Authoritarian regimes govern relatively effectively if they can convince the public that there is more to lose in opposing them than to gain. This usually involves a carrot and stick approach. Support the regime and you get perks, recognition, maybe your children can get into a good university, or perhaps your village will get a new school. Oppose the regime and you’ll be imprisoned, perhaps tortured, maybe killed.
Concurrently, authoritarian regimes need effective propaganda. They need to convince the public that the government is acting in the interests of the people, that the enemies of the state are powerful, and that the regime has legitimacy. Following Max Weber legitimacy can be charismatic (support for a leader), traditional (this is the way things have always been done), and rational/legal (the system functions according to clear legal guidelines in a rational manner.)
In Iran, the situation is increasingly one where the authoritarian government has to rely on “sticks” (including political executions yesterday) to hold on to power, as the public no longer believes the government can give them what they want. As the people rise up, this kind of brazen use of power to kill opponents can backfire. At some point citizens say “we can’t live like this, I would prefer to die making a better society for the future.” In such cases, authoritarian governments usually fall.
Consider for a moment authoritarian regimes with staying power: the USSR during Stalin’s era, China during Mao’s reign, and Zimbabwe under Mugabe. In the first two propaganda provided a kind of legitimacy through charismatic leadership (Stalin and Mao were revered), plus ideology to rationalize the need for strong action. When Stalin died, the Soviets developed a rational-legal form of legitimacy based on a compromise: you don’t rock the boat, and we assure total security, including health care, shelter, employment, and retirement. For most people, those benefits were worth not rising up in opposition to the regime (risking punishment to self and family), and thus the system persisted. After Mao’s death China took a radical turn towards markets and reform, improving the lives of millions, thus buying legitimacy for their government. In Zimbabwe the lack of effective government meant that the state was run more like an organized criminal enterprise than a true state. Mugabe could buy favors and use the country’s poverty in his favor.
Iran is different on all fronts. To be sure, when the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, he and the new regime had charismatic legitimacy. He was a religious leader, a symbol of opposition against the hated Shah, and promised Iran a new level of independence and respect on the world stage. No longer would Iran be pushed around by the British, Americans or even Soviets. No longer would the Muslim world seem secondary to the Christian West, or the Shi’ite world irrelevant compared to the Sunni populations across Arabia and beyond. Manufactured crises, like the hostage drama at the US Embassy, helped the regime gain popularity. When Saddam attacked in 1980, Iranians came together to defeat their secular Arab foe.
At the same time, Iran boasted a real, if incomplete democracy. The Majles (parliament) had some real authority. The President was often fighting against the will of the hardliners, and until 2004 the moderates won pretty much every major election. This is important in that it created both the semblance and even the reality of progress. Even though the clerics making up the Guardian Council could stymie efforts at change, people felt that life was getting better, that the regime was opening up, that over time power would shift towards more moderate clerics, and perhaps ultimately become tolerant of secular perspectives.
There was cynicism, but as long as there seemed to be real political debate, and as long as the hardliners were backing down on issues such as dress code, public conduct, and other originally very conservative rules, the people felt that their voice was having an impact. The Iraq war, however, changed the game completely. First the Iranian hardliners used anti-Americanism and nationalism to for the first time win elections. They parlayed that into increasing power and a turning back of some of the earlier liberalization, and since then have proven unwilling to go back to the kind of slow change that seemed to define the eighties and nineties.
In some ways, I think the leadership is getting misled by Geopolitics. Just as the USSR’s role as a superpower caused it to simply assume the domestic situation was stable, the Iranians became smitten with the idea that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are giving them a chance to claim regional power status. They have bolstered their efforts to get nuclear weapons, made deals with China and Russia, have a very strong presence in the Iraqi governing parties, and continue to support a powerful Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. There is a real shift of regional power away from the US and Israel towards Iran. There’s nothing like foreign policy to take a leader’s eye off the domestic ball, and to some extent I believe that’s happened in Iran.
To those who say the hardliners will “never give up power,” well, it’s not that easy. That’s what was said about the Shah, Pinochet, and numerous other fallen authoritarians. At some point, subtly and quietly behind the scenes, loyalties switch as the bureaucracies, police forces, and even the military are no longer loyal to the state. When that happens the edifice collapses, and the clerics will find they have no more power to choose not to give up. From reports out of Iran, unclear and uncertain, there seems to be a sense that could be happening. The regime may be imploding. They may have already crossed the point of no return. They lack any kind of legitimacy, their propaganda has failed, the people no longer exhibit so much fear of the stick, and any carrots being offered are brushed away. This is what happened to the Shah in 1979; it could be happening to the Islamic Republic in 2010.
To those who say that we should nudge the regime aside through military strikes, that would be a huge mistake. Authoritarian regimes love playing the nationalism card, and anger at American or Israeli bombing raids that kill civilians could give the hardliners the staying power to survive this crisis. The fate of Iran is in the hands of the Iranians. Stay tuned, this could end up being the most important story of the year.