Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iran: What Next?

Saturday June 20 has turned out to be a very good day overall for the Iranian government in its battle to crack down on protests. Or has it?

The case for the former can be laid out simply:

1) With the use of riot police and Basij militia, the government has managed to keep the hundreds of thousands of protesters either at home or out of the large public squares where they have gathered for a number of days.

2) The government's clampdown on the press has largely accomplished its primary missions. Press restrictions have kept live images from the street protests and their suppression off the air. It choked off those images into the narrowest of conduits: dribs and drabs from social networking sites. Only now are images finally starting to emerge, and many of them are accompanied by the "cannot be confirmed" caveats.

3) Supreme Leader Khameini's tossing down of the gauntlet at Friday prayers appears to have met with a disorganized response from the opposition. In the first 24 hours, it appears that his gamble of going all-in on this flawed election has paid off.

As Saturday fades into Sunday in the United States, however, the counter-argument can be made. Unlike last weekend, CNN spent all day on this story. And as the night has worn on, more and more video is escaping the cone of suppression. Dead teenagers. Home invasions. It looks very very bad to the outside world. And it also makes Iran look weak and chaotic in its own neighborhood. Egypt's government, for instance, must be swimming in a sea of ambivalence. Iran doesn't look so big and bad at the moment. (Hell, it can't even steal an election properly.) But those scenes of tumult might give the opposition all over the region some bold new ideas.

The problem is what sort of strategy of resistance is available to an Iranian opposition that has been outpaced by events -- and, perhaps by its own success? Is the back of the opposition's sustained street protests broken?

What seems clear today is that the Basij militia and police forces and army have held firm behind the government. If that continues, street protests are likely to be unsuccessful.

Perhaps the strongest effective tactic is to do precisely the opposite: Call a general strike. Can the Basij run a city of 8 million? Mousavi and his supporters, by withdrawing their labor, could let them try -- and fail. (It has been reported that Mousavi has called for this to happen in the case of his arrest.)

What's scary is the strong possibility -- and since this is Balkans via Bohemia, many of you will understand this analogy -- that what's happening in Iran today is Serbia's promising but ultimately failed 1997-98 protests and not Serbia 2000. And that Western policy makers have learned the wrong lessons from that: including a supposition that it was the NATO bombings of 1999, in tandem with burgeoning political opposition -- that brought down the regime. The risk of assuming that bombing Serbia was a cause that had the desired effect -- or that the same will hold, say, if the U.S. or Israel undertook military action against Iran -- is a dangerous and even foolish assumption.

(Note: I have not addressed the possibility that these Iranian protests are more akin to Serbia 1991 -- violent street theatre that ultimately signified very little indeed. And even less appetizing and dire prospect that promises a decade of tumult.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Iran and Serbia: Part II

A couple more thoughts about 2000 and 2009...

Had a long talk tonight with a friend who is deeply involved in international aid and finance. He was very curious about how this current situation would play out vis a vis other successful and unsuccessful revolutions in the past two decades. We ran through a lot of different scenarios.

A) Best case: Public outrage and street protests coalesce in a largely peaceful manner toward radical and positive political change. My pal brought up the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 but I think I convinced him that that was essentially a fait accompli after Hungary and East Germany. (For alternative scenarios, see below.) More relevant I think is Ukraine's Orange Revolution, where long supressed but politically inevitable forces seize upon an opportunity to accelerate change. This is the best case for Iran. Protests keep momentum and persist until victory.

B) Worst case: Bloodbath sustains ruling party. Let's call this the Tiananmen scenario. The government first targets sympathizers within ruling clique, eliminates them, then strikes at the head of the leadership of protests, neutralizes that key element, and then sends in the troops to terrorize and mop up. I'm reading lots of reports that seem to argue that this is the present Iranian government strategy, with conflicts within the ruling clerical class and Basij night terrors seizing leaders of the protests.

C) Ceaucesculand: The revolt turns violent and kills off key government figures. Or vice versa. Steve Clemons at the Washington Note featured a guest post of sorts that posited this scenario a few days ago and there is part of me that really feels in my gut that this is a very strong possibility. The two sides are very equal and poised for a zero sum game of sorts. At this point, who controls munitions and the airwaves gets very important.

D) Strategic Retreat and Reposition of Reform: If both sides pull away from overt blodshed now, what happens? Likely Ahmadinejad remains president but with a very tenuous grip on power. The opposition regroups -- and a few of its leaders get out of prison -- and a renewed effort takes shape. It follows the strategy of calculated outrage and outward conformity with law that Serbia's 2000 opposition adopted. Negotiations are opened with key elements of state security in aid of a peaceful transfer of power.

Of course this course of action opens the way to compromises and caviling. Some of the guilty will escape. But the orderly transfer of power is accomplished.

The question is whether or not the opprtunity for option (D) is open if there is a strategic retreat. The Serbian reformers of 2000 did their electoral math and decided that there was no need to retreat... and thus took to the streets. Iran's reformers could make a similar calculation -- that retreat only enables a tottering regime -- and thus reject it.

What I see in Iran is numbers. What I don't see yet is a viable strategy to use those numbers. Serbia's reformers had Otpor as shock troops, Vojislav Kostunica as the beard of legality and a clear strategy for winning over even the most vicious paramilitaries of the regime to their side. Serbia had a largely peaceful but much compromised revolution.

Let's see what happens in Iran.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Stolen Elections: Iran 2009 vs. Serbia 2000

It's usually wrong to draw explicit comparisons between climactic events in nations as different as Serbia and Iran, but since I've written a lot about Serbia and a bit about Iran (see here), I will venture one broad comparison to argue that what's happening as I write this in Iran is much much more serious and potentially bloody.

It is very hard to say who actually won Iran's election, and most reliable news sources have refrained from officially dubbing the results as fraudulent. (Others have been less restrained, and even U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was moving in the direction of dubiety on Meet the Press this morning.)

But if the election in Iran was stolen, the regime's pinning of the fraud on such startling results -- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: 62.6% and Mir Hossein Mousavi: 33.8% -- is audacious.

The attempts by Slobodan Milosevic to steal the Serbian election in 2000 that led to his ouster from power was much less audacious. Even Milosevic did not declare victory, but argued that he;'d won enough for a runoff -- despite the reformers' exit polls that estimated that Kostunica had won over 50% of the ballot and thus avoided a runoff.

The democratic coalition opposing Milosevic felt that they were in a strong enough position to resist a new poll and then called for the demonstrations that led to October 5 and the fall of Milosevic. (Bager nije buldozer.)

The Iranian polity is clearly much more splintered than Serbia in 2000-- and the sheer audacity of the 60 plus figure of victory is a conscious provocation. Milosevic clearly just wanted one more chance to try and rig the election. What Ahmadinejad and his supporters have done here is an invitation to a throwdown. Or a coup under the pretense of elections.

One last observation (and, hence, my use of the Otpor image to accompany this post): The bursts of violent street protests that have accompanied the election results in Iran are understandable, but highly unlikely to overturn the result. What Otpor and the democratic opposition in Serbia proved was that a campaign to out soft totalitarianism must rely on careful planning in which provocation of the regime is used surgically. Wild lashing out won't get the job done.