Update 6/22 at the end of this posting.
I know I am going to sound like a cold-hearted SOB, below. I am not so much cold-hearted as I am cool-headed, I hope.
The events in Iran: As of 6 PM California time (Sunday morning in Iran), I am seeing neither a revolution not a bloodbath in Iran.
Hundreds of thousands of young people no doubt believe that the extremist and simple-minded Ahmed the Camel stole the election. They are protesting accordingly, with sincere, heartfelt anger. The government is responding with water cannons and tear gas. (I got my information from the National Iranian-American Council that clearly supports the protesters. NIAC.) In riot situations, bloody rumors always circulate and get amplified. Again, I know this sounds callous but, as I write, the reports are about fewer than five killed. (NPR did say ten, eight hours later, with no details given.)That’s like a slow weekend in Oakland, California. Facts matter and so do proportions.
There are several layers to my skepticism. First, water cannons and tear gas are nothing we have not seen elsewhere, many times. I remember well several consecutive nights in Paris in May 1968 when the police used those same weapons and the rioters fought back with paving stones. I may be regretting this comment only a few hours from now but, in May 1968, fewer people died in France than in May 1967 or in May 1969.
There are many rumors of regime atrocities. None is verified although some are verifiable, in principle. The movements of western reporters are restricted but Al Jazeera is there and it has no sympathy for the Iranian regime. (I am aware of the fact that Al Jazeera is primarily an Arabic-language network. Don’t patronize me, please. It’s used to cover Iranian affairs and it has Farsi speakers on staff.) There are tens of thousands of cell phones and other kinds of advanced electronics in private hands in Tehran. The government cannot possibly jam everything. Some, many messages and pictures must get through. NIAC did post videos on its website with running commentary in English. Some speak of atrocities; the videos I have seen as of now do show only one possible atrocity.
I am obviously not arguing that the Mad Camel and the regime around and above him are not capable of committing atrocities. They have assassinated journalists; in its early days, the Islamic Republic executed political opponents by the thousands. The last American-Iranian female journalist but one who was arrested in Iran died in prison. A brave Iranian doctor – who gave his name – reported that she had been raped while in prison.
This is a typical criminal fascist regime. I just think the regime does not feel fundamentally threatened. Here is why:
The urban, mostly young people demonstrating in Tehran are the fraction of the population culturally nearly indistinguishable from their European contemporaries. They are wired; they are connected through the Internet; they know very well what life is like elsewhere. They understand what they are missing living in the prudish, corrupt, economically constipated, and archaically religious Islamic Republic. They are precisely the people you would expect to want radical change. They have an alternative model of the good society: They want to live in a kind of Italy, where mosques would take the place of churches but where religion would be as pleasant and unobtrusive as it is in Milan.
That’s probably a small fraction of the population but the most visible. The American press is too lazy to look beyond the surface. If they did, journalists would find 40% farmers, mostly small farmers, in a countryside that’s a hundred years behind. They would find a young working class without much work and without cell-phones. They would also find a large number of semi-middle class older people, the kind of people who are averse to change everywhere. All of the above are religious in a way that Americans have not been for 150 years, and Europeans for 200 years. They are religious in an exclusivist, intolerant manner. And, their form of Islam celebrates martyrdom.
If American journalists tried harder, they would also discover that many Iranians profit, even if a little, from the oil money which does trickle down. That includes a large army, an even larger security apparatus. And, finally, let’s not forget that the other army, the army of mullahs, who also have families to feed, and give careers to.
I think most of these people probably support the theocracy, even if it does not make them very happy. I suspect they voted for Ahmed the Camel, not out of enthusiasm but out of fear of the unknown.
That’s what successful fascism does: It kills the wish to be free because freedom is hard work.
The government does not want a recount because it cannot allow any group to question its infallibility. Totalitarianism requires blind belief. If you let them count, you are admitting the possibility of error in general although that one count would reveal no error in this particular case.
The next layer of my skepticism has to do with the apparent leaders. I don’t like the ones we see and I am troubled about the ones we don’t hear. The latter first: This may sound strange but I would feel better if I could hear a clamor from an assortment of Iranian leftists of all breeds. Marxists and other people of the Left are students of revolution and they are usually political opportunists. If any of them thought this was the real thing, we would have heard it. They would have spoken in support, if only to gain their place in the successor system.
I would trust leftists more than anyone else if they took sides because the current theocracy has condemned them in advance. They would be in no position to turn around and compromise. They have been remarkable because of their silence, so far.
