Reading Tehran in Washington (without Lolita)

It was standing room only at the Carnegie Endowment today as the policy crowd gathered to hear Karim Sadjadpour, Abbas Milani, and Nick Burns discuss Iran, with David Ignatius moderating. Lots of interesting tidbits there, including some political ‘fashion notes’… Karim in a decidedly green shirt; Milani and Burns in ties that may (or may not) have qualified as ‘green’; Ignatius is a decidedly red tie and blue shirt.
Anyway, Milani talked at length, un-self-consciously and quite admiringly, about the events in Iran being a ‘color revolution.’ (So I wish his own choice of tie-color had been a bit more clearcut.)
I guess the main news, though, was Nick Burns– who resigned in April 2008 from being Condi Rice’s Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs– offering his fulsome praise for Obama’s slowly evolving stance on Iran.
He said,

    He’s been measured, serious, thoughtful. He has a longterm viewpoint.
    … He was quite right to underline, as he did in his speech today, that ‘What’s going on in Iran today is not about us; it’s about the Iranians.’

Burns also sent a barely camouflaged side-swipe to his former bosses in the Bush administration when he said they hadn’t always seemed to understand that “Sometime megaphone diplomacy doesn’t work.”
My understanding is that the main reason Burns retired from the Foreign Service at a relatively young age was because, in his role handling the Bush administration’s relations with Iran, he’d felt very constrained by the president’s insistence on confining those contacts strictly to a limited number of interactions with the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad.
Anyway, it was interesting to hear the intensity of the praise he sent Obama’s way. He also argued that the events of the past ten days have sent a shock to all those in the US who used to argue that the US would have to confront Iran militarily “because it is such a formidable monolith… But now, we’re seeing that it’s not.”
Burns was also, significantly, the only one of the three panelists to point out that Mahmoud Ahmedinejad undoubtedly has some popular real support inside Iran– though he, like the others thought the election results had clearly been falsified.
Sadjadpour, who runs the Iran-study programs at the Carnegie Endowment, and Milani, who works at the right-wing Hoover Institution at Stanford University, were both unabashed supporters of the pro-Musavi movement, though Milani was more ideologically so than Sadjadpour. Sadjadpour seemed generally much more up-to-date with breaking events than Milani.
Sadjadpour said he had heard from Rafsanjani allies in Dubai that Rafsanjani had been trying to assemble a quorum of the Assembly of Experts, which is the only body that can rein in– or depose– the Supreme Leader (Khamenei). “There are around eighty of them. They are very old indeed– avergae age, ‘deceased’,” he said, “But thus far these efforts haven’t succeeded, because many of the ‘experts’ are actually dependent on Khamenei in one way or another.”
He also predicted that, with the diminution in the size of the pro-Musavi demonstrations,

    Now, the opposition will move to trying to paralyze the Iranian economy– the oil sector, the bazaars, the bus system, and so on.

He said that, having completed an in-depth study of Supreme Leader Khamenei’s published sermons and writings last year, he was convinced that Khamenei hated to bow under pressure, seeing that as a sign of weakness; but that Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards were also very capable of calibrating the amount of repression they brought to bear:

    This is another lesson they took from their own revolution in 1978-79, when they saw how the Shah’s use of excessive repression had merely fueled the revolution. This regime has the science of repression down to a science.

For his part, Milani said he had evidence that,

    three years ago, Khamenei ordered his social scientists to study all the color revolutions of recent years, figuring out what their early warning signs are, and how to deflect or counter them. But he forgot the close links these color revolutions have with the people, and how creative the people can be in organizing them.

There was quite a lot of discussion about the effects these events in Iran can be expected to have on the diplomacy and balance of power both in the Middle East and globally.
Burns advocated a measured approach to the issue of when Washington should move to re-engage with a post-election Tehran. He spoke quite clearly in favor of the US having a broad and serious negotiation with Iran. But he also said,

    We’ve got to be careful not to give too much, too soon. It would be a mistake for us to rush to negotiations on nuclear weapons or anything else.
    Once we’ve concluded there has been a resolution of the dispute in Tehran we’ll need to make a decision on that. That may be one month from now, or one year.
    But the Iranian government that emerges, whatever kind it is, will be weaker than what we’ve gotten accustomed to– for a number of reasons, but including the new problems they’ve been experiencing in Iraq.
    I don’t want us to rush to give Ahmedinejad any legitimacy until we are absolutely sure that the reformers can’t succeed.

