Can Nonviolence Work in Iran?

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.

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