Whenever we see the kinds of images that have been coming out of Iran over the past two weeks, we tend to think back to 1989 and Eastern Europe. That time, when people took to the streets and challenged their governments, those seemingly stable regimes proved to be hollow and quickly collapsed. What emerged was liberal democracy. Could Iran yet undergo its own velvet revolution?
It's possible but unlikely. While the regime's legitimacy has cracked—a fatal wound in the long run—for now it will probably be able to use its guns and money to consolidate power. And it has plenty of both. Remember, the price of oil was less than $20 a barrel back in 1989. It is currently $69. More important, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has pointed out, 1989 was highly unusual. As a historical precedent, it has not proved a useful guide to other antidictatorial movements.
The three most powerful forces in the modern world are democracy, religion, and national-ism. In 1989 in Eastern Europe, all three were arrayed against the ruling regimes. Citizens hated their governments because they deprived people of liberty and political participation. Believers despised communist leaders because they were atheistic, banning religion in countries where faith was deeply cherished. And people rejected their regimes because they were seen as having been imposed from the outside by a much--disliked imperial power, the Soviet Union.
The situation in Iran is more complex. Democracy clearly works against this repressive regime. The forces of religion, however, are not so easily aligned against it. Many, possibly most, Iranians appear to be fed up with theocracy. But that does not mean they are fed up with religion. It does appear that the more openly devout Iranians—the poor, the rural—voted for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
There is one way religion could be used against Iran's leaders, but it would involve an unlikely scenario: were Iraq-based Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to issue a fatwa condemning Tehran in any way, it would be a seismic event, probably resulting in the regime's collapse. Remember, Sistani is Iranian, probably more revered in the entire Shia world than any other ayatollah, and he is opposed to the basic doctrine of velayat-e faqih that created the Islamic Republic of Iran. His own view is that clerics should not be involved in politics, which is why he has steered clear of any such role in Iraq. But he is unlikely to publicly criticize the Iranian regime. (He did, however, refuse to see Ahmadinejad when the latter visited Iraq in March 2008.)
Nationalism is the most complex of these three forces. Over most of its history, the Iranian regime has exploited nationalist sentiment. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power by battling the shah, who was widely seen as an American puppet. Soon after the revolution, Iraq attacked Iran, and the mullahs wrapped themselves in the flag again. The United States supported Iraq in that war, ignoring Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons against Iranians—something Iranians have never forgotten. Over the past eight years, the Bush administration's veiled threats to attack Iran allowed the mullahs to drum up support. (Every Iranian dissident, from Akbar Ganji to Shirin Ebadi, has noted that talk of airstrikes on Iran strengthened the regime.) And it is worth remembering that the United States still funds guerrilla outfits and opposition groups that are trying to topple the Islamic Republic. Most of these are tiny groups with no chance of success, funded largely to appease right-wing congressmen. But the Tehran government is able to portray this as an ongoing anti--Iranian campaign.
In this context, President Obama is quite right to tread cautiously, extend his moral support to Iranian protesters, but not get politically involved. The United States has always underestimated the raw power of nationalism across the world, always assuming that people will not be taken in by cheap and transparent appeals against foreign domination. But look at what is happening in Iraq right now, where Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki boasts that America's troop withdrawals are a "a heroic repulsion of the foreign occupiers." Of course Maliki would not be in office but for those occupying forces, who protect his government to this day. But he is a canny politician and knows what will appeal to the Iraqi people.
Ahmadinejad is also a politician with considerable mass appeal. And he is already accusing the United States and Britain of interference. Our strategy should be to make sure that these accusations seem as loony and baseless as possible. Were President Obama to be seen as grandstanding and taking ownership of the protest movement, he would be -helping Ahmadinejad's strategy, not America's.