Iran: null hypothesis, and consequences

One man’s opinion.

My Iran null hypothesis is now

(1) Neither Ahmadinejad nor Khameini, nor their supporters, were expecting this degree of blowback. The size and intensity of the reaction and the subsequent explosion of street protest seem to have caught them by surprise.

However,

(2) though surprised, they are not stupid. Evil, quite possibly; assholes, most certainly; but not stupid. In fact, they’re pretty smart. Both of them are intelligent men, more than competent politicians, experienced in war and revolution, and perfectly comfortable in brutal, high-stakes struggles for power.

Furthermore,

(3) they are pretty firmly in control. The various formal political entities (Majlis, Council of Experts, etc.) are either firmly in support or, at worst, so divided as to be effectively neutral. Nobody can veto them. There is plenty of political opposition, but it lacks coherence or a strong power base within the system. The Revolutionary Guards are staying loyal and following orders. The Basijis are online and ready to crack heads, or worse.

Therefore,

(4) Ahmadinejad and Khameini are determined to bend events to their advantage, mostly by driving rivals (e.g., Rafsanjani) to the wall, but also by inflicting enough violence on the protestors to make sure people get the message. They are now in “every crisis is an opportunity mode”. The opportunity, here, is to crush some annoying critics, eliminate some potential rivals, and inoculate themselves against further protests of this nature. There will be costs, but they’re willing to pay them.

Like any good null hypothesis, this one is testable. All we have to do is sit back and watch. We’ll know soon enough.

Meanwhile, a couple of general comments. Every blog post or news story about the crisis should be subjected to the “Don’t you think they know that?” test. For instance, various people have suggested that these protests could just be the beginning of a long war of attrition, citing the experience of 1978-9 when it took a year of protests to overthrow the Shah. Well, dude — don’t you think they know that? That’s why they’re moving quickly to stomp on the protests now, hard.

The regime’s reaction has been brutal and relentlessly mean-spirited. It’s also been — after some bumbling and confusion in the first few days — ruthlessly efficient. Remember the “martyr’s funerals” that helped organize and inspire resistance to the Shah? None of those have been allowed here: if you get shot, your body gets disappeared. Protesters are being photographed, identified, and targeted in their private life. This will (I predict) get worse before it gets better, and it won’t get better soon — they’re going to keep cracking down until they’re comfortable with the results.

One thing to keep in mind: a large minority of the country, probably a third and maybe more, loves Ahmadinejad. Just fucking loves him. American readers? Think how conservative Republicans felt about George W. Bush in 2004. Now imagine that W. had also been an engaging public speaker; a real, self-made man of the people; and smart. Now imagine further that Al Qaeda had bases in Canada and Mexico, and W. was the only guy who seemed able to deal with that reality. That’s how his supporters view Ahmadinejad. And most of these people are just fine with kicking some liberal ass.

This is not to say they’ll have everything their own way. When the dust has settled, they’ll have totally alienated some large and important groups in Iranian society. They’ll also have created divisions that will be poisonous for, oh, probably decades to come. (See, e.g., Greece or Mexico. It took 70 years, two catastrophic military defeats, a civil war and a military dictatorship for Greece to recover from their National Schism.) And yeah, they’ll have discredited the Islamic Revolution abroad… a bit; the countries most vulnerable to an Iran-style revolution are exactly the ones that are cracking down on coverage of the protests. And anyway, so what? They’ll stay in power just as long as they want, and that’s what matters.

Other consequences: we, the rest of the world, will be stuck dealing with these assholes. Which is just going to suck for us. It’s going to be almost impossible now for Obama, or anyone else, to reach an agreement with this leadership. Some really bad visuals, there. That in turn means it’s going to be harder to keep Israel on a short leash — the current Israeli government will be able to throw The Iranian Nuclear Menace into any conversation, and it’ll be hard to get past.

Iraq… I have no goddamn idea. And nobody else seems to, either. Other than one article noting that this will probably make Iraq’s Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani more important, since he’s now the most senior Shi’ite religious figure who hasn’t been compromised. Well, bully for Al-Sistani, but he’s eighty years old, and has avoided direct conflict with the Shi’ite leaders of Iran. And then there’s Baby Sadr… I can’t begin to guess what he’s making of all this. Nothing good, I suppose, it generally isn’t with him… Anyway. I would expect events in Iran to have significant effects on Iraq, but I leave that discussion to someone who actually knows something about Iraq.

But anyhow, that’s my dismal prediction: Bad Guys Win, things will suck.

(Feel free to tell my why I’m wrong. Feel even more free to make predictions of your own. Have at it.)

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Not Europe and tagged by Douglas Muir. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

19 thoughts on “Iran: null hypothesis, and consequences

  1. “The regime’s reaction has been brutal and relentlessly mean-spirited.”

