Revolution-Resistant Iran

Some Western hostility to the interim Iranian nuclear deal is predicated on an illusion: that if we maintain harsh sanctions and diplomatic isolation, a democratic revolution will topple the mullahs.

It sounds like an easy solution. Rather than engage in the agonizing task of compromise, we simply tighten the screws, and wait for the wave of Middle Eastern revolutions to hit Tehran. Then, we work with a new Iranian democracy.

But we would be waiting a very long time. To understand why the Iranian regime will not fall anytime soon, we must see how it is fundamentally different from the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Those states were dictatorships, pure and simple, where one man—Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Qaddafi—ruled alone. Iran, on the other hand, is an oligarchic republic. In a republic, leadership positions are shared and rotated in accordance with constitutional rules. This is unlike a dictatorship, where power is held by one person, and usually descends to an heir. Iran is an “oligarchy” rather than a “democracy” because while power is shared and rotated, it is narrowly confined to an elite class, and the democratic vote is sharply constrained.

When it comes to the probability of revolution, there is a vast difference between dictatorships and oligarchies. In essence, it is much easier to topple a single dictator than to overcome an entire ruling class. This is especially the case when members of the ruling elite feel a deep-seated loyalty to each other, born of a shared revolutionary experience.

Why? A dictator is just one man, and can be isolated. With enough momentum behind the opposition, the dictator’s security forces may no longer see it in their own interests to protect him, and can simply melt away, or may even push him out. We saw this play out in Tahrir Square in 2011, of course, and on many other occasions as well. In Belgrade in 2000, for example, with hundreds of thousands of angry demonstrators chanting “He’s Finished,” police and army officials made decisions not to commit mass murder—and not to risk their own lives—for Slobodan Milosevic. Amidst growing tumult, General Vlastimir Djordjevic, the head of public security, reportedly said: “He’s lost the elections and should step down. It’s easier for him to step aside than the whole nation.” When Serbian security officials perceived that other security officials were reluctant or unwilling to fight, a runaway spiral of defections got under way, and Milosevic was indeed finished.

But in Iran, the situation is more complex, and far more resistant to revolution. There is no single strongman in Iran, although certain men, and particularly the Supreme Leader, wield tremendous power under the constitution. Leading Iranian clerics rule jointly, in a complex system of committees. One committee, the Assembly of Leadership Experts, has the power to choose the next Supreme Leader, and can also remove any Supreme Leader who is unfit.

The middle-aged and elderly men of Iran’s ruling class all went through the 1978-1979 revolution together. They have different ideas about what the revolution means, but they are all dedicated to the Islamic Republic and to the memory of Ayatollah Khomeini. They call themselves khodi, meaning “one-of-us.”

For khodi, the penalty for defecting from the oligarchy, and joining a movement seeking violent regime change, would be steep. They would be traitors to their revolutionary brothers, to the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war, and to the divine cause to which they have dedicated their lives. In short, they would lose all their comrades—and for what? A rough-hewn Revolutionary Guard commander or Basij militia leader has no reason to expect higher status in a new democracy led by sleek, educated professionals, who would immediately dismantle the security apparatus of the old guard. Such men would be dinosaurs, like the wizened apparatchiks and Red Army veterans following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In Iran, it would be difficult, and probably impossible, to “flip” members of the security forces. The Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia will not switch sides, and they will not disappear. If demonstrators ever turn to violence, we must expect a bloodbath on the scale of Tiananmen Square.

So while we should encourage a peaceful democratic evolution in Iran, we should not try to promote “regime change” on the Serbian, Egyptian, Tunisian, or Libyan model. The Islamic Republic is here to stay. The interim nuclear deal offers the best hope for a rational coexistence.