Monday, June 15, 2009

A New Iranian Revolution ?

Protests. Riots. Unrest. Iran 2009 is today looking a lot like Iran 1979. But this time the former revolutionaries are holding the reins of power, and new voices are calling for reform. The election between Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his main rival Mir-Hosein Mousavi have unleashed tensions that have simmered beneath the surface of the seemingly orderly society run by the country's religious orthodoxy. How far it will go is anyone's guess.

For more, read below...

Last week a contentious election was held in Iran, pitting incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinejad against his main rival and pro-reformist Mir-Hosein Mousavi. An Ahmadinejad win seemed certain, until later polls began showing Mousavi running neck-and-neck--a definitely bad sign for any incumbent. When results came in, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in what was reported to be a landslide.

But Mousavi and his supporters--mostly young and urban--have decried the elections as a sham. Unrest throughout the country has flared up to levels unprecedented since the turbulent 1970s which brought down the Western-backed Shah. Anger and frustration has boiled over into mass protests, riots and clashes with the police. Scenes of cars on fire and young Iranians smashing building windows in fury while fighting with authorities have now traveled the globe. And, in a defiance of a ban on protests, hundreds of thousands showed up in the streets of Tehran today to voice their anger and give their support to Mousavi.

Today in a surprise move that appears to be a reaction to the unrest, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the state's most powerful figure, though previously sanctioning the election results, has called for an official probe to root out any possible fraud. In 10 days the findings of this probe are to be delivered.

In the West there doesn't seem to be much need for a probe to determine what's going on. The dominant news cycle has been focused on the rioting and protests. And given Ahmadinejad's global "pariah" status, not surprisingly there is a definite tilt towards the election being "stolen." France, Britain and the U.S. have voiced their own doubts over what they see as "irregularities" in the elections--and have refused to recognize them. This is the height of irony, as these same Western critics regularly legitimize the ruling powers in countries like Egypt where elections are rigged by the suppression of any reasonable opposition, and in others like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait where monarchies do not even hold elections.

Political commentators in the West of varied stripes, from astute analysts like Juan Cole to often misinformed bloviators like Thomas Friedman, seem to also conclude the elections were stolen. However there is a dissenting view, from commentators like Abbas Barzegar and some Mid-East think tanks, who have all spent the past weeks in pre-election Iran talking and surveying everyday Iranians. They posit the West perhaps underestimated Ahmadinejad's support among the poorer masses, and focused too intensely on the very vocal (but minority) urban, young internet demographic--thus taking away a skewed perspective of the actual atmosphere and mood in the country. In truth, the Western media may be reading the nature of the elections themselves through rose-colored glasses.

During the campaign, as many supporters of reform flocked to his green banner, Mousavi became (in the eyes of a Western press corps looking for an easy story) the Obama of Iran--a breath of fresh air who would bring change. How far this analogy can be taken remains to be seen. Mousavi after all is still a conservative. And those in the press who have acted as if his win would signal an Iran ready to hold hands with Israel, kow-tow to US demands and allow in Wal-Marts in a few months, misread completely where most Iranians stand on issues. While most find Ahmadinejad too restrictive, too wedded to power, too brash and even embarrassing with his seeming obsession with engaging in historical fallacies like Holocaust denial, they also are wary of a U.S. with troops next door, what often seem as bullying Western powers and a saber-rattling nuclear armed Israel whose own recent elections have made it a right-wing state. Mousavi's win would certainly open up avenues closed to (or by) a controversial figure like Ahmadinejad; but it wouldn't erase the memories of Western dealings towards Iran---from the overthrow of Mossadeq, to the backing of the repressive Shah to the military support of Saddam Hussein's aggressive war which claimed hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives. Not surprising that some Iranian policy advocates like Trita Parsi have stated that it is essential that whatever the West believes, staying out of the Iranian elections and letting the Iranians sort it out themselves is the wisest course--as any direct intervention would be seen as unwanted meddling.

“The framing that Ahmadinejad is presenting is one in which essentially the whole [opposition] is a Western media conspiracy. If the administration is saying things or doing things before Moussavi and the opposition figures out what the plan is, then that’s a real problem, because then it seems like it’s between Ahmadinejad and the west and not Ahmadinejad and the opposition. So the administration is doing exactly the right thing. They’re not rushing in and they’re not playing favorites. They might prefer the democratic process to be respected, but that’s different than [supporting a] specific faction.”

As for right-wing American neoconservatives urging the Obama administration to immediately support Mousavi and the opposition, Parsi chided their tactics.
“They’re saying ‘Support Moussavi.’ Well, did you talk to Moussavi to learn if this is helpful? A lot of people seem to have the propensity of knowing what the Iranian people want or what specific people want but [don't] contact them. And in past it’s been detrimental" [If such American politicians have] “not learned from that, it’s sad.”

read full article with Parsi quotes here.

So where are we now? Mousavi has appealed for calm, even while disputing the election results, urging that the legal process determine the truth of things. Meanwhile Ahmadinejad remains steadfast, describing the dissenters as disgruntled troublemakers with American and Western backing, holding mass rallies of his own supporters. Tonight the situation has grown even more tense, as a protester became the first casualty of the unrest--killed in a hail of gunfire during an attack on a pro-government militia.

What the actual truth is regarding these elections is hard to discern from afar. There were no independent UN observers, just as there aren't any in this country. And between the secretive Iranian government who regularly censors information, and the Western propaganda machine which regularly sends out disinformation to destabilize the regime, it's often impossible to tell which way is up, left or right. But what is not in dispute is that whatever the actual election outcome, there is a strong wave of dissent in Iran that is making its presence felt. Given the country's strategic importance and its previous revolutionary history, what happens next is anyone's guess. But the whole world is watching.


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