The odds are bad

A colleague asked me yesterday what I thought about the Iran protests. I am naturally inclined to support Iranians who want to end what Bret Stephens calls the kleptotheocracy in Iran. But I do so with eyes open to the bad odds. Here is why I don’t anticipate success:

  • The demonstrations lack mass. While it is difficult to judge from abroad, all reports suggest that the numbers of protesters are relatively small. The literature suggests that something like 10% of the population needs to be mobilized in order to achieve success. That would be 8 million people in Iran. It is doubtful we are anywhere near that threshold.
  • Nonviolent discipline is lacking. Many of the daytime protests are nonviolent, but after dark some turn into riots, including attacks on property and security officials. You cannot expect restraint from the security forces if you are shooting at them, or even threatening them or attacking private and public assets. Nor can you expect to reach 10% mobilization. Successful civil rebellions require a determined commitment to nonviolence.
  • The allegation of foreign conspiracy is credible, even if not true. The loud statements of support for the demonstrations from the Trump Administration, which has ignored human rights issues elsewhere (Egypt, Turkey, the Philippines, Russia) and blocked Iranians from coming to the US, has made it easy for the Islamic Republic to tar the protests as not only non-Iranian in origin but also originated by Iran’s enemies.

I do not regard the following as important factors in determining success:

  • Lack of unified leadership. Mass nonviolent rebellions can be successful without unified leadership, which can even become a vulnerability. Pick off the leaders and the rebellion may deflate.
  • Few demonstrations in Tehran. Successful rebellions often start outside the capital, where the security forces are often stronger and more loyal than in the provinces. They bend easier there, refusing to use force, than in the capital.
  • The protesters are working class. Middle class mobilization can be much more difficult, because the regime will have co-opted many with jobs and perks. The economy has rebounded since the Iran nuclear deal lifted some sanctions, but the benefits haven’t trickled all the way down. It is disappointed economic hopes and joblessness outside the capital, not poverty levels, that are driving forces.
  • Pro-regime demonstrations. These may smooth the egos of the Supreme Leader and the President, but they won’t have much impact on popular opinion, especially as they are likely bought rather than spontaneous. If your boss orders you to get out in the street, doing so is not a reflection of popular will.
  • Failure so far of the IRGC to intervene. The regime is allowing President Rouhani to try to weather the protests and re-establish order without the kind of repression used in 2009, which is smart. If he fails, the hardliners will be happy to see him weakened. No one should doubt that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will do its job to protect the regime if necessary.

Despite the laudable commitment of the protesters to criticism of the regime’s corruption, impatience with its theological excess, and opposition to its foreign adventurism, I am not sanguine. The Islamic Republic still has the political will, popular support, and brute force to protect itself and survive. The best that is likely to come of these protests is a broader political debate in Iran about how the Republic spends its resources.

That would be a very good thing. But it will only happen if the protesters are wise enough to cut back on the violence and avoid an IRGC crackdown.

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