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.

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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.

More on the Labor Movement

April 30, 2010

After posting last night about the Green Movement and labor I realized there were a few things I left out: namely, a bit more about specific labor issues, and what’s scheduled to happen on tomorrow’s May Day.

If you read their statements they list the usual set of demands: higher minimum wage, better job protection, safer work environment, etc. But aside from these there are two that stand out amongst others, and which the Green Movement, if it wants, could really speak to. The first is the flood of cheap imported goods into Iran in recent years. Iran and China have solidified commercial ties over the past few years, with Iran eager to supply energy-hungry China with oil exports. One of the upshots of this relationship, though, is that China is dumping cheap goods into Iran and undercutting Iran’s domestic sector. This is not just occurring in the areas of the economy one would assume China to take over, such as electronics, but traditional strongholds of Iranian industry like handicrafts and textiles. Of course this is a huge boon to the companies affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards who make money off these deals (including smuggling through IRGC-controlled ports), but it’s been devastating to those in Iran’s manufacturing sector.

The second issue is subsidies. For the past month or so Ahmadenijad has been involved in a bitter struggle with parliament over the elimination of between $20-40 billion worth of subsidies of consumer goods. Their main point of contention is not whether to phase out these subsidies, but rather how quickly and by how much. The statementscoming from labor groups, on the other hand, are against the removal of these subsidies in general. People are rightly afraid of paying higher prices for previously subsidized staple goods, and even though there could be long-term economic gain from  bringing prices in line with market values, the short term result will be skyrocketing levels of inflation. This is particularly the case if Ahmadinejad goes forward with his plan to reduce subsidies by $40 billion, rather than the $20 billion the parliament has proposed. Such a drastic and rapid re-vamping of the subsidies regime will almost surely send prices soaring, particularly given Ahmadinejad’s economic track record.

Both of these issues are ones the Green Movement could and should take up to speak to workers. The first issue should be a no-brainer for the Green Movement. Iran is selling out its domestic economy to China, the argument should go, and doing so for the benefit of the very people who were involved in the electoral putsch and brutal post-election crack-down. The fight over subsidies between Ahmadinejad and the parliament has justifiably been portrayed as one of a power-mad executive disregarding the constitutional role  of the legislative. Yet there is room to also frame this as the working class versus the government, the Green Movement–workers included–against Ahmadinejad and the hardliers.

Finally, what about May Day itself? The government is sponsoring a state-run “Labor Week” with carefully-orchestrated events celebrating workers and teachers (Teachers’ Day being May 2nd, and this sector also being a special segment of Labor). The labor movement of course will not be a part of this, and several groups has announced plans to protest in front of the Ministry of Labor (as well as smaller, civil disobedience-type acts of protest). We’ll see what sort of turn-out these non-sanctioned labor protests receive, but the government’s security forces will likely be out in full force, just as they were during 22 Bahman. Musavi and Karrubi have called for street protests on the anniversary of the stolen election, June 12th, so it is doubtful they will join in any public demonstrations before then. Though I would be delighted to be prove wrong.

May Day and the Green Movement

April 30, 2010

Just when I was about to write about the Green Movement’s lack of attention to workers and the upcoming May Day, Musavi releases a 9 minute video message publicly addressing workers and teachers ahead of May Day. Still, this one statement will not completely do away with some of the larger problems and questions raised about labor and the greens, so let me offer some thoughts.

Among the criticisms of the green movement–and particularly criticisms directed at its leaders–is that they have not been doing enough to reach out to potentially sympathetic groups, such as workers and bazaaris. Considering how poorly the economy has been doing under Ahmadinejad, workers should be a natural ally. Thanks to economic mismanagement, cronyism and corruption, during Ahmadinejad’s tenure Iran has still experienced high levels of inflation, unemployment and underemployment, and rising prices of staple goods–all during a time of record-high oil prices in a country that derives 80% of its income from oil. This on top of Ahmadinejad’s maddening charts claiming to show economic progress and claims that tomatoes are still the same price at his grocer. With all these economic shortcomings, labor should be a huge force within the green movement, right?

Well, yes and no. It’s true that laborers have been amongst those in the green movement. They’ve felt the brunt of the regime’s repression too, numbering among the detained and killed since the June 2009 election. But the labor movement is simply weaker now than it was previously, through no fault of the movement’s own. The labor movement in Iran goes back over a hundred years–even before the 1906 constitutional revolution–and has long been politically active. During the 1979 Islamic Revolution workers, particularly recent migrants to urban areas, were among the frontlines of revolutionaries. However, as Khomeini and his supporters began to consolidate their power after successfully establishing the Islamic Republic, former allies–principal among them leftist groups aligned with laborers–fell out of favor. By the 1990s May Day in Iran had changed from large public demonstrations for workers’ rights to smaller, state-controlled gatherings (mainly at Khomeini’s mauseleum) that extolled the state rather than labor issues. Now May Day is essentially an annual day of arrests of labor leaders and ‘unsanctioned’ labor demonstrations.

