Iran's Chinese Future

The unexpected reason why the protests in Iran won't bring democracy.

The past few weeks' images of tens of thousands of brave, bold, and mostly youthful opposition supporters crowding Tehran's boulevards have encouraged some onlookers to draw hopeful parallels to the protests that helped topple most of the authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe from the late 1980s onward. But, from a demographer's standpoint, Iran's youthful population age structure (in other words, its distribution of residents by age) suggests a different analogy. Depressingly enough for the democracy protesters in Iran and those who stand with them around the world, a closer comparison may be with China's youth bulge experience 20 years ago, including the social fractures that pervaded that generation's political culture and the ruthless and ongoing response by conservative elements of Chinese leadership.

Age structure has two big implications. First, youth-bulge countries -- like Iran and most of its Middle Eastern and South Asian neighbors -- have been, on average, two-and-a-half times more vulnerable to the onset of political violence or civil conflict than relatively mature populations. Secondly, and perhaps more counterintuitively, revolution and political infighting hasn't generally led to high levels of democracy in those places. Statistically speaking, in fact, the opposite is true. The best bets to make a smooth and long-lasting transition to liberal democracy are those countries where the proportion of young adults (15 to 29 years) in the working-age population (15 to 64) has diminished. Besides Eastern Europe's collection of post-Soviet-era liberal democracies, examples include Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Chile, and Brazil after family sizes declined in East Asia and much of Latin America.

Researchers will continue to argue over the causal mechanisms that are at work and what really happened to create some glaring exceptions -- Singapore, China, Russia, and, more recently, Thailand. But, by and large, a mature age structure tends to serve as a statistical bellwether for durable liberal democracy.

Just like China's youth bulge in the late 1980s, Iran's is very large, yet destined to dissipate rapidly over the following two decades. Today, 15-to-29-year-olds comprise half of all working-age Iranians. At a time when private-sector job growth is virtually stagnant, this final surge of 1980s baby boomers -- most born before the Islamic Republic's surprisingly comprehensive family planning program was up and running -- has been boosting the work-eligible population by nearly 3 percent annually.

But not all paths to mobility are dismally narrow for young Iranians. Men can ply their route into adult society through the 125,000-strong Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG), Iran's overtly politicized security force -- or, less glamorously, through the IRG's local militia, the Basij (an active participant in the violent suppression of recent opposition demonstrations). Unlike the other Iranian military services, the IRG's ties to the theocratic regime are existential, and they manage -- and reap extensive revenues from -- state-owned industries and lucrative construction contracts. The antagonisms separating IRG and Basij personnel from opposition demonstrators are not unlike the rural-urban and class cleavages between People's Liberation Army foot soldiers and students who the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership so successfully exploited in 1989 and thereafter. Although divisions in Iran's political elite are now public knowledge, the country's youth bulge remains a tinderbox that neither military nor commercial elites care to ignite.

The notion that Iran is China, just delayed by 20 years, has already made its rounds through the Iranian theocracy. The media exposure of recent events could provide an opportunity -- as it did for the CCP -- for Ayatollah Khamenei's hard-liners to purge dissenters from within the inner circles of the political elite and to jail or expel opposition organizers in the Iranian street. Such a turn of events could leave Iran without a viable opposition as it grows more demographically mature, and probably more politically quiescent, in the coming decades -- a grim outlook for the protesters currently fighting for freedom in Tehran.

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Iran Seen Through Venezuelan Eyes

Iran and Venezuela have seemingly little in common. But the recent dissent over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election proves one strong similarity.

Iran and Venezuela could not be two more different countries. Pious Shiites, daily prayers, and no alcohol in one; boisterous Caribbean culture, salsa, and a lot of rum in the other. Chadors and string bikinis; an Islamic Republic and a Bolivarian one.

The Iranian supreme leader is a reticent cleric not prone to public speaking; the Venezuelan one never seems to stop talking. While Persian civilization is one of the oldest, the history of Venezuela is, shall we say, somewhat shorter. These two countries should have nothing in common.

