One of the issues missing from the Iranian election coverage and analysis is the discussion of how revolutions and other forms of political violence actually occur. This is a significant issue that is not concentrated on enough. I have been thinking about the topic for the past five or six weeks as it came up at a workshop I attended back in April when one of the presenters started talking about the root causes of insurgency. The Army, based on doctrine, defines every form of political violence short of interstate war as insurgency.
This includes civil wars, revolutions, insurgencies, guerilla actions, and terrorism. After the speaker laid out all the reasons that people engage in revolutions or insurgencies, I made the point that the root causes he identified exist in most portions of the world at varying levels of strength and severity. As such the much more important question is not why do people engage in revolutions or insurgencies, essentially denying the legitimacy of the state and its governing institutions and seeking to remake them in some other format. Rather the really important question is why don't the majority of people that find themselves living in these conditions revolt or take up arms or even just demonstrate? This is not necessarily an original question – it is the first line of criticism against both Davis' J-Curve and Gurr's Why Men Rebel theories. Moreover, it is the answer to this question of what is preventing action that is likely much more illuminating to our understanding of when these things occur; especially if the root causes are constant and consistent across most states and regions. One possible answer has to do with structural effects on the behavioral process. While behavior is learned and subsequently reinforced through observation of rewards and punishments in a constantly updating feed back loop this social learning is not occurring in a vacuum. Rather there has to be an opportunity to act and in many places there is either no perception or reality of opportunities to make a change.
While many informed observers of Iran would say that to have a revolution there, based on events from the 20th Century, the Religious class, the Merchant/Business Class, and the Students/Intelligentsia have to come together. As the Religious Class is now in charge, with a chunk of what had been the Student Class and Intelligentsia of the 1970s and 1980s, revolution of any sort would appear to be unlikely.
That said it may be that what we're seeing is the result of the populace feeling pushed to make a stand. In reality the lack of opportunity may be curvilinear; preventing revolution or other forms of political violence from occurring, but only up to a point. Once that point is passed, there will be an attempt to force an opening.
If this is the case, then it may not matter who the leadership of the movement is or what societal element it comes from. Once the tipping point has been crossed the attempt to force an opening for change will self reinforce and continue until or unless it is stopped. If this is in fact that case then the focus should really be on what has changed between 2005 and 2009? What is it that made all of the overt and covert manipulation of what is largely a sham democracy by the Religious Authorities who actually run things tolerable then, but intolerable now?
Adam L. Silverman, PhD is the Social Science Advisor for Strategic Communications for the US Army's Human Terrain System. The views presented here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army Human Terrain System, the US Army Training and Doctrine Command, or the US Army.