Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Not a Color Revolution

We are told that the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad camp has spent much time and worry about the possibility that they might be toppled in a so-called color revolution, as happened in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.  I have to say so far having watched how Khamenei and his supporters have dealt with the challenge posed by the protests over the elections, they appear to have done their homework.  The bloodiness of encounters towards the end of last week and again on Sunday had no precedent in those revolutions, and we can be sure that the Basiji and Revolutionary Guard will be out in force again tomorrow and the day after that, and as such the neither the suddenness and quick-passed drama that marked the overthrow of Milosevic in Serbia, Shevardnadze in Georgia, and the Tulip revolution that overthrew Akayev in Kyrgyzstan or the sustained non-violent demonstrations in Kyiv that led to the re-run of the 2004 elections in Ukraine.  

Nonetheless, that preparation and anxiety about counter-revolution also reflects a rather narrow understanding of those revolutions on the part of Khameni, Ahmadinejad and the Republican Guards,  Judging from what we have heard they seem to have interpreted those events as the primarily driven by outside meddling i.e. the CIA.   Indeed, George Soros's Open Society Institute famously did provide opposition groups with logistical support, but dwelling on that is to miss the salient feature of the main color revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine (though not in Kyrgyzstan) all had well developed opposition movements with increasing popular support thanks to quasi-open political systems that far exceeded that in Iran, where the Guardian Council has systematically prevented opposition movements from coalescing around key personalities capable of broad support.  Of course that still didn't prevent Iranians from rallying behind Mousavi which gave recent events the look and feel of a color revolution.  Yet, until now the Iranian reformers have regularly been a step behind the opposition.  In the last election, they failed to anticipate the possibility that the Revolutionary Guard might resort to electoral fraud.  This time Iranians were prepared for that, they were not prepared for the brutality with which their protests were met.  Thrilling as it was to see how creative Iranians were in circumventing restrictions to organize, that organization was impromptu and the lines of communication between Mousavi and Kourobi and their supporters not nearly as well developed as necessary to confront as determined and entrenched an enemy as the Republican Guard and Khamenei have demonstrated themselves to be.  At this point though I think reformers are at last under no illusions about what has become of the Islamic Republic.  In short if we have not seen the beginnings of a successful revolution in the past few weeks,  we have at the very least seen a clarification in the minds of Iranians about what they are up against.  Just as 1968 exposed the inability of Soviet communism to reform itself, a reformed Islamic Republic no longer seems intellectually plausible, something that now seems to be an essential realization in order for Iranians to confront the current regime. 

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Walking Back from the Brink -- The Old Magic isn't Working

The news in today that Iranian State television has broadcast that the Guardian Council has admitted that there are instances in 50 cities where the number of votes reported exceeded the number of eligible voters.   This along with the announcement that Rafsanjani's daughter has been released suggests that the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad  camp is quietly backing down from what seemed yesterday seemed like a commitment to brave out the challenge posed by the Green Movement and Mousavi.  

This seems to be good news, and seems to suggest that Khamenei has been forced to recognize that he is up against more than he had reckoned with.  This is not to say we know where we are going.  Khamenei, Ahmadinejad et. al are now bereft of support.  The continued readiness of the Basij to beat up protestors is a reminder of another key difference with the revolutions of 1989, where the riot police knew they had little in the way of public support. Nor should it go unnoticed that earlier today the protestors were called terrorists, no report on whether that continues to be used, but I suspect that will continue.  For while whatever negotiations go on behind closed doors, the authorities will still do whatever they can to frighten the demonstrators.

Yet, some of the actions taken yesterday by the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad camp suggests that they are not adapting well to the changing political environment, and are playing trumps that would have been held in reserve by more confidentplayers .  The alleged suicide bombing at the Khomenei Mausoleum the deliberate mistranslation of Obama's speech regarding the Iranian election, and the arrest of Rafsanjani's daughter all seemed pretty extreme, and more importantly quite risky steps.   At least according to one observer who saw the Iranian Television report (See 1:19 pm)there was no sign of serious damage of the kind that would have been caused by a suicide bombing that killed two people, not even any blood.  Thus if viewed by an audience with any skepticism doubts were going to surge, especially when seen in light of other suspect information aired in recent days.  Nor did it have the desired effect of leading enough Green movement supporters to stay at home to suggest that a further crackdown would frighten still more --even Mousavi braved the risk of being explicitly linked to the demonstration.  

