Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Iran

Transparent Panic

I wrote last year that foreign policy disputes occur through events typically out of the hands of leaders, (ie that Rudd can’t make the 2010 election be about foreign policy in the way he can force a poll on Climate Change), but that rule really only applies to democracies:

Iran’s hardline president has ordered the formation of a team to study the damages the country suffered from the 1941 Allied invasion in order to demand compensation.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran suffered immensely after it was invaded by Britain and the Soviet Union during World War II despite its declared neutrality and was never compensated.”A team has been assigned to calculate all the damages (inflicted on Iran) in the Second World War. This will be an invoice they (Allies powers) must pay to the Iranian nation,” he said in remarks broadcast live on state television on Saturday.
“You inflicted lots of damages to the Iranian nation, put your weight on the shoulders (of the Iranian people) and became victors in the World War II. You didn’t even share the war profits with Iran,” Ahmadinejad said. “If I say today that we will take full compensation … know that we will stand to the end and will take it.”
Ahmadinejad also warned that Iran may also demand compensation for the damages it suffered during World War I, the Western support for the former Pahlavi Dynasty and its hostility towards Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

It’s not often you see leaders of nation states come up with such transparent diversionary policy efforts. No money will be paid, no attention (beyond the media hoping like Iran for a conflict) will be given, and this event will be utterly forgotten in two weeks let alone when it comes time to sum up 2010 in late december. But it is indicative of the panic within the Iranian leadership. To be sure the opposition green movement is leaderless, and divided on whether it wants to simply reform the theocracy or really revolt Iran into a new democratic era. However the legitimacy of the leadership is utterly gone.

For all that International Relations is dictated by calculations of material power, (how many nukes does that country have, who controls the military etc), intangibles such as legitimacy are often far more critical over the long term. In the last 20 years democracy rose, communism fell, a wall came down, and the US appeared to be weaken by a bunch of islamic fundamentalists all because of issues of legitimacy rather than any mathematical material calculation of power. The Iranian government has the guns, but it is clearly panicking and will end up selling out its young (as likely as revolution is the dismissal of Ahmadinejad) to keep in power. Long term, it is hard to see how the 1979 Islamic Revolution lasts beyond the next 5-10 years, and that is even assuming they get the bomb.

Bush’s wish to ‘drain the swamp’ with falling dominoes of democracy may yet come about. He may have got much of the implementation wrong, but I think he saw the end game better than many of his critics.


I’ll be away in Melbourne for a few days so no blogging till mid-next week.

To pass the long cold hours I recommend:

Andrew Norton on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty at 150. Everyone talked of Darwin’s anniversary, but Mill has had perhaps just as significant an impact and continues to do so.

Christopher Hitchens is surprisingly shy about his own case for once, but he advances a serious question: Did the Toppling of Saddam Hussein lead to recent events in Iran?
Seems to have some merit to me…

And finally, hopefully by now you have seen Utegate as told by lolcats. Well now there’s a blog featuring the goings on of Australian politics all in lolcats. It may just be the future of blogging.

Have a good weekend.

Charting the Iranian Revolt

Other sources have far better insights into what is going on on Iran, but I just want to make a couple of key points.
1. The issue is not the election but the break in the legitimacy that has occurred between the Iranian Government and the people. Iran has been ruled by fear for most of the 30 years since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but that military and material power was only significant so long as it seemed to re-enforce the already accepted legitimacy of the government. Poor economic and social policy in Iran has slowly weakened that link (the first role of any government is always to provide bread and circuses), such obvious and exaggerated efforts to control what was claimed to be a real election process have severely damaged that legitimacy bond. Even if, as expected the government violently cracks down and the protests fail to overturn the establishment, this makes a permanent new relationship between the people and the government of Iran. From now on, no public statement will be accepted at face value (ie “The US/Jews want your destruction”) and spending on programs that seem more about the wellbeing of the government (such as the nuclear program) will fall into significantly greater question.

