Ignore All the Iran Experts


Predictions about Iran are a dime a dozen these days. And that’s exactly what they’re worth.

Déja vu: The crowds in Iran look awfully familiar. And they’re just as unpredictable as they were in 1978.

Troops are out in Iran this week, but in many cases the crowds have grown so large that the security forces are standing back and letting them swarm silently and peacefully through the boulevards — just like in 1978.

Chants of Allah-o-akbar, God is great, reverberate from rooftops at night, expressing popular revulsion against the dictatorial regime — just like 1978. The government has assaulted university campuses and shut down the opposition’s offices, but these and other crackdowns have only sparked further protest — just like 1978.

Are we witnessing a repeat of the Islamic Revolution that brought down the monarchy 30 years ago? If so, it would be wonderful irony. It would mean that the children of the revolution — the large majority of the population that was born and raised under revolutionary institutions, that went to schools purged for Islamic purity and was fed Islamically-correct television and radio — had devoured the system that nurtured them.

The irony of the situation is not lost on the protesters themselves. In their text messages from the streets and their phone calls overseas, the Iranian opposition exhibits tremendous self-awareness. They speculate constantly about whether the Islamic revolution is coming full circle. 

They note the parallels between this week’s outburst of protest and the heroic events of 1978, which their revolutionary schoolbooks taught them in great detail. They liken the closing of universities this week to the shah’s closing of universities in November 1978. They speculate whether this week’s marches are equivalent to the massive Tasua and Ashura marches of December 1978. The clash earlier this week between a small group of militants and security forces at a paramilitary base in Tehran may have been an homage to the popular convergence on an air-force base in Tehran that sparked the final overthrow of the monarchy in February 1979.

But the biggest similarity between the current protests and the Islamic revolution is the population’s widespread confusion about what comes next. In a year from now, people will look back on this week and say that what happened was inevitable. Whatever happens, they will predict the outcome retroactively. Already, experts are providing rough drafts for these explanations, such as:

A charismatic and enigmatic opposition leader is serving as a rallying point for different sectors of society, who all imagine that he shares their varied political positions; the opposition is too small and divided to pose a serious threat to the regime.

The main leaders of the opposition movement — presidential candidate Mir Hossein Musavi and his ally, former President Mohammad Khatami — are not calling for a revolution, only for a resumption of the Islamic Republic’s previous electoral procedures; during the violence of a revolution, moderation often gives way to more radical demands.

In the months prior to the outburst, oil prices boomed and busted, along with the global economic downturn; the government still controlled billions of dollars in reserves that it doled out to supporters through barely disguised giveaways.

The Internet, cell phones, and satellite television have added new networking capabilities to the age-old rumor mill; access to these technologies is not universal in Iran, and is being shut down by the government.

The ruling elite is too divided to repress the opposition effectively; the ruling elite is pulling together and cannot be toppled.

Violent repression will keep people from protesting much longer; violent repression will backfire and produce even more protesters.

Concessions will buy time for the regime while tempers cool; concessions will only whet the opposition’s appetite.

Outrage and grievance is boiling over; this week’s protests are a safety valve blowing off harmless steam.

In a year’s time, some of these experts will crow that events have confirmed their analyses. Others will quietly remove this week’s remarks from their Web sites.

Yet all of these analyses are wrong, even if events unfold the way they predict. After all, if you make enough predictions, some are bound to look accurate. They are wrong because the outcome of this week’s events is simply unpredictable. Unpredictable means that no matter how well-informed you may be, it is impossible to know what will happen next. Moments of turmoil make a mockery of accumulated knowledge.

Routine behavior, on the other hand, can be predicted. It is likely to occur tomorrow the way it occurred yesterday, with adjustments for shifts over time. But breaks from routine are a different beast altogether. The more that people feel that normal rules of behavior no longer hold, the more they search around for new rules, surveying their neighbors, collecting rumors, checking their text messages in a frantic attempt to figure out what everyone else is planning to do. Very few people are willing to be the only ones out in the street when the security forces start to advance. If people expect millions of their compatriots to demonstrate, many will want to help make history.

That’s what Iranians are trying to figure out this week. "Where are we going?" asked one protestor who had been beaten by the police with a baton."We don’t know how far this will go," another demonstrator told a reporter. "Anything is possible," said another.

Some protesters are giddy about the possibilities. "We have removed the rubbish that was injected into us by the regime, which turned people against one another," one student e-mailed to friends outside of Iran. "We are entering a new day. Our heads are high and eyes focused far on the horizon. Every single day the scope of this horizon expands, and in every single cell of our bodies we feel that we are ascending and rising up towards greater beauties."

Others despair that the future looks bleak. "Where are we today?!" a young oppositionist asked in distress on her blog as the protests began. "We don’t know what to do. We don’t know where to take refuge." Organizers of the protests aim to calm these concerns with the promise of safety in numbers. "Do not fear, do not fear, we are all together," demonstrators chanted in Tehran.

Opponents of regime change are also confounded by this week’s events. "Why isn’t the security apparatus getting involved?" a pro-regime Web site complained after the first large demonstration. The site then helpfully listed the names of 42 opposition leaders "in hopes that the security and military apparatuses will respond with less leniency and greater severity of action toward this situation."

Such moments of mass confusion are unsettling and rare. They usually fade back into routine. Occasionally, however, they create their own new routines, even new regimes, as they did in 1978-1979. In later retelling of these episodes, especially by experts, confusion is often downplayed, as though the outcomes might have been known in advance. But that is not how Iranians are experiencing current events. Their experience, and their response to their experience, will determine the outcome.

So this week, while the political future of Iran seems undecided, let us take note of the undecidedness, so that we won’t forget it.


Charles Kurzman is professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina and author of The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran.

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