The labor movement is up against some serious obstacles. Independent unions have never been recognized by the state–neither during the Shah’s time nor the Islamic Republic. There are state-sponsored unions, such as government-controlled “Workers Houses,” Labor Basij groups (run by the Revolutionary Guards), and Islamic Labor Councils, whose candidates must be confirmed by the Ministry of Labor, with heavy involvement from  the Ministry of Intelligence. Non-sanctioned unions, such as the Vahed Bus Drivers Union or Haft Tappeh Workers Syndicate, have their leaders imprisoned and their activities constantly harassed. Strikes are illegal and there are security/intelligence officials inside every small factory. The costs of attempting to unionize or strike are extremely high, with people who attempt to do so arrested, imprisoned, or fired.

There are still unofficial labor unions (or ‘syndicates’, and they are often translated as) attempt to operate despite these restrictions, but Musavi’s statement notwithstanding, the Green Movement has still done a very poor job of reaching out to workers. Granted due to economic and structural changes, both in Iran and globally, there may not be the same pool of workers ready to be politically mobilized as during the heyday of labor movements. But there is still a significant percentage of people employed in industry (about 1/3rd back in 2004–sorry no link) that the Green Movement should be targeting.

So what about Musavi’s statement? Going off what has been translated into English so far, this is a good first step. But it’s just that, a first, and very small step. Statements such as “it is vital that teachers and workers realize that the problems they face in their day to day life is a direct result of the general and current problems of the country” are dead on, but as others have pointed out, statements such as these are agonizingly lacking in detail. I saw this with extreme caution because my Persian is not good enough to understand the whole video, and the full English is not yet up, but where is the evidence of the Green Movement incorporating the demands of workers? Where do they talk about raising the minimum wage, improving working standards, or freeing labor leaders like Mansour Osanloo? The way forward for the labor movement, according to Musavi, is the same as his overall strategy: a return to purity of the constitution and the ideals of the revolution. The problem is that such a strategy is increasingly falling on deaf ears (and this is not just related to the labor movement). For many members of the labor movement, this is not the way forward, but backward. And if Musavi and the leadership of the Green Movement is serious about broadening their base to other sectors of society, they are going to need a better strategy to do so.

With Reformist Parties Banned, now what?

April 27, 2010
Last week, Iran’s two main reformist parties–the Islamic Iran Participation Front and Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution of Iran–were ordered closed by Iran’s Article 10 Commission on political parties, falling under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry. The groups were charged with violating Article 16 of Iran’s consitition, and in the words of the ministry’s spokesman, are charged with “violating the sovereignty of the country, spreading accusations and lies, undermining national unity, and planning the breakup of the country.” To become official the ban must be upheld by the Judiciary, but given the Judiciary’s lack of independence–the head of the Judiciary is appointed by the Supreme Leader–and its record of siding with hardliners since the June 2009 election, this ban is likely to become official. The outlawing of these two parties is surely cause for concern for the reformists, but given the nature of political parties in Iran, and the political environment in which they have been operating, this move is not as drastic as it may seem.

To give some background, in Iran there are no real political parties, at least not in the standard, political science textbook definition. Of the near 250 parties in Iran, the soon-to-be-banned Participation Front comes the closest to representing a Western-style political party. Established in 1998 to be the driving force of Khatami’s reformist movement in parliament, it has various offices spread throughout the country and can boast a more established organization and mobilization structure than most other parties. Yet it is one of many reformist ‘parties’ in the Iranian political scheme, and thanks to the backlash against reformism during the later years of Khatami’s presidency, has been unable to establish itself as a central force for reformism.

By and large what takes the place of political parties are clerical and political factions which, come election time, put together a list of their approved/sponsored candidates. These factions tend to be loosely-organized and personality-driven, and their activities basically limited to the period right before elections when putting together their candidate lists. Political ideology does play some role in what candidates are sponsored by what lists, but commitment to the principles or campaign manifestos is less a factor than outmaneuvering rival factions. While publicized lists of approved candidates can be useful to voters, particularly in areas such as Tehran where voters must select 33 members of parliament, ‘party’ or faction affiliation does not show up anywhere on the ballot.

This is not to say that political parties, and the bans on the two reformist ones, are totally inconsequential. These parties will no longer be allowed to hold meetings or publicize approved lists of candidates in future elections. Still, given the weakness of political parties generally in Iran, this should not be seen as a crushing defeat for reformists. Not only are reformist-minded MPs scattered within various political and clerical factions, even those that are affiliated with the two banned parties will not be automatically ousted from parliament on account of their ties to a ‘banned’ party. (However, whether they will be able to run again in the next parliamentary election is another matter.)

