Can Nonviolence Work in Iran?

Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo and longtime Italian diplomat and author Roberto Toscano on the future of Iran's opposition.

Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images
Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images
Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

For Iranians seeking an end to authoritarianism and the advent of democracy in their country, the lessons gleaned from this year's Arab uprisings have been mixed.

For Iranians seeking an end to authoritarianism and the advent of democracy in their country, the lessons gleaned from this year’s Arab uprisings have been mixed.

On the one hand, the fall of longtime Arab dictators seems to have allayed the sense of despair felt by many Iranians after their own anti-government protests — in the aftermath of the contested 2009 presidential election — were brutally crushed.

But on the other hand, while the light at the end of the tunnel may have been relit, there is growing debate about the nature of the tunnel itself. Namely, is nonviolent civil resistance the only route to success?

For a population still feeling the heartbreaks of the 1979 revolution and subsequent eight-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — which caused 500,000 Iranian casualties — there is little appetite for violence and no romantic notions about a call to arms. The debate hinges less on the merits of violent resistance, however, than the seeming futility — up until now — of nonviolent protests.

Skeptics of nonviolence argue that civil disobedience works against authoritarian regimes, like those that were in Egypt and Tunisia, which are backed by Western democracies and hence inhibited from slaughtering en masse in order to retain power. The lesson from more ruthless environments, like Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya, is that anti-government forces would never have made any strides without taking up arms.

Other skeptics invoke questionable sociocultural reasons why the Gandhian ethos will never work in Iran. As opposed to "pacifist, vegetarian Hindus," one prominent opposition activist told me last year, "Iranians are kebab-eating carnivores whose Shiite faith teaches us to take an eye for an eye, rather than turn the other cheek."

Few people have spent more time thinking about these issues than Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, and longtime Italian diplomat and author Roberto Toscano.

Toscano served most recently as Italy’s ambassador to India and was previously the Italian ambassador to Iran from 2003 to 2008. In a career spanning four decades, he also served as a diplomat in the Soviet Union and Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, among other places. He is the author of several books, including Beyond Violence: Principles for an Open Century. He is currently a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Jahanbegloo is one of Iran’s most prominent and prolific intellectuals. Among his 10 books in English, French, and Persian are Conversations with Isaiah BerlinGandhi: Aux Sources de la Non-Violence, and The Clash of Intolerances. In April 2006, he spent four months in solitary confinement in Tehran’s Evin prison, charged with trying to organize a velvet revolution. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Sorbonne University and is currently professor of political science and a research fellow at the Center for Ethics at the University of Toronto.

Karim Sadjadpour: Some Iranians are beginning to wonder whether nonviolent civil resistance is a viable strategy against a regime that has not hesitated to employ overwhelming violence and intimidation against peaceful protesters. They argue that the Islamic Republic is more akin to Qaddafi’s Libya than Mubarak’s Egypt, i.e. more totalitarian than authoritarian, and that the Basij militia and Revolutionary Guards will not cede power without a bloody fight. How do you respond to those who argue that while nonviolent resistance may be morally superior, it is tactically and strategically ineffective in Iran?

Ramin Jahanbegloo: Some people feel that nonviolent resistance cannot work against authoritarian regimes with totalitarian symptoms, like the Islamic Republic. Such regimes imprison, execute, or send into exile all those who resist them. But I would make two points in response. First, the violent repression against opponents in Iran is a sign that civic actors pose a serious threat to the ideological foundations of the regime.

Second, nonviolence is the best means to achieve social and political transformation in Iran. The use of arms greatly reduces the probability of success. Nonviolent resistance is a "moral imperative" that determines the political self-understanding and legitimacy of the Iranian civic movement, but it is also a "strategic imperative" that creates the conditions for a democratic solution.

