‘Regime Change’ in Iran – How Will It Happen?
January 27, 2010
The best chance for a democratic transition may lie in leveraging the corporate interests of the IRGC to achieve a bargain that reforms but preserves the current system.
Richard Haass, President of the highly-respected Council on Foreign Relations and self-described realist, made quite a splash in his recent Newsweek opinion piece entitled Enough Is Enough: Why we can no longer remain on the sidelines in the struggle for regime change in Iran. Haass, as the title suggests, argues that the US must vigorously support the Green Movement toward the apparent goal of bringing down the entire Islamic Republican system. Haass’s take seems more emotional than empirical, and he is not alone. Indeed, many in the American media and even the foreign policy analytical community appear to be willing the Green Movement to some sort of grandiose and cathartic counter-revolution (see, for example, Robert Kagan’s Washington Post op-ed).
There are at least two problems with this.
First, it is not at all clear that the Green Movement seeks revolutionary change. Their official, stated goals are relatively modest and so far are directed toward fixing the system – not replacing it. Americans should be careful not to be more Catholic than the Pope, or more reformist than the reformers. For Americans to frame the Green Movement’s struggle as an inexorable march to another revolution is a bit disingenuous and suggests deeper interest in realizing an idealized American vision of events. After all, what American wouldn’t love to see that diabolical regime and all its attendant challenges to the US disappear once and for all? Such thinking, however, may ultimately disserve the people we claim to support – as well as our own interests.
The second problem is that those forecasting regime change have not yet made clear how it would happen. Wishful thinking and assertions outweigh sober causal analysis. Of course there is no sure-fire formula to apply to such a situation, yet too much remains unexplained by those who prescribe inputs such as moral support, targeted sanctions, anti-censorship measures and information campaigns, and then predict a new Iranian regime as the output. Will Khamenei eventually grow so alarmed and ashamed that he calls the dogs off, forces Ahmadinejad to resign, and/or resigns himself? Will the Assembly of Experts take action to remove Khamenei and reform the institution of veliyat-e faqih? Will a strategic communications campaign and moral/political support swell the ranks of the opposition to a tipping point? Will persistent violent protests break the will of basij enforcers, police, and the armed services? Will economic malaise and targeted sanctions degrade IRGC capabilities and resolve? Though we can’t possibly know the exact outcome, a literature exists that may help us develop more informed scenarios and predictions.
Democratic Transitions: The Type of Dictatorship Matters
The effects of any measures and events may ultimately depend on what type of dictatorship Iran’s actually is. Though revolution is sexy (and in the case of Iran, a salient concept) we may be better aided by framing the situation there as one of potential democratic transition. There is an academic literature devoted to understanding why and how authoritarian regimes transition to democracy. This editorial only scratches the surface of the literature’s potential offerings to Iran analysts.
One of the most important works in the field of democratic transitions is by Barbara Geddes (What Do We Know about Democratization after Twenty Years? Annual Review of Political Science, 1999). Geddes identifies three types of authoritarian regime; each gives way to democracy for different reasons and at a different pace. The least durable regime type is a military dictatorship. A military dictatorship is one in which military officers determine and exert control over the leader of the country; the leader need not be a military officer himself. For example, military officers rigged every presidential election in El Salvador from 1948-1984 to ensure that their candidate won. Such dictatorships tend to lack durability because of the corporate imperative of military solidarity; officers’ foremost goal is to maintain the discipline, hierarchy, and cohesion that a military needs to survive as an effective institution. Thus, when problems of governing arise that threaten fissures within the elite officer corps and among the broader ranks, most militaries opt to “return to the barracks.” After all, the new government is highly likely to require their services. By retreating from government and nipping internal fissures in the bud, militaries remain powerful, relevant players under the new order. Though some juntas are clearly durable (see Burma), the average lifespan of a military dictatorship according to Geddes’ measurement is only nine years (using a data set from 1946-1998).
Geddes’ two other types of regime are personalist and single-party. Personalist regimes revolve around the charisma and/or patronage of an individual. They last an average of fifteen years and are more likely than other regime types to succumb to violent revolution. When threatened, those with equity in a personalist regime circle the wagons to prevent regime change. Single-party regimes are the most durable, lasting an average of twenty-three years. Single parties are like militaries in that they value solidarity, yet they differ in that their corporate imperative is to retain political power; all party members and factions are best served by staying in power despite the perils of governing. Such regimes thus tend to circle the wagons and co-opt the opposition. See, for example, China’s crackdown at Tiananmen Square and subsequent efforts to reinforce Chinese Communist Party membership as the premier means for upward social and economic mobility.
