Why has Iran’s Islamic Republic survived for 30 years?

No, it’s not the oil, the terror, Shi’ism, or the nationalism unleashed by the war with Iraq, writes Ervand Abrahamian, in an interesting background to current events. Economic and social populism has been the key to sustaining Iran’s clerical authoritarianism.

By prioritizing social over military spending (the armed forces take up some 4 per cent of GDP compared with 18 per cent in the last years of the shah), successive governments have nearly eliminated illiteracy, boosted primary school enrolment rates, increased life expectancy and reduced infant mortality.

The regime has also used a network of quasi-governmental foundations – the bonyads – as mini-welfare states to spread patronage and build a substantial social base. But, Abrahamian argues, the welfare state’s political role now makes these expenditures the “third rail of Iranian politics”:

Upcoming decades will test the regime’s ability to juggle the competing demands of these populist programs with those of the educated middle class—especially the ever expanding army of university graduates produced, ironically, by one of the revolution’s main achievements. This new stratum needs not only jobs and a decent standard of living but also greater social mobility and access to the outside world—with all its dangers, especially to well-protected home industries—and, concomitantly, the creation of a viable civil society.

Honduras coup evokes ‘unacceptable’ images of Latin America’s past

As democratic states and non-governmental groups alike condemned the coup in Honduras, ousted president Manuel Zelaya insists that he will return to Tegucigalpa on Thursday, accompanied by Latin American dignitaries, including Jose Miguel Insulza, the head of the Organization of American States. Honduras may be expelled from the OAS at its emergency meeting today.

Pro-Zelaya demonstrators have clashed with security forces, demanding that the president be reinstated. Honduran trade unions have called for a general strike against the “unconscionable” coup.

“I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter,” said President Barack Obama, while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also condemned the coup. The unequivocal U.S. condemnation was welcomed by democrats across the hemisphere for sending a clear signal that military subversion of democratic processes and institutions was unacceptable.

“It would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections,” said President Obama. “The region has made enormous progress over the last 20 years in establishing democratic traditions. … We don’t want to go back to a dark past.”

The U.S. is not yet threatening to cut off foreign assistance even though U.S. law prohibits aid other than democracy assistance for any state resulting from a military coup. Clinton shook her head no when asked today if Washington was considering cutting aid to Honduras.

But the World Bank has suspended payments and new projects following the coup. “We’ve basically put a pause with our lending,” bank president Robert Zoellick said. “It’s a situation that is in flux and fluid, and in this case we’re trying to play a supportive role with the region and its overall goals to restore democracy,” he said.

“The marching of the military into the presidential residence, the removal at gunpoint onto a plane out of the country — this conjures up images of what we thought was part of Latin America’s past,” said Christopher Sabatini, policy director for the Council of Americas, a former Latin America director for the National Endowment for Democracy.

The new government denies that Zelaya’s expulsion amounts to a coup, arguing that the army acted on the orders of the Supreme Court because the president was undermining the constitution. Zelaya was deposed after the court, Congress and members of his own party opposed his plans to amend the constitution to extend his term of office.

The region has seen a disturbing trend of constitutional changes extending presidential term limits and prerogatives which undermine democracy by stealth.

In Tegucigalpa, the Congress said that Zelaya’s “repeated violations of the constitution and the law and disregard of orders and judgments of the institutions” merited his removal. Critics suggest that Zelaya was acting above the law in trying to push through constitutional amendments that would allow him to remain in office, exhibiting some of the disturbing characteristics of recent creeping coups against democratic norms and institutions.

The coup is “one of the first major confrontations between someone following the [Hugo] Chavez line of what we call ‘constitutional editing’ and the institutional elites that exist in a country which have taken the view that changing the Constitution should not be made subject to a [referendum],” said international human rights lawyer Robert Amsterdam. There is a “definitional problem about whether this is indeed a coup or a counter coup,” he contends.