In some regards, the ban on these two is almost a formality. Both parties had been de facto shut down since the June election. Their members have been harassed and imprisoned, offices shut down, and newspapers banned. Tellingly, right before the ban on these parties was announced, three of their senior members were sentenced to 6 years in prison and 10 years suspension from political activity. Even before the 2009 presidential election both parties, and reformists in general, had to deal with mass disqualifications of potential candidates. They have continued to find ways to operate, and even in the face of an official ban will continue to do so. For example, the Freedom Movement (affiliated with Ebrahim Yazdi) has been officially banned for years but continues to function, albeit in a limited manner.

What this ban will profoundly affect, though, is reformist strategy. After the Iranian new year holiday ended, Musavi held several meetings with a reformist faction of parliament where he stressed the importance of the legislative branch. Coming at a time when the green movement was re-thinking its strategy after the green movement’s disappointing showing on the 22nd of Bahman (11 February), and parliament was engaged in a bitter battle with Ahmadinejad over subsidies, this may have been the beginnings of a concerted push for ‘pressure from within’ by reformists. Reformists already had to struggled to place members in parliament in the face of heavy disqualifications by the Guardian Council in the last parliament elections, and they will almost surely face that problem magnified come the next elections in 2012 (although there is debate about pushing this date back to coincide with the presidential election of 2013).

Reformist leaders like Musavi, Karrubi, and Khatami, prefer a more gradual approach to reformism, based on working within the system rather than ditching it wholesale. Musavi in particular has stressed a return to the founding ideals of the Islamic Republic, and has argued that the system has been perverted by hardliners who have hijacked it for their own personal and political gain. More radical members of the opposition, however, are losing patience with this approach. Disenchanted, and younger opposition members in particular, do not share this same nostalgia for the early days of the revolution. When political parties are banned, reformist candidates not allowed to stand for office, and elections engineered, the argument for reform from within are increasingly falling on deaf ears.

Iran Update (4/9/10)

April 26, 2010

A new strategy?

As I noted in my last update, the events of 22 Bahman led a lot of people to rethink the movement’s strategy. Until that point the main strategy of the reformists had been (justifiably, I believe) to continue to show their strength and presence through demonstrations and protests, largely coming on state-sponsored or religious holidays. While I won’t go so far to say that street protests and demonstrations are over, they seem to be fading in importance since 22 Bahman

There were no large-scale protests, nor even any big pushes to do so, during the Iranian holiday of chahrshanbe suri (or “red Wednesday”). This holiday falls on the last Wednesday of the year when people traditionally go into the streets, set off fireworks, light bond fires to jump over, and generally celebrate the start of the new year holidays. Particularly for the youth this turns into an outdoor party—think Persian mardis gras, minus the booze and beads—full of dancing, flirting, and other activities not normally permitted outside the home. There were rumors of protests on this night, but nothing really came of it, and no one really pushed for this to happen in the first place. (As a side note, having protest on this night could have been a disaster. Large crowds in the dark, combined with security forces and a high presence of fireworks that sound like gun shots, could have spelled trouble…). Every year authorities try to stop these gatherings from happening, and every year they fail. This year Khamenei—probably in response to rumors of protests—issued a fatwa telling people not to go out for this holiday, and predictably this fell on deaf ears. I wouldn’t call that a victory for the reformists as much as I’d call it a victory for the spirit of Iran.

In addition to the peaceful passing of chahrshanbe suri, there were only muted demonstrations during the funeral of the late Ayatollah Montazeri’s wife. This is not to say that people didn’t deem her death worthy of holding a demonstration, but again there were no real calls to turn this into a reformist demonstration. The same goes for another holiday that fell towards the end of the new year, when in after the 1979 revolution the population voted on a referendum, approving a constitution establishing Iran as an Islamic Republic. Again, little to no attempt to turn this into public demonstrations. As a side note, the government didn’t do much to mark this holiday either, but such is the extent of Iranian new year: everything shuts down for 2 weeks.

It’s still too early to tell exactly what the new, reformist strategy is in the post 22 Bahman era—or even if there is one singular, coherent one—but there are some discernable elements of a change in tactic. First, there has been attacks on elements of the system itself, specifically the Guardian Council.

Immediately after 22 Bahman Karroubi and Musavi twice met to regroup and re-think strategy, and after the second meeting Karroubi released a statement calling for a referendum on the role of the Guardian Council. The Guardian Council is charged with approving any law passed by the parliament to ensure it is not against Islam (a function that was often debated during the days of Khatami and a reformist-dominated parliament whose bills kept getting rejected) and also plays a major role in elections, such as setting electoral laws and approving any candidates for elected office, such as MPs, president, or member of the Assembly of Experts. Karrubi’s criticism was more directed at the Guardian Council’s role in elections, claiming that it has unfairly disqualified people for standing for elected office, and also failed to be a neutral arbiter during the election. (The chairmain of the counsel, Ayatollah Jannati, has been accused of campaigning openly for Ahmadinejad). Interestingly, several days after this, during a meeting of the Expediency Council (chaired by Rafsanjani) Hassan Rowhani—the former nuclear negotiator during Khatami’s presidency—proposed a law that would establish a National Election Committee that would oversee elections. This body would still fall under the authority of the Supreme Leader, but the Guardian Council would be relieved of its duties as such. As one can imagine this proposal did not get far.

