The War Nerd comes from the same stable as Taibbi – the now defunct and on-line only Exile(d), which once was probably the most scurrile and frustrating weekly paper ever published anywhere. The War Nerd was one of those columns you simply had to read – even if you didn’t want to, if only because its creator takes a deliciously dark-humour approach to all things military and revolutionary.
By Gary Brecher
It took me a while to figure out why everybody was nagging me to do a column on the Iranian elections. Everybody seemed to think it was all mysterious and world-shaking. Finally I realized, you’re all het up because every news service in the US and England has been selling these riots like a new Star Wars episode, and people are just trying to figure out what’s going on and what it all means.
Well, I can answer that in one note: nothing much is going on, just letting off steam; and what little is happening isn’t mysterious at all. Basically, this is simple steam release, something the Mullahs have to allow now and then when the kids, and there are a lot of young adults in Iran, need to remind everybody they’re tired of being bossed around. There’s a huge, huge difference between that kind of “revolution” and the kind that has a real foundation in tribal differences or religion or city/country, the real fault lines. What’s going on in Iran now is a lot like the big fizzle in Lebanon after Hariri’s assassination in 2005. So if y’all will permit me to digress, let me take you back to the Cedar Revolution that supposedly “gripped” Lebanon. All that really happened was that some of the few Christian/Sunni elite Lebanese kids who hadn’t emigrated yet got so pissed off at the Syrians for just blowing Hariri away in broad daylight that they came out and waved the Lebanese flag–the one with the Cedar tree on it. Well, you’d have thought the Berlin Wall had fallen all over again. The same Anglo news networks that are declaring an outbreak of democracy in Iran now were screaming into microphones all over Lebanon, just so touched by these rich Christian/”Phoenician” Lebanese kids announcing that no durn Hezbollah Iranian-puppet thugs were gonna repress their craving for freedom…and discos, and wearing about a quart of perfume, and all the other accessories that go with what they call a Western orientation in the Middle East.
These are the kind of people Anglo news crews glom onto like horny refrigerator magnets: young, well-dressed, a lot of them speak English, and they talk about nice familiar stuff like “freedom” and “democracy.” They make great TV. But they can’t win a war. You win wars with poor people, numbers and toughness and discipline. Hezbollah proved it had the numbers by producing counter-demos with a million people cheering the Syrians and asking Allah to zap the West and Democracy and that Cedar Tree. If democracy means “we got more people with us than you do,” that should’ve proved Hezbollah beat the Cedar All-Stars, but that story never came out much. Hezbollah’s demonstrators weren’t the kind of people the BBC or CNN really felt comfortable around. It’s hard for a Western news crew to relax with a huge crowd of agitated lower-class Shia. Their way of making a point is by getting bloody, showing off wounds and cuts and shaving nicks, whatever they’ve got. Nobody at CNN wants that to be the future; nobody wants to go to commercial with a bunch of shrieking Shia mothers like hysterical Hefty Bags proudly saying they hope their 14 or so sons become martyrs, and the sooner the better. No, what you want for an upbeat TV story is a bunch of taller, skinnier, paler, English-speaking rich kids.
Which brings us to Iran. Iranians aren’t Arab, but they are Shia, and excitable. Keep that in mind. Different countries explode at different temperatures. There are places where yelling is a declaration of war. If a Norwegian raises his voice, Hell is about to break loose. If a Canadian yells at you, get a restraining order. But Iranians will scream at each other over how to cook an egg, and be all chummy and laughing the next minute. They used to keep that hysterical side in control with opium–the whole country was on the pipe until the sixties–but it’s harder to get now, so they just keep yelling.
So when Iran has a national election, it’s going to be loud. People are going to yell in the streets, people are going to shoot guns off, sometimes in the general direction of the opposition, and anybody who gets hit is going to tweet his bloodstains, youtube his bulletholes, and send it all over the world.
And if the people doing the demonstrating are mostly that same Cedar-Rev demographic: rich young city kids–then duh, they’re also the ones who are going to be web-savvy tweet freaks. In fact, Iran has probably the biggest dissident blog network in the world. I don’t read Farsi–I wish I did–but I read this pretty decent book, I Am Iran, about the anti-mullah blog scene there. Check it out if you want a better idea of who the opposition is, the people flooding the streets in Tehran. They’re sick of it, which is easy to understand; living in the Islamic Republic of Iran must be a lot like going to a Catholic school where you never, ever graduate, where kissing is a felony and not wearing the uniform is a crime against God. Hell yes, they’re sick of it, and they have every right to be.
