Friday, June 26, 2009


For various reasons I may or may not explain - I haven't decided yet - I've been what is for me oddly silent on Iran. "Oddly" at least partly because I devoted a good deal of attention to the February 2004 elections (nine posts between late January and early March 2004). One reason, however, has been the difficulty of keeping up with the pace of events enough to say something intelligent that won't be obsolesced by the next news cycle - something which I have to say has been true of a fair amount of the commentary I've seen.

Still, this last weeks have contained a remarkable series of events, with ample cases of courage and cruelty, bravery and bloodshed, resistance and repression. I won't try to recap all that has happened; there are more than enough sources for day-to-day, even moment-to-moment, accounts. Rather, I want to offer a few observations on what I think the events have meant and will mean.

Start with the obvious: The election count was rigged. Period. There is no room here for rational dispute. For one thing, as some such as Robert Fisk have pointed out,
on the election night, if the count was correct it meant that they would have had to have counted five million votes in two hours.
And a total of 40 million in a few more. (And remember, these are paper ballots.) In fact, an analysis by the Chatham House think tank in London and the Institute of Iranian Studies at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland "makes a compelling case for wide-spread fraud in the vote," in the words of the Christian Science Monitor.
[T]he researchers found a pattern of voting widely at odds from past Iranian elections, including a surge in support for [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad in rural areas where conservative candidates were deeply unpopular in Iran’s 1997, 2001, and 2005 elections. ...

They also find that for Ahmadinejad’s support to be legitimate, in a third of Iran’s provinces he would have had to win over not only all of his former supporters, but all formerly centrist voters, all new voters, and “up to 44 percent of former reformist voters, despite a decade of conflict between these two groups.” ...

The paper also finds that while in past elections there were considerable differences in turnout from province to province, these regional differences declined sharply in the latest election. “The data seems to suggest that regional variations in participation have suddenly disappeared," the authors wrote.
In fact, according to Ali Ansari, a professor at the Institute of Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews and one of the authors of the study, “I don’t think they actually counted the votes, though that’s hard to prove.”

The question whether Ahmadinejad would have won a fair election outright or after a runoff remains. Perhaps he would have: Most polls leading up to the election had him with a healthy lead. However, I don't recall any that had him with the majority he would need to avoid a runoff. Facing the possibility of a united opposition in that event, a runoff would be very risky for Ahmadinejad, a risk magnified by the fact that Iranian voters have showed clear preferences for reformers in recent elections: As is often forgotten, that's how Ahmadinejad won, by campaigning on a promise to crack down on corruption, and it was his failure on that score, along with (something else often forgotten) Iran's severe economic struggles, that have left him damaged goods.

One more important consideration here is that the very occurrence of a runoff would be a slap in the face to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, who was known to back the incumbent president.

Be all of that as it may, the real question of if this was a fair election has been answered: No.

This also means that the statement I made in another context not that long ago that despite its shortcomings - the necessity of candidates to be approved by a council of mullahs being the most obvious - "Iran remains within hailing distance of a democracy" is no longer true. Fraudulent elections enforced by clubs and guns is the hallmark of a dictatorship.

Next, it appears to me that the authorities were caught off guard by the intensity of the reaction, as they did not resort to the usual thug tactics in the face of dissent until after the crowds of demonstrators had grown to at least hundreds of thousands. Robert Fisk noted last week that even
the actual government newspapers reported at one point that Sunday's march was not provocative by the marchers. They carried a very powerful statement by the Chancellor of the Tehran University, condemning the police and Basij, who broke into university dormitories on Sunday night and killed seven students.

They've even carried reports of the seven dead after the march on Sunday....
What's more, he reported having just witnessed a confrontation between "about 15,000 supporters of Ahmadinejad" and "about 10,000 Mousavi men and women" - during which the local police kept the groups apart and were even "beginning to smile towards the demonstrators of Mr Mousavi."
You've got to realise that what's happening at the moment is that the actual authorities are losing control of what's happening on the streets and that's very dangerous and damaging to them[, he said].
Indeed it was. Speaking with Amy Goodman of "Democracy Now!" last Tuesday, Nahid Siamdoust, "Time" magazine correspondent in Tehran, said that in his acceptance speech, Ahmadinejad described the protestors as "brushwood and motes" or "weeds and grass," that is, just unimportant trash, not to be taken seriously. But by the weekend
the state had understood that these claims and grievances over election fraud weren’t just coming from a small group within Iranian society. ... But certainly yesterday, with that demonstration of more than one million people and the helicopters hovering above and just sizing up the crowd, I think they’ve got a notion of this being a much, much bigger movement and much bigger claim.
That those present represented "a much bigger movement" was echoed in the report of a participant, who wrote in a piece that appeared in The New Yorker that
the demonstrators around me represented an impressive cross-section of Iranian society. The crowd in Azadi Street was dominated by young people, and many of the girls wore the regulation black maghna’eh, or hooded cloak, that they wear in class. There were also elderly men and women, and families whose dress and appearance suggested that they had come from modest precincts of Tehran or the provinces. I saw a friend who has a government job. She had left work early, along with ten of her colleagues, and with the permission of her supervisor. We passed a government office building where employees were leaning out the windows, waving.
As oppressors usually do when they feel their power threatened, the government combined threats with attempts to buy off the opposition cheap, in this case by having the Guardian Council "investigate" claims of election fraud. And - golly gee whiz waddaya know - it found there were irregularities affecting three million votes ("See, we address your concerns seriously and admit error."), a large number but not enough to affect the outcome ("So shut up and go home.").

