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Why Iran Is Different

A protester holds stones as he faces off against security forces in Tehran in December 2009
A protester holds stones as he faces off against security forces in Tehran in December 2009
By Robert Tait
On first glance, it looks like an archetypal no-brainer; a large Middle Eastern country with a repressive regime and a simmering, angry protest movement.

Twice in the past fortnight, that movement -- encouraged by events in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere -- has come out of hibernation to stage its first demonstrations in a year, albeit only to be met by crushing crackdowns.

Yet surely it's only a matter of time before Iran is afflicted by the wave of revolt that has shaken the Arab world.

Closer inspection, however, suggests the assumption may be wishful thinking on the part of the Islamic republic's adversaries.

Indeed, rather than awaiting its turn to be overthrown, Iran's theocratic regime may already have proven itself stronger than many of its Arab counterparts when it successfully snuffed out the mass protests over President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's bitterly disputed reelection in 2009.

Far from showing signs of panic, the Iranian authorities have publicly hailed the Arab rebellions as a vindication of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought them to power. Ahmadinejad gave voice to this confidence on February 23 when he condemned the brutal attempts of the Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi, to suppress the rebellion against his rule and called on leaders in other Arab states to listen to their people.

"I seriously want all heads of states to pay attention to their people and cooperate, to sit down and talk, and listen to their words. Why do they act so badly that their people need to put pressure on for reforms?" he told a news conference in Tehran.

Opponents will dismiss the Iranian president's words as bravado laced with hypocrisy. The regime, after all, used fearsome violence to put down the 2009 postelection unrest and has intimidated the opposition with mass arrests, show trials, and lengthy jail sentences. Yet despite the existence of widespread opposition, the current Islamic system appears secure, raising the question of why the Green Movement -- led by failed presidential candidates Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi -- failed while mass Arab protests are succeeding.

Michael Axworthy, director of Persian and Iranian Studies at Exeter University in England, says the answer lies in Iran's revolutionary heritage bequeathing it a stronger state than its Arab neighbors.

"There's a quotation from [Albert] Camus where he says: 'All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the state,'" Axworthy says.

"I think the regime in Iran is quite strong. It's quite practiced in repression and it's used to dealing with opposition and securing its position through repression. It's very difficult to say which proportion of the population is on which side but there's a significant minority at least who do actually support the regime and who do support Ahmadinejad. So it's not simply a question of the people against the government, which it has been in many of the places where we've seen governments fall over the last few weeks."

A Ruthless Opponent

The result, says Ali Ansari, professor of Iranian studies at St Andrews University in Scotland, is that Iran's opposition will be unable to achieve the same rapid transition attained by demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt.

"The opponent they're facing is a good deal more ruthless and much more embedded," Ansari argues.
Karrubi: 'part of the system'


"I don't think that we should get carried away with the notion that what you are going to see in Iran is a rapid collapse because the people in power know that they can't afford to lose, on pain of death almost. They know they are in a very besieged and beleaguered position. That is going to make them want to fight all the harder to stay in place. This sort of peaceful transition -- I think many people in Iran would like to see that. I think it will be difficult to manage that. It will be a slow burner. People have said that it may have been a sprint in the Arab world. It's going to be a marathon in Iran."

A further source of regime strength, analysts say, is Iran's alienation from the West -- allowing figures such as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, to ignore Western criticism over human rights abuses.

At the same, the system is gaining sustenance from an revolutionary religious ideology fervently believed in by a section of the population and members of the security forces, such as the volunteer Basij and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow and Iran analyst at the Brookings Institution, has pointed out that Ahmadinejad's recent replacement of state subsidies with cash handouts could ease Iranians' economic grievances while stabilizing Iran's economy over the long term.

"If Iran is able to make this transition successfully, and eliminate some of the very costly subsidies that have been a drag on the economy, it would have a very powerful effect on the economy and on the political stability of the regime," she said in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations website.

