As the incredible events in Iran unfold–in the streets of Tehran and on Twitter–the obvious question is: is this the ‘Green Revolution’ or something else for which we don’t have a pre-fab category.
I would call your attention to two outstanding posts that give a very good insight into what to watch for. The unifying theme was perhaps best articulated by an anonymous Iranian commentator at Salon: “Legitimacy, much debated by social scientists, actually turns out to matter. It’s not just force that rules…” (h/t). In short, this is a moment of contentious politics* where the legitimacy of the Revolution, Islamic Republic, Supreme Leader and a few other major social institutions in Iran is in flux.
1. Rob Farley at LGM notes that the most important actors in the entire process aren’t the protesters, but the police. Farley’s review of the Tilly-esque story of the development of the state reminds us of the central function of the modern bureaucratic state is, as Weber noted so long ago, to maintain the legitimacy that allows rules to rule. States exercise the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. When the security forces no longer feel compelled by the erstwhile legitimacy of the state, the state ceases to exist as we currently understand it. If you see the police, revolutionary guards, and others standing by, or even supporting the resistance, the game is up.
Now, I’m not an Iran expert, and as Dan has noted, you should take all our analysis with that major caveat in mind. So, I don’t have an intimate knowledge of the institutional structure of the regime. That said, two points. First, the gangs of pro-regime thugs beating up protesters should not be seen to be the same as the State going after protesters. These groups may be encouraged by the ruling elite, but they are not the official actors of the state. They are thugs who wouldn’t be able to use force in normal times. Its those legitimated to use force who matter. Second, given the unique nature religion plays in the Islamic Republic, one might argue that some senior clerics might exercise the legitimate use of rhetorical force, so they bear watching as well.
2. orgtheory reminds us that revolutions are actually social movements that must have a social and organizational structure. These social resources–social networks, leadership, organizers, mobilizers, and experts–require time and effort to build and deploy. Its important to see if the protesters can wield any other levers of power against the regime beyond sheer numbers of people. It matters how many people come out– as Dan noted, thousands can be dealt with by the repressive institutions of the state, millions not so much. Its possible that the ability to conduct offensive cyber-war against the regime is a step in this direction. The potential for success comes when an alternative power structure emerges that could replace the existing regime in running the state. If the Supreme Leader falls, someone else needs to be ready to step in and take his (metaphorical) place.
More to the point, orgtheory offers a very powerful reminder:
I’ll be a bit incendiary to justify these questions by pointing toward the invasion of Iraq: The kind of thinking which suggests that a large, loud, outburst topples governments and then magically leads toward the emergence of a new order which “makes more sense” was, in the end, what undid our efforts in Iraq. It was naive – of us then and perhaps of protesters today – to think that opposition and even toppling a regime is enough. It’s what comes next—the alternative power structures and institutions that will step into the void—which require our attention now. Because it will be a power struggle–just as it became in Iraq. Educating ourselves on the underlying layers of Iranian society is vital because understanding this is how the US and supporters of Iranians’ freedom can best lend target support. Now is the time to educate ourselves.
Meaning, we need to be paying much more attention to what Gary Sick is saying, and not go overboard with the idea that we can fight the war with the right twitter-feed.
*h/t PTJ who said this to me earlier today.