Roberto Toscano: Nonviolence is often branded as a "naive" and "idealistic" strategy, while those who — sometimes reluctantly — accept the need to use violence are considered "realists." But this is simply not true. Recent quantitative studies have revealed that the rate of success of nonviolent movements is historically higher than that of violent movements. The discourse, however, should be more qualitative than quantitative. We have to confront two items of conventional wisdom.

The first is Clausewitz’s famous saying, "War is the continuation of politics by other means." I maintain that war, and violence in general, is an alternative to politics. They are a manifestation of primeval, pre-human, pre-cultural impulses that are still with us but cannot be compared with the peaceful mediation which represents the evolution of human society. Violence exists, but it should not be given the same standing as nonviolence.

The second famous — and equally wrong — pearl of conventional wisdom is, "The end justifies the means" (incidentally, falsely attributed to Machiavelli). We should reverse it and say, "The means (dis)qualify the ends." Too often the loftiest ideals of revolutionaries who claim to fight for humanity are disproved and distorted by their violent behavior toward concrete human beings. Iran is no exception. Iranians have seen what happens when a revolution becomes a violently repressive regime. Much as they may hate the current regime, they are not eager to go through that process again.

Finally, do we believe that a violent platform and practice would have brought 3 million people to the streets of Tehran in 2009? Nonviolence makes consensus- and alliance-building easier. Violence necessarily divides.

KS: What is the line between nonviolent resistance and self-defense? When peaceful protesters are attacked by the Basij, for example, would you implore them to turn the other cheek, so to speak, or fight back to defend themselves?

RJ: The principle of self-defense does not necessarily involve weapons and bloodshed. I think it would be a crime for anyone being brutalized to continue to accept that violence without doing something to defend him or herself.

Nonviolent self-defense paradigm is a means to protect one’s life or the life of others without producing new murderers. As such, self-defense should not be presented as an excuse. It is acceptable only if we do not intend to kill or harm the other person. Speaking in real terms, Iranian demonstrators who defend themselves against the violence of the Basij do not intend to replace them by using the same type of violence. When nonviolent methods succeed, they delegitimize violence as a method of managing hatred and exclusion. The strong images of June and July 2009 showing young Iranians defending police forces against any harm from the demonstrators reveal the moral potential of a future democratic Iran which is not based on revenge and violence. Each time one of us sees this image, we feel a sense of national renewal.

RT: A shield is self-defense. A sword is not, even if it is used against an unjust attacker. Nonviolence admits shields, including the "human shields" (often by women) that we have seen around fallen demonstrators.

I believe your question allows us to better define the very concept of nonviolence, in the sense that it permits us to clarify that nonviolence must not be suicidal. Not harming the adversary’s life or physical integrity does not mean not trying to preserve your own.

There is no doubt that for Iranians nonviolence is a choice deriving not only from moral persuasion, but also from historical experience. Iranians "have been there," both in terms of internal violence and of war, and they do not want to revisit those human disasters. Having said this, nonviolence is a morally demanding option, and not one that everyone is capable of maintaining for an indefinite time when facing violence. For this reason there is always the danger that, if repression continues and escalates, someone will not sustain the strain of discipline and restraint. The result would be tragic, and we should do everything possible to prevent it.

KS: Ramin, can you describe a bit your experience in Evin prison on charges of trying to foment a velvet revolution. Can you help explain to us the mindset of your captors and interrogators?

RJ: I found myself in a very Kafkaesque situation. When you get arrested you don’t know who’s arresting you, why you’ve been arrested, or how long you are going to stay in prison. You have no lawyer. For a long period of time I couldn’t see my family. No information comes from the outside and you can’t get any information out, so you are totally isolated.

The routine of the interrogations was always the same. The guards would open the door to the 2-by-3-meter cell that I occupied, blindfold me, then guide me down a corridor to another room. Wearing my prison-issue light-blue pajamas, I would listen to my jailers hurl accusations that I was a foreign spy trying to foment revolution. It was hard to satisfy their demands. In between meals, consisting mostly of bread, tea, rice, and occasionally some meat or vegetables, I would write down whatever came to mind on the back of torn Kleenex boxes.

