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Iran: a phantom victory

The Iranian state has won a round in the battle against the opposition "green movement". But the war of survival continues, says Sanam Vakil.

“Revolutions are born out of hope”, wrote Crane Brinton in his classic work The Anatomy of Revolution. The entire cycle of events in Iran since the contested presidential election of June 2009 - including vibrant demonstrations that have drawn worldwide attention - suggests that Iran is not in a revolutionary condition. At the same time, the state is facing the most serious challenge since the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

The convergence of widespread social and political disenchantment, elite fissures, economic dislocations and international pressure together present a severe test of legitimacy. Even if the state proves able to quell the opposition “green movement” and suppress dissent - as it was able to do on 11 February 2010, the thirty-first anniversary of the revolution of 1979 - it is guaranteed no respite.

The green movement that emerged during the election campaign of Mir-Hossein Moussavi in 2009 has offered a formidable challenge to Iran’s state. Its eight months of intermittent but passionate and varied protest has revealed it to be a resilient movement fuelled both by public anger and widening political cleavages among the Iranian elite. The popular outrage over the election gradually spread into the expression of larger political grievances, including the state’s coercive policies.

At the same time, the divisions within the Iranian elite are deeper than ever. The hardline cadre around the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - which includes the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - uses the ideology and tradition of the revolution as weapons in its attempt to retain a monopoly of power; while the reformist factions and pragmatic backers around Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi (each of whom was a reformist presidential candidate in the 2009 election) and Mohammad Khatami (Iran’s president, 1997-2005) have rode the social demand for political change.

Most analysts agree that the greens lost the battle over the anniversary commemorations, in that they were unable to mount large-scale protests in face of intense security. But the setback goes deeper, in that the regime - after eight months of defensive reaction to the unrest - proved able to  last week stifle the movement’s disruptive capacity. Much of this effort took place before the anniversary events themselves in pre-emptive measures such as coordinated arrests and targeted intimidation of known opposition figures or sympathisers. This forceful operation - supplemented by the import into Tehran of large numbers of regime loyalists from provincial and rural areas - ensured that the momentum of the green movement was stalled at a high-profile moment.

A key question now is whether this defeat is a temporary setback or likely to prove more enduring. The issue of leadership is an important part of the answer. The movement is amorphous, and the de facto triumvirate at its head - Moussavi, Karroubi and Khatami - has not provided strong direction or articulated clear goals and a coherent strategy. Perhaps this is not so surprising, since after all these men are also establishment figures who seek not to undermine the integrity of the Islamic Republic but to return it to the lost ideals of the 1979 revolution. This ambiguity of position and aim, coupled with stringent measures by the state, raises the prospect of drift and retreat unless the opposition can reinvent itself.

The circles of pressure

But the twist in the current Iranian situation is that the regime’s political “success” may be a phantom victory. Beyond the internal political battle that is consuming huge amounts of the state’s money, the regime faces two other grave problems.

The first is the economy. Iran’s has been buffeted by the global recession, and is further affected by high unemployment, rising inflation, strikes by disaffected workers, and international sanctions over the country’s nuclear programme. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has proposed an ambitious (and unpopular) reform package that would increase government spending and debt while replacing subsidies on consumer goods with cash payments to low-income families. The widespread social discontent is likely to influence the majlis (parliament) to reject the president’s plan, at least in its current form.

The second problem is the issue of Iran’s nuclear plans (which is also an economic issue, since continuing tension increases the likelihood of a further round of United Nations sanctions). The Iranian government is continuing its policy of sending mixed signals over such matters as the transfer of uranium for enrichment outside the country, while pursuing a fundamentally bellicose line. Ahmadinejad’s announcement at the rally on 11 February  that Iran has enriched uranium to a level of 20% (ostensibly for medical purposes) is but one source of fear in western capitals over Iran’s true nuclear intentions. The imposition of more sanctions by the United States and United Nations would burden the economy and the regime harder at an already difficult time.

These various sources of pressure - a fragile economy, elite factionalism, discontented people, international hostility and a still active (if now rethinking) green movement - ensure that the Islamic Republic will remain in the only stance it knows: combat-mode. Its protracted war for survival continues. 

About the author

Sanam Vakil is an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy. She is the author of Women and Politics in Iran: Action and Reaction (Bloomsbury, 2013)

Read On

BBC - Iran crisis

Tehran Bureau

Juan Cole, Informed Comment

Ali Gheissari & Vali Nasr, Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty (Oxford University Press, 2006)

Ali Ansari, Confronting Iran (Basic Books, 2006)

Ray Takeyh, Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic (CFR, 2006)


Nikki R Keddie, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution (Yale University Press, 2006)

Michael Axworthy, Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran (C Hurst, 2007)

More On

Sanam Vakil is a adjunct professor and visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). She is writing a book on women’s activism in Iran

Also by Sanam Vakil in openDemocracy:

Iran’s nuclear gamble” (1 February 2008) 

Iran’s hostage politics” (2 April 2007) 

The Iran-American dialogue: enemies within” (4 June 2007) 

Iran’s political shadow-war” (16 July 2008)

Iran’s election and Iran’s system” (21 April 2009) - with David Hayes

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