Why no Iranian Spring?
Defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi waves to the crowd during a massive demonstration in Tehran in June 2009. Protests in Iran were not able to produce the rapid changes that were in seen countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. (Getty Images)
August 1st, 2011
11:00 AM ET

Why no Iranian Spring?

A wave of protests have toppled, reformed or at least shaken governments all across the Arab world.  But the winds of change seem to come to an abrupt stop outside Iran. Why? Here are 7 reasons:

1. Iranians rose up in 2009

In the summer of 2009, millions of Iranians rose up to protest the contested election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. To this day, thousands of protesters and activists remain imprisoned. Indeed, Wael Ghonim, the internationally renowned Egyptian activist and Google executive said Egyptians learned from the Iranian people.

2. Fear of revolutions

Maziar Bahari, a journalist for Newsweek who was arrested during the post-election protests in 2009 (check out his recent interview with Fareed Zakaria) believes that, “Iranians experienced the sudden change of revolution 32 years ago. So they approach any sudden change with caution. They do not want another revolution.”

“Iranians have come to this conclusion that radical change might lead to unintended and irreversible consequences,” said Omid Memarian, an Iranian journalist who was arrested in Tehran in 2004 .

Akbar Ganji, a prominent dissident and journalist who was imprisoned for six years, in an extensive article on an Iranian reformist website, wrote that Iranians wanted to use reforms rather than revolutions to create change.

3. Western-backed dictators are easier to topple

“Iran was more like 1989 China than 2011 Egypt or Tunisia,” said Farideh Farhi, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “The regime was able to maintain its unified will to defend itself against what it considered to be an existential threat.”

She along with Mr. Ganji believe that Iran’s decades of confrontations with the West, particularly the United States, made it difficult for protesters to gain the same amount of leverage and pressure in Iran as they did elsewhere.

4. Power is more dispersed in Iran

According to Ganji, dictators tend to enforce laws through strict hierarchies. Orders come from the top and can be traced to one power source.

Iran, on the other hand, has the Revolutionary Guards and numerous intelligence agencies that control and survey many aspects of Iranian society. With such a large and complicated system, it’s hard to know who is giving the orders to repress the population.

5. Religious propaganda

“The Iranian government has a giant propaganda machine that is capable of framing a message and making it dominant for a large portion of the population,” said Memarian in an e-mail to CNN.  He believes that the opposition and the West have underestimated the power of Iranian propaganda.

6. Oil money

Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, whose economies are heavily based on tourism, Iran’s is mostly based on oil and gas. As such, protests that heavily disrupted the economies of Tunisia and Egypt would not have the same effect on Iran’s, says Ganji.

Also Iran’s economy is mostly in the hands of the government whereas Tunisia’s is more in the hands of private citizens. Furthermore, Tunisia has had a history of unions and organizations, whereas civil society organizations in Iran are scarce.

 7. The Supreme Leader

During the protests of 2009, calls for a revolution were noticeably absent. Instead, slogans ranged from “Ahmadi, bye bye!” to “Where’s my Vote?” This subtlety is important to note.

Opposition leaders in Iran have called for reforms mostly because they decided from the start that they were not going to get rid of the Iranian Constitution. This, according to Ganji, is problematic and created a paradox for them.

Since the opposition wants to make changes within the framework of the constitution, they can’t get rid of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. So they picked their fight with Ahmadinejad. The opposition hoped that Khamenei would side with them, but when he said questioning the election results was a crime, they became trapped within their own framework.

Will the regime tear itself apart?

It’s hard to remain hopeful with the above list of obstacles and problems but there are signs of cracking within the regime.

Professor Hamid Dabashi from Columbia University believes Iran just has to wait its turn.

“Every country in the Arab Spring joins this chorus of revolutionary dissent with a particular tonality, playing a different instrument, as it were.  No two countries are exactly identical.  The revolutions are playing out differently in each country.  It is orchestral—each musician playing a different instrument, with a slightly different tempo, but collectively they all make a harmonious melody. One should not expect things unfold in Syria so swiftly as they did in Egypt, or in Yemen as easily as it happened in Tunisia…So Iran too has its own tempo.”

