How should Obama react to the Iran crisis, everyone seems to be asking. Should he take Mir Hossein Mousavi's side or should he just express concern and stay out it?
While watching the events unfold on TV, an expected thought popped into my head. I wondered if the people of Iran, especially the middle class which is sensitive to world opinion, would have ever reacted so violently if Bush hadn't made such a big deal about Iran being part of the "axis of evil"? His branding may have been unfair, but considering the rhetoric from Admadinejad, it isn't surprising that a huge demographic just want him gone.
It also occurred to me that Pakistan and Iran can (could) take to the streets because there is some sort of a democratic process that already in place. It made me think about Iraq and Afghanistan. Could the people have ever been so organized? I suspect they can now. But could they have done so earlier? Just a thought.
But back to Iran. I've been reading about this with great interest. Here is some history for those of you who need a refresher course (although it ends about three years before today).
I spoke to Afshin Molavi, a fellow at the New America Foundation in DC, and he told me a few really interesting things. He said, essentially, if you look at the players in this election (outside the Ayatollah) then it is a battle between the 1st gen and 2nd gen of politicians. The 1st gen came into play when the Shah was overthrown (also, ties with America). This includes the saviour de jour, Mousavi, who is fighting to be the next president. Ahmadinejad is part of the 2nd gen, which came into political maturity during the Iran-Iraq war. Therefore, they are anti-US.
If you look at the majority of the supporters of the two candidates (I'm keeping it simple for the purposes of this discussion) then there is a clear divide. Ahmadinejad has the support of the rural base while Mousavi has the support of the middle class.
Now, from my understanding (which I suppose was wrong) it seemed to me that Iran might clamp down on democracy, but elections are largely free and fair. However, with allegations that entire boxes of votes were not counted, or that the powerful Guardians Council was making up numbers of votes, clearly it seems my instinct was way off. I only thought this because Ahmadinejad was a surprise win in his time and also because the presidential debates etc were so robust and healthy in the run-up to the election.
What was going on during these debates? Mousavi blamed Ahmedinejad for leading Iran down a dangerous path. Not just isolation from the world, but what many people don't know is that there is enormous frustration with the economy. Ahmedinejad came to power with a cash rich economy (oil money) but now look at the state of affairs. There is enormous frustration at that.
But while Mousavi and others were making the case of incompetence (and staunch conservatism) , Ahmedinejad wasn't too far behind. He essentially blamed his opponents of being fat cats who have been taking bribes and are corrupt. Look at their big houses, he said. Afshin Molavi (the analyst I'd mentioned) said that this will definitely spark a crisis of legitimacy in the Islamic Republic of Iran, no matter who is in-charge.
And that brings us to the Ayatollah. It is well known that he supported Ahmedinejad, but there are a few other factors to take into consideration. There is a school of thought that believes that he won't be averse to a moderate coming into power, because it makes dealing with America simpler. In the sense that earlier, with Bush, it seems perfectly normal to have a conservative who ranted against the US on the high table. But now, with Obama, and his desire to perhaps cooperate with Iran on the matter of nuclear energy, a moderate might make it easier to resume dialogue. In fact, a month before the election, the Ayatollah went to visit Mousavi's sick father, and many saw this as a big hint. Other cracks also appeared: the Ayatollah had sent a letter to the AMC (Association of Militant Clergy) that they should support Ahmedinejad, but that led to rumours that many in the AMC were angered by this and in fact, oppose Ahmedinejad.
Given all this, and a demographic re-entering the electoral fray. Yeah, thats right. The middle class never ended up voting last time, and so this time they have been super involved. Now that their man didn't win (or maybe he did) they have taken to the streets, but unfortunately, things have turned bloody. But what has come out of this is that a tried and tested way of mobilising the middle class is the Internet, and internet activism is here to stay. I also wrote about this here.
Back to my question. Obama. What should he do. I keep thinking of something Jon Stewart said the other day ... who knew Iran would turn out to be the most democratic country in the Middle East?