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When is a government a regime?

January 17, 2020

If you’re like me, and you read a fair amount about politics, you usually focus on the essence of the story without paying too much attention to the words that are used, unless of course they themselves are the story, or you find the choice of language to be offensive.

The other day I read a piece about the Iranian government in the London Times, in which it was referred to as a “regime”.

The word regime, at least in the Western press, is mainly used to describe a government that, for one reason or another, the publication thinks we might not like. The reason is usually the authoritarian flavour of the entity in question. If a new entity has come about as the result of a revolution, the one that succeeds it, if it meets our approval, is usually referred to in the media as a government. But if it comes about through a coup d’état, it’s usually a regime.

Only after an unspecified period and under certain circumstances does the regime in a smallish country mutate into a government. That usually happens after it has held elections judged by the West to be free and fair. Until then, it’s a regime.

However, in a large and powerful country, the ruling political entity gets to be a government more or less immediately after it comes into being. We don’t, for example, refer to the governments of Russia and China as regimes.

In the case of Iran, when did it get to be a regime rather than a government? Was it when the Islamic Republic started locking up and executing people, which was more or less from the beginning of its life?  Or was it when it turned into something that other governments would like to change? Perhaps through the eyes of the West it was always a regime.

So here’s a thought. Since Donald Trump and his administration are displaying increasing authoritarian tendencies, should we call his administration a regime? Likewise the government of Narendra Modi in India?

And what about Saudi Arabia? It’s had the same government, uninterrupted by coups or revolutions, since 1932. Over the past 70 years it’s been a friend of the west. But it’s not a democracy, and it locks up dissidents and executes them through an opaque legal system. Does it deserve to be called a government or a regime? The answer, seems to be that when it buys lots of arms from us, it’s a government, and when its agents dismember Jamal Khashoggi, it’s a regime.

And Turkey? Since President Erdogan started locking up large numbers of journalists, has his government morphed into a regime?

On one level, this is unimportant. After all, newspapers are all talk. On another level, it is important, because the words they use influence us, often without our even being aware of it. Regime is a word with a slightly bad smell. It has the whiff of illegitimacy. It’s frequently used as part of a compound noun, as in “regime change” or “regime overthrow”.

So when newspapers – and politicians for that matter – refer to a government as a regime often enough, this conditions us to regard it as illegitimate, and worthy of being overthrown.

In the case of Iran, Donald Trump seems intent on encouraging the people of Iran to protest, and ultimately to overthrow their government. That is presumably the purpose of sanctions – squeeze until the pips squeak. He probably doesn’t care that a revolution in Iran would be violent, and that the outcome would not be guaranteed to produce a more benign alternative. One could hardly say that the governments of Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Russia have left their citizens happier than their predecessors.

Before Trumpland, politicians with an ounce of nuance would point to other countries whose revolutions looked more like evolution, and whose citizens have benefited accordingly – East European countries for example. As a consequence, nobody refers to the governments of Poland, Latvia and Hungary as regimes.

If I was Iranian, and I sat watching nervously as outside my window protesters are being arrested and gunned down, I reckon I would far prefer to see incremental change rather than yet another revolution. And this, surely, was one of the things Obama was looking to achieve with his nuclear deal.

So when we sit down with the London Times, the New York Times, the Daily Mail or the Washington Post, and we see a government being referred to as a regime, it does no harm to stop and ask ourselves who has made that determination, when and why. And in whose interest it is that the government in question be tarred with the brush of illegitimacy.

Most important of all, who would have to suffer in order for it to be made legitimate?

I don’t doubt for a moment that the Islamic Republic is controlled by ruthless people who care little about the lives of its citizens, just as Saddam Hussein was prepared to sacrifice countless Iraqis in order to keep his grip on power.

So under what circumstances is Iran likely to change for the better, by which orthodox opinion in the West usually means an apolitical military, an independent judiciary, laws that guarantee freedom of expression and an end to the stifling orthodoxy imposed by the Supreme Leader and his theocratic institutions?

I would suggest that barring an externally-generated regime overthrow, such changes will only come about under two alternative circumstances. The first is a violent revolution that would most likely be costly in lives and infrastructure. The second would be if the rulers felt secure enough to make changes without feeling their power threatened.

The latter scenario is very far from the current reality. By all appearances Iran’s rulers are deeply insecure. To make concessions through internal pressure would be seen as an act of weakness that in their view might invite more pressure.

If, on the other hand, Iran could be persuaded to give up its imperial ambitions and withdraw support from its various armed proxies in the region – in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq – such a move would pave the way to a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the United States. Not only that, but the money it would thereby save would be available to improve the lives of its own citizens.

By this logic the removal of General Soleimani would provide Iran with an opportunity to move in that direction, were it not that his assassination by the United States is seen by many Iranians as both an infringement of sovereignty and a national humiliation. And indeed, putting morality and legality aside, a more emotionally intelligent American president would perhaps have opted for a covert, deniable hit.

