Sunday, July 5, 2009

the weird turn pro

A couple of months ago I finally let my Wall Street Journal subscription lapse. I had subscribed for 34 years, since I was a sophomore in college. But it had become increasingly redundant. The New York Times has significantly upgraded its business section over the years (David Leonhardt is a favorite), while Murdoch has been trying to morph the Journal into more of a direct competitor to the Times. For business and financial news, I find myself these days reading Bloomberg and the FT online along with a dozen or so financial blogs. But ultimately it boiled down to the fact that I couldn’t stand providing financial support to Murdoch’s right-wing media empire. It was like cutting a check to FOX News.

So I was feeling much better last week when I read this brief post on Paul Krugman’s blog (“
Secrets of the WSJ”):
This morning’s Wall Street Journal opinion section contains a lot of what one expects to see. There’s an opinion piece making a big fuss over the fake scandal at the EPA. There’s an editorial claiming that the latest job figures prove the failure of Obama’s economic plan — something I dealt with in the Times. All of this follows on yesterday’s editorial asserting that the Minnesota senatorial election was stolen.

All of this is par for the course; the WSJ editorial page has been like this for 35 years.

Nonetheless, it got me wondering: what do these people really believe? I mean, they’re not stupid — life would be a lot easier if they were. So they know they’re not telling the truth. But they obviously believe that their dishonesty serves a higher truth — one that is, in effect, told only to Inner Party members, while the Outer Party makes do with prolefeed.

The question is, what is that higher truth? What do these people really believe in?

He makes an interesting point. Certainly the editorial board of the WSJ doesn’t believe all the stuff they write. For one thing, so much of it is contradictory (e.g., deficits don’t matter during Reagan and Bush administrations but threaten the Republic during Clinton and Obama administrations). In the past they at least made an effort to sound credible and maintain a certain consistency if not necessarily from year to year at least from month to month. But increasingly they seem to think their readers don’t have a memory that goes out beyond a week or so (or, perhaps, are so blinded by ideology and partisanship they don’t care).

Take just one of the editorials Krugman cites – the one on the Minnesota Senate race. They assert, “Mr. Franken now goes to the Senate having effectively stolen an election.” Here are the facts: The recount that gave Franken his victory was undertaken by the five-member Minnesota State Canvassing Board, which included the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court (appointed by the Republican governor Pawlenty), another state Supreme Court Justice (also appointed by Pawlenty), one member appointed by former Independent governor Jesse Ventura, and one non-partisan member elected by the voters. The only Democrat on the panel was the Secretary of State. The board was unanimous in all its determinations. Similarly, the three-judge panel chosen to hear Coleman’s court challenge consisted of a Republican appointee, a Democratic appointee and an Independent appointee, and it too was unanimous in all its determinations. Finally, the state Supreme Court (including three other Pawlenty appointees) unanimously rejected Coleman’s appeal, 5-0. Bi-partisanship (or non-partisanship) and unanimity prevailed at every step. But the Journal simply asserts that the election was stolen.

(The Journal cites the 2004 governor’s race in Washington State as another election stolen by a Democrat. But when Washington State Republicans challenged that election before a Republican judge in one of the most conservative counties in the state, the judge found not merely that the Republicans failed to present convincing evidence of fraud – he found that they provided
NO evidence of fraud. None whatsoever. He even gave additional votes to the Democrat. And this is from the only judge in state history to have previously overturned an election. So thorough was the judge’s rejection that state Republicans didn’t even bother to appeal the case to the Washington State Supreme Court.)

But apparently the Journal believes this stuff serves a purpose. Like FAUX News, they are providing an alternative reality for their partisan audience. Accuracy is irrelevant. (As Brad DeLong
notes, they don’t strive to make the best case for their point of view, just the most persuasive case.)

Most of us came to the conclusion during the Bush years (if we hadn’t previously) that it was actually important that the people running our government be hitched to reality and base their policies on actual facts. I know this may sound unduly partisan, but it seems increasingly that Republicans believe that anything can be true if you just want it badly enough to be so.

Am I being unfair? Earlier today, in writing about Iran, I quoted John Bolton urging, essentially, that we go to war with that country. But I wasn’t just taking a cheap shot at some crazy blogger. This guy was US ambassador to the UN under the administration that just left office less than five months ago. And he was writing in the
Washington Post, not in his pajamas in his parents’ basement (actually, to be truthful, I don’t know what he was wearing or where he was when he penned that piece).

