What Egypt Means for Iran

February 9, 2011

Like many people, I’ve been immersed in all things Egypt for the past 2 weeks. I’ll admit I was at first skeptical that the protests popping up throughout the Arab would lead to any tangible change, even after they forced former Tunisian president Ben Ali scouring his rolodex for a place to retire in exile. Yet as events in Egypt, and to some degree in Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, and even Sudan has shown, the Arab awakening of 2011 is going to change the way these aging Arab autocrats rule.

So where does this leave Iran? Is there a chance current events could spread beyond the Arab core of the Middle East and re-ignite the protest movement in Iran? Can the youth of Egypt accomplish what the Green movement of Iran could not? Will Egypt’s protests be hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood and turn into an Arab version of the Islamic Republic? Below I offer my thoughts in question-and-answer format to some of these questions as they relate to Iran and the Middle East at large.

What do Iranians think about the protests?

In the rest of the Middle East, citizens have largely been cheering the protesters in Tahrir Square while their governments have been downplaying the events and offering concessions and new subsidies to pre-empt copycat protests. In Iran, though, the regime is actually cheering them on and claiming credit for an “Islamic awakening” sweeping through the region. For the hardliners in power, the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere are anti-Western, pro-Islamic, and smaller-scale versions of Iran’s own 1979 revolution.

Events in Egypt are especially delighting to hardliners in a bout of schadenfreude. When the Shah went into exile and was unceremoniously asked to leave the US and Nicaragua, he was eventually buried in Egypt, an act that infuriated Iran so much that they named a street after the assassin who killed Sadat (I believe it was recently de-named this, but don’t quote me on this….). Iran also sees Egypt as overly friendly to Israel and the US, so in a strictly geo-political sense they believe whatever person/regime comes to replace Mubarak will tilt more towards their sphere (more on this later).

Of course I can’t speak to the reaction amongst a general population of over 70 million, but reading some articles in opposition-aligned websites and speaking to a few friends there has given me a bit of insight into the public mood there. People there have been following events in Egypt quite closely and have been pulling for the protesters, albeit for markedly different reasons than the regime’s. On the other hand, though, people seem to be a bit less euphoric in watching Egypt than their counterparts in the rest of the Middle East. Several people I talked to worried that
the Egypt’s protests would meet the same fate as Iran in 1979, and the Muslim Brotherhood would take over after Mubarak left and install an Islamic Republic 2.0 in Egypt (much more on this later).

Another very interesting sentiment I picked up from talking to a few friends was a mutation of schadenfreude, an almost jealous but sorrowful joy at watching Egyptians do what Iranians couldn’t a year and a half ago. One person I talked to remarked about how watching the protests in Tahrir Square gave her a painful reminder of Tehran in 2009, and wondered why it was that in Egypt the police and army used restraint, and in some cases even protected, protesters, while in Iran the security forces beat them indiscriminately. There was an “only if” feeling to a lot of what they said about Egypt, one that I think is felt by a lot of people who went onto the streets in Iran during their protests.

Will the protests in Egypt/the Arab world spread to Iran?

Although the protests that began in Tunisia have spread beyond and lasted for longer that I originally thought, I don’t think there’s much of a chance of them spreading to Iran. Of course I’d like nothing more than to be proven wrong about this, but I have several reasons for being skeptical.

First and foremost, Iran already had its Tahrir Square back in 2009. People in Iran aren’t watching satellite TV, looking at images of Egyptians demanding the ouster of their president, and saying “wow, great idea! We should try that too!” They’re watching these images and thinking, “wow, we already tried that. Best of luck to you guys.” Not that Iranians don’t want to or aren’t inspired by the images coming out of Egypt. But it was not very long ago that they went onto the streets demanding “where is my vote” and were beaten, detained, and killed for doing so.  These scars, both mental and physical, are still very fresh for the would-be protesters of Iran.

On top of this, the green movement in Iran has been utterly decimated over the past year and a half due to systemic arrests and detentions. Reformist politicians, prominent opposition figures, political organizers, lawyers, journalists, artists, and virtually every segment of Iranian civil society has been targeted. Of course the regime has not, nor ever can it, arrest or detain every potential activist or opposition sympathizer, but for a movement already short on leadership and experience these crackdowns have taken their toll.

With that said, I’m by no means ready to pronounce the Green movement dead or call it a failure. Musavi and Karrubi have quite cleverly requested a permit for a demonstration to show their support with the people of Tunisia and Egypt on the 25 of Bahman (February 14), an annual holiday the regime uses to drum up support*. Like in Egypt, supporters have already launched a support page for the rally on facebook with several thousand members and plans are being drawn up for the rally. But there is very little chance the regime will grant Musavi and Karrubi a permit for their protest, and I’d again say its unlikely there’d be any large turnout on the opposition side for this without permission. Call it a grasping at straws if you like, but I think even requesting a permit to hold a demonstration with the clear knowledge that it won’t be allowed is a much-needed reminder to the opposition in Iran that the Green movement is still alive and kicking.

Why have the Egypt protests “succeeded” while those in Iran did not?

This is really the million dollar question and an incredibly complicated one that could take up an entire PhD dissertation (shameless self-promotion: this will actually be by dissertation topic if all things work out in the next few months). For starters, I should say that the Egyptian protests have not fully succeeded in their goal of getting Mubarak out now. He’s still biding time, promising to step down come next election, so people who want to force him into early retirement have yet to fully realize their goal. But I do believe that even this small concession that he and his son will not run again for office, and the small reform process that has begun–however disingenuous they may be–is a degree of “success” that the Green movement unfortunately did not achieve. Again, huge caveat that I do not believe the Green movement to have failed or to be over, but the harsh truth is that they do not have the tangible achievements that Egypt can now claim.

With that out of the way, I think the main reason the Egyptian protests have enjoyed the degree of success that Iran has not has to do with the military and security apparatus. When the protests first gained steam in Egypt the huge unknown was what the military would do. I think the prevailing wisdom, or at least the belief that I had, was that they would step in and quash the protests. Mubarak comes from the military, they enjoy a prominent place in Egyptian politics and economics, and would see an assault on Mubarak as an assault on their position.

As the pictures of protesters hanging banners on tanks show, the army, at least for now, choose not to side with Mubarak. They may not have outright abandoned Mubarak and thrown their lot in with the people, but they did not quash the protests, and even issued a public statement before one of the largest days of protest saying they would not attack protesters.

The scene on the streets of Iran was the polar opposite. Security forces beat protesters, both young and old, women and children, shot live rounds into crowds, mowed them down in cars and motorcycles, and did not hesitate in the least to use violence to enforce crowd control. Khamenei himself, in his Friday sermon after the contested election, essentially told protesters any violence that occurred from that point forward was their fault. The Egyptian army, whether they were not ordered to or did not follow this order, stayed back and allowed protests to happen. Iranians were not so lucky, and braved a degree of violence for a period of time that in itself is a testament to their spirit and the future of the movement, but which is also impossible to maintain in the face of massive state-sponsored oppression.

Precisely why the Egyptian army behaved as it did is beyond my area of expertise. Why the security apparatus in Iran acted the way it did is in itself a massive topic, but to give a very brief answer, I think much of this has to do with the parallel structure of security forces in the country. On top of the police you have the basij, Revolutionary Guards (including specially-trained units), plainclothes officers, Hezbollah thugs, and others that are reliable regime stalwarts and which will make up for any potential support re-alignment in the other areas.

One other point merits mentioning about the relative success of Egypt. Much was written about how diverse the group of people were who were protesting in Egypt, but one thing they did share in common was the overarching goal that Mubarak must go. Although the complicated issue of when Mubarak must go is being debated amongst supporters, they had a very clear, very unified demand.

In Iran, on the other hand, you had different sets of demands. Some wanted the election overturned altogether, some wanted a recount, some a re-run, and even some an entirely new system of government. The one thing that unified people was outrage over the transparently rigged election captured by the powerful yet vague rallying cry of “where is my vote?”, but beyond that there was no one actionable step forward.  Perhaps the regime never would have conceded to even the smallest of the opposition’s demands, but not having a singular, agreed-upon stipulation made it easier for the regime to deflect pressure and bide for time.

