Out of breath
November 6, 1997
What is the likelihood that the Islamic fundamentalist revolutionary wave will collapse? Despite concern on the part of Western governments and media over the prospect that it will expand, a growing number of scholars are predicting this wave's ultimate collapse.
Some of these predictions focus on Iran, the central revolutionary regime within the Islamic fundamentalist wave. According to Laurent Lamote, "Popular support for the Islamic republic is being eroded, and the republic's legitimacy undermined... All available information indicates that the state apparatus is at a loss: it knows it is heading for a crisis that could be fatal to it, but it is unable to make the necessary decisions."
Fred Halliday predicted that the Islamic revolutionary experiment in Iran might come to an end "in a way roughly comparable to what had happened in the communist countries."
[There were] four general preceding conditions present in the central revolution of both the Arab nationalist and the Marxist-Leninist waves before their collapse: economic failure, military stalemate with states outside the revolutionary wave, rivalry within the revolutionary wave, and a general loss of faith in the revolutionary ideology in the states where revolution had occurred. Three of these four general preceding conditions have emerged in the central revolution of the Islamic fundamentalist wave.
Despite enormous oil reserves, Iran has faced increasing economic problems since its revolution. The basic problem, as Nora Boustany explained, is that "Iran's population has swelled from 30 million to 60 million since the 1979 revolution, while oil revenue has plummeted almost to one-third that it was."
In addition to a high level of defense expenditures, especially during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, the populist economic policies which the regime instituted shortly after coming to power has been a large drain on Iran's resources.
Iran has also experienced a dual military stalemate with states outside the Islamic revolutionary wave. First, although Tehran succeeded in pushing Iraqi forces out of most of the Iranian territory they occupied relatively early on in the Iran-Iraq War, the Islamic republic failed to bring about the downfall of Saddam Hussein -- which was one of the conditions that Ayatollah Khomeini declared must be fulfilled for Iran to end the war. After many years of failing to defeat Saddam Hussein's forces on Iraqi territory at an enormous cost in terms of Iranian lives, Khomeini finally agreed to end the war without having achieved this goal.
Second, even after the Iran-Iraq War, Iran can be described as being in a military stalemate with other powers in the Persian Gulf region as well as the United States. After Iran spent about 20 percent of its GDP on the military during the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran has continued to devote a very high portion of its GDP (variously estimated at 10 to 15 percent) to defense, notwithstanding the country's dire economic problems.
Yet despite this effort, Iran is now in a weaker military position vis-a-vis its own main regional rivals than it was under the Shah. As Shahram Chubin wrote, "Compared to its inventory in 1979, Iran today has fewer aircraft, ships, tanks, and helicopters. Its relative position in the region is weaker as Saudi Arabia has modernized and expanded its forces, while even Iraq after Desert Storm is still stronger than Iran, compared to its much weaker position numerically and qualitatively in 1979."
Third, there have been increasing signs of loss of faith in the Islamic fundamentalist revolutionary ideology among the Iranian populace. One such sign has been the occurrence of anti-government protest in a number of Iranian cities during the 1990s. Further, there have been reports that officers within the Iranian armed forces, including the Revolutionary Guards, have signalled their unwillingness to "order their troops into battle to quell civil disorder" [as noted by Nora Boustany].
Another sign of the loss of faith in the regime's ideology is the increasing popularity within Iran of an alternative ideology -- Islamic democracy -- advocated by the Islamic philosopher, Abdolkarim Soroush. Parick Clawson noted that while there is "no credible challenge from any opposition force" to the Islamic republic, "There is no important social group that would come to the defense of this regime were it threatened, nor does the regime have the support of a repressive apparatus that can keep it in power against popular discontent."
There is some evidence of a loss of confidence in elements of Khomeini's Islamic fundamentalist ideology within the ranks of the Iranian clergy. [According to Robin Wright] "Large numbers of clerics are now against the clergy in power. They now think it was a mistake to take government office."
There has been a struggle within the leadership between those clerics who advocate continued clerical control over the economy and those, like [former] President Rafsanjani, who have advocated free-market reforms. But as Ervand Abrahamian has pointed out, the defense of private property in the economic sphere actually serves to justify authoritarianism in the political sphere in Khomeinist political thought.
If the Islamic fundamentalist revolutionary wave is going to collapse in the same way as the Arab nationalist and Marxist-Leninist ones did, it must first expand significantly before it can experience the type of crisis that would lead to the central revolution abandoning this role.
There is no guarantee, of course, that the Islamic fundamentalist revolutionary wave will experience this type of crisis. Indeed, given the serious problems that it is experiencing, there is a distinct possibility that the Iranian revolutionary regime will collapse, or somehow become derevolutionary, before the occurrence of many more -- perhaps even any more -- Islamic fundamentalist revolutions.
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About the author
Mark N. Katz is Associate Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University.