Solutions to Violent Conflict

Reform & Resistance in Iran

In Iran, Sanctions and Security on January 26, 2010 at 10:25 am

An interview with Peter Wallensteen

Peter Wallensteen, a professor at Uppsala University in Sweden and the Kroc Institute at Notre Dame, is an expert on economic sanctions and regime change. We asked him about the reform movement in Iran and how it would be affected by additional sanctions.

How does today’s reform movement compare with the 1978-79 revolution?

The revolt against the Shah was well organized and largely non-violent. It worked because there were serious tensions within the regime, with leading Iranian figures opposed to the Shah. A key turning point was the 1978 walk-out, in which people refused to turn up to work and were able to sustain themselves with support from the mosques. This was an unprecedented form of “internal sanctions” on the regime. Nothing like this has happened yet in Iran. However, the persistence of the Iranian resistance suggests that it has some support from within the regime.

One major difference is that the 1978-79 revolt fed on anti-Americanism, symbolized by attacks on cinemas that showed Western movies. Such sentiments certainly still exist in the population, but they are not driving the resistance. Greater anti-Western sentiments could actually undermine support for the opposition if the regime can succeed in portraying the resistance as a creation of the CIA. The reform movement is seeking to maintain its legitimacy by labeling itself the Green Movement (the color of Islam) and using religious holy days for demonstrations.

Another important difference is the social base of the opposition. During the 1978-79 revolution, resistance to the Shah existed among the conservative rural population as well as in the cities. From what we can tell, the rural areas in Iran today appear to constitute the political base of the clerical establishment.

The danger is that even carefully targeted sanctions could be used by the government to strengthen its nationalist credentials.

Will sanctions help or hurt?

Some believe that tougher sanctions now, when the regime is weakened by internal strife, might lead to the government’s fall. However, I do not believe that the internal fissures in the regime are deep enough for this to happen. Police, intelligence operations, and the military are still firmly controlled in a totalitarian manner. The danger is that even carefully targeted sanctions could be used by the government to strengthen its nationalist credentials.

The Obama administration is urging tougher sanctions for purposes of non-proliferation, believing that the regime is more vulnerable to pressure and might now be more likely to yield to UN demands. Past cases indicate, however, that diplomatic bargaining is also necessary to reach a non-proliferation agreement. In such negotiations, sanctions can be helpful.

What does the opposition movement in Iran think about sanctions?

No reform leader in Iran has argued for the sanctions. This is in contrast to other struggles such as the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, when leaders of the African National Congress advocated sanctions to assist in bringing about change. In general, international sanctions for regime change are only likely to succeed if the local opposition also favors the measure. Mir-Hossein Mousavi and other opposition leaders have opposed the imposition of additional sanctions. In his presidential campaign, Mousavi said he favored Iran’s continued nuclear production, including enrichment, although he opposed provocative policies and advocated greater transparency in Iran’s nuclear program and compliance with international standards.The danger is that even carefully targeted sanctions could be used by the government to strengthen its nationalist credentials.

Internal opposition to the regime is key to reform, and the opposition’s choice of strategy is central.

Regimes whose power base is domestic, resting on an organized clergy, a strong party, or a well-equipped police force and army — such as those in Iran, China, Burma — are difficult to influence from the outside. In fact, they thrive on external confrontation by appealing to nationalism to maintain power. Internal opposition to the regime is key to reform, and the opposition’s choice of strategy is central. This is why a creative non-military opposition movement may be more successful than sanctions. I must stress that the reform movement must resist resorting to violence. Turning to a military confrontation will only mean playing on a field where the regime already has the upper hand. The hope for reform primarily rests with the opposition’s ability to invent new forms of non-violent action.