    But nothing compared to Israel in Gaza and the west bank.
    And speaking of democracy the “good guys” backed a coup attempt after the 2006 elections, which Hamas had won.

    “One thing to keep in mind: a large minority of the country, probably a third and maybe more, loves Ahmadinejad.”

    Yes, I suppose. But probably a little more than a half actually voted for him.

    I’ve posted links, and their on the subject, and more knowledgeable than you. Some of them even speak the language. Some are even from the country. I posted data- you ignore it I guess because you like to hear yourself talk. Don’t worry, I done. I give up.

    I’ll add only one thing: that it’s more than a little annoying listening to Euros talking about the middle east without mentioning Israel. The moral blather of Germans especially. And I say that as a Jew with family in Israel.
    There’s something foul in the response here. Something deeply corrupt.

  2. Doug, I can’t really claim to have a particularly informed opinion with respect to the balance of power in institutional Iran, or with respect to the social cleavages that are being entrenched right now, but from what I’ve seen the last couple of days I’d agree with Roger Cohen’s Null Hypothesis – that regime change, one way or another, seems to be inevitable for, of all the reasons he mentions, one reason in particular:

    “…the hypocritical but effective contract that bound society has been broken. The regime never had active support from more than 20 percent of the population. But acquiescence was secured by using only highly targeted repression (leaving the majority free to go about its business), and by giving people a vote for the president every four years.

    That’s over. Repression will be broad and ferocious in the coming months. The acquiescent have already become the angry. You can’t turn Iran into Burma: The resistance of a society this varied and savvy will be fierce.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/24/opinion/24iht-edcohen.html

  3. Tobias, I don’t see where Cohen makes that argument. The closest he comes is where he says that “The Islamic Republic has been weakened”. (Which I might agree or disagree with, depending on how you define “weakened”.)

    Otherwise, I agree with most of what he says. Bold power grab, check; damage to Khameini, quite possibly; Missed chance for modernization, sure; fierce resistance vs. broad repression, absolutely.

    The biggest differences are (1) he thinks the price being paid here is unbearably high, whereas I suspect Iran’s leaders are paying it with a grim smile, and (2) he’s leaving his conclusion open, while I’m coming pretty firmly down on “government FTW”.

    Doug M.

  4. “But nothing compared to Israel in Gaza and the west bank.”

    Which are themselves nothing compared to the Hamas in Gaza either. Or do Palestinian deaths only matter when Jewish people kill them in wartime, not when Hamas people kills them for holding different political positions?

    Israel denying self-determination to Palestinians is also not the biggest sign of oppression either, when most of the other nations in the region deny self-determination to even their own people. (As does Hamas in Gaza.)

    “I’ll add only one thing: that it’s more than a little annoying listening to Euros talking about the middle east without mentioning Israel.”

    Because Israel is a tiny portion of the Middle-east, despite the parochial self-involved rantings that you just posted? That you mention you’re a Jew with family in Israel is supposed to present you as *less* self-involved?

    Because Israel has nothing to do with the suffering in Iran right now — or with the suffering in Iraq? Or indeed most of any of the suffering in the Middle-east? Nothing to do with the oppression in Saudi Arabia, and nothing to do with the killings in Darfur. And nothing to do with the fighting in Pakistan, and nothing to do with Afghanistan either.

    Strangely enough Israel has been utterly uninvolved with any oppression outside West Bank and Gaza. And even there the chief oppressor has been (Iranian-backed) Hamas, not Israel.

    “But probably a little more than a half actually voted for him.”

    Hello!? Democracy means that it’s the Iranians you’ll have to convince of that, not us. And it’s the Iranians who ain’t buying it, even with the state-controlled television trying to persuade them of that.

  5. “I’ll add only one thing: that it’s more than a little annoying listening to Euros talking about the middle east without mentioning Israel.”

    I don’t know where you’re getting your news from, but Israel and the Gaza unpleasantness already dominated the European news for most of the last winter.

    I find it refreshing that the newspapers are able to report on Iran _without_ obligatory remarks on Israel – a country which, as noted, really has nothing to do with this situation.

    But I don’t know. Perhaps, given your background, you prefer that Israel should be mentioned at least in passing in every single report regarding the Middle-East, even if the news is about the situation in Iran, the Iraq insurgency, or the Kurdish question?

    Cheers,

    J. J.

  6. “I find it refreshing that the newspapers are able to report on Iran _without_ obligatory remarks on Israel – a country which, as noted, really has nothing to do with this situation.”

    It has everything to do with the situation as far as Israel and its major backer are concerned. The only reason Iran gets so much play in ‘serious’ foreign policy discussions in the US, where I live, is Israel and nukes. Obama recently called the dictator Mubarak ” a force for good” while Iran is still even now closer to democracy than any other country in the region other than Israel. Elections is Saudi Arabia? Syria?

