THE IRANIAN GOVERNMENT LASHED OUT today against the West's perceived support of anti-government protests by arresting foreign nationals allegedly involved in the Dec. 27 Ashura protests, and publishing a list of 60 organizations waging "soft war" against Tehran. Meanwhile, Shirin Ebadi - an Iranian lawyer, human rights activist and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner - argued in her interview Monday with CNN that the Iranian government's efforts to suppress demonstrations were failing and would only increase and radicalize the opposition, thus sowing seeds for the government's downfall. This largely conforms to the analysis of most Western media and policy analysts, who see the ingredients for the downfall of the clerical regime in Iran as clearly arrayed; most believe it is only a matter of time before Tehran sees a regime change.
The picture painted by Western media and governments is, however, one that STRATFOR has refused to complacently accept.
The imbroglio on the ground in Tehran is perceived as a continuation of the "color revolutions" that began in the former Soviet Union, of which the Ukrainian 2004 "Orange Revolution" is a prime example. All the elements of a "color revolution" seem to be in play in Iran: a pariah regime maintains power despite what appears to be voter fraud while a supposedly liberal/pro-Western opposition launches a series of protests and marches that only accentuate the regime's instability and unpopularity. Keeping with the latest fashion, the Iranian movement has even picked a color: green.
Western commentators who think they are witnessing regime change in Tehran could make an even more prescient parallel with the toppling of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the so-called "Bulldozer Revolution" in October 2000. In late 2000, Milosevic's Serbia was a pariah state that refused to budge over its crackdown in Kosovo in much the same way that Tehran refuses to budge on the issue of its nuclear program.
But if Iran today is to be compared to Serbia in 2000, then the regime change would have happened immediately following the June elections when protests reached their greatest numbers and the government was caught off guard by the virulence of the disturbance. Instead, a much more realistic (and poignant) analogy would be Serbia in 1991, when Milosevic faced his first serious threat - one he deftly avoided with a mix of brutality and co-option.
"The Western media confused liberal, educated, pro-Western university students in the streets of Belgrade for a mass movement against Milosevic...much like they do with Iran today."
The March 1991 protests against Milosevic focused on the regime's control of the country's media. Opposition leader Vuk Draskovic - a moderate nationalist writer turned politician - was still smarting over his defeat in the presidential elections in December 1990, in which his party received no media access to Milosevic-controlled television. The March 9 protests quickly took on a life of their own. The assembly of nearly 150,000 people in Belgrade's main square turned into a full-scale anti-Milosevic riot, prompting a brutal police crackdown that led to the Serbian military being called to secure the city's streets. The next day Belgrade university students took their turn, but were again suppressed by the police.
Milosevic's crackdown dampened enthusiasm for further violent challenges to his rule. Each time he was challenged, Milosevic retained power through a mix of restrictions (which were most severe in 1991) and piecemeal concessions that only marginally eroded his power. Meanwhile, Western media throughout the 1990s confused liberal, educated, pro-Western university students in the streets of Belgrade for a mass movement against Milosevic, much like they did with the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and with Iran today.
But ultimately Milosevic stayed in power for two main reasons: he had ample domestic, popular support in Serbia outside of Belgrade, and he had the full loyalty of security forces in Serbia at the time: interior ministry troops and their various paramilitary organizations.
Serbian opposition eventually employed two strategies that toppled Milosevic: co-option and compromise with elements of Milosevic's regime. Co-option meant convincing the industrial workers and miners of Central Serbia, as well as ardent Serbian nationalists, that protesting against Milosevic meant more than being a university student who discussed Plato in the morning and marched against the government in the evening. Highly organized student opposition group Otpor ("Resistance" in Serb) made it their central mission to co-opt everyone from labor union members to nationalist soccer hooligans to the cause. This also meant fielding a candidate in 2000 elections - firmly nationalist Vojislav Kostunica - that could appeal to more than just liberal Belgrade and European-oriented northern Serbia (the Vojvodina region).
Meanwhile, compromise meant negotiating with pseudo security forces - essentially organized crime elements running Milosevic's paramilitaries such as the notorious "Red Brigades" - and promising them a place in the future pro-Democratic and pro-Western Serbia. These compromises ultimately came to haunt the nascent pro-Western Belgrade, but they worked in October 2000.
These Serbian opposition successes stand in stark contrast to Iran today. In Iran, we have seen no concrete evidence that the opposition is willing or able to co-opt Iranians of different ideological leanings. As long as this aspect is missing, security elements will refuse to negotiate with the opposition since they will perceive the regime as still having an upper hand. Furthermore, security elements will ultimately not switch sides if they don't have assurances that in the post-clerical Iran they will retain their prominent place or at least will escape persecution. This was the "deal with the Devil" that the Serbian opposition was ready to make in October 2000. But in Iran, at this moment, a deal with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and their paramilitary Basij forces is not possible.
Ultimately, Serbia in 2000 was also surrounded by a different geopolitical situation. Isolated in the Balkans with no allies - not even Russia, which at the time was weak and dealing with the aftershocks of the 1998 economic crisis - Western pressure exerted on Belgrade was inordinately greater than the pressure the United States and its allies can exert on Iran today. It is further highly unlikely that a military strike against Iran would have the same effect that NATO's three-month air campaign against Serbia did in 1999. The scale of the two efforts is vastly different. Serbia was an easy target surrounded by NATO states, while Iran can retaliate in a number of ways against the United States and its allies, particularly by threatening global energy trade.
Evidence from the ground in Iran indicates that the ruling regime may undergo a certain level of calibration - especially as different factions within the clerical regime maneuver to profit from the imbroglio - but it is hardly near its end. The continuation of protests is not evidence of their success, much as the continuation of protests against Milosevic throughout the 1990s was not evidence that he was losing power. Milosevic not only held out for nearly 10 years after the initial 1991 protests, but he also managed to be quite a thorn in the side of the West, taking charge in numerous regional conflicts and going toe-to-toe with NATO.
We may later come to see in the Iranian protests of June and December 2009 the seeds of what might eventually topple the regime. But if we learn anything from the Serbian example, it is that a regime that survives a challenge - as Milosevic did in 1991 - lives to tough out a number of fights down the road.