August 16, 2011 | Faster, Please!

Why Aren’t There Millions of Iranians in the Streets?

August 16, 2011 | Faster, Please!

Why Aren’t There Millions of Iranians in the Streets?

People keep asking me how come the Iranian people seem to be missing in action amidst the Middle Eastern insurrection. Fair enough. No matter that the whole process was kicked off, and inspired by, the massive demonstrations in the streets of Iran’s major cities following the electoral fraud of June, 2009. There is fighting in Libya, and there is slaughter in Syria, but so far as we can see from our newspapers and TV coverage, the only thing going on in Iran is continued repression by the regime and not much in the way of pushback from the people. If it is true, I am asked, that the overwhelming majority of Iranians hate the regime, why aren’t they doing more to bring it down?

My first answer is that they are doing quite a bit to bring it down, but it is no longer in the form to which we had become accustomed: big public demonstrations calling for an end to the regime. To be sure, some elements of those protests are still very much with us, such as the chanting of “death to the dictator” from the rooftops in the big cities. But there are no longer large gatherings of protesters, even on university campuses, which have long been centers of protest.

In part, that is due to the repressive terror unleashed by the regime, which extends to increasingly efficient actions against “social networks” like Facebook and Twitter, and also to such things as rooftop satellite dishes that have enabled the Iranians to remain in touch with the outside world. In recent months more than 350,000 such dishes have been taken down by the Basij–here are some pictures of the censors hard at work–and supreme leader Ali Khamenei has been promised that all satellite dishes will be gone by the end of Ramadan. Even if, as is likely, many dishes will remain, it is now very difficult to reach anywhere near the number of Iranians who used to watch Western broadcasts, including the many coming from exile communities in Europe and, above all, Southern California.

The lack of large scale public protest—at least, of the monster crowds we saw for many months– is also the result of a conscious decision by the leaders of the Green Movement.  Once it was obvious that the leaders of the Western world would do nothing to support the uprising against the regime, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi decided it would be irresponsible to continue to call for their people to risk their lives in the streets. They accordingly changed strategy from direct confrontation to sustained pressure, hoping thereby to produce an implosion of the sort that ended Communist rule throughout the Soviet Empire.

That strategy is well underway. We cannot see it in action, but we can certainly see clear signs of internal stresses and strains, and even gaping fissures within the ruling edifice. I have tried to call attention to such phenomena as rebellion within the elite Revolutionary Guards, producing constant turnover within the officer corps, and on occasion the regime has resorted to mass executions of some of the rebels. If there were no real pressure on the regime, we would not be seeing the melodramatic fights involving President Ahmadinejad, one day with members of Parliament, the next with the supreme leader and his entourage. There is pressure, the tyrants are well aware of it, and the people sense the uncertainty within the regime.

A key element in this strategy is well known to the players but almost never discussed in the analyses from the self-proclaimed experts on things Persian: the near total lack of trust among the country’s leaders, combined with the ongoing collaboration of top officials with the opposition. This is a leitmotif of Persian history, as you could see at the time of the Khomeini Revolution of 1979, when no less a personage than General Hossein Fardoust, the head of the shah’s secret intelligence service, was later revealed to have been in cahoots with the enemies of the regime. This was proven when he was entrusted with the central task of organizing Khomeini’s secret service once the shah had fallen.

Meanwhile, it is quite wrong to view Iran as thoroughly pacified by the regime. Strikes are now commonplace, and there is a real shooting war going on in Kurdistan over by the Iraqi border.  There has been a lot of fighting on both sides, as the Kurds and official regime spokesmen have confirmed.  Iraqi Parliamentarians have denounced the invasion of their territory by Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

It is hard to get reliable statistics about casualties, but the toll has been significant, including one of the most important Iranian commanders, Abbas Asemi, who was responsible for the repression in the holy city of Qom.

