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Iran's Revolution: A Hard and Uncertain Path

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The courage and determination of the protesters in Iran are inspiring, and the brutality of the regime's response is revolting. The reminder that, as Fareed Zakaria recently put it, "What you know about Iran is wrong" could not be more timely.

All that being said - with absolute heartfelt sincerity - it is worth looking ahead and thinking about what is likely to come next. There are two big questions. First, how long can the opposition sustain itself? Four, five, or six weeks from now, will the protests still continue? Will the world still be watching Youtube videos being recycled on CNN? Second, if a revolution were to occur, what would the government of post-revolutionary Iran look like?

On the second point, the religious dimension of the opposition is critically important. The catchphrases of this opposition are "death to the dictator" and "Allah u Akhbar." Both are religious arguments: a Muslim ruler is expected to rule justly, so a "dictator" cannot be a legitimate Muslim ruler. The religious language in which this uprising is being conducted should make us cautious in assuming too much about the consequences of even a dramatic change in the ruling regime. This remains the case even if that religious language is used to recruit popular support rather than reflecting deep beliefs by the protesters themselves. Many of the people in the streets would like to see an end to the rule of the ayatollahs, nonetheless, support for the cause is being sought in the name of purification of religious rule, not its end.

The religious element is part of what makes the appeal of the opposition movement so powerful, which should be yet another reminder of the simplistic and monotonal American public understanding of Islam - particularly Shiite Islam -- in the Middle East. But as we have learned time and again, "democratic" does not necessarily equal "Western," let alone "secular" or "liberal" (this is as true in the U.S. as anywhere else.) And certainly "democratic" does not mean "pro-American." Khamenei's government earned its unpopularity by staggering economic incompetence, not by its belligerent nationalism. Very broad support for that nationalism remains. In other words, a new or revised regime might be one that features considerable reforms internally but that is no less eager to be involved in regional affairs, particularly Shiite Iraq. It is ridiculous to assert that Mousavi would not govern Iran differently than Ahmadinejad in terms of its internal affairs, but it is far less clear that Mousavi would be an Iranian Gorbachev, as some have suggested. (Ironically, this is a fear that has been expressed by both Israeli and Palestinian leaders: officials in Netanyahu's government fear that a reformed government would be just as ambitious but less isolated, while Palestinians fear that a reformed government would be less inclined to make their cause a central concern in its dealings with Western nations in order to maintain good relations.) And even internal reforms are unlikely to go so far as to challenge the basis of Iran's theocratic system of government.

But looking ahead, this all seems rather moot as revolutionary change is an unlikely outcome in any event. This is not because of any lack of fervor or bravery on the part of the opposition movement, nor with any lack of substance in their complaints. But the protesters are facing a government strategy that I call "Tiananmen in slow motion" that will be very hard to beat.

Start with the cause of the protests, the stolen election. If there was any remaining doubt on that question, this statement by Guardian Council spokesman Abbas-Ali Kadhodaei should settle the matter: "Statistics provided by Mohsen Rezaei in which he claims more than 100% of those eligible have cast their ballot in 170 cities are not accurate -- the incident has happened in only 50 cities" and that no more than 3 million votes are likely to have been affected." Only 3 million votes? Ah, well, in that case ... (Kadhodaei points out that Iranians are not prevented from voting outside their home districts so that some occurrence of greater than 100% turnout is not impossible. That argument is not remotely persuasive. For a very fine statistical analysis confirming the conclusion that the election was fraudulent, see Walter Mebane's paper here.

But the fact that the election was stolen does not mean that Ahmadinijad lacks widespread support. There is good reason to think that Ahmadinejad would - or at least could -- have won a clean election (although Nate Silver points out that "clean" here does not take account of voter intimidation as opposed to fraudulent vote tallies.) There is an unlikely but not impossible scenario in which new elections are called ... and the outcome is the same. (I assume here that the effects of the protests themselves on a subsequent election would be mixed; repeated reports that the basijis being bused into Tehran come from other parts of the country suggest that in this as in all things, "the Iran people" is not a singular, monolithic entity. In addition, heightened fear of reprisal could again boost pro-Ahmadinejad totals.)

As everyone involved recognizes, however, the protests and the initial government reaction have raised the stakes to the point of a challenge to the legitimacy of the governing regime. The government's responding violence should not have come as a shock to anyone. But it remains the case that that violence is being carefully kept within limits. Some Western observers are reacting as though there has been slaughter in the streets: the announcement that European embassies are considering opening their grounds to provide sanctuary to injured protestors reminds me of the "unauthorized acts of decency" that were reported during the massacre at Smyrna in 1922. That's hardly an analogous case, of course ( the massacre at Smyrna involved the murder of tens or hundreds of thousands of Armenians -- 150,000 is one common estimate). The current analogy - the one we're hearing over and over -- is Tiananmen Square.