As Matthew Yglesias
It’s actually true that neocon bashing is a bit on the tiresome side. That said, I think it really has to be understood as a vital social necessity. Adherents of a deranged and sociopoathic “neocon” conception of America’s role in the world continue to be tremendously influential in our society. They have columns at The Washington Post and dominate the foreign policy coverage on Fox News. They have The Weekly Standard and Commentary and a healthy slice of The New Republic. [Ed. Note: And the WSJ editorial page.] And most important, as best as anyone can tell their ideas remain utterly dominant in the Republican Party. Their intra-party critics like Colin Powell, rather than winning intra-party arguments seem to be simply drifting out of the GOP coalition.

This is a dangerous situation. In the United States, the opposition party is always one ill-timed recession or political scandal from taking power. So a set of ideas that dominates one such party is something you need to keep a watchful eye on, no matter how marginalized that party may seem at any particular moment.

OK, so I have to mention Sarah Palin. Who knows, a couple of Pastor Wright eruptions and a six month delay in the financial meltdown and she could have been one angry, cancerous heartbeat away from the presidency. Even with all the craziness of the past few days, the mainstream media is framing it all in the context of how it might affect her chances of securing the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. In a country of over 300 million people, is there any rational reason anyone would be talking about Sarah Palin as a potential candidate for the position of the leader of (still) the most powerful country in the world four years from now? Apart from the fact that, despite everything we have learned about her over the past 10 months, she is still hugely popular among members of a cult called the “Republican Party.” Not just popular, she is their single biggest draw among the faithful.

You’d think, during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, when monetary policy had already reached the “zero bound” that constitutes its practical exhaustion as a policy tool, that the notion of some fiscal stimulus from the federal government would be “not uncontroversial” (
as Bush’s top economist, Greg Mankiw, put it in 2003). Yet every single Republican member of the House of Representatives voted against the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package (which, as it turns out, was only half to a third as big as it should have been). Not a single Republicans voted for a true no-brainer (heck, if nothing else, it was the biggest two-year tax cut in US history – and Republicans couldn’t embrace that?).

And as if that wasn’t enough, three Republican governors tried to reject the federal stimulus money – during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The common thread among the three leaders of this stimulus-rejection effort was that they are (or were) all considered prospective Republican presidential candidates – Rick Perry of Texas, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, and Sarah Palin. But their “crazy base” is so crazy, they apparently felt compelled to reject economic aid for their respective states – in favor of laying off teachers and health care workers when the economy is still in free fall.

I will leave Sanford alone, except to urge you to watch
this Jon Stewart takedown and to note that the federal money he tried to reject (the legislature overruled him) would have gone to help the unemployed in the state with the second worst unemployment rate in the country.

And, then, there is Palin.

You really must read the
entire transcript of her resignation speech (or whatever you want to call it) to appreciate the full magnitude of her craziness. This was obviously not something that was long in the works – more like she woke up that morning and thought, “Heck. Think I’ll resign as governor today.”

Gail Collins had a
great piece on the subject (she has become a true treasure – smarter and funnier than Maureen Dowd and nowhere hear as obnoxiously snarky). Here is a bit:
“And a problem in our country today is apathy,” she said on Friday as she announced that she would resign as governor of Alaska at the end of the month. “It would be apathetic to just hunker down and ‘go with the flow.’ Nah, only dead fish ‘go with the flow.’ No. Productive, fulfilled people determine where to put their efforts, choosing to wisely utilize precious time ... to BUILD UP.”

Basically, the point was that Palin is quitting as governor because she’s not a quitter. Or a deceased salmon.

Bruce Reed had a pretty good piece in Slate:

"It may be tempting and more comfortable to just keep your head down [and] plod along," Sarah Palin said Friday, in an attempt to suggest that serving her full term as governor would add to the nation's apathy. "That's the worthless, easy path; that's a quitter's way out." Sarah Palin is no quitter. That's why she's quitting.

Reed makes a good substantive point:

Time after time, quitting has turned out to be the "worthless, easy path" that Sarah Palin insists it isn't. What makes her sudden resignation especially troubling, though, is not the flawed strategy so much as her jubilation and relief in putting the statehouse in her rear mirror. Palin's resignation is a symptom of what's crippling the Republican Party of late: Governing has become an unwelcome distraction.

