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June 26th, 2009

It’s not a Twitter revolution in Iran

Posted by: Reese Erlich

"reeseportrait1-150"– Reese Erlich is a freelance foreign correspondent who covered the Iranian elections and is author of The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis (Polipoint Press) The views expressed are his own. —

Iran is not undergoing a Twitter Revolution. The term simultaneously mischaracterizes and trivializes the important mass movement developing in Iran.

Here’s how it all began. The Iranian government prohibited foreign reporters from traveling outside Tehran without special permission, and later confined them to their hotel rooms and offices. CNN and other cable networks were particularly desperate to find ways to show the large demonstrations and government repression. So they turned to Internet sites such as Facebook and Twitter in a frantic effort to get information. Since reporters were getting most of their information from Tweets and You Tube video clips, the notion of a “Twitter Revolution” was born.

We reporters love a catch phrase and, Twitter being all a flutter in the west, it seemed to fit. It’s a catchy phrase but highly misleading.

First of all the vast majority of Iranians have no access to Twitter. While reporting in Tehran, I personally didn’t encounter anyone who used it regularly. A relatively small number of young, economically well off Iranians do use Twitter. A larger number have access to the Internet. However, in the beginning, most demonstrations were organized through word of mouth, mobile phone calls and text messaging.

But somehow “Text Messaging Revolution” doesn’t have that modern, sexy ring, especially if you have to type it with your thumbs on a tiny keyboard.

More importantly, by focusing on the latest in Internet communications, cable TV networks intentionally or unintentionally characterize a genuine mass movement as something supported mainly by the Twittering classes.

I witnessed tens of thousands of mostly young people coming out into the streets in spontaneous campaign rallies in the days leading up to the election – most of whom had never heard of Twitter.

They shared a common joy not only campaigning for reformist Mirhossein Mousavi, but in being able to freely express themselves for the first time in many years. When the government announced an overwhelming victory for hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad only two hours after the polls closed, people became furious.

Over the next few days, hundreds of thousands of Iranians poured into the streets in Tehran and cities around the country. They organized silent marches through word of mouth and phone calls since the government had shut down text messaging just prior to the election. Contrary to popular perception, these gatherings included women in chadors, workers and clerics – not just the Twittering classes. Spontaneous marches took place in south Tehran, a decidedly poorer section of town and supposedly a stronghold for Ahmadinejad.

Iranians initially protested what they perceived as massive vote fraud, but that quickly evolved as the protests grew in size and breadth. In the week after the June 14 election, millions of Iranians vented 30 years of pent up anger at a repressive system.

Iranian youth particularly resented President Ahmadinejad’s support for religious militia attacks on unmarried young men and women walking together and against women not covering enough hair with their hijab. Workers resented the 24 percent annual inflation that robbed them of real wage increases. Independent trade unionists had been fighting for decent wages and for the right to organize.

Some demonstrators wanted a more moderate Islamic government. Others advocated a separation of mosque and state, and a return to parliamentary democracy. They are well aware that when Iran had a genuine parliamentary system under Prime Minister Mossadegh, the CIA overthrew it in 1953 in order to promote the Shah as dictator. I didn’t meet any Iranians calling for U.S. intervention; that’s strictly a debate inside the Washington beltway.

Some Iranian friends have asked me why Supreme Leader Sayyed Ali Khamenei would throw his support behind Ahmadinejad when his presidency was so clearly damaging the country at home and abroad. Initially, Khamenei supported the president because they share common ideological and political positions. Later, the top clerical leaders saw the mass movement that coalesced around Mousavi’s campaign as a direct threat to government stability and their future rule.

Since June 21, the top clerics, military and intelligence services have mobilized their entire apparatus to crush the movement for social and economic change.

The mass movement that sprang forth in the past few weeks has been 30 years in coming. It’s not a Twitter Revolution, nor even a “velvet revolution” like those in Eastern Europe.

It’s a genuine Iranian mass movement made up of students, workers, women, and middle class folks. It may not be strong enough to topple the system today but is sowing the seeds for future struggles.

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Hi. Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. I’m in Washington. And joining us today from Oakland, California, is Reese Ehrlich. Thanks for joining us, Reese.

REESE ERLICH, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Real pleasure to be here.

JAY: So Reese has just come back from Iran, covering the elections. He’s a freelance journalist, and he’s author of the book The Iran Agenda: The Real Story of US Policy and the Middle East Crisis. So, Reese, you just came back from Iran, just a few days ago, if I understand correctly. What did you observe there?

