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.)