Exactly. When your whole ideology is anti-government, actually governing is inconvenient, to say the least. If nothing else, it requires attention to things like “facts.” A stubborn refusal to accept “reality” can result in … well, the Bush administration. Why accept those constraints?

But my favorite observations on the Palin meltdown were from Paul Begala in Huffington Post (it’s short – worth reading the whole thing):
I wish Hunter S. Thompson had lived to see this.

As Hunter said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." Sarah Palin … has made herself the bull goose loony of the GOP.

… Her statement was incoherent, bizarre and juvenile. The text, as posted on Gov. Palin's official website (here), uses 2,549 words and 18 exclamation points. Lincoln freed the slaves with 719 words and nary an exclamation; Mr. Jefferson declared our independence in 1,322 words and, again, no exclamation points. Nixon resigned the presidency in 1,796 words -- still no exclamation points. Gov. Palin capitalized words at random - whole words, like "TO," "HELP," and "AND," and the first letter of "Troops."

Gov. Palin's official announcement that she is resigning as chief executive of the great state of Alaska had all the depth and gravitas of a 13-year-old's review of the Jonas Brothers' album on Facebook. She even quoted her parents' refrigerator magnet. (Note to self: if one of my kids becomes governor, throw away the refrigerator magnet that says: "Murray's Oyster Bar: We Shuck Em, You Suck Em!") She put her son's name in quotations marks. Why? Who knows. She writes, "I promised efficiencies and effectiveness!?" Was she exclaiming or questioning? I get it: both! And I don't even know what to make of a sentence that reads:

*((Gotta put First Things First))*

Ponder the fact that Rupert Murdoch's Harper Collins publishing house is paying this, umm, writer $11 million for a book. Ponder that and say a prayer for Ms. Palin's editor.

I'm no latter-day Strunk & White, just a guy who was struck by Palin's spectacularly rambling and infantile prose. It bespeaks a rambling and infantile mind. But perhaps not. …But does anyone believe that's why she's resigning? No, there's more to this story. And Ms. Palin's resignation only increases the chances that we will all know the rest of the story soon. Or, as she might put it:

We will all KNOW the "rest of the Story" *((SOON!))*

Alas, the weird have, indeed, turned pro. And they have their own political party and media apparatus. And, as you might expect, after a few hours of sharing a “WTF” moment with the rest of us, the usual crew of FOX News types set about to explain why Palin’s resignation in the middle of her first term as governor of a state of less than 700,000 people is a brilliant tactic in her quest to lead the free world. You can always count on Bill Kristol to
answer the call, no matter how challenging:
Bill Kristol, a conservative columnist who's been one of Palin's biggest cheerleaders, says the governor is making a "high-risk move" in an attempt to position herself for 2012.

"This does give her a chance to travel the country and campaign for Republican candidates," said Kristol, who played a key role last summer in convincing John McCain to tap the junior governor as his running mate.

"I think she could have a very strong year and a half here ... she's really just getting out there and it's going to depend on her talents and her abilities. She now feels she can get out and be on her own."

Bill Kristol, you might recall, was given a prime editorial page column in the New York Times, which mercifully lasted only a year. Which raises the question, just how consistently wrong does someone have to be in order to lose all credibility and no longer be part of the mainstream pundit dialogue? After the New York Times dumped him (a truly horrible one-year experiment in giving a right-wing lunatic an even larger audience than he gets with merely FOX News, the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard), the Washington Post picked him up. Is there really anyone in the country who wakes up in the morning and thinks, “I wonder what Bill Kristol would have to say about that?” Forget ideology or partisan leanings. It should simply be a requirement for any pundit in any major media outlet that he or she has been generally more right than wrong over his or her career (or, heck, in just the recent past). And to the extent he or she has been wrong, there should be some evidence that he or she has acknowledged that error and understands why he or she went wrong. In other words, there should be some reason for us to care what he or she thinks. Instead, we get this polarized, “shape of the world, views differ” attempt at some kind of ostensive ideological “balance” that continues to give a forum (or multiple forums) to guys like Kristol and John Bolton who are consistently, objectively wrong about EVERYTHING.

The weird have, indeed, turned pro.