    There was an election in Iran, and yes it was dirty. But very possibly Ahmadinejad would have won regardless if by a smaller margin. And one of the reasons for that is his hard negotiating stance with the US and Israel. And remember the west bank is under military rule and Gaza is in lockdown so forget about moral superiority there: the IDF is the Republican Guard, but worse. The protesters in Tehran refer to the marauding cops as “Israelis.” But through all this Iran still has a Jewish population of 25,000 who suffer some real discrimination but are in no danger of a pogrom.

    One of the arguments put forth for Israel to make peace deals now with dictatorships is that the increase of Arab democracy is going to make it harder? No wonder Israel is happy with Soudi Arabia as its doppelganger in racism. This urge to de-contextualize is something you should learn to outgrow.

    I posted links in the last thread, they were ignored. Here’s another to Joe Klein, who’s surprisingly not bad.

    Blather on.

  7. Aris, Jussi, thanks for feeding the troll. Could you stop now, please?

    Seth, we’re not ignoring you because we disagree with you. We’re ignoring you because you’re a crank. Different thing.

    Doug M.

  8. Doug,

    the BBC’s John Simpson writes about Iran –

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8116825.stm

    “I had to leave Iran last Sunday, when the authorities refused to renew my visa. But before I left, another former senior Revolutionary Guard came to our hotel to see us. “Remember me,” he pleaded. “Remember that I helped the BBC.” I realised that even a person so intimately linked to the Islamic Revolution thinks that something will soon change in Iran.”

  9. I don’t buy the “don’t you think they know that?” hypothesis. It’s like the saying “the market has factored this already” which I never buy (otherwise the market would never be caught free-falling occasionally; surprises don’t come from nowhere).

    If they “knew” they would not allow Moussavi to run in the first place. They are trying hard not to repeat the Shah’s mistakes, so they are making their own mistakes. They are very successfully undermining their position – not allowing funerals is not especially Islamic. Every bone they break randomly on the streets pushes a bystander, her family and friends to the opposition. Physical repression can never fully succeed legitimacy. Not for long, anyway.

    There is a large constituency that loves Ahmedinajed. No doubt. But I don’t know that you can say it’s a third or ten per cent. I wouldn’t trust an Iran expert on this so I definitly don’t trust a non-Iran expert on this.

    I think an important point is that they can’t “win” this round without purging half of the regime. It could happen. But as a social historian I disagree with the stress you put on the allegiance of armed forces commanders as the “make or break” factor. Only where armed forces are drawn from narrow, isolated social strata you can talk about society vis-a-vis armed forces. I don’t think it’s the case here. Otherwise, the armed forces are part of society, and therefore widespread distaste for the regime, if it exists, is bound to filter through and have an effect.

    Over the long term – a deeply divided elite, radicalised and mobilised large opposition, and international isolation – well, I can’t see this lasting.

  10. I linked to experts, Iranian and not. I linked to educated discussion among people far more knowledgeable than you: both to the facts at their command and to various arguments concerning them.
    And I get called a troll.

    Question for Scott and Mrs T: Is this a right wing site now?

  11. You might be right, but I think a few things are worth noting:

    To begin with, the Assembly of Experts does have veto power, in the sense that it can remove the Leader of the Revolution. Rafsanjani heads that organization. There was a report on PressTV that it had made a statement endorsing the leadership at the moment, but there are doubts regarding the veracity of that. Still really no news on what is going on with Rafsanjani, outside of members of his family being arrested.

    Historically speaking, the images are very reminiscent of the 1978-9 Revolution. Though you have the “scissor men” out in force, the regime has not, per the reports so far, done anything on the level of Black Friday in 1978, where the Shah ordered his men to fire on protesters, and the estimates of the dead are between the hundreds and over 2,000. SAVAK–the Shah’s scissor men–did the same rounding up of people, and was especially talented at torturing them without ending up killing them. There hasn’t even been anything along the lines of the 1963 crackdown in terms of numbers killed.

    I think that the pace of the news–especially with Twitter–is causing some folks to draw conclusions about a movement which may take 15 years to play out or maybe 1 or 2.

    Either way, it does look like just now a considerable portion of the population believes the leadership is controverting the Constitution, and insofar as that is concerned, believe that the government is illegitimate until it begins to make good on some of its promises.

  12. Tobias, one anecdote does not a trend make. But here’s the thing — I could be wrong, and I’d be happy to be wrong. And /we’ll know soon enough/.

    Mink, I don’t claim the DYTTKT hypothesis covers everything! I do say it’s a useful first-order bullshit filter.

    “Physical repression can never fully succeed legitimacy” — I have to sharply disagree with this. History is full of regimes where physical repression did just that, and for generations.

