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Iran in 2009: A year of social upheaval and international defiance

A disputed presidential election, months of unrest and violent protest, and a continuing face-off with the West over its nuclear plans: Iran faced a year of upheaval in 2009. DW-WORLD reviews the most important events.

President Ahmadinejad and a missile.

Iran's election and nuclear ambitions dominated 2009

It was fitting that one of the most tumultuous years in the history of modern Iran coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Three decades on from the uprising that brought down the monarchy and replaced it with an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iranians were again out on the streets demanding change. This time however, there was no overthrow and the potential for a second revolution was crushed under the batons of the authorities.

Iran began 2009 much like it had started the majority of the years since the ayatollahs took charge in 1979 - as a foe of the United States. Despite the prospect of a more liberal president in the White House, Iran was still a concern for the US due to its continued reluctance to yield to international pressure over its nuclear program.

But in March, President Barack Obama reached out to Iran, saying that his new administration was committed to pursuing "constructive ties" with the Islamic republic and stressed that "the United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations."

Obama's olive branch

Obama in front of an Iranian flag

Obama reached out to Iran and offered a diplomatic route

Tehran welcomed the olive branch but President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad urged Obama to back his words with concrete action to repair past mistakes. "If Obama shows willingness to take action, the Iranian government will not show its back to him," a statement from Tehran said.

"Obama's speech was initially portrayed as a victory for Ahmadinejad," Dr. Henning Riecke from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) told Deutsche Welle. "It was presented as a result of Iran's tough position; that the US had been forced into concessions and that US policy toward Iran had failed. So Ahmadinejad's supporters embraced this. It was also welcomed by the young political elite who want more open dialogue with the US and want positive relations. So, for different reasons, it was widely well-received."

It was a ray of light in what had been a dark history between the two countries for many years. However, the events of June 2009 would extinguish that light and return the United States and Iran to a relationship based on suspicion and distrust.

The Iranian presidential elections in June pitted four candidates against each other: President Ahmadinejad, Mehdi Karroubi, Mohsen Rezaei and former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi. But as unprecedented numbers of voters went to the polls it became clear that it would be a two-man race between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in what was shaping up to be no ordinary election.

Disputed election leads to protests

As the votes were counted, Iran became increasingly split between those who wanted Ahmadinejad, the fiery hard-liner who had castigated the West and denied the Holocaust, and those calling for change under the reformist Mousavi, a champion of dialogue with the West, more freedoms for Iranians and a greater role for women in the country. With the incumbent's supporters quietly confident behind the doors of power, Mousavi's took to the streets in huge numbers as they had done in the weeks leading up to the vote.

Protesters burn a car and attack a building of a pro-government militia base near a rally supporting leading opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in Tehran, Iran, Monday, June 15, 2009.

Supporters of Hossein Mousavi protested the disputed election result in Tehran for nearly two months

When the Islamic Republic's election commission announced that Ahmadinejad had won more than 63 percent of votes against 34.7 percent for Mousavi, the reformists cried foul play and set in motion nearly two months of protest rallies against the government.

The green-clad supporters of Mousavi filled the streets of Tehran, often clashing with security forces which soon came under orders to suppress demonstrations by any means necessary. The world watched as the opposition fought to overturn what they believed to be a rigged election, secretly relaying news of their protests to the outside world via the internet.

"The 2009 presidential elections were not unprecedented in terms of the suspicion over the result," Dr. Walter Posch, senior researcher at the Institute for Peace Support and Conflict Management in Vienna told Deutsche Welle. "There were similar claims in 2005 but there was not so much opposition then. This time, the people thought that the government had gone too far, that they had been too blunt and aggressive. It was clear that the regime’s image was badly affected by the election."

Eventually, the opposition was forced from the streets. At least 20 protesters had been killed and more than 1,000 arrested.

"It's hard to say what long-term effect the protests and the opposition will have on the structure of Iran," said Henning Riecke. "There is an established elite of loyalists still in positions of power but perhaps if the core nucleus of the opposition continues to question the government and call for change, and if there are persistant protests, there may be a chance of reform."