Let’s just enjoy the fact that they are no longer running the country – at least for a while.

iran's green way

Continuing developments today in the evolving story out of Iran: The New York Times reports (“Leading Clerics Defy Ayatollah on Disputed Iran Election”) that one of the most important groups of religious leaders in Iran “called the disputed presidential election and the new government illegitimate on Saturday, an act of defiance against the country’s supreme leader and the most public sign of a major split in the country’s clerical establishment.” In another story today, the Washington Post reports that the opposition candidate, Mousavi, has released a 24-page document on his Web site detailing accusations of election fraud. And the editor-in-chief of the state newspaper, and an advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei, has accused Mousavi of treason and called for him to be tried. This story isn’t over.

I have been meaning to write a long piece on recent events in Iran. But I don’t need to now. Robert Dreyfuss has done it for me in The Nation: Iran’s Green Wave. This is the best piece I have read on Iran; it makes most of the points I had intended to make. Read the whole thing. Don’t rely on these excerpts:
[T]he opposition's leaders are not exactly revolutionaries. The coalition ranged against Khamenei and Ahmadinejad is a kind of counter-establishment representing a huge split within Iran's secular and clerical elites. It includes the reformists, led by Moussavi, who served as prime minister during the tumultuous and violently repressive 1980s, and Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric and former speaker of Parliament, both of whom ran against Ahmadinejad. It includes relatively moderate, pragmatic conservatives and the wealthy business elite, typified by the behind-the-scenes role of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the wily billionaire mullah and wheeler-dealer who was president in the 1990s. And it includes many hardline conservatives from the
so-called "principlist" faction, which previously lined up behind Ahmadinejad but this time rallied behind opposition candidate Mohsen Rezai, a founder of the IRGC, who has been bitterly critical of the president and who at least initially claimed election fraud.

But there's no denying that for the first time since the1978-79 revolution, which led to the Islamic Republic, Iran's leadership is confronted with an explosive and unpredictable challenge: from below, a mass movement whose street energy and high-tech organizing savvy spread from Tehran to Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashhad and other cities. And within the elite there is a swelling wave of dissatisfaction with the narrow-minded radicals in power, who are blamed for having squandered the country's oil wealth, mismanaged its economy and forced Iran into a crippling regime of sanctions that have walled it off from the technology and foreign investment it desperately needs.

As a result, Iran is at a crossroads.

In one direction is a slide toward greater xenophobia and ultra-nationalism, in part because the radical forces stirred up among Ahmadinejad's electoral base will be hard to put back in the box. The broad consensus behind Iran's system of rule-by-clergy has been shattered, and the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime has lost its legitimacy. To shore up support, it's blaming various greater and lesser satans in the United States, Europe and Israel for Iran's troubles, making it exceedingly difficult for the country to re-establish ties to the West. At best, Iran will remain embroiled in the stalemate it has faced since 2005, with the economy continuing to unravel. At
worst, it could fall into North Korea-like isolation, with fundamentalists and the security establishment preaching that subsistence-level economic privation must be endured for the sake of Islamic purity.

At the very least, the clergy-run, quasi-democratic Iranian state has been replaced by something that looks a lot more like a military dictatorship. Since his election in 2005, Ahmadinejad has installed scores of ex-commanders from the IRGC throughout government ministries and as governors and local officials in all thirty provinces. Ahmadinejad's cronies have created a powerful clique loyal to Khamenei but, at the same time, encircling the office of the Leader. The conventional wisdom--that the Leader is the all-powerful commander in chief, while the president is an elected figurehead with little real power--may be tilting, if it has not already been
turned on its head.

In the other direction, a victory by the opposition--as unlikely as it appears in the wake of the regime's crackdown--might let in a lot of fresh air. It could smooth the path for an accord with the West, pave the way toward greater cultural and civil liberties, and reverse the downward economic spiral. Under this scenario, Iran could still cling to much of its current form of government, though it would be less rigid. But what scares many conservatives, and no doubt much of the establishment, is that this time it might not be so easy to stuff the genie of reform back into its bottle. A large number of those supporting Moussavi--it's impossible to know how many--want far more than reform. They want an end to the very idea of an Islamic Republic. Their hero is Mohammad Mossadegh, the prime minister who nationalized Iran's oil in 1951, challenged the shah and was toppled in a coup by MI-6 and the CIA in 1953. Reform in Iran is a slippery slope, and once reforms get started the very fabric of the Islamic Republic could unravel.

