Daniel W. Drezner

The limits of people power in Iran

Rob Farley wrote a excellent post last week explaining the crucial decision-making nodes during a social uprising against a repressive regime.  Basically, people power revolutions only work in changing the regime if one of two things happen.  First, if the government decides not to pull the trigger on its citizens, then the state loses its ...

Rob Farley wrote a excellent post last week explaining the crucial decision-making nodes during a social uprising against a repressive regime. 

Basically, people power revolutions only work in changing the regime if one of two things happen.  First, if the government decides not to pull the trigger on its citizens, then the state loses its trump card ad falls.  Second, if the coercive apparatus either resists or splinters in the wake of an order to pull the trigger, then things get much more messy, but the government usually falls. 

Looking at Iran right now, I don't think either condition is holding.  Sunday's events strongly suggest that the Khamenei regime is willing to kill to stay in power, though how much killing remains open to question (as horrific as the YouTube videos have been, there has not been any large-scale slaughter yet).  

Rob Farley wrote a excellent post last week explaining the crucial decision-making nodes during a social uprising against a repressive regime. 

Basically, people power revolutions only work in changing the regime if one of two things happen.  First, if the government decides not to pull the trigger on its citizens, then the state loses its trump card ad falls.  Second, if the coercive apparatus either resists or splinters in the wake of an order to pull the trigger, then things get much more messy, but the government usually falls. 

Looking at Iran right now, I don’t think either condition is holding.  Sunday’s events strongly suggest that the Khamenei regime is willing to kill to stay in power, though how much killing remains open to question (as horrific as the YouTube videos have been, there has not been any large-scale slaughter yet).  

As for the coercive apparatus, the signs are that they will hang together rather than hang separately.  The Revolutionary Guards just upped the ante

Threatening to crush dissent, the powerful Revolutionary Guards warned protesters Monday that they would face a “revolutionary confrontation” if they returned to the streets in their challenge to the presidential election results and their defiance of the country’s leadership….

A Revolutionary Guards statement Monday told protesters who took to the streets in a week of demonstrations to “be prepared for a resolution and revolutionary confrontation with the Guards, Basij and other security forces and disciplinary forces” if they continued their protests, news reports said.

I have seen no indication that other components of the coercive apparatus — non-Revolutionary Guards military, police, Interior Ministry, etc. — are either cracking or defecting from the regime.  And as Laura Secor points out, "Although the country’s constituency for democracy is vast and growing, the regime has a constituency, too, and it is passionately loyal and heavily armed."

There are only two cards left to play for the opposition.  If they double down on street protests, it forces the Basij and Revolutionary Guards to start killing in large numbers, and that could cause a splintering of the state. 

The other card is Rafsanjani’s.  If he uses his institutional power to discredit Khamenei via the Assembly of Experts, then it raises further legitimacy questions.  Rafsanjani’s been pretty quiet as of late, however, and I suspect his risk-aversion will keep him quiet regardless of the long-term consequences. 

Am I missing anything? 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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