Small World: Another Iranian revolution? Nope

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

By the time you read this these words, street demonstrations against the Iranian regime may have run their course and everything that might be said or written about those events is on the record. Please, however, before a war with North Korea diverts your attention, give me a small moment to have my say. I have been working on or reading about Iran since 1972 so bear with me as I offer my thoughts on the recent troubles.

Iranians are a smart people with a strong sense of right and wrong (especially the latter when they have suffered or imagined unfair treatment by foreigners — call it nationalism). Many of them have an equally keen awareness of their history, especially recent abuses. That was what — in the main — the revolution of 1978-1980 was all about, although only a small minority of today’s demonstrating youth lived through those days. Their parents thought that the country was under the domination of the Shah, who was an American puppet. The rich/poor, liberal/conservative, religious/secular divisions — most all of them wanted him gone.

After it succeeded, the revolution left Iran with a unique political system — a melding of clerical autocracy and elements of democracy (more of the latter than is to be found in most of Iran’s Middle Eastern neighbors). The system worked for the charismatic prelate Khomeini and his bunch, but not so smoothly for his successor. Add to that failing experiment traditional third-world ineptitude, corruption, and over-population, plus the damage wrought by U.S.-led sanctions and the threats and occasional violence from us, Israel, and Saudi Arabia as well as a prolonged drought and an under-performing economy. You have to wonder why the troubles have been so long in coming. That’s mainly because Iranians are also long-suffering, patient, and cautious — most of the time.

Then, stirred into this mix is what a noted political scientist calls “relative deprivation” in which people in revolt who are not doing too badly but are offended by the sight of others who are doing better, e.g., differences between economic classes or between geographic areas. In the Iranian case, local grievances are important. In the west of the country there are unhappy Kurdish and Azari minorities and the government’s response to a series of severe earthquakes is deemed to have been a failure. In the east, Iran is burdened by the fallout from the Afghan war (refugees and opium smuggling, etc.). When added to other local plaints, you have what it takes to call local crowds into the streets.

I read that there has been a 1) massive movement of people from the country to the cities and towns, which, however, offer them little comfort, and 2) that Tehran has been spared big demonstrations. The regime is lucky in that; people are not easily inspired by the leadership qualities of the religious center Mashhad and other provincial centers. Tehran leads the nation. The regime is also fortunate in holding back on a violent response (only 22 killed) and in giving the appearance of understanding the grievances of their critics.

Without charismatic and skillful leadership or any evident structure, the demonstrations should fade in a relatively short spell. Iranians will be looking for the “foreign hand” which is believed responsible for almost all previous troubles. Trump and his gang, both domestic and foreign, seem eager to fill that role in the developing mythology. Who knows? They may indeed be guilty of stirring up the same people they were cursing a month or so back as terrorists and against whom they were levying sanctions.

But that would imply a need for consistency and wisdom of policy, and that might be too much to ask of Washington when dealing with the Middle East.

I haven’t gotten to the economic factors, which were big in stimulating the demonstrations. People were shocked by the leaked national budget that showed the regime ending basic subsidies for the poor and spending on religious institutions, among other favored groups.

Ahh! A telephone call tells me the pipes have frozen in our Bridgton house. Sorry, I must fret about that now. Iran will have to wait. Questions?

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer

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