It’s not a Twitter revolution in Iran

June 26, 2009

reeseportrait1-150— Reese Erlich is a freelance foreign correspondent who covered the Iranian elections and is author of The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis (Polipoint Press) The views expressed are his own. —

Iran is not undergoing a Twitter Revolution. The term simultaneously mischaracterizes and trivializes the important mass movement developing in Iran.

Here’s how it all began. The Iranian government prohibited foreign reporters from traveling outside Tehran without special permission, and later confined them to their hotel rooms and offices. CNN and other cable networks were particularly desperate to find ways to show the large demonstrations and government repression. So they turned to Internet sites such as Facebook and Twitter in a frantic effort to get information. Since reporters were getting most of their information from Tweets and You Tube video clips, the notion of a “Twitter Revolution” was born.

We reporters love a catch phrase and, Twitter being all a flutter in the west, it seemed to fit. It’s a catchy phrase but highly misleading.

First of all the vast majority of Iranians have no access to Twitter. While reporting in Tehran, I personally didn’t encounter anyone who used it regularly. A relatively small number of young, economically well off Iranians do use Twitter. A larger number have access to the Internet. However, in the beginning, most demonstrations were organized through word of mouth, mobile phone calls and text messaging.

But somehow “Text Messaging Revolution” doesn’t have that modern, sexy ring, especially if you have to type it with your thumbs on a tiny keyboard.

More importantly, by focusing on the latest in Internet communications, cable TV networks intentionally or unintentionally characterize a genuine mass movement as something supported mainly by the Twittering classes.

I witnessed tens of thousands of mostly young people coming out into the streets in spontaneous campaign rallies in the days leading up to the election – most of whom had never heard of Twitter.

They shared a common joy not only campaigning for reformist Mirhossein Mousavi, but in being able to freely express themselves for the first time in many years. When the government announced an overwhelming victory for hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad only two hours after the polls closed, people became furious.

Over the next few days, hundreds of thousands of Iranians poured into the streets in Tehran and cities around the country. They organized silent marches through word of mouth and phone calls since the government had shut down text messaging just prior to the election. Contrary to popular perception, these gatherings included women in chadors, workers and clerics – not just the Twittering classes. Spontaneous marches took place in south Tehran, a decidedly poorer section of town and supposedly a stronghold for Ahmadinejad.

Iranians initially protested what they perceived as massive vote fraud, but that quickly evolved as the protests grew in size and breadth. In the week after the June 14 election, millions of Iranians vented 30 years of pent up anger at a repressive system.

Iranian youth particularly resented President Ahmadinejad’s support for religious militia attacks on unmarried young men and women walking together and against women not covering enough hair with their hijab. Workers resented the 24 percent annual inflation that robbed them of real wage increases. Independent trade unionists had been fighting for decent wages and for the right to organize.

Some demonstrators wanted a more moderate Islamic government. Others advocated a separation of mosque and state, and a return to parliamentary democracy. They are well aware that when Iran had a genuine parliamentary system under Prime Minister Mossadegh, the CIA overthrew it in 1953 in order to promote the Shah as dictator. I didn’t meet any Iranians calling for U.S. intervention; that’s strictly a debate inside the Washington beltway.

Some Iranian friends have asked me why Supreme Leader Sayyed Ali Khamenei would throw his support behind Ahmadinejad when his presidency was so clearly damaging the country at home and abroad. Initially, Khamenei supported the president because they share common ideological and political positions. Later, the top clerical leaders saw the mass movement that coalesced around Mousavi’s campaign as a direct threat to government stability and their future rule.

Since June 21, the top clerics, military and intelligence services have mobilized their entire apparatus to crush the movement for social and economic change.

The mass movement that sprang forth in the past few weeks has been 30 years in coming. It’s not a Twitter Revolution, nor even a “velvet revolution” like those in Eastern Europe.

It’s a genuine Iranian mass movement made up of students, workers, women, and middle class folks. It may not be strong enough to topple the system today but is sowing the seeds for future struggles.


