Iran’s System Keeps Its Grip, Despite the Chaos (or Because of It)

Since Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar was a child, he has heard confident predictions that the hard-line government of his home country, Iran, was doomed.

“There has been this conventional wisdom since the revolution that the regime will not survive,” he said. Even a few months into the revolutionaries’ 1979 takeover in Iran, “people said it would fall within a year.”

It was not a ridiculous belief. Iran’s new government faced isolation abroad, turmoil veering on civil war at home and a devastating war with neighboring Iraq.

But it has endured, and sometimes created, a string of crises of the sort that have felled far wealthier and deeper-rooted governments.

Today’s Iran seems a perfect recipe for instability. A disillusioned, sometimes furious public. An economy in shambles. Rife with corruption and mismanagement. Quagmired abroad. Internationally loathed. On Friday, it held a presidential election that much of the country boycotted, yet another blow to the legitimacy of a system that has suffered one such wound after another for three decades.

“And yet it survives,” said Dr. Tabaar, who now studies Iran’s political system at Texas A&M University.

That longevity has defied the assumptions of experts, foreign adversaries, Iran’s own citizens and, seemingly, the fundamental laws of history. As stabler-seeming governments falter or fall at a rising rate worldwide, the mystery has only deepened.

A growing body of scholarship may shed light on Iran’s against-all-odds resilience. New research finds that it belongs to a small club of nations whose systems have proven some of the most durable in the world: those formed out of violent social revolution.

They include Cuba and North Korea — two other American adversaries that frustrated decades of efforts to topple them — as well as China, Vietnam, Algeria and several others. Their average lifespan is nearly double that of other systems, and their odds of surviving beyond 30 years is nearly quadruple.

It is not that these countries are especially well governed or wisely led. In fact, in many of them, misery is common. But they do share a narrow set of traits that experts believe have hardened them against the forces that most imperil authoritarian governments.

Perhaps most striking, revolutionary systems have been largely unfazed by an era that is putting democracies and dictatorships alike in increasing turmoil. Understanding these outliers may help reveal why virtually every other system faces such instability.

Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist, stumbled on the trend with Lucan Way, of the University of Toronto, while working on a study of authoritarianism.

They realized that when Communist governments collapsed worldwide in 1989, of the five that survived, all were revolutionary states. Most that fell were not.

“Surviving the end of Communism is a pretty big deal,” Dr. Levitsky said.

And all five were still going, decades later, even as governments rose and fell all around them.

So were five other revolutionary states that were not Communist but proved similarly long-lived — most lasting more than a quarter-century.

Intrigued, the scholars crunched the data on every government worldwide since 1900. Over and over, they found, revolutionary systems lasted longer and survived crises that others did not. (This does not mean they last forever. The world’s most famous, the Soviet Union, made it an impressive 69 years — then imploded.)

Could it be that some other trait explained their longevity? No: Even controlling for factors like wealth, natural resources or government composition, the trend held.

They noticed something else: These countries experienced 72 percent fewer mass protests, attempted coups or fissures among the governing elite than other countries did. These are the leading causes of dictatorship death. It was like discovering a gene that slashed the risk of heart attack by three-quarters.

The scholars identified a handful of traits that explained this divergence.

The revolution itself, by definition, culminates with the root-and-branch destruction of the old order. Bottom-up organizations like the clergy or the merchant class, which could otherwise challenge the government’s hold on society, are mostly purged or sidelined. So are top-down institutions, like the military and the administrative bureaucracy.

The revolution may or may not be competent at administering every last function of state and society. But the process leaves it with no real rivals from within or below.

And that control usually extends to every level of the military and the security services, filled out by true believers. This all but removes risks of a coup or other breakdown — and makes leaders far bolder in using those forces to put down dissenters.

Revolutionary orders are also remarkably cohesive. There may be disagreements and power struggles. But they are among revolutionaries who are bought into the system as-is and, from dogcatcher to fleet commander, work to maintain it.

That shared commitment to the cause is usually solidified in the country’s first days. Since European monarchies battled revolutionary France, most revolutions have been followed by war, often against neighboring countries. Faced with a foreign threat, even a divided society will often unify in defense of the cause. And it will reconstitute itself, from the ashes of revolutionary turmoil, around a wartime solidarity and discipline that can shape the new society for generations.

The 1979 uprising brought all these traits in spades. Its leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, smashed the old order in its entirety, installing revolutionary institutions that were modestly capable but ideologically fervent.

And it faced near-immediate war with neighboring Iraq, backed by countries that feared the revolution’s spread. Revolutionary leaders, the military and the security services unified — and exploited the moment to purge rivals and dissenters across society.

The revolution was expected to succumb to infighting when Khomeini died in 1989. Disagreements would spill into the open. Military services, severed from their leader, would grow independent. Citizens would demand fuller democracy. But the movement retained deep roots across institutions and social organizations, keeping them united.

“It’s not despite these crises but actually precisely because of them that the regime survives,” Dr. Tabaar said.

Ever since, he said, observers have mistaken moments of turmoil in Iran — a bitter power rivalry in the 1990s, the Green Movement protests in 2009 — as a sign of the system coming apart.

“In reality, this kind of elite fragmentation only strengthens the resilience of the system as a whole,” he said.

Each episode ended with the country’s most powerful leaders and institutions rallying behind the status quo order, a public demonstration of their unity, and with challengers sidelined.

And while Iran is unusual in one way — it includes a modest touch of democracy, which opens room for both public dissent and political factionalism — this may not be as compromising as it seems.

“There is real serious competition, real serious differences,” Dr. Levitsky said. “But it’s all within factions that are revolutionary.”

Most politicians, even those who advocate deep reform or lose in manipulated contests, remain bought into the system.

Still, though this week’s election has brought little protest, the specter of mass unrest and political crisis hangs over each vote, especially those seen as rigged.

But Iran may be the exception that proves the rule. Where it diverges from the revolutionary norm, it sees greater instability and challenges within. But, beneath the surface, it is a textbook case, which may be why, after 42 years and nearly as many national crises, it has stayed surprisingly durable.

This persistence is a warning to those hoping for a Cuban or Iranian downfall. It may also shed light on why virtually every other sort of government faces growing instability.

The features that define revolutionary orders — strong institutionalization, societal unity, political cohesion — are declining worldwide.

That may be why a form of government that resembles the exact opposite of those traits is on the rise: strongman rule.

“The single dictator, not institutionalized, no monopoly control over society,” Dr. Levitsky summarized. “They last eight, 10 years, 12 years. They have a crisis, they fall. They get old and they fall.”

Today’s world is hospitable to strongmen, or at least their rise. Democratic norms are faltering, populist sentiment is rising, institutions are weakening. Some are installed by force. More are elected within shaky democracies that they promptly corrupt.

All lack the society-wide infrastructure of a revolutionary movement. They are vulnerable to swings in sentiment and institutions like the military, the judiciary or their own party.

This may be why many try to reproduce revolutions from above. Some even call it that. But most fail, in the process provoking their own ouster. Even successes usually collapse on the leader’s departure.

This has lessons for democracies, too, as they struggle under a worldwide trend that, strangely, may help revolutionary states.

“The kind of polarization that is threatening to wreck many democracies probably ends up reinforcing revolutionary regimes,” Dr. Levitsky said. The right kind, portraying dissenters as a threat, can keep ruling classes unified in opposition.

When he and his co-author began tracking such governments a decade ago, Dr. Levitsky said, they identified 10. Since then, democracies he’s followed in a separate project have come and gone. So have strongmen, at an even faster clip.

But the list of revolutionary states is totally unchanged. “They’re still there,” he said.

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