When we see the kinds of images that have been coming out of Iran over the past two weeks, we tend to think back to 1989 and Eastern Europe. Then, when people took to the streets and challenged their governments, those seemingly stable regimes proved to be hollow and quickly collapsed. What emerged was liberal democracy. Could Iran yet undergo its own velvet revolution?
It's possible but unlikely. While the regime's legitimacy has cracked -- a fatal wound in the long run -- for now it will probably be able to use its guns and money to consolidate power. And it has plenty of both. Remember, the price of oil was less than $20 a barrel back in 1989. It is $69 now. More important, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has pointed out, 1989 was highly unusual. As a historical precedent, it has not proved a useful guide to other antidictatorial movements.
The three most powerful forces in the modern world are democracy, religion and nationalism. In 1989 in Eastern Europe, all three were arrayed against the ruling regimes. Citizens hated their governments because they deprived people of liberty and political participation. Believers despised communists because they were atheistic, banning religion in countries where faith was deeply cherished. And people rejected their regimes because they saw them as imposed from the outside by a much-disliked imperial power, the Soviet Union.
The situation in Iran is more complex. Democracy clearly works against this repressive regime. The forces of religion, however, are not so easily aligned against it. Many, possibly most, Iranians appear to be fed up with theocracy. But that does not mean they are fed up with religion. And it does appear that the more openly devout Iranians -- the poor, those in rural areas -- voted for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
There is one way religion could be used against Iran's leaders, but it would involve an unlikely scenario: Were Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to issue a fatwa condemning Tehran from his base in Najaf, Iraq, it would be a seismic event, probably resulting in the regime's collapse. Remember, Sistani is Iranian, probably more revered in the entire Shiite world than any other ayatollah, and he is opposed to the basic doctrine of velayat-e faqih -- rule by a spiritual leader -- that created the Islamic Republic of Iran. His own view is that clerics should not be involved in politics, which is why he has steered clear of any such role in Iraq. But he is unlikely to publicly criticize the Iranian regime (though he did refuse to see Ahmadinejad when the latter visited Iraq in March 2008).
Nationalism is the most complex of the three forces. Over most of its history, the Iranian regime has exploited nationalist sentiment. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power by battling the shah, who was widely seen as an American puppet. Soon after the revolution, Iraq attacked Iran, and the mullahs again wrapped themselves in the flag. The United States supported Iraq in that war, ignoring Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons against Iranians -- something Iranians have never forgotten. The Bush administration's veiled threats to attack Iran over the past eight years allowed the mullahs to drum up support. (Every Iranian dissident, from Akbar Ganji to Shirin Ebadi, has noted that talk of air strikes on Iran strengthened the regime.) And it is worth remembering that the United States still funds guerrilla outfits and opposition groups that are trying to topple the Islamic Republic. Most of these are tiny groups with no chance of success, funded largely to appease right-wing members of Congress. But the Tehran government is able to portray this as an ongoing anti-Iranian campaign.
In this context, President Obama has been right to tread cautiously -- for the most part -- to extend his moral support to Iranian protesters but not get politically involved. The United States has always underestimated the raw power of nationalism across the world, assuming that people will not be taken in by cheap and transparent appeals against foreign domination. But look at what is happening in Iraq, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki boasts that U.S. troop withdrawals are a "a heroic repulsion of the foreign occupiers." Of course Maliki would not be in office but for those occupying forces, who protect his government to this day. A canny politician, though, he knows what will appeal to the Iraqi people.
Ahmadinejad is also a politician with considerable mass appeal. He knows that accusing the United States and Britain of interference works in some quarters. Our effort should be to make sure that those accusations seem as loony and baseless as possible. Were President Obama to get out in front, vociferously supporting the protests, he would be helping Ahmadinejad's strategy, not America's.
The writer is editor of Newsweek International and co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is email@example.com.