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. affin

    iran is Great Country

    August 1, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Reply
    • Plexie

      It was, now if they can get rid of the nutcases running it, starting withe the Supreme mufti, it might be again. Stuxnet for president of Iran.

      August 1, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Reply
  2. Bulldog

    It's really not that complicated. Syria today is following the Iranian Model of crowd control.

    August 1, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Reply
  3. Descarado

    LOL! Iran already had their "Iranian Spring." Consider this Islamo-fascist dictatorship a preview of coming attractions to all that nonsense about an "Arab Spring" in Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Syria.

    August 2, 2011 at 12:02 am | Reply
  4. Marine5484

    If there was a revolt it would have to come from inside their govt. if not the civilian population would be crushed in a matter of days. The Iranian govt. would stop any protest before it had a real chance of becoming a powerful movement.

    August 2, 2011 at 12:18 am | Reply
  5. Ali

    Revolution in Iran is moving rapidly, all of the tension within the government showes they can not control the pace. They know they are not going to see a simple government change in Iran. Unfortunately writer got most of the information from couple of IR representative, specially Mr. Gangi who serviced that government for so many years and was involved in many actions. Mr. Gangi's and Mr. dehbashi's problem is not IR, They are seeking couple modification within the system. Iranian hates IR and anything associates with IR. With current situation in Syria, IR republic are felling the heat because they know they are next. Believe me Iranian Spring started and we will see the victory soon.

    August 2, 2011 at 7:41 am | Reply
  6. Alex

    Interestingly enough, President Obama views Carter as his mentor. Carter managed to topple shah and replace it with Theocratic regime which he believed in. US Foreign Policy is like a house of cards and they've managed to pull the rug out of all Middle Eastern leaders who they once called Friends (Saddam, Mubarak and ...). As much as US wants to get rid of the Iranian regime; they want to keep them as they cause an unrest for surrounding Arab countries (especially Saudi Arabia). Iran is in the danger of falling apart as a country and get divided into colonies. The history has proven that. Blood will need to be shed; religion will need be seperated than politics and all the Iranian regime needs to be put on trial as they set Iran back 150 years by idiotic ideas which they've presented in the name of religion.

    August 2, 2011 at 9:20 am | Reply
    • alex

      Iranians want us to be friends,our oil seekers,and global theives,do not allow that.

      August 3, 2011 at 1:43 am | Reply
  7. IndiaRocks

    @Krish, I'm Indian and I hate Americans more than Iranians. After all, Iran has never started a war invading a foreign country. Their ideologies are peaceful just like India's. America, on the other hand, are the war-mongers who have been behind all wars of recent history, invading foreign countries. Besides Americans are uncultured, perverted, inhuman, hypocritical, obnoxious, immoral, egocentric, insensitive, self-righteous hedonists.

    August 2, 2011 at 9:26 am | Reply
    • NonZionist

      +( Iran is ready to help creation of dialogue atmosphere between governments and nation )+ - Ahmadinejad

      +( The era of military force is over, today is the era of nations, logic and worshippers of God. )+ - Ahmadinejad

      Iran hasn't attacked anyone in 300 years. To those who profit from war and live by "Might Makes Right", the behavior of Iran's government must indeed seem "psychopathic". To people addicted to war, ignorance and hatred, Ahmadinejad's calls for peace and dialogue must seem mad.

      We are unable to imagine a country that is not Just Like Us.

      We love nukes, so Iran must love nukes too. Iran's call for a nuclear-FREE zone in the region makes no sense to us.

      We want war, so Iran wants war too. We want to play God and wipe whole countries off the face of the map, so Iran must want the same. Nothing else is Thinkable.

      We seem to be at war with our own demons. Unfortunately, other countries keep getting in the way.

      August 2, 2011 at 10:32 am | Reply
      • Godfrey

        "We must train the women how to booby-trap the car and blow it up among the enemy, how to blow up the house so it falls on the enemy soldiers. Traps must be prepared. You have seen how [the enemy] check[s] luggage. These suitcases should be rigged so that when they open them they blow up. The women must be taught how to booby-trap their clothes closets, booby-trap their purses, booby-trap their shoes, booby-trap the children's toys, so they blow up on the enemy soldiers."
        October 10, 2003
        Special Dispatch No.587

        August 2, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Godfrey

      "Those who say Islam is NOT a religion of war and that Islam must not kill people, do not understand Islam. The Koran says war! War! Meaning those who follow the Koran must continue the war until evil is taken out from the world. War is a blessing for the whole world and it is a blessing from God for any nation in any environment that it may be. Why do you constantly read the verses about mercy in the Koran and ignore the verses about killing?”

      Ayatullah Khomeini, Tehran, December 20/21st 1984, on the occasion of ceremonies for the birth of Prophet Muhammad.

