Saturday, June 20, 2009

Does the state have the upper hand?

Judged by firepower and control of the communications network it does seem to have the open hand. But this is not a one-sided contest at all. Provided the demonstrations are not geographically limited to one or two cities, there are several factors that favor the protesters even if they only deploy in smaller numbers in the days to come:

Dealing with civil disturbances is a labor intensive work. The natural response is to arrest the leaders and cut their communications, but those steps do not seem to be working to this point. People who are sufficiently inspired to join a demonstration at some risk to their lives constitute a movement not a bureaucratically organized unit. Particularly in fast-moving street confronations where wile, personality and courage are the currency unexpected leaders quickly emerge. As important, people learn quickly how to test, taunt and stretch the government forces. Provided the demonstrators desist from using deadly violence, their moral legitimacy will be enhanced. Plus, the government forces are hardly a monolith.

At least four distinct security institutions are involved in suppressing the demonstrations that have erupted since the June 12th election: The Pasdaran, the Army, the police and the Basij.


The Pasdaran or Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp have the primary mission of protecting the Islamic Revolution. The Pasdaran number more than 100,000, or roughly one-sixth the size of the standing Army. I have not seen any indication in recent days of any hesitancy among thePasdaran leadership in putting down the disturbances, but I have read some unconfirmed reports of a division between Pasdaran officers and troops.

The Army may be another matter. Soldiers share an heroic self-image as defenders of the nation and they certainly do not like suppressing civilians, especially unarmed, relatively respectful ones. Moreover, responding to civil unrest ishardwork. Soldiers hate doing it in my experience.

The demonstrators can scatter and reform repeatedly throughout the day and night. Meantime, the soldiers are on the job continuously with limited breaks. Morale can be expected to dip as the demonstrations go on, if they go on.

Police have the task of keeping civil order, but once the numbers of demonstrators grew into the thousands and the demonstration sites increased, they lacked the numbers needed to maintain order. At present, the role of the police seems to be relatively unimportant.

In the Iranian case, the Basijis are the heavies who use thuggery to intimidate demonstrators. The higher the profile of the Basijis in suppressing demonstrators, the higher the reputational costs for the regime of suppression. When mobilized, the Basij are supposed to be subordinate to the Pasdaran, but I cannot tell if this is actually the case at present.

Meantime, highly respected clerics including Grand Ayatollahs Montazeri, Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili and Saafi Golpaygaani have either condemned the government for its handling of the disputed election and its reaction to protests, or they have taken symbolic steps to signal their disapproval as in the case of GrandAyotollah Yousef Saneei (thanks to x for this information on Saneei). Saneei has traveled from Qum to Tehran's Jamaran Husseiniyya (where Ayatollah Khomeini lived) silently protest. (Also see.) [Added: Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi's statement.]

What all the major figures in the ruling establishment must now be watching for anxiously is any sign that the security forces are losing the will to contain the demonstrations. Pious Iranian deployed to quell civil disturbances will be torn when their officers tell them to use force and theAyotallah who they revere warns them that they will be responsible before Allah for following illegitimate orders (as Montazeri as already said).

If the demonstrations continue for many days, even at the reduced levels seen the day following Khameinei's speech, it is hard to imagine a beneficial outcome for the Leader. His reputation, such as it is, will be further chipped away making him even more vulnerable to criticism from leading clerics. Yet, if an even bloodier crackdown is ordered the regime may insure the unrelenting hostility of many millions of Iranians. Men ofKhameinei's generation will understand the gravity of risk quite well.

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