Trudy Rubin: Iran's regime may be more fragile than it appears

The Soviet Union appeared powerful in 1990, too, but collapsed months later

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I felt a sense of deja vu as I watched televised scenes of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad exhorting a huge crowd on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution. Members of Iran's "Green" opposition were hardly visible, leading many to conclude that the protest movement had been crushed.

Yet my mind flashed back to 1990, when I stood on a Moscow reviewing stand and watched Mikhail Gorbachev address a huge crowd in Red Square during May Day celebrations. Who could have imagined that 20 months later the Soviet government would cease to exist?

Could it be that, one or two years hence, Iran's Islamic Republic will meet the same fate?

Of course, the differences between Iran and the then-fading Soviet Union are many. But first, let's consider the similarities.

The huge crowd in Tehran's Azadi Square included tens of thousands of government workers bused to the scene. Compulsory attendance was combined with a free lunch and a workers' holiday, just as with the old May Day parades in Moscow - not exactly a good measure of the regime's strength.

Members of the opposition, which arose after rigged presidential elections in June, were kept out of the square by a massive police presence, augmented by armed militia goons who blocked streets for miles, and beat and arrested demonstrators. For good measure, the government also shut down the Internet.

"If people were allowed to freely assemble, there would have been crowds upward of five million in Tehran, and millions more in places like Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashad, and Tabriz," said the Carnegie Endowment's Karim Sadjadpour. To repeat, you can't judge the government's popularity by the number of people in Azadi Square on Feb. 11 (or in Red Square in May 1990, where the military was everywhere).

Nor could you judge the Iranian government's strength by Ahmadinejad's boasts about Tehran's military prowess, or by his inflated claims that Iran was already a "nuclear power" and had enriched uranium to 20 percent - a serious step toward the 90 percent enrichment required for weapons. (Iran insists, implausibly, that its enrichment program is only for energy purposes).

Independent nuclear experts said last week that Iran's nuclear program had suffered serious technical setbacks, which could delay, though not halt, the program.

Moreover, Ahmadinejad never mentioned his serious economic problems at home. On his watch, inflation has soared and foreign investment has dropped under the pressure of international sanctions. Lower oil prices have revealed the fecklessness of his widespread use of food and fuel subsidies that he must now cut - which risks alienating large segments of the public. All this is reminiscent of the last days of the Soviet Union, whose economic problems brought on its demise.

But here's where there are important differences between Iran and the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev knew that, behind the showy facade at Red Square, the government was in economic trouble. He recognized that the educated elite was restless and no longer believed in the system. He tried to win them over with more political openness and media freedom - his famous program of glasnost. He chose compromise rather than the gun.

But Ahmadinejad seems oblivious to Iran's economic crisis, perhaps because of his religious beliefs or because his military backers, the Revolutionary Guards, are raking in big bucks from the current system. Moreover, he and his benefactor, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appear to have ruled out any political compromise, fearful that it would signal weakness. Instead, they have resorted to mass arrests, torture, rape and even the hanging of political prisoners.

Yet they so far have held back from large-scale killings, apparently recognizing that their legitimacy is shaky; they know mass murder would further undermine it. This indicates cracks in the self-confidence of the government.

If Iran's opposition can hold firm to its demands for human and civil rights, the government's self-confidence may be shaken further, leading to more internal political splits. At that point, new possibilities will open up.

The Obama administration should continue to endorse and rally international support for Iranians' human rights. And if the government continues to stonewall on its nuclear program, intensified sanctions targeting the country's military and rulers will exacerbate its economic woes.

Sanctions won't bring the government to its knees, nor is there any sign that Iran's long-suffering workers are ready to openly join the opposition. Yet targeted sanctions will remind Iranians of the government's failure to provide social and economic justice, and of Iran's isolation. At some point, a critical mass of mullahs, politicians and even military will recognize, as the Greens have, that Iran deserves better than the staged show at Azadi Square.


Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer ( trubin@phillynews.com ).


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