Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Utility of Client States

Seeing lists like this one (posted on NIAC’s blog) makes me wonder about the use of client states:

11:59 am: According to Ahmadinejad’s website, as of today the following 35 countries have recognized him as the winner of the election:
-India -Tunisia -Malaysia -Lebanon -North Korea -Kuwait -Nicaragua -Comoros -Cambodia -Senegal -Cuba -Belarus -Sudan -Syria -Libya -Algeria -Turkmenistan -Iraq -Kazakhstan -Indonesia -Bahrain -Yemen -Sri Lanka -Ecuador -Russia -Azerbaijan -Qatar -Tajikistan -Armenia -Oman -Turkey -Afghanistan -Pakistan -China -Venezuela
(emphasis mine). That question – why have client states? – I find particularly troubling when a state that receive a great deal of military assistance takes a position, substantive or not, that contravenes U.S. interests. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan are obvious examples of states that currently receive huge quantities of American military assistance. But they’re not alone. Qatar and Bahrain likewise receive significant amounts of U.S. military aid. All five countries host American troops and their governments benefit from American support – one can argue about the benefit the countries themselves receive, but those regimes doubtlessly benefit from the United States.

Of course, the United States has not articulated a clear policy regarding Iran in the wake of the June 12 election. That said, given the United States’ posture towards Ahmadinejad and Pres. Obama’s statements since Iran’s likely fixed election, it would be difficult to mistake a lack of policy for a desire that Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent re-election be endorsed.

What is frustrating about these endorsements is that they have almost no substantive impact or value internationally, but the Iranian regime will certainly play them up domestically as part of its ongoing effort to quell post-election dissent and demonstrate legitimacy. The fight in the streets is over legitimacy; every lever that can be exercised to delegitimize the regime – in both political and spiritual terms – will be of use and benefit to the Iranians in the street.

Monday, June 29, 2009

NIAC Agrees with Kennedy

Kennedy gets a boost from NIAC. I tend to agree with Colin, though.

Back on the Street

After a week of relative quiet and less (and less reliable) news, Tehranis again took to the street yesterday. Yesterday’s demonstration occurred under the guise of an officially sanctioned memorial celebration for Mohammed Beheshti, a leader of the 1979 Revolution killed in a bombing on June 28, 1981.

Last week, Karroubi, the true reformist candidate in this year’s Iranian election, called off a mourning demonstration to honor protestors killed thus far that was set for Wednesday. Karoubi called of the demonstration because he was unable to secure a permit from the government. Apparently, the government refused to issue any demonstration permits to any opposition forces last week.

Karroubi’s willingness to play by Khamenei’s rules strikes a sour note. It seems to me that though the goals of the opposition are still ill-defined and are like disparate if not divergent, Khamenei’s legitimacy was uniformly in question. By submitting to permit requirements-and therefore giving up the street to the regime-Karroubi seemed to simultaneously be confirming legitimacy on the regime and ceding the regime the opposition’s best venue for direct action.

It is as unthinkable to me that the regime would allow any demonstration permits to be issued, as it is that the regime would have let the street demonstration gain a toe-hold after the June 12 election.

But the regime did issue such a permit. And the result, of course, were thousands of Tehranis once again in the street, ostensibly paying tribute to Beheshti, but in fact waving green and holding up V-signs as they continued expressing their outrage at the stolen election. I find it extraordinarily difficult to imagine that Khamenai’s regime will issue any further demonstration permits-but then again, I didn’t think it would issue one for yesterday’s demonstration, either.

Without the street, the opposition’s tactics are severely restricted. The most effective tactic that remains is the strike. Mousavi issued a plain threat to the regime that should he be arrested, the nation should strike. It appears that he is reluctant to play the strike card before or until he is arrested. It is also unclear if the opposition has sufficiently broad-based support to conduct targeted, industry-specific strikes.

The street is the best forum for the opposition to make its strength and determination felt; it provides a means of disseminating information rapidly that does not rely on technology; it is also the best tactic to gain sympathy from factions of the Iranian Armed Forces and the IRGC. Two components necessary to this revolution’s success.

