5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

Power and Change in Iran: Dynamics of Contention and Conciliation

Two contributors to the recently published book, Power and Change in Iran: Dynamics of Contention and Conciliation, analyzed the political, economic, and social struggles in Iran throughout the past decade.

On May 5, 2016, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted the event “Power and Change in Iran: Dynamics of Contention and Conciliation,” with Daniel Brumberg, the book’s co-editor and an Associate Professor at the Department of Government and Director of the Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University; and Shadi Mokhtari, one of the book’s contributing authors and Assistant Professor at American University’s School of International Service. Henri J. Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.  

Brumberg began the presentation with a discussion of the book’s history, background, and framing. He expressed how Western scholars have largely ignored recent Iranian political and social struggles, which is why he and his colleagues were compelled to inform others on Iran’s internal politics. Brumberg noted that scholarly work on Iran has mostly focused on the security sector and said that Iran has transformed into a classic security state. This, he indicated, closes off efforts to look at other aspects of change within the country. What he and his colleagues found was that in a political system like Iran, efforts to centralize power can have a boomerang effect, leading to more vibrant struggles against repression. Brumberg concluded that this book helps to explain efforts of Iranian reformists to assert control over hardliners, how hardliners have depended in part on the maintenance of a U.S.-Iranian conflict, and that longer term prospects for change somewhat depend on the nuclear agreement’s continued progress.

Mokhtari focused her comments on her contributed chapter and its broader implications. Her chapter focuses on the varying responses to the post-2009 election repression in Iran, which she argued has not been examined closely enough. She stated that there have been responses from four different groups: the leaders of the Green Movement, dissident clerics who challenge hardliners, political atheists who are often jailed and then challenge the regime through letters from prison, and popular responses from Iranians to the crackdown. The repression following former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ascent to power had delegitimizing effects on his presidency, argued Mokhtari, and this has never fully disappeared from popular discourse. Instead, she said, it has opened up space for discussions on secular human rights—conversations that had previously been referred to as part of a Western political agenda. She went on to read quotes from Iranians who described human rights abuses, including one that commented on the “vicious acts of repression that violated Islamic law and betrayed the values of the revolution.” Mokhtari noted that many of the conversations she had regarding repression were through both Islamic and secular-framed arguments.

Though repression usually produces compliance, Mokhtari explained, it can also backfire. One of the factors that influences the outcome of repression is whether it comes to occupy the forefront of public consciousness, she said. She noted the difference between when public contention remains limited to a small number of activists as opposed to when it comes to dominate public discourse. In the case of Iran, Mokhtari clarified, 2009 brought the state’s repression to the forefront and spurred outrage. She concluded that Iranian resistance has not disappeared, even though there have not been large scale protests since 2009.

Barkey asked the authors to what extent their analysis reflects a Tehran-focused argument and what happens elsewhere in Iran. Brumberg acknowledged that focus is often on Tehran but said that certain chapters in the book capture a more national discussion. Mokhtari added that Iran is Tehran-focused and some of the book’s conclusions do not necessarily apply to parts of the periphery.

Brumberg and Mokhtari concluded that the only real options for change in Iran are to seek out incremental change and to build alliances from within the conservative movement. They added that elections will continue to be important for political contestation in Iran.

By Elena Scott-Kakures, Middle East Program

Speakers

  • Daniel Brumberg

    Associate Professor, Department of Government, and Director, Democracy and Governance Studies, Georgetown University
  • Shadi Mokhtari

    Assistant Professor, School of International Service, American University
  • Henri J. Barkey

    Former Director, Middle East Program