Iran: what is unfolding?

The events that have begun to unfold in Iran over the past week are, as Western media continues to point out, seismic.

Undoubtedly this is a story which will, regardless of whether the protests succeed, have huge ramifications for the politics of the Middle East. I want to do three things – first, put a little perspective on the magnitude of the events, second, draw your attention to some of the best stuff from the vast amount of coverage, and then make a more general point about coverage of this event.

Much has been made of the fact that 60% of the population in under 30, and therefore wasn’t even born at the time of the 1979 Revolution. This is a significant fact, because it is the young, as one might expect, who are forming the backbone of the push for change inside Iran. They were the constituency that Mir-Hossein Mousavi most managed to excite, along with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, who is hugely popular among Iranian women too.

That said, the protests are increasingly drawing people from all sectors of society – from the garbage men to the doctors and nurses, all kinds of groups have turned out to protest in their own way. Importantly, there is a sizeable and growing section of the Islamic Republic’s establishment which believes the vote-rigging, antics of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and even some of the public pronouncements of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, are not in the spirit of the 1979 Revolution, and not sustainable as approach to governance.

Today is the fifth consecutive day of massive protests in Tehran, with the figures reportedly surpassing Monday’s high, and now reaching around a million. Consider this: the Iraq war protests in the UK drew a million, but they were publicised in advance, highly accessible and totally unrestricted and so forth. These protests are having to be spread by word of mouth, often with just a day’s notice, and all while the government is:

  1. Threatening people who attend in a variety of ways (cold calling individuals to tell them they were spotted at a protest and are going to be arrested, threatening the death penalty for protesting)
  2. Spreading misinformation that the protests have been cancelled
  3. Not allowing the rallies to be publicised on the entirely state-controlled television, or in the papers, or via social networking sites (Iranian twitter and Facebook traffic is down 90%, with the rest having to use secret proxy servers)
  4. Keeping down the SMS service, and limiting domestic phone calls in parts of the country
  5. Organising its own rallies to intimidate the protestors

Giving free reign to the extreme, paramilitary, Revolutionary Guard-affiliated, armed organisation known as the Basij to terrorise protestors.

Many are pointing out that a lot of the tactics used by the protestors (calling pro-Mousavi slogans from their windows at night, organising ‘mourning’ rallies like the one held on today were also signature ones of the 1979 Revolution, and that one of the key stages in the 1979 events – when the police refused to attack protestors and started joining them – is starting to happen now. Nevertheless, we’re far from a revolution at the moment. For one thing, those leading the protests are largely drawn from the old guard of 1979, and so want the Islamic Republic merely to reform itself and become more democratic, rather than the whole thing being brought down and replaced. Given the fact that revolutions tend to get hijacked by the more hardline elements anyway (1979, but also most revolutions going back to the French one of 1789, shows that), it’s probably not a bad thing that if these protests succeed, we’ll see a reasonable degree of reform rather than a wholly new system.

The coverage of Iran can be broadly broken down into a number of themes:

  1. Reporting of the events in Iran: this has become increasingly difficult, owing to the media clampdown, but there are still some good sources. Lindsey Hilsum, Channel 4’s reporter inside Iran, has been doing a great job, getting interesting scoops. ABC News’ Jim Sciutto was covering things in Tehran, his visa expired, he’s now tweeting from Dubai, but still getting lots of info. The Guardian’s live blog is a great source of updates, photos and videos.
  2. Videos, tweets and photos from Iran. This is best aggregator of tweets, videos and photos. There’s a great series of striking photos taken earlier in the week, before the press were banned from taking photos and videos.
  3. In-depth analysis and background. Christopher Hitchens fired off a typically incendiary attack on the regime; Johann Hari put things in perspective; Michael Axworthy, who has written a lucid history of Iran, examined the regime’s mentality; Simon Tisdall added an unusually insightful profile of Ali Rafasanjani, the man who could topple the Supreme Leader
  4. Debate on the West’s response to the events. This has been a primarily American debate, focusing on the choice between backing the opposition and staying out to watch from the sidelines. Personally I thought Barack Obama’s delicate balancing act was masterful. Matthew Yglesias has been putting the liberal case for keeping out of things. John Kerry attacked the neocons in the New York Times and this is a very comprehensive attack on the American right’s position.
  5. Comedy. The Daily Show has done some good segments, calling Ahmadinejad “bats**t insane” and mocking CNN. Also, one Republican Senator, named Pete Hoekstra got it so spectacularly wrong when he tweeted “Iranian twitter activity similar to what we did in House last year when Republicans were shut down in the House” that this happened. I particularly enjoyed it when his niece tweeted, “um, Uncle Pete…(Samantha Hoekstra here), please don’t compare Iranian tweeters with House Republicans. Apples & oranges tio!”

There are other areas of debate – what a Mousavi presidency might look like, whether there is evidence of electoral fraud, the importance and reliability of social networking sites like Twitter in all this – but this is rapidly becoming too long, so I won’t put anything on them. However, if you want constantly-updated aggregation of all kinds of coverage, the second-best source is Andrew Sullivan’s blog at The Atlantic , and the best, which I have been totally glued to for several days, is the live blog at the Huffington Post, run by the positively heroic Nico Pitney.