The problem is, that, too, is a weak analogy. Tiananmen Square started with a million people occupying a central location on April 15; thousands participated in a lengthy hunger strike; tens of thousands remained there seven weeks later when the tanks rolled in on June 4. The Chinese Red Cross estimated that 2,600 people were killed in a matter of hours. The issue at Tiananmen was stark: particularly against the background of the ongoing collapse of the Soviet Union, the future of Communism itself seemed to be in the balance. And the world was watching closely, fed reports and images by western correspondents right up to the end.

The Iranian protests don't seem to be going that way. First, neither the protesters nor the government - especially the government -- seem to be looking for a pitched confrontation. After the biggest marches, on Monday, everyone went home. Day after day the protesters have come back for more in the face of teargas and batons and frequent live fire ... but there has been nothing like the sustained seizure of public space that set the battle lines at Tiananmen Square. Saturday would have been an opportune moment for an all-out confrontation: many protesters were ready to face death, and in some cases the government obliged, making the tragic death of a young woman named Neda the signature moment of the conflict thus far. But even on Saturday the government forces did not unleash full-scale military repression.

The government's strategy appears to be Tiananmen in slow motion: the application of low-level but steady violence in the hopes that the protesters will eventually give up. There are some signs that the strategy is working. Protests continued Saturday night and Sunday, but the numbers are down. Tactics like using the police to bar access to public squares and forcing people to keep moving are making it much harder to mount large-scale sustained marches. Using police and basiji forces to prevent gatherings or disperse them before they grow too large - rather than trying to disperse them by force after the fact -- and the widespread arrests of perceived or potential leadership figures are strategies aimed at turning a flashpoint confrontation into a sustained low-level counterinsurgency operation, a strategy should sound familiar.

The Iranian government is dominated by a generation that remembers not only the Revolution of 1979, but more immediately the Iran-Iraq War with its million Iranian dead. The basijis who are doing the skull-cracking and shooting now are the same force that launched suicidal human wave attacks against much better (American) armed Iraqi forces in the marshes. In other words, this is a regime that has no trouble accepting casualties and has the forces available that are ready to both inflict and absorb much, much more. If one must have a Chinese analogy, we might be seeing the beginning of an Iranian Cultural Revolution rather than the next Velvet Revolution.

Meanwhile, the extensive efforts to curtail the use of cell phones and cameras, the government's YouTube propaganda strategy, the effective exclusion of direct reporting by Western agencies, in turn, are aimed at preventing the world's attention from focusing around a symbolic object like the Lady Liberty statue. (What a triumph Nico Pitney's live blog has been for Huffpo; and how pathetic has the MSM been in comparison? Is anything sadder than CNN's putting up videos they got from YouTube?) The world is trying to watch what is happening. Will they still be trying just as hard after a month without direct news reporting?

We hear that there is a fierce power struggle going on in the meantime, between clerics aligned with Rafsanjani - these are real ayatollahs, which Khamenei is not - and others loyal to the regime, but nothing thus far suggests that a revolution will emerge from Qum. The move are complicated, and hard to read - presumably Rafsanjani and Khamenei are each trying to line up support. Khamenei recently spoke well of Rafsanjani, suggesting the he wants to avoid an outright split. At the same time, the New York Times has a story today detailing efforts to discredit Mousavi as an agent of foreign powers in the government press, a move described as suggesting "that the government may be laying the groundwork for discrediting and arresting Mr. Mousavi." The story also quotes Iranian politicians calling for retrenchment and "reconsidering relations" with European nations. The worst outcome could be a power-struggle that Rafsanjani loses, leading to retrenchment and reconsolidation. The best outcome appears to be some incremental steps or revisions in power-sharing arrangements, at the most; nothing to turn the unrest in the streets into a top-down revolution.

Most likely the protests will continue through this week, and so will the low-level violence and the clampdown, the obvious acts of violence by government provocateurs, and the equally obvious propaganda. Meanwhile, the American Congress would do well to avoid providing ammunition to Khamenei and the Iranian government press. Something powerful is on the move in the streets of Tehran; to borrow a different metaphor, there is something waiting to be hatched and take flight there. But it may be some time yet before that new bird is ready to come out, and when it does we can have only the dimmest idea as to what kind of bird it might become.