One of the most difficult aspects of the study of politics is recognizing the natural tendency in human psychology toward certainty and simplification, even when the data itself is not entirely clear. More difficult still is resisting this temptation when powerful historical analogies are available that cursorily appear to match the current experience.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what I believe is happening with most of the current analysis regarding the opposition Green Movement protests in Iran. On one hand, some suggest that the current protests signal the start of a second Iranian revolution, drawing strong parallels to the year of protests that preceded the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 (my colleague, Ryan Normandin ’13, is among this group, but he is not alone — see, for example, the work of conservative Iran-watcher Michael Ledeen). On the other hand, some point to the regime’s capacity to stifle public outcry in the past and confidently conclude that another revolution is highly improbable (one prominent example is the recent New York Times op-ed by the left-wing Leverett couple).
However, I would argue that we have no way to tell just yet where these events are going to lead. We can say with certainty that these protests are the longest running and most expansive since the foundation of the Islamic Republic and that the regime has employed despicable tactics in its attempt to crush the demonstrations, including intimidation, imprisonment, show trials, torture, and executions.
The reason the outcome of these events is so difficult to predict is that there are two very strong forces engaging in this struggle, contending to dictate the future of the Iranian nation: advocates of change and reactionary forces associated with the regime. And, in nearly every dimension of the crisis, both sides are working off of a similar script based on past experience and current prospects.
For all the talk of this being a “postmodern” revolution in which the opposition uses social networking tools to mobilize the public, far less widely considered is the fact that the ruling elite has selectively blocked internet access and infiltrated these networks for the purposes of intelligence gathering and planting disinformation. Traditional media has also been strongly hemmed in, with foreign journalists forbidden from covering protests and key Iranian journalists having been put behind bars or facing imminent arrest.
Although the Green Movement and its leaders exert rhetorical pressure on the bureaucracy and law enforcement to support the aspirations of the public — driving conscientious objectors to leak incriminating government documents or show occasional leniency against the protesters — on the whole, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei retains the loyalty of Iran’s armed forces, police, and judiciary, its Revolutionary Guards and the volunteer Basij corps, and they continue to wage a coordinated campaign to contain the damage and range of the protest movement.
The recent death of opposition cleric Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri has served as a shot in the arm to the opposition, providing a clear focal point for the timing of upcoming street protests. But it is also likely that in the long term, the death of Ayatollah Montazeri will deprive the opposition of an important rallying figure with the legitimacy to issue pro-democracy religious edicts.
In fact, even a ratcheting up of international sanctions could hypothetically rebound in either direction. Carefully targeted (so-called “smart”) sanctions have the capability to further detract from the legitimacy of the Iranian government and provide additional incentives for Iran’s people to mobilize in favor its overthrow. However, if applied poorly, sanctions can also be self-defeating, sapping a country of its politically vocal middle class or providing dictators with a visible external enemy against which to redirect public anger.
Finally, much of the public discourse in the U.S. ignores the fact that both sides in Iran are actually heterogeneous movements, often with conflicting or unclear goals. Some among the Green Movement do not want to change the Islamic Republic, and the opposition’s rallying cry is nominally more about civil rights and reform within the system than it is about overthrowing the Supreme Leader or prevailing system of government. Also, many politicians who have joined ranks with the government have distanced themselves from the more detestable and well-documented forms of repression and ballot-rigging that have been carried out by the state over the past year.
At the end of the day, it is still too early to tell where the protests in Iran are likely to lead. The outcome depends upon a complex series of political interactions and calculations that have yet to be borne out, and, without a doubt, many of the confident predictions made by commentators today are likely to be proven wrong in retrospect.
Indeed, rather than drawing an analogy to the Iranian Revolution itself, perhaps we would be better advised to look back at what our most well-informed analysts believed before the final outcome was clear. In fact, neither American nor British intelligence had the foggiest idea where the protests would lead. Yes, the eventual outcome was among the list of possible predictions, but so were a military coup and a Communist takeover — talk about being all over the map!
Sometimes, the data is simply ambiguous, and the ongoing political turmoil in Iran is one such case. That having been said, there is certainly no doubt which faction is morally in the right: Our hearts go out to the brave protesters in Iran. They are fighting to achieve their most basic human rights in the face of a deeply tyrannical government, and we can all agree in principle upon our common, sincere wish that they shall overcome.