TWN Guest Blogger “Shane M” in New York Times: Old Polls are Like Week Old Stale Bagels


mousavi_green.jpgFor the last several days, I have been running “dispatches” from an anonymous student in Tehran. Through The Washington Note, he has developed an enormous audience interested in his on-site, real time observations of the post-election convulsions in Iran.
Yesterday, TWN‘s anonymous blogger had to pick a name in order to appear on the NPR show, “All Things Considered.” And today, the New York Times has run a major op-ed by him under the name “Shane M” titled “A Different Iranian Revolution.”
I have another dispatch from Shane M — and will post it shortly, but first a few clips from his excellent op-ed.
The first identifies a split within my own organization at the New America Foundation — between my colleagues Flynt Leverett and Patrick Doherty on one hand and Amjad Atallah, Afshin Molavi and myself on the other. Perhaps there are actually three hands rather than two — as I strongly believe that no matter what the eventual outcome of the Iranian election process and its aftermath, the United States and the West must engage Iran over its nuclear ambitions. An isolation strategy will be extremely counter-productive.
That said, as a progressive realist — or what Anatol Lieven would term an “ethical realist” — I am asking my similarly directed realist friends what part of progressive or ethical don’t they get? The election process is not over — and one of the many mistakes of the Bush administration was to not identify with the aspirations and hopes of citizens in Muslim societies. To preemptively recognize Ahmadinejad before Iran has resolved its turmoil is to throw America back where Bush had us with Iran — and that’s a mistake.
From Shane M.’s essay:

WE look over this wall of marching people to see what our friends in the United States are saying about us. We cannot help it — 30 years of struggle against the Enemy has had the curious effect of making us intrigued. To our great dismay, what we find is that in important sectors of the American press a disturbing counternarrative is emerging: That perhaps this election wasn’t a fraud after all. That the United States shouldn’t rush in with complaints of democracy denied, and that perhaps Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the president the Iranian people truly want (and, by extension, deserve).
Do not believe it. Those so-called experts warning Americans to be leery of claims of fraud by the opposition are basing their arguments on an outdated understanding of Iran that has little to do with the reality of what we here are experiencing during these singular days.

Ken Ballen, President of Terror Free Tomorrow, and my colleague Patrick Doherty were both involved in supporting a Terror Free Tomorrow/New America Foundation poll of Iranian political views in early May. Shane makes the point that like “stale bagels a week old” the poll results which were then pointing toward Ahmadinejad were pre-debate and simply caught a snap shot in time distant from what happened on 6-12.
He writes:

Let’s also forget the polls, carried out in May by Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion, that have been making the rounds this past week, with numbers that showed Mr. Ahmadinejad well ahead in the election, even in Mr. Moussavi’s hometown, Tabriz. Maybe last month Mr. Ahmadinejad was indeed on his way to victory. But then came the debates.
Starting on June 1, the country was treated to an experience without precedent in the 30 years of the Islamic Republic of Iran: six back-to-back live and unscripted debates among the four presidential candidates. Iranians everywhere were riveted, and the poll numbers began to move.
By the Wednesday before the election, Mr. Moussavi was backed by about 44 percent of respondents, while Mr. Ahmadinejad was favored by around 38 percent. So let’s not cloud the results with numbers that were, like bagels, stale a week later. (And let’s ignore the claim that polling by Iranians in Iran is “notoriously untrustworthy.” A consortium of pollsters and social scientists working for a diverse range of political and social organizations systematically measured public opinion for months before the election.)
Such a major shift has happened before. A month before the 1997 elections, the establishment candidate, Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri, was trouncing his opponents in surveys. Then, a week before the vote, the tide changed, bringing to power a reformer, Mohammad Khatami.

I will be appearing on a panel on Monday between 3:30 pm and 5:00 pm EST at the New America Foundation (it will stream live here at The Washington Note) about Iran’s electoral turmoil along with Terror Free Tomorrow’s Ken Ballen, my New America Foundation friends and colleagues Flynt Leverett and Afshin Molavi, and Nader Mousavizadeh of the International Institute for Strategic Studies who has been promoting an “Ignore Ahmadenijad” strategy for our eventual US-Iran negotiations.
Shane M. powerfully captures the sense of transformation and change that 6-12 seems to have brought to Iran. Interestingly, whereas Obama saw Mousavi and Ahmadinejad similarly when it came to the nuclear issue, Shane M. also recognizes the paradox that both political rivals would probably usher Iran towards active discussions and negotiations with the United States. That is what the Iranian people in both camps want.
But there is something greater in the Sea of Green that has spread throughout Iran.
Shane M. writes:

