June 19, 2009

Iran's protests won't end well

If there is one good thing that will come out of the mass protests in Iran this week, it is that Western audiences now know about how strikingly modern Iran is, or at least parts of Iran.As I reported for the Maroon two years ago, the Iranian upper-middle-class is well-educated, surprisingly liberal, and surprisingly Westernized. Iran has some of the best universities in the Middle East, has more blogs per capita than the U.S., and, until last week, had a government that was a strange hybrid of democracy within the framework of a theocracy. The irony in frosty U.S.-Iranian relations is that, judged on its people alone, Iran should be one of the U.S.'s closest allies in the Middle East.Unfortunately, a half-century of bad blood between governments has prevented that.And there's one thing that's been absent from a lot of the coverage by Western media of this week's riots. Namely: Iran is a deeply divided country, far, far more so than the United States. There is a large upper-middle-class that is pro-U.S., and journalists like to talk to them because they speak English. These are the people who are organizing the protests, it seems. If you look at pictures of the protests, there are a large number of banners and signs that are in English (despite, you know, English not being spoken in Iran). And the protests have also been scheduled to overlap with daytime in Europe and the U.S. They know they're on TV.But there is also a large class that is very religious, very conservative, and whose members are very proud to have Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as their leader. They are much harder to report, and often get ignored.So it has been very difficult to judge from Chicago exactly how widespread the support for these protests is. I have heard some reports suggesting that poor/rural voters (Ahmadinejad's base) have been surprisingly sympathetic to Mousavi and the protesters, but I have no idea how accurate this is. Twitter notwithstanding, we shouldn't try to pretend we have a complete view of what's going on in the country as a whole--we really don't.Which brings me to my second point. I think the best these protesters can hope for is that they somehow get the support of the army and start a civil war. (Iran has two parallel militaries, the regular military and the "Revolutionary Guards," which is very loyal to Ahmadinejad.) The worst-case scenario––and the far more likely one––is that the election and the protests spark a new wave of crackdowns and human-rights abuses that bring Iran back to the police state it was in the 1970s (under the Shah) and the 1980s (in the early days of the Islamic Republic).Even if there is widespread support for the protesters, there are three major difficulties they face:1) Ahmadinejad and his goons are organized. Being able to spark a flash mob is very different than actually organizing something--a revolution, a government, whatever. It's not clear what the protesters want (Mousavi as president? A revolution?) or who their leader is (since Mousavi certainly isn't). They have remarkable energy, but it is not focused.2) Ahmadinejad and his goons are the status quo. One of the most impressive things about these protests is their size and duration. But Iranians cannot keep protesting en masse like this forever. The government only has to sit by and bide its time (as they have been doing) until either a) the protesters get tired and stop demonstrating, or b) the situation escalates into violence. And in that case...3) Ahmadinejad and his goons have guns.It is a depressing situation--not the least because I had been counting on Mousavi to be elected so that he could loosen visa restrictions for Americans and I could spend next summer in Iran. What is truly tragic is that this revolutionary fervor--this earnest, if undirected, desire for a better life and belief that it can actually be achieved through popular will--will almost certainly be crushed, and cruelly.