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Why Have Opposition Movements Not Been More Successful?


Issue 8, March 2009

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Home Inside Iran: Government Why Have Opposition Movements Not Been More Successful?
Why Have Opposition Movements Not Been More Successful? Print

Hard Power of the Regime

The regime employs significant hard power against dissidents.  

  • All television and radio broadcasts in Iran are state-controlled.  Other programming can only be received through illegal satellite dishes.  
  • Hashem AghajariOpposition newspapers exist, but are often harassed and shut down by the government.  Activist offices may be raided at any time, as was the office of Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi and her Center for the Defenders of Human Rights last year.    
  • The Internet can be a safe haven for dissidents, and blogs serve an important alternative press function, but the government has the power to block sites and interfere with web traffic.  
  • Laws prohibit journalists from reporting on subjects considered to be incompatible with Islam, critical of the regime, or intended to “confuse” the public.  These subjects include: public security, oil price increases, new international sanctions, inflation, civil society movements, or negotiations with the US over Iraq.  
  • All writers as well as translators are subject to government censorship.
  • Dissidents are routinely arrested and detained for anti-regime activities.  Protests are broken up by government officials.  
  • Government proxy groups are employed to counter protests, especially on university campuses where special Bajiles units are maintained for this purpose.  
  • Laws surrounding proper Islamic dress and public behavior are strictly enforced in an effort to catch political dissidents. 

Soft Power of the Regime

Opposition groups are also up against the regime’s soft power.  

  • The people implicitly and explicitly trade their political and civil rights for other benefits the government confers.  The government offers up this trade: you will be allowed to conduct your private affairs much as you wish behind the walled gardens of your homes; in return, you will forsake public demonstrations of non-Islamic behavior or criticism of the regime.  
  • The government also attempts to trade economic well-being for civil obedience.  
  • The Iranian government has another powerful bargaining chip: religious salvation.  Iran’s form of Shia Islam confers on the government the indisputable authority of divine inspiration.  Among fundamentalist populations, compliance with the political and civil restrictions of the regime is a small price to pay for living in the land of true Islam.  

Appeals to Nationalism

The clerical ruling elite in Iran have another powerful tool at their disposal in discouraging opposition: appeals to intense nationalism borne of centuries of foreign interference in Iran’s affairs.  

  • A central feature of the Iranian psyche is resentment of foreign powers, particularly those in the West that are seen as having exploited the Persian nation for centuries – for oil, for regional influence, or as a means to an end in other conflicts.  
  • The two Western countries most reviled are the US and Great Britain, both of which are not only democracies but are also active in the promotion of democracy around the globe.  Hence, the Iranian regime can equate democracy with the nefarious meddling of the West, and depict Iran’s own pro-democracy activists as Western agents.  
  • The Iranian regime attempts to discredit local activists as puppets of imperialist Western democracies, and shows no compunction in raising the flag of Western imperialism as an effective way of undercutting popular support for opposition movements. 

Public Apathy Borne of Dashed Expectations

  • Using words such as disappointment and betrayal, experts describe the Iranian public as embodying a debilitating sense of apathy regarding the political process.  
  • Certainly the tactics employed above by the regime have taken their toll.  Yet, perhaps even more formative was the experience of would-be reformers during the Khatami years, where a window appeared to open on liberal reforms and then painfully close again.  Nearly all experts cite the roller coaster of heightened and dashed expectations experienced under Khatami’s Presidency (1997-2005) as a central cause of what Afshin Molavi has called “populist reformist fatigue.”  

Next:  Inside Iran - Government:  Are Democracy and Islam Compatible?