Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Real Politik

A little follow up on yesterday's post urging prudence in the American reaction to events in Iran. While I think that we need to step back a bit and see how events play out, I completely understand the impulse to want to jump in with full-throated support for the protesters. When you see what appears to be a democratic revolution in the making, it's natural for us to want to encourage it and hope for it to succeed. In recent years, we've witnessed freedom movements take to the streets in places like Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, and Burma and cheered them on. The idea that you're watching history being made is a powerful one and there's a lot of appeal in feeling that you're playing some part (however small) in it through your support.

But sometimes I think that it's almost too easy for those of us in the West to sit in front of our keyboards, televisions, cell phones, etc. and vocalize our support for the revolution--be it Rose, Orange, Cedar, Tulip, Saffron, or Green--by offering to stand with the freedom seekers with the promise, "We're with you!" The reality of course is that we're really not. Our support for these causes entails almost no risk for us at all. Meanwhile, those whose revolutions we are encouraging are often putting their lives on the line on a daily basis.

And whether these revolutions succeed or fail, six months from now most of us will have moved on and forgotten about countries that for a few days or weeks were the center of our attention. How many Americans do you think are still following events in Ukraine or have any idea what the political situation is like there now?

Yes, Iran is different. Iran has been the focus of American attention for years and will likely continue to be in the near future. And a true revolution in Iran could possibly alter the strategic dynamic of the region in a positive way.

But before we allow ourselves to get too swept up in the movement of the moment, it wouldn't hurt to pause long enough to make sure we know what we're really getting into. Do the current protests reflect the feelings of the majority of the Iranian people or only the most noticeable groups? :

There is no denying that the news clips from Tehran are dramatic, unprecedented in violence and size since the mullahs came to power in 1979. They're possibly even augurs of real change. But can we trust them? Most of the demonstrations and rioting I've seen in the news are taking place in north Tehran, around Tehran University and in public places like Azadi Square. These are, for the most part, areas where the educated and well-off live--Iran's liberal middle class. These are also the same neighborhoods that little doubt voted for Mir-Hossein Mousavi, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rival, who now claims that the election was stolen. But I have yet to see any pictures from south Tehran, where the poor live. Or from other Iranian slums.

Some facts about Iran's election will hopefully emerge in the coming weeks, with perhaps even credible evidence that the election was rigged. But until then, we need to add a caveat to everything we hear and see coming out of Tehran. For too many years now, the Western media have looked at Iran through the narrow prism of Iran's liberal middle class--an intelligentsia that is addicted to the Internet and American music and is more ready to talk to the Western press, including people with money to buy tickets to Paris or Los Angeles. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a terrific book, but does it represent the real Iran?

UPDATE: The question that I don't think we can answer at this point is, do the protesters represent the real Iran?

More from John Derbyshire at NRO's The Corner:

Is Iran's population seething in anger at a rigged election? Or are the seethers just some segment of the urban middle classes? I have no idea, and am not convinced anyone knows. Seems to me there's a lot of wishful thinking going around. U.S. politics is full of surprises. What does any of us know about Iranian politics?

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