June 22nd, 2009

Iran: why now?

What’s going on in Iran right now is the result of many forces coming together. But I have little doubt that the most powerful of them are specific to Iran and its people rather than being international in scope.

The Iranian people (especially the huge percentage of the population that is young) are fed up with many things about Ahmadinejad and the mullahs, most prominent being the former’s flagrant mishandling of the Iranian economy, and the social repressions that have been going on for decades since the 1979 revolution at the hands of the latter.

The government’s transparent lies about the recent election results have merely acted as a tipping point, making it crystal clear to the people that they have no voice at all in the selection of their government, and destroying the pretense that Iran’s leaders (at least, the figureheads; not the mullahs themselves who pull their strings) were democratically elected.

That said, what of the influence of other countries? It’s commonplace to put down neocons these days, but if you look at the map you will see that Iran is situated between Iraq and Afghanistan, two nations that have achieved enhanced freedom (although differing in degree, both are freer than they were before) as a result of our interventions there. Those who think that Obama’s Cairo speech had more of an effect on Iran’s elections are dreaming; it’s much more likely that, just as the neocons said, freedom is contagious (even a little bit of it).

But I do think that Obama’s election may have played two small roles. First, it possibly emboldened the mullahs to become more flagrant in negating the will of the people in the election, knowing that Obama wouldn’t do much to protest. In this the mullahs may have underestimated the reaction of the Iranian people and their anger at what had transpired; time will tell whether theirs was a miscalculation or not.

But I do give Obama credit for the second thing: Bush has been a very polarizing figure around the world, and Obama is definitely a more charismatic and less strident one. His tone of conciliation and apology (which I believe also communicates weakness) does have the advantage in this situation of making it much harder for Ahmadinejad or the mullahs to successly demonize him and to blame the present uprising on the US and have it stick—although Khamenei’s been trying anyway.

This doesn’t mean that, if the present demonstrations were to succeed and Mousavi were to take control, the demonstrators would get the freedom and representation they appear to crave. Mousavi himself is still somewhat of a cipher (read his recent praise of Khomeini and the glorious early days of the 1979 revolution here, for example, if you want to get a cold chill).

All revolutions are loose cannons; their courses cannot be predicted or controlled. Revolutionaries know what they intend, but they often are part of coalitions that combine forces with very different agendas. They can’t know ahead of time what they will actually build if successful in overthrowing the current regime. And sometimes (in fact, very often) revolutionary leaders manipulate the people by saying they plan one thing, and then end up doing something quite different—something that can exceed in repression what went before.

[ADDENDUM: Will a general strike be called for tomorrow?]

39 Responses to “Iran: why now?”

  1. Artfldgr Says:

    Go back to some of my earliest posts here where i said that the iraq, afghanistan thing was all about closing iran as the delivery doorway and create a one country wide line in the sands to deny free movement of such.

    i said that that since that was the ultimate goal and that everyone was going to turn on every burner around the world to cause so much crisis all over, that they cant finish that task.

    maybe they got farther along on that issue than i ever thought?

  2. gcotharn Says:

    I agree with your take in the post. Also, Iranians could already see votes which count in neighboring Turkey and Pakistan. Suddenly they see votes which count in Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan?! She is to an Iranian as Mexico is to a U.S. citizen. Iranians are proud of their nation. Iranians had to think the equivalent of: Why do Mexicans cast votes which count, and we do not?! This is intolerable! Such thinking was not the genesis of the revolution, but it was the final step which pushed the revolution over the top of the mountain and started things rolling down the other side at speed.

  3. DirtyJobsGuy Says:

    Iran is still Persia, not Arabia with many popular holidays dating back to the old pre-Islamic days. The clerics banned many (like the puritans in Cromwells days banned christmas revelries). But mostly this is about a public increasingly fed up with the corruption and thuggery of the political establishment in Iran. The economy is poor and all the leadership can do is whip up a war frenzy without a war. The US president in the white house is not the cause of the discontent or the timing. However, he can put us on the side we should support just because it’s right.

  4. gcotharn Says:

    Mostly yet sort of not completely off topic:

    Lesson from Iran: Baseball Ensures American Rock Chunking Supremacy Over Non-Baseball Nations http://tinyurl.com/l34amu #baseball

  5. Fred2 Says:

    Obvious triggers in Iran are:
    1. Inflation
    2. Threat of nuclear war and retaliation
    3. Loss of national reputation
    4. Anger at morality police

    On the other hand, Khamenei says the protests are caused by Zionists. So maybe there are millions of Zionists in Iran! Way cool.

