Epistemic status: Low. I don’t know Farsi. I don’t particularly follow Iran.
That said, I am hardly alone in this.
Bryan MacDonald: “Even I’m kinda astonished by how many American “Russian experts” have suddenly become “Iran experts” in the past 48 hours. молодцы товарищи!! #ачтивмеасурес”
1. Widely divergent reports about how many people are protesting. Some say mere hundreds, others are saying entire towns have been seized.
2. Revolutions need to turn some part of the elites to succeed – otherwise, you just have a raging mob whose energy gradually fizzles out.
In the late Soviet Union, national leaders came out against a disintegrating center. In the Orange Revolution, it was the Ukrainian Supreme Court that ruled Yanukovych’s election win invalid due to fraud. In Euromaidan, a critical mass of Party of Regions deputies “owned” by pro-EU oligarchs defected.
There do not appear to be any Iranian regime elements sympathetic to revolution, nor any popular leaders around whom the opposition is uniting. This suggests its prospects are bleak.
3. There are differing explanations for the protests: They generally stress economic hardship, especially in the context of Iran’s costly foreign interventions.
a) Unfortunately, getting to what Iranians “think” is hard, since there don’t seem to be any independent pollsters regularly operating in the country – at least so far as sensitive questions are concerned.
The Iranian diaspora makes no secret of its strong dislike for the mullahs, but as persecuted political emigres, they are hardly representative of the average Iranian.
b) I just checked Iran’s economic statistics.
Since sanctions were dropped, growth has been high: An amazing 12% in the past four quarters, which I assume reflects post-sanctions recovery. Inflation, currently running at 10%, is also near historical lows by post-Shah standards.
Their economy is not exactly thriving from a long-term perspective – GDP per capita (PPP) has been about flat for the past decade (and real incomes have fallen by 15%), unemployment typically ranges between 10%-12%, the economy is over-regulated and state-dominated.
Still, it doesn’t strike me as absolutely catastrophic, and its now on an upsurge, anyway.
c) Many of us can sympathize with Iranian secular nationalists who have no interest in supporting their Shiite Arab coreligionists, let alone the Sunni Palestinians (many of whom repaid Iran’s kindness by joining the Islamic State), in the name of some obscurantist “anti-imperialist” and “anti-Zionist” grand strategy foisted on them by unelected ayatollahs.
Still, it has to be said that now of all times is a strange time for them to express such sentiments.
The US is currently far more hostile towards Iran than under Obama, and is drawing up an anti-Iranian alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Shouldn’t there be more of a fortress mentality now?
Besides, the regime should have gained foreign policy legitimacy with their successes against Islamic State in 2017. While people don’t tend to like costly foreign entanglements, they like them a great deal less when they are losing them. But Iran has been winning, not losing, of late. Iraq has a friendly government, and Assad’s reconquests have reopened a direct overland route from the Iranian border to Lebanon. Meanwhile, it is the Saudis who have gotten humiliatingly bogged down in Yemen.
Very suspicious timing, as I said.
5. Prediction: These protests aren’t going to be any more significant than the abortive “Green Revolution” in 2009.
That said, I was also sure that Yanukovych would remain in power until late January 2014. I don’t have a great predictive record on identifying successful color revolutions.
6. If it does succeed: Russia’s entire position in the Middle East goes pretty much kaput.
Assad will probably be doomed. The Syrian regime is kept afloat by Iran transfers on the order of $1 billion a month, and Iranian militias play an important role in ground operations. Moreover, not clear that Hezbollah will stay in Syria either, since its own position will become suddenly imperilled. So either Russia will have to take up Iran’s slack there – a frankly unrealistic prospect, if the Kremlin has any sanity left – or sign off as well.
A liberal/nationalist Iran that does not have a bone to pick with Israel or the United States will be inherently hostile to Russian interests. A reorientation towards ethnic rather than religious ties will bring it into conflict with Russia in Central Asia, especially with respect to Tajikistan. It will also put pressure on Russia’s position in Armenia, since such an Iran will be far friendlier with Azerbaijan. The prospect of competing Iranian gas pipelines to Europe – which can also be hooked up to Turkmenistani production – will also suddenly become very realistic.