Why & how nonviolence worked in the Iranian revolution – lessons for Uganda

The political, economic, social and moral developments in Uganda that have been accumulating since the 1990s made worse by the stolen elections in 2011 and economic hard times might trigger a regime change or increase instability and violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Those in favor of regime change are either campaigning to use force because according to them that it is the only language NRM military dictatorship understands or civil resistance. Besides working, nonviolence is less destructive than war. The example of a successful nonviolent resistance that toppled the Marcos regime in the Philippines has already been presented. Marcos went into exile. The Iranian civil resistance that toppled the Shah of Iran in 1979 is another. These two examples should convince those Ugandans still bent on the use force. Targeted assassinations and guerrilla tactics were tried in Iran and did not work.

Before presenting the nonviolent methods that were applied, let us review the conditions that triggered resistance to the Shah and his regime. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi came to power in 1941. He lost power to the elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq between 1951 and 1953. With help of western powers the Shah regained control of the country and ruled with an iron fist thereafter, jailing political activists, intellectuals, members of the religious establishment etc. He shut down independent newspapers and employed extensive security instruments including the dreaded secret police (SAVAK) and the military to eliminate dissent.

With massive oil revenue, the Shah emulated Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk as a model in modernization or more specifically “Westernization” of Iran. He invested heavily in the economy and the army. Economic reforms undertaken through the White Revolution since 1963 included land redistribution to peasants and campaign against illiteracy as well as female emancipation. The security forces including intelligence were also modernized including with modern and sophisticated equipment. Notwithstanding these developments, the Shah remained unpopular and was toppled in 1979 in a massive nonviolent revolution.

Regarding the economy, the dissatisfaction was not with modernization per se but the manner in which the benefits of modernization were distributed. The economic program benefited mostly the rich in urban and rural areas, leaving the rest out in the cold. By 1977 the White Revolution (later renamed the Red Revolution by the opposition) which began in 1963 had failed to meet expectations. Sixty eight percent of adults were still illiterate and the number had risen from 13 to 15 million. Less than 40 percent of children completed primary education and 60,000 students were admitted to university against 290,000 applicants. The percentage of degree holders was the lowest in the Middle East. Not least, the doctor-patient ratio remained one of the worst in Western Asia.

Furthermore, the general standard of living deteriorated. For example, those who lived in urban areas suffered from air pollution and experienced severe housing shortage, sewage and transport facilities particularly in Teheran, the nation’s capital. Modernization of agriculture benefited a few and failed to meet expectations of many peasants because of unequal distribution. For instance, for every two families that received land, one received none. For every family that received adequate land of seven hectares, three obtained less than enough. Ninety six percent of villagers had no electricity, farm cooperatives were starved of credit and agricultural production stagnated because of price control.

Income distribution was highly skewed. By way of illustration, between 1956 and 1960 the richest 20 percent of urban households accounted for 51.7 percent of total expenditure which had increased to 55.5 percent by 1974 while the expenditure of the 20 percent in the lowest income bracket amounted to 4.7 percent and had declined to 3.7 percent during the same period. Overall the rich were characterized by conspicuous consumption and rampant corruption. For example, in 1974-75 alone the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy was found guilty of stealing $3.7 million and the Commander-in-Chief of the Air force and brother-in-law of the Shah was implicated in a $5 million kick-back scheme.

The royal family wasted much of the oil revenue on palaces, tours and festivals, solid gold birth tabs and other installations as well as nuclear projects and ultra-sophisticated military weapons. Thus the economic sector was marked by skewed income distribution and rampant corruption in high places.

The clerical establishment was especially unhappy with the Shah’s White Revolution because it contained un-Islamist policies such as elimination of the Islamic calendar and promotion of western art and culture.

Serious challenges were also experienced in the political area. Following the coup that toppled an elected prime minister and a nationalist reformer, the Shah rejected demands for improvements in civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Instead the shah banned all opposition parties, unions and associations. In so doing, the Shah narrowed the regime’s political base and broke the tenuous links with the traditional middle class which included bazaars (merchants).

In 1975, the Shah launched an umbrella political party – Resurgence Party – to which the entire adult population was required to belong and pay dues or leave the country. The ultimate goal of the new party was to control the intelligentsia and urban working class as well as merchants and the religious establishment.

