In just the past few days during which Iran has seen anti-government protests, much has been written and said about Iranians’ desire for freedom, mixed with speculation about whether or not the ayatollahs’ Islamic republic is in danger of collapse.
The following is not another such analysis. Rather, this is an attempt to address the underlying assumptions of most of the sage pronouncements to which we are treated – assumptions that are as lacking in substance as they are ubiquitous. Three of these myths are noted below.
Spontaneous popular uprising – not
“Arise ye pris’ners of starvation, Arise ye wretched of the earth!” The stirring words of the socialist and communist anthem, The Internationale, encapsulate the sense most people have of revolution as the result of unbearably oppressive conditions. At some point “The People” can stand no more, and in noble wrath they rise up as one against their tormenters!
There’s just one little problem. That has never happened, it isn’t happening now, and it never will happen.
Revolts and revolutions (see below) almost always occur when things are getting better but expectations have outpaced performance. Or when things had been getting better but there’s been a setback, either economically (like in Iran today, where President Rouhani’s neoliberal economic reforms have cut consumer subsidies paid under his predecessor, Ahmadinejad) or in 1917 Russia (problems with the conduct with the war and the economy).
Even then, revolts and revolutions don’t take place unless other conditions are present. One of them is relative freedom to protest and even, in some cases, to engage in subversive activities. For example, why did revolt “spontaneously” break out in Russia in 1917 but not in the Soviet Union in 1941, when, in the latter case, the losses on the war front were far greater in terms of men and territory and the privations of the home population far more severe? Because, Tsar Nicholas did not impose all-pervasive wartime discipline on the home front or even in the army, allowing anti-war agitators to operate within the ranks. Where would that have got you with Stalin in 1941? Or in North Korea or Saudi Arabia today?
“The People” don’t all of one accord suddenly decide to shift direction like a flock of birds or a school of fish. Movements by human beings need to be planned, led, and incited. Consider the role of the Masonic lodges in revolutionary France, the Bolsheviks in Russia, the religious establishment in Iran that in 1979 brought the mullahs to power in the first place, and the Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafist groups in the so-called “Arab Spring” starting in 2011.
The Iranian government says the disorders are instigated from the outside. They would say that even if it weren’t true, but public support from President Donald Trump, Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu adds credence to the charge. So does news of a Trump-Netanyahu “strategic work plan” to counter Iran following a December 12 White House meeting. So does the appointment earlier this year of the “Dark Prince,” “Ayatollah Mike,” the “Undertaker” and convert to Islam Michael D’Andrea to run the CIA’s Iran operation. (One Langley insider’s simple comment on the D’Andrea appointment: “All I can say is that war with Iran is in the cards.”)
“Freedom!” – but for whom?
Well-wishers of the Iranian demonstrators laud their quest for: Freedom! For most of the world, that word usually implies a set of related values: political freedom, democracy, the rule of law (versus the rule of the ayatollahs and their security services); economic freedom (Stefan Molyneux has spoken eloquently about the venerable Persian civilization whose creative potential had been stultified under the Islamic republic); and social and personal freedom (the image of the woman holding her hijab aloft, “Tiananmen-Square-style.”)
One is reminded of the idealistic, cosmopolitan, pro-“democracy” young ladies who in 1979 voluntarily donned hijab or chador in “solidarity” with Islamic protests against the “repressive, corrupt, and pro-American regime” of Reza Shah Pahlavi – and who then found themselves confined in such garb for the rest of their lives. An inconvenient truth for many advocates of “freedom” in Iran is that while in non-Islamic countries there is generally a congruency between democracy and liberal social liberties, in Muslim societies there is an inherent and underlying conflict.
Here’s the tradeoff. You can push for more “democracy” – and end up with an illiberal, Sharia-ruled state that oppresses women and non-Muslims. Or you can have an enlightened autocrat or military caste that imposes a secular order in which women can run about with uncovered hair and minorities are equal citizens. The mid-20th century saw various movements and regimes that enforced the latter: Kemalism in Turkey, Baathism in Iraq and Syria, Nasserite pan-Arabism in Egypt, military rule in a number of countries (Algeria, Pakistan (until Zia-ul-Haq’s imposition of Sharia), and Egypt today after a brief run of Islamist “democracy”).
Certainly there are many, many people in Iran who would like to see the restoration of the socially liberal state that existed under the Shah – and maybe restoration of the monarchy itself. But no one should imagine such a restoration would be particularly democratic. (Maybe some of those no-longer-young girls stuck in their hijabs for almost four decades may have reconsidered their priorities.) To survive, such a restoration, even if it commands the support of a majority of the population would have to contend with a very substantial portion of the population for whom secularism and liberalism are not just wrong but shirk (idolatry) and ridda (apostasy) – and are prepared to act accordingly.
Revolt or Revolution?
“Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”The self-evident observation of John Harington (also famed as the inventor of the flush toilet) is that if a revolt succeeds, it is no longer just a revolt. Those who launched it are no longer traitors, those who opposed the revolution are.
The conversion from revolt to revolution almost never happens unless there is a split in l’ancien régime to create what Alexander Shtromas called “the second pivot,” a second source of official power. This happens not when “The People” rise up but when some part of the ruling establishment defects to the revolt and becomes the new conferrer of legitimacy. There are obvious historical examples: Parliament in the English Civil War, the Third Estate’s declaring itself the National Assembly of France, the Petrograd Soviet’s coup against the Provisional Government, Boris Yeltsin’s Russian government when Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet government was under threat of the State Committee on the State of Emergency (itself an aspiring second pivot that failed), and the communist cabals in the various Warsaw Pact countries that ousted little Brezhnevs and installed little Gorbachevs.
In Iran today, the question isn’t whether “The People” will topple “the regime.” It’s whether, when, and where a split might occur in the ruling establishment to create a rival point of authority. If that doesn’t happen, a revolt it will remain, either being suppressed or dying out on its own.
Ironically, in Iran’s 1979 revolution, the Islamic establishment itself may be regarded as having been a kind of second pivot. Keep in mind that in 1953, the Islamic clergy – most prominently Ayatollah Abol-Ghasem Kashani, friend and mentor to Ruhollah Khomeini, the future Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic – was allied with the Shah in the CIA-sponsored overthrow of the left-leaning Mohammad Mosaddegh. Without such support it’s unlikely the Shah would have succeeded.
Most of the mullahs were content to stay in their well-paid government sinecures under royal authority, even after 1963, when the Shah launched his “White Revolution” modernization program of land reform, privatization, and most controversially women’s rights and legal equality of non-Muslims. But Khomeini, forced into exile, led the denunciation that the reforms were an “an attack on Islam.” From his place of exile in Paris, Khomeini inveighed against the threat to Islam and eventually became the second pivot that brought down the Shah.