Monday, January 18, 2010

A few comments after a long hiatus, beginning with Iran

Sorry for the long absence, but there were a variety of diversions. I will resume with several posts this week.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann created a bit of discussion a few weeks ago with their NYT OPED, which questioned the level of support enjoyed by the opposition in Iran.

I will not replay the criticisms of other people here, but there is one point that has not been made and that needs to be made. One stated assumption of their provocative piece was that the demonstrators were diffuse in their objectives. This was contrasted with the 1978-79 revolution, in which the authors presume that the opposition to were unified in purpose. In the authors' words: "They wanted to oust the American-backed regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and to replace it with an Islamic republic."

In fact, this is a mistaken reading of the Iranian revolution. As participants in the revolution will readily attest, there was a negative consensus, namely toppling the Shah, but there was by no means any consensus on what should come next. Many demonstrators simply presumed that whatever came after the Shah would be better, others expected a democracy of one sort or another, still others expected a socialist republic, and, of course, those who ultimately triumphed yearned for an Islamic state. Even after Khomeini's triumphant return in early 1979, the shape of the state to be was much in question, and it was not until later in the year that Khomeini's unique role as jurisconsult and that the idea of an Islamic Republic was embraced.

Therefore, the earlier revolution is, contra Leverett and Mann, quite instructive. Today's demonstrators seem to united in their contempt for the regime, but of many minds in terms of what comes next.

I would also not underestimate the courage that it requires for people, young and old alike, to move into the streets and challenge the government. Therefore, although the government may be able to mobilize large demonstrations, for which the participants may be rewarded and will face no threat of imprisonment, we should not devalue the importance of demonstrations that question the very legitimacy of the Islamic Republic.

There is a difference between the 1978-79 revolution and that is that the security apparatus splintered. We have not seen that happening…yet, and it may not happen. I have no doubt that there are sharp debates with the security forces about how far to go in attempting to squash the demonstrations. It will take more than a few policemen joining arms with Green protesters to signal a major fissure. Even so, you can be sure that the decision, for instance, to castigate Saeed Mortazavi for mistreating prisoners was not made lightly. From a variety of credible sources it seems that President Ahmadinejad favors a severe crackdown and opposed "outing" Mortazavi. So, while it is somewhat useful to try to count demonstrators, it is far more interesting to try to glimpse the contours of the debate within the powerful security apparatus.

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