Whatever the ultimate outcome of the unfolding protests in Iran, it is already clear that the Iranian government badly miscalculated. First, the leaders erred in assuming that they could, with complete immunity, rig the election. Second, they completely failed to grasp the depth of resentment against the regime.
It is easy to interpret this resentment according to the favorite mantra of the Western governments and media: a reaction against the extremist policies of the Ahmedinejad government, coupled with the desire of the majority of Iranians for a Western-style democracy and lifestyle. While such aspirations certainly play a role, there likely is something more fundamental at work.
The stridency of the speeches and policies of the Iranian President have generally been attributed to religious fanaticism. The real cause might be far simpler: the aggressive posture and lashing out against enemies could as well be a cover-up, an attempt at diverting attention from an internal situation deteriorating beyond governmental control. If one strips away the ideological smoke screen, what becomes glaringly obvious is the monstrous incompetence of the Iranian leaders.
The Islamic Republic of Iran started out with tremendous political potential: it was born out of a popular uprising, and consolidated through the costly, but eventually victorious, war against Iraq. Iran disposes of major oil reserves and has a youthful, educated population. These assets could have become the foundation of a thriving economy and a politically dynamic state.
Instead we see massive unemployment, a high rate of inflation, foreign sanctions and a shortage of gasoline. Couples are postponing their wedding because even the smallest apartment is unaffordable. Iran, a major oil and gas producer, is unable to develop its own energy industry.
The new elite born out of the Islamic revolution has become a self-perpetuating ruling class, primarily interested in maintaining its wealth, power and privileges, while the mass of the people are struggling. The leadership is attempting to hide its shortcomings behind extreme policies and the fostering of a crisis atmosphere.
It is quite possible that the people have had enough. They want a fair shake and a reasonable share of the national wealth as well as a say in their own destiny. The electoral cheating has ignited a long-simmering reservoir of resentment, and the genie will not be put back in the bottle.
While we in the West might enjoy seeing Iranian elites facing well-deserved retribution, the situation there holds a warning to us as well. The gap between the elites and the mass of the people is not unique to Iran, but is a widespread issue. The growth in size of government and of economic entities such as banks has bred political and economic elites whose primary interest is the preservation of their own power, wealth and privilege.
The fact that these elites are now self-perpetuating has had a negative effect on competence, talent, imagination and initiative. The current global economic crisis, which took world leaders completely by surprise, testifies to this reduced ability to lead, think and direct. There is no guarantee that the crisis will be resolved anytime soon. Indeed the most obvious common thread between speeches and policies emanating from governments is that very few have any idea why the crisis occurred and how to resolve it.
While contemplating developments in Tehran it will be prudent to keep in mind that the Iranian leaders are struggling with a problem that is increasingly widespread. We should keep in mind the possibility that something similar could also happen here, however outlandish such a thought may appear at first.