Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

19 June 2009

Iran: What’s Next and How We Can Help


[For an important update from midday Sunday, June 21, click here. For comment on the historic implications of what is happening in Iran, click here.]

Sometimes one is delighted to be wrong. Five days ago, I opined that Iran’s velvet revolution was confined to its cities’ elite, and that the countryside would likely pick Ahmadinejad even in a fair election. I thought it would take another cycle—four long years—for the revolution to take effect.

Now it appears I may have been wrong. The massive demonstrations against the self-evidently rigged election were not confined to Tehran. Today an apparently youthful Iranian, writing anonymously in the New York Times, claims the country is 70% urban anyway. He/she writes that workers, farmers and even some soldiers share the outrage at the crudely stolen election. I hope this anonymous voice is right, and I would hardly put my armchair statistics forward in refutation.

So it appears that Iran’s revolution, like the one that overthrew the Shah thirty years ago, cannot be denied. What’s the next step?

Forsaking Islam, peace and honor, Ayatollah Khomeini made a thinly veiled threat of violence during his unusual appearance at Friday morning prayers. He signaled a willingness to use force to suppress the rebellion. Whether he’s bluffing only Allah can tell, but the people beneath him who led (or pushed) him to make the threat are probably not.

It follows that further massive street demonstrations are probably unwise. Tiananmen cautions against them. In the Ukraine, nationalism was on the side of the Orange revolutionaries, who were trying to throw off Russian hegemony. In Iran, nationalism is on the side of the conservatives, and nationalism can be bloody. So more street protests are probably not the best way to proceed.

A general strike would be much more effective. Just as happened in our own country, the people most outraged by the misrule and the stolen election are the experts: teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists—including the ones running the centrifuges at Natanz. What would happen if none of them showed up for work? Can the basiji and clerics keep the power on, the airports and trains running, the sewage from overflowing, and the universities full? With participation from workers and even a few soldiers, a general strike could shut the country down and show the rulers the extent of popular disgust with their rule.

No one need leave home, and no one need get hurt. Everyone can stay indoors and watch the consequences of people power in the Internet Age unfold.

How can Americans help? The President is absolutely right on what our government should do: nothing. Despite all the American angst, Iran’s last revolution, which created the Islamic Republic, was surprisingly free of bloodshed. The real bloodshed came later, when our government incited Saddam to invade Iran. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians died. With that shameful legacy to live down, we should have the decency to shut up and let events unfold, at least insofar as concerns official comment.

What the American people can do is another story. There is an immense outpouring of sympathy here for the long-suffering Iranian people’s trials, the more so as some of that suffering resulted in part from bad governance here at home. Americans, including Iranian expatriate residents and many citizens of Iranian descent, can help by keeping communication channels open.

None of this could or would have happened without modern electronics. Cell phones, satellite television and the Internet (including tweets and Facebook) were the tools of Iran’s revolutionaries. If it succeeds, Iran’s second revolution will be dramatic proof of the transcendent power of ordinary people in the Internet Age.

But we all have to aid that power. Channels are limited, and Iranian authorities are doing everything they can to disrupt them. The New York Times has invited ordinary Iranians to comment and has a moment-by-moment blog reporting events in Iran. This is journalism at its best, using the power of the Internet to get vital information not just to curious Americans and other foreigners, but to the revolutionaries inside Iran who need it most. Even frustrated Chinese have reportedly gotten into the act, with Chinese hackers anonymously helping Iran’s revolutionaries defeat the government’s attempt to hobble the Internet.

Ordinary Americans can help by “staying off the air” and closing their windows and browsers when servers with Iran-related content are slow. Just as uninvolved people had to stay off their cell phones during an emergency like 9/11, so people whose only motivation is curiosity should stay clear of key Web pages (including those of the Times and You Tube) when servers appear to be laboring. Let the Web be an instrument for Iran’s oppressed people to maintain contact with each other and the outside world!

No one can tell where these events will lead. But Tiananmen is not necessarily the model. The Internet did not exist in 1989. Today it has reached full strength and resilience.

From its inception, thinkers speculated that the Internet would bring an unprecedented Renaissance of democracy by empowering individuals. This very week will test that speculation. The outpouring of interest and sympathy from around the world has little to do with governments or international politics. It reflects the universal empathy of human beings for their fellow beings who just want their voices heard. So stay “off the air” unless you have a role to play—as aide, reporter, or friendly hacker—and let the Web work its magic in this new age of electronic people power.

