June 17, 2009

The Situation in Iran

Before turning to a brief analysis of some possible scenarios in Iran going forward, let us begin by acknowledging none of us (really, it is true!) can genuinely know what exactly is happening in Iran now several days into this remarkable crisis. Iranian politics have always been tremendously opaque, and the situation unfolding now, despite so evocative, hugely moving scenes we are all witnessing through the vistas of blogs, YouTube, and Twitter (indefatigably being collated with unparalleled passion, at least in the U.S. blogosphere, by Andrew Sullivan), is no exception. No one can yet say definitively, for instance, that Ahmadi-Nejad didn’t win the election, even comfortably. This is not to say he might not have won by a much smaller margin, but regardless we cannot know with certitude as of this writing. On the other hand, it is possible that Mir Hossein Mousavi took this election by a mammoth land-slide, and this was the most brazen electoral theft and effective coup d’etat we have yet to witness in the new millennium. Again, we cannot know with unimpeachable definitiveness either way or whether even it was more an outcome somewhere in between, as is likelier.

Still, we can strive for some educated analyses and/or guesses, despite some of our strong suspicions arising only from what is more by way of circumstantial evidence, at this stage, than concrete determinative fare. The fact, for instance, that Mr. Mousavi is of Azeri background does render his relatively weak performance in certain Azeri areas of Iran suspect (if not a slam-dunk case of foul play, as has been pointed out not unfairly here, as Ahmadi-Nejad speaks Azeri quite well, has served on behalf of some of these provinces, and has proven a skilled campaigner with this population segment on occasion). Ditto some of the strong Ahmadi-Nejad polling numbers in the larger, urban centers raise suspicion. Analysts like Juan Cole, among others, have made reasonably strong cases here, to include debunking some the related notion of some massive schism as between North versus South Teheran, say, with Karim Sadjadpour making similar points. And yet, as credible and recent polling data showcase, Ahmadi-Nejad has, like it or not, continued to enjoy strong support among large swaths of the Iranian polity, though here too, Gary Sick makes the very fair point the poll in question was taken somewhat in advance of the purported Mousavian Green Wave (or was it a “surge”, that word again?). Then there is as well the sense that much of Iran’s youth would be far less inclined to vote for Ahmadi-Nejad, but here again, the record is mixed as this op-ed (related to above linked poll) discusses.

My point? Not only are Iranian politics notoriously byzantine, but parsing these electoral tea-leaves is no simple matter. All the above being said, however, my gut and heart and yes, even head, tell me this election, if not stolen, was a whole lot closer than the regime tried to have interested parties believe, at minimum (though I must confess sometimes I think Ahmadi-Nejad might have, only just, eked out a slight victory, though the ostensible gross rigging should render any such victory, had it even occurred, null and void, at least in any equitable system). And while Iranian elections have always been subject to such machinations, there was something here that smelled too brazen and over-the-top, not only to us here in the arm-chair classes sitting in far-away Manhattan and Georgetown, but much more important, to many thousands if not millions on the ground itself, living daily this tumult, contributing apparently to a quite persuasive feeling among many on the street that the regime was treating them like credulous, half-asleep ‘sheep’.

Why was this handled so ham-handedly, one wonders? While speculative, this is perhaps because some of the more ultra-conservative key Governmental interests were possibly seeing in the late-breaking electoral momentum a material and rapid up-tick in Mousavi’s support, and not least given the seeming ‘color revolution’ undertones (or counter-revolutionary, I guess), through the resultant over-reaction, gamed the election far too crudely (one senses the street protests would have been less massive and protracted, after all, the worst such disturbances in Iran since the 1979 Revolution itself, had the more typical Persian penchant for subtler action been taken, via say Ahmadi-Nejad only the victor by a thin margin, even if fraud were suspected, rather than this far cruder spectacle that seems for well too many to have appeared a grossly large-scale, overly blunt, and particularly galling gaming of the results).

