Kusha: Iran vs. Egypt: Qualitative Differences in Capabilities

Kusha Sefat writes in a guest editorial for Informed Comment:

In delineating the differences and similarities between the recent Egyptian uprising and the one that resulted from the disputed presidential election in Iran, Pouya Alimagham points to an interesting and important point. The Egyptian regime, while enjoying broad international support, fell in just 18 days. This contrasts the Iranian regime’s ability to systematically squash a grassroots uprising that at one point included three million protesters. Alimagham notes that Iran’s resilience in the face of mass protest deservers some consideration.

An equally important point is Iran’s attitude (and what enables this attitude to persist) in contrast to most other states in the region engulfed in mass demonstrations. Both Mubarak and Bin Ali immediately conceded by offering “reforms.” Fearing their own uprising, states like Jordan and Saudi Arabia conceded in advance, with the latter offering its citizens $36 billion in benefits. (Ghadaffi never backed down, but he may lose his life over it). Iran, on the other hand, is taking steps that sharply contrast the conciliatory attitudes of other regional states. Domestically, and in the midst of broad international sanctions, Iran is undertaking a significant and comprehensive economic reform plan which is likely to hurt and further anger the core of the opposition (middle class urbanites). Internationally, during the last round of talks in Istanbul, Iran added two preconditions for moving forward with the P5+1: suspension of sanctions and acknowledging Iran’s right to enrichment, effectively asking the West, in the words of Reza Marashi: “Now what are you going to do?” This is more than a case of resilience and defiance toward domestic opposition and the West. Rather, it raises questions on state capabilities. That is, in contrast to Egypt and Tunisia, what capabilities does the Iranian state have to withstand grassroots uprisings, and how were these capabilities gained?

As one veteran conservative Iranian diplomat put it, “we do not bow down to any power, unless that power is really powerful.” It seems that the US, together with European allies and domestic opposition can shake Iran, but are not powerful enough to break it. Yet, only thirty years ago the Shah of Iran, who similar to Mubarak and Bin Ali enjoyed broad international support, was ousted by domestic opposition alone. This points to a qualitative shift in Iran’s capabilities over the past 30 years facilitated by one primary factor that distinguishes it from all other states’ in the region and the former Pahlavi regime: the experience of revolutionary crisis. It is, as such, worth trying to understand Iran’s capabilities in a revolutionary context and in doing so, the appropriate comparison would be to others states with successful social revolutions, namely France, Russia, and China.

There has been much debate about revolutions, particularly since the beginning of the Egyptian protest. But rarely has this debate touched on what a successful revolution really looks like, what capabilities revolutionary states gain, and how. To look at Iran through the prism of revolutionary crisis, it is worth going back to Theda Skocpol’s seminal work on social revolutions. Skocpol illustrates some of the conditions that must exist for revolution to take place. These conditions existed in Iran prior to its revolution but no longer do, yet they continue to exist today in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc. Further, Skocpol illustrates the course that a revolutionary movement must take in order for that state to benefit from the fruits of revolution and gain strategic capability; otherwise what is left has more in common with coup d’état.

In comparing France, Russia, and China Skockpol identifies that both domestic and transnational conditions must exist for revolution to take place. While domestic and transnational conditions influence one another, if the particular state faced with domestic pressure is also at a disadvantage internationally (politically, militarily, and ideologically) then the conditions for revolutionary crises are in motion. Like Egypt and Tunisia today, France, Russia, China, and Iran were all at a transnational disadvantage prior to their uprisings. France’s competition with England exhausted its capacity to raise new loans and sent the economy into a severe recession and resulted in the bankruptcy of state’s financial institutions. Russia was entangled with a comparable, if not worse, vicious cycle of international competition. By 1915, the magnitude of Russian defeats in WWI had been acknowledged and the dominant strata of the Russian society lost confidence in the Tsar and his autocracy. China and Iran were both characterized by political dependency which as Skockpol points out is the most severe case of transnational disadvantage. While, through their revolutionary crisis, France, Russia, China, and Iran overcame their transnational disadvantages, Egypt and Tunisia are currently characterized by political dependency and are firmly under Washington’s strategic umbrella. This means that in addition to domestic pressure caused by the uneven spread of capital, the international conditions for revolution are also ripe in Egypt and Tunisia. The same is not true with respect to Iran.

