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In our continuing series, Iran’s not doing so good economically. Which is the equivalent of having “the sky is blue” appear as a breaking news item in a ticker. The economic incompetence of Iran’s theocrats is so pervasive I can only address them in bullet form:

  • Iran exports vast amounts of oil, yet has to import equally vast amounts of gasoline as it has painfully limited refining capabilities. Thus, gasoline is routinely rationed. It’s like the 70’s gas crisis every day in Tehran.
  • Inflation is at a level only Zimbabwe could envy.
  • Unemployment is at a level that should make any government of a country with a population as young as Iran’s nervous if not starkly terrified.
  • Ahmadinejad only won the presidency the first time on the promise to shower wealth on the poor. You can guess how well that went.
  • The Reckoning has hit everyone. EVERYONE.
  • On top of everything else, Sanctions Sanctions Sanctions

Against this backdrop, Iran’s nuclear plans can be viewed less as a threat and more as a desperate attempt at job creation. But seriously, if half of what Time’s article says is true actually is then the blue collar labor element so far missing from Green Movement protests may soon materialize, to the Mullah’s continuing detriment.

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As I noted in my last entry on the matter, a broad spectrum of observers is beginning to seriously consider the possibility that the Green Movement signals the beginning of the end of the revolutionary regime in Iran. As intoxicating as it is to get caught up in the excitement that surrounds the Green Movement, to which the world has attached its hopes for seeing the fall of the clerical regime, it’s a good idea to take a moment and keep things in perspective. Media outlets are already beginning the backlash, with Foreign Policy magazine, StratFor, and even the Gray Lady leading the skeptical charge. While the movement’s longevity is certainly remarkable, their aims may not be as far reaching as we all might want, to the extent they’ve been articulated at all.

Which brings us to the greens’ first shortcoming: a lack of a clear agenda. The massive uprisings in June and the actions since have been driven by 30 years of simmering resentment towards an Islamic nanny state finally boiling over. But so far that’s all that’s been articulated by the opposition: just repeated accusations of corruption, electoral malfeasance, and brutality. While these accusations may be (and let’s be honest pretty much are) true, they have yet to present an alternative plan. Do they just want a reelection? Resignation of high officials? Reform of the system? Revolution? Given the broad ideological base the greens are now attracting you’re likely to get different answers based on who you ask, and while the broad support is good it’s also something of a thorn. The number of voices now in the movement makes articulating a single, coherent agenda all the more difficult as illustrated by how many ways the simple question “Who’s running this show?” can be answered.

Realizing this vulnerability the movement appears to be attempting to make its goals clear post-Ashura, which is especially important as the outbreak of violence makes it necessary to counter government charges that the protesters are merely anarchists. However while green leaders inside Iran such as Mousavi and University Professors are simply making generalized calls for reform, the most comprehensive statement seems to have come from several Iranian exiles, and this is itself a problem. Exile communities are hardly the best barometers of opinion inside their home countries, and aren’t nearly as powerful or influential there as they generally like to think they are (hence why they left in the first place). This is why thousands of Cubans in Miami and New Jersey, despite their well-earned wealth in their adopted country, have been utterly powerless to present anything more than an annoyance to Castro. And let us not forget the role elements of the Iraqi exile community (namely one Ahmed Chalabi) played in building up george bush’s hopes of replacing saddam’s statues with his own. It also runs the very severe risk of playing into the government’s hands by lending credence to the regime narrative of discontent being driven by foreign agents seeking to subjugate Iran once more.

And this leads to another problem, although this is more a problem of perception.The green movement neither wants nor needs foreign support, despite numerous claims in the media to the contrary. This is immensely frustrating to Americans, as we are both an action-oriented people and see ourselves as the vanguard of freedom. In this way Obama’s taken a good tack of offering light moral support to the opposition and precious little else. Anything more could easily be spun by the regime and the resulting wave of nationalist fervor would be just what the doctor ordered to restore their legitimacy. Ditto the recent game of brinkmanship on the nuclear issue: goading Israel into an attack that would universally enrage the populace is probably the regime’s only solution to its ills that they can see, but once again I digress.

In short, the Green Movement carries within it the promise of bringing great change to Iran, and the mere fact of its continued existence has already irrevocably altered the political landscape in Tehran. A full scale revolution may not be in the offing, but even a few reforms of the current system would prove a breath of fresh air in a nation that’s been stagnating politically for decades. All we outside the country can (and should) do is continue to watch, and wait, and hope.

