Middle Israel: The truth about Iran's unrest

Iran's situation resembles not the Shah’s crisis in 1978 but the Soviet Union’s decay in the 1980s – economically, socially, and imperially.

Iran protests grow, death toll mounts, January 2, 2018. (REUTERS)
”I heard the voice of your revolution,” the Shah of Iran told his subjects in a special broadcast in autumn 1978, when his dethroning still seemed unthinkable, though in fact it was hardly three months away.
“Let all of us work together to establish real democracy in Iran,” he continued, referring to months of nationwide unrest, before vowing: “I make a commitment to be with you and your revolution against corruption and injustice in Iran.”
It was the same canting line chosen this week by President Hassan Rouhani, whose response to his own situation of nationwide riots was that “people are allowed under the constitution to criticize or even protest,” so as to “lead to a better situation in the country for the people.”
Even more reminiscent of 1978 was Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s accusation that this week’s riots, in which at least 21 people were killed in multiple locations, were not the outcry of an abused nation but the doing of “enemies of Iran.”
Hearing Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani blame the unrest specifically on the US, Britain and Saudi Arabia, middle-aged Iranians could recall the Shah’s operation depicting Khomeini in January 1978 as a British agent out to serve foreign powers, as the mass-circulation daily Ettela’at did then in an article titled “Iran and red and black colonization,” written by a falsely named government agent.
Similarly, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari’s announcement on Wednesday – “Today, I can say, is the end of this sedition” – is as convincing as prime minister Jamshid Amouzegar’s statement in summer 1978 that “the crisis is over.”
In fact, the multitude soon returned to the street with fury and forced Amouzegar’s resignation, after terrorists torched a packed movie theater in Abadan, killing 422 people and sparking allegations that the regime was behind the attack (suspicions later emerged that the attack was waged by Islamists).
No, this is not to say that 1979’s script is about to repeat itself line by line, although it should be noted that the Shah also at one point sent to the streets thousands of his supporters, hoping to drown the people’s voice, just like the ayatollahs did Wednesday.
This is, however, to say that as it enters its 40th year, the Islamic Revolution is running out of fuel and the Iranian regime is living on borrowed time.
Iran's situation resembles not the Shah’s crisis in 1978 but the Soviet Union’s decay in the 1980s – economically, socially, and imperially.
Like Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, pragmatists like Rouhani know the people no longer believe in the revolution, and that Iran’s economy must be liberalized, using its petrodollars to industrialize while privatizing the excessively state-run economy, in which every third young adult is jobless.
Yet liberalization is anathema to the Islamic Revolution’s old guard, just as it was to the Soviet Union’s, not because of their beliefs but because of their interests.
Khomeini pitted the rural farmers, whom he trusted, against the middle class, which he did not trust.
That is why he suppressed industrial development, while using Iran’s petrodollars to subsidize fuel, food, transport, medicines and whatnot.
This system eventually gobbled up one-fifth of national spending, causing cutbacks that are now feeding the price hikes that are sending the poor into the streets.
Worse, curing the economy demands the empowerment of the very middle classes that the revolution feared. That is why Rouhani is at loggerheads with the Revolutionary Guards who, like Gorbachev’s rivals in his time, would lose the most from the existing system’s demise.
Originally a veterans organization, the Guards became a corporate behemoth that snatches public- works contracts uncontested while controlling multi billion-dollar companies, such as the National Iranian Oil Company, and presiding over a patronage system that – like the Communist Party’s 10 million members in the USSR – makes 100,000 Guards thrive while the rest of society withers.
Preserving the system is therefore existential for the Guards; it is what made them rich, and its replacement might make them poor.
Most fascinatingly, Iran’s conservatives not only choke the economy but also overheat it by scattering its meager resources across the Middle East, the way the Soviets did in Afghanistan.
Deploying thousands of advisers in multiple Arab lands and funneling billions to Syria’s empty coffers is a luxury Iran’s stagnant economy cannot afford.
Khomeini’s nation of 35 million now numbers 80 million (thanks to his ban on contraceptives, which his successors later lifted). They need food, jobs, education and housing, none of which will be delivered by domineering Arab lands.
This is the context in which Rouhani, in a meeting with businessmen last spring, called the Guards “a government with guns” and demanded their removal from the privatization process he devised.
Rouhani was then attacked by the same Jafari who last Wednesday hastened to declare the protests’ end, and also by Qassem Soleimani, the main figure in Iran’s Syrian meddling, and Abdullah Abdullahi, who heads the Guards’ construction division.
This clash between the Islamist establishment’s beneficiaries and the reformers who threaten their status is also the context in which Rouhani accused the Guards of trying to derail the deal he negotiated over Iran’s nuclear program.
Beyond this bickering lurk grassroots demands to free thousands of political prisoners, to shed public dress restrictions, and to grant freedoms of association and speech. That is what the Guards meant when they derided a recent oil-production deal with France’s Total as a plot to “Westernize” Iran.
That is also why the conservative judiciary arrested Rouhani’s brother in July on dubious charges, and that is why the Guards embarrassed Rouhani by saying they did not consult him before firing missiles on an ISIS target in Syria, in retaliation for the terrorist attack on the Iranian parliament last June.
No, Rouhani is not the brave Gorbachev that Iran’s redemption begs.
However, Khamenei is Iran’s Leonid Brezhnev, the political hack who muzzled the people, jailed thousands, stifled the economy, invaded Afghanistan and ultimately led the USSR to history’s dustbin.
Similarly, the clerics, generals, executives, mayors, judges and the rest of the Islamic Revolution’s direct beneficiaries are the equivalents of the Soviet old guard, for which change meant personal ruin.
They know they must fight, but we know they can’t win, just as we know that the mutiny they think they have quelled has hardly begun.