It's that scenario that Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and their IRGC and Basij allies are determined to resist at all costs. And they're prepared to unleash Tiananmen Square levels of violence to make sure it doesn't happen. …

It was clear by nightfall on election day, June 12, that something was wrong. Across Tehran, troop transports rumbled out of the IRGC's fortified bases. Before the polls had even closed, Tehran took on the air of an occupied city. Later that night, ominously, my cellphone went dead, like everyone else's. Not long past midnight, the Interior Ministry declared Ahmadinejad the victor, crediting him with nearly two-thirds of a record turnout, having accomplished the near-magical feat of counting tens of millions of paper ballots in a couple of hours. Later that day, as outrage over what was widely seen as a manipulated result rippled across the city, Khamenei confirmed Ahmadinejad's win. Hundreds of thousands poured into the streets in protest.

"Moussavi and Karroubi had earlier established a joint committee to protect the people's votes," Ibrahim Yazdi, who was foreign minister in the early days after the revolution and who now leads the suppressed Freedom Movement of Iran, told me. "Many young people volunteered to work on that committee. But the authorities didn't let it happen. Last night [election night] the security forces closed it down." Describing what the regime did as a "coup d'etat," he said, "The security forces occupied the offices of many newspapers, to make sure their reports on the election were favorable. They changed many headlines." Over the next days newspapers were closed, Internet sites blocked or disabled and opposition campaign offices attacked and shuttered. Hundreds of officials, journalists and dissidents--perhaps as many as 2,000--were arrested, including Yazdi.

Some analysts argue that Ahmadinejad may have won, citing his populist appeal, but that's farfetched. An analysis prepared by Chatham House in London argues persuasively that the vote was skewed, comparing it with the totals for 2005. It showed that, in at least ten provinces, in order to have amassed the totals given him, Ahmadinejad would have had to win all the voters who backed him in 2005, all the voters who last time voted for Rafsanjani, all the voters who last time sat out the election and didn't vote at all, and--varying by province--up to 44 percent of the voters who in 2005 backed the reformist slate. Other analyses piled up similar anomalies. One employee of the Interior Ministry told reporters that the ministry "didn't even look at the vote" but made up the numbers. Said Yazdi, "The counting of the votes took place in the personal office of the minister of the interior, with only two aides present." …

As recently as May, Mir-Hossein Moussavi--an architect, artist and president of the Iranian Academy of the Arts, who speaks Farsi, English, Arabic and Turkish fluently--could not have imagined himself leading a throng of followers, some of them calling for the downfall of Khamenei. …

With impeccable establishment credentials honed during his stint as prime minister, Moussavi took sides in a left-versus-right split among the Iranian elite, including the clergy, that resulted in the creation of two broad factions at the end of the 1980s. The left-leaning Association of Combatant Clergy, also known as the Roohanioon, quit the more conservative Association of Militant Clergy, known as the Roohaniyat, which was loyal to the newly inaugurated Ayatollah Khamenei, who succeeded the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic. Among the Roohanioon leaders were Moussavi, Mohammad Khatami and a group of relatively progressive, open-minded thinkers who became known as Iran's "reformists." In 1997, at the end of Rafsanjani's presidency, the reformists' first choice to run for president was Moussavi. When he demurred, Khatami ran and--to the surprise of everyone--won overwhelmingly. Moussavi was a key adviser to President Khatami.

The hard right, egged on by Khamenei, counterattacked. It used death squads, vigilantes, secret intelligence units, the Guardian Council and the judiciary to cripple Khatami's presidency. In 2005, with the backing of the IRGC, the hardliners rallied behind the candidacy of Ahmadinejad, who after his election promptly launched a political, cultural and economic reversal. The IRGC itself became Iran's most powerful institution. Alongside its military might, it acquired a vast economic empire, from oil and construction to cellphone technology. Suddenly its personnel were everywhere. "The IRGC commanders, both active and retired, act as a kind of fraternity or freemasonry, wielding power that goes far beyond their official positions by virtue of the informal network they operate," an Iranian insider told me, looking to his left and right to make sure he wasn't being overheard in a busy Tehran lounge.
When Moussavi decided to run for president this past March, almost no one believed he could get traction. …

Several factors combined to make Moussavi a viable candidate. First, with organizational and financial support from the Rafsanjani family and wealthy mullahs and businessmen tired of Ahmadinejad's cronies running the economy, Moussavi built a formidable countrywide campaign machine. Second, the brilliant Green Wave strategy, designed by a 27-year-old whiz kid named Mostafa Hassani, caught fire, and soon green ribbons, armbands, headbands, scarves and flags festooned Iranian cities. "I wanted something simple, something that could be replicated even by poor people in remote villages," the long-haired, lanky Hassani told me, sitting in Moussavi's cluttered campaign headquarters during election week. And then, on June 3, Moussavi electrified Iran during an unprecedented televised debate with Ahmadinejad. With the president sitting across from him, Moussavi called Ahmadinejad a liar and accused him of pushing Iran toward "dictatorship." The next day, green-wearing crowds began chanting, "Death to the liar!" and "Death to the dictator!" Nothing like it had ever been seen in Iranian politics.

