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Generational Dynamics Web Log for 22-Mar-2009
President Obama casts a vote against Iran's President Ahmadinejad

Web Log - March, 2009

President Obama casts a vote against Iran's President Ahmadinejad

Can reformist Mir-Hossein Musavi beat Ahmadinejad in the June 12 elections?

Most analysts expect hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be reelected for a second term as Iran's president in the election scheduled for June 12.

Now that popular reform candidate former president Mohammad Khatami has dropped out of the race, Ahmedinejad's principal opponent is lesser known Mir-Hossein Musavi. Musavi is more conservative than Khatami, but is still considered a reform candidate with a chance of beating Ahmadinejad.

Decorations around the grave of a martyr from the Iran/Iraq war <font face=Arial size=-2>(Source:</font>
Decorations around the grave of a martyr from the Iran/Iraq war (Source:

On Friday, US President Barack Obama send an open letter to the Iranian people in the form of a letter and an online video:

"Today I want to extend my very best wishes to all who are celebrating Nowruz around the world.

This holiday is both an ancient ritual and a moment of renewal, and I hope that you enjoy this special time of year with friends and family.

In particular, I would like to speak directly to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nowruz is just one part of your great and celebrated culture. Over many centuries your art, your music, literature and innovation have made the world a better and more beautiful place. ...

For nearly three decades relations between our nations have been strained. But at this holiday we are reminded of the common humanity that binds us together. Indeed, you will be celebrating your New Year in much the same way that we Americans mark our holidays -- by gathering with friends and family, exchanging gifts and stories, and looking to the future with a renewed sense of hope. ...

So in this season of new beginnings I would like to speak clearly to Iran's leaders. We have serious differences that have grown over time. My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.

You, too, have a choice. The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right -- but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization. And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create."

Supporters of President Obama has described this as a brilliant move, designed to change the dialog between Iran and the West, and reverse the damage done by the evil Bush administration. Opponents of President Obama have described it as sending a message that, in the Persian mind, will be interpreted as defeat and surrender of the United States to the realities of Iran's strength.

In between these two extremes lies a more sober assessment that can be derived from the principles of generational analysis. From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, Obama's actions appear to have provided support for Ahmadinejad's reform opponents in the upcoming June 12 Iranian elections.

The fact is that Iran is entering an extremely tumultuous political period. It's now 21 years since the end of Iran's last crisis war, which began with the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and continued with the Iran/Iraq war, climaxing in 1988. Thus, we can roughly compare today's generational mood in Iran to the generational mood in America in 1966, 21 years after the end of World War II. In 1966, college students were mobilizing for the nationwide protests that led to the Summer of Love, the violent riots that accompanied the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, the collapse of President Lyndon Johnson's presidential campaign, and the bombings and violence perpetrated by the Weather Underground.

Remember what happened during the 1960s, America's last generational Awakening era. It began in August 1963, when Martin Luther King led a march on Washington in which over 200,000 people participated. Later, President Kennedy was assassinated, and so was King. There were numerous demonstrations and riots throughout the country. There were "long, hot summers," led by the Black Panthers, and there were bombings and declarations of war against the government, led by the Weather Underground.

That's precisely the kind of tumultuous period that Iran is entering right now.

On the one hand you have the older generations that survived the Iran/Iraq war, and who revere those who were killed in the war as martyrs. For these people, the spirit of the Islamic Revolution is as strong today as it was in 1979, and Islamic morality is essential to keeping any such disaster as the Iran/Iraq war from happening again.

On the other hand, you have the generations born after 1984 or so, with no personal memory of either the Islamic Revolution or the Iran/Iraq war, who see the imposition of austere Islamic morality as the ideological demands of doddering old fools.

An obvious criminal at large on the streets of Tehran (from April 2007) <font size=-2>(Source:</font>
An obvious criminal at large on the streets of Tehran (from April 2007) (Source:

The most obvious symbol of this generational conflict has been the requirement that Iranian women must wear headscarves that entirely cover their hair, and I've enjoyed making fun, from time to time, of Ahmadinejad's campaign to arrest young women in Tehran who don't follow the strict dress code. (See "Iranian police swoop down on women with loose headscarves.")

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However, the morality drive did not begin with headscarves in 2005. For Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the revival of Islamic morality was an integral part of the Revolution. Khomeini himself created the Islamic "morality bureau" in 1979, to uproot corrupt pre-revolutionary cultural habits.

By the late 1990s, as the first of the young post-Revolution generation began to reach manhood, Tehran's culture was changing. Kids were willing to accept Islam as their religion, but saw no contradiction in also adopting European and American styles and behaviors. The morality police were beginning to arrest young people who violated Islamic dress and behavior rules.

