Today, several massive protests broke out in cities all over Iran in response to the supposed landslide victory of sitting president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Supporters of the former Prime Minister and vocal reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi have come out in tens of thousands, shouting for freedom and accusing their government of rigging the election.
Mousavi himself has contested the results, which put Ahmadinejad ahead with nearly 63% of the vote. Many of the pre-election polls projected that the race would be much tighter and the massive popular demonstrations seem to suggest a potential inequity in the Iranian democratic process. The Iranian people certainly seem to think so.
These protests are unprecedented in the brief history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Not since the revolution in 1979 have such large numbers of people come out to demonstrate so passionately, or for that matter so violently. Protesters have chased away police. In one case, demonstrators successfully defended a BBC film crew led by correspondent John Simpson that had already had their tapes confiscated by government authorities once that day. The Internet has been flooded with videos and images captured by Iranian citizens depicting the riots. Some are using inflammatory language, not only suggesting that Ahmadinejad's administration rigged the election, but that they are performing a silent coup on their government.
There are certainly some facts that call Ahmadinejad's victory into question. It is well known that supporters of Mir-Hossein Mousavi communicated heavily via text message, using the technology to spread the word about the pre-election demonstrations and to disseminate information about polling places. In the past two days, text messaging services in Iran have been completely out. Furthermore, many of the polling stations in the country's major cities closed with people still waiting to vote.
The current protests have reportedly developed spontaneously. There is no indication of any planned demonstrations or organized resistance. Rather, people are simply filling the streets. Some come out in large crowds of individuals, enduring anti-riot measures by police. Other demonstrations have consisted of protesters choking Iran's major roads with their parked cars.
The most shocking part of the protests is how vocal many of the demonstrators have been in their opposition of Iran's religious leaders. Many people feel that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has had his hand in this election, and indeed the entire presidential process for a long time. There is hardly anything more dangerous in Iran than to speak out against the religious leadership of the nation, so many people are literally risking their lives for free speech.
There is no indication when the protests will die down. Our own government, as is its usual policy, has not endorsed a candidate in Iran's election, though there has been some indication that US officials are concerned about the potential fraud behind Ahmadinejad's victory. Mousavi's rhetoric has been clearly in favor of improved relations with the West, especially compared to Ahmadinejad's controversial stances.
There is no clear path to this conflict's resolution. The Islamic Republic has never had to handle this amount of popular protest and there are certainly no likely legal measures to assess the allegations of election fraud. The protests may dissolve or they may intensify. One thing is for certain- the democratic process in Iran has undergone some significant changes at the individual level in recent years.