Wishful thinking on Iran?

I think it’s terrific that so much of the blogosphere is supporting the pro-democracy movement in Iran and trying to bring it to the attention of the rest of the world.

But I’m starting to think that a lot of the excitement is based on wishful thinking. Some bloggers– perhaps too accustomed to the instant gratifications of cyberspace– seemed to expect an instant revolution on July 9. And I wasn’t exempt from the hopes about what would happen yesterday. It was as if we thought we could somehow will something good to happen in Iran. And so, perhaps, we managed to convince ourselves (or allowed ourselves to be convinced) that the situation there was a lot more “revolutionary” than it really was.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has an excellent web site which provides weekly updates on events in Iran, Iraq and many other countries. They offered a common-sense advisory about what to expect on July 9. For instance:

The unrest of June 2003 did not reach the level of that which occurred in July 1999. And the events of July 1999, November 2002, or June 2003 are not comparable in scale to those of June 1963 or September 1978, when millions of people filled the streets of Tehran and other cities.

The students’ current activism attracts a lot of media attention, but there are only 1.2 million university students in Iran, out of a total population of some 66.6 million… Nor are all students opposed to the regime. Some have withdrawn from political activism, some were not politically active to begin with, and others are members of the University Basij and are, in fact, supporters of the regime…

The government also employs something akin to the “bread and circuses” of ancient Rome to control dissent. Commodities such as cooking oil, meat, rice, and bread are available at subsidized prices, and gasoline prices are among the cheapest in the world. The country’s unemployment rate is estimated to be over 20 percent, and hiring quotas for veterans’ families and a privileged few serve to exacerbate the situation. Competitions serve as a distraction, with prizes for top students, awards for the best wives of disabled veterans, and Koran recital competitions, to name a few. Iran’s national passion for soccer is no secret, but more esoteric sports, such as archery and karate, are regularly shown on television and reported on by newspapers.

What this suggests is that– as bad as economic conditions in Iran are– these government subsidies may be helping to keep a lid on a genuine mass uprising for now.

I do think real democracy will come to Iran. And bloggers and others should do everything in their power to encourage it. But let’s be realistic about how much we can do and how much is simply out of our control.