The parallels between June of 2009 in Teheran and event 20 years ago last month in Beijing are strong and unmistakable. A revolutionary regime moving into its middle years, the Islamic Republic is 30 years old this year, the People’s Republic was a few months shy of its 40th anniversary in June of 1989, facing a mass anti-regime movement which had important democratic aspects to it, used brutal force to crackdown on demonstrators and remain in power.
For Iran’s theocrats, the Tiananmen model must have seemed very appealing. Seen through the eyes of an authoritarian, Tiananmen was a success, one crackdown, and several hundred deaths helped keep the Chinese Communist regime in power for what has now been two decades. Given the number of authoritarian regimes which have collapsed in since 1989, the appeal of the Chinese model seems even clearer. For Iran, the lessons from other countries, for example, the Soviet Union, Chile or even several post-Soviet states, is that failing to crack down or trying to negotiate some kind of compromise ends with defeat. For the Iranian regime, based on these experiences, the decision was easy.
Teheran, however, is not Tiananmen. The Tiananmen option will not, in the long, or even medium, run work in Iran the way it did in China. The regime in Iran cannot use violence and intimidation to stay in power for a few more decades the way the Chinese regime did twenty years ago. The reasons for this are varied, but powerful. First, in 1989 China’s economy was in a period of ascendancy, the boom of the last decade or so had not fully begun, but life was getting better for millions of Chinese as the country was beginning to prosper. This is far from the case in Iran where Ahmadinejad has delivered economic stagnancy and recession. The Chinese were able to get away with crushing dissent in 1989, because they could claim some successes and rationale for continuing in power that are not available to the Iranian regime.
Second, while China was a strong authoritarian regime in 1989, it was not an international pariah in the same way Iran is. The Iranian regime has few friends in the west or even in the Sunni Muslim world. Regime change in China in 1989 would have raised a specter of regional instability and threatened many economic ties. This, of course, does not exactly apply to Iran. While regime change there could be destabilizing, it would be an instability that would be largely welcomed in the region and the world.
The scene in Tiananmen Square on June 4th, 1989 was horrific and frightening, but it also sent an unambiguous message that the Chinese state was strong. Soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) obeyed their orders and shot their own people. At that critical moment the Chinese state not only brutal and authoritarian, but it was highly functional. Discipline was maintained; orders were followed and order was quickly, if murderously, reinstalled.
The scenes in Teheran last month were quite different. The visual message the theocracy sent was one of disorder and chaos, not strength and order. The Basij who violently enforced the views of the leadership were disorganized seemingly combining the will of the state with random acts of violence and disruption. The Iranian state mustered nothing approaching the show of strength we saw in Beijing 20 years ago. The events of June, in fact, partially because they were precipitated by an election that was far from a vote of confidence for the status quo, but also because of the clumsiness and disorganization with which the demonstrations were repressed highlighted the weakness of the Iranian state.
Twenty years ago the Chinese regime violently repressed demonstrations in their capital. Last month, the Iranian regime did the same. To a great, extent, however, that is where the similarity ends. China in 1989 was becoming a more important world power, albeit as an authoritarian regime at a time when repressive walls all over the world were beginning to come down. Nonetheless, China’s economy was growing, as the country was becoming an increasingly important part of the global economic and political system.
Sadly, Tiananmen Square revealed the stability of China’s regime. Teheran in 2009 revealed the weakness of Iran’s revolutionary regime. The election and the crackdown were both sloppy and disorganized, underscoring the broad dissatisfaction of the people with the failure of the regime to deliver meaningful economic or political goods. In 1989, the Chinese Communists assured themselves decades more of power through a violent crackdown. Last month the theocrats in Iran sought to do the same, but did little more than show the world that their grip on power is much more tenuous than previously thought.