Fareed Zakaria enters the fray to explain why Iran’s Velvet Revolution is not about to happen. He makes some good points about why Iran 2009 is not Prague 1989 — the regime has money and guns and the religious establishment is not aligned behind the demonstrators. He also makes some less good points — that alleged U.S. support for armed groups fighting the regime, or U.S. rhetoric about a possible military strike, or U.S. support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war always rallied people around the regime.
These are more questionable points — Russian weapons did more for Saddam Hussein and against Iran during the 1980-1988 war, yet one rarely reads of anti-Russian sentiment in Iran, whether among the population or inside the regime. It is lamentable that intelligent people spend so much energy excusing away the rampant anti-Americanism so central to the regime’s ideology as if it were always the fruit of American mistakes alone. It is also lamentable that he uses this argument — and his understandable skepticism about the revolution’s likely success — to applaud the timid U.S. approach to the Green Wave.
Nevertheless, Zakaria is right to warn about facile historical comparisons. There is a riot going on, all over Iran. The regime has lost any resemblance or pretense of legitimacy. It has shown its true face for the whole world to see, and it can probably survive only through force and repression — more of the same tactics it has relied upon so far to internally repress and contain dissent. But all these conditions — including the populace’s dissatisfaction and civil unrest — are not enough to parlay the riots into regime change.
Revolutions don’t only happen because people are angry. They require a charismatic leadership that can articulate a compelling ideological alternative to the existing order; they need to recruit a critical mass among the dominant elites toward their cause; they rely on a well organized political machine that can mobilize people in a coordinated fashion and thus capitalize on the awesome power masses assembled in protest can yield. And yes, before they can evolve into revolutions, uprisings require enough momentum to paralyze the will of the repressive state apparatus to employ deadly force against opposition leaders.
Iran today has angry confrontational masses. Their courage and their disdain for the tyrannical regime could swell into a mass movement. But there is still neither a compelling ideology nor a charismatic leadership embodying its demands and willing to carry it into battle. Crucially, it is also not clear where the two most important constituencies in the country stand today on the question of revolution. Both the Bazaar and the clerics were vital elements of Iran’s past revolutions — their decision to side with or against change could carry the day. They have not fully declared where they stand — and it is not clear how influential they remain in today’s Iran, given that much power has been taken from them by the gradual takeover by the Revolutionary Guards. Their stance might ultimately matter less than it did 30 years ago, but it is still important. A general strike by the bazaar, a more strident, vocal, and open expression of dissent from clerics against the Supreme Leader may indicate that something is changing.
Regardless, it is hard to understand, faced with recent events, how one can applaud the resolve to continue engaging the existing regime. What happened is not just a stain on its hands. It is a testimony of its ugly nature. Can we trust a regime acting this way to be a reliable partner on a nuclear deal? Can we trust it to deliver on commitments? Or to be seeking reasonable goals? Or not to act in defiance of the world? Or to be concerned about and deterred by considerations of its economic well being and international image?
Iran’s behavior is not just something that makes a deal on the nuclear issue just a bit more complicated or unpalatable for photo-op seekers. It is a wake-up call about the futility of seeking a deal with the mullah’s regime. And catalyzing the nascent yet incoherent revolution remains the only alternative left for Western powers wishing to avoid military action.
The Iranian regime — Zakaria is right — will of course accuse us of meddling. But we now know it does not speak for its people.