24 June 2009

Seven thoughts about Iran

A number of assumptions have been bandied about regarding the current predicament of Iran, and I don't find them convincing:

  1. That Mousavi wants a US-style democracy, and is prepared to enter into a Faustian bargain with the US to get into office.

  2. That there is much demand for Mousavi outside Tehran, i.e. the blood on the streets of Tehran is part of a national movement. It could be that Ahmedinejad might have won regional areas fair and square (just as support for Bush in the Ozarks or Texas outweighed Democrat support in major cities like New York).

  3. That there is much that the US can actually do to destabilise the Iranian regime. Iran is much, much more complex than Iraq. US intelligence on the ground in Iran is non-existent. Anything Obama did would be clumsy and counterproductive, apart from his Cairo speech which is playing on the minds of those on both sides in Iran. Who would the US send to help democracy along, anyway? The Marines? Chicago community organisers, or Democratic machine operatives?

  4. It is one thing for people to support the Iranian protesters; it is quite another for governments to step in. The governments of the US and other countries have to work with whomever the Iranians elect. Politicians scorn those in their profession who lack political power, regardless of party or voting system; I'd argue that Ahmedinejad is so compromised that he'd be laughed at in Washington, Beijing or wherever else he showed his face. This has implications for the regime's attempts to project itself onto the world stage, and address its economic problems.

  5. The idea that things will go back to normal in Iran as happened with China after 1989 is not sustainable. Despotic regimes are not stable, they are brittle and this one has been weakened. Whether it takes weeks or years, the fissures here are deep and real. The fact that the demographics are against the old mullahs is significant, as they have not renewed their revolution so that people who weren't involved in the original movement nonetheless give it their allegiance. Compare them with Castro, whose talk about revolution means that he only claims credit for the things he wants to claim credit for, and for the rest he urges people to join his struggle rather than struggle against him.

  6. From reading the US media it seems that the people who believe that Ahmedinejad lost in 2009 are the same people who believe that George W. Bush won the 2000 election. Just sayin'.

  7. The three overtly Muslim regimes in the world today are Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The mullahs think they can hold Iran together like the Saudis do their country, but the Saudis are better both at making money, keeping their economy going and keeping on the right side of the Americans. This leaves Pakistan; nobody, not Mousavi or anyone else, wants their country to dissolve into warring fiefdoms as seems to be happening in Pakistan, and if that's what democracy means in a Muslim context then nobody would wish that upon themselves. I don't believe that Mousavi wants a US-style democracy, and is prepared to enter into a Faustian bargain with the US to get into office: but I'm starting to repeat myself so I'll stop here.


  1. Stephen Hill25/6/09 6:09 am

    One query, Point II is a little ambigious. I'm not sure if you are inferring that the protests in Tehran are representative of the desires of the population of Iran or vise versa.

    If you are suggesting they are not, it should be mentioned that there have been plenty of protests in other big urban centres like Isfahan and Tarbiz (I believe the province where Mousavi is from).

    Also it should be mentioned that like most developing nations Iran is becoming more and more urbanised.

    "In addition to its international migration pattern, Iran also exhibits one of the steepest urban growth rates in the world according to the UN humanitarian information unit. According to 2005 population estimates, approximately 67 percent of Iran's population lives in urban areas, up from 27 percent in 1950. Among those living in urban areas, more than a quarter, or 12.2 million, live in the capital city, Tehran."

    I'm not disagreeing that there is no urban/rural split, and that Ahmadinejad is strongly supported by a lot by the rural poor, more that the significance of the divide is exaggerated. In fact it is similar to your US analogy (if you consider that Bush carried urban centres like Houston, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville,Cincinnati, Dallas, Phoenix to get elected in 2000/04)

    BTW, this isn't a bad analysis of the unusal symbiosis of Mousavi and his own support base.


  2. In 1979 there was foment in every village and town. I'm not going to get into silly terms like "urban elite", but I don't think that as goes Tehran so goes the nation.

