A revolutionary situation

Thirty years ago, I followed the revolution against the Shah of Iran closely on behalf of the government of Israel. One of the key lessons I drew from that experience was that a "revolutionary situation"–whether in Iran or elsewhere–does not lend itself easily to logical intelligence analysis. It is impossible to predict how it will end, if only because the protagonists on the ground do not themselves know how it will end or even, in some cases, how they want it to end. The best anyone–participants or observers–can do is try to describe accurately what is happening. As for the future, we can only speculate on the basis of our knowledge and experience, with no assurance whatsoever that this or that scenario will ultimately reach fruition.

Now, 30 years later, we again appear to be confronting a revolutionary situation in Iran. The most superficial attempt to describe it tells us that it is radically different from the revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini against the Shah. Back then, militant Shi’ite Islamists organized carefully from the grassroots to overthrow a secular monarchy and create an Islamic republic. Now, in contrast, we are witnessing a falling out within the Islamic regime. Militant elements who support President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad apparently falsified election results to ensure that they remain in power by defeating Mir Hussein Mousavi. The latter seemingly represents a less doctrinaire and extreme face of the regime, but he is most decidedly part of it and seeks to right the situation by appealing to regime institutions.

Nor do Mousavi’s followers, the millions of citizens taking to the streets of Iran’s cities night after night, appear as an organized group to be challenging the principles and underpinnings of the Islamic Republic. True, the pro-Mousavi masses feel betrayed by the regime they supported and served. Some undoubtedly have more extensive "freedom" agendas that may yet emerge in a more coherent form, and there is no telling where that might lead them. But for now no one is proposing an alternative to the Islamic regime.

Three decades ago, too, the broad regional and global communities recognized that an Iran weakened and destabilized by revolution might fall prey to hostile or opportunist neighbors like the Soviet Union or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or to secessionist minorities like the Kurds. That is precisely what happened when the Kurds revolted and Iraq invaded Iran barely a year after the revolution.

Today, with the possible exception of Iranian ethnic minorities that traditionally rear their heads when Tehran is weak, this is probably not the case. Certainly Iran’s state neighbors do not pose a threat. Iraq is weak, fragmented and militarily occupied and is subject to heavy Iranian influence. Russian forces no longer sit on Iran’s borders. Were the United States, with its extensive military deployment in and around the Gulf, still led by George W. Bush or his followers, conceivably they would see an opportunity here to intervene. But not the Obama administration, which advocates soft diplomacy and dialogue and remains poised to engage whoever comes out on top in Tehran. Hence Israel, too, will sit tight. Besides, outside intervention would play right into the hands of Iran’s militants.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the powers that be in Iran would have seen no need to "fix" these elections had Bush still been in power: one interesting theory that explains what is happening is that the prospect of Mousavi dialoguing with Obama is precisely what set off the hardliners’ decision to void the former’s election in the first place–though they obviously grossly underestimated the popular reaction.

The Middle East has been characterized in recent years by the strength of its non-Arab (Iran, Israel, Turkey) and non-state (Hizballah, Hamas, al-Qaeda) actors and the weakness of the Arab state system and Arab leadership. Now, if the chaos continues, we have to contemplate the ramifications of a weak and destabilized Iran. Regardless of who is ultimately declared president, an unstable and convulsed Iran could turn in either of two directions: its temporary weakness could cause it to be more accommodating to the West, reduce its own penetration into Iraq and seek to negotiate nuclear issues; or it could become more extreme and more dangerous to the region. It is impossible to say at this juncture how a victorious Ahmadinezhad or a victorious Mousavi would address the region in terms of the domestic political and global strategic interests of his camp.

Three broad conclusions, however, do appear fairly certain. First, any Iranian government will pursue the country’s nuclear program, if only as a bargaining card (Mousavi, after all, inaugurated that project some 20 years ago). Second, if the militants prevail, we are looking at an Islamic dictatorship rather than an Islamic republic. This might have the beneficial effect of rendering Iran and its allies and proxies somewhat less attractive to the Arab masses. And finally, the substance of the anticipated US-Iran dialogue will of necessity change as a result of these events.