Saturday, June 20, 2009

Does the state have the upper hand?

Crossposted with From the Field.

Judged by firepower and control of the communications network it does seem to have the open hand. But this is not a one-sided contest at all. Provided the demonstrations are not geographically limited to one or two cities, there are several factors that favor the protesters even if they only deploy in smaller numbers in the days to come:

Dealing with civil disturbances is a labor intensive work. The natural response is to arrest the leaders and cut their communications, but those steps do not seem to be working to this point. People who are sufficiently inspired to join a demonstration at some risk to their lives constitute a movement not a bureaucratically organized unit. Particularly in fast-moving street confronations where wile, personality and courage are the currency unexpected leaders quickly emerge. As important, people learn quickly how to test, taunt and stretch the government forces. Provided the demonstrators desist from using deadly violence, their moral legitimacy will be enhanced. Plus, the government forces are hardly a monolith.

At least four distinct security institutions are involved in suppressing the demonstrations that have erupted since the June 12th election: The Pasdaran, the Army, the police and the Basij.

The Pasdaran or Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp have the primary mission of protecting the Islamic Revolution. The Pasdaran number more than 100,000, or roughly one-sixth the size of the standing Army. I have not seen any indication in recent days of any hesitancy among thePasdaran leadership in putting down the disturbances, but I have read some unconfirmed reports of a division between Pasdaran officers and troops.

The Army may be another matter. Soldiers share an heroic self-image as defenders of the nation and they certainly do not like suppressing civilians, especially unarmed, relatively respectful ones. Moreover, responding to civil unrest is hardwork. Soldiers hate doing it in my experience.

The demonstrators can scatter and reform repeatedly throughout the day and night. Meantime, the soldiers are on the job continuously with limited breaks. Morale can be expected to dip as the demonstrations go on; if they go on.

Police have the task of keeping civil order, but once the numbers of demonstrators grew into the thousands and the demonstration sites increased, they lacked the numbers needed to maintain order. At present, the role of the police seems to be relatively unimportant.

In the Iranian case, the Basijis are the heavies who use thuggery to intimidate demonstrators. The higher the profile of the Basijis in suppressing demonstrators, the higher the reputational costs for the regime of suppression. When mobilized, the Basij are supposed to be subordinate to the Pasdaran, but I cannot tell if this is actually the case at present.

Meantime, highly respected clerics including Grand Ayatollahs Montazeri, Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili and Saafi Golpaygaani have either condemned the government for its handling of the disputed election and its reaction to protests, or they have taken symbolic steps to signal their disapproval as in the case of GrandAyotollah Yousef Saneei (thanks to x for this information on Saneei). Saneei has traveled from Qum to Tehran's Jamaran Husseiniyya (where Ayatollah Khomeini lived) silently protest. (Also see)

What all the major figures in the ruling establishment must now be watching for anxiously is any sign that the security forces are losing the will to contain the demonstrations. Pious Iranian deployed to quell civil disturbances will be torn when their officers tell them to use force and the Ayotallah who they revere warns them that they will be responsible before Allah for following illegitimate orders (as Montazeri as already said).

If the demonstrations continue for many days, even at the reduced levels seen the day following Khamenei's speech, it is hard to imagine a beneficial outcome for the Leader. His reputation, such as it is, will be further chipped away making him even more vulnerable to criticism from leading clerics. Yet, if an even bloodier crackdown is ordered the regime may insure the unrelenting hostility of many millions of Iranians. Men ofKhameinei's generation will understand the gravity of risk quite well.
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The Failure of the Iranian Model


Twelve years ago, with the election of Khatami as President of Iran, it became obvious that in large cross sections of the Iranian society the revolutionary zeal has petered out. The clergy was determined to keep the revolution that brought it to power alive and prevent its moderation and for that aim went to great length to limit free elections and democracy. With Ahmedinejad’s first (and only) election there was an attempt to revive its zeal internally and, as is customary with revolutions, project it outwards by linking it with local grievances, in this case, in Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The rigging of the elections and the violent clampdown on peaceful protestors that began today, demonstrates that the uneasy combination of an Islamic state and democracy has failed. By choosing revolution over the remaining vestiges of democracy, the clergy ensured that Iran will no longer serve as a model of mass supported Islamic Revolution. While internally the revolution has been saved, its foreign influence is likely to vane. Nor, as we learned, is it possible to make a peaceful transition from an Islamic to a democratic state, as happened in the aftermath of communism. Instead, Iran is coming to resemble the authoritarian regimes of the region.
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Friday, June 12, 2009

State of Decay

My new piece is up at The Review (National), State of Decay. It argues, by taking a longer historical look at the idea of Pakistan, that the relationship between the provinces and the federal govt. determine what the future for Pakistan holds :

Twenty years of military dictatorships, under Ayub Khan and Zia ul Haq, cemented the rule of the few over the many. Their policies led to the emergence of specific grievances by sub-nationalist groups in Baluchistan and Sindh. In the decade of Pervez Musharraf’s rule, these tensions grew dramatically, and pushed the state into a greater alienation from its own citizens.

Musharraf’s dictatorial regime sought to polish over any internal incoherence with a unified foreign front aimed primarily at operating militarily in Afghanistan, NWFP and Baluchistan. The influx of cash, some $6 billion, into the coffers of the military propelled the army to new-found heights as the country’s largest landlord, largest employer and largest business. But maintaining this new oligarchy came at a steep price for Pakistan.


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