Beyond this, one can’t help feeling that, mostly perhaps as a result of the sheer demographics of the mushrooming youth quotient in Iran, there is increasing fatigue with the now 30 year old Islamic Revolution, so that something profound has changed in the country. Put colloquially, there appears to be, certainly in large swaths of towns like Teheran, Isfahan and Shiraz, a collective shriek emanating: "enough, basta, no more”! Indeed, one senses real fear among some harder-right quarters of the regime, despite the Supreme Leader’s brave face on ‘divine victory’ and Ahmadi-Nejad’s smug (but still somewhat nervous) body language of late. Indeed, it was very revealing to witness the Supreme Leader’s abrupt volte-face with the recount ordered (albeit only a partial one) by the Guardian Council, if of course we can be far less sure of how transparent such a soi disant recount will prove. In short, we are sensing here an increasingly sclerotic regime, growing clumsy in this new age of Twitter and Facebook, being forced to back-track some after what was likely a gross over-reach born of these growing insecurities.

What of the road ahead? Very likely this recount is just a ploy for time, with elements in the regime hoping the streets quiet after the immediacy of the purported mass fraud fades. We know already they will begin complaining of “foreign” elements intruding on the election, the better to unleash false bogey-men and help fan the flames for a greater clamp-down (this despite the Obama Administration’s quite expert balancing act so far—imagine Sarah Palin weighing in on Meet the Press!--albeit I am not sure I would have personally had State Department officials, even junior ones, reaching out to Twitter and asking them to push back a regularly scheduled maintenance, as while apparently a routine, not hugely controversial intervention, it could nonetheless become fodder for propagandists in Teheran, but perhaps I am making too much of this). Also, overly strong allegations by too many international powers that electoral modalities were corrupt (at least without better proof) will serve to render more defensive a regime already quite insecure, which in turn could lead to much more bloodshed if a wider crackdown is ordered, so again, I would caution mostly silence be our watchword as events play out here (absent some Tiananmen scenario in Teheran, at which time all bets are off and we must be very clear in our denunciations, though alas, perhaps not wholly cut off the prospects of a re-positioned negotiation track on issues critical to our national security sometime in the future), as this is a matter in the main for the Iranian polity to sort out, not us here, despite the so justifiable passion these profound events cause many of us witnessing important, and often inspiring, history.

While we will all doubtless monitor these twists and turns in the coming days and weeks (other possible scenarios include a power-sharing arrangement coming out of a recount, with Ahmadi-Nejad and Mousavi sharing key portfolios, or far less likely, a huge retreat by the regime handing the election, on further reflection--or recount, so to speak--to Mousavi), one thing appears certain, there is a confluence of new elements in Iranian society (not only youth and students, but some in clerical, labor and security circles) that do not necessarily owe any profound allegiance to Ayatollah Khamenei, so that one espies something of a generational struggle underway, with an acute desire for greater change gaining strength among many (to be sure current players like Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, reportedly caucusing with some key clerical actors possibly minded to be anti-Ahmadi-Nejad, or nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, so far evidently continuing to signal fealty to Khamenei, remain key actors in all this, meaning veterans on the scene are certainly playing their roles too).

And while Mousavi would toe the nuclear line pretty much every bit as hard as has and would still Ahmadi-Nejad (let us not forget this amidst all the dramatic events), on wide-ranging domestic policies, and at least the atmospherics surrounding Iran's international diplomacy, a material change would result, though any dialogue w/ the U.S. would remain very hard slogging. Regardless, none of us have a crystal-ball, and cannot know yet how these events will unfold, whether a dramatic dimunition in some fashion of Ahmadi-Nejad's power (and thus Khamenei's, despite whatever face-saving measures would be employed), or more depressing, a return to some variant of the status quo ante.

