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The Iranian Uprising is Home Grown, and Must Stay That Way

Stephen Zunes

The growing nonviolent insurrection in Iran against the efforts by the
ruling clerics to return the ultra-conservative and increasingly
autocratic incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinjead to power is
growing.  Whatever the outcome, it represents an exciting and
massive outpouring of Iranian civil society for a more open and
pluralistic society.
 
Ironically, defenders of Ahmadinejad’s repression are trying to blame
everyone from the U.S.
government
to nonviolent theorist
Gene Sharp to various

small NGOs
engaged in educational efforts on strategic nonviolent
action as somehow being responsible for the popular uprising in
Iran.  It appears to be based upon the rather bizarre assumption
that millions of Iranians would somehow be willing to pour out onto the
streets in the face of violent repression by state security forces only
because they have been directed to do so by people from an imperialist
power which overthrew their last democratic government and subsequently
propped up the tyrannical regime they installed in its place for the next
quarter century.
 
Even putting aside the bizarre spectacle of self-proclaimed “leftists”
coming to the defense of a right-wing fundamentalist autocratic like
Ahmadinejad, this claim ignores several key factors:

1) Neo-conservatives and other American hawks were hoping for a victory
by the hard-line incumbent to justify their opposition to President
Barack Obama’s tentative steps at rapprochement with the Islamic
Republic.
 
2) Opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and the vast majority of his
supporters are strongly nationalist, anti-American, anti-imperialist, and
would neither desire nor accept U.S. support.
 
3) There has been a longstanding Iranian tradition of such largely
nonviolent civil insurrections against imperialist powers and autocratic
rulers and no outside power is needed to convince the Iranian people to
rebel.

The Neo-Cons Supported Ahmadinejad

The only people happier than the Iranian elites over Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad's apparently

stolen election win
Friday, were the neoconservatives and other hawks
eager to block any efforts by the Obama administration to moderate U.S.
policy toward the Islamic republic.

Since he was elected president in 2005, Ahmadinejad has filled a certain
niche in the American psyche formerly filled by the likes of Saddam
Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi as the Middle Eastern leader we most love to
hate. It gives us a sense of righteous superiority to compare ourselves
favorably to these seemingly irrational and fanatical foreign
despots.

Better yet, if these despots can be inflated into far greater threats
than they actually are, these supposed threats can be used to justify the
enormous financial and human costs of maintaining American armed forces
in that volatile region to protect ourselves and our allies, and even to
make war against far-off nations in "self-defense."

The neocons have not been subtle about their desire for Ahmadinejad to
continue playing this important role. For example, right-wing pundit
Daniel Pipes, at a panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation just
before the election, said that he would vote for Ahmadinejad if he could,
because he prefers "an enemy who is forthright, blatant,
obvious."

Last week, just two days before the Iranian election, Congressional
Republicans -- in an apparent effort to provoke a nationalist reaction
which would enhance the chances of Iranian hard liners – tried to push
through a floor vote to strengthen U.S. sanctions against Iran.

It is interesting how some of the very foreign policy hawks who just last
week were dismissing Mir Hossein Mousavi's expected victory as irrelevant
since, in their view, there was essentially no meaningful difference
between him and Ahmadinejad, are now among the most self-righteous in
denouncing the apparent fraud and the most outspoken in their
pseudo-outrage at the results.

Their worst-case scenario for these American hawks would be a nonviolent
insurrection that would topple Ahmadinejad and allied hard-line clerics
and the development of a more pluralistic and representative Islamic
Republic in Iran. . Neither the neocons nor Iran's reactionary leadership
want to see that oil-rich regional power under a popular and legitimate
government. Indeed, the neocons and Iranian hard-liners need each
other.

The Nationalist Nature of the Opposition
 
Mousavi – despite his disagreements with Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei over the years -- has been very much part of the establishment.
Indeed, Mousavi would not have even been allowed to run for president
otherwise, since the Council of Guardians routinely forbids anyone who is
seen to not sufficiently support the country’s theocratic system to
participate.
 
Yet, Mousavi attracted a large and enthusiastic following during the course of the
campaign which may have led the ruling clerics to fear that the momentum
of his incipient victory could result not just in limited reforms, like
those attempted under former president Mohammed Khatami, but
revolutionary change. The size and intensity of Mousavi’s final campaign
rally, in which he referred to Ahmadinejad as a “dictator” -- which, by
extension, implied an indictment of the system as a whole -- may have
tilted the clerics into believing they could not take the risk of
allowing the anticipated results to be verified. Despite his candidacy
displaying a personality and style closer to Michael Dukakis than Barack
Obama, Mousavi came to represent the change so many Iranians, especially
young people, desperately desired and appeared determined to make
happen.
 
