Explosions in the Sky

Last night I walked the streets of lower Manhattan to the sounds of an artillery barrage on the Hudson River. Muffled booms rolled through empty neighborhoods and smoky flashes lit up the sky between the dark buildings. Five barges sat in mid-river and launched a spectacular pyrotechnics display. The proximity of American patriotism to our instinct for bellicosity is nothing new. We’ve always had a soft spot for marching warriors and explosions in the sky when we honor our country and I personally am a rabid fireworks fan. But in the midst of the eye-popping cloudbursts and sparkling veils and the gut-rumbling blasts, my mind jumped momentarily to the real bombs and missiles that continue to zoom around the world in our collective name.

These troubling mental intrusions came on strong this year. Citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan are on their sixth and ninth years, respectively, of U.S. sponsored fireworks, and America’s terroristic enemies continue to scheme and concoct devilish displays of their own. From North Korea’s feeble missile lobbing experiments to Al-Qaeda’s supposed plotting for a nuclear attack, there is no shortage of threats, credible or not. Perhaps patriotic sentiments are never as easy or pure as we are told, but I wish I could enjoy the memory of our independence with a little less war-guilt or terror-fear, which seem to be the two poles of U.S. foreign policy.

As I stood watching the celebration, I was reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. He wrote:

The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will.

65 years later, these achetypes have changed little. While President Obama proclaims the goal of a nuclear free world, Richard Perle sticks by the advice he once gave to Reagan:

“Nuclear weapons are here to stay. You can’t uninvent them. A world without nuclear weapons isn’t credible and I wouldn’t want it even if we could.”

Perle’s view is terribly frightening to me but to dismiss it as lunacy would be to deny the serious traction it has in the defense policy community. Can we reconcile the children of dark and lightness? Can we safeguard our homeland without trampling those around us? Is it possible to untangle our national character from our longstanding militancy without weakening our collective sense of self?


George Packer’s take

Fantastic commentary from George Packer on the U.S. Foreign Policy response to the Iranian election crisis:

Just when Obama seemed to have fallen a step behind events, he emerged from his silence to do what no politician in our time could have managed: emphasize American respect for Iranian sovereignty and yet, in measured terms, make it clear that the U.S. cannot be indifferent to the tragedy unfolding in Iran. He spoke with calm eloquence to the millions of people who have filled the streets at great risk—spoke to their hopes and their courage. He proved that an American President can lend his voice to “universal values” without sounding like a self-righteous fool. And he showed the emptiness of the eternal argument between realism and idealism. When foreign policy is articulated by a thoughtful politician in the middle of an intense and unfolding drama, the abstractions melt away. It’s actually possible to be pragmatic without being indecent. Why shouldn’t it be?

Full text from the New Yorker

Dabashi on Mousavi

Excerpts from Columbia professor and Iranian exile Hamid Dabashi on Mousavi and the state of the election dispute.

On who is leading and Mousavi’s potential:

Mousavi is not all that this movement wants, nor is Mousavi totally in control of the movement. There is a dialectic between the two, facing the thuggish brutalities of the regime as they go along. To me the only way that this movement can come to a meaningful fruition (not just in securing a recount or even a re-election but in fact addressing the wider range of civil liberties) is if it aspires to a non-violent collective act of civil disobedience that from Gandhi to MLK has always needed a visionary leadership. I am not sure if Mousavi or Khatami are those figures. But I do believe that Mousavi in particular has the public demeanor and disposition of becoming one, the “make up” of such a leadership.

On Mousavi’s credentials:

What we are witnessing today may indeed be the commencement of a full-fledged civil disobedience, led by an aging revolutionary, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, battle-tested, literally, during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), a war hero to his followers, and then gone into seclusion for almost 20 years (reading, writing, teaching, and painting), and has now come back with a vengeance against the opportunist populism of Ahmadinejad.

Full text here.

Iran: A Regime Interrupted

“People are like fire nowadays. Whatever Ahmedinejad does it will be worse. Saturday morning the city was in shock. Now in the coming days you’ll see a change.”  -Mohsen Makhmalbaf

The post-election struggle in Iran continues to unfold. Al Jazeera, which has been more conservative in its reporting of allegations of voter fraud than western news organs, reports that tens of thousands have come out in Tehran to support Mousavi in a rally that was supposed to have been cancelled.

This morning, Mousavi called off the rally after reports emerged that riot police would carry live ammunition and would be ordered to open fire at will. Nonetheless, Mousavi announced that he would go to the protest site anyway to ensure that his supporters remained calm. Everyone showed up, making this demonstration the largest since the disputed election. Al Jazeera reports that the rally was largely peaceful, with reports of scattered gunfire. A second rally is called for tomorrow.

BBC and Al Arabiya have been kicked out of the country, facebook and twitter are still down, and today the website Tehran Bureau, which has been publishing eyewitness reports from Iran since the election, is inaccessible from the U.S.

The next few days will be crucial to the political future of the country. If Mousavi supporters stand down or are unable to build a large scale protest movement that resonates throughout the country, Ahmadinejad will quickly cement his victory and scare dissenters into political silence and defeat. Government forces are clearly worried. Khameini broadcast a message over national radio yesterday every fifteen minutes, calling on Mousavi and his supporters to contest the election results in legal appeals, not in the streets. Last night, dormitories at Tehran University were raided and over 100 students detained. Additionally, several hundred leading opposition figures, including former president Khatami’s brother, have been detained since the election.

