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Iran

How Does the Iranian Conflict End?

[digg-reddit-me]The stories in the Times and elsewhere turn today to the question of how this stand-off in Iran will end. None of the three most likely scenarios have unfolded in the past week – as the protests have not petered out – and in fact seem to be growing in strength; the government has not tried to put down the protests with violence (on a large scale); and Mir-Houssein Mousavi has not backed down – as Robert F. Worth in the Times quoted a relative of Mousavi’s:

Mr. Moussavi says he has taken a path that has no return and he is ready to make sacrifices.

This last comment – and the growing strength of the crowds – suggest that no resolution is in the immediate offing. Despite this, it’s hard to see how long the type of drama overwhelming day-to-day concerns can last. Eventually, one needs to get back to the business of living. It is this prospect most of all that seems to undercut the ferment for change. I’ve seen 5 basic scenarios outlined for how this could end, listed in order of descending likelihood:

  • Violent government crackdown. This is what everyone is preparing for – and what the Revolutionary Guard is warning about.
  • Power-sharing. Mousavi seems to have ruled this out, and this compromise seems unlikely to satisfy many of those protesting, but enormous pressure is being put on Mousavi to accept some sort of arrangement, and he has always been a man of the status quo. The prospect of a President Ahmadinejad and a Foreign Minister Mousavi, for example, has been speculated.
  • Protestors stop showing up. Eventually, the movement just dies out – as people get on with their lives. It’s hard to imagine now, but it’s hard to imagine any ending to these protests. This seems to have been the initial hope of Khamenei – and the reason for his superficial attempts to appease the protestors by allowing a review of a small percentage of the votes.
  • A new election. This is the demand of the protesters and Mousavi. But to allow a new election because of massive voter fraud would call into question the leadership of Iran – and probably implicate leaders from Khamenei to Ahmadinejad to the Interior Department to the Revolutionary Guard. The storyline supporting this demand calls last Friday’s election a coup d’etat – and thus demands a new, more fair election. After this controversy, it seems necessary that Iran allow some transparency in their vote-counting process – rather than having it all centrally controlled and secret.
  • A revolution. The protesters could overthrow the current regime – but the tenor of the current protests has deliberately stayed away from this idea. Mousavi has been encouraging his supporting to chant generic Islamic slogans – rather than more charged ones.

There are a few wild cards at work in all of this however.

Neither Mousavi nor Khamenei nor Ahmadinejad are completely in control of the forces supporting them. Both Mousavi and Khamenei are considered uncharismatic power brokers (with Mousavi even being compared to an “Iranian Michael Dukakis“) – and both have achieved what they have by positioning themselves cleverly rather than by articulating a vision, winning over the people, or the other traditional measures of leadership. Ahmadinejad is charismatic – and has many supporters – but he is generally seen as, not a true leader, but a front-man for the second-generation revolutionaries who are seeking to purge all of the first-generation revolutionaries from power (except Khamenei). It’s unclear what would happen if Khamenei were to push for a new election – would the more radical elements overthrow him? It’s also unclear what would happen if Mousavi were to tell the crowds to go home – he seems to have gained their confidence, but he freely admits this movement is not about him. Mousavi’s external spokesperson admitted to Foreign Policy yesterday:

[T]he young people in the streets are more modern [than the 1979 Iranian revolutionaries]: They use SMS; they use the Internet. And they are not being actually led by anyone, but they are connected to each other.

The power struggle among the Iranian elites has finally come into partial view. There seem to be three basic factions: the Reformers – including former President Khatami, former Prime Minister Rafsanjani, and Mousavi; conservatives led by Ayatollah Khamenei; and the far right-wing religious cultists fronted by Ahmadinejad.

Rafsanjani is generally considered to be the second most powerful person in Iran as he leads the council which can remove the Supreme Leader, has thrown his support behind Mousavi. In the run-up to the election, he was providing logistical support to Mousavi – and was accused of corruption in a public debate by Ahmadinejad. It is widely rumored that Rafsanjani is now trying to round up clerics to support Mousavi in Qom.

