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What We Have Learned From Iran

Posted by Anthony on July 11, 2009

By Anthony J. Aschettino

Looking at the Iranian post-election uprisings of 2009 from several weeks’ perspective, it becomes much clearer as to what the results of the protests have accomplished: they have affected the regime as much as the voting electorate and they represent a new chapter in potential discourse with the Islamic Republic.

The first, and most important, result of the protests is that Iran no longer can maintain even an air of legitimacy about the “democratic” process within the state. In the past there was a general consensus that, if not entirely democratic (the oligarchy of mullahs still runs the show), there was the potential chance for change on more practical levels such as the economy and collective security. This illusion has been smashed beyond repair: Iran will, as long as it retains the current regime, never again have a legitimate election.

The second result is a corollary to the first: the regime in Iran must now, in order to retain power, rely on coercion and brutality for the rest of its existence. On the surface this is not so much a problem: the Iranian government showed during the protests that they were more than willing to use deadly force against their own population, and the number of arrests and secret trials will probably never be truly known. Yet in order to maintain the level of security necessary to prevent further uprisings or, worse for the image of the regime, footage and commentary about what is going on in the state, they will have to continue to closely monitor and restrict access both to the internet and phone systems. This will, in the long run, be ruinous to the Iranian economy and drive yet another faction of the population against the government: the middle and merchant class.

Third is the fact that the upper echelons of the Iranian government, while having disagreements that sometimes flare out into the public domain, will not provide the impetus for regime change. The dissident faction, centered on men like Khatami and Rafsajani, has made clear by its actions during and after the protests that they are not willing to split the regime over fraudulent elections. While certainly coercion by the reactionary faction plays a role (including accounts of numerous pro-Mousavi cleric family members being arrested), there is probably also a good deal of concern that if the clerics manage to get rid of Khamenei the public may not want a cleric to take his place. It is entirely plausible to believe that once the pro-Mousavi faction realized the extent and depth of the anger and frustration, fears that regime change could entail a wholesale liquidation of all clerical rule may have given them pause before they poured more fuel on the fire.

The revolution of 1979 was not won in a week or even a month, and therefore it is still entirely too early to dismiss this current round of protests as being dead in the water simply because the government has won round one. Yet it is important to remember that in 1979 the Shah was dying and various first hand accounts combine to paint a picture of a man frozen with indecision as the protests gained in their frequency and severity. There is no such hesitance at the top levels of the government today, and furthermore they have shown that they are determined to ensure such protests never occur again. In 1979, the impetus of the protesters was focused on a regime they felt was controlled by foreign powers; today, it is the government which accuses the protestors of being agents of (many of the same) foreign powers.

Most likely, having re-established their authority over the state for the time being, the government will seek to do the one thing left in its bag of tricks to help bring a rapprochement with the general population: they will provoke an attack, preferably by Israel on their nuclear facilities. While on the surface it might seem a self-defeating thing to do, the current regime needs solidarity and legitimacy now much more than nuclear weapons which are, in any case, at the least several years away.

If there is going to be a successful revolution in Iran, whether it will result in simply regime change or the overthrow of the Vilayat-i-Faqi system as a whole, it is very clear that such change will only come by winning the army over to the side of the protestors. The current regime has too many violent avenues to counter peaceful aspirations: while the former Shah had the army, which eventually turned against him, the current regime has the Revolutionary Guard and the basiji who are much more reliable since they are ideologically driven and, especially after the most recent round of violence, well aware that if the regime dies they die. What is certain is that it will be an interesting next few months in Tehran.


2 Responses to “What We Have Learned From Iran”

  1. The Center Square said

    Very thoughtful and well-presented ideas. Thank you.

    I am no expert, but your central conclusion, that never again can the regime claim full legitimacy, seems spot on.

    The further question is, of course, whether this will translate into any systemic change in Iran. Historically, there are instances where de-legitimization (is that a word? *lol*) built to a tipping point, and the government fell. Poland and the Soviet Union come to mind. There are other instances where that has not happened, a great example being China following the Tiananmen Square protests.

    Fareed Zakaria calls this a “fatal wound.” Well, it’s a wound, anyway. Very hard to predict if it will be fatal.


  2. […] Khomeni’s Islamic Republic in Danger Jump to Comments By Anthony J Aschettino […]

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