Will Young People Unite to Save the World?

Seventy percent of Iranians are under 30.

These young people have twice the presence in the population of that country as America's largest generation, Millennials (born 1982-2003), has in ours.

In the immediate aftermath of Iran's disputed presidential election, text messages became the tool for organizing post-election protests. Hundreds of thousands of tweets provided more, if not clearer, information about what was happening each day than traditional media. Opposition and government Facebook pages poured out dueling messages on the Internet. It suddenly seemed as if not only had American democratic values erupted on the barren landscape of a theocratic society, but also that young people's technological capabilities might produce a regime change that no one anticipated. Clay Shirky announced, "This is it. This is the big one.  This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media." And the notion that this was a "Twitter Revolution" quickly became the meme for the entire series of post-election events.

But then the entrenched establishment fought back using the very same Internet-enabled technologies to isolate, spy on, and ultimately shut down the resistance.  Thanks to new capabilities recently acquired from two European telecom companies-Nokia and Siemens-as part of their country's upgrade of its mobile networks, the Iranian government was able to monitor the flow of online data in and out of sites like Twitter and Facebook, from one central location. The Iranians deployed a technology called deep packet inspection, first created to put a firewall around President Clinton's emails in 1993, to deconstruct digitized packets of information flowing through the government's telecom monopoly that might contain what they considered to be seditious information before reconstructing and sending it on to destinations they were also able to track and monitor. The result was a 90% degradation in the speed of Internet communications in Iran at the height of the unrest, and a previously unseen capability to determine who the government's enemies were down to the individual IP address level.

Once again the world learned that technology does not arrive with a built-in set of values that makes it work either for good or evil. Even though Internet technology has many virtues, it is not inherently liberating or enslaving. Instead how it is used is determined by the values of those who access it.  Libertarians celebrate the individual empowerment that the Internet makes possible.  But even though Ron Paul supporters used the technology to take on the Republican establishment in 2008, the end result that year was the election of a group-oriented, civic-minded candidate, Barack Obama, whose campaign used the very same technology to guide millions of people to undertake a collective agenda of change that Libertarians certainly did not "believe in."

The difference between what libertarians wanted and what Obama achieved came from the generational attitudes and beliefs of Millennials, Obama's key supporters, not from the technology that generation was so adept at using.

One of the founders of generational theory, Neil Howe, points out that the under-30 population of Iran grew up during a religious awakening in the Islamic world that came later than America's "cultural revolution" of the 1960s. As a result, Iranian youth resembles Generation X, Americans now in their 30s and 40s.  Like our own Gen X, these young Iranians are "pragmatic, individualistic, commercial, and anti-ideological (which is why they hate Ahmadinejad so much)."

Those values make them anti-establishment in the current crisis. We are fortunate that they feel deeply enough about the potential of democracy to risk their lives to "tear down that power structure," to paraphrase what President Ronald Reagan, Generation X's political hero, said in a different context.  But now the central task of our government must be to translate that democratic impulse into a deeper belief in Millennial Generation values, such as the power of consensus, the peaceful resolution of differences and the need to find win-win solutions to our problems.

That is why the President Barack Obama's recent Cairo speech should be the bedrock on which America continues to engage large young Muslim populations throughout the world, including Iran:

"No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

This statement has the potential to become a governing creed for a new generation of young Muslims. If they come to have, as President Obama does, "an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose," then the power of 21st century technologies will be used to advance the cause of freedom in Iran, rather than suppressing it. But tweeting those words won't make it happen.  Believing in them will.

Iran Heating Back Up

After a few quiet days in Iran, crowds of hundreds were back in the streets today, and clashing with police and the paramilitary Basij.  Unsurprisingly, Ayatollah Khamenei is refusing to back down, escalating the conflict. He is apparently losing even more support among the clerics as a result.  

According to Nico's sources, just this afternoon, Mousavi's lawyer was arrested, Neda's family was thrown out of their home, and the doctor who tried to save her is fleeing the country.  As the New York Times writes, it is nearly impossible to confirm the details of everything that is happening up to highest journalistic standards, due to the crackdown on media.

Mousavi has disavowed the protests today, but he has called for a protest tomorrow-- this will be a big one. Check back for regular updates tomorrow.  

This video is reportedly of the protests in Tehran today:

Iran Endgames

Tuesday was another relatively quiet day in Iran, but this is likely a calm before the storm of protests that will return later this week.  A national strike is underway, and another big demonstration is slated for Thursday. How Thursday plays out will have major ramifications going forward.

