The most enlightening commentary on what is going on in Iran right now was written 162 years ago. In his book on the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville said: “Revolutions are not always brought about by a gradual decline from bad to worse. Nations that have endured patiently and almost unconsciously the most overwhelming oppression, often burst into rebellion against the yoke the moment it begins to grow lighter. The regime which is destroyed by a revolution is almost always an improvement on its immediate predecessor, and experience teaches that the most critical moment for bad governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform.”
Why are these protests taking place in Iran and not in, say, North Korea? This is the question that Tocqueville answers for us.
The deeply antagonistic relationship between Washington and Tehran makes it easy to forget that Iran today is more open than many other countries in the Middle East. Compare the status of women and minorities in Saudi Arabia and Iran, and you will find that there is really no comparison. And in recent years, Iran has taken steps toward even greater openness, although they’ve often been reversed as the hard-liners win out over the reformers in what is still a generally repressive regime.
Over the past two decades, the country has consistently elected presidents who are opposed by the hard-line establishment. In 1997, it elected Mohammad Khatami, who is now under virtual house arrest. Then came Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose radical rhetoric and manner masked the fact that he was a rank outsider to the mullah-ocracy that had run Iran since 1979. Ahmadinejad was a street-smart politician with no theological credentials and thus was deemed a threat to the clerics’ hold on power. Today, the nation has another reformist president, Hassan Rouhani, who has been twice elected, the second time with a thumping majority. Iran’s hard-line establishment has actively sought to undermine Rouhani’s reform agenda. In fact, some serious observers of the country speculate that the protests have been engineered by the hard-liners, who will use them to justify a crackdown and a total end to reform.
Iran’s Green Movement of 2009 is an illustration of Tocqueville’s thesis. It happened only because the country held elections, complete with debates, candidates with opposing views and secret balloting. The process raised the hopes of many Iranians, who were then deeply disappointed when, in the end, the elections were thought to have been rigged and the more reform-minded candidate was defeated. In Egypt today, no one expects an actual election, so when Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi wins 97 percent of the vote, no one protests.
“The abuses with which the French government was charged were not new, but the light in which they were viewed was,” Tocqueville wrote. “More crying faults had existed in the financial department at an earlier period, but since then changes had taken place, both in government and in society, which made them more keenly felt than before.” Similarly, the Iranian economy has always been a dysfunctional mess — a toxic mixture of autarky, state socialism and corruption. But in recent years, people’s hopes have been raised by the promises of reformers, the expectation that sanctions would be lifted and the knowledge of life outside Iran. In fact, the protests were triggered by a series of economic reforms.
Ian Bremmer’s smart 2006 book, “The J Curve,” argued that some countries are stable because they are closed — North Korea and Belarus, for instance — while others are stable because they are open, such as the United States and Japan. The former shield themselves from the winds of globalization; the latter are flexible and resilient enough to adapt to those forces. The most difficult period is when a country is moving from being closed to being open. If the regime is enlightened and strategic, it might be able to reform enough to weather this rocky transition. But there are two other more likely paths — the chaos produces a return to repression or a collapse of the state.
Iran has the ingredients for a revolution. More than half of the population is younger than 30, many youths are educated yet unemployed, almost 50 million Iranians have smartphones with which they can learn about the world, and reformers have consistently raised expectations yet never delivered on their promises. But the regime also has instruments of power, ideology, repression and patronage, all of which it is ready to wield to stay in control. What appears likely for Iran is a period of instability — in an already volatile Middle East.
By Fareed Zakaria