Is Iran Vulnerable to Revolution?

May 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Since revolutions in the Middle East have persisted for months and protests in Syria have intensified in the past few weeks, there has been some speculation as to whether Iran could be the next in line to face a popular uprising of revolutionary magnitude. In February, Iran saw protesters take to the streets of Tehran as revolutions unfolded across the Middle East and days after Mubarak stepped down in Egypt. In response, the Iranian regime brutally cracked down on the demonstrators, and since then political unrest in the country has been at a low boil. Given the current state of the region and the recurrence of protests in Iran over the years, one might be tempted to expect a revolution in Iran on par with those in Egypt or Tunisia.

However, as Jack Goldstone notes in his article “Understanding the Revolutions of 2011,” there are critical components to Iran’s regime that make it resistant to significant change in the short term. In order to fully appreciate these components, it is first necessary to see how they have affected the potential for revolution in countries where popular uprisings were successful. Goldstone writes in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs:

“The revolutions of 1848 sought to overturn traditional monarchies, and those in 1989 were aimed at toppling communist governments. The revolutions of 2011 are fighting something quite different: “sultanistic” dictatorships. Although such regimes often appear unshakable, they are actually highly vulnerable, because the very strategies they use to stay in power make them brittle, not resilient.”

Goldstone clarifies this by detailing the contributing factors to the success of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Common factors that lead to the fall of “paper tigers,” as Goldstone refers to “sultanistic” dictatorships, are corruption, increases in education, rises in inequality and the worsening of relations between the “sultan” and the country’s military. Indeed, these factors all played a part in the fall of Mubarak and Ben Ali: In Egypt, Mubarak’s family and close friends had amassed billions in wealth while in Tunisia Ben Ali’s family was repeatedly accused of corruption, the youth population had risen by 65% in Egypt and 50% in Tunisia since 1990 while employment opportunities had remained stagnant across the Middle East, and finally both countries’ militaries had seen there influence wane in favor of the political power of those closer to Mubarak and Ben Ali.

In contrast, Iran is insulated from many of the threats that proved to be the undoing of the “sultanistic” dictatorships of Egypt and Tunisia. As Goldstone notes, “unlike any other regime in the region, the ayatollah’s [of Iran] espouse an ideology of anti-Western Shiism and Persian Nationalism that draws considerable support from ordinary people.” This provides the Iranian regime with wider popular support than Egypt or Tunisia’s regimes saw. Furthermore, while Mubarak and Ben Ali were the single, clear targets of the revolutions in their country, power is divided among three individuals in Iran: the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Parliamentary Chair Ali Larijani. Thus, while youth movements in Egypt and Tunisia had a figurehead to blame for their country’s high unemployment and rampant corruption, those in Iran do not. Lastly, Iran has two military factions that can be trusted to support the government at all costs: the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij. Given the ideological basis of both of these units, it is highly unlikely that either would rebel, and very likely that both will continue to undermine  attempts at popular revolution.

Because the leadership in Iran is unlikely to be seriously threatened in the next few years (though there is some potential that conflict among the regime’s rulers could destabilize the country, see here and here), the role this country is playing in the current revolutions is of the utmost importance. Iran has been vocally supportive of the pro-democracy movements across the Middle East, and has attempted to brand the Arab Spring as a Islamic awakening inspired by Iran’s own revolution in 1979. Only in Syria, where Iran has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, has Iran sought to undermine protesters. Despite this, Iran has attempted to highlight America’s hypocrisy resulting from the disparities in its treatment of Bahrain and Yemen compared to that of Egypt and Libya, while underplaying it’s own inconsistencies. The degree to which Iran will be successful in finding new allies in the region, and in creating new difficulties for America, is yet to be seen, but the foundation for a regionally powerful Iran is beginning to be laid.


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