Will Egypt of 2011 turn into Iran of 1979?

That Mubarak is on the outs is a foregone conclusion. What comes after him, though, is still very much up in the air. Another autocrat with ties to the military? A lesser version of this, similar to Turkey, with a strong military but civilian leader? Or worst case scenario, an Islamic Arab Republic modelled on Iran? Despite fears to the contrary, I think there’s very little chance Egypt goes the Iran route.

Foremost among the reasons why I don’t believe this will happen is a look at the protests themselves. The people filling Tahrir Square, and the youth that began organizing Egypt’s yet-to-be-named revolution, are not demanding political Islam. They’re demanding universal values like freedom, democracy, and an end to police intimidation, not a return to the caliphates of antiquity. The Muslim Brotherhood has taken a back seat throughout these protests and has and continues to play catch-up with a movement it neither created not controls. Yes they have been more prominent in recent days, even having a seat at the negotiation table where “reforms” were discussed, but they are one of numerous opposition forces now in consultation for next steps forward.

True, the protests that led to the fall of the Shah in Iran during 1978-9 were not explicitly Islamic in character. Those too had numerous opposition forces, all of whom coalesced around a singular goal of ousting the Shah. Yet with that said, there was a much stronger Islamist element in those protests than you have now in Egypt. Most conspicuously, there is no equivalent of Khomeini in the Egyptian context.

A leader from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood could well emerge over time, but I don’t think you’ll have the same post-revolution power vacuum that happened in Iran which allowed Khomeini and his loyalists to hijack the revolution for their own cause. Iran of 1979 was a revolution in the absolute sense of the term: virtually every vestige of the old regime was dismantled and new institutions built up. There was little carry over, institutionally or personally, from the old regime. In Egypt, much of the work Mubarak has done to codify authoritarian rule will need to be undone, but even if the constitution is scrapped altogether, there will be one very prominent carry over from the previous regime: the military. Right now the military in Egypt still enjoys the support, however frustrated, of the opposition, and there is not going to be a de-Baathification of the army after Mubarak. While Egypt could, but hopefully will not, descend into chaos similar to Iran in 1979, the military will almost surely remain a constant fixture, and one which will (again hopefully) prevent raids of weapons depots and roaming armed bands of revolutionary forces in the aftermath of a Mubarak exit.

Perhaps the best reason of all why Egypt in 2011 will not turn into post-revolution Iran is the existence of Iran itself. Institutionalized political Islam now has a test case, and by most accounts it has failed to deliver as promised. Sure many people across the Middle East may cheer when Ahmadinejad criticizes the US or Israel, but beyond that they’re not clamoring to replicate that model of government. The Islamic Republic has been economically ruinous, to say nothing of the political repression and human rights violations, and whatever claims to popular legitimacy it may have had were shattered during the Green movement of 2009.

Yes it’s true that any democratic, post-Mubarak government will have a greater presence of the Muslim Brotherhood. And yes, this new government will most likely not be as allied to the US and Israel as before. But one should not automatically assume that a protest movement in a Muslim-majority country will necessarily lead to an Islamic state.

What’s next for Egypt?

I’m writing this the day after the inspiring interview with Wael Ghonim, the google executive who was detained for 12 days, aired on Egyptian TV and Tahrir Square had the biggest protests it has seen to date. I’ve been amazed at both the resilience and the bravery of the protesters there, and every time I think their chances are fading and Mubarak will cling to power I’m proven mistaken. Given this, and the fact that I’m very much playing catch-up in learning about Egyptian politics, I really can’t predict what will happen in one week’s, or even one day’s, time. But one issue that is coming to the forefront and is worth more attention is the question of what to do with the constitution and whether Mubarak should stay on, in a very minimal role, until the next presidential elections.

I’ve long admired the Iranian constitution as a brilliant way of legally codifying an unaccountable government and providing almost no space for meaningful checks-and-balances. After reading about the Egytian constitution, I think this comes in a close second to Iran in terms of sheer institutional despotism. Thanks to Mubarak’s constitutional reforms, most notably the ones he pushed through in 2007, the constitution essentially has a self-destruct button built into it in the event that he is removed from power.

Under the given laws, if the president resigns it’s not the vice-president that takes over, but instead the speaker of parliament (himself a Mubarak sycophant). And even if the speaker was inclined towards the opposition, they are constitutionally limited from doing pretty much anything meaningful. They have no power to pass or rescind constitutional constitutional amendments, most notably the article recently-passed article in the Egyptian constitution which makes it virtually impossible for independent candidates to run for president. And I may be mistaken on this point, but I believe an interim president is also constitutionally unable to rescind the declaration of emergency law, which Egypt has been living under for over three decades and which gives cover to some of the more authoritarian measures. Finally, following the president’s resignation (or ouster) a new president must be elected within 60 days. And since the interim president can’t do much to allow for an actual free election with real opposition or independent candidates, this election is essentially limited to choices between established regime figures. Hence, the status quo is preserved.

It’s for these reasons some people in the opposition are actually for a more measured transition where Mubarak is not immediately booted out of the country. According to one plan put forward (available here), Mubarak would stay in office but cede a large number of his powers to a Vice President (not the current one, but an additional one, which he can appoint a number of at will), who in term has to promise a number of reform processes to allow for an actual democratic transition and free elections for a new president. Of course the flaw in this plan is that requires the voluntary ceding of power on Mubarak’s part, and a degree of good will on the proposed VP’s part, but it’s a decent idea for a way forward that doesn’t involve the rather drastic act of scrapping the constitution altogether.

Overall, we’ll see how things play out, both in Egypt and Iran. It may yet be the start of an “Arab Spring,” that could even spill over into Persian Iran. This Friday’s planned protests in Iran will tell us a great deal more about that case, and in Egypt, we’ll see if they can maintain their numbers and pressure on Mubarak.


*Correction: Musavi and Karrubi requested a permit to hold a demonstration on Monday, February 14th, which is actually not the same day as he official regime holiday that celebrates the Islamic Revolution, which comes on Friday, February 11th.


Part III: The Future of Factionalism

August 28, 2010

(Continued from part II)

The pressing question is that with all this establishment infighting and recent sniping at Ahmadinejad’s faction, what, if anything, does this change? I think the best way to answer this question is to look at things in the short and long term.

Some of the short-term developments could be seen almost right after I began posting this three-part post. At the height of the criticism against Ahmadinejad the president wrote a letter to the Supreme Leader asking for his help in resolving the differences with parliament, and Khamenei even had a sit-down with Ahmadinejad, Ali Larijani and Sadegh Larijani (the judiciary chief, who has his own problems with the president). What exactly was discussed at this tea summit’ wasn’t reported, but a week or so later the president and Ali Larijani emerged in some photo with both of them smiling and, as the pictures would have you believe, getting along famously.

On the surface Khamenei seems to have done his job as balancer-in-chief and quelled the fighting for the time being. There was talk of MPs gathering signatures to summon Ahmadinejad to parliament for questioning–and in the most extreme case, to begin impeachment proceedings–but talk of this seems to have died down for the moment. Of course the criticisms haven’t totally been put to rest, and even after their chummy photo-ops there has been isolated criticism of the president for the same reasons as before. But in the short term, at least, the bleeding has stopped.

With regards to the clergy, I have a strong suspicion the re-introduction of the extremely controversial family planning bill was meant as a gesture to either satisfy or distract those conservatives who were criticizing the president for being to lax in enforcing Islamic morals. Better still, it is being debated in and must be passed by the parliament, so the hardline clerics can focus their wrath on MPs who, like they did today, vote down an amendment legalizing temporary marriages. Qom seems to have quieted down and calls for the head of Rahim-Mashaei are no longer mainstays of the news, so for the short term this mini-crisis seems to have been averted.