What I find interesting about this tactic of criticizing structural aspects of the system is that it cleverly goes after a part of the system that is a tremendous obstacle to political reform, but does so without threatening the system as a whole. It’s basically a compromise between wanting to work within the system and changing it wholesale. It’s working within the reformed system.

In fact, there is already evidence of this new approach seen right after the new year holiday. Twice in recent days Musavi has met with reformist members of parliament, and at a very auspicious time, when Ahmadinejad is in a bitter struggle with parliament over the budget for the new year (more below). Again we’ll see how this plays out as things start to get back to normal, but for now there is evidence of a strategy of working with the elected portions of the system (i.e. parliament) and trying to reform the un-elected ones (i.e. Guardian Council).

I should also note that after 22 Bahman Musavi published another lengthy statement where he spoke of the need to bring the movement to the towns, expand its presence, continue with online organization, etc. At first I was fairly disappointed with this statement, since people really seemed to want someone to take organizational leadership after 22 Bahman and Musavi almost explicitly declined to do this, instead reiterating that the strength of the movement lies in its decentralized structure. But I do find the portion of his statement that talked about spreading the movement into provincial areas promising, as this signals, to some degree, a change from tactic of ‘resist and demonstrate’ to ‘regroup and strengthen.’

Inside the Establishment

Musavi wasn’t the only one to visit with reformist MPs in recent days though. Rafsanjani, the moderate political ‘king maker,’ also sat down with reformist MPs (the same group who met with Musavi several days ago, from the “Imam Khomeini Line” of parliament). He agreed with them about the important role parliament has in Iran (after first emphasizing the importance of the role of the Supreme Leader), and offer some characteristically vague words of support for the parliament in the fight over subsidies.

Combined with the recent harassments (and brief imprisonment) of allies and family members of Rafsanjani, one might think he’s slowly inching towards the reformists. I’d argue that this is still far from the case. Before the new year holidays the Assembly of Experts—the body charged (at least on paper) with monitoring the Supreme Leader and selecting his successor, and which is chaired by Rafsanjani—held their annual meeting. Some people were speculating (myself included) that some of the backroom meetings with senior clerics in Qom, moderate politicians like Qalibaf and Rezaii, and the various rumors about Rafsanjani falling out with Khamenei might lead to something.

I don’t think anyone who has been following Iran thought this meeting would lead to some clerical coup or a formal admonishing of Khamenei by the body, but there was speculation that at least something different from the usual sycophantic statements of support would come from this meeting. The result of the meeting, though, was more of the usual—and at first, was actually a quite worrying statement for the reformists. A statement purporting to be the assembly’s official statement appeared on a hardliner website that praised the Supreme Leader and labeled the opposition seditious, which, if it was the official one, would have been quite a blow to the opposition. About two days later, however, the official statement emerged from the assembly, which again did praise the Supreme Leader, but refrained from calling the opposition seditionists. Again, there was never going to be a statement extolling the virtues of the opposition or railing on the Supreme Leader for abuses of power, but the statement, and some statements by Rafsanjani in public after the meeting, did show that that pillar of the establishment is still firmly behind the Supreme Leader. (Maybe not behind Ahmadinejad, per se, but little about that from the meeting.)

So what does all this mean? Whose side is Rafsanjani on? Simply put, he’s on his own side. He has his own coterie of supporters amongst the ‘pragmatists’ and ‘moderates’, is the subject of vicious attacks from the principalists/hardliners, and at times flirts with reformist, but in the end he’s his own faction. He is a firm believer in the system, and while he has his differences with Khamenei, will jump to his defense if criticisms of the Supreme Leader could lead to undermining the Islamic Republic. And he may agree with reformists on some issues, but will only go as far with them as ensuring the stability and continuity of the governing structure allows. He eschews public confrontations and tries to keep private the regime’s factionalism. There’s a reason why he’s known as ‘the shark.’

I don’t say this to imply that reformists shouldn’t work with him, or mean to suggest that he’s irreparably untrustworthy. Indeed, if reformists are serious about expanding their base of support they need to cultivate ties with Rafsanjani and people such as him who are in the middle of the political spectrum. But I do think one needs to be realistic about Rafsanjani’s role in the political establishment. He’s not going to be behind or supportive of any sort of plan to oust Khamenei from his position and install himself or some clerical junta in its place. Nor is he going to publicly announce his support for ‘the rightful president Musavi.” He can be a key political ally in the ongoing reformist battle, but he’s not going to be its final arbiter.