That gave rise to the "reformist" movement and the election of Mohammad Khatami (whom we mentioned at the beginning of this article) in the 1997 presidential elections. He was reelected in 2001.

In November 2002, and again in May 2003, violent student protests raged in Tehran over the death sentence imposed by the Islamic courts on Hashem Aghajari, a history professor at a Tehran university.

Aghajari was a Iran war hero -- have lost his leg while serving in the Iran/Iraq war.

However, he enraged conservatives in Iran in 2002 when he questioned the rule of clerics, and said that Muslims should not follow Islamic clerics "like monkeys". The student protests were triggered when he was sentenced to death for blasphemy in November 2002, and again when the sentence was confirmed in 2003. Finally, he was released in 2004 in reaction to increased political pressure from students and intellectuals.

By 2003, the student movement was growing, and so was anger at "reformist" Mohammad Khatami, according to student leader Saeed Razavi-Faqih, in a 2003 interview:

"What we have realized is that the majority of students no longer want to maintain any dialogue with the regime. Previously, the students distinguished between the reformers in government, whom the students helped to elect to office and with whom they shared many concerns, and the hardliners, whom they had not elected and who were intent on maintaining their authoritarian grip on power. But the events of the past months, and especially these past few weeks [as supra-parliamentary conservative bodies have blocked legislation enhancing Khatami’s powers], have deeply changed this attitude. Students believe that some of the government reformers are sincere in their commitment to change, but are simply powerless to deliver on their promises. Their presence in the government only prolongs the life of a system that is incapable of reform. Following the recent attacks on students by vigilantes and thugs, the students wrote a frankly worded letter to Khatami, challenging him either to stop these violations and punish the culprits, or to resign and avoid legitimizing this regime."

Old fogies in America's Boomer generation may feel a certain familiarity with the above rhetoric -- it's very similar to the rhetoric used by students in America's Awakening era in the 1960s. If you have a moment, go back and read the letter from Mark Rudd of Columbia University that I quoted several years ago. The more you read about this kind of rhetoric from students during Awakening eras for students in different countries, you realize that it's all bluster and that it all sounds the same.

Razavi-Faqih continued as follows, when asked what the students will do next:

"It is not clear yet. Civil disobedience, strikes and peaceful protests in various locations…all these measures are being considered. The student movement is not prone to violence, although anger and frustration may lead to isolated incidents of violent reaction by students. We realize that violence will destroy our hard-won gains of the past few years. That is why we are moving toward connecting our movement to the demands of other social groups, like workers and even families. What is clear, though, is that we no longer feel there is any use in continuing a dialogue with the regime, even with the elected reformers. In realizing this, the student movement has shown itself one more time to be a step ahead of the rest of society."

Thus, the election of hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency in 2005 was a major blow to the student movement.

I've written about student unrest in Iran a number of times on this web site. (See for example "Iran: Tehran University student unrest is building against the government" for unrest targeting President Khatami in 2004, and "Students at Tehran University risk protest against Ahmadinejad" from 2007.)

I've written about it because it's the hallmark of a generational Awakening era, one that begins a generation past the end of a crisis war.

(For information about generational Awakening eras, see "Basics of Generational Dynamics." For information about America's Awakening era in the 1960s-70s, see "Iraq Today vs 1960s America." For information about the Summer of Love, see "Boomers commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love.")

The axis of evil

One thing that I've always found pleasing -- going back as far as 2000 -- was that I'd occasionally read news stories about pro-American student demonstrations in Tehran. It was such a pleasant contrast to the anti-Americanism that seemed to exist everywhere else, including even the American press. And when Palestinians were dancing in the streets after the 9/11 attacks, Iranians were expressing genuine sympathy.

I've written several times about the schizophrenic national strategy that Iran has been exhibiting. From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, what's important is the behavior and attitudes of large masses of people, entire generations of people. The attitudes and behaviors of the politicians are irrelevant, except insofar as they reflect the attitudes of the people.

Thus, when I've analyzed Iran's strategy, I've had to emphasize the effects and potential outcomes of the drastically different attitudes of the older generation politicians and people -- the "kids." I have absolutely no doubt that the kids are going to win this political battle. The only question is -- when?

And when we discuss politics, we have to go back to 2002. Possibly no single sentence has roiled Iranian politics in the last decade more than President Bush's statement, in 2002, naming Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the new "axis of evil."

Here's what NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in 2002:

"[If you come to Iran,] you'll discover not only a Muslim country where many people were sincerely sympathetic to America after Sept. 11, but a country where so many people on the street are now talking about -- and hoping for -- a reopening of relations with America that the ruling hard-liners had to take the unprecedented step two weeks ago of making it illegal for anyone to speak about it in public. ...