The economic and political changes introduced by the Shah made matters worse for the majority of Iranians. There was high inflation, food shortages and skewed wealth between the rich and poor and between urban and rural areas. The Shah’s economic austerity program including an anti-profiteering campaign resulted in the detention of thousands of merchants. These actions alienated major sectors of society including middle-class government workers, bazaars, and oil workers.

The public led by the middle-class and liberal intellectuals organized dissent, demanding reforms. Former colleagues of the ousted prime minister led opposition to the Shah. They were joined by university students, professional unions such as teachers and layers and the Liberation Movement of Iran made up of religious figures and the Third Force. The Shah was accused, among other things, of selling the country to Western interests, destroying the population through moral decadence marked by crime, alcoholism, prostitution, delinquency and suicide and mismanagement of the economy that resulted in serious deterioration in quality of life of the majority of Iranians as well as in violation of rights and freedoms.

As noted already the clerics rejected the Shah’s reforms. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini accused the Shah of embarking on a program to destroy Islam in Iran and condemned him for collaboration with foreign interests. Khomeini’s arrest and subsequent exile triggered protests inside and outside Iran. From exile, he issued revolutionary statements that were also recorded and widely distributed inside Iran calling for the overthrow of the regime by peaceful means. He directed the revolution from the outskirts of Paris and was aided by foreign news media that broadcasted his instructions. Throughout his opposition Khomeini focused on one goal – the removal of the Shah from power.

Iranians were encouraged in their civil resistance by western countries and organizations such as Amnesty International and the International Committee of jurists that condemned the regime for violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Dissident Iranians in the diaspora staged well-publicized demonstrations against the Shah.

Inspired by Marxist-Leninist ideology and anticolonial guerrilla struggles in Latin America and Africa and elsewhere, a guerrilla movement was established in Iran to wage targeted assassinations and arms struggle against the regime. Iranian intellectuals held a common belief that “only armed struggle would have a chance against a regime that shown a willingness to use force against unarmed protestors”. However the government responded with full force that the guerrilla movement was disabled.

With the guerrilla option suppressed, Iranians resorted to civil resistance. They organized mass protests, strikes and stay-aways and used non-cooperation techniques. The sheer size of the opposition exceeded the capacity of the bureaucracy and security forces to cope. The defeat of the Shah was facilitated by massive defection of bureaucrats to the opposition side. The scattered nature of resistance in Iran and Khomeini and his advisers in exile provided no opposition center to crush.

Chenoweth and Stephan (2011) observed that “Whereas the Shah’s security apparatus infiltrated and decimated main guerrilla groups in the 1970s, the civil resistance that began in earnest in late 1977 exerted significant pressure on the monarchy and became impossible to contain or suppress. The sustained pressure exerted by Iranian workers, students, professionals, clerics, and other segments of Iranian society, even in the midst of harsh regime repression, divided the regime from its most important pillars of support. The popular uprising neutralized the Shah’s security apparatus. On February 11, 1979, when the Iranian Armed Forces Joint Staff declared that the Iranian military would ‘remain neutral’ in disputes between the Shah’s regime and the nation, the final page had been turned on the monarchy”. On February 15, 1979, the Shah went into exile, never to return. Civil resistance worked!

Those familiar with the current and deteriorating political, economic, social and moral situation in Uganda will agree that there are similarities with conditions that triggered mass mobilization against the Shah in Iran. Given the disastrous defeat that the guerrilla suffered from the Iranian forces and the quick results achieved through civil resistance in Iran (and also in the Philippines covered elsewhere) one is tempted to recommend that Uganda opposition forces should resort to nonviolent means to unseat an unpopular regime at home and increasingly abroad that won’t be defeated through the ballot box because NRM has mastered the art of stealing votes.

Those opposition members who still entertain the idea of defeating NRM at the next elections should either unify under one umbrella organization under a charismatic and experienced leader with impeccable record and character like opposition groups in Kenya did under NARC and in Zambia under MMD or drop the idea of contesting elections in 2016 and embark on civil resistance without further delay.

Why & how nonviolence worked in the Iranian revolution – lessons for Uganda.

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