Iran: Double down

Yesterday the Supreme Leader of Iran doubled down, declaring his support for President Ahmedinejad and telling the protestors it would be their own damn fault if anything happened. Today saw riots and more bloodshed.

Well: three days ago I said President Ahmedinejad would not lose. Today I’ll go a step further and add a couple more predictions.

1) The men with guns will stay loyal. This gets complicated, because there are a lot of different men with guns. There are the Teheran cops; the basiji, who are street thugs employed by the government; the Revolutionary Guards; the army.

But at the end of the day, only those last two matter. If the basiji break and run and the cops switch sides, but the army and the Guards stay obedient, the government still wins. It wins ugly, but it wins.

Note that Ahmedinejad is a veteran of the Republican Guards, while Khameini is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Note further that both have broad popular support — maybe not majority, but broad. Millions of Iranians think that Ahmadinejad is the white knight of the people, while millions more (not necessarily the same people, mind) think that Khameini has a special relationship with God. Note finally that while Ahmadinejad may be obnoxious, he’s nobody’s fool. The Supreme Leader’s speech would not have happened if either man was nervous about the armed forces.

2) There won’t be a civil war. (Or at least, there won’t be because of these protests.) A lot of people may get hurt and killed, and some protestors may take up weapons. But it won’t lead to anything but bloodshed and repression. You can’t have a civil war when one side has all the guns.

— I’m going out on a limb to say what won’t happen. But I’m not brave enough to even guess at what will happen. Who the hell knows? Iran is a very opaque country. In my last post I used various popular protests in other countries for comparison. But there really isn’t a good comparandum for this. The closest would be the protests of late-period Communism: East Germany, Romania, Tienanmen Square. But in East Germany, conflict was avoided because the Politburo deposed Honecker; here it’s as if the Politburo had confirmed him in office, while at least a third of the country still believed fervently in Communism. (That’s a thing to keep in mind in Iran: both sides have a big chunk of the general population firmly behind them.) In Romania, Ceausescu had drifted far out of touch with the nation, and his regime was violently loathed by almost everyone; neither of those things is true of Iran.

The closest comparison seems to be China. But even that’s not very close. The Tienanmen protestors lacked leadership and were relatively mild compared to the Iranians. And while they had plenty of support in Beijing, they didn’t have much in the rest of the country. So while the suppression of Tienanmen was brutal, it was also over quickly; once the government cracked down, it was all over in a couple of days. That might not be the case in Iran.

But, really, who the hell knows. I guess we’ll see.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Not Europe and tagged by Douglas Muir. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

18 thoughts on “Iran: Double down

  1. Zimbabwe, perhaps? Divided public, differences more about appearance/image/”flavor” than about ideology, loyal security forces – though there was no close equivalent to Khamenei’s role.

  2. Serious question: if the Israelis would use intelligence operatives to assassinate Ahmedinejad and Khamenei (America lacks the cojones to do something like that), would it help the situation, or just make things worse?

  3. Is Burma a useful comparison? If the lesson we need to learn is that YouTube and text messaging aren’t enough, it might be. But the balance of support and legitimacy between the various sides of the conflict, which you refer to above with regard to Iran, seem very different in the Burmese case.

    CG – Interesting parallel. I’d say the biggest difference is the paramount importance of South African support. Khamanei by contrast is responding mainly to internal pressures. Indeed, part of his tactics involve exaggerating the degree to which external factors are involved.

    Peter – Your “serious question” seemed like a meathead question, so I checked your blog. Lo and behold.

  4. Why would Israel want to do that? This is the best outcome from their perspective.

  5. I think that the army and the Republican Guards will do their outmost not to intervene. If they have to, they will probably prefere to replace Khamenei, who has turned out to be incompetent.
    The alternative can be a civil war and nobody wants that.

  6. Our False Prophet appears to have no idea what a golden opportunity he’s passing up… overthrow this evil, terrorism-exporting enemy without firing a single shot… get their Armageddon-inspired nuke program off the world stage… and free 30 million people all at one time.

    But the boy wonder is too stupid to see it… or somehow just doesn’t care?
    And isn’t this what George W Bush told you was going to happen in the Middle East in the wake of Iraq’s liberation?

    Maybe that’s why Barack Obama has so little apparent interest in finishing the job in Iran… no matter how much it benefits the US and free world.

    That, and the fact that he’s already piled all his chips on legitimizing this vile regime- a democratic revolution at this point would be embarrassing.

