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Iran: Discontent and Disarray

Amman/Brussels, 15 October 2003: The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Shirin Ebadi provides a unique opportunity to amplify international support for political reform and human rights in Iran. But given the extent and urgency of regional security concerns – from Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Arab-Israeli conflict and Tehran’s own nuclear program – the world does not have the luxury of awaiting a change in Iran’s regime before seriously engaging it.

The International Crisis Group’s new briefing paper, Iran: Discontent and Disarray,* documents the marked growth in popular dissatisfaction since ICG’s first report on Iran in August 2002. Steadily eroding standards of living, a stalled reform movement, and the restrictions on social and political freedoms have combined to leave much of the population dispirited and disconnected from its rulers. This popular discontent, however, does not mean political change is imminent.

“There should be no let up in world support for political reform and greater respect for human rights”, says Robert Malley, ICG’s Middle East Program Director. “But the regime is not likely to collapse soon, so there is no serious alternative to engaging it on urgent security matters. And that engagement is going to have to address, as well as everybody else’s anxieties, Iran’s own sense of strategic encirclement and nuclear disadvantage”.

The mood of hope that followed President Mohammad Khatami’s first election in 1997 has long since dissipated. For most Iranians it has become clear that ultimate authority rests with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the Islamic Guardian Council, and the various security organs, a bloc largely immune to pressures for reform. Reformist rhetoric has not turned to reality.

Iran likely faces more of the same: protracted political struggle; widespread discontent; sporadic protests; and economic change far slower than the restive populace wants. Student protests persist, but their effect should not be exaggerated; many of Iran’s young people would rather expend their energies leaving the country than in trying to reform it. The relatively small protests remain contained, with most people reluctant to challenge the security services openly, especially in the absence of a credible political alternative.

Change in Iran will most likely come slowly, from a prolonged internal process in which the contradictions at the heart of the current regime work themselves out, and the outside world plays at best a supporting role. The first stage might see the rise of conservative pragmatists, eager to maintain the fundamentals of the regime while opening to the West for economic reasons. Such contacts need to be encouraged and expanded, as they will ultimately help to open up Iran’s political space.

“The need is to strengthen Iran’s civil society, and that can best be done not by isolating the country but by maximising economic and cultural contacts while continuing to urge political reform and more respect for human rights”, says ICG analyst Karim Sadjadpour.

Contacts: Andrew Stroehlein (Brussels) +32 (0) 485 555 946 
To contact ICG media please
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Jennifer Leonard (Washington) +1 202 785 1601
*Read the report in full on our website:

go to report or briefing


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