The past week’s developments in Iran are tremendously exciting. Diverse and unexpected elements of the Iranian public have started taking to the streets to protest the regime that has failed them for most of the past 40 years. After a few days of very little press coverage in the United States, we now have a torrent of commentary. But it all strikes me as missing something. US coverage of Iran is limited by the way that US media sees Iran. With this video I delve into the problem…
Video Transcript after the jump…
So… There’s something happening here, and what it is ain’t exactly clear. Before I start talking about the past week’s events, I’d like to emphasize that I’m not an Iran expert, and have only been focusing on the country again for like six days now. So you should take what I say today with a massive grain of salt. But I think I can point out why US Media outlets have been having trouble with this issue, and why they took so long to start covering it. That’s because what’s happening at the moment in Iran really doesn’t fit the story those outlets want to tell.
All media outlets in the US, left and right, Trump-loving and Trump-hate-loving, are super invested in a particular narrative about Iran. Iran is super scary. The Mad mullahs of Tehran are using their oil wealth to take over the region. Their agents are everywhere, and we must not try to appease them the way we appeased Hitler. Seriously, people believe this stuff. Countries like the US and Israel have really big defence budgets and they need credible threats to justify them. So we hear a lot about the evils of Iran.
Don’t get me wrong, there are parts of this story that are very true. The Iranian regime is super repressive and they do very bad things. But they are a lot weaker than the Persian Hitler story claims they are. And that’s why coverage of what’s happening in Iran right now is so confusing. To do a decent job at it you have to acknowledge a bunch of stuff that US government and media usually tries to hide.
Iran’s current uprising is inseparable from the complexity of the Iranian system. The country has got some elements, like the president and parliament, that are more democratic than most Middle Eastern countries, but it’s all wrapped in extra layers of approval and control that keep the religious elite in power. Like imagine if the Electoral college in the US didn’t just have weird math, but also had unaccountable electors who decided who could run for office. Actually, the original US system was more like this, with senators that were appointed rather than elected, but that’s a different video. The figure of the Supreme leader is particularly offensive to those of us who like representative democracy. He can override essentially everything, and he serves for life.
A lot of analysts in the US don’t bother thinking about any of this, claim that Khamenei is an evil dictator and say that that is all you need to know about the regime. And that’s what keeps many people from understanding what’s happening now. The consensus is that these protests were probably started by hardliners working for the Supreme Leader in an effort to discredit the Moderate president. And now the protests have gotten out of hand.
Does that strike you as the sort of thing that happens in a country we should be scared of? These protests are happening in a completely different world from 2009. Those protests were larger, but on every other metric, these are scarier to the folks who rule Iran. 2009’s protests were largely about rich people in Tehran, the capital. This time they are everywhere, and the capital is an afterthought. Back then, there was a program, elements of which have been incorporated in today’s reformist agenda. Now there is just anger. It’s economic but it’s also about 40 years of broken promises.
Many in the US are trying to portray the regime reaction as unified and repressive, despite the fact that the hardline Supreme Leader and the Moderate president are reacting very differently. I suspect that these protests really could be a good thing for President Rouhani, and lead to more moderate Iran that’s better to its people. This would make the whole Iran as Hitler story a lot harder to sell. It’s too early to tell for sure. What this all means is a mystery to analysts who know far better than I do.
But what seems clear to me at this point is that Iran’s foreign policy just isn’t sustainable. This level of discontent can be repressed and it almost certainly will be. But you can’t arrest everyone. And bribing the rest of the country back into submission will take a lot of scarce oil money that will not now be spent in Lebanon or Syria. We can disagree on how big a threat Iran’s regional policy really represented, but it’s hard to shake the suspicion that the US and Israeli defense industries will miss it when it’s gone.
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