Moussavi had another not-so-secret weapon: his wife, Zahra Rahnavard. A noted intellectual and sculptor, Rahnavard campaigned alongside her husband, sometimes holding his hand. Clearly a liberated woman, she called for an end to the much-despised harassment of women by the cultural police and backed equal rights for women. At a vast rally in downtown Tehran, I watched her mesmerize the crowd. "We are going to make a revolution in the revolution!" she cried. "We are going to make it modern and up-to-date!" As one, tens of thousands of people chanted: "Moussavi! Rahnavard! Equal rights for men and women!" Women in pink lipstick and with blond highlights in partly uncovered hair shouted beside women in black chadors.

And then there was the Obama factor. Countless Iranians watched his June 4 Cairo speech, and its transcript was parsed word by word. By offering to respect Iran rather than locating it in the "axis of evil," Obama appealed to secular nationalists, activists seeking greater individual freedom and businessmen hungering for an end to the sanctions strangling Iran's economy. Nearly everyone I spoke with during the ten days I was in Iran brought up Obama, whether I asked or not. At a frenzied Moussavi rally in the city of Karaj, west of the capital, I met a campaign organizer, Hojatolislam Akbar Hamidi, 48, a distinguished cleric who's known Moussavi for more than twenty years. "I listened to Obama's speech, and it made me very happy," he told me. "But we're afraid that some Iranian authorities do not understand the positive message of Obama." In interviews at polling places on election day, dozens of voters praised Obama's opening to Iran. At a Tehran mosque where hundreds of people were lined up to vote, several dozen crowded around as I asked an older woman why she supported Moussavi. When I suggested, "Perhaps Moussavi and Obama might meet someday soon?" the crowd, translating for one another, erupted in cheers, laughter and thumbs-up signs.

More prosaically, many plugged-in Iranians told me that nearly the entirety of Iran's business class is fed up with Ahmadinejad's bellicose rhetoric, and they want to put an end to sanctions. Saeed Laylaz, an economist and former official at the Ministry of Industry, said that as a result of sanctions critical sectors of the economy--including computers and information technology, oil and natural gas, and civil aviation--are suffering badly. "Ahmadinejad's is the first right-wing government since the revolution, and it has been a catastrophe," he said. "You cannot run the government with populism. You need experts. You need technocrats. You need planners." (Laylaz was arrested days after the election; he's still in detention.) To get a sense of what the business community thinks, during election week I attended a forum packed with executives at the offices of Etelaat, a liberal newspaper, where eight former ministers of oil, industry and mining slammed the government over its incompetence. Later, at Moussavi's campaign office, one of them, Mohammad
Reza Nematzadeh, who was minister of industry under Khatami, told me that he'd
put his business on hold to travel across the country working for Moussavi. "I'm
a businessman, and I've been reluctant to get into politics," he told me over
several cups of tea. "It's the desire of most of us in the business community to
rebuild relations with the United States," he said. "It doesn't mean that we have to give up our independence or our dignity."

Besides reformists, students, women and businessmen, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are losing their core constituency: the clergy. And given that Iran is a state run by the priestly class, that might prove their undoing. I spoke to a dozen or so clerics, from low- to mid-ranking mullahs to a few who'd attained the rank of hojatolislam, just below ayatollah. There are hundreds of thousands of mullahs in Iran, perhaps a hundred or more who have attained the rank of ayatollah, and just two dozen or so who have developed sufficient reputation and following to be called grand ayatollah. And more and more of them, including many grand ayatollahs, have joined the opposition. "After the television debates with Ahmadinejad, a large number of mullahs who'd been undecided went over to Moussavi," one hojatolislam told me. They were offended, he said, by Ahmadinejad's insulting attitude toward
Moussavi--particularly his rhetorical assault on his wife, Rahnavard, whom he
accused of falsifying her academic credentials--and his accusations against
Rafsanjani and Khatami. "A president should be polite," the cleric told me. "Impolite behavior and ugliness cannot be accepted."