At the same time, the Hojjatiyeh now led by Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi (who seem to have a set of beliefs similar to the Christian millenialists who are trying to create the conditions for the end of the world) have been gradually infiltrating the government and the Revolutionary Guard, and at this point have many of leadership positions, including the presidency held by Ahmadinejad. Yazdi rejects the idea of elections – and wrote a fatwa two weeks before this election condoning fraud and cheating in an election to achieve the proper ends. Ahmadinejad himself apparently does not refer to Iran as the “Islamic Republic” as it is officially called – but as the “Islamic Government.” The Hojjatiyeh’s views are in many ways antithetical to some of the founding ideals behind the 1979 revolution – which is why the Hojjatiyeh did not join the revolution and did not assume positions of power until recently.

Khamenei has generally opposed the reformers – and has historical bad blood with Mousavi from when they both were in positions of power in the 1980s. But he is of a different generation and background than the Hojjatiyeh. He has tended to support them, but also has sought to check their power. It’s unclear at this point whether Khamenei is simply accepting their position of power or actively promoting their interests.

How this ends is still unclear. Khamenei’s remarks this morning have been described as “ominous.” That seems to point to a forthcoming government crackdown – but is far from clear that this crackdown will be successful – and it could possibly destabilize the regime, forcing many clerics who are suspicious of the Hojjatiyeh and who think the election was fraudulent to come off the fence and back Mousavi. The social bargain that underlied the Iranian government’s rule though seems to have come undone – as the people, in anger at hypocrisy and being robbed of their votes, have braved the wrath of the government, defying clear orders not to assemble. What they have demonstrated, with their massive, non-violent civil disobedience so far has been exceptional – and whether they succeed or not is an example for the world.

[Image by Hamed Saber licensed under Creative Commons.]

Categories
Iran The Opinionsphere

A few disjointed thoughts on Iran

Thomas Erdbrink in the Washington Post:

When asked about protests and complaints, Ahmadinejad said that it was important to ask the opinions of “true Iranians” on the election. “Like the people you meet at my rallies,” he said. He described the protesters as soccer hooligans who were disappointed that their team lost the match. “This is not important,” he said. “We have full freedom in Iran.” [my emphasis]

I’ve already heard Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described as the Sarah Palin of Iran – and this invocation of the “true Iranians” only seems to make the analogy more apt – reminding me at least of Sarah Palin’s invocation of the “pro-American” parts of America.

I honestly don’t know what to make of this – Ahmadinejad’s joke about whether or not Mousavi was under house arrest:

“He ran a red light, and he got a traffic ticket,” Mr. Ahmadinejad quipped when asked about his rival.

The moment I heard that Ahmadinejad was announced as the winner, my mind flashed to an Andrew Sullivan post about a texted joke making the rounds in Tehran:

The Election Commission has announced in its last statement regarding the election that writing names such as monkey, traitor, fascist, silly, and [expletive] on the ballots will be considered a vote for Ahmadinejad.

Pepe Escobar in the Asia Times points out a rather odd statistical nugget about the election results for the other reformer in the race:

Karroubi not only didn’t win in his home province of Lorestan, he had less votes than volunteers helping in his campaign.

Escobar also explains the odd sequence of events that led to the announcement of Ahmadinejad’s “election”:

The polls closed at 10pm on Friday, Tehran time. Most main streets then were fully decked out in green. In an absolutely crucial development, the great Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf told Radio Farda how Mousavi’s main campaign office in Tehran received a phone call on Saturday at 1am; the Interior Ministry was saying “Don’t announce Mr Mousavi’s victory yet … We will gradually prepare the public and then you can proceed.” Iranian bloggers broke down the vote at the time as 19.7 million for Mousavi, between 7 and 8 million for Ahmadinejad, 7 million for Karroubi, and 3 million for Rezai.

