Certain theorists, including Crane Brinton and Timothy Wickham-Crowley, have argued that the role of the armed forces is the key factor in deciding whether a nondemocratic revolution succeeds or fails. If the armed forces protect the ancien regime, then the revolutionary opposition is unable to seize power. If, however, the armed forces do not protect the ancien regime, then the revolutionaries usually do come to power. I will argue that just as in attempts at nondemocratic revolution, the role played by the military is also a key factor in determining the outcome of democratic revolution. When the military is willing to use force to protect the ancien regime, democratic revolutionaries cannot prevail. It is only the refusal of the armed forces to use force that allows democratic revolutionaries to succeed.Since the obvious case of concern here is Iran, let's talk Iran. The military really has three branches here. There's the Armed Forces proper, for one. By all accounts, it's pretty loyal—though some analysts think that a downturn in the economy could provoke dissent. Next we have Iran's Revolutionary Guard (the Pasdaran), which was created in 1979 to protect the Revolution and enforce Islamic codes. These folks are perhaps the weakest link. In 1994 the Pasdaran showed a wee bit of disloyalty, when anti-clerical riots broke out in Ghazvin, and a number of Pasdaran and Army Commanders refused to suppress the crowds. Furthermore, I believe a number of Revolutionary Guardsmen voted for Khatami in 1997. Anyways, after Ghazvin, Tehran began relying mostly on the basiji--volunteer groups of vigilantes to maintain domestic order. This is the third group, funded mostly by religious charities. I'm not sure, but I don't think Ayatollah Khameini has direct control over the basiji. I believe they are mostly controlled by the Combatant Clergy Association, a conservative party which forms the largest bloc in parliament.
What, then, determines whether the armed forces of an authoritarian regime will use force to suppress a democratic revolutionary movement? Using a comparison of the cases mentioned, I will argue that the decision by the armed forces not to protect an authoritarian regime is not the result of a democratic conversion on the part of the military as a whole, but that it results instead from an overwhelming desire to prevent conflict within the military. Thus, if even a small number of key commanders defect to the democratic opposition, this can neutralize the armed forces as a whole, even though most military leaders may be wary of, or even hostile toward, democratization. But if these key defections to the democratic opposition do not occur and the military remains unified, it is able to crush easily the democratic revolutionaries.