Sunday, June 21, 2009

Iran - Can the armed forces be counted on to repress the people? Probably. (Laura Secor)

Students of revolutions, rebellions, revolts, and insurrections know that the moment when urban protests and street fighting turn into a revolution is often the moment when the armed forces--or a sizable portion of them--refuse to fire on the people. If that doesn't happen, and the regime is willing to make full use of the instruments of coercion at its disposal, then even the most large-scale unrest can usually be crushed.

That moment of truth is probably approaching in Iran. So far, in the face of massive, largely peaceful, marches and demonstrations, the regime has held back from a full-scale brutal crackdown on the opposition. That may strike some readers as an odd thing to say, given the deaths, beatings, arrests, and other forms of repression that have been going on for a week now, and that escalated sharply this weekend. As Laura Secor reported on Saturday:
The footage from Tehran today looks like urban warfare. Gone are the massive crowds. Instead we see bands of civilians under attack from bands of thugs, gunshots, flames, thin crowds chased through side streets. If the authorities succeed in keeping demonstrators dispersed and on the run, they could swiftly seize the upper hand. The Web site Tehran Bureau is reporting forty dead and more than two hundred wounded. The victims are seeking aid in foreign embassies rather than hospitals, according to Twitter reports from Tehran.
But if Iran's rulers had abandoned all restraint they could be killing people by the thousands, not dozens or hundreds. Some of the more cool-headed people within the regime's decision-making circles no doubt realize that even though they could probably crush all opposition effectively, unrestricted use of deadly force could lead to a large-scale bloodbath--which would shatter what remains of the regime's legitimacy. But the odds are that sometime fairly soon, unless the mobilization of popular protest simply runs out of steam--which is unlikely--they will decide that using the iron fist is preferable to backing down or losing control of the situation.

When that moment arrives, is there any possibility that significant portions of the regime's coercive apparatus might be unwilling to do the job? From what I know, and in the opinion of many people with a lot more expertise about Iran than I have, that seems unlikely. Even if some elements in the police or in the rank-and-file of the Republican Guard might waver, which is already just a hypothetical possibility, the storm-troopers of the paramilitary Basij militia should be completely reliable.

Still, one never knows for sure until the test comes. Looking ahead to that moment, Laura Secor considers the possibilities (see below). She is not optimistic. Iran in 2009 is not like east/central Europe in 1989 or Milosevic's Serbia in 2000.
The Islamic Republic [....] was born in a people’s revolution and built on faith in a religion that is deeply held by most Iranians. The state’s ideology is not the hollow construct of political elites, as communism was by the time it collapsed in much of Eastern Europe. Rather, Iranian Islamism was forged over decades, in long struggle with the despotic regime of Mohammad Reza Shah, and from the potent raw materials of Iranian nationalism and Islam. Although the country’s constituency for democracy is vast and growing, the regime has a constituency, too, and it is passionately loyal and heavily armed.
Then again, one can't be entirely certain in advance.
I think there is still a battle being waged for the hearts and minds of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij. [....]

The purpose of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij is the defense of the Islamic Revolution and the Supreme Leader. Rarely have the true believers in the militias been forced to consider the possibility that these two functions might come into conflict. Such a moment may have arrived. It is one thing to unleash brutal force on crowds that insult the Leader or Islam. That was how the members of the Revolutionary Guards and Basij could defend their assault on demonstrators at Tehran University in 1999. But now, in the name of Ahmadinejad’s controversial presidency, they are being asked to violently disperse fellow Iranians who are chanting religious slogans, carrying Korans, and calling for the lawful counting of their votes. Whether or not the rumors of splits at the top of the Revolutionary Guards’ hierarchy are true, the rank and file is not necessarily monolithic. [....]

If the opposition does indeed hope to appeal to the common humanity of its attackers, however, today’s events have not been particularly encouraging. Reports on Andrew Sullivan’s indispensable blog show unremitting violence, and a turn toward more frankly oppositional slogans on the part of the demonstrators.
As always, her analysis is worth reading in full.

Hoping for the best (but not optimistic),
Jeff Weintraub
=========================
New Yorker "News Desk" (On-Line)
Saturday, June 20, 2009
LAURA SECOR: FIGHTING OVER THE REVOLUTION

The footage from Tehran today looks like urban warfare. Gone are the massive crowds. Instead we see bands of civilians under attack from bands of thugs, gunshots, flames, thin crowds chased through side streets. If the authorities succeed in keeping demonstrators dispersed and on the run, they could swiftly seize the upper hand. The Web site Tehran Bureau is reporting forty dead and more than two hundred wounded. The victims are seeking aid in foreign embassies rather than hospitals, according to Twitter reports from Tehran.

