Is Iran Vulnerable to Revolution?

May 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Since revolutions in the Middle East have persisted for months and protests in Syria have intensified in the past few weeks, there has been some speculation as to whether Iran could be the next in line to face a popular uprising of revolutionary magnitude. In February, Iran saw protesters take to the streets of Tehran as revolutions unfolded across the Middle East and days after Mubarak stepped down in Egypt. In response, the Iranian regime brutally cracked down on the demonstrators, and since then political unrest in the country has been at a low boil. Given the current state of the region and the recurrence of protests in Iran over the years, one might be tempted to expect a revolution in Iran on par with those in Egypt or Tunisia.

However, as Jack Goldstone notes in his article “Understanding the Revolutions of 2011,” there are critical components to Iran’s regime that make it resistant to significant change in the short term. In order to fully appreciate these components, it is first necessary to see how they have affected the potential for revolution in countries where popular uprisings were successful. Goldstone writes in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs:

“The revolutions of 1848 sought to overturn traditional monarchies, and those in 1989 were aimed at toppling communist governments. The revolutions of 2011 are fighting something quite different: “sultanistic” dictatorships. Although such regimes often appear unshakable, they are actually highly vulnerable, because the very strategies they use to stay in power make them brittle, not resilient.”

Goldstone clarifies this by detailing the contributing factors to the success of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Common factors that lead to the fall of “paper tigers,” as Goldstone refers to “sultanistic” dictatorships, are corruption, increases in education, rises in inequality and the worsening of relations between the “sultan” and the country’s military. Indeed, these factors all played a part in the fall of Mubarak and Ben Ali: In Egypt, Mubarak’s family and close friends had amassed billions in wealth while in Tunisia Ben Ali’s family was repeatedly accused of corruption, the youth population had risen by 65% in Egypt and 50% in Tunisia since 1990 while employment opportunities had remained stagnant across the Middle East, and finally both countries’ militaries had seen there influence wane in favor of the political power of those closer to Mubarak and Ben Ali.

In contrast, Iran is insulated from many of the threats that proved to be the undoing of the “sultanistic” dictatorships of Egypt and Tunisia. As Goldstone notes, “unlike any other regime in the region, the ayatollah’s [of Iran] espouse an ideology of anti-Western Shiism and Persian Nationalism that draws considerable support from ordinary people.” This provides the Iranian regime with wider popular support than Egypt or Tunisia’s regimes saw. Furthermore, while Mubarak and Ben Ali were the single, clear targets of the revolutions in their country, power is divided among three individuals in Iran: the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Parliamentary Chair Ali Larijani. Thus, while youth movements in Egypt and Tunisia had a figurehead to blame for their country’s high unemployment and rampant corruption, those in Iran do not. Lastly, Iran has two military factions that can be trusted to support the government at all costs: the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij. Given the ideological basis of both of these units, it is highly unlikely that either would rebel, and very likely that both will continue to undermine  attempts at popular revolution.

Because the leadership in Iran is unlikely to be seriously threatened in the next few years (though there is some potential that conflict among the regime’s rulers could destabilize the country, see here and here), the role this country is playing in the current revolutions is of the utmost importance. Iran has been vocally supportive of the pro-democracy movements across the Middle East, and has attempted to brand the Arab Spring as a Islamic awakening inspired by Iran’s own revolution in 1979. Only in Syria, where Iran has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, has Iran sought to undermine protesters. Despite this, Iran has attempted to highlight America’s hypocrisy resulting from the disparities in its treatment of Bahrain and Yemen compared to that of Egypt and Libya, while underplaying it’s own inconsistencies. The degree to which Iran will be successful in finding new allies in the region, and in creating new difficulties for America, is yet to be seen, but the foundation for a regionally powerful Iran is beginning to be laid.

The Complications and Benefits of International Criminal Court Prosecution

April 10, 2011 § 1 Comment

Since March there have been rumblings from the International Criminal Court (hereafter ICC) suggesting future prosecution of Qaddafi and his military commanders for actions taken against unarmed Libyans. Additionally, last Wednesday Luis Moreno-Ocampo, a prosecutor at the ICC, announced an investigation of the conflict in Ivory Coast. What seems clear is that crimes against humanity have occurred in both conflicts. For example, a recent New York Times article discusses the discovery of photos found in a Libyan police station that depict images of torture and brutality. The article states:

“Some [photos] depicted corpses bearing the marks of torture. One showed scars down the back of a man dressed only in his underwear, another a naked man face down under a sheet with his hands bound. The faces of the dead bore expressions of horror. Other pictures showed puddles of blood, a table of jars, bottles and powders and, in one, a long saw.”