Another cleric, who campaigned for Moussavi in dozens of Iranian towns and cities, said that the majority of mullahs had abandoned the president. "There is a big gap between Ahmadinejad and the clergy," he told me. "Many of the grand ayatollahs are angry, because the president has taken many actions without consulting with them. They are especially unhappy because he has shown an aggressive face of Islam to the world, and Islam is not aggressive. It is a religion of peace." Some three-quarters of the grand ayatollahs in Iran support Moussavi, he told me. Ten of them sent a joint letter to Ahmadinejad, but he ignored them, he said. Several others have openly castigated the regime for its treatment of protesters.

A very well-connected mullah I talked with said that he is a friend and follower of Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri. Back in the late 1980s, Montazeri was the designated successor to Khomeini as Iran's Leader, but hardliners--including Khomeini's son and a circle around Khamenei--ousted him, he told me, because of his liberal views and installed Khamenei. Through this mullah and several other intermediaries, both Moussavi and former president Khatami keep in close contact with Montazeri, as well as with many in the clerical establishment in Qom. In the wake of the election Moussavi and his supporters began organizing what they hoped would be a broad consensus among senior ayatollahs to force Ahmadinejad out or, if it comes to that, to replace Khamenei himself. "Khamenei does not deserve the position that he has," the mullah told me. "He has become a politician, and as a politician he has been corrupted." Describing Khamenei in these terms is extremely unusual, and indicates how much the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei axis has lost its legitimacy. "Khamenei has lost the support of many high-ranking clergy in Qom," declared Ibrahim Yazdi in my interview with him.

Trying to pull together this opposition is Rafsanjani, who so far has stayed behind the scenes but according to numerous reports from Iran is playing a critical role in efforts to counter both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. The former president is chair of the Assembly of Experts, a group of more than eighty clerics who have the power, under Iran's Constitution, to appoint or dismiss the Leader. "Rafsanjani has convinced the majority of the Assembly of Experts and several dozen clerics in Qom to support an effort to overturn the election results," a well-connected Iranian told me. According to Yazdi and several other Iranian activists and analysts, at least some of the clergy want to replace Khamenei with a far more moderate, less political council of ayatollahs as a way of restoring consensus in the leadership [see Sarfaraz,
"Iran's New Revolutionaries," in last week's issue]. It would in effect be the end of the Khomeini doctrine of velayat-e-faqih ("rule of the jurisprudent"), which is the underpinning of the notion of a Supreme Leader, a concept invented by Khomeini that is far outside mainstream Muslim, and even Shiite, thinking. …

Obama's earlier outreach undercut the hardliners and gave a psychological boost to Iran's reformists and to millions of Iranians who saw Moussavi as a vehicle through which to improve US-Iranian relations. If Obama wants to support the opposition, the best thing he can do is to continue to extend his open hand to Iran.

Read it all here.

The protests that started in response to the stolen election now threaten the whole system of clerical rule. This appears to have been essentially a coup by the Revolutionary Guard, led by Ahmadinejad and with Khamenei acquiescing. And they appear to have won the first round. But the downfall of the Shah unfolded over about a year, so it is still too early to call this fight. I think Khameini’s credibility as Supreme Leader is shot. Clerical rule in Iran, if it survives, will never be the same.

I was surprised how many in the US (mainly conservatives) were quick to buy into the idea that Ahmadinejad might have legitimately won the election. Just one example was George Friedman at the
Stratfor newsletter (no free link) who announced almost immediately after the election (“Western Misconceptions Meet Iranian Reality,” June 15, 2009):

“… Mousavi got hammered. Fraud or not, Ahmadinejad won and he won significantly. That he won is not the mystery; the mystery is why others thought he wouldn’t win.”

This view was typically premised on the notion that reformers consisted entirely of young liberals from “North Tehran” (sort of the Iranian equivalent of our own “San Francisco liberals”). The “Real Iranians”, supposedly, were rural fundamentalists who voted for Ahmadinejad. There are a couple of problems with this narrative. Iran is a highly urbanized country, with roughly 70% of the population living in urban areas. And 70% of the population is under age 30. Combine that with half the population that is female, and the old, rural male is a distinct minority in Iran. There is not some massive rural population that resulted in Ahmadinejad winning almost two-thirds of the national vote.

