Iran's populist moment

Will the Iranian regime succumb to a revolt — and should America help?

Protests in Iran.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Nine years after Iranians last took to the streets in mass protests, it's happening again. Over 20 people have already died, and in a possible replay of the crackdown in 2009, the government has now called out the Revolutionary Guards to suppress the protests by force. The world is watching and debating whether this time the regime is finally at risk of falling — and what will come next if it does.

Answering that question in any definitive way is not possible. But advocates of American action to support the protesters are already trotting out hoary talking points comparing Iran to Poland in the Solidarity era, or South Africa in the waning days of the apartheid regime. If the protesters don't have the power to win on their own, these Iran hawks argue, America has to put its thumb on the scale of freedom until they do.

The analogies are flawed in a variety of ways, but they are not completely absurd. Poland's communist government was widely reviled by ordinary Poles for being imposed and propped up by their nominal ally, the Soviet Union. After martial law was declared in 1981, with Soviet backing, any possibility of changing that impression, and achieving legitimacy in the eyes of Polish citizens, was lost. Similarly, the apartheid regime in South Africa had no strategy or mechanism for achieving the active consent of the black majority. Its only hope was to achieve tacit consent — peaceful submission. And after the brutal suppression of the 1976 Soweto uprising, this was no longer plausible.

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Iran's regime is certainly widely reviled, and popular opposition has been manifest for a long time, as was the case in Poland and South Africa. But it cannot plausibly be described as having been propped up by a hated foreign power. On the contrary, as in Cuba and Vietnam, the regime derives what remains of its legitimacy from opposition to foreign powers that historically sought to dominate it.

Foreign support, moral and material, likely did make a difference in the cases of Poland and South Africa. But they were able to do so in part because those regimes had already lost their fundamental legitimacy in the eyes of the overwhelming bulk of the population and had no plausible way to regain it.

Is that true of the theocratic regime in Iran? The evidence is mixed. The proximate cause of the discontent is substantially economic, but the unpopularity of the regime persists even when the economy is in relatively good shape, because the roots of that discontent are deeper. The diverse revolts of the "Arab Spring" began with the despair of a Tunisian street vendor; they spread so widely and to so many countries not only because economic hardship was widespread but because there was no way short of sometimes-violent protest to address that hardship, and to dislodge corrupt and self-serving elites. And that is the root problem in Iran as well.

What must concern the regime most is that the current protests appear to have a wider class and geographic base than the 2009 protests, which were powered by more urban and educated Iranians. The Iranian regime is a populist one, of sorts, rooted in rural and more traditional constituencies. If it is facing a populist revolt of its own, that has to worry it.

But that doesn't mean the regime is doomed to collapse. Nor does it mean that a democratic or pro-American regime would replace it if it did.

First of all, brutal suppression does not always fail. The 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in China were put down with deadly force, and the regime that crushed the Chinese democracy movement not only survived but thrives, even though in recent years it has become only more politically repressive. Moreover, there is no equivalent in Iran to Solidarity or the ANC — nor, for that matter, to an individual like the Ayatollah Khomeini who seized control of the 1979 revolution, or Egypt's Mohammad Morsi who was able to win the elections that followed former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak's departure from office.

Speaking of Egypt: It's worth recalling how quickly the populist and Islamist Morsi's regime fell to a military takeover, and how successful the widely-reviled Sisi has been — so far — at retaining power even as some of his erstwhile supporters abandon him in advance of the 2018 presidential elections. More tellingly, it's worth recalling that when the Soviet Union collapsed, the democratic interlude lasted only a few years before giving way to authoritarian populism with an anti-American tinge.

Iran's regime is indeed suffering from a prolonged crisis of legitimacy, and that crisis may be coming to a head. But crises of legitimacy are the hallmark of our era — and democracies are not by any means immune. Countries across Europe have faced populist revolts against the governing elites, and while those revolts have not always succeeded, neither do they show any signs of abating. Donald Trump's ascent to the American presidency was powered by a similar crisis of legitimacy, reflected in popular revulsion at self-serving elites in both major political parties.

And once lost, restoring legitimacy is hard. Trump's presidency has already precipitated an orgy of corruption and self-dealing, but as The New York Times' Ross Douthat pointed out apropos of Mitt Romney's possible return to politics, the deposed Republican elites have not yet found a plausible strategy for winning back the mandate of heaven. Public confidence in key organs of American democracy has crept up, but it remains abysmally low for nearly every institution, with the important but dangerous exception of the military.

Americans should be wary of assuming that whatever is happening in a foreign country is ultimately a reflection of ourselves, part of a providential drama of which we are the protagonist. It's not always about us. But that corrective insight is itself an artifact of an era when America's elites could blithely assume their own and their country's exceptionalism. Trump's ascent to the presidency should have provided a brutal reality check to that assumption.

What's happening in Iran has very little to do with what America does. But what's been happening in America may bear more resemblance to the kinds of things that have been happening in Iran than we'd like to admit.

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