Monday, December 28, 2009

No leadership, no program, no demands: Where are the Iran protests heading?

I can really relate to the youthful impulse to go out and protest. The desire to sacrifice one's own safety to make a statement, to change the world. The Iranian protest movement faces challenges that I doubt it will be able to surmount. In the end, unless I'm missing something, it will have to burn itself out.

The first challenge is that the movement does not have identifiable leadership. This is a structural problem as any Iranian who becomes the face of the movement can and will be removed at this point. Additionally and more importantly, the natural leaders, Mousavi and Rafsanjani are burdened by the fact that Iran recently held an election that was essentially a referendum on them, and they are nowhere near as popular nationally as the people in office now.

Unless the opposition movement can produce credible witnesses to the tremendous fraud that would have been required to turn an Ahmadinejad defeat into a victory with a margin over 10 million votes, it is not believable that Mousavi is the legitimate leader of Iran. We read often that the first chants were "we want our votes" or "we want our president" but those chants changed. The chants changed primarily because the argument that the votes were not counted has dramatically lost salience as months have gone by with no evidence of fraud.

The second challenge the movement faces is that it does not have a program. This is another structural problem because while everyone everywhere in the world favors more freedom, less repression, less corruption in the abstract, there is no consensus in Iran that the current government is wrong on specific policies. The September 2009 poll of Iranians shows that there is no consensus that Iran should make the concessions the US wants for better relations with the US, there is no consensus that Iran should have religion play less of a role in government there is no wide consensus that Iran's current government is wrong on any specific issue that it manages.

The protesters cannot and do not say "remove the clerics from government" because there is no societal consensus favoring that. They do not say "reduce the influence of the military" because there is no national consensus favoring that. They say "be lenient on protesters". It is not even clear that there is a consensus favoring that, but a protest movement whose main object is that the protesters themselves should be treated more leniently as they protest just cannot inspire national support.

Relatedly, the protesters have not presented tangible demands, at least plausible ones. Chants of "death to the dictator", meaning Khamenei, are now reportedly being made by the protesters. "Death to Russia". Without leadership, there is nobody available to present as Khamenei's replacement. Interestingly, even if the military was to decide that Khamenei is a liability and want to mount a coup - the lack of demands or a program means that these protests could continue by just replacing the name of whoever was to be imposed in Khamenei's place.

It is fairly clear, just based on Hillary Clinton's admission, that the US is supporting the protesters, giving organizational and financial help. The agenda of the US is not to win freedom for the Iranian people, it is to get an Iranian government that, like Egypt's, "sustains peace with Israel, which is a very difficult thing to do in that region". Like in Egypt, this requires that the US goal for Iran be a dictatorship, someone to replace Iran's Shah as Mubarak replaced Egypt's King Farouk after Egypt had achieved independence.

Fortunately, I cannot see how the protests could lead to any change in Iran's government, even in the best case for the protesters. Over thirteen million people voted for Mousavi. He has a lot of support, and if one in ten of his voters comes to the streets, that would produce over a million protesters. The size of the protests would be impressive in a country that does not hold elections, but in Iran regardless of the protests, according to polls and more importantly voter tallies, Ahmadinejad has more supporters.

Ahmadinejad supporters aren't coming out to the streets for the same reason Barack Obama supporters are not holding rallies while Sarah Palin supporters are - why Kerry supporters would raise far larger protests than Bush supporters when Bush was in office. The side that won the election is not mad as hell.

What the protests may do is distract Iran's leadership and devote resources to managing them that Iran would otherwise devote to other things. Iran's is going to continue to present the protesters as naive dupes of foreign powers, with somewhat good reason. Possibly the US hopes to use the protests as another element of leverage to coerce Iran to give up its nuclear capability.

If in the future there is an event, usually an election, again with pre-invented rumors of fraud, but possibly a major scandal that becomes public against a regime figure or something like that, the protest infrastructure that is being worked out now may increase effective pressure on the regime. Other than that, these protests will be a nuisance that will not influence the Iranian governing system.


Lysander said...

Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy wrote an article last week suggesting that an opposition take over in Iran would potentially be harmful to the US. Iran's national interests would not change, but the governments international prestige would increase.

Also, I note that Obama and European leaders are much more openly supportive of the protesters than before. This could be because they perceive weakness in the regime (real or imagined) or because they understand the protests will lead nowhere within Iran and so are trying to maximize their advantage in the international press.

Arnold Evans said...

I don't see how an opposition takeover could work.

Seriously, the guys lost the election. That cannot be overstated as a huge obstacle against them ever assuming power.

What they need is some witnesses who can produce a plausible story of how the fraud was accomplished - how the people who counted the ballots locally haven't said the numbers in the newspapers are wrong even while hundreds of thousands of people take to the street and scores die.

Obama is more than openly supporting the protesters. He's very likely funding them and providing operational expertise.

The Obama administration is not bold. He will not boldly attack Iran, but he will also not boldly tell Israel that Iran cannot be prevented from becoming nuclear.

Instead measures like this look like they can have the United States stumble into a very bad situation.

The paralysis around Israel is really related to a US cultural more that Americans who are not bigoted against Jews are still anxious around the idea of disappointing Israel's supporters for fear of unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism.

US Mideast policy is really distorted by this anxiety. In this case Obama is supporting the protests to do "something" because to do nothing, even when there are no effective options, would expose him to accusations he'd rather not deal with.

The most likely outcome is that Iran will have more time to put facts onto the ground before the US finally comes to the table and accepts a worse deal than it could have gotten now.

Unfortunately, in the meantime idealistic kids are out there dying for a movement that not only has no plausible way to taking leadership of the country, but does not even have a plausible way to enact any governmental or societal changes. A movement that is not even asking for any specific governmental or societal changes except maybe "death to Khamenei".

Oh well.

lidia said...

They really sound pathetic, even the more clever and leftist of them
see the letter from an Iranian protester to As'ad