Despite the authoritarian nature of many Iranian institutions, the ruling elite have long agreed on a certain process for managing their differences. This process is still in effect today and is playing a major role in the country by allowing for a certain amount of political dynamism on the top and, therefore, for a certain amount of hope for survival, if not of the Islamic regime itself then of the country.
Indeed, Elections in the Islamic Republic, presidential or parliamentary, can still bring about surprises. This gives a certain wiggling room for Iran in its dealings with both international pressures and growing internal contradictions. The Khatami experience, however, has clearly demonstrated that reform cannot be taken for granted within the current structure and that setbacks along the way of reform are not simply possible, but perhaps even inevitable.
Still, and for all the restrictions and manipulations that still take place, so long as there is room for genuine popular choice to play a part in the choosing of the country’s leadership, so long as there is room for surprises to take place in the elections, presidential, parliamentary and/or municipal, hope for change and reform cannot be ruled out, and Iran’s government will still have an ability to maneuver. Indeed, the Iranian regime may not have a breaking point, and for this reason, it might still be able to hold the country together, for all the problems currently taking place in certain parts of it.
The same cannot be said of many Arab countries, where leaders have shown a colossal lack of flexibility and pragmatism in the way they run their countries’ affairs. Indeed, the political structures and processes currently in effect in many parts of the Arab World, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria, are so rigid and the leadership so corrupt and inept that any attempt at change or modification, no matter how minimal, is often seeing as threatening to bring down the entire system.
Indeed, Arab regimes and societies seem to be structured in such a way that leaves no room for gradual and manageable change and reform to be introduced. There is, however, a breaking point here that, once reached, allows for the people involved to start all over again, albeit avoiding passed mistakes is not guaranteed. Even Lebanon, for all its “democratic” institutions, has not proven immune to this.
Arab regimes and societies, then, have no room for internal maneuvering. Their ability to maneuver during the Cold War was based on three basic elements, all of which are externally derived: playing one side against the other in the ongoing confrontation between the US and the USSR, using the Arab-Israeli Conflict as a diversionary measure and appealing to the Arab national sentiments of the majority. This latter element is external in origin on account of the fact that the Arab nationalist dream, in its nature, transcends the existing borders of each separate Arab country and locates the solution of each country’s problems outside these borders.
After the end of the Cold War, Arab regimes played on the remaining two cards to avoid dealing with issues of internal reforms and, as such, avoid reaching the breaking point. But the US-led invasion of Iraq and the passing of Arafat have introduced a new set of regional realities that made these last two cards simply unusable.
Under both international and internal pressures, the Palestinian authority is currently engaged in its own process of internal reforms, while the situation in Iraq over the last decade has exposed the illusory nature of Arab nationalist aspirations. Arab regimes stood against Saddam during the First Gulf War, they let Iraqi children die and Iraqi people starve during the sanctions period, and they are only critical of US policies today because they fear for their own survival.
The Arab people today are simply too well-informed about the issues to continue to be fooled by their leaders, and they are too disillusioned to continue to be willingly blind. Still, most Arab regimes remain inflexible and very few have been able to show any real political reforms, that is, the kind of reforms that can allow for some electoral surprises to take place in their countries.
So, what are the chances for survival of such rigid institutions in these unipolar times when external pressures are mounting and internal contradictions are resurfacing? – Is it still enough for the regimes to simply undertake some decorative changes and/or consolidate their hold on power for things to go their way? Or, will new grassroots dynamism pull the rug from under them?
Those who are still skeptical about the possibility of an eruption in the Arab Street should bear in mind that the only stopgap measure remaining in the hands of the regimes is direct oppression. They are no longer in a position to produce the necessary decorative reforms that can keep their people at bay. Satellite technology has undercut their ability in this regard. Moreover, the economic problems which many parts of the Arab countries are facing are simply too serious to allow for the success of superficial approaches, while the leaders are too incompetent to envision and implements serious reforms.
The dynamism witnessed on the grassroots level, on the other hand, is mostly atavistic in nature and is simply waiting for the right spark.