ERLICH: Well, what I saw was what began as a significant movement in support of Mousavi and protesting the elections really grew into a much wider movement opposing many aspects of the theocratic government in Iran. It became much bigger than the campaign, much bigger than Mousavi, and that’s why the government is so brutally repressing it.

JAY: Now, you wrote a commentary—I think it’s going to be published today, actually, in Reuters—to do with the idea that the Western media has been portraying this as a Twitter revolution and the idea that this is all happening online. Is that what you found?

ERLICH: No, not really. That’s an invention of CNN and the cable networks. Basically, they became desperate because they were not allowed to leave their offices to cover the demonstration, so they turned increasingly to YouTube and Twitter to fill in the gaps, and suddenly, then, they declared it to be a Twitter revolution. But, actually, my experience out talking to people on the ground, very few people have access to Twitter. It’s mostly in English. It’s an invention of a convenient way, a catchphrase. And it also is misleading because the movement is much broader than the relatively well-to-do people who can afford to send Twitter or invest in a lot of computer equipment. A lot of poor people, clerics, women in chadors, were out in the streets. It wasn’t just the Twittering classes.

JAY: Well, what sense did you get of how broad scope of opposition was? I mean, clearly, a lot of people did vote for Ahmadinejad. Whether you believe the election was stolen or not, he must have gotten, at the very least, half the vote, and he may have gotten into the 60th percentile—it’s not out of the question. What was your sense of it?

ERLICH: Well, frankly, we’ll probably never know, because the people who’ve studied this closely say that it’s almost impossible for him to have gotten the kind of majority that he claimed, given the support that was shown in, even a matter of days before the election, in terms of massive rallies and so on. You know, it’s not the first time there have been stolen elections. In 2005, Mehdi Karroubi was barely beaten out by Ahmadinejad, and he said that that had been based on fraudulent vote counts back in 2005. So this is not anything new in Iranian history. The clerics run the system, they determine who can run for candidates, so it shouldn’t be surprising that there is also vote fraud going on. But the opposition is very, very broad. It includes workers and, you know, small business people, as well as the well-to-do that you kind of see in some of the demonstrations. It’s really shaken the Iranian government to its foundations. The most significant demonstrations in 30 years.

JAY: So you’ve been covering Iran for eight years. You’ve been there four or five times. What is your sense of where this all leads? A senior cleric on Friday said that it’s time to deal with the leaders of the protesters without mercy, which has been interpreted to mean executions. He’s this one cleric who’s a member of the governing council. Different segments of the elite that have been at war, the people in the middle seem to be consolidating around the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guard. I guess they’ve decided they’re going to come out the winners of this. What’s your assessment?

ERLICH: Well, I think in the short run the repression will probably work. It’s been quite brutal. They’ve cordoned off whole sections of Tehran and other cities. They’re beating and shooting at people. And it’s very dangerous to be out on the streets, not to mention shutting down the text messaging, stopping satellite television broadcasts, which is a very big deal, and slowing down the Internet. So they’ve taken some really drastic steps that will actually have some economic impact down the line. But I think in the short-run the repression might work. But what the demonstrations showed in the medium and the long term, the government can’t survive by using repression alone. There is a massive number of people in Iran who are not only upset with Ahmadinejad’s policies but with the way that the Islamic government has been carrying itself out in the entire system, and I think we’re going to see that in the months to come.

JAY: Do you think the possibility of widescale executions of leaders is a real possibility?

ERLICH: I think it’s more likely that we’ll see people killed or beaten on the streets in the process of the demonstrations. The people will be arrested, perhaps mistreated, tortured. I don’t think there’ll be widespread executions in the prisons. I think that would be going too far.

JAY: Now, there’s been a sort of critique being made of the opposition from outside and certainly from inside from the Iranian government itself, but even from sources that consider themselves sort of left or progressive, that this is really a destabilization campaign being waged by the US, perhaps by Israel, and that this is more like the colored revolutions in Eastern Europe. What do you make of that?

ERLICH: Yeah, no, I’ve read those stories. I think they’re way off base. In my book The Iran Agenda, I expose the fact that the Bush administration was trying to overthrow the Iranian government, and they were paying various ethnic minority groups to carry out terrorist attacks inside Iran. So I’m very well aware of and have exposed US efforts to attack Iran. But this is different. This is a genuine, spontaneous mass movement of the people of Iran. It cuts across classes. It’s not sponsored or directed by the United States or Britain or anybody else. And the Iranian government uses that as the excuse, just as the Bush administration tried to get us scared about foreign terrorists, and they’re in our midst, etcetera, etcetera, therefore we have to torture and jail people without trial. Well, the Iranian government does the same thing. They claim that the US and Britain is behind everything, including legitimate domestic dissent.

