What Iran means

The New York Times has an important piece today on why Iran’s clerical regime is unlikely to fall in the face of the current wave of protests. The short version is that Iran’s rulers have several overlapping security organizations that they can call upon: the police, some three million members of paramilitary Basij, the 120,000-strong ...

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Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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584523_waltcd2.jpg

The New York Times has an important piece today on why Iran's clerical regime is unlikely to fall in the face of the current wave of protests. The short version is that Iran's rulers have several overlapping security organizations that they can call upon: the police, some three million members of paramilitary Basij, the 120,000-strong Revolutionary Guards, and an army of some 400,000. All report to Ayatollah Khameini and as far as one can tell from news reports, none of them show significant signs of disintegrating.

This story points to a serious lacuna in our understanding of what is happening in Iran. Despite the government’s efforts to exclude correspondents and shut down other channels of information (e.g., the Internet), we've been getting lots of reports and videos from the reformist forces.  But I haven't seen any interviews or tweets from Basij members or Revolutionary Guards, or from the millions of Iranians who did in fact vote for Ahmadinejad. In short, we have no good way of knowing how firm the government’s position really is.

The New York Times has an important piece today on why Iran’s clerical regime is unlikely to fall in the face of the current wave of protests. The short version is that Iran’s rulers have several overlapping security organizations that they can call upon: the police, some three million members of paramilitary Basij, the 120,000-strong Revolutionary Guards, and an army of some 400,000. All report to Ayatollah Khameini and as far as one can tell from news reports, none of them show significant signs of disintegrating.

This story points to a serious lacuna in our understanding of what is happening in Iran. Despite the government’s efforts to exclude correspondents and shut down other channels of information (e.g., the Internet), we’ve been getting lots of reports and videos from the reformist forces.  But I haven’t seen any interviews or tweets from Basij members or Revolutionary Guards, or from the millions of Iranians who did in fact vote for Ahmadinejad. In short, we have no good way of knowing how firm the government’s position really is.

The literature on revolutionary upheavals teaches that governments do not fall so long as the leadership remains resolute and the security forces and the army remain loyal. If the Basij, Revolutionary Guards, and other security elements remain willing to follow orders — and that seems to be the case so far — then Iran’s current leaders will remain in charge.  

The only prospect for genuine revolution that I can see would be a prolonged and growing wave of popular discontent — general strikes, funeral demonstrations that get bigger over time (as they did in 1979), etc., — that begins to make normal life impossible, does further damage to Iran’s already-troubled economy and eventually leads to a major rift among the current rulers and to a major reshuffling of the leadership. But it is hard for me to imagine Khameini or Ahmadinejad boarding a plane into exile the way the Shah did in 1979.

Yet even if the current regime survives the present challenge, the impact of the crisis is likely to be salutary. Iran’s appeal as a model of Islamic governance has been tarnished by this episode: instead of being the principled defenders of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary vision of the “rule of the jurisprudent,” his successors now look more like garden-variety authoritarians trying to hang onto privilege and power in the face of widespread popular discontent. And that means Muslims elsewhere will be less inclined to see Tehran as an inspiration, even if they are unhappy with political conditions in their own countries.

The current crisis may also put to rest a lot of the bellicose talk about military action. In recent years, advocates of “kinetic action” (read: preventive war) against Iran have sought to portray it as a nation of wild-eyed revolutionary fanatics, led by Holocaust-denying zealots who openly crave martyrdom and would therefore be willing to fire nuclear weapons at other countries even if it led to their own destruction. That alarmist image was always pretty ludicrous, and it looks increasingly inappropriate today. In the wake of this stolen election (and see here for more evidence of electoral chicanery), Iran’s rulers looks less like a group of fanatics and more like a group of grumpy old men. I don’t see Osama bin Laden or Che or Qutb or even Khomeini; I see Brezhnev, Andropov, Mussolini, or Ceaucescu. It is also clear that a sizeable segment of Iran’s population — and especially its younger members — isn’t interested in a confrontation with the West and simply wants many of the freedoms that we claim to cherish. They are also patriots who love their country, however, and the surest way to turn them against us and to reinforce Ahmadinejad et al would be to start dropping a lot of smart bombs on them.  

In fact, we actually do know precisely how to deal with this sort of situation. As we learned during the Cold War, the proper response to thuggish authoritarian regimes is containment via deterrence, combined with hardnosed diplomacy on specific security issues and a sustained effort to win over their societies by showing them that we know how to produce a better way of life. That strategy won the Cold War without the manifold dangers of preventive war, and probably saved millions of lives in the process. The clerics and their front man may hang on for now, and they might even get a few (unusable) nuclear weapons one day. But time is on our side, and we can afford to be patient.

OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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