Read more about the impasse between Iran and the West

West caught between a rock and hard place

While the opposition received muted support from the US and a number of European countries, Riecke believes that the West's response was nowhere as harsh as it could have been, for reasons concerning the bigger picture.

Merkel and Obama with Iran Flag

Western powers failed to act strongly after the election

"Most Westerners didn't cry foul in the wake of the election. They knew that there had to be a government in power, however legitimate, which they could deal with because of the many regional and international issues that Iran was central to; Iraq, Afghanistan, the wider Middle East," Riecke said. "They couldn't accuse and attack the government one minute and expect to negotiate with it the next."

Without a strong rebuke or action from the West, Ahmadinejad was soon resorting to type. The olive branch offered by President Obama in March was soon cast aside by the Iranian president once he was sworn in for his second term. Ahmadinejad accused the West and the United States in particular for fomenting the unrest and supporting the opposition demonstrators against him. The hand which had been offered by the US was bitten hard. As a result, the wounded hand was withdrawn.

Ahmadinejad's rejection increases nuclear pressure

Dr. Posch believes that the claim was made in the spirit of returning relations with the West to its default setting of suspicion rather than to rally the people behind the newly re-elected president.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gestures to thousands of supporters

Ahmadinejad's reelection was not well received in the West

"Ahmadinejad's claim that the West was responsible for the unrest did more damage to the relations with the West than it caused a rise in support within Iran," Posch said. "The people of Iran have become more sophisticated in their understanding and didn't really believe this so in a way it was just an antagonizing piece of rhetoric."

The knock-on effect from the disputed presidential elections was painfully evident in the relations between the West and Iran in the wake of the events of the summer. Many international leaders refused to congratulate Ahmadinejad or recognize his new government. The European Union and the United States retreated from their earlier stances of engagement and prepared their punishments.

Emboldened Iranian president squares up to opponents

A Fateh missile is launched in front of an Iranian flag.

The West believes Iran is seeking to develop the bomb

Events and relations took a turn for the worst in September when Ahmadinejad once again called the Holocaust "a lie" and said that Israel "has no future. Its life has come to an end." A week later, Tehran tested two long-range missiles with a range of up to 2,000 kilometers, which defense analysts have said could hit Israel and US bases in the Persian Gulf.

The missile tests came just days before the 5+1 powers - the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany - were due to meet to discuss imposing further sanctions on Iran in a bid to halt the progress of its nuclear program.

Despite strong support for new sanctions from the US, Iran was saved from further action by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which brokered a deal under which Iran would send most of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) as of October to Russia and then France for conversion into fuel for a Tehran research reactor.

Return to default position of suspicion and distrust

Iran, which pledged to adhere to the IAEA deal while winning itself a reprieve from further sanctions, has of December yet to give any indication that it will keep to its side of the bargain. Tehran has effectively rejected the deal while not formally stating so.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Ahmadinejad is under pressure both home and abroad

"On the nuclear issue, Ahmadinejad is desperate for any victory right now to legitimize himself at home which is why the Iranians agreed to the Geneva deal in October," said Dr. Posch. "However, there are people close to the Supreme Leader who are against taking enrichment out of the country and so this is why the Iranians are now stalling on the deal."

Henning Riecke also believes that Iran's stance on the nuclear issue may have be the result of domestic influence rather than the vision of Ahmadinejad alone.

"Ahmadinejad is in a difficult position," he said. "He would like to have a stable relationship with the US so he could concentrate on domestic issues where a lot of his problems lie. But behind the scenes there are rumors of a power struggle. There are some people who want Ahmadinejad to present a harder line and who have accused him of treason for agreeing the Geneva deal. What comes out of this struggle will determine Iran's future."

Western powers have recently stressed they will not wait indefinitely for Tehran to follow through on the IAEA deal, suggesting that 2010 will begin in much the same way as 2009 - with Iran at odds with the international community and with expanded sanctions hanging over its head.

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge

Pages 1 | 2 | Full article

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