That part of my life is of course important to me because it has left me with a lot of consequences. I try to get beyond it. Nonviolence has helped me a lot in this effort. I do not have any bitterness; I try to get pragmatic results from my imprisonment. I think one has to go beyond personal tragedies to think about the democratic political construction of a country. The solidarity of my friends and intellectuals around the world gave me a spiritual strength and a moral inspiration for nonviolence. I take this opportunity to thank all those like yourself and Roberto Toscano who were very effective in organizing this global network for my liberation.

KS: You both have extensive experience not only studying authoritarian regimes, but also living under them. Which democratic transitions elsewhere in the world can be instructive for the Iranian opposition to follow?

RJ: There are several elements that the Green Movement shares with nonviolent movements in Tunisia and Egypt. One is nonviolent discipline. In all three cases people took to the streets and faced violence and repression with remarkable courage and refused to be provoked into overreaction. Another is the effective use of social media. A third is the role of youth. As in Egypt and Tunisia, in Iran the youth have played an important role in forming pro-democracy movements and in demanding universal values like freedom, democracy, and an end to repressive violence. However, in the case of Egypt demonstrators were able to reach out and befriend the military. This type of outreach is still needed in Iran.

Despite the differences between the Iranian Green Movement and Eastern European or Middle Eastern nonviolent movements, they share one central element and that is civil society. What Eastern European intellectuals like Adam Michnik, Vaclav Havel, and Agnes Heller understood by civil society was the notion of horizontal self-organized groups and institutions that could limit the power of the state. What unites Iranians in the Green Movement, as was the case in Poland and Czechoslovakia, is a struggle against the concentration of arbitrary power. The focus on citizens’ rights, free political representation, and the accountability of governing bodies affirms the new political attitude that emanates from the empowerment of civil society in Iran.

RT: Let me start by saying that I am very skeptical about "models," insofar as each country is unique both in its societal forms and historical experience. But we can look at various examples, of course, and there is probably something of interest for Iran in each of them.

In Eastern Europe we can see the role of dissidents as a sort of conscience, a "precursor" of democratic practice. A dissident is by definition someone who chooses the path of nonviolence, even in the presence of a violent and repressive regime. The present Iranian regime recognizes the potential influence of these examples. The proof is that our friend Ramin Jahanbegloo ended up in Evin prison mainly because of his interest in the experience of Eastern European dissidents. The main accusation formulated against him was that he was fomenting a "velvet revolution" in Iran — [a reference to the uprising that brought down Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu].

With regard to the Soviet Union, I see one basic similarity and one basic difference. The similarity (unfortunately denied by hawks and pro-bombing fans in the United States) is that containment plus deterrence is capable of contributing to the demise of the regime, whereas military options would actually strengthen the regime, as was the case when Saddam attacked Iran in 1980. The difference is that in the case of the Soviet Union the political elite could hope to recycle themselves in a post-communist Russia. Communist cadres often became businessmen, while the KGB is still around, including at the top of the system. It would be much more difficult to recycle a mullah or a Revolutionary Guardsman. So the Iranian political elite understandably fear for their future and will not step aside easily.

Spain is also interesting, since the shift from the Franco regime to democracy was made possible by reformists within the regime. If you want to avoid violence, you need to move gradually through reform with the active participation of the most enlightened and moderate elements within a regime. We had Suárez and Gorbachev, so why not Khatami and Mousavi? The leadership knows this, which explains why they fear, hate, and repress even political leaders who do not question the fundamental basis of the Islamic Republic but would like to restore what they see as its democratic potential.

Turkey is growing as a reference not because of its transition to democracy, but rather as a possible answer to the important question of how to make Islam, democracy, and modernity compatible.

KS: When you compare the Iranian opposition to successful democracy movements elsewhere, what are its main deficiencies? What are its strengths?