    IANA a Iran expert, but I did live for years in post-Milosevic Serbia, post-Ceausescu Romania, and Kocharian/Sarkisian Armenia. As I posted last week, I think that last one is particularly relevant; Armenia’s government stole the Presidential election fairly openly, then gunned down protesters in the street. 16 months later, the government is stable, united, and universally recognized. I don’t say Iran’s regime will get off that easy; I do say it’s an interesting proof-of-concept.

    Note that the Basij, who are doing much of the actual head-cracking, are indeed drawn from a pretty narrow subsection of society.

    At this precise moment, the only weak spot I see is if Rafsanjani can convince the Council of Experts to make a move against Khameini. But that doesn’t seem to be happening, and I’m inclined to think it won’t — the prevailing mood at the Council seems to be little-c conservatism.

    Doug M.

  13. Well, he can bow, kiss his ring, and call him “Supreme Leader” all he wants… but these blood-soaked tyrants are laughing at Obambi. It doesn’t matter what Obama says to the Mullahs now… they lost all respect for him when he started sending them adoring fan mail. They know this smiley plastic mannequin isn’t going to do anything.

    Ronald Reagan’s support of Poland’s Solidarity in the dark days of the Soviet-ordered crackdown is the model here… not the preposterous straw-man argument of “what are you going to do, invade?” disingenuously presented by the do-nothing, Obama-pologist left.

    And isn’t this what George W Bush told you was going to happen in the Middle East in the wake of Iraq’s liberation?

    Maybe that’s why Barack Obama has so little apparent interest in finishing the job in Iran… no matter how much it benefits the US and free world.

    That, and the fact that he’s already piled all his chips on legitimizing this vile regime- and a democratic revolution at this point would be downright embarrassing for him.

  14. “Physical repression can never fully succeed legitimacy” — I have to sharply disagree with this. History is full of regimes where physical repression did just that, and for generations.

    Doug
    We could discuss these examples and also the definition of legitmacy but the fact is that the regime thinks more like me – otherwise it wouldn’t be making such a propaganda effort – PressTV is even advertising on London buses at the moment, how strange.

    I haven’t thought this through but I also think there is a difference between all these places you mentioned and Iran – where the ruling ideology is political religion rather than nationalism. It’s not only about who’s face is on the posters: you can’t have an Islamic regime banning Allahu Akbar cries.

    On another note, I’m sure you saw the news about 100 Iranian MPs out 300 invitees showing up to Ahmedinejad’s party – an interesting example of your DDYTTKI law. – what it tells me is that two thirds of Iran’s conservative core institution are so unsure that Khameini is going to win that they would rather take the risk of embaracing Ahmedinejad and not be seen as siding with him.

  15. http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2009/953/re3.htm

    Alireza Doostdar
    -The writer is a PhD candidate in anthropology & Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University. He is currently conducting fieldwork in Tehran.-

    “Western coverage of the political turmoil in Iran in the aftermath of the 12 June presidential election has for the most part presented a uniform image of the conflict: thousands of young, liberal, and defiant supporters of presidential challenger Mir-Hussein Mousavi have been protesting against what they see as massive fraud, a “coup” to re-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The government, fearful of a popular uprising, has responded with massive use of force, killing and injuring protesters, arresting activists and politicians, and imposing an information blockade.

    Analysts repeatedly ask themselves and others, “Is this a revolution?” And, more expectantly, “Are we witnessing the end of the Islamic Republic?” Whatever we are to make of the question of fraud (there apparently were some irregularities, but no evidence of widespread fraud), Ahmadinejad retains a huge popular base that is not prepared to forfeit its position. Rather than viewing the events of the past 12 days as signs of a revolution-in-the-making, we should be examining them, along with the months of campaigning leading up to the election, as indicators of a deepening social and cultural rift that is dividing Iranian society, and will leave a lasting impression no matter how the current crisis is resolved.

    Never has an election polarised Iranian society this much. Passions and mutual hatred rose in the run-up to the vote, as campaigners heckled and insulted each other on the streets, supporters gathered in massive open-air events in competing shows of force, candidates battled in dramatic debates on live television, and jokes, poems, and insults circulated via cell phones. These rising tensions were fuelled by very real disagreements over priorities for the Iranian nation, analyses of the problems the country faced, and mutual distrust, even revulsion, at the rival candidate. These differences are components of a multi-faceted culture war that has been simmering in Iran’s urban centres for at least 12 years, with roots going further back into the early days of the Islamic Revolution. To understand today’s social tensions we need to understand what has been animating important parts of each constituency.”

    And I’m a crank

  16. call him “Supreme Leader”

    That’s his job title. Like “Mr. President”. Try not to be such an oaf.

  17. Hm, and I also see that Andrew Sullivan has started using the past tense: “Something /has happened/ in Iran”.

    If this really is the end — still an open question, sure — then I’d say the regime has come through remarkably unscathed.

    Doug M.

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