Iran’s ruling elite appears to be gaining the upper hand and consolidating its rule, although small-scale, often spontaneous demonstrations continue and Mir-Housein Mousavi still refuses to drop his demands of en election re-run.
The crackdown has led to a tactical shift within the opposition, from mass rallies to civil disobedience, including strikes within strategically vital sectors, notes analyst Karim Sadjadpour. But, he concedes, “so far, these strikes have seemingly failed to pick up steam, given that much of the opposition is either in prison, under house arrest, or unable to communicate.”
Contrary to the regime’s claims that the U.S. and U.K. have instigated the current protests, a failure to engage civil society is one reason Western governments have been taken aback by the unrest.
“I think it is fair to say senior administration officials are busily trying to understand how the opposition is generated and where it came from,” a senior official told Eli Lake. Organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy have funded Iranian democracy programs, notes Lake, but the U.S. has not been the most consistent or the most assertive funder, activists contend.
“The Dutch were the pioneers in this field, allocating money for Iranian civil society in 2004,” says Andrew Apostolou, senior program manager at Freedom House. “The U.S. only committed large amounts as of 2006, and most of that was for broadcast media. Civil society is a long-term investment.”
Why are the experts consistently blindsided by mass democratic movements? Natan Sharansky believes it is because they neglect the extent to which apparently isolated dissidents reflect and embody the hopes and aspirations of voiceless citizens.
“Every totalitarian society consists of three groups: true believers, double-thinkers and dissidents,” he argues, and democratic upsurges amount to “the spectacle of a nation of double-thinkers slowly or rapidly approaching a condition of open dissent.”
Former Soviet citizens returning from Iran told him how much the society reminded them of the final phase of Soviet communism: “Iran was extraordinary for the speed with which, in the span of a single generation, a citizenry had made the transition from true belief in the revolutionary promise into disaffection and double-thinking.”