Further Meditations on the Objective Meaning of Green Twitter Avatars

Some people were really ticked off by my Twitter avatar post, and I can see why. I guess it's bad enough to accuse people of empty moral posturing. It's another thing to accuse people of empty moral posturing that helps the people who worked like crazy to start an unjustified war in Iraq. So let me say that I completely understand the impulse to express solidarity with Iranians who seek freedom. I feel it very strongly myself, but I also don't trust it. Why not?
Because I realize that I have no idea what I'm talking about. I don't understand Iranian politics very deeply. I will now proceed to make some mistakes that prove this. For example, I did not know until this episode that Mousavi was Prime Minister of Iran for many years under Khomeni, which pretty much guarantees he's no angel. I did not understand anything about the internal divisions within the Council of Guardians and the Assembly of Experts. Indeed, I still don't completely grasp how these various bodies are related to each other. What I gather is that that Khameni and Ahmadinejad are aligned against former Prime Minister Mousavi and former President Rafsanjani (who is now the head of the Assemby of Experts, the body that chooses the Supreme Leader. Thank you Wikipedia). I don't really grasp whether Mousavi and Rafsanjani are in it together, or are in a “the enemy of my enemy is a friend of mine” sort of thing, or what. As far as I can tell, the ruling axis got worried A'jad might lose the election, botched the vote-rigging, but validated the result anyway. I don't know who would have won had the vote been counted (I think this remains quite unclear), but in any case, it seems clear enough that Ahmadinejad is staying in power despite a pretty transparent flouting of the rules of an already deeply anti-democratic constitution. This provided a great opportunity for the anti-Khameni/Ahmadinejad faction to encourage a popular uprising, which I am sure is fueled by real discontent with the current regime. And much of this discontent I am sure is surely rooted in an authentic desire for a more liberal and democratic Iran.
Is that what we get if the Mousavi-Rafsanjani axis comes to power? A more liberal and democratic Iran? I honestly don't know, and I don't think many people do. I do know that these guys are deeply embedded in the larger status quo power structure, have had power before, and their records don't look so good. They may well represent improvement, but I don't honestly know that. As far as I know, the outpouring of desire for change that we see so clearly on YouTube is being exploited by one faction of the Iranian ruling class to depose another. I'd like to see the whole theocratic structure of Iran fall. I'd like to see the whole country radically liberalize, but I think that's unlikely, largely because I doubt very much that that's what most Iranians want. I want Iran to be free, and I want Iranians to want to be free. And I'm quite willing to cheer for freedom. Go freedom! But given my ignorance of exactly what and who I'd really be cheering on should I alter my Twitter avatar to reflect the campaign color of the former PM of the Islamic Republic of Iran, I think the intellectually and morally responsible course of action is to watch with colorless hope.
I am, however, quite confident that the powerful faction within American politics that argued for and got a war in Iraq has been arguing for a much harder line against Iran in order to set up a familiar dynamic of sanctions, UN Security Council demands, and so on. Just read the Weekly Standard blog.  Dick Cheney's authorized biographer Stephen Hayes is certainly not trying to avoid a future conflict when he writes:

The reason to talk about consequences [i.e., what the U.S. will do if this or that happens in Iran] is, at least in part, because it offers an opportunity to influence how this is going to play out. It may be the case that there are few potential consequences from the international community that could affect regime behavior. But if that's the case — and given the regime's support for terror, its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, its theft of the election, and its violent suppression of the protests — doesn't that make it more urgent for the international community to at least try to affect behavior and at least raise the possibility that there will come a time when the world refuses to recognize the current regime?

People are accusing other people of naïveté all over the place, so I'll try not to. But let me say I think it is rather unwise to underestimate the strategic savvy of the opinonmakers at the Weekly Standard and Fox News. It is not “paranoid” to think they are in fact talented at shaping American popular opinion and then bringing it to bear to achieve their political aims. The correct description of the events in Iran continues to elude me. Perhaps I have been ideologically blinded to the obvious. All I can say is that given what little I know, it is not obvious. But it is quite clear to me that the story of a people yearning for freedom and rising up to demand their rights as citizens who are then crushed by an evil authoritarian regime that will do anything to achieve its evil ends… it's clear to me that this story is useful to a certain faction in the ongoing debates about U.S. policy toward Iran. It may be that this story is the true story. But I don't honestly know that it is, so I think it is prudent not to assume it is–especially given the fact that this narrative does play into the hands of the most dangerous people in American public life.
Things really are lining up rather nicely for the neocons, and I don't think it's crazy to be wary of helping them, especially when doing nothing but explaining why you're doing nothing really can't hurt. If Mousavi turns out to be the Iranian Gorbechev, I'll be delighted. But then we'll hear how the reverse domino theory has been vindicated, how George W. Bush is a world-historical champion of freedom, and how we should not in the future be so hesitant to knock down dominoes. If the protests are crushed, it proves how rotten and dangerous the regime is, making it all the more urgent that the “international community” intervene to make sure the evil mullahs don't nuke Israel. If it turns out the new boss is same as the old boss, we'll hear a lot about Iran's instability, and the danger of nukes in that kind a tinderbox. Etc. So, yes. I am on my guard.
Anyway, I really did disparage people's motives in my first post, and I don't really think all Livestrong bracelets, pink ribbons, yellow ribbons, purple ribbons, blue ribbons, and green Twitter avatars are cheap, empty signaling. If you're really sincerely just excited to do some small thing to stand with people risking life and limb for their freedom, I apologize. But I do ask you to reflect on what you do and don't really know, and to consider what narrative benefits whom.
Meanwhile, IOZ interviews The Revolution.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center