  7. I disagree with your analysis.

    Over the past week, the regime has confronted and alienated the backbone of Iran’s middle class. I would be surprised if there aren’t key groups among the armed forces that belong to this social group.

    In addition, the ruling elite is split – the rift is public and visible more than in any similar situation that youv’e mentioned. Again, i find it hard to believe that these divisions do not extend to the armed forces. After all, the former head of the Revolutionary Guard (the candidate Rezai) also complained of fraud.

    Put this together with a situation of international isolation, and I believe that the Iranian regime has dug itself into a very deep hole. It may not collapse overnight. But if oil prices plunge this fall, which they may well do, the economic hardship that would follow may do it.

  8. Mink, feel free to disagree. IANA Iran expert.

    That said, an alienated middle class and $3.50 will buy you a latte at Starbucks. Robert Mugabe has been alienating his middle class every day for 20 years now. Splits in the ruling elite… well, my thesis is that these don’t matter much as long as the men with guns stay loyal to the Supreme Leader and the President.

    Sure, low oil prices are going to be bad for all sorts of regimes — Russia, Venezuela, the Saudis. OTOH, if oil prices are still low a few months from now, it’ll probably be because the world’s economy — including the US and Europe — is still in the tank. So I wouldn’t be too quick to gloat.

    Doug M.

  9. Hi Doug, thanks for your reply.

    Iran’s urban middle class (in the broad sense of the term) is far more important than in Zimbabwe. Iran is 70% urban. Zimbabwe is 62% rural. Compare income, internet access, literacy… it’s a different story. I think the closest example to Iran’s situation would be Serbia, if anything.

    Nobody in this story has overpowering charisma that would be enough to settle the crisis. Neither Khamenei nor Moussavi. Ahmedinejad is perhaps the most charismatic but is also hated and despised. In short, the allegiance of the armed forces to head figures is not guarantied.

    And you are right – if oil prices crash, there’s no reason to gloat, we are all in the tank. But even if they fall to a reasonable US50 Iran is in trouble. A regime with no outside backers cannot afford to lose legitimacy in a time like this.

  10. Hi Mink,

    I actually agree with you that Serbia is a much better comparison. Just not Serbia in 2000.

    Keep in mind that Serbia went through two waves of street protests — in 1991 and again in 1997 — before 2000. Both the first two waves were unsuccessful, though they did nudge the regime a little. It took complete economic collapse plus a lost war to finally bring Slobo down, and even then he only lost because he’d let himself get dangerously out of touch and isolated.

    Iran hasn’t lost a war; in fact, their strategic position is, thanks to us, far better than it was before 2003. Their economy has serious problems, but that’s been true almost nonstop since the Revolution. I’m just not sensing that Iranians feel the festering sense of national failure that helped motivate the Serbs to bring down Slobo.

    Note that by 2000, perhaps third of all Serbs passively supported Milosevic, but without enthusiasm, while a somewhat larger number — between a third and half — couldn’t stand him any more. Maybe 20% violently hated his goddamn guts; there was no equivalently passionate support for him on the other side. This is very different from Iran, where violent loathing for Ahmedinejad is matched by equally violent support for him.

    Doug M.

  11. Maybe East Germany is a relevant comparison. The Guardian Council would be the equivalent of the Politburo. Removing Khameini would be the equivalent of removing Honecker.

    I think we place too much emphasis on the events on the street because those are the events we see. I don’t mean to say they aren’t important, just that they aren’t decisive. They’re background and pressure: think of the journées of the French Revolution. They affect, but don’t necessarily determine, events, actions and decisions we don’t see.

  12. There is maybe no good comparison… what makes this one a bit different is that both sides are genuine insiders. The core really isn’t Iran vs. the World, though they want to make it appear that way. It would be more like if Raul Castro were opposing Fidel.

  13. Reaganite Republican, I read your “False Prophet” comment as an implicit call for Obama’s assassination. We won’t be having that here. We didn’t allow it when Bush was in office, and we’re not about to start now.

    This is your only warning.

  14. ————————————

    WHT n Gd grn rth r y pssbly tlkng bt?

    sssntn? Y’v gt prtty ctv mgntn… nd hw wld Prsdnt Bdn hlp nythng?


  15. I would point out that there was certainly no shortage of East Germans who still believed right up to the bitter end; indeed, they have a sizeable political party.

Comments are closed.