So far the stateside response to the recent Iranian protests has been as meaningless as possible: a debate about the American debate about the protests. Whose tweets have been strong and robust? Whose tweets have been weak and spineless? Are Trump’s comments in 2017 and 2018 better than Obama’s were in 2009?
When it comes to the war over public statements, put me squarely on Team Trump. To the extent that it matters, I prefer to see an American administration express strong public support for democratic protests against a hostile, jihadist regime.
The key phrase here, however, is “to the extent that it matters.”
Perhaps because of our revolutionary past and perhaps because of the relative effectiveness of public protest in the West, we Americans have an oddly romantic view of popular uprisings. I say “oddly romantic” because absent very particular conditions, the recent history of revolt is depressing. An uprising is more likely to lead to wholesale slaughter than it is to positive reform. Iran’s protesters face extraordinarily long odds, and all the tweets in the world can’t change that sad and terrible fact.
I’m old enough to remember the surge of optimism that hit America when Iraqi Shiites and Kurds revolted against a weakened Saddam Hussein in 1991. His armies had been thinned out by the Gulf War, massive allied forces were poised at his border, and Iraqi revolutionaries enjoyed explicit American encouragement, if not American military support. But they failed, with the death toll by some estimates topping 100,000 men, women, and children.
Virtually every American adult is old enough to remember the surge of optimism as crowds took to the streets in 2011 to overthrow Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The results, seven years later, are clear for all to see: the deadliest armed conflict of the new century, the rise of ISIS, and the worst refugee crisis of the modern era. The Syrian regime rules over the nation’s most populous regions, American allies control the north, and Russia exercises more influence in the Middle East than at any time since the end of the Cold War.
Then of course there’s the revolution in Libya — an uprising that led to American intervention, regime change, Benghazi, and a period of chaos that created safe havens for ISIS and a potpourri of other Islamist militias.
I raise this sad, recent history not to declare that the latest Iranian protests are futile but rather to note that real regime change most often depends on forces far greater than a tweet, a statement of support, diplomacy, or sanctions. As I watch the Iranian protests unfold, I’m asking two principal questions: Are the regime’s thug elements still loyal? Are the regime’s allies still steadfast? As Assad demonstrated, those two factors alone can help a despotic regime persevere even in the face of universal Western condemnation.
American-allied dictators like Hosni Mubarak tend to fare poorly in the face of popular uprisings in part because the United States simply won’t sanction or permit the use of crushing force to suppress protest. We’ve obviously permitted a degree of brutality in allied regimes, but especially in the modern era our tolerance for a true reign of terror in response to public unrest has been low. Our geopolitical rivals, like Russia, have no such qualms. Indeed, Russia has empowered, enabled, and assisted Assad’s genocide at every turn.
Iran is still largely a pariah nation. It’s far less responsive to Western outrage and condemnation than Egypt or Tunisia, two countries that experienced regime change during the Arab Spring. Its thug elements — including the Revolutionary Guard Corps — appear to remain fanatically loyal. (I say “appear” because independent media coverage is scarce on the ground.) Russia has no interest in seeing a new Western-allied Iranian regime upset its best-laid plans for the Middle East.
Against this backdrop, American options are limited. It’s easy to exaggerate our own influence. Wise policy can help or hurt, but absent decisive intervention, which isn’t an option, American decisions will be far, far less important than decisions made on the ground in Iran. Even when unpopular, and even in the face of mass protest, heavily armed regimes still hold the balance of power. The meaningful question is whether the Iranian regime has the same will — and commands the same loyalty from its thug element — as Assad’s in Syria and Hussein’s in Iraq. If so, then all the tweets, all the statements, and all the sanctions in the world likely won’t be enough for democracy to prevail.