      August 2, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Reply
  8. yusakhar

    There was no "Iranian Spring" for one very simple reason. The President of the United States failed to announce to the Iranian People that he favored one, despite the fact that Iran as governed today is the chief threat to Western Civilization, and the only real threat to the security of the United States. This is the same man, the "Chief Community Organizer" who, virtually without a second thought, called vigorously for the downfall of Husni Mubarak, who (although a despot) doesn't hold a candle to the evil of any Iranian leader, who is not a threat to world peace, and who was an ally of the United States. Indeed, the same President of the United States who has been talking nonsense for years about the "real" (read: phoney) motives and good governance of Syrian president Bashar alAssad, the close ally of Iran. Paradoxically, it is the good fortune of Syrians that their tyrannical leader has resorted to such unspeakable violence that it has actually got Mr Obama to change his tune (although he hasn't confessed to his previous, now unsupportable, misleading speechifying - nor will he confess). Yes, there are surely other reasons for the absence of Iranian uprising, but they are ancillary, or second-order importance. The real reason is the incompetence of the President of what he has turned into the FORMER Land Of The Free And Home Of The Brave, which is now the laughing stock of both Europe, the Islamic world.

    August 2, 2011 at 9:49 am | Reply
    • NonZionist

      +( Paradoxically, it is the good fortune of Syrians that their tyrannical leader has resorted to such unspeakable violence that it has actually got Mr Obama to change his tune )+

      Uh, it was the Bush neo-cons who outsourced torture to Syria. And there is some indication that Israel prefers the lap-dog Assad regime to one led by militant Muslims.

      But how does the unspeakable violence unleashed by Assad compare with the unspeakable violence unleashed by Lincoln against the U.S. South?

      Can you name one government anywhere in the world that would NOT attempt to put down a revolution or avoid a civil war?

      How does the unspeakable violence compare with the violence Bush unleashed on Afghanistan and Iraq? The former repeatedly offered to extradite bin Laden, and the latter was suing desperately for peace when Bush attacked. Iraq's reward for being conciliatory? - the Shock and Awe blitzkreig, followed by invasion and a decade of military occupation.

      But you have no problem with that?

      August 2, 2011 at 10:45 am | Reply
      • Godfrey

        Islam says Whatever good there is exists thanks to the sword and in the shadow of the sword! People cannot be made obedient except with the sword! The sword is the key to Paradise, which can be opened only for Holy Warriors!

        Father of Iran's Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini

        August 2, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  9. Benji

    Iranian Spring is already over when Shah was removed and Khomenie was installed in the 1979 Iranian revolution, when Iran officially became an Islamic Republic on 1 April 1979

    August 2, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Reply
  10. tonelok

    They imprisoned thousands of people for simply protesting. To assume that is the extent of there improprieties is ignorant. I'm not saying they are just killing people who speak up, but then again, why haven't there been any demonstrations since?

    August 2, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Reply
  11. mohammad

    I almost agree with all of this essay. But in my opinion the most important part is that the opposition of the regime consists of four main groups that non of them are able to absorb Iranian people,
    1-Anti-religious groups: they cannot be successful because unlike some people may say Oran is still is an Islamic country and people believe in Islam even though they do not believe in Mullahs anymore
    2- Royalists who are offering another kind of dictatorship to Iran
    3-leftists and Mujahedin Khalgh who have betrayed Iran by supporting criminal Saddam Hossein in his crimes against Iranian people, so they have missed theire credibility among the Nation
    4-reformists inside the government like Mousavi and Khatami who have been friends of Ayatollah Khomeini, so people are afraid of them to repeat the same kind of experience.

    and any kind of opposition group outside these 4 groups do not have enough resources and faces to present to people.

    In fact in my opinion even if Islamic regime wants to be gone it would have a fate like Soviet Union and the future of Iran will be in the hands of those who are working inside this regime but in a non-theocratic regime

    August 2, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Reply
    • MyPictureOfMohammad


      August 2, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Reply
    • NonZionist

      Excellent analysis. And there's no evidence that any of these four groups would be better than what Iran has now. Revolution would waste a lot of blood and achieve nothing.

      August 2, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  12. TowelHeadsAreMorons

    Islame is the problem.

    August 2, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  13. So

    Who really needs Iranian Spring when Iranian Nuclear Winter is right around the corner?

    August 2, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Reply
  14. CNN needs a proofreader

    You guys aren’t kidding. How can the editor miss all of these mistakes: (1) typo in caption of picture; (2) initial caps on Spring is wrong, unless they did it because it is a heading, in that case the word “no” in the heading should have initial caps and it doesn’t; (3) first paragraph she speaks of thousands of political prisoners but doesn’t back it up with a source (bad journalism); (4) first paragraph it should say “inside Iran” and not “outside Iran.” Let’s hope she’s good in bed, because she can’t write for the life of her!

    August 2, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  15. Godfrey

    Now that you mention it, consider the following grammatical error:
    "A wave of protests have toppled, reformed or at least shaken governments all across the Arab world."
    (The subject 'wave' is singular. The verb, 'have' is plural.)