Further complicating prospects for change is the continued loyalty of Musavi and Karrubi to the Islamic system, despite apparently being put under house arrest after calling the protest that was staged by their supporters on February 14. That, says Axworthy, keeps alive slim hopes that a compromise can be reached between regime hardliners and the pro-reformist Green Movement.

"I think it is possible, [although] it's on the outward margin of the possible," Axworthy says.

"I say that largely on the previous behavior of the main actors on the hard-line side, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. However, what you don't have, at least yet, in Iran is the kind of mass bloodshed that creates an impossible barrier and makes any reconciliation impossible. The leaders of the Green Movement are part of the system -- Musavi a former prime minister, Karrubi having been important within the system as well, and many other supporters like [former President Mohammad] Khatami having been holders of high office."

Yet none of this eliminates the possibility that sudden political change might yet come to Iran. The concerns of the opposition -- such as lack of basic freedoms, economic woes -- are similar to those that have animated the Arab world. Additionally, Ansari notes, the Islamic system is beset by "a profound religious crisis" that has seen senior clerics reject Khamenei's vision of a "religious quasi-monarchy" and left many devout Iranians alienated by the government's behavior.

The regime's preoccupation with survival, says Mehrdad Khonsari, senior research consultant at the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London, has left it with little political capital among the population at large and scant support outside its natural constituency.

"Irrespective of how helpless the Iranian people may seem in trying to acquire what they ultimately want, it is impossible for the regime to ever regain the confidence, trust and popularity amongst the general population," Khonsari insists.

"It's a dying battle for them. It's just a matter of time and I think that once they realize that no matter how much violence they resort to, nothing is going to make a difference, they just like other dictatorships in other parts of the world which have ultimately succumbed to the will of the people will have no alternative but to let go."
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by: Mark from: Toronto
February 24, 2011 18:49
No matter how much one hates the Islamic government in Iran, the reality is that it has a genuine support of a large portion of its population, plus it is no puppet of any foreign power (rightly acknowledged by the reset column in the Herald Tribune) which makes it immune to foreign (read Western neo-colonial pressure). As a person who lived in Iran I can tell you that the regime there is much more open minded and flexible than most of those whom Washington and EU call strategic allies.

Try to understand Iran and not simply hate it.
In Response

by: cyrus
February 25, 2011 10:01
thanks for your understanding
only iranian who have not lived in iran and been outside iran more then 20 years think iran is a hell. iran is not a paradise but it is much better then some people want the world to believe

by: Irani from: Canada
February 24, 2011 18:53
It is the fear of savagery of the Islamic regime that has kept them in power, rape, torture, forced confession and, execution are the Islamic regime’s strength, their popularity is limited to the revolutionary guards and basijies and their families who are directly befieting from the regime, despite of more that 30 years of brain wash the belief in Islam is not as strong as it used to be. They will survive as long as the fear remains.

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
February 24, 2011 20:56
Guys, the oil price is already at about US $ 115/barril after what happened in Libya. Do you want something similar in Iran and the oil price of US $ 200?

by: Jess from: United States
February 24, 2011 21:00
What I find odd is that many of the problems that Iran is facing are actually the creation of the a pro west anti-Iran faction in the world. If Iran were not being sanctioned for it nuclear rights, many of the economic problems that plague Iran would not exist. I noticed that the protesters in Iran were silent when the United Nations led by the United States and Israel sanctioned Iran for it's nuclear program. And again the Islamic Republic of Iran has a right to manufacture it's own nuclear fuel. And considering the precedence of George H. W. Bush threatening to use nuclear weapons on Saddam Hussein if Saddam used chemical weapons during the first gulf war, it can be argued that by being the victim of several chemical weapons attacks as well as a veto of sanctions against Saddam Hussein in 1988 by the United States of America that Iran also has the right to develope nuclear weapons also. And considering that everytime that Iran has asked for assistance for it's nuclear program, considering the billions of dollars that France owes Iran for nuclear material that are the results of the French and Iranian joint nuclear adventure during the 70s, it can be argued that the sanctions are illegal. Thus the question to ask for Iraninan opposition is why they have not taken to the streets to protest the illegal sanctions imposed on them by the world powers that affect the economy and the economic prosperity of Iran. I argue that were Musavi to have won the elections (which he didn't - because the polls in the days before the election showed that he would lose) that the Western intelligence agencies would have assasinated him because Musavi would not have kneeled down to the demands of the United States to stop it's nuclear program. Thus with Musavi killed, the oligarts that the United States support would take over by blaming the Mullahs. I also wonder if these opponents of the Iranian government would like a weak Iran that kneels to the demands of the United States as opposed to a Iran that stands up to the bullying of the United States and Israel. The Santions against the Islamic Republic of Iran are illegal and it is those very sanctions that affect the prosperity of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Those protesters should be out there protesting the sanctions because the sanctions are illegal.

