April 24, 2017 | Forbes

Tyrants And Their Hollow States

Frankly,  I’m surprised Erdogan had to settle for a photo-finish win at the wire.  Not a great result for a would-be modern sultan who used all the tools of modern mass manipulation and intimidation during the “electoral campaign.”

Maybe tyranny isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Or used to be.  A serious tyrant would have had a bigger margin.  Now the sultan has to spend time dealing with annoyances like charges of ballot-fixing.  He’ll likely overcome the charges—any judge who gets uppity will be moved to the local jail—but it costs him time and encourages his opponents.  At least for a while.

Even well established tyrants are having problems.  We all see the monster crowds in the streets of Caracas, calling for Maduro to get out, but there are others. Even Putin (whose secret police HQ in the far east was just attacked.  Imagine!).  Even Xi.  Both Russia and China have seen big demonstrations.  And, while significantly underreported, Iran has virtually non-stop protests, since the leadership is very unpopular (if there were truly free elections there, Khamenei would be fortunate to top 20% if he were challenged by one of the leaders of the new generation of reformers), and misery is mounting.

In the good old days, tyrants didn’t tolerate such protests.  Stalin certainly didn’t, nor Hitler and Mussolini.  In fact, it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to take to the streets to protest the policies of their tyrant.


Things have certainly changed, and events suggest that the tyrannical states are significantly hollowed out.  Years ago, Bernard Lewis forecast that the Islamic Republic would become a more secular nation-state by the end of this decade (and that Turkey would go through an equal, but opposite, transition).  My friends in Iran tell me that mosque attendance is very sparse, and I see that Iranian religious leaders are trying to explain the failed prediction that the Mahdi, the quasi-mythological Islamic leader whose appearance after centuries of occultation is supposed signal the imminent global triumph of Shi’ite Islam, would soon be with us.

A representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in the Revolutionary Guard, Ali Saidi, said in a speech that the Khomeini revolution in Iran paved the way for the emergence of Imam Mahdi, which is the last stage before his appearance, but that “there are enemies delaying his arrival.”


Saidi, who is an important figure in the regime, identified the major enemies as 1) the United States and 2) the domestic, secular opposition. 

Does this not bespeak a hollow regime?  If your enemies are capable of forestalling the return of the all-powerful Imam, then the very foundations of the regime are wobbly.  That is all the more true nowadays, when Obama has departed and the major spokesmen for the new administration are outspoken in their condemnation of the Islamic Republic.

Iranian leaders have reason for real concern,  and are pulling few punches, from deploying extra security forces in the country’s major cities in fear of new demonstrations, to trying to convince us, and perhaps themselves, that they are developing first-class military technology. 

We are not fooled, and the Iranian people boast many brave young people who are not afraid of the Khamenei/Rouhani regime.  Trade union leader Ismail Abdi—from his jail cell—is threatening a hunger strike if workers’ leaders are not released from imprisonment.

We shall see how all this plays out.  We’re living a revolutionary moment, and we are the world’s only revolutionary nation.  It would be good if our leaders endorsed the struggle against the tyrants of hostile hollow states.  It will not work everywhere–North Korean and Cuban dictators are still depressingly “stable”–but it might decisively change the world.

Michael Ledeen is a freedom scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 


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