There are a lot of similarities between the Iranian system of government and those in Vietnam and China — the parallel governing structures (with the clergy functioning similarly to the Communist Party), the pre-selection of candidates by the ideological branch before elections, and so on. But in some ways it’s becoming clear to me that being familiar with Vietnam is actually a barrier to understanding what’s going on in Iran.
To make a long story short: there is no way, absolutely no way, that any Vietnamese leadership would ever have allowed things to get to the point they’ve gotten to in Iran. They wouldn’t even allow things to get to within a mile of being close to the tiniest hint of what’s going on in Iran. During the run-up to the Beijing Olympics last year, on several occasions, Vietnamese activists attempted to stage small anti-China protests, playing off of widespread Vietnamese anger at Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. I was at the one in Hanoi. It involved about 5 or 6 people and lasted about 90 seconds before police shut it down.
More to the point, last weekend, Vietnamese police arrested a lawyer named Le Cong Dinh who had defended several democracy activists in trials over the past two years. Dinh is a very smart guy with an LL.M. from Tulane, a former Fulbright scholar, who cut his teeth on corporate law cases — working for White & Case, he defended Vietnamese catfish farmers against US anti-dumping tariffs, and that sort of thing.
But he had some pretty unconventional (for Vietnam) political views. And in March, he apparently attended a workshop in Thailand on non-violent political organization, organized by a US-based Vietnamese exile group. The Vietnamese government has been coming under a lot of criticism lately for being too deferential to China in various ways, and it’s clearly making them nervous; and last Saturday Dinh was arrested and charged with “colluding with domestic and foreign reactionaries” and “exploiting” those China issues to work out a plan to overthrow the government in 2010. By Thursday night, the police had gotten Dinh to confess to a lesser version of those charges — he admitted attending the workshop, said he’d set up a blog where he planned to talk about establishing alternative political parties, and acknowledged that these actions violated a widely criticized element of Vietnam’s criminal code that prohibits distributing information damaging to the government.
By arresting Dinh, the government has cut off one potential source of what it denounces as “peaceful evolution” (towards a multiparty system) long before it could get anywhere. This is par for the course in Vietnam over the past 3 years. There has never been any kind of serious political opposition in Vietnam, but even the insignificant dissident movement that developed in 2006, which never amounted to more than a few hundred people, was effectively atomized by the arrest and sentencing of a few key leaders. The government nipped such efforts in the bud.
And to a large extent the Vietnamese ability to foreclose such conflicts results from the strengths of Vietnamese political culture. An open conflict in Vietnam is viewed as a failure on the part of the relevant leader, who should have acted to preserve harmony and avoid such embarrassing spectacles. There is a premium on compromise for the sake of preserving social harmony. Male machismo is not associated with the provocation of open disputes, as it is in Russia or to some extent in South Asia. These kinds of values have made Vietnam’s system strikingly flexible and less prone to harsh repression than other autocratic systems.
So when I look at Iran and I see an autocratic system in which hundreds of thousands of people are in the street shouting “Death to the Dictator”…it looks to me like things are long past the point of no return. In Vietnam, the wildest it ever gets is maybe 50 people in the street complaining that a government company took their farmland away for a golf course. The idea of a frontal challenge to the legitimacy of the regime by a huge number of people is just unthinkable. But Iran clearly has a political culture that’s much closer to South Asia. And, particularly after reading Khamenei’s speech on Friday, I worry that the mere fact that so many people are in the street may not have quite the meaning I tend to ascribe to it. Iranian leaders may just be willing to see much more brutal and open conflict than I would have assumed.
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