When Will the Persian Spring Arrive?

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Two years after it captured the world's attention by flooding the streets of Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and other cities to protest a fraudulent election, Iran's youth-dominated Green Movement is hoping that domestic economic anxiety and spillover effects from the Arab Spring will rejuvenate its campaign for democratic reform. After all, the Arab Spring was partly inspired by the June 2009 Iranian demonstrations. Will it now help bring about a Persian Spring?

To Western observers, the Green Movement may have seemed a spontaneous uprising catalyzed by the stolen election, but it was rooted in at least four long-term trends: (1) the economic, cultural and social failure of a dictatorial political system; (2) profound changes in Iranian society, such as increased urbanization, increased literacy, the increased presence of women in social spheres (and their demands for equal rights), increased industrialization and increased access to modern communications; (3) growing social, generational, ethno-religious and class divisions; and (4) the emergence of a democratic mindset and a rights-oriented discourse among many segments of the population.

The Green Movement's immediate objectives are to topple Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (the supreme leader of the Iranian theocracy) and to secure free elections untainted by harassment or corruption. Its campaign to delegitimize the ruling regime has been violently repressed, but Iran's dire economic conditions are now taking a heavy toll on the government's already dismal popularity.

Not surprisingly, both Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad focused their March 2011 Nowruz messages on economic issues: Khamenei designated the Persian New Year as the "Year of Economic Jihad," while Ahmadinejad promised to create 2.5 million new jobs. By way of historical perspective, independent economists note that Iran has averaged only 450,000 new jobs per year since the 1979 revolution. Reaching Ahmadinejad's stated target of 2.5 million would require an annual economic growth rate of over 8 percent. Yet Iranian growth has languished around 1 percent for the past few years, and unofficial statistics peg the current unemployment rate at 25 percent, which means that about 5 million people are jobless.

Tehran abruptly eliminated food, energy, and transportation subsidies in the final quarter of 2010, thereby triggering a spike in food and fuel prices. (Indeed, the prices of natural gas and electricity have recently increased fivefold and tenfold, respectively.) Iran's general inflation rate has soared and may reach 60 or 70 percent this year. At some point relatively soon, bankruptcies may cascade throughout the economy. It's possible that more than 6 million jobs could be lost, and that Iran could plunge into nasty stagflation.

These economic woes have boosted public support for democratic change. So has the Arab Spring. Over the past several months, Iranians have watched the swift removal of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, along with mass demonstrations in countries such as Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, not to mention an all-out civil war in Libya. The Arab revolutions have confirmed that "people power" can effect sudden and spectacular political transformations. On the other hand, if a government is willing and able to squash street protests with ruthless violence, as the Iranian regime did two years ago, then people power may not be enough.

To understand why the 2011 Egyptian protests dislodged Hosni Mubarak but the 2009 Iranian protests failed to bring down Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, it's worth comparing the two countries. Egypt was ruled by a secular autocracy that suppressed Islam and outraged devout Muslims. Iran is ruled by a religious tyranny that uses a radical interpretation of Islam to justify its existence. With a per capita GDP of $11,200, Iran is richer than Egypt ($6,200) and ranks higher in the United Nations Human Development Index (70th vs. 101st). The Iranian government also has traditionally used a network of mosques and clerics to marshal support among the nation's poor.

In Egypt, the main coercive force is the national army, which was impartial when the 2011 uprising began and then eventually nudged Mubarak out the door. In Iran, the main coercive force is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which controls the Basij (a pro-government militia), the intelligence services, the security forces, and hundreds of businesses. When the Iranian pro-democracy demonstrations erupted, the IRGC stood firmly behind Khamenei and carried out bloody massacres.

The Egyptian protests forced the closure of schools, banks, the stock exchange and many other prominent institutions, devastating tourism and the national economy. The shutdowns also heightened pressure on Egyptian officials to resolve the crisis quickly and peacefully. In Iran, oil revenues are not affected by street protests, unless there is a strike among oil workers or other countries increase the stringency of sanctions.

Egypt is compelled by its economic and financial systems to maintain good relations with the outside world - especially with the United States, which gives Cairo roughly $2 billion in economic aid each year. Iran has championed a violent, ideologically driven crusade against the West in general and America in particular. Unless sanctions dramatically reduce Iranian oil revenue, the government will not bow to international demands.

Indeed, while the Mubarak regime was highly sensitive to Western opinion, the Iranian regime simply accuses its critics of being U.S. agents. Thus, Egypt allowed foreign media to stay in the country during its 2011 protests, but Iran expelled all foreign reporters at the outset of its 2009 protests.

In Egypt, the opposition groups easily agreed on a common objective: the overthrow of Mubarak. Back in 2009, the Iranian opposition groups were so divided that they could not reach such an agreement. Today, however, the Green Movement has coalesced around the twin, simple goals of deposing Khamenei and forcing the regime to allow free, fair elections.

The combined effects of the Arab Spring and domestic economic stagnation have contributed enormously to delegitimizing the Iranian theocracy in the eyes of the public. The Greens have also made substantial progress in bolstering solidarity across opposition groups, cultivating democratic unrest, and causing schisms within the regime. They have made much less progress in fostering dissent and division among IRGC members, who remain the bulwark of government stability.

In the months and years ahead, the toughest, but most critical, challenge for the Green Movement will be splitting senior IRGC officials from the regime. Even if the Greens can broaden their coalition and establish more robust neighborhood networks, they will not achieve their ultimate aims until they disable the machinery of repression. When that finally happens, the real Persian Spring will arrive.

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