I’ve been asked to weigh in on the Iran election situation by a few people, so here we are.
The *official* poll results give sitting president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad an unambiguous victory, which seems a bit screwy. Of course, as I told a friend the other day, we did elect Dubya twice. Let’s face it, the two men are something like analogs — both are nuance-challenged cowboys who are actually puppets for elite political/theocratic masters: the Ayatollahs for Ahmadinejad, and the neocons (Cheney, Wolfowitz, et al) for Bush. They’ve even got the same squint.
But the election results — falsified or not — are actually the least interesting part of the current Iranian narrative. More significant is the manner in which the drama is playing out.
First, it’s important to realize that despite its political posturing (and indisputable pursuit of nuclear weapons technologies), Iran is not North Korea. For all its faults, Iran is a far more open society that enjoys most of the technological and some of the cultural liberties we in the West take for granted. Although I’d hate to be found guilty of breaking one of the country’s laws, Iran is hardly a giant slave labor camp like North Korea. The fact that they even have elections to be publicly contested says something (although a victory by either side would must still be recognized by the ruling mullahs).
How can America help? First of all, we we should refrain from lecturing them on democracy. This is Persia, for fuck’s sake — a ruling society from 550 B.C. to roundabouts 1935. Itemizing their contributions to civilization is outside the purview of this post; let’s just say that modern Iranians are hardly the backwards, “Axis of Evil” henchfolk the previous administration painted them out to be. We can mostly be of service by reiterating our support for transparency in democracy, and leading by example.
If there is advice to be given, it’s that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei needs to carefully manage the regime’s reaction to public demonstrations. We’re not in 1989 anymore, when the shock of the Tiananmen Square massacre was brought home via a single iconic image of a lone protester standing resolute before a Chinese tank. Now there are literally thousands of channels — far too much info to be effectively suppressed by any government authority outside of Kim Jong Ill, whose reign is an anomaly in our social media-driven era.
That doesn’t mean Iran’s leaders won’t try. But they will fail. This is a lesson the mullahs probably hoped to avoid learning, and certainly one that will have broader repercussions across the region. America’s Middle Eastern allies of convenience (think Saudi Arabia and Quatar) are surely taking notice of what’s going down in Iran. Like most places in the industrialized world, the youth of Iran have flipcams, blogs, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages. How can they be silenced? (In sad contrast, the Palestininan residents of Gaza have far fewer — if any — of these technological trappings, hence Israel’s effective “media management” during the recent bombing/invasion.)
Not that it’s easy for information about the protests and accompanying crackdown to flow freely. Authorities are shutting down networks and suspending services wherever possible, but thanks to global connectivity, there are hacks and workarounds. Here’s what I grabbed from a quick scan of the #IranElection hashtag on Twitter:
“Change your location and time zone to Tehran; give too many targets for Iranian Gov’t to find.”
“Awesome — Twitter reschedules maintenance in order to not be down during the #iranelection aftermath.”
Then there’s these instructions to to setup a web proxy to provide internet access to those in Iran who are being censored. (Sorry Mac users — it’s Windows only. Maybe one of you geeks can throw some tips together for us Apple folks?)
This is history in the making, folks, and not just because of the opportunity for Iran to step out of the geopolitical shadows and become the truly open society for which its citizens yearn. The situation is doubly relevant because it illustrates how global digital connectivity has political and social repercussions for those who would govern — by consent or otherwise.