Even if Iran did roll back funding and direction to its proxy militias, it wouldn’t necessarily be the end of them. Given the instability in Syria and Iraq, some would look for other sponsors, and rivalry between militias might lead to yet more hostilities – a situation ISIS would undoubtedly exploit. But a period of adjustment might at least bring an opportunity to move towards a peaceful settlement.

There would still remain the little matter of its nuclear ambitions. But the JCPOA nuclear treaty remains as an option if Trump, or his successor, chose to reinstate it.

There have been some commentators who point out that in the various debates on the future of the region conducted in the Western media, the voices of the people within it are rarely heard. I agree with them. Most of what you read on the subject concerns the geopolitical aspects of the various rivalries, despite the efforts of some journalists and relief organisations to highlight the human costs.

Perhaps if we started looking at the conflicts from the perspective of those most affected – the powerless citizens of the region – different solutions might present themselves. We in the West have become numb to the suffering. You could argue that most of us only care when the victims arrive on our doorsteps seeking refuge, or when a film like For Sama intrudes on our daily diet of more prosaic concerns.

We are days away from the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. If you follow the Auschwitz Museum on Twitter, every day you will see a picture of one of the victims, along with a brief description of their lives. It’s part of a campaign to ensure that we never forget the crimes committed there. Yet while strenuous efforts are made to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, do we pay enough attention to the suffering of the living and recently departed of the Middle East? Perhaps in a similar way we should be able to remember the victims of the wars in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and beyond.

So back to the original question: when is a government a regime? Try listening to the opinions of those who have lost everything. I doubt if they’d care. But their views matter as much as those of the people who stand to lose their power, or of people like me, who sit in safe distance away from conflict that seems never to end.

For in the despair of the dispossessed lies the seeds of conflagrations to come.

5 Comments
  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    oh, where to begin…

    “So here’s a thought. Since Donald Trump and his administration are displaying increasing authoritarian tendencies, should we call his administration a regime? Likewise the government of Narendra Modi in India?”

    Point well made, and appreciate your doing so early on.

    “On another level, it is important, because the words they use influence us, often without our even being aware of it.”

    Point well made again, and again appreciated.
    This is true not only in our reading of the “news”, but in our existing in the societies we live in. This is how we end up “knowing” things that are simply untrue. We hear them so often, from so early an age, and we seldom get hit in the face with them forcing us to really understand what we have absorbed and what it means. This is very very important.
    This is how bigotry and hatred grows even in enlightened homes where the background noise is not heard above the rational voice we think we are entirely represented by.

    “One could hardly say that the governments of Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Russia have left their citizens happier than their predecessors.”

    Not sure how you know this. How many people in any of those countries have you had a chance to talk to? Relying on western “news” reporting is hardly the way to find out, I think?
    What we might find intolerable, others may find familiar and comforting. That’s certainly becoming more obvious in the U.S.

    “I don’t doubt for a moment that the Islamic Republic is controlled by ruthless people who care little about the lives of its citizens, just as Saddam Hussein was prepared to sacrifice countless Iraqis in order to keep his grip on power.”

    Have you seen the numbers lately from the U.S. as to attempts made to:
    disenfranchise large numbers of voters
    remove large numbers of poor from support programs (e.g. food stamps, housing subsidies)
    increase restrictions, raise prices and reduce rebates on ACA medical programs and life sustaining drugs
    looked at the voting records of those “representing” us in the federal government
    While this is still short of gassing towns, it can just as surely destroy life.

    “So under what circumstances is Iran likely to change for the better, by which orthodox opinion in the West usually means an apolitical military, an independent judiciary, laws that guarantee freedom of expression and an end to the stifling orthodoxy imposed by the Supreme Leader and his theocratic institutions?”

    Ok, then by that measure, how has the West been able to support the Banana Republics, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, India, the Philippines, Russia… I could go on, but I think you get the idea. How many of the criteria must be met for this to apply? How many lacking before it becomes obvious that it’s not the criteria that matter? It’s not the espoused principles that matter. All that matters is that they be OUR people, and then the government is not a regime.
    In fact, by that measure, how many Western countries are (or perhaps ever have been) governments?

    As a society, having accepted this hypocrisy for longer than I’ve been alive, what makes you think this is going to improve? Indeed, given what we have for a “government” now, I think the more cogent argument would be that the bad guys, by moving slowly and keeping us just comfortable enough, are winning in this game.

    So, back to the note above, we’ve swallowed the poison pills given us through the media, abetted by educational systems that have been destroyed, so that when the cry is “LOOK! that one is OTHER! We must protect ourselves from OTHER!” we mostly don’t have the awareness to recognize that they are pointing at us and certainly don’t have the tools to defend against the attacks.

    We are becoming nations of single person USs versus everyone else THEMs.
    No wonder we can’t join together to fight our common foe.