When the opposition was neither dissuaded nor bought off with bullshit, the threats turned to open repression, the sheer viciousness of which showed how worried, even fearful, the state was. One thing I found revealing is that security for Baghdad was largely removed from local forces - some of who, remember, had "begun to smile towards the demonstrators" - and turned over to the basijis and special units of the Revolutionary Guard. It appears the government was worried it couldn't trust the locals, a notion given added support by a writer claiming to be writing from inside Iran who said that
[t]oday the commander of the Tehran Police refused to implement the suppression orders sent down to him by the Government.
(It was hard to tell from the text, which was undated, just what day "today" was.)

In the government's eyes, it wasn't enough, it developed, to simply break up demonstrations, it was felt necessary to even prevent them from starting. Even being in the vicinity of an area targeted for a demonstration was enough to get you beaten, and groups even of two or three were separated, often enough violently. A number of protesters were killed and authorities arrested hundreds more, along with some prominent reform leaders.

Still, defiance remained and protests continued although they consisted of thousands, then hundreds, no longer hundreds of thousands. As of this writing, it does appear the oppressors are regaining a grip on the control that very nearly slipped from their fingers - but they remain worried, and for good cause.

The fact is that it's not over and likely won't be for some time. Neither side looks ready to back down. The government certainly isn't, in fact it may be preparing to escalate the political repression. The opposition, while it has been pushed back, isn't ready to give up. Despite the government's tightening grip,
there were also signs of continued resistance. A few conservatives have expressed revulsion at the sight of unarmed protesters being beaten, even shot, by government forces. Only 105 out of the 290 members of Parliament took part in a victory celebration for Mr. Ahmadinejad on Tuesday, newspapers reported Thursday. The absence of so many lawmakers, including the speaker, Ali Larijani, a powerful conservative, was striking. ...

To avoid violent suppression of street protests, people are turning to other ways of expressing dissent. Echoing a symbol of defiance to the shah, the ritual of 10 p.m. rooftop shouts of “God is great” and new chants of “Death to the dictator” has been growing stronger by the day.

Some people have begun to identify and embarrass plainclothes agents by circulating photographs of those who infiltrated protests and beat demonstrators. And protesters have pledged to release thousands of green and black balloons on Friday in memory of those killed in the clashes.
There are also darker protests, riskier, more violent, but more silent resistance, as well, if an email from Iraq can be believed. It was posted by Steve Clemons at The Washington Note. It was forwarded from a friend who got it from one of that friend's contacts in Iran.
[A]s the general crowds spread into their homes militia style Mousavi supporters were out on the streets 'Basiji hunting'.

Their resolve is no less than these thugs - they after [sic] hunting them down. They use their phones, their childhood friends, their intimate knowledge of their districts and neighbours to plan their attacks - they're organised and they're supported by their community so they have little fear. They create the havoc they're after, ambush the thugs, use their Cocktail Molotovs, disperse and re-assemble elsewhere and then start again - and the door of every house is open to them as safe harbour - they're community-connected.

The Basiji's are not.

These are not the students in the dorms, they're the street young - they know the ways better than most thugs - and these young, a surprising number of them girls, are becoming more agile in their ways as each night passes on.
Perhaps more significantly, the outburst of resistance brought cracks in the ruling elites into sharp focus. For one thing,
a number of influential clerics have spoken out about the election results and the subsequent crackdowns.

Ayatollah Mehdi Hadavi Tehrani called on Thursday for Interior Minister Sadeq Mahouli to be impeached.
Some other
senior clerics have protested, with varying degrees of severity, at the manner in which the elections were conducted and the violence that followed. Ayatollah Montazeri, the former heir to Khomeini, who was pushed aside following political disputes, has been the most explicit in his condemnation of the elections.
Montazeri, one of architects of the 1979 revolution, also said that "Resisting people’s demand is religiously prohibited.”

There is a report that representatives of the Guardian Council went to the clerics at the holy city of Qom to get their public endorsement of the legitimacy of the election. The clerics refused and instead told the government to look for a compromise.

