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The Iranian Crackdown: Who's Really Afraid of Whom?

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Now that the Iranian regime has predictably cracked down, there is a growing misconception that the resistance has failed and "stability" (i.e. status quo) is on its way to being restored. However, the conventional wisdom that repression "works" is in need of some correction, especially when it comes to the ongoing events in Iran.

First of all, it is critical that spectators of the Iranian uprising understand that violent repression on the part of the regime is not evidence of the regime's strength, but rather of its weakness. And that when a regime finds itself resorting to draconian measures to suppress the voice of its own people -- even as an international audience watches in horror -- it is a sign that the regime has calculated that they are facing an opponent of potentially enormous power. Violence is a last resort, even for a repressive regime, because the cost of using it can be devastating to a government's legitimacy. Hannah Arendt wrote that "In a head-on clash between violence (a state-sponsored military) and power (mass civil resistance), the outcome is hardly in doubt." But, she continues, while violence can temporarily disable the momentum of power, "it is utterly incapable of creating it." Since violence is purely a destructive force while mass civil resistance has the potential to be a creative force, each use of violence by the Iranian government against nonviolent protesters chips away at the political authority of the regime, and makes the case for an alternative source of power that much stronger. When used against a nonviolent movement, instead of being a sign of strength, extreme brutality often results in what Gene Sharp has called "political jiu-jitsu." This is where the regime's violence ends up working against them instead. When martyrs are created (e.g. "Neda"), internal or external parties who were previously on the sidelines are often galvanized to support the movement. So every time the regime represses, it further undermines its own power while simultaneously helping to recruit new members to the resistance.

A second thing that global observers should understand is that just because we can't see the movement, we should not assume that they have been successfully crushed. To the contrary, a strategic movement understands that mass protests and rallies are only one -- usually the most visible -- tactic amongst a menu of options available to a nonviolent civil resistance campaign. Successful movements are able to anticipate and prepare for the inevitable brutality of a regime like the one currently being undermined in Iran. They adapt lower-risk actions that take individuals out of the cross hairs, but allow the movement to sustain both their morale and momentum. Over recent days, we've heard about numerous campaigns that fall into this category (for example, Mousavi himself has allegedly organized a mass campaign to nonviolently shut down bazaars across the country), which, when combined with the ongoing activity in the digital media, are clear signs that the movement has not gone away. Ordinary people have withdrawn their consent for the government and are willing to take action, especially if creative, low risk options are presented to them. They are following in the footsteps of courageous nonviolent resisters who battled against Pinochet's junta in Chile, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. All of those movements faced severe repression yet devised nonviolent actions to disrupt their oppressive systems and mobilize people. So while the Iranian government would like us to believe that they are "restoring normalcy," the reality is just the opposite. Is it possible that people's desire to be free from corruption and oppression now outweighs their fear of being repressed? Ironically, once that threshold has been crossed, each act of regime repression causes the resistance to go up, which subsequently lowers the level of fear amongst the population. Violence itself becomes a victim of the rule of diminishing marginal returns.

Thirdly, there is very real evidence that many members of the government's security forces have begun to step over to the side of the people. For days now, the rumor has been that it is only the Basij who are still willing to ruthlessly carry out the regime's orders against the protesters. The potential significance of this can't be overstated. An oppressor's security forces are usually the most girded of the pillars of support, which are the institutions or groups who help the oppressor maintain the system of injustice. It is not Ahmadinejad or the clerics themselves who are shooting at the protesters, it is the security forces -- army, police, and paramilitary -- that are doing the regime's dirty work. However, the neutralization of the opponent's security forces is very possible, has been done successfully in the past (a few notable examples include South Africa, Chile, Serbia, Ukraine, and the Philippines), and almost always signals the turning point in the struggle. Sometimes security forces change sides because they've been persuaded by the message of the people's movement. Sometimes they change sides because they believe the regime whose orders they are enforcing is about to fail, and they don't want to go down as losers alongside the government. And sometimes they change sides because they find it more and more difficult to use violence against their own brothers and sisters. Perhaps in Iran they've been moved by the extraordinary courage of the individuals or discovered that they have more in common with the people than the regime. But for whatever reason, members of the security forces are being transformed by a successful outreach campaign on the part of the movement. And once those holding the guns see the people on the other end of the scope as colleagues, neighbors, family, or just human beings, it becomes much more difficult for them to carry out their orders.

It is still too early to draw a conclusion about the medium or long term success of the resistance in Iran, but one thing is certain: every time a government official or cleric openly threatens more repression against the mass nonviolent resistance that still persists, he betrays which party in this dynamic is truly motivated by fear.