Reading liberal and left-wing commentary on what’s going on in Iran, I’ve been rather shocked. Everyone–including this writer–transforms into a savagely incisive Iran scholar equipped to pontificate on Iranian society, its domestic political institutions, the velayat-e faqih, the social composition of Ahmadinejad supporters and Mousavi supporters, etc. etc., enlightened by studious Twitter research, perusal of YouTube videos, a glance at Juan Cole’s blog, and for the extremely careful, a quick read through the last 50 pages of A People Interrupted.
The axis around which commentary spins isn’t what the Iranians want, or what they think will be good for their society. For radicals the search is on for that rare animal, Revolution. Said beast looks a tad like another species in his genus, Reform, and a bit less like two other related species, Protest and Riot. See, when dusky Middle Easterners get agitated, we hope for the best: We Hope for Democracy. Mea culpa. Trouble is, things are a touch more complicated than that. Consider this astonishingly naive, dogmatic, and idiotic comment:
That said, the tactical and strategic superiority of organized nonviolent revolt, of the kind seen in this video — in contrast to yesterday’s scattered street skirmishes and battles — is what offers the Iranian resistance its fastest and cleanest path to victory.
What this scene tells us is that at the grassroots level, there are many Iranians that “get” how it works. And that means that yesterday’s wave of violent repression by the state can already be chalked up as an Epic Fail. It didn’t succeed a whit in quelling the revolt.
The piece from which it is extracted doesn’t comment on the social composition of the protesters. Nor their demands. Nor what percentage of Iranian society they represent. Changes in who is protesting or why they’re protesting are sidelined. Calls from students for strikes are cast as harbingers of socialist revolution. Such writing is a simple and idle celebration of protest. This isn’t analysis. It’s cheer-leading, scribbled away on a computer terminal “Somewhere in a country called America,” words like “resistance” and “revolt” in lieu of pom-poms and chants, ultimately, it being perhaps a vicarious variant of activistism.
This isn’t to say labor has been quiet. The Iranian bus workers’ union released a statement disavowing support for any candidate but calling for supporting the protesters. This is brave, because if there is a crackdown, they may well be subject to it, as will the students whose tweets have percolated around the internet, whose faces have appeared on a million YouTube videos, who will need solidarity of a somewhat different sort when the crackdown begins. Mousavi is also circulating a call for a general strike. There are “unconfirmed reports” of a general strike involving 30 percent of the workforce (betting odds are that they’ll stay unconfirmed).
Here’s what else we know and what’s relatively undisputed: Khamanei threw in his lot with Ahmadinejad on Friday, supporting the election results at a rally that apparently drew in excess of a million people. On Saturday, amid violent repression, mere thousands of participants came out into the streets (the number 3,000 has been widely reported. Earlier in the week, millions were out in Tehran and Isfahan). The state hasn’t yet unleashed a hundredth of its repressive instruments. Among the many killed, one name has taken on particular salience: Neda Agha-Soltan, an Iranian young woman killed Saturday.
Richard Cohen writes of her funeral. One woman he interviewed comments, “I’m scared that all the blood shed for this cause may be wasted.” Today, a thousand protesters came together in Haft-e-tir Square in central Tehran. They were swiftly dispersed. Basij outnumbered protesters by 3:1 or 4:1. Imagine 5,000 protesters disputing an election in Herald Square. It’d merit a news-story, perhaps. Robert Fisk calls the protesters cause “hopeless.” Other Iranians report that “The people know that this is not about regime change. Most people want Iran to remain an Islamic Republic. But they feel that perhaps there is a way open to them now to improve things a little from within the system. At least to keep alive the republican elements of the system that [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s years in power have been eroding.”
On Sunday, Mousavi called the elections illegitimate and said that they should be tossed out. A week ago, he’d claimed victory before the votes were even counted. Today, mere hundreds gathered, alacritously dispersed by basij. Fraud? Maybe, except this datum on the Guardian Council studiously ignores Iranian voting procedure, wherein Iranians can vote wherever they wish, and this analysis suggests that claims of fraud are fraudulent.
Mousavi, meanwhile, is an execrable figure, by all accounts except for the ones getting the most media coverage, deeply involved in repression, although now a paladin of progressive change. It doesn’t seem that Iranian hopes for him had been so high: ““We thought that perhaps, being so well-established in the regime would give him the ability to really change things.”
Green Revolution? Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
NB: This piece lavishes some attention on the Western left, when the focus should be ostensibly Iran. Again and again, I can’t help but think that Iran is for the Iranians to figure out. The Western left–since we is us–is for us to figure out. So that includes trying to tell the truth about Iran. But since our readers are principally and unfortunately ourselves, it means offering meta-critique too, the two best of which I’ve seen are at Jews Sans Frontieres and Lenin’s Tomb, neither of which I agree with fully, but both thoughtful and considered.