Will There Be a Velvet Revolution for Iran?
This morning Fareed Zakaria holds forth in the Washington Post on the question above and reaches the conclusion that there will not:
When we see the kinds of images that have been coming out of Iran over the past two weeks, we tend to think back to 1989 and Eastern Europe. Then, when people took to the streets and challenged their governments, those seemingly stable regimes proved to be hollow and quickly collapsed. What emerged was liberal democracy. Could Iran yet undergo its own velvet revolution?
It’s possible but unlikely. While the regime’s legitimacy has cracked — a fatal wound in the long run — for now it will probably be able to use its guns and money to consolidate power. And it has plenty of both. Remember, the price of oil was less than $20 a barrel back in 1989. It is $69 now. More important, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has pointed out, 1989 was highly unusual. As a historical precedent, it has not proved a useful guide to other antidictatorial movements.
He continues by analyzing how the forces of democracy, religion, and nationalism shape the events in Iran and concludes:
In this context, President Obama has been right to tread cautiously — for the most part — to extend his moral support to Iranian protesters but not get politically involved. The United States has always underestimated the raw power of nationalism across the world, assuming that people will not be taken in by cheap and transparent appeals against foreign domination. But look at what is happening in Iraq, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki boasts that U.S. troop withdrawals are a “a heroic repulsion of the foreign occupiers.” Of course Maliki would not be in office but for those occupying forces, who protect his government to this day. A canny politician, though, he knows what will appeal to the Iraqi people.
Ahmadinejad is also a politician with considerable mass appeal. He knows that accusing the United States and Britain of interference works in some quarters. Our effort should be to make sure that those accusations seem as loony and baseless as possible. Were President Obama to get out in front, vociferously supporting the protests, he would be helping Ahmadinejad’s strategy, not America’s.
I don’t know whether what we’re seeing in Iran is the beginning of a “Velvet Revolution”. I suspect that Mr. Zakaria may be correct although possibly for the wrong reasons.
The dynamics of revolutions (and in this context I’m speaking of the 1979 revolution against the Shah) is that they are unlikely to be replaced by non-revolutionary government until the revolutionaries have lost the spirit to confront the forces that oppose them. This is typically a generational matter. In my view the Soviet Union didn’t collapse because of anything that we did or because Gorbachev was a liberalizer or far-sighted statesman but because he was a bureaucrat, the first Soviet premier who didn’t remember the Revolution.
The current Iranian government has money as a consequence of its oil revenues, it has control of all of the major means of information dissemination, and it has the will to deploy force to put down its opposition. It if doesn’t trust the regular military it has the IRG or hired foreign thugs. As long as all three of those remain the case, I suspect that a gentle revolution will be very difficult for Iran.