The same area has been the site of the repeated bombing of oil and gas pipelines from Iran to Turkey, a campaign that verges on epidemic proportions.  It may well be that at least some of these are part of the shooting war with the Kurds, although I cannot verify this widely-held suspicion.  Here is a rundown of recent bombings , beginning about two weeks ago:

An explosion struck an oil pipeline in Iran’s oil-rich southwestern province of Khuzestan early Friday, triggering a blaze that took firefighters hours to put out, news agencies reported.

Abdohossein Rezaeizadeh, spokesman for the provinces’ branch of the Iranian national oil company, told the official IRNA news agency that the causes of the blast and the subsequent fire were under investigation…

The semi-official Mehr news agency said the explosion happened at around 1:30 a.m near Susa, some 430 miles (700 kilometers) southwest of Tehran. The flames rose 130 feet (40 meters) up into the sky, the report said.

The pipeline feeds up to 4,000 barrels of oil a day to the nearby Ahvaz oil processing unit, some 62 miles (100 kilometers) south of the site of the explosion.

Iran’s oil and gas sector has been hit by an increasing number of explosions recently but authorities rarely provide any explanation for them.

Most of the pipelines are decades old and encumbered with lack of maintenance and frequent technical failures. However, there have been occasional cases of sabotage, mostly reported in the northwest.

Last week, an explosion struck a major pipeline carrying gas to Turkey. The blast, which temporarily cut the gas flow, took place in morning hours near a border crossing but no one was injured. Authorities blamed it on Kurdish rebels operating in the area.

In April, three explosions hit gas pipelines near the holy city of Qom in central Iran, briefly cutting the flow of gas from Iran’s gas refineries in the south to the country’s northwest.

Similar explosions rocked the pipeline in the same area in February. Officials at the time said the blasts were not caused by technical failures but did not say if they were acts of sabotage.

And here is a longer rundown from a reliable web site in Farsi.  And here is a report of an explosion today on the Turkish side of the border, which hints at Kurdish involvement.

There is also an ongoing series of “accidents” involving trains and aircraft carrying Revolutionary Guards troops within the country.

Finally, there is the matter of the ongoing civil war in Syria, which so intimately involves the Iranian regime that serious analysts and policymakers should look at it as part of the Iranian crisis itself. Certainly the regime does; thousands of Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah killers and commanders have virtually taken charge of the Assad regime’s slaughter of Syrian protesters, and the nonviolent methods used by the protesters mirror those adopted by the Green Movement in the year and a half after the 2009 electoral fraud.

This is very likely an existential crisis for the Khamenei regime, as its frantic response amply demonstrates.  The war against the Syrian people is part and parcel of the campaign to crush the Iranians, whether Green, Kurdish or otherwise, and the regime in Tehran knows that if the Assads fall, Iranian power will be dealt a devastating blow.  Where will Hezbollah be based?  How great will be the cost to the joint Iranian-Syrian nuclear program?  How much damage will be done to the very dangerous but rarely discussed global network that runs from Tehran to Caracas via Damascus (a network that includes Moscow and Havana, by the way)?

The Iranian opposition and its allies and collaborators inside the regime are well aware of the gravity of the crisis, and are increasing the pressure on the regime.  For his part, Khamenei has locked the Green Movement leaders, Mousavi and Karroubi, behind walls, and their followers are daily rounded up and sent to the torture chambers in Evin Prison and other hellholes around the country.  It won’t work.  Ask the South African apartheid oppressors, or the gang in Burma…

Meanwhile, back in Washington, after weeks of whispering to gullible journalists that the Obama administration was going to declare its straightforward opposition to the Assad regime (and thus to its Tehran protectors), we have only the usual waffling, dithering, parsing and pretending.  My favorite, if that’s the right word to describe the latest version of appeasement, is from Hillary.  ” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when asked why the United States has not yet called for Syria’s president to step down, said Washington wants other nations to add their voices, according to an interview by the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley released on Thursday.”

It’s going into history as the Obama Doctrine:  Leading with the Behind.


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