Revolt in the Arab World, But Not in Iran — Why?

Iran is a different case because the country already had a revolution in 1979.  Even those Iranians who are in the opposition called for reform within the system rather than revolution.  It is not a climate of fear that explains the survival of the Islamic Republic but the absence of revolutionary fervour.  No state can cling to power merely through brute force.

What we are experiencing in Iran is what I have called a ‘pluralistic momentum’ in my book, Iran in World Politics.  The state is not a monolith.  Rather the contrary it is being dissected from within and under the pressure of an embattled civil society.  Hence, the political process in Iran cannot be monopolised by one single actor.  Neither can the politics of the country be determined by the use of systematic violence.  Yes, the state has an imperfect and arbitrary judicial system, yes at the height of the demonstrations it used systematic violence to subdue the demonstrators and yes the current administration of President Ahmadinejad cannot shirk the responsibility of what happened, but that is as far as it goes.

There is no penchant for revolution in Iran.  The Green Movement was the reincarnation of previous reform movements.  But its leaders, especially Moussavi made several tactical mistakes which I believe was due to a lack of political strategy.  I would say that a) there is no clear cut backing of the Green Movement that runs through all strata of Iranian society and classes and b) that the Iranian state is sufficiently endowed with hard power — military, police, intelligence services etc — and soft power, such as ideological devices, to navigate through occasional outbursts of dissent.

The Green Movement is politically dead but socially active, that is to say the calls for reforms articulated by its leaders continue to reverberate within Iranian society, but as a political force they are discredited.

I think the Iranian state will continue to be challenged by the Iranian population, young and old.  The demands for due judicial process, more individual freedoms, and Islamic democracy are just and legitimate.  These demands, rather than the movements — green or other — that claim them, have a strong backing in Iranian society.  Many members of the Iranian state itself are aware that changes are needed, so hope is merited.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is lecturer in the comparative and international politics of the middle east at SOAS, London.  His latest book is A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations: Us and Them beyond Orientalism (C Hurst/Columbia University Press, 2010).  His previous books include Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic (C Hurst/Columbia University Press, 2008).  The text above was adapted from John Thornton’s interview with Arshin Adib-Moghaddam published in TheFreshOutlook on 12 July 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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