Then all hell seemed to break loose. Phones, SMS, text messaging, YouTube, political blogs, opposition websites, foreign media websites, all communication networks, in a cascade, were shutting down fast. Military and police forces started to take over Tehran’s streets. The Ahmadinejad-controlled Ministry of Interior – doubling as election headquarters – was isolated by concrete barriers. Iranian TV switched to old Iron Curtain-style “messages of national unity”. And the mind-boggling semi-final numbers of Ahmadinejad’s landslide were announced (Ahmadinejad 64%, Mousavi 32%, Rezai 2% and Karroubi less than 1%).

The fact that the electoral commission had less than three hours to hand-count 81% of 39 million votes is positively a “divine assessment”.

Pre-election, Robert F. Worth had a few prescient words in his Times piece:

Some Iranians believe that the unruly democratic energies unleashed over the past few weeks could affect this country’s politics no matter who wins…But hope has often outpaced reality in Iran…

Categories
Barack Obama Foreign Policy Iran National Security

Iran’s Green “Revolution”

There have been several positive indicators in the Middle East and surrounding regions since Obama’s Cairo speech – from the survival of the pro-Western government in Lebanon to the growing opposition of ordinary Pakistanis to the Taliban. It seems in both places – as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan – that the best strategy taken so far has been George W. Bush’s unintentional one of letting Al Qaeda win – and then stepping in to clean up after the fact once people have become disillusioned. But so far, the issue that has gotten the most attention has been Iran’s election.

Still, I’m not quite sure what to make of Iran’s election tomorrow. International newspapers seem to be hyping Mir Hossein Mousavi as Iran’s answer to Barack Obama. He is – it seems – an individual who has come to personify “change” and engagement with the world at large standing against a radical, polarizing, religious right-winger. At the same time Mousavi has close relations with the establishment of Iran – which allowed him to run. But he, like Obama, is not comfortable being a populist. His main opponent, Ahmadinejad, is. As Cameron Abadi described Mousavi’s defects in the Foreign Policy:

He talks only in generalities about his plans, his emphasis on competence and “scientific management.” He’s made promises to loosen restriction on personal freedom, but his ire is more drawn by Ahmadinejad’s “dictatorial” flouting of the checks and balances of the Islamic Republic’s constitution. Mousavi promises change, but no one would mistake him for Barack Obama. He might not even qualify as a Michael Dukakis.

But somehow this establishment technocrat continues to routinely elicit rock-star receptions across the country. In the run-up to the election, much of grayish Tehran has been draped in green, the official color of the Mousavi campaign. The police and khaki-clad national guards have been forced to watch every day as Tehran’s youth — Iran’s baby boom generation of the 1980s — assemble in giddy pandemonium, distributing green bracelets and banners of protest against Ahmadinejad’s presidency, proselytizing to undecided pedestrians and whenever in doubt shouting taunting cries of “Ahmadi, bye-bye!” At night, the chorus of chants and laughter and hastily written campaign songs mingle with the din of car horns…

“We’ve never seen this before,” she said with a tremble. “This is our revolution.” [my emphasis]

Other reports have focused on Ahmadinejad’s large and boisterous crowds – and the excitment propelling him. Some have likened Ahmadinejad’s place in Iranian politics to Sarah Palin’s.

One recurrent theme in the reports on the Iranian election is that economic rather than foreign policy issues will determine the result. The downturn in Iran’s economic fortunes has brought to the forefront festering social issues such as the “marriage crisis” in which many Iranian men are being “priced out” of the marriage market and the ambiguous role of women in Iranian society (as they are more educated – 60% of university students are women – yet much more likely to be umemployed – as only 15% of the workforce is female.)

It’s not clear which way this election will go – and even if Mousavi wins in a landslide, it will not change the power structure in Iran significantly – as the power is concentrated in Khamenei’s hands.

But a hopeful sign is not something to be dismissed – and the desire for change moderately expressed can bring about a better world than most revolutions.

[Image by Shahram Sharif licensed under Creative Commons.]