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Thank you so much for such a balanced and reasonable article. These last few days, was sickening to watch, listen and read tabloid like news regarding situation in Iran. Everything was made so sensationalized that it made hard to distinguish true from made up stories.
One big example is after soccer players appeared with green wrist band, news was spread they were suspended but yesterday the coach Mr.Ghotbi in an interview with New York Times denied that. He did not have to make that comment.
I participated in the demonstrations in 1979. We did not have no cell phone, email, texting, twitter and facebook but in matter of minutes people used to gather in different areas of city. If certain groups stop interfering may be there would be a hope that people will be more mobilized rather than creating a chaotic situation which ends up in hardliners behalf.

Posted by Sepide | Report as abusive

In a way the oil curse has been making it difficult for the middle class and the rest of the mass movement Mr. Erlich talks about to assert themselves in Iran. The populist government can finance its army of club-wielders with oil revenues at the expense of this movement. The talents of the educated class are trumped by the government’s access to cheap goons paid for by windfall oil revenues.
The rulers waste the oil revenues on maintaining their power. This is an inefficient way to run a country, but it works for them – up to now. When the price of oil dips below a certain level, the government cannot cover its expenses. The middle class and the others seeking freedom can hope that Iran does not maintain windfall oil revenue so that they can reassert themselves.

Posted by blmarquis | Report as abusive

I am Iranian.It is best and the most realistic political analyze about current situation about Iran

Posted by MORTEZA | Report as abusive

at last I read something realistic about what is happening in my city, Tehran. you need to know that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad also share economical interests as well.

Posted by Maaah | Report as abusive

In general I agree with author. I am Iranian living in Iran. Voted for Mousavi not because I particularly loved him, but more to make a change by removing current president. I was not very optimistic initially, not even after witnessing unprecedented Green Waves across modern cities like Tehran. But I knew voting would eventually bring good for Iran, no matter what would be the immediate outcome (which was not to my big surprise though). Rigged or not, it was not realistic to assume current rulers would leave power only due to a votes of people like me. Their version of democracy doesn’t consider equal right for all citizens. Those who oppose them are marked as deceived or ignorant who could not distinguish between their own good and bad. In order to make a real change, we need company of masses, not just intellectuals. What we do not need is foreign intervention. For the time being, a majority of these masses are better off with current rulers, as they are being paid in cash to live their lives. Sooner and not later, government would not be able to take a good care of them, due to economical facts on the ground. Fortunately or not, they have based their rule on paying the poor and buying their support, if not silence, but this is a double edge sword. When oil was $100+ they could afford such a strategy which brings fantastic short term results, but from later 2009, money reserves would not allow such generous policies, and I would like to see how they would justify inevitable changes in policies towards their present supporters. Inflation would rise, unemployment will soar, and we would face economically based chaos which is likely to be more violent and less civilized due its nature. It would be art of today’s protestors to prove to then rioters, that such an economy collapse was a natural result of present ruler’s policies, and hopefully would be able to guide those masses to less destructive moves towards a better future. Iran doesn’t need another revolution. We need a consistent and calm reform. What happened today was a basic prerequisite of tomorrow’s events.

Posted by Let’s not reveal | Report as abusive

What happened in Iran is beyond comprehension but this has happened from the times past that either theology or autocracy can and will prevent any change in the society as there are more things at stake like power, greed and remaining in the past.
Church did it in medieval times with the ignorance of rulers and masses. Russia did it with cheka, Germany with SIS and Saddam Hussain with elite guards, even US with its extrapolation of census information on Japanese so on and so on.

Now Iran is doing with spiritual leader, Police, Basij, Elite guards and of course A-JAD supporters who are thugs anyway.

Has the world changed enough to preserve human freedom, morality, expression and movement. I do not think so this will go on till there is fundamental change in thinking of all human on humanity level rather than colour, class, race, religion or ideology.

Posted by VJ | Report as abusive

May be it isn’t exactly a ‘Twitter Revolution\'; however, what is so significant about this is that the very few ‘privileged’ Iranians are using such Western social-networking websites to round-up support from the Western World to criticise the current Iranian ‘regime’. Such outside support is desperately needed at the moment for the ‘revolutionaries’ to perhaps persuade people like the Revolutionary Guards; this is the only option that the anti-Iranian govt. have as they are much weaker than the govt.

