The Red Right Hand of Iran

The green hand of peace or the red hand of war? Iran, June 2009

Many hearts were warmed by this image of a moment of faction-spanning solidarity between subject and apparatus of state — and rightly so: this is an amazing image.

A demonstrator rescues a beleaguered riot policeman, Iran, 13 June 2009

Unfortunately this moment is now past. Tiananmen is upon the Iranians and the next member of the security forces to find himself at the mercy of protesters will — rightly — not find such sympathetic arms within reach.

Andrew Sullivan’s coverage drawing together a diversity of sources from twitter, YouTube and so on, portrays a startling picture of what’s happened in Iran over the course of the day yesterday (“Live-Blogging Day 8, The Daily Dish, The Atlantic Monthly, 20 June 2009). The cable news networks have definitely recovered from their weekend failure, but Mr. Sullivan is the gold standard on media innovation right now.

I desperately hope that the modernizing force of young people in Iran prevail, but in the maneuvers of the régime three are three significant cause for pessimism:

  1. All indications are that it is primarily in the willingness of the régime to compromise, capitulate or go quietly into oblivion that régimes fall. Given the power of modern militaries, unless dissidents are willing and able to fight a protracted guerilla campaign, states succeed in putting down rebellions. The Iranian régime is indicating that it has decided to dig in and fight. There is a level of drastic measures from which a state cannot subsequently step back. Demonstrators become radicalized by violence, state agents become inexpiable. They are probably already past the point of no return with respect to offering a compromise.

  2. A major determining factor of the success or failure of the demonstrators is in how the police and military react. It is incumbent upon the régime to keep the security forces apart from the rest of society. Should the police and military sympathize, judge the protesters correct, or find their own lives too enmeshed with those of the demonstrators, they may defect, or simply do nothing. Rumor is that the Basij militia, a special band of the Revolutionary Guard, can be herd speaking Arabic to one another. That is, they are not Iranians, but foreign mercenaries imported by the régime. They are not stakeholders in Iranian society and have no bonds to the people they are brutalizing, and thus can be counted upon to do the bidding of the régime in a way that other security forces might not.

  3. The régime is eschewing the sort of media nightmare of direct confrontation in favor of terrorizing demonstrators in isolation. Specifically the Basij militia are tracking protesters during the day, but waiting until cover of night when demonstrators go home and are isolated from the safety of large groups to conduct their assassinations, beatings and abductions (MacFarquhar, Neil, “Shadowy Iranian Vigilantes Vow Bolder Action,” New York Times, 19 June 2009, p. A12). There are rumors of houses being marked for later attacks. Actions such as these could have a medium-term intimidating effect that will simply wear down the demonstrators.

The Iranian government is staffed by seasoned counterrevolutionaries. They are conducting an astute repression of the demonstrations. There are only three things that can defeat the régime at this point: quick adaptation, brute determination of average Iranians and luck.

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