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The power of noncooperation in Iran

June 19, 2009
By Patrick Van Inwegen, Ph.D.

The events currently unfolding in Iran demonstrate the power of noncooperation to stop the normal flow of government in its tracks. Anti-government demonstrators have repeatedly taken to the streets to protest what they view as election fraud perpetrated by the government to secure a more conservative president.

Supporters of the opposition candidate have attended rallies by the hundreds of thousands in Tehran and throughout the country. In response, the Basij, or morals police, as well as the normal police and special riot squads have brutally cracked down on peaceful demonstrators. In an effort to quell the protests, the Basij have entered Tehran University, violently beating students with clubs in retribution. At least seven people have been killed in the clashes between police forces and the demonstrators. Most recently, the government has clamped down even more on the media to try to keep people from finding out about rallies, deaths, or any activities related to the election.

The protests are illegal in Iran, but, the opposition argues, are justified given that the government’s manipulation of the election was also illegal. Giving some credence to the opposition’s complaint, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader and ultimate source of authority in the theocracy, has said that the government should look into the irregularities.

The events are well covered in the media and continue to unfold, but let’s pull back for just a minute to realize the power of what is happening. There is the very real possibility of regime change in Iran, something that all of the U.S. saber-rattling and Axis-of-Evil labeling could not do.

Many people participated in the election, though we shouldn’t go so far as to call it a democratic election, but many more are now participating in a more robust form of democracy – non-cooperation. The regime demands compliance and the Iranian people will not submit. The police force people from the streets, and yet they come back by the hundreds of thousands. The government says that President Ahmadinejad won the election in a landslide, but the people do not accept the election results.

The power of noncooperation is startlingly clear – Iran has not backed down from pursuing nuclear capabilities, even with the threat of Israeli airstrikes and UN sanctions. However, the clergy are terrified of the possibility of continued noncooperation by the opposition’s supporters.

While threats of airstrikes, sanctions or a robust military presence in the region may look intimidating, noncooperation is working to force the government to change – it is not clear that the government will accept the opposition’s demands, but it has already conceded to investigating the irregularities. This change is extremely positive because noncooperation, at its heart, is democratic. It depends on rule by the people. This may pave the way for real democracy in an area where it has historically been absent.

Whatever the outcome of this particular event, the use of noncooperation to pressure the government to change has helped lay the groundwork for a more vibrant transition to democracy. Compare this with historical US efforts at regime change that have relied on military domination, thereby reinforcing submission to power.

Noncooperation, as a tactic, is something we should support as much as possible given the positive outcomes that are likely. Using noncooperation creates the “paradox of repression” – when a government represses peaceful demonstrators who are demonstrating because the government is repressive, it proves their point in a very clear way to the rest of society. That helps to explain why the repression in Iran, so far, has not stopped the demonstrations. Given this, there are only two ways to effectively end noncooperation – complete repression or responding to the opposition. Complete repression would be very difficult in Iran, given the level of affluence, the demographics (70 percent of the population is under 30 and thus has relatively little to lose), and the claim that the government is a theocracy guided by Islam. Response by the government opens the way to peaceful change and negotiations that look much more like the compromise necessary in a democratic regime.

Response from the government carries the problem, for the government, of setting the precedent that it is responsive to the demands of its people. Again, this will help to push the regime toward democratization.

The events in Iran give us a powerful example of the power of noncooperation to promote democracy by building democratic processes. It is one we should support and promote throughout the world.

Patrick Van Inwegen is an associate professor of political science at Whitworth University. His areas of specialization/expertise include international relations; comparative politics; the strategy of nonviolent action; and trends in revolutions.

Note: The opinions expressed in works written by Whitworth faculty and staff do not necessarily represent the views of Whitworth University or members of its community. They are, however, symbolic of Whitworth’s commitment as a Christian university to the free exchange of ideas.