Human Rights and Civil Society

Leading up to the new year holidays a bunch of detainees were released, some temporarily on holiday furloughs and some permanently (for now) with high bail. The rash of prison releases was fairly unexpected, given the regime’s prior record of arrests, but there are several reasons for it. One is strictly PR. The regime wanted to look merciful, allowing prisoners to visit their families during the holidays, and giving the government a face of kindness. On top of that, it also shows that they are in control. These prisoners can be released and the streets won’t erupt into mass demonstrations like they did in June and July—the country does not need de facto martial law to have order, as some critics have said. Second is a less altruistic reason. Even people released ‘permanently’ and on large sums of bail will be brought right back into prison after the two week holiday period is over. The brief period of leniency and forgiveness is merely a façade, and for whatever reason—good public relations or holiday-inspired altruism—things will go back to normal after the holidays. In the coming weeks we’ll see whether this is true and people previously released are brought back into prison, but it should also be noted that even when these people are freed they are, in the words of one commentator, living in an ‘open air prison.’ They have to constantly check-in with their minders, are forbidden from engaging in any sort of political activity, and are under extreme pressure.

I believe both of these reasons have some validity. Again, we’ll see how things are in the coming weeks. But one person I talked to about this made an important point that I don’t think had been discussed enough. The people who were released were fairly high-profile detainees, and their release was the exception rather than the rule. Lesser known oppositionists remained in jail during the holidays in high numbers. So while it is encouraging that people like Tajzadeh (former Interior Minister under Khatami) were released, the number of people still in jail belies any claims to compassion or further legitimacy.

Along these lines, in recent weeks the government was increasingly targeting human rights groups and activists. While these groups were always targets of government harassment, there has been a spike in arrests and targeting of people affiliated with groups that publicized human rights abuses inside Iran. At first reading it may seem obvious that the government would go after people who criticize its record of human rights, but this underscores an important point that should not be forgotten when thinking about Iran.

Legitimacy is still hugely important with the regime. Despite the wishes of some hardline clerics (eg Mesba Yazdi), the Islamic Republic gets its legitimacy not just from Islamic but from the population. When security forces behave like the Shah’s SAVAK forces, this undermines some of the fundamental purposes of the 1979 revolution. At the regional and international level, Iran also likes to think of itself as a shining example of an alternative to Western secular democracy on the one hand, and quasi-dictatorships and pseudo-monarchies that exist in the rest of the Middle East on the other. When allegations of rape in prison and gross human rights abuses are publicized, this belies any claim to be a preferred alternative to these other systems. Iran has, for the most part, abandoned its early plans to export its revolution throughout the region directly, and instead tries to do so by leading through example. But it surely cannot do so in the face of such criticisms.

I say this to emphasize how important it is to continue to pay attention to human rights in Iran. Government statements, reports from NGOs, and other mentions of human rights violations in Iran do not fall on deaf ears inside the country. The leaders are very much mindful of how they are perceived in the rest of the world. Although it may be frustrating to continue to report on such things and see the situation of human rights deteriorating, it’s a critical area that should not be abandoned.

Nukes….

As usual, I don’t have much to update on the nuclear front. There were several alarmist reports (two from the NYT) about Iran’s nuclear capacity—one about Iran moving its nuclear stockpile above ground, seemingly daring Israel to attack it, though it was actually moved there for technical reasons—the US is cultivating support for a new round of sanctions (and has actually succeeded in getting European and even Russian business to reduce ties with Iran), while Iran continues with the usual statements and is starting to enrich to 20%. The speaker of parliament (Larijani) went on a 5-day visit to Japan back in February, right around the time when there were rumors that Japan could serve as the 3rd party intermediary for the nuclear fuel swap instead of France, Russia, or Turkey. But nothing concrete has come out of that yet. So as always, expect more of the same.

Iran update (2/17/2010)

April 26, 2010

Last Thursday, Feb 11th (or in the Iranian calendar, the 22nd of Bahman), was a really important day in the ongoing political turmoil in Iran, so I wanted to offer my not-so-brief updates/analysis of this day.

What Happened?

To begin with, a little about 22nd of Bahman. Since the Iranian calendar is full of almost monthly political and religious holidays, it may sound a bit like a broken record to call each holiday a watershed moment for the future of Iran. (Given that the Islamic Republic is undergoing its most serious domestic crisis ever some hyperbole, though, should be excused.) Regardless, the 22nd of Bahman is the most important political holiday in Iran, and there was more hype and build-up to this than any of the other previous days since the June election. The reason for this is that the 22nd of Bahman is Iran’s July 4th: a celebration of the victory of the Islamic Revolution, and as such, the establishment of the Iranian state as we know it today. Previous political holidays like Qods day, Student’s Day, Palestine Day, etc, are all smaller-scale holidays used to drum up regime support, but each celebrate specific events that that led up to the eventual victory Islamic Revolution. The 22nd of Bahman then is the day when the largest pro-regime rallies take place and Iranians show (or at least supposed to show) their support for the Islamic Republic. You can see then how much was at stake for both sides on this day.

