Iran (civil society) - Dr. Ali Fathollah-Nejad • Official Website
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Why Sanctions against Iran are Counterproductive: Conflict Resolution and State–Society Relations

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, “Why Sanctions against Iran are Counterproductive: Conflict Resolution and State–Society Relations“, International Journal, Vol. 69, No. 1 (March 2014), pp. 48–65.

International Journal: Canada’s Journal of Global Policy Analysis (IJ), published by the Canadian International Council (CIC) and the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History (CCIH), “is Canada’s pre-eminent journal of global policy analysis. It combines brief, policy-relevant articles with longer, peer-reviewed, scholarly assessments of interest to foreign policy-makers, analysts and academics in Canada and around the world.”

From the “Editors’ Introduction

“We began work on an issue that would offer global perspectives on the always vexed controversies over nuclear weapons months before the 24 November 2013 “interim agreement” between Iran and the P5 + 1 powers. The recent development on Iran—and, in particular, the hopes and fears it has highlighted in global public and political discourse—adds a certain urgency to the views expressed in the essays that follow. […] Ali Fathollah-Nejad examines the effect of Western sanctions designed to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, focusing on the gap between the ever-hopeful discourse of their proponents and the often counterproductive results for Iran’s foreign policy, society and economy.” (Prof. Mairi MacDonald, Director of the International Relations Program in Trinity College at the University of Toronto & Dr. Adam Chapnick, deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and an associate professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.)

Article Abstract

This article critically examines the ramifications of the international sanctions regime against Iran on two fronts: the conflict pitting Iran against the West, and the impact of the sanctions on state–society relations. On both accounts, it finds the dominant narrative, according to which sanctions would facilitate conflict resolution while weakening the authoritarian state, to be misleading. Instead, it demonstrates, on the one hand, how sanctions have hardened the opposing fronts and therefore prolonged the conflict between Iran and the West, and on the other, how they have cemented the domestic power structure in the Islamic Republic and weakened Iran’s civil society.

Further Details

  • Article published in the peer-reviewed International Journal, Canada’s leading International Relations journal; plus epilogue discussing the reasons behind the November 2013 Geneva Agreement, where it is argued that U.S.-Iranian rapprochement is not primarily a result of the West’s sanctions policy, instead the emphasis is put on the significance of a re-ascendant foreign-policy school of thought in Tehran.

Iran’s Civil Society Grappling With a Triangular Dynamic



Ali Fathollah-Nejad (2013) “Iran’s Civil Society Grappling with a Triangular Dynamic[pdf], in: Aarts, Paul & Cavatorta, Francesco (eds.) Civil Society in Syria and Iran: Activism in Authoritarian Contexts, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, pp. 39–68.


Sir Richard Dalton (Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House, Royal Institute of International Affairs, London & UK Ambassador to Iran, 2003–6):

“I agree with [the] analysis and conclusions […] which is a depressing conclusion for the fate of civil society”

Editors in Jadaliyya interview:

“of particular relevance is the insight being delivered by Ali Fathollah-Nejad (“Iran’s Civil Society Grappling with a Triangular Dynamic”) on the nefarious effects of the international sanctions on Iran’s civil society. He convincingly shows that economic sanctions widen the gap between the authoritarian state and civil society, cementing and even boosting existing power configurations while hollowing out social forces indispensable to a process of democratization.”

From the introduction (“Civil Society in Syria and Iran”) by the editors

“The contributions by Line Khatib in Chapter 2 [“Syria’s Civil Society as a Tool for Regime Legitimacy”] and Ali Fathollah-Nejad in Chapter 3 [“Iran’s Civil Society Grappling With a Triangular Dynamic”] provide a sophisticated analysis of how the international dimension and domestic factors interact to not only shape the power structures of the regimes and their legitimizing ideologies but also reveal how such a dynamic interaction partly explains how civil society actors respond and operate. […] Fathollah-Nejad’s chapter on Iran focuses on the role of the international community in shaping activism. Iran traditionally had a rather lively civil society and the revolutionary spirit has always called for greater mobilization on the part of citizens. Over the last decade, however, Iran has become the focus of international attention as the country became a much more prominent regional actor. The nuclear issue and the support of Islamist organizations such as Hamas and Hizbullah have heightened significantly the tensions with the West. These international dynamics have considerable domestic repercussions, and Fathollah-Nejad argues that they are crucial in structuring activism in Iran.” (pp. 11-12)

Book description

What are the dynamics of civic activism in authoritarian regimes? How do new social actors—many of them informal, “below the radar” groups—interact with these regimes? What mechanisms do the power elite employ to deal with societal dissidence? The authors of Civil Society in Syria and Iran explore the nature of state-society relations in two countries that are experiencing popular demands for political pluralism amid the constraints of authoritarian retrenchment.

