Funny thing about revolutionaries. Once they seize power, they make damn sure that no else will. Lenin, Castro, Ho Chi Minh. Once they were secure, they promptly liquidated out their opposition. It takes a killer to stop a killer, and cunning and brutal revolutionaries know how to smash their own.
The mullahs in Iran know this, too. They remember that it wasn’t just people power that put them in power. Unarmed protesters toppling governments with banners and songs makes for great stories, but it’s usually a fantasy. As long as the security forces remain loyal to the government, firepower will trump people power. When it was man versus tank at China’s Tiananmen Square, the tanks ultimately won.
The Shah only fled when Iranian soldiers and police refused to fire on their countrymen. Iran’s Islamic leaders know that, and they’ve hedged their bets. Iran’s regular military is almost a million strong, with plenty of heavy hardware. But they’re under contol (the military was purged after the fall of the Shah), and they’re likely to be the repression of last resort. Tehran’s iron fist will be the 200,000 Revolutionary Guards, an elite army-within-an-army that’s basically a praetorian guard like the Nazi Waffen-SS. Then there are millions of basiji volunteer militiamen, who are notorious for enforcing “morals”. They’re the equivalent of the U.S. government recruiting young, poor fundamentalist Christians, equipping them with clubs, and giving them license to enforce the 10 Commandments. It was the basiji who shot the protesters Monday, and it has been club-swinging basiji on motorbikes who have terrorized demonstrations. The basiji get government jobs and the Revolutionary Guards own huge chunks of the economy. They both have a stake in maintaining the regime.
If the means are there, so is the will. The mullahs may lack regard for human rights, but there’s plentiful ruthlessness in using violence. Religious leaders who sent a generation of young Iranians in human wave attacks against Iraqi minefields and mustard gas will not be cowed by demonstrations. Dead protesters won’t prick the conscience of those who think in terms of martyrdom and apostates.
It’s not clear that the alleged electoral fraud will provoke long-term unrest or weaken the regime. But if the regime is to weakened, it either must voluntarily hand over power, which isn’t likely for those who believe that they are on a mission from God. Or, the regime must be overthrown from outside (and the U.S. is a little busy right now in next-door Iraq). Or, there must be such internal upheaval that the security forces will not defend the government. We can look at Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is Iran’s mini-me. They were trained by the Revolutionary Guards, and judging by their dedication and ruthlessness against Israel and other Lebanese factions, the Revolutionary Guards taught them well. If that’s a model for Iran, I wouldn’t count on the government forces losing heart.
Unemployment in Iran may be as high as 20 percent, according to unofficial estimates. Inflation is rampant, and an oil-producing nation has to import its gasoline. Ahmadinejad still appears to have support among Iran’s poor, but the economy may change that. Perhaps some Iranian Gorbachev will rise from the chaos, and try to steer a middle ground between theocracy and democracy. But either way, the mullahs won’t go unless they want to go.