How was Iran able to move up the transnational scale via its revolutionary crisis? Revolutions are not static, but are processes. An important factor in revolutionary crisis are external wars, which as Skocpol notes are central and constitutive. Revolutionary France ultimately lost the Napoleonic Wars. Nevertheless, mobilization for war and military interventions in the midst of the unstable internal realm of France created a centralized bureaucratic mechanism at the disposal of the state. The same is true with the Russian revolution and WWII, the Chinese revolution and the Sino-Japanese War, and the Iranian revolution during the Iran-Iraq war. In the case of the latter, the war was as much part of the revolutionary crises as the ousting of the Shah. In Iran, practically all internal opposition which resisted the dominant discourse of the war were wiped out, leading to a sense of stability in the face of an Iraqi incursion which confirmed the Islamic Republic as the true and undisputed legitimate authority of Iran. By the end of the war, a highly centralized, effective, and flexible government had prevailed. Internationally (militarily, politically, and ideologically) Iran started accumulating strategic capabilities, a process which excelled after the fall of Iraq and reached its apex during the Hezbollah-Israel war.

Militarily, Iran has established itself as a significant player in the region. During the Iran-Iraq war, and in the absence of an effective military arsenal, the “culture of martyrdom” was institutionalized in Iran. The primary goal was to defend Iran with unorthodox tactics by deploying volunteers imbued with revolutionary ideals, exercising innovative and human wave tactics. This gave birth to the Revolutionary Guards and Iran’s new defense doctrine of asymmetrical warfare. While the chances of waging a successful war against Iran by the US have significantly and continuously diminished since the revolution, in terms of actual fungible power, Tehran sees itself as having the upper hand in the region. This is in strong contrast to Iran’s capabilities prior to its revolution and, currently, to any other state in the Mid East (Israel is firmly under America’s strategic umbrella and similar to Egypt and Tunisia, is faced with sever transnational disadvantages).

Politically, Iran is losing many battles, particularly in the Security Council. Yet, Tehran sees itself as wining exactly where it wants to, namely in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Territories, by choosing sides that seem to always come out on top. Ideologically, Iran may be facing some problems in the region, particularly with the emergence of a “Turkish model.” However, it must always be remember that universalistic creeds, such as Islam, allow and encourage people from very diverse particularistic background to convert and work together as fellow citizens, comrades, or brothers. These universalistic ideologies allow the political elites to mobilize masses for political struggle. Like Jacobeans and Bolsheviks, this gives the Iranian state access to crucial additional resources for politico-military struggles against its opponents, both domestically and internationally. Shah’s nationalism, for example, was limited to Iran and could have never cultivated the intimate ties that exist between Iran and Hezbollah. Moreover, many state supporters who came to the streets of Tehran, numbering in the millions, may have been motivated by material gain or forced to come out, but it would be hard to deny that a significant portion of them were ideologically driven.

In short, like France, Russia, and China, Iran has constructed a highly centralized and flexible state apparatus which enables it to better handle domestic uprisings. In addition, like these other states, Iran has emerged out of its revolutionary crisis with a higher standing on the international scale. That is to say, Tehran is no longer at a transnational disadvantage, and thus the transnational conditions for a successful uprising in Iran no longer exist to begin with (The U.S. is no longer powerful enough to put Iran in a transnational slump). While Tehran is having trouble with the spread of equal capital to its people due to mismanagement and a lack of specific infrastructure, its international capabilities are likely to be sustained through high oil prices. As such, Tehran’s capabilities allow it to be both defiant and resilient. Iran’s success in squashing grassroots movements has less to do with the Green Movement’s right or wrong strategies (frankly, I can’t imagine how Mohandes Mir Hussain Mousavi could have played his cards any better – with the exception of calling for the most recent protest which may have been a fatal mistake). At the end of his very interesting article, Alimagham notes that the Iranian opposition must try new approaches, including “strikes, encampments in Iran’s own Liberation Square and, most importantly, garnering the support of Iran’s armed forces-all of which were tactics vital to success in Egypt.”

I am much less optimistic about whether any of these are going to work in the face of Iran’s strategic capabilities, both domestically and internationally. And as such, I have my own suggestion to Iranians living abroad who desperately want to help their compatriots in Iran. Instead of trying to devise tactics and strategies for the Green Movement (this movement already has some of the brightest and best strategists in Iran), it would be worth their while to encourage the U.S. administration to establish a strategic relationship with Tehran. This cannot be achieved by suggesting new strategies to President Obama either. A range of strategies have been tried since the inception of the Islamic Republic. What is needed is a new perspective that recognizes Iran as a fact that is here to stay. If and when this perspective is adopted, and relations established, I think everyday life will get much easier for everyday Iranians, and some of the concerns of the Greens will be met. This may not be what people want to hear, but if you agree with the logic of this argument, it is the most honest recommendation.

