Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh is an historian and commentator on world affairs. His 12 books include The Third Reich: A New History (Samuel Johnson Prize 2001) ; Moral Combat; Small Wars and Faraway Places and The Best of Times, Worst of Times: The World As It Is which appears in November.


Early modern Anglicans were rightly cool towards various puritans and zealots who they dismissed as ‘enthusiasts’. Foreign policy is one of the few areas where ‘enthusiasm’ endures in Britain, from Gladstone’s condemnation of (Turkey’s) ‘Bulgarian horrors’, via the bayonetted babies of WW1 Belgium, and on to solidarity with the ‘plucky little Kurds’ or persecuted Rohingyas and Tamils, even if that meant comprehending the oxymoronic phenomenon of militant Buddhism.

The trouble with enthusiasm is that it is often blind in one eye. Kurdish politics under the Barzani clan are deeply corrupt and nepotistic, and Iraq’s KRG harbours anti-Iranian and anti-Turkish terrorists – the PKK and PJAK – who cooperate with one another.

There is another example, which our pussy cat media has ignored and under-reported (UnHerd’s theme for this new year). Enthusiasts for Israel, a stalwart ally of the Kurds, have been very quiet about the anti-corruption demonstrations happening in Tel Aviv every weekend against the Likud regime of Benyamin Netanyahu and an oligarch class whose more unsavoury elements are very prominent in the new BBC TV organised crime drama McMafia. Far better to dwell on Tel Aviv as a kind of gay paradise or on an idealised Israel that no longer exists.

Those involved in these ‘marches of shame’ are not the usual leftist rent-a-mob either. They include former special forces chief (and ex-Likud defence minister) Moshe ‘Boogie’ Ya’alon and Ami Ayalon, former head of both Israel’s navy and Shin Bet, its domestic security service. Distinguished Mossad officers of my acquaintance have also broken off visits to London to attend the first demonstrations of their adult lives, on the grounds that David Ben Gurion would not have taken boxes of Cuban cigars and expensive suits from rich patrons, let alone colossal bribes from German submarine builder Krupps Thyssen, a scandal that has enveloped ten of Netanyahu’s inner circle of advisors1.

I mention this since supporters of Israel (and its new best friends Saudi Arabia and the UAE) have been especially vocal in calling for the overthrow of the Iranian Islamic Republic for reasons that have little to do with sympathy for the Iranians having to pay 40% more for eggs, after 17 million chickens had to die because of an outbreak of avian flu.

While President Rouhani wants to reintegrate Iran’s economy into the wider world, his hardline opponents regard prosperity as the thin end of the wedge for the abandonment of the puritanical mores of the Islamic Republic. They need the more reassuring world of Iran as a universal pariah since it ensures their dominance.
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The protests in Iran reflect similar concerns to people on the streets of Tel Aviv, while having uniquely Iranian characteristics, a nation with a long history of people taking to the streets in what is an imperfect – though lively -democracy subject to clerical dictation.

Although it will be some time before the full facts are known, it seems that Iranian conservatives linked to failed presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi sought to incite controlled protests against the reformist president Hassan Rouhani, which may explain why they began in Mashhad, a bastion of Shiite conservatism and home to the huge bonyad (clerical charity) called Astan Quds Razavi. Like any controlled fire, this one burned out of control, reaching  dozens of other provincial cities, or even an obscure hamlet where the police station was torched.

Ironically, the extreme untaxed wealth of such bonyads, along with the parallel vast and untaxed economic empire of the Revolutionary Guards, became one of the main objects of the protesters anger. That was eventually directed against Supreme Leader Ali Khameni, whose private office is another huge charitable vested interest with such assets as carpet manufacturers and canning factories. These clerical ‘charities’ came into existence to support widows and orphans from the murderous 1980-88 war with Saddam’s Iraq; the IRGC empire was designed to counterbalance the regular armed forces and to sustain a ‘resistance economy’ in the face of western sanctions – as well as foreign adventures in Syria and elsewhere which cost billions of dollars to sustain2.

The street protests were (and I use the past tense advisedly) also inextricably part of an ongoing power struggle within the fissiparous ruling elite regarding how the 2015 nuclear deal was supposed to play out in Iran.