by: hass from: NYC
February 25, 2011 00:08
Instead of falsely comparing Iran to Egypt, and claiming that the only reason the so-called "Green movement" has not succeeded in Iran is due to the "repression" by the mullahs, why not come to terms with a fundamental fact: Iranians mostly support their government, and did in fact vote for Ahmadinejad. Thus, Iran is simply not comparable to Egypt.
In Response

by: Ali from: Yazd
February 25, 2011 07:34
Great and honest answer, but too hard for neo-cons to admit!
In Response

by: SAT from: Germany
February 25, 2011 23:42
LOL, If the regime so popular, then why not allow the foreign journalists or Al-Jazeera in Iran to report on the demonstration? Why are so many journalists and dissidents in Jail? If the regime had the support of its people, it wouldn't have to resort to such unspeakable crimes against humanity.

by: Babak from: Berlin
February 25, 2011 06:40
Iran regime will fall not by people who want freedom
But by the people who will become hungry.
Iran regime will fail on economy, it just take time
I am telling those people who think iran regime
Is strong is that their basic economy is wrong.
Like soviet their army did not stop it.after lat election
I put it for 10 years. We will see

by: POTKIN AZARMEHR from: London
February 25, 2011 07:18
To say Moussavi and Karroubi are part of the establishment is like saying Dubcek was a member of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Politburo. I really don't know how much more Moussavi and Karroubi have to suffer before these "analysts" realise that the two are firmly on the side of the people

by: Hamid from: Germany
February 25, 2011 07:42
The reason Islamic Iran is not the same as US/EU backed Egypt or Tunisia is because it has achieved significant progress for its people. Here are some basic facts:
An Iranian supercomputer. New space rockets and satellites carrying the flag of the Islamic Republic. Biotech innovations that include artificial tendons. Iran's claims of scientific advances are coming at a rapid-fire pace these days as the country begins events to mark the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110203/ap_on_re_mi_ea/ml_iran_tech_drive


“and inflation, though high, have started to fall. The IMF report notes that "In the past two years ... inflation stood at 25.4 and 10.3 [percent] respectively: however in 2010 this rate will fall to 8.5 percent for the first time". It predicts that Iran’s foreign exchange reserves will increase US$5 billion "and reach 88.5 [billion US$] in 2010" - http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/LF16Ak01.html
Iran showing fastest scientific growth of any country - It might be the Chinese year of the tiger, but scientifically, 2010 is looking like Iran's year.
http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18546-iran-showing-fastest-scientific-growth-of-any-country.html

The Beirut based think-tank, Conflicts Forum (founded by Alastair Crooke, a former special Mid-East adviser to European Union High Representative), launched a series of monographs on gender discourse and Islamist perspectives on feminism (http://conflictsforum.org/cf-publications/monograph-series/ ). One of the studies focuses on the achievements of women in Iranian society after the Islamic Revolution.

A research study by Dr. Ansia Khaz Ali shows “the percentage of women accepted into universities and higher education institutions rose from 32.5% in 1976 to 59.9% in 2007 -- a rise of more than 80%.”

