Iran: Pondering a Popular Revolution in Iran?
Many analysts in the West have expressed the opinion that Iranian hardliners will eventually suppress ongoing demonstrations in Tehran and elsewhere. Given this likelihood, they add, the best course of action for the United States is not to do anything that alienates either Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and thus do nothing that might jeopardize US-Iranian rapprochement possibilities.
But recent developments in Tehran suggest that a genuine, popular revolution may be taking root that could dramatically alter Iran's political landscape. The Obama administration and other Western governments need to start preparing for this possibility.As Iranian events unfold, the chief pillar of support for hardliners, the Revolutionary Guards, has maintained a relatively low profile. There is no hard information available about what Guards commanders are thinking. But various clues indicate that they are divided on how to act. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In his 1938 book entitled, The Anatomy of Revolution, Crane Brinton observed that, "no government has ever fallen before attackers until it has lost control over its armed forces or lost the ability to use them effectively." If anything, this observation appears to be more valid for largely non-violent, democratic revolutions than the classic violent revolutions of the past. A common feature of recent democratic revolutions has been the pouring out onto the streets -- especially of the capital -- hundreds of thousands or even millions of demonstrators.
No matter how isolated they may be from the rest of society, security forces are often unwilling to fire on such huge crowds. And this is not simply because they suddenly find their moral compass. With crowds of such an enormous size, it must occur to some in the security forces that the regime might well fall -- whether they fire or not. If they do fire and the opposition comes to power, they may be punished. Their own self-interest, then, can induce them to sit on the sidelines.
Of course, security forces that do not obey orders to fire run the risk of being punished if the regime survives. But this risk diminishes the more that others in the security forces also refuse to fire, and if there are elements in the regime leadership that oppose the use of force. There is no way to know for sure, but circumstantial evidence suggests that both these factors are present in Iran.
Previous cases show that popular revolutions only succeed when some in the security forces do not just refuse to fire on the opposition, but actually defect to it. Even a modest defection from the ranks of the security services will increase the difficulty the regime faces in suppressing the democratic opposition. For suppressing it now requires not just firing on unarmed demonstrators, but on armed men -- something many others in the security services will not want to do, even if they do not favor the democratic opposition. And if -- as has happened elsewhere -- a small initial set of defections to the democratic opposition rapidly cascades into widespread defections, then the regime will be unable to survive.
The security service defection stage has not yet been reached in Iran. If it does not occur, the brewing popular revolution may very well not succeed. But if it happens, a popular revolution may become impossible to avoid.
As the confrontation in Tehran and elsewhere plays out, Washington should be careful not to do or say anything that makes it appear to be orchestrating Iranian opposition forces to seek regime change. But at the same time, the Obama Administration should not discourage it either by making statements suggesting that it thinks Ayatollah Khamenei and Ahmadinejad will prevail over the extraordinary opposition that has emerged in Iran.
Mark N. Katz, Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University, is a frequent contributor to EurasiaNet.