-We’re All In This Together

This is not editorial hyperbole; as of last Sunday the city of Tehran was quite literally on fire. One only has to look at the pictures cropping up across the internet depicting opposition protests in conjunction with the shiite holy day of Ashura to realize the movement has reached a new phase. But the articles accompanying them, (esp this one at Time)  make it very clear: Sunday was what can only be described as a perfect storm of opposition.

First and foremost, Monday was appropriately enough the Day of Ashura, the single most important day on the Shiite calender which, as the link to Wikipedia I provided above describes, commemorates the day Shiite Imam Hussein was killed by what they consider to have been a corrupt Caliph. Given the modern context this alone would be appropriate enough, but today also marks the 7th day of mourning for opposition leader Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, one of the founding fathers of the original Islamic revolution who fell out of favor with the government and later became the moral voice of the opposition following the June uprising. Combining these two factors makes the government’s heavy handed response to the protests at best awkward, at worst outrageous to common Iranians. In the past even the Shah  forbade executions during Ashura, and in conjunction with the funeral of  ANY Grand Ayatollah is nigh-unthinkable. For a government that relies so heavily on religious propaganda to break such a taboo is another fatal mistake that underlies the extent to which they underestimate their own people.

Further, analysts from across the journalistic spectrum, from the Daily Beast to the Times of London to Der Spiegel to the Wall Street Journal and many, many others all seem to be asking the same question: could this be it? While the media has been both largely united and incorrect in the past (cough), given the present environment and circumstances the general agreement among the many voices of opinion cannot be discounted out of hand.

What is clear is that while no one can tell whether or when the Islamic Republic might fall, it cannot long survive crushed between the growing confidence of its own people to demand their rights, and the growing consensus of the international community to tighten the economic screws. And thus the regime seems to be realizing its position is in mortal peril and has begun taking an ever lower road, with opposition leaders being rounded up en masse. Meanwhile the opposition too is digging in, with numerous sources quoting Mr. Mousavi as being willing to die a martyr for the cause in the wake of the apparently targeted murder of his nephew. Whether a harder line in the mold of the Chinese crackdown on Tienanmen Square will be effective in Iran is anyone’s guess, but I seem to recall the heavy handed approach not working so well for the Shah. Besides the fact that while a hard crackdown might have been successful in suffocating the opposition in its crib had it been pursued shortly after the initial mass protests in June, the Ashura Uprising may be a signal that public opposition may have reached critical mass and may now be beyond the regime’s ability to stem. Where this goes is anyone’s guess, but I continue to ask everyone reading to hope and/or pray for the people of Iran, and their freedom.

-We’re All In This Together

Not that I want to beat a dead horse, but I can’t in good conscience hold back some further bits of good news coming out of Iran, including a rather encouraging report from TIME that not only are the protests continuing, but that turnout on Friday concurrent to the regime’s Quds Day rallies was unexpectedly high. Some reports state that the number of protesters was either equal to or greater than the number of people attending government-sponsored rallies, and were enough to hold their own or even successfully push back against Basij attempts to block them from their march paths.

But wait, there’s more! It seems Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, who was once to be the successor to Khomeini and is now the single most prominent and influential opposition-aligned cleric, has issued the most scathing condemnation of the regime yet. In a culture where high clerics are often seen as role models, and given that Montazeri has been specifically declared as worthy of emulation by ALL shias, this is likely to hold no small amount of weight in Iranian public opinion and certainly helps aid the opposition’s momentum coming out of Friday’s successful rallies.

This seems to have breathed new life into the opposition, and strike no small amount of worry in the regime, as it has demonstrated its ability to survive and continue to summon mass rallies and prominent declarations of support despite the multiple strategies the government has pursued to crack down. And given that Iran has no shortage of events aimed at either religious observances or biting their thumbs at the west, the greens will have plenty of opportunities to continue to make their displeasure known, and continue to embarrass, if not destabilize, the regime as it begins the delicate game of finally engaging with the west.

I usually leave these requests for my more religious counterparts at Saint Superman, but I join them in asking you to pray for the people of Iran.