It seems to me that the regime needs to walk a thin line in tamping down the opposition. A Tiananmen-style massacre might spur a wider domestic movement and would certainly set back the nation’s position on the world stage and as Mid-East powerbroker.

The rally today and the continuing shouts of Allahu Akbar from the rooftops of Tehran each night suggest that Mousavi supporters have not thrown in the towel and that the opposition will continue to grow in strength and organization. The continuing Islamic flavor of the protests is a good sign that this is not simply a movement of the so-called “Gucci revolutionaries” and the secular middle-classes.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Hamid Dabashi’s 2000 article, “The End of Islamic Ideology.” In his characteristically overblown prose, Dabashi describes the youth generation that we hope will emerge to topple Ahmadinjed:

Chafing under two decades of a medieval theocracy, the young people in particular have no enduring memory of the Islamic Revolution and by all accounts could not care less about that piece of historical amnesia. They are the harbingers of a new dawn in Iranian history, vanguard of a whole new visionary recital of the possible, heralding the beginning of a fresh defiance. They have successfully learnt to forget, if not forgive, their parental paralysis.

Yesterday’s timeline

From Gary Slick:

On the basis of what we know so far, here is the sequence of events starting on the afternoon of election day, Friday, June 12.

* Near closing time of the polls, mobile text messaging was turned off nationwide

* Security forces poured out into the streets in large numbers

* The Ministry of Interior (election headquarters) was surrounded by concrete barriers and armed men

* National television began broadcasting pre-recorded messages calling for everyone to unite behind the winner

* The Mousavi campaign was informed officially that they had won the election, which perhaps served to temporarily lull them into complacency

* But then the Ministry of Interior announced a landslide victory for Ahmadinejad

* Unlike previous elections, there was no breakdown of the vote by province, which would have provided a way of judging its credibility

* The voting patterns announced by the government were identical in all parts of the country, an impossibility (also see the comments of Juan Cole at the title link)

* Less than 24 hours later, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene`i publicly announced his congratulations to the winner, apparently confirming that the process was complete and irrevocable, contrary to constitutional requirements

* Shortly thereafter, all mobile phones, Facebook, and other social networks were blocked, as well as major foreign news sources.


Iran Update

The AP reports that cell phone service has been cut in Tehran but is functioning in others parts of the country. On election day text messages were blocked throughout the country. The Mousavi campaign has used SMS extensively to rally its supporters. Pro-Mousavi websites are now blocked.

Several people have been injured in protests in the capital and one young man is reported killed. Police are suppressing what they say are unapproved mass gatherings. Reuters picked up this snippet of conversation:

“We are going to stay here. We are going to die here,” demonstrators shouted as one woman was struck on her back by policeman’s baton, while others were kicked.

“The time of dancing and shouting is over. They are going to break your leg if you stand here,” a senior policeman was heard telling one man.

Two things could radically shift the direction of events right now:

1. Election fraud: revelations of ballot box stuffing, Mousavi supporters being turned away from polling stations, or ballot miscounts.

2. Police brutality on the streets. Thirty years ago, the Islamic Revolution was fueled by tales of martyrs who died in street clashes with the SAVAK forces (the Shah’s brutal police service).

Themes of protest and individual sacrifice for common ideals run deep in Persian culture. An able propagandist might be able harness the immense dissatisfaction that Tehran residents are feeling right now and direct it toward a movement that could seriously unhinge the current regime. Such a movement would be fueled by the youth generation, who are too young to remember the repression that followed the Revolution and are unaffected by the horrors of the Iran-Iraq War. Their parents brought down the Shah without social networking sites and SMS, let’s see what they can do now.

Ahmadinejad v. Mousavi

Some interesting news coming out of Iran since Ahmadinejad’s surprising win yesterday.

The Grey Lady casts a lot of suspicion on the election results, describing voting anomalies and taking very seriously Mousavi’s claims of fraud.


And this description sounds just like Bush-Kerry 2004:

The emotional campaign was widely seen as a referendum on Mr. Ahmadinejad’s divisive policies. It pitted Mr. Moussavi, a former prime minister who has pledged to move Iran away from confrontation with the West, combat economic stagnation and expand women’s rights, against Mr. Ahmadinejad’s economic populism, social conservatism, and hard-line foreign policy. Many women, young people, intellectuals and members of the moderate clerical establishment backed Mr. Moussavi. Mr. Ahmadinejad drew passionate support from poor rural Iranians as well as conservatives.

Khameini made a point of not endorsing either candidate during the race, although he seemed more sympathetic to Ahmadinejad, and he has now given his blessing to the election results and discouraged protests. Nontheless, Mousavi is talking heavy:

“I personally strongly protest the many obvious violations and I’m warning I will not surrender to this dangerous charade. The result of such performance by some officials will jeopardise the pillars of the Islamic Republic and will establish tyranny.”

Al-Jazeera has this to say on Mousavi’s situation:

“He has been told by the country’s supreme leader that this is essentially the end of this election, and if he chooses to negate that command, he is laying down a challenge the like of which the Islamic Republic has reallly never seen before.”


Post-revolution Iran has certain scared cows, among them popular demonstrations and faith in its unique democratic system, and if Mousavi’s complaints continue to hold water or something improper is exposed in the election procedures, the popular outrage might be too much for Khameini’s words or Ahmadinejad’s storm troopers.

Related, 538.com published a piece on the maturation of Iranian democracy. Presidential races have tightened through the nineties, leading up to 2005’s run-off vote. This election seems to buck the trend, with the Ahmadinejad winning over 60% of the vote.