About the editors

  • Dr. Paul Aarts is senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Amsterdam. He is co-founder of ZemZem, a Dutch magazine focusing on the Middle East and North Africa, and co-author of Saudi Arabia in the Balance: Political Economy, Society, Foreign Affairs.
  • Dr. Francesco Cavatorta is senior lecturer in the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. His publications include Civil Society and Democratization in the Arab World and The International Dimension of the Failed Algerian Transition.

Reviews (excerpt)

Max Weiss (Elias Boudinot Bicentennial Preceptor and Assistant Professor of History and Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University) in Syrian Studies Association Bulletin, Vol. 18, No. 2 (2013):

“Ali Fathollah-Nejad argues that Iranian civil society has been placed in a state of siege (63), caught between an authoritarian regime, on the one hand, and external factors—including a hostile geopolitical environment and crippling economic sanctions—that limit their capabilities, on the other hand.”

Stephan Giersdorf (Lecturer, Institute of Political Science, Heidelberg University, Germany) in Democratization, Vol. 20, No. 7 (August 2013), pp. 1-3:

“Overall, the volume is a useful contribution to an expanding focus of scholarly endeavour, one which aspires to unravel the dynamics of civil society activism within a seemingly unfavourable authoritarian context. […] Ali Fathollah-Nejad shows for the Iranian case that international sanctions on the regime had a counterproductive effect with regard to the development of vocal civil society groups by indirectly reducing the space of democratic activism. […] analysts interested in civil society actors in Syria and Iran will benefit from the book.”

Dr. Said Rezaeiejan (Political Science, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, University of Amsterdam) in: ZemZem: Tijdschrift over het Midden-Oosten, Noord-Afrika en islam (The Netherlands), 2013, No. 2, pp. 92-96:

“Interessant in geval van Iran is het onderzoek van de Iraanse promovendus Ali Fat[h]ollah-Nejad. In zijn bijdrage ‘Iran’s Civil Society as a Tool for Regime legitimacy’ [sic] laat hij zien hoe internationale sancties tegen het land de kloof tussen het bewind en de civil society vergroten en hoe de staat de leemte vult door de eigen GONGOS. De door het Westen ingestelde ‘smart sanctions’ blijken helemaal niet smart te zijn en hebben een averechtse werking. Ze maken de autoritaire staat sterker. Fat[h]ollah-Nejad laat de negatieve rol van de sancties overtuigend zien aan de hand van empirische voorbeelden met betrekking tot Iraanse vrouwen- en studentenorganisaties en arbeidersvakbonden.
De negatieve rol van de sancties op Iraanse studenten in en buiten Iran is noemenswaardig. Aan de ene kant worden wetenschappelijke artikelen van Iraanse studenten in Iran niet meer in ‘peer-reviewed journals’ geplaatst en wordt hun de toegang tot academische online bladen onmogelijk gemaakt. Dit beleid zorgt voor een negatieve beeldvorming over het Westen onder academici. In hun ogen maakt het Westen geen onderscheid tussen wetenschap en politiek. Iraanse studenten die in het buitenland studeren ondervinden op een andere manier de gevolgen van de sancties; hun visa worden vaak niet verlengd en ze kunnen geen financiële transacties doen omdat het Iraanse bankensysteem als gevolg van de laatste ronde van sancties uitgesloten is van het internationale betalingsverkeer. Ook krijgen Iraanse hoogleraren geen of met veel moeite visa om conferenties in de EU dan wel de VS te kunnen bijwonen. Bovendien heeft de instorting en de devaluatie van de Iraanse Rial ervoor gezorgd dat studeren in het buitenland voor veel families onbetaalbaar is geworden. Deze devaluatie is een directe gevolg van de crisis van de Iraanse economie wat het gevolg is van de sancties.”

Review by John Waterbury in Foreign Affairs, March/April 2014.

Dr. Jubin M. Goodarzi (Professor of International Relations, Webster University, Geneva, Switzerland) in Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 12, Issue 2 (June), pp.  506-508:

“Rich with information and analysis on the various aspects and effects of authoritarianism in Syria and Iran […]. Indispensable and highly recommended for those who study the Middle East and follow the literature on authoritarianism in general.”


David Lewis [Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, UK] (2013) “Civil Society and the Authoritarian State: Cooperation, Contestation and Discourse“, Journal of Civil Society, Vol. 9, Issue 3, pp. 325-340.

