Aftermath – Iranian Revolution, Arab Spring

In January 1979 the Shah of Iran fled his country at the climax of the Iranian Revolution. Two years later, the Islamic Republic of Iran had a constitution, an elected president and an elected parliament. The new government had freed the U.S. embassy hostages without loss of life or limb and was effectively rallying the country against an Iraqi invasion.
Two years after the Arab Spring, Tunisians, Libyans, Egyptians, and Yemenis are still tormented by domestic violence and a lack of governing stability. Syria is immersed in a civil war.
Why did the Iranians achieve regime change so quickly and with a minimum of domestic violence while the Arabs have largely failed at the same task?
Well-meaning but ultimately counter-productive Western intervention affords a plausible explanation. Efforts to provide soft landings for the Arab regimes in crisis eliminated the likelihood that there could be an Iranian-style clean sweep of fallen military and political elites. With help from foreign diplomats, ruling generals were eased out of power instead of the entire senior officer corps being forced into exile.
In addition, post-victory support for secular and West-leaning elements among the protesting masses has delayed or prevented a rapid consolidation of power by new regimes. Liberalism and human rights are good, but anarchy is bad.
The emergent regimes in the Arab world, unlike their Iranian precursor, have had to navigate their way to consolidation with the old military and security structures still in place, along with the previous regime’s judges and favored business associates. They have had to do this while assuring hand-wringing on-lookers that they are sensitive to the position of minorities and women, observant of every aspect of human rights, fully democratic, and opposed to any sort of religious favoritism.
The regimes that were overthrown in the Arab Spring, of course, experienced none of these limitations. Indeed, they regularly abused or scoffed at them while the Western powers that now express such concern looked on in virtual silence.
The Iranian revolutionaries also made light of liberal concerns. Their actions displeased women and minorities. They closed universities and newspapers. And they crafted an electoral system that falls well short of being fully democratic.
However, they got the job done. While foreign onlookers did little more than stand idly by and make plaintive noises, they built a regime that worked.
When internal opposition arose in the form of the Mojahedin-e Khalq organization, the regime ruthlessly suppressed it. When Iraq invaded, with at least tacit American support, the regime rallied the nation to resist. The Islamic Republic of Iran has now been in existence for 34 years, almost half as long as the Soviet Union, and no sober specialist expects it to collapse soon.
It is too late for the Western powers to prevent the entrenchment of the pre-Arab Spring elites in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. The same may eventually prove true for Syria. Only in Libya has the old regime fully fallen. With or without the old power-brokers, however, continuing chaos is the rule.
It is not too late to retreat from unachievable, foreign-engineered, political agendas focused on minorities, human rights, and democratic process. But can the West stomach the emergence of new regimes that may prove as imperfect as the Islamic Republic of Iran?
The answer may be no. But this is an answer that assures many more years of chaos without much promise of a liberal, rights-friendly outcome at the end of the road. See post-Saddam Iraq for a comparison.
The alternative is to pull back, if it is not too late, and let each country’s citizens consolidate matters in their own way. So far, this has been the Western strategy in Syria, but pressures to intervene are growing.
Would a retreat produce, or not prevent the rise of, a stifling Islamic religious regime? Perhaps, but the Arab Islamists are less unified than the Iranians were. Would it produce new military dictatorships? Perhaps, but probably only for brief periods before elections resume.
The greater likelihood is that workable elective systems will emerge more rapidly in each country if foreign cajoling, prodding, and intervention diminish. Will these regimes satisfy the liberal aspirations of every constituency? Almost certainly not.
However, an imperfect regime is better than no regime at all. Richard Bulliet is Professor of History at Columbia University and author of Islam: The View from the Edge and The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization. Copyright © 2013 Richard Bulliet – distributed by Agence Global