The prisoner's dilemma is a canonical example of a game analyzed in game theory that shows why two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so (Poundstone, 1992).
Iranians (both in Iran and abroad) are a good example of the prisoner's dilemma. The prisoner's dilemma in game theory maintains that in a game (interaction) where two people may benefit from collectively working, there are certain circumstances which may prevent them from doing so. Specifically, any circumstance which provides an avenue for greater short-term individual gain will prevent collective action (Chomsky, 1993; 2003). For example, collective action by workers gains long-term advantages; unionization of the American workforce brought about beneficial changes, despite their retraction in contemporary times. Locked in circumstances of being underpaid, overworked, and abused by management will lead to workers cooperating and setting limits for management through collective action. However, if one (of two, hypothetically) overworked laborers are offered a promotion if they perpetuate the status quo by non-participation, collective action is stymied for that one laborer's short-term gain of promotion, even if that promotion entails working within the same corrupt system and losing in the end. The dilemma of the Kurds, according to Chomsky (1993) is similar- being attacked on three fronts and largely unable to win any gains, the Kurdish groups are willing to help other powers destroy fellow Kurdish groups for short-term individual group gains (such as greater autonomy in a specific province, protection from a government, or less intrusion). This aids the divide-and-conquer mechanism that is employed by the larger powers; as long as they can keep the infighting between the groups, they are effectively destroying the chances for collective action and instilling bitter rivalries fueled by memories of atrocities and betrayal. It is for this reason that a civil movement, too, can be stymied.
In the rare instances of Iranian collective action, the prisoner's dilemma shines as the crux of the problem of the Iranian failure to provide a coherent front in demanding reforms and social progress. The 2009 Green Movement was pressed into the prisoner's dilemma in a frighteningly effective way; at first a collective action against the disputed presidential elections between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the situation was quickly muffled by excessive crackdowns from security forces. The protesters faced the dilemma of continuing their demonstrations for a cause that seemed more lost as the weeks passed, with security forces brutalizing protesters and the lack of an international outcry of substance. Faced with the individual gain of staying alive and out of prisons, out of trouble, and able to continue a life that they had been used to up until that point, protesters dissipated until the movement began to disintegrate and the demonstrations ground to a halt as most sane people decided it wasn't worth it to risk their lives challenging a seemingly consolidated hardliner system.
The same dilemma unfolds in the lives of diaspora Iranians. Afforded the opportunity of a lifestyle unknown to Iranians back home, they have more in terms of individual gains than those pressing for reforms in the home country. Abroad, they have more of a stake in businesses, careers, their love lives, their freedoms, and their socioeconomic mobility. All of this is largely without the looming shadow of repression, and thus individual gain is particularly strong. This is why diaspora demonstrations for reforms and human rights amount to little more than a passing outcry, a barbecue and stand-in in front of government buildings and on urban streets, with most participants failing to do anything more. Some are content with signing a petition online and returning to their lives in the evenings; a passing concern muted by their preoccupation with iPods, soccer, studies, the stock market, and other personal matters. For many diaspora Iranians, despite their demonstrations and outward appearance, Iran is an unfortunate homeland they have left behind and they have no intention of returning to live there- some not even returning for a visit in over thirty years. It is safe to say that diaspora manifestations of nationalism are nothing but nostalgia and outward emotional display; part and parcel of a new, bicultural Iranian identity that differs fundamentally from the Iranian identity in the homeland due to its contrasting circumstances. Concern for Iran among the diaspora amounts to no more than something passing, warranting perhaps five minutes of attention, and so filled with negative emotions that it cannot pass that limit of allotted time. Iranians in the diaspora wouldn't dare return to Iran and clamor for reforms; they have too much to lose abroad, namely their new lives.
This is not to say that Iranians abroad should not express themselves in issues that matter in Iran. Yet it is a reality that they have far more to gain individually abroad than at the home country- this is in fact the main reason behind the Iranian brain drain. Reforms and social change will occur when individual gains have been muted by collective, long-term gains. It will occur when Iranians in the home country reach a point where short-term individual gains become irrelevant; this tipping point will be inspired by conditions so dismal that death and loss will be seen as preferable risks for the chance, however slight, of change and reform. This is one of the reasons behind the Western sanctions; misguided and damaging or not, the logic behind the immobilizing sanction regime is that the individual short-term gains will be snuffed out and there will be an acceleration to collective action once again.
Iranian political dormancy is directly linked to the prisoner's dilemma. Personal, individual matters take precedence over collective action, and any structured system knows how to exploit that weakness. In our heart of hearts, we Iranians in the diaspora know this deeply and perhaps can put our fingers on it, but lack the words to describe it. We face the prisoner's dilemma, and we need to admit it, for anything short of admitting our dilemma is a manifestation of our being out of touch with reality. The destiny of reform and social improvement is in the hands of Iranians in Iran, for whom these matters are of far greater magnitude. Yet it is up to all Iranians, all over the globe, to recognize and admit our prisoner's dilemma.