Iran and The Anatomy of Revolution

(Note to President Obama at the end.)

In (CNN) A rare moment of public self-criticism by former president Obama on Iran, I asserted, with reference to Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution, that Iran is not in a pre -revolutionary state. I’ve referred to Brinton a lot, yet he never claimed to predict revolution — “It always comes as a surprise.”

Prediction is an unsolved problem, vexing the CIA in particular. In 2013, the unmet need was partly responsible for a number of intel crowd-sourcing efforts, of which this blog is a personal spin-off. If there is a  solution, it will not come from a single analyst. It will result from the AI mediation of the unconscious minds of a large civic sample.

So how is Brinton useful? Histories come in various flavors — chronicle, political, conflict, economic, cultural…  Until recently, historical works tended towards lengthy chronicle, short on analysis. The shift towards analysis began with the intrusion of sociology, of Marx, towards pithy, short oversimplifications, long on specious certitude.  Brinton doesn’t fall for this trap. Convinced that analysis is still worth doing, he is the studious pathologist. Before microbiology and molecular medicine, autopsy  was the primary means of understanding disease. As well, Brinton is a clinician, analogizing revolution to a “fever” — his word, of the body politic.

It’s a tough problem. Brinton is one of the few to try, with only four case studies, which exclude coups and insurgencies.  The use of his studies in contemporary comparisons, such as Venezuela, immediately result in “yes, but” elaborations. In Revolution in Venezuela I wrote,

As noted, the accession of the extremists would be facilitated by rural sanctuary.  But “melting away” of the rebels into the countryside may be hindered by rural majorities of Maduro supporters…

In Revolution in Venezuela, Redux I wrote,

Revolutions have almost without exception had a strong geographic bias in support.  The French and Bolshevik revolutions were of urban origin, as was Hitler’s putsch.  In the First Indochina War, the Vietnamese refuge was rural. The  Cuban  was agrarian; the Red China revolution advantaged an agrarian base. In each case, a revolution had to subdue the other geography; urban against rural, or rural against urban.

The palace coup, entirely different, is not the subject of either Venezuela or Iran.  Lack of sanctuary, not one of Brinton’s considerations, was enough to frustrate Venezuela. Yet  Brinton’s prodromal description of a popular revolution is not easily contradicted. In Iran,  geographic bias, if not strict divide, dates to 1979.

The aspiring revolutionaries in Iran  are urban and sophisticated. They are the legacy of an amalgam of cultures, Persian and Safavid, which results in the paradox of pious clergy who revere  erotic poetry, and a limberness that contains a suppressed,  secular intelligentsia with a Western tint. Though spanning the social strata, they are at the bottom of the power pyramid. 

A dual society, one religious and one secular, under religious totalitarian control, reminds that totalitarian regimes vary widely in “penetrance”, intrusion of the state into personal space. One  opinion, citation missing, is that Stalinist Russia had the least personal space, with Nazi Germany allowing somewhat more. Iran, perhaps in result of cultural amalgam, has institutionalized hypocrisy, with low penetrance into private space, with severe control of the public sphere. This shows in the character of the protests. For the importance of hypocrisy as the glue of Iran, see Robert Baer’s book The Devil We Know.

We could get lost in this, or refer to Brinton. In atomic physics, a particle can transition to another energy state if it is not forbidden by a conservation rule — of charge, spin, energy, or usually , a symmetry rule. Brinton’s characterization of the  prodromal phase of revolution implies forbidden transition, in the absence of:

  • A period of  increasing prosperity, followed by sudden reversal. Not in Iran, where the economy has gone from bad to worse.
  • Incompetent use of power. Brinton’s meaning is power against internal opponents. In 1979,  the Shah met this criteria, killing just enough people to irritate the rest. Not so under Khamenei, whose government is liberal with torture and death.
  • Involvement of the masses with Brinton’s stereotypical grievances. A weak, qualified yes. Urban and rural protestors are dissatisfied for different reasons; urban protests are cultural, while the rural poor want jobs. There is no evidence of coordination between these groups.

Page 65 of the 1965 edition of The Anatomy offers an additional checklist:

  • Transfer of allegiance of the intellectuals.
  • Conversion of many members of the ruling class to the  belief that their privileges are unjust or harmful to society.
  • Intensification of social antagonisms.
  • Stoppage of the career path open to talent.

My interpretation is that it is almost impossible for a popular revolution, a revolution from below, to succeed if a single factor is missing. The display of these factors:

  • Allegiance. Secular intellectuals were silenced in 1979. If there are Shiite dissenters, they are very quiet. Sunni clerics have always made a little noise.
  • Conversion. About a decade ago, there were rumors of a reformist movement in the Qom seminaries, but there are no voices in evidence now.
  • Social antagonisms have been intense since 1979. No change.
  • Career stoppage exists; Iran is not a place of equal opportunity, but the bigger issue is lack economic opportunity.

