As Michael Rubin noted yesterday, the unrest in Iran yesterday shows that the people of that country are not so foolish as to believe their troubles are the result of anything but the Islamist regime’s economic mismanagement. The turmoil in Tehran reinforces their dissatisfaction with Iran’s plight under the rule of the mullahs and front men like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the latest clashes in Tehran as security forces sought to break up black market moneychangers must also not be interpreted as a sign that the fall of the regime is imminent.
Sanctions have caused a good deal of pain for the Iranian people, but as was demonstrated clearly in 2009, the Islamist government has no compunction about the use of force to protect their survival. This is a lesson that those who have been predicting the collapse of the government in Syria haven’t learned despite the demonstrated resiliency of that Iranian ally over the last year and a half. But while it is principally the Syrian people who have suffered because of the false Western belief that Bashar Assad would quickly fall without any help from the outside world, Western complacency about the future of Iran will have terrible consequences for the entire region as well as the security of the rest of the world.
It needs to be reiterated that it is an iron rule of history that tyrants fall only when they lose their will to shed blood, not when the rest of the world says so. The mere fact of opposition in the streets of Tehran is no more of an indicator that the end of the Islamist nightmare is near than it was in the summer of 2009, when a stolen presidential election set off an even greater response than the collapse of the rial.
Even the willingness of some to take up arms against the regime, as is the case in Syria, is not a guarantee of change, so long as the government retains the loyalty of the armed forces and security apparatus and is able to fight back. Even as much of the Arab world abandoned Assad, something that happened in no small part because of his alliance with Iran, his army’s ability to hold Damascus and its willingness to kill as many people as necessary in order to assure their own survival as well as that of the dictator has been enough to hold the rebels at bay.
If a shaky government like that of Syria, whose power base is a minority group, can persist, how much more solid is that of its Iranian ally, which can still count on the backing of the religious establishment as well as the military.
There are things that can be done to heighten the Islamists’ problems in Iran. Sanctions must be increased and more stringently enforced. After all, though ordinary Iranians are suffering, the amount of oil income flowing into the country is still enough to support the needs of the government, the military and the nuclear program.
Just as important would be the demonstration of Western resolve that has been lacking in recent years. In 2009, President Obama’s relative silence about the violence in Tehran discouraged protesters and assured the ayatollahs that they had nothing to fear from the United States. That set the stage for the last three years of failed diplomacy because Iran’s leaders have never believed that the president meant what he said about preventing them from going nuclear.
If Washington continues to soft pedal its Iran policy and places its hopes on domestic unrest producing a change in policy, the only result will be to perpetuate the current stalemate. Like Assad, the ayatollahs have no plans to give up power.