More than two possible outcomes in Iran

Dan Drezner has some sharp analysis of the impact that the incipient Iranian revolution electoral unrest in Iran is having on the region, particularly Russia. But I think he’s a little too limiting in his read on the likely endgame of this very fascinating mess.

As the previous paragraphs suggest, I’m pretty sure a Rubicon has been crossed in Iran that can’t be uncrossed. This isn’t 1999 and 2003 — too many days have passed with the Khamenei regime on the defensive. The regime as it existed for the past twenty years — hemmed-in democracy combined with clerical rule — is not going to be able to continue. With the largest protests of the past week scheduled for tomorrow, I think this ends in one of two ways: the removal of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei from power, or bloodshed on a scale that we cannot comprehend.

He may be right, and a Rubicon may indeed have been crossed, with no going back to “the way things were” in Iran. That certainly seems to be the consensus. But I also wonder if it might be a bit of wishful thinking. There’s a tendency to imbue events as-they’re-happening as more important than they may turn out to be. To take just the color revolutions to which it has been so trendy to compare the situation in Iran: Ukraine’s “Orange” and Georgia’s “Rose” (not to mention Kyrgyzstan’s “Tulip”) were certainly major events, but the hype that they generated at the time far surpasses the attention that those countries, modestly different though their governments might be, attract today.

I think more useful comparisons would be Tianenmen or, better, the monks’ uprising in Burma in late 2007. What these examples — or even, as I suggested before, those of Kenya or Zimbabwe — show us is the possibility of an outcome distinct from Drezner’s either-or (or both) model. At the time, many thought that Burma’s junta couldn’t possibly survive such a brutal onslaught against the country’s most venerable institution. But…it survived. In Iran, the possibilities are simply too many to predict: Khamenei may retrench, and allow Ahmadinejad to take the fall; or, the two of them may make some sort of minor concession to the protestors; or again, they could simply wait until the crowds peter out. Revolution is not inevitable. In such an interesting situation, nothing is.

(image from flickr user Hamed Saber under a Creative Commons license)