Iran was in the news in a big way recently with the mass media and the blogging world full of grand predictions for a revolution, calls for election annulments, recounts, claims of election fraud that were stated as plain fact, and a whole lot of other totally unsupported garbage besides. The Iranian elections could have been rigged or they could have not been rigged. In many ways questions of election fraud miss the point when it comes to the real questions of power and conflict outside of Western Europe, North America and Japan. As I’ve said before holding elections and having democracy are two very different and often confused things. The point of having elections is often merely to provide a sort of cover for status for dictators who would otherwise be much easier to decry in the mass media.
The talk about an Iranian revolution was, to say the least, premature. Claims that a “real” revolution must be underway in Iran were not only pervasive, they were universal among the Western media and bloggers. Western bloggers and media personalities plainly stated that the election was a fraud and that Ahmadinejad was thus completely invalid not only according to the election results but also according to the mass majority of Iranian people. All of this was seemingly backed up not just by pictures of people in the streets pitching a fit, but by Iranian boggers and Twitterers themselves writing about the goings on in plain English for the world to see.
But, for all the noise generated and all the highly emotional discourse that was had no revolution materialized. Certainly an interesting crisis for the state arose and most importantly a schism at the highest levels of Iranian clerical political was revealed (and it must be remembered that Ahmadinejad is not a part of the clerical establishment and did not take part in the 1979 Islamic Revolution), but in the end there was no revolution and the noise fizzled, protests dwindled in size and even the main electoral challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, withdrew his support for continued resistance.
So everyone who was so emotional, self-assured and certain of an Iranian revolution before who was writing and blathering about it in the media and online is either backtracking, conjuring up enormously humorous conspiracy theories or simply pretending that none of that happened. Some folks even blamed US President Barak Obama for the “failure” of the “otherwise certain” revolution in Iran through a lack of support — which is, of course, laughable. In fact despite the death and “martyrdom” of that cute Iranian girl everyone was holding up pictures of a few days ago so that “noone could ever forget” everyone has collectively decided to forget.
This series of events, while incredibly funny to the outside observer, demonstrates a vast gap between what actually happens in Iran and what the West generally thinks happens in Iran. Using this event as an example we can examine some commonly carried misconceptions that the mass media and bloggers tend to hold about Iran. Let’s start this as a question, because questions beg for answers: How is it possible that everyone got things so wrong when it certainly appeared at first glance as though the events we thought represented social movement seemed to be backed up so clearly by information actually coming from people inside Iran, in Tehran no less?
That last bit of the question is where we will find the first bit of our answer. I do not speak Farsi. In fact, I do not know anybody who speaks Farsi. This is a little bit alarming in a sense, because the last several years of my working career has required that I and everyone around me maintain a rating in two foreign languages. In the military, government and private security sectors I know lots of people who speak Thai, Chinese, German, Russian, French, Portueguese, Spanish, Arabic, etc. I even know a few folks who speak Urdu or Pashtu, but I do not know anybody who speaks Farsi. Not one. I heard about one guy but I never met him. However, I know three different Iran specialists who are required to maintain close contact with Iranian sources and produce analysis on the goings on there. But I don’t know anybody who speaks Farsi. I know a lot of reporters who pass through Tehran as well, and they tell me fascinating stories about what is going on in Iranian society and how the young upper-middle class couples completely flaunt the morality laws and how this must be a sign of massive social change. I even hear people tell me about Iranian friends of theirs from Tehran who believe in George W. Bush’s Middle East policies! But through all this I do not know a single person who speaks Farsi.
This lack of Farsi speakers tells me something about the sort of information I am getting. For one thing it is almost all information exclusively from Tehran, as the people I know travel specifically to Tehran and are not free (or safe) to move about the country on their own. It is also all information which either comes from Iranians who speak English or information which has been filtered through such people (remember the child’s communication game “telephone”?). It is entirely possible and in fact likely that the sort of Iranian who lives in the big city who has the money and further economic incentive to learn English, maintain technical contact with the Western world and believes in Western liberal social values is not representative of the vast majority of the Iranian people who do not live in Tehran.
In short, to take information from a single social segment of society and assume it represents the majority view will lead you to make several fundamental errors. To put it in American terms it is like assuming that a Chinese immigrant living in California who does not yet speak English well, a poor black female living in government project housing in Louisiana and a white male post-graduate student at Berkley all have the same view of the United States and adhere to the same concepts of civic virtue. That is clearly ridiculous and in the Iranian case we are essentially taking information from the Tehranian equivalent of the white male Berkley post-grad and imagining that it represents the majority view in Iran.
That this is not actually the majority in Iran was borne out by the course of the protests. While the educated and well-monied elite who have access to things like Twitter and speak English may have been in support of Mousavi more than they were in support of Ahmadinejad the majority were clearly not of that opinion. This is not only demonstrated in the landslide electoral victory — tampered or not, the results were overwhelmingly in favor of Ahmadinejad and that is a level of election rigging that most dictators don’t mess with for fear of a huge backlash — but most importantly by the fact that the protests which started with the educated upper-middle class never spread beyond that original demographic. In this sense it is important to realize that social revolutions and protests are a different sort of electoral index, a sort of unsolicited social polling. People who feel stringly about an issue are likely to join a protest. People who feel strongly the other way are likely to join an opposing protest. People who are sastisfied enough with the status quo to resist the urge to get riled up and arrested tend to stay home.