  6. Occam's Beard Says:

    First, it possibly emboldened the mullahs to become more flagrant in negating the will of the people in the election, knowing that Obama wouldn’t do much to protest.

    I think that that is exactly right, and in making their calculation, the mullahs may have overreached themselves, perhaps fatally.

    It’s an interesting reversal from the case of the Republicans in Spain, who did the same thing when they thought they had a strong man’s (Stalin) backing, rather than a weak man’s opposition.

    Only later did they find to their cost that Stalin wasn’t willing to go to the mat for them, for fear of fighting Germany when he had so many generals yet to purge.

    In Obama’s defense, however, if he’s not willing to take any risks to help the Iranian people, it’s probably as well that he sticks to eating ice cream, so that the Iranians don’t end up in the same boat as the Hungarians, the Kurds, and the marsh Arabs – i.e., encouraged, then sold out.

  7. Gringo Says:

    Occam’s Beard :

    In Obama’s defense, however, if he’s not willing to take any risks to help the Iranian people, it’s probably as well that he sticks to eating ice cream, so that the Iranians don’t end up in the same boat as the Hungarians, the Kurds, and the marsh Arabs – i.e., encouraged, then sold out.

    Good point. In the long run, it is a two-edged sword for us. To the degree that we disengage, the current rulers of Iran will be unable to blame us- but they already have done so and will continue to do so. As they say, may as well be hung for a sheep as for a goat.

    When/if the mullahs finally get their comeuppance, our disengagement will mean that those in charge will be able to say, “We did it on our own.” This will also mean that they may be less inclined to get rid the Bomb project. No need to please the country that stood by while the Mullahs slaughtered.

    But it may take 20 years to get rid of the Mullahs. East Germany 1953. Budapest 1956. 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

    No easy answers.
    My bias is to simply take a stand on principles. But I am not the President, so that isn’t going to happen.

    And as OB points out, it is better to disengage from the beginning than to give false hopes, as we did with the Hungarians, Kurds, and Marsh Arabs.

  8. dane Says:

    I think this is more about a vote counting rather than who the vote was cast for – Mousavi. I didn’t want to do it but I forced myself to watch the video of Neda (Iranian girl gunned down on the street by the Basij). It angered me tremendously – on so many levels.

    I believe that this could be the beginning of a rebirth of a country that could, once again, be an ally. I honestly do not think there can be a way (if this becomes regime change) that the populace (especially the young people) will allow the new government to continue to isolate them.

    I have hope. And that is why I think the president should say every day (either himself or through high level surrogates) “The American people absolutely believe in the right of of every Iranian to have their vote counted in a fair and open election.”

    Unfortunately it won’t happen. Heck – our president doesn’t even believe in the sanctity of the secret ballot. (Secret birth certificate and school transcripts are a different kettle of fish.)

    And one other thing – The reports of Arab speaking units battling the demonstrators and the Basij causes me to recall (with chills) the words of our president on the campaign trail

    “We cannot continue to rely only on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives that we’ve set. We’ve gotta have a civilian security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well funded….”

    He isn’t talking about the “minute men” rather think of ACORN with guns.

  9. Occam's Beard Says:

    But better still to take a stand on the high moral ground, but clearly that ain’t gonna happen.

    Obama has adopted a all or none perspective, that he’s either got to send in the Marines or act he’s unaware that anything is going on. He fails to realize that a forceful and heartfelt statement of support (with no intimation whatever of possible military engagement) would work wonders on Iranian morale, as Reagan’s did for Polish morale 25 years ago.

  10. Occam's Beard Says:

    Sorry, “an” all or none perspective.

    Also, “act as if he’s unaware.”


  11. njcommuter Says:

    It’s a shame we destroyed all those AK-47s and extra ammo over in Iraq. I’m sure the CIA could have found someone to smuggle them into Iran, and not for the army.

  12. Gray Says:

    But I do think that Obama’s election may have played two small roles. First, it possibly emboldened the mullahs to become more flagrant in negating the will of the people in the election, knowing that Obama wouldn’t do much to protest.

    It’s plain as day.

  13. Shoop Says:

    “But I do think that Obama’s election may have played two small roles. First, it possibly emboldened the mullahs to become more flagrant in negating the will of the people in the election, knowing that Obama wouldn’t do much to protest.”

    This ignores the regime’s intervention in the 2005 election to ensure Ahmadinejad’s first victory and the ultimatum by IRGC commanders in the late 1990s to Khatami to end the student protests or face a coup.

    That is, the regime’s policy of negating the will of the people through elections has not changed while Clinton, Bush, and now Obama have been presidents.

    We are, ultimately, peripheral to the internal decision making of Iran.