These tensions may have been swept under the rug and dealt with in the short term, but nothing about how this was done will stop these problems from re-emerging in the future. Rahim-Mashaei is going nowhere, and may have even racked up another job title, bringing his official appointments to upwards of 20, much to the chagrin of his (many) detractors. Ahmadinejad and Larijani may be smiling together now, but from what I’ve read there are no new solution or procedure established for instances of disagreement between the parliament and the president–of which there will surely be many more in the not-too-distant future. The conservative clergy may have their attention set on another issue, but when that one is dealt with there will surely be another instance of tension with the president, especially if he is, as some commentators have speculated, re-positioning himself as a Iranian nationalist to win votes from the disaffected (and irreligious) youth in the next parliamentary election.

With this said, I would expect to see more instances of heightened factionalism within the establishment in the medium and long term. Nothing has been done to address the root cause of their problem–the struggle for power amid the rising ‘neo-conservative’ block–and as elections approach and conservative factions feel more worried that they may meet the same fate as the reformists, they will fight back, and do so as if they are fighting for their very survival.

The determining factor will of course be Khamenei. In the past he has served his role as balancer-in-chief, making sure every faction is content and maintaining the broad support of as many groups and political blocs as possible. After the 2009 election he lost any pretence to be above the political fray and without a preferred faction, but at the same time, that was a choice he made when it was between the unpredictable but loyal Ahmadinejad and ‘seditious’ reformists. This dichotomy will not be repeated come the next parliamentary elections, so he may very well want to restore some credibility with other members of the establishment that have felt marginalized since July 2009. On top of this, Ahmadinejad may not be as loyal as the Supreme Leader may have previously believed, so he might want to humble the president and his ‘25 million votes’. It’s far too early to tell that far in advance, but we’ll get a glipse of this when the next conservative crisis hits. And that should be right around the corner…..

Part II: The Roots of Dissent

August 22, 2010

(continued from Part I)

As a bit of background, establishment in-fighting is in some ways the status quo of Iranian insider politics. The structural and political make-up of the Islamic republic lends itself to factionalism. Structurally, the state is composed of institutional bodies on top of the standard legislative, judicial, and executive branches. In addition to this usual triad there are clerical bodies like the Assembly of Experts, Guardian Council, and Expediency Council, and then revolutionary bodies like the Revolutionary Guards and bonyads (or foundations). These institutions add to the standard checks-and-balances of the state, and more important for the issue at hand, serve as additional places where various factions and political blocs establish themselves and compete for political relevance and access to resources. Simply put, the more routes to political power, the more factionalism.

Politically, factionalism within the establishment dates back to the Islamic Revolution itself. The forces that overthrew the Shah and ended 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran were anything but homogeneous. Revolutionary forces were made up of groups as disparate as aggrieved members of the clergy, leftist intellectuals, unemployed urban dwellers, neglected farmers, bazaar merchants, radical students, and various others. Their desire to oust the Shah from power overcame their differences in background and political outlook, but once that initial goal was accomplished their alliance quickly dissipated and in-fighting began in earnest. Even after leftist groups like the mujahedin were purged during the first decade of the Islamic Republic, the political establishment has been made up of these heterogeneous groups. They are united by their desire to ensure the survival of the regime—and hence, their own survival—but besides this have profound differences.

During the past year, the various conservative factions, located throughout the edifice of the regime, united to fend of the challenge from the Green Movement. Granted reformists were able to peel off some conservatives allies and create some important cleavages within the regime, but the major challenge the administration faced was from without rather than from within. At present the regime has–or at least believes it has–subdued the Green Movement to a manageable and non-threatening existence. For the first time in over a year it feels confident enough in its own staying power, and certain factions that earlier banded together to fight the ‘sedition’ no longer have the need for their alliances of convenience.

With that said, the recent wave of criticism aimed at Ahmadinejad should not be solely attributed to politics as usual. The content of the criticisms, their frequency, and their sources are more than the usual level of factionalism. It would also be a mistake to view some of the particulars discussed above as predictable responses to current events–mainly remarks by the president and his chief of staff. Sure, if Rahim-Mashaei had not extolled Iran over Islam, we would not have the damning criticisms from hardline sectors of the clergy. And if Ahmadinejad didn’t debase himself in a speech during an Islamic Republic-sponsored junket for Iranian expats, he wouldn’t have been lambasted by conservatives for his unsavory remarks. Yet attributing this discord simply to a few isolated statements ignores the mounting frustration with the administration that has come to a boiling point. The level of bickering, and the behind-the-scenes build-up show that this is more than usual establishment factionalism or isolated outbursts. The true root cause of these differences, like all things in politics–even in the Islamic Republic–is power.

Ahmadinejad and his supporters represent a new group in Iranian politics. Unlike most of the other establishment factions they gained their experience after the 1979 revolution, specifically, in the ensuing 8-year war with Iraq. They have very few revolutionary credentials–they were too young to be fighting against the Shah during the 1970s or working with Khomeini during his years in exile–but claim political authenticity from their sacrifices during ‘the imposed war.’ Their political ideology was shaped by the war as well, and both their foreign and domestic policy, particularly when it comes to dealing with dissent, is militant and confrontational. As has been widely discussed, their support base are paramilitary institutions like the revolutionary guards and basij.

There is still much debate about how Ahmadinejad initially came to power in 2005 and what groups supported him. Paramilitary groups lobbied and performed get-out-the-vote activities for him–among other irregularities–but he was not thought to be the conservative candidate of choice. That was presumed to be either the above-mentioned Larijani, or the current mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Qalibaf (also of the pragmatic-conservative stripe). Still, when the second round of the elections came and the choice was between himself and political kingpin Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad became the de facto conservative option.

The Islamic Republic, after all, does not take kindly to outsiders, and there is no way Ahmadinejad would have even been allowed to stand for national office, let alone be president, without some kind of support from inside the establishment. Yet wherever this came from, and how much the Supreme Leader (or his son, as one theory goes) had to do with this, he still had his own distinct base of support–one that was clearly on the inside of the establishment, but independent from the more ‘traditional’ ones like those that back the Rafsanjanis and Larijanis.

Herein lays the problem: Ahmadinejad’s group, call them ‘principlaists,’ ‘neo-conservatives,’ or whatever moniker you choose, is running rampant throughout the establishment, stepping on toes and pushing other groups to the sidelines. Sure there are ideological, and even generational differences, but it’s really all about power. This was certainly a problem during his first term in office. But with one full term and one year of a second gone by, this group has been able to steadily gain more power through political appointments, institutional reshuffling, and of course economic payoffs for its base such as huge no-bid contracts for the Revolutionary Guards.

Ahmadinejad seems to be more confident after ‘winning’ 25 million votes last year. He is being even more confrontational with other establishment groups, ones that he may not have felt confident enough to take head-on in years prior without his recent ‘political mandate.’ These battles and the ensuring struggle for power is what is really behind the heightened criticism of Ahmadinejad. It would be nice to believe the criticism levelled at Ahmadinejad from conservative MPs about the need to respect the legislative branch is genuine, but these same people had no problem overlooking this when the reformist-dominated majles was being undermined at every term during Khatami’s tenure.

It’s not about policy, it’s not about ideology, it’s all about power. When Ahmadinejad’s cadre first emerged on the scene they were still small enough in stock and power that they were manageable–and sometimes quite useful during episodes of reformism. Now, though, they’ve grown in number and influence, are starting to push the old guard out, and can no longer be easily reigned in. The establishment–ironically, the same groups that had a hand in bringing them into power–are fighting back, now for their own survival.

(next, Part III: Looking Towards the Future).

Part I: The Establishment Takes Aim at Ahmadinejad

August 20, 2010
(As an aside, let me apologize for the lack of updates over the past month and a half. I was traveling for a few weeks and then got caught up in a few other things after I returned, but I’m planning on returning to bi- or tri-weekly posts from here onwards)

People who have been following Iranian politics (and/or those dutifully reading my updates), know that infighting and factionalism is nothing new to Iran. Politicians, other power-brokers, and even clerics regularly snipe at one another, often jostling for power within Iran’s political labyrinth. Ahmadinejad and his administration have by no means been spared from such criticism from non-reformist factions and political blocs, and more often than not have been the target of this criticism thanks to their less than stellar economic track record. Yet in recent weeks the criticism directed at the Ahmadinejad administration–most notably pointed criticism of his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei–has reached a fevered pitch. What’s notable about this is where and who it’s coming from: the political establishment itself.