The apparent leader of the anti-regime movement is, of course, a pure product of Shiite Islamo-fascism himself. I think I remember from the 80s, that when he was in government, Musavi has the blood of political opponents on his hands. I could not find it on-line but my memory does not play this kind of trick: I forget; I don’t make up anything. Perhaps, a reader will help me with hard facts.
I made myself read the very bad translation of Musavi’s pleading message to the Ayatollahs. Even making allowances for what is, again, a bad translation, it’s redolent of the tenth century. It comes from a learned man of the Middle Ages, someone who knows nothing of Locke, Voltaire, or Thomas Jefferson. The simple idea of separation of Church and State is thousands of miles, or two hundred years, from his mind. This guy is not my long-lost cousin. If he were an American politician, I would oppose him vigorously.
No one, not even Iranian supporters of the movement living abroad where they are fairly safe, no one says: We want an ordinary democracy, be it like Switzerland’s, or like Norway’s, or like Israel, of course.
Astute American and European observers point to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and to the destruction of Soviet Communism firmly led by two old Communists, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. They mean to say that people change and sometimes recognize the error of their early ways. The parallel is deeply flawed. When those two brave men pushed the edifice down, it was rotten to the core. Soviet Communism had almost no defenders left. Everyone in the Soviet Union knew it did not work. The KGB in particular was very well informed about reality in the West and it did not lift a finger to save its communist employer. Similarly, elsewhere in the Eastern so-called bloc, except in Poland, communism disintegrated; it fell in from within.
Islamic fascism in Iran, by contrast, has many defenders, I think, as I argued above. Some actively want to die as martyrs. There were no such people in the communist countries of Europe. Communism was only the perverted son of western civilization. Its values were not much different from those of western democracies. The communist leaders had read Voltaire. They argued they were his true grandchildren.
Pres Obama couldn’t do much more than what he did. He reminded the Iranian dictators that the world is watching and that Iran had signed the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Remember that the US did not do that much more to help the Poles conquer their freedom. We sent them printing presses and photocopy machines. Let’s send thousands of satellite phones to Iran. That’s about it. A friend of mine who knows Iran well and who keeps informed in Farsi once suggested the US should flood the country with video CDs of porn. It makes a lot of sense to me. It wouldn’t happen. This administration has no imagination, just a slim play-book.
Here is what this country shouldn’t do. In the wake of the first Gulf War, President Bush (the first) seemed to encourage Iraq’s Shiites and its Kurds to rebel against Saddam Hussein’s rule. We did not follow through. Failed insurrections took place because of us. Mass graves were the only result. Those are on our heads.
Pres. Obama has much less stomach for a fight than did Bush the elder. Make no mistake, the mullahs will drown any real insurrection in blood, make arrest by the tens of thousands, shoot thousands.
If I am wrong and Iran does experience a velvet revolution, there will be time to extend a welcoming hand. And I will eat my hat in public (for the benefit of a charity of my choice).
I am wondering what the Israeli leadership is thinking, right now.
Update 6/22: I pay a lot of attention to what people say about themselves and their cause. I think few people can lie effectively and mass movements almost never do. So, I take literally the many images from inside Iran American media broadcast all weekend. All seem to come from movement supporters. I assume they are intended to illustrate the severity of the repression.
They still show security forces beating demonstrators with batons and throwing tear gas grenades. The death toll after one week of daily demonstrations seems to be at the level of a bad vacation weekend on the roads of France. The real repression has yet to begin. Eventually, if threatened, the mullahs will shoot bullets at crowds. More likely, the demonstrations will die down because rioting is tiring and even the young need to sleep.
Some of my skepticism is fed by the fact that most of the young women I see demonstrating against the Islamist tyranny are wearing hijab, the Muslim veil. That’s in the middle of tens of thousands of their freedom-seeking brothers. Symbols matter, what women wear is always signaling.
So far, only the late Shah’s son, the heir apparent, is asking for full, ordinary democracy.
It looks like I scooped Thomas Friedman last Saturday (this posting). He is the Middle-East expert who nevertheless writes for the NY Times. Today, he is saying pretty much the same things I said then. Too early to celebrate victory; don’t take victory for granted.
I hope he and I are dead wrong. I hope I will yet see ayatollahs hanging from the street lamps of Tehran.
I still think Pres. Obama is doing more or less the right thing. For once, he is not pretending to be the God-annointed.
For a powerful yet subtle commentary – as usual – read Fouad Ajami’s big column in today’s Wall Street Journal.