The Iran Crisis and 4th Generation Warfare

The current crisis in Iran is not 4GW. It is a struggle for control of a state, not an attempt to replace the state with something else. However, it could prove a harbinger of 4GW in Iran, because what is at stake is the legitimacy of current Iranian political system.

In a manner that was cynical, blatant, and remarkably stupid, the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime in effect toyed with its own legitimacy. Nightwatch for June 19 quotes Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei as saying in his Friday public sermon, "There is an 11-million-vote difference. How can one rig 11 million votes?"

The answer is, "Not without people taking notice." Stalin, whose cynicism was legendary – one of his remarks was, "The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million men is a statistic" – also said, "What is important is not who votes. What is important is who counts the votes." But throughout the history of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party was careful to seem to take elections with the utmost seriousness. It knew the pretense was important for its legitimacy.

In contrast, the Iranian regime in effect laughed as it rigged its election’s outcome, saying to the Iranian people and the world, "Rig the elections? Of course we rigged the elections. What are you going to do about it, sucker?" The fact that the outcome was announced within three hours of the polls closing suggests they did not count the votes at all. The Interior Ministry was just told what numbers to put down on the tally sheets.

Now it has blown up in the regime’s face, in the worst kind of crisis any government can face, a crisis of legitimacy. The Iranian opposition is able to say, "You did not play by the rules you wrote." That is a powerful rallying cry anywhere in the world.

The Iranian people have rallied, by the millions, to the opposition. Iran is in the midst of the greatest upheaval since the revolution that overthrew the shah.

Like governments everywhere, Khamenei seems unable to grasp that he faces a crisis not merely of leadership but of legitimacy. Had he grasped that essential fact, he would have professed to be "shocked, shocked" by the electoral fraud, dumped Ahmadinejad, and devoted himself to showing Iran’s political system works.

Instead, he has decided to keep himself and Ahmadinejad in power by force. Monday’s Washington Post quotes the opposition’s leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, as saying, "Shooting at the people, militarizing the city, scaring the people, provoking them, and displaying power are all the result of the unlawfulness we’re witnessing today." Force may keep the current regime in power, but it also completes the destruction of its legitimacy.

Fourth Generation theory warns that when a government loses its legitimacy and attempts to retain power by naked force, it weakens the state itself. Iran has been a relatively stable state. But there is no guarantee it will remain so. Iran includes many different ethnic groups, not just Persians. If the opposition, which is loyal to the Iranian state, is suppressed by force, Iranians may start to transfer their loyalty away from the state.

The current crisis in Iran also reveals a fracture Fourth Generation theory sometimes overlooks, a break on urban/rural lines. Ahmadinejad is genuinely popular in much of rural Iran. His rural strength might have allowed him to win an election where the votes were actually counted. The opposition, in turn, appears to be almost entirely urban. Its urban strength is what has allowed it to contest the announced electoral results with mass marches.

Urban/rural splits were common before the state arose. They sometimes led to bloody wars, usually in the form of peasant revolts. Exactly how they might play out in a Fourth Generation world is difficult to guess. Iran may offer an interesting test case.

But the larger lesson from events in Iran is one this column has harped on: few if any governments are able to perceive a crisis of legitimacy. Any governing system in time becomes a closed system, into which the question of legitimacy is not allowed to penetrate. To raise it is lèse-majesté. So long as that remains the case, the state system will grow more fragile.

Author: William S. Lind

William Lind is director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He is a former congressional aide and the author of many books and articles on military strategy and war.