While President Rouhani wants to reintegrate Iran’s economy into the wider world, his hardline opponents regard prosperity as the thin end of the wedge for the abandonment of the puritanical mores of the Islamic Republic. They need the more reassuring world of Iran as a universal pariah since it ensures their dominance. The trouble is, as with many regimes based on historic revolutionary credentials, the original emotional capital attenuates, as we can see from the Algerian FLN or the South African ANC. The 1979 revolution against the Shah – which the mullahs effectively highjacked – is ancient history to most Iranians, even though (paradoxically) this very youthful society is also one that is also the most rapidly  ageing in its near term projected demographic pyramid. As with China it faces a looming pensions crisis.

Iran, like all autocracies has been on what William Dobson dubbed ‘the dictator’s learning curve’ since 2009. Just as protest movements teach tactics to one another, adopting similar slogans such as ‘Enough!’, so the autocracies quietly share how to repress dissent, increasingly without bloodshed.
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Like earlier reforming presidents, Rouhani has to constantly watch his back for descending hawks waiting for him to stumble. Despite having won a landslide second term in May 2017, his main political vulnerability is that ordinary Iranians have seen few of the promised economic benefits of the 2015 JCPOA nuclear accord, for it matters little to them whether the regime purchases Airbus airliners. Rather, they want the government to tackle such problems as savings disappearing in dodgy pension schemes or the mismanagement of water that is turning the interior into a desert.  Nor has there been a huge wave of western investment since the US Treasury (and Congress) have found other reasons to maintain sanctions which deter western corporations, banks and insurers. Any windfall money has gone into ramping up oil production, costly foreign adventures and the IRGC’s ballistic missile programme. Actually, the quickest way to overthrow the regime would probably be to flood Iranian society with money with its uniquely disruptive properties3.

Worse, as in other oil and gas dependent economies in the region, low prices meant hard choices in last month’s Iranian budget, including the cessation of fuel and food subsidies, as well as the modest cash handouts introduced by the Ahmadinejad administration. By contrast, more money was granted to the clerical charities, whose affairs Rouhani has otherwise been seeking to render more transparent, along with the opaque interests of the Revolutionary Guard. Neither intends to go quietly into the night because of a naïve reformer.

The New Year protests were different from those of the ‘Green Revolution’ which followed the rigged election in 2009. Demands quickly escalated from the price of eggs to calls for the Supreme Leader to go, for the Pahlavis to return, and for Iran to scale down its external adventurism. The protests have no identifiable leaders and involved the peripheries rather than the capital. Exiled dissidents clearly used Instagram and Telegram, plus diffuse channels like AmadNews, to coordinate the protests. Doubtless hostile intelligence agencies have been meddling too, though probably not ours since Iran is useful in curbing the Afghan Taliban and sundry Sunni malefactors like ISIS.

But as was evident almost straightaway, a series of outbursts would never gain the momentum needed to overthrow a system, which like all autocracies has been on what William Dobson dubbed “the dictator’s learning curve” since 20094.  Just as protest movements teach tactics to one another, adopting similar slogans such as ‘Enough!’, so the autocracies quietly share how to repress dissent, increasingly without bloodshed.

A regime that has already put in place a Chinese-supplied Great Persian Firewall found it relatively easy to induce Telegram to filter messages. Unlike in 2009, the regime did not unleash the Basij militias, though the heavily armed IRGC has been deployed in three of the most restive provinces. Indeed, Rouhani was at pains to remind hardliners that the right to protest peacefully is guaranteed in article 27 of the Iranian constitution which reads: “Public gatherings and marches may be freely held, provided arms are not carried and that they are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam”.  Trying to walk that line will prove almost impossible. And nor can Rouhani quickly do much to rectify economic problems which are as much to do with the unique structures of the Islamic Republic as they are with factors which Iran shares with both autocracies and democracies in the region, like corruption, nepotism and oligarchy. We have plenty of that in the West, too.

FOOTNOTES
  1.  This Times of Israel report from Christmas Eve gives an insight to the ugly mood of some protestors.
  2.  This Reuters report from 2013 was one of the first to expose the riches of these clerical economic empires.
  3.  See David Goldman’s Asia Times piece from 3 January for some background on the country’s economic challenges; “The weight of banking, pension and water problems, plus its expensive military adventures, are dragging the country into a deep sense of malaise.”
  4.  William Dobson, The Dictator’s Learning Curve. Inside the Global Battle for Democracy (London 2012).