RJ: I think the great strength of the Iranian civic movement is its moral capital. Never in the past hundred years have the Iranian people possessed any military advantage over their regimes, but this never dissuaded them from rising against different forms of injustice. At each crossroad of history, nonviolent action undermined the regime’s claim to moral legitimacy and diminished its political control. The prevalence of nonviolence, especially the choice of civil disobedience, gives Iranian civil society a sort of "Gandhian" tone. But to grow stronger Iranian civil society must unite.

RT: I would like to compare the opposition movements in Iran and Egypt because I see several differences.

First, Egypt had one dictator and it was thus easier for the democratic movement to concentrate its mobilization against Mubarak personally. In Iran the regime is more of an oligarchy. Even the supreme leader is not so supreme since he has to contend and mediate with the president, the clergy, and the Revolutionary Guards. More centers of power means the regime has more resilience and flexibility.

Additionally, the social bases of the movements differ. In Iran, people went to the streets in 2009 chanting, "Where is my vote?" It was a single-issue political mobilization. This was important as a rallying point, but it was also a narrow base. By contrast, in Egypt people mobilized around a plurality of grievances, many of them social and corruption-related. As a consequence, the social base of the protests was wider in Egypt. Iranians still need to be convinced that democracy is about socioeconomic needs and justice issues, in addition to free elections. The Green Movement is aware of this challenge and has started a process of expanding its platform beyond merely political themes.

Finally, the Egyptian armed forces did not fight for Mubarak because they knew they could outlast his regime. In the Iranian case, the Revolutionary Guards are intrinsically tied to the regime and cannot hope to survive after its demise. They will fight for the Islamic Republic because they are fighting for themselves.

KS: The acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf has argued that contemporary Iranian society is far more sophisticated and informed than it was during the 1979 revolution, saying, "Three decades ago the people were sheep and Khomeini was their shepherd; today there is no shepherd, but people are no longer sheep." Is it possible to have a successful democracy movement without clear leadership?

RJ: With all due respect to Mohsen Makhmalbaf, I think that Iranians have never been a herd of sheep. The Iranian revolution was a charisma-based political transformation. Ayatollah Khomeini gained ethical and political prestige during the Iranian revolution, which in turn created authority, loyalty, and respect. Because of this he had a powerful say in the making of the velayat-e faqih [system of clerical rule] in Iran and in shaping the evolution of society. But this is not the case with Ayatollah Khamenei or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Today the goal of the opposition is to unite in pushing for change toward a democratic social structure in Iran. The Green Movement is a democratic and heterogeneous entity with no ideology and no charismatic leadership. These two characteristics help create its moral capital. As in both Tunisia and Egypt, there is a general agreement among Iranians of the need to end political repression and violence. For that they do not have or need a charismatic leader.

RT: Yes, lucky are the people who do not need heroes. Yet you do need some leadership, and it will arise in unforeseeable ways during popular mobilizations. My impression is that the present leadership of the Green Movement is indispensable but has a more transitional role. Within the all-encompassing democracy movement we need to form distinct political options, with distinct programs and leaders. I would be worried if the Green Movement turned into one single party. Iran does not need a "reverse 1979," but instead greater political pluralism, debate, and interest mediation. This is called democracy.

KS: Labor movements have often played a pivotal role in bringing down authoritarian regimes elsewhere. How would you describe the political disposition of Iranian labor? What are the other main arteries of the Iranian economy that could put pressure on the regime, and how plausible is it that they might join forces with the opposition?

RJ: We cannot ignore the power of the working class in Iran. If the working class had not gone on strike in the 1970s, the shah would probably not have fallen. Industrial, transportation, and crafts unions could play an important role in democratization in Iran. The oil workers in Abadan also represent considerable political potential. A strike at Abadan’s oil refinery would represent a huge blow to the Iranian economy, which is controlled today by the Revolutionary Guards. Yet Iranian labor activists have come under fierce attack recently, with bus workers’ union organizer Mansour Osanloo imprisoned and tortured.