During the Q&A period, one of the early questions was from a Turkish journalist, who pointed out that Iran’s neighbors may see their interests differently. She noted that Iranian neighbors like Turkey, Iraq, and Azerbaijan have all now congratulated Ahmedinejad on his election victory.
In Burns’s reply he added that Russia and China have also now congratuated Ahmedinejad. He said he strongly hoped that some other democracies and regional powers would join the US in withholding their endorsement of the Ahmedinejad victory. “It can’t be that Obama, Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Angela Merkel are the only heads of government who withhold their endorsement.”
Sadjadpour said he was “very disappointed” with the Turkish government’s position.
(Actually, this whole question of “recognition” of other governments, as constituting a non-trivial part of the de-facto legitimacy of any government, is something I have long been fascinated by. In democratic theory, of course, political legitimacy is supposed to derive from “the consent of the governed.” But who makes the determination of how to read that consent? Election officials, I suppose. But what if the election process itself is corrupt?)
My bottom line from the discussion: These individuals– including Ignatius– seemed generally to agree that there would be no quick resolution to the current crisis and that the Iranian regime would emerge noticeably weakened by it. Burns was the panelist who spoke out most strongly in favor of diplomatic engagement– at some point, yet to be determined. Milani and Sadjadpour seemed to be the most hopeful that Musavi could somehow stay the course and emerge the winner, though neither of them was joining the chorus of rightwing pundits who have been calling for Obama to come out much more loudly for Musavi. Both men seemed to recognize that that could well be a huge negative for Musavi’s chances, though Sadjadpour was more openly supportive than Milani of Obama’s restraint on the Iran issue.
My impression is that the opinions expressed by these two men were pretty representative of the views of most Iranian-Americans. Of course, the big question is how representative they are of Iranians inside Iran. That still remains to be seen.

21 thoughts on “Reading Tehran in Washington (without Lolita)”

  1. Thanks for the tidbits. I always enjoyed Burns and it is great to be able to hear his perspective through your summary.

  2. These chaps come across as very smug in your report. Especially Mr Burns. When he says “It can’t be that Obama, Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Angela Merkel are the only heads of government who withhold their endorsement” one would hope he means that these four will have to bow to the majority; but I fear he means that the majority should follow the four. Arrogance!
    The materially “unexamined” matter is not the nature of colour-coded revos, but the alleged stealing of the election, which all present appeared to take for granted although it has not been proved and although there is not even any evidence of fraud.
    The smugness of these partisans comes from their being capable, as they think, of pulling a smear of fraud and a de facto de-recognition of a sitting president out of thin air. Let’s hope for the sake of peace that their smugness is misplaced.
    We shall just have to see whether it is a month or a year before Obama feels the urge to talk to Iran again. At that point he might just find that the Iranians have other fish to fry.
    The questions asked in your paragraph in brackets about “recognition” are good questions but what makes you think it is o.k. just to leave it like that, Helena? It is high time we start building up some intellectual muscle around the bare bones of this apparent quandary. I have my answers and maybe others do, but what about you? You have studied enough. You should have some answers, and not just questions.
    Or are you having a Jimmy Cliff day? (“There are more questions than answers. The more I find out, the less I know”).

  3. A source familiar with the thinking of decision-makers in state agencies that have strong ties to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said there is a sense among hardliners that a shoe is about to drop. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — Iran’s savviest political operator and an arch-enemy of Ayatollah Khamenei’s — has kept out of the public spotlight since the rigged June 12 presidential election triggered the political crisis. The widespread belief is that Rafsanjani has been in the holy city of Qom, working to assemble a religious and political coalition to topple the supreme leader and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

    “There is great apprehension among people in the supreme leader’s [camp] about what Rafsanjani may pull,” said a source in Tehran who is familiar with hardliner thinking. “They [the supreme leader and his supporters] are much more concerned about Rafsanjani than the mass movement on the streets.”

    Ayatollah Khamenei now has a very big image problem among influential Shi’a clergymen. Over the course of the political crisis, stretching back to the days leading up to the election, Rafsanjani has succeeded in knocking the supreme leader off his pedestal by revealing Ayatollah Khamenei to be a political partisan rather than an above-the-fray spiritual leader. In other words, the supreme leader has become a divider, not a uniter. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

    Now that Ayatollah Khamenei has become inexorably connected to Ahmadinejad’s power grab, many clerics are coming around to the idea that the current system needs to be changed. Among those who are now believed to be arrayed against Ayatollah Khamenei is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shi’a cleric in neighboring Iraq. Rafsanjani is known to have met with Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s representative in Iran, Javad Shahrestani.