Leading up to the 22nd of Bahman the regime took pains to ensure that there was no repeat of Ashura and gatherings of green-clad opposition members to distract from the day’s government-sanctioned marches and speeches. As I noted in my previous update, the opposition was told in no uncertain terms that protestors would be dealt with swiftly and brutally, as evidence by the execution of two charged with mohareb crimes stemming from post-election demonstrations, and 9 more being charged shortly thereafter also with mohareb crimes (thankfully at present none of these 9 have been sentenced to capital punishment). More and more student activists, journalists, and both friends and family of prominent opposition members were detained or arrested. Iran now has the dubious honor of being home to the most imprisoned journalists in the world.

In addition to intimidation tactics the regime also took strategic measures to handicap the opposition’s activities both leading up to and on 22nd of Bahman. Internet speed was reduced to painfully slow levels, even by Iranian standards, and email was virtually inaccessible on some days. The official reason for the slow internet speed, and I am not making this up, is that a ship in the Persian Gulf dropped anchor directly on a fiber-optic cable that provides Iran with its internet, which disrupted internet throughout Iran. (I read some sarcastic remarks about how some in the Iranian establishment boast that a Western or Israeli attack upon would be futile but but are somehow unable to protect the country from a lone ship’s wayward anchor). Gmail was reportedly blocked on the 22nd of Bahman, and text messaging was also inoperable for several hours (corresponding roughly to when Ahmadinejad was giving the keynote speech in Azadi square) on this day.

On top of cyber-battling the opposition, loudspeakers were installed along major roads where demonstrations were planned that blared pro-regime and religious chants to drown out potential pro-opposition ones. There were even some pictures of new concrete trash bins being installed along critical road arteries. On previous holidays non-concrete trash bins were set on fire and used as blockades by the opposition. In short, the regime did its homework and tried to remove any potential for embarrassing showings of opposition sentiment on Iran’s Independence Day.

The events on the day itself showed just how much effort and resources the regime put into carefully controlling the events of 22nd Bahman. People were bused in from the provinces outside of Tehran and begin arriving the night before the 22nd. Security forces and small blockades were set up far in advance to control entrance to Azadi square and to make sure opposition protests didn’t make their way into the main area.

On the day itself, according to some accounts I’ve read, there was not just a higher security presence than previous days, but also a higher amount of undercover agents interspersed throughout the crowd. People who showed any semblance of green or didn’t join in \ro-government chants or slogans were pounced on by plainclothes or undercover agents and questioned, beaten, and in some cases whisked away to detention. Police and basiji shot paintballs at opposition supporters on the streets in order to identify and arrest them later. In short, there was a much more organized government response to the protests than previous holidays. Possibly because of this there was less violence than previous days, particularly Ashura, but protesters were still beaten indiscriminately and hundreds of people were arrested in Tehran alone.

Leading up to 22nd Bahman, the main opposition leaders—Mousavi, Karrubi and Khatami—directly called on people to come out (not explicitly saying to protest, though it was not to subtly implied) and said they would join the people in the streets. This was the first time all three have actually attempted to come onto the streets to join protestors since immediately after the election, and even then it was rare (if indeed this has ever actually occurred) that all three would be out at the same time. Unfortunately all three were prevented from realizing their plans.

Karrubi was attacked in his car on his way to Sadeghieh Square (where he was to gather with oppositionists) and had to turn back. His bodyguards were attacked and briefly detained, and his son was arrested. It has now emerged that Karrubi’s son was badly beaten and threatened with rape during his detention (part of which took place inside a mosque). Pictures showing his bruises were posted online and his mother wrote a letter to the Supreme Leader about her son’s treatment, but not so surprisingly officials have denied he was ever arrested on 22nd Bahman. Mousavi tried but was prevented from joining the protests on Azadi street and his wife, Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, was attacked at Sadeghieh Square and forced to leave. Khatami was also forced to turn back and his brother, the former chair of the reformist Participation Front, was arrested along with his wife, who herself is a granddaughter of Khomeini. Rafsanjani, not exactly a reformist but a potential ally, was out in public marches on 22nd Bahman but took part in government-sponsored ones.

What does this mean? And who won?

I put off writing this update for a few days for two reasons: 1) news had been really slow to get out of Iran and I wanted to wait for things to gradually trickle out, and 2) the initial responses I read all seemed to say, in varying degrees, that 2nd Bahman was a failure for the opposition and I wanted to have some more time to assess things in the proper context. With that said, I don’t think the regime “won” or the opposition “lost” on 22nd Bahman. It was a disappointment for opposition due to very high expectations, but the events of this day do provide some important lessons that in the long-term can help the opposition.

To begin with, the government of course claimed 22nd Bahman to be a victory for the regime. The regime mobilized hundreds of thousands of people for pro-government marches and rallies, and filled a large portion of Azadi square for the main rally and Ahmadinejad’s speech. They also succeeded in preventing any large-scale opposition gatherings from breaking out in Azadi square or other areas to detract from their show of ‘public support.’ Both of these are correct, but I don’t believe are cause for celebration of a regime ‘victory.’