I’m going to do this in two three parts, since the background section came out to be much longer than I’d originally thought and I don’t want to have a 5,000 word blog post, and also because I’m dying to post something. So for Part I let me first outline the two major sources of this new round of criticism.

In Iran political parties don’t function like they do in the West, so it’s difficult to give an exact percentage breakdown of party or factional affiliation in the current parliament. Overall, though, the balance of power in parliament favors the group some might call the pragmatic conservatives. Although they support Ahmadinejad on matters of foreign policy, when it comes to matters of domestic politics, particularly the economy, they differ and often times clash outright with the president.

One of the major figures within this faction, and its chief leader within parliament, is Ali Larijani, a former nuclear negotiator and failed presidential candidate (2005) who is now speaker of parliament. Larijani and Ahmadinejad have been rivals for years now, dating back prior to Larijani becoming speaker after the parliamentary elections of 2008, and have had increasingly public disagreements over policy. Previously Larijani, and other supporters in parliament, got into a huge row with Ahmadinejad over his plan to eliminate around $40 billion in subsidies. Ahmadinejad wanted a larger share eliminated and more control over this money, while parliament dug its heels in and refused, eventually settling on a compromise–with the intervention of the Supreme Leader–that favored the parliament.

The most recent installment of the Ahmadinejad vs. Parliament saga has to do with a $2 billion allocation from the oil reserve fund to expand the Tehran metro. Parliament has agreed to this  budget, but Ahmadinejad is simply refusing to implementing this. Part of the dispute–and the previous one with the elimination of subsidies–does concern differences in ideology and economic policy. But just as importantly, Larijani and his faction are incensed over the president’s refusal to implement legislation he does not want to. Very direct, and very public criticism has been aired at the president for his ‘dictatorial tendencies’ and outright disregard of legislative branch. While Ahmadinejad has indeed had a testy relationship with the parliament since his first term, relations between the executive and legislative have been virtually paralyzed, and important members of the dominant faction in parliament are firmly planting themselves in the anti-Ahmadinejad camp moreso than ever before.

It’s no secret Ahmadinejad has his detractors amongst the clergy. Previously these have come from two camps: reformists and traditionalists. Reformists have long been opposed to Ahmadinejad in particular and hardline political elements in general. The traditionalist or ‘quietest’ faction has been more restrained and cautious, but since last years election has in several instances spoken out against certain excesses or transgressions by the government, such as–and keep in mind this is not the faction as a whole, but isolated members coming from their ranks–prison abuses at Kahrizak prison, the post-election crackdown, and most importantly, attempts to undercut the influence of clerical bodies like the Expediency Council or twhat they perceive to be the administration not strictly abiding by the wishes of the Supreme Leader.

What is new, however, is the heat Ahmadinejad is getting from hardline clerics that previously made up his religious supporters. Clerics such as the uber-hardline Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami (no relation to the former president) have criticized Ahmadinejad and his administration for not enforcing the annual summer crackdown on ‘immodest clothing.’ More recently, the president has come under fire for his choice of words during a speech he gave during a government-sponsored conference of Iranian expats. I won’t even begin to try to explain and translate the one phrase he used that has attracted ridicule and scorn from amongst the clergy–and has served as an endless source of jokes in the Persian blogosphere–but the main point is that he is being dressed down for making inappropriate statements and acting embarrassingly unpresidential.

It could be argued that some of the people behind this criticism weren’t so much firmly in the Ahmadinejad camp as they were in the Khamenei camp. Mix in the most serious crisis the Islamic Republic has ever faced after the birth of the Green Movement, and clerics united behind the more pressing threat from the reformists. Politics makes strange bedfellows. Even in Qom.

But not all the criticism Ahmadinejad has garnered amongst the clergy can be explained by this. It has even come from Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, Ahmadinejad’s spiritual and religious mentor, a man many believed to be the sort of clerical Svengali behind Ahmadinejad and a potentially horrifying choice to succeed Khamenei. He’s been on record as saying there is no need for the ‘republic’ portion of the name ‘Islamic Republic of Iran,’ since a truly Islamic state gains its legitimacy solely from above. Conspiracy theories about him abound, but he is also believed to be behind the shadowy (and outlawed) hojattieh society that that preaches a radical, millenarian ideology of hastening the return of the hidden Imam, of which Ahmadinejad is a member.

Specifically, Mesbah-Yazdi–along with numerous other conservative and hardliner elements from the clergy and elsewhere–has strongly condemned recent comments made by Ahmadinejad’s controversial chief-of-staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei. Rahim-Mashaei was already a lightning rod of criticism for Ahmadinejad before this and a symbol of the administration’s cronyism and nepotism (Ahmadinejad’s son is married to Rahim-Mashaei’s daughter). He’s seen as insufficiently Islamic and not fully committed to the governing ideology of the Islamic Republic, and when Ahmadinejad tried to appoint him as first vice-president after the June 2009 election a huge firestorm erupted within the establishment. Rahim-Mashaei’s comment that Iran should be friends with all the world, “even Israelis”, was echoed over and over again by hardliner elements of the clergy as proof he was unfit for office. (As an important side note, while denunciations of Israel are part and parcel of Iranian hardline rhetotic, it was just as much Rahim-Mashaei’s stubborn refusal to apologize or modify his statements in the face of a massive backlash as much as it was the content of what he said). Eventually with the intervention of the Supreme Leader, Ahmadinejad conceded and withdrew his nomination. Though in what many saw as a rebuke to Khamenei, Ahmadinejad turned around and appointed him chief-of-staff.

The most current episode of Rahim-Mashaei drama comes from the same diaspora conference when he said that “without Iran, Islam would be lost” and, “If we want to present the truth of Islam to the world, we should raise the Iranian flag.” For the hardline clergy this was tantamount to blasphemy. The editor of the leading hardline newspaper, whose head is appointed by the Supreme Leader himself, called the movement behind the president the ‘third pillar of sedition’ (note: the word he used for sedition, fitna, is the same used when labelling the reformists). Mesbah-Yazdi cautioned that “We did not sign a brotherhood pact with just anyone. If somebody deviates from the right path, first we advise him and then we beat him with a stick.” These choice of words may seem tame by tabloid standards, but they’re uncharacteristically harsh ones from ayatollahs. More importantly, this is coming from the last cleric one would ever think would go after an associate of Ahmadinejad. The president may very well be faced with a choice of which advisor he wants to continue on with: the messianic religious mentor or the loyal, nationalist right-hand man.

(continued tomorrow)

If politics is local, postpone elections

June 29, 2010
Lost amidst the usual  bluster about nukes and sanctions, a fairly important headline flew under the media radar last week: the Iranian parliament passed a bill that will postpone (FA) municipal elections scheduled to be held at the end of this year. Instead, the terms of the sitting city council members will be extended by roughly two years, and then in 2012-13 fresh elections will be held. So is this another electoral putsch orchestrated by the regime hardliners? The beginning of a ‘one man, one vote, one time’ electoral system? Thankfully the Islamic Republic has not yet crossed the threshold for full-blown, unapologetic autocracy, but the underlying reasons for this electoral postponement are less benign than its backers would have you think.

First, the official reason. Iranian elections are a complicated affair. On top of the hyrda-headed power structure, the direct/indirect/vetted methods by which these bodies are elected, and of course the paradox of dual sources of political authority (popular will vs. religious legitimacy), Iran has to plan–and one may read into the word ‘plan’ whatever you would like–elections almost every year. 2005 presidential election (4-year term); 2006 municipal councils (4-year term) and Assembly of Experts (8-year term), 2008 parliament (4-year term), and 2009 presidential again as the cycle resumes.  All this planning, vetting, and counting gets exhausting (not to mention expensive), so why not jigger things ever so slightly so this only happened every two years? Remember when the Summer and Winter Olympics happened the same year? Basically this is the opposite of that.

