Iran

This is a sort of collection of what I’ve thought in the past week:

First of all, what I don’t understand.  Taking as a starting point Charles Krauthammer’s assertion that

This revolution will end either as a Tiananmen (a hot Tiananmen with massive and bloody repression or a cold Tiananmen with a finer mix of brutality and co-optation) or as a true revolution that brings down the Islamic Republic.

what I want to know is, why do we assume that any sort of sharp resolution has to occur? So long as the military stays loyal to the current regime, can’t the regime just stonewall, whether or not they resort to violence? The protestors aren’t themselves going to resort to large scale violence, and they have no direct way to force the regime to listen to them.  Now, I’m not sure I can think of any analogous situations where a repressive regime just waited out protests.  But repressive regimes do all sorts of unnecessary things, such as repressing people in the first place.

In any case, I don’t mean to suggest that this is likely to happen.  I’m asking a question: what’s your model of popular protest that rules it out? I don’t have such a model, and my interest is to stress skepticism: I don’t think we collectively understand the dynamics of this sort of situation.  Several commentators have suggested that the ultimate determinant is the military’s stance: will they eventually be willing to open fire on civilians and protestors? I think that’s right, but my question is prior: what causes the situation to develop to a point where the military faces that choice? (Since I started composing this paragraph Friday night, we’ve seen violence, and a cessation of protests, but not the full confrontation that was threatened.  Sadly, it’s good news that at most a few dozen have died.  So I think the question remains interesting).

Note that the Tiananmen protests lasted some seven weeks before the massacre.

Second, much of the debate within the United States has concerned how Obama should react to developments.  During the campaign, various conservative voices said that Obama could not change our relationship to the world merely by being conciliatory.  In fact, this argument had substantial merit, as some people really did have a mental picture where it was just President Bush who had spoiled our relationship with the world, despite myriad reasons why we will remain antagonistic to many countries.  What I don’t understand is how that’s compatible with the current calls for Obama to denounce the Iranian regime.  Does America have influence only when we offer context-free condemnations, but no influence when we negotiate?

But I oscillate between that very realist assessment that nothing Obama says can help, but could hurt, by offering Khomeini a soundbite, and the thought that he could have said more.  Of course a direct statement to say that Mousavi ought to be prime minister is out of the question (and undesirable for other reasons as well).  All comments should be framed in universal terms, in terms of the values that make a society democratic.  However, on top of condemning violence, Obama could have commented on the underlying circumstances.  Violence or no, the suppression of protests is illegitimate, and incompatible with the ideals of free elections.  The same is true of internet censorship as well as restricting the presidential candidates.   Would it have been impossible to frame a statement that spoke up for those values without playing into the hands of Khomeini? That’s not obvious to me, and I don’t know why someone would be confident that it is.  Bear in mind that we can afford to offend the Iranian regime as much as we want to.  It’s only if we say something that angers the Iranian people that there could be negative consequences.

Lastly, while I understand Will Wilkinson’s hesitation, I have to disagree with him about our investment in the welfare of the Iranian people.  He writes:

When people feel pressure to signal, and it’s free, they’ll signal. But sending the signal creates a small emotional investment in the overt message of the signal — solidarity with opponents of the ruling Iranian regime. As every salesman knows, getting someone to make a big, costly commitment is best achieved by getting them to first make a tiny, costless commitment. The tiny, costless commitment of turning Twitter avatars green is thin edge of the persuasive edge for the neocons who would like to sell the public a war in Iran. Since I would rather not be Bill Kristol’s useful idiot, I will conspicuously leave my avatar as is, and continue hoping for the best.

It sounds as if he’s saying “don’t care about the fate of the Iranians because there are people who’d abuse that concern to push bad ideas.”  But that’s a problem with the abuse, and a reason to reject militarism.  Nor does it make sense to say that we shouldn’t be concerned because we can’t act.  If there were a way to prevent violence and repression against the Iranian people, we would have to consider it.  The green twitter icons were always meant to be symbolic.

The reason I wouldn’t “go green” is that I’m not so sure I’m willing to endorse the message.  Green is the color of Mousavi’s movement, and it symbolizes the entire movement, not just the desire to protest peacefully.  So far as that’s what they’re about, we should be in solidarity with them.  His label of ‘reformist’ does not mean that we should be interested in fully supporting him.  Even ignorance would make me wary of the symbolic import of “going green”, and what’s worse, Mousavi’s history within Iran doesn’t make me confident that he’s a model of liberal values (Will has a followup that mentions of these concerns, but I don’t think it justifies his original stance).

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