First, masses of people did come to the pro-regime rallies, but many of these people were bused in from outside Iran. If they were employed by the state (as huge numbers of people are in rentier state such as Iran), they were not given much of a choice as to whether or not they would attend. There’s no question the regime does in fact have sizeable public support, but measuring support for government versus opposition support by the number of people in the streets is problematic when one side is given free transportation to their events while the other is brutally beaten for attending theirs. Some insider accounts I read also claimed that there was less enthusiasm at these rallies than in previous years. Some people who attended government-sanctioned ones were only half listening to Ahmadinejad’s speech or the slogans emanating from the loudspeakers and instead were using the day off to mingle with friends and catch up on gossip.

Second, the regime was able to succeed in preventing gatherings of opposition supporters waving green ribbons or chanting pro-reform slogans, but at what price? Police and paramilitaries had to be bused in from outside Tehran and lock down the city in de facto martial law to keep protests down. They simply do not have the resources to maintain this type of pressure for every potential opposition rally. Related to this, the type of brutality that is used on people is not lost on ordinary Iranians. A regime that is supposed to be based on popular and religious legitimacy should not need to keep its sons and daughters in line through force. Attacking leaders like Karrubi, Musavi, and Khatami (as well as their families) only further undermines their claims to the moral high ground, not to mention giving these leaders more street credibility among the rank-and-file oppositionists.

On the opposition side, 22nd Bahman was to some degree a loss and showed some tactical failures on the part of the opposition. First and foremost, there were very high expectations for what would actually occur on this day. The relative success (though not without its physical toll) of Ashura led many people, myself included, to think that 22nd Bahman would be a repeat of Ashura, but on a much larger scale. That prediction turned out wrong, for reasons like the intricately planned security presence and tactical errors I’ll go into below. There has been a fair share of criticism thrown at the exile community after 22nd Bahman for hyping up this day as the potential downfall of the Islamic Republic and trying to direct protests from the outside. I share some sympathy for this criticism but think there are some charges leveled that them that are unjustified for reasons I’ll go into at another point in time. But regardless of who started the echo chamber and built up this day, many commentators, press outlets and Iran watchers—both outside and inside Iran—expected much more from the opposition on 22nd Bahman. Still, saying the opposition failed to get the rumored 1 or 2 million people into the streets, and not taking into account how tight security was in Tehran or how much intimidation and arrests had led up to 22nd Bahman is looking at the events on that day too simplistically.

Aside from the security lockdown, there are several reasons for why 22nd Bahman saw only limited protests. First and foremost was a tactical error on the part of the opposition. Anticipating tight security on this day a strategy called “Trojan Horse” circulated through opposition blogs and sites. The idea was that would-be protestors would dress like a conservative supporter of the regime, hide their green articles of clothing and opposition signs, and after sneaking into Azadi square unveil them when the time was right. (The ultimate purpose, according to some Trojan Horse strategists, was to get in front of some of the foreign news cameras during Ahmadinejad’s speech and unveil their green symbols and protest signs.)

This strategy failed on multiple fronts. For one, text messaging was suspended for several hours, including a large chunk of time when Ahmadinejad was giving his speech. Even if enough people made it into Azadi Square they had no way of communicating with one another about when the zero hour was. People were also searched for any hint of green clothing or ribbons stashed in their pockets, were picked out of street marches for not joining in pro-regime chants, and some just couldn’t pull off the disguise well enough. Most importantly, though, is that people were simply couldn’t tell if they were surrounded by allies or not, and couldn’t rely on strength in numbers to protect them from batons and tear gas. With security forces lining the streets and vigilantly watching every passer-by, thinking you are alone in a sea of political opponents is not conducive to expressions of opposition.

Another reason that has gotten some but not enough attention is the Ashura protests. Not only did some people stay home on 22nd Bahman out of fear of similar or worse treatment of protestors, but I also think there has been some political fall-out from this as well. On Ashura the protests did take a radical turn, not just in tactics but also in direction, and some people may have been alienated by this. Some of the slogans and actions, specifically ones directed at Khamenei, give rise to the belief—with a huge helping hand from the state propaganda machine—that the opposition wants an overthrow of the Islamic Republic. I say this not to pass any judgment on whether the opposition should or will move to that position, but the more the opposition becomes identified with this the more people who want to reform the system from within are alienated. Leaders like Karrubi, Mousavi, and Khatami have gone to pains to emphasize that they are trying to reform not rebuild the system and help the Islamic Revolution realize its initial goals.

Lastly, and related to this, is the question of leadership within the green movement. The opposition has been able to survive and withstand the mass arrests and detentions due to its horizontal structure. Even the perceived leaders of the opposition like Musavi have on more than one occasion acknowledged that they are followers rather than drivers of this movement. Yet this decentralized, leader-less structure is both the opposition’s greatest strength and weakness. There was somewhat of a unified plan to try to Trojan Horse strategy, and areas for protesters to gather were announced ahead of time, but in the aftermath of 22nd Bahman more and more people who were on the streets are lamenting the lack of centralized leadership. When the Trojan Horse strategy failed and Karrubi, Khatami, and Mousavi were turned back from joining the protests, people simply didn’t know what to do. Granted if a better strategy was tried the lack of organization may have been less of a problem, but the fact remains that a political movement is inevitably going to experience these types of shortcomings. I think it would clearly be a mistake to completely abandon its current structure and move to a strict hierarchical organization, but the opposition needs to (and thankfully already is) re-thinking how it is going to function in the future.

