Repression 101--when does it work?

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The history of repression to save regimes — or at least their leaders — is long. And every case is different: Some regimes are brittle in the face of popular pressure while others are supple in adapting to it; some can use nationalism as their trump card, while for others, it is an Achilles’ heel. And if some regimes are simple tyrannies, the structure of Iran’s political system is especially complex and opaque.

Still, a common thread is clear: It is the security services on which the regime’s fate ultimately hinges. If they decide their best interests lie with the powers that they have protected, and that have protected them, they will stick it out. If they decide they are more likely to prosper under new leadership, power can collapse at the speed of a show trial.

There are a lot of gradations along that scale.

Twenty years ago this month, many inside and outside of China who witnessed Tiananmen Square confidently predicted the beginning of the end for the Communist Party. They were wrong. Two decades later the party itself has changed radically enough — tossing aside its revolutionary ideology and replacing it with a social compact built on stupendous annual economic growth — that it remains secure, with its grip on power as solid as ever....

Reach back a bit further in history, though, to the Solidarity uprisings in Poland in the early 1980s, and the lesson is different. There, at first, repression also worked. The security forces, part of the Warsaw Pact, were called on to enforce martial law and remained loyal to a government firmly in the Soviet Union’s orbit. But over a decade’s time the regime’s hold on power — and on the soldiers’ loyalties — eroded as union workers, intellectuals, a pope and eventually even the security forces lost all confidence in a government that they viewed as illegitimate.

Part of the reason the regime proved vulnerable was that Poles themselves saw it as a foreign implant. So when the Soviet Union began to fall apart, the security forces recognized that their own patron was heading for the rocks. They made a strategic (some might say survival) decision to back whatever government the people chose.

That was the beginning of a swift end. But the model doesn’t really fit Iran. The mullahs may be many things — fundamentalist, intolerant, even vote fixers — but their trump card is that they are Iranian to core, and that their own revolution 30 years ago ejected an autocrat whose chief supporter abroad was the United States.

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