Similarly, while English is not as widely known as in much of Europe, there are plenty of English speakers, so playing games with what Obama or any other English speaking person strikes me as risky.  Now whether Iranian State Television tried to do the same for domestic television is something I haven't heard, but it seems likely they would.  In so doing the press and authorities will open themselves to further charges of lying, because well connected Mousavi supporters will make sure the accurate version of what Obama said gets out.  That is hardly going to help Khamenei and his supporters regain the upper hand in the p.r. war.   Indeed these manipulations may well be the nail in the coffin.  The old magic of linking dissent to terrorism and outside intervention is not working anymore.  

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iran's Revolution Enters a New Stage

When I first began commenting on the Iranian election I  argued that the Polish experience in 1980-1 and then 1988-9 offered a useful comparison.  That was already getting doubtful yesterday, but is most definitely true after the violence reported today.  Today's crackdown appears to have been bloodier than anything that happened when Jaruzelski declared martial law.  Nor does it seem likely that Mousavi and Khamenei will be able to sit down at a round table and work things out.  All that remains applicable is that Iran's economy is a mess and cannot be used as a basis for buying off the people as part of a post crackdown normalization process.  Interestingly as this was beginning to become clear, Andrew Sullivan posted a comment drawing parallels with the Revolution that ousted Slobodan Milosevic.  When I first began considering possible comparisons, I did think of that Serbian Revolution, but dismissed it for reasons that seemed good at the time, but do not now.  I will say though that the apparatus behind the Iranian Revolution is much deeper than it was in Serbia, where once Milosevic was toppled the infrastructure that had supported him fell apart fairly quickly.  That does not seem to be happening in Iran.  Indeed the resistance put up by the regime is a reminder that it has considerable support to draw on, though whether that support is sufficient to keep Khamenei and Ahmadinejad in power seems doubtful though how long the battle of wills that has now come into the open will last is an open question.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Will this Revolution in Iran be Self-Limiting?

Revolutions all too often get out of hand, and for those who see them as necessary for change, but wish to avoid the extremism that so often takes hold the desire to limit the revolution's goals has been always been strong.  In the 1970s, Adam Michnik articulated this idea most directly, when he proposed that any revolution that took place in Poland would have to be self-limiting in order not to provoke a Soviet invasion.  (This was a reason why the Solidarity agreement of August 1980 explicitly acknowledged the leading role of the Polish United Worker's Party for example.)  Remarkably, even when the threat of a Soviet invasion disappeared, all the European revolutions of 1989 did not get out of hand.  (Even in Romania, where things turned violent, the revolution was more or less ended with the removal and subsequent execution of the Ceaucescus from power, though arguably for less noble reasons than the faith Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians put in liberal democracy.) The so-called color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia have likewise managed to avoid the trap of revolutionary radicalization.  The question now is whether those who have joined the Green movement behind Mousavi will be satisfied with a rerun election, providing its  clearly and accurately reflects the sense of the electorate that Ahmadinejad could not have won last Friday's poll and now given his intransigence, the removal of Ayatollah Khamenei as Supreme leader.  

The limited original goals of the Mousavi campaign, and his strong credentials as a supporter of the revolution, as well as several leading supporters were clearly aimed to promote reform rather revolution.  Even now the call for a fair vote embarrassing as it is to those in power is in line with the demands of other recent revolutions.  Nonetheless, the situation is already precarious, and every move Khamenei makes seems to make the complete rethinking of Iran's constitution plausible.  Consider that for the past several days we have been told that Rasfanjani has been lobbying other members of the Council of Experts, who choose the Supreme Leader, to revoke Khamenei's mandate and choose someone more in line with the people.  Yet let us assume that this is true, and that Rasfanjani is successful.  Nothing Khamenei has done so far has suggested he would acknowledge and act on the Council's decision.  Thus,  the Council would lose credibility as a source of power.  By the same token, deciding not to act  is hardly going to endear the Council to supporters of the the Green movement. (Indeed, though I am no Iran hand, it seems quite likely that this calculation can explain the hard-line tone of  Khamenei's speech at Friday's prayers today, especially when one considers the soft line taken towards Rasfanjani (Hat-tip Nico at the Huffington Post.).   