Still, something has changed, permanently, and it appears the days of the Islamic Revolution, at least in its current increasingly outdated, reactionary form, might well be numbered, with Mousavi and the social forces he’s unleashed something of a Thermidorian reaction, against the excesses of Ahmadi-Nejad’s overly aggressive international stances which have caused significant isolation, crude populist policies that have proven, in the main, economically self-defeating, and increasingly belligerent and dismissive domestic postures, causing ever growing resentments to fester and now erupt. To allow this positive process to take further root, my strong instinct again to stress is that we resist very much here in the U.S. cheerleading sharper epingles being aimed at the Supreme Leader from President Obama’s bully pulpit (for make no mistake, criticism of the handling of election is direct criticism of him), lest this back-fire on us, or worse, the people bravely protesting on the streets.

Last, and I hope related so as not to be tangential, just a few words on the raging debate in the blogosphere. I have seen friends and/or writers with whom I very often agree, notably Andrew Sullivan and George Packer, deride Flynt Leverett (and his wife Hillary Mann, whom full disclosure I am acquainted with) as “Ahamadinejad’s useful idiot” (Andrew), or accusing that their widely read op-ed is rife with “perverse interpretations, narrow legalisms, and ill-informed suppositions” (George). Perhaps the unfortunately shallow, cheaply provocative title of their op-ed helped lead to such broad-sides "Ahmadinejad won. Get over it", but I must say, I find it highly unfair to compare the Leveretts' in the same breath as, say, the execrable Marty Peretz, as George seems to here. The true villains, when it comes to Western bloviators, are those only too happy to see Ahmadi-Nejad win as it keeps the ‘narrative’ dumbed-down for facilitating the objectives of the ‘bomb Iran’ crowd, and they are quite a few of them, or somewhat related, assorted merry ignorants chastising Obama for having bungled his “3 A.M. moment”, not only getting the advisable policy prescription so deathly wrong, but also, to boot, resurrecting a particularly moronic portion of the recent campaign, which one might have hoped would have better been relegated to the dust-bin.

Posted by Gregory at June 17, 2009 12:47 PM

Thanks as always for your thoughtful and informative analysis. That idea that the Iranian establishment panicked at the thought of an insufficient mandate and clumsily rigged the election is very interesting.

One note: In your last paragraph, by "where blood is being shed by Iranian innocents" do you mean something like "where the blood of Iranian innocents is being shed"? That is, you're talking about the feeding of the tree of liberty, I take it.

Posted by: JakeB at June 17, 2009 07:08 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Jake B: Thx for spotting the nit. For brevity (a perennial struggle), and on reflection, I deleted this mini-passage (which didn't really add much, I don't think), but thx again for pointing out. Best Regards, Greg

Posted by: Greg Djerejian at June 17, 2009 08:25 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What happened to the picture of Ahmedinejad you used to have on your masthead?

Largely agree with you btw, but must admit I've been flogging Sully's site since it turned "green."

Posted by: neoschlock at June 17, 2009 11:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Here's an interesting link from a top souce:


Posted by: eduardo montez at June 18, 2009 01:57 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I personally think the president has the right idea and we in the west should be as quiet as possible about this.

There are historical factors at work that differentiate this from Ukraine, Poland, etc.

We do not know how widespread the dissent really is -- it could be nation wide or it could be the westernized, liberal, educated neighborhoods of Terhan.

And in any event, Mousavi was the PM in the 1980s, is he really that much of a reformer or moderate?

Iran will get nuclear weapons if they want them. We should simply accept that and make it clear that if they use them, threaten to use them or if a bomb gets into the hands of a terrorist group somewhere, we will incinerate a few of their cities. Otherwise we should stay out.

Posted by: Anthony at June 18, 2009 02:55 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We are coming into the season when in past years Iranian students have staged demonstrations recalling the summer massacres of 1988. Do you have any opinion about how these events may puzzle together with what is now happening? Or are these two public demonstration triggers not related? I read somewhere that Mousavi was the man on horseback at that time.

Your description of Iranian politics as "opaque" is an understatement. I can't make heads or tails of much of what is leaked/reported but it's clear to me that there is a lot of misguided projection from here both left and right.

And what of the Basiji? That part of the picture is mentioned briefly in a few reports, carelessly in my opinion, with no effort to explain who or what they are.

