From Yerevan to Tehran?

Via The Monkey Cage, an interesting article on the lessons hardline regimes may have learned from the Orange Revolution. Here are his four lessons:

1) If you are going to fix the results of an election, give yourself a big margin of victory. Otherwise, a little electoral fraud can credibly be argued to have swung the outcome of the election (as was the case in the Serbian and Ukrainian presidential election)….

2) If you are really going to rig the results of elections, don’t mess around with pretenses of transparency that could end up leaving hard evidence of electoral fraud….

3) Don’t leave any doubt about the willingness of security forces to defend the regime. […]

4) Technology–especially social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, but also more basic technology such as text messaging–is a friend of opposition forces attempting to combat electoral fraud, so do what you can to minimize its impact.

I think this is a very interesting analysis. But I’m inclined to disagree with it. Basically, in an authoritarian society where security forces are still important political players — like Iran, most of the Middle East, and most post-Soviet states — it all comes down to #3; the rest is nice, but window dressing. For a lengthier exegesis of this, check out this essay from Lawyers Guns and Money. It’s referring to the famous Tienanmen Square confrontation of 20 years ago:

The thing is, Tank Commander is far more dangerous than Tank Man. Tank Man can simply be shot; most seem to believe that Tank Man was later executed, far out of sight of the international media. The regime survives if Tank Man dies, even if the death of Tank Man isn’t the optimal outcome. The regime dies, however, if Tank Commander refuses to run over Tank Man. Eisenstein used the Odessa Steps to demonstrate the corruption of the Czarist regime, but the regime didn’t die until the soldiers refused to shoot the demonstrators. The successor regime didn’t die until Boris Yeltsin climbed on a tank in August 1991. While there’s some mystery as to the fate of Tank Man, I don’t doubt that the CCP found Tank Commander and put a bullet in the back of his head at the first opportunity… Without the obedience of the security forces, the state collapses.

— Let me add a personal note here. People have been comparing Iran to the Orange Revolution, the Rose Revolution, Tienanmen Square, you name it. But so far, everyone seems to have missed one.

Yerevan, March 2008: the incumbent regime fairly blatantly stole a Presidential election. The main opposition candidate was a “reformer” who had been a leader of the country in the 1990s; the establishment candidate was a hardliner who stood for “more of the same”.

The establishment candidate claimed a very solid victory, with about double the votes of the next candidate. There was fairly clear evidence of fraud. The opposition refused to acknowledge the results, and took to the streets. After a little while, when the protests didn’t go away, the government mowed down a bunch of protestors with gunfire in the streets of Yerevan.

Final score: total loss for the protestors, complete victory for the government — Serzh Sarkisian is President, internationally recognized as such, and in complete control of the apparatus of government. And the key to his victory was that the security forces stayed loyal. (It helped, of course, that he was a former Defense Minister.)

Armenia and Iran are neighbors, and there’s a lot of coming and going between them. Yerevan is full of Iranian investors and tourists. Drive the country’s main north-south highway and you’re constantly passing Iranian truckers. (They can drive from Teheran to Yerevan in a single day.) Armenia gets its natural gas from Iran. In the other direction, Iran has a large Armenian minority. I wrote about this a little while back:

Armenian-Iranians are probably the most privileged of all Iran’s minorities. They’re allowed to exercise their faith. They’re not much discriminated against. They have a couple of representatives in the Majlis, the Iranian Parliament. They’re even allowed certain privileges forbidden to the Muslim minority… for instance, they can distill alcohol and own liquor stores. Unsurprisingly, a lot of them have done very well. They’re more or less a model minority.

This suits the Iranians very well; whenever they’re criticized for their horrible human rights record, they can point to the Armenians. See, a hundred thousand Christians, peaceful and prosperous! Oppressive fanatics and bigots? Pshaw! — And of course, the Armenians of Armenia have a strong interest in making sure things stay sweet for the Armenians of Iran. Because it wasn’t always so. Back in the 1980s, when the Islamic Revolution was still fresh, things were a lot rougher for Iran’s Armenians. The peaceful coexistence is relatively recent.

In addition, the two countries’ have been quite friendly diplomatically. After all, their strategic interests coincide. Armenia wants to stay friends with Russia; so does Iran. Armenia is in a state of frozen conflict with Azerbaijan; Iran is coolly neutral towards Azerbaijan. Armenia is worried about Turkey; Iran is Turkey’s ancient regional rival.

And when Serzh Sarkisian “won” his election, one of the very first messages of congratulations came from… President Ahmedinejad of Iran.

So in looking for models for what’s happening, I’m not sure we have to go as far as Kiev or Beijing when Yerevan is just up the road.

4 thoughts on “From Yerevan to Tehran?

  1. Also all those suggestions except for 3 in some cases make it fairly open that the regime is illegitimate. Being illegitimate has whole load of additional problems that the regime wants to avoid thus the reason why the were going through the motions of having an election in the first place.

  2. Pingback: Iran: It All Depends Who You Talk (and Listen) to … « Far Outliers

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