Jul 8th 2009

Iran: I was the guest of the reformers

by Amitai Etzioni

Amitai Etzioni served as a Senior Advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard, University of California at Berkeley, and is a University Professor at The George Washington University. He served as the President of the American Sociological Association, and he founded the Communitarian Network. A study by Richard Posner ranked him among the top 100 American intellectuals. He is the author of numerous op-eds and his voice is frequently heard in the media. He is the author of several books, including The Active Society, Genetic Fix, The Moral Dimension, The New Golden Rule, and My Brother’s Keeper. His latest book Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy was published by Yale University Press in the Spring of 2007. His regular blog is Amitai Etzioni Notes.

The Western media projects on the demonstrators in Iran our best hopes and wishes. It sees another "color" revolution, in the wake of which the people will overthrow the regime, and a new democracy will arise. I say, very unlikely. The color revolutions succeeded-to the extent that they did-because the police and the army either joined the uprising or refused to suppress it. In Iran, the media did find a few cops who were nice to the demonstrators, but most were brutal. And the sad fact is that in short run, brute force tends to win.

I spent ten days in Iran in 2002 as a guest of the reformers. Ever since I have kept in close contact. One reason I am less optimistic than many other commentators is that in those years the reformers won many local and national elections, with reformist candidates taking 75% of the vote in local elections in 1999 and 65% of the seats in parliamentary elections in 2000. Nevertheless, they were unable to make meaningful reforms or wrestle power away from the Mullahs who really control the country. The reformers weak performance soon disillusioned their supporters, and especially young Iranians. To date, they have rather limited credibility.

The news that there is some kind of split among the Mullahs and that Khamenei is criticized in public also should be taken with a major grain of salt. There are such divisions in any government, including our own. Sometimes they are better concealed and sometime they break into the open. However, they do not incapacitate police states.

Last but not least, many Iranians are against religious oppression. They want to wear what they want, drink booze, hold hands and kiss in public, and watch R-rated movies. However, they are proud Iranians and strong patriots. There is extremely little reason to believe that their leaders would give up their nuclear ambitions or support of Hezbollah and other terrorist groups, despite their proclamations that they would like a better relationship with the US.

No one can predict the future. However, the next days and weeks will tell whether my reading-sadly that the regime will last and the reformers will fold-is a correct one, or if we are about to see a people-driven regime change. And we will find out soon enough, whether domestic changes in Iran will significantly change its foreign policy. Do not bet on it.

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