For Iranians seeking an end to authoritarianism and the advent of democracy in their country, the lessons gleaned from this year's Arab uprisings have been mixed.
On the one hand, the fall of longtime Arab dictators seems to have allayed the sense of despair felt by many Iranians after their own anti-government protests -- in the aftermath of the contested 2009 presidential election -- were brutally crushed.
But on the other hand, while the light at the end of the tunnel may have been relit, there is growing debate about the nature of the tunnel itself. Namely, is nonviolent civil resistance the only route to success?
For a population still feeling the heartbreaks of the 1979 revolution and subsequent eight-year war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq -- which caused 500,000 Iranian casualties -- there is little appetite for violence and no romantic notions about a call to arms. The debate hinges less on the merits of violent resistance, however, than the seeming futility -- up until now -- of nonviolent protests.
Skeptics of nonviolence argue that civil disobedience works against authoritarian regimes, like those that were in Egypt and Tunisia, which are backed by Western democracies and hence inhibited from slaughtering en masse in order to retain power. The lesson from more ruthless environments, like Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya, is that anti-government forces would never have made any strides without taking up arms.
Other skeptics invoke questionable sociocultural reasons why the Gandhian ethos will never work in Iran. As opposed to "pacifist, vegetarian Hindus," one prominent opposition activist told me last year, "Iranians are kebab-eating carnivores whose Shiite faith teaches us to take an eye for an eye, rather than turn the other cheek."
Few people have spent more time thinking about these issues than Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, and longtime Italian diplomat and author Roberto Toscano.
Toscano served most recently as Italy's ambassador to India and was previously the Italian ambassador to Iran from 2003 to 2008. In a career spanning four decades, he also served as a diplomat in the Soviet Union and Augusto Pinochet's Chile, among other places. He is the author of several books, including Beyond Violence: Principles for an Open Century. He is currently a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Jahanbegloo is one of Iran's most prominent and prolific intellectuals. Among his 10 books in English, French, and Persian are Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, Gandhi: Aux Sources de la Non-Violence, and The Clash of Intolerances. In April 2006, he spent four months in solitary confinement in Tehran's Evin prison, charged with trying to organize a velvet revolution. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Sorbonne University and is currently professor of political science and a research fellow at the Center for Ethics at the University of Toronto.
Karim Sadjadpour: Some Iranians are beginning to wonder whether nonviolent civil resistance is a viable strategy against a regime that has not hesitated to employ overwhelming violence and intimidation against peaceful protesters. They argue that the Islamic Republic is more akin to Qaddafi's Libya than Mubarak's Egypt, i.e. more totalitarian than authoritarian, and that the Basij militia and Revolutionary Guards will not cede power without a bloody fight. How do you respond to those who argue that while nonviolent resistance may be morally superior, it is tactically and strategically ineffective in Iran?
Ramin Jahanbegloo: Some people feel that nonviolent resistance cannot work against authoritarian regimes with totalitarian symptoms, like the Islamic Republic. Such regimes imprison, execute, or send into exile all those who resist them. But I would make two points in response. First, the violent repression against opponents in Iran is a sign that civic actors pose a serious threat to the ideological foundations of the regime.
Second, nonviolence is the best means to achieve social and political transformation in Iran. The use of arms greatly reduces the probability of success. Nonviolent resistance is a "moral imperative" that determines the political self-understanding and legitimacy of the Iranian civic movement, but it is also a "strategic imperative" that creates the conditions for a democratic solution.
Roberto Toscano: Nonviolence is often branded as a "naive" and "idealistic" strategy, while those who -- sometimes reluctantly -- accept the need to use violence are considered "realists." But this is simply not true. Recent quantitative studies have revealed that the rate of success of nonviolent movements is historically higher than that of violent movements. The discourse, however, should be more qualitative than quantitative. We have to confront two items of conventional wisdom.
The first is Clausewitz's famous saying, "War is the continuation of politics by other means." I maintain that war, and violence in general, is an alternative to politics. They are a manifestation of primeval, pre-human, pre-cultural impulses that are still with us but cannot be compared with the peaceful mediation which represents the evolution of human society. Violence exists, but it should not be given the same standing as nonviolence.
The second famous -- and equally wrong -- pearl of conventional wisdom is, "The end justifies the means" (incidentally, falsely attributed to Machiavelli). We should reverse it and say, "The means (dis)qualify the ends." Too often the loftiest ideals of revolutionaries who claim to fight for humanity are disproved and distorted by their violent behavior toward concrete human beings. Iran is no exception. Iranians have seen what happens when a revolution becomes a violently repressive regime. Much as they may hate the current regime, they are not eager to go through that process again.
Finally, do we believe that a violent platform and practice would have brought 3 million people to the streets of Tehran in 2009? Nonviolence makes consensus- and alliance-building easier. Violence necessarily divides.
KS: What is the line between nonviolent resistance and self-defense? When peaceful protesters are attacked by the Basij, for example, would you implore them to turn the other cheek, so to speak, or fight back to defend themselves?