    Humility, people, humility.

  14. neo-neocon Says:

    Shoop: note my language. I wrote [emphasis mine]:

    It is possible the Obama’s election may have played two small roles. First, it possibly emboldened the mullahs to become more flagrant in negating the will of the people….

    Certainly not a large role. Certainly not the first time the mullahs have negated the will of the people. Certainly not the first time they were violent in ending student protests.

  15. neo-neocon Says:

    And as Gray wrote in another link, Shoop indeed is a Shepard sockpuppet.

    One of many, I might add.

  16. Oblio Says:

    I was hoping Shoop is the name of the guy on the graveyard shift.

  17. neo-neocon Says:


  18. Gray Says:

    We are, ultimately, peripheral to the internal decision making of Iran.

    Humility, people, humility.

    “Thirty years after the Islamic Revolution and a quarter century after the death of Foucault, an entire generation of Western Europeans and Americans, the cream of our cultural elite, has been shaped by an intellectual current that despises liberalism and dismisses as mediocre the universal humanism that prizes the same values across cultures, from the US and Europe to the Middle East. Instead, it welcomes the return of the magic, the blood and power, the violence of the strongman.”


    Humility, people, apology and obeisance to The Strongman.

  19. Gray Says:

    and furthermore:


  20. Oblio Says:

    Vulgar and puerile, that’s about right.

    Interesting how fast the posts shifted from defending Obama’s wisdom in doing no harm to making cases for what might be happening inside the IRG. One can find a lot of things on the net in a hurry, but it takes some time to to screen what you find and select the ones you want to bring forward.

    Since Shep/Shoop has been almost continuous engaged since this morning, I infer that he either was something of a student of Iran before he started or that someone else is doing the research and screening. I think the latter more likely, which means that Shep/Shoop might be acting as a distributor for material and points of view generated elsewhere. If so, we have a front-row seat for political psy-ops here.

    If so, we should find that other commenters on other sites are flooding the zone. Will we get an NYT Op-ed piece following the same line within 24 or 48 hours?

  21. huxley Says:

    We are, ultimately, peripheral to the internal decision making of Iran.

    It’s impossible to calibrate exactly how much of an effect we have on Iran, but it is a fact that much of the protest signage is in English, i.e. directed to the US and the international community.

    Here’s an interview with a young lawyer whose family is in Iran. She says:

    Apparently a lot of the protesters have been heavily influenced by Obama’s election in the US because it proved to them that change can come as the result of a grassroots youth movement. In Iran, approximately 65% of the population is under the age of 30, so that’s a pretty powerful youth movement.

  22. huxley Says:

    Oops. Here’s the link.

  23. Gringo Says:

    In honor of our own Shepard, here is Elvis singingOld Shep.

    In honor of our own sock puppet Shoop, here is the Crew Cuts’ rendition of Oop Shoop. I spent some summer vacation time as a child at the mountain cabin of some friends where they had this on an old 78 rpm record. We played it on a wind-up record player.

  24. Gary Rosen Says:

    And who can forget “The Shoop Shoop Song” by Betty Everett, ca. 1963?

  25. chi hair straightener Says:

    All these people want is the same thing that a chance for life, Liberty. Long live freedom!

  26. JESS Says:

    Zakaria: ‘Fatal wound’ inflicted on Iranian regime’s ideology

    Fareed Zakaria: One of the first things that strikes me is we are watching the fall of Islamic theocracy.

    CNN: Do you mean you think the regime will fall?

    Zakaria: No, I don’t mean the Iranian regime will fall soon. It may — I certainly hope it will — but repressive regimes can stick around for a long time. I mean that this is the end of the ideology that lay at the basis of the Iranian regime.

    The regime’s founder, Khomeini, laid out his special interpretation of political Islam in a series of lectures in 1970. In this interpretation of Shia Islam, Islamic jurists had divinely ordained powers to rule as guardians of the society, supreme arbiters not only on matters of morality but politics as well. When Khomeini established the Islamic Republic of Iran, this idea was at its heart. Last week, that ideology suffered a fatal wound.

    Shi’ite theocracy, not Islamic theocracy,

  27. JESS Says:

    The Iranian Election and the Revolution Test

    Successful revolutions have three phases. First, a strategically located single or limited segment of society begins vocally to express resentment, asserting itself in the streets of a major city, usually the capital. This segment is joined by other segments in the city and by segments elsewhere as the demonstration spreads to other cities and becomes more assertive, disruptive and potentially violent. As resistance to the regime spreads, the regime deploys its military and security forces. These forces, drawn from resisting social segments and isolated from the rest of society, turn on the regime, and stop following the regime’s orders. This is what happened to the Shah of Iran in 1979; it is also what happened in Russia in 1917 or in Romania in 1989.

