Do sanctions threaten Iran’s pro-democracy movement?

The crushing international sanctions being imposed on Iran over its controversial nuclear plan have caused tremendous economic pressures on ordinary people. Analysts from across the political spectrum agree that the skyrocketing price of goods, dramatic decline in currency, increasing rate of inflation and lack of medicine (particularly for patients suffering from rare diseases) are among the many devastating impacts that the sanctions are having on Iranian citizens rather than the state.  However, there is less consensus among activists regarding the impacts of sanctions on political and social movements in Iran, and particularly on the Green Movement, which formed in 2009 in protest against the outcome of the controversial presidential election.

Iranian activists find that sanctions have had both positive and negative impacts on the political situation in their country. Some claim that the economic effects on the middle class are so extreme that this key part of society is losing ground. They opine that the middle class, which is the base of the Green Movement, is abandoning its political aspirations and is now making only economic demands.

“All my friends have been forced to lessen their political activities, since their first and foremost concern now is to overcome their overwhelming economic challenges, which were either created or exacerbated by sanctions,” said Farshid Faryabi, a journalist and pro-democracy activist who is currently living in exile. “The movement was in a rebuilding process, but the tough sanctions disrupted this process and hindered development of the movement.”

Rejecting speculation that sanctions might fuel public discontent over harsh economic conditions, Faryabi argues that Iran’s political history has never seen successful “bread riots” that ended in democracy.

Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the leaders of the Green Movement who have been under house arrest since late February 2011, have long opposed sanctions. “Sanctions would not affect the government but would impose many hardships upon the people, who suffer enough as a result of the calamity of their insane rulers,” Mousavi said in September 2009. Karroubi has also warned: “Look at Cuba and North Korea. Have sanctions brought democracy to their people? They have just made them more isolated and given them the opportunity to crack down on their opposition without bothering themselves about the international attention.”

At the same time, other Iranians refer to South Africa as an example of a successful transition to democracy brought about by the force of economic sanctions. Activists in this camp deny that the sanctions against Iran have had much to do with the decline of Iran’s pro-democracy movement.

“The Green Movement has had some fundamental flaws that were never attended to properly,” argues Saeed, a Green Movement activist who lives in Tehran and was wounded by gunshot during a street protest in 2009. “Those who claim that sanctions have hindered the movement must be able to argue that, prior to enforcement of tough sanctions, the movement was evolving — while it was not.”

Saeed believes that the movement has been suffering from a lack of “strategic planning,” having no concrete plan to organize activists or increase participation. As a result, it has lost many of its supporters, especially women, who have historically played a leading role in the movement. Saeed acknowledges that activists, like millions of Iranians, face hardships due to the sanctions. However, he believes that “blaming sanctions for the failures of the movement is merely a self-deception and is mostly expressed by the opposition celebrities who, just like the regime, are hiding behind external crises to justify their inactivity.”

Since the 2011 arrest of Mousavi and Karroubi, the Council of Coordination of the Green Path of Hope has become the movement’s most important decision-making authority. In addition to the Council, many activists look to distinguished figures of dissident parties within Iran, usually referred to as “reformists,” to help organize their activities. However, their ability to organize and lead the movement has come under criticism.

“Those who claim to represent the movement, either in the Council or reformist camp, were expected to have plans to turn the threat into opportunity,” Saeed explained. “However, their reaction never went beyond releasing statements to condemn the sanctions. They have shown the same inability in handling other problems the movement has faced so far.”

Though the movement appears silent, in their open letters from behind the bars, political prisoners insist that it is still alive. However, without support from the Iranian diaspora, the movement is unlikely to be reactivated due to the harsh economic situation, political repression and internal strategic flaws of the movement. The opposition abroad can assist the movement inside the country by being a voice for the society in the media and putting pressure on global powers to acknowledge the serious human consequences of economic sanctions.

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