Swimming Against the Tide in Tehran

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

February 16, 2011

Demonstrators marching in a square. A sclerotic and despotic regime employs its thugs to beat them and arrest their leaders. But the brave protestors carry on, calling for the downfall of the regime and the beginning of a new democratic future.

We’ve seen this movie before, and in Egypt and Tunisia, so far at least, it has had a surprise happy ending. Many U.S. observers look to the hated regime in Tehran as next in line, reasoning that before this latest wave of protest the regime faced demonstrations over its rigging of the 2009 election, and that discontent is only likely to grow. In Iran, however, the picture is grimmer and the odds of revolution lower.

Ironically, the strength of Iran’s democratic forces, dubbed the “Green Movement,” and their success in mobilizing so many ordinary Iranians in 2009 may prove their downfall.  For the Iranian regime, unlike its Arab neighbors, was not surprised that its people would take to the streets. As it showed in 2009 when it killed dozens of demonstrators, the Iranian regime will use as much force as it needs to stay in power.

The same, of course, was said about Ben Ali and Mubarak. But even more so than in Egypt or Tunisia, the Iranian military is tightly bound to the regime. For in reality, Iran has two militaries, with one—the Islamic Republican Guard Corps (IRGC)—dedicated first and foremost to preserving the revolutionary regime from its enemies, including those at home.  Many former IRGC leaders hold key political and economic positions in the government of firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The IRGC and Iran’s other security forces are ready. In the 1990s, the regime faced unexpected protests, with Iranians voicing their anger at the country’s economic and political malaise and the corruption of the regime. The clerical regime deployed army units to put down the unrest, only to find the soldiers hesitant to pull the trigger if necessary.  Unfortunately, the regime learned: It created special police and military units for crowd control, making sure that they remained loyal to the regime over the Iranian people. Ben Ali and Mubarak discovered the need for such units too late.

And while Mubarak and Ben Ali had a small coterie of family and lackeys to help them run the show, Iran’s leadership is far broader. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are often criticized by other Iranian elites as well as the people, but Iran’s leaders are likely to come together in the face of protests. They see the demonstrators as illegitimate and tools of the West. While they would rather avoid the opprobrium that comes with gunning down hundreds of their own people, they will hang together rather than risk hanging apart.

Ironically, the Obama administration is being, and can be, much bolder in its calls for dramatic change in Iran because Tehran is an adversary and because the United States has little influence. Another irony is that the failure to halt Iran’s nuclear program also emboldens the administration. Efforts to engage Iran proved fruitless, so there is less to lose by further alienating the regime. Politically, Obama can only benefit from becoming the champion of democrats against a hated regime, and this will help him deflect any criticism that he was too slow in getting behind the protestors in Egypt’s Tahrir Square.

In practice, however, the United States calls for democracy in Iran may have more mixed results. Highlighting the democratic struggle can help shine the spotlight on the demonstrators and raise the diplomatic and political costs to the regime of a crackdown. But U.S. support, even if only rhetorical, will also convince hardliners that the United States is behind the unrest and make them more willing to press the trigger.