If civilians have been the target of military attacks and even torture in either Libya or Ivory Coast, then Qaddafi, Gbagbo and their military commanders should be held responsible for those crimes. However, there are significant complications underlying potential ICC prosecution. In Ivory Coast, there are some reports that suggest that Ouattara’s forces are also connected to civilian killings. If both sides of the conflict have committed crimes against humanity, then this significantly complicates conflict resolution. Possible solutions for ending both the conflicts in Ivory Coast and Libya have included the offer of amnesty to Gbagbo and Qaddafi in exchange for the end of conflict and the transfer of power to their political opponents. However, future prosecution by the ICC could override this offer of amnesty, and so threats of prosecution now act as a disincentive  for Gbagbo or Qaddafi to step down.

For those who are not familiar with the ICC, it is an international tribunal to bring individuals accused of genocide, torture, war crimes, the crime of aggression and crimes against humanity to trial. The jurisdiction of the ICC includes all states that are signatories to the Rome Statute (in other words, all states that signed the treaty guaranteeing jurisdiction of the ICC), or referral of a case by the UN Security Council to the ICC. For more information on the ICC, see here.

Despite the possibility that the promise of ICC prosecution now could cause Gbagbo or Qaddafi to stay in power to avoid trial later, I believe the ICC should continue its investigations in both countries for two reasons. First, the threat of prosecution by the ICC has the potential to keep Gbagbo or Qaddafi’s military commanders from committing war crimes or from targeting civilians. While Gbagbo and Qaddafi have been offered amnesty in exchange for relinquishing power, their commanders have not, and so the threat of prosecution offers only positive incentives for these individuals in the short term. Considering that these lower level military commanders are actively involved in the day to day decisions in each conflict, the threat of prosecution has a significant chance of preventing civilian casualties or crimes against humanity.

Second, prosecuting Gbagbo and Qaddafi has two long term benefits that must be considered. Following through on the threat of prosecution for these two leaders has the potential to deter crimes by future leaders. If the ICC develops a reputation for punishing any and all war crimes or crimes against humanity, then eventually it will deter these types of crimes in the same way that American courts deter domestic crimes. Finally, any prosecution by the ICC arguably contributes to the strength of international society. The growth of international institutions like the United Nations or the ICC limits the sovereignty of nations by providing a legal framework for how government leaders can treat their citizens. Critics of international institutions (like former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton, see my previous post for details) argue that the sovereignty of nations is critical to their ability to function independently and with their own interests and ideas at heart. However, in a world where leaders like Gaddafi and Gbagbo have access to military technology of frightening efficiency, the limitation on how that independence can be exercised is essential. Referring the prosecution of war crimes to the ICC is a significant step towards prohibiting future atrocities of the type we are seeing in Libya and Ivory Coast today.

Why did the international community mobilize on Libya but not Ivory Coast?

April 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

*Fifteen minutes before this post went live, France, under the direction of the U.N., began a campaign “aimed at neutralizing heavy weapons that are used against the civilian population and United Nations personnel in Abidjan,” (From New York Times) in Ivory Coast. So, while the international community can no longer be said to have done nothing in Ivory Coast, action there is still very limited relative to intervention in Libya.

In his most recent post, Arvind asked whether or not international intervention in the conflict in Libya was justified. Since then it has become clear that Libya is not the only country undergoing what could be labeled a civil war: recent events in Ivory Coast suggest that the situation there has degenerated to the point of nationwide conflict as well. Additionally, just as in Libya, reports from Ivory Coast suggest that both sides of the conflict may have participated in mass civilian killings. This raises the question, why did America and the international community mobilize against Qaddafi in Libya, but not Ivory Coast?

Corinne Dufka, in an argument in favor of intervention in Ivory Coast, noted the following about Gbagbo, the incumbent in Ivory Coast whose refusal to leave office sparked protests there:

“In the view of both the African Union and the United Nations, Gbagbo has overseen what probably amounts to crimes against humanity. His security forces and allied militias engage in brutal killings, forced disappearances, politically motivated rape, indiscriminant shelling, and torture in an often-organized campaign of terror against real or perceived supporters of Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of last year’s election.”

