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Wednesday, June 17, 2009


the complexity of iran

events in iran following last week's hotly contested election between incumbent mahmoud ahmadinejad and veteran reformist mir-hossain mousavi have taken on an altogether too familiar hue -- green, to be exact. it isn't the color that heightened my suspicions (green is just fine) but the color-theme in general. this is of course one of the characteristics of a by-the-book fomented "revolution" as articulated by gene sharp and so eagerly pressed with mixed results in the post-soviet baltics, serbia, georgia, ukraine, lebanon, kyrzygstan and elsewhere by both the clinton and (more aggressively) the neoconservative-heavy bush administration directing and funding a network of ostensibly non-governmental organizations, including USAID and freedom house. the obama administration, it must be said, has done a far better job of managing whatever involvement in the fray they are responsible for than john mccain -- who, if he believes what he is saying, is just a doddering impolitic old twit -- or, if he doesn't believe it, is as cunning as daniel pipes without being as honest -- wants them to. that does not, however, mean they are not involved.

how prominently do the thought and principles of gene sharp figure in a third world power structure's understanding of american foreign policy? watch this surreal iranian government propaganda piece from february 2008 -- sharp's digital alter-ego sits in the white house with then-republican-presidential-nominee john mccain and george soros. i sincerely doubt sharp (interviewed here by in 2007) is a "CIA agent" -- but the CIA has certainly applied his outline to regime change, which is the nugget of truth that makes this bit of disturbing propaganda just plausible enough to be believed by those inclined to believe it.

but in truth one cannot know. it could well be that the lessons sharp first articulated have now -- as testament to the power of mass political nonviolent protest -- disseminated into the fabric of civil disorder such that anyone organizing and funding (and it generally takes much of both to foment the kind of protests being seen in iran over the last few days) mass non-violent protest practices the principles on some level.

and there is further the fact that iran is a huge, variate, proud, wonderfully complex society that is simply not as easily given over to the kind of externally-managed revolt that pushed leadership changes and redrew cultural alliances in aforementioned smaller countries. regardless of how interested the united states may be, this is clearly not all about the heavy hand of the united states -- something that i don't think could be fairly said in, say, lebanon or georgia. trita parsi, writing in time and though clearly biased, gives as much indication of that as might be packed into a few paragraphs.

as the grassroots populist agitator ahmadinejad, the moderate political careerist mousavi, the deeply conservative armed forces and more-diverse-than-westerners-think clerical leadership feel the ground shift beneath them and realign accordingly, the speed and intricacy of political and social developments will be well beyond the scope of my ability to analyze -- indeed perhaps beyond the scope of most any outsider, however expert.

it will remain important, however, to attempt to step beyond the sphere of western thought to gain what insight is possible to obtain. al-jazeera is a welcome voice. today's column by mark levine is an example.

A lot depends on what the elite thinks is actually happening on the ground, and why the alleged fraud unfolded as it did.

Do the issues motivating the current protests ultimately derive from people's anger at perceived fraud and not having their votes counted? Or do they, as seems increasingly clear, reflect a much deeper level of anger at, and even opposition to, the nature and governing ideology and practises of the Iranian political system?

Equally important, if there was systematic fraud, was it perpetrated as a collective decision of a senior leadership unwilling to accept the cultural, political and economic liberalisation a Mousavi government would initiate, or, as University of Michigan professor Juan Cole and others have argued, did it owe to a sudden fit of pique by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?

His well-known personal antipathy to Mir Hossein Mousavi could have made the imminent prospect of his long-time political rival's victory so distasteful that he could not bring himself to sanction Mousavi's victory, leading to a hastily arranged fraud - many ballot boxes were allegedly never even opened before the official tabulation was announced - even as other parts of the leadership were laying the groundwork for a public announcement of Ahmadinejad's defeat.

What seems evident as the crisis deepens is that Ayatollah Khamenei, who most commentators have long assumed holds near absolute power in the country as Supreme Leader, is in a weaker position than previously believed. The collective religious and military leadership, along with the Revolutionary Guard, will likely have a lot of input into determining what course the government takes.

And it is certainly questionable whether these factions have shared core interests during this crisis, as the Revolutionary Guard - from whose ranks President Ahmadinejad emerged - is both culturally more conservative and economically more populist than much of the political and religious leadership.

The religious establishment is itself split into hard-line, moderate and more progressive factions, each of whose members are tied to factions within the economic, political and security elite, producing a complex and potentially volatile set of competing and contradictory loyalties and interests. ...

Ahmadinejad's and Khamenei's decisions in the coming days will be telling.

If the official tally was in fact broadly accurate, then they will likely be more willing to agree not just to a recount, but even to a run-off election, if that is what it takes to pacify the angry protesters.

Indeed, a second Ahmadinejad win would severely weaken reformist forces and increase the system's legitimacy.

More generally, regardless of whether there was significant fraud the power elite could decide collectively that the protests are not motivated by broader concerns and thus do not threaten the stability of the system.

This could also lead them to agree to a broad recount or run-off, even at the risk of a Mousavi win, and it is worth mentioning here that Mousavi is no liberal; the "core values" of Khomenei's revolution - to which he advocates a return - are well within the mainstream of Iran's clerical culture.

Alternatively, if the protests do not lose steam in the coming days, the leadership could decide that the opposition is too broad and deeply rooted to attempt to crush it.

In this case, it would have little choice but to cave in to the protesters' demands or face losing its legitimacy in the eyes of the broader Iranian public, particularly if large numbers of protesters are arrested, injured or killed.

The greatest degree of uncertainty surrounds a scenario in which the power elite both concludes that the mass protests reflect deep-seated discontent by a large segment of the population, yet at the same time believes it has a narrow window of opportunity to deal with this situation forcibly before losing control to the rapidly encroaching street politics.

In this case, Iran could quickly approach a Tiananmen moment, in which the Iranian government calculates that crushing the pro-reform opposition will give it time to push the reformers back in the closet for the foreseeable future, and push the cosmopolitan liberal-cultural elite who have the ability to leave, to do so.

The problem is that Iran can't follow China's path.

It is true that if oil prices continue rising, they will produce enough revenue for the government to keep the poor and working classes happy, or at least quiescent.

But what allowed the Communist party in China to maintain its hegemony rather than merely dominance over Chinese society was its willingness to liberalise culturally at the same time as it closed down politically.

Cultural liberalisation became the safety valve that allowed the emerging generation of Chinese citizens to accept the continued power of the Communist party.

Needless to say, no such safety valve exists in the Islamic Republic, where a cultural perestroika is precisely what Ahmadinejad and his supporters in the leadership and among the people want to prevent.

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