Posted by Jinjae Park | Report as abusive

To the best of my knowledge, nobody has proved that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not receive a solid majority (although possibly it does not amount to 63%). If this is the case, then Mr. Mousavi’s demand to annul the results of the elections is hardly democratic and certainly illegal.

Posted by aleksey | Report as abusive

After weeks of reading news about how great Twitter and the other news bulletin board sites are, I find Reese Erlich’s informed observations refreshing. It’s difficult having to depend on secondary sources for one’s information, secondary being reporters. They seem to move like cattle, focusing on certain aspects of a story, ignoring others until suddenly what seemed likely to be true becomes a eureka moment when proven true. The point about text messaging has been obvious to me for a long time. But after having observed the hype during the dot com boom, I expect just about everything that comes out of the tech world to be over-hyped, whether from large or small companies and technologies. Put it down to sales forces.

Patience is a virtue in Iran, but time is really not what we in the West have because they are apparently quickly working toward the bomb. The clerics and the military establishment have vested interests that they won’t let the people get in the way of, which explains why they ripped the carpet out from under the people’s feet so quickly.

Posted by Bill | Report as abusive

Bimarquis, revenues of powerful corporate interests in the U.S. funnel billions of dollars through campaign contributions, lobbyists and false informational campaigns. All of this is done to establish and protect monopolies adn direct public(corporate) policy. This scenario has worked for American oligarchs up until now.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

Thanks to Mr Erlich for vital and rare inside reporting–this is why I go to Reuters for my news, not CNN.

Reading between the lines of the comments is interesting. Aleksey effectively says that even if the vote was rigged, questioning the results is undemocratic and illegal. I hope I misunderstood.

Twitter helps us all communicate real time, exchanging links and bringing attention to websites we wouldn’t have known about just by googling. It also gives users the perception that they are somehow involved, that our voices count.

This ability to express ourselves doesn’t help Iran now, but it helps us feel kindred to Iranians, and that sentiment will help future relationships between the peoples.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

I wonder why nobody asked the question why Obama administration requested Twitter not to be shut up during those demonstrations. Sure, a lot of Iranians were fed up with government. But who does not – ask yourself regardless of which country you live in ? And the way all those Orange, Velvet, Twitter revolutions spring up when they are needed – that raise a question of who influence and bankroll them. So when British foreign minister says that they are not involved – I frankly do not believe him. I may not believe in 64% victory of Ahmadinejad – but that another story. From my prospective it is just fight for power between two groups in Iranian government, no more, no less.

Posted by Alex | Report as abusive

Interestingly, 80% of the population went out to vote in Iran and the majority selected and voted for Ahmedenijad. That is an 11 million voters difference. Can someone please explain how 11 million votes was rigged ? If that was the case then the demonstrators should have been much much larger in number than what we saw. Since the west, as has always been the case, supports prowestern ideology (sometimes very anti-Islamic) I am not surprised the western powers are fuelling the fire by supporting the minority demonstrators who long to have the Shah of Iran back and also the western exploiters back in their country.
Iran has no room for the Mujahideen Khalq Organization since they are terrorists and if they were given any power, the past few weeks would have been much worse since the MKO have no problems using explosives to blow up innocent people. Like in Iraq, the western blood suckers would love to have part of that Iranian oil and gas. Immorality and Indecency plagues the West. All we have to do is look at the economic crisis created by the west. And the greed of those who stole billions of dollars via fraudulent ponzi schemes, and suckering up the naive brainwashed people into mortgages and credit card debts they could not pay. The west, we have our own problems but still we want a hand in Iranian affairs we will never learn from what we have created in Iraq, Afghanistan and now are creating in Pakistan..we still want more and hope to do it in Iran.

Posted by Maurice | Report as abusive

you ignore the massive political pressure of milions and millions of people seeing images that were tweeted that gave rise to pressure and movement to the politicians that will threaten shutting Iran off…and giving many internal leaders of the revolt the understanding that they have power outside those walls.