RT: Labor should be an important component of the Iranian democratic movement. The regime does not only fear intellectuals and the middle class. Osanloo and other labor leaders are in jail, and independent labor organization are repressed with extreme brutality. The leaders of the Green Movements should study the Polish experience and the powerful result of the alliance between intellectual dissidents and independent labor.

It is also important to address the economic nature of the Islamic regime. It is a corporatist economy. The Green Movement should include a policy for private business in its platform. I believe that many Iranian entrepreneurs, especially of the younger generation, would be ready and eager to contribute to a modern Iran moving away from crony capitalism and fascist-style corporatism to a real market linked with the global economy. This means moving from an ambiguous and distorted system of charity-welfare to a modern welfare system based on rights.

KS: It is seemingly taken for granted that the Islamic Republic will one day be succeeded by a democracy. Are you optimistic that a culture of democracy has taken hold in Iran?

RJ: It is still too early to venture into speculation about the future of democracy in Iran. What does seem certain, however, is that a new generation of civic actors will have a major part to play in writing the rules of the game in a changed Iran. Without a doubt, this will entail ruptures with theocratic sovereignty and empower the republican gesture in Iranian society. The Green Movement is the reflection of a new Iran in search of accountability, transparency, and democratic institutions.

RT: Paradoxically, in spite of its history of repressive regimes, Iran has a deep culture of democracy. We can go back to the painful but rich history of democratic aspirations in the country.

Many sincere Iranian democrats criticize Khatami, but I think his presidency helped radically change political discourse in the country toward wider acceptance of both democracy and freedom. He was not able — and I do not believe he wanted to — do away with the Islamic Republic. What he wanted was to extract from the maximum democratic content compatible with the regime’s survival.

Of course, as the regime knows only too well, reform can turn into regime change. Regime change of the democratic, internal kind, and not one promoted or imposed from the outside, is the only sustainable form of regime change and the only one compatible with democracy and national sovereignty and dignity.

KS: What role can outside actors, including the United States, best play in order to help the cause of democracy in Iran?

RJ: Experience has shown that nonviolent change cannot be imported from the outside. But when indigenous democratic movements do not get any support from the international community, they rarely succeed. If the international community fails to condemn repressive violence in Iran, the government will continue to trample on basic rights. So, more than focusing on Iran’s nuclear program, the international community should focus on violations of human rights.

Instead of direct foreign aid to civic groups, Western and Eastern governments should withdraw economic support from regime institutions and use their diplomatic leverage to pressure the Iranian regime to reform. They should also support civil society capacity-building through nonviolent e-learning. This should be accompanied by a permanent international effort to bring the misfortune of Iranian civic actors into our living rooms, offices, and university classes. As the saying goes, "You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom." There is no future for democracy in the West without democracy in Iran.

RT: Outside help cannot substitute for internal dynamics, of course, but it is important.

I believe that adding, within sanctions, a list of torturers and inquisitors responsible for repression is a significant way to demonstrate that the outside world cares about human rights in Iran and not only about security or economic matters. The international community must understand that the nuclear issue is considered by the great majority of Iranians to be a national, not a regime issue. No future democratic government would give up an autonomous, peaceful, nuclear energy program. This means that insisting on the "zero enrichment" demand only strengthens the regime. What Iranians object to are the prices that this regime, given its provocative stand, obliges the country to pay in pursuit of a nuclear program. The outside world should focus its criticism and challenge of the regime on other themes, such as its support of radical Arabs, which has never been popular in Iran and now appears even more absurd and counterproductive in the present phase of democratic revolt throughout the region.

<p> Karim Sadjadpour is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. </p>

More from Foreign Policy

Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.
Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.

Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak

Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.

Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.
Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.

Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage

The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.

A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.
A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.

The West’s False Choice in Ukraine

The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.

Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi
Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi

The Masterminds

Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.