Of all the many comments I've read on the Iranian election this weekend, the most poignant and at the same time, the most misleading is the idea that the desire for democratic change expressed by those who were opposed to the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a genie that can't be put back in the bottle.
I suppose that if you subscribe to what used to be called the Whig version of history, where things get better and better all the time, you might believe that everywhere, one day, humankind will reach a blissful state of liberal democracy. But we should not kid ourselves: regimes that are prepared to crack the heads of those who wish them ill which that in Iran plainly is are quite capable of stuffing the genie of change into the bottle for decades. Hungarians had to wait 43 years from the uprising of 1956 to see real improvement in their political conditions; it took Czechs and Slovaks 21 years from the Prague spring of 1968. That same year saw the deaths of hundreds of protesters in Mexico City's Tlatelolco Square; it was 32 years before Mexico saw an orderly transfer of power from the old regime to a new democracy. (See pictures from Iran's controversial and violent presidential election.)
A more sophisticated version of the idea that autocratic regimes can maintain power for decades would stress not just their willingness to use coercion against opponents, but also their ability to find and use safety valves that neuter forces for political unrest. Arguably, the Iranian regime itself did just that in allowing the election as President of Mohammad Khatami, a reform candidate albeit one with limited powers in 1997 and 2001. But the classic case of a safety valve is that of China after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. In effect, for 20 years, China has been able to buy off the pressure for political reform expressed in 1989 by hugely expanding economic opportunities and enhanced life-chances for its growing middle class. So far, growing prosperity has acted as a dampener, not a multiplier, on aspirations for political liberalization. (Check out a story about how Tehran's streets became a battleground.)
The interesting aspect of the Iranian case is not just that the mullahs have demonstrated that they no longer place any store on allowing the election of a reform-minded President to satisfy popular discontent. It is that the Chinese option is not open to them. China's long boom has been dependent on its growing integration into the global economy. But so long as Iran maintains its nuclear ambitions, it will always be subject to sanctions from the most developed economies, principally that of the U.S. Without easy access to markets in the outside world, for both imports and exports, Iran cannot hope to develop the sort of economic growth that might just might obviate the need for political change by providing economic opportunity and cultural autonomy for those who would otherwise constitute a political opposition. An Iran that did not pursue nuclear dreams might be able to maintain both a controlled, nondemocratic internal political system and an economy that was open to the world. China, after all, has managed something rather similar. An Iran that pursues its ambitions to be a nuclear power, however, will in the very best case be a country where an outward-oriented middle class feels increasingly disenfranchised, and hence likely to challenge the regime. The worst case, of course, is war, if Israel and the U.S. decide that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is intolerable.
Iran, in other words, can continue to develop its nuclear program; or it can open its economy so that opposition to its present theocratic regime is muted. It can't do both.
One wonders if the mullahs understand this strategic dilemma.