A democratic future for Iran? It’s too soon to tell
There’s a story, though it may be apocryphal, about Henry Kissinger and the Chinese leader Zhou EnLai.
Kissinger was in Beijing preparing the ground for what was to become the historic rapprochement between the US and China, and one afternoon, while strolling in the garden, he asked the Premier what he thought were the historical consequences of the French Revolution.
“It’s too soon to tell”, was the septuagenarian Zhou’s reply. It’s not a bad joke, but like a lot of good jokes there’s something in it.
After 221 years, we probably should have made up our minds about the French Revolution, but it’s foolish to rush to judgment on more recent developments while events are still unfolding.
Last week was the thirty-first anniversary of another revolution – the one that toppled the Shah of Iran and eventually replaced him with an Islamic theocracy headed by the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Ever since the disputed elections of last June, national days and major religious festivals have become trials of public strength in Iran.
For the regime, they represent an opportunity to bus large numbers of supporters in to the capital, to prove to the outside world just how popular the government remains.
This, incidentally, might be a more plausible strategy were they to grant significant numbers of journalists’ visas, and equally to the point, allow reporters to move freely once in the country.
For the opposition, known as the Green movement, these days represent a rare chance to gather in strength, and in the past they have been able to use the pro-government crowds as cover, blending in until the moment comes to protest.
For the past few months, the pattern has been fairly similar, with big showings by the Greens, not just in Tehran but in other cities like Shiraz, Esfahan and Tabriz.
One of the strengths of the opposition has been that it used modern technology and social media intelligently and with great flexibility. Reports of a Twitter Revolution were exaggerated; the real power came from text messaging, with its ability to reach large networks of people cheaply and quickly to create what are known elsewhere as “flashmobs”.
The Iranian academic Abbas Milani made it clear to me on PM that this is where the trial of strength of 22 Bahman (the Iranian calendar date of the anniversary) would lie.
As it transpired, the regime’s preparations were extremely effective. It slowed the Internet to a crawl, shut down text-messaging and blocked Google Mail (believed to be the best-encrypted and therefore most difficult for the authorities to spy on). The result: a much smaller opposition showing than at any time since the June elections, allowing opponents of regime change to claim victory.
It also vindicated the techno-sceptic, Evgeny Morozov, who has been arguing that social media have at least as much power to harm opposition movements as they do to help – and predicting that the Iranian regime would, in various ways, use the opposition’s own weapons against them.
What I think is certain is that power is shifting in Iran as a result of the election and its aftermath. Hillary Clinton was probably right to say this week that Iran is moving towards military dictatorship. It is the Revolutionary Guard that has been President Ahmadinejad’s enforcer since the June uprising – and this already powerful military wing of government is principally powered by self-interest.
This changes the dynamic. The confrontation began as a standoff between two political wings, each of which regarded itself as legitimately elected within the existing framework of the Islamic Republic. But it was still a contest for legitimacy. The increasing power of the Revolutionary Guards could herald a future in which legitimacy is no longer an issue – only public order.
A lot is riding on this. President Ahmadinejad keeps cranking up the nuclear rhetoric – his latest thrust being a claim that Iran has enriched uranium to 20% - and the Washington establishment obliges him by cranking up the “bomb Iran” debate. We’re potentially at a hinge moment – between an Iran 5-10 years from now run by generals and Ayatollahs, without any pretence at democracy and with the option of firing nuclear missiles, and an Iran in which democrats have prevailed and the nuclear issue is largely defused.
There are no easy solutions, either. Despite the sabre-rattling of some in his party, the Republican David Frum outlines just what the glib advocates of bombing in his party need to face up to.
Would oil sanctions be more effective? Not necessarily: they’d be very difficult to enforce, unless, for instance, the U.S. was prepared actually to sink Venezuelan oil tankers; and the Iranians have available counter-measures, like blocking the Straits of Hormuz, which could send the world price of oil sky-rocketing.
The most promising path might be a series of targeted sanctions aimed squarely at the Revolutionary Guards – a process begun by Hillary Clinton’s predecessor Condoleezza Rice.
This will take time, and for many in Iran that means prolonging the suffering, in what Human Rights Watch calls a serious human rights crisis involving killings, torture and arbitrary arrest.
And will the sanctions work in the end? Will anything shift President Ahmadinejad or the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei?
It’s too soon to tell.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…