"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Second thoughts on Iran

Having followed the Twitter frenzy over events in Iran and having read whatever else I could find (I would especially reccommend a few of the first hand accounts posted at Juan Cole's joint) I find I am leaning toward calling "Bullshit" on the widespread idea (which I initially bought into) that the Iranian Revolution is being driven by Twitter and social networking sites.
The case against the Twitter being a big deal for the Iranians is laid out in great detail and much more cogently over at Open Anthropology, but the main points are that very few Iranians actually use Twitter, the overwhelming majority of the the tweets being posted are repeats and copies of non-information and messages of support ( ie "support the Iranian Revolution by turning your profile picture green" "Change your location in Twitter to Tehran to make it harder for the Iranian censors to find Iranians twittering" "We are with you" "Freedom for Iran" etc etc etc) and warnings NOT to post info identifying Iranian dissidents and the same half dozen links to articles by journalists on the ground in Tehran. What little information there is to be found on Twitter is highly suspect, and much of it appears to be disinformation circulated to serve U.S. and Israeli interests -- claims that the government has imported thousands of Hezbollah and Hamas goons to violently suppress the demonstrations, for example, intended to drive a wedge between Iranians and the terrorist groups their government has supported (the Iranian government has no need to import goons, they have plenty on hand already). Much has been made of the U.S. State Department asking Twitter not to shut down for scheduled maintence as it had intended to do earlier in the week for a few hours, claiming that Twitter is an important communcations tools in Iran. It is an important communications tool, but for the Americans, not for the Iranians.

The exception might be YouTube, to which dissidents have been posting cell phone videos of clashes with the government forces. These serve as an important record and rallying point for the Iranian people. And ten minutes of video says a lot more than 140 characters of text can.

Clearly there is more going on here than is evident at first glance. Much of the public communication we are seeing is part of a propaganda effort intended to manipulate events and public perceptions, some of it is counter-insurgency work by the Iranian government, some of it is political posturing for domestic consumption by US political factions on both sides of the fence. Remember that a few months ago, many of the same conservatives now cheering for the Iranian Revolution were calling for bombing Tehran -- some were even hoping the previous administration would start a war with them before handing over the reins to Obama, who they now insist must "do something" or he will have "abandoned" the Iranians who wanted "freedom."

I had a slight disagreement, more of an exchange of snark really, with Laurence Simon aka Crap Mariner (of 100 Word Stories fame) about what Obama should do and he mentioned smuggling satellite phones and uplinks into the country to help dissidents get the word out to the rest of the world. Given statements like this, I'm not so sure he cares that deeply about helping the Iranians so much as complaining about Obama. A few things about the smuggling idea: 1)The Iranians don't really lack high tech gear, nor do they really care what the rest of the world thinks for the most part 2) Who's to say the United States isn't doing exactly that right now? If they were, they would hardly be advertising the fact since it would play into the government's efforts to portray the opposition as tools of the West and 3)anyone caught with such equipment would probably be executed as a spy.

I think all Obama can and should do openly is to condemn any and all violence and call for the two sides in Iran to work things out peacefully without outside interference. He could also denounce the violations of human rights going on in the country, but given that he wants to reestablish diplomatic ties or at least hold direct talks with whoever eventually becomes president, he may have to hold back and let others (like the Twitternauts) send that message.

The more I learn and the more I think about it, I don't think there is a revolution going on in Iran. There is political and civil unrest to be sure, but at the end of the day, even if the protestors get what they want, the country will still be a conservative, authoritarian fundementalist Muslim theocracy. If the opposition wins out, the people in power might be slightly less unreasonable and the control of the mullahs may slacken ever so slightly - both good things - but I the pro- and anti-government demonstrators both chant "God is Great" at their rallies and will be back to chanting "Death to the Jews, Death to America" in six months. The current struggle might in fact be serving to help the government purge the real revolutionaries who want true change by drawing them out into the open while at the same time allowing the population to blow off some of the social pressure built up by 30 years of repression without any real changes being made.

It may be that sometime in the future Iranians will look back at all the green profile pictures on Twitter and and find a softer spot in their hearts for America, but I think it is more likely that most will see it as another attempt by "the Great Satan" to interfere in their nation's politics. Internet users are a small minority in Iran and those using Twitter an even smaller minority among them. Those people are more likely already interested in Western ideas and culture and in favor of real change in their country. Twitter activists in the West appears to be preaching to the converted and possibly even endangering those whose cause they claim to champion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the level of thought you put into this is good - but you make one crucial error in your analysis: you equate the hate filled vitriol and propoganda of the leadership with the beliefs of the average iranian. The only great satan that the Iranians see is an oppressive regime. Just as the government can summon people to beat their own, they can also coordinate a rally to burn a US flag and make it look like that is a widespread sentiment. This is greater than Mousavi - this is about repect for teh will of teh people - an idea that if followed will eventually topple theocracy.