Streetwise Professor

January 11, 2020

Contingency and Coordination in Iran

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 4:03 pm

Totalitarian regimes are acutely aware of the old adage: “there’s strength in numbers.” What they fear most is mass protest on a scale that can only be repressed with draconian brutality that further undermines whatever internal and external legitimacy they have.

The biggest problem that those who oppose such a regime face is coordinating such a mass protest. Who wants to be the first to step out, uncertain of how many will follow?

This is why such regimes devote considerable resources to impeding coordination. The measures they adopt include propaganda, which supports preference falsification and spreads doubt among individuals about how widely their dissatisfaction is shared. Another is brutal repression: cracking down hard on those who rise up even without universal support, pour encourager–ou, réellement–pour discourager les autres.

We have seen both of late in Iran. The organized mass funerals and mass displays of public bereavement for Suleimani is an example of propaganda at work. The (ironically, Suleimani-directed) brutal repression of anti-regime protests over fuel price hikes is another.

But sometimes chance events create a rallying point that overcomes the coordination problem. Something that is so universally reviled among the public, and which everyone in the public knows that everyone else reviles, can coordinate the spontaneous mass resistance that totalitarian leaders dread.

We may be seeing that in Iran this very moment. The admission–mere hours after statements saying that it was an impossibility–that the IRGC had shot down a civilian airliner, killing 176 people, has catalyzed mass protest in Iran. Among the chants: “Soleimani was a murderer, his Leader is too.” And “Reza Shah, Reza Shah, Rest In Peace!” And, most ominously for the regime: “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid, we are all in this together.”

The shoot-down encapsulates the incompetence, brutality, and lies of the regime. It is out there for all to see, inside and outside Iran. It is exactly the kind of event that is most likely to unify discontented Iranians, and to overcome the coordination problem.

By the nature of such social phenomena, there is a positive feedback mechanism. If enough people rise up, that encourages even more to do so. It is precisely this feedback mechanism that leads totalitarian regimes to devote inordinate efforts to prevent it from starting. But sometimes chance–or a moment of cosmic incompetence and brutality that everyone can witness–overwhelms those efforts.

It is too early to see whether the grotesque murder of 176 people will culminate in the fall of the mullahs. But is the kind of thing that is most likely to do so. An act that all can witness. An act that implicates the regime. An act that evokes universal revulsion. No one has any doubt that most Iranians are shocked by what happened.

These events bring moments of truth to totalitarian regimes. Do they have the will to exert the force necessary to crush them, when the world is watching? Totalitarian regimes that survive do. Those that don’t, don’t. The jury is out on the mullahs.

They enter this crisis without their most reliable enforcer, who was just incinerated by the United States, which touched off the string of events that are climaxing in the streets of Iran. That changes the odds considerably.

This demonstrates the contingency of history, and the law of unintended consequences. Most of the criticism of Trump’s decision that has focused on unintended consequences has emphasized bad potential outcomes. But this string of contingent events shows that unintended consequences can lead to pleasant surprises too.

We shall see.

One last comment. The events in Iran demonstrate, as if further demonstration is needed, the fatuity of the American media. We have witnessed more than a week of fawning over Suleimani, with an emphasis on how universally beloved and revered he is.

Apparently, not so much.

Will the American media admit error? I don’t know about where events in Iran will lead but I do know the answer to this question: Never.

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  1. Linking to a known MEK account is generally considered bad form. Yes; Suleimani really was/is popular. Yes, there are protests against the government, mostly out of economic and governance quality concerns rather than a desire to overthrow the existing political systems. It is also very clear that many of the protestors are, in fact, Saudi plants.

    Comment by E. Harding — January 11, 2020 @ 4:14 pm

  2. @E. Harding. What-the-fuck-ever, man.

    Comment by cpirrong — January 11, 2020 @ 4:22 pm

  3. Thanks for the article, professor.Do you think the destruction of Malaysian Boeing in Donbas was the similar situation,where Boeing had been confused for Ukraine’s jet?

    Comment by mmt — January 11, 2020 @ 4:25 pm

  4. @E. Harding. Perhaps you are being ironic. If so, well played. If not, amusing to note that you replied within 10 minutes of my posting, suggesting that not just the Russians monitor this site for wrongthink that must be combatted. Hell, maybe even they don’t anymore given that I don’t write about them much anymore.

    Comment by cpirrong — January 11, 2020 @ 4:30 pm

  5. I can imagine E. Harding blogging during the French Revolution:

    ‘Yes, there are protests against the government, mostly out of economic and governance quality concerns rather than a desire to overthrow the existing political systems. It is also very clear that many of the protestors are, in fact, British/Austrian/Prussian plants.’

