Revolutions tend to be processes rather than singular events. What has happened in Iran is no different. The process of recent public demonstrations, though a surprise to many in its beginning, should be no surprise as it continues in various forms that not unreasonably could be characterized as a “revolution.” Nonetheless, revolution is a war — sometimes lengthy and with many casualties. In other instances, lamentably fewer, the process can be relatively brief and bloodless. So far Iran has shown itself more prone to the former than the latter and that does not bode well for peaceful change.
Whether the American administration likes it or not, it will be expected by Iranians of various stripes who are out of power that the United States will actively support their effort to overthrow the regime in power — or at the very least not object to their efforts to do so. The U.S. since World War II has presented itself as the defender of world freedom. The protesters in Tehran could be forgiven if they mistakenly believe that Washington would offer its support if asked.
This complicates things for President Obama, who has shown no inclination to fight anyone for anything other than in defense of a direct attack on the U.S. As a consequence, the Iranian insurgents will have to construct their revolution in such a way as to not count on assistance from what reasonably could be considered their most obvious benefactor.
Perhaps this is just as well because hesitant support for revolution is often more dangerous for the recipient than clear inaction. It is obvious that the current Iranian government believes it has little or nothing to fear from an American administration that has shown itself willing to overlook the serious bully-boy tactics of Tehran’s security forces. Confident as the Persians are in their ability to outmaneuver anyone else in the Middle East, and especially Western interests, the Iranian leadership fully intends to continue to repress all dissent and move on to nuclear weapon acquisition.
The dissident individuals and groups coming off a serious public defeat have two factors going for them — one negative and one positive. Most obviously the populace in general suffers from the harsh government reaction. Ordinary citizens with strictly parochial interests do not want to become embroiled in activities that might disrupt their lives. For them the recent protests have taken on at best a bittersweet character. These ordinary folk will seek to avoid any involvement, direct or indirect, in any continuing rebellion. At worst they will collaborate with security officials in unmasking covert opposition action and personalities.
On the positive side the remaining opposition cadre, not yet exposed, will tend to develop a more cohesive character and a more effective strategic and tactical operation. While security service oppression increases the difficulty quotient of dissident activities, it also hardens and makes more dynamic that same opposition. This has held true in the past in Northern Ireland and other classic sites of continuing anti-government uprisings.
In the case of Iran there is a definite need for the opposition to establish reliable covert entrees into both the security services and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. It is of little value at this time to bring into the streets — if it could be done — a repetition of the thousands of unarmed protesters who valiantly, but ineffectively, earlier challenged the elections and government of Ahmadinejad. The government has just shown it can easily handle smaller demonstrations.
It must be recognized that the protests were not anti-clerical. This important character of the anti-government assemblage indicates their motivation was less a desire for secular democracy as it was a movement of several anti-Ahmadinejad factions backed by old-line clerical elements from the 1979 revolution. These included the former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, his immensely wealthy family, and the long-time clerical backing of Moussavi from the religious center of Qum including the reformist Ayatollah Khatami.
It is clear that there is little in the anti-Ahmadinejad protest movement that suggests a desire to alter the basic anti-Israeli, pro-Hamas, pro Hezbollah, nuclear weapon developing policy of Iran. If anything, the objection is to the unsophisticated character of the current government’s rhetoric. What does definitely exist, however, is the competition among existing clerical and secular groups eager to gain, or regain, control over governance of the country. This situation poses a serious challenge to outside interests such as the United States even in choosing which opposition factions to covertly aid.
As in most revolutions the future of change in Iran will depend on whether the opposition forces can coalesce operationally in such a manner as to physically overthrow the existing power structure now that elections have been ruled out. To gain U.S. and European support it has to be determined if any new government will change the current Persian foreign and defense policies. Among Moussavi supporters and their diverse allies it’s not yet been shown that commitment to such change exists.
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