Interestingly, the regime has disseminated reports of a bomb blast at the shrine to Khomeini on the outskirts of Tehran. Many observers and analysts suspect the bomb was planted or invented by the government, in an effort to tar the demonstrators as counter-revolutionaries. The protesters have done everything possible to complicate such stereotypes. There are reports that those demonstrators who came out today planned, via the Internet, to bring Korans onto the streets, and to sit and read from them when attacked by militiamen. Such tactics are in keeping with these demonstrators’ use of slogans and imagery taken from religion and from the Islamic Revolution of 1979—shouting “Allahu Akbar” from the rooftops, organizing demonstrations as public memorials for the dead, refusing (for the most part, at least until today) to attack Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei by name or to call for an end to theocratic rule. In effect, they are saying, We are not against the revolution or against the Islamic Republic. We are its defenders from desecration. Having the former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi for a leader helps in this regard, because of his close historic association with the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Nonetheless, the protesters’ posture has not been particularly effective with Khamenei, who yesterday threatened them and their leaders with bloodshed and mayhem. So who, exactly, are the demonstrators trying to convince? And who are the authorities trying to persuade with these reports of the shrine bombing?

I think there is still a battle being waged for the hearts and minds of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij. Successful nonviolent movements in other countries have depended on the cooptation of the rank and file in the armed forces; one remembers the moving scenes of Serbian riot police embracing demonstrators. Of course, the Serbian opposition spent months working up to that. In the summer of 2000, when Slobodan Milosevic’s government issued a statement to the army saying that the student activists were terrorists, an activist told me that he and his friends retaliated by sending care packages to soldiers in the hope that “in the key moment when he orders them to shoot on us, they won’t listen.” The success of Serbia’s democratic movement was not only that it deposed a rancid dictator but that it united, at least momentarily, a divided and scarred society.

Iran is not Serbia. The hostility between the people and the revolutionary shock troops is far older and deeper than anything that took root during Milosevic’s relatively brief tenure. By 2000, Milosevic’s fiefdom was rotten to the core; it survived on corruption, the fear of exposure on the part of many criminals and war profiteers, and hostility toward the world. The Islamic Republic, by contrast, was born in a people’s revolution and built on faith in a religion that is deeply held by most Iranians. The state’s ideology is not the hollow construct of political elites, as communism was by the time it collapsed in much of Eastern Europe. Rather, Iranian Islamism was forged over decades, in long struggle with the despotic regime of Mohammad Reza Shah, and from the potent raw materials of Iranian nationalism and Islam. Although the country’s constituency for democracy is vast and growing, the regime has a constituency, too, and it is passionately loyal and heavily armed.

The purpose of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij is the defense of the Islamic Revolution and the Supreme Leader. Rarely have the true believers in the militias been forced to consider the possibility that these two functions might come into conflict. Such a moment may have arrived. It is one thing to unleash brutal force on crowds that insult the Leader or Islam. That was how the members of the Revolutionary Guards and Basij could defend their assault on demonstrators at Tehran University in 1999. But now, in the name of Ahmadinejad’s controversial presidency, they are being asked to violently disperse fellow Iranians who are chanting religious slogans, carrying Korans, and calling for the lawful counting of their votes. Whether or not the rumors of splits at the top of the Revolutionary Guards’ hierarchy are true, the rank and file is not necessarily monolithic.

I am reminded of a conversation I had in December 2006 with a twenty-one-year-old Basiji named Mohammad Mahdi Kafshi-Ershad. He joined the Basij in high school, at the urging of his religious parents. Although he was a devout believer, he did not consider himself political. He said, “Among the Basijis, some are political and others just want to keep the government and country based on the religious fundamentals. If the government is one hundred per cent religious, there is no danger to belief. But today we have a mixture of politics and religion together. To its own benefit the government has mixed those things.” Some clerics, he told me with disgust, had become very rich and powerful, and they lived in lavish homes in North Tehran. The martyred Imam Ali would not approve of such lifestyles. As for voting, he was not himself inclined. “What if I vote for Ahmadinejad, and Ahmadinejad made a mistake?” he said. “It could be a sin. I don’t want to be a partner in a sin.” I wonder if there are other young men like Kafshi-Ershad, and how willing they will be to play partner to a political power grab by inflicting physical pain on protesters reading from the Koran.

If the opposition does indeed hope to appeal to the common humanity of its attackers, however, today’s events have not been particularly encouraging. Reports on Andrew Sullivan’s indispensable blog show unremitting violence, and a turn toward more frankly oppositional slogans on the part of the demonstrators.

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