    Revolutions fail when no one joins the initial segment, meaning the initial demonstrators are the ones who find themselves socially isolated. When the demonstrations do not spread to other cities, the demonstrations either peter out or the regime brings in the security and military forces — who remain loyal to the regime and frequently personally hostile to the demonstrators — and use force to suppress the rising to the extent necessary. This is what happened in Tiananmen Square in China: The students who rose up were not joined by others. Military forces who were not only loyal to the regime but hostile to the students were brought in, and the students were crushed.

    Stratfore, June 22, 2009, By George Friedman

  28. JESS Says:

    Iraq and Afghanistan, two nations that have achieved enhanced freedom (although differing in degree, both are freer than they were before) as a result of our interventions there.?

    Baghdad: City of Walls, part 1: Scars of war

  29. Trimegistus Says:

    If America is peripheral to the uprising in Iran, why are so many of the demonstrators carrying signs in English?

  30. Scottie Says:

    My apologies in advance for the length, neo…

    Something to keep in mind here is to compare the current situation in Iran to what happened behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.

    You did have uprisings behind the Soviet sphere of influence that were crushed, and all the West could do was either watch or go to war – so they watched.

    The mindset of the West I think at the time these events occurred was that the repressiveness of communism would be around indefinitely – perhaps even permanently – and all the West could do was try to contain it.

    This also led to “intellectuals” in the West rationalizing how communism wasn’t really that bad, how the West should engage communism in dialogue, and indeed in many circles the supposed intellectual class actually embraced the ideology.

    This political arrangement itself was the result of how WWII ended, and the governments of the various nations were seen by the general public of those nations as being more or less legitimate as old pre-war political classes and politicians assumed roles in the new governments being established under USSR direction. In the case of East Germany, for instance, many of the new communist party politicians had been Nazis under the Hitler regime.

    We can disagree on whether this legitmacy was real or not, but the fact remains they had at least the patina of legitimacy with the result that the average citizen accepted their rule – and even in many cases had a dim view of those who would question authority as they were continuously informed of how dangerous and corrupt the West was.

    Yet, even with all of that power and influence and total subjegation, you still had uprisings occasionally.

    Eventually the legitimacy of the governments were openly called into question as the West didn’t attack, it was clear the West was pulling light years ahead of the East in freedom, technology and living standards, the old fears about the West instilled in the populations of Eastern Europe failed to materialize, Western leaders condemned specific acts of repression by the ruling regimes, and their economies hit rock bottom.

    All the citizens had to do to look at comparisons was check across the border into the Western nations.

    At that point, it was only a matter of time before those governments collapsed. I won’t say overthrown because that’s not what generally happened for the most part.

    Things collapsed, the authority institutions were viewed as corrupt and illegitimate, and people ceased to obey as they openly questioned authority.

    If you are a tyrannical government, you can only kill so many before you run out of citizens, or before the citizens decide to return the favor and start killing you.

    Or, to put it more bluntly, you kill citizen “A” in order to cow citizen “B” and make citizen “B” do as he’s told in order to not receive a capital sentence as was applied to citizen “A”.

    You don’t have to kill everyone, only enough to make examples to frighten everyone else into line.

    Things fall apart when it gets so bad the citizens no longer respond with fear to citizen “A” being killed, but rather respond with resentment and anger.

    This leads to a loss of legitimacy for the authority institutions, undermining their ability to rule.

    Eventually you will hit critical mass as more citizens resist the government than support it.

    If that government accepts this loss of public support and legitimacy, it collapses and you have situations such as occurred in Eastern Europe where the guards simply stopped shooting anyone trying to tear down the Berlin wall.

    (I don’t think such an event will ever occur in China as the people seem by and large to accept the legitimacy of communism without real question, and you just don’t have conditions similar to europe.)

    At any rate, when such a collapse occurs, it seems to happen rapidly.

    If that government resists, and tries to hold onto power as brutally as possible, well….then you have a far more violent situation and something is going to give in a very bloody fashion.

    I think we are seeing the islamic equivalent of the old Eastern European uprisings, with the added complication that Iran doesn’t have any allies as was the case with the old USSR, and likewise doesn’t have the advantages of larger populations and huge geographic areas to use to their advantage.

    There is no gulag dissidents can disappear to, and there are no neighboring nations willing to intervene on the ruling mullah’s behalf and send in tanks to suppress the people, and there are no natural resources in such vast quantities that they can survive for decades in total isolation.