The study also presented data regarding the active participation of women in Iran’s socio-political life. According to the study “the percentage of female candidates standing for membership of the Islamic Advisory Council in the first electoral session (1980) for parliamentary elections rose to 165.06% in the seventh session, a rise of 227.48%. The statistics show the percentage of female candidates standing for membership in municipal and village councils increased noticeably in the third session of these elections as compared to the second session. The percentage of female members of municipal and village councils rose by 61.9% between the first (1980) and third (1988) electoral sessions. Some 250 women have held advisory posts for women’s affairs on town councils and 400 women have taken up positions of responsibility in villages and the countryside.”

Face the facts and you will know why Iran is not the same.

by: Turgai
February 25, 2011 09:11
@Hass, Jess and Mark: right on. The students, yuppies and coke-snorting arty farty types from North Teheran that we see are not ‘Iranian society’ (rather a fragment of it), and much of the discourse on Iran that circulates from think-tanks to the popular media comes from Iranian exilee groups who range from outright fascistoid former Pahlavi cronies who are frustrated that they lost their position and privileges (like this Mehrdad Khonsari), to left-wingers and liberals with very little real base in Iran itself.

As for the legitimacy of/public support for the regime: there were actually opinion surveys done on that (in 2010), e.g.

http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/brmiddleeastnafricara/652.php

Of course, I do not tend to see these as the gospel because of the constraints to conduct surveys in Iran and a certein degree of self-censorship among repsondents, but still: it gives a different picture that what the exilee lobby, the media and neocons want us to believe.

@Eugenio. Indeed, and let us also not forget that Iran is a prime frontline state against the drug traffic (some 8,000 police, border guards and customs officers killed over the last 10 years plus a big drug problem in the country) between the Golden Crescent and Europe. Indeed, do the Iran-bashers want a collapse and balkanisation of Iran that brings the barrel price ever higher and opens the floodgates for the drug traffic?
In Response

by: Michael from: St Andrews, Scotland
February 27, 2011 10:50
Turgas, your very shallow defamation of the Green Movement as royalist drug addicts neither disguises, or detracts from, their legitimate grievance: the 2009 Iranian presidential elections were indisputably rigged. And very poorly rigged. The Interior Ministry's own (hastily published) figures show, for example, that Ahmadinejad received precisely the same % of spoiled ballots in every single province, irrespective of the voter turnout, which in any case - quite remarkably - exceeded 100% in an alarming number of cases. One would have at least thought that the Iranian regime should have the courtesy - dare I say, intelligence - to fiddle their figures in a more sophisticated fashion, but evidently even this is beyond them.

As for your opinion poll, tell me truthfully: if you were an opposition supporter living in a repressive security state, where others opponents of the regime are presently subject to house arrest, lengthy prison sentences and execution, and somebody approached you to enquire as to your political views - what would you say?
In Response

by: Turgai
February 28, 2011 08:54
Michael, re-read my comment: no, I do not consider the survey to be the gospel because of a margin of self-censorship among respondents but still...

by: cyrus from: iran
February 25, 2011 09:57
what ever you like it or not. ME blong to Iran now, i were part of the green movement but know i hate it. miljons of iranian have turn back and now they are a part of the system because we want a strong nation and we dont want to be slaves of yankees.
now that we are the strongest nation in ME we would work to have a stronger iran
In Response

by: aurel from: Romania
February 25, 2011 12:09
Cyrus, how much did the Tehran c\regime pay you to write here these absurd words? You were never memmber of the Green movement but more probable you are member of Basij and ready to day for the wellbeing of Ahmadinejad. So, stop lying man!
In Response

by: Turgai
February 26, 2011 15:04
Aurel, people definitely can have opinions that do not toe the pc'ness line without being paid for it, you know. It's not always like all these neoliberal NGO's, 'Colour Revolutionaries' and neocon stink tanks who parrot what their donors tell them.
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