If the election had been stolen and the true overwhelming majority of people really were against Ahmadinejad then we would have quickly seen the protesting urbanites being joined by other social classes, but that never happened. Nobody who voted for Ahmadinejad is going to join the protest, and it certainly seems that outside of Tehran and specifically outside of the upper-middle class educated demographic the majority was in support of Ahmadinejad or at least satisfied enough by his victory to not feel compelled to run out into the streets yelling about it.
It is also important to note that there were several counter protests in support of Ahmadinejad. It should not come as any surprise, really. Iran is a country that has a moral police who execute crackdowns on anything a Westerner would think is fun or entertaining. The Iranian Islamic Revolution which deposed the Shah in 1979 was based on Islamic principles first, and political principles second. This concept still holds sway across the majority of the Iranian people. The educated elite might not really care about religion one way or the other, but the rural masses certainly do. It is also key to remember that not everybody in the world sees things the same way the Western media personalities and bloggers do. It is a fact that a huge segment of the Iranian population do not value social liberalization, economic progress or international political stature over adherence to Islamic doctrine. It is possible for a population to vote for and overwhelmingly support what the West considers a despotic regime. Contrary to numerous advertizing slogans and common 1st World perceptions people are not all the same the world over and we can’t get along because we simply do not agree about the most basic of things, even social freedoms.
So if the West’s general understanding on Iran was wrong and all the predictions of revolution was conjecture based on assumptive fallacies, why did the Western media fall into the hype trap? More tellingly, why did the bloggers all fall so soundly into the same trap? For one thing, Ahmadinejad is universally reviled in the Western media for some of the racist, intolerant stances he has taken. His statements are a direct affront to Western liberal social values and it seems almost inconceivable that his statements could actually be tailored to generate support from the average Iranian — but that is actually what they are. His “extreme” statements are not so extreme to the actual average Iranian, though they are obviously anathema to the educated upper class minority living in urban areas of Tehran. So the Western media personalities take him personally. Everyone wanted to see him fall and nobody wanted to imagine a world in which a person such as himself has the support of the people — any people. Nobody wants to beleive that the world actually could be full of folks who want to burn Paris to the ground, kill everyone in America or behead all of the residents of Amsterdam, London and Tokyo.
The basic problem here is one of hearing what one wants to hear. There was very little information coming out of Iran, and very little of the information even inside Iran was in English. So, as discussed above, the Anglo-centric nature of the available information guaranteed that the majority of that information would not be representative of the majority of information to be had about Iran. In this case the available information was exactly what they Western media and bloggers had been waiting for for years and there was no ready way to counter that information with an alternative source. Nobody in northwest Iranian herding communities were blogging in English or sending urgent tweets out to good friends in Chicago to let them know how not in tune with the protests in Tehran they were. This brings to light a very important fact of information assessment: In the midst of an information blackout it is very easy to become obsessed and entirely absorbed in whatever information is available. This can lead us to stop vetting information, not take the time to vett or even consider what source it is from and thus leap to wildly inaccurate conclusions with a high level of self-assured certainty.
So that explains why the media was so far off the mark on the Iranian issue. It is not the only issue they are way off on, of course, but this time they were not just wrong, they were very loud about everything they were very wrong about. As I mentioned above backtracking from the positions people had previously taken is almost impossible so most have decided to simply forget any of this happened and ignore the issue. That is sad because it severely reduces the chances that the Western media will enhance its own understanding of the realities of Iranian politics or the understanding of its consumers who rely on it to learn about the rest of the world.
But what did happen? What was significant about these protests and, backing up to the original issue, what was significant about this particular election in Iran?
Obama himself even plainly stated in the media that one of the reasons he is holding his tongue on the Iranian election issue is that there is no real difference in policy between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, so it wouldn’t matter if the election results were tossed or not or who wound up being president. (I discussed why this wouldn’t matter earlier in an admin piece.) So if there is no real difference, why the big fuss? Because there is a big difference inside Iran. This was an Iranian election and the real issue at hand is not about foreign policy, the nuclear program, social liberalization, a stance against racism, religious freedoms or anything else that. This election and the interplay at the top levels of Iranian power were about the future of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Regime.
In 1979 the Iranian Islamic Revolution toppled the long-ruling regime of the Shah. The Shah had been a close ally of the US (believe it or not) but was also seen as corrupt and self-serving by the people. He was also seen as increasingly distant from the socially overwhelmingly important tenets of Islam. The uprising and subsequent ousting of the ruling regime is a fascinating study of its own and if compared with the most recent unrest in Iran a number of compelling differences can quickly be discerned and reasons for the failure of the most current movement to gain traction can be located.
