Beyond expressing inchoate discontent, what does the current “opposition” want? It is no longer championing Mr. Mousavi’s presidential candidacy; Mr. Mousavi himself has now redefined his agenda as “national reconciliation.” Some protesters seem to want expanded personal freedoms and interaction with the rest of the world, but have no comprehensive agenda. Others — who have received considerable Western press coverage — have taken to calling for the Islamic Republic’s replacement with an (ostensibly secular) “Iranian Republic.” But University of Maryland polling after the election and popular reaction to the Ashura protests suggest that most Iranians are unmoved, if not repelled, by calls for the Islamic Republic’s abolition. ~Flynt & Hillary Mann Leverett
What the Leveretts are describing is the tendency of Western observers to seek out those aspects of foreign protests most recognizable and amenable to their sensibilities, to vastly exaggerate the significance of those aspects and then to engage in a lot of sentimental well-wishing on behalf of the protesters. This brings us back to the original problem of much of the Western boosterism for the Green movement: many Westerners assume that the movement is broadly representative when it simply doesn’t seem to be. Pro-Green enthusiasts imagine a regime in meltdown when the regime seems to be regaining whatever ground it lost during the summer and early autumn. Stratfor has also offered some words of caution against making too much of the latest cycle of protests. Stratfor (via Kevin Sullivan) compares the Iranian protests with the 1991 Belgrade protests against Milosevic, but perhaps an even better comparison with the rudderless Green forces is the “Saffron revolution” in Burma over two years ago that was crushed fairly quickly. Even when we acknowledge that most of the “color” revolutions were exercises in swapping out one set of oligarchs or clans for another, the relative success of the so-called revolutions depended on the unwillingness and inability of the regime leaders to hang on to power at all costs. Shevardnadze, Yanukovych and Akayev all stepped aside, usually at the insistence of Moscow or Washington or both. The major powers that could conceivably pressure Tehran to make concessions or try to force individual leaders out have no interest in doing so. Practically every state of any consequence in Asia accepts Ahmadinejad’s re-election, and most of them are not interested in encouraging domestic unrest and political transformation.
As the Stratfor analysis notes, Milosevic was cut off from any meaningful international support by 2000, and in each of these other “revolutions” the incumbent figure could not rely on an extensive state structure to shield him from his opponents. It was the relative weakness of the state in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan that made taking it over much easier, and this also meant that the takeover involved far less significant change than outside boosters of the revolutions believed. The Iranian state is much stronger, and unlike the governments in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan the Iranian government has given up any pretense of respecting norms governing even quasi-democratic elections. As economically troubled as Iran is, it is a wealthier and more powerful state than any of those three, and it is therefore more resistant to outside pressures. It is not as economically dependent on any one major power, which means that it can more easily ignore the displeasure of any one of its trading partners and can try to play them against one another. In the end, the same dependence on Russia that made the success of the so-called Rose and Orange revolutions possible when the Kremlin ultimately abandoned its protege is the very dependence that has crippled both countries and steadily undermined the “revolutionary” governments.
The other “color” revolutions were primarily aimed at detaching Russian and Syrian satellites from their patrons and installing more “pro-Western” (i.e., anti-Russian or anti-Syrian) leaders, and they succeeded to the extent that there was a genuine coalition organized around anti-Russian or anti-Syrian sentiment. Kyrgyzstan does not really fit this description because the clash in Kyrgyzstan was between regions and clans and had almost nothing to do with the contest between Moscow and Washington for influence, as Bakiyev’s drift back into Moscow’s orbit has made clear. Iran does not fit any of these models. Some Iranian protesters may have taken up chanting “death to Russia, death to China!”, but this does not resonate with many people. They are not tapping into nationalist or anti-colonial sentiment, and as the Leveretts suggest the attempts to tap into religious sentiment may not be working and may instead appear to be cynical exploitation of religious celebrations instead of a close identification of the protests with more broadly accepted religious values.
Iran is much more like Burma in that it is a client state that also has significant natural resources that its neighbors and trading partners want very much. Just as natural gas resources made India tacitly accept the Burmese crackdown, Chinese and Indian interests in Iranian oil and gas and Russian interest in arms and technology transfers will ensure steady outside support for the status quo in Iran. The major powers that are in a position to influence Iran are those that do extensive business with them, and for thirty years Washington has made sure that America would never be one of them. Naturally, having completely failed to affect Tehran with sanctions over three decades, the best idea anti-regime Americans have is to impose additional sanctions.