(American conservatives seem to be projecting on Iran their own notion that the “real America” consists of rural whites. In fact, less than 20% of the US population is now considered “rural”
according to the US Census. And whites now account for only roughly 65% of the US population – but are less than a majority in the most populous state, California, as well as in Texas and New Mexico. Whites are getting close to falling below majority status in Nevada, Maryland and Georgia. Even then, the rural vote in the US is not some kind of conservative monolith – Obama won 45% of the rural vote.)

In fact, Ahmadinejad actually lost the rural vote in 2005, which includes large non-Persian populations. And these days a lot of rural voters in Iran are upset about the lousy state of the Iranian economy. Yet, this time around, the official results had Ahmadinejad winning all provinces with remarkably consistent percentages, despite pronounced ethnic and regional differences in past elections. For example, the official election results had Ahmadinejad
beating Mousavi in the capital of his home province, Tabriz, by 57% to 42% -- this in an Azeri region that tends to be anti-Persian and supportive of its native son. Similarly, the official results had one of the other opposition candidates, Karroubi, receiving only 5% of the vote in his home province of Luristan, down from 50% in 2005. All implausible in the extreme.

Indeed, the only time a non-reformist candidate has won the presidency in Iran was Ahmadinejad in 2005 when the turn-out
was only 48% due to a de facto boycott by supporters of the reformers. This time around, the turn-out exceeded 85%, which should have reflected a landslide for the reformers. For more analysis of the election results, check out this paper by the Chatham House of the UK, cited in the Nation piece above.

There was a highly misleading, but widely quoted,
op-ed in the Washington Post shortly after the election which noted that in a poll three weeks before the election Ahmadinejad led Mousavi by a 2 to 1 margin. But the op-ed inexcusably failed to note the actual poll numbers – Ahmadinejad’s lead was actually only 34% to 14%. It’s hard to see how an incumbent gets from 34% to over 60% in three weeks. Juan Cole analyzes the poll and concludes (here and here) that it supports the view that Ahmadinejad lost decisively.

Fareed Zakaria has done a great job covering this story – a couple of his pieces
here and here are worth reading. And Eurasianet, a part of George Soros’s Open Society project, has had some good analysis, such as this piece.

American neocons have had trouble dealing with the turn of events in Iran. As the election approached and it was becoming apparent that Mousavi might win, perhaps even in a landslide, some neocons went so far as to publicly express their hope that Ahmadinejad would win, the better for keeping up the drumbeat for war with Iran. One widely-noted example was
Daniel Pipes, who wrote (in a blog post entitled “Rooting for Ahmadinejad”):
[W]hile my heart goes out to the many Iranians who desperately want the vile Ahmadinejad out of power, my head tells me it's best that he remain in office. …[B]etter to have a bellicose, apocalyptic, in-your-face Ahmadinejad who scares the world than a sweet-talking Mousavi who again lulls it to sleep …

And so, despite myself, I am rooting for Ahmadinejad.

For other US conservatives they fact that the face of the reform movement on the street has tended to be well-educated, young urbanites and independent women – well, somehow it just can't be legitimate.

And, then, there was John McCain who,
as with Georgia last summer (“we are all Georgians now”), couldn’t wait to escalate US involvement in this conflict … because, after all, this is really all about us (or, specifically, him).

But with Ahmadinejad appearing for the time being to have consolidated his hold on power, the right wing in this country seems to have settled back down to the conclusion that … we should (of course) encourage Israel to attack Iran. Because, after all, you can’t have too many wars. We are now seeing in Afghanistan and Pakistan the disastrous consequences of having diverted our attention and resources to Iraq (I found this story last week particularly disturbing: “
In Refugee Aid, Pakistan’s War Has New Front”). And our military is overstretched already with two wars. But why not start another? John Bolton, our former UN ambassador with the dead rodent above his lip and a serious anger management problem, argued for that in the Washington Post this week (“Time for An Israeli Strike?” – the question mark is redundant): “Accordingly, with no other timely option, the already compelling logic for an Israeli strike is nearly inexorable.”

Pop quiz: With the hardliners in Iran trying to blame recent protests on the US and the UK, an attack on Iran by Israel with the approval of the Great Satan would, a/ strengthen the hardliners, or b/ strengthen the reformers? What happens in any country under attack by a foreign enemy?

It’s hard to believe that less than five months ago these guys were actually running the United States government. That is Change We Can Believe In. Let’s hope our brothers and sisters in Iran succeed in their own Change.