One final note: the election does reveal a paradox. There is strong evidence that Iranians across the board want a better relationship with the United States. But if Mr. Moussavi were to become president and carry out his campaign promise of seeking improved relations with America, we would probably see a good 30 percent of the Iranian population protesting that he is “selling out” to the enemy.
By contrast, support for Mr. Ahmadinejad’s campaign was rooted in part in his supposed defense of the homeland and national honor in the face of United States aggression. Americans too-long familiar with the boorish antics of the Iranian president will no doubt be surprised to learn that the best chance for improved relations with the United States perhaps lies with Mr. Ahmadinejad. But Mr. Ahmadinejad is perceived here as being uniquely able to play the part of an Iranian Nixon by “traveling to the United States” and bringing along with him his supporters — and they are not few.
In other words, Iranians believe they face a daunting choice: a disastrous domestic political situation with Mr. Ahmadinejad but an improved foreign policy, or improved domestic leadership under Mr. Moussavi but near impossible challenges in making relations with the United States better.
The truth is, it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. The open-air parties that, for one week, turned Tehran at night into a large-scale civic disco, were an accident. People gathered by the tens of thousands in public squares, circling around one another on foot, on motorcycle, in their cars. They showed up around 4 or 5 in the afternoon and stayed together well into the next day, at least 3 or 4 in the morning, laughing, cheering, breaking off to debate, then returning to the fray. A girl hung off the edge of a car window “Dukes of Hazzard” style. Four boys parked their cars in a circle, the headlights illuminating an impromptu dance floor for them to show off their moves.
Everyone watched everyone else and we wondered how all of this could be happening. Who were all of these people? Where did they come from? These were the same people we pass by unknowingly every day. We saw one another, it feels, for the first time. Now in the second week, we continue to look at one another as we walk together, in marches and in silent gatherings, toward our common goal of having our vote respected.
No one knew that it would come to this. Iran is this way. Anything is possible because very little in politics or social life has been made systematic. We used to joke that if you leave Tehran for three months you’ll come back to a new city. A friend left for France for a few days last week and when he returned the entire capital had turned green.

Read the entire piece.
I’m proud of our anonymous student who has been sending his dispatches to TWN‘s many readers and has now gone big time at the New York Times.
Another dispatch from Tehran soon. . .
— Steve Clemons


10 comments on “TWN Guest Blogger “Shane M” in New York Times: Old Polls are Like Week Old Stale Bagels

  1. Dan Kervick says:

    I say we refer the question about world awareness of bagels to the wise Oakley the Amazing Weimaraner.
    But I believe Steve earlier identified the student as an *Iranian-American* who is studying in Tehran. So unless he is from the most remote American hinterlands, it seems plausible that he knows from bagels.


  2. Sand says:

    Yes, I can’t believe I’m discussing ‘bagels’ — but your comment was so ridiculous, and verging on total ignorance that I felt I should say something.
    I assure you that most Europeans and I’m sure Iranians are ‘sophisticated’ enough to know what a bagel is, and its ethnic relevance. [Also, believe it or not they are even on sale in ‘Europe’ – amazing that]
    I think the use of ‘bagel’ was a nice contextual touch by Shane M. Maybe it just went over your head.


  3. Steve Clemons says:

    Wig — yes, I know enough about Shane M to know that he’s the real deal — and I know that he knows a lot about bagels. all best — and yes, this did make me laugh.


  4. cherish says:

    At the risk of turning this thread into Bagel Wars … why assume that “Iranian student” cannot mean an intelligent young Iranian who has traveled some, who has studied the culture for which he is writing (NYC, USA), and not only knows what a bagel is himself, but understands what its reference means to his audience?


  5. WigWag says:

    Assuming everyone in the world shares your culture, customs, language or traditions Sand, is just another form of cultural imperialism that I am sure you would decry if only you were self-reflective enough to think about it.
    Bagels (which were originally invented by a Jewish baker in Vienna in 1683) came to the North America (primarily Toronto, Montreal and New York from Russia in the early part of the 20th century. They were primarily an ethnic food enjoyed by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Jews living in Palestine at the time didn’t know what they were and they were unknown in the Sephardic tradition. They were certainly not a ubiquitous item in Iran in the 20th century nor are they a ubiquitous item there today. And in the 21st century, bagels are not a staple food for Iranian Jews like they are for American Jews of eastern European decent.
    If you think the majority of people living on the European continent know what a bagel is you are simply mistaken. If you think most Iranians know what a bagel is, you are equally mistaken.
    That doesn’t mean that “Shane M” couldn’t know what a bagel is but I do think it’s an unusual colloquialism for an Iranian to use.
    If my speculation doesn’t rise to the level of intellectual discourse that you find suitable for the comment section of the Washington Note, I suggest that next time you see a comment from me that you avert your eyes.