Update: 6/21/09 1:30 p.m. EST

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. So would a general strike called “national days of mourning.” That’s what the chief opposition cleric, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, called for over an hour ago: three national days of mourning, beginning Wednesday.

You can bet that the tyrants will not be happy with this suggestion. They are going to be spending every waking hour—and sleepless nights—trying to pull harder on the reins of power. No one in the conservative faction thinks he/she has anything to mourn. They all think they “won” the election and that the slain protesters were hooligans and criminals.

So the “days of mourning” will be a silent and very effective show of strength by the opposition. They can all stay home, watch TV and the Internet, twitter, and chant from the rooftops while their absence from the wheels of commerce brings Iran to a halt. It will be a powerful demonstration of their numbers and strength, including the strength of experts in the non-ruling elite.

If the rulers approve the event, so much the better. Every man, woman and child who believes the election was stolen can appear on the streets of Iran, with candle in hand, in a vast, public repudiation of the leaders. Mourning can transform a nation.

Iran’s Second Revolution: The First Cyber War

Whether or not it succeeds, Iran’s second revolution is the first cyber war. The war is very real: control over a nation’s destiny is at stake. Yet—at least at present—the primary means of struggle is in cyberspace. Iran’s dictators are trying to shut down cell phones, the Internet, rebellious websites and twitters without disabling Iran’s information infrastructure. Rebels and hackers as far away as China are trying to keep the channels open.

Think about that. Chinese hackers are frustrated with the slow pace of democratization at home and their government’s attempt to cripple the Internet. So what do they do? They help Iranians, halfway around the world, communicate with each other to protest a stolen election.

This is a flat world that not even Tom Friedman envisioned. Totally ignoring national boundaries and nation-states, lovers of democracy are conspiring over global distances to defeat the forces of stasis and tyranny. This is a global battle of good against evil in which borders, armies, and navies make little difference.

To say this phenomenon is revolutionary would be Obamanian understatement. It’s in the same league with the invention of gunpowder, the Gutenberg Bible, the Protestant Reformation, and the birth of America. It’s what thinkers always believed the Internet and other means of modern communication would do. Now it’s happening before our eyes, in “real time,” to use a nerdly term.

Does this mean that the old ways are gone forever? Can we kiss the tanks, the bombs, the thumbscrews, and the waterboards goodbye? Not hardly. Uncomprehending tyrants (including our own) will still try medieval methods, and sometimes they will succeed. But the old ways are getting a lot harder.

Stalin set the stage for the bloodiest century in human history when he stuffed the ballot box and “defeated” Sergei Kirov for control of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Kirov’s assassination cemented Stalin’s “victory.” Like Saddam, Stalin then repeated the purging process numerous times, becoming the most monstrous leader in human history, with the possible exception of Adolph Hitler.

Stalin’s already disillusioned comrades could have stopped him by the simple expedient of opening the ballot box or consulting each other, and finding out who had actually won. If they had, the whole history of the twentieth century might have been different. Kirov’s name might have emblazoned a vibrant Russian democracy, rather than merely a ballet.

Today, the Internet provides a way to double check the ballot box without a battle or even a confrontation. The little-mentioned conservative alternative to Ahmadinejad, a candidate named Mohsen Rezaei, officially “received” only 300,000 votes. So he put up a website and asked everyone who voted for him to register his or her name. Within twenty-four hours, he had over 900,000 Internet “votes.”

Perhaps the most important revolution in human history involved no blood at all. When King John met the Barons at Runnymede, he saw he was outnumbered. Rather than engage in a suicidal battle, he agreed to terms. The result was the Magna Carta and the beginning of Anglo-American democracy.

The Internet makes that sort of accommodation possible without the need to marshal troops in full battle regalia, or even to have troops. If Iran’s revolutionaries are as numerous as they seem, all they have to do is organize and walk off their jobs for a few days. The leaders will realize they can’t run the country without them—not can they kill or arrest them all—and will likely come to terms. Numbers do matter; all you have to do is prove that they are real.

So be ready for a wild roller coaster ride. Barack Obama’s election was just the first thrilling result of political use of modern telecommunication and the Internet, which is only thirteen years old. Once its versatility and power are fully understood and established, tyrants and demagogues will have a tougher time than ever before in human history. The transformation is going to be fun to watch.

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