The revolutionaries who took power were in solid agreement that the Islamic Republic should be ruled exclusively by the Islamic clerical establishment but disagreed to a large degree on exactly how Islamic law, pragmatic democracy and the hard facts of military and economic competition in the region should be managed. They were afraid to put too much power in any one place and so developed an incredibly intricate series of councils, leadership positions, clerical judiciaries and secular political posts to provide a system of checks and balances to prevent another Shah-like figure from eventually emerging.
Today the majority of the clerics holding high posts within the originally established councils are generally the same exact men who orchestrated the original Islamic Revolution. The revolution occurred in 1979, quite some time ago. The time is coming when they, as a class, will begin to face the ultimate neccessity of picking successors as they fade into retirement. Fading into retirement is not the same thing as fading into obscurity, however. The Islamic Revolution may no longer feel as relevant to them personally now that they are incredibly wealthy and confortable as it did in 1979 when they were young and hungry, but they do not want to see everything they feel they have worked hard for dissappear or fall into chaos after they leave the scene. The Iranians of today often feel a great connection to the great Persian empires of the past and none of them want to feel responsible for tossing the next chance at Persian greatness by leaving no durable political system in place after all they’ve invested.
But just as these men did not agree on how the Republic should be formed in 1979 they also still do not agree on how things should be carried forward. These stresses have produced some rifts within the highest halls of Iranian power and the post-election power plays within the clerical councils have been extremely interesting and important. This can be neatly contrasted by the relative predictability and unimportance of the upper-class protests in Tehran that absorbed the majority of media coverage throughout June.
Nearly every clerical heavyweight with a large stake in the establishment is against Ahmadinejad. This does not mean that they are neccessarily for Mousavi, however. Ahmadinejad is supported almost solely by Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, however, and it is here that we see the major rift. The chairman of the Assembly of Experts (another clerican body which appoints or sacks the Supreme Leader) Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Speaker of the Majlis (like the Iranian Islamic Parliament) Ali Larijani, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and a series of other clerical and even secular personalities (most notable former commanders of the IRGC/Pasdaran) are all arrayed against Ahmadinejad and thereby the Supreme Leader.
Why the Supreme Leader would support Ahmadinejad through all this resistance is a bit confusing on the surface, particularly when we consider that the Khamenei’s policies differ greatly from Ahmadinejad’s, until we consider what Ahmadinejad’s stated plans are if he can secure another term. The long list of Ahmadinejad’s enemies is not exactly the same as the list of Khamenei’s enemies, and many of them share rivalries between themselves. With this level of complexity in the political landscape and the entire ruling elite facing a generational succession period as a class Khamenei may think that it is time to wipe the board, so to speak, to reduce complexity and start laying the groundwork for a solid and orderly succession between generations. He seems to be planning to use Ahmadinejad as a tool to remove or marginalize most of the standing obstacles that exist within the established elite to clear the way to effect his own vision of how the next generation of rulers should look.
This is no trivial matter, as Khamenei could influence the next hundred years of Iranian policy by effectively sweeping the board clean of all but his clerical leadership. Considering that most of the people Ahmadinejad would be ousting are not direct opponents of Khamenei this is a brilliant move to use someone else to do his dirty work, so to speak. By empowering Ahmadinejad to take care of his political rivals for his own reasons (which are irrelevant to Khamenei’s drive to influence regime succession) he will not only be able to clear the way ahead for him to be the most senior and credible cleric in a position of power, but he will also be able to paint a negative picture of Ahmadinejad in the process, fouling his reputation to the point that it will likely reduce him as a future threat on its own. Once the slate is wiped clean the last man standing with historical, social, political and clerical relevance and gravitas will be free to underwrite the political and clerical credibility of the future leaders of Iran and thus ensure an enormously durable personal legacy.
With all the wacky goings on lately, this seems to be the most likely explanation for all the maneuvering that has gone on within the councils over the last three weeks. This has nothing to do with upper class Twitter subscribers rallying alone in the streets and everything to do with Ahmadinejad’s plans to clean house of his political rivals and how that falls into line with Khamenei’s plans to personally write the next chapter of Iranian political history single handedly.
This course, naturally, is extremely dangerous for Khamenei. If he fails, if Ahmadinejad falls politically or physically due to some unexpected circumstance, or if the councils establish emergency meetings and rule together to remove Khamenei from his post as Supreme Leader then everything he is trying for would be lost. He is insulated to some degree by the fact that Ahmadinejad will gladly do the housecleaning on his own with no prompting, giving Khamenei a level of separation from the events he hopes he is engineering. But this is the way that power plays work and a lot has to be risked for a lot to be gained, or so the saying goes.
It will be interesting to see what happens over the next four or five years. It should be remembered that all of this is quite independent of Iran’s geopolitical dealings with the US, Russia, Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan. Iran is going to follow roughly the same policies regardless which personality is in the Presidency because the face of the man does not change the geopolitical imperatives of the State, nor does it change the overwhelming will of the majority of Iranians to maintain political and social independence from what they view as a generally evil, meddling and corruptive West.