Kusha Sefat has been a media consultant in Iran over the past three years, and will start a doctoral program in sociology at the University of Cambridge in October.

18 Responses

  1. My spontaneous answer to why the young protesters in Iran were not successful where their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia were is:
    because their parent´s and grandparent´s generation is currently so exhausted, intimidated and disillusioned. Their grandparents remember being instrumentalized by a “revolution” that ultimately betrayed their goals, they also remember the never-ending bloodshed by the regime in the 80ties. Their message is more often than not “be careful and stay away from trouble” and “double-check who you stick your head out for”.

    Depending on were events in Egypt lead to, Egyptians might tell their children the same sad lines of fright and resignation in 30 year´s time (I very much hope not. And I don´t state here that the Iranians are a frightened and negative people in general, the certainly are not!).

    As you mention the Russian revolution: 30 years after 1918 was the height of Stalin terror. Countless documents from that time bear an impressing witness how far you can go in terms of intimidating a whole people, ransack, brainwash, scare, torture them, if you only do it long enough. Long and perfidious: if 1918 hadn´t initially been something for the whole nation to believe in, it would not have caused so much speechless horror and paralysis.

    I think you can effectively terrorize an entire people into a state of near-paralysis if your ruthless enough, your people are exhausted and disillusioned enough, and you´re good at harping on ideological strings. None of that applies to the Egytians to any extent comparable to the Iranians.

  2. Excellent article, many thanks! I have one question though. Why do you think that “calling for the most recent protest [...] may have been a fatal mistake” on behalf of Mousavi?

  3. This academic exercise seems to omit or at least hide a crucial point:
    No matter what we think of the Iranian regime, it is still popular especially with the working class and the rural poor and can mobilize masses to the streets as well.

  4. Aren’t you ignoring the elephant in the room in the opening discourse on how Iran is able to resist while Egypt fell in 18 days?
    Iran can be resist (upto an as yet undefined point) its revolutionay elements because the regiem has OIL and thus an intrinsic income and a big and now rising tide of it at that.
    Egypt’s economy has no such income and there is heavy dependence on external money (both Gov – Gov $ Diplomacy largess) and tourism.

  5. Kusha, thanks for your comprehensive note.
    Just one thing I would add is: the nature of the protests post-June 2009 were not “revolutionary” in nature in any meaningful way. If the establishment had even totally ignored calls for a re-election, and had passingly and superficially acknowledged grievances and met even one of the demonstrators’ demands (freedom of the press, release of some political prisoners, etc), it is my prediction that protests would have died down.

    It didn’t however, as you point out, it even enforced a more brutal response each time. Perhaps it’s what the diplomat said: “we do not bow down to any power, unless that power is really powerful.” The establishment simply felt it didn’t need to bow down.

    However, in not doing so, it opened up a completely new pandora’s box where the protesters could openly take the root of the establishment as the aim of the protests. The call for reform, etc kept dimming in the process to a point where it has lost its meaning completely. The old guard, people loyal to Khomeini but critical of Ahmadinejad, are now forced to choose.

    Of course, I would argue that these protests are still not the power “that is really powerful” in any way. But by brutally suppressing calls for minor reforms, the establishment did open up door for something much different and less predictable … that may very well die down or be killed off for now … but not necessarily forever. By closing a known, recognized route, they opened up completely new, uncharted waters. Territory that has the potential to get very violent at some point in time.

    I think it was in the best interests of both parties (establishment and protesters) to settle their feud in old, familiar territory, safer for all.

  6. This analysis is incoherent and the conclusion non-sequtiur.

    This one clearly explains the real reasons:

    “”It is pretty clear that the proximate cause for the tidal wave of uprising is the dramatic rise in food prices. While there are other, longer term issues, it appears to me that economic desperation has been converted brilliantly into political revolution.

    Now, how do you entrust a regime that oppressed its people and looted its national wealth for 30 years with reforms? How do we entrust a regime that kills its opponents in the name of GOD and rightousness?

    This regime should be in jail to answer to the people for the crimes (murdering and theft) committed against Iranian nation. How could Khamenie et al comes to be worth billions of dollars? We need a revolution and we need it now.

    I tend to think of political revolutions as like crimes, in that a means, motive, and opportunity are required. Means are the resources would-be revolutionaries employ to achieve their ends such as social networking sites or, more traditionally, guns. The motive is the ideological foundation revolutionaries draw upon–why is this power structure illegitmate? I don’t think if you ask average Iranians, they will be able to give you a solid answer. We constantly complain about the symptoms of this abomination called IRI but never really quite articulate why the regime’s ideological foundations and goals are a path to destruction of Iran.