  6. Outraged American says:

    George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address was the Mother
    of All Conspiracy Theories, yet the majority of Americans bought
    the fradulent claims of Iraq’s WMD and are now paying in blood and
    treasure for their bloodthirstiness and naivete.
    So I guess we conspiracy theorists, i.e., people who actually apply
    critical thinking to every piece of pap spewed from a government
    apparatchik or “experts” mouth, are in really bad company.
    After-all Our Conspiracy Theorist-in-Chief, Junior Bush, “led” us
    into some of the biggest disasters in U.S. history, but oddly
    enough, it was the “conspiracy theorists” among us who predicted


  7. Samd says:

    “…I’ve been to many places in the United States where they don’t know what bagels are. There are tens of millions of people in Europe and the Middle East who’ve never heard of a “bagel…”
    Yeah — they’re still living in the dark ages over in Europe and and Middle East == Good Grief…


  8. WigWag says:

    I don’t want to sound paranoid or like a conspiracy-monger (there’s more than enough of that in the comment section of the Washington Note) but do the people publishing this students work (e.g. Steve Clemons, NPR and the NY Times)know enough about him to vouch for the fact that he’s the genuine article?
    In today’s Op-Ed he says,
    “By the Wednesday before the election, Mr. Moussavi was backed by about 44 percent of respondents, while Mr. Ahmadinejad was favored by around 38 percent. So let’s not cloud the results with numbers that were, like bagels, stale a week later.”
    I’ve been to many places in the United States where they don’t know what bagels are. There are tens of millions of people in Europe and the Middle East who’ve never heard of a “bagel.”
    I’m just saying that use of this colloquialism makes me a little suspicious that “Shane M” is your typical Iranian student.
    But then again, maybe I’ve just watched too many James Bond movies or perhaps I’m still a little hung over from my recent Irish Pub Blooms day trek.


  9. Dan Kervick says:

    Steve, what is the source of the anonymous student’s 44% to 38% pre-election poll results?
    The US government certainly shouldn’t recognize Ahmadinejad as the winner while the post-election political struggle is working its way out. On the other hand, the US just as certainly shouldn’t declare the results a “coup” or declare Ahmadinejad the loser on the basis of what, even for our intelligence agencies, is bound to be very imperfect and iffy information. We don’t know how the situation in Iran is going to resolve itself. If the US government goes on record with the view that Ahmadinejad is not the legitimately elected president, then it may put itself in a position of having “no partner for peace” if Iran settles on the conclusion that Ahmadinejad *is* their president.
    Iran’s president is the person responsible for executive functions, including conducting foreign policy and signing treaties with foreign governments and international organizations. He appoints the Minister of Foreign Affairs. It’s not so easy, I don’t think, to do an end run to Khamenei. And if the US position evolves into the view that Khamenei is *also* in on this “coup”, there goes that channel.
    You might be right that Ahmadinejad and Mousavi are both just as likely to pursue dialogue with the West. I’m a little more doubtful about that. But I think the US is extremely reluctant to ever have any a sit-down or even mediated dialogues with Ahmadinejad, given his many embarrassing public positions, and would find it much easier to work with Mousavi. While I’m hopeful Obama will move forward with diplomacy either way, and believe Obama is being appropriately circumspect in his public statements, I imagine Obama is praying that Mousavi wins somehow, so that he that he never has to endure a photo-op shaking hands with the holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad.
    If we are to identify ourselves with the aspirations of the Iranian people, which aspirations should we identify with exactly – democratic aspirations or liberal aspirations or both? And what happens when these come into conflict? There are many people in Iran who have *liberal* aspirations, and of course it is very easy for us to identify with them personally. They are the people who think most like us, act most like us and like us the most. They’re the ones who want to wear American clothes and listen to American music. But suppose, hypothetically, some people are working to liberalize Iran by seizing this opportunity to subvert the electoral outcome. Would we want to identify ourselves in that case with the liberals or with the democratic process that might have defeated the liberals in this particular case?
    Now hopefully, that is not the case. It would be great if Mousavi is the legitimate winner, and if his supporters within the Iranian government are somehow able to get around Khamenei, and prevail in a way that doesn’t set off a bunch of Persian powder kegs. I think that would be the best outcome both for them and for us.


  10. Bill R. says:

    I appreciate your coverage and the magnificent guest posts from Iranian contributors.
    What now?? Are the Iranian people going to be able to determine their future, or are they going to be slaughtered by their own government? In 1979 the decision by the police and army not to perpetrate violence against their own people was the tipping point. The same seems true here, even more so, the army needs to protect the people from the terror of the militias.


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