    The best the mullahs can do is bring in foreign fighters – which will only exacerbate the distance between the people and the government – or rely more completely on violent crackdowns by the Revolutionary Guard – which will have the same long term effect as they are seen as enforcing ruling control rather than enforcing legitimate law and order.

    I think we will see the pattern of Eastern Europe repeated in Iran, just on a smaller and more accelerated scale.

  31. Artfldgr Says:

    I dont think anyone is realizing that without a ‘free’ state and public which can be appalled and react, twiter, and other things mean nothing!

    that if we were not free, and the obama change was complete, then there would be no outside to appeal to, and just cutting down the whole crowd the first day would have been the option.

    if we fall, the world falls, so if we are falling, then you can expect that there is no where to send our twitters to for hope.

  32. Occam's Beard Says:

    Pity authoritarian regimes in this age of telecommunications. Keeping a lid on inconvenient information and controlling debate used to be easy, but now…well, just ask the New York Times. It’s a jungle out there.

  33. JESS Says:

    The best the mullahs can do is bring in foreign fighters –

    Let not forgot Mousavi old work was the architect of Hezbollah, some sources now in Iran said Hezbollah fighter s are already inside Iran.

    in this age of telecommunications.

    Occam’s Beard
    You are right but the Mullah also have found their way to make it work for them .

    Please read this

    maker sold spy system to Iran

  34. armchair pessimist Says:

    One reason why the the demonstrations were greeted so lukewarmly in our highest political quarters is that they threaten two positions into which so many people have invested so much emotional capital. The first is that diplomacy is always desirable and negotiation always possible. The other is that anything the awful Bush said must be wrong so when he said Iran belonged to an axis of evil, that must mean that Iran’s rulers are really peace loving and good.

    Had there not been Twitter and Facebook to punditize over, our press would have been in a real corner about how to spin this story.

    Also, I almost think Obama was personally put out by what’s happening over there. He was so hoping that with calm and wise words he’d tame those mullahs while the rest of the world looked on in wonder and admiration. But those goddam little brats just stole his show!!!!

  35. Occam's Beard Says:

    Did you guys see Obama’s statement today re Iran? So much for that “wise strategy” of not seeming to interfere that we heard lauded by our resident leftist apologists. Apparently Soros is back from trout fishing and has found that Obama’s ice cream strategy didn’t play well with the focus groups.

    Of course, the problem is that, by waiting almost two weeks to do this, it’s obvious the statement was made under duress (even the LAT was comparing the Messiah to Carter – that’s when you know the One has stepped in the dog’s business), which unfortunately minimizes its impact.

    The mullahs will instantly appreciate that Obama said this to deflect domestic criticism, not because he actually believes it.

  36. Occam's Beard Says:

    Afterthought: it’s kind of like being asked by your wife if you love her. There’s a critical period – and it’s not long – when you better speak up enthusiastically and without qualification.

    If you have think about it for a while, forget it.

  37. FredHjr Says:


    What role do you see Russia playing in its role to help prop up the regime of the Mullahs? What would Russia do to help the Islamic Republic remain intact? It would seem Russia is very invested in Iran getting nukes and other advanced weaponry. I think their motive is more than just pecuniary.

  38. Oblio Says:

    OB, that previous, deeply intellectual, nuanced and sophisticated strategy is now inoperative. Somebody should have told E.J. Dionne before he committed to it. Now we’ll see how well the free hot dog gambit works.

  39. Scottie Says:


    I think Russia is trying to use Iran as a proxy and counterbalance to US allies in the region.

    Doesn’t mean they have discovered their soulmates, just that the Russians think the mullahs can be useful for their own ends.

    I don’t think Russia would really have an influence in keeping Iran *intact*, as whether their revolution succeeds or fails I doubt the nation will disintegrate into disparate parts.

    I do think Russia is invested in selling Iran weaponry. Russia needs money and has never had qualms about selling weapons to any despot in the past – why should they get squeamish now?

    Even advanced weapons are available for the right price.

    On the other hand, I don’t think Russia is actively helping Iran with it’s nuclear program.

    Russia is a heck of a lot closer to Iran than the US is, and communism was never loved by the mullahs either – and now that Russia is nominally capitalistic I don’t see them really changing their views of Russians other than to see them as a convenience.

    If Russia can help Iran become a powerhouse in the region, and help them with their oil production (remember, Russia is an oil exporting nation), the Iranians are then stuck with the Russians as more or less their sponsors and source of weaponry.

    If the Iranians attempt to disentangle themselves from the Russians, they lose their source of high tech weapons and an ally in the UN.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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