What Kind of Dictatorship Is Iran?
Several Iran analysts have argued since the summer that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has assumed a dominant role in Iranian politics and is responsible for rigging the presidential election. The Guards have effectively conducted a coup and rule Iran as a military dictatorship under the guise of an Islamic (Khamenei) Republic (Ahmadinejad). If so, this might actually be good news for democratization in the relative short-term. It all depends on how the IRGC perceives itself and its interests. Key questions include:
- Does the IRGC view itself primarily as a military organization or as a political, ideological, and/or economic actor?
- How does the IRGC conceive of and prioritize its corporate interests?
- Might the IRGC be willing to return to the barracks in order to preserve corporate solidarity and some measure of legitimacy and power?
- What degree of factionalism exists within the IRGC? What kind of fissures could US actions facilitate in order to hasten a return to the barracks?
If indeed the IRGC is running the show, and if it views itself primarily as a military organization with independent corporate interests, the quickest way to effectuate change in Iran is by causing organizational fissures that hasten a return to the barracks. If, however, the IRGC views itself more as a political entity, Geddes’ single-party model may apply. In this case we are less likely to see a quick retreat, even in the face of massive violent protests. The IRGC is more likely to circle the wagons and even try cooptation. Government programs to recruit and indoctrinate younger basij members are an example of the latter. The IRGC is also less likely to relent if it conceives of itself and its interests in terms of Geddes’ personalist regime-type. Its officers may view themselves as dependent on the patronage of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad; a real symbiosis may exist. The IRGC’s more ideological members may view the organization as being in the perpetual and uncompromising service of the Islamic Republic’s original charismatic leader Ayatollah Khomeini and the Imam whom he and his successor claim to represent. If such thinking predominates among the officer corps, a faction of conscientious objectors at the lower ranks is less likely to prevent a crackdown on the Green Movement regardless of the potentially damaging implications for the IRGC as a corporate entity.
Which Way Will the IRGC Go?
The IRGC arguably does not have an independent corporate identity. Its existence and fortune are inextricably linked to the existence and fortune of the Islamic Republic, which it was founded to protect. It is thus a uniquely and unavoidably political institution. Iran possesses regular armed forces aside from the IRGC; the Guards thus cannot assume survival and relevance under a new governing order (think de-Baathification). One is tempted to conclude that Geddes’ model of the rational corporate military does not apply; the IRGC will surely stand firm and go down with the ship. Yet there is a more positive outlook. The IRGC’s reliance on the continued existence of the Islamic Republic suggests that it should be willing to negotiate a solution with the Green Movement that keeps the basic structure of the current system in place. Such a compromise on terms favorable to the IRGC is more likely sooner rather than later, once the regime’s transgressions have rendered the current system (including the IRGC) irreparably illegitimate. This possibility exposes the folly of romantic calls for regime change (whatever that term even means, exactly). The best chance for a democratic transition may lie in leveraging the corporate interests of the IRGC to achieve a bargain that reforms but preserves the current system.
The IRGC may not be calling the shots as authoritatively as many suggest. For a reform scenario in which the clerics are the main players, see Evolution, Not Revolution. Yet even if most power remains with Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, they are still reliant on the coercive apparatus of the IRGC. Fissures in the IRGC may lead the organization to countenance compromise in order to protect its corporate interests and the broader Islamic system to which its fortunes are linked. If it decides to stand firm alongside Khamenei and Ahmadinejad at the elite officer level, creating fissures among the IRGC’s street-level commanders and enforcers will be critical to countering the regime’s repressive power. It is thus a good idea to keep a close eye on the IRGC not only for its nuclear exploits, but for its role in Iran’s unfolding political drama.
It is perhaps natural to talk and dream of a revolutionary denouement, especially for a country that has so threatened American national interests and so offended humane sensibilities. But good stories don’t make good analysis or good foreign policy. Instead of making decisions based on hope, we should be asking probing questions about the nature of Iran’s dictatorship and the interests and mechanisms that are most likely to lead to favorable if anti-climactic change.