Commentary: Collapse is Imminent

Posted on May 17, 2011


A Quick Note on Iran/Yesterday’s Post

In a fitting turn of the news, Hamid Dabashi came out with a piece in Al Jazeera today that summarizes better than I ever could why Iran isn’t like the other revolutionary movements in the region, why people have despaired so easily from the historical perspective about the Green Movement, but why there is hope for change in Iran.

Note especially this passage:

“It is now perfectly evident that the leading elite of the Islamic republic, from its clerical to civilian to military apparatus, is deeply fractured, confused, and above all troubled by its own internal dissent and the regional uprising alike. As much as one should not exaggerate the threat that Islamic Republic faces for its very survival, one should not underestimate the historic nature of the threats that it faces today. Yes it has historically managed to keep itself afloat and overcome its endemic crisis. But this time around it faces not just simply unmanageable economic difficulties, but the normative transmutation of a moral dissent into a material force, perfectly evident in the youthful composure of simple disgust. A politically significant component of the society – young, impatient, hopeless, and widely connected to the world at large – harbour this resentment toward an outdated theocracy.”

Just thought that posting was a fortuitous note to mention.

Dabashi also brings up the Larijani brothers in the piece. The three relevant brothers all come from a clerical background and have some traction in every branch of Iranian governance. The terror scenario is the Larijani brothers managing to gain upper-level control of the government and patching the rifts between the different branches, eliminating the high-profile cracks through which dissent and reform can weasel their ways. Given that one Larijani is a high likelihood candidate in the next presidential election, it’s possible—especially if the Ayatollah wants to play Realpolitk, the brothers are the best bet for the Iranian regime in light of recent turmoil, giving the rest of the trio a good shot at a power play. But a Larijani takeover would have to take a few years and at the moment it’s a few years they don’t have. Also, the consolidation of power wouldn’t be immediate and the cracks between the branches of the Iranian government are probably too deeply sewn at this point to be easily patched, so even if a unified family gained control of the government in full, the relative unpopularity of their background (a failing social/cultural/economic class) and the traction gained by the Green Movement, they probably couldn’t salvage the regime.

Prognosis: 2013 elections will have seen simmering tensions between Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollah and continued uprisings by the Green Movement. Guardian Council rulings on valid and invalid candidates will stir some discontent. Ahmadinejad and co. will be spoilers to the clerics. Mousavi and Karroubi probably won’t play a huge part, but that may be for the best given their ties to the past and the old guard. The movement will need a good face and there’s a risk it could be Ahmadinejad’s face if he keeps up the current record, which would not be the best outcome. Best outcome is for the Green Movement in 2013 to be led by a lower-middle to middle class community organizer with good Muslim values, a clean slate, some tacit support from Mousavi, Karroubi, and possibly Ahmadinejad, and great mobilization networks among students, women, and labor. Either before or after the 2013 elections, expect massive protests and complications on the government’s side in responses, some increased western press coverage, and hopefully the severe weakening/reform or collapse/reorganization of the current government.

What Would Help Us Make Sense of All of This …

Fixation on western news sources skews our popular conceptions of Iran and other such regions. But check out this thing—it makes it extremely easy to get foreign news relevant to understanding a situation outside of your own culture’s spin, even if that news is in a foreign language. For Iran, try running checks and translations on Farsi state and opposition press and checking the news on Iran from some regional players with lower stakes, like Azerbaijan or Tajikistan (both nations oddly relevant now).

The article says it best, though. To paraphrase: my god, this will make about 90 percent of all my future research and writing easier, more thorough, and more robust.

On a Different Note … Corruption!

Fareed Zakaria (Mr. Soft Serve Analysis Himself!) put up an article noting a new proposal out of India on how to reduce corruption. The proposal, to summarize, would legalize bribes for the giver, but double down the penalization for the bribe demander/taker. I want to pick apart a few problems with this proposal, but before that it’s worth mentioning the other two models to end corruption mentioned by Zakaria.

