Two of the people in the US who understand the most about Iranian politics and the dangers of its sometimes toxic intersection with US politics are Gary Sick, who was Pres. Jimmy Carter’s adviser on Iranian affairs back at the time of the Iranian revolution, and Trita Parsi, a younger scholar and activist who has done an amazing job building up an organization called the National Iranian American Council. NIAC has been a consistent voice organizing the hundreds of thousands of Iranian-origined Americans into a powerful and anti-war force in US politics.
Today, both these men have published good, strong commentaries– that in important ways reinforce some of the key points I’ve been making here over the past ten days.
Parsi’s main argument is one of support for the nuanced but basically restrained, and non-interventionist, position that Obama has maintained throughout Iran’s current turmoil.
However, I imagine that Parsi may be under some non-trivial pressure from his own constituency (that is, in his case, a constituency that he has done a lot to organize and create.) Many Iranian Americans are strong supporters of the Mousavi (Rafsanjani) movement in Iran. So Parsi adds this to his piece:
- But here is one legitimate criticism , the Iranians are missing two words from Obama: “I condemn.” Protesters and political leaders I’ve spoken to in Iran want the US to speak out forcefully against the government’s human rights abuses and condemn the violence.
Well, I am all for condemning violence. But it should be a universal condemnation, given that the protesters have also used some violence. (Update 10 a.m.: Laura Rozen is reporting that Obama will do some “condemning” at a news event at 12:30 today.)
Sick’s piece, on his blog today, is a magisterial view of what’s really been at stake in Iran.
Some highlights from what he argues there:
- 1. “Don’t expect that this will be resolved cleanly with a win or loss in short period of time… This is not a sprint; it is a marathon. Endurance is at least as important as speed.”
2. “There may not be a clear winner or loser.”
3. Gary’s clear assessment that what is happening is not primaily between Ahmedinejad and Musavi but between Khamene’i and Rafsanjani. (I made that point here on June 15— though at that point I thought it was already over and Khamene’i had won.) In Gary’s post today, he adds the significant point that “President Ahmadinejad has largely vanished from sight, which adds to the impression that he is more of a pawn than a prime mover in this affair.”
4. He emphasizes the size of the stakes and the extreme uncertainty surrounding the outcome.
5. He gives even stronger suport than Parsi does to Obama’s stance of non-intervention:
- Wouldn’t it feel good to give full throated expression to American opposition to the existing power structure in Iran? Perhaps so — but it could also be a fatal blow to the demonstrators risking their lives on the streets of Tehran, and it could scotch any chance of eventual negotiations with whatever government emerges from this trial by fire.
The crisis in Iran is an Iranian crisis and it can only be resolved by the Iranian people and their leaders.
The point Gary makes regarding the size of the stakes, for Iran’s Islamist political order and its people, is a crucial one. Regarding Khamene’i and Rafsanjani he writes:
- The irony of two former colleagues now competing for power over the expiring corpse of the Islamic Republic that they created with such grandiose expectations, is lost on no one. The important sub text, however, is that these two understand very well what they are doing. They know how a revolt can be turned into a revolution. They also know they have everything to lose. The shared consciousness of high stakes has until now prevented an all out political confrontation between rival factions in the elite. That may help explain why the rahbar [leader, i.e. Khamene’i] and the Revolutionary Guards were so reckless in their insolent contempt of the reformers and the public. They may have believed that no one would dare take it to this level.
Now that it has arrived at this point, both protagonists are faced with decisions of unprecedented gravity. There has been nothing like this in the thirty year history of the Islamic Republic, and today there is no Khomeini father figure to moderate and mediate among the warring factions. They must improvise in conditions of severe uncertainty. If anyone tells you that they know how this will turn out, treat their words with the same regard you would have for any fortune teller peering into a crystal ball.
The only thing I’d disagree with there is his description of the Islamic Republic as an “expiring corpse.” I think that’s ill-considered language that actually undermines the important argument that he makes later on there: “If anyone tells you that they know how this will turn out… ”
Numerous well-meaning people in this country who are supporters of the pro-Mousavi movement in Iran have taken to calling that movement an “intifada.” (Interesting that this Palestinian-origined term is now one seen as having overwhelmingly good vibes within our discourse here in the US.) But the etymological root to “intifada” has to do with “shaking off.” And it occurs to me that one of the big questions about the pro-Mousavi movement has been that it’s never been clear what exactly they were seeking to “shake off”– that is, how deep of a revolt/revolution/counter-revolution they were agitating for.
Some, it seems, were seeking “only” a correction of a claimed error in the operation of the Islamic republic’s own rules– that is, to restore integrity to the existing system.
Others seemed more intent on effecting either deep change within the system, or its complete overthrow. (Seeing Baby Shah leaping into action in Washington DC yesterday as certainly a blast from the past.)
The Mousavists did what they could to dress their actions up in the symbolism of the Islamic revolution, including by their appropriation/expropriation of the “green” color-theme and the use of “Allahu Akbar” as a rallying cry.
Frankly, I was struck by a bit of cognitive dissonance thinking about all these Iranian glamor-puss young women with their streaked hair, nose jobs, tight jeans, etc, out there shouting “Allahu Akbar” to express their feelings. But the more important question is “What do all these people who have rallied around Mousavi’s electoral claims actually want?”
Gary Sick is right (in everything but the “expiring corpse” thing.) This is a big-stake confrontation within the heart of the Islamic Republic. Sort of Stalin vs.Trotsky if you will. (But hard to distribute these roles appropriately among today’s main antagonists. Regarding continuing to expand or consolidating the revolution, Khamene’i is more Trotskyist than Rafsanjani. Regarding the dictatorialness of his rule, he seems more Stalinist– but this judgment is based on the notion than Trotsky, if he’d won, would have been less dictatorial than Stalin, which obviously is quite unknowable.)
My judgment is that the Mousavi/Rafsanjani camp has done quite a lot to provoke the most recent confrontation. Mousavi (who’s the front man) has been just as confrontational in his way as Khamene’i in his. What pushed the M/R camp to take this stand? Did they get spooked by the prospect that a re-elected Ahmedinejad would start to take some significant actions against the extremely profitable Rafsanjani-led economic enterprises, and therefore they decided to plan a big pre-emptive push against allowing that to happen?
There is certainly a large-scale, intra-regime back-story to everything that’s going on in the Tehran streets these days… I imagine we won’t learn about that part of the story for a long time yet, if ever.
Meanwhile, for us Americans, non-intervention has to continue to be the watchword.
(By the way, am I the only person to think that all this business in Tehran may well also be connected in important ways to the fact that the US forces are about to leave the cities of Iraq?)