Our Enemies' Hollow Castles
We know that our side is doing poorly. What about the bad guys? Before we inscribe the likes of Khamenei, Putin, and Maduro in the lists of world-historical figures, and throw up our (outstretched) hands in despair, let's look at them with the jaundiced sneer they deserve.
Venezuela's the easiest: sustained anti-regime demonstrations have been running for more than three months, and seem unlikely to stop soon. Staples are in short supply, rationing cards are in the mail, inflation is at 40% and surging, gas stations are closed because there's no gas, and despite the usual brutality of state repression (widely blamed on Cuban "advisers" which recalls the role played by Russian and Iranian "advisers" in Syria), the demonstrators keep showing up. Few analysts think Maduro is likely to fall soon, but then again few expected the fall of the Ukrainian regime when challenged by the Maidan protesters.
Whatever your own crystal ball foretells, the regime is wobbly, the society is deeply riven, the opposition seems well organized and well led, and Maduro is certainly not in a position to play an effective role in the global anti-American alliance that stretches from Pyongyang to Managua and Havana by way of Moscow and Tehran. Venezuela's crisis significantly weakens our enemies.
Iran is at once the most difficult to see plain, and the clearest case of regime failure. Ben Weinthal recently asked rhetorically whether there is a rising wave of political protest in Iran. He pointed out that a considerable number of Iranians were cutting their hair--even shaving their heads--to protest the savaging of political prisoners in Evin Prison's infamous horror chambers. Ben's story struck a harshly dissonant international chord in the face of the extended chorus of praise that has serenaded Rouhani ever since his election last June.
Rouhani is a replay of the last Iranian "reformist" president, Mohammad Khatami, who failed miserably to reform anything, and whose only popular success was with Western dreamers in the political and academic clouds. Having lived through that phony reform, the Iranian people have little inclination to be gulled by the latest version, especially as they see the emptiness of Rouhani's promises every day. Nothing good is happening for them. You may have heard that the Iranian economy is "improving," but you'd have a hard time convincing the Iranian equivalent of Joe Sixpack of that. Things are getting tougher for them--as in Venezuela, gas stations are closed because there is no gas--and the regime isn't helping. The government--that's Rouhani et. al.--is eliminating the energy subsidies that keep millions of the poor afloat.
This is only one of many signs of the political and economic ruin of the regime. Most of the major banks are broke, as is--officially--the National Iranian Oil Company, and most all of any increase in income resulting from the collapse of the sanctions policy goes not to social needs or even to productive enterprise, but to the corrupt ruling class. And the mullahs are destroying the country itself, from the smog that chokes Tehran (Iran has four of the ten most pulluted cities in the world) to the destruction of Lake Urmia (in a replay of what the Soviets did to Lake Baikal). Listen to the assessment of a reformist a few months back:
As a governing system, the government and executive branch of the Islamic republic, has lost its ability to carry out the normal duties of a government....The signs of dysfunction in the administrative, financial and economic organizations are evident despite all the imposed regime filters and in the absence of honest independent news agencies not only in the contradictory and confrontational policies and decisions of officials and senior administrators but also in the smallest administrative units of the country.
The wreckage of the Iranian state is not just the result of corruption and incompetence; it also derives from the intense infighting within the elite. Unconfirmed stories have appeared in the Iranian press reporting phone taps organized by the Revolutionary Guards Corps against members of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's inner circle, as well as against one another within the Guards. There are documented fractures within the ranks of Hezbollah. Assassinations continue apace, as in the case of Mojtaba Ahmadi, the head of the Cyber Army, in October. The Iranian Embassy in Beirut was bombed in November by a terrorist group the Iranians had actually created. And, in a telling blow to the regime's ideology, Christianity is booming, and the regime is resorting to public meetings to warn the people about its dangers.
The regime does not seem to know how to cope with this crisis. On the one hand, it increases repression. The tempo of executions has famously increased since Rouhani's election, and the recent brutality in Evin Prison--discussed by Ben Weinthal--shows that regime leaders are even afraid of prisoners. For good reason: last year many leading political prisoners refused to join the regime's call for easing sanctions, despite torture and isolation.
It's a hollow regime. Its internal opponents hold it in contempt and do not fear it, and it is palpably failing. Yet, as its unpopularity mounts, it calls for a doubling of the population. Khamenei wants 150 million Iranians, and the state is working to get the numbers up: free birth control assistance is being terminated (except for HIV-positives), and artificial insemination has been declared Islamically correct.
Does the supreme leader want more and more opponents of the regime? Who knows? Maybe it's a desire for cannon fodder...
Which leaves us with Putin and his Russia.