Lee Kwan Yew’s strategy in Singapore was to create parity in pay between the private sector and public workers. For nations with massive bureaucracies and low economic indicators like Pakistan or India, though, that’s just not feasible and it really doesn’t decrease the incentives for bribery—take the Indian example where bribes to private sector workers are still common. The Yew model relies on a level of income for the nation, a small enough population size, and a sizable and feared security force to manage those who do seek bribes.

The Mo Ibrahim model seeks to create a positive incentive by giving an award (name and glorify) and some cash to the African leader who meets a certain level of non-corruption. Unfortunately they haven’t been able to find one, which is more disheartening for the continent than it is helpful. That and positive incentives such as this can be easily manipulated—it can actually become an incentive for increased corruption by upping the sophistication of baksheesh transactions and involving a larger body in the conspiracy to hide the practice in custom and law and through common implication. A brotherhood of corruption to cheat the system and achieve success at transparency through opaque ne’er-do-well-ery.

Onto the new proposal by Indian Chief Economic Advisor Kaushik Basu—the model is the only one that really makes sense. But in order to properly stigmatize and monetarily punish the crime of corruption and bribe-taking and increase reporting of the crime by the briber (necessary to decrease incentives for bribe taking), one needs an effective and uncorrupted judicial branch right down to the street-level law enforcement officers.

An anecdote: in Ghana in 2006 I was arrested three times in the space of a month, essentially for walking while white, and released for a bribe of approximately $10 each time. Though the details elude me, something about the payment system made it lucrative for the police to make numerous arrests and release them easily while clogging the courts with just one or two serious cases, themselves subject to heavy bribes. Whatever the delusion in the Basu model, one cannot count on an impartial judiciary and police force that will prosecute baksheesh.

In fact, corruption in the judiciary could make the Basu model more harmful. Increased risk of prosecution for only one player would increase potential loss to prosecution and in bribes to police by the bribe taker, leading to higher bribe demanders to individuals and no increased recourse for those individuals. It could simply increase the magnitude of bribery even if the risk did decrease slightly the widespread level of corruption. The amount of money lost to bribery would probably remain the same.

So you’ve got to find a way to abstract the judiciary and police from a culture of corruption—probably a mix of positive and negative incentives against bribe taking and for prosecution on the part of the state for the courts and increased monitoring/transparency by third-party groups not known to take bribes. It’s just the addition of one more layer to Basu’s game theory model—a layer that makes the incentives for enforcement of the laws high for judiciary and police members. It’s possible, but still probably expensive. Yet if carried out it probably would significantly decrease corruption. Only catch is how to move such a bill through a series of corrupt and disjointed governmental bodies? So much for hope!

Pakistan …

Three good articles about Pakistan came out today. I wanted to comment on them, but this “Commentary” is getting a bit long and I can’t do it justice here. Needless to say, I’m surprised by developments against the Saudis in Karachi and eager to see where this goes. I’m also still surprised that everyone is still looking at Taliban actions as irrational and shadowy, but not as nationalist-related, isolatable, pragmatic, and reversible.

It’s amazing how much of the nation’s problems could be addressed through economic development, power sharing, and sovereignty restoration for certain groups; simple redress for the Machiavellian abuses of Nehru and Jinnah and the British around 1947 and onwards. But it’s all very complicated and I’ll refrain on writing about it for now/will post some papers I’ve written on the issue later.

There’s a lot of opportunity for Pakistan right now, but the nation needs a Bismarck, some native-led divide and conquer, and a strong political goal/message. These are strong and vague claims, so please take me to taks on them! Let’s stir up some discussion and I’ll write some fuller thoughts on Pakistan (maybe a full summary and report in a few days) soon, hopefully taking into account all that you, my wonderful friends, have to say!

For now, sleep tight, friends. Off to adventures at the Department of Licensing tomorrow.

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