Belaboring the Obvious

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Regarding the tumult in Iran...

... it's odd that we're not hearing much dot-connecting between the election protests (or the election results) and this little nugget from a couple of years ago.

It's no secret that almost since its inception, Iran has been the CIA's favorite extra-credit project, beginning with Kermit Roosevelt's little blue-book exercise in democracy destruction there, in 1953. It's also the primary reason why we ought not be too quick to see what's going on as some sort of spontaneous outbreak of democracy in an otherwise theocratic nation.

Separating the real news from the white and black propaganda issuing from all sides is going to be very difficult. Ahmadinejad isn't liked in the Western (particularly U.S.) press, but, that doesn't mean he's universally despised in Iran. Quite the contrary, he's seen as defending the one thing that defines Iranian national pride these days--its nuclear power program--against Western interference, and he gets some points for that. The issues during the election campaign in Iran were much as they were here--the economy, inflation, etc., the things that are more or less under Ahmadinejad's administration (his power in Iran as president is not nearly the same as ours has here--the military, state communications and the judiciary are all still under the control of the Council of Guardians, headed by Ayatollah Khamenei).

That the Council or Khamenei might be harmed in some politically fatal way by endorsing Ahmadinejad and then facing hundreds of thousands of Iranians in the streets is likely wishful thinking, mostly because Khamenei did the politically expedient thing by calling for an investigation of the election, which buys a little time (this NY Times story seems to suggest that Khamenei's control is slipping because he's just plain weak, which sort of ignores that he's managed to stay in control for nearly two decades).

If there was a CIA campaign to taint the Islamic Guardians and Khamenei through election tampering, before or after the fact, it probably hasn't worked--although such an attempt might have generated a lot more civil strife had the Council dug in its heels. As well, accusing the U.S. of meddling is always good for some political cred inside Iran, especially when some protesters have openly tied the election results to Khamenei.

Nevertheless, the clampdown on journalists, foreign and domestic, and attempts to short-circuit telephone and internet communications inside the country will not sit well with the protesters and their sympathizers inside and outside of Iran. It means, in some important respects, that Khamenei and his Council have lost control of the message, even if that does not mean loss of control of the government.

If the CIA's involved, it will eventually come out, and that can only hurt the protesters, directly and indirectly. Such a plan can also backfire--there are factions within the Iranian Islamic clerical community that think Khamenei has been insufficiently fundamentalist in his leadership. If there's been a concerted covert effort by the U.S. to bring down Khamenei and Ahmadinejad at the same time, using the election protests as impetus toward that change, the situation in Iran could actually become worse than it is now. Any more fundamentalist cleric that promises the leadership of the Revolutionary Guard even more power in internal affairs than it has now could win out over the so-called moderates on the Council, and that eventuality could push the country even more in the direction of military control over civilian affairs.

Of course, one must also consider the sort of triple-cross, too-clever-by-half sort of thinking that has permeated the CIA since the days of the 1953 coup, that it may be trying to create the sort of civil strife which would push the ayatollahs toward a crackdown that either amplifies the chaos or brings in a group of true fundamentalist hardliners willing to use the Revolutionary Guards in the same way that the Shah used SAVAK, except on a much greater scale. Either of those conditions could create circumstances which the U.S. could exploit as a justification for either attacks or invasion, which pretty much ignores the fact that the bulk of Iran's citizens are strongly nationalist, and majority agreement with theocratic governance is, to a considerable degree, an expression of that nationalism--as a rejection of Western principles and values as embodied by the Shah's corrupt relationship with the United States (which Ayatollah Khomeini exploited to good effect with the economically dispossessed in Iran in the years leading up to 1979).

Once attacked, Iranians would probably find the suspicions of the hardliners to be prescient, and would rally around them. It's probably not a point which can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, but, I still think that Bush's and the neocons' verbal bellicosity toward Iran was a major factor in Ahmadinejad's initial election. It works the same way everywhere--hammer on the external and internal threats--real or imagined--to the average voter's security, and the authoritarians win, more often than not.

That said, if it's found that the CIA is involved with these election troubles, it's going to set back relations with Iran and the cause of civil libertarians inside Iran for another few decades, or could prompt yet another war in central Asia, with a subtext of oil and energy profits for Western multinationals. Neither prospect is welcome.


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