Though the rumors of this blog’s demise have been exaggerated, the rumors of my laziness have not. I’ll be honest: I became extremely dissatisfied with my readership level compared to the effort I try to put into many of my entires here, and combined with the looming prospect of a move (now completed), I decided to take a break before returning and launching another PR offensive. The rebirth is still some time off since the internet at my new place is not yet up, but given recent events I would be remiss not to comment.

Revolutions have an odd way of often devouring themselves from the inside out. The Russian Revolution was supposed to usher in communism, but instead unleashed dictatorship and set the blueprint for communist revolutions throughout the Cold War. Africa and Latin America are littered with tales of freedom fighters turned bloodthirsty tyrants. It would now seem the 1979 Islamic Revolution is no excpetion. Having been unplugged from the newsfeed thanks to my recent move, I’ve been absolutely devouring any and all coverage of the Green Revolution and my impressions are threefold: first is that the supergovernment (the mullah’s who do the actual governing behind the republic’s democratic facade) have dealt themselves and their regime a serious blow by undermining their legitimacy (for an excellent overview check out this article from The Times, and this one from the Guardian). To raise the hopes and expectations of the possiblity of Ahmadinejad’s electoral defeat only to slam the door in the naiton’s face has succeeded only in closing off a critical safety valve. It’s common knowledge even in Iran that any election there is hinky at best, but even the motions of democracy are important in making the people feel as if they participate in their own government even if the substance doesn’t back it. And the regime can counter criticisms by, as so many other democracies-in-name-only, claiming their government is backed by the will of the people. With even this pretense gone the curtain has been pulled back and the Iranian people are now face to face with what their government really, truly is and it repulses them enough that they’ve been galvanized into mass action, showing an impressive display of coordination despite the regime shuttering cell phone and text messaging services nationwide (911 be damned, we have an election to steal) and closing off access to twitter and most social networking sites. Of course they may have forgotten that such things were hardly necessary when they overthrew the shah 30 years ago, and technology is hardly a requirement when the people are being fueled by an anger at their government not seen since the waning days of the Pahlavi dynasty.

On the flipside, there’s a very strong likelihood that, like the Hunagrian Uprising, Prague Spring, and Tianamen Square before it, the Green Revolution could collapse under the weight of the forces being thrown against it, both physical and political. While armed militias roam the streets and savagely beat protestors, today supreme leader Khameni has applied a political fig leaf to his earlier full throated endoresment of Ahmadinejad’s victory and announced the guardian council will in fact investigate the results. The likely outcome is perhaps a slight downward adjustment of his vote total, but will still certainly be high enough to avoid a runoff. However, even if Mousavi is declared the winner (unlikely as it would be that the government would admit to that degree of “mistake”) the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic has been dealt a serious if not crippling blow, and thus unless the US and Israel play into the mullahs’ hands by launching an attack, thus allowing them to stoke the flames of nationalism as they did in the war with Iraq, any likely outcome will result in at the least a dilution of their power as this election makes it unlikely another conservative president will be legitmately elected, at most possible overthrow of the entire rotten complex if the current protests continue and escalate.

Mention of the US and Israel brings me to my third conclusion: Ahmadinejad’s disputed election is in terms of diplomacy the best possible outcome for almost everyone outside Iran. The neighboring Arab autocracies can point to the current troubles of the Islamic Republic (whose very veneer of democracy they find threatening) and tell their people of the perils of elections. Israeli likudniks can milk this endlessly to build support for a preemptive strike, although to his credit Bibi has so far avoided rising to the bait. And unlike with Mousavi, Ahmadinejad’s preceding reputation makes it easier for Obama to walk away from negotiations over Iran’s nuclear ambitions should things go pear shaped. Whereas the election of Mousavi would have allowed them to drag out negotiations further under the veneer of a “change” president like Obama himself while behind the scenes the mullahs would continue enriching uranium, and leave Obama in the quandary of having to undermine a relatively liberal leader in a country where such leadership is percieved to be desperately needed. This lack of strategic grasp of their situation can be placed next to the sky high rates of unemployment and inflation and rampant corruption on the list of the regime’s inept failures.

Whatever happens next, Iran has reached a point of no return. The curtain has been torn away, and the people now see their government for what it is. Without even the pretense of popular legitmacy the regime cannot, and hopefully will not survive in the face of a people already well schooled in the overthrow of dicatorship.  To paraphrase Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen (and elevate myself into the stratosphere of geekery), why should they save a government they no longer have any stake in?