    We never really discuss what other goals and ideological visions should replace the ones indoctrinated into the fabric of the society for the past 32 years? Democracy and secularism in abstractions are too vague for the average joe. What does democracy and secularism translate into in tangeable and concrete ways to improve the daily struggle of making ends meet?

    Opportunity is the event or series of events that allow for the revolution to occur in the first place. Opportunities are external and structural more often then not, such as international pressure on the state, the threat or continuance of war, and yes, most common, economic crisis or complete collapse. Iran is ripe for a revolution at this time.

    It’s unreasonab­le to expect upheavals/uprising to have well-defin­ed game plan from the beginning. The American revolution happened in 1776, but the federalist papers weren’t published until 1787.The most important thing about the American revolution­aries was their determinat­ion to avoid despotism. That’s really all that’s needed for these revolution­s to succeed. It was, by the way, lacking in Iran in 1979.

    The most important thing about the American revolution­aries was their determinat­ion to avoid despotism. That’s really all that’s needed for these revolution­s to succeed. It was, by the way, lacking in Iran in 1979. I also have to mention that the rAmerican evolutionaries were minority educated elite who who mobilized/infomred/educated the rest of the uneducated colonies on why and how they needed to save themselves from the shackles of British Empire.

    “Revolutions are rarely, if ever, carried out by the “People,” the “Mob,” of the “Masses.” You need elites, you need organizational structure, you need firm ideological cohesion, and you need an effective strategy in motivating actors and replicating your message for a “successful” revolution.”

    The French, operating under vague, yet lofty-sounding Enlightenment ideals, almost immediately tore themselves apart over who should take power in the republic and how it should take shape. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, had built an extremely effective party aparatus and a means of applying Marxist thought to the Russian reality far before 1917. They had a chain of command, they had a clear message, they had an army.

    It is undeniable that the Egyptian military, as the only legitimate governmental institution left, will play a significant, if not primary, role in rebuilding the country. It’ll be interesting to see if they can hold it together, and do so while preserving “democratic” principles. There has been no class transfer of power and wealth. It is yet to be known whether we can call it a revolution.

    Nature abhors a vacuum. That’s why “organizer­s” will fill it. As we clearly saw in 1979.

    No meaningful transforma­tion of Middle East is possible without addressing those two evil twins whcih hinder progress and developmen­t — religious archaic superstiti­ons and political oppression­.”"

    IRI’s real goals:

    link to iranprimer.usip.org

  7. February 28 (10 Esfand): developing news

    And so, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi and Fatemeh Karroubi, were first put under house arrest inside their own homes for close to two weeks and then at some point transferred from their homes into a military detention center, reports say.

    Another set of protests have been planned for today, March 1, 2011. Many of the people who will be taking to the streets today will be protesting the arrests. Some, however, will attend the protests for demands which have long surpassed due action on a fraudulent election. The Islamic Republic of Iran has never been so publicly hated and distrusted by Iranians. The amount of violence unleashed on Iranians seems to have delivered the country into a state of constant protest, boiling over into the streets at every conceivable chance….

    Mass protest in Tehran: If you read Persian///

    link to iranian.com

  8. “”Witnesses said riot police charged on protesters in central Tehran to try to scatter crowds. Some police took swipes at cars whose drivers were believed to be honking their horns in support of the demonstrat­ors. There were no reports of injuries, but opposition websites said several people were arrested.

    Kalame said the violence by security forces against protesters was “heavy and unpreceden­ted.” It said gunfire was heard during the clashes.

    Reports cannot be verified independen­tly since Iranian authoritie­s have banned media from covering opposition protests and other events. Opposition websites have called for another day of protests in Iran on March 8.

    Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanpara­st said Iran will not respond to internatio­nal questions about the whereabout­s of the two, adding that the country considers the matter a “completel­y domestic” affair.

    The semioffici­al news agency ISNA quoted state prosecutor Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehei as saying the two were not detained but did not elaborate. There has been no independen­t confirmati­on of their location..­..

    Mehmanpara­st denounced outside pressures to clarify the status of the two opposition figures.

    “The internal issues of our country are completely domestic and no country is and will be allowed to interfere in the internal affairs of our country,” he told reporters.

