Watching the events in Iran this week, I cannot help but think that a quick course in successful revolutions would benefit the freedom-seeking people of Iran. The most important thing I would stress is that the popular Marxist socialist ideas of the past really aren’t relevant to a real revolution. Marx completely underestimated the importance of the power of the state. Successful revolutions occur, in real life, when the existing regime is unable to repress its people because it runs out of ammunition, money, and willing soldiers. Moreover, what usually tips the balance is outside foreign influence. Without the support of extra-national resources, the existing regime generally manages to temporarily concede enough, temporarily repress enough, and temporarily bluff enough to pull through the crisis. I recommend Theda Skocpol’s book, States and Social Revolutions, which is a comparative analysis of political revolutions in Russia, France, and China. This book provides readers with insight on the reality, and not the emotional fantasy, of revolution.
The main point I’m trying to make is that Chairman Mao’s ideas are probably more valuable than ideas like wearing green or having everyone show up at the same time, some place on a map. As Mao wrote: “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous.” Right now, I think most U.S. official observers are betting on the success of Ahmadinejad because they don’t think the people in Iran have the willingness to take their revolution up to the level it would need to be to truly succeed. This cold realism, in part, is responsible for Obama’s lackluster support of freedom fighters in Iran. For more details on the militaristic reality of modern day Iran, please see an excellent little article by Danielle Pletka and Ali Alfoneh at Iran\’s Hidden Revolution.
Nevertheless, based on Skocpol’s theories, what would need to happen to make the “Green” revolution in Iran successful?
1. Focus efforts on undermining the financial stability of Ahmadinejad’s police and military powers. In a crisis, there is no better friend than ready cash. Thus, one of the secrets for success in overthrowing a corrupt regime is to drain it of the cash it needs to survive. Financial isolation of Ahmadinejad and his allies is extremely important. This means that anything which disrupts his ability to pay the police or the military is a great idea right now. Freezing bank accounts, slowing down financial services, cutting off foreign investment…all of this will have more impact than anything designed to emotionally “rally” the people.
2. Accept that outside assistance should be welcomed, not shunned, and open the gateways to international assistance. Under the old Marxist model, outside intervention was unnecessary…even counter-productive. The reality of revolution, however, is that it is extremely difficult to overthrow a corrupt regime without outside support. The Shah of Iran’s family would probably still be in power if it had not been for the influence of U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Outside intervention is essential because a revolution is not usually winnable if it is a “fair” fight that only involves domestic vs. domestic forces. Even the U.S. was dependent on France during our revolutionary war. This means that the opposition to Ahmadinejad and his allies should look for outside cash and other resources to assist them at this crucial moment.
3. Disrupt communications for police and military forces. A mob enjoys a temporary advantage if the police and military forces are unable to communicate with each other. Organization and communication is a force multiplier for the state, and thus it becomes important to do whatever can be done to cut lines of communication, disrupt messages, and inject confusion into the ranks of the police and military. In particular, the mob has an advantage everytime it succeeds in isolating Ahmadinejad and the ruling elites. Tactically, a coup d’état involves seizing physical control of the country’s key government offices, communications media, and infrastructure.
4. Beware of new faces. In moments of crisis, your best friends are your oldest and dearest friends. You know their strengths and weaknesses and you know the extent of their loyalty. The greatest danger for those seeking to overthrow a corrupt regime comes from their “new” friends. Although many of these new friends are decent and honest people, they are also more likely to be spies sent in to undermine your small and developing organization.
5. Trust your own perception and understanding. One of the great advantages of revolutionaries is that they see things fresh and trust their own judgment. This is actually a force multiplier for the freedom fighters because “trusting yourself” speeds up the decision-making process and activates the full use of your mind to take advantage of small moments, brief opportunities, and scarce resources that can make all the difference.
There are more and more ideas and insights I could offer, but sometimes – in emergency situations – it’s best to keep things simple. Nevertheless, I’ll close by saying that I think it is fair to say that with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan all weakened by their own internal problems…this is an ideal time for a revolt in Iran along the lines articulated by anti-Ahmadinejad forces. My comments above are meant to represent the best distillation of my understanding of politics and social science. Personally, I’m convinced that the long-term prosperity of the whole region will be dependent on the full compulsory education of both men and women, the end of child labor, and the intelligent efforts of all of us – inside and outside of Iran – to adjust to a modern world were religions are judged by their unintended consequences….not their carefully planned promises.
Augustine 25 is the pseudonym of an award-winning political scientist.