Posted by: John Ballard at June 18, 2009 05:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Those are some of the longest English sentences I've ever seen.

Given that hostility to the United States and more general paranoia about the West in general have been a key part of the Iranian regime's reason for being since it took power three decades ago, what should be the offical American response to the past week's events? The regime, from the top down, will accuse the American government of meddling no matter what the Obama administration says or does. It will allege CIA involvement in public demonstrations in Tehran and elsewhere. It will allege conspiracies with Israel. It always alleges conspiracies with Israel.

It seems to me that the recommendation, from Sen. Kerry and others, that American policy consist of walking on eggshells into the indefinite future lacks both subtlety and realism. It amounts to a call to take counsel of our fears, never a good idea in war or politics. Rather than worry about what Khamenei and Ahmedinejad might say about us, we ought to be thinking about what we can do to them.

I won't pretend to be able to reconstruct the reasoning behind trying to manipulate a presidential election the favorded candidate of the political clergy and the Iranian security services might well have won anyway. What was done, though, was done, and we can see on the streets of Iranian cities that it's ticked off a large number of Iranians. The bane of American policy toward Iran for thirty years has been lack of information about the internal dynamics of Iranian politics. This deficiency has been a consequence not only of the nature of the Iranian regime but of a shortage of Iranians disaffected enough with it to be willing to share information with Western intelligence agencies (or, for that matter, with Western news media). This shortage is about to disappear; a gift handed to us by Khamenei with pretty wrapping and ribbons and everything. I sure hope the Obama administration is thinking of opening it, and quickly.

That's the good news, or part of it anyway. The bad news is that insecure regimes facing a crossroads can make dangerous choices. I had thought there was at least a chance that Khamenei and his allies would try to defuse public protests by conceding to Mousavi's call for new elections, or at least conducting an honest recount -- even if that meant throwing Ahmedinehad over the side. No such luck; Khamenei has instead doubled down. His response makes sense if one considers Iran's recent political history, during which the political clergy and the security services have effectively, and fairly easily, smothered opposition on several occasions. The government may well regard Mousavi and his supporters this week with a contempt that precludes conciliation, based on past experience.

If that's the case, it's possible that the regime will, after quelling public demonstrations with as much force as if required, will double down in other ways. The nuclear program is one obvious concern. It isn't hard to imagine that, whatever most Iranians or even some of the political clerics think about acquiring nuclear weapons, the Revolutionary Guards and other security types think about them the same ways Pakistan's military did ten years ago. A nuclear arsenal would underscore their institutional indispensability and ensure a substantial revenue stream -- besides generating the kind of prestige that the Guards probably value as Pakistan's army does. One may well question whether that prestige would do Iran any more good than it has done Pakistan; because the leadership of Pakistan's army identifies the state with itself, it does not ask that question. Iran's Revolutionary Guards probably won't either, and may find themselves able to accelerate the push toward an Iranian bomb after the political crisis has passed.

The nuclear issue aside, a Mousavi victory might have opened possibilities to reduce Iran's economic isolation, which would in turn have opened possibilities for Iranians to pursue economic opportunities not dependent on the government. A releected Ahmedinejad may choose to go in the opposite direction, not only risking additional sanctions but courting them. Instead of wanting to ease tensions and avoid confrontations, he and his allies may seek to court both, the better to accuse domestic opponents of siding with enemies of Iran.

Would the idea that applies in this area also apply with respect to Iran's support of militias in Iraq, or of Hamas and Hezbollah. I don't know. It's certainly possible.

The Obama administration may not be able to prevent any of this. What it can do is take advantage of the political problems the Iranian regime has brought on itself. This doesn't just mean deploring violence and expressing admiration for large peaceful demonstrations. It should also mean pointing out the things that helped make undermine Ahmedinejad domestic popularity -- for example, his incompetence in managing economic policy -- and which America had nothing to do with. It should mean noting the divisions among senior Iranian clerics, some of whom were major figures in the revolution and who have called the election results illegitimate. It should above all mean depicting Iran's ruling powers as the people seeking trouble inside Iran and out.