But what is striking is how much President Bush's branding of Iran as part of an "axis of evil" (along with Iraq and North Korea) intensified this discussion. At first, reformers in Parliament and the media were embarrassed by Mr. Bush's statement, which hard-liners used against them as "proof" that America would never have ties with the Islamic Republic. But since then, reformers have retaliated by pointing to the "axis of evil" accusation and saying to the hard-liners: "Look where your policies have led us."

Add to this the reduction in U.S. visas for Iranians since Sept. 11, which has dispirited many Iranian college students, and the shock the Iranians had two weeks ago when Russia, their longtime backer, effectively joined NATO, and you can understand why a lot of people here are rethinking ties with Washington. ...

I don't know what the final outcome will be, but I do know this: If Secretary of State Colin Powell were to announce tomorrow that he was ready to fly to Tehran and put everything on the table -- an end to sanctions, Iran's nuclear program, its support for Palestinian terrorists, diplomatic relations -- he would light this place on fire."

That column appeared on June 12, 2002. And now we're headed for an election on June 12, 2009, and President Obama has done -- sort of -- what Thomas Friedman has suggested. When we say "sort of," we mean that no real policies have yet changed. The Iranians are still enriching uranium and producing plutonium (ingredients in both reactor fuel and nuclear weapons). And last week, Obama signed a renewal of the US economic and trading sanctions against Iran.

Still, for those who believe that words can change the world, will Obama's remarks "light [Tehran] on fire?"

Since the kids are going to win the generational political battle eventually, the kids may get a victory on June 12, and that's the possible scenario that has to be considered.

Analysts that I've heard on BBC say that Ahmadinejad is heavily favored to win. They point to his popularity in parts of Tehran, and especially in the rural villages scattered around Iran's countryside.

However, Ahmadinejad may not be as popular in rural areas as he used to be, according to one recent news story:

"On March 4, Ahmadinejad decided to make one of his frequent provincial stops on the city of Orumieh in west Azerbijan. This was supposed to be a great publicity tour with thousands of appreciative townspeople cheering and applauding their beloved president. It was after all in west Azerbaijan that Ahamdinejad's career-- as the governor of the province—had been launched before he came to national prominence as Tehran mayor. Instead, he was treated to a rare display of public anger not seen in Iran in recent memory. Right in the middle of the public spectacle, Ahmadinejad's motorcade came under attack by more than one shoe-thrower who were apparently not enthused with this visit.

According to the March 6 Guardian report on the incident, after the repeated shoe-throwing and booing's, the security guards scrambled to catch the offending individuals but were unable to do so. Instead, the president's automobile quickly sped away to avoid further embarrassment. Following the incident, all the president's provincial excursion tours have been indefinitely cancelled and the Iranian media have been strictly forbidden to report on the episode—for very good reason."

Of course much of the world press, including the Iranian press, has been very gleeful in describing the shoe-throwing incident directed at then-President George Bush visiting Iraq. So these new incidents might be described as examples of the old saying, "What goes around comes around."

From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, it's not a surprise that there's a change in attitude among rural voters that's similar to the change in attitude among Tehran students. After all, the change is a generational change, and the same young generations are growing up in rural areas.

So if the shoe-throwing incident in Orumieh represents a widespread change in rural attitudes towards Ahmadinejad, then he could indeed be in serious trouble in the June 12 election.

That's the reason why the title of this article is, "President Obama casts a vote against Iran's President Ahmadinejad." In the current climate, the kids are going to support the reformist candidate, and Obama may have given their cause a boost.

The main reformist candidate was originally going to be Mohammad Khatami, but he stepped down last week, giving as a reason that there were several "reformist" candidates, and he didn't want to split the vote, although other news stories hint that he was pressured, and perhaps threatened with violence.

That leaves the hopes of the reformists in Mir-Hossein Musavi. Musavi also served in the Iran/Iraq war, but he's less well-known than Khatami, and his "reformist" credentials are sometimes questioned by student groups. Furthermore he will have to split the vote with another "reformist" candidate, Medhi Karrubi.

Today, the election favorite would have to be Ahmadinejad. However, the election is now 2½ months away, and that amount of time is an eternity in politics.

If Ahmadinejad loses, then President Obama's supporters will undoubtedly claim some of the credit for him. This will be a bright spot for him, since the financial crisis and other policy areas will give him little or nothing to crow about.

(Comments: For reader comments, questions and discussion, as well as more frequent updates on this subject, see the Iran thread of the Generational Dynamics forum.) (22-Mar-2009) Permanent Link
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