Iran vs. Egypt: Qualitative Differences in Capabilities

10 March 2011

By Kusha Sefat

In delineating the differences and similarities between the recent Egyptian uprising and the one that resulted from the disputed presidential election in Iran, Pouya Alimagham points to an interesting and important point. The Egyptian regime, while enjoying broad international support, fell in just 18 days. This contrasts the Iranian regime's ability to systematically squash a grassroots uprising that at one point included three million protesters. Alimagham notes that Iran's resilience in the face of mass protest deservers some consideration.

An equally important point is Iran's attitude (and what enables this attitude to persist) in contrast to most other states in the region engulfed in mass demonstrations. Both Mubarak and Bin Ali immediately conceded by offering "reforms." Fearing their own uprising, states like Jordan and Saudi Arabia conceded in advance, with the latter offering its citizens $36 billion in benefits. (Ghadaffi never backed down, but he may lose his life over it). Iran, on the other hand, is taking steps that sharply contrast the conciliatory attitudes of other regional states. Domestically, and in the midst of broad international sanctions, Iran is undertaking a significant and comprehensive economic reform plan which is likely to hurt and further anger the core of the opposition (middle class urbanites). Internationally, during the last round of talks in Istanbul, Iran added two preconditions for moving forward with the P5+1: suspension of sanctions and acknowledging Iran's right to enrichment, effectively asking the West, in the words of Reza Marashi: "Now what are you going to do?" This is more than a case of resilience and defiance toward domestic opposition and the West. Rather, it raises questions on state capabilities. That is, in contrast to Egypt and Tunisia, what capabilities does the Iranian state have to withstand grassroots uprisings, and how were these capabilities gained?

As one veteran conservative Iranian diplomat put it, "we do not bow down to any power, unless that power is really powerful." It seems that the US, together with European allies and domestic opposition can shake Iran, but are not powerful enough to break it. Yet, only thirty years ago the Shah of Iran, who similar to Mubarak and Bin Ali enjoyed broad international support, was ousted by domestic opposition alone. This points to a qualitative shift in Iran's capabilities over the past 30 years facilitated by one primary factor that distinguishes it from all other states' in the region and the former Pahlavi regime: the experience of revolutionary crisis. It is, as such, worth trying to understand Iran's capabilities in a revolutionary context and in doing so, the appropriate comparison would be to others states with successful social revolutions, namely France, Russia, and China.

There has been much debate about revolutions, particularly since the beginning of the Egyptian protest. But rarely has this debate touched on what a successful revolution really looks like, what capabilities revolutionary states gain, and how. To look at Iran through the prism of revolutionary crisis, it is worth going back to Theda Skocpol's seminal work on social revolutions. Skocpol illustrates some of the conditions that must exist for revolution to take place. These conditions existed in Iran prior to its revolution but no longer do, yet they continue to exist today in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc. Further, Skocpol illustrates the course that a revolutionary movement must take in order for that state to benefit from the fruits of revolution and gain strategic capability; otherwise what is left has more in common with coup d'état.

In comparing France, Russia, and China Skockpol identifies that both domestic and transnational conditions must exist for revolution to take place. While domestic and transnational conditions influence one another, if the particular state faced with domestic pressure is also at a disadvantage internationally (politically, militarily, and ideologically) then the conditions for revolutionary crises are in motion. Like Egypt and Tunisia today, France, Russia, China, and Iran were all at a transnational disadvantage prior to their uprisings. France's competition with England exhausted its capacity to raise new loans and sent the economy into a severe recession and resulted in the bankruptcy of state's financial institutions. Russia was entangled with a comparable, if not worse, vicious cycle of international competition. By 1915, the magnitude of Russian defeats in WWI had been acknowledged and the dominant strata of the Russian society lost confidence in the Tsar and his autocracy. China and Iran were both characterized by political dependency which as Skockpol points out is the most severe case of transnational disadvantage. While, through their revolutionary crisis, France, Russia, China, and Iran overcame their transnational disadvantages, Egypt and Tunisia are currently characterized by political dependency and are firmly under Washington's strategic umbrella. This means that in addition to domestic pressure caused by the uneven spread of capital, the international conditions for revolution are also ripe in Egypt and Tunisia. The same is not true with respect to Iran.