KhameneiAs I wrote yesterday, this uprising is no longer about a preference for Mousavi over Ahmadinejad-- it's a response to the oppressive and violent nature of the regime that has been unmasked in recent weeks. This violence, along with the blatant electoral fraud, has critically undermined the Islamic Republic. Still, it's hard to imagine a popular overthrow of the government.  Fundamentally, the protesters are outgunned by military, paramilitary (Basij), police, and Revolutionary Guards who, all told, number in the millions.  They have the capability to put down nearly any sort of protest, and after what we've seen this week, one has to imagine they have the will, too.

But that doesn't mean Ayatollah Khamenei is invulnerable. Khamenei's power is legitimized by the clerical establishment in Iran. As the government has cracked down on its people, opinion among leading clerics appears to be solidifying against the Ayatollah. What's more, by getting personally involved in the muck of electoral politics, Khamenei has sullied himself among the clerics. On Thursday, the shock troops will have little choice but to crack down ever harder, but doing so will push even more clerics into the anti-Khamenei camp.

This will likely be a gradual revolution, not unlike 1979, playing out over weeks and months, through cycles of protest, violence, and mourning.  But what we will be left with is Khamenei, delegitimized and short of supporters, and the Islamic Republic itself, delegitimized and in need of serious reform.  This will create an opportunity for Rafsanjani and his fellow reformist clerics to step in and create a government that takes seriously the human and civil rights of its people. 

There will be bloodshed, and it will take time, but with Iran's government and hardline leaders so critically delegitimized, it's hard to imagine an endgame wherein Khamenei and his Basij maintain their cruel power.

Obama on Iran

President Obama gave a brief and powerful statement standing behind the Iranian people in their peaceful uprising for a fair election, a responsive government, and a just society.  Here it is, in full (my emphasis on the key lines):

I’d like to say a few words about the situation in Iran. The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days. I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost.

I have made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not at all interfering in Iran’s affairs. But we must also bear witness to the courage and dignity of the Iranian people, and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society. And we deplore violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place.

The Iranian people are trying to have a debate about their future. Some in the Iranian government are trying to avoid that debate by accusing the United States and others outside of Iran of instigating protests over the elections. These accusations are patently false and absurd. They are an obvious attempt to distract people from what is truly taking place within Iran’s borders. This tired strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won’t work anymore in Iran. This is not about the United States and the West; this is about the people of Iran, and the future that they – and only they – will choose.

The Iranian people can speak for themselves. That is precisely what has happened these last few days. In 2009, no iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to the peaceful pursuit of justice. Despite the Iranian government’s efforts to expel journalists and isolate itself, powerful images and poignant words have made their way to us through cell phones and computers, and so we have watched what the Iranian people are doing.

This is what we have witnessed. We have seen the timeless dignity of tens of thousands Iranians marching in silence. We have seen people of all ages risk everything to insist that their votes are counted and their voices heard. Above all, we have seen courageous women stand up to brutality and threats, and we have experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the streets. While this loss is raw and painful, we also know this: those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history.

As I said in Cairo, suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people have a universal right to assembly and free speech. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect those rights, and heed the will of its own people. It must govern through consent, not coercion. That is what Iran’s own people are calling for, and the Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government.

Afterward, he took questions, including this one from Nico Pitney at the Huffington Post, relayed from a questioner in Iran:

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Citizen Journalists Propel Iran Protests

On Friday, I wrote about the importance of citizen journalism in Iran. That importance has only continued to increase; while foreign reporters were already restricted to their rooms and barred from publishing anything without state approval, they are now being arrested in droves, most without formal charges. Reporters Without Borders issued this statement yesterday:

The Islamic Republic of Iran now ranks alongside China as the world’s biggest prison for journalists. The crackdown has been intensified yet again following Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s endorsement of the result of the 12 June presidential election and the opposition’s decision to call another demonstration on 20 June.

Iran now has a total of 33 journalists and cyber-dissidents in its jails, while journalists who could not be located at their homes have been summoned by telephone by Tehran prosecutor general Said Mortazavi.

“The force of the demonstrations in Tehran is increasing fears that more Iranian journalists could be arrested and more foreign journalists could be expelled,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The regime has been visibly shaken by its own population and does not want to let this perception endure. That is why the media have become a priority target...”

