Why Ahmadinejad will win

We’ve seen a number of regimes fall because of popular protests: Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, yadda yadda. We’ve also seen several that have not fallen: Burma, Armenia, Greece. Which one does Iran more resemble? Or, to put it another way, what are the common factors?

Here’s a first attempt at classification. Political scientists and (especially) people who know more about Iran are encouraged to chime in.

Factors that make a regime vulnerable

In ascending order:

1) The regime is widely hated. Surprisingly, this seems not to be a highly correlated variable. Some of the survivor regimes were almost universally loathed by their people (Burma) while some governments that still enjoyed some popular support managed to collapse anyway (Ukraine).

Relevance to Iran: Low. Many people dislike the current government, but not many actually hate it.

2) The regime is seen as compromised by association with an unpopular foreign power, hostility to religion, gross corruption, or too-obvious links to organized crime.

Relevance to Iran: Moderate. (But note that both sides are energetically trying to associate the other with foreign powers.)

3) The regime is perceived as incompetent. People seem to be much more willing to protest against a government that’s seen as a bunch of screwups, and those protests seem more likely to succeed. The correlation here is very high: of the governments that have fallen to street protests, almost all were vulnerable on this point. In some cases — Serbia, Romania, Albania, Georgia, the Philippines — the government’s incompetence was such as to obviously endanger the nation, giving the protests an immediate boost of nationalist legitimacy. On the other hand, governments that are seen as corrupt and evil, but competent — Armenia, China — are much less likely to be targeted, and much more likely to survive if they are

Relevance to Iran: Moderate. The economy has been sagging, but not enough to make everyone see the government as a bunch of idiots.

Factors that make a regime difficult to overthrow

In ascending order:

1) The regime is perceived as legitimate. Note that “legitimacy” is a slippery term. Note also “perceived as”. Stealing an election, by itself, does not seem to be enough to topple an otherwise strong regime.

Relevance to Iran: Moderate. Everyone acknowledges the legitimacy of the Islamic Revolution. Government control of the media means that much of the population — possibly a majority — do not see the election as stolen.

2) The regime has strong external support. “Strong” here means willing to intervene directly with military assistance. American support for the Shah was not strong; Soviet support for the Eastern European governments was, until it wasn’t.

Relevance to Iran: None. One way or the other, Iran will settle this by itself.

3) The regime is willing to use high levels of force against the protestors. Most of the successful overthrows have seen a loss of nerve by the government at some point. Most of the failed ones have failed because the government has doubled down.

Relevance to Iran: High. Does anyone think Ahmadinejad and his supporters are going to go peacefully?

4) The regime is able to use high levels of force. To put it another way, the security forces stay loyal to the government and obey their orders.

If we combine this with the last factor, we see there are three possible scenarios. First, the government may be willing to use force, but not able: the security forces are neutral or hostile, and will not act against the protestors. This was the situation in Serbia, Albania, Romania, and the Philippines. All those governments fell.

(There are some fine details here. For instance, in Romania, the Securitate secret police were willing to support Ceausescu to the bitter end, and killed a great many protestors. But the Army and the police were hostile, and in the end the Securitate were too few to prevail. In East Germany, Honecker was willing to use force, but the Politiburo lost its nerve and deposed him in favor of the less hardline Egon Krenz.)

Second, the government may be able to use force, but not willing. This is a slightly blurry category, because often a government is willing to use a certain level of force — Albania, Indonesia, the Gorbachev-era Soviet Union — but is not willing to order mass slaughter or the imposition of a totalitarian police state. Still, this too is a high-risk category.

And finally, the government is both willing and able to use massive force: China, Burma, Armenia. In these cases, the government wins. There is, in recent history, not a single clear counterexample. If the government keeps its nerve, and the men with guns stay loyal, and the regime is willing to escalate without limit — the government wins.

Relevance to Iran: Looks pretty high right now. While there are some reports of unease among the security forces, it appears the police and the military are holding steady.

Until and unless this changes, Ahmedinejad looks quite secure — green paint and massive street protests notwithstanding.