    Belief Preservation is a hell of a drug; it makes people say the craziest things.

    The US has had the mullahs in its sites for 40 years. But the mullahs had many natural advantages – not easily invaded, a poor, patriotic population feeling itself under siege, a ruthless security service. All they had to do was lay low, husband their resources, bide their time and grow their capabilities.

    Instead, they’ve gotten a rush of blood to the head, overestimated their capabilities, mistimed their moment, cheesed off the world’s superpower and gone Kaiser Wilhelm-like for a ‘griff nach der Weltmacht’ way before they were ready. Dumb, dumb move.

    Popcorn munching time.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — January 11, 2020 @ 4:54 pm

  6. I never new Saudis spoke Farsi. Love and learn!

    Comment by Sotos y1 — January 11, 2020 @ 5:28 pm

  7. Pour décourager les autres, Prof. not discourager

    Comment by philip — January 11, 2020 @ 5:39 pm

  8. And to continue my pedantry, guns have sights, Reg, not sites.

    Comment by philip — January 11, 2020 @ 5:43 pm

  9. Prediction: the October surprise is Trump landing in Tehran to sign a US-Iranian treaty on nuclear drawdown, ending sanctions and diplomatic recognition. 20% odds.

    Comment by The Pilot — January 11, 2020 @ 7:25 pm

  10. @philip – yes, that was dumb of me.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — January 12, 2020 @ 3:19 am

  11. “The shoot-down encapsulates the incompetence, brutality, and lies of the regime.” – In this case, of at least two regimes. The scale of the Russian disinformation campaign led many to speculate that it was not only the missiles used in the shoot-down that were Russian.

    Comment by Ivan — January 12, 2020 @ 4:15 am

  12. @ The Pilot
    You may well be right. I’d guess the odds at better than 20% but your timeline may be optimistic. The Argentine junta staggered on for a year after the Falklands debacle, it took 18 months for democratic elections. And the junta had only been in power for 7 years, not for nearly two generations.
    If your October surprise happens the Dems can kiss goodbye to the White House.

    Comment by philip — January 12, 2020 @ 4:42 am

  13. Anytime someone mentions popular protest overthrowing a regime, there is only one question in my mind: what will the people with the guns do?

    If the people with the guns are willing to open fire on the protesters until they disperse, the regime will not be overthrown no matter how unpopular. (see China)
    If the people with guns aren’t willing to fire, then the regime will be overthrown. (see 1989 Eastern Europe)
    If some of the people with guns are willing to open fire, and others won’t – the regime won’t be overthrown. (see Venezuela)
    If some of the people with guns are willing to open fire, and that causes the other people with guns to open fire on them, then there will be civil war and different calculations take hold. (see Syria)

    I find it very hard to believe that the Mullahs will be overthrown. The Revolutionary Guard exists precisely to prevent that. And I don’t see any evidence that the Guard’s members are either so demoralized the ordinary members won’t suppress a revolt, or that it lacks leadership to act decisively and ruthlessly. It is not such a small force that it can be ignored.

    A primary reason why the Shah was overthrown was that he was dying of cancer, and he lacked the ruthlessness and decisiveness to suppress the protests (which he had shown previously when younger and healthier). And without his decisions from above, nobody down the chain was going to risk violence. The people carrying out the orders need to feel 100% that they will be backed for doing the dirty work and not thrown to the wolves afterwards. They didn’t get that from the dying Shah, so despite SAVAK, the military, etc., the people took over.

    The only reason I could see for the Guard to not suppress the protesters is if they feel Trump might militarily target the guard and cause it severe casualties that renders it incapable of regime survival. If that happens (the Guard does not crush things), then maybe the police and regular military might defect when the mass protest reaches a critical step. But in that scenario, I feel the Mullahs would risk rolling out the guard at the end – because if they are going to lose power anyway, then why not go down fighting? A scenario where the Mullahs act like Gorbachev and agree to step down, I don’t see. So it would devolve into a civil war where the people could only win if outside forces quickly and decisively intervene on behalf of them.

    The critical question then is what do the rank file and leadership of the Revolutionary Guard think? Is there any chance they will stay out of it, or members leave? Can the protesters effectively take over parts of the country without the Guard cracking down?

    With my limited knowledge of Iran, I don’t see this happening. But I could be wrong.

    Comment by Chris — January 13, 2020 @ 1:14 pm

  14. Gorbachev did not “agree to step down” he was forced to, but not before murdering many unarmed civilians all over the occupied countries. Today happens to be a commemoration day for the January bloodbath of 1991 in Lithuania.

    Comment by Ivan — January 13, 2020 @ 2:07 pm

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