The Ayatollahs’ Tipping Point

After a week of daily mass protests, Iran's rulers cracked down on demonstrators with violence and stepped up their arrests of opposition leaders. But, time and again, when protest-especially disruptive protest - has been sustained for more than a week or two, even the most repressive regimes eventually find it practically and psychologically difficult to sustain its hold.

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – Once the crowds were in the streets in Tehran, one could, if one knew the script, begin the countdown: if today there are mass protests, tomorrow there will be threats of retaliation in the name of “national security.” By day three, we will see journalists imprisoned and media shut down; day four, bloody reprisals against protesters by secret police; day five, arrests of key opposition figures. Sure enough, right on schedule, each of those steps was set in motion in Iran, within the space of a week.

These same ten steps occurred in Thailand in 2006 – in ten days, and in seven days in Myanmar a year later. The script is so well known by now among the world’s would-be dictators that it can take less than a week to lock down a country.

None of this should surprise anyone anymore. We should understand that this time-tested script for establishing or enforcing a dictatorship exists – but so does a counter-strategy for opening up a closed society. When a would-be dictator – anywhere, any time, on the right or the left – wants to close an open society or initiate a crackdown against a democracy movement, he follows ten classic steps: invoke a threat, create secret prisons, develop a paramilitary force, establish a surveillance apparatus, arbitrarily detain citizens, infiltrate citizen groups, target key individuals, go after journalists, call criticism “treason,” and subvert the rule of law.

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