I’d rather be wrong, so wrong

about Iran.

via Andrew Sullivan — who, for his work this past week, shall be forgiven much — comes Daniel Larison, fretting about regime collapse and separatist movements in Iran. Those strike me as deeply improbable. Iran is not a failed or even a particularly weak state; if the current incumbents are forced out of power, others will step in. And most of Iran’s minorities are, if not exactly content, uninterested in separatism.

Note that unlike most of its neighbors — Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey — Iran has never had a serious separatist threat. The largest minority, the Azeris, is very well integrated by regional standards; they fought and died in the Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War at the same rate as ethnic Persians, and Supreme leader Khameini is half Azeri. The Bush administration spent several years fishing in the waters of ethnic separatism, without much effect that anyone has been able to see.

But I think it’s going to be moot, because I don’t think Iran’s regime is going down.

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Iran: Double down

Yesterday the Supreme Leader of Iran doubled down, declaring his support for President Ahmedinejad and telling the protestors it would be their own damn fault if anything happened. Today saw riots and more bloodshed.

Well: three days ago I said President Ahmedinejad would not lose. Today I’ll go a step further and add a couple more predictions.

1) The men with guns will stay loyal. This gets complicated, because there are a lot of different men with guns. There are the Teheran cops; the basiji, who are street thugs employed by the government; the Revolutionary Guards; the army.

But at the end of the day, only those last two matter. If the basiji break and run and the cops switch sides, but the army and the Guards stay obedient, the government still wins. It wins ugly, but it wins.

Note that Ahmedinejad is a veteran of the Republican Guards, while Khameini is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Note further that both have broad popular support — maybe not majority, but broad. Millions of Iranians think that Ahmadinejad is the white knight of the people, while millions more (not necessarily the same people, mind) think that Khameini has a special relationship with God. Note finally that while Ahmadinejad may be obnoxious, he’s nobody’s fool. The Supreme Leader’s speech would not have happened if either man was nervous about the armed forces.

2) There won’t be a civil war. (Or at least, there won’t be because of these protests.) A lot of people may get hurt and killed, and some protestors may take up weapons. But it won’t lead to anything but bloodshed and repression. You can’t have a civil war when one side has all the guns.

— I’m going out on a limb to say what won’t happen. But I’m not brave enough to even guess at what will happen. Who the hell knows? Iran is a very opaque country. In my last post I used various popular protests in other countries for comparison. But there really isn’t a good comparandum for this. The closest would be the protests of late-period Communism: East Germany, Romania, Tienanmen Square. But in East Germany, conflict was avoided because the Politburo deposed Honecker; here it’s as if the Politburo had confirmed him in office, while at least a third of the country still believed fervently in Communism. (That’s a thing to keep in mind in Iran: both sides have a big chunk of the general population firmly behind them.) In Romania, Ceausescu had drifted far out of touch with the nation, and his regime was violently loathed by almost everyone; neither of those things is true of Iran.

The closest comparison seems to be China. But even that’s not very close. The Tienanmen protestors lacked leadership and were relatively mild compared to the Iranians. And while they had plenty of support in Beijing, they didn’t have much in the rest of the country. So while the suppression of Tienanmen was brutal, it was also over quickly; once the government cracked down, it was all over in a couple of days. That might not be the case in Iran.

But, really, who the hell knows. I guess we’ll see.

Why Ahmadinejad will win

We’ve seen a number of regimes fall because of popular protests: Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, yadda yadda. We’ve also seen several that have not fallen: Burma, Armenia, Greece. Which one does Iran more resemble? Or, to put it another way, what are the common factors?

Here’s a first attempt at classification. Political scientists and (especially) people who know more about Iran are encouraged to chime in.

Factors that make a regime vulnerable

In ascending order:

1) The regime is widely hated. Surprisingly, this seems not to be a highly correlated variable. Some of the survivor regimes were almost universally loathed by their people (Burma) while some governments that still enjoyed some popular support managed to collapse anyway (Ukraine).

Relevance to Iran: Low. Many people dislike the current government, but not many actually hate it.
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From Yerevan to Tehran?

Via The Monkey Cage, an interesting article on the lessons hardline regimes may have learned from the Orange Revolution. Here are his four lessons:

1) If you are going to fix the results of an election, give yourself a big margin of victory. Otherwise, a little electoral fraud can credibly be argued to have swung the outcome of the election (as was the case in the Serbian and Ukrainian presidential election)….

2) If you are really going to rig the results of elections, don’t mess around with pretenses of transparency that could end up leaving hard evidence of electoral fraud….

3) Don’t leave any doubt about the willingness of security forces to defend the regime. […]

4) Technology–especially social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, but also more basic technology such as text messaging–is a friend of opposition forces attempting to combat electoral fraud, so do what you can to minimize its impact.

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Holland? Flowers!

I am loathe to add to the Wilders-hype, created both by him and the Dutch government, but the following video by Thomas Erdbrink is simply too amazing to let slip by AFOE’s international radar.
Thomas Erdbrink is a Dutch journalist and correspondent for NRC Handelsblad and he has a wonderful blog called Onze Man in Teheran or “Our Man in Tehran”. You guessed it, this man is working and living in Iran.

In his latest post Nederlanders in Iran or “Dutch people in Iran” he describes how he was contacted, in the wake of all the Wilders hype, by a Dutch television journalist regarding the safety of Dutch people in Iran. Erdbrink tells the journalist that “No, Dutch people do not have to go into hiding yet” and that “Things are pretty cool tension-wise”. Erdbrink then discovers that the unnamed journalist did not find this interesting enough and decided to show on television some spectacular stories about Dutch people in Pakistan instead. The tv programme apparently does not show anything about Iran. However, they do mention Iran in the same context.

Thomas Erdbrink does not find this “fair and balanced” and subsequently decides to make his own little documentary. He dresses up like a typical Dutch soccer fan, including orange hat, and starts interviewing Iranian people in the streets showing them a photo of Geert Wilders… I do not have the time, nor the technical skills, to subtitle this video in English, but absolutely no-one Erdbrink interviews mentions either Wilders or any zionist plot in The Netherlands against Iran. The people associate Holland with flowers, dope and Van Basten. Also mentioned are Dutch racism and freedom of speech in The Netherlands.

What I love about this video, apart from Erdbrink’s clear and justified statement about the way journalism should be practiced, is that it shows normal people instead of foaming-at-the-mouth politicians or clergy. Watch, for instance, the Iranian skaters. What a familiar sight they are to our Western eyes. I also have to mention that this video is NOT apologetic of the Iranian regime. A good journalist simply needs to show, as best he can, the diverse reality on the ground and not stoop to all the hype-making politicians are known for. Hence the caption Erdbrink added to his video: “This video may be shocking to people watching Dutch current affairs programmes.” And at the end of the video he walks into an Iranian store to buy some pistachio nuts and… Gouda cheese!

Here is the video. And do not worry if you do not understand Dutch. The interviews are conducted mainly in English and I think the images speak for themselves.

Update: Correction. The guy in the video is not Thomas Erdbrink but a friend of his. And it was this friend who was contacted by the television journalist. Erdbrink and this friend then made the vid together. Sorry, my mistake.