The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Friday, April 25, 2003
ON MY PERSIAN RUG, I CAN STRAY FAR AWAY: Steve Postrel writes: "Interesting
piece in USA Today. Congrats. I'm no expert on the Iranian Islamic republic, but just from general reading I question this statement, however: 'It's not because Saddam was especially more oppressive than Iran's rulers: When democratic ferment began in Iran, it faced one of the world's most repressive regimes.'

"I'm afraid this is not correct. Iran's government is repressive, to be sure, but there were always many more openings for dissent in Iran than in Iraq. First, the oligarchic Iranian regime had competing power centers among the various mullahs, the military, etc. Second, the Iranians never developed the level of internal surveillance that Saddam did -- he actually went beyond Stalin in his use of overlapping and competing agencies, total penetration of society with informers, etc. Hence the prevalence of satellite dishes in Iran, for example. Third, the Iranian repression was less certain and severe than Saddam's. Even when something anti-regime was detected, it wasn't always punished, and the level of punishment seems to have been much, much less than Saddam's -- we don't hear about whole families being tortured or murdered as a result of one member's transgressions, for example. Fourth, the Iranian republic always allowed limited public debate about politics, ran elections that it was capable of losing, etc.

"I'm not saying Iran isn't horribly repressive -- it clearly is. But it is not nearly as totalitarian as Saddam's Iraq."

Steve is quite right. In the classic op-ed manner, I carelessly overstated my case.

I certainly don't think it's impossible for the nonviolent rebellions I'm writing about to emerge in totalitarian countries like Iraq. Gene Sharp, who I cited in my article, has gathered some interesting examples of effective resistance even under Hitler. But I grabbed Iran as my repressive counterexample because it seemed elegant to restrict my discussion to the two countries I'd already brought up, without thinking through the implications of the statement. Bad idea.

For more on a topic Steve raised in passing -- the prevalence of theoretically illicit satellite dishes in Iran -- go to an old interview I did for Reason with Zia Atabay, president of the L.A.-based National Iranian Television. "Everybody in that government wants money for themselves," he told me. "They take a satellite dish down, and after two days, it'll be sold to someone else. So it goes in a circle."

posted by Jesse 11:55 AM
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