In real time tweets from a mass public. Bottom line – you are mostly wrong. Calling it a twitter revolution isn’t about the way they are internally communicating…as it is how they are able to communicate outside …which they inherently need with a regime such as this…and to say otherwise is to think Iranian people, the government and this revolution occurred in a 1300’s bubble.

Posted by dl | Report as abusive

The term “Islamic Republic” is an oxymoron. The simple fact is, all true reform candidates in Iran are “screened”, their names are not allowed to be placed on any ballot. So the Iranian people are forced to choose between repressive theocracy and repressive theocracy, and it doesn’t matter who is “elected” to sit in the president’s chair.

Posted by JGriffin | Report as abusive

I agree with the author to some extent although one very important piece of information is being left out. The real battle in Iran right now is between Khamenei and Ali Rafsanjani. Granted th people are frusterated and showing the frusteraion of the repressive regime, but there neds to be better coverage on the real reason of the conflict and that is the disagreement between the top two clerics. Without Rafsanjani mr. Mousavi would have been exposed of long ago. We all have seen the heavy hand of the rulers and crushing any opposition. I am very interested to know what is going on in the backgrounds where the real revolution is taking place. I have read that Rafsanjani has been lobbying the top clerics to remove power from a single supreme leader and have a council of three or more members. There seems to be a divide between the clerics. This will be the first step in reducing the power of the clerics and eventually seperating state from religion

Posted by Jian | Report as abusive

Reese, thank you for correcting us. It’s not a twitter revolution because you didn’t encounter anyone using twitter. we got it now. thanks a lot. good job on the reporting.

Posted by dev | Report as abusive

Thank you sir, that was really a balanced article, a good analysis better than many others. I assume it as an article from inside view.
But please note that it is not necessary for everybody to be familiar with twitter, in a closed society like iran when you don’t have access to real media its enough that just some of your friends or family member acquire or share news or events by twitter, facebook or youtube, the rest will done outside cyberspace. That was what was performing before internet freeze. Let’s assume it started in that environment and spreaded outside. At this moment rarely IT professionals may have illegal temorarey limited access to one of the mentioned sites even to CNN, BBC, Reuters . . . but story continues.

Posted by Mohammad Diba | Report as abusive

I read the article and must say it was so realistic…but I want to say something in response to last comment from aleskey, I dont know if you are Iranian or no, but let me just bright up something for who still think Ahmadinejad has the majority of votes…some of my relatives live in rural areas and they even don’t have access to internet to get news and see whats going on on the streets,they have friends and you can follow up this link to reach a big crowd as well…they dont believe in what Ahmadinejad is saying and they all are 100% sure this election was rigged…if they can’t prove it,they don’t have media to shout this…they dont have power to stand against bullet!
what they could do so far was just recording what is happening in town with their cellphones and send it through filtered websites… what else can these people do to convince this is not TRUE?

Posted by nikta | Report as abusive

Thanks for the article. I’m looking for the truth here and it’s not clear as glass. Your article offers insights.

Posted by John | Report as abusive

Good report, although your characterization of an all-powerful CIA overthrowing goverments seems a bit naive. The CIA may have played a role, but the revolt was driven by the Shah and Iranians, not the USA. Let’s hope this time around another charismatic leader doesn’t arise to become yet another in a string of dictators.

Posted by Son of a Beach | Report as abusive

History, will never forget the great people of Iran and the day they lit a great torch of freedom. You cast a brilliant light on the world. You are brothers and sisters of all free people.

Posted by Allen | Report as abusive

Fraud in election is not a new phenomenon in Iran.Being an Iranian who lives in Iran I strongly believe that even Mr Ahamadi Nejad’s first round victory was fraudulence. At that time he was known as an inert mayor in Tehran, a corrupt governor in Ardabil and unknown elsewhere but no body cared of this fraud because they were frustrated and disappointed. This time the difference is that people came in to try for a change they find a glimpse of hope to change in this election. They have suffered much in every sense of their life in these four years. They came in for change and such an obvious fraud made them unable to tolerate or ignore any more.