Honduran law only allows for constitutional changes to be made by a constituent assembly called through a national referendum approved by the Congress. But, as Mary Anastasia O’Grady notes, Zelaya arbitrarily announced such a referendum, defied a Supreme Court ruling that it was unconstitutional and “had Mr. Chávez ship him the necessary ballots from Venezuela.”

Zelaya sacked the head of the armed forces for complying with a Supreme Court order not to facilitate the vote. According to O’Grady’s account:

Calculating that some critical mass of Hondurans would take his side, the president decided he would run the referendum himself. So on Thursday he led a mob that broke into the military installation where the ballots from Venezuela were being stored and then had his supporters distribute them in defiance of the Supreme Court’s order.

But the vast majority of democrats will argue that any military coup is indefensible, that conflicts must be resolved through the political process and that military intervention invariably undermines democratic institutions, often with perverse consequences. As The Washington Post notes:

The military’s intervention may have the unintended effect of saving Mr. Zelaya. The Congress voted him out of office on Sunday by a large margin; had the generals merely allowed events to proceed according to the rule of law, the president could have been legitimately deposed or isolated.

Some observers are concerned that the strong international support for Zelaya, despite his anti-democratic maneuvers in office, could have the perverse effect of legitimizing future coups-by-stealth. “The unconstitutional act being punished is the coup d’etat, not the death by a thousand cuts that comes before — the erosion of democratic institutions,” said Sabatini.

In defying Congress and the Supreme Court, thereby provoking military intervention in the weeks running up to the coup, Zelaya knew exactly what he was doing, writes Alvaro Vargas Llosa:

 In pushing the limits of democracy by trying to force a constitutional change that would permit his re-election, he set a trap for the military. The military fell for it, turning an unpopular president who was nearing the end of his term into an international cause célèbre.

Even prior to the coup, Michael Shifter – another former director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Latin American program - was making a similar point. “Zelaya has provoked this institutional crisis. He seems to have a very strong appetite for power,” said Shifter, now with Inter-American Dialogue. “He’s trying to be the victim, but he won’t get a lot of sympathy by defying the country’s institutions,” he said.

As is usually the case with military coups, the medicine may prove to be worse than the cure. In defying not only a high court ruling, but also the legislature and attorney general, Zelaya may well have been behaving like the populist caudillo his opponents warned he wanted to be.” But the coup means Honduras’ justices and generals have forfeited the legal and moral high ground and “made them look like the Latin oligarch lackeys of old.”

The forceful response of the OAS to the coup in Honduras jars with Andrés Martinez, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. “Some of the very same regional players now urging a united front on behalf of democracy in Honduras are the same leaders who in recent months have been eager to embrace Cuba and give the tropical gulag nation a pass on its lack of democracy and basic civil liberties,” he writes.

Condemning the OAS’s “selectivity in doling out moral judgments”, he notes that the group readily invokes transnational legal commitment to democracy in the case of Honduras but not in the case of Cuba.  “Such selective championing of freedom could prove fatal to the cause in the region, by further emboldening autocratic forces on both left and right,” he warns.

Failure to engage Iran’s civil society and dissidents?

Iran’s ruling elite appears to be gaining the upper hand and consolidating its rule, although small-scale, often spontaneous demonstrations continue and Mir-Housein Mousavi still refuses to drop his demands of en election re-run.

The crackdown has led to a tactical shift within the opposition, from mass rallies to civil disobedience, including strikes within strategically vital sectors, notes analyst Karim Sadjadpour. But, he concedes, “so far, these strikes have seemingly failed to pick up steam, given that much of the opposition is either in prison, under house arrest, or unable to communicate.”

Contrary to the regime’s claims that the U.S. and U.K. have instigated the current protests, a failure to engage civil society is one reason Western governments have been taken aback by the unrest.

“I think it is fair to say senior administration officials are busily trying to understand how the opposition is generated and where it came from,” a senior official told Eli Lake. Organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy have funded Iranian democracy programs, notes Lake, but the U.S. has not been the most consistent or the most assertive funder, activists contend.