  4. I am disappointed in Helena Cobban’s normally objective view of world events. Wholesale support of “colour” movements -which are in the main movements which support American interests,is rather unfortunate (and thereby will ultimately be the downfall of Mousavi). Neither candidate has a record of integrity or honesty; there is no reason to believe either side has a monopoly on truth. Prudence would suggest withholding judgement until more evidence is available

  5. I’m wondering if the censorship on this subject on this blog is the policy of the “guest” Scott H, or of Helana Cobban herself?
    Obama condemns Iran in strongest language yet
    He termed accusations that the U.S. had meddled in the elections “patently false and absurd.”
    Iran: Who’s Diddling Democracy?
    Back in 2007… [Seymour Hersh]… reported that the Democratic-controlled Congress had approved up to $400 million to fund the destabilization campaign. “The covert activities involve support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations,” said Hersh… Did [Barack Obama] and his CIA chief Leon Panetta cancel the destabilization program?.. Team Obama remains wedded to the Bush-Cheney-Abrams destabilization of Iran… in the build-up to the Iranian election, Washington sharpened its propaganda efforts…
    The Iranians were waiting for action to suit the words that the Elocutor in Chief had delivered in Cairo : will he stop funding terror inside Iran?
    Not only was the answer no but now Obama has turned bald-faced liar.

  6. Ah, Dominic, your The questions asked in your paragraph in brackets about “recognition” are good questions but what makes you think it is o.k. just to leave it like that, Helena?
    Man, I get tired is what it is! We can’t all have your same degree of indomitable energy!
    tell you what, though, if you have some good text on this important subject, send it along and I’ll guest-post it.

  7. No, you are going great. Better than all the rest. Sorry for the bum note. That was a mistake. I was supposed to be encouraging you, not exhausting you.
    I have tried to poke around at this question with the help of Azazel.
    I don’t have the ready text you ask for. I think it needs a lot of dialogue. There won’t be quick agreement about it but there might be a shape coming slowly out of the mist, that would start looking like a unified internal-external theory if international relations and democratic popular agency.
    Call it Democratic Westphalianism as a project title? I hereby run it up the flagpole to see who salutes. Plus I promise to continue to think about it.

  8. About Helena’s point:
    “recognition” of other governments, as constituting a non-trivial part of the de-facto legitimacy of any government, is something I have long been fascinated by.
    Indeed, been the core of my work for too long — how states, would-be-states and rebel and resistance movements pursue “legitimacy” not just from the governed, but ALSO from abroad, from the international community.
    (westphalia and liberal theory notwithstanding — it’s a game that Tom Jefferson, Ben Franklin & company understood well…. one that IR theory has, at best, understudied….

  9. Hi Scott,
    Westphalia was 1648? Hobbes was still busy writing “Leviathan”, which did not come out until 1651. Sufficient commercial mechanisms are in place to support capitalism, having been developed for the slave trade, but true surplus value is not yet pumping on any scale.
    What “liberals” would have been involved? Liberal is a dangerous word to use in some quarters. In South Africa the most common usages of the word are the semi-racial “white liberal” or the highly-charged “neo-liberal”. Is there actually anything called a “liberal” before the mid-19th century?
    I’m just trying to get a hint of what you mean by “Westphalia and Liberal Theory”, i.e. a clue of why those two things would go together.

  10. two separate approaches/subjects (could have added otehrs) to be sure…. Helena a week or so ago brought up Westphalia and such, (re. “non-interference”) we’ve tossed it around a bit without examination….
    I rather find Westphalia analagous to the Star Trek “prime directive” — and as in both fiction and reality, the “norm” (to put it in “english school” terms) is so often easier to state than apply.
    Liberal approaches (and I was thinking of IR theory, but doesn’t matter) — yes, ‘nother subject.
    “international legitimacy” was written about by Inis Claude first in 1964 — and quoted widely since. But he was mainly writing about the UN acting as an agent of “collective legitimization” towards states…. My emerging work has extended it to apply to rebel movements too…. from the american “revolution” to zionists, kurdish, palestinian, and yes, Iranian manifestations….
    never ending, but “neat stuff” I think.

  11. Wow. What a meaningless, pointless, totally stacked panel. Helena, why don’t you go down to Miami and give us a report on some stacked panel’s assessment of Cuba?

  12. But no, let me be more positive than that. Let me suggest a question. Next time you are at such a panel, how about asking the assembled ‘deep thinkers’ what they think would be the fate of the kind of demonstrations we have seen in Iran in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, OR EVEN IN GEORGIA!!