Since Obama’s speech on March 28, in which he explained the reasoning for intervention in Libya, many have noted the development of what is being called the “Obama Doctrine.” This, in sum, is an argument delineating the correct circumstances for intervening militarily in conflicts in other countries. Here is how Obama phrased it:

“To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and -– more profoundly -– our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”

As noted in this Foreign Policy article, Obama is essentially describing the “Responsibility to Protect,” a political-philosophical doctrine that argues in favor of protecting civilians in other nations if their government is unable or unwilling to do so, or if the government itself is the source of the harm to civilians. On paper, the situation in Ivory Coast could arguably be placed under the purview of the responsibility to protect, since many reports indicate that Gbagbo, the incumbent who lost the election in late 2010, has ordered the killing of civilian protesters. Assuming this is true, why haven’t Obama or the international community supported intervention in Ivory Coast?

There are two popular strategic rationales for international intervention in Libya, as opposed to other current Middle-Eastern conflicts, one of which I reject and the other I believe may be a significant factor. The first of these is the oil interest in Libya. Some argue that, since Libya has a small but not insignificant percentage of world oil production, the West intervened for the sake of the size and stability of their oil supply, and not for humanitarian reasons. However, as Arvind pointed out to me yesterday, this argument does not make sense. If the west were interested in the stability and size of the oil supply, it would have been more beneficial to ignore Gaddafi’s crimes, allow him to run over the rebels, and get oil production back up and running. Or, if siding with Gaddafi simply was not an option, the West would have sent in ground troops to protect the oil supply and end the conflict quickly. Of course, this may yet happen, but as for now it remains off the table.

The other strategic rationale has to do with Libya’s relative importance to American and international policy in the Middle East, and for the current revolutions there more specifically. Intervening in Libya has two benefits for America and the international community in this regard: we do our part in helping to continue the current populist political movement in the Middle East and in removing an unsavory dictator, while also painting the West and international institutions in a favorable light. Ivory Coast does not fit into this strategic reasoning because it is considered wholly a part of Africa, and not the Middle East, and because democracy has already functioned well there for years, whereas Libya has been ruled by a dictator (Qaddafi) for approximately 40 years.

Beyond strategic reasoning, I believe there are more basic rationales that could explain why intervention in Ivory Coast has not become politically salient while intervention in Libya has: preponderance in force and political framing. While the opposition movement in Libya started as grassroots political protests, the opposition in Ivory Coast had a leader-Alassane Ouattara, the winner of the recent election-and an already organized rebel movement. The opposition movement in Libya would have been severely hampered by Qaddafi’s superior military might and so it needed international assistance, but in Ivory Coast the two sides are more evenly matched.

Qaddafi’s preponderance in force had another effect on the international community’s decision to support intervention. Because Qaddafi had the capability to mass murder civilians and the opposition movement lacked the ability to prevent him from doing so, it was easier to frame conflict there as the beginnings of government sponsored mass-killings. Because Libya was framed in the light of potential moral hazard, governments of the world were compelled to act, or else risk the potential for the situation in Libya to deteriorate into a resemblance of the genocide in Rwanda. Ivory Coast, on the other hand, “looks” more like a civil war, with two sides of approximately equal strength fighting over the politics and society of their nation.

This is not to say that the underlying differences of the conflicts in Ivory Coast and Libya should be reasons to intervene in one and not the other, or even to intervene at all. However, it is useful to understand why some conflicts become the object of interest of the international community (Kosovo, Somalia) while others are either completely ignored or simply left alone (Sri Lanka, Sudan, Rwanda). As this case shows, there are clear distinctions between Libya and Ivory Coast that have compelled international action in one situation and not the other, and understanding these distinctions helps us to understand the actions of our own government along with the norms and morals of the international community.

The “conservative dilemma” in Cameroon

March 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

As a follow up to this morning’s post concerning the “conservative dilemma” with social media, events in Cameroon last week offer up a perfect example of Clay Shirky’s theory.

Last Wednesday, in an effort to preempt developing protests in the country, the Cameroonian government announced the suspension of “Twitter SMS on MTN Cameroon.” From the perspective of Cameroonian President Paul Biya, suspending Twitter activity would be an important step towards ensuring the continuation of what has been a lengthy presidential term (Biya has ruled the country since 1982, not without controversy). Indeed, this approach mirrors actions taken by many authoritarian governments in the past in response to growing unrest: if your constituents learn of unsettling events orchestrated by their own government, then a simple seizure of the media and release of stories which positively depict your regime will be the perfect remedy. State run news outlets, internet censorship and the fabrication of news are all examples of authoritarian governments past relations with the media, and they fit the mold of disciplined and coordinated groups (the authoritarian government) having an advantage in control over information, as Shirky’s theory would have predicted.

