Archive for June, 2010

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.