Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Is Iran's Opposition Growing or Shrinking?

More protests and clashes in Iran this weekend; after a protest-turned-violent over the death of the leading opposition cleric, this weekend's unrest came during a Shiite religious festival (of sorts) in honor of the 7th century martyrdom of Mohammed's grandson.

The protests are certainly getting their fair due of attention in Iran, and wearing on the nerves of the ruling "conservatives," but are they effective? Good question. A progressive opposition movement's exposure usually does, over time, lead to an increase in popularity (like in the United States during Vietnam). And as much as violent crackdowns have a serious human toll, they may be winning sympathy for the opposition movement from any fence-sitters left. In addition, the crackdowns are hardening the young men and women (especially women) in the movement now--over time, the old men of the conservatives will die off, and the progressives will strike themselves a big win, maybe in 2014.

But will they run out of steam by then? Or even if they do win, will it be too late for the US to close the Iranian nuclear pandora's box, as it were?

Thinking about this has gotten me to try to get into the head of the President, and figure out what he's doing. He's shown a great deal of restraint with Iran, which a lot of folks oppose. But think about this: should we authorize a strike to take down the Iranian nuclear program, we'd be giving Ahmedinejad and his crew the most incredible propaganda that they could hope for to harden their position. A strike would further radicalize the Iranians, make them more Western-phobic, and even undermine the legitimacy of the opposition movement (Ahmedinejad would have some credence to his accusations of Western influence and manipulation in Iran). No, a strike might be disastrous.

But just how much is the US staying out of Iranian affairs? Surely, opportunities for subtle propaganda influence are not simply being ignored. Even something as simple as Voice of America, a shameless, open alternative network to the Iranian state-run media, is having an effect.

The Iranians are not nearly as good at information control as the Chinese, and the United States is probably taking advantage of that fact as much as Iran's own opposition movement is. This, of course, is a guess. No overt cooperation will happen with the opposition movement, both to protect its legitimacy and to protect its integrity: no Iranian wants to be an American stooge, and the Green Movement won't allow itself to be a puppet.

But the incredible restraint shown by the Obama administration towards the Iranian regime may indicate some intelligence that we don't have. Will there be an internal overthrow of the regime? I think it's unlikely (the population is divided and poorly armed), but if popularity for the opposition movement in 2014 is strong enough, truly sweeping reform could be on the way. And I might be wrong about the level of armament of the population--the Basij militiamen are technically civilians, and are allowed to keep weapons in their homes. Surely, there are guns floating around Tehran in numbers. And the opposition movement is surely making efforts to show that the Ahmedinijad/Khaimeni regime has violated Shiite Islamic law. Under Shiite law, the population has not only a right, but a duty to overthrow regimes that are antithetical to the tenets of Islam. Certainly the motivation and legitimacy for armed revolt are there. If the means are there, too, then the Obama administration's stance makes perfect sense--stay out of Iranian internal politics as much as possible, and let the opposition's support grow slowly over time, until it is ready.

But then again, when was the last time an armed revolt took down a modern, well-armed government? It's been a while.
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