Further Iran Opinions and Fantasies

So now Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has made his long-awaited speech, on Friday, making it clear that any further street demonstrations would draw a ruthless crackdown by the security forces. And those further demonstrations, which nonetheless took place over the weekend, have duly resulted in pitched street-battles, with many among the protestors (and innocent by-standers) killed and wounded. What happens next?

Andreas Relster, writer for the Danish opinion newspaper Information, certainly has no idea. Still, at least he has that forum in which to raise the subject, and can resort to a strategy of canvassing the opinions of every Iran-expert out there whom he can get to respond to his inquiries. This is essentially the method behind his current piece, Iranian mirage.

Along the way, he does manage to unearth some unconventional points-of-view. The most remarkable one comes from one Ali Alfoneh, a Ph.D. student at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Political Science. You’d expect Alfoneh to be well-versed in political theory and history, and his take on the current troubles in Iran bear that out: he sees Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as aspiring to follow in the power-politics footsteps of Mao and Stalin, through engineering a crude electoral swindle that deliberately provokes his regimes opponents to come out onto the streets in protest – so that he can identify them all the more easily, brutally eliminate them under a state of martial law (this includes eventual show-trials and executions of all the opposing electoral candidates), and so consolidate his hold on state power for quite some time to come. In this perspective, the presidential election was for sure stolen, indeed obviously so, but the “obviousness” – and so the implicit “insult to the intelligence of the Iranian electorate” that so many other commentators have inferred from that – was entirely the point.

Alfoneh adds that all of this was something that Ahmadinejad was not in a position to pull off back in 2005, when he did manage to win the Iranian presidency for the first time in a run-off against Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. But in the interim, he claims, the president has managed to stock much of the government with his supporters: “half of the parliament consists of former Revolutionary Guards,” and the same is apparently true of the government itself. (Note that this is a base of power in the military, not in the Shiite mullah establishment.) So basically Ahmadijenad could be confident that he could approach the 2009 presidential election not really needing to worry about actually submitting his performance to a popular referendum – he could regain his office and keep his power in better, longer-lasting way.

Wait! They Really Do Love Ahmadinejad!

But then, in the middle of his article, Relster throws us a curve ball by bringing up the controversial opinion-piece in the Washington Post a week ago in which authors Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty claimed that their polling research showed that it was in fact quite plausible that the 62% election-result officially attributed to Ahmadinejad was true and fair. (This view has in the meantime been disproved by a number of analyses, the latest of which is a Chatham House study reported on in Juan Cole’s Informed Comment weblog, but maybe Relster hasn’t yet gotten this memo.) So what harm does this twist in the scenario do to Alfoneh’s argument? Actually, not much: while a really, truly valid 62% would not have been something Ahmadinejad planned to include for carrying out his purported conspiracy, in the end it didn’t matter anyway, because the opposition rose up in revolt nevertheless.

In any event, Andreas Relster is nothing if not an assiduous surveyor of Iran-experts; if you want another commentator willing to accept the Ballen/Doherty argument that that 62% level of support for the current president was real, you got it, in the form of one Abbas Barzegar, himself a Ph.D. student (but at the Institute for the Study and Practice of Religion at Emory University in Atlanta, GA), who also is described as “the Guardian’s” man [i.e. the British newspaper the Guardian] in Iran,” who was visiting there the very week before the 12 June election. Barzegar pooh-poohs the very thought that the current regime in Tehran is in any trouble; “intellectuals, academics and other so-called experts” have been predicting its fall ever since the 1979 revolution, all in vain. But in fact, Iran is not just only Tehran, President Ahmadinejad still commands the support of a large majority of the population, and Mir Hussein Mousavi’s big protest movement is based upon nothing more than delusions.

In fact, take a good look at this Mousavi fellow, Barzegar urges us, and with good reason: he was Iranian prime minister after the Revolution, for most of the 1980s. So he was both very involved in that Revolution (including some of its after-events, like the American-hostage affair – so that, although Ahmadijenad himself is widely thought to have been a student at the time actively involved in storming the embassy and guarding the hostages, Mousavi was actually involved with a more responsible role) and very close afterwards to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Why, Mir Hussein Mousavi is much more representative of that original 1979 Islamic revolution – which made Iran into the country with the unique theological-political government that it is today – than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could ever be! The only reason the former has now metamorphosed into the people’s champion is that everyone conveniently forgotten that past political history – he took 20 years off starting in the late 1980s (when the post of prime minster was abolished) to lie low for awhile!

