Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Color revolution attempt 2: Can the West pull it off?

These protests are becoming more and more interesting to me. They do not have known leadership, do not have a program and do not have demands. But they seem to have a strategy of going out, confronting the security forces, and in these confrontations generating outrages to fuel later demonstrations.

I think these protests are substantially assisted by US efforts behind the scenes, in terms of money and likely even operational skills, planning and direction. Iran's leadership says that this is their opinion as well. Likely there is a substantial proportion of Iran's population that agrees. If I'm right, it is reasonable to think of this movement as a continuation of a US-attempted color revolution. I do not think it has good prospects of success at actually installing an alternative government, if that is the West's aim in supporting it.

Assuming the aim of these demonstrations is actually to overthrow Iran's government, one hope would be that every previous demonstration's outrage will increase discontent with the regime and the effect will snowball. This hope is slim. The other hope is that with demonstration infrastructure in place, an outside outrage or shock that the regime otherwise would have survived, in the presence or pre-made demonstrations leads to the regime's overthrow.

Western strategists understand well enough that an outside military attack or sanctions will not provide the necessary shock, but instead would immediately stamp out the protest movement. Possibly the murder of a really popular Iranian could weaken the regime and accelerate the protests to a level that make an overthrow possible. Possibly a truly shocking scandal involving Iran's leadership could do it, but it would have to be something unexpected, not something that Iranians already widely suspect or believe occurs. Without a shock, it is very unlikely that these demonstrations can topple Iran's government, however they can be a nuisance. Unfortunately for the West, these demonstrations do not involve Iran's nuclear scientists and have limited impact on Iran's nuclear program.

I can't predict a shocking event in advance, but I can look at the snowballing scenario. For this, we are very lucky to have poll data from September 2009, after the first round of demonstrations attempting and failing to dismantle Iran's government. One very important question that was not asked is how many Iranians believe there was foreign involvement in the first round of protests. I estimate it is a high number just because Rafsanjani and Mousavi's behavior is difficult to explain without it and the regime which has a high degree of support was claiming it. But seeing an actual number would make the analysis clearer. Here are some results from the September World Public Opinion poll of Iran:

Iranians distrust American intentions when it comes to democracy promotion in the Islamic world. Only 16% believe the US unconditionally supports democracy in Muslim countries. A small majority (51%) believe “the US favors democracy in Muslim countries, but only if the government is cooperative with the US.” Roughly one-fifth (19%) believe the US uniformly opposes democracy in the Muslim world.

Polled two months after the disputed election, 81 percent of Iranians consider Ahmadinejad to be Iran’s legitimate president. Only 10% disagree. Eighty-three percent say the election was free and fair, though only 66% say it was completely free and fair, while 17% say it was somewhat free and fair. The same number (83%) say they are confident in the results, though only 62% say they have a lot of confidence, while 21% say they have some confidence.

A related controversy erupted when Iran,s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, endorsed Ahmadinejad’s victory before the results of the election were official. But only 13% say that the supreme leader should not have supported Ahmadinejad after the election while 76% approve. On the general “process by which the authorities are elected” in Iran a very large majority (81%) say they are satisfied with the general process, though only 40% say they are very satisfied. Sixteen percent say they are not satisfied.

The Islamic Republic’s complex system of government, which parcels out power among a variety of elective, appointive and often overlapping institutions, has been the subject of bewilderment and frequent criticism in the West, yet Iranians express support for it. Asked if they were generally satisfied with the system, an overwhelming 87 % express satisfaction, though only 41% say they are very satisfied. Just 10 percent are dissatisfied (3% not at all satisfied).

The Guardian Council, a 12-member panel of Islamic theologians and jurists that can veto legislation and bar candidates from running for office, also enjoys substantial support. Sixty-two percent of those polled said that a council of senior religious scholars should have the power to overturn laws when it believes they are contrary to the Quran, while 24% said that laws that are passed by elected representatives of the people should not be subject to a veto by senior religious scholars.

The most powerful position in Iran’s political hierarchy is that of supreme leader, a role created by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and held by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei since Khomeini’s death in 1989. Though the supreme leader is appointed by the 86 clerics who make up the Assembly of Experts, 55% of Iranians say the way he is selected is consistent with the principles of democracy. However, this may be due to the fact that Assembly of Experts is popularly elected—thus giving the people indirect influence over the choice of the supreme leader.

A larger majority (61%) say Iran’s constitution grants the supreme leader the necessary amount of power, and another 6% say he should have less power. Only 17% say he has more power than he should.

Different governmental institutions earn varying degrees of confidence. The president ranks highest, with 85% expressing at least some confidence (64% a lot of confidence). The police have the confidence of 83% of Iranians (52% a lot of confidence), the parliament 79% (40% a lot), the judiciary 73% (43% a lot), the Interior Ministry 72% (38% a lot), and the Guardian Council 71% (42% a lot).
Assuming these poll results are correct, and we don't have any better numbers, the ten percent of Iranians who believed Ahmadinejad was not the legitimate president in September is a sizable number. It represents over seven million Iranians, more than enough to explain the crowds we've seen pictures of. But this ten percent is not nearly enough to overthrow Iran's government, or enough that Iran's society can be said to consider Ahmadinejad illegitimate so that it would tolerate Mousavi's taking power.

Opponents of the regime assert the September 2009 WPO poll numbers are wrong, along with their assertion that the reported election results are wrong. The WPO polls seems to have been conducted according to standard practices for polling Iran. The reported election results are, contrary to rumors early in the reporting process, tabulated by a huge number of decentralized people all over the country - and the results of every ballot box were published in Iranian newspapers.

It would, I know opponents of the regime assert otherwise, be extraordinarily difficult for the regime to carry out the level of fraud necessary for Ahmadinejad to have failed to win, but report a ten million vote victory margin for him. Nobody has presented a plausible scenario in which this fraud could have happened. Six months later, as hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets and many people have died, nobody has come forward even to say "by the count at our polling station, the result in the newspaper reported the wrong winner".

What this means is that when a poll reports that 80% of Iranians do not believe the charges of fraud, that is a more than reasonable position for them to take, and about what should be expected if the situation is examined without the typical American animus towards the Iranian regime.

A strategy of protesting the measures used to put down previous protests has as its target audience those seven million Iranians who already believe the government is illegitimate. The 83% of Iranians who believed in September that the elections were fair will not be impressed by the opposition's ability to generate images of repression from protesters who go out with the clear intention of confronting Iran's security forces.

The 83% of Iranians who believed Iran's elections were fair therefore believed that Mousavi was wrong in claiming the elections were fraudulent. I'm fairly confident that more Iranians believe Mousavi had an ulterior motive in making the claim, including the possibility of a foreign influence, than the 10% who still in September believed Mousavi was right.

If that is correct, Mousavi is not in a position, and pretty much will never be in a position that he could assume power. My expectation is that somewhere before the protests reach the full seven million potential participants predicted by the September poll, the protests will plateau and begin visibly wearing at the patience of the rest of Iran's society. Only a shock that is not yet on the horizon could change this.


Anonymous said...

I use those poll figures in my calculations, too. But something to keep in mind is that popular opinion does change. And a lot has happened between September and almost January.

That said, I do not think the IRI is anywhere near immediate danger of collapse. The opposition does provide a definite distraction, and it does do harm to Iran's international prestige.

That said, the opposition's resorting to violence is putting it at a disadvantage.


lidia said...

They were busy preparing the "colour revolution" 3 years ago

Arnold Evans said...

Wow. Thanks for that link Lidia.