It took me a while to figure out why everybody was nagging me to do a column on the Iranian elections. Everybody seemed to think it was all mysterious and world-shaking. Finally I realized, you’re all het up because every news service in the US and England has been selling these riots like a new Star Wars episode, and people are just trying to figure out what’s going on and what it all means.
Well, I can answer that in one note: nothing much is going on, just letting off steam; and what little is happening isn’t mysterious at all. Basically, this is simple steam release, something the Mullahs have to allow now and then when the kids, and there are a lot of young adults in Iran, need to remind everybody they’re tired of being bossed around. There’s a huge, huge difference between that kind of “revolution” and the kind that has a real foundation in tribal differences or religion or city/country, the real fault lines. What’s going on in Iran now is a lot like the big fizzle in Lebanon after Hariri’s assassination in 2005. So if y’all will permit me to digress, let me take you back to the Cedar Revolution that supposedly “gripped” Lebanon. All that really happened was that some of the few Christian/Sunni elite Lebanese kids who hadn’t emigrated yet got so pissed off at the Syrians for just blowing Hariri away in broad daylight that they came out and waved the Lebanese flag–the one with the Cedar tree on it. Well, you’d have thought the Berlin Wall had fallen all over again. The same Anglo news networks that are declaring an outbreak of democracy in Iran now were screaming into microphones all over Lebanon, just so touched by these rich Christian/”Phoenician” Lebanese kids announcing that no durn Hezbollah Iranian-puppet thugs were gonna repress their craving for freedom…and discos, and wearing about a quart of perfume, and all the other accessories that go with what they call a Western orientation in the Middle East.
These are the kind of people Anglo news crews glom onto like horny refrigerator magnets: young, well-dressed, a lot of them speak English, and they talk about nice familiar stuff like “freedom” and “democracy.” They make great TV. But they can’t win a war. You win wars with poor people, numbers and toughness and discipline. Hezbollah proved it had the numbers by producing counter-demos with a million people cheering the Syrians and asking Allah to zap the West and Democracy and that Cedar Tree. If democracy means “we got more people with us than you do,” that should’ve proved Hezbollah beat the Cedar All-Stars, but that story never came out much. Hezbollah’s demonstrators weren’t the kind of people the BBC or CNN really felt comfortable around. It’s hard for a Western news crew to relax with a huge crowd of agitated lower-class Shia. Their way of making a point is by getting bloody, showing off wounds and cuts and shaving nicks, whatever they’ve got. Nobody at CNN wants that to be the future; nobody wants to go to commercial with a bunch of shrieking Shia mothers like hysterical Hefty Bags proudly saying they hope their 14 or so sons become martyrs, and the sooner the better. No, what you want for an upbeat TV story is a bunch of taller, skinnier, paler, English-speaking rich kids.
Which brings us to Iran. Iranians aren’t Arab, but they are Shia, and excitable. Keep that in mind. Different countries explode at different temperatures. There are places where yelling is a declaration of war. If a Norwegian raises his voice, Hell is about to break loose. If a Canadian yells at you, get a restraining order. But Iranians will scream at each other over how to cook an egg, and be all chummy and laughing the next minute. They used to keep that hysterical side in control with opium–the whole country was on the pipe until the sixties–but it’s harder to get now, so they just keep yelling.
So when Iran has a national election, it’s going to be loud. People are going to yell in the streets, people are going to shoot guns off, sometimes in the general direction of the opposition, and anybody who gets hit is going to tweet his bloodstains, youtube his bulletholes, and send it all over the world.
And if the people doing the demonstrating are mostly that same Cedar-Rev demographic: rich young city kids–then duh, they’re also the ones who are going to be web-savvy tweet freaks. In fact, Iran has probably the biggest dissident blog network in the world. I don’t read Farsi–I wish I did–but I read this pretty decent book, I Am Iran, about the anti-mullah blog scene there. Check it out if you want a better idea of who the opposition is, the people flooding the streets in Tehran. They’re sick of it, which is easy to understand; living in the Islamic Republic of Iran must be a lot like going to a Catholic school where you never, ever graduate, where kissing is a felony and not wearing the uniform is a crime against God. Hell yes, they’re sick of it, and they have every right to be.
But, to get coldblooded about it, so what? They’re not going to overthrow the state. I don’t usually like that word, “the state,” but I’m using it here because it works better than “Ahmedinajad.” He’s the official bad guy here, the classic bigmouth runt who wants Israel turned into a gravel pit and America turned into a colony of Venezuela. Hell, he’s all kinds of obnoxious, down to the ratty beard and beady eyes and the way he dresses like a hungover Soviet janitor.
But he’s not the Islamic Republic of Iran.
He’s only the president. The way the Iranian government is put together, the Prez is more like a noisemaker, official annoyer-of-the-Anglos, than a decider. Way, way above him is the “Supreme Leader,” sort of an Ayatollah version of the Pope, Khomeini’s official successors. Right now the Supreme Leader is Ali Khamenei. He doesn’t talk to the press, or make official trips to hug Chavez. He just sits there in his big black turban and says “No” every time somebody asks for a little relaxation of all this pious crap. He’s seen’em come and go, these reformer types; he crushed Rafsanjani, Khatami, anybody who even suggested that the way Khomeini laid it down in 1979 might not be good enough for all eternity.
See, that’s the pattern I’m talking about: the people who matter in Iran won’t talk to foreign news crews, and the people who will, the ones in the streets right now…well, they may be brave, noble people, but they don’t have a chance in Hell.
That’s because the IRI government is a bunch of rival militias, intelligence agencies, and religious committees. There’s even a legislature, although nobody takes that seriously. If you remember the way the Iranian side was organized in the Iran/Iraq war, you might have a better idea how the people at the top like things to run: always with rival forces competing for power. That’s because Khomeini was thinking coups in 1979. So alongside the regular Army he set up the Revolutionary Guards, hardcore jihadis loyal to the Supreme Leader, not the Army Brass. To make sure the Revolutionary Guards weren’t vulnerable to a sudden decapitation by the army or anyone else, their cadres were placed with every agency, like Islamist commissars, and they set up militias in every city in Iran.
You get the same thing in any new militarized state, even tiny Hellholes like Duvalier’s Haiti, with the Ton=ton Macoutes balancing the army, bypassing the official channels so they could kill at Duvalier’s command.
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