Theses Doctoral

State, Dissidents, and Contention: Iran, 1979-2010

Rezai, Hamid

Why after almost a decade of silence and "successful" crackdowns of contention during the 1980s has Iran witnessed once again waves of increasing popular protest? What are the processes and mechanisms behind the routinization of collective actions in Iran since the early 1990s, which continue despite state repression? Why and under what circumstances does a strong authoritarian state that has previously marginalized its contenders tolerate some forms of contention despite the state's continued repressive capacity? And finally, to what extent are available social movement theories capable of explaining the Iranian case? In "State, Dissidents, and Contention: Iran, 1979-2010" I engage theories of social movements and contentious politics in order to examine the emergence, development, and likely outcomes of popular contention in contemporary Iran. My study is the first project of its kind to focus on elite factionalism and its impact on popular mobilization in contemporary Iran. Although other scholars have extensively written on elite factionalism in postrevolutionary Iran, they have not analyzed the implications of the inter-elite conflict for the emergence and development of social protests against the Islamic Republic. While this study primarily utilizes political process and resource mobilization models, it acknowledges the importance of economic, ideological, and breakdown approaches for the interpretation of the emergence and development of popular mobilization in contemporary Iran. Drawing on data gathered from census figures, public policies, state and oppositional newspapers, and interviews with dissidents and state officials, this study shows that collective actions against the Islamic Republic emerged gradually due to institutional changes, limited electorate competition, social and educational expansion, and, more importantly, the intellectual transformation of a significant segment of the elites and their action-intended discourse. I demonstrate that the political opportunity structure is not a unitary national opportunity but rather varies by social groups, demands, and contexts. I make this argument by exploring the political environment for collective mobilization in contemporary Iran in four key contexts: 1. the period of consolidation, war, and repression (1979-1988, the Khomeini era); 2. the period of postwar reconstruction and economic liberalization (1989-1997, the tenure of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani); 3. the era of reform and political opening (1997-2005, the tenure of President Seyyed Mohammad Khatami); and 4. the period of mobilization in the context of increasingly violent repression (2005-present, the tenure of President Mahmood Ahmadinejad). By examining social protests within these different contexts, I conclude that regimes that use force to restrict political rights after a long and sustained period of opening risk eliciting resistance from dissidents who have already gained organizational resources to challenge the state's violent closing.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies
Thesis Advisors
Dabashi, Hamid
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 28, 2013