On a related and self-promoting note, I talked about exactly this problem in my two most recent articles. In the last one I said that the leadership void was a problem, but not a fatal one, that the opposition will ultimately need to address. While lack of leadership is still an issue, as evidence by 22nd Bahman, I still believe that first and foremost the question of direction should be decided before that of leadership. You can’t have leaders unless they know where they are going. The movement has defied the odds and eight months after the rigged presidential election is still alive and strong enough to warrant a security clampdown on 22nd Bahman that borders martial law. But at the same time, eight months after its inception simply defying the odds and continuing to exist may no longer be enough if it wants its demands to be realized. The first task then is to articulate exactly what these demands are.

Leftovers

Both leading up to and after 22nd Bahman there were some interesting updates regarding regime insiders and conservative challenges within the establishment. First, Alireza Beheshti, a top reformist advisor and son of one of the revolution’s founding clerical leaders, was unexpectedly released the day before 22nd Bahman. One can only guess the exact reasons behind his release, but one is that Rafsanjani personally intervened with the Supreme Leader. Word went out that Beheshti wife was to be arrested, and she fled her home and was able to get in touch with Rafsanjani to tell him of this. Rafsanjani, normally a man who treads lightly and cautiously, was upset enough by this to take his case directly to the Supreme Leader. Apparently they had a very tense meeting where they discussed this, and 2 days after this Beheshti was released. On top of this, a high-ranking Ayatollah (Mousavi-Ardebili), traveled to Tehran and met with Khamenei for the first time in 17 years. News of their meeting leaked out and allegedly Mousavi-Ardebili expressed his displeasure at the way the Supreme Leader had handled affairs since the election, and brought up Beheshti’s case as an example. Beheshti was released once before only to be hauled back into detention again, but hopefully with this high-profile lobbying he’ll remain out of prison.

Second, there have been more conservative criticisms of Ahmadinejad in both parliament and media, one of which comes from the prominent conservative MP Ali Motahari. Motahari called on Mousavi and Karrubi to cease their opposition, not because they were wrong or illegal, but because it was distracting for the conservative faction that is trying to take on Ahmadinejad. This appeared in a newspaper aligned with another conservative rival of Ahmadinejad, Ali Larijani, who, if you remember from the last update, was reportedly in a meeting with Qalibaf and Rezaii to plot conservative strategy for dealing with the president. This type of criticism, especially with the government’s new budget pending (and overdue), will only increase in the next few months.

Finally, I should mention the nuclear issue. I fully recognize that security trumps human rights and democracy in the minds of most people, and to be honest if I wasn’t so interested in the internal wranglings of Iranian politics that would probably be the one issue I’d care most about too. Still, I put this issue last because in comparison to everything that happened on 22nd Bahman it was the least important. And I know it’s become almost cliché to blame the media, but I was severely disappointed that after 22nd Bahman most of the talk revolved around Ahmadinejad and the nuclear issue.

If there’s one thing you take from this long and disheveled analysis it should be this: Iran is no closer to producing a nuclear bomb today than it was 2 weeks ago. Just because Ahmadinejad makes a public appearance on a stage flanked by missiles and claims that Iran is now a nuclear state does not make it true. He does not set nuclear policy, does not control nuclear policy, and does not drive nuclear policy. Most of all, there is no cause-effect relationship between his proclamations and actual nuclear capability. Saying that Iran will not enrich to 20% levels and open a dozen nuclear facilities does not change the fact that scientists can barely keep half the centrifuges in one facility spinning. And if you read his words carefully, he actually intimates that Iran would still be open to a deal involving the purchase of 20% uranium from abroad. Unfortunately this detail was lost in most reports.

If the above paragraph is a bit blunt it’s because buying into this is directly buying into the regime’s politics of distraction. Whenever the regime needs international attention to focus away from its domestic problems they can use Ahmadinejad to make statements like this and send people into a frenzy that Iran is one centrifuge away from nuking Israel. Even Iranian politicians, from both reformist and conservative camps, criticized Ahmadinejad for focusing on this instead of issues that are far more important to Iranians like jobs and the price of consumer goods. Why can’t people outside of Iran realize this too and not fall victim to the politics of distraction?

Again, I fully realize the importance of nuclear proliferation and don’t mean to trivialize it in the least. But the day after 22nd Bahman the only two Iran articles in the NYT were about Ahmadinejad and nukes. For their part they did keep up a live blog of the events of 22nd Bahman on their website, but with great reporterss with direct experience in Iran like Roger Cohen and Nazila Fathi, why not give them the lead articles and report on important development rather than empty proclamations?