Archive for May, 2010

‘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.

5 More Executions and What They Mean

May 13, 2010

This Sunday, May 9th, Iran executed five political prisoners for moharebeh (enmity against God). As Iran-watchers know, executions are nothing new in Iran. The Islamic Republic ranks second behind China in this dubious category. What is disturbing is that these five executions add to the other two similar cases of political prisoners executed since last year’s election, and come within a month of its one year anniversary.

So what exactly were these “crimes against God” that warranted death by the state’s hand? Four of the five persons executed–Farzad Kamangar, Ali Haydarian, Farhad Vakili, and Shirin Alam-Houli–were Kurds and accused of being members of the banned Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), an Iranian offshoot of the Turkey-based PKK. They allegedly confessed to being active in PJAK and taking part in several bombings in northwest Iran. The fifth person, Mehdi Eslamian, was charged with membership in an obscure monarchist group, the Kingdom Assembly of Iran, and taking part in a bombing of a Shiraz mosque in 2008. (Interesting note: the previous two political prisoners executed for moharabeh crimes were also accused of membership in this group, and Iran is apparently raising a stink about US support for this group out of Los Angeles).

Even by Iranian judicial standards, the trials of the five and their subsequent executions were carried out with utter disregard for legal procedures. To cite just a few examples given from an interview by a lawyer for two of the prisoners:

  • In Kamangar’s case, his initial trial and appeal process had no jury. His appeal trial lasted only 10 minutes. When lawyer asked to present his defense he was told to write it down, as the judge had to leave for daily prayers.
  • The accused had scant access to their lawyers and their families during their time in prison and leading up to their trials.
  • The five were said to have ‘confessed’ to membership in terrorists groups. But there is evidence, including letters smuggled out from prison from several of the executed, that they were tortured in prison and their confessions were forced. Alam-Houli wrote that she was drugged and beaten. Kamangar reported physical torture and threats of sexual abuse.
  • Neither their families nor their lawyers knew about executions until after they had taken place. The law requires lawyers to be notified about executions ahead of time.
  • According to Iranian law, the Supreme Court must approve all death sentences. In these five cases none were approved by this body.

So why the sudden, unannounced executions? Were they sending a message to potential protestors ahead of planned rallies on June 12th? Or were they simply further iterations of an unfortunately prevalent pattern of executions of political prisoners–particularly among ethnic activists? Two of DC’s most abrasive Iran analysts (and I use the term loosely) see nothing politically targeted in these executions. Putting aside their typically self-aggrandizing polemical style, they do make some points that are worth noting. If the regime intended for these executions to send a message, why not execute people accused of moharebeh crimes stemming from post-election activities? Several people have been convicted of such crimes and are awaiting execution, so why not them?

These are good questions to raise, but you also can’t take the decision to summarily execute five political prisoners–whether arrested before the election or not–in a political vacuum given the current environment in Iran (the Leverett’s would undoubtedly claim all is well in Iran, and the talk of crisis is unjustified, but that opens an entirely new jar of sumaq). The five were arrested, charged, and finally executed with moharebeh crimes not just for alleged membership in terrorist groups, but for “acting against Iran’s national security.”  These phrases have been thrown around time and time again by hardliners in condemning protestors and the opposition leaders. Somehow I doubt people thinking about taking to the streets next month are breathing a sigh of relief or feeling any safer knowing that the five just executed were charged with crimes that happened before last June.

The political effects of these executions have not been lost on the government either. Several family members of the five have been arrested, and none of the bodies have been able to be viewed or buried yet. Protests and strikes were planned in Kurdish areas of Iran, as well as the capital, and some predominantly Kurdish cities were placed under heightened security presence. Families have been pressured not to take part in any protests, and some political prisoners have gone on hunger strike out of solidarity. Opposition leaders have come out and condemned the executions, while state media has played down but repeated claims that those executed were terrorists from foreign-backed groups.

