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Why Do Americans Underestimate the Iranian Government?

By Taylor Marvin

The New York Times recently published a problematic fluff piece that takes a speculative look at how national borders could change in the future, predicting 11 major border changes in the near future. It hard to know how seriously to take these predictions; while authors Frank Jacobs and Parag Khanna argue that “we appear on the brink of [a] nation-state baby boom” they decline to go into the specifics of their forecasts at all. Stephen Saideman runs through the list and casts doubt on nearly all of Jacobs and Khanna’s forecasts.

In their entry on the prospect of a ‘Greater Azerbaijan’, Jacobs and Khanna mention offhand that “Iran has the potential to dominate the region, but it is also at risk of internal implosion.” As Saideman notes, this “risk” isn’t likely at all — Iran has no major successions movements, and is governed by a stable and reasonably domestically popular regime. But this offhand remark is interesting because, beyond being simply ill-informed, it reflects the common belief among foreign policy-minded Americans that the Iranian regime is on the cusp of collapse. While the recent removal of the cultish Iranian opposition militia group MEK from the US State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations is partially due to MEK’s propensity to pay off the influential, it is difficult to argue that the group would have found such a receptive audience in Washington if policymakers didn’t seem to believe that its delusional quest to overthrow the government of Iran had a chance of succeeding.

On a similar note, policymakers in Washington and the American media continue to misunderstand the 2009 Iranian Green Movement, and continue to believe that it was a violent revolutionary movement that failed to overthrow the government only because the Obama administration was too cowardly to arm it. As Daniel Larison has repeatedly noted, the Movement’s protesters were offended by an unfair election, not the supremacy of the unelected supreme leadership itself, and the Green Movement was never the revolutionary force American neoconservatives fantasized it to be. The regime itself remains broadly popular within Iran, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s brand of combatively self-assured populism is generally well received by conservative and rural audiences. Contrary to these beliefs, Iran is not a failed state, its government faces no major internal security threats, and the history of the Green Movement does not suggest that a mass popular uprising is only waiting on American support to sweep away the regime and usher in an America-friendly democracy.

If the perception of a weak regime is incorrect, why is it so prevalent in Washington and the American media? Partially due to neoconservatives’ own biases — they want the same kind of democratic uprising in Iran as they fantasized would erupt in Iraq after an American-led invasion. As any reasonable observer must realize that there’s no way to overthrow the government at an acceptable military cost without the cooperation of the Iranian population, hawkish advocates of regime change need an unstable regime and revolutionary populace to even pretend their schemes are workable. Many American commenters also (reasonably) favor their own democracy, and have trouble recognizing that authoritarian governments can be just as successful at attracting the nationalistic loyalty of their own citizens as democratic ones; this bias is at least partially responsible for the ridiculous idea that Iranian citizens would respond to bombing by helpfully overthrowing their government, not raging against the people killing their neighbors. Another possible bias: while the Iranian diaspora in the US isn’t particularly politically influential, prominent Iranian-Americas tend to come from prosperous families that fled the country immediately after the fall of the Shah’s government and can be expected to be more opposed to the current government than the average Iranian living in Iran, affecting American policymakers’ own assessment of the regime’s stability.

Americans tend to view authoritarian states as either monolithic titans [today: China] or wobbly edifices on the verge of democratic revolution. Of course, the truth tends to fall between these two extremes. But underestimating the governing capacity of the Iranian regime and misunderstanding its internal politics is dangerous because it breeds strategies dependent on these misconceptions’ accuracy. Many Americans likely wouldn’t mind if Iran suffered an “internal implosion” but it isn’t likely to happen, and the widespread belief that it is is a recipe for bad policies.

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