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.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. […] morning I’ve posted a foreign policy-related post at Outside the Beltway, “Will There Be a Velvet Revolution for […]

  2. PD Shaw says:

    We are seeing something of a generational shift though. Iran experienced a baby boom in the early 80s (followed by a baby bust), and it’s no doubt that these 20-somethings, facing high unemployment rates that are feading the events.

    I don’t think it’s quite as easy to convert oil money into jobs in this type of country either.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    At this point I think it’s more of a generational divide than a generational shift. Most Iranians weren’t even born when the revolution occurred but there are still plenty who do and, unfortunately, they include those who hold the reins of power.

  4. Rick DeMent says:

    A couple quick points …

    – It took the last revolution over a year to come to fruition. If this is a revolution i would think that a similar amount of time would be required.

    – The best thing we could to to starve Iran of $$ for power, nuclear program or whatever id to reduce the amount of oil we consume on the order of 20%. This would have all kinds of benefits for the US not the least of which is a non-sanction sanction on regimes that we find distasteful(unfortunately it would really hurt those who fund campaigns in this country so it won’t happen).

    – Demographics being what they are, as Mr. Shaw mentioned, has a lot of consequences for Iran that could go either way (in terms of whats good for the US) so it would be wise to insure that whatever does happen we need to make sure that our fingerprints stay off it)

  5. PD Shaw says:

    Here is an article on Iran’s unemployment crisis. The unemployment rate was 34% among 15-24 year olds in 2004. The economy needs to grow at a rate of 8% a year just to maintain current unemployment levels. It can’t do that in an economy dominated by the state and oil.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    The best thing we could to to starve Iran of $$ for power, nuclear program or whatever id to reduce the amount of oil we consume on the order of 20%. This would have all kinds of benefits for the US not the least of which is a non-sanction sanction on regimes that we find distasteful(unfortunately it would really hurt those who fund campaigns in this country so it won’t happen).

    This point was made by Tom Friedman in a column last week. I agree that we should reduce our consumption of oil and I’ve supported increasing the federal gas tax for decades. However, I doubt that it would have the effects you’re suggesting. Two words: China and India.

  7. PD Shaw says:

    There are limits to how much America can influence Iran’s oil income, but all that needs to happen is to keep oil prices low. If the oil price drops lower than 85 dollars a barrel, the country will face a budget deficit. Zakaria makes it seem like $69 a barrel is a good thing.

  8. Rick DeMent says:

    Dave and PD,

    While your points about the our ability to flex the demand side of the oil equation is fair, the fact is that a side effect of out economy rebounding (keep your fingers crossed)will mean higher and higher oil prices which will simply bloat the coffers of regimes like Iran.

  9. Brett says:

    As long as they have revenue, the loyalty of their security forces, and a lack of an organized, violent opposition, the current regime will stay in power. People have a strong inclination to keep on breathing, and organized, armed forces tend to be good at putting down less organized, less armed groups, which is why most uprisings end in failure.

    In the case of the 1979 Revolution, the mullahs themselves believe the Shah was toppled because he, under American pressure, didn’t come down hard and decisively on the revolutionary movement early on. It was allowed to fester, and that both undermined the credibility of the regime and brought in more supporters for the revolution.

  10. Al Bullock says:

    Obama’s Iran stats:

    Three strikes and no balls.

    Where would South Korea be if Harry Truman had dawdled as Obama has done so many times? As young sergeants are reminded over and over “do something” and the lack of experience highlights their indecision. So it is with Obama!!! Indecision simply covers the lack of experience and decisive action at the right time and in the right amount With support of the compliant MSM Obama can wait out the Iran kerfuffle without egg on his face. Meanwhile thousands of Iranians will die waiting for the support they so badly need as Obama sits on the sidelines and shouts “You stink too”.

    I remember South Korea in 1951. Keeping the “free” free. Has it lost it’s meaning?

  11. An Interested Party says:

    Where would South Korea be if Harry Truman had dawdled as Obama has done so many times?

    Yes of course, because the situation in Korea in the 50s is exactly the same as the situation in Iran now…the parallels are simply eerie…by the way, if you want to talk about what our government did in the 50s…perhaps it should not have overthrown the Iranian government then…Iran might be a very different place now…