Global Public Square

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."