Yet they do. So much so that the recent Venezuelan experience sheds some interesting light on where the Iranian crisis is headed.

The images of the opposition marches in Tehran (massive, mostly peaceful, with no clear hierarchy, and with people of all ages and social classes) are identical to those that used to take place in Caracas, before their ineffectiveness became clear and before the government repressed them. The desperation in the voices of the Iranian youngsters sounds much like that of the Venezuelan students who filled the political vacuum created by the incompetent opposition of their elders. To hear Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying that those protesting against his victory are just "dust" is to hear Hugo Chávez referring dismissively to the "squalid opposition" whenever he talks about the millions of Venezuelans who don't vote for him. Watching the Basij, the Islamic militia, shooting at their fellow citizens marching peacefully is to see "Bolivarian militias" shoot and kill their unarmed opponents in the streets of Caracas. Like Neda, the young Iranian woman who bled to death on a street in Tehran after being shot by government thugs, innocent Venezuelans also lost their lives at the hands of goons on motorcycles.

The eerie parallels don't end there. The organization charged with guaranteeing the fairness of the Iranian election is an appendage of the government, while the head of that agency in Venezuela became the vice president of the government whose victory he'd certified as free and fair just a few days before. Ahmadinejad's campaign slogan? Ahmadinejad is love. In Venezuela: Chávez is love.

Both men rode to power as slayers of the corrupt elite that governed their countries, as fighters of injustice and inequality, and as champions of the poor. In both cases their promises came to naught: In Ahmadinejad's Iran and Chávez's Venezuela corruption runs rampant and top officials operate with impunity. Both have tolerated -- indeed facilitated -- the accumulation of immense, oil-fueled wealth in the hands of a new elite whose members are a who's who of the leaders' political allies, especially their comrades in arms (Ahmadinejad was a Basiji, and Chávez is a former lieutenant colonel).

As Ahmadinejad supports Hezbollah, Chávez supports the Colombian FARC. While Ahmadinejad tries to keep Lebanon under his influence, Chávez does the same with Bolivia. Both dream of presiding over a regional superpower. Ahmadinejad promises the demise of Israel and the fall of the Great Satan. In Venezuela, where anti-Semitism had been unknown, synagogues are now desecrated, and Chávez famously complained that the U.N. podium where he had to speak after George W. Bush still smelled of satanic sulfur.

Thanks to oil, both leaders have disguised the fact that their policies have brought their respective economies to their knees. Iran's and Venezuela's inflation rates are among the highest in the world, unemployment is rampant, and cash transfers from the government and unproductive public-sector employment are the only income that millions of families in both countries can hope to have.

Perhaps one of the most interesting similarities, though, is the extremes both regimes are willing to go to keep democratic appearances. They want the world to see them as democratic, pluralistic, and progressive. It's a public-relations gambit that is becoming increasingly hard for either man to pull off, as evidence mounts that their governments are authoritarian, corrupt, sectarian, and militaristic.

Fourteen of the 21 cabinet members in Iran are former members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard or the Basij militia. Local governments, state-run enterprises, and most public agencies are run by Revolutionary Guards or members of the military and the militia. The same is true in Venezuela, where the militarization of the state is a key feature of Chávez's Bolivarian revolution and where family and former and current comrades in arms of Chávez and his entourage (almost all military men) fill the top posts of the public sector and the oil industry, as well as all state-owned enterprises and newly nationalized companies that are now run mostly to line the pockets of their presidentially appointed managers.

It is essential to understand that both in Iran and in Venezuela an election may not just mean swapping one president for another. An election can imply a fundamental regime change, and that is an intolerable outcome for those in power. That is why today Hugo Chávez is the longest- serving president in the Americas. And it's why mounting an effective political challenge to the oligarchs entrenched in power will be as difficult in Iran as it has been in Venezuela.