Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, June 26, 2009

Regime legitimacy in Iran

Steve Wolfson referred me to Niccholas Kristof's New York Times column for Friday the 26th. Kristof asks a couple questions of fellow correspondent Roger Cohen who managed to be in Tehran after most foreign journalists were sent packing.

The first question and answer are certainly appropriate for comparative politics.

Questions About Iran? Ask a Witness.
Roger, what’s your take on where things go from here? Obviously there is huge disaffection for the regime, but how much of a problem is that? The Shah’s regime lost its legitimacy in 1953 but survived another quarter-century. It always seems to me that what matters to a regime’s survival is less its popularity than its ability to count on a security force to suppress the people. When that comes into doubt, as in Iran in 1979, East Germany in 1989 or Indonesia in 1998, then dictatorships collapse. But when the army stands reasonably firm, as in Burma since 1988 or China since 1989, then the dictatorship holds. And since this Iranian regime can clearly count on the Revolutionary Guard to open fire to end unrest, what hope is there for change soon?
Answer

Thanks, Nick. Certainly dictatorships can hold onto power through force against the will of the majority of the population, and that likely will be the case for some time yet in Iran. But some important shifts have occurred over the past two weeks that will, I think, weaken the regime. Millions of Iranians who were in a position of reluctant acquiescence, unhappy with the regime but believing they could reform and live with it, have moved into outright opposition. The highest office in the Islamic Republic, that of the supreme leader, has been weakened, because Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has lost the lofty mantle of arbiter, explicitly joining the hardline faction of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The brazen extent of the fraud was such that significant swathes of the religious and political establishment have dissented. Not since the first years after the revolution have there been such open splits in the hierarchy. And Ahmadinejad has emerged as the most polarizing figure in Iranian politics in decades.

The price of survival for the revolutionary establishment, in the medium term, may be throwing him overboard. I could see that happening. I also think that current attacks on the United States will give way to more conciliatory gestures as the regime tries to shore up its position through talks with the US that would be extremely popular at home. President Obama will face a delicate dilemma in deciding how and whether to maintain his outreach.


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