A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, December 28, 2009

What Next in Iran?

The violence that tore through Iran on ‘Ashura certainly suggests that the discontent that has been rising since the Presidential election has not abated; the fact that the crowds are now denouncing the Rahbar, Ayatollah Khamene'i, rather than Ahmadinejad and that there are reports of some police and security forces refusing to fire on the crowds or even joining them shows that the legitimacy of the regime is crumbling. But does that mean it will fall? Here I think there are a number of reasons for caution, despite the clear levels of discontent.

First, I would agree with Juan Cole that while the legitimacy is shredded, there is no clear revolutionary alternative, at least at the moment. While the protestors are denouncing the fundamental principle of clerical rule (velayat-e faqih), the leaders of the movement, Mir-Hossein Moussavi (whose nephew was killed yesterday) and Mehdi Karrubi, are still very much within the clerical system, and denounce Khamene'i for betraying it. There is no obvious rallying center for an alternative system, no leader analagous to the role of the exiled Khomeini in the previous revolution. The only alternative leader I can think of other than Moussavi or Karrubi is Rafsanjani, and he's very much in and of the system. A moderate coup bringing Rafsanjani and his allies in might be conceivable, but at this stage, I don't think the overall clerical system is about to collapse. (But in 1978, the Shah wasn't obviously on the verge of collapse either: an escalating cycle of protests and repressions transformed the situation.)

As others have noted, the protestors are mostly urban, middle-class, often students and young professionals. Many who know Iran better than I claim that there is still a lot of support in the rural areas and among the poor for the Islamic Revolution, with which Khamene'i and Ahmadinejad still identify. The regime has lost the intellectuals and the middle classes and many of its own moderate faction. An Iranian professor of my acquaintance who recently returned to the country was visibly nervous about going home. Clearly things aren't well.

Sometimes authoritarian states — and Iran seems to have become one even if you didn't class it as one a few years ago — can last a long time after legitimacy is lost. There are still aspects of the government's policies that are popular in many quarters of Iranian society — and the nuclear project is one of these, though not all US policymakers get that fact — and the lack of a charismatic leader, and continuing solidarity of the Guards Corps, mean the government can weather a lot of protests at this point.

The question is: can any of this change, as it did for the Shah?

First, the leadership issue: there is no exile figure to play the role of Khomeini in the 1970s; the internal opposition is obviously under enormous pressure. Moussavi and Karrubi and former President Khatami and their allies are vulnerable to pressure, even to arrest and prosecution. Rafsanjani is probably immune to those things, but his wealth and alliances make him an unlikely Robespierre. Perhaps he will prove to be a behind-the-scenes manipulator who outmaneuvers the present leadership: that I think would be the likeliest scenario for change, but it's leadership change, not regime change.

I don't see an external rallying figure emerging. Who would it be? The noisiest of the exile groups, the People's Mojahedin of Iran or Mojahedin-e Khalq, are still classed as a terrorist group by the US despite their propaganda successes with some members of Congress, and they are a bizarre personality cult whose rallies look more like Nuremburg than a popular movement, and they're disarmed and surrounded by US and Iraqi forces anyway. (Also, lots of Iranians who dislike the present regime will never forgive them for siding with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war.)

Who else? There are quite a few Iranian groups in the West but they tend to be headed by academics, not charismatic leaders. Reza Pahlavi? The Pahlavi dynasty had awfully shallow roots anyway, and I don't think many Iranians want a monarchy. He could possibly win election if only the Iranian community of southern California (and only they) were voting, but otherwise, nah.

Now, sometimes vacuums can be filled. Khomeini was an unlikely figure to become the icon of a revolution, and lots of other forces thought they could use him to bring down the Shah, then do things their way: instead he used them. In 1770 a few Americans had heard of Samuel Adams, George Washington, and Patrick Henry, but only the first was a real activist, and today is more remembered for the eponymous brewery than his actual revolutionary agitation. When the Bastille fell Danton and Robespierre were still rising figures and Bonaparte unknown outside Corsica. So there may be someone waiting in the wings.

And sometimes revolutionary leaders emerge from the strangest places. Boris Yeltsin drank too much and sometimes behaved buffoonishly, but when he got up on that armored personnel carrier in August 1991, he brought an empire down. But the moment was right. (And that example reminds us that no system is impervious to change, no matter how rigid.)

The other big question is the military, and in Iran that really means the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, the IRGC or Sepah-e Pasdaran. So far, their ranks haven't cracked. Khamene'i is their patron, Ahmadinejad their creation. (But then, Rafsanjani is their father, so to speak, and may still have some clout there.) Gary Sick has called our attention to a piece by Ali Ansari at The National Interest called "The Revolution will be Mercantilized," which notes the IRGC's involvement in the economy. The IRGC has way too much invested in the current system to turn on it: they are it. Anwar Sadat made Egypt coup-proof by giving the military control of huge sectors of the economy (Amira Sonbol has compared it to the Mamluk iltizam system); Iran has done something similar. It makes it far less likely that the men with the guns will change sides. The handwriting on the wall for the Shah was when his "Immortals," the military elite, refused to fire on demonstrators. On ‘Ashura, some police did the same, but until and unless the IRGC does so, the cycle will continue to erode the regime's legitimacy, but probably won't bring it down.

But then, revolutions do sometimes surprise us. I think the Administration's criticize-but-don't-directly-get-involved response is the right approach: almost all Iranians would rally behind a regime under American pressure or, unquestionably, American military assault. Let them play out their own revolutionary scenario, win or lose.

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