I say this without a hint of sarcasm, but I can understand these reasons. There had been talk about moving elections around for some time in Iran, even before last June’s presidential election, so the decision to move around the election dates is not entirely sinister. Under the new plan people will vote for president and municipal councils simultaneously, and there will now be major elections in Iran every two years. (Important side note: the original plan was also to have Assembly of Experts and parliamentary elections at the same time, but I haven’t been able to find out if the newly-approved law will do this as well).

Plus, extending the terms of the current municipal councils isn’t exactly doing Ahmadinejad any favors. His candidates fared badly back in the 2006 elections and he now has to live with another 2-3 years of the Tehran city council stacked somewhat against his favor. Ahmadinejad was able to get his sister, Parvin, elected to the Tehran council in this race (despite her complete lack of political experience), but his rival Mohammad-Bagher Qalibaf will remain mayor until the next elections. (Though to play devil’s advocate with myself, Qalibaf has been conspicuously silent over the past year….)

Still, keeping municipal councils intact for another few years is a welcome alternative to hardliners than risking the possible consequences of an election in the current political atmosphere. The opposition has been forced out of the streets, and campaign events, even of the small local variety, could give the opposition the direction and outlet it so sorely needs. The regime has gone to pains to subdue the opposition, and the last thing is wants is to risk their precarious hold on public order with mass disqualifications or curious election results.

Thankfully this does not yet seem to be part of a calculated plan to do away with elected local councils altogether. Given the important place these councils have in the reformist plan dating back to Khatami, this would not be unthinkable. Although the idea for popularly-elected local councils pre-dated him, Khatami often emphasized the need for local participation  when he campaigned for president in 1997. He promised to hold the first such elections if he became president and in 1999 votes were cast for over 30,000 seats from more than 900 local councils, with close to three-quarters of votes were cast for reformists.

Since then hardliners have caught on to this reformist strategy and made it more difficult for anything resembling the 1999 elections to happen again. Aside from the usual practice of disqualifying candidates, since coming to power in 2005 Ahmadinejad has steadily replaced many of the local and provincial appointed officials with his own, often inexperienced replacements, in effect trying to stamp out the advances reformists had made.

So where does all this lead us? For the time being at least, the bill to postpone municipal elections is not a seismic reshaping of the electoral arena in the favor of hardliners. Though on the other hand, the reasons for doing so are not quite the innocent bureaucratic reasons they might have you believe. More likely than anything, this is part of a larger effort that has been in place for years to gradually push back against the institutional reformist advances made during Khatami’s tenure. At this very moment another front in this effort is being fought out over the battle with the private universities (Azad). The streets are quiet, the opposition manageable, and hardliners can return to their task of consolidating power

After the Anniversaries

June 15, 2010

The two anniversaries I wrote about earlier came and went, both with fairly low media coverage (bans on foreign journalists will do that), so here’s an overview of what happened and what it means:

June 4: Anniversary of Khomeini’s Death
This past commemoration of the death of Islamic Republic’s founder was very closely-controlled and more privately attended than in previous years. Normally this would be a massive event, with crowds outside his mausoleum and politicians from all stripes in attendance, but not so this year. They did not allow for the usual overflow crowds, made very, very sure no one attending would try to pull the ‘ol Trojan Horse trick, and kept parallel events to a minimum. This isn’t to say the orators were speaking to an empty hall. Quite the opposite. The auditorium was at capacity, but quite a few attendees were miffed that the prime front-row seats went to basij members who were bused in bright and early to beat the crowds (yes, pun intended). Neither Karrubi nor Musavi were there–they were basically told it would not be safe to attend–despite the fact that they would normally be there front and center, and are currently arguing that it is they and not Ahmadinejad who are the rightful heirs of Khomeini.

The day was fairly uneventful–no massive, government-orchestrated rallies of support for the regime, and speeches full of the boilerplate government-line–but there was one incident whose effects are still being felt more than a week later. Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Khomeini and keeper of his estate, was shouted down by basij members during his speech. For those keeping score, Hassan has more or less directly aligned himself with the green movement, and has been subject to verbal attacks from hardline elements of the establishment. For example, his speech was drowned out by chants of things such as ‘The real grandson of Khomeini is Nasrallah’ (in reference to the spiritual leader of Hezbullah), and articles about the incident in hardline papers afterwards referred to him as ‘Hassan Mostafavi’ (using a secondary last name) rather than ‘(seyyed) Hassan Khomeini’. Even better: the story was put out that after the event there was a scuffle between an infuriated Hassan and some of the event’s organizers, which ended in the Imam’s grandson slapping the Interior Minister in the face and punching him in the nose several times, which ended with the minister spending the night in the hospital. Who says religious establishment politics are boring?

Judging by the fact that the thousands of basij bused in from across Iran arrived the night before the event, and the highly-orchestrated nature of their attacks, it seems likely that the heckling of Hassan Khomeini was pre-planned. Before anyone rushes to judgement, it’s likely this came from not from the Supreme Leader but from the higher ranks of the basij or one of the hardliner’s clerical backers like Mesbah Yazdi. Indeed, a photo surfaced of Khamenei after the event angrily chewing out one of the event organizers. (Interesting related note: normally this event is run wholly by Hassam Khomeini, who is, after all, the keeper of the mausoleum. This year, though, coordinating duties were split between him and the more reliably pro-government Mohammad Ali Ansari. To say there were tensions emanating from the two’s scopes of work would be putting it mildly…)

In the end, reformist and moderate politicians and clerics came to Hassan Khomeini’s defense to decry the treatment of the founder’s grandson. I wouldn’t go as far to say that this incident pushed some fence-leaning people towards the reformist cause, but it is further evidence that the hardliners/principalists/neo-conservatives–whatever label you attach to the group–that rose to power with Ahmadinejad are an unruly bunch that, to use the cliche, play by their own rules (or at least nominally by Khamenei’s).
June 12, Anniversary of the Rigged Election
Almost one week after the commemoration of Khomeini’s death was the one year anniversary of last year’s rigged presidential election, and correspondingly, the one year anniversary of the birth of the green movement (although some people put the date at June 15, the date of the largest post-election protest). Although in my previous post I tried to downplay the importance of protests, the big question was whether there would be street demonstrations. Musavi and Karrubi–along with several other reformist groups–put in a official request to hold a rally. I’m still unclear on whether the request was officially denied or was just dismissed on technicalities. The latter would allow the regime to save face, since they never officially said no to the permit request, the requesters just filled out the paperwork wrong. Regardless, in the end, two days before the anniversary, Musavi and Karrubi called off the protest.

So why the about-face by Musavi and Karrubi? The reason that made its way around opposition websites, blog posts, and of course tweets, is that they discovered the regime had plans to inflict widespread violence, riot and loot the city, and then blame it on the opposition. Basically think the Ashura protests but worse. Musavi and Karrubi didn’t want to expose their supporters to that level of brutality, and didn’t want to risk the potential blowback from government-sponsored, opposition-blamed rioting, and called off the rally.

I realize this may be disappointing for people who were hoping for another million-strong showing of green-clad protesters, but I’m sympathetic to the decision to cancel the protests. I believe the movement has and should move beyond  public demonstrations as their main activity, and I certainly can’t blame the two for wanting to avoid any more fatalities. Maybe they should be more brave and be willing to put their (and others’) lives on the line; maybe they are unwilling to truly stand up to the regime; or maybe they simply realize after a year of arrests, beatings and deaths, even if they wanted to engage in a game of chicken with the security forces, they don’t have the numbers to do so effectively.

Regardless, June 12 did not pass without incident. Nightime cries of ‘allah-u akbar’ were heard from rooftops again leading up to and after the anniversary. On the day itself the streets were on lock-down, with an extremely heavy security presence that broke up any semblance of groups gathering. From several of the videos I saw some parts of Tehran were eerily quiet, with virtually no passers-by and only security personnel out. Although plans for a major rally were rescinded, small protests did break out both throughout Tehran and in the rest of the country, particularly in universities (most notably Sharif). The government of course played down the day. There was no mention of anything related whatsoever to last year’s election in any government outlet, and the commander of Tehran’s security forces calmly stated that only 91 people were arrested on a day when “nothing particular happened in the capital.” One opposition group claimed that the number arrested in Tehran was 900, and there was another report from an opposition site that protesters had temporarily taken over one of the state media buildings and disrupted its broadcast.

