Jack A. Golstone, George Mason University
The protests in Iran in June 2009, following the announcement of a dubious election victory by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were in many ways similar to those that arose in Czechoslovakia following the shooting of protestors in Prague, or in the Philippines and the Ukraine following the election frauds in those countries in 1996 and 2002. In all these cases, discontent with the prior regime crystallized around support for an opposition leader, and led to street protests in the capital. While there were attempts by the government to crush those protests, the attempts failed and protests grew larger, eventually leading the government to give up power. One might have expected events in Tehran, after the fraudulent elections and shooting of an innocent bystander, to follow the same pattern. Yet they did not.
The key ingredients of revolutions, as I have argued, are government weakness, elite divisions, and popular mobilization. It certainly seemed that all three ingredients were present in Iran in June 2009: the government had been financially weakened by collapsing oil prices; the elites were divided with many prominent Ayatollahs and business leaders backing the opposition candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi; and popular mobilization had clearly developed in the campaign running up to the election, and grew for the protests that followed the announcement of the election results.
However, the Iranian government has succeeded, although at a high cost to its popular support, in holding on to power and forcing back the protests. I believe it has been able to do so mainly because of the precise nature of the elite divisions in Iran, which have created more weakness in the opposition than within the ruling regime, and enabled the government to block the mass mobilization that began in June.
In the Philippines, as in Russia following the Yeltsin led anti-communist movement, a large portion of the national military forces defected from the regime, and provided cover and support for the popular mass-mobilization. Without such defection to create space for mass mobilization, the Philippine protest would not have succeeded. In Czechoslovakia and the Ukraine, authorities provided similar space because respected authorities issued orders making use of force against the protestors infeasible. In Czechoslovakia, Gorbachev had already announced that the Russian military would not intervene to support unpopular governments, as it had in that country in 1968. Knowing that their own military would be reluctant to act against their population without Soviet support, Czech leaders took only limited actions against popular protests, allowing the protests to grow and eventually capitulating. In the Ukraine, the Supreme Court ruled that the election results were dubious and mandated a re-vote, thus supporting the protestors. With this public ruling widely announced, the army would not likely act to preserve the ruling party’s authority by using force to suppress the protestors. Thus again space was made for mass mobilization by a higher authority, enabling protests to continue and force capitulation by the regime.
In Iran, no such space opened due to either elite divisions or the actions of higher authorities. If this had happened – say the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had acted like the Supreme Court in Ukraine, and declared that the announced election results appeared false and ruled them invalid – there might have been sufficient divisions in the military (perhaps with the professional military restraining the Revolutionary Guards and Basij, or hesitation within the Guards to support Ahmedinejad’s victory) to keep open the space for protests, which might in turn have spread and grown to the point of forcing Ahmadinejad’s departure from office. However, like the color revolutions in the Ukraine and Philippines, this might well have led only to a divided and dysfunctional, if more democratic, regime, rather than to a decisive change in the composition and policies of the country.
Yet not only did the Supreme Leader vociferously support the election results, the anti-Western clergy and the Revolutionary Guards and Basij were mobilized throughout the country to support Ahmadinejad and act against protestors. Media and communications were shut down (even Twitter, after the initial outpourings), prominent supporters of the opposition were increasingly denied public voice, and massive arrests and harsh detention were designed to break the spirit of the mobilization. The Revolutionary Guards have tightened their control over the government and military, oil revenues have turned sharply upwards again, and many leading figures who had previously been at odds with Ahmadinejad, such as Ali Larijani, the head of the parliament, have sided with the government in condemning the protestors.
The most visible leaders of the opposition, meanwhile, such as Ayatollah Rafsanjani, Ayatollah Khatami, and Mousavi himself, seem undecided on what do to. While asking for leniency against protestors, they have not called for Ahmadinejad to be cast out of office, their direct criticism of the Supreme Leader has been muted, and their support for continued protest has often seemed tepid. Only Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, a long-standing opponent of the regime based in Qom, has been direct and uncompromising in his attacks on the regime.
The problem is that Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Mousavi have no natural popular base. They are not union leaders, they are wary of raising their student supporters, and the mosque and bazaar networks – which supported the mobilization against the Shah – are now dominated by the Islamic regime. Indeed, the opposition leaders’ influence exists mainly because of their past role in the government of the Islamic Republic, and they seem reluctant to now attack it. Hemmed in by the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, who have violently suppressed protest, they seem unable to push back by risking a major mass mobilization campaign. Moreover, much of Iran’s economic power now lies in the hands of government-supported companies, or industries run by the Revolutionary Guard. The economic elites of the country thus seem inclined to side with the government, rather than to support protests against it.
In short, the Iranian regime has succeeded in maintaining control of the military, and using it to close off space for mass mobilization, and in largely neutralizing those elements of the elite who oppose the regime. As long as this situation continues, protests in Iran will continue to have a mainly existential character, showing the regime that opposition still exists and considers it illegitimate, but not capable at present of mounting the mobilization that would force it to cede power. At the same time, the regime is storing up a reserve of resentment and rejection, such that should the time come when its military capacity falters, this will likely unleash an even more revolutionary movement than the one it suppressed in the days following the June elections.