    I think I’ve ranted enough for one day.
    Apologies.

    • Thanks for your comments Debbie. They deserve a more considered response than time allows at the moment. I’ll get back to you later.

    • Hi Debbie. To your comments on my last blog piece:

      I don’t think there are any objective criteria that could define whether a government deserves to be called a regime. You are right in suggesting that few of us in the West are comfortable describing our own governments as such. And yes, most, whether they have stable governments or not, have in the past carried out activities that many of us in retrospect would disown.
      As for Trump, I was asking a question, not making a statement. In my opinion, he has pushed so hard at the boundaries of the US political system that you could describe his administration as a regime within a government. But up to now, the constitution still applies despite his efforts to subvert it, and by his use of powers not anticipated by the founders.

      And yes, governments are quite capable of affecting, and even ending the lives of their citizens by measures that are legally enacted. We should never forget that Hitler’s rise to dictatorship was sealed by an act of a democratically elected parliament – the Enabling Act of 1933. Even without statutes, governments can still act in ways that have catastrophic consequences. In the UK, reductions in police numbers and underfunding of the Health Service have undoubtedly cost lives. You also cited a few examples in the US in your comments.

      To your point about “the other”, the tactic of stirring up hatred against internal minorities and perceived external rivals for political advantage is as old as the hills. You and I could probably spend hours thinking of historical and current examples. While I agree that we have become atomised into single person “we’s” as the result of identity politics and so forth, that hasn’t stopped people from finding common cause in large numbers, especially when our emotions are manipulated by demagogues such as Trump, Duterte, Bolsonaro and others.

      In one respect we should perhaps celebrate identity diversity. We are after all individuals with the right (one could also say the moral obligation) to form opinions for ourselves. But when we turn on those who don’t share our opinions, that’s when we can be most easily manipulated.

      I asked the question about governments and regimes not to provide definitions and make judgements, but as a way to illustrate how easily we can be influenced by others without even knowing it.

      I don’t think you can make firm judgements on objective grounds, only subjective ones. The bad guys, who as you suggest win by making enough of us feel comfortable enough to keep them in power, also win posthumously, when people say that life was better under Stalin, Saddam and other monsters simply because there was bread on the table and no wolves at the door.
      I deliberately avoided calling democracy good and other forms of government (regimes?) bad in the knowledge that in some parts of the world millions of people (in China for example) are living lives infinitely more comfortable than those of previous generations. I have my views, but they might have other priorities than to see an apolitical military, an independent judiciary and laws that guarantee freedom of expression. Satisfying the first level of Maslow’ hierarchy of needs comes first.

      One last point. I have spoken to people from each of the countries I quote who have suffered the consequences of the current instability – not many, but a few. I can’t see how being caught up in violent conflict can possibly be familiar and comforting. I try to get a wider perspective on events in these countries by not relying solely on Western voices. But ultimately, you have to take a view for yourself on what is reality and what isn’t. Otherwise you fall into the trap of saying “everybody’s lying, so what is truth?”

      Anyway, thank you for diving deep enough into the issues in the piece to come up with all your interesting observations.

  2. deborah a moggio permalink

    For some reason I was not notified when you posted the reply. Thanks very much for taking the time. I had begun to worry I had offended.

    I have a strong belief (don’t want to use the word theory) that there is not and cannot be anything like what we call “history.” Even if we were present at the event, our view of it and that of the person next to us is not likely to be the same. Further, we know now of a certainty that our “memories”, however vivid, change over time.
    Instead, I think a more accurate phrase, and the warning contained therein, is “perception is the only truth”. We’re each in possession of our own. It’s nice when we can find overlap, but we cannot expect it, nor should we try to convince those with different views to accept ours as the “true”.
    I do enjoy reading your blog.

    Just as a bit of fun, this has been circulating:

    CLEAR AS MUD
    Are you confused by what is going on in the Middle East? Let me explain.

    We support the Iraqi government in the fight against Islamic State. We don’t like IS, but IS is supported by Saudi Arabia, whom we do like.

    We don’t like President Assad in Syria. We support the fight against him, but not IS, which is also fighting against him.

    We don’t like Iran, but Iran supports the Iraqi government against IS. So, some of our friends support our enemies and some of our enemies are our friends and some of our enemies are fighting against our other enemies, whom we want to lose, but we don’t want our enemies who are fighting our enemies to win.

    If the people we want to defeat are defeated, they might be replaced by people we like even less. And all this was started by us invading a country to drive out terrorists who weren’t actually there until we went in to drive them out. Do you understand now?

    Aubrey Bailey, Fleet, Hants.

    • Thanks Debbie. I prefer to think of history as facts and perceptions of facts. The latter of course is subjective, and concerns meaning, perspective and context among other things. The former – “there was a battle”, for example – is objective but still subject to revision. Aubrey Bailey gets it pretty right, except that such contradictions predate Iraq 2003 by several millennia! S

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