To be honest, after reading numerous articles, reports, and insider accounts I can’t say for certain how many people ended up on the streets. Some sources talk about gatherings with ‘hundreds’ while others mention ‘thousands.’ There were only about a dozen videos I saw of gatherings that made it out of Iran, and with the virtual ban on all foreign media (with very few exceptions) makes it near impossible to tell. That anyone was willing to come out, especially on a day that is not a public or religious holiday, so any demonstrators will be sitting ducks, I’d say is a victory in itself. Not to sound like a broken record, but the green movement’s successes and failures cannot and should not be measured by the number and size of protests.

Personally, I believe the events since June 12th have been equally if not more important than that day itself. Protest broke out at Tehran University on June 14th, the day when student’s dormitories violently were raided (and video of the raid eventually found its way to BBC Persian). Yet the big news was out of Qom, the religious capitol of Iran. On Sunday the 14th Karrubi went to Qom to visit the homes Hassan Khomeini and Ayatollah Sane’i. Sane’i has been perhaps the most vocal critic of the government from amongst the clergy, and has stepped in as the lead opposition Ayatollah since the passing of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. When Karrubi went to visit Ayatollah Sane’i a large crowd assembled outside the house and began chanting slogans against them, using words such as ‘dirty’ and (morally) ‘corrupt.’ The masses went on to trash Ayatollah Sane’i’s house, smash up Karrubi’s car, and then attack the residence of late Grand Ayatollah Montazeri where Karrubi was having his next meeting (photos of the damage here). When he emerged from the house the crowd was still there, and was only able to escape to safety with the help of–wait for it, the Revolutionary Guards.

That the IRGC helped Karrubi escape is not as unlikely as it may seem. For one, the government does not want to create a martyr, particularly on a day so close to the anniversary of the founding of the green movement. The hardliners may loathe the ‘little sheikh’, the moniker used to belittle him, but they’re not stupid enough to gift the opposition another rallying point. Second, there is some misunderstanding of the IRGC in some analyses of Iran. True, no one has benefitted more from Ahmadinejad coming to power as the IRGC. They are growing rich off of no-bid contracts, are expanding their reach over more and more parts of the state, and are one of the driving forces behind the acceleration of the nuclear program. But the rank-and-file of the IRGC is more reflective of Iranian society as a whole than one would think (one oft-cited study said that 70% of the IRGC voted for Khatami in 1997, but the methodology of this is not very clear). The people chanting against Karrubi and trashing the homes of Ayatollah’s are more likely basij members than IRGC. The basij tend to be more ideological, more hardline than the other quasi-government groups, and Ahmadinejad himself emerged from their ranks. I’d venture to say Ahmadinejad enjoys widespread support amongst the IRGC rank-and-file, but they are more trained, less fanatic than their basij.

What next?
With one year now passed since the birth of the green movement, and the movement’s leaders calling off rallies, what comes next? Musavi and Karrubi have said they will release a statement on the 16th outlining the future of the green movement, but if previous statements and declarations are any indication, I wouldn’t expect this to answer all the questions and solve all the problems the green movement now faces. The answer to where the green movement goes deserves it’s own, very, very lengthy post, but let me provide one brief thought: the green movement must learn from the women’s movement.

When the recent stage of the women’s movement in Iran began, they focused mainly on street protests, rallies, and public demonstrations. They were very successful in doing these things, but eventually the government struck back. Its leaders were arrested, barred from engaging in politics, and protests were attacked or disallowed. After some soul-searching the women’s movement decided to turn its focus away from protests and work instead on a single, identifiable goal: the repeal of gender disciminatory laws from the Iranian constitution and penal code. The Million Signature Movement was launched as a vehicle to do this, to expand their base of support to outside of Tehran and even to include males, and work towards that specific end. To date the women’s movement has not succeeded in overturning these laws, but it has succeeded in recruiting news members and staying active despite the government’s efforts to stop it.

This is exactly that the green movement needs to do. It needs to set clear, identifiable goals, and work towards them. Immediately after the election it had one: investigation and/or overturn of the election results. Now it’s stuck in a morass claiming to be the true heirs of the Islamic Republic, wanting to reform the state from within but with no discernible changes to the letter of the law itself, and a de-centralized nodes of support impatient with the top brass. This latter point is doubly important, since the structure of the women’s movement is the forerunner to that of the green movement. They were able to work through problems of organization, generational differences amongst members, and a period of uncertainty following one of rapid progress. Now they have one of the strongest women’s movements in the entire Islamic world. If the green movement is wise, they will learn from the women’s movement and perhaps in due time can even boast of the Middle East’s strongest democratic movement.

Anniversary Time in Iran

June 3, 2010

With apologies for falling behind on blog posts/updates, I wanted to share some thoughts and developments inside Iran that have occurred in the last week. Consider more a general update than the article-style things I’ve been writing recently.

The next two weekends hold two significant anniversaries in Iran. This coming weekend marks the anniversary of Khomeini’s death (June 4th), and the regime will use this day as an opportunity to showcase its popular support and legitimacy, similar to the December pro-government demonstrations. The IRGC and Basij have already been mobilized and are slowly trickling into Tehran, with food and other goodies being stockpiled for pro-government attendees. Importantly, the Supreme Leader will give the Friday sermon this week. This will be his first time back in the pulpit since last June, when he essentially gave his explicit support to Ahmadinejad and through down the gauntlet, telling the opposition if they were hurt or arrested in protests it was their fault.
So what should we expect to see this weekend? Given the resources being utilized to shore up regime support, I’d expect a crowd similar to the one in December (during the ‘spontaneous’ expression of government support). I haven’t seen anything about the opposition trying to hijack these are try to pull another ‘trojan horse’ strategy–probably wise given how poorly this tactic worked in February–but the government is still paranoid about this possibility. They’re encouraging people to leave their cell phones at home when they attend these rallies/speeches since phones pose a ‘security problem’.

As for Khamenei’s sermon, I wouldn’t expect anything other than the usual. Last June some people thought he might make some conciliatory gestures towards the opposition, which of course he did the opposite of, and there’s absolutely no reason to think anything would change a year afterwards. I anticipate him harping on the seige mentality so prominent in Iranian politics of ‘us versus the world’, citing the rejection of the Iran-Brazil-Turkey fuel swap as evidence of this, and somehow weaving the Israel flotilla raid into this narrative (or at least the larger Muslim world versus the west one). What I will be looking out for is what, if anything, he says about the opposition leaders (or possibly Rafsanjani). Hardliners have been persistent in pressing for their arrest, and while I believe Khamenei is shrewd enough to not take them up on this and risk re-energizing the opposition, he may well issue some harsh words for them to appease those that want the ‘sedition’ crushed.

Moving on to the following weekend, June 12th is, of course, the anniversary of last year’s presidential election. The big question is whether there will be street protests and rallies on the 12th, and if so, how large they will be. Musavi and Karrubi, along with 8 other opposition groups and political parties, have put in an official request for a permit to hold a rally on this day, but unsurprisingly, have yet to be granted a permit. The authorities of Tehran Province wouldn’t accept the application, claiming they can only give permits for rallies in closed spaces, and the Ministry of Interior has yet to respond. There was some internet chatter last week about statements Musavi and Karrubi made that seemed to imply that if a permit was not granted, they would not formally call for protests, but this strategy will likely be made clearer as the date approaches.

The government, for its part, is taking steps to discourage people from participating in the June 12th protests. Heavy sentences and stern warnings have been handed down to student activists, political activists that were out on bail have been summoned back to prison, google and gmail have reportedly been shut down for periods of time, several newspapers have been ordered closed and others warned, and the moral/fashion police have been out in droves, particularly within the university. And then of course there’s the whole business of executing Kurdish political activists and confirming death sentences for post-election moharabeh crimes. State TV is also running a series of ‘profiles’ of political activists–some among the diaspora–trying to discredit and embarass them. These are coming on state TV after the nightly news, and feature high-production value ‘exposes’ that try to pain these activists as morally corrupt, anti-religious, and/or tied to exile groups like the MeK. Of course this type of propaganda is nothing new in the Islamic Republic, but one report on them claims that they’re being produced by the IRGC, who continues to expand its reach throughout all facets of the country.

