For about seven years, whenever anybody brought up the possibility of a popular revolution in Iran, pointing out how unpopular the regime is among most Iranians, I would point out that the Iranian leadership had the benefit of hindsight to look back at how the Chinese regime handled the mass protests of 1989 versus how the Soviet regime handled the series of popular challenges to their authority beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall that same year. And what conclusions were they likely to draw, do you think?
Right now, Khamenei and the rest of the unelected leadership of the regime is in a very delicate position. I don’t know why they decided to permit the theft of the election by Ahmadinejad, nor does anyone know, but permit it they did. Ahmadinejad is genuinely popular in many ethnically Persian areas outside of the big cities; moreover, he has the strong support of the security services and the various organs devoted to the enforcement of “virtue.” If the regime were to turn on him out of fear of popular protest, not only would it risk the ire of the groups that are its most natural supporters, but it would reveal itself to be afraid of the public. Which is usually the beginning of the end. On the other hand, the opposition hardly lacks for establishment support as well as popular support. It’s really quite surprising to me that the establishment put itself in this position, given that Mousavi was hardly outside of the mainstream of acceptable thinking in Iran.
What will happen next? I would assume that much depends, as it did in China in 1989, on what the military is willing to do. In the Chinese case, early on in the crackdown, there were reports of armed clashes between the 27th Army and other units of the PLA; it was not clear to outside observers that there was unity either in the Central Committee or the upper ranks of the PLA, and the possibility of civil war with different parts of the PLA fighting on each side seemed real, if still unlikely. In retrospect, there probably was a reasonably high degree of unity at the highest levels of the PLA, and the PLA used its role in putting down the protests to dramatically increase its power and influence within the Chinese state.
That’s one possible outcome in Iran: that the military sides with the regime and puts down the protests, and thereby strengthens its hand within the regime (as against the security services and other rivals). That’s a lousy outcome for the Iranian people, not necessarily the worst outcome by any means for American interests.
Another way the military could get involved is that it could protect the regime from the consequences of abandoning Ahmadinejad. This would again strengthen the military’s hand within the regime vis-a-vis its institutional rivals – assuming, of course, that it is able to prevail without significant armed conflict with said rivals.
And, of course, it may not come to that. The regime may hang on successfully without any major resort to violence simply by ignoring the protests; alternatively, counter-protests may materialize, either in the major cities or in the countryside, nullifying the effect of the mass protests we’ve seen so far.
I’m not going to pretend I have any idea how this is going to play out. Honestly, I’m highly skeptical of everyone commenting on the events in Iran, inasmuch as we have fairly poor information on the inner workings of the regime and much of our juiciest information comes from sources who are far from disinterested. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon, Georgia, etc., it’s that we know much, much less than we would like to think we do.
What does all this portend for American policy? That all depends on what you think that policy is. I would contend that American policy for many years now has been one of managed nuclearization. That is to say: we’ve decided that going to war to stop Iran from getting the bomb is not a serious proposition (and I would concur with that conclusion), realize that across the spectrum all the major Iranian figures support the nuclear program and are unlikely to be persuaded to drop it, and therefore concluded that what’s left is to try to forestall the inevitable, using what levers we have, in terms of pressure or bribes of one sort or another, to slow the progress of the nuclear program for as long as possible. Whether we like to admit it or not, that’s basically what our policy has been, because the alternative policies are either mad (unprovoked attack on Iran) or naive (somehow convincing them to abandon their nuclear program in exchange for . . . friendship with the Great Satan?).
If I’m right about what our policy is, then the current situation, while touchy, is not an obvious setback for it. It may or may not be a setback for the idea of a Grand Bargain that leads to normalization with Iran, but I never believed that this was very likely in the first place; it’s not in the Iranian regime’s interest to normalize relations with America, and it would be very hard for America to normalize relations with Iran without freaking out our various allies in the region (preeminently the Saudis and Egyptians, but obviously the Israelis as well). If the regime survives by brute force, it will be revealed to be relatively weak in terms of popular support and will be less credible globally than it was before. If the regime simply waits the protests out, then very little will have changed at all. If the regime survives by abandoning Ahmadinejad, then it will be focused on maintaining its credibility internally, and Mousavi will not be in a position to go off the reservation much if at all – so negotiations with America, if they happen will not really go anywhere. If the regime does not survive, it will be because the military turns on it decisively (which I would be really surprised by), and whatever regime emerges to replace it will have to establish its own credibility as a patriotic guardian of the Iranian people. That means no dramatic rapprochement with America, whatever happens behind the scenes.
All of which means that America should be playing it pretty cool right now. There are states that could plausibly bring pressure to bear in support of proper democratic procedures and against stealing elections or shooting protestors, but they would have to be states with real credibility both as democracies and as friends of Iran – i.e., places like Germany or India, not us. But it’s not obvious to me why Germans or Indians would want to interfere like that. We, unfortunately, can’t do much more than watch.