    Thanks for the link, I'll check it out later.

  3. Thanks very much for this post. I know it's been up for a week or so now but I felt quite heartened when I saw it, because you wrote with skepticism instead of the bitter, vicious cynicism I've seen from some Westerners who don't like the Iranian protests.

    Point 1)

    Yep, Mousavi is *at best* a mild reformer within the system. Despite sharp differences with clerics at the top levels of the Iranian government, we have to remember he's served the priests well in the past.

    Point 2)

    This article in FiveThirtyEight.com suggests that at least some rural support for candidates other than Ahmedinijad was tampered with:

    "However, given the absolutely bizarre figures that have been given for several provinces, given qualitative knowledge - for example, that Mahdi Karroubi earned almost negligible vote totals in his native Lorestan and neighboring Khuzestan, which he won in 2005 with 55.5% and 36.7% respectively - there is room for a much closer look."

    Point 3

    Those who are prone to claiming this is at least partly the result of US Government meddling point to a Seymour Hersh article detailing a US $400 million budget for destabilising Iran's regime. However I'd heard no accusations of any particular capers or plots yet, although the Iranian Government has announced an ominous-sounding enquiry into the shooting death of Neda Agha-Soltan.

    Point 4

    This would suggest that Ahmedinijad could maybe be replaced after a "decent interval" with someone just as conservative but not quite so clownish in his relations with other countries, for instance.

    Point 5

    You're saying that the Iranian clerics haven't been able to excite or engage those under forty in the way that Castro can in Cuba, (despite his repressive regime there)?

    Point 6

    FWIW I suspect that Ahmedinijad probably would have won fairly comfortably if the vote was cast and counted fairly, but there was fraud designed to make a handy victory look like an overwhelming victory. Possibly to humiliate the opposition candidates and remind them of who's in charge?

    For at least one segment of the protesters, I think this was always about more than fraud in the Presidential vote, it was and about a rejection of a regime run by priests and their secret police and informers. Probably not yet a majority of Iranians feel this way but it looks like we're seeing more and more people chafe at the bit.

    If the regime fails to deliver the economy that Iranians think they deserve, then anger at the clerics' tight control could spread quickly.

    I particularly like this article in the UK Trotskyist website Workers' Liberty:

    "For Milne, behind the diplomacy lies a ratcheting up of conflict in the Middle East and a recasting of “occupation”. Above all, Milne’s assessment satisfies his need to put the boot into “imperialism” — as there can be nothing in the world worse than US influence, and anyone at odds with the USA must be at least relatively good.

    It means preposterously boosting Ahmadinejad. How can such a toxic point of view possibly help us make solidarity with the people who are now getting beaten in Iranian jails, and now being hauled before special courts to be tried as traitors of to the Islamic Republic?"

  4. Thanks David.

    1. And you expected ...? Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin were all Soviet functionaries, and if there's a parallel I suspect you'll find a birthmark on Mousavi's head.

    2. Maybe so - but Lorestanis seem at this distance to be a bit more stoic than Tehranis. My point was that the whole nation is not necessarily aflame like it was in 1979.

    3. I bet there are plenty of $400m government programs that don't achieve their stated aims.

    4. Let's hope so. Inshallah!

    5. No, I'm saying that Castro had mastered the art of being both the incumbent and the challenger at the same time. Hawke had this quality for his first three years or so, Bob Carr had it too, and Obama also seems to have it from what I've read of US media.

    I agree that it's about voting fraud first and foremost, though over the past few years I have read a number of US magazine articles on how the demographics and attitudes are moving too far, too fast for the mullahs. When regimes go, they go quickly - the Shah was the heir to six millenia of tradition and he was gone after a raucous summer. Likewise, 40 years of East Germany packed up after a few uncertain months, and they said it had the best chance of survival of them all.

    At the risk of ending with two banalities: it's a funny old world, we'll have to wait and see.