THE BLOG
08/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Iran, Protest, and Intelligence: Why Strategic Reports Often Get it Wrong

A major shortcoming of private security firms and official intelligence agencies is that they frequently lack on-the-ground, in-country, sources and do not fully utilize experts who travel to and study the country. Human intelligence is woefully lacking, so too much reliance is placed on signals intelligence. Those organizations under-exploit the open source information that is readily available to them. Such reports usually are concisely written and closely argued--not long-winded like academic analyses. They are exactly what decision-makers like to read. The Strategic Forecasting, Inc., or STRATFOR geopolitical report "The Iranian Election and the Revolution Test," issued on June 22, is one example, recently, on Iran. That report is a current example of how and why such documents are off-target, and so it can serve as a foil for investigating assessments of issues in the forefront of the Iranian political crisis.

Four major issues warrant focus: (1) The Iranian government's ability to gather, transport, and count a representative sample of the 40-plus million hand-written ballots within a few hours in a country approximately one-fifth the size of the United States of America and nearly seven times the size of the United Kingdom; (2) Whether the protests really have spread beyond universities and major cities; (3) The role of technology in spread and suppression of dissent; and (4) What motivates the protestors and major political players in Iran.

The issue of ballots cast and votes tabulated, during Iran's tenth presidential election on June 12, has been much vexed. The STRATFOR Report dismissed most of the allegations of fraud. One insightful resource available to guide discussions is the careful analysis of voting patterns at chathamhouse.org. Statistical evidence of election fraud has been laid out at the Washington Post as well. Those precise investigations suggest ballot fraud did occur on a national scale and that the scheme was centrally coordinated.

Likewise, the spread of election-related protests has been debated. A fuller understanding of this specific issue warrants examination of the data gathered at irantracker.org. Public protest has been reported not only in Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz, but at Tabriz in the northwest, Rasht along the Caspian Sea, the holy city of Mashhad in the northeast, Kerman in the southeast, and even at the largely ethnically-Arab city of Ahvaz in the southwest. Anti-government demonstrations have occurred at Cham, Taft, and Bam among other towns and villages. The anti-government protestors are not drawn from any single social, ethnic, religious, or other type of demographic sector. The political unrest seems to have begun among and spread between a variety of public settings, not just university students and westernized elites. Again, valuable data can be found at irantracker, which should be consulted. Conclusions, such as those in the STRATFOR Report for instance, that protest is limited to universities, the "twittering classes," and other elites are based on an incomplete evaluation of available evidence.

Cell phone penetration and internet access in Iran exceeds land-line capacity and cuts across urban, rural rich, and poor divides. It is a basic means of communication not restricted to any particular socioeconomic segment of the population. Details can be gleaned from menafn.com, genderit.org, internetworldstats.com, and NedaNet. Electronic communication has become the predominant means of assembling opposition to the Iranian regime and communicating crackdowns by that regime. The Iranian government has its own reasons for not shutting-off all electronic communications. The regime in Tehran is utilizing covert technologies to locate cell phone and internet users who are protesting the theocracy and transmitting data to one another and to the outside world. On this matter, it is useful to consult WSJ.com with a response at nokiasiemensnetworks.com. The Janus-face of modern technology in tussles between citizens against the state is vividly illustrated by recent events in Iran.

It is important to bear in mind that Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, Mohammad Khatami, and even the usually conservative Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani are the symbolic standard-bearers of change. The election results were the spark, not the fuel for the protests. Thirty years of public outrage has built up slowly but steadily against repression great and small throughout the entire population of Iran. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks only for the hard-line clerics rather than against them as, for example the STRATFOR Report among others has suggested. It is particularly telling of the mood in Iran that even the usually conservative madrassa students at Qum, Mashhad, and Isfahan are not supporting the regime through public demonstrations. Precisely because the hard-line mullahs are no longer representative of many Iranians is why Ahmadinejad's claims to victory have been widely rejected.

The current Iranian president's political mentors include Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati who is the chairman of the Council of Guardians of the Constitution that ratified the election results. So while reshuffling among the ruling classes may occur, the degree of change depends on whether fundamentalists like Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his cohorts such as Jannati and Ahmadinejad prevail or whether pragmatists like Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri emerge much stronger from the clerics' internal struggles. Coalitions of pragmatic politicians, public intellectuals, moderate mullahs, economically-strained entrepreneurs, democratic-minded men and women, and activist students played pivotal roles during Iran's Constitutional Revolution of 1906 and Islamic Revolution of 1979. The past indicates that, if not now then in the near future, those groups are very likely to succeed again.

Revolutions are accurately designated as such only after the fact, not when protests begin. The protests in Iran are not yet and may never become a revolution. History suggests such developments are comparatively rare as the status quo often endures. Yet, Iran experienced two revolutions during the last century--so the latest protests could very well be sowing the seeds of change again. The role of continued public protests by citizens--especially if the civic outcry remains sustained, grows again in frequency and number of participants, and continues to invigorate a wide range of Iran's socioeconomic classes--will determine if the people eventually prevail again. The variegated ways in which citizens are using technology, passive resistance, and infrastructural attacks on the regime suggests that the uprising is steadily gaining momentum on various fronts. Even then, change in Iran may not take the form of a revolution. It may produce a return to the more traditional form of Iranian statecraft where political leaders, religious clergy, government bureaucrats, and citizens are the equally important and comparably relevant pillars of a stable, outward looking nation. Intelligence estimates and conclusions need to comprehend the broader contexts of large-scale events and local incidents then analyze those within the frameworks of history, religion, sociopolitics, and culture to accurately present and predict events in Iran.