The Iran protests are almost two weeks old. What began on Dec. 28 as a demonstration against rising food prices escalated quickly into a protest that has shaken the core of the regime. The late Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the Islamic Revolution in 1979, famously quipped that “This revolution was not about the price of watermelons,” but his successors may soon learn that the next one could be.
Almost immediately, talking heads took to the airwaves to fit the Iran protests into their own existing narratives. In essence, the Iranian protests became a political football for American politicians and European officials. The protests, however, provide many other lessons both to understanding what’s going on inside Iran now and to recognize what, 38 years after the Islamic Revolution, Western policymakers and intelligence services still don’t understand about Iran. Here are just a few:
1. Reformism alone can’t bring change. That Iranians are frustrated is no surprise. Mass protests have erupted in 1999, 2001, 2009, and now. Iranians resent the corruption of their leadership and the failure of the Islamic Republic to rectify any of the problems that Khomeini identified to justify his revolution. It is clear Iran is a tinderbox and the only question that matters is if the regime is better at smothering the embers than ordinary Iranians are at fanning the flames.
While many in the West and in Iran have placed their hopes in muddle-thru reform, the reason why this can never work is that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps exists not only to protect not the territory of Iran, but also the ideals of the Islamic Revolution. This means it is just as geared to counter internal threats as it is to fight foreign enemies. In other words, it serves as a Praetorian Guard for the Supreme Leader.
Even if 90 percent of Iranians wanted reform, it wouldn’t matter, unless there was a strategy in place to fracture the IRGC and associated security forces.
2. Iran’s security forces and economy are inextricably intertwined. The IRGC rose to prominence during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. At its conclusion, they were loath to return to the barracks and give up their position. They made a strategic decision to use their industrial and engineering base to enter the civilian sector in order to build a financial base that would make them independent of the ordinary budgetary process.
Fast forward 30 years and today the IRGC’s economic wing controls about 40 percent of Iran’s economy and dominates the oil industry, infrastructure development, construction, manufacturing, electronics, and the most lucrative import-export contracts. Apologists for the Islamic Republic are right that the protests started about the economy, but they are wrong to assume that this means they are not political.
While many Americans imagine falsely that Iran’s population is overwhelmingly youthful (it’s not) or pro-American (sorry, no), the concerns of ordinary Iranians are more mundane: They want back wages paid, living wages, and safe working conditions. The speed at which working-class Iranians turned on the regime is because the IRGC controls many of the factories and industries in which they work and uses its influence and military force to avoid adherence to the law. Ordinary Iranians feel they have no other recourse. The IRGC has such a stranglehold on the economy, it’s impossible to improve the livelihoods of ordinary Iranians while the security forces remain parasitic to Iran’s economy.
3. We’re blind to security forces factionalism. How often do American officials and journalists describe Iranian politicians as hardline, reform, or moderate? Let’s put aside the fact that such a description is relative since it ignores the 75 percent or so of the Iranian public who don’t believe in the idea of clerical rule. Iranian reformers are no more liberal than Alabama Judge Roy Moore.
The real problem is, more than 38 years after the Islamic Revolution, the U.S. intelligence community has no idea what the factional breakdowns are among the Iranian security forces. Almost every Iran analyst will swear that the IRGC aren’t monolithic—some Iranians join for the privileges or pay, while others are true believers. But which are which?
That’s not the only unknown. In 2007, the IRGC reorganized on the basis that the greatest threat to the Islamic Republic would come from inside rather than outside Iran. The regime put one IRGC unit in every province (and two in Tehran) charged with keeping order in that province. What Western officials don’t know is whether those units are staffed by natives of the province in which they serve. The answer to that question would reveal whether ideology trumps kinship if given the order to fire on crowds.
In other words, will Iran 2018 be Romania 1989 where the security forces switch sides and bring down a dictatorship? Or China 1989, where they hold firm and massacre their fellow citizens?
4. Western journalists don’t have a clue. The Islamic Republic uses its strict visa regimen to control Western journalists. It requires that Western journalists hire regime fixers and keeps Western newspaper correspondents and the occasional television reporter in Tehran. Many Western correspondents, especially those who speak Persian (Farsi), play along.
Northern Tehran is more cosmopolitan and upper middle class than working class southern Tehran or the West Tehran neighborhoods where many IRGC veterans live. In northern Tehran, from Vanak up to Tajrish and Niavaran, there are nicer restaurants, swankier cafes and shops, more intellectual bookstores, more trees, and nicer apartments.
The problem is that reporting from northern Tehran about the political goings-on in the rest of Iran is like reporting on Watertown or Geneseo, N.Y., from the Upper West Side of Manhattan; or reporting on Emporia or Roanoke, Va., from Georgetown. While some journalists do have agendas, others are professional and do know what’s going on. But if they’re unwilling to sacrifice their access, they are effectively becoming tools of Iranian propaganda.
5. Iranian statistics are nonsense. That brings us to Iranian statistics. One of the ironies of political journalism is the same newspaper editors in the United States who will pour over and rightly debate myriad statistics and demographics don’t hesitate to take statistics provided by dictatorships at face value.
Did Iranians really flock to the polls in their 2017 presidential elections? The Iranian government placed voter turnout at around 70 percent. That’s what American newspapers published. But Iranians from the provinces placed turnout closer to 15 percent. Want to understand what Iranians think about their government? Lesson one is this: Don’t take the word of a dictatorial regime.
6. This could be a dry run to the Islamic Republic’s demise. Not even the most expert academic or analyst has a crystal ball. Too often, wishful thinking and advocacy pollute good analysis. The protestors have proven resilient, but whether because of greed or ideology, neither the Supreme Leader nor the IRGC are willing to call an end to Khomeini’s experiment.
But what happens when the Supreme Leader is dead? Ali Khamenei not only had cancer, but he allowed himself to be photographed receiving treatment in order to prepare the Iranian public for the inevitability of transition. It’s not clear, however, that such a transition would be smooth or quick. Even if the IRGC rallies to the defense of the regime now, what happens after Khamenei dies? How would they act when they have no supreme leader to rally around?
If the regime recovers—its legitimacy already wounded—don’t be surprised if Khamenei’s funeral sparks celebration and anti-regime protests rather than mourning and commemoration.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.
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