Things were different 40 years ago: at the time, 98 percent of Iranians had, through a referendum, agreed to the future reform of the state and declaration of an Islamic republic. Even if this number was “surely wrong,” German diplomats at the time reported that there was no doubt about the overwhelming support for Khomeini as the leader of the revolution and the country.
In this manner, he was able to implement the system of “guardianship or governance of the Islamic jurist,” as the core element of Iran’s constitution against the competing ideas of moderate and leftist forces. This was possible because of Khomeini’s popularity, but very soon, the “proven” methods of suppressing the free press and outfits like the Hezbollah (the group of god) started rearing their heads.
After the heavy losses following the war with Iraq (1980-1988), the “system” (Nezam in Persian, based on conservative clerics and revolutionary guards) was able to consolidate its power. Nevertheless, there were phases when reform-oriented and liberal currents could assert themselves, but without resulting in any sustainable changes.
Phases of opening
This phase is linked with Mohammed Khatami, who won the presidential elections in 1997 with his reform agenda, including cultural freedoms, rights for women and minorities. But the system reacted immediately. Student protests against the closure of a newspaper in summer 1999 were brutally repressed, but carried on nevertheless, leading to the arrest of hundreds of students, (unexecuted) death penalties and forced confessions about cooperating with foreign powers. The press was massively restricted, liberal intellectuals were arrested, including the future Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi.
The second big upturn for democratic forces manifested itself in protests against the apparently falsified presidential elections of July 12, 2009. The ruling clique was determined to enforce the reelection of then President Mahmud Ahmedinejad against the looming victory of the opposition candidate, Hossein Mussawi. After the announcement of the results — declaring an unbelievable 63 percent of the votes for the incumbent — hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest. The demonstrations of this “green movement” took place sporadically until November of the following year, before they were totally quelled by the security apparatus, including the revolutionary guards — loyal allies of those who profited from the system.