Nial Ferguson, in his brilliant book, the Ascent of Money, makes an analogy as to the similarity in behaviour of a grazing herd with the human psychology in the stock market. The happily content grazing herd suddenly feel something has changed, something alerts them to stop happily grazing and out of the blue a rush for the farmyard gate by a few becomes a stampede by all the herd. In the stock market, this sudden mood swing triggers a massive sell by the investors and share prices go into free fall. What sets off this sudden mood swing is a complex combination of many variables, some at random and totally unpredictable, not something that I have any expertise in but I can not help but sense the similarities with human psychology during a revolution.
I remember when I was at school in Iran, one of the pupils in my class had grassed another kid for drawing a beard and specs on the Shah's picture which was at the beginning of all our text books. I remember how the teacher was trembling with fear not knowing how to react. That same teacher, a couple of years later, became a major organiser during the revolution and had no fear of sharing her radical views with the class.
The class prefect, whom I remember vividly reading his stomach churning over flattering essay in front of the whole class about the Shah's love for the nation and vice versa became another revolutionary fanatic. When I bumped into him after the revolution and cheekily reminded him about his obsequious essay, first he denied it and when I persisted he admitted that at that time he had not been 'enlightened' by the teachings of Imam Khomeini.
Similarly other kids in the class who had no knowledge nor interest in politics, had overnight removed pictures of their famous football player and pop celebrity heroes on the cover of their text books and ring binders and replaced them with pictures of radical Shiite clerics or Marxist guerrilla fighters.
How does what seems to be a politically apathetic individual, suddenly become so politicised and risks taking part in a movement for change? In my view its confidence. It is the gradual gain in confidence by the masses that suddenly and unpredictably tips the balance.
Until an authoritarian regime is conceived strong and in control, a brave minority may engage in the struggle, but the mainstream masses shrewdly just look on at the impossible odds and decide to get on with their lives without getting involved until something alerts them that the odds have changed, that the regime is no longer as strong as it makes out. Something perceived as important to the psychology of that nation alerts them that an implosion is on the way, fear gives way to confidence, the brave minority exponentially grows in numbers and soon the whole masses get on the band wagon. A behaviour which is similar in its suddenness and unpredictably to a stock market crash because it involves people and numerous complex variables.
Even the absurd wrong predictions shortly before the events are similar. Four months before the Hungarian uprising, the CIA which relied on its information from embassy cocktail parties, concluded "There really is no underground movement in Hungary at all". Few months before the 1979 revolution in Iran, Jimmy Carter described Iran as an island of stability in the middle of a turbulent region. Four months before the collapse of the dot-com bubble, readers of Business Week were told that the stock prices will continue to advance towards higher targets over the next three to five years. Eight days before the Black Thursday which was the onset for the Great Depression, Yale university economics professor Irving Fisher declared the US stock prices will remain on a permanently high plateau.
So in case of Iran, right now what is important for this mass psychology that could tip the balance? What tells the masses that its time to get involved or remain a passive bystander? Well as explained earlier there are many complex variables, one very important one however for the Iranian psychology is 'does the world want to accommodate the regime or will they fully back a mass movement for change?' Right or wrong this is a very important factor for the Iranian man on the street's psychology and his accumulated historical experiences.
For that reason I am against all these suggestions of 'Incentives and engagement and dialogue with the Islamic Republic' currently proposed by many US think tanks and academics to the US President-Elect Obama.
What exactly is the goal of engagement? what levers do they have in negotiations with the Islamic Republic? what makes them think the Ayatollahs in Iran want to join the mainstream countries and change their behaviour? Who will they negotiate with? but apart from all this, any incentive, engagement or talk of accommodating the Iranian regime will send the wrong signal to the Iranian people that for now the regime is here to stay and the ordinary man will think he is better off remaining a passive bystander.
Another important factor for the ordinary man on the street is what is the alternative? You often hear people ask, 'OK this lot go but who will come instead of them?' Its a perfectly valid question for without an alternative there will be no focal point for change. Here I think the alternative will have to come from inside Iran, those outside Iran can only help and support for this alternative to come about. But until the regime remains efficient in its repression it is hard for an alternative to form inside Iran. For that reason the regime must be weakened before an alternative has even taken shape so that an alternative can take shape.