Russia’s communist revolution took 70 years to expire. Iran’s Islamist Revolution, now 38, is now taking the same course.
“To get rich is glorious,” said Deng Xiaoping after steering China from communism to capitalism.
The dictum that today seems like China’s main ideal, was heresy when Deng succeeded Mao Zedong, whose Cultural Revolution the previous decade was meant “to crush those seeking the capitalist way.”
China’s capitalist revolution was resisted by an old guard that did not appreciate history’s direction, the economy’s demands, and the people’s pain.
The Mao revolution’s steam was spent in three decades.
Russia’s communist revolution took 70 years to expire, and there too an old guard tried to resist history’s march only to be swept aside by economic ruin, imperial overreach and ideological fatigue.
Iran’s Islamist Revolution, now 38, is now taking the same course.
No, this is not to say that the end Iranian Islamism is around the corner, or that its demise will be as dramatic as what happened in Russia, nor as drastic as what happened in China. It is, however, to say that Iran’s conservatives are already waging a rear-end battle that resembles those the world saw last century in China and Russia, and that their effort will end in similar defeat.
IRANIAN SOCIETY begs salvation.
Two years after signing the deal that ended most of the sanctions on their economy, the Mullahs’ main economic achievement is the reduction of inflation from 40% to just over 10%. While important, this accomplishment has not reduced unemployment, which officially affects 12% of the workforce, but effectively plagues nearly one in five adults, and one third of young adults.
The pragmatists understand that the only way to deliver the economic breakthrough that President Hassan Rouhani has promised is by liberalizing the economy. Yet liberalization is anathema to the old guard, not because of their convictions, but because of their incomes.
The Khomeini revolution pitted the rural farmers, whom it trusted, against the urban merchants, whom it did not trust.
Social quiet was bought by neglecting industrial development, letting oil exports dominate the economy, and using the inflowing petrodollars to subsidize gas, kerosene, food, medicines and farmers’ needs like tractors. This policy was efficient politically, but economically it was so expensive that by 2008 it gobbled one fifth of the national budget.
Realizing this system fed inflation, the government in recent years began reducing subsidies, but they still cost about 10 percent of the budget. In addition, curing the economy demands not only a total retreat from subsidies, but the empowerment of the very middle classes which the revolution feared and suppressed.
Worse, economic maturation means resuming the Shah’s industrialization drive, and drawing thousands from village to town, where they too will become politically unpredictable.
All this entails economic confrontation with the Revolutionary Guards.
THE VETERANS’ ORGANIZATION of some 100,000 members has become a multi-billion-dollar corporate monster, snatching unfairly multiple public-works contracts and creating thousands of businesses that support a nationwide system of patronage.
Presiding over central entities like the National Iranian Oil Company, the Guards are resisting reforms for the same reason that the Soviet conservatives fought Gorbachev’s perestroika: the existing system is what made them rich; if it goes – so does their economic security.
Worse, curing the Iranian economy also means folding Iran’s imperial project in the Middle East.
Iran is currently involved in conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and Lebanon while backing a Shiite insurgency in Bahrain and also intensifying its meddling in Afghanistan.
All this provokes not only the US, Europe, Saudi Arabia, the rest of the Sunni Arab states, and of course Israel; it also provokes the economy.
Tehran’s adventurism means deploying thousands of advisors and officers in multiple lands, at a time when the economy needs every dollar of the billions that this political luxury costs.
This is besides Iran’s Syrian activity challenging Russia, whose interference in that war Tehran did not expect, as this column noted last winter.
Iran’s regional hyperactivity brings to mind the USSR’s misadventure in Afghanistan, which served as a grim backdrop to the economy’s unraveling while the political system began to crack.
THE IMPERIAL overreach is the context in which Rouhani, in a meeting with businessmen last June, called the Guards “a government with guns” while attacking their role in the economy, and demanding that they be removed from the privatization process he plans to launch.
Rouhani’s statements were then attacked by Guards’ commander Ali Jafari, and also by the commander its elite Quds Force, Kassem Suleimani, and by the head of the Guards’ construction division Abdallah Abdallahi.
It was part of a broader collision between reformers and conservatives, which has been conducted in broad daylight since Rouhani’s charge during the election campaign that the Guards tried to derail the nuclear deal that ended the sanctions.
The conservatives are alarmed because Rouhani pitted them against the people, and the people voted against them. All know that beyond the economic debate lurk demands for freeing political prisoners, shedding women’s dress restrictions, and granting freedoms of association and speech.
That is why the conservatives are fighting. They know full well what it’s about.
That is why the Guards derided Rouhani’s recent oil-production deal with French conglomerate Total as part of a plan to “Westernize” Iran. That is why the conservative judiciary arrested last month Rouhani’s brother on dubious charges, and that is why the Guards shamed Rouhani by saying they did not consult him before firing missiles on an ISIS target in Syria, following an ISIS terror attack in Tehran last June.
Rouhani is not the daring and unorthodox Gorbachev that Iran craves. However, supreme leader Ali Khamenei is Iran’s version of Leonid Brezhnev, the conservative who stifled change and presided over the USSR’s protracted, but steady, decline.
Similarly, the Islamist Republic’s revolutionary Guards, judges, generals and clerics are the equivalents of the Soviet and Chinese old guards for which change meant personal ruin. They know they must fight, just like we know they must lose.