Sunday, June 28, 2009

Iran and the US (present)


... a present that may be rapidly slipping into history.

12 Jun - Iranian election day. Almost out of the blue it appeared that sitting president Ahmadinejad was going to be beaten by Mir Hossein Mousavi, but as France Inter warned, beware the discrepancy between the input and the output from the ballot boxes. The point was repeated Monday (15): Le problème disait-elle, sera la concordance entre l’entrée et la sortie des urnes ...

And so it proved. Gary Sick pointed out that, while Ahmadinejad may have strong support among rural voters, these constitute only 24% of the electorate. According to him, Iran seemed to have crossed the line to a state of countries like Egypt where elections are shamelessly falsified (Newshour, Saturday (13, 12:00 GMT)).

I took a look at the blogs. Juan Cole posted this:
Some explanation may emerge for Ahmadinejad's upset that does not involve fraud. [..] But just as a first reaction, this post-election situation looks to me like a crime scene. And here is how I would reconstruct the crime.

As the real numbers started coming into the Interior Ministry late on Friday, it became clear that Mousavi was winning. [..] The ministry must have informed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has had a feud with Mousavi for over 30 years, who found this outcome unsupportable. And, apparently, he and other top leaders had been so confident of an Ahmadinejad win that they had made no contingency plans for what to do if he looked as though he would lose. They therefore sent blanket instructions to the Electoral Commission to falsify the vote counts.

This clumsy cover-up then produced the incredible result of an Ahmadinejad landslide in Tabriz and Isfahan and Tehran. The reason for which Rezaie and Karoubi had to be assigned such implausibly low totals was to make sure Ahmadinejad got over 51% of the vote and thus avoid a run-off between him and Mousavi next Friday
The following week, Libération, I think, reported that there was a belief that Ahmadinejad actually came third, behind Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

Then there were the massive street protests by the opposition. The Interior Ministry said that all demonstrations had to be authorized, these had not been and were therefore illegal. The BBC's man in Tehran dryly noted that it was not clear whether the Ministry had given any such authorization for Ahmadinejad's rally on Sunday (14). On Sunday (21), it was reported that Jon Leyne was being asked to leave Tehran.

One of the things that has led the Iranian opposition to have got even this far is "la disparition de George W. Bush de la scène politique internationale" (France Inter, Friday morning (19)). There are many other factors, of course, but one is that many Iranians dared to hope for an end to their country's international isolation because of the "outstretched hand" of Barack Obama. The US and its allies responded cautiously to events: any other course would have allowed the protesters to be portrayed as puppets of foreign powers. 

I have been a critic of Obama in the past, but here is one reason to be glad that he is in charge. John Bolton attacked the US president for his failure to condemn the election - "they call him 'no drama Obama'" - and, predictably enough, called for overt and covert action to bring the Iranian regime down. But also, John McCain called for the president "to speak out that this is a corrupt, flawed, sham of an election" (Newshour, Wednesday (17)).

But the Iranian government blamed outside powers all the same. The British ambassador was "called in". David Miliband told C4News on Wednesday (17) that complaints had been made about the British media's coverage, especially the BBC's. Miliband also acknowledged that mistakes had been made in 1953. (1953, of course, was when Britain and the US organized a coup to overthrow a democratically-elected government. Cf.  Barack Obama in his Cairo speech: "In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government." I'm not a great expert on this, but  the historical record seems to indicate that the responsibility was about 50-50.)

And what were people on the streets of Tehran saying? France Inter spoke to one woman on Friday morning: nous ne sommes pas des poussières – we are not specks of dust, we are the Iranian people and we demand respect.

Then, there were Supreme Leader Khamenei's remarks at Friday prayers, where, rather than seeking any compromise, he threatened that any further protests would be dealt with "firmly". One view put forward was that Khamenei "is committing political suicide" ('Et pourtant elle tourne', France Inter, Friday (19)). One opposition supporter said that from this point "it stopped being just about the election result" (Newshour, Sunday (21)).

On Sunday, Tehran was relatively calm. So have the repressive measures taken by Khamenei / Ahmadinejad managed to snuff out the opposition? There are some reasons for thinking this is not the end of the story.

Firstly, Jeremy Bowen, still in Tehran, said that people continue to come out onto their rooftops and shout "God is Great! Down with the dictator!", more loudly than ever. Secondly, the protests are happening not only in Tehran, but also in other Iranian cities, such as Tabriz and Isfahan. Finally, the great events marking the calendar of the Shi'a calendar, with their emphasis on martyrdom, present more opportunities for trouble in the months ahead.

(To be concluded)

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