the Iran crisis and literature on nonviolent uprisings

I wish I could follow the uprisings in Iran more closely and insightfully, but my background knowledge is limited and news coverage in English is scanty. I must admit that the regime’s victory over mass nonviolent protests in 2011-2012 made me pessimistic, especially since that turned out to be the first in a series of victories by repressive regimes. The global success rate for nonviolent social movements has fallen from near 70% in the 1990s to under 30% in the past decade, probably because authoritarian governments have improved their tactics.

That said, pessimism can be self-fulfilling. Turning trend-lines into predictions squelches agency and hope. Successful revolutionaries are not determinists. Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940, “The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action.” One never knows when masses of people will find inspiration in selected moments from the past and disrupt the patterns of recent history.

The literature on social movements and popular uprisings may offer some insights. That literature suggests that we should focus on certain recent developments in Iran.

The protests appear widespread, highly decentralized, and attractive to a diverse range of Iranians, including students, merchants, oil workers, and ethnic minority groups. In the literature, both the size and the pluralism of protests are related to their odds of success. (The “s” and “p” in my SPUD framework stand for those two factors.)

The movement appears capable of coordinating across a large country even though Iran has shut down the Internet and the protesters do not follow a few charismatic (and hence vulnerable) national leaders.

There are preliminary reports of some soldiers and police joining protests. Although “security force defection” has not occurred yet at substantial scale in Iran, it is a recognized phenomenon in popular uprisings. Chenoweth and Stephan (2011) found that nonviolent movements have been 46 times more likely to succeed when some members of the security forces defect. Anisin (2020) identifies “the size of the oppositional campaign (100,000+ participants)” as a common precondition of security force defection. One recent example was in neighboring Armenia in 2018.

There are also some preliminary reports of possible fissures within the regime, with (for instance) a “Hardline Chief Justice Call[ing] For ‘Dialogue With People’.” The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is said to be “gravely ill,” and his office may represent a power vacuum.

I believe that whether to use violence is a matter of judgment that depends on the circumstances, yet movements generally benefit by imposing restraints on their own behavior. Unrestrained tactics tend to escalate in ways that can damage or split a movement. Refraining from physical violence against human targets–or refusing to use live ammunition–can be bright lines that prevent such escalation. So far, the Iranian protesters seem to be using nonviolence as a self-imposed restraint.

By the way, a movement can be nonviolent despite scattered exceptions. Indeed, a mass movement that is predominantly nonviolent can benefit from the pressure imposed by parallel military movements. In the current case in Iran, several armed insurgencies are underway that may prove synergistic with the civilian protests.

Women play a disproportionate role in the Iranian protest movement. Women have certain strategic assets for social movements. For one thing, their activism can present “an apolitical appearance” that allows them to “engage in more political forms of resistance” without seeming to threaten the state’s monopoly on violence, as my colleague Anjuli Fahlberg notes in her study of Rio (Fahlberg 2018).

So far, we are seeing a familiar cycle: violent state repression instigates broader and more intense popular protest, which create dilemmas for the security forces and may initiate a downward spiral for the regime. That was the pattern in Paris in 1789 and also in Tehran in 1979, when every time the Shah’s regime killed protesters, the vast funeral processions turned into new expressions of popular will. Of course, it was also the pattern in Syria in 2011, with an ultimately tragic outcome.

Overall, I would be looking–and hoping–for scale and diversity, security force defections, self-imposed limitations, and acts of repression that stimulate even broader resistance. Success is far from inevitable but remains possible.

Citations: W. Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940), trans. by Harry Zohn, xv; Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011; Alexei Anisin (2020) Unravelling the complex nature of security force defection, Global Change, Peace & Security, 32:2, 135-155; Fahlberg, A. N. (2018). Rethinking Favela Governance: Nonviolent Politics in Rio de Janeiro’s Gang Territories. Politics & Society46(4), 95–110. See also: people power in Iran (2009); why autocrats are winning (right now); Why Civil Resistance Works; the case for (and against) nonviolence; pay attention to movements, not just activists and events; etc.