JAY: The battle that’s broken out includes a battle between Rafsanjani and the supreme leader. Mousavi seems to represent a different segment of the elite, not necessarily completely controlled by Rafsanjani. How do you break down who’s fighting who in the elite and what are they fighting about?

ERLICH: Well, the elections has disposed a huge rift within the elite of Iran. Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is a former president, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2005, is a very wealthy and reportedly very corrupt political leader, but extremely powerful, and he backed Mousavi. And he has very sharp differences with Ahmadinejad. So that’s one of the things that sustained the protests and kept the government from physically attacking them as brutally as they had later, precisely because there were sectors of the elite who were supporting Mousavi. Mousavi by himself, his platform was not all that different. It was consistent with all the basic elements of the Iranian constitution and the Islamic system. It was somewhat more moderate in its foreign policy and domestic policy—fighting inflation and that sort of thing—but there wasn’t, like, a radical difference. Mehdi Karroubi, the other reformist candidate, actually had much more progressive views, but he didn’t manage to get much traction in terms of the popular vote. But now it’s not just what these guys say in their platforms. The gauntlet has been thrown down, and Mousavi has become a symbol of opposition to the vote-rigging and the repressive system of Ahmadinejad, well beyond anything that he might say in his platform. And I think the mass movement has gone beyond the issues raised in the campaign to much wider social and economic justice issues.

JAY: I understand that the movement is raising wider objections and demands, but Mousavi and—I guess we haven’t heard that much publicly from Rafsanjani, but it’s assumed he’s backing Mousavi—they’re calling on this movement in a way that puts the entire elite and the system, their whole power, at risk. Why are they going so far? What is it that they have at odds with the supreme leader that is giving them the reason to open the door, to shake, as Mousavi said himself, the very pillars of the system?

ERLICH: I think what’s happening is that there’s a shift of those who really control the money and the power in Iran. Ahmadinejad represents the sectors of the Revolutionary Guard, the basiji, the civilian right-wing radicals, populists, if you will. Rafsanjani, Mousavi represent much more of a kind of somewhat moderate clerical elite that has run Iran since 1979. And that’s a very hard-fought battle. And Ahmadinejad is using his populist credentials, claiming he’s a man of the people. And I think that’s also confused some people on the left in the United States—”Well, he’s some kind of nationalist or populist or anti-imperialist.” He’s a thorough reactionary who uses populist demands for his own power and to consolidate the power of the most reactionary sector of the intelligence services and the military and related bodies.

JAY: So what do you expect in the coming months?

ERLICH: Well, in the short term, I think that the repression will probably succeed. Lots of people will be jailed, brutalized, lose their jobs, and so on. But we know from past experience in Iran, including the 1979 revolution, that people can’t be repressed forever and that what these demonstrations showed was a huge, huge popular discontent with the system. People will get organized. They’ll be coming back. I can’t predict exactly what form it’ll take, but in the months ahead we’ll see it.

JAY: Now, in the United States, the Republican right and the neocons have been sort of demanding more inflammatory rhetoric from Obama. From Israel we have heard continued inflammatory rhetoric, and certainly the Israelis are certainly talking about attacking Iran over the nuclear what they claim is a weapons program. What are the consequences of that kind of language in Iran?

ERLICH: You know, nobody in Iran wants the support of Israel; nobody in Iran wants the support of the Republican Party. These are issues strictly in the international forum, and mainly even in the United States, attacking Obama for not being rhetorically strong enough or something. You know, nobody I talk to in Iran wants US intervention. They certainly don’t want to be bombed by Israel. And let’s say there is a successful popular movement that gets rid of the system in Iran. You’re not going to see, suddenly, support for Israeli occupation of Palestine or support for US occupation of Iraq or Afghanistan. You know, these are consensus issues that stretch across all of Iranian society. And so it’s totally hypocritical for Netanyahu or McCain or these other right-wingers to profess support for what’s going on in Iran. They’re not interested in democracy in Iran, they’re not interested in popular will, because the popular will is against what they stand for.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Reese.

ERLICH: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And if you’d like to see more of this kind of coverage on Iran, remember, we need members, and the only way we continue is if members click “Donate.” Thanks for joining us.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Reese Erlich is a best-selling book author and freelance journalist who writes regularly for the Dallas Morning News, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Radio and National Public Radio. He has won numerous journalism awards, including the prestigious Peabody (shared with others). He is the author of several books, and is currently touring across the country promoting his most recent one called: Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence and Empire, published in September 2010. Reese Erlich received a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for his reporting from