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.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Engaging with a Post-Election Khamenei Regime

Matthew Yglesias writes about the possibility of an engagement strategy should Khamenei regime defeat the opposition:
I would add to that the observation that a regime win would simply make me much less confident that engagement will work. The hope behind an engagement strategy was that the Supreme Leader might be inclined to side with the more pragmatic actors inside the system—guys like former president Rafsanjani and former prime minister Mousavi. With those people, and most of the Iranian elites of their ilk, now in open opposition to the regime, any crackdown would almost by definition entail the sidelining of the people who might be interested in a deal. Iran would essentially be in the hands of the most hardline figures, people who just don’t seem interested in improving relations with other countries.
On this point, I think Yglesias is wrong. While engagement with a Khamenei regime that, should it survive, will have brutally repressed its people would be unappealing, the fundamental calculus of engagement remains the same. Engagement is not premised on Khamenei reaching out and working with the pragmatists within Iran (domestic pragmatists) but rather on the notion that he is a pragmatist – or, more precisely, self-interested. The first principle underlying engagement are that Khamenei’s-and by extension, Iran’s-most basic goal is to retain power. This goal supersedes all other, ancillary goals like extending Iranian influence in the Middle East or, perhaps, attaining regional hegemony. Indeed, it is Khamenei’s desire to retain power that is driving his brutal repression of his own people and fundamentally upsetting the mechanics of the Islamic Republic.

The engagement strategy basically recognizes that Iran’s regime desires survival. Survival is difficult when the United States and Israel threaten regime change. Reaching an accommodation with the United States whereby the United States recognizes the Iranian government and forswears regime change would do a great deal to ensure the Iranian regime’s survival. This is the carrot.

The stick, of course, is continued instability due to hostility with the United States and Israel, which threaten the regime’s survival. This instability also likely drives Iranian nuclear ambitions.

Thus, though Khamenei’s regime is becoming daily a less appealing partner in negotiations, its brutal repression does not fundamentally alter the forces which drive an engagement strategy. That repression may, in fact, demonstrate how off-base the neoconservatives’ Big Lie about a messianic and unstable Iran was.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

To Answer Bret

In a comment Bret makes a few points: 1) that Neda has not served as a focal point for collective action; 2) that the information we manage to get out of Iran (via Twitter, Facebook and blog posts) is skewed because its produced by tech savvy Iranian youths and, because of limited access to such applications inside Iran, can only serve a limited role; and 3) that the regime is more capable than the Shah’s at disrupting collective action.

To begin with, I was not arguing that Neda's death in particular was serving as a focal point for collective action but rather, mourning demonstration in general could serve a similar function that which they served during the 1979 Revolution. That said, Bret’s point about Twitter and Facebook being more outwardly directed and only playing a marginal role in terms of organizing within Iran is well taken. In fact, Andrew Sullivan reported that Mousavi’s supporters have been distributing newspapers to disseminate information as was done during 1979 and Roger Cohen's first hand account indicates that crowds have been rallying through word of mouth. As far as how quickly information is being disseminated, I take that the Iranian regime felt it necessary to claim that Neda’s death was staged as a foreign plot and subsequently banned a public funeral to mean the Iranian regime, at least, believes that news of Neda’s death is both powerful and spreading quickly.

Finally, I too fear that this regime will be more adept and disrupting an uprising than the Shah’s regime. I don’t attribute this to the regime’s technological savvy, however. First, the 1979 Revolution occurred without the aid of cellphones and twitter; second, as described above, this uprising seems to be adopting similar low-tech communication methods as well as high-tech modes. The regime, I would say, has been generally ham-handed in its response thus far: Khamenei overplayed his hand at the outset by stealing the election and only compounded this error by declaring the results divine, only to have that questioned and be forced to walk back the outcome’s divinity by allowing the Guardian Council to investigate and acknowledge “irregularities.” Further, it strikes me as a foolish that Khamenei allowed the movement to gain a foothold and momentum before cracking down. Those false steps aside, that security presence in Tehran has, seemingly, effectively prevented gatherings of demonstrators since Saturday’s riots, thereby limiting the use of brutal tactics likely to inflame the populace.

Bazaaris Continued

Earlier today The Guardian reported:

Some shops in the city closed or placed black cloth over their doors as a symbol of condolence. Bazaar workers in Tehran and the city of Tabriz were reported to be on strike in protest at the election result. (emphasis added).

With today’s other events, it is likely that this bit information will be overlooked. Its importance should not be discounted, however. As I noted here, the Bazaaris represent an eminently important demographic in Iran – and one that has historically tolled the success or failure of uprisings. No other reports that I’ve seen have confirmed or elaborated on The Guardian’s report, but should it be true it would represent a significant boon to the Iranians rising in the street.

UPDATE: persiankiwi via Sullivan -- Tehranis to flood the Bazaar in a twist on the classic strike. Not quiet the same as the Bazaaris joining the movement but, I imagine, the Bazaaris have either signed up for this or it will become clear very quickly that they are not with Mousavi's movement.