    "kbag 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.
    Is this transgression of ninth grade English due to the author or the editor?

    August 2, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Reply
    • CNN needs a proofreader

      Ninth grade at best! And I know many qualified journalists who previously worked for the Wall Street Journal, etc. who cannot land a job. Yet this illiterate is writing for CNN. Their international correspondents are the worst. BBC is much better.

      August 3, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Reply
      • Kindsey

        Damn, I wish I could think of smoiethng smart like that!

        January 1, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
      • xrvrhzcaq

        3e6U8Y kpuedlbebebo

        January 3, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  16. EC

    I have been in Iran, the people are kind, you can however not compare them to other people in the region (turks and arabs). Iranians are a peacefull people that are scared of their rulers. This is particularly true for the Persians, which seem to prefer smoking and drinking tea, rather than freeing its country occupied by mullas. If there where more Kurds or Baluch in Iran, they would have toppled the mullas within weeks.

    August 2, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Reply
  17. F. Safa

    Michelle Moghtader, NIAC's former employee wrote this article... (NIAC is lobbyist for Islamic government of Iran). It is so clear as a lobbyist for that government he is trying to show every thing opposite... just look at the news from Iran, killing innocent people, torturing prisoners, raping women, corruptions... Actually that is exactly what Iranian people want "REGIME CHANGE"

    August 2, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Reply
  18. alex

    Iranians are enjoing a secure and, treasurefull condition,at least 60% .we need to get strong again to be able to enjoy too.

    August 3, 2011 at 1:54 am | Reply
    • alex

      yes we can.

      August 3, 2011 at 2:01 am | Reply
  19. SR

    the writer is living in fantasy land !

    August 3, 2011 at 4:56 am | Reply
  20. SR

    Iranians have never had it better economically. The diametric opposite of Arab Spring countries. Egypt and Tunisia fell because the West could not afford to prop them up any longer, with their own economicies in a mess.

    One of the principal reason Gadaffi is still in Tripoli is, unlike US backed dictators, Gadaffi generously distributed Libya's oil money to his people. Education and Health were free and first class services. Libyans were given $2,500 dollars pa if they choose to study abroad. There was no such thing as gas and electricity bills in Libya as they were all free. Hardly surprising Libyans speak of their "love" for Gadaffi, call him the "brother leader" and prepare to die for him.

    In the end, it all come down to economics. Pro Western regimmes are falling because their financial backers in the West are broke. The money they gave so generously in the past didn't get past their puppet dictators. That's why Mubarak is in the dock today and good chance he will be sent down as Egypt moves further awya from the West. And closer to Iran.

    August 3, 2011 at 5:12 am | Reply
    • Iran does not have a healthy economy.

      The current president recently removed the subsidies which has caused prices to soar. People are hungry and poor, unemployment is devastatingly high, housing is not affordable....For example, since the price of rice has escalated, people cannot afford to feed their families rice (a staple in Iranian cuisine), so they try to fill the stomachs of their children with bread. Iran's economic collaps is inevitable, and that will be the cause of the Iranian revolution. People will live under oppression out of fear for their lives, but once they see their children starving, they will lose all their inhibitions and demand for change.

      August 3, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Reply
      • era

        I think you don't know where is Iran on the map.Maybe the economical situation in Iran is not the best,but one of the best in region.It also has the fastest growing of science in the world,highest percent of access to clean water in the region and one of the highest per capita for accessing t food

        August 10, 2011 at 6:16 am |
  21. sham Alsham

    you want to know why there is not Iranian Spring?, because American and Europe have no control over them and no business there either, look else where in the world every war , catastrophe, disaster the US/ER have a dirty hand in it!

    August 3, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  22. פידש

    Iranian regime will never be brought down by any uprising but its nuclear programe itself wil destroy Iran by the hand of the Jewish State of Israel how unwise for them.

    August 3, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Reply
  23. פידש

    Iranian regime will never be brought down by any uprising but its nuclear programe itself wil destroy Iran by the hand of the Jewish State of Israel very very soon! how unwise for them.

    August 3, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Reply
    • era

      You are dreaming buddy.Israel scares the hell of Iran unless it would have attacked Iran by now

      August 10, 2011 at 6:01 am | Reply
  24. Med tahar

    Why no spring in Persia?
    Actually, on the long run, and with God's will, those countries and their spring will appear just like Iran; (Quranicly democratic) and that's a abless.

    August 5, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Reply
    • black or white

      Agree! Islam will rule all these country, just like Iran, just wait, and Islam will also rule UK, did you see the riot? it is our sign.

      August 9, 2011 at 6:10 am | Reply
  25. Frak Oliver

    I just wanna see if finally I can post a comment on CNN! If published, I'll be back!!

    August 9, 2011 at 9:09 am | Reply
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