Thursday, June 25, 2009

The End of the Opposition

I remarked to anyone who would listen over the weekend and on into Monday that if Wednesday passed in Iran without a large scale protest, then the opposition movement will have flamed out. Wednesday has come and gone and while there were those that attempted to stage protests they were few in number and savagely dispersed by agents, sanctioned or unsanctioned, of the Iranian government. All the news coming out today would suggest that despite some vague commitment from Moussavi, posted to his website, that he would not relent, the protests have lost momentum in the face of an increasingly violent crackdown.

I could be wrong. I have been before, and I really hope I am this time but it would appear that the government of Iran has created an apparatus of control and militancy that it effectively crushed opposition and closed the rest of the world off to its citizens. Operating under this debatable premise I want to focus on two things. With the opposition defeated, what now happens in Iran? What are the larger lessons from this incident for the citizens of other “limited” democracies?

What happen in Iran?
The short answer is I don’t know. Perhaps at not point since the revolution have the political rifts in Iran been more dramatically exposed and pronounced. For the U.S. this brief opposition has exposed potential officials that might be keen to a kind word or an offer of a handshake from the U.S. It’s also clearer who won’t be running to the negotiating table. This might sound insignificant, but from all the folks I’ve read and talked to we are simply blind in Iran. We don’t have good analysis or evidence about the overwhelming majority of operators in the country. We don’t know what their inclinations are and how hard-lined or reformist they might be behind closed doors. The information gained by their actions in recent weeks could exponentially increase our understanding of the government.

For those that participated in the protests and had hoped for change, they now are beginning to understand that change isn’t coming. I would anticipate a dramatic tightening of Islamic social norm enforcement, as happens periodically in the country, in an attempt to further stifle oppositional or revolutionary inclinations. I’d also anticipate some who have disappeared in the night will not be seen again and some will be seen, but only in a kangaroo court providing cursory justification to execute or exile them. It will take years for the opposition to muster the manpower and courage to oppose the government again and any promising voice part of the governing apparatus right now has been exposed and marginalized. Without a leader to rally behind, opposition and reformist groups will find it difficult to gather momentum again.

What have we learn in a broader sense?
We’ve learned that despite the proliferation of information avenues, a functioning and ruthless government can turn off the lights of international scrutiny. We’ve learned that opposition movements can be crushed with amazing expediency and brutality. We’ve learned that revolutions will be much harder to come by, despite the necessity or the will of the people. I’ve long argued that while the appearance of democracy has spread throughout the world, the efficacy of government to crush opposition movements deemed a threat to the existing power structure has become frighteningly advanced. I hold little hope for countries like Iran, or China, or North Korea. No matter the will of the people, the power structure is so entrenched, the security forces so lethal and organized, that no dramatic change will come. Instead the best they can hope for is a slow grind of change and the passage or time would seem to indicate is possible. That is of little solace to those that have lost loved ones in the here and now.


Colin said...

It's probably useful to remember that the first protests against the Shah began in January 1978 while he did not fall until mid-January 1979. It may be mistaken to conflate an end to protests with an end to opposition.

Colin said...

This is worth a read:

Colin said...

Well, that didn't work too well -- I'll just go to the cut and paste:

The first militant anti-Shah demonstrations were in October 1977, after the death of Khomeini's son Mostafa.[79] Khomeini's activists numbered "perhaps a few hundred in total", but over the coming months they grew to a mass of several thousand demonstrators in most cities of Iran.[80]

The first casualties suffered in major demonstrations against the Shah came in January 1978. Hundreds of Islamist students and religious leaders in the city of Qom were furious over a story in the government-controlled press they felt was libelous. The army was sent in, dispersing the demonstrations and killing several students (two to nine according to the government, 70 or more according to the opposition).[81][82]

According to the Shi'ite customs, memorial services (called Arba'een) are held forty days after a person's death. In mosques across the nation, calls were made to honour the dead students. Thus on February 18 groups in a number of cities marched to honour the fallen and protest against the rule of the Shah. This time, violence erupted in Tabriz, where five hundred demonstrators were killed according to the opposition, ten according to the government. The cycle repeated itself, and on March 29, a new round of protests began across the nation. Luxury hotels, cinemas, banks, government offices, and other symbols of the Shah regime were destroyed; again security forces intervened, killing many. On May 10 the same occurred.

Jason said...

Ben had mentioned that pattern a few days ago and perhaps that will come to pass. It would put a strain of resources on the government to maintain the level of suppression necessary to prevent the planning and coordination of a memorial service/protest to say coincide with Neda's death.