How was Iran able to move up the transnational scale via its revolutionary crisis? Revolutions are not static, but are processes. An important factor in revolutionary crisis are external wars, which as Skocpol notes are central and constitutive. Revolutionary France ultimately lost the Napoleonic Wars. Nevertheless, mobilization for war and military interventions in the midst of the unstable internal realm of France created a centralized bureaucratic mechanism at the disposal of the state. The same is true with the Russian revolution and WWII, the Chinese revolution and the Sino-Japanese War, and the Iranian revolution during the Iran-Iraq war. In the case of the latter, the war was as much part of the revolutionary crises as the ousting of the Shah. In Iran, practically all internal opposition which resisted the dominant discourse of the war were wiped out, leading to a sense of stability in the face of an Iraqi incursion which confirmed the Islamic Republic as the true and undisputed legitimate authority of Iran. By the end of the war, a highly centralized, effective, and flexible government had prevailed. Internationally (militarily, politically, and ideologically) Iran started accumulating strategic capabilities, a process which excelled after the fall of Iraq and reached its apex during the Hezbollah-Israel war.

Militarily, Iran has established itself as a significant player in the region. During the Iran-Iraq war, and in the absence of an effective military arsenal, the "culture of martyrdom" was institutionalized in Iran. The primary goal was to defend Iran with unorthodox tactics by deploying volunteers imbued with revolutionary ideals, exercising innovative and human wave tactics. This gave birth to the Revolutionary Guards and Iran's new defense doctrine of asymmetrical warfare. While the chances of waging a successful war against Iran by the US have significantly and continuously diminished since the revolution, in terms of actual fungible power, Tehran sees itself as having the upper hand in the region. This is in strong contrast to Iran's capabilities prior to its revolution and, currently, to any other state in the Mid East (Israel is firmly under America's strategic umbrella and similar to Egypt and Tunisia, is faced with sever transnational disadvantages).

Politically, Iran is losing many battles, particularly in the Security Council. Yet, Tehran sees itself as wining exactly where it wants to, namely in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Territories, by choosing sides that seem to always come out on top. Ideologically, Iran may be facing some problems in the region, particularly with the emergence of a "Turkish model." However, it must always be remember that universalistic creeds, such as Islam, allow and encourage people from very diverse particularistic background to convert and work together as fellow citizens, comrades, or brothers. These universalistic ideologies allow the political elites to mobilize masses for political struggle. Like Jacobeans and Bolsheviks, this gives the Iranian state access to crucial additional resources for politico-military struggles against its opponents, both domestically and internationally. Shah's nationalism, for example, was limited to Iran and could have never cultivated the intimate ties that exist between Iran and Hezbollah. Moreover, many state supporters who came to the streets of Tehran, numbering in the millions, may have been motivated by material gain or forced to come out, but it would be hard to deny that a significant portion of them were ideologically driven.

In short, like France, Russia, and China, Iran has constructed a highly centralized and flexible state apparatus which enables it to better handle domestic uprisings. In addition, like these other states, Iran has emerged out of its revolutionary crisis with a higher standing on the international scale. That is to say, Tehran is no longer at a transnational disadvantage, and thus the transnational conditions for a successful uprising in Iran no longer exist to begin with (The U.S. is no longer powerful enough to put Iran in a transnational slump). While Tehran is having trouble with the spread of equal capital to its people due to mismanagement and a lack of specific infrastructure, its international capabilities are likely to be sustained through high oil prices. As such, Tehran's capabilities allow it to be both defiant and resilient. Iran's success in squashing grassroots movements has less to do with the Green Movement's right or wrong strategies (frankly, I can't imagine how Mohandes Mir Hussain Mousavi could have played his cards any better – with the exception of calling for the most recent protest which may have been a fatal mistake). At the end of his very interesting article, Alimagham notes that the Iranian opposition must try new approaches, including "strikes, encampments in Iran's own Liberation Square and, most importantly, garnering the support of Iran's armed forces-all of which were tactics vital to success in Egypt."

I am much less optimistic about whether any of these are going to work in the face of Iran's strategic capabilities, both domestically and internationally. And as such, I have my own suggestion to Iranians living abroad who desperately want to help their compatriots in Iran. Instead of trying to devise tactics and strategies for the Green Movement (this movement already has some of the brightest and best strategists in Iran), it would be worth their while to encourage the U.S. administration to establish a strategic relationship with Tehran. This cannot be achieved by suggesting new strategies to President Obama either. A range of strategies have been tried since the inception of the Islamic Republic. What is needed is a new perspective that recognizes Iran as a fact that is here to stay. If and when this perspective is adopted, and relations established, I think everyday life will get much easier for everyday Iranians, and some of the concerns of the Greens will be met. This may not be what people want to hear, but if you agree with the logic of this argument, it is the most honest recommendation.


Kusha Sefat has been a media consultant in Iran over the past three years, and will start a doctoral program in sociology at the University of Cambridge in October.


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