Regardless of what was meant by the executions, 5 more political prisoners are dead. If this was meant to scare the opposition, it doesn’t seem to be working. In a repeat of the May Day protest at Tehran University over Ahmadinejad’s surprise visit and speech, students at Shahid Beheshti University protested a similar unannounced speech earlier this week. They chanted things like “students would rather die than give in to disgrace” and “where is your 63%?” Of course this is a far cry from the millions who took to the streets 11 months ago, but spontaneous demonstrations such as these show the will still exists to go back to the streets.

Is Iran Spying on Kuwait?

May 10, 2010

Last weekend a Kuwaiti newspaper dropped a bombshell (well, kind of). Kuwaiti security forces dismantled an Iranian spy cell operating inside Kuwait. According to reports a number of Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC)–first it was 7 people, then 11, then 12–were caught spying on Kuwaiti and American military bases. Iran of course reacted angrily, denying any such spy network laying the blame on Zionist forces seeking to divide Gulf Arabs from their Muslim brethren in Iran.

So is Iran spying on Kuwait? Maybe. Is Iran spying in Kuwait? Absolutely. Let me explain.

Kuwaitis and the ruling elites from other Gulf countries are understandably wary about Iran’s growing military and regional presence. In the early years of the revolution, Iran actively sought to export its Islamic revolution to neighboring Gulf states, particularly those with sizeable Shia populations. While Iran was more active in promoting its cause in countries with Shia majorities governed by a Sunni (Bahrain), secular (Iraq) or mixed confessional (Lebanon) regime, it was still active in countries with non-negligible Shia minorities. In Kuwait, as in Saudi Arabia and much of the gulf, the Shia population (around 1/4 of the total Kuwaiti population) happens to live on areas where oil is located. And for an oil-dependent country like Kuwait, this means the Shia want to see their share of the oil money.

In the idealistic days of the Islamic Revolution, Iran would not think twice about stirring up opposition sentiment amongst the gulf Shia. Their illegitimate, corrupt, Sunni royal families were robbing the Shia of money that was rightfully theirs. They were living atop a pot of (black) gold, and yet they saw barely a dinar from this. The answer was revolution, an Islamic Revolution like Iran’s.

Such activities did not make Iran many friends in its neighborhood, and when Iraq attacked Iran in 1980 virtually all Arab states supported Saddam. They may have had their own reservations about his Baathist regime, but Iran was the more dangerous of the two. After the costly 8 year war Iran learned the cost of isolation, and after Khomeini’s death and beginning of Rafanjani’s presidency, the Islamic Republic took pains to repair broken relations with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

Although there have been the occasional flare-ups, for more than two decades Iran has carefully pursued a regional strategy of pragmatism and accommodation. Iran has cooled its incendiary rhetoric, strived to build up intra-regional trade, and settled for exporting its revolution by example.

This is why I take claims of an IRGC spy cell in Kuwait with a dose of skepticism. Granted, I’m not one to automatically assume benign motives to Iran in any of its foreign relations. But after studying the history of Iran’s foreign policies since Khomeini, one is struck by how amazingly pragmatic–and dare I use the word, realpolitik–its behavior has been, at least on the regional stage. Iran clearly knows it has trust-building work to do with its Gulf neighbors. As it finds itself in a new position of power thanks to US-removal of its two neighboring threats (Saddam and the Taliban), Iran is trying to assure GCC countries of its peaceful rise. If Iran wishes to continue to build up its nuclear program and military presence in the Gulf, Iran will need the support (or at least tacit approval) of its neighbors. Stirring up trouble amongst the Kuwaiti Shia and incurring the angst of the GCC would be utterly counter-productive in this regard.

What I’m not skeptical about, though, is that Iran is almost certainly spying in Kuwait. Kuwait is a hugely important base for US troops in Iraq and the Middle East, and Iran of course is closely monitoring the US presence there. Again not totally benign, but not exactly destabilizing the country through Shia proxies.

For its part the Kuwaiti government seems to be trying to keep a lid on this. While security officials met to discuss this on the sidelines of a recent GCC conference and offered a few pointed remarks to the Iranians, the government had banned newspapers from covering this issue. Despite the entreaties of one anti-Shia, Hanafi-leaning Kuwaiti MP, the Kuwaiti authorities seem to be trying to resolve this issue with as little public ill-will as possible.

