Daniel W. Drezner

The Iranian regime creates a bad focal point for itself

Robin Wright explains in Time why these videos [WARNING:  VERY GRAPHIC] have created a focal point for the opposition in Iran with foreboding consequences for the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei regime:  Although it is not yet clear who shot "Neda" (a soldier? pro-government militant? an accidental misfiring?), her death may have changed everything. For the cycles of mourning in ...

Robin Wright explains in Time why these videos [WARNING:  VERY GRAPHIC] have created a focal point for the opposition in Iran with foreboding consequences for the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei regime: 

Although it is not yet clear who shot "Neda" (a soldier? pro-government militant? an accidental misfiring?), her death may have changed everything. For the cycles of mourning in Shiite Islam actually provide a schedule for political combat — a way to generate or revive momentum. Shiite Muslims mourn their dead on the third, seventh and 40th days after a death, and these commemorations are a pivotal part of Iran’s rich history. During the revolution, the pattern of confrontations between the shah’s security forces and the revolutionaries often played out in 40-day cycles.

The first clashes in January 1978 produced two deaths that were then commemorated on the 40th day in mass gatherings, which in turn produced new confrontations with security forces — and new deaths. Those deaths then generated another 40-day period of mourning, new clashes, and further deaths. The cycle continued throughout most of the year until the shah’s ouster in January 1979.

The same cycle has already become an undercurrent in Iran’s current crisis. The largest demonstration, on Thursday of last week, was called by opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi to commemorate the deaths of protesters three days after they were killed.

Shiite mourning is not simply a time to react with sadness. Particularly in times of conflict, it is also an opportunity for renewal. The commemorations for "Neda" and the others killed this weekend are still to come. And the 40th day events are usually the largest and most important.

We can and should argue about the ability of the Iranian state to contain the effects of new media technologies.  In a strategic sense, however, the government has already failed with the posting of the Neda videos.  They’ve given the opposition a focal point around which to rally. 

To repeat a theme:  this does not mean that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei will fall from power (See:  Tank Man, Goddess of Democracy).  What it means is that even if they maintain their grip on power, they have lost all of their legitimacy. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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