Iran security forces have also begun to target anyone with cell phones or video cameras, meaning that those providing amateur footage from inside Iran are now taking an even greater personal risk. Even so, their work continues to provide a rallying point for demonstrators -- footage of a young Iranian woman named Neda, who was shot in the heart while standing in the street by a Basij militiaman, has "become a rallying cry for Iranian reformists and their allies internationally," prompting a mourning rally today and garnering coverage from CNN and Time, among others. I've reposted one of the videos below (there are several angles), because it is the most shocking, heartwrenching, and powerful footage I've seen out of Iran so far. However, please be aware that it is also very disturbing -- she dies on camera, so watch at your own risk

Police violently broke up the memorial protest for Neda today and prevented many from joining the thousands already gathered in 7 Tir square, but there will surely be further ramifications of her death. From the Time Magazine coverage,

...her death may have changed everything. The cycles of mourning in Shi'ite Islam actually provide a schedule for political combat — a way to generate or revive momentum. Shi'ite Muslims mourn their dead on the third, seventh and 40th days after a death, and these commemorations are a pivotal part of Iran's rich history. During the revolution, the pattern of confrontations between the Shah's security forces and the revolutionaries often played out in 40-day cycles.

...Shi'ite mourning is not simply a time to react with sadness. Particularly in times of conflict, it is also an opportunity for renewal. The commemorations for Neda and the others killed this weekend are still to come. And the 40th-day events are usually the largest and most important.

Neda is already being hailed as a martyr, a second important concept in Shi'ism. With the reported deaths of 19 people on June 20, martyrdom provides a potent force that could further deepen public anger at Iran's regime.

Today, Senator McCain paid tribute to Neda on the Senate floor, joining the thousands of tributes already up on the web. But we should also pay tribute to those who are helping to document these atrocities; as one Iranian protestor wrote today on (via HuffPo and Nico's excellent liveblogging):

i wanted to take photos of the milit presence, but it was way too scary. honestly people who manage to record or take photos are incredibly shoja (brave).

Who is Winning in Iran?

Reports of how many protesters showed up in Haft-e-Tir square today to mourn the death of Neda have been varied, ranging from 200 up to about 1,000. Regardless, this is a steep drop from last week's rallies with tens, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets.  It seems like there are a few things going on here:

-  Saturday's protests resulted in ten deaths, and looking at video from the past few days makes it clear that we're no longer looking at the quiet, peaceful sit-ins of the first days after the election. On top of this, as we read last week, the government has deployed squads of thugs-- Basijis, they're called-- who track protesters during the day, and raid their homes at night. Undoubtedly, people are scared, and are staying home for the sake of survival.

-  According to Iran's state media, 457 people were arrested on Saturday-- undoubtably many of the leaders of the uprising are currently behind bars. Combine this with Mousavi's relatively quiet leadership, and it's possible that the organizational structure of the uprising has been crippled.

-  The Revolutionary Guards have stepped up their game, apparently. On Saturday, we saw video of riot police being chased away by a crowd of protesters.  Today, they showed up in overwhelming force, firing bullets in the air, opening tear gas canisters, and supported by helicopters overhead. The Guards made no secret of their plans to crack down, so people knew to stay away.

After a quiet Sunday and an ineffective protest on Monday, it's possible the truly massive demonstrations are behind us.  For the sake of their democratic movement, I hope the momentum can be swung back in favor of the protesters.


Iran Uprising No Longer About Mousavi

Protesters attempted to gather in Haft-e-Tir square in Tehran today to mourn the death of Neda, whose murder was caught on video, and who has become a rallying point for many in Iran. The 1,000 protesters were outnumbered by “hundreds” of riot police who crushed the protest with helicopters overhead.

This uprising began as a popular challenge to the election results, but it is no longer about Ahmadinejad, and may never have been about Mousavi. Mousavi himself is a bit of a shady figure—his history as a confidant of Ayatollah Khomeini must cast some doubt on his credentials as a reformist. At any rate, we don’t know much about what he stands for.

But it hardly matters. This uprising has unmasked the true nature of the regime in Tehran: there’s no longer any question that we’re looking at a military dictatorship, complete with violent suppression of peaceful protests, and the absolute censoring of free speech. This uprising has become a challenge not to the election results, but to the very legitimacy of Iran’s Islamic Republic.

UPDATE: In an interview with BBC Persia, Neda's fiancee said she was not a supporter of either Ahmadinejad or Mousavi, she just wanted "freedom and freedom for all."

The changing nature of this uprising alters the way we can and should speak about it here in the U.S. Watch this space for ongoing analysis of the events in Iran and the American reaction to it all.