One final note of caution. While I still believe it’s extremely unlikely Iran is up to anything subversive in Kuwait, the IRGC has been prone to acts of adventurism, such as capturing British sailors in 2007 for crossing over into ‘Iranian waters.’ The topic of oversight of the IRGC deserves its own lengthy post, but IRGC units at times act on their own accord, and without the same appreciation for regional confidence-buildingof  the foreign policy elite. In the chance that some ‘rogue’ elements of the IRGC was up to something shady in Kuwait, I’d expect them to be quickly reigned in by the forces that be. We’ll see how this plays out over time, but in the week or so since the IRGC cell was dismantled, it’s been fairly quiet on the Gulf front.

Looking Back on May Day and Musavi’s message

May 4, 2010

This past weekend May Day came and went, though not without some notable developments that I think could serve as harbingers for the June 12 anniversary protests.

To begin with, what happened on May Day this past Saturday? As expected security forces were out en masse, breaking up any groups of people and rifling through people’s belongings in search of green-colored contraband. Given this atmosphere demonstrations were smaller than recent May Day demonstrations, but workers and labor sympathizers did turn out to demonstrate. Several thousand did gather at the Ministry of Labor headquarters in Tehran to protest, while there were reports of smaller demonstrations in places like Qazvin, Tabriz, Shiraz, and Esfahan. Although there were some scattered calls for gatherings–specifically at the Ministry of Labor–these were not widely disseminated and extremely disorganized (even by green movement standards). Color me optimistic, but for  me that counts as a small victory for the labor (and possibly green) movement. Despite a heavy security atmosphere and few calls to actually come onto the streets, still a few thousand demonstrated.

On the same day Ahmadinejad made an unscheduled appearance at Tehran University, right after giving a speech at one of the official May Day events with bused-in supporters. After students caught wind of his visit several hundred gathered and marched towards the auditorium where the speech was taking place, shouting “death to the dictator” and trying (unsuccessfully) to get into the speech.

What’s striking, though perhaps not all that surprising, is that 11 months after the presidential election, despite all the arrests, brutality, and repression, it’s necessary that this visit be unannounced, for fear of an embarrassing mass gathering of students and others protesting his appearance on their campus. Presidents and Secretaries of State visit Iraq or Afghanistan unannounced due to security concerns. This shouldn’t be the case for a president supposedly elected by popular vote. And that the organizers of this felt it necessary to do so shows that the regime, again 11 months after the election, still does not feel confident enough in its own legitimacy.

Lastly, Musavi’s speech to workers and teachers was translated into English and I finally got the chance to listen to the whole thing. I tried not to jump to conclusions immediately on its Persian release in my previous post, but I will admit that Musavi did more to reach out to workers than I thought. He spoke directly to them, acknowledged their demands and grievances–even the one about imports I noted in my follow-up–and stressed that their demands are the same as those of the green movement. I’m not sure how convincing we was to workers, as he did fall back to generalities about the overarching goals of freedom and development–not to mention an odd three-minute tangent about foreign policy, the role of the armed forces and the Iran-Iraq war. But at least he explicitly and directly reached out to workers. In rhetoric at least.

What does still stand from my earlier analysis, though, is his prescription to the problems of workers, and the population at large. Sitting against a backdrop of the Iranian flag and portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini (with the obligatory one of Khamenei conspicuously absent!), he again emphasized a return to the principles of the constitution as the solution. I fully recognize the delicate ground Musavi and other leaders must tread, but you simply can’t energize and lead a movement, the majority of whose members were born after the revolution itself, with this sort of message. People aren’t risking life and limb in the streets, holding signs reading “let’s go back to the good ol’ days”, harping for a return to the glory years of the Islamic Republic. Reform is inherently not conservative. Change does not mean a return to the past. It means a path to the future, and one that is better than antiquity.