With all that said, what should we expect on June 12th? This may disappoint people who are hoping for a repeat of last June’s massive rallies, but I don’t believe there will be a huge turnout. First off, with each iteration of street protests throughout the year, the number has slowly dwindled, and this trend is likely to continue. The government likes to portray this as evidence of a decline in support for the opposition, but this is more directly caused by the success of repressive and preventative efforts on the regime’s part. Second, and relatedly, unlike previous days (with the exception of the very first protests), June 12 will be the first day street protests will be planned that do not fall on a public or religious holiday. Official marches or demonstrations can’t be co-opted by the opposition, so basically anyone on the streets on this day will be a sitting duck. If it wants to–though it would belie its claims to be in control of the country–the government could declare martial law and institute curfews without having to cancel one of its own holidays. Lastly, and most importantly, the green movement’s strategy has simply shifted away from street protests. As the request for a permit by Mousavi, Karrubi, and others demonstrate the opposition is not completely beyond that, but after 22 Bahman (Feb 11) there has been a tactical decision to move beyond public rallies. (Interestingly, the same decision was made by the women’s movement several years before when they decided to re-focus their efforts on expanding their base of support, but that is a subject that deserves its own post.)

If a protest does happen and people flood the streets waving ribbons of green, chanting slogans and holding the V sign, fantastic. But if they do not, in no way should that be interpreted as a ‘failure’ or the ‘death’ of the green movement. And this is not setting the bar low or defining failure as success. It’s simply the reality of the situation for the opposition one year, scores of deaths, and hundreds of detentions, arrests, and beatings later. The opposition has passed the test of surviving despite all these obstacles. Now comes the harder part, of building itself into a lasting movement. And this simply can’t be measured in easily digestible news flashes or youtube clips. Though of course the challenge for the leaders and supporters is how then to measure success in this next stage.

So why even focus on June 12th if it’s not that important? Good question, but phrasing it in this way is missing the point. Just because a large turnout isn’t to be expected does not mean that June 12th is unimportant. If something big happens next Saturday–like an outpouring of opposition members in the streets, or the arrest of one of the ‘Big 3’ (Musavi, Karrubi and Khatami)–that would be momentous. But the back-and-forth, political maneuvering and statements back and forth in the lead-up to this day and almost as important as the day itself. That’s why a permit was put in to hold a demonstration, and why it has not been outright rejected yet except on a technicality like unfit outdoor venue. The constant jockeying for support and public positioning has the potential to attract supporters on both sides. It’s as much a public relations battle as it is an internal political one. And in a week and a half’s time we’ll see who’s gained the upper hand in this arena.

‘Tis the Season for the Fashion Police

May 24, 2010
It’s that time of year again in Iran. Summer is approaching, the mercury is rising, and the fashion police are on alert for ‘improper’ dress in the streets and on university campuses. As part of their annual crackdown, clerics have issued warnings and security forces are out to make sure young Iranians–mainly women–do not sacrifice Islamic modesty for the sake of climate comfort.

As anyone who has ever been to Iran–or has even seen pictures of Iranian youth in shopping malls or social settings–can attest to, young people regularly push the boundaries of what is religiously acceptable. Women wear brightly-colored headscarves, pushed far back on their heads along with form-fitting overcoats and tight jeans with the pant legs daringly rolled up. One person once joked to me headscarves are getting pushed back so far that a yarmulke would cover more hair.  Men, for their part, are up on the latest Euro-trends and sport outlandish and intricately-gelled hairstyles along with muscle-shirts and skinny jeans.

(shameless self-promotion: I touched on this and Iranian youth’s de facto political activities in an earlier piece that is unfortunately not available for free download, but can send you the copy if you ask nicely!)

Knowing where exactly the line between proper and improper dress falls is beyond my comprehension, but this ‘slippery slope’ argument seems to be lost on security forces already out implementing these directives. Last Friday the Tehran Friday Prayer sermon was given by hardline cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannti (who is also the chairman of the Guardian Council and a member of both the Expediency Council and Assembly of Experts), where he called for action against improperly dressed women, particularly in universities and government offices. Since these comments came during Friday sermons, this reflects the state’s official line and not the opinions of one singular cleric. Following the 1979 revolution the regime took sought to centralize and coordinate Friday sermons throughout the country so that it could spread its message in all regions and provinces. The LA Times story linked to above noted that the same message was broadcast by Ayatollah Ahmad Alam-al-Hoda in his sermon in Mashad.

It is unfortunately nothing new to see security forces harass women on the streets for being improperly dressed and wearing ‘bad hijab’. Yet this annual crackdown will take somewhat of a new turn if it is specifically targeted within universities. As far as warnings and official pronouncements are concerned, this seems to be the case so far. The Security Chief at Tehran University warned that women could be banned from universities if they receive three warnings for improper dress. Students have final exams in a month and a half’s time, so they could very well be banned from taking these–and consequently, from graduating–if they receive three strikes.

So why the directed campaign within universities? One more benign interpretation is that this is simply where the young people are. The regime wants to root out ‘corruption’ in all its form throughout all parts of Iran. Going after people on the streets and in malls has been undertaken in previous years, and while the problem still exists, it’s a fairly exhausting process with limited bang-for-their-buck. Going within universities, on the other hand, is easier. You have university officials and the pre-existing security apparatus within these institutions in place (again, more about this in my article!), on top of a fairly easy-to-use system of punishment via suspension or expulsion.

The other, more sinister interpretation is that the concerted effort to go into universities is all about politics. Campuses have historically been hotbeds of political activism, and with the election anniversary approaching in June, student protests have been breaking out more and more frequently. Student activists in particular have borne the brunt of the regime’s repression following last June’s election, and detentions, interrogations, and the method of suspending or expelling ‘starred students‘ are being used to silence dissent. Disqualifying students under the guise of ‘improper dress’ is just the latest method of containing the opposition.

My personal interpretation is that the truth is somewhere between the two. There is no doubt the regime is doing everything in its power to stop student activism, and with street protests more or less contained (for now at least), it may be feeling confident enough to move further into campuses. At the same time, I think chalking this up solely to politics would disregard the cultural and religious aspects of this and other similar moves. This crackdown does happen annually whether or not the country is in the midst of a political crisis. Without venturing too far down the path of psychoanalysis, I’d venture to guess that many members of the clergy (as well as of the similar-minded laity) would want women to be properly veiled even if the green movement never existed.

We’ll see during the next two months how and to what degree this directive is being implemented. Exams start around the beginning of July, around a month after the June 12th anniversary. But if the weekend’s protests at Azad University are any indication, university campuses will continue to be at the forefront of opposition activity.

Turkey and Brazil Raise the (Nuclear) Dead

May 17, 2010

Did Turkey and Brazil just perform the unthinkable and raise the dead? Depending on whether the ‘Vienna Group’ (US, France, Russia, and IAEA) accept the new ‘zombie deal‘ reached by Brazil, Turkey, and Iran this past week, they very well may have.

Back in October the US and other members of the P-5 thought they had reached a breakthrough agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. Iran would ship 1,200 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU; 3.5-5% enriched) out of the country, which with Russia and France’s help, would be exchanged for  20%-enriched fuel rods. Iran could then replenish the slowly depleting supply in its Tehran’s Research Reactor and use these fuel rods for medical purposes, a peaceful use for nuclear energy if ever there was one.

Unfortunately soon after the deal was made Ahmadinejad came under heavy attack from virtually all political factions for ‘selling out’ Iran’s inalienable nuclear rights–ironically, a sentiment he had taken pains to cultivate during his first term in office–and Iran backed out. It no longer felt comfortable sending its LEU to France or Russia, wanted a fuel exchange on its own turf, went back and forth on whether the exchange would need to be simultaneous or not, etc. Whether or not the October deal was made in good faith in the first place, the deal was now dead. At least until Brazil and Turkey stepped in.

