Wednesday, December 30, 2024
By Steven L. Taylor

Charles Krauthammer thinks that the President should be issuing stronger statements about the situation in Iran, as he seems to believe that the words of the President can affect change in this situation (from his WaPo column,  2009: The year of living fecklessly):

[R]evolutions succeed at that singular moment, that imperceptible historical inflection, when the people, and particularly those in power, realize that the regime has lost the mandate of heaven. With this weakening dictatorship desperate for affirmation, why is the United States repeatedly offering just such affirmation?

Apart from ostracizing and delegitimizing these gangsters, we should be encouraging and reinforcing the demonstrators. This is no trivial matter. When pursued, beaten, arrested and imprisoned, dissidents can easily succumb to feelings of despair and isolation. Natan Sharansky testifies to the electric effect Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire speech had on lifting spirits in the gulag. The news was spread cell to cell in code tapped on the walls. They knew they weren’t alone, that America was committed to their cause.

No, that isn’t how revolutions work (and sounds more like magical thinking than sound social science). It is how we like to think that revolutionary change works, i.e., that the righteous might of the masses can toss aside the yoke of their authoritarian masters and establish a new, just regime. Revolutions are rare occurrences and they are not simply the result of street protests that overwhelm tyrants.

In the twentieth century the number of unambiguous revolutions1 is short: Russia (1917), China (1949), Cuba (1959), Nicaragua (1979), and Iran (1979).2 Part of the issue has to do with how one defines the term, of course.3

If we are using the term “revolution” in a broad sense of regime change, one could further include changes like those we saw in Eastern Europe in the wake of the waning power and then collapse of the Soviet Union (such as the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia).

It is worth noting that in the cases of China and Russia, the old regimes were severely weakened by war (World Wars I and II, respectively). In the cases of Cuba and Nicaragua (and to some degree Iran), a poorly institutionalized state that consisted mostly of personalistic power (Batista in Cuba, Somoza in Nicaragua, and Reza Pahlavi) maintained (at least in part) by support from the United States were undermined by a series of events that included the withdrawal of support by the US and the decision by the given dictator to flee (thus causing the state to collapse).

To Krauthammer’s Sharansky reference/the regime changes in post-Soviet Eastern Europe: I have no doubt that dissidents in the Soviet Union found inspiration in Reagan’s words. They were not, however, the reason that the Soviet Union collapsed nor why the Wall fell.4 I would note that Presidents of the United States had been deploying strident anti-Soviet rhetoric for decades prior to the fall of the Wall. Structural conditions within the Soviet Union combined with a number of international factors (but mostly internal problems within the governing institutions of the CPSU) led to the collapse of the USSR (and, by extension, its ability to impose its preferred regimes on Eastern Europe).

The current situation in Iran fits none of these patterns. If change is going to take place in Iran, as I have noted before, it will be because of intra-elite conflict. The real battle in Iran is not the street versus Ahmadenijad, rather it is the the Khamenei/Revolutionary Guard faction (for whom Ahmadenijad is a figurehead) versus the Khatami/Mousavi faction.5 Whichever faction emerges the winner will dictate the course of Iranian political development, but even if the dissident faction wins it will not mean a whole new set of elites in charge of Iran, nor will it mean the end of the “Islamic” part of the Islamic Republic (although we can hope that such an outcome would lead to a great emphasis on the “Republic” part).

Simply put, revolutions can only happen if something causes the state to collapse—and peasants with pitchforks (or guns) don’t cause states to collapse.  Instead, other factors come into play, not the least of which being whether the institutions of the state (especially the security forces) are unified and working towards maintaining the regime.  At the moment, there is no indication that the Iranian state is going to collapse or that the security apparatus is fractured. Indeed, it appears that the power of the Revolutionary Guard has become more (not less) entrenched and institutionalized of late, meaning dislodging them will be difficult. If there is going to be change, it is going to be because the out of power factions take over (a faction that has its own roots in the 1979 revolution).

Indeed, Krauthammer seems not to understand that many of the leaders of the dissident factions are not exactly pro-US, nor do they necessarily see the United States as a source of inspiration.   Again:  many of them were key participants in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

I would note that the term “revolution” is often used colloquially (and incorrectly) to describe any number of political manifestations that are not, in the end, revolutionary. See, for example, the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine and the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon. Neither event resulted in actual regime change, let alone an actual revolution of the politics and society in the states in question.

  1. There is a vast literature on this subject and there is debate over exact definitions and how to classify certain cases and the successfulness of the events. []
  2. Others typically included in such a list include Mexico (1910) and Bolivia (1952). Mexico is debated in terms of exactly how complete a revolution it was and Bolivia’s revolution was largely reversed by a military coup in 1964. Different scholars will include other cases. []
  3. For further discussion see:

    DeFronzo, James. 2024. Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

    Dix, Robert H. 1983. The Varieties of Revolution. Comparative Politics. 15,3 (April): 281-294.

    Dix, Robert H. 1984. Why Revolutions Succeed & Fail. Polity. 16:3 (Spring): 423-446.

    Foran, John. 2024. Taking Power: On the Origins of Third World Revolutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Mehran Kamrava. 1999. Revolution Revisited: The Structuralist-Voluntarist Debate. Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue canadienne de science politique, Vol. 32, No. 2. (Jun., 1999), pp. 317-345.

    Shugart, Matthew Soberg. 1989. Patterns of Revolution. Theory and Society, Vol. 18, No. 2.: 249-271. []

  4. Indeed, to my broader point, the dissidents in question didn’t case the regime to fall either. []
  5. For more, see my 6/28/09 column in the Mobile Press-Register. []
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