[update, one day later: Supreme Leader Khameini has come out strongly in support of Ahmadinejad. Since Khameini was the only one who could constitutionally undo the elections, this means there’s very little chance now of a peaceful win for the protesters.]

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Not Europe, Political issues 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.

25 thoughts on “Why Ahmadinejad will win

  1. I can only agree with your analysis. However there are other factors that I think need taking into consideration.

    1. Half of Iran’s population has been born since the revolution. The leadership seems more like a gerontocracy than a theocracy. The use of IT & new methods of communication have greatly emphasised this fundamental generational split.This creates an opportunity for misunderstanding & youthful idealism and energy to play their part in the continuing destabilisation of Iranian society.

    2. I have been very struck by the key role played by the obviously highly educated middle class.Very articulate men and women making their case for change on international TV far clearer than their leaders.

    3. The Iranian economy is in a very poor state. They need oil to exceed $95 per barrel to make any profit and to fund their nuclear ambitions.

    These factors greatly exacerbate the more fundamental issues you have brought out in your analysis.

  2. I agree the conclusion… it doesn’t look the opposition will be able to gain a foothold.

    However, I think you have left out two very important aspects relating to the success of any revolution: the ability to communicate and the amount of international support received.

    The opposition is receiving a large amount of support from international stakeholders (such as CIA or rich Iranian expats). Outside support, whether financially, politically or even in spirit has a lot to do with the courage and the will to go on for any uprising. Just look at Hungary in 1956 – promises from the US and other Western supporters provided a huge initial impetus, but as soon as they realized it was all empty words, the spirit of the uprising was squashed by emboldened Russians knowing they have no Western meddling to fear.

    Today’s ability to communicate (internet, phones — Twitter and Facebook) is incomparable to even 2 years ago!! Effective communication is the key to any organized uprising.

    I think due to these two factors, this uprising has become much bigger than it would have been otherwise!

    However, where I do see some danger for Ahmadinejad is in his fallout with Khomenei…
    Im thinking support for the opposition might possibly even be tacitly underpinned by the Supreme Leader. He doesn’t want to weaken the image of Iran’s unique religiocracy structured state in front of the world, so he’s have the opposition take down, or in the worst case weaken Ahmadinejad.

  3. “1) The regime is perceived as legitimate. Note that “legitimacy” is a slippery term. Note also “perceived as”. Stealing an election, by itself, does not seem to be enough to topple an otherwise strong regime.”

    I’ve wondered about this for a while … isn’t it always much more about perception than having a factual basis for election fraud? It’s not like the Iranians were able to chech the votes themselves. Sure, they might feel cheated/bad because their immediate social circle voted the same as they did, but this can only be subjective. Even people in western countries might feel the same way after some elections, but even if all their friends felt the same way, I’d doubt they’d take to the streets. So, what is the tipping point there?

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  5. Douglas,

    I’m not so sure. You simply can’t kill a million people on the streets. Certainly not if they’re chanting “Allaho Akhbar!”. Actually, my first thought was “this is a Krenz moment” when I heard that Khamenei was going to ask the Guardian Council to check the results. The clerical elite seems to be divided, his basis of power not without cracks. I think at this point we have to ask: What does winning even mean? Assuming the protests are ended with mass murder of protesters, what will Ahmadinejad have won? The revolution will have lost its currently still assumed mythical state in Iranian politics: both sides are justifying their policies with reference to the ideals of the revolution. I think the best shot the part of the elite currently in power has right now is to hope the protests will peter out over time if nothing decisive happens. Just let them protest for two weeks, eventually they will get disappointed if nothing happens and stay home. If they don’t stay home eventually, I’m thinking the election will likely be repeated because someone comes up with a “technical glitch” responsible for the disputed figures. Since ballots are reported to have been burned, they will have to go for a new election rather than a full recount… we’ll see.

  6. One way or the other, Iran will settle this by itself.

    On a related note, if Israel (or the United States) launches a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Ahamdinejad’s position is likely to be even more secure.

  7. Another criterion might be the history of the opposition. Poland, for instance, had uprisings against Communist power in 56, 68 and 80/81 before finally succeeding in 89.