If such brinksmanship convinces Rasfanjani and the other currently dissident leadership that carrying on with protests is too risky he has won an important battle.  Yet, he will not necessarily have won the war even if the current unrest fades away.  At that point, though few thinking critics of the current regime will believe in the possibility of reforming the Islamic Republic.  From that point on all efforts will be put on a complete overthrow of the existing regime, and thus a far more radical revolution sometime down the road.   If Rafsanani, Mousavi, Karoubi, Khatami and others stand firm though it seems less and less clear to me whether the main institutions of the Islamic Republic will survive even long enough for alternative permanent or quasi-permanent structures are created to replace them.  Everyday Khamenei continues to support Ahmadinejad the question of how much change will satisfy the desires and interests of those who are currently lining up behind Mousavi grows more complicated.  A quick disavowal of the originally proclaimed Ahmadinejad victory a couple of days ago would have kept that question fairly simple and could conceivably even been sufficient that Khamenei remained in his current position.  Now the answers to the question of how much change is enough is growing by the day, creating the key phenomenon that creates radicalization -- hundreds of thousands of people united in what they are against, but not necessarily in agreement about the solution.   This will reach its most extreme conditions if Khamenei and his allies successfully repression of the current challenge by brute force. 

Andrew Sullivan still sees the events in Iran as leading to a limited revolution that ends tyranny because the demands are still limited and grounded in the existing traditions of the Islamic Republic.  For the sake of minimal chaos, I hope that optimism is borne out as Khamenei refuses to budge.  There are some real reasons to worry though.  First, Mousavi may be an effective governor, but he is, at least in Gary Sick's knowledgeable view lacking in charisma, something I have heard about Karoubi as well.  In short, if and when Khamenei and his allies are pushed out of power, they may not last long in the post-revolutionary environment, especially if charismatic figures emerge during the coming struggle, as may well happen.  Another sign of the growing options that seem to be opening up in the minds of Iranians is a return to secularism.  Yesterday a secular patriotic song "Ey Iran" was song publicly see Nico at The Huffington Post 6/19 12:21 AM).

None of this means that protestors won't be satisfied with a more limited agenda, or that even if the revolution takes a more radical turn it will not still create more flexible political structures that help maintain political stability.

Finally, coming back to my post of two days ago, I note that the eminent journalist Robert Fisk seemed to make it clear today that he does not think what has happened so far is a revolution, though it seems to go against his headline yesterday that fear was gone from the streets. Conceivably his assessment today is right, especially if now that tomorrow's planned demonstration has been not been granted permission to go ahead, and hence will be illegal, only a small number of die-hard Mousavi supporters show up.  Frankly though from what I have observed so far from my admittedly distant perch in New York I am doubtful that will happen.  As Juan Cole notes today, Khamenei and his allies do not appear to have gotten their head around the fact that this is a bottom up movement rather than one directed by Mousavi and Karoubi.  There are already martyrs to the cause of greater freedom, and they will be remembered again in a month's time and then at 40 days too.  Sadly, there I fear there will likely be more tomorrow.  

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

No Matter the Outcome there is a Revolution Going on in Iran.What they are: a Revolution

Scholars and journalists are not ones to use the word revolution lightly.  There are good reasons for this.  There are numerous examples of uprisings that come to naught and are two small to warrant the name, and calling something a revolution when it proves not to be is not going to win a scholar many brownie points.   So there is a temptation to adopt the word only after there has been a clear triumph of the revolutionaries.  Yet, at the beginning of the age of revolutions, people were far less cautious even though the idea of a revolution was arguably far less a part of people's understanding of the world than it is today.  Within a couple of days after the storming of the Bastille, people in Europe were speaking of events in Paris as a revolution, and that was nearly a month before the Revolution's most important event, the renunciation of traditional group rites by the nobility and the clergy.

In the Iranian case I think it is fair to take that step for several reasons.  First, there can be no doubt that the movement supporting Mousavi is widespread across the country and cuts across class lines as Juan Cole made clear a couple of days ago, and a report by another scholar who specializes in rural Iran has also criticized the much referred to urban-rural split.  Second, Mousavi and his allies have clearly risen to the occasion and shown himself ready to go head to toe against the Supreme Leader Khamenei and Ahmadinejad by making the complete annulment of the election his main demand, and today has made mourning of people killed part of the plan, as was key to protests against the Shah in 1979.  Gary Sick and Juan Cole both doubted this would happen. As Cole reasonably put it in his post of 13 June:  

My own guess is that you have to get a leadership born after the revolution, who does not remember it and its sanguinary aftermath, before you get people willing to push back hard against the rightwingers.