Even among Iranians dedicated to the principles of the Islamic Republic,
many now see their country essentially as a police state, recognizing
that Ahmadinejad and the ruling clerics are little more than corrupt
self-interested politicians who have manipulated their people’s religious
faith for the sake of their own power.
 
However strong their opposition to the current regime, the democratic and
reformist opposition simply does not trust the United States, which
overthrew Iran’s last democratic government in 1953, armed and trained
the Shah’s brutal security apparatus, backed Saddam Hussein in his bloody
war against their country, imposed strict economic sanctions on their
country, and has hypocritically obsessed about their civilian nuclear
program while supporting such neighboring states as Israel, Pakistan and
India despite their developing nuclear arsenals.

While Congress in recent years has approved millions of dollars in
funding to support various Iranian opposition groups to promote “regime
change,” most of these groups are led by exiles who have virtually no
following within Iran or any experience with the kinds of grassroots
mobilization necessary to build a popular movement that could threaten
the regime's survival. By contrast, most of the credible opposition
within Iran has renounced this U.S. initiative and has asserted that it
has simply made it easier for the regime to claim that all pro-democracy
groups and activists are paid agents of the United States. 

Feeling pressure from Iranian democrats and major Iranian-American groups
regarding such counter-productive efforts, Obama and the Democrats have
since ended this controversial program.  Ironically, Republicans are
now attacking the administration for having somehow abandoned Iran’s
pro-democracy struggle while Ahmadinejad and his supporters are citing
the now-discarded effort as proof of U.S. complicity in the current
uprising.
 
Generations of Struggle
 
Most Iranians – who have traditionally been very proud of their
political, social and cultural history – would find it rather bizarre to
learn that some Western bloggers, ignorant of that very history, are
insisting that the recent protests are a result not of their own anger at
an apparent stolen election and continued autocratic rule, but simply
because some Americans have told them to.
 
In reality, uprisings like the one witnessed in recent days have occurred
with some regularity in Iran since the late 1800s.  Indeed, the idea
of Americans having to teach Iranians about massive nonviolent resistance
is like Americans teaching Iranians to cook fesenjan.
 
In 1890, unpopular concessions on tobacco and other products to the
British led leading Shia clerics to call for nationalist protests and a
nationwide tobacco strike, which succeeded in forcing the Shah to cancel the
concession in early 1892.
 
 In 1905, in opposition to widespread corruption by the Qajar
dynasty and allied regional nobles and a series of other concessions to
Russian and other foreign interests, an uprising initially led by
merchants and clergy ensued which would continue for the next six
years.  In what became known as the Constitutional Revolution, many
thousands of Iranians engaged in peaceful protests, boycotts and mass
sit-ins, along with occasional riots and scattered armed
engagements.  The result was significant political and social
reforms, including the establishment of an elected parliament to share
power with the Shah and anti-corruption measures. 
 
A CIA-sponsored coup in 1953 ousted the elected nationalist prime
minister Mohammed Mossadegh and his nationalist supporters and returned
the exiled Shah to power as an absolute monarch. Through mass arms
transfers from the United States, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi built one of
the most powerful armed forces ever seen in the Middle East. His
American-trained secret police, the SAVAK, had been thought to have
successfully terrorized the population into submission during the next
two decades through widespread killings, torture and mass
detentions.  By the mid-1970s, most of the leftist, liberal,
nationalist, and other secular opposition leadership had been
successfully repressed through murder, imprisonment or exile, and most of
their organizations banned.  It was impossible to suppress the
Islamist opposition as thoroughly, however, so it was out of mosques and
among the mullahs that much of the organized leadership of the movement
against the Shah’s dictatorship emerged. 

Open resistance began in 1977, when exiled opposition leader Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini called for strikes, boycotts, tax refusal and other
forms of noncooperation with the Shahs regime.  Such activism was
met with brutal repression by the government. The pace of the resistance
accelerated as massacres of civilians were answered by larger
demonstrations following the Islamic 40-day mourning period.  In the
months that followed, Iranians employed many of the methods that would be
used in the unarmed insurrections that toppled dictatorships in the
Philippines, Latin America, Eastern Europe and elsewhere in subsequent
years: mass demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, contestation of public
space, and the establishment of parallel institutions.