The Situation in Iran Hits Home

I knew this could happen. I’d tried to think that it wouldn’t. A friend of mine is from Iran and she is the nicest, sweetest person I have ever met. She very much wants to see Iran reformed and has told me truly frightening stories from the government crackdown after the student protests in 2005. We don’t talk much anymore, but to check in on each other from time to time and so I was shocked to hear from her this morning letting me know her brother had been taken from her parent’s apartment two days ago in the middle of the night in Tehran.

What do you say at a time moment like that? I was dumbfounded, groping for an appropriate reaction, to say something, to feel something other than fear and anger. I’ve never met her brother but, she often talks about him. He hadn’t attended any of the protests and in fact had been sick, and yet the authorities took him in the middle of the night setting in motion some Kafkaesque nightmare.

Now her parents are concerned that their phone is tapped and their email is being read and they have asked her not to contact them. And so at a time of great civil unrest, when the electorate is rightfully calling for their votes to be counted, not assumed, she can not contact her parents because they are afraid. There is a glimmer of hope for her and her family. Through connections they have it appears her brother will be released soon, but there are no certainties when a government declares war on its citizens.

I have watched, as many have, with incredible interest and quiet solidarity, the opposition movement gain momentum. I will not pretend to be an expert on Iran. I am at best a novice. Ben and Eric bring the intellectual weight to this discussion, but I am sickened by what I was told this morning. I am unable to connect with the experience that someone’s government would declare open war on its citizens. I am fearful for my friend and her family. The only hope is that my fear, my susceptibility to intimidation, is the exception, not the rule. The only hope is that the people of Iran, in the face of wanton violence and intimidation, remain firm in their opposition to a fraudulent election and demand justice.

Today I am hoping for just one thing. I am hoping for the speedy release of my friend’s brother. I am hoping he is unharmed. I am hoping there will be change in Iran.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Why Mourning Matters, Continued

Robin Wright makes this point in reference to the tragic killing of Neda:

The first clashes in January 1978 produced two deaths that were then commemorated on the 40th day in mass gatherings, which in turn produced new confrontations with security forces — and new deaths. Those deaths then generated another 40-day period of mourning, new clashes, and further deaths. The cycle continued throughout most of the year until the shah's ouster in January 1979.

The same cycle has already become an undercurrent in Iran's current crisis. The largest demonstration, on Thursday of last week, was called by opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi to commemorate the deaths of protesters three days after they were killed.


Again, because this a cultural and religious expression, it served – and may serve again – an unifying and organizing function for the disparately motivated Iranians who have taken to the street. Its power and efficacy should not be discounted nor overlooked. Indeed, Ayatollah Montazari has already called for another three days of mourning beginning Wednesday.

UPDATE: Karroubi has called for Thursday to be a day of mourning, according to AFP.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Lots Thrown

Mousavi joined the thousands of Iranians who took to the street today in the face of Khamenei’s threat of bloodshed, declaring his readiness for martyrdom. He has thrown his lot in with his supporters, setting his path as definitively as Khamenei did yesterday.

Today was likely a turning point in the Iranian revolution – for it is a revolution, now. Had the Green Sea not taken to the streets – and early this morning, sitting stateside the reports seemed to indicate that they would not – the momentum would have been lost, the movement stymied, and all last week’s promise dissipated. But, by noon on the East Coast, the initial reports of empty streets dominated by riot police and Basiji were being eclipsed by dispatches of street clashes, images of sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Mousavi supporters chanting, running, fighting, and marching in pursuit of something still not well defined but in clear opposition to the status quo.

Faced with thousands of government thugs, water cannons, batons, gun fire and arrests, the Green Sea took to the streets. They were beaten, they were arrested, they were killed, but they were not routed. And because they were not routed the movement lives on tomorrow and the illegitimacy of Khamenei’s regime has been thrust into stark relief. After today, the threat the movement poses to the Islamic Republic of Iran as it now exists is greater than ever before and the impotency of the state more startling than was imaginable even a week ago.

While much remains uncertain, there is no question that Iran will never be the same.

Now go read Roger Cohen, who was on the streets of Tehran with the demonstrators.

Friday, June 19, 2009

What Tomorrow will Bring

It is now the wee hours of the morning in Tehran. Reports on Twitter suggest that the shouts of “Allaho Akbar” were louder tonight than they have been all week (here is a video supposedly from tonight). It seems that tomorrow will almost certainly bring bloodshed and a brutal crackdown should the opposition take to the streets, as they are expected to, in 12 hours or so.

I imagine fateful decisions are being made tonight. The hundreds of thousands of Iranians who took to the streets this week will be deciding if they should go out tomorrow in the face of Khamenei’s speech, and its unmistakable threat. The unit commanders and general staff of the army, the police and the IRGC will be deciding whether they will follow orders tomorrow, whether they can order their men into the streets to beat, maim and kill fellow Iranians. Clergy will decide, as they’ve been deciding all week, whether to stand with Khamenei and endorse his coup.