Dabashi explained that the demise of Western backed dictators has caused Iran to lose Egypt and Tunisia as enemies. “Le Monde reports that the Islamic Republic is in fact helping Gadhafi forces to prolong the U.S. and NATO involvement in what they hope will be a quagmire,” he wrote in an e-mail to CNN.

They are losing their allies as well, which signals even more trouble for the Islamic Republic.

“Hamas has decoupled from the Islamic Republic and joined the PA [Palestinian Authority].  Hezbollah is deeply in trouble in the region because of its support for Syria.  Syria is in the deepest crisis in the history of the Assad dynasty.”

Recently, traditional allies of Khamenei are admitting that there was cheating in last year's election - probably to weaken Ahmadinejad’s position.

Though the streets of Iran may be calm, the leadership is rife with deepening conflicts. Supporters of the Supreme Leader have begun arresting members of President Ahmadinejad’s inner circle.

Muhammad Sahimi a columnist for PBS’s Tehran Bureau believes anything is possible thanks to “Ahmadinejad’s erratic decision-making process."

Perhaps patience is the best strategy for the opposition right now.

As Sahimi writes, “The Green Movement may benefit if it patiently watches, and lets the two camps destroy each other."

Topics: Iran • Middle East • Revolution

soundoff (185 Responses)
  1. Franky

    Interesting: I jus posted a comment and it is not published!
    What happened CNN? You didn't like it?

    August 9, 2011 at 9:27 am | Reply
  2. era

    One thing wasn't mentioned here: Majority of Iranians support the regime( if not government) and that's a key point.One other thing is that in comparison to countries like Saudia Arabia,Bahrain,Lybia and Yemen Iran has more freedom( but not full democracy) and that is the point that western media usually don't mention.

    August 10, 2011 at 6:04 am | Reply
  3. Daddy

    OH AND BY THE WAY. If you have such a problem with CNN, then why in the hell do you keep posting for?

    August 14, 2011 at 1:09 am | Reply
  4. OghoolBalla

    Dear Mr. Michelle Moghtader,

    Iranians are “Persian” and not Arabs. You might want to do some research to farther you knowledge.

    August 17, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Reply
  5. Vincent Lovece

    The other difference is that Iran is Persian, and Persians have a very long history of governments telling them what to do, often by exercising extreme control by means of fear and state-backed brutality. This was true under the pre-Islamic Sassanids as well as the modern-day Iran. Since about 1500, Persia has been ruled by Persians, even if they came under British and Russian influence, and even though they have taken the modern name of Iran. The Arab countries, by contrast have been ruled by Seljuks, Mamelukes, Ottomans, Byzantines, Crusaders, British, French, Italians, Mongols, and who knows who else. While Iran was ruled by Greeks, Parthians, Arabs, Seljuks, Mongols, etc from about the time of the rise of Islam (early to mid 600s) to about 1500, the situation has been more stable in Iran since a stable native Iran government has been able to run the country free from outside rule, despite dynastic changes and the rise of an Islamic theocracy. I wouldn't count on the theocracy to last forever, and it will likely come apart internally when the time is right.

    August 17, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Reply
    • Awwal

      It nt bout becouse the people of iran reject the jews and christians as their helpers and trustee that the main reason they are stil surviving all murderous attempt plot against them by israel, U.S E.U .saddam trust the above and he goes contrary to what ALLAH said in QURAN then they armed IRAG to topple IRAN bt what happens irag failed to make any major inpact to iran WHY simply iranians open The HOLY QURAN and study it very carefully and understand these when they say they with u make peace with them but dont trust (avoid there influence) them becouse if you trust them they will turned against u and harm you if you heed to this surely ALLAH wil help and guide you when they intend to harm you

      August 19, 2011 at 11:33 am | Reply
    • Awwal

      becouse the people of iran reject the jews and christians as their helpers and trustee that the main reason they are stil surviving all murderous attempt plot against them by israel, U.S E.U .saddam trust the above and he goes contrary to what ALLAH said in QURAN, they armed IRAG to topple IRAN bt what happens IRAQ failed to make any major inpact to iran WHY simply iranians open The HOLY QURAN and study it very carefully and understand these .when they say they with u make peace with them but dont trust (avoid there influence) them becouse if you trust them they will turned against u and harm you if you heed to this surely ALLAH wil help and guide you when they intend to harm you

      August 19, 2011 at 11:42 am | Reply
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