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Analysis of Recent Iranian Protests (14 and 20 February)


I was impressed by the turnout for Sunday's protests and for those of Monday which preceded them.  The only way the legitimacy of a government can be determined is through a transparent and accountable process, usually best understood to be elections.  The mass expression of civil disobedience by any number of Iranians therefore shows that at root the government has continues to have a legitimacy problem; or as I put it in June 2009, the Islamic Republic has we had come to know it ended.

Likewise, whether representative or not, the fact that the government feels the need to respond with force against the protesters further undermines it's legitimacy.  While pro-government elements have shown some savvy befitting their activist roots by engaging in social media and cyber warfare, it is also increasingly apparent that believing ones own rhetoric can be a fatal flaw.  Thinking that everyone is going to agree with you and reach the same conclusion, rather than keeping an open mind and encouraging dissent has been the weakness of ideological régimes everywhere.

The question has long since stopped being whether or not and how the 2009 Iranian elections were fraudulent, has become irrelevant and more fundamental issues about structural reform and freedom of expression have come to the fore.  Additionally the government's focus on Mousavi and Karoubi may have bought it some time, but it could ultimately bring about the dissolution of the Islamic Republic in much the same way that the Iranian state dissolved in 1979.  Focusing on two important personages ignores that the opposition is broadly based and encourages wholesale disavowal of the government.  The routine persecution of both the Shi'i religious establishment (in the form of its highest-ranking cleric, who have been stridently anti-government), opposition politicians, and middle-class activists simply encourages the formation of new groupings outside of these traditional opposition focal points.

The legitimacy crisis will go on, and in all likelihood protests and other small- and large-scale civil disobedience will too.  The Islamic Republic's previous claim to faim, the holding of somewhat competitive elections in a region with few, now holds little credibility.  Even if protests taper off now, they will invariably resurface again with 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections.

Recent protests in light of the bigger picture

Before 2011, Iran arguably looked like the only state in the Middle East with an active history of change and the willpower to continue the struggle.  No we've seen almost too many revolts to count, and increasingly successful.  In every case unrepresentative and unaccountable dictators have loudly accused external actors and old bogeymen of being behind their problems.

Iran's USP used to be that it was the key defender of the people against The Man (whether man be the West, imperialism, or whatever).  To veteran observers of the area this argument was always problematic, but no doubt it convinced some people, and probably enough to beat protesters on the government's behalf.  Thanks to 2011 that's increasingly hard to believe.  Much poorer, historically more docile, and less educated populations than Iran are rising up to challenge their rulers.

I've had a number of moments of realisation recently concerning just how ridiculous the previous state of affairs was.  There was a lack of models around the region, and the "democratic" models of Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon have left a lot to be desired.  Well now we've seen it.  Home-grown anti-authoritarian movements that were not puppets of former colonial powers or suppressed by the intervention of those powers.  The shadow of 1953, where a British/American backed coup removed the democratically elected Iranian prime minister, Mosaddegh, might still have a hold on people's imaginations, but certainly less so.

The link between the Arab movements in Iran is not direct, but at base it in no way harms Iran's opposition.  Iranians who opposed the government before now can recognise the rhetoric of falling dictators and feel more confident.  At least a few fence-sitters will take note of the arc of history and be less supportive as well.  Amongst the opposition's consistent positions have been not just specific demands but rather a deligitimisation of the ideology and apparatus that have long supported state violence and repression of dissent in Iran.  Following that logic (with which I agree) it's not enough to just change a regime or overturn certain laws; to achieve a stable state the institutional violence of the Islamic Republic must be made to look ridiculous.  Looking out around the Middle East today, it does look more ridiculous.

The Limits of Coercion

A last point about the recent protests, in Iran and everywhere in the Middle East, is that they point the limits on states' use of coercion in most cases.  I've pointed out elsewhere the basic problems with ther coercion constraint.  Eventually it becomes harder and harder for people to carry out the dirty work of suppression, because what the coercive power (in this case the government) really needs is for people to change their minds.  Harrassing close relatives of Mousavi and Karroubi is designed to coerce them into changing their minds, because simply arresting them will not produce the change that government supporters want, and apology and announcement that protesters go home.  Attacks on family, increasingly sever house arrest, and intimidation of family members and supports are meant to ratchet up the pressure, but the government is running out of such means.  If a statement came from Mousavi today, many would simply disregard it as being not credible (because of duress), or ignore it because the opposition movement has moved beyond it's original leaders.

Effectively, the government finds itself in a conundrum whereby it cannot get support without opening up more to achieve broader legitimacy.  Any such action satisfies an opposition demand or strengthens the opposition.  I just don't see how the Islamic Republic can get out of this.

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