At this point for Mousavi and his allies to back down may still be theoretically possible, but it might even bring about the end of the protests after significant government suppression. Yet, in the long-term the effect would be counter-productive by reinforcing the illegitimacy of the entire Islamic Republican order in the eyes of the millions of people protesting in favor of Mousavi.   Under that scenario, which I think is increasingly unlikely, the Green Revolution would go down in history as a failed revolution that continues to resonate in the way that the revolutions of 1848 did in Europe, and more recently 1956 in Hungary. 1968 in Czechoslovakia and the 1980-81 Solidarity period in Poland.   

As I suggested a couple of days ago, I think the Polish analogy is especially useful.  While Martial Law would never have been conceivable without the threat of a Soviet invasion, it was nonetheless an internal affair as anything that happens in Iran will be.  More importantly, Iran's economy is not in the kind of shape that a reinforced Islamic regime could buy off the majority of the people with consumer goods.  This was a serious problem for the Jaruzelski, especially since the economic grievances that had given birth to Solidarity had been precipitated by Gierek's efforts to buy off Polish workers during the 70s -- I can't tell you how many times I heard my Polish university student friends lament that in 1985-86 that there was a generation growing up that had not tasted a banana.  By contrast, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and more recently China all had the economic where-with-all to keep people materially satisfied.  Iran's economic problems have to be dealt with, and keeping Ahmadinejad in power will only make them worse.  The money he has to buy off people now may well not be there in 5 years, even if oil prices do go up as the world economy picks up. 

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Culture War on our Cars

The culture wars are waged on many fronts.    One of the oldest is our cars, since the first spate of this phenomenon happened at the beginning of the 1970s when so many of the issues that defined the culture wars emerged. It is also one of the most insidious because even at this time when there is a relative lull the extremes live on on our cars.  Moreover, and most destructively they reinforce an us them view of the world that while providing virtually no means to promote dialogue between people of different viewpoints.  In fact, even when witty they actually encourage the tribalism that undercuts the fabric that allows people with different beliefs to recognize our common bonds as members of the same nation, or more broadly humans.  

The ongoing non-verbal shouting match between people with Christian fish on their cars and evolution salamanders is exemplifies this problem.  It began innocently enough when Christians revived the fish symbol and began putting it on their cars.  Now I don't know many people inclined to put a Christian fish on their cars, while my understanding is that this symbol has become especially popular with Evangelists and Fundamentalists, but I can well imagine that some of those people have no big problems with evolution.  Nonetheless a few years later, I think the mid-1990s, the Christian fish evolving into a salamander began to appear.  To my mind this was rather clever,  and I personally think it is entirely possible to be a Christian and put that on one's car, though one of course need not be one.  

Now for several years a response has come in the form of a big Christian fish eating up the salamander, and in a variant I saw last week the fish has the word TRUTH on it.  It too is clever, but unlike the other two, there is no plausible ambiguity about what a person with that on their car thinks about.  Indeed true to life as such a picture of a big fish eating a salamander may be, the image strikes me as quite aggressive, and as such not in the spirit of loving one's enemy that is so central to Jesus' teaching.   To be sure, it is also clear that someone with this image on their car has found the fish into salamander image no less aggressive, which is unfortunate, but of course neither person has probably ever had the chance to talk to the other about what they believe and why.  

Whether such a dialogue would immediately resolve the issue is another matter -- I know it won't.  Still as it stands right now, as people drive down the road and see any of those images, they do not see other human beings or co-nationals so much as those who are their kind or not their kind.  I don't expect miracles, but if we were all to consider the value of making such statements of identity on our cars, or our clothing we might help tone down the tensions elsewhere.   

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Returning to Ryszard Kapuściński's _Shah of Shahs_

Ryszard Kapuściński, who died last year, was an extraordinarily 
gifted journalists. So much so that he became known in the 
West for his coverage of events, especially in Africa, even 
though he was (until 1981) a member of the Polish United 
Workers' Party and reported under the strictures of the Polish 
Press Agency (PAP).  