But, to get coldblooded about it, so what? They’re not going to overthrow the state. I don’t usually like that word, “the state,” but I’m using it here because it works better than “Ahmedinajad.” He’s the official bad guy here, the classic bigmouth runt who wants Israel turned into a gravel pit and America turned into a colony of Venezuela. Hell, he’s all kinds of obnoxious, down to the ratty beard and beady eyes and the way he dresses like a hungover Soviet janitor.
But he’s not the Islamic Republic of Iran.
He’s only the president. The way the Iranian government is put together, the Prez is more like a noisemaker, official annoyer-of-the-Anglos, than a decider. Way, way above him is the “Supreme Leader,” sort of an Ayatollah version of the Pope, Khomeini’s official successors. Right now the Supreme Leader is Ali Khamenei. He doesn’t talk to the press, or make official trips to hug Chavez. He just sits there in his big black turban and says “No” every time somebody asks for a little relaxation of all this pious crap. He’s seen’em come and go, these reformer types; he crushed Rafsanjani, Khatami, anybody who even suggested that the way Khomeini laid it down in 1979 might not be good enough for all eternity.
See, that’s the pattern I’m talking about: the people who matter in Iran won’t talk to foreign news crews, and the people who will, the ones in the streets right now…well, they may be brave, noble people, but they don’t have a chance in Hell.
That’s because the IRI government is a bunch of rival militias, intelligence agencies, and religious committees. There’s even a legislature, although nobody takes that seriously. If you remember the way the Iranian side was organized in the Iran/Iraq war, you might have a better idea how the people at the top like things to run: always with rival forces competing for power. That’s because Khomeini was thinking coups in 1979. So alongside the regular Army he set up the Revolutionary Guards, hardcore jihadis loyal to the Supreme Leader, not the Army Brass. To make sure the Revolutionary Guards weren’t vulnerable to a sudden decapitation by the army or anyone else, their cadres were placed with every agency, like Islamist commissars, and they set up militias in every city in Iran.
You get the same thing in any new militarized state, even tiny Hellholes like Duvalier’s Haiti, with the Ton=ton Macoutes balancing the army, bypassing the official channels so they could kill at Duvalier’s command.
Then there’s the Basij, a million or so amateur thugs who do what the Revolutionary guards tell them to do. When you see cop types firing into demonstrating crowds in footage from Tehran, it’s usually the Basij. The hottest hate of all right now is between the city kids, sick to death of being whacked around by Shia nuns, and the Basij, a bunch of redneck bigots with guns and clubs. That’s not to take away the amazing suicide courage they showed when they fought the Iraqis. I mean, the Pasdaran elite used the poor Basij suckers as human landmine detonators: “Here, go walk across that field for us please. You can’t lose; either Allah welcomes you to Paradise or you live and get to do it again!”.
Lots of people are brave, after all. Most young male humans are brave, when they’ve got a gang leading them on and backing them up. The Basij are brave and so are the kids marching in the Tehran streets. Like a lot of people in the same tribe who hate each other, they’ve probably got more in common than they wanna think about right now, starting with that whole martyrdom thing the Shias get off on. The Basij died like flies in the minefields, and the demonstrators are on twitter right now showing off their bloody wounds. Iranian to the core, both of them.
But they don’t feel a lot of common ground right now. There’s what you might call a culture clash between these pious thug dudes and the city people, the marchers and tweeters and bloggers. If you want an idea how snotty this kind of Iranian feels about the other kind, read that woman’s comic book (whoops, you’re supposed to call them “graphic novels”) Persepolis. There’s her and her high-school friends slipping Iron Maiden LPs under their chadors.
Kind of a sixties thing, kind of a hippie thing, if Kent State was happening ten times a day. But then Iranians are tough, brave people; you couldn’t scare them with just one Kent State. The problem is, not that many people were actually willing to die for the hippies. They all grew up and went into real estate.
That kind of divide doesn’t cut deep enough to make a war. Even those Lebanese Cedar Revolution camera hogs had a real ethnic/religious grudge, but from what I’ve been reading about Iranian election demographics, the divide between rioters and loyalists is pretty damn blurry. Here’s a link to the best of the articles I’ve found on the way the elections break down in class, ethnic, regional, and age terms. I warn you though, it’s written by a professor, and they train those bastards to write as bad as possible. It’s worth checking out, though, if you can slap yourself awake.
