Figuring Out Iran
I’ve been trying to catch up on what happened over the weekend in Iran, and is continuing to happen now. One thing that I’ve noticed is just how little we seem to know and how much everyone seems to think they know.
Let us show that we understand the power of example, and the power of restraint. Let this be the moment where our belief in democracy and liberal values is not enacted, but embodied. Please. This is the time.
But for the long haul, I’ve got no idea what should be done in response to the situation, largely because we’ve got such a limited handle on what has happened and will happen over there in the next few days, weeks, and months.
To be sure, I suspect that there was widespread fraud of some form, although the limited scientific polling data from the weeks leading up to the election would seem to suggest that Ahmadinejad was looking unbeatable all along (but see this compilation of unscientific poll data and Juan Cole’s thorough critique of the scientific polling). The numbers just seem too suspicious and erratic, particularly when compared with data from previous elections.
That said, for once I’m fully in agreement with Sonny Bunch on an international relations issue: we need to calm down a bit and stop jumping to conclusions based on every stray missive or new theory. That’s not to say that we should stop caring about what’s going on – just that we collectively need to do a better job of putting this information into context and trying to process it more rationally. Sonny is also correct in suggesting that, even if you are generally an interventionist, the situation as we currently know it leaves the US between a rock and a hard place – how do you support the protesters without playing right into the hands of those who argue that they’re merely pawns of the West? The only thing that you really can or should do is nothing.
The dilemma is that this situation is fluid, and there is very little we know for certain. As James Joyner noted in his must-read post today:
Given the dearth of Western journalists, the regime’s tight coverage of information, and the biases of those Tweeting and blogging and otherwise getting text and video out of the country, it’s impossible to accurately assess what’s going on in Iran. Protests of some significant size are ongoing; how big, we don’t know. The regime is cracking down; with what severity, we don’t know.
To that we can add that we’re pretty sure that there was some kind of widespread vote-rigging, and even if there wasn’t, there are plenty of clear markers of massive voter intimidation.
But the unanswered questions are the most important, things like:
1. Who actually won, and with how much of the vote?
2. Who orchestrated the fraud, and why? Is this a coup or a power play by Ahmadinejad vis-a-vis some of the clerics, as some have pondered? Or is it a combined attempt by both the clerics and Ahmadinejad to permanently crush the reformists?
3. How much support do the protesters really have?
4. What kind of assistance, if any, do the protesters want from the West? What do the “silent majority” of Iranians think about this?
5. Are other countries intervening on Ahmadinejad, et al’s behalf to support the crackdown?
6. How severe is the crackdown and how much support does it have amongst the regular police and military (as opposed to the Basij and Revolutionary Guards)?
There are a few things I know for certain. First, until proven otherwise, Obama needs to exercise extreme caution before taking any kind of an act to support the protesters – we absolutely cannot ignore that the US is still not very popular amongst Iranians, with only about 30 percent taking a positive view of the US and 38 percent declaring the US to be the biggest threat to Iran (combined with another 44 percent who name Israel the biggest threat). If that position begins to change significantly as a result of the current events, then we can re-evaluate our involvement. Given those numbers, we also need to recognize that, even if there was massive fraud and Mousavi was the real victor, the cause of that sentiment likely has little to do with a rejection of Ahmadinejad’s positions.
If, however, it becomes apparent that what we are dealing with is in fact a coup or a successful play for more Presidential power by Ahmadinejad, then that creates an entirely different set of problems. At that point, the interests of various foreign governments including not only the US but more importantly most of the “pro-Western” governments of the Middle East become directly affected. Ahmadinejad’s rants then cease to be mere attempts to get his name in the paper and become instead potential statements of official policy. My inclination would still be against almost all possible forms of intervention, but the fact is that this would remove one of the best Iran-specific arguments against military action to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, to wit that Ahmadinejad doesn’t control foreign policy.
All that said, despite my initial reactions to the contrary, I’m increasingly coming to the opinion that Ahmadinejad would have won by a comfortable margin even without any fraud, though I’m not sure it would have been enough to avoid a run-off…but more on that later.