Iran will report the details of the new deal to the IAEA within the next 7 days, but from the joint statement and remarks from those involved some specifics have emerged, they boil down to these main points:

  • Iran will ship 1,200 kg of LEU out of the country to be kept in Turkey
  • In return it will get 120kg of 20% enriched nuclear fuel within one year
  • While the LEU is in Turkey, it will remain property of Iran, and Iran can ask for it to be returned ‘swiftly and unconditionally’
  • Iran and IAEA can send personnel to monitor the LEU while it is being held in Turkey
  • During this exchange period (maximum one year), Iran will not need to stop its own domestic enrichment (not a stated point but implied)

As far as the US and Vienna Group is concerned, is this a good deal? At first glance it is remarkably similar to the October deal, at least insofar as the amounts of uranium exchanged are concerned. Although even the October deal was a confidence-building measure and was never intended to totally prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, given Iran’s scientific progress since October this new deal is even less detrimental to their nuclear program.

Back in October 1,200kg was about 2/3rds of Iran’s stockpile. Now it is just about one-half. Since there is nothing in the joint statement requiring Iran to suspend enrichment activities, Iran’s stockpile minus the 1,200kg it would ship out would still leave Iran with enough remaining LEU to continue enrichment and potentially reach breakout capacity (technical difficulties notwithstanding).

There’s also the odd bit about why Iran would even want the 20% enriched fuel back now anyway. Back in October Iran was only able to enrich to low levels, but since then they have been enriching uranium to higher levels, allegedly close to 20%. So why exchange for something it can produce on its own?

Regardless, without seeing the official report to the IAEA due in a week’s time, I’d tentatively say the Vienna Group should say yes to this.

First off, admittedly this won’t solve the standoff between Iran and the West, and would not even address the main concerns of the proposed 4th round of sanctions against Iran. Yet it would be a huge step towards confidence-building. The nuclear issue has been built up by both parties to such a degree that any sort of ‘grand bargain’ is not going to be reached all at once. It’s going to take smaller steps like these and a deal of time before relations between ‘the Great Satan’ and ‘the Ayatollahs’ are repaired.

Secondly, as much as it may harm our pride, this is likely the best deal we’re going to get out of Iran. As much as suspension of further enrichment activities is a ‘deal breaker’ for us, it is even more so for them. It’s not just politically costly–‘selling out’ Iran’s  nuclear rights–but also economically and technologically costly. You can’t just turn off and then turn back on centrifuges. It take a great deal of money and energy to re-start the spinning, and also sets the work of nuclear scientists back months if not years. The latter is something we may well wish to do, but it’s simply not something Iran will agree to.

On top of this, Brazil and Turkey–both among the rotating members of the Security Council–are extremely unlikely to approve any further rounds of sanctions with this deal on the table. The same goes for Russia and China, who always fight hammer-and-sickle against any meaningful sanctions. Perhaps the US shouldn’t have tried for this fuel exchange in the first place, but backing out now would give the authorities inside Iran further ammunition for their claims that the US is an unwilling partner that is hell-bent on seeing the Islamic Republic fail. Not to mention blowback from our reticent allies in the ongoing nuclear dance.

Third, and related to this, unlike previous deals, this one seems to be endorsed at the highest levels of the Iranian regime, so there is less risk of the deal falling through on the Iranian side (note: less not no risk of this falling through; it is still Iran). The Brazilian president met with the Supreme Leader himself during his trip to Tehran, so the deal is sanctioned at the highest possible level. Knowing this, agreeing to the deal can present the US and others concerned with a huge opportunity to test whether Iran itself is a willing partner. If a deal that Iran, with the approval of the Supreme Leader and hammered out with two non-Western allies, falls by the wayside, then the US can use this to press for further sanctions. If Iran burns these bridges then it may not have many friends left on the Security Council.

Finally, the reality of the situation is that there is very little we can do to stop Iran from getting a bomb, should it decide to pursue that path (and yes I include that aside because I’m still not convinced that’s where Iran is heading). Given the structure of the NPT Iran could just continue to enrich up to a certain level within IAEA guidelines and then opt out, a la North Korea. Military strikes are not going to take out their facilities (to say nothing of the huge boost the regime would get from this), and the hardest part–getting the scientific know-how–is already a done deal thanks to A. Q. Khan and others. All we can do is slow them down and try to provide incentives for them not to pursue nuclear weapons. For years our policy of isolation and containment has failed. Despite more sanctions and agonizingly bringing reticent allies onto our side, Iran is closer to producing a bomb than it was when we began this strategy. Engagement, even if we think Iran has absolutely no intention of fulfilling its end of the bargain, is certainly worth a try.

As a last note, I cannot stress enough how important the timing of this nuclear deal is. Most articles have rightfully noted that Iran has agreed to this as a fourth round of sanctions are looming overhead. While some have noted this, not enough attention has been paid to the other approaching date: the one-year anniversary of Iran’s (s)election. With the green movement gearing up for further street protests and the regime already beginning to intimidate the opposition through executions and detentions, offering this deal is clearly a way of showing a lighter, more accommodationist side to the international community. When and if–most likely when–Iran begins indiscriminately beating protesters in the streets and sentencing people to death for throwing rocks, let’s hope the world doesn’t turn a blind eye in the name of progress on the ‘more important’ nuclear issue.

One Week After the Executions

May 17, 2010

The dominant news about Iran in the next few days will undoubtedly be Iran’s new nuclear deal with Turkey and Brazil (something I’ll write about when the details are announced). But there have been some notable developments one week after the executions of five political activists that should not go without notice.

First off, if the government thought they were going to scare away dissent through these executions they were dreadfully wrong. At the end of last week there were huge strikes in Kurdish parts of Iran. Reports and pictures that emerged show the streets deserted and bazaars completely shut down in several major Kurdish cities. These strikes are apparently the most widespread in Kurdish areas since 2005 after a similar incident where Kurdish activists were executed, and from my memory the first time since last year’s election calls for strikes have actually been successful. In the meanwhile, the security atmosphere in Kurdish regions continues to be tense, with more harassment and interrogations of Kurdish activists alongside virtual house arrest of the families of those executed. Interestingly, the regime may well be feeling the blowback from these executions, as Tehran’s Prosecutor General gave a lengthy interview to Fars news where he defended the execution of the 5 terrorists.

Secondly, in case there was any doubt last week’s executions were intended to send a message, 6 more death sentences for moharabeh were confirmed. Three were arrested back in September and the other three were arrested after the bloody Ashura protests in December. Thankfully one particularly high-profile case–a 20-year old who was sentenced to death for throwing rocks during Ashura protests–had his sentence reduced to three and a half years plus a fine, but there are still 10 others whose sentences of capital punishment are awaiting confirmation. Given recent developments and the government’s intention to scare people away from returning to the streets next month, the prospects for these ten are worrying.

Finally, pressure on opposition leaders continues to build. The spokesman for the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution Party–one of the two major reformist ones banned several weeks ago–was arrested and the war of wards against Musavi, the leader of the ‘sedition,’ continues. The Prosecutor General has apparently been collecting ongoing evidence against Musavi, and 175 MPs signed and sent a letter to the head of the Judiciary asking him to expedite his investigation of complaints about Musavi and Karrubi. With that said, I’d be utterly shocked if any of the ‘big three’–Musavi, Karrubi, and Khatami–were arrested or tried before next month’s anniversary. The regime seems to be content letting hardliners like the above-mentioned MPs blow off some steam with letters and  diatribes against the three but wisely steering clear of any drastic action against them. For the past 11 months they’ve chosen to deal with them in a ‘off with their limbs but not with their heads’ strategy whereby they restrict their movements, arrest and harass their advisors and strategists, and deprive them of the means and personnel for organizing and connecting with the populace at large. Arresting or formally charging them with crimes could be the spark the green movement may need to get back into the streets, and the regime, for all its radical and revolutionary bluster, is still coldly calculating and rational when it comes to containing dissent.