Revolution or civil rights movement? That’s the question I’ve been asked repeatedly as the latest round of protests in Iran commenced. But it’s not the first time I’ve tried to explain what even many inside Iran had trouble explaining. In 2009, I served in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the State Department and was one of a small handful of people who covered the post-election protests from start to finish. Days in, we were asked to clarify how things would end – an impossible question to answer. However, after taking a step back and examining the situation dispassionately, we gave our superiors an assessment that proved correct. Broadly conceived, the core elements of our advice eight years ago remain true today. A few key points illustrate why.
First, we highlighted that there are essentially four pillars of stability for the ruling system in Iran: legitimacy in the eyes of the population; efficiency in managing the affairs of the state; unity amongst political elites; and the government’s monopoly on violence. In 2009, the first two pillars were damaged and exacerbated by cracking down on protestors. Political elites remained at odds to varying degrees until most factions coalesced around Hassan Rouhani four years later in the 2013 presidential election. However, the government’s coercive capacity remained intact – and eventually was on full display.
Fast-forward to the present, and the status quo is arguably a more challenging scenario for protestors. Government legitimacy and efficient management remain damaged, but political elites are thus far not at each other’s throats like they were in 2009. Perhaps more importantly, few would dispute the notion that Iran’s government will once again use force against protestors if survival of the system is thought to be at stake. What’s past is prologue.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, we highlighted four pillars necessary for protestors to create a “revolutionary” situation: mass discontent amongst the population; an organizational network of protestors that coalesces; a shared, cohesive ideology amongst protestors; and clear, widely accepted leadership within the protest movement. In 2009, mass discontent and leadership emerged, but state monopoly on violence played a key role in preventing the other pillars from taking root in a sustainable fashion – by way of cracking down on protestors, and imprisoning opposition leaders.
As things stand in Iran today, mass discontent remains clear, but protestors have been less coordinated. They currently lack a discernible organizational network. No shared ideology has emerged beyond general disdain for the government. And the protests have thus far been devoid of any leadership. Moreover, the government’s monopoly on violence makes it increasingly difficult for these key pillars to emerge if protestors begin attempts at constructing them.
Eight years ago, we told the higher ups at the State Department that all four pillars on the government side and the protestor side must be established to create a “revolutionary” situation in Iran. So, for days… and then weeks… and then months, we watched. The more time passed, the more our assessment solidified: Anything short of the aforementioned pillars fully aligning was a civil rights movement, not a revolution.
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Today, the same assessment holds true. As things currently stand, these protests more closely resemble a continuation of Iran’s long-standing civil rights movement rather than an attempt to overthrow the government. This can certainly change if each of the aforementioned pillars aligns. If the status quo holds, that will reflect no such alignment.
With that in mind, the bottom line in 2009 remains true eight years later: Political, economic, and social aspirations of the Iranian people have long been unmet – by the Islamic Republic, as well as its predecessors. Until these issues are addressed in a sustainable, comprehensive fashion, the gap between state and society will not fully heal.
All of this begs the question – what should the U.S. government do? In 2009, we advised our superiors to express concern about the violence against protestors, and highlight the importance of respecting free speech, democratic process, and peaceful dissent. We also emphasized a need for the U.S. government to publicly express its respect for Iranian sovereignty, its desire avoid making America the issue during a domestic Iranian protest, and its belief that it is up to Iranians to determine who Iran’s leaders will be. This approach went through the inter-agency process and was eventually agreed upon. The vast majority of Iran analysts outside of government that we consulted also supported our decision.
The small minority of voices who disagreed with our inter-agency assessment and called on America to “do more” offered no viable, coherent alternative. Some told us that Iran was ripe for American invasion. Others said that the Iranian government was teetering, and sanctions would push them over the edge. Neither was true according to any internal U.S. government assessment at the time. A Republican congressman ended his diatribe against our approach by saying that we should send “duplication machines” to protestors in Iran. When pressed, he could not explain what these machines were or how they would aid Iranian protestors.
Today, the U.S. government does not possess any greater ability to affect the outcome of internal Iranian matters. Thus, it is hard to grasp any approach that deviates from the blueprint established eight years ago. Moreover, Iranian protestors have not asked for America’s help beyond moral support. It is patronizing to suggest that such Iranians are incapable of successfully pursuing their political, economic, and social aspirations without American assistance. From the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 until now, Iranians have demonstrated their indigenous ability to sustain a civil rights movement – independent of American influence – that pressures their government for change.
After a few days of protests in Iran, the situation remains fluid. However, it is possible to see through the fog if proper metrics are utilized. Popular legitimacy, efficiency, political elite cohesion, and coercive capacity can serve as a barometer for measuring government stability. Similarly, taking stock of popular discontent, organization, ideology, and leadership within the protest movement can assess its long-term viability. When combined, it’s possible to determine whether upheaval looks more like revolution or a civil rights movement. In addition to utilizing this framework and providing moral support to protestors, Washington would be wise to acknowledge the limits of its power inside Iran. Policymakers and pundits cannot change this simple truth: The problems are Iranian, the protestors are Iranian, and the solution will be Iranian.