Saturday, March 9, 2013

No Islamic Revolution 2.0... yet

There will not be another revolution in Iran for some time.

"We are hungry"
Over the last two years, Western sanctions against Iran have significantly increased, crippling the state and its people. With their currency at roughly 50% of its value two years ago, economic hopelessness has been felt most deeply on the streets, as formerly comfortable middle class Iranians now struggle to make ends meet. It would appear that the economic preconditions for revolution are ripe in Iran.

This assumption, however, overlooks the issue of perception. If the Iranian people view the theocracy itself as the source of their economic maladies, the economic preconditions for an uprising would indeed appear to be met. But there is debate among intellectual observers of Iran that question this notion of overlooking the West as the primary mover behind Iran’s increasing economic degradation. It has been claimed that Iran’s engine for democratic change, the “Green Movement” that was born out of the disputed 2009 re-election of President Ahmadinejad, is vehemently against the continuation of sanctions. They believe that the sanctions will not dissuade the Ayatollahs from pursuing nuclear armament--as has been continually evident--and that continuing to enforce them will only hurt the Iranian people’s chance at democracy.

The issue of economic sanctions is a relatively new concept in the scope of international relations. There have not been ample case studies to examine their utility for actually aiding in the onset of an uprising. As Chenoweth and Stephan have argued, sanctions are indeed very successful at aiding in the overthrow of the government after the uprising has already begun, but it remains to be seen if indeed such sanctions can aid in starting an uprising in Iran. In light of this, it would appear that the implicit goal of the West for continuing the sanctions--in the face of the perpetual defeatism of Khameini at the negotiation table--would be to incite some sort of backlash against the Iranian regime.

Or so Going to Tehran claims.
Beyond just the economic aspect of potential democratic protest, there remains two additional issues affecting the democratic prospects of Iran--one social and one political. The first is the social aspect of preference falsification. In a recent and controversial book entitled Going to Tehran: Why the United States must come to terms with the Islamic Republic, it is argued that the West cannot hope to incite democratic change through means of force (i.e. sanctions and bombing campaigns) as the majority of Iranians--as much as 98% of them--continue to support the Ayatollah and his theocracy. They conclude that, following years of extensive research and interviews within the country, there is no circumstantial evidence that would counter their findings, suggesting Iran has little to no democratic opposition within the country itself.

Apparently, the authors of Going to Tehran have never heard of preference falsification. They may indeed be correct that 98% of Iranians claim to support the current regime, but as Timur Kuran has argued, many hide their desire for overthrow because, in repressive societies, the costs for speaking up frequently outweigh the benefits. This would certainly be the case in Iran, as criticizing the regime frequently results in a prompt prison sentence. 

"Governance is the right of the people"
Beyond the idea of preference falsification lies the second issue at the heart of Iranian democratic ambitions--reform. As Ali Mirsepassi argues in his book Democracy in Modern Iran, the majority of Iranians prefer reform to revolt. He claims the 1979 Revolution, though frequently typified as the only "true modern Revolution," was really just a historical irregularity in the tradition of reform in Iran. It was the culmination of years of failed efforts to reform. In this light of reform tradition, I believe that the 2009 Green Movement was not a movement for regime change, but democratic reform. It was a call against the violation of Iranian's democratic freedoms.

This tradition of reform seems to be the path that Iran will follow for the near future. With the upcoming elections this summer, the actions of the Ayatollah and his theocracy will, more than any other factor, decide the fate of Iran's democratic future. Should the regime be willing to falsify the election results as it did in 2009, it would not be out of the realm of possibility that such an action would be the very shock needed to elicit public displays of formerly dormant public opinion. Pragmatic application of such a shift in explicit public dissatisfaction, however, will undoubtedly be limited in scope by the crushing sanctions against the Islamic Republic. For the time being, there is little chance for an Islamic Revolution 2.0 to occur, but the upcoming elections are sure to be another brick in the wall of Ayatollah Khameini's political tomb should he fail to meet Iranian calls for reform yet again. 


  1. If Ali Mirsepassi argues that Iranian citizens prefer reform to revolution, what does he use as his basis for this argument? If he doesn't consider the possibility of preference falsification as you discuss how Leverrette fails at, then wouldn't Iranians possibly prefer revolution to reform (but actually put on a false image of preferring reform)? I think that since there is a relatively high degree of preference falsification, it is really hard to say that there is little chance of a "Islamic Revolution 2.0" considering current and future pressures that will be put on Iran.

  2. Many of the "democratic transitions" in the Middle East simply began as bids for reform. They only turned violent or called for the removal of the regime only after they were met with violence or further repression. It would appear that most countries, and indeed most people, would far prefer reform to "revolution." There is far less at risk when the well-being of the country isn't directly in question as a revolution, by definition, would suggest.

    Ali Mirsepassi says that this preference for reform is not something that is "spoken" (or unspoken) by Iranians as required by preference falsification. The reform that he suggests is "reform in action;" it is a history of public mobilization for reform. There has been a tradition of cries for reform both in Iran and across the Middle East that much resemble the public sentiments of discontent that we see today. It is therefore not an explicit preference of revolution over reform that leads to an uprising, but the correct factors aligning in the right time and place for a popular uprising to occur.

    In such light, Mirsepassi says that the 1979 revolution in Iran was simply a blip on the radar, it was the result of years of failed attempts at reform. Conditions were right, reform had failed repeatedly, it was time to overthrow the regime.

    As far as saying there is little chance of an Islamic Revolution 2.0, I think it is too easy to claim that there will be an uprising when it is an uprising that everyone is looking for. It is easy to oversimplify the region when we've seen uprisings in other Middle Eastern nations. As our book, "Battle for the Arab Spring" implicitly suggests, every country is different and has its own set of intricacies that make it unique. Iran shares many of the same features that other countries who have experienced democratic uprisings had; unemployment, inflation, political repression, rigged elections etc. And yet, Iran has still not experienced transition. The conditions are ripe and yet nothing has transpired.

    With the June elections coming, it will be interesting to see how the increasingly tense dynamic between the Ayatollah and Ahmadinejad plays out. There are many possibilities pointing towards an uprising, but without a massive external shock or a huge fallout between Ahmadinejad and Khamaeni, there will most likely not be a Revolution 2.0.