Despite the bloody image of the revolution and the authoritarianism and
militarism of the Islamic Republic that followed, there was a clear
commitment to keeping the actual insurrection largely nonviolent.
Protestors were told by the leadership of the resistance to try to win
over the troops rather than attack them; indeed, thousands of troops
deserted, some in the middle of confrontations with crowds. Clandestinely
smuggled audio cassette tapes of Ayatollah Khomeini speaking about the
revolution played a key role in the movement's mass mobilization, and led
Abolhassan Sadegh, an official with the Ministry of National Guidance, to
note that “tape cassettes are stronger than fighter planes.” Ayatollah
Khomeini’s speeches, circulated through such covert methods, emphasized
the power of unarmed resistance and noncooperation. In one speech, he
said, “The clenched fists of freedom fighters can crush the tanks and
guns of the oppressors.” There were few of the violent activities
normally associated with armed revolutions such as shooting soldiers,
setting fires to government buildings or looting. Such incidents that did
occur were unorganized and spontaneous and did not appear to have the
support of the leadership of the movement.
 
In October and November of 1978, a series of strikes by civil servants
and workers in government industries crippled the country. The crisis
deepened when oil workers struck at the end of October and demanded the
release of political prisoners, costing the government $60 million a day.
An ensuing general strike on November 6 paralyzed the country.  Even
as some workers returned to their jobs, disruption of fuel oil supplies
and freight transit, combined with shortages of raw materials resulting
from a customs strike, largely kept economic life in the country at a
standstill.

 Despite providing rhetorical support for an improvement in the
human rights situation in Iran, the Carter administration continued
military and economic support for the Shah’s increasingly repressive
regime, even providing fuel for the armed forces and other security
services facing shortages due to the strikes.

Under enormous pressure, the oil workers returned to work but continued
to stage slowdowns. Later in November, the Shah’s nightly speeches were
interrupted when workers cut off the electricity at precisely the time of
his scheduled addresses. Massive protests filled the streets in major
cities in December as oil workers walked out again and an ongoing general
strike closed the refineries and the central bank. Despite thousands of
unarmed protesters being killed by the Shah’s forces, the protesters'
numbers increased, with as many as nine million Iranians taking to the
streets in of cities across the country in largely nonviolent
protests.  The Shah fled on January 16, 1979, and Ayatollah Khomeini
returned from exile two weeks later. He appointed Mehdi Bazargan prime
minister, thus establishing a parallel government to challenge the Shah's
appointed prime minister Shapur Bahktiar. With the loyalty of the vast
majority clearly with the new Islamic government, Bahktiar resigned
February 11.

One element that contributed to people’s willingness to mobilize under
harsh repression was the value of martyrdom in Shia Islam. The movement’s
emphasis was to “save Islam by our blood.” Indeed, there are
interesting parallels between the legacy of martyrdom inspired by early
Shia leader Imam Hossein with the Gandhian tradition of
self-sacrifice.  As demonstrated by their subsequent rule, the
Iranian revolution’s leadership – unlike Mohandas Gandhi – clearly did
not support nonviolence as a principle, but recognized its utilitarian
advantages against the well-armed security apparatus of the Shah’s
regime.

While the revolution had the support of a broad cross-section of society
(including Islamists, secularists, nationalists, laborers, and ethnic
minorities), Khomeini and other leading Shia clerics strengthened by a
pre-existing network of social service and other parallel institutions
consolidated their hold and established an Islamic theocracy.  The
regime shifted far to the right by the spring of 1981, purging moderate
Islamists including the elected president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr and
imposing a totalitarian system.  
 
A New Revolution?

Now, a new generation of Iranians is rising up in the tradition of
previous generations using largely nonviolent tactics to challenge their
oppression.  Those out on the streets in Tehran, Isfahan, Tabriz,
and other cities are not just middle class intellectuals but also
represent a broad cross-section of the poor and working class and include
both the majority Persians as well as other ethnicities. 

 
It is not clear whether the opposition can successfully organize a
“people power” revolution of the kind which have succeeded in ousting autocrats who
attempted to steal elections in such countries as the Philippines in
1986, Serbia in 2000, or Ukraine in 2005 or whether – as in Azerbaijan,
Belarus, and Mexico – the regime will remain in power.  
 
In any case, it is clearly a home-grown indigenous struggle. Any effort
by the United States (which has allowed one --and possible two--stolen
elections to stand in recent years) to intervene will only hurt the
pro-democracy movement.  Given the history of U.S. interventionism
in Iran, Obama's cautious approach will do more to help those in the
current popular struggle than anything more explicit, despite Republican
demands to the contrary.

The future of Iran belongs in the hands of the Iranians and the best
thing the United States can do to support a more open and pluralistic
society in that country is to stay the hell out of the way.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes serves as a senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, a contributing editor of Tikkun, and co-chair of the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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