The ongoing situation in Iran has shown the value of the internet, especially twitter, to get the news out. Once all of the foreign journalists were kicked out of the nation, it was up to citizen journalists to bring word of the protests to the rest of the world – and to some extent to the participants who needed to know where to gather. Twitter was especially useful because the abbreviated format works so well with mobile phones brought right to the action, and it was hard to block. They’ve provided feed and encouraged more coverage from the networks – people are indeed interested in this remote and arcane story. What’s not to love about live revolution?
The problem with this story is the difficult details that just don’t fit in a 140 character message. At the same time we’re seeing dramatic footage, we’re totally missing what it’s all about.
I’ll start with the heroic role of twitter, which has been a lifeline to the people of Iran. I’m not normally a huge twitter fan, but this has been very cool. It appears that not only does it work well on mobile phones at the scene, it has proved especially hard to block. What we’re seeing through twitter is simply amazing. Images downloaded through tweetpic have amplified heartbreaking messages of fear and violence.
The problem is that the images, brilliant as they are, do not tell us the story. The people in the streets are not starting a revolution, at least not yet. They are calling for the Presidential election results to be overturned. What’s the difference? The President of Iran has almost no power at all – if the protests did indeed get Mousavi as President, very little in their lives will change. In fact, very little will change anywhere.
The people who run Iran are the “Mullahs”, or cardinals of the Shi’ite faith. The power that they wield is also very diffuse, with decisions happening through momentum more than anything else. They control nearly everything, including the Basij, who enforce religious code, and the elite Revolutionary Guard of the Army. The political system is something like a chess game between two (or more) skilled players in that it is always close to balance but leaning one way or the other.
Because of this diffuse system, Iran is incapable of changing and responding to changing situations around it. A boogeyman is essential to any government this ineffective, and the USofA has been pretty handy for this purpose for the 30 years the system has been in place. Currently, we are on their western border (Iraq) and eastern border (Afghanistan), so the case is easy to make. Don’t blame us, or our inability to do anything at all – blame the Great Satan!
So what are the people on the streets of Tehran asking for? It’s not revolution – at least not yet. If they have their way and Mousavi is indeed in power, it will probably start a long constitutional battle to actually change Iran – it’ll be an inside game, primarily. The people on the streets are asking for the ability to think about having a revolution.
Now, there’s always the possibility that someone in power will do something stupid and start a violent confrontation that sparks a true revolution. However, Mousavi’s supporters and the Basij are both very lightly armed, so this isn’t likely. The end-game is very hard to see as it stands now.
This is why Obama has been very careful to not be intervening in the situation. It is very much the right thing to do at this stage because no matter what we see on Twitter, this is not a revolution. It’s amazing, and I wish all the very best to the people of Iran in this difficult time.