Iran: Internal Social and Political Dynamics

The Security for a New Century Study Group was honored to host Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, author of Women Building Peace: What They Do, Why It Matters,
for a discussion of social movements within Iranian civil society. Her
presentation, which focused on the role of women and the political
culture of civil society, was underscored by the idea that the United
States needs to “widen the lens when looking at Iran.”

Women have played a key part in Iranian politics since the
revolution in 1979, when the traditional religious sector mobilized
them to reject the west and return to Islam because it would protect
their rights and family values. Due to decades without political
representation, women have developed creative methods of activism. The
social policies they wish to change, however, have sparked opposition
from the government because they imply a change to Islamic law, which
creates heated debate in the political sphere.

The activism exemplified by women in Iran indicates a broader
trend in civil society toward moderate yet vocal dissent. The
population’s most significant grievance is poor economic conditions,
but there is also criticism of President Ahmedinejad’s foreign policy;
these claims are thrown into the political space from all segments of
society, including the professional urban elite as well as the rural
working classes that were considered the vanguard of revolution.

Despite a shift toward openness within Iran’s internal discourse, there
remains a strong dissatisfaction with the position of the United States
toward Iran. The 2006 program to fund and support democracy was met
with opposition from both the government and the people because it was
seen as an attempt to provoke regime change where there was no impetus
for one. Civil society feels that outside interference does more harm
than good because it hardens the leadership’s perspective and tightens
their grip on society.

The lack of diplomatic relations exacerbates the United States’
misperceptions about Iran and does not allow for healthy exchange. The
Iranians may disagree with their government but find it fundamentally
legitimate, which means that they turn inward when they feel attacked
from the outside. Iranian civil society, as exemplified by the
activities of women, sees itself as post-revolutionary and wary of
crisis and upheaval. They seek “evolution, not revolution.” Ultimately,
the groundwork exists within civil society to promote engagement and
healthy relations. While constructive internal dissent is paving the
way for increased openness, Ms. Anderlini says that US misperceptions
could debilitate this growth process if a healthier relationship is not

“Security for a New Century” is a bipartisan study group for
Congress. We meet regularly with U.S. and international policy
professionals to discuss the post-Cold War and post-9/11 security
environment. All discussions are off-the-record. It is not an advocacy
venue. Please call (202) 223-5956 for more information.

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