His specialty was revolutions, and in 1979 the revolution of the moment was in Iran, which he recounted in his book The Shah 
of Shahs (1983), which again seems pertinent given what is 
going on in Iran right now, not just because it is about Iran, but 
because it gets at the anatomy of revolutions more effectively 
than any book I know. For example he reminds us that a 
revolution is not just a large political event it is one experienced by individuals, who when faced with the threat of the violence 
by authorities suddenly change their standard behavior by not 
being afraid.  At the same time, even as revolutions are about 
high ideals, individual expectations about the meaning of change are also far more mundane, like an expectation of a better job or new shoes.  Finally, he points out that when revolutions succeed there is all too often a lack of practical vision, or helplessness 
among the supporters, which makes revolutions vulnerable to 
suppression by the powers that be on the one hand and hijacking by zealots acting in the name of the new revolutionary order on 
the other.  (My paraphrases do not do justice to Kapuściński's 
presentation of these points, so if you haven't check out the 

In as much as Kapuściński was writing about a successful 
revolution, the explicit story is how the Iranian Revolution 
came about, and more obliquely how how the Islamic 
radicals ended up taking power. Yet implicit throughout the 
book is a story of what happened in Poland in the 1970s that 
led to the Solidarity revolution of 1980-81, and the 
disorganization among Solidarity's supporters (though I hasten 
to add, not necessarily its more realistic leadership) that created
conditions that made the proclamation of Martial Law possible 
without widespread active resistance.

As I write, it is very much unclear whether supporters of reform 
in Iran have the power to turn anger at the stolen election, for 
which a very knowledgeable observer has shown there is ample 
empirical evidence, can be turned into a successful revolution.  
Juan Cole (link above) seems to think Mousavi's experience of 
the aftermath of the 1979 Revolution makes him unlikely to be 
ready and willing to lead an outright rebellion. At the same 
time, the hard-liners who are backing Khamenei cannot shut 
down cell phones and internet access for very long without 
disrupting the lives of their supporters. What is more the
prospect of a serious and organized rebellion once 
communications blackouts are lifted may yet lead more 
pragmatic conservatives to find dealing with Mousavi preferable 
to continuing to back Mousavi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah 
Khamenei. That result would then be akin to the Polish 
roundtable talks which were provoked by the Polish Communist 
leaders' decision that talking to Walesa and Co. was better than 
facing the radical leaders of the wave of strikes in the Spring of 
1988. At the same time, Mousavi should not be confused with 
Walesa, who lead a reform movement from the outside. If there 
is a comparable figure, it is probably Alexander Dubcek, who 
had been an insider and leader, but as a link to the reform
movement of Prague Spring was useful to the leaders of the 
Velvet Revolution, but then easily discarded, a fate that could
befall Mousavi if his opponents hold off on dealing with him
too long. But that is the optimists scenario, at least for those 
on the west. The alternative is the path chosen by the Chinese 
in 1989, hoping that support in the countryside and relative 
lack of awareness of what supporters of Mousavi really want 
will allow a the crackdown to be successful, but then 
Ahmadinejad and Khamenei do not have the same positive 
record on economic development to fall back on.

Lands Far Away... Relaunch

People who have checked into this blog over the past several months have noted that it had become moribund.   I am now going to try again.  At the time I began the blog, I deliberately decided to focus rather narrowly on Central and Eastern Europe because it is something I know a great deal about, and as I mentioned in my original blog launch, it is a part of the world that Americans do not know know as much about, and which has a history that can like the history of any other place offer insights into our own world.  Unfortunately, it became apparent over the past several months that my model was flawed.   Requiring that every post relate to Central and Eastern Europe in some way was restricting.  While I have definite views on what is going on in the region, I don't always have something that has to be said.   

Based as I am in New York, more often than not, I do not have the on the ground perspective about events in that part of the world to keep blog posts coming regularly, and that cannot be made up for be keeping tabs on the press in the region.  For those who want more, my blog roll, small as it is, offers some links to other bloggers more clued in on the ground.  Besides, much as I love Central and Eastern Europe I have other things to say about things closer to home, and on a number of occasions I decided not to pursue ideas or did only preliminary writing on them because they fell out of the framework I had set for this blog.  As a result, I got out of the habit of checking in and making an entry even when there was something relevant to say about Central and Eastern Europe.   

So I am starting again with a larger brief of going where my mind takes me on a regular basis, which undoubtedly will still mean forays into Central and Eastern European affairs, but will go in other directions as well.