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Power of Protest

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University experts condemn violence, but urge diplomacy toward Iran

Prior to the Iranian presidential election results, Jason Brownlee enjoyed coffee with a former student and talked about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reportedly superior performance during the televised debates.

"I expect Moussavi to lose. It will be like the Bush-Kerry election, but not as close," the assistant professor in government told the student, fully expecting the incumbent, Ahmadinejad, to win.

Jason Brownlee
Jason Brownlee researches and teaches about Middle East politics, authoritarianism and U.S. foreign policy. He specializes in domestic and international processes of political emancipation.

He didn't give it much thought again until he tuned into the news a couple of days later, which was reporting on record numbers of protesters in Iran's capital of Tehran.

"Even though it began with the elections, I think what is really driving people out into the streets is much more," says Brownlee. "After all, this president is not the one who rules the country."

Brownlee, who focuses on Middle East politics, is one of several University of Texas at Austin faculty whose research expertise shed light on developments in Iran. Their years of research and teaching help them give perspective on Iran's post-election protests, U.S involvement in the country and the protests' catapulting of new media into a more prominent role on the international stage.

Other faculty include Kamran Scot Aghaie, director for the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and a modern Iranian historian; Bruce Buchanan, a government professor and renowned U.S. presidential expert; and Homero Gil de Zuniga, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism whose research specializes in new media and political engagement.

"Iranians are mostly urban and highly educated," says Aghaie. "Their political interests tend to center around job creation, reducing inflation and corruption, increasing Iran's integration into the world economy and greater personal freedom.

"In the past the Iranian public has viewed the elections for president and parliament as the means by which to change the direction of the government's policies. This election signals a significant shift. If the Iranian public loses faith in these elections then they may no longer play this role. It is not clear where they will channel these desires and ambitions in the future."

U.S. involvement

The protests and crackdown represent a particularly complex situation for American leaders, given the United States' history with Iran—its involvement in the 1953 coup followed by two and a half decades of support for a repressive Shah has led to much mistrust of the U.S. government among Iranians.

Kamran Scot Aghaie
Kamran Scot Aghaie's research focuses on Islamic studies, Shi'ism, and modern Iranian and Middle Eastern history. He teaches courses about Islamic history and culture.

"I would say those Americans today—whether they're politicians are not—who want to express outrage over government brutality, who see the scenes in the streets in Tehran and want to do something might think about reflecting on Americas' role in supporting today's shahs," urges Brownlee.

"They're not called shahs—they're called presidents or kings—like the president of Egypt or the king of Saudi Arabia: both essentially unelected rulers who are willing to use violence just as aggressively as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if people are challenging their rule," Brownlee says.

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran are further heightened by the American military's proximity to Iran, with forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Persian Gulf. Aghaie warns U.S. support for presidential challenger Mir-Hossein Moussavi could have a counterproductive effect that would delegitimize Moussavi and the Iranian protesters.

"President Obama has done a good job of striking the right tone with regard to Iran," says Aghaie. "He has been cautious from the start and has condemned the violence without meddling in Iran's domestic affairs."

Bruce Buchanan, professor of government, agrees.

"He didn't allow short-term pressure and high emotions to drive him to make the United States the scapegoat," Buchanan says of Obama. "He didn't want to be seen as leading the charge in case we need to go back to our allies to call for sanctions."

However, Brownlee is concerned the U.S. State Department may be viewed as interfering into Iran's domestic affairs when it urged Twitter, a social networking service, relied heavily upon by Iranian protestors, to delay scheduled maintenance that would have disrupted service. The number of Twitter posts mentioning Iran peaked at just more than 221,000 per hour, according to the Web tracking site Trendrr.

Use of social media

Twitter and other social media have been a critical component to the story of the Iranian protests, allowing activists to organize and share information. Technology restrictions by the Iranian government have also been used as a means to intimidate and control the opposition.

Screen grab of YouTube video showing a political protest in Tehran, Iran
YouTube and other social media catapulted into mainstream news reporting as one of the first and only means to see the magnitude of post-election protests in Iran.

Watch this YouTube video from June 17, 2009, in Tehran, Iran. (Video opens in a new window on YouTube.)

"While the news blackout was certainly a negative development, it did have one positive effect, in that firsthand Iranian accounts were given more weight in news coverage," says Aghaie.

"If it's a video on YouTube it's very likely you can trust it in the case of Iran," says Homero Gil de Zuniga, director of the Center for Journalism and Communication Research. "That's why the video is a good mechanism to learn about what is happening in Iran, better than Twitter at this point, which is harder to confirm.

"I'm sure the government of President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would love to control how information gets disseminated," he says. "But, it's very hard to close all the doors, fill all the gaps and not allow citizens to post videos and information out to the world."

Past and future protests

The recent protests came almost 10 years after student protesters took to the streets of Tehran and surrounding cities to protest a Reformist newspaper being shut down. During that time, Reformist President Mohammad Khatami urged students to return to their dorms and called for calm.

"Moussavi is more confrontational, more adversarial than President Khatami was in 1999, certainly," says Brownlee. "He hasn't told his supporters to stay home. In fact on his Web site he told them to turn out again."

Despite this, Brownlee still feels Moussavi is exercising some caution, and rightfully so.

"Even though Moussavi may be the most outspoken Reformist so far," says Brownlee, "he is still very aware of the cost of violence.

"The older generation leadership may be much more fearful about what protests and confrontation can bring than their younger constituents and supporters because they went through the revolution. They understand revolutions can be dynamic and open-ended, and can lead to places they didn't initially want to go.

"As a result," Brownlee says "the Reformists have opted again and again for a strategy of incremental change," rather than pushing for something that would involve a more drastic change in Iranian politics.

While the outcome of the protests in Iran is still uncertain, Brownlee says it's "an experience which will stay with people that they can call upon in the future."

By Michelle Bryant
College of Liberal Arts

Faculty photos: Christina Murrey

On the banner: Iranian supporters of defeated Reformist presidential candidate
Mir-Hossein Moussavi demonstrate June 18, 2009, in Tehran, Iran. Photo: Getty Images.

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