Sunday, July 31, 2005

Revolution? What's in it for them? (There Will Be No Popular Revolution In Iran Anytime Soon!)

Revolution? What's in it for them?: "July 31, 2005 : Current : Commentary Print E-mail story Most E-mailed

Revolution? What's in it for them?
Iran's youths are self-absorbed consumers, not selfless revolutionaries.

By Dariush Zahedi and Ali Ezzatyar, Dariush Zahedi teaches in the departments of political science and international political economy at UC Berkeley. Ali Ezzatyar is a graduate student instructor specializing in Iran.

The unexpected election of a staunch conservative to the Iranian presidency has inspired political analysis that reads like fiction. A typical argument holds that unless Mahmoud Ahmadinejad keeps his campaign promises to redistribute wealth, create jobs and fight corruption within a reasonable time after assuming office next month, he will soon be supplanted by a Western-style liberal democracy. How? The notion's proponents — Iranian American scholars, Iranian American satellite TV commentators, think-tank allies of the Bush administration, expatriates — will only say that the election of Ahmadinejad is a blessing in disguise.

Here's what their wishful thinking overlooks.

The Iranian regime maintains a social base committed to the Islamic Republic — as the election results showed. Since the inception of the Iranian reformist movement in 1997, when outgoing President Mohammad Khatami and his allies were at the height of their popularity, at least 20% of the Iranian electorate has voted consistently for candidates associated with conservatives. Their relatively small numbers are deceiving because they are passionate. Any political change, from inside or out, will come only through violent confrontation with these regime supporters, who will stop at nothing to perpetuate the revolution they still feel was bestowed upon them by God and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The Iranians who some observers expect to rebel don't appear up to the task. Unlike their parents' generation, Iran's young adults, who either didn't vote or, out of desperation, supported Hashemi Rafsanjani in the presidential election, are neither idealistic nor revolutionary. In the shah's Iran, politically minded youth attended tuition-free universities and, for the most part, encountered few difficulties in obtaining a job after graduation. Even so, they perceived the shah's regime as beholden to the United States and embraced leftist and revolutionary ideologies (secular and Islamist) as alternatives to his rule. Many young people were willing to pass the first test of a true revolutionary: sacrificing their lives for the cause.

Self-absorbed and materialistic, today's disgruntled youth want, above all, gainful employment and tangible improvements in their standards of living. Though fed up with the merger of religion and politics, they are not liberal democrats. They want to be left alone to pursue their social and private lives, which explains why some of them were drawn to Rafsanjani. The former parliamentary leader and president touted the Chinese model of social and economic liberalization within a rigid political framework — in essence the shah's ruling formula. Young people refrained from voting for Rafsanjani in large numbers because of their lack of faith in him and his ability to fulfill his promises.

Even if widening political divisions triggered a popular uprising, there are no guarantees it would lead to the establishment of a stable democracy. To the contrary, because the regime is highly entrenched and endowed with a reliable and fanatical social base, it would put up a fierce and bloody resistance. Either the uprising would be crushed or result in protracted chaos, civil war, even the dismemberment of the country.

Sad to say, Iran is currently bereft of many of the social and economic prerequisites for a stable democracy. The overwhelming majority of Iran's 16- to 35-year-olds, who make up the largest segment of the electorate, are neither propertied nor middle class. Unlike in the 1980s, when it was less entrenched, the Islamic Republic is poised to reap a huge windfall — at least $50 billion this year — from the sale of oil. This money can bankroll development programs to placate a population more eager for economic well-being than political change. Though the regime's economic policies are unlikely to spawn a large middle class, they probably will satisfy the needs of its political base and create conditions that will allow the smooth functioning of the coercive apparatus that sustains it.

Iran's road to liberal democracy will be torturous. Unrealistic expectations will only frustrate and increase the appeal of rash foreign policies or strategic strikes that some imagine will trigger massive uprisings. The unfolding Iraqi fiasco cautions against overvaluing advice from expatriates seeking to consolidate their ties to ideologically committed individuals in and around the Oval Office."


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