He takes 45 pages to say that Ahmedinajad won in 2005 because he was the ‘populist’ candidate, meaning he promised to bring the oil money home to ordinary people, instead of opening it up for a scary free-market scenario. It wasn’t an ethnic divide; it can’t be, in Iran, because the ethnic Persians are way bigger and stronger than the other groups (Kurds, Azeri, Arab) put together. Kurds barely even vote–their rate is 20% lower than Persians’, just like “minorities” here. The people who back Ahmedinajad are mostly Persian, and so are the protestors who want him gone. You can’t even call it a city/country divide, which I’ve been tempted to do, because according to this Iranian professor Ahmedinajad got a big vote in the cities as well as the villages. The only dividing lines he can find are pretty shallow ones, like hippie/straight back in the day: Ahmedinajad’s supporters have larger family sizes, and a cluster of other things that go along with conservative attitudes no matter where you are. And that’s about it; he says you can’t even claim that education levels matter much, because–and I love this bit:
The most visible impact of higher education is a sizable increase in the share of invalid ballots, implying that the educated are more likely to display their disenchantment with the system through invalid ballots than through non-participation.
That’s the key here, if you ask me. This isn’t a revolution, it’s a lot bummed-out, frustrated people wriing “Fuck You Goddamn Mullahs!” on their ballots in their best overeducated handwriting. They’ve got good reason to be pissed off–imagine being stuck in a giant Catholic school where girls have to wear black ghost sheets every day when you’re hitting 30–but it’s not the kind of fault-line that makes revolutions. What we’re seeing only looks big or historical for two reasons: one, it’s fuckin’ Persians, damn it, and they live large. They fight like this over whether rose-water ice cream is what Allah eats in Paradise or tastes like grandma’s cologne spilled on freezer scrapings (my vote, cuz I’ve tried the filthy stuff). Persians are like that amp in Spinal Tap: they go to eleven. And on the Persian scale, this is a two or a three, fun for a while but no biggie.
The other reason this seems big is that a lot of people on our side of the world have been waiting a long, long time to see Ahmedinajad take a big fall. They’re hyperventilating just thinking about what a great movie this is, with the people rising up to send the loud-talking shrimp back to midget wrestling. They’re so desperate they’re putting cellphone videos on the nightly news, desperate for some sign that Iran’s having its democracy rapture.
It ain’t gonna happen. Hell, for all I know Ahmedinajad actually did win the election. I admit it’s kinda weird how they counted almost 40 million paper ballots in a few hours, but who knows? Maybe they hire a better class of precinct worker there, math teachers or something.
Even if he fell, the IRI, the real system, would barely wobble. The President is a mouthpiece; the real power is purposely divided up by a half dozen creepy Islamic gangs that never talk to the BBC or CNN. All of them are seriously armed; they’re mixed up in everything from religious seminars to land deals; they’re sleazy but smart, a bunch of mean old survivors.
So the yelling will die down, the daredevils will get laid, if you can get laid in an Islamic Republic, by showing off their riot scars, and da regime, if you want to call it that, will let the pressure ease, release a little steam. If things get serious, and I doubt they will, somebody will take the big fall for Allah and the team. It might be Ahmedinajad, even. But there are about a million guys like him waiting for their chance to step up. The IRI will last a long time, whether the BBC or CNN face that fact or not.
It’s good discipline for a war nerd, facing depressing fact like that, reminding yourself that these people, whoever you’re looking at, don’t want what you want, don’t think like you do. Me, I thought the Shah was pretty cool, with those F-14s and trying to revive the great days of the real Persians, before Islam dulled them down. (And by the way, the Pagan Persia/Islamic Iran thing is still a sore point: on the government soap operas, the bad guys always have old-Persian names like Darius and the heroes are always something totally Arab/Quranic like Mohammed. Then there’s the Nowruz traditions, jumping over a crypto-Zoroastrian fire, also very cool and very frowned-on by the Islamic hicks.)
The point is, the Iranians disagreed with me: they kicked the Shah’s ass out, set him adrift with his cancer and picked Khomeini, who to us looks like Dracula’s mean uncle. To them, that freakin’ nosferatu was comfort food for the soul. I can’t see it; if there was a poster of that old demon on my bedroom wall I’d sleep with a garlic necklace and a shotgun. But they got their own world. Some of them may be pissed off with the mullahs, but what if some of them like it? I don’t know, CNN doesn’t know–and for every dissident blogger or tweeter they interview, there might be ten silent-majority types wanting those damn hippies in the streets of Tehran gassed.
Imagine the other way around; imagine Iranian Islamic tv covering, say, a classic culture-war US election like Nixon in 1972. You’d see Persians in expensive turbans blanket-covering every demonstration, every love-in (well, maybe not those so much), every draft-card burning…and then the US government announces that Nixon just stomped McGovern in the biggest landslide ever. Who’d believe it? That is, unless you knew that for every loud camera-hog hippie you saw on tv there were about a hundred fat nobodies wishing Kent State was a daily event.
Until those Ahmedinajad silent-majority hicks start tweeting, we’ll never have a clue what they think. And like Nixon’s people, or Forrest’s dragoons, they’re not really the Twitter type.