After the presidency of Mohammad Khatami,  in 2005,  Iran gelled as a totalitarian theocracy, with weak consultative organs of what was formerly a dual religious/secular system.  The roots of the theocracy are unchallenged from within, with bedrock in the rural poor.  Challenges from without are dis-unified by the urban-rural divide. Venezuelan geography.

Except for the oil workers, economic recruitment is absent. The oil workers are worth watching, though their protests have tapered since the middle of the month. Will intensifying poverty result in an unholy alliance, urban/rural/economic? It bears watching.

Note to President Obama. So don’t feel bad about 2009.








(CNN) A rare moment of public self-criticism by former president Obama on Iran

(CNN) A rare moment of public self-criticism by a former president. Quoting,

“When I think back to 2009, 2010, you guys will recall there was a big debate inside the White House about whether I should publicly affirm what was going on with the Green Movement, because a lot of the activists were being accused of being tools of the West and there was some thought that we were somehow gonna be undermining their street cred in Iran if I supported what they were doing,” Obama said. “And in retrospect, I think that was a mistake.”

President Obama, you have an overactive conscience, You were right in 2009. The state of Iran is held together by  the theologically imbued perception of pressure from external enemies. Without, it would be ripe for revolution. With, it can withstand.

I’m putting together something on this. In the meantime, dust off your copy of Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution. Pay particular attention to page 65 of the 1965 Vintage edition.

Iran is not now in a prodromal, pre-revolutionary state. That transition requires clearly recognizable steps.




Fact-Check Time for CNN; Shahed-136 Drone Does Not Carry Missiles

(CNN)  Russia’s war in Ukraine , “Updated 10:50 AM EDT, Tue October 18, 2022 “, contains this statement:

According to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, Russia has previously ordered 2,400 of the Shahed-136 drones from Iran. The drones are capable of carrying precision-guided missiles and have a payload of approximately 50 kilograms (110 pounds).

The part highlighted in red is incorrect. The Shahed-136 cannot carry any missiles, guided or unguided.



Path to a Ukraine Peace; Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths

The future is a forking path of innumerable possibilities. According to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, every fork is taken in some world of the multiverse. If you need a little mind-stretch,  the Borges story “The Garden of Forking Paths” is a riveting literary interpretation.

This applies to the conflict. Again and again, the garden path forks to left and right. On one pleasant extreme lies political change in Russia. On the other extreme of horror lies nuclear exchange.  In between lie innumerable forks, each leading to a different world. Which world will we live in?

The sheer multiplicity of intermediate forks suggests a probable mixture of life and death. We would like to positively influence the forks taken. This would seem to imply free will to choose the path, which may be an illusion — a question that will not be solved by us. It seems to us that we do, which motivates Biden and Musk to seek negotiations.

Perhaps we cannot choose, but can influence. A weaker option, influence might push or bias the forks chosen, even if the ultimate choice lies with the inscrutable fates. This hinges on “clever recognition” of some aspects of a situation ripe for a push. Perhaps this is the basis of the proverb, “All things come to those who wait.”

One of the things we are waiting for is a sign that Putin is a rational actor in ways that are relevant.  It is not a is/is-not proposition. Historically, he has been rational. Now, he is prisoner of an idea, victim of a  folie en famille, the family disorder of ultra nationalists.  In the 20th century, this delusion afflicted the majority of developed nations, and continues as a toxic derivative of healthy patriotism. As such, it is either a recurrent disease or unfortunate natural state of mankind. Putin’s thought seems a mix of the rational and emotional, tempting hope that we can somehow engage a part of Putin while ignoring the rest.

Although the forks are innumerable, speculation can be informed by conflicts of the 20th century:

World War I. Initiated by interlocking treaties and a random event, ruled by military science, ended by revolution in Germany, with a negotiated peace.

World War II. Initiated by a folie en famille , ended by crushing supremacy of the Allies.

Vietnam War. Ended by loss of political will in the U.S. No costs or penalties from loss, other than a loss of sense of national purpose.

Korean War. Ended by asymmetrical fatigue. China lacked the industrial base, while the U.S. was sensitive to casualties, even at a 10:1 ratio. U.S. aims were basically defensive, though  undermined by MacArthur’s  insubordination. The result was escalation, followed by a stalemate of ambition. Since both sides were sensitive to costs, their goals moderated towards a status quo ante bellum, resulting in an armistice.

