A scene from the Soviet past may help explain some aspects of the current situation in Iran despite the different theaters and circumstances.
In the last week of February 1986, the world turned its attention to the Kremlin, on the occasion of the 27th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party.
The world was eagerly awaiting the first wide-scale appearance of the party’s secretary-general, Mikhail Gorbachev. The party’s seniors, were forced to resort to him a year before, after losing hope with the successive funerals of aging leaders.
I was among the journalists who came to Moscow to cover the event. Everything was suggesting strength in the big arena. The “Kremlin boy” sat on a podium, where top leaders of Eastern Europe and allied and friendly countries were gathered, including Fidel Castro and Mengistu Haile Mariam. Party members from all over the world, with generals from the socialist camp loaded with medals, were sitting in the hall.
The empire was armed to the teeth and Lenin had enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times. No one ever imagined that the Soviet Union would disappear from the map five years later, and that the Red Army and the KGB would not succeed in repelling its death.
At that conference, Gorbachev, aware of the aging of the regime, launched two magic words: transparency and reconstruction, with the purpose of reconciling with the realities of the times. The fossilized system could not tolerate an attempt to develop from within. Opening this window was like attracting the storm that pushed the system to its rubble.
On the sidelines of the conference, a Moscow-based colleague told me that the security services had launched a harsh campaign weeks ago to drive beggars out of the streets of Moscow. The state neither recognizes the existence of Soviet beggars seven decades after the victory of the revolution, nor does it want visitors and comrades to see begging scenes.
I was struck by this subject, especially when I saw the police rushing to expel an old woman, who was trying to sell a bar of soap to someone in the queues waiting to visit the Lenin shrine. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it became clear that it fell more because of economic failure than by the absence of freedoms. It also fell because the average citizen no longer believed the stiff vocabulary of the official dictionary. Moreover, the Soviet Union expanded to a level that exceeded the economy’s capacity, by financing allies and proxies.
The Iranian revolution came from a different dictionary than that of the Bolshevik revolt. Its starting points are different, as are its mechanisms and references. But that does not preclude some comparisons. The Russian revolution aspired to a major coup d'état at the global level. The Iranian revolution dreamed of organizing a major coup against the balances that existed in the region. The former engaged shaking entities across the borders, while the second was incorporated as a fixed clause in the constitution.
The first claimed to be seeking to build a new human being, and the second almost pretended the same.
The first infiltrated the maps through the communist parties. The second intervened through sectarian relations or opposition platforms. The first moved its guns, recorded new conquests in the world and increased its burdens. The second went to catch four Arab capitals, and its burdens also augmented. The former practiced a policy of destabilization and wars through proxies, which the second did not hesitate to practice.
The first deliberately attempted to set fire to the American flag, and the second ignited the line of contact with the “Great Satan.”
The divorce in the Soviet Union between the revolution and the new generations is evident in Iran today. This divorce is exacerbated by the flow of information, news and images as a result of the communications revolution.
In recent weeks, protests in Iraq and Lebanon have raised the subject of the Iranian thread that is strongly present in the two capitals.
Tehran has succeeded in exporting its influence to some countries in the region, but has been unable to export a successful model of economic management.
Because of Iran’s strong presence in decision-making positions in Baghdad and Beirut, it seemed that the demand for a modern and natural state in both countries would inevitably mean curbing Tehran’s grip on both countries.
But the issue looked further complicated when the protests reached Iran, which was believed to be far from the current wave.
It is not the first time that Iranians have taken to the streets to express their anger and disappointment. Iran witnessed protests in 2017, but succeeded in suppressing them, dispersing protesters and circumventing their demands. Before that, it witnessed the “Green Movement” in 2009 after Ahmadinejad won a second term.
But what is new is that Iran is going through the worst economic crisis since the revolution, because of the re-imposition of US sanctions following Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal.
The crisis is worsened by the waning European role, on which Iran was betting to compensate for the American exit.
It is clear that the Iranian regime, which refused to understand the messages behind the protests in Iraq and Lebanon, categorically refuses to listen to the demands of the Iranian protesters.
Iranian officials were quick to talk of intended harm directed by external forces to justify the suppression of protests. Difficulties in Iran are serious and real. They threaten its economy and its ability to pursue its role in the region. It is hard to believe that the country will recognize that the transition from revolution to a normal state is inevitable to avoid the collapse or the endless clashes. Iran, in response, could run forward by igniting external fires.
Revolutions become weary with no real relevance to the new generations, unless the figures can confirm that people’s lives have improved under them.
The Soviet Union invaded space and aimed its missiles at all continents, but fell into the internal battle of numbers.
Slogans can no longer convince the average citizens to tighten the belt again and again. They are asking about their right to a better life, their income and retirement. They no longer believe the figures of the five-year plan nor the results of the ritualistic elections.
When it is impossible for the citizens to express their discontent in public for fear of repression, they resort to forms of negative resistance at work and become cynical.
The party’s attractiveness recedes, and brainwashing strategies falter.
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