reformists were only allowed “silent protests”– and even then, they were subject to mass arrests.
The government not only arrested demonstrators, but also used the 2009 elections as an excuse to go after reformists and members of opposition parties.
Many remain detained on various national security charges.
The protests that took place in the aftermath of the Green Movement rallies were small and the government was able to quickly squash them.
During last year’s parliamentary elections, some protests took place in the Arab-dominated province of Khuzestan. But these rallies were not believed to be pro-democracy protests associated with the Green Movement. Iranian Arabs, who believe they are marginalised by the Iranian government, have their own grievances.
The inability of the Green Movement’s supporters to galvanise the street may signal for some the death of the movement and the success of the Iranian regime in uprooting any form of significant dissent in the country.
But for Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, the Green Movement has only gotten more vigorous.
“What was behind it was a very large discontent and anger at the Iranian government for its corruption, incompetence, for lack of freedoms and repression,” he told Al Jazeera. “They manifested themselves in the Green Movement because [protesters] saw an opportunity through the elections.”
Parsi believes these factors that led to protests have only been accentuated. “While the Green Movement in that old shape is not necessarily as present, it doesn’t mean that what was behind it is gone. In fact it is stronger,” he said.
The future of Iran’s Green Wave
Four years on – and while the circumstances that brought Tavakoli, Aga Sultan and many others onto the streets persist – it remains questionable whether Iranians will view the upcoming election as a fresh opportunity to express themselves.
Although there is a reformist candidate running in the race, Mohammad-Reza Aref is seen as a long-shot going up against establishment candidates such as Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf and Saeed Jalili, both of whom have close ties to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as well as the powerul Revolutionary Guard.
Parsi believes that the reformers will try to change the direction of the country through elections. While acknowledging that most people in Iran do not have faith in this year’s poll, he argues that Iranians will opt for a “low risk” option.
You can only survive on intimidation, repression and censorship for so long. Eventually, in the face of a determined population, in this changing world, the days of these authoritarian regimes are numbered. And the Iranian regime knows this.
“What is happening in Syria reminded people of the great dangers of taking foolish risks for political change – that is not to say the Syrian people are foolish – but it means that they have to be careful and calculate how to move forward,” Parsi said.
He still did not rule out the possibility of Iranians surprising the regime and the rest of the world once more. After all, few people predicted the 2009 election would manifest itself in massive support for Mousavi.
“If you hear what people were saying three weeks before the elections, they said Mousavi is not charismatic, young people don’t know him and he’s not a strong leader.”
Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies and assistant professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at Denver University, also believes that the Green Movement would not be revived in the form of protests in the coming days.
“The movement is committed to nonviolent action and its strategy is that of patience and endurance. There are no quick fixes here. It’s going to be a long-term process.”
He believes that a window of opportunity for advocates of democratic change may only arise when Iran’s supreme leader passes away.
“Because power is so concentrated with him, his death would be a moment of crisis for the Iranian regime. I think that could be a moment for the Green Movement to assert itself, to come back into the street, [to] push for democratic change,” Hashimi said.
It may take a while for the supporters of reform to gain the upper hand in the country, Hashemi argues, but he maintains that time is still on their side.
The regime is facing a legitimacy crisis, Hashimi said, and this explains the length of time, and the amount of energy and money the Islamic Republic now invests in public censorship of the news, as well as arresting intellectuals and journalists.
“The regime is living on borrowed time,” said Hashemi.
“You can only survive on intimidation, repression and censorship for so long. Eventually, in the face of a determined population, in this changing world, the days of these authoritarian regimes are numbered. And the Iranian regime knows this.”
Follow Basma Atassi on Twitter: @Basma_