My intention today is to write about Iran, but I’m not sure that is possible. However, explaining why it might be impossible is a good way to write about Iran.
Almost all non-official electronic traffic from and within Iran began shutting down in preparation for Thursday, the 31st anniversary of the Iranian revolution. “Opposition protesters clashed with security forces” (in the current media jargon), around Tehran and elsewhere, but almost entirely “off camera.”
We had reason to believe, going into the anniversary, that the regime was prepared to pour a bloodbath—to execute the equivalent of a Tiananmen, should the “opposition protesters” continue their clamour on the streets of Iran’s major cities. The regime certainly uttered every kind of verbal warning that it was prepared for massacre on its “holy day,” and was mobilizing those “security forces” for the event. Then basic services such as e-mail began ominously shutting down.
It was the best-organized effort, so far, on the part of the regime, to deprive the people of Iran of the capacity to organize so much as a dinner date.
That opposition is not so easily shut down, and my impression is that such old-fashioned means of communication as messenger and word-of-mouth are being employed more and more efficiently. Nevertheless, the knowledge that shouting anti-government slogans would be far more likely to get one killed, on Thursday, than on any other day, must have had some dampening effect on crowd numbers.
It is always difficult, for those outside, to understand what is happening inside a sealed totalitarian order. In addition to overt measures, there are subtle measures to control a population.
On the day of Tiananmen, 21 years ago, the Chinese regime was making no secret of its use of lethal force. The whole idea was to scare people: to bring popular insurrection to an abrupt and terrified end. As communists, they knew that the history could be rewritten, and things plainly seen by everyone one day could be denied the next.
That was actually part of the message: the psychic violence of “political correctness,” to follow the physical violence. Not only have people seen what the regime is capable of doing; they are now under compulsion to deny what they saw. This is the original of that milder form of political correctness that operates today in the west: our own personal need to nod publicly, and without thinking, to various big lies, at pain of being ostracized as a “racist,” a “fascist,” a “sexist,” a “homophobe,” and so forth.
The difference being, in China or Iran, that the man who persists in asserting the truth will not merely be ostracized. There, the ideologues have all the levers. They have guns, too, and they can do as they please with inconvenient individuals.
Within limits: there are always limits, even within the darkest totalitarian regimes. Even in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, there were points past which the Khmer Rouge would not go, lest it trigger a resistance larger than it could handle.
The Cambodian regime fell the quicker for having gone too far; for neglecting its flanks. The Iranian one has finally reached, after three decades, the position where it can no longer watch all its flanks, where it has no options left but surrender, or carnage. And several of those flanks are international, and one of those is the aggressive nuclear program.
We deal only with Iran from abroad, and as currently the principal threat to world peace. In his capacity as captain of the West, President Obama spent his first year trying the policy of appeasement and negotiation with a regime whose word is worthless. It is clear he now understands there is no way to “talk Iran down.” But he has lost precious time and sacrificed continuity from the more advanced confrontational position of the Bush administration.
He is now back to square one: doing what Bush first tried, unsuccessfully, nine years ago. He is appealing to U.S. allies to enforce tougher sanctions, buying them off, one by one, to get them onside. It is a very expensive business, for a proven waste of time.
The Bush administration commanded respect. Bush himself might have been hated, but in a world full of tyrants who hate America, no president should trawl for love. He needs to be feared by the west’s worst enemies. And he must cope with certain hard realities, such as: sanctions only work if everyone agrees to them; and have already failed in this case. China and Russia have no intention of helping the U.S. impose sanctions. They know that America’s power wanes as Iran’s threat waxes.
So we now have a double mystery: an extremely dangerous regime in Iran doing we know not what, and standing against it, an American president who does not know what he is doing.