    From what little history I know, this would seem to cut two ways in Iran: in favor of change, in that a reformist has held the office of president in the recent past; in favor of the status quo, in that there has not been a need to revolt before, and neither the linkages nor the critical mass are there.

  8. I don’t necessarily disagree with your conclusion, but I think the following point might confuse two issues:

    “4) The regime is able to use high levels of force. To put it another way, the security forces stay loyal to the government and obey their orders.”

    The second sentence has the implicit assumption that cleavages only appear between the government and the security forces. However, the government itself is not necessarily a single actor. You get to this some in the fine details and the East Germany example.

    I’d suggest a modification on the order of:
    “To put it another way, the security forces stay loyal to the government faction [willing to employ high levels of force] and obey their orders.”

    You’re certainly right on point three. Ackhmadinejad seems to be willing to deploy the Basij militia’s to go after the protesters. However, the official security forces seem to be more hesitant to be deployed. Assuming continued Mousavi mobilization, the outcome may turn on whether Ackmadinejad’s faction and allies have the resources to deploy a high level of force successfully.

    As I said, I’m not sure I disagree with your conclusion. Iranian politics are notoriously complex and I don’t have the expertise to know the differences between the security groups and who they answer to.

  9. Such a long analysis while you could sum it in one sentece: Iran´s regime will survive if it doesn´t hesitate to use massive force. That´s the single variable and we have no idea what will happen. While police, militias and army seems to stay loyal, they also haven´t engaged in more than a moderate extent so far. I am slightly optimistic.

  10. Remember the 2006 AMLO vs Fecal in Mexico. AMLO was robbed, and his supporters occupied a central Mexico City square for months and disrupted the inauguration and the rest of it. It did not cause the regime to fall. Pro-AMLO protests were blacked out in the elite Western media and it became a non-event. Well, Fecal is still an incompetent boob but his regime is still in place…

    Who remembers the 1989 Caracanza in Caracas when hundreds were gunned down by the Western backed Andres Carlos Perez regime dutifully carrying out IMF instructions… who can’t get enough of protests to remove Hugo Chavez?

  11. I think I agree that establishment cohesion/consolidation (by which I suppose I mean the regime’s ability to include anyone capable of being a power player, and the ability of said power players to get along) needs to be considered a separate point (even outside of, say, considerations of legitimacy and willingness/ability to use force).

    In a similar vein, it seems that the ability of the protesters and regime representatives to interact and influence one another needs to be taken into account. Put another way: most of the time, if the people attempting to rise up are not capable of organizing into an army in their own right, then they need some form of sympathy/support on the “inside” of the system, regardless of whether it is in the form of political champions or the ability to turn security forces to their cause. Now, I’m not an expert on either case, but I suspect that would be the way to link the failure of regime overthrow in both Burma (where massive levels of force were employed), and Greece (where the government surely was far more moderate in the degree of force it employed).

    Generally speaking, it seems to me that the need to bother with elections at all, and the need to have them show results more credible than 99-100 % wins for the establishment, is indicative of a situation where the regime depends on consent, or the appearance thereof, to such an extent that it cannot rely on the threat of coercion alone to maintain control, and where the power players aren’t entirely in step with one another, but I am not as sure of how great an impact, precisely, this will have.

  12. “1) The regime is widely hated. Surprisingly, this seems not to be a highly correlated variable.”

    Two words: Evin Prison

    “1) The regime is perceived as legitimate.”

    Relevance high. Main points:

    a) The Leader of the Revolution is not a world-class authority on Islam, which is the whole idea behind the rule of the just jurist as theorized by Khomeini.

    b) Many clerical authorities, who, theoretically under the Constitution could legitimately overrule the Constitution itself, have registered their discomfort with the situation. Indeed, a number of important clerical authorities in Iran–including putative supporters of Ahmadinejad–had ruled vote tampering “haram” or forbidden, prior to the elections.

    c) The IRI’s Constitution guarantees a Republican form of government in Article 4. Stealing an election is overthrowing the Constitution.