The coverage, as I said before, has been extensive, which can only be a good thing. However, without foreign journalists, cameramen and photographers there, things are getting difficult. If the Iranian government either finds an effective way to clamp down on Iranians getting information out to world on the internet, or takes the hugely drastic step of shutting the internet down altogether (and bearing in mind the text service is gone and the phones are partially down, it could), we, the outside world, could find ourselves with virtually no way of getting information. Given this, but also given the fact that condemnation of the government and support for the opposition would play into an Ahmadinejad narrative of Western ‘meddling’, with the opposition as our ‘lackeys’, it seems best that Western governments limit their condemnation to the issue of foreign journalists being restricted. I’d like to see Barack Obama, David Miliband and foreign ministers of Europe make a joint statement demanding access for journalists in Iran. That’d be very hard for Ahmadinejad to plausibly spin.

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18 Comments

  • The Twitter angle is so irritating to be untrue. Stop rubbing one off over Twitter. There are more interesting things at stake.

    There is a question of actually how much, if any, fraud actually occurred. If Ahmedinijad does triumph- as looks likely- what would it do to our bargaining position if we had openly backed his opponent as an opportunity for regime change? The West has to play this very carefully. As we saw with the Russia/Georgia war, people are jumping to comclusions very different to the reality and the press reports should be treated with a bit of scepticism.

    Lastly, Hoekstra’s a Rep and not a Senator, I believe

  • Totally disagree with your last point.
    If Clinton, Miliband and European foreign ministers narrowed their messages of concern to access for journalists, Ahmadinejad would not have a hard time creating spin. He would most probably argue that the West is desperate to enable their journalists to exaggerate conditions on the ground in Iran to spur on the protests and support for the opposition.
    Ahmadinejad and Mousavi have similar positions on Iran’s nuclear program and no Western government has indicated support for the opposition. It is the responsibility of Western governments to call for the voices of the Iranian people to be heard fairly. If there is evidence that Iranians are being oppressed violently for supporting the opposition in the streets, it is not inappropriate for Western governments to demand such behavior to end.

  • Afrafran- the conclusions that were lept to were that it was Russia’s fault for starting the war. Most serious observers- including human rights organisations and international bodies- now blame Sakashvili.
    http://www.thenation.com/doc/20081103/ames
    There is also a great Newsnight segment after the war had concluded.

    The ‘West’, at least how I intended it, were the Americans and Europeans. But especially the Brits and Americans. Any help or encouragement will be taken as interference and delegitimise the protesters anyway.

    The Europeans and Americans are also the main negotiators around Iran and nukes. Their take on the situation will inevitably affect the negotiations.

  • anon- there won’t be any major help or encouragement from the ‘West’, because Western governments know that whoever won the damn election, Iran’s nuclear policy would stay mostly the same. Thats why the US administration (not so much congress and the senate) have stayed rather neutral on the issue in terms of language.

    The extent to which Western governments criticize Iran is not that much of an issue anyway, and it certainly won’t delegigtimise the protesters because Iran hypes it up to the extent they are at the moment, through propaganda all the time. Its only because the media are covering the story much more, that there is the perception that they are taking it further.

  • anon,

    The evidence of fraud is mounting at a considerable pace. for starters, there’s the fact that Ahmadinejad won by over 70% in Mousavi’s hometown. To put that in perspective, it’s like the Labour party not only winning the next election, but taking David Cameron’s seat in Witney by a landslide. There are other, more solid, piece of evidence out there; just google it.

    The ‘twitter angle’ is, i think, important because we have to decide to what extent these things are reliable. Given the fact that most of the Western media has been kicked out, it’s getting increasingly limited to sites like twitter and youtube for information to get out.

    Kasch,

    Given that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad will try and blame the West anyway, i think it’s worth a try trying to get some journalists in. Otherwise, as i said above, the flow of information is going to be seriously limited.

  • I completely agree with the point that this is reminiscent of last summer’s war between Georgia and Russia. In the absence of any actual evidence the media are tripping over themselves to believe whichever version of events most closely fits their pre-existing prejudices with public opinion following obediently along behind. And just as with last year’s war, it won’t matter even if the evidence subsequently contradicts that position because that will barely be reported and the whole event will remain frozen in the public consciousnessas it was reported at the time.

    Still at least our politicians seem to have learned their lessons and have avoided adding to the hysteria thus far.

  • If you paid attention Efrafan, you’d see that the analog is being drawn between the media’s reaction to two events, not between the events themselves.

    Absolvely nothing to do with conspiracy theory except in your febrile imagination.

  • If you’ve become emotionally attached to a discredited position then that’s your problem, the rest of the world has no obligation to indulge you.

  • I think with such events as the crisis that seems to be deepening in Iran, we are going to see yet more examples of how the international community is taking a laid back approach to the ideas behind the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

    President Obama has now come out with stronger language..
    “We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people.”
    .. if the violence continues, it will be interesting to see what comes after the rhetoric, if anything.

  • Efrafan,
    Anon provided an interesting link worth reading, above. Thanks for posting that. Some others of interest:
    November 9, 2008 “Georgia fired first shot, say UK monitors” Jon Swain, Sunday Times
    http://www.businessweek.com/globalbiz/blog/europeinsight/archives/2008/11/the_russia-geor.html
    https://www.stanford.edu/dept/slavic/cgi-bin/?q=node/183
    In terms of pre-2008 Caucuses politics, Robert English in the New York Review of Books, Georgia the Ignored History, is well worth a read. Free and googleable.

    Now, evidence of vote tampering in Iran might well ring true- Leo’s pointing to regional slanting of votes is quite compelling- but let’s also not presume that the MSM’s take is entirely accurate or to be swollowed whole. The problem with Twitter and the rest is that it is more widely used by the more urban and affluent- Mousavi’s core supporters. Like the problem with blogs et al., there is not the older standards of print journalism, at least those before the 24 hour news cycle.

  • I couldn’t give the other two links because the thing kept telling me that I was spamming!

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