Monday, June 22, 2009

Protests in Iran + Twitter-Aid to the Pro-Reformers

MousaviI've been loathe to comment on the unfolding events in Iran in part because I know so little about the country beyond the general contours of its 20th (Mossadegh, the Shah, his fall, the Revolution, etc.) and 21st century history, and even then, my sense of what's going inside the country today is hazy at best. What also clouds my impressions are questions about possibly ongoing US involvement, directly and indirectly, in what's unfolding in Iran. I don't think anyone should forget that we have over 150,000+ troops both to the east (Afghanistan) and west (Iraq) of Iran, and for 8 years (still?) we had (have?) an administration that was determined not only to foment upheaval in Iran, in part to blunt its nuclear ambitions but also to replace its true leadership, which is to say, the mullahs who really rule the place. According to reliable reporters like the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, this only increased after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, defeating former president and important cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. This is one reason I think President Barack Obama's public stance is the right one; while criticism of the brutal crackdown and praise of the protesters' courage and desire for democracy are appropriate, Obama and the US have to studiously avoid meddling, or even appearing to be doing so, as this can be used as a means to dismiss the legitimate concerns of the reform camps, and even to punish them as foreign agents or puppets. (Not that the US's public and official caution will stop them, but the US need not give them any ammunition.)

For most of the years that Mohammad Khatami, who now stands behind the leading reform candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi [photo above,], was president (1997-2005), I was under the misimpression that the country's establishment would embrace the political and social liberalization that his initial election augured. While the public rhetoric during Khatami's tenure continued to point towards liberalization and he made repeated overtures towards the West, the clerics remained firmly in control. Yet I also recall that during Khatami's second term, even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei supposedly was willing to make a deal with the US, yet after the Bush administration rejected the cleric's offer, infamously labeling Iran one member (end?) of the "Axis of Evil," the Iranian regime tightened its line, externally and internally, and has been resolutely firm--at least from what I can tell--ever since. This approach has coincided with the election, and now alleged re-election, of the extremely politically and religiously conservative Ahmadinejad and with the change from the Bush administration to Obama and his team.

The leadup to the election seemed to harken a shift in terms of Iran's politics, or at least this is how I viewed the openness and public nature of the debate between the contrasting candidates and their supporters (Mousavi and Karroubi on the reformist side; Ahmadinejad and Rezaie on the conservative side). But perhaps this was all through the lens of the Western media. I cannot say, but it appeared to be more vibrant than I remembered back in 2005. Then came the vote, and...what looks increasingly like a coup to ensure Ahmadinejad and the ruling ideology stayed in office. Up through today I've read all sorts of analyses of the election last week, and many suggest that there were serious irregularities in the vote tallies. What struck me on the evening of the vote was how quickly Khamenei declared Ahmadinejad the winner, and how dismissive Ahmadinejad's comments were towards Mousavi, Karroubi, and even Rezaie and their supporters. It was as if he knew he had the election in the bag and that his opponents, defeated, would simply accept it as given.

Instead, what the entire world has seen is an ongoing protest, throughout Iran, with massive rallies at first, mostly peaceful on the protesters' part, that have now turned into bloodbaths as the regime cracks down with ravenous brutality to impose its will and order. Yesterday, after following the advice I posted below, and while keeping an eye on the pipe repair here at the house, I was following the #iranelection thread on Twitter. I've followed a number of blogs, news reports (on especially), and so on, and the Twitter feeds proved an enlightening complement. Many of the posts were repetitive, some led to bad links, others felt like disinfo, but there were quite a few that were giving up to date reports on the state of things, not just in Tehran, but from what I could tell, in some other cities in Iran as well. A number of the tweets led to horrifying YouTube clips; in addition to the now iconic and tragic video of 27 year old Neda Agha Soltan's murder, there were links to attacks on a wide array of protesters, including a clip of the security forces (Basiji? I don't know) torturing one man, another of two wounded students being dragged into a university hallway, where one died, and protesters encountering live ammunition. (The tallies of those killed so far have varied considerably.) Other tweets have focused on the general strike(s), protests by Iranians and others outside Iran, ways to avoid the security apparatus's e-clampdown, links to other pro-reformist (and pro-government) sites, and so on. Just following these tweets and observing the role that Twitter, Facebook and other sites, along with the more widespread SMS technology, are playing, has been fascinating. Once these technologies enter the picture and become more diffuse, not only the Iranian government, but no government will be able to respond as it had in the past.

How will things end? I have no idea. Despite Ahmadinejad's more measured language and near apology this weekend, the clerics' line as of today is even more rigid; Ayatollah Khamenei's sermon on Friday was as firm as a guillotine, as if to assert not only that he wasn't going to back down, but that he was in total control. Countless pro-reformers from all strata of Iranian society and domestic journalists have been arrested, and some have disappeared. The regime has also restricted the work of foreign journalists, and has begun verbally attacking foreign governments. The government today announced that there would be no annulment of the election, that fallen protesters' families would be charged for their burials, and so on. Yet major figures like Khatami and Rafsanjani have cast their lot with the reformers, and millions of Iranians, women and men, are refusing to back down. (I am not sure what's really going on with Rafsanjani, how much power he truly wields, and what this will mean for Khamenei's rule, and I'm still trying to sort all these elements out.) The fly has escaped the flybottle and it cannot be returned. If the clerics and Ahmadinejad do somehow remain in power, however, I cannot but imagine that they control has been severely weakened--whether irreparably remains to be seen.


I'm not on barely on Twitter (and as far back as last spring [2008] was urging students not to use it during class), but I received this from Tisa B. and am passing it on in order to help those trying to stand up for freedom and democracy there:

If anyone is on twitter, set your location to Tehran and your time zone to GMT +3.30. "Security" forces are hunting for people blogging about the current abuses of pro-democracy protesters using location/timezone searches. The more people at this location, the more of a logjam it creates for forces trying to shut Iranians' access to the internet down. Please cut & paste & pass it on
I did this. Please do it if you can, and take other action to support the pro-reform movement in Iran!

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