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

23 June 2009

What’s At Stake In Iran

Every human being has a stake in what is happening in Iran.

No, it’s not the nuclear issue. No matter who wins this power struggle, Iran will still insist on developing nuclear power, for economic reasons. Iran is a largely barren, arid country with few natural resources other than oil. Rather than consume its oil itself, Iran can jump-start its economy by selling its oil abroad—at what will undoubtedly be increasingly higher prices as the world’s economy recovers. To do that, Iran needs alternative energy sources for its own use, including wind, solar, and nuclear. If I were an economic adviser to Iran’s government, that’s exactly what I would advise.

No, what’s at stake in Iran is something far more important than the “nuclear question.” Nuclear technology poses no danger in rational, peaceful hands. What’s at stake is whether “national sovereignty” will remain an excuse for small, self-interested ruling cliques to use every possible means, including nuclear brinksmanship, to keep themselves in power and their people down. That’s a question that impacts all humanity, no less in North Korea than in Iran.

What’s at stake in Iran is a simple but vital proposition: can a people can throw off tyranny by peaceful means?

History suggests it can be done. Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela did it. But the tyrannies they overthrew were not indigenous: Gandhi fought a colonial regime, and Mandela the vestiges of white colonial rule. In both cases, race was an enormously important factor. Martin Luther King, Jr., overthrew a tyrannical legal system (Jim Crow) based on race, which was a vestige of colonial slavery.

Peaceful overthrows of indigenous tyrannies not based on race are rarer. The Magna Carta’s origin may have been one, but it was not entirely peaceful. The Barons met King John at Runnymede in full force, all decked out for battle. John wisely bowed to superior numbers and the inevitable. It was hardly a non-violent revolution on the model of Gandhi, Mandela and King.

Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” is closer, both in time and in substance. But there, too, foreign (Russian) influence and Ukrainian nationalism played major parts. They still do. Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” was similar; yet it may have degenerated into a mini-tyranny of its own. Saakashvili’s government is hardly the epitome of democracy.

Russia itself provides a useful model. The Gorbachev-Yeltsin revolution that swept away the big lie of Communism was peaceful and enormously effective. But it was a “top down” revolution. It couldn’t have happened without Gorbachev and Yeltsin; it was hardly a celebration of grass-roots “people power.” Maybe that’s why Russia under Putin remains an authoritarian society.

Perhaps the closest modern analogy to what may be happening in Iran is the Philippines’ “people power” revolution in 1986. Conditions there were strikingly similar to those in Iran today. The people had long chafed under a dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Alleged fraud in his 1986 “re-election” served as the trigger for a popular, nonviolent uprising that removed him and brought a woman (Corazon Aquino) to power as president.

There were differences. Marcos’ was a secular, military dictatorship, without claim to moral or religious authority. Among the reasons why it fell so easily was determined opposition in the military and the Catholic Church, whose Jaime Cardinal Sin actively aided the protestors.

In contrast, Iran’s dictators style themselves clerics and Iran a theocracy. Someone with influence is going to have to inform the ignorant and credulous that God does not make day-to-day governing decisions in the Islamic Republic; men like Ali Khamenei do. Someone is also going to have to convince the Iranian people (those who are not already dissidents) that they have a right to pick the people who make decisions that govern their lives.

Maybe Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri will be Iran’s Jaime Cardinal Sin. He has unambiguously supported the people’s right to choose and has proposed a three-day period of national morning, which could double as a general strike. So there’s a chance—despite the religious trappings of Iran’s dictators—that the Philippine scenario could unfold in Iran.

Logic suggests that the dissidents and protestors possess enormous power, if only they can organize effectively. Even the fraudulent election results credit them with 34% of an enormous 80% turnout. More likely their numbers are at least north of 40%.

Not even the most ruthless dictatorship can arrest, jail, kill or intimidate that many people. No minority that large (if indeed the dissenters are a minority) can be successfully abused for long, if its members have the necessary will, courage and organizational skill. They can use all the tools of peaceful civil disobedience, including general strikes, work slow-downs, “sick-outs,” letters, marches, and constant persuasion of neutrals, independents and wavering supporters of the tyrants.

The dissidents also have another ace in the hole. The vast majority of Iran’s non-religious elite—Iran’s experts—are with them. These are the folk who make Iran’s infrastructure work: the radio and television stations, the airports, the power plants, the sewage system, the hospitals and all of Iran’s many industries. Their civil disobedience could bring Iran to a halt without a shot fired. They must tread a fine line between showing their “power of knowing” and being accused of sabotage; but these are subtle people who can find a way, if they have the will.

As one commentator observed, the revolution that took the Shah down and brought the Islamic Republic to power took an entire year. This one may take as long. If Western governments are smart, they will observe the entire process as silently as possible.

There are three powerful reasons for silence. First, the tyrants and their apologists are using their vast propaganda apparatus, day and night, to convince Iran’s people that the challenge to their power is external, not indigenous. They are even tying to convince the credulous that foreign media inspired hooligans to foment the recent violence in Tehran. Every foreign comment, no matter how carefully phrased or innocent, aids the tyrants. Loose lips can sink peaceful revolutions.

Second, Iran is in this fix in part because self-interested colonial rule, followed by Cold-War manipulation (including the Shah) delayed Iran’s natural social and political development by as much as a century. Iran is just now in the process of discovering the principle of separation of Mosque and State that we discovered two centuries ago and the Russians discovered during the last century (through Communism). Like a mistreated and harshly-raised child, Iran is “acting out” against its erstwhile colonial and neocolonial “parents” who retarded its development. That’s why the UK and the BBC are particular objects of its ire.

Finally, there’s that nasty business of the invasion by Saddam’s Iraq that we fomented in the 1980s. Iranians have every reason to be angry about it. The war that followed killed as many as half a million Iranians. It’s as if Iran had incited Mexico to invade the U.S. and we lost 2 million people. Do you think we’d like to be scolded by Iran’s leaders in that event?

With his superb understanding and empathy, our President gets it. Many Americans don’t. Our breast-beating so-called “conservatives” want us to lecture Iran’s leaders and “stand up for democracy.” Nothing could be more counterproductive. The people who need to speak out are all Iranians, foremost among them dissident clerics. Our own leaders’ “speaking out” will do nothing but hurt the dissident cause.

There is, of course, no guarantee that Iran will follow the Philippines and Ukraine into democracy. But there’s a good chance. All Western people can do is offer moral support, ideas, and hope—apart from our silent governments!—and keep the Web as open as possible.

If Iran’s people lacked the motivation for a sustained effort, surely they have it now. Neda Agha-Soltan was one of the sweetest martyrs to democracy in human history. Jeanne d’Arc should have looked so appealing. If her needless death cannot inspire thoughtful Iranians to a cold, calculated, deliberate and sustained assertion of the rights of millions, then nothing will.

Footnote. Official Iranian media have gone to the outrageous lengths of suggesting that her death was “staged.” I challenge any actress, anywhere, to duplicate the death mask that appeared in the first frame of the now-infamous video. That frame was so arresting as to command my attention from the moment I first saw it. After learning the story, I didn’t have the heart to play the video.


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