In 1979, when we were still young and starry-eyed, a revolution took place in Iran. When I asked experts what would happen, they divided into two camps.
The first group of Iran experts argued that the Shah of Iran would certainly survive, that the unrest was simply a cyclical event readily manageable by his security, and that the Iranian people were united behind the Iranian monarch’s modernization program. These experts developed this view by talking to the same Iranian officials and businessmen they had been talking to for years — Iranians who had grown wealthy and powerful under the shah and who spoke English, since Iran experts frequently didn’t speak Farsi all that well.
The second group of Iran experts regarded the shah as a repressive brute, and saw the revolution as aimed at liberalizing the country. Their sources were the professionals and academics who supported the uprising — Iranians who knew what former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini believed, but didn’t think he had much popular support. They thought the revolution would result in an increase in human rights and liberty. The experts in this group spoke even less Farsi than those in the first group.
Limited to information on Iran from English-speaking opponents of the regime, both groups of Iran experts got a very misleading vision of where the revolution was heading — because the Iranian revolution was not brought about by the people who spoke English. It was made by merchants in city bazaars, by rural peasants, by the clergy — people Americans didn’t speak to because they couldn’t. This demographic was unsure of the virtues of modernization and not at all clear on the virtues of liberalism. From the time they were born, its members knew the virtue of Islam, and that the Iranian state must be an Islamic state.
Americans and Europeans have been misreading Iran for 30 years. Even after the shah fell, the myth has survived that a mass movement of people exists demanding liberalization — a movement that if encouraged by the West eventually would form a majority and rule the country. We call this outlook “iPod liberalism,” the idea that anyone who listens to rock ‘n’ roll on an iPod, writes blogs and knows what it means to Twitter must be an enthusiastic supporter of Western liberalism. Even more significantly, this outlook fails to recognize that iPod owners represent a small minority in Iran — a country that is poor, pious and content on the whole with the revolution forged 30 years ago.
There are undoubtedly people who want to liberalize the Iranian regime. They are to be found among the professional classes in Tehran, as well as among students. Many speak English, making them accessible to the touring journalists, diplomats and intelligence people who pass through. They are the ones who can speak to Westerners, and they are the ones willing to speak to Westerners. And these people give Westerners a wildly distorted view of Iran. They can create the impression that a fantastic liberalization is at hand — but not when you realize that iPod-owning Anglophones are not exactly the majority in Iran….
Ahmadinejad enjoys widespread popularity. He doesn’t speak to the issues that matter to the urban professionals, namely, the economy and liberalization. But Ahmadinejad speaks to three fundamental issues that accord with the rest of the country.
First, Ahmadinejad speaks of piety. Among vast swathes of Iranian society, the willingness to speak unaffectedly about religion is crucial. Though it may be difficult for Americans and Europeans [at least their elite classes—Joel] to believe, there are people in the world to whom economic progress is not of the essence; people who want to maintain their communities as they are and live the way their grandparents lived. These are people who see modernization — whether from the shah or Mousavi — as unattractive. They forgive Ahmadinejad his economic failures.
Second, Ahmadinejad speaks of corruption. There is a sense in the countryside that the ayatollahs — who enjoy enormous wealth and power, and often have lifestyles that reflect this — have corrupted the Islamic Revolution. Ahmadinejad is disliked by many of the religious elite precisely because he has systematically raised the corruption issue, which resonates in the countryside.
Third, Ahmadinejad is a spokesman for Iranian national security, a tremendously popular stance. It must always be remembered that Iran fought a war with Iraq in the 1980s that lasted eight years, cost untold lives and suffering, and effectively ended in its defeat. Iranians, particularly the poor, experienced this war on an intimate level. They fought in the war, and lost husbands and sons in it. As in other countries, memories of a lost war don’t necessarily delegitimize the regime. Rather, they can generate hopes for a resurgent Iran, thus validating the sacrifices made in that war — something Ahmadinejad taps into. By arguing that Iran should not back down but become a major power, he speaks to the veterans and their families, who want something positive to emerge from all their sacrifices in the war….
Western democracies assume that publics will elect liberals who will protect their rights. In reality, it’s a more complicated world. Hitler is the classic example of someone who came to power constitutionally, and then preceded to gut the constitution. Similarly, Ahmadinejad’s victory is a triumph of both democracy and repression….
What we have now are two presidents in a politically secure position, something that normally forms a basis for negotiations. The problem is that it is not clear what the Iranians are prepared to negotiate on, nor is it clear what the Americans are prepared to give the Iranians to induce them to negotiate. Iran wants greater influence in Iraq and its role as a regional leader acknowledged, something the United States doesn’t want to give them. The United States wants an end to the Iranian nuclear program, which Iran doesn’t want to give.
I suspect he’s right, unfortunately. And that’s why I don’t put much stock in analysis by either international media twits or high-flying professional diplomats, both of whom tend to talk too much with fellow elites, and then just repeat what they hear, as if their interlocutors deserve to speak for everyone else. (I’m waiting for a noncomprehending elitist like Thomas Frank to write What’s the Matter with Iran?)
UPDATE (in response to comments on my Blogger blog): A whole lot of people who are already fairly well off seem to be quite willing to trade economic progress for social justice or traditional values or some set of religious or ideological goals, especially if other, ideologically offensive people take the biggest economic hit, not themselves. And political leaders who haven’t a clue about how to achieve economic progress are only too willing to pander to those other values to stay in power, not just in Iran.
Friedman mentions the high likelihood of electoral fraud, but seems to think it didn’t make the crucial difference. Perhaps he now realizes he underestimated the fraud and is backtracking in his latest analyses.
When I look at the results of the 1979 revolution in Iran, the 1989 counterrevolt in China, and the fate of so many revolutions that only led to devolution and repression, I find it hard to be optimistic. When the dust settles (without too much blood in it, I hope), the liberal internationalists we’re all so fond of will not be the ones in control. It’ll be either the same old corrupt clergy of the revolutionary generation (perhaps with a more human face), or the bizarre new populist nationalists of the war generation.
Finally, one also has to ask, Who does Friedman listen to? The same types of status-quo-favoring spooks who failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989?
FURTHER UPDATE: Doug Muir at Fistful of Euros has two interesting, well-informed (and pessimistic) posts about future prospects in Iran: From Yerevan to Tehran? notes the close historical and economic ties between Armenia and Iran, as well as the close personal ties between Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian/Sargsyan and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Why Ahmadinejad will win compares factors that affected the outcomes of similar protests in Armenia, Burma, China, East Germany, Georgia, the Philippines, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine. (via Randy MacDonald)