Andreas Relster has really come up with some live ones here, has he not? To be sure, he cites some other people in his article as well who express views which are a bit closer to the accepted narrative of the Iranian protestors coming out to risk life and limb in a quest for democracy, like Rasmus Christian Elling, an academic at the University of Copenhagen specializing in the Middle East and Central Asia. Elling, while not quite yet ready to characterize what is happening in Iran as a “revolution,” is clear in his mind that the actions the government took in the immediate wake of the election – shutting down the telephones and the Internet, sending security forces out into the streets, arresting opposition politicians and journalists – do constitute a political coup. Still, he also offers the following further caution: “It’s important to keep in mind that it is not only Ahmadinejad who is accused of trying a coup. Many Iranians regard the present demonstrations as the real attempt at a coup, with Rafsanjani the man behind it, holding the reins” – and so with Mousavi apparently as only Rafsanjani’s tool or even puppet.

But What If Democracy Wins?

Anyway, dear readers, there is your healthy serving of some quite alternative views of what is going on now in Iran, all thanks to Andreas Relster and Information – which is indeed known for both its high intellectual level and its defying of conventional wisdom (yes, usually from a leftist perspective). I hope it all wasn’t too disillusioning for the Iran-as-American-Revolution picture many of you might have had in your heads up to now. Especially if you have read this post down this far, you deserve a little intellectual relief, a little good news about what is happening there, so I’d like to discuss as well a remarkable commentary from the German newspaper Die Welt, What happens if Democracy wins in Iran?, by Hannes Stein (and I don’t know whether that’s a man or a woman’s name: maybe someone can enlighten me with an e-mail). Placed just above an inspiring photo of a banner bearing the hand-written words for Freedom in both Farsi and English, here is the piece’s lede:

Let’s imagine that the democratic revolution in Iran meets with success. What then? WELT ONLINE dares to undertake that thought-experiment: The entire MidEast could experience freedom and prosperity. Iranians and Israelis would love each other, and Iranian whiskey would be a sales-hit.

Sounds pretty wild, doesn’t it. But, like I wrote, that’s just the lede; here is how things would work out in a little more detail, according to the rest of Stein’s article, if (as s/he rather poetically puts it) things ultimately work out the way they did twenty years ago in Leipzig and Dresden and East Berlin:

  • An Iran is born that actually reflects the educated and cultured Iranian people, where tolerance, art, and science can bloom. Tourists flock there; the leading national money-earner is no longer oil, but rather the industry and innovation of Iranians themselves, so that the world soon gets to choose among top-class mobile phones, laptops, and autos labeled “Made in Tehran.” (And, yes, there arises first-class Iranian whiskey, too.)
  • More importantly, though, with the rise of a new Iran the Middle East now becomes a much more peaceable region since, as Stein maintains, it was never the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off but rather that between hard-line Shiite Iran and the region’s Sunni Arab regimes that was always the fundamental problem in the first place. Now “the Near East could awake out of its fevered fundamentalist dream”; radical groups like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah wither on the vine as their support was cut off, and Syria finds itself politically isolated.
  • Meanwhile, Iran extends a friendly hand to Israel; mutual embassies open up on Teheran and Tel Aviv, while both El Al and the Iranian national airways begin flights the other way and citizens exchange vacation-visits in each other’s land. Further from Stein: “Young men from Isfahan and Golbahar will get to know the night-life on Shenkin Street [that’s in Tel Aviv]. Young Israeli women will plunge into amorous adventures in Shiraz and Mashad.” The Iranian president – whoever he is – visits the Wailing Wall wearing a yarmulke – and, Stein again, “suddenly the union [?] of Israel with the Palestinians will no longer seem so utopian.”
  • Of course, Stein saves the best for last: Iranian-American relations. S/he sees President Obama attending a fancy ceremony reopening the same American embassy that was subject to such fierce attack back in 1979, as the US of course resumes full diplomatic and commercial relations. And Iran’s nuclear ambitions? According to Stein’s scenario, in secret talks Obama lets Iranian leaders know that the US is prepared to accept an Iran with nuclear weapons, under the condition that such weapons can never be directed against allied states – most especially Iran’s shining new ally, Israel. Oh, and America’s dependence on Arab oil becomes a thing of the past – replaced by plentiful supplies coming from Iran.

Pretty fantastical, I must say. All that dismisses the intractable, sixty-year-old struggle between Israelis and Palestinians over the lands “of Judah and Samaria” a bit too easily, no? Note also that the new Iranian embassy is posited in this narrative to open in Tel Aviv; the Israelis would no doubt prefer to put it in Jerusalem, as yet another token of recognition of that city as Israel’s official capital, but even a new, enlightened Iranian state would likely have problems with that. And of course there is little evidence so far of anything similar happening – at the economic level, which is most relevant – in present-day Leipzig or Dresden or (East) Berlin.

It’s a nice daydream though, isn’t it – and to think that it was rather that other article, the Danish one in Information, whose title was “Iranian mirage”!

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