Statement by a Group of Iranian Anti-War Activists about Iran’s Presidential Elections

We are a group of Iranian academic and antiwar activists in Europe and the United States who, in the past few years, have consistently defended Iran’s national interests in all areas including its right to develop peaceful nuclear technology. Our varied activities in the face of anti-Iran propaganda by the neoconservatives in the West have included organizing press conferences, taking part in radio and TV debates, creating antiwar websites, publishing bulletins and newsletters, writing opinion pieces and letters to editors, attending national and international antiwar conferences and  petitioning and lobbying western politicians and parliamentarians.

We have campaigned against the policies of the United States and its Western allies which have unjustifiably targeted Iran – including sending Iran’s nuclear dossier to the United Nations Security Council, issuing UNSC resolutions against Iran, secret and public efforts to provoke strife in Iran and destabilize the country, and threats by the United States and Israel for military intervention and bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

As we approach Iran’s presidential elections, we are duty bound to share the lessons of our antiwar activities and highlight what national policies can defend Iran’s interests effectively in the international arena without isolating it or enduring U.N. sanctions.

In order to safeguard Iran’s national rights successfully, we think Iran’s president elect must give priority to the following policies in his programs and plans:

(1) Questioning the Holocaust, which has greatly aided the hawks in the West, must be discarded and replaced with a constructive foreign policy devoid of any provocative rhetoric.

(2) Releasing all political prisoners, freedom of press, organizations and political parties, as well as peaceful meetings and gatherings. Recognizing the right of all citizens to run for election without any political vetting.

(3) Abolishing medieval punishments, such as stoning and cutting limbs, public executions, and execution of minors.

(4) Recognizing full and unconditional equality in all areas for women and ethnic minorities. Recognizing the full citizenship and civic rights of official and unofficial religious minorities.

Disregarding these tasks will seriously hinder the social and political development of the country, and will divide the Iranian people in their resistance against the unwarranted neo-colonial pressure and double standards of the Western powers. It will also provide powerful propaganda tools to hawks and their allies in mainstream media for isolating Iran and denying its fundamental rights in international organizations.

Taking steps to carry out these measures, on the other hand, will put our country on a fast track to progress, will unite Iranians of all walks of life, and disarm the neoconservatives in their aggressive propaganda against Iran.


Professor Ervand Abrahamian, City University of New York

Dr Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, School of Oriental and African Studies

Professor Haleh Afshar, University of York

Professor Mohammad Ala, Persian Gulf Task Force

Professor Hamid Dabashi, Columbia University

Professor Abbas Edalat, Imperial College London

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, University of Muenster and School of Oriental and African Studies

Dr Mehri Honarbin, Canterbury Christ Church University

Dr Farhang Jahanpour, University of Oxford

Mohammad Kamaali, Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran

Professor Mahmoud Karimi-Hakkak, Siena College, New York

Professor Fatemeh Keshavarz, Washington University in St Louis

Dr Ziba Mir-Hosseini, School of Oriental and African Studies

Professor Pirouz Mojtahedzadeh, Tarbiyat Modarres University

Professor Davood Nabi-Rahni, Pace University in New York

Professor Azam Niroomand-Rad, Georgetown University

Dr Ali Rastbeen, International Institute of Strategic Studies Paris

Dr Elaheh Rostami, School of Oriental and African Studies

Professor Nader Sadeghi, George Washington University Hospital

Shirin Saeidi, University of Cambridge

Professor Muhammad Sahimi, University of Southern California

Leila Zand, Fellowship of Reconciliation


Bayâniyeh-e grouhi az faâliyan-e zedd-e jang dar khârej az keshvar dar bâreh-ye entekhâbât-e riâsat jomhouri, Etemad-e Melli & Andisheh-ye No, 08/06/2009.

Statement by a Group of Iranian Anti-War Activists about Iran’s Presidential Elections, 08/06/2009, also published as Statement of Academics, Tehran Bureau, 08/06 | In Defence of Iran,, 10/06 | Monthly Review Webzine, 10/06 | Global Research, 10/06 | ZNet, 15/06.

Tahran’ı ‘temize çıkarmak’ için dört basit yöntem, Radikal, 12/06/2009.

Erklärung einer Gruppe von Antikriegsaktivisten an den künftigen iranischen Präsidenten, ZNet Deutschland, 14/06/2009 | republished as Aufruf einer Gruppe von Antikriegsaktivisten an den künftigen iranischen Präsidenten, Sand im Getriebe (SiG), No. 74 (28/06/2009) | short version published as Fortschritt statt provokativer Rhetorik, junge Welt (Berlin), 13/06, p. 8.