A month ago this would have been impossible. Right now it's imperative. There is some risk in the current situation for the United States, but there is more opportunity. A regime hostile to this country has put the ball on the ground; it's fine to look around long enough to figure out where the ball is, but the Obama administration needs to pick the damned thing up.

Posted by: Zathras at June 19, 2009 11:25 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Zathras wins the day. Greg. Brevity. Please.

The issue to address is the one we can address: whether Obama's frozen lips are apropos for a mideast moment that appears to symbolize the collision of modernity and a withering past.

When last heard in Cairo and beyond, Obama spoke of some greater Islamic unity-of some transformative spirit that speaks to...here comes Lincoln...the better angels. Yada, yada.

Well, fine. Except there's no point in begging for angels if the folks in the bloody streets of Tehran look around in quiet desperation and the damn cavalry won't even show up. Could somebody at least answer the phone! Maybe reason is calling.

Let's all agree that we made a clusterfck of Iraq, walked in looking like imperialists and are leaving looking like fools. So stipulated. That is not, however, a license for absolute diplomatic genuflection, especially if doing so helps to perpetuate the dark hours, dark minds and dark ages.

Posted by: resh at June 19, 2009 03:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It only took an hour or two to do a bit of digging, but my preliminary take is that Iran has a collection of ethnic groups within its borders, some of which are local but others which have links across national lines to places like Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, even Pakistan. What's happening there is too elaborate to summarize even if we could grasp all the nuances. As I said before, I can't make sense of it and the more I read the more I don't know and the more questions I have.

At least one Pakistani I know whose intelligence and credibility are unquestionable is calling for action.

Though I am no longer religious, at the present instant, in my frustration that we who are not in Iran can supposedly do nothing, I feel something of the sentiment behind that ritual chant: at this very moment, I tremble with the eagerness to be with my brothers and sisters in Iran who are peacefully resisting the illegitimate government of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, and who are about to be slaughtered.

Let the rest of the world no longer remain quiet and hope that by doing so, we will protect the brave forces of change from charges of being allied with foreign interests who are meddling in Iran. The time to remain silent is over. It is time to take sides, AND to urge our governments to take sides. I am a US citizen, and I will use every means at my disposal to push my government to make sure that they let the government of Iran know in uncertain terms that they will be held accountable and punished if the innocent civilians and the brave youth of Iran are attacked, killed, or injured in any way. I hope you will, too. It is NOW the time for the desperate, weak, and lying government of Iran to know that not only their own children, but the world is against them.

If you don't yet understand the urgency of this moment or the imminent savagery that awaits Iranis, have a look at some of the Twitter messages coming out of Iran (all other media are too heavily censored, or completely blocked) that are appended below this note. This is NOT a matter of supporting any Western or other interests, it is a matter of supporting the courageous hopes and defiant dreams of freedom of the Irani masses. This collection of Tweets comes via Andrew Sullivan (whom I proclaim an honorary Shia for his extraordinary decency, humanity, skill, and good moral judgment in covering the post-election crisis in Iran!).

Do something now! Write to whitehouse.gov or your representative. Do something! NOW! NOW! NOW!

Death to tyranny! Long live Iran!


Posted by: John Ballard at June 19, 2009 06:29 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

[thanks for deleting spam]

Amendment to previous comment.
In the comments thread at the 3Quarks Daily link Abbas moderated his call for urgent action at the suggestion of a commenter he knows.
Interesting later comment in that thread says Tehran papers reported the death of the head of IT in a car crash. Speculation was that he may have been killed for leaking results of the election vastly different from numbers "officially" reported.
Moussavi 19.1 million
Karoubi 13.4 million
Ahmadinejad 5.7 million
Rezai 3.7 million

At this writing Andrew Sullivan is live-blogging tweets and videos as they come in.

Posted by: John Ballard at June 20, 2009 03:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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