Realism on Iran: No Change Without Blood?

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 8:31 AM EDT

Wayne White, a former State Department intelligence analyst with expertise on Iran and Iraq, is enthused by the opposition movement in Iran, but he is a realist about its prospects and how far it must go to force--and he means force--change. Bottom-line: the autocrats of Iran will not yield as the Shah did during the 1979 revolution. White sadly notes it will take sacrifice and blood to topple the regime in Tehran.

Here's an email White circulated to colleagues on Wednesday night:

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Soon the situation in Iran could very well enter a new and considerably
more challenging phase for the opposition. Some believe, with waves of
arrests and rising violence on the part of the security forces and various
armed hardline elements working with them, that such a phase already has
begun, albeit somewhat incrementally.

This would be a phase in the struggle for greater freedom Iran in which
demonstrations and iPods of same would become relatively less important.
It would stem from a decision on the part of Iran's grimly determined
hardline ruling elite & its acolytes to forcefully and definitively crush
the opposition movement. Are they a bit rattled? Of course they are, but
that does not mean they would shrink from a fight they believe would be
crucial to their survival and the survival of what they feel so deeply
should be the more authoritarian future of Iran over which they would
continue to hold sway.

Some have commented on what so many of us recall: how a Shah, battered by
overwhelming popular opposition, gave up the fight at a certain point (in
part, because portions of his own security forces and military had done
likewise rather than participate in further bloodshed against the people).
In that instance, the street won, not an authoritarian order. In this
case, however, driven by levels of fanaticism unknown to the Shah or those
comprising his leadership (nor many of the imperial cadres bearing arms
for that regime), Jannati, Ahmadinejad and their ilk probably would not be
inclined similarly. While the Shah reportedly grew weary of intense
bloodletting, many of his more twistedly self-righteous and fanatical
successors might not have such limits. And even if they do, their
tolerance for pain and violence could well be far in excess of the Shah's.
If these people decided to hang on come what may, but Khamenei was
inclined to blink, they might even shove him aside or turn him into an
intimidated fellow traveller in order to press on with their own fight for
survival.

Such a phase of this great struggle would become far bloodier and more
physical than what we have witnessed to date. Probably as many as
hundreds of thousands of Ahmadinejad's compatriots might well be steeled
for such a bruising showdown. If this should come to pass (possibly a
bloody battle of attrition of sorts), the terrible question would be
whether hundreds of thousands of the more genuinely high-minded, less
brutish individuals making up the vast bulk of the opposition are
similarly prepared for such an ugly showdown. Also in the balance would
be the willingness of armed elements such as the regular army (much of
which probably harbors sympathies similar to those of the opposition), to
step in actively and lend a possibly critical and forceful hand.

PS: While tapping out the above I winced at several points myself at the
potential cost in lost life and sheer suffering, but I thought it was
necessary to warn of this possibility nonetheless.

In an email White sent to me on Thursday morning, he noted,

Along the lines of realism, one thing I've heard from a number of Iranian oppositionists is that in the absence of more forceful statements from the West--especially President Obama--they feel as if they are "alone."  The sad fact is that they are for the most part alone.  Although I believe the president has been a bit too restrained in his choice of words (particularly since the regime already is making accusations of foreign interference in any case), the opposition really is going to have to win this themselves on the ground.  No one is going to--or can--intervene effectively.

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