The Nonviolent Opposition in Iran

By John Bacher | 2005-04-01 12:00:00

One of the most heroic but tragically under-reported human rights movements in the world is the 26-year struggle to establish democracy in Iran. Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, a brave cadre of democratic activists -- moving in and out of prison and subjected to frequent home padlockings and demolitions -- have been able to sustain a courageous civil society that challenges one of the most repressive dictatorships.

Apologists for the Iraq war tried to justify the country's invasion on the grounds that apart from a cowed underground opposition based on cells of exiled political parties, there was no ability for civil society to challenge the authoritarian Iraqi state. This is not the case with Iran, where mass demonstrations and strikes have challenged the regime through enduring organizational structures.


The survival of Iran's opposition shows the greater effectiveness of nonviolent techniques.

Groups committed to nonviolence -- student groups such as the Organization for Strengthening Unity, Freedom Movement, National Front, and Mazre-Por Gohar -- continue to publish and protest. In contrast, opposition groups committed to armed struggle -- the People's Fedayeen, Komala, and the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan -- have been virtually crushed by the state.

The biggest popular protest in Iran took place in June 1999. The unrest began with a rally by a few hundred students at Tehran University. Appeals by satellite stations in Los Angeles (supported by that community's 500,000 Iranian exiles) caused thousands more to join in the protests, which spanned several cities.

The June 1999 protests were more radical and centred more on democratizing demands than past rallies. Calls were made for the resignation of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameni.

The response by the dictatorship to the June 1999 protests was quite brutal. Authorities arrested some 4,000 demonstrators, about half of whom were imprisoned for more than a week. Hundreds of people, including several journalists, were beaten by regime loyalists.

The failure of Iran's president, the moderate Mohammed Khatami, to support the arrestees caused many prominent student leaders to withdraw support for his government. He was widely accused of willingly providing a democratic façade for a repressive dictatorship. After these accusations his student critics helped organize a successful boycott of Iran's parliamentary elections.


Iran's most recent popular protest erupted over the banning of a play on January 23, 2005. This took place in Tehran in front of the city's biggest theatre when hundreds of spectators shouted anti-government slogans. To contain the protests, the regime unleashed a vicious beating on demonstrators.

In many ways Iran in 2005 resembles Yugoslavia in 1999, on the verge of the overthrow of the country's dictatorship. Iran, like Yugoslavia before the rise of Otpor ("Resistance," the student protest movement), has thousands of people willing to face torture and imprisonment in a peaceful struggle for freedom, but so far has no unifying movement.

Before Otpor's successful demonstrations to persuade the opposition to unite, Yugoslavia's monarchist opposition, headed by Vuk Draskovic, had testy relations with other opposition groups. Yugoslavia's monarchists, however, were at least united in a single party. Iran's monarchists are heavily fractured on geographical and ideological lines.


Iran's opposition suffers from a lack of support from many activist-minded non-governmental organizations. As one democratic critic, scorning schemes for American military strikes, put it, "We need your soft power, and all of it. We need it in a barrage of heavy-media artillery, think-tank platforms, and the solidarity of Western NGOs. We need US and EU campus events with young Iranians chanting for freedom hand in hand with Western students. We need Western artists as voices for the joyless generation."

Unfortunately there is little evidence of NGO solidarity with Iranian freedom in Canada. This is despite the fact that the dynamics of the situation have all the elements of a left-wing cause. Many of the companies involved with Iran -- such as the giant Royal Dutch Shell, which was widely denounced earlier for its alliance with repressive Nigeria -- could easily be targeted by boycott campaigns as corporate villains.

The Iranian democratic opposition has made it clear that it is opposed to US military strikes, which if they took place, would serve to bolster support for the country's dictatorial rulers. A key student leader, Ayro Pirouznia, has stated that any military intervention "would be the biggest mistake the United States could make," which would "destroy pro-American feeling among the Iranians."

Women's rights are a major part of the program of the nonviolent Iranian democratic opposition. Women launched a "shock and awe campaign against male dominance in Iran," mocking the US bombing of Iraq. This campaign involved women provoking arrest by refusing to cover their hair.

Last summer 200 women were imprisoned for dress code violations. A cry went out that "Two hundred is not enough. It's time to fill up the mullahs' prisons! Let's see if their prisons can fit a few millions."

A variant of this nonviolent technique to provoke arrest by challenging dress taboos is to have women "line up in the streets with colorful sexy dresses and volunteer for the mullahs' prisons." This appeal has caught on with Iranian youth. In Tehran on January 23, the commander of Iran's State Security Forces announced that 649 teenaged girls had been arrested for such offences in the past 10 months.


The Iranian state has lost some of its repressive power. Efforts to carry out the planned public hanging of five Baluchi dissidents in the town of Zahedan were cut short after the death of the first prisoner sparked a wave of protest. The uproar was so great that the community soon took on the appearance of "a street scene of Palestinians fighting the Israeli occupiers."

The basic staple of intimidation of protesters, orders to Iran's Revolutionary Guard to beat protesters, has begun to backfire. There are increasing incidents of the Guards refusing orders and protecting students from pro-regime mobs. Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall, important theorists of nonviolent struggle against dictatorships, have pointed out that such incidents illustrate a "crumbling of the government's pillars of support."

While not encouraged by the organized democratic opposition, there have been spontaneous violent explosions of discontent against the Iranian dictatorship. In an event not widely reported in the North American or European media, on August 23, 2004 massive violence erupted over the issue of inadequate hospital services at the major oil terminal and Persian Gulf port of Ganaveh. This caused government buildings to be set on fire after day-long clashes between protesters and security forces. Despite stringent measures to prevent any protests in the sensitive oil and petrochemical sector, oil workers have staged several strikes in Iran in recent months.


In a July 23, 2003 opinion piece published in the Christian Science Monitor, Ackerman and Duvall warned that although violent methods might seem alluring to angry Iranians, such techniques "will not en-large their ranks." They note that "Attacking the military will not persuade them to defect... they will shoot back, shifting the contest to terms favoring the regime."

Ackerman and Duvall have called for a program of assistance and training in nonviolent technique to the Iranian democratic opposition, similar to the course prepared for Otpor by Robert Helvey. Surprisingly, this appeal has support from one influential American opinion leader, academic and counter-terrorism expert Michael Ledeen.

Canada has done nothing to help the Iranian democratic opposition. When I asked Ottawa about this situation, I was told that Canada sponsors a trade exhibition for Iranian women.

Aid does not need to come from government, but can flow through solidarity networks. One step that needs to be taken is simply to publicize the heroism of the nonviolent Iranian democratic opposition. If it were more widely known, it would increase pressure on the Canadian government to provide assistance similar to the training that was provided to Otpor. Three hunger strikers who were tortured last summer at the Evin and Rajal prisons in Tehran -- Shiva Nazar Ahari, Akram Eghall, and Amir Saran -- should be folk heroes in democratic countries, their stance backed by Canadian trade unions, NGOs, professionals, and even business people. Would this sort of support be too much to ask?

John Bacher is a Toronto writer.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2005

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2005, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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