2.The MSM is still critical, but despite our obsession with video and cable and the money put into TV news, most of the really big events in the world happen outside of a camera lens. Video is of course important, (Youtube videos are doing great job), but to properly understand what is going on in much of the world we need to rely on the flow of words and here at home in the west need trained professionals to wade through it to help provide the facts and filter out the falsities. As if we are all witnesses to a crime scene, everyone is talking and it needs wise heads to filter, edit, collate, and check. The best sources in following this story seem those using new media technology, but run by professional print journalists such as The New York Times Lede blog and Andrew Sullivan. The next generation of journalists for whom such social networking and publishing tools are as easy to adapt to as breathing will be a great sight to behold when going after a story. There are many very smart and switched on members of my generation using these technologies but I think this is more a transition generation with only some likely to get the best use of this technology. The media companies will also need to significantly update their online and published platforms to take advantage of this potential, right now they act to limit and punish those who attempt alternate methods or who take time away from standard reporting to engage such technology.

3. Technology obviously cant make revolutions, only people do. However the twitter network has really come into its own with the Iranian revolution*. Reports suggest that about an hour or so before the polls closed, the Iranian government acted to block SMS’s and severely limit the internet. Twitter, which can be accessed through a number of devices and mediums however has been able to escape some of this. If you are new to twitter go to which displays all the messages “tweets” sent under a particular topic heading. Try these for size #IranElection #Iran #Tehran.
Other digitial technology such as video’s on youtube and photo’s on flickr are also providing great on the ground details. If you are interested follow this handy guide on accessing the media flowing out of Iran & responses from the rest of the world. Of course with all these technologies rumors and false claims abound, so much of it is useless from a perspective of knowing what is definitely occurring, but it certainly gives you a sense of the sentiments, energy and fear that is happening in Iran right now. Either way, this is another instance of the way new technology is changing politics in ways which no one has fully figured out yet.
(*Though this is not the first twitter revolution, Moldova back in April has that claim)

4. This is not a fight the west should get into, particularly the United States. The Obama administration seems to have handled this well in a very low key fashion, emphasizing that this is an Iranian issue. Obama has to walk a fine line between supporting and giving encouragement to the protesters (which helps protect them indirectly from a violent government crack down), and staying out of the debate so as to prevent Ahmadinejad from claiming the protesters are tools of foreign governments. Some will doubtless attempt to make this a partisan issue, but really it’s a debate between idealists and realists. The idealists (the fringes on both the left and right) will say we should be as loud and aggressive in supporting the protests as possible , the realists (the vast vast majority) will recognise the very limited impact western commentary can have and the serious consequences if we make the wrong decision.
Secondly, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Mousavi is not quite the reformist character he seems in contrast to Ahmadinejad. Daniel Larison makes the point well. Interferring simply to replace one mob of self-interested politicians with another is not worth our time or the inevitable blow back should it fail (and even in success it hardly changes the likely facts of Iran’s move towards nuclear power/weapons and generic hostility to the west).
Despite this caution, I think Middle Power governments like Australia could do their bit to champion international action and recognition of the protesters. Nothing we do will be enacted, so therefore we have much more freedom to call for change.
Kevin Rudd has spoken often of his desire for Australia to engage in “creative middle power diplomacy”, here is his chance. That said, Australia has a lot to deal with at the moment, and engaging in largely symbolic efforts isn’t that great a use of our Prime Ministers time or spending down our national piggybank. But the Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith could really use this to try and increase his influence and stature worldwide in the way that Gareth Evans did to great effect during his 8 years as foreign affairs minister.

Right now my instinct is that there will be a crackdown (violently) over the next few days and the protests will fade away. But I’m much less sure of that today than I was yesterday, and same for the day before. Something is clearly happening, and as I alluded to at the start of this post, the critical issue of legitimacy is forever cracked. It will take a massive act, either true reform or outright fascism in order to overcome the fissures this election and it’s ham fisted theft have opened up.