Could change come to Iran in as peaceful a way as what we just witnessed in Egypt, or is the Iranian case fundamentally different?
Egypt under Mubarak was a secular dictatorship. Although the Iranian regime is a de facto military dictatorship, it is not secular and advertises itself as a religious democracy and the defender of Islam—a religion, lest the mullahs forget, based on legitimate governance and social justice!
Egypt’s economic conditions under Mubarak were dismal—slow economic growth in twenty-five of the last thirty years, a shameful income disparity, widespread poverty and abhorrent misery. Although Iran’s economic achievements have been only marginally better than Egypt’s, today’s average Iranian is still better off than his or her Egyptian counterpart, something that is entirely due to Iran’s vast oil and gas reserves.
Egypt’s revolution has largely been about economic deprivation, unemployment, widespread corruption and the absence of hope for a better future. To the contrary, during their revolution in 1979, Iranian protesters railed vehemently against their regime’s social and political failures and against its subservient relationship with a foreign power, namely, the United States. Nor has the Egyptian revolution been infused with religious overtones. But today’s unrest in Iran closely echoes the Egyptian revolution. Iranians face economic hardships as never before. Recent university graduates are leaving the country in record numbers because they have little hope for a better future. Most Iranians no longer resent the United States and would in fact welcome better relations between Tehran and Washington.
There are undoubtedly numerous historical and social reasons for the relatively peaceful nature of the Egyptian revolution, but most prominent in this is the role of the military. The Egyptian military perceived its primary mission as upholding peace and stability while recognizing the legitimate grievances and aspirations of the Egyptian people. Although the Egyptian military has vast economic interests, it did not view the people’s demands as a threat to these interests. At the same time, the Egyptian military has received significant financial support from the United States and has enjoyed close working relations with the U.S. military since the signing of the peace accord with Israel. This close relationship appears to have provided Washington with a channel for achieving a peaceful exit for Mubarak and his cronies.
The Iranian military sees itself differently. The military, more specifically its important component the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), sees itself not as the protector of the Iranian people but as the defender of the regime. If the regime is threatened, the IRGC considers itself threatened. This was not the case in Egypt. A fundamental reason for this is the difference in the economic interests of the IRGC in Iran as opposed to those of the Egyptian military. In Iran the economic interests of the IRGC are more pervasive and brazen than those of the Egyptian military: not only do they have vast ownership in the Iranian economy, they also receive large government contracts in areas in which they have no expertise, such as developing a sector of Iran’s vast gas field (which it shares with Qatar) in the Persian Gulf.
In essence, the leaders of the IRGC view their economic fortunes as tied to the clerical regime and the puppet president. If the regime goes so does the IRGC’s religious cover and its vast economic fortune. In Egypt the military’s economic interests are not directly threatened by the dismissal of the Mubarak regime and may in fact not fare badly given the ongoing popular support they enjoy.
These clear differences in the role of the military in the two dictatorial regimes suggest that it is unlikely the ongoing conflict in Iran will follow the path of the revolution in Egypt. The Egyptian people did not demand the ouster of the military. They started by demanding the ouster of Mubarak and later extended their demand to include his political cronies in the regime. In Iran, the demonstrators are demanding the ouster of the regime, meaning the Supreme Leader, his supporters and cronies, and the leadership of the military and intelligence services. The protestors clearly see this as the only way to bring meaningful change to Iran. If the protests are indeed successful, Iran will have to scrap its clerical constitution, based on the velayat-e-faqih or clerical rule, and start anew with a constitution that reflects the will of the people.
It is for these reasons that the IRGC is brutal and thinks nothing of killing innocent citizens. The Egyptian military was not willing to commit such atrocities. Meaningful change in Iran will require great determination and much more bloodshed than we saw in Egypt. How much bloodshed? I believe the regime is willing to kill a thousand during the course of a single demonstration, maybe even five thousand, but ten thousand? I think probably not. In other words, the IRGC would have to kill protestors in the thousands and the number of protesters would have to be in the hundreds of thousands before the military leadership recognizes that it cannot kill more citizens and rule with even a shred of popular support or legitimacy.
What can the United States and the rest of the Western world do to support such a struggle? First of all, Washington should no longer sit on the fence. It must instead continue to support the transition to democratic rule in Egypt and must do nothing and say nothing to impede such transitions in all the countries from Morocco to Afghanistan, including Saudi Arabia and the rest of the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Any duplicitous actions, anything that would stand in the way of democratic change in any of these countries, will give corrupt regimes another lease on life and further alienate the United States from the Muslim world. In particular, in the case of Iran, the regime would use this to accuse the United States of duplicity. Second, Washington must stop emphasizing Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and instead focus on human rights, economic deprivation and social injustice in Iran. Third, and quietly, the United States should further tighten the economic chokehold on the regime by sanctioning the central bank of Iran and adopting policies to threaten the stability of the Iranian currency, as this would bring more demonstrators onto the streets and motivate the businessmen to go on strike.
If the United States were to adopt these policies, the Iranian people would be emboldened. They would demonstrate in greater numbers and make even more sacrifices to gain their freedom and establish a government that represents their vision and interests.