Friday, January 1, 2010
Just as Catholics need saints, the Shia need martyrs. Martyrs brought down the Shah. Demonstrations produced martyrs, their funerals became demonstrations. Once sucked into this escalating cycle, the Shah never got out. Everyone in Iran is acutely aware of this.
Iran appears to be in turmoil. The government's harsh methods had seemed to put the opposition genie, if not back in the bottle, then at least into hiding. The tectonic splits that were revealed after the election have been band-aided. We never did know what was going on behind the scenes, but whatever it was didn't amount to anything as far as outsiders could tell.
Its tiresome, but lets re-cap for those not following obsessively. The incumbent president, Ahmadinejad, was re-elected in June. The election was obviously stolen, a fact that was subsequently proved in various ways through statistical analysis of the results. Iranians took to the streets in their millions and used the Internet to get their message out to the world. In an effort to illegitimize the protesters, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Kahmenei personally endorsed the election results. As a result, the demonstrations shifted from protesting the election to protesting the regime. The government used brutal methods to suppress the street demonstrations. They managed to strike the right balance of violence. Enough to create fear, but not enough to create outrage.
At the same time, it became evident that there were splits in the regieme. Two key issues were revealed. First, that a powerful minority of Ayatollahs were against the concept of an Islamic Republic on religious grounds. Meaning they thought governments should have political accountability, and the clergy should not. So the clergy shouldn't be running governments.
The second, possibly critical, issue was the role of the Republican Guards, known as the Pasdaran. The Pasdaran are a bit like the SS, a military/political organization outside normal state beuracracy. They have military, intellegence, and commercial assets. Amahdinejad is their man. There was speculation in Iran, and in the West, that the stolen election was, in fact, a coup by the Pasdaran. Some of the available facts are consistent with this hypothesis. If so, it means the end of democracy and a military government cloaked in an Ayatollah's robe. Any serious attempt to change who is in charge would mean upheaval and perhaps civil war. None of this was clear, however. What was clear was that the government had mostly succeeded in keeping the lid on the opposition without a fatal over-reaction.
Yet the recent demonstrations, and the governments unprecedented violence to suppress them, suggest several possible developments. The first is that the opposition has not been cowed, just forced to switch tactics. In the Economist article linked below, they mention that the central bank is now refusing bank notes with writing on them. The oppostion has apparently been writing anti-regime slogans on the money. Those holding such notes, mostly ordinary people and businesses, now have worthless money. This is not a friendly thing to do and calls the credibility of the central bank into question. International trading partners have very little patience for this kind of thing.
That point leads to the possibility that one of two things are going on. Either the Pasdaran has decided their control is to total they can do as they pleases with no consequences, or they are scared and desperate. The Economist article suggests, for the first time I've seen it, that China and Russia perceive the Pasdaran may not prevail in the long-run. Being too close to the losing side the last time has cost the Americans dearly. Iran's new friends don't want to make the same mistake. The Economist is frequently optimistic with such assessments, but its plausible. And if that's plausible, then so is another Iranian revolution.
A pretty good article on the current situation is in the Economist here.