But President Biya’s attempt to control new social media outlets, Twitter in this instance, will not work, and here’s why.

Cameroonian blogger Dibussi Tande writes:

“Every Cameroonian with a cell phone (that is about 6 million individuals) knows what a text message is, and/or has texted at least once before. Increasingly smartphones are making their way into Cameroon, and practically every phone in the market has a camera. The combination of standard SMS and smartphones is  where the potential “threat” to national security (i.e., the Biya regime) really lies, and not on a service that was used by only a handful of people; the police brutalization of Kah Walla, for example, was captured on a cell phone, uploaded onto the internet and also distributed via email before it ultimately found its way on Twitter. Even without Twitter, the video would have still gone viral.”

Herein lies the “conservative dilemma”: While in the past Cameroon would need only make a phone call to CRTV, the state-run media, to offer up a more convenient retelling of current events, new social media is too diverse, too diffuse and too complex to simply cancel or cover up. Because of this technology, any one of the six million Cameroonians with access to a cell phone can author new social media, and thus provide a counterbalance to the government’s agenda.

Foreshadowing upheaval in the Middle East; the “Conservative Dilemma” with social media

March 14, 2011 § 2 Comments

“The moment we’re living through, the moment our generation is living through, is the largest increase in expressive capability in human history.” -Clay Shirky, talk on How Social Media Can Make History (video below)

Before the last couple of months, the relationship between authoritarian governance and social expression via new media technology would typically be linked to control by the central state. China, for example, has consistently controlled much of what it’s citizens see and hear through the internet. However, following the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, which sparked similar movements in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Oman, Mauritania, among other Middle Eastern countries (look here for a good synthesis of events), we are beginning to see a very different story unfold in the life of social media.

Clay Shirky wrote the following in the January/February 2011 edition of Foreign Affairs:

“Disciplined and coordinated groups, whether businesses or governments, have always had an advantage over undisciplined ones: they have an easier time engaging in collective action because they have an orderly way of directing the action of their members. Social media can compensate for the disadvantages of undisciplined groups by reducing the costs of coordination.”

This reduction of coordination costs and increase in communal awareness is what Shirky, borrowing from media theorist Briggs, calls the “conservative dilemma.” The “dilemma” essentially means that autocrats, democratic governments, and business and religious leaders who once monopolized public speech through pure strength in resources are now held accountable by an increasingly coherent and powerful public ire, as previously unorganized individuals and groups can now readily communicate their grievances or ideas via new technology.

Shirky, in his Foreign Affairs article titled “The Political Power of Social Media,” looks to the impeachment of Philippine President Joseph Estrada as a demonstration of social media’s ability to quickly organize mass protests  (Estrada, on the verge of being acquitted due to the restriction of key evidence in his impeachment trial, was eventually found guilty after mass protests demonstrated in favor of allowing the evidence).  But now events in the Middle East have illustrated the extent to which Shirky’s article speaks true. Civil interactions are now global and instantaneous. The result is that the actions of governments and corporations provoke simultaneous counteractions among individuals that can be instantaneously witnessed and debated by anyone with web access or a cell phone.

“Civil society” is a term used by political scientists to describe interactions among individuals and organizations outside of the government or public sphere, and it is thought to be an important factor in democracy and political dialogue. The rise of new media technologies has caused a profound increase in interactions that fit this label. Indeed, the success of social media has led Shirky to recommend that the United States reorganize its priorities in the State Department’s Internet freedom campaign. Instead of focusing specifically on access to Google or Youtube, Shirky advocates the direct endorsement of civil society by supporting freedom of speech and assembly within repressive governments. He argues that this “environmental” view, rather than “instrumental” view, will be more likely to lead towards the gradual reform of authoritarian governance.

However, I wonder whether this more abstract manner of supporting civil society in authoritarian nations will be sufficient. Shirky seems to advocate a policy which focuses solely on the environmental view, but more instrumental policies, such as establishing proxies to twitter or Facebook when they’re blocked by the government, are also necessary in the short term. It is useful to remember, as Shirky does in his piece, that an important factor in the fall of the Soviet Union was the transmission of American radio broadcasts throughout Eastern Europe. The Internet freedom campaign should continue its short term goals of pursuing unrestricted access to the internet with an eye towards the long term success of global civil society and democracy.

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