    Ahmadinejad left the country in the middle of the crisis … either indicating extreme confidence or that he isn’t a key player in this particular battle. I lean toward the latter, but hell if I know …

    The fact that Mousavi and Karrubi both have deep ties with the Revolutionary Guards and the fact that if you have 2 million protesters on the route to Freedom Square there’s a high likelihood that most folks in the Army have a relative or two in there complicates the ability of the “Amhadinejad camp”–whoever that actually is–to direct violence against the crowds.

    This is even true of the Basij.

  13. Supposedly Basij members have started covering their faces, which suggests they are no longer confident of winning, and so fear reprisal or arrest after an opposition win.

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  15. Mr Muir,

    I have so far resisted seriously commenting on your attitude towards Greece, but calling the democratically elected government of an EU country, Greece, a ‘regime’in the same context as countries like Burma and Iran, only reinforces the feeling that you have a serious anti-Greece problem. I am not a supporter of this government but classifying Greece in the same class as, say, Burma, says more about you than Greece herself.

    I’m sorry I have to bear reading your posts in this otherwise very interesting blog.

  16. This is mixing things and NikosR is right. The Bush “regime” was unpopular, Gordon Brown is not too popular either, why isn’t either on the list of “unpopular” regimes?

  17. There was no rioting against Bush, neither is there rioting against Brown. If we pretend that western governments are not subject to the rules governing the survival of other governments, we deliberately cloud our thinking.

    Of course the the Greek government has legitimacy and that has been a major factor in its survival, but nevertheless it still needs riot police to survive. Any government facing riots needs its riot police.

  18. Mr Muir

    “Regime in Greece?!!!”. I hope that you are talking about the colonels’ dictatorship of 1967-1973. For otherwise, you just address an direct and serious insult to all the people in this country that fought for the restoration and the consolidation of democracy. I have to protest, although the grouping of Greece, together with Iran and Burma cannot but provoke laughter and suspicion as to your objectivity to every knowledgable reader in this blog.

    As to your analysis, needless to say that biased (and irrelevant) examples bring biased results.

    Dear Oliver,

    All governments in the world have means of coercion at their disposal. The concentration of the means of coercion is a foundamental element of any state, if it is to be called a state. Riot police is one of this means. There are other more delicate ones, prefered by more “civilised governments’. However, riot police has been , and is being used in many Western states. Or better “regimes”?

  19. Oliver, there is often rioting in many countries, the G8 meetings for example, demonstrations. I do not see any EU government “needing riot police to survive”! On the contrary, in the case of the greek government and the December riots, the main critisism against it was that it did NOT use riot police -this is why the damage what it was. Similar riots have taken place in many EU cities, for example Paris. In Iran’s case the issue is rigging the election, while still having elections. I do not know about Burma, but I think in all of Europe, at least since the fall of Milosevic, there has been no rigging the elections with the possible exception of Belorus.

  20. “the issue is rigging the election, while still having elections. I do not know about Burma, but I think in all of Europe, at least since the fall of Milosevic, there has been no rigging the elections with the possible exception of Belorus.”

    They rig elections (before during and after the “Orange Revolution”) all the time in Ukraine.

  21. jilm Says:
    “Such a long analysis while you could sum it in one sentece: Iran´s regime will survive if it doesn´t hesitate to use massive force. ”

    Not quite. ‘willing *and* able’ might be a better short summary. The other factors are there to support those two words.

  22. Good question, good method of analysis, bad conclusion and title because your facts are wrong. The regular army is clearly totally uninterested in a crackdown and the Revolutionary Guard appears to be splintering. Even the basij are not reliable for the regime. I don’t see a successful mass murder; civil war seems more likely.

    Even if they *are* successful they lose by losing the last vestige of legitimacy.

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  24. @sid At least part of this statement is debateable I think … in any case especially after the “orange revolution” there is no more or less evidence of tampering than in iran: only suspicions. Apart from that I have to agree with sid that I have to agree with Jon that despite anything that went on in Ukraine, Belarus is much less democratic and much more troublesome.
    Also, ofc while Ukraine factually belongs to eastern europe, many people if talking about europe will not regard ukraine and some other countries as included, because increasingly people speak of EU = Europe.

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