The Korean War, with its innumerable forks, sudden reversals, overreach, and shifting fortunes, with end by stalemate, is not an inspiring picture. It is not the best of all possible outcomes, but neither is it the worst. This forking path occupies a large swath in the center of the garden; this intuitively assigns high probability, compared to the extremes.

Like most of you, I hope for Ukraine’s unconditional success and support all their operations. But hope is by itself effete, a wish for better without the mechanism. Prognostication is, like revenge, best served cold.

Is there any possible distillation for the policy maker? Keep your hand hidden, and be ready to turn on a dime.



Did a Truck Bomb Drop Kerch Bridge Spans?

(CNN) Putin faces more grim choices after blast hits his prized Crimea bridge.

The argument has been made that a truck bomb of a few hundred kilograms could not have caused the damage, due to the heavy mass of steel in the bridge. This is incorrect.

Truck bombs are usually employed to destroy buildings. For this purpose, the blast effect is intended to be isotropic, without preferred direction. To damage a bridge, a directional, downwards explosion is desired. This can be achieved with a tamper, a mass of dense material  placed over and/or around the charge to multiply the effect in a specified direction. Some materials used in construction fit the bill. The explosive multiplication is limited only by the degree of concentration.

If you google “tamper”, you’ll find references to nuclear weapons technology. Tamper predates this; it is the basis of all modern directional munitions and shaped charges. See Gurney Equations if you’re a techie.

(CNN) Biden: Off Ramp for Putin

(CNN) Biden offers stark ‘Armageddon’ warning on the dangers of Putin’s nuclear threats. Quoting,

“I’m trying to figure out what is Putin’s off ramp?” Biden said during the event, “Where does he find a way out? Where does he find himself in a position that he does not not only lose face but lose significant power within Russia?”

There may have been a window, before the full extent of Russia’s land seizures, when Russia could have conceivably claimed a win. In the face of Ukrainian resolve, an off-ramp created by the West would be equivalent to Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 selling, in the Munich Agreement, of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, in exchange for “peace in our time.”

In contrast to the majority of world leaders, who are dyed-in-the-wool for life from an early age, Putin’s thought has had epochs of roughly seven years, morphs of transition from a vaguely liberal figure to the  autocrat we see now. In the twilight of his life, Putin finds attraction to some of the sticks of the fascist bundle:

  • Lebensraum, in his demand for the soil of Ukraine.
  • Blood, in the exaltation of Russian culture.
  • Primacy of the Russian cultural corpus over the inalienable rights of the individual.
  • Use of the above to justify a lot of killing. War for the interests of the state.
  • A “Grand Council of Fascism” to help him run the country.
  • The dictator’s confidence that he is always right. Science fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp called this the “right man personality.”

To set into motion a process that would kill so many people, especially Russians, with the  prospect of many more, requires both an ancient type of mind, and elevation of a cultural corpus that is strange to the modern West. In 2003, Putin was part of a political process. He killed off that process, and with that, the part of his mind amenable to conciliation. Conciliation cannot be authored by the West, because Putin’s political mind is in eclipse. It may be useful imagine we are dealing with Stalin, with the mistakes of Yalta in mind.

To put it another way, we can’t trade horses with Putin as if he is a pol, because he is no longer a pol.

The eclipse of Putin as a political figure, with his transition to a “czar”, is mirrored in larger Russian society, where he has mostly escaped derision of some of his subordinates. This redirection of blame is key to a potential off-ramp, authored entirely by the Kremlin.

The key to this is recognition by Russians that the grotesque failure of their armed forces is not due to a few people. The quality of an armed force is one index of the complex of human potential. Russian government and society have defects that permit large scale enterprise, such as military, to evolve without any awareness of relative inferiority.

The growing volume of criticism from inside Russia does not mention this. Instead of blaming the culture, they are blaming individuals who are merely manifestations of the culture. Barring exceptional circumstances, it takes about 30 years to evolve a Western military culture. The exceptions are provided by:

  • Necessity, which manifests in cohesion, sacrifice, and even love.
  • Entrepreneurship, which allows for small unit initiative and improvised industrial response.
  • Tutelage.

All of these are absent in today’s Russia.  Recognition by Russia of inferior military culture as the cause of their Ukraine failure is the key to their own off-ramp:

  • Essential to the sale is sacrifice of Shoigu and some generals, in show trials followed by execution.
  • An explanation to the Russian public that complete withdrawal is necessary to reform the Russian military.
  • A small DMZ in the east.
  • The promise that Ukraine will be conquered in the near future.

A frozen conflict is not pleasant to us, but allows for evolution. From Note to China re Russia; Dmitry Medvedev Threatens to Use Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine,

Russia has taken a wrong turn, away from high culture to a murderous form of cultural narcissism. In consequence, we are in danger of a new dark age. 

This will take time to change.