Khamenei has made his choice. Much rests on decisions made by the rest of Iran over what must be an unimaginably tense night.

Ghosts of Elections Past

Andrew Sullivan, in trying to answer the question, “why did Khamenei fix the election?” points to a blog post by Brian Ulrich. Sullivan concludes from Ulrich’s piece that Khamenei fixed this election because he’d fixed other elections. This is not quite right.

What Ulrich describes, the Guardian Council’s “vetting” of candidates and restricting only those acceptable to the conservative clergy to participate in elections is not at all what happened in Iran on Friday. The Guardian Council’s restricting who may and who may not contest elections is a power it has exercised repeatedly throughout the history of the Islamic Republic. Certainly its barring 3,000 candidates in 2004 was unprecedented, but the practice itself is accepted.

Friday’s apparent fraud is something different altogether, however. As a friend of mine who lives by analyzing Iran put it, “You can’t call it vote rigging if they never counted the votes.” I think his estimation is correct. God knows what happened to the millions of ballots cast on Friday, but they weren’t counted. The results promulgated by the government appear to have been made up out of whole cloth. This sort of election fraud – utter disregard for the even restricted will of the people – is wholly unprecedented in Iran. It is astounding that Khamenei would attempt this. While we in the West have frequently in the past derided Iran as authoritarian, the Iranians themselves jealously guard the Republican aspects of their system. Khamenei’s outlandish gamble offended the sensibilities of the Iranian people – that there would be outcry is wholly unsurprising, that the outcry has been as vociferous and sustained as it has been this week is inspiring.

Today, some of the questions about Iran’s nascent revolution have been resolved: Khamenei was in on the fraud from the outset; Khamenei is siding with Ahmadinejad and the IRGC; the regime will crackdown brutally on any further demonstrations. Questions that remain are: Why didn’t Khamenei crackdown at the outset instead of allowing this to build momentum? Have the Iranians in the street coalesced around a common goal and defined success for themselves? Can the demonstrations be sustained in the face of what will likely be a withering attack from the government?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Why Mourning Matters

Mousavi’s call for Thursday to be a day of mourning for the protesters already killed demonstrates that he is both savvy and that he knows his history.

During the 1979 Revolution, mourning demonstrations honoring killed demonstrators were a means of unifying the otherwise disparate groups who had taken to the street in opposition to the Shah. That all these groups, with different goals and different beliefs could be brought together, into the street, as one corpus under the aegis of mourning served as a fundamental organizing principle in 1979.

In 1979, mourning also served as a means to build and sustain momentum: every day a demonstrator was killed, the next day there would be a mourning demonstration. And then again, 40 days later, at the end of the traditional mourning period, there would be a further demonstration. Invariably, a demonstrator would be killed during the mourning demonstration which would then give rise to another demonstration the following day. And so on, and so forth.

Mousavi’s choice of this tactic is cunning. It is not, I think, an accident that a man steeled in the first revolution would reach back for a tactic prominently used then. I also do not think the parallels will be lost on the older generation, the members of the government who can still remember 1979.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

And what of the Bazaaris?

Andrew Sullivan has been doing a fantastic job aggregating the news and information coming out of Iran, and the analysis that’s been coming out of various sources outside of Iran. I think Andrew lacks enough background knowledge about Iran , however, to properly put a lot of the information in context, or to recognize what analysis is really ideologically driven crap and what reflects a good understanding of Iran. One such question I’d like to see him pose-since he seems to be able to drive some of the conversation throughout the blogosphere and the pundit class-is ‘what of the Bazaaris?’

The Bazaaris, of course, are the merchant class in Iran, particularly Tehran, that are widely viewed as having played a key role in the 1979 Revolution and the pro-Mosadegh demonstrations in the 1950s. Win the bazaaris and you win Iran, or so goes the conventional wisdom.

Answering that question, I think, would go a long way towards resolving the dispute between the Green Sea Optimists (like Lauren Secor) and the Green Sea Pessimists (like Steve Coll). Coll, a fantastic journalist who has done great work, and with whom I generally agree, is maybe too quick to dismiss the budding revolution out of hand. If the Bazaaris are with the people that have taken to the street, then, historically, I say this budding revolution has a fair chance of bringing about something new.

What that something new is, is an open question. It doesn’t seem like the people in the streets at this point have any particular end result in mind and it doesn’t seem like Mousavi himself has any thing in mind, either – indeed, Mousavi seems to have in many respects been caught up in the Green Sea himself and is still grappling for a goal with which to provide it direction.