Iranian Govt Spokesman Admits Election Irregularities, Compares Ahmadinejad to Bush

From a freshly posted story on the NYTimes website:

TEHRAN — Locked in a continuing bitter contest Monday with Iranians who say the presidential elections were rigged, the authorities here acknowledged that the number of votes cast in 50 cities exceeded the actual number of voters, state television reported following assertions by the country’s supreme leader that the ballot was fair.

But the authorities insisted that discrepancies, which could affect three million votes, did not violate Iranian law and the country’s influential Guardian Council said it was not clear whether they would decisively change the election result.

At a news conference Monday, Hassan Qashqavi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, called the turnout — officially put at 85 percent, or 40 million voters — a “brilliant gem which is shining on the peak of dignity of the Iranian nation.”

He accused unidentified western powers and news organizations, which are operating under extremely tight official restrictions, of spreading unacceptable “anarchy and vandalism.” But, he said, the outcome of the vote would not be changed. “We will not allow western media to turn this gem into a worthless stone,” he said.

Mr. Qashqavi drew comparisons with American election results.

“No one encouraged the American people to stage a riot” because they disagreed with the re-election of George W. Bush, he said. Quoted by Press TV, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, the spokesman for the authoritative Guardian Council — a 12-member panel of clerics charged with certifying the vote — denied claims by another losing candidate, Mohsen Rezai, that irregularities had occurred in up to 170 voting districts.

“Statistics provided by the candidates, who claim more than 100 percent of those eligible have cast their ballot in 80 to 170 cities are not accurate — the incident has happened in only 50 cities,” Mr. Kadkhodaei said.

Nico has more at Huffington Post.  From the Times' Lede blog over the weekend:

Update | 10:35 a.m. A Lede reader points out an interesting analysis of Iran’s election results that was published by London-based Chatham House. The analysis, based on the province-by-province breakdowns of the 2009 and 2005 results released by the Iranian Ministry of Interior, challenges some of the assertions about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection made by Iranian officials.

The authors cite these highlights of their analysis:

1) At a provincial level, there is no correlation between the increased turnout, and the swing to Ahmadinejad. This challenges the notion that his victory was due to the massive participation of a previously silent conservative majority.

2) In a third of all provinces, the official results would require that Ahmadinejad took not only all former conservative voters, and all former centrist voters, and all new voters, but also up to 44% of former reformist voters, despite a decade of conflict between these two groups.

3) In 2005, as in 2001 and 1997, conservative candidates, and Ahmadinejad in particular, were markedly unpopular in rural areas. That the countryside always votes conservative is a myth. The claim that this year Ahmadinejad swept the board in more rural provinces flies in the face of these trends.

We are clearly entering a new phase in these rapidly unfolding events.

Update: And just found this on Nico's page from early this am:

4:43 AM ET -- Report: 40 senior clerics want election results annulled. The intense infighting among Iran's clerical establishment appeared to play out in new dramatic fashion on Monday. Via reader Art, the news site Peiknet reported that Ayatollah Rafsanjani has a letter signed by 40 members of the powerful 86-member Assembly of Experts calling for the annulment of the recent presidential election results.

The Power of the Crowd

Via Nico and Andrew comes this video of a standoff between a few dozen government shock troops and a truly massive crowd of protesters.  It's a triumphant picture of the power of people acting together, and a rejection of those who would silence them. 

It's also a reminder that if the Iranian government has any intention of stopping these protests, they're headed for confrontation on a scale we haven't yet imagined.

Nico: Evidence Mounts That the Iranian Vote Was Rigged

Nico's latest liveblogging has mounting evidence that the vote was rigged. 

All of this presents an interesting challenge for how other nations will now interact with the current government.   As Roger Cohen wrote in the NY Times this morning, the current regime's legitimacy is more than in question now.

What a sea change for Iran, and for the region.  Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, and now Iran all having meaningful elections.  Afghanistan has just begun its new round of elections.  Even Palestine's recent election was consequential.  While too much can be read it into it, nonethless, this simple idea - that the people must have their say - is making a powerful apperance now in the Middle East where political freedom has been a rare thing indeed.

I have to say that I have been incredibly inspired by the courage of the people of Iran over the past week, and have been deeply moved by their valiant efforts to bring their story to the people of the world.   These images and stories are being seen by all of us throughout the world, but perhaps no more so than its youth, who are the majority of the people of the world today.  Fully 53% of the world's population is under thirty today, and this uprising is becoming an important milestone in the political education of those will come to power in the years ahead.

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