“The Dutch were the pioneers in this field, allocating money for Iranian civil society in 2004,” says Andrew Apostolou, senior program manager at Freedom House. “The U.S. only committed large amounts as of 2006, and most of that was for broadcast media. Civil society is a long-term investment.”

Why are the experts consistently blindsided by mass democratic movements?  Natan Sharansky believes it is because they neglect the extent to which apparently isolated dissidents reflect and embody the hopes and aspirations of voiceless citizens.

Every totalitarian society consists of three groups: true believers, double-thinkers and dissidents,” he argues, and democratic upsurges amount to “the spectacle of a nation of double-thinkers slowly or rapidly approaching a condition of open dissent.”

Former Soviet citizens returning from Iran told him how much the society reminded them of the final phase of Soviet communism: “Iran was extraordinary for the speed with which, in the span of a single generation, a citizenry had made the transition from true belief in the revolutionary promise into disaffection and double-thinking.”

Lost opportunity to support Iran’s democrats?

Just as Rwanda paid the price for Somalia, the Obama administration appears to have “overlearned” the lessons of the Iraq war and George W. Bush’s freedom agenda, warns Nader Mousavizadeh a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Consequently, “an opportunity to provide legitimate support to the popular movement when it mattered most was lost” and “a signal was sent to those very same hardliners that the United States’ eagerness to negotiate would override its solidarity with the protesters.”

The administration’s loss of nerve will have dire consequences:

First, a movement for greater pluralism and the rule of law that was manifestly to the advantage of the United States has been silenced. Second, an emboldened hardline leadership will likely present even greater conditions for meeting with the United States and, at those negotiations, prove more reluctant still to seek common ground.

But Fareed Zakaria welcomes President Obama’s reluctance “to be seen as grandstanding and taking ownership of the protest movement” and he cautions against comparing the unrest in Iran with the momentous events of 1989.

“As a historical precedent, it has not proved a useful guide to other antidictatorial movements, he writes. The democratic revolutions of 1989 reflected a unique constellation of forces.  “The three most powerful forces in the modern world are democracy, religion, and nationalism [and] in 1989 in Eastern Europe, all three were arrayed against the ruling regimes.”

Obama may be unable to find a credible interlocutor in Tehran, writes Amir Taheri, given that the Islamic Republic’s core institutions are split, including the politically active elements of the Shiite clergy, senior technocrats, the influential merchants of the bazaar, and even the military and the Revolutionary Guards.

He cites unconfirmed reports that at least 17 mid-ranking Guard officers have been relieved of their posts and that a senior commander who led the elite “Master of the Martyrs’ Division,” has been “reassigned” after refusing to deploy troops against demonstrators.

Much will depend on the “party of the wind” – those who side with the probable winners. But Taheri warns that the split “could lead to a bloody showdown, at the end of which the winner will launch a massive purge.”

The divisions extend into the Revolutionary Guards – also known as the Pasdaran or the Sepah – and the paramilitary Basij, says Mohsen Sazegara, a former founder of the Guards. “Many of the commanders in the Sepah have children who are in their twenties and who have joined the recent protests,” says Sazegara.

The Basijis’ aim was “to militarize civil society to prevent currents that the Islamic Republic is opposed to,” notes one analyst.

“There are many Basijis who were in support of Mousavi,” says a former member. “Many Basijis are upset that the recent violence has been attributed to them.”

Iran’s factional divisions – II

Further to this item on the security forces’ role in the Islamic Republic’s factional disputes, the National Democratic Institute’s must-read Iran Elections Bulletin also addresses the issue of splits within the regime:

The basij are a useful weapon of terror, with no real organizational muscle for the long haul, while the IRGC [Revolutionary Guards] cadres – increasingly part of the ruling elite – may ultimately decide that their interests lie elsewhere. After all, its former commander, Rezai, has already allied himself with the anti-Ahmedinejad faction. Meanwhile, Rafsanjani and his coalition of conservative and moderate leaders will likely continue to make progress from the inside as they work for reform – not revolution – within the Islamic system of government.