    Mehmanpara­st said any “issues relating to” Mousavi and Karroubi “will be dealt in the framework of law by judicial authoritie­s.”

    link to news.yahoo.com

  9. Be vigilant: IRI producing fake youtube videos:

    “”The plan with the fake videos is a lot more sinister than this. Their objective is to discredit the citizen journalism out of Iran and the rest of us, the hands that take those citizen reports and post them in different places. If we are shown to be people who would “fabricate­” news and copy and distribute wrong informatio­n, nobody will trust citizen journalism as a viable reporting mechanism out of Iran, something that has been happening over the past two years, in the absence of profession­al reporting out of Iran.

    The Iranian government has establishe­d organizati­ons that are charged with the responsibi­lity of fabricatin­g news and posting mis-labele­d videos to do this. Aside from all the units inside Basij and IRGC who deal with the Iranian cyberspace­, a large organizati­on was establishe­d inside IRIB several months ago with this objective.

    Vigilance is the only thing we can do. Those of us who have seen a lot of videos from the previous demonstrat­ions, must scan the new ones and point out the mislabelin­g wherever we can, especially on Balatarin where thousands of people quickly pick up the wrong informatio­n and run with it. “”

  10. Extremely intelligent. The vindication of the real experts on the Middle East as a consequence of recent events has pushed real understanding of this very complex situation – an understanding that they are rather important custodians of – further and further ahead. All the intelligent hypotheses, based on fact and not wishful thinking, have been tried and tested and now the scientific evidence is there with which to proceed yet further. Congratulations guys – now you are even further ahead and the, shall we say, opportunists of prostituted intellect are even further behind. Looking dumb.
    And an awful lot more people are seeing things as they are. At long last.

  11. I think that Kusha Sefat managed to omit the succinct core of the argument: to be stable, a regime must have a broad base, at least a large minority of the population, and cohesive ideology that unites the state apparatus and the base.

    In Iran, there seem to be a core of at least 30% supporters of “conservatives”. Like Chinese government, Iranian regimes delivers enough ideological consistency and economic performance to be stable. I have a little theory, namely, that provoking and enduring Western sanctions helps Iranian elite on both grounds.

    Economically, Iranian system may be suspect of cleptocracy, vast religious foundations control tens of billions of dollars each and offer huge opportunities for graft. However, it was observed that graft, even if exists, may be beneficial or detrimental. Beneficial graft unleashes enterpreneurial spirit into the economy. Detrimental graft is looting the economy and exporting the capital, to be hidden from the government (or the next government). In successful countries, corrupt tycoons and oligarch invest domestically and create jobs, in failed countries, they create speculative opportunities and contribute to capital flight.

    Iranian foundations have little opportunities to invest abroad, so they may have a better track of creating domestic jobs that Saudi Arabia, with more money but with investments going mostly abroad.

    • Iran has the highest rate of brain drain of any country. The Islamic Republic cannot create jobs for the millions of youth in Iran. The 30% subsidized constituents of the IRI are welfare receipents without any real employment or any tangible skill. As soon as their welfare money is cut which will happen around summer of this year, will see how loyal they will be to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

      • The claim that Iran “has the highest rate of brain drain” is an old one, supposedly based on an IMF study THAT DOES NOT EXIST.

  12. You should all remember that most of the so-called broad base are members of basij, Ansar-Hizballah, Aabadgaran, and IRGC and their families who directly benefit from IRI and the rest are the government workers If you look at the history of 20th century it is full of these what Khameni calls, the “Khavas class” ; their very livelihood depends on the status quo. They are informer basiji in every neighborhood and county whose main job is spying on others around them…

  13. The author misunderstands Iran’s strategic position. Iran is weak. Its military, especially the air force, is underdeveloped even relative to some of its regional neighbours, let alone to outside great powers. The country’s economy is heavily dependent on commodity exports. The demographic profile is rapidly aging, such that in 30 years Iran will be quite a “grey” country.

    Ironically, it is this strategic weakness and lack of security that makes it easier for the regime to keep power. Its claims of being under foreign threat are quite valid claims. After all, scarcely a few weeks go by without some Israeli or US official publicly discussing an attack on Iran.

    Iran’s strategic weakness has made it easier for Iran to gain and keep the trust of its regional Arab allies. The respective allies know that Iran needs friends as much as they do. Their collective weakness and pressing mutual need helps keep them together.

    Iran’s international beleauguerment helps to justify and vindicate the regime. They can play the nationalist card, and accuse their opponents of being either traitors or stooges.

    e.g. The great powers’ refusal to acknowledge Iran’s legitimate right to enrich nuclear material, a right possessed by all signatories to the NPT, has a decidely negative impact on the possibility of internal political reform.

    • Funny not so long ago we were assured that the weakness of the regime was in that it was YOUNG country.

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