I was one of millions around the world who watched last summer's Green Revolution unfolding on the streets of Iran with high hopes for a swift and bloodless victory. Alas, the regime behaved predictably with its merciless crackdowns on thousands of nonviolent protesters. At the first sign of the repression, media and the global audience began to default to the conventional wisdom that violence equals power and subsequently concluded that the Greens had lost their struggle to restore rights and democracy to Iran.
"I suppose that human beings looking at it would say that arms are the most dangerous things that a dictator, a tyrant needs to fear. But in fact, no - it is when people decide they want to be free. Once they have made up their minds to that, there is nothing that will stop them." -- Desmond Tutu
The reality in Iran is a little bit more complicated. Repression by a regime against a nonviolent movement is a sign of weakness, not strength. The regime's draconian methods of dealing with resistance show that they believe they have no recourse to real legitimacy. While "order" can be maintained for a time through fear and violence, it is always temporary. Once people's desire for justice outweighs their fear of repression, there is little a regime based on fear can do to affect its citizens' behavior. Repression does have the corollary effect of demoralizing people, especially when international media consciously or unconsciously default to the perspectives of the oppressor by conceding that "normalcy has been restored." But a well-organized and strategic movement can overcome these setbacks through patience, discipline, and the translation of their spiritual will to resist into tactically-skilled actions.
Nonviolent movements can sometimes take years to achieve success because their victory is based upon the successful conversion of the majority of the people to the side of the movement.But the systems that emerge from them tend to be more legitimate and more stable. Movements win because people generally believe that their cause is just. In contrast, the "success" and expedience of violence is more shallow- it can appear to be effective because people's behavior tends to change quickly when confronted with a massive, brutal show of force. But beneath the surface, violence can not change minds and hearts. In fact, the use of force tends to gird the perspectives of those on the receiving end of the violence and makes conversion much more difficult (which is why all military campaigns must be accompanied by wide-reaching propaganda campaigns reminding people that the use of violence is just and necessary.)
Had the Iranian regime not already lost most of its political legitimacy and moral authority, the massive protests and sustained resistance (which has been ongoing in many forms unabated) would not have been possible to begin with. Cynical observers might want to remember this. The only way in which Iran will evolve into a legitimate democratic system is through a massive, grassroots, nonviolent civil campaign. The Green Movement understands that. If Americans- and Westerners generally- truly want to see an Iranian democracy emerge from these years of oppression, then we have an obligation to reject the conventional wisdom that violence equals power and thereby stop reinforcing the interests of a brutal regime.