Posted by ak | Report as abusive

I think all of the peaceful protesters had their reasons. The Iranian youth, who are bright, well educated pople want to live in a different country than the repressive one they are now living in. They are wanting change. They wanting someone who is not a hardliner and is capable of working with the rest of the world on such topics as peace, prosperity, and freedom. I do believe at some point, the people will have what they are wanting: to live in peace, not tyranny.

Posted by jtz | Report as abusive

Thank You for your article, there are too few answers.

While some look backward into history, history is being written on the streets of Teheran and in the secret conversations of clerics and enforcers across Iran TODAY!

Despite threats of execution by radical mullahs an estimated 5000 Iranians joined in orderly peaceful protest through Teheran to an area near Qoba Mosque in a show of solidarity and to honor Mohammed Behesthi, a cleric killed in a bombing 28 years ago. Mousavi had called on his supporters to participate and he made a “drive-by” appearance to the crowd but did not address them. This demonstration was the first in a number of days and reports filtering out have been scarce due to heavy electronic jamming. Meanwhile hackers are coming to the aid of the Iranian protesters by attacking websites of the regime and setting up secure networks by hosting proxies outside the nation.

While western governments (and some news outlets) are mostly supporting with words, musician and bandleader Jon Bon Jovi along with Iranian Superstar Andy Madadian went into an LA recording with Richie Sambora to record “Stand By Me” as a musical message of global solidarity in both English and Farsi. This classic American tune will likely become a theme song of besieged Iranian people writing history on hearts. S8
– Pray for Peace – hs

Posted by Folklight | Report as abusive

The rape of the Green Revolution by Khamenei and Ahmadinejad is repulsive, simply repulsive like stomping on the flower bed. It is not only repulsive to those who were brutalized on the Iranian streets but also to certain theologians in Qom who upheld the democratic elements of the Iranian Islamic Revolution. It is yet to be seen how the street reacts in southern Lebanon, in Gaza and in Basra. The Iranian Islamic Revolution is mutating in these days into a police state financed by oil money.

This reminds one of 1930s fascism, and it is an anachronism. One cannot say it is fanatical Islam, because the honorable Islamic scholars of Qom are also being victimized. Khamenie can do this as long as he has the money, but the fact that he is crushing Islamic democracy is coming out through all forms of the media. Iranian fascism replaces the Islamic Revolution. Who in the Middle East is going to follow that?

Posted by blmarquis | Report as abusive

Dear Mr. Erlich,

Somehow I have the idea that you never have been in Iran.
First of all, what you describe as this would be a middle class revolution, you could not be more far from the truth.
This revolution is shared from the pour to the ritch, from the workers to the highbrow intellectuals. As a documentary filmmaker from The Netherlands I vistited Iran many times during the past years.I can tell you that this revolution is supported by almost every artist, author, composer,conductor, painter, you can name them all.
Next to them is the women fighting for the freedom of there freedom. Next to that is everybody fighting for freedom and a better living. In Iran the people would love to see the church would be separated from the state.
And where did you learn that this election was honest?
Why are all these people on the streets than?
The last thing, in a country where television, internet, mobile cellworks are under the control of the regime a few things are still working. Yes and that is twitter. Maybe not everybody has an i-phone. But one thing is for sure; the most modern way of news-gathering in Iran is done thrue twitter. Updated every 5 seconds as if it allmost is “live-tv”. But to have this updates you must have the twitter-contacts. And I know for sure you don’t have them.

Mr. Erlich, please stop writing about a world you dont know, and never have been close to. You only make matters worse.

With kindly regards,
Harold Jalving

Posted by Harold Jalving | Report as abusive

Harold, can you read? Mr. Erlich never claimed that the election was just a middle class election. In fact, in paragraph 8, he says just the OPPOSITE. Likewise, he mentions the women in the last paragraph. Nor did he ever say the election was or wasn’t honest.

Seriously, before you try and be smart and insult a Reuters columnist– who writes about this stuff for a living– at least give them the dignity of reading thier article first.

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