  13. There was some Iranian US professor today on Pacifica radio (shall we say Al=Pacifica, with some interesting perspective on why what we are witnessing is not the color revolution but more akin to the US civil rights movement in its day. The name escapes me but I enjoyed the interview for a good 20 minutes or so. I think it was in Amy Goodman’s slot.
    On the election results most of the coverage suggest fraud, mostly Iranian voice I think,

  14. Scotty,
    You wrote: ‘I rather find Westphalia analagous to the Star Trek “prime directive”‘.
    Yes, but only if there is a superior power in the story, and you are it.
    But the whole point about the Peace of Westaphalia was that it was achieved in the absence of a universal power (i.e. the papacy).
    The precise achievement of the Peace of Westphalia is that it manages the trick without the “Enterprize” or anything like it.

  15. Came across this excerpt attributed to (AFP/Al-Jazeera).
    According to Brent Scowcroft.
    “The US cannot do a great deal in regard to the tense situation in Iran”, Scowcroft said [AFP]
    The US has intelligence agents in Iran but it is not clear if they are providing help to the protest movement there, a former US national security adviser has told Al Jazeera.
    Brent Scowcroft said on Wednesday that “of course” the US had agents in Iran amid the ongoing pressure against the Iranian government by protesters opposed to the official result of its presidential election.
    But he added that he had no idea whether US agents had provided help to the opposition movement in Iran, which claims that the authorities rigged the June 12 election in favour of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the incumbent president.
    “They might do. Who knows?” Scowcroft told Josh Rushing for Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines programme.
    No news service seems to have covered this item.

  16. What follows is a report of the first election case in our (South African) democracy:
    Ulundi electoral officer convicted of fraud
    Sapa, 26 June 2009
    Sindisiwe Mncube guilty on charges relating to the marking of ballot papers in favour of the IFP
    ESIKHAWINI (Sapa) – An Ulundi election officer on Friday became the first South African since 1994 to be sentenced for electoral fraud.
    The Esikhawini Magistrate’s Court found Sindisiwe Mncube guilty on five charges of violating the Electoral Code. Mncube was arrested after she was caught with illegally-marked ballot papers in Ulundi in KwaZulu-Natal, where she was employed as a presiding officer in the general elections on April 22.
    The ballots had been marked a day before April 22 in favour of the Inkatha Freedom Party.
    She was sentenced to five years for the first four counts which were fraud, contravening the electoral code, putting votes in her jacket and using election material for other than election purpose.
    Mncube was also sentenced to three years for corruption, which was suspended for five years.
    Delivering judgment on Friday afternoon, Magistrate T Ngesi described Mncube as an unreliable individual, saying she contradicted herself during the trial.
    “The accused was a poor witness who contradicted herself in her own evidence and cannot distinguish between lies and truth.”
    Ngesi said he had looked at the personal circumstances of the accused, the nature of the offence and the interest of the society before deciding on the sentence.
    He said Mncube’s case was the first election case in “our democracy” and the public at large were interested in the outcome.
    “It is not only the South African public which is interested, but international public as well since our democracy enjoys respect internationally. The interest of the people far outweighs the individual interests,” said Ngesi.

  17. Just to comment a little on the case of Sindisiwe Mncube, the Ulundi presiding officer who had been marking ballot papers the day before the April 22 South African national elections with the intention of stuffing ballot boxes for the benefit of the IFP (the Zulu chauvinist party).
    This case is relevant to Iran insofar as it shows that electoral regulations and procedures, together with police and courts, can cope with threats to the integrity of an election in a majority black country like South Africa.
    Surely they can do likewise in a white country like Iran? Why do people entertain the Mousavi camp’s scorn of such processes without question?
    Another thing about this Mncube case is that it was the minor, challenging, party that was attempting to stuff ballot boxes in Ulundi (of course, the IFP had at the same time falsely accused the ANC of doing so). This can serve to remind some people that a proper investigation could as well find out if the Mousavi supporters had been indulging in fraud. The fact that the Mousavis don’t want such an investigation is consistent with the possibility that such pro-Mousavi fraud might be discovered.

  18. I hope I will not be held to be hogging a thread that has been otherwise quiet for some time.
    I wanted to give a link to a review of Mahmood Mamdani’s booka about Darfur and especially about the manufacturing of a climate of US and European “public opinion” around the case of Darfur;
    It is at:
    Inter alia, Mamdani writes: “Only those possessed of disproportionate power can afford to assume that knowing is irrelevant, thereby caring little about the consequences of their actions.”
    “Disproportionate power” is what you have in the Starship Enterprise situation, in which more time is spent debating the “prime directive” not to intervene than is spent looking at the facts, but these debates are invariably followed by intervention.
    Mamdani’s entire book, as with all HSRC publications, can be downloaded free from:

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