There are political voices, too, significant ones, among the dissidents: Former President Mohammed Khatami, for one. Mehdi Karroubi, one of the losing candidates, took part in some of the demonstrations. He is an ex-Speaker of the Iranian Parliament. Hashemi Rafsanjani, another pillar of the revolution, is a former president and a Mousavi supporter who now chairs the Assembly of Experts, which chooses the supreme Ayatollah - and which has to power to dismiss Khamenei. Mir Hossein Mousavi himself is a former Prime Minister. The separations are not just between the demonstrators and the governing elite - they're within the governing elite itself.

There have been attempts to intimidate these dissenting elites: Five members of Rafsanjani's family were arrested over the weekend and then released. The head of parliament's judiciary committee hinted that Mousavi could be charged with "criminal acts" such as "calling for illegal protests and issuing provocative statements," leading to "unrest." Mousavi has been largely silenced, limited pretty much to statements through his website and today it emerged that Iran's National Security Council threatened him, telling him his opposition to the vote count was "illogical and unethical." But even now, even in these circumstances, these are men sufficiently powerful that the government has not dared to move against them directly and openly, at least not yet.

In fact there's a third faction emerging, centered around Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and some relatives. Larijani has gotten some press lately because he said a majority of Iranians contest the official results of the election and "the opinion of this majority should be respected." However, Larijani and those around them are not supporters of the dissidents; rather, they are conservatives who regard the protests as a threat to the system and appear to be trying to position themselves as the, if you will, "moderate" alternative to the protestors with the potential influence such a position can afford.

That, however, brings up yet another point, one important to mention: The dissidents such as Mousavi and Rafsanjani are not progressives and they are not liberals. Rather, they are moderates - more exactly, they are moderates within the context of Iran. They believe in the revolution, they believe in the Islamic Republic, they have no desire at all to overthrow the system of which they are part. While it's reasonable to believe that were they in power that they would loosen certain existing theocratic restrictions somewhat and would be more interested in better ties with Europe and the US - you can decide for yourself if you think that would be a good or a bad thing - there is no reason to think they would bring any fundamental change to Iranian society or Iranian foreign policy.

So our support for the protests must not be based on support for the particular candidates but on the idea of free and fair elections and the idea of basic political freedoms - as well as on the general moral principle of supporting resistance to illegitimate authority, which the Iranian government surely has become if it was not already.

In light of that, it's good to realize that while the politicians - particularly Mousavi - may provide a focus for the resistance, they are not the driving force behind it. They are not the cause. Note well that the people that gather on the rooftops night after night to call out their protest and show others that they are not alone, are not just calling out "Allahu Akhbar," they are calling out "marg bar dictator" - death to the dictator. While it would be easy to think the "dictator" they mean is Ahmadinejad, too many Iranians are too politically aware to think of him as the real power. I am convinced that the "dictator" is Khamenei. The demonstrators, I strongly suspect, are desirous of a considerably greater change than their supposed leaders. The well-known fact that the majority of the population of Iran is under 27 so the 1979 revolution is just words to them, only strengthens that impression. Even if this outbreak is suppressed, change will come to Iran.

Which raises one last point: The government of Iran, it's said often enough to make your ears ache, doesn't care what the world thinks. Doesn't care what anyone thinks.


If Iran doesn't care what the world thinks, why did it expel Western reporters? Why did it interfere with cell phone signals and satellite TV signals? Why did it try to interfere with internet communications? If it doesn't care what the world thinks, why is it trying so hard to keep that world from knowing what's going on?

Why has it tried so hard in the international press to discredit the story of the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan? Why did it ban her family from holding a memorial service at their local mosque?

Damn straight they care what the world thinks. And even if you want to say they don't care much what the US or Europe thinks, they damn well care about what the rest of the Middle East thinks. And neighboring Arab Muslim governments are not happy.

One obvious reason, of course, is fear that the model of "street power" which gave the protests their strength, could spill across borders, threatening their own often-despotic rules.
"I think that most of these governments would be concerned about the images of popular demonstrations against the government because it, in a way, reminds them of their own vulnerability," says political scientist Thomas Mattair.... "Whereas for the Arab public it would be encouraging."
That, however, would seem to push those states into supporting the repression, the better to maintain "order" in Iran and thus "order" at home. But that's not all there is to it. There's the fact that historically Iran has been, and continues to see itself as, a regional superpower. It has even made thinly-veiled threats toward external opponents of the regime.
Al Dar, a Kuwaiti newsportal, on Sunday quoted senior Iranian sources, without naming them, as saying that the Iranians would take action against those who meddled in Iran's domestic affairs.

"The Iranian leadership is now focused on achieving stability in the country. However, after it finishes the legal and constitutional tackling of the internal movements, Iranian leaders will not remain silent towards those who interfered in Iran's domestic affairs by pouring in huge amounts of dollars or by expanding conflicts to undermine the system," the sources said.
The other regional governments are wary of Iran's attempts to assert itself. From that perspective, internal turmoil in Iran benefits those other states by forcing Iran to focus inwardly, at least for a time.

