In response to the Iranian regime’s violence, the Green Movement protests have grown bolder. The regime now seems stuck in a self-perpetuating cycle, in which almost every action it takes in response to the protests seems to only further erode its standing among Iranians and strengthen the opposition.
And this is at the heart of what the protesters are seeking to do – delegitimize the regime until it simply can’t stand. In an attempt to break out of this trap, the regime today ginned up counterrevolutionary protests – ordering people to attend and offering free metro transit. In a similar vein, the regime has sought to paint the protests as a Western-inspired plot. So what we are seeing is a struggle for legitimacy – for the hearts and minds of the average Iranian.
Yet as Iran erupts, the far-right in the US wants to lend the regime a lifeline. John Bolton said yesterday:
I would say that mere rhetorical support for the demonstrators, for the opposition is not enough. …If we’re going to support them, we should support them tangibly, with financial support, communications, perhaps other support, as well…Will some of the guns go to the side of the demonstrators? If they do, there’s a chance the regime could fall. If they don’t, I think the disparity in power between the government and the opposition is simple too great, and so the most likely outcome is Ahmadinejad and the regime stay in power.
The best way to undermine the movement is to do exactly what Bolton is advocating. It is true that no matter what the regime will claim the protests are part of a western plot – the regime is already doing this – but this claim while perhaps persuading a few, doesn’t appear to be all that persuasive given the breadth of the protests. Yet if Obama were to read a speech from the John Bolton playbook, the regime’s claims all of a sudden become a lot more persuasive. While the regime is not going to loop on state-television a clip of Obama saying the crackdown is brutal, it sure would loop a statement of Obama saying the US is going to work to forcefully support the Green Movement. Such a statement would be music to the regime’s ears and would allow them to regain the nationalist mantel that is slipping out of their grasp.
But Bolton’s statement at its core also exposes a totally ignorant view of power and democratic change. To Bolton, and his colleagues like John McCain on the right, legitimacy is all about military force. The protests are therefore doomed because they don’t have the guns. In this simplistic view, the only thing that the US can do to support the doomed Green Movement is to somehow get guns in the hands of the protesters or to take the regime out by force before they take out the protesters.
But this completely ignores how most democratic transitions have occurred in the last half-century. What we see right now in Iran looks a lot like democratic movements that swept in democratic governments throughout much of the world. Importantly, most of these movements replaced authoritarian regimes – often brutal military dictatorships that were desperate to hold onto power – through inexhaustible mass protests that eroded any support of the sitting government and eventually forced the regime to cave. This was the case with Franco’s regime in Spain, Argentina’s military junta, the Soviet bloc countries of Eastern Europe, among many others. Violence often took place during these transitions, but the primary factors that brought on the collapse was not a military rebellion led by an insurgent force that suddenly storms the capital, but as result of gradual erosion of support by mass movements. This is why the regime is so paranoid about losing legitimacy, they have seen how this movie ends in countless other countries.
No one knows how or when things are going to end in Iran. In transitions to democracy, there is no magic formula, no set timeframe, and no assurance that a regime will ever capitulate even if its legitimacy is completely lost. But what we are witnessing is a regime in a tailspin, where every action it takes in reaction to a broad popular movement only further erodes its standing and strengthens that movement. Instead, of getting in the way of this vicious cycle and shifting the focus away from the regime and toward the United States we should simply get out of the way. As even Pat Buchanan argued last summer:
When your adversary is making a fool of himself, get out of the way… U.S. fulminations will change nothing in Tehran. But they would enable the regime to divert attention to U.S. meddling in Iran’s affairs.