Numerous comparisons have been made recently (see Matthew Yglesias here) between the ongoing protests in Iran and the Tiananmen protests in 1989, by way of pointing out that even large, popular, peaceful protest movements will fail if government security forces remain loyal and are willing to deploy the violence necessary to restore order. And that is true. But it elides the fact that the demonstrations in Iran are much, much bigger than those in Tiananmen were. They’re taking place throughout the country — though, to be fair, there were demonstrations in cities across China in 1989 — and while the protests in China were mainly limited to students and the urban elite, the mass election protests in Iran transcend all boundaries of class, age, and even to a large extent ideology and religious orientation.
What we’re looking at in Iran is really on a different scale. It’s certainly as large and sweeping as the revolutions that overturned the Milosevic government in Serbia or the Orange Revolution in Ukraine — both also touched off by botched elections. In fact, in every other case I can think of similar to this one, by the time the regime has arrived at this point, the game has been over. I don’t think any regime has put down a mass nonviolent revolt of this size, not in recent history anyway. It seems hard to imagine the regime using the kind of force it would take to get hundreds of thousands of people off the streets of several major Iranian cities. That’s not to say it’s not possible. Or perhaps the regime can wait out the protests until the crowd sizes shrink, and then targeted violence may work. But I have a hunch that’s not what’s going to happen. It hasn’t worked that way anywhere in the world in the past 23 years, since the People Power revolution in the Philippines. Instead, what has happened is that once huge masses of the populace lose the fear that has kept them atomized and prevented them from engaging in politics, that fear is gone for good, and the security forces ultimately wilt.
Maybe I’m wrong, and certainly the ideology of theocratic Islam could provide the kind of motivation one would need to discipline security forces into killing large numbers of their own countrymen. But if I had to bet, right now, I’d bet Ahmadinejad is going to be forced to resign.
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