But even beyond that, a number of states in the region for their own reasons desire a less-confrontational Iran pursuing a less-radical course internationally.
Dr Mohammad Al Naqabi, Head of the Negotiation Centre, Abu Dhabi, said that the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] has always refrained from interfering in Iran's internal politics including the right of Iranian people to elect their president.

"However, the GCC prefers to see a president in Iran who is less hostile to the west and who has a clear vision about how to establish constructive relations with its neighbours in the GCC.
So while those other nations are worried about the possibility of spillover,
the possibility that a more accommodating and friendly Iran could emerge is ... on the positive side of the ledger.
On the other hand,
Essam El Erian, who heads the political affairs section of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most popular opposition movement ... points out that if a moderate who is more open to dialogue with the West replaces President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the regional balance of power may shift at Arabs' expense
by actually increasing the regional influence of Iran.

there is a great level of disagreement among member states about their assessment....

The disagreement among Arabs about the Iranian issue has reached a stage that some Arab countries including Egypt has criticised Arab League Secretary General Amr Mousa, for sending a congratulatory cable to Ahmadinejad after the second announcement of the election.
Toby Jones, a historian of the Middle East at Rutgers University, concluded that
I don't think the Arab governments know what they want out of this situation.... In some they have to be worried about another revolution being exported, but if there's real change they might have a more democratic government to deal with as opposed to this whacko regime that everyone says can't be trusted.
While the description of the regime as "whacko" and "can't be trusted" is surely overdrawn - they clearly are not nuts and the government can be trusted in the same way every other government can be "trusted," which is to do what it thinks is in its own best interests - the point about the conflicting desires of those Arab governments to on the one hand protect their own interests and on the other to have an Iran more accommodating to regional considerations and plans, remains.

And, bluntly, despite its bluster, its threats, and its sense of self-importance, there is only so far Iran can go in ignoring those concerns and only so long it can go without addressing them.

So here we are. What happens now? What do we, can we, do?

My answer to the first question is simple: I don't know. I do expect the regime will survive and I do expect Ahmadinejad to be sworn in. I expect the repression to continue, even increase, because I also expect the resistance to continue. It will be small-scale, almost if you will guerrilla resistance, but enough to show that the opposition, the resentment, remains alive; enough to demonstrate the truth of John Morely's famous quote, “You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.”

I also expect that after a "decent interval," that is, a time long enough to claim the two events are not related and so avoid admitting it was forced into it, the regime will make some proposals looking in the general direction of the opposition, for example, proposals to tighten up voting and vote-counting procedures, measures intended to sap strength from the opposition without changing anything basic.

Finally, I expect that in the longer term, the demographic time bomb that is the population of Iran will produce some of the basic changes which the current regime will resist. During the long-ago and long-forgotten (except by locals) fight over People's Park, a University of California San Francisco chancellor said "In the long run of history, flowers will always win against fences and students will always win against old men." So I expect it will be here.

Which leaves the other question: What do we do?

First, I think President Obama has for the most part done well on this, offering support for political rights while avoiding giving the regime any easy targets for claiming the US is behind the protests. (The usual flakes will claim it anyway, of course.) There are already sanctions against Iran of various sorts, and admittedly there is not a lot of room for more.

But "not a lot of room" is not the same as "no room." There is room for further sanctions against Iran. And they should be imposed. In fact, I think it's time for what might be called secondary sanctions. In labor disputes, boycotts, which are surely a form of sanctions, can be directed against the employer. "Secondary boycotts" are those directed against those who do business with the employer. Although such boycotts are illegal in most cases for unions covered by the National Labor Relations Act, they were an effective weapon for the United Farm Workers.

The point here is that while they may be illegal for most unions, they are assuredly not illegal for governments. I say it is time for the US, the EU, and the UN to stop putting sanctions on Iran over a likely-non-existent nuclear weapons program, put them on over the issue of political repression, fraudulent elections, and thuggish violence directed against nonviolent protestors, and extend them to those who do business with Iran.

No, we can't change everything, everywhere; no, we can't solve every issue; yes, Iran is probably not the worst; yes, you can toss out a big pile of "what about...?" None of that does mean, none of that can be allowed to mean, that we should ignore the case being pushed in our collective face. To do so is to argue ourselves into complete moral paralysis. And we're seen enough of that.

Footnote: I heard a report but which I can't locate now that said Iranian authorities were calling on people to turn in neighbors who took part in the nightly shouts of "Allahu Ahkbar." If that report was correct, the government was truly afraid: Imagine a Muslim government proposing to punish people for saying "God is great."

One Other Footnote: An additional outcome of this is that I learned a new word: Schrecklichkeit.

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