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Iran and the Arab Spring: Decades in the Making

In the same week that the UNHCR published a damning report on Iran’s Justice system and the US Attorney General broke precedent in accusing specific Iranians of cyber attacks on the US, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini made his annual speech marking the Persian new year. His speech emphasised the need for strong energy-efficient industry and the rooting out of corruption. Khameini paid little heed to either accusation and state-media inevitably sought to play them off as an excuse for the West to continue the slow easing of sanctions which Iran would fight with a ‘Resistance Economy.’ This is a well-trodden path for Iranian media who has often worked with the narrative of foreign powers wanting to exploit Iran and its people, harking back to its history.

Britain at the beginning of the 20th century and America at the end were not Iran’s first imposed rulers. But for every repressive ruler, Iran has had a popular revolution; the constitutional revolution in 1905, the Shah’s revolution against the Qajars in 1921, the quiet revolution under Mossadegh in  1953, the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the Green revolution in 2009.

Two key themes have played out in each revolutionary change; firstly, a clear opposition to an autocratic ruling power. Secondly, the uniting of secular reformers and Muslim clerics.  There have been religious differences and the involvement of foreign powers throughout but neither has been a consistent enabler on the side of pro-democracy revolution.

The clear implications of this are that both themes are necessary for any future revolution and that Iran is a breeding ground for popular revolutions in the Middle East. The Green Revolution in 2009 was a failure because it was born out of a modern proletariat, of new urbanites, women and students. It lacked the historical necessity of a majority of right-wing clerics, with the death of the dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri marking an end to the chances of revolution.

What the Green Revolution succeeded in doing was offering a new style of revolution in the Middle East. One inspired by colour revolutions, democratic ideals and the power of technology. The movement may have been suppressed violently but it still provided a semi-coherent alternative to a powerful regime, who quickly began to censor popular media sources in the country. When the initial protests of the Arab Spring began many countries were not so fast to control opposition dialogue and they were the regimes that later fell.

Certain credit must therefore go to the Green Movement in showing the political power of information, the deaths of Neda Agha-Soltan in Iran and Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia both were dedicated as martyrs of the cause across social media. And this is not the first time Nonetheless, the work of western organisations to promote democracy and weaken regimes in the Middle East was not insignificant. Neither was the influence of the Iranian government’s training, weapons and militia in the region, still going on in Syria today.

Clearly, the influence of Iranian democratic sentiment in Iran’s civic society and repressive authoritarianism in its government make it a clear player in any revolutionising actions in the region, perhaps more key than any other actor.

But the increasingly disparate opposition from the 1979 revolution is facing a weakening position. Not only has the clerical regime downgraded its terror levels since 2009 but the rise to power of Hassan Rouhani in 2013 has led to the decreasing likelihood of another successful revolution. Rouhani’s liberal stances and Western willingness to negotiate and ease sanctions have reduced the opposition’s platform and support from the West. The gains of moderates in parliamentary elections last month have further reduced the 2 key elements for Iranian revolutionary change as secular reformers rally behind the government and Iranian politics is viewed as increasingly less autocratic.

Unfortunately, Rouhani’s moderate agenda is a mere token to cover up the structural changes made to create a more repressive Islamic state. And although other countries may have a less sophisticated regime that is easier to bring down, Iran’s is only becoming more immovable. While this regime remains and secular reformers and radical clerics continue to disagree there is little hope of inspiring revolutionary change in Iran or in the region.

Sam Jaffe


1 Comment

  1. […] Original Article: Iran and the Arab Spring: Decades in the Making […]

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