Pulpit Bulls

Policy, Politics, and What's In Between

Revolution in Iran and the J-Curve

Posted by Eric on June 16, 2009

The-J-CurveAs protests and unrest ripple through Iran, the theocratic regime’s future is beginning to look uncertain. In yesterday’s Times, Ross Douthat wonders if the economic instability created by the world recession may provide a ripe foundation for revolution in Iran. Douthat muses that though the global downturn was a product of Western Democratic capitalism, “it hasn’t turned into a crisis for democracy and capitalism, because nobody has a plausible alternative.”

I think there may be some truth there. Anyway, with all this revolution talk it seems like an opportune time to mention Ian Bremmer’s book The J Curve, where Bremmer posits that revolutions generally occur during a transitionary period of more political openness (see the chart on the left). Bremmer argues that governments collapse when they cannot absorb “shocks”, which could range from things like an oustide military assualt, an economic collapse or a leadership crisis of legitimacy — as we are seeing in Iran. He contends that authoritarian regimes can absorb shocks when there is little openness and complete state control (think Saddam’s Iraq or Kim’s North Korea) or a lot of openness and political and economic freedom (think almost any Western nation). The middleground is where things get shaky.

Iranian access to media and social networking technologies like Twitter and Facebook along with their quasi-democratic institutions would seem to place the Persian nation into this unstable transitionary period. One could imagine the current rejection of fradualant election results coupled with economic unrest over Iranian stagflation developing into what Bremmer believes to be a regime-crippling shock. Although in his book, Bremmer asserts that Iran — with their natural gas resources, proximity to European markets, and skilled and educated populace — has the preconditions to effectively survive a move to the left of the j-curve.

But what we are seeing now is a regime dead-set against those reforms. They are pushing their country to back to the right-side of the curve in direct confrontation with a populace that wants to go to the left. This is dangerious territiory. Still, Iran has survived a devastating war, economic sanctions, and previous riots. But again, the current unrest is palpable and a collapse of the regime isn’t that far-fetched.

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