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Iran: Will Repression Succeed?

June 16, 2011 // 12:00pm1:30pm
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In light of the Arab Spring and the Green Movement in Iran, a panel of Iran experts discussed the prospects of the Islamic Republic of Iran and whether its policies of repression have worked.

On June 16, the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion, "Iran: Will Repression Succeed?," with Roberto Toscano, Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar and Former Italian Ambassador to India and Iran, and Alireza Nader, International Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation. Shaul Bakhash, Clarence J. Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University, moderated the event.

Bakhash introduced the discussion by pointing out that the "Iranian Spring" surrounding the disputed 2009 elections preceded the Arab Spring. Noting that Iran has been relatively quiet in recent months despite unrest elsewhere in the region, Bakhash questioned whether the "message of repression" sent by the Iranian government has worked to quell domestic dissent.

Toscano, looking at the problems protest movements face when opposing any regime, posited that democratic movements tend not to succeed against armed forces. However, he also mentioned that "repression alone cannot guarantee the success of any regime," pointing out that long-term political power comes from culture. In the case of Iran, he said, differing values between the people and the government reveal that promises of reform are "more demagoguery than actual social policy."

Iran's regime needs a "role to play regionally and internationally," he stated, one that provides economic and political integration allowing it to persist in the long term. However, Toscano posited that there was "no possibility for a successful insurrection" in the short term, as there are no clear opposition platforms that propose alternative ways to run Iran's foreign relations, social system, and economic policy. He suggested that the Green Movement might achieve more success in opposing regime repression by developing formal political parties and de-legitimizing the system though not being yet able to replace it.

In contrast, Nader stated that although Iran appears "relatively quiet," the world should not take that as a sign of government stability. Instead, an expanding public dissatisfaction with the system, a lack of leadership seen as legitimate, and especially internal divisions within the regime are indicative of a weakening government. He observed that the political rift between Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad reveals the growing sentiments of anti-clericalism and Iranian nationalism that undermine the legitimacy of a government run by Islamic jurists. Nader noted that Khamenei in particular lacks the legitimacy that Khomeini had as Supreme Leader, in part because his "vast network of patronage and repression" weakens the republican nature of the Iranian government.

However, although Iran has the "ingredients for democracy," Nader pointed out that Iran's opposition movement has too many factions and few clear proposals for addressing social, religious, economic, and political needs. He hypothesized that, lacking clear leadership, the Green Movement has little chance of achieving reform in the government without resorting to violence.

Bakhash summed up the discussion portion of the panel by highlighting the differences between Toscano's and Nader's points. While Toscano suggested that a successful revolution was very difficult against Iran's united regime and military, Nader's focus on the regime's weaknesses and internal divisions hinted at the possibility of overcoming repression. The panelists agreed that any significant changes are unlikely to occur in the near future.

By Laura Rostad, Middle East Program

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