My IPS analysis on Iran crisis ripples

… is here. Also archived here.
Of course, the 1,200-word format is ways too short to give due consideration to all the actual and potential ripples from the recent crisis in Iran; and as it happened what I ended up giving shortest shrift to in the piece was the effects Iran’s internal crisis will inevitably have on the prospects for ramping down the still very dangerous confrontation between the US and Iran over Iran’s nuclear technology program.
So what the article dealt with mainly were the also very important arenas of Iraq, the balance in the Persian Gulf more generally, Arab-Israeli peacemaking, and Afghanistan.
On Gulf balance issues, I just went back and re-read this December 2003 JWN post, ‘Geopolitics of the Gulf 201’. It still looks pretty helpful today (along with its precursor, ‘Geopolitics of the Gulf 101‘.
I had written about the effects of the Iran crisis on the nuclear issue in this June 20 post on JWN. I see that Laura Rozen has a new post on her blog on (mainly) this topic. Hat-tip for that, btw, goes to the interesting new blog being produced by Trita Parsi’s National Iranian-American Council.
The bottom line from the ‘experts’ cited by Rozen on how the Iranian crisis will affect the prospects for Obama getting a negotiated resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue is really all over the place.
She quotes Parsi himself as saying,

    “It’s very tough for the president to engage in a serious manner within the next three-to six months because of how the Iranian government has been conducting itself… It’s politically far more difficult for him to pull this off,” than before the Iranian government crackdown on opposition supporters. “I’m not saying it’s impossible.”

Then she quotes Georgetown University’s Daniel Byman as saying,

    “Some people are more optimistic, some are less… To me, we can hope to have more leverage, but we could have less. My impression is, we were going to try [engagement]. If it didn’t work, we’d move on. We would not be naïve that it would work.”

That is a fascinating quote, for two reasons. First, he is frank in admitting he does not know which way it will go. Second, what’s this thing about “moving on”? It strikes me that is almost certainly a reference to a plan that if the negotiations didn’t work the US would attack Iran militarily, or allow Israel to fire the first shot in that.
Anyway, I’ll try to get back to this topic more when I can.

US, Syria, Iran, Hamas

The Obama administration has decided to return a US ambassador to Syria, the WaPo’s Scott Wilson reports today. This is a long overdue move– see below. However, the timing of the announcement does seem to link it to the ongoing turmoil inside the Iranian regime.
The always very well informed David Ignatius, writing (also in today’s WaPo) about US policy responses to the developments in Iran, says,

    As the mullahs’ grip on power weakens, there are new opportunities to peel away some of their allies. The United States is moving quickly to normalize relations with Syria, and there’s talk of working with the Saudis to draw elements of the radical Palestinian group Hamas away from its Iranian patrons, toward a coalition government that would be prepared to negotiate with Israel. Observes a White House official: “Iran’s allies in the region have to be wondering, ‘Why should we hitch our wagon to their starship?’ ”

It has, of course, long been a dream of some Israelis and allies of Israel that they could “flip” Syria away from its sturdy, 30-year alliance with Iran. “Peeling them away” is a less crude and possibly more nuanced version of the same idea.
Ignatius links the administration’s current overture toward Syria, and its consideration of an overture toward Hamas, centrally to its desire to take maximum advantage of the current political problems in Tehran. I would note, however, that these moves have been under active consideration in the administration since considerably before the hotly disputed June 12 election in Iran.
From that perspective, announcing the moves in the context of linking them to the situation in Iran might be very canny politics within the US. But it is not the whole story.
Indeed, when I was in Damascus earlier this month, there were already many signs of a growing thaw in the long frozen US-Syria political relationship.
It has also been an open secret for some time now that Obama, Mitchell, and Clinton are very eager that the Palestinian movements– especially the ‘Big Two’, Fateh and Hamas– find a way to settle their differences enough to allow a unified Palestinian delegation to take part in negotiations for a final peace with Israel. Mitchell said as much in his first conference call with Jewish-American leaders back in early February. And his determination– along with, presumably, that of the person who appointed him, Pres. Obama– that this happen seems only to have grown since then.
Including that Mitchell gave an attentive hearing to former Pres. Jimmy Carter when Carter went to brief him June 18 about the discussions he had had over the preceding week with Hamas leaders in Damascus, the West Bank, and Gaza.
In my recent blog post on Fateh’s woes, I made one suggestion as to how a Palestinian negotiating team that enjoys the confidence of both the big parties might be constituted. Such a team might or might not include Fateh’s Mahmoud Abbas.
When I interviewed Hamas head Khaled Meshaal in Damascus June 4, he restated Hamas’s longstanding position that it is happy to have Abbas do the negotiating with Israel– but on the condition that any final deal negotiated should be submitted to a Palestinian-wide referendum thereafter. Hamas, he said, would abide by the results of that referendum.
Personally, I think it would be better to find a way to get Hamas more involved in the negotiating– even if only indirectly– from a far earlier stage than that. Hence my suggestion that a person or persons whom they trust be fully included on the negotiating team from the beginning.
Either way, folding Hamas into the diplomatic strategy is something that has to be done, given their real weight in Palestinian society. And it’s something the Mitchell team has been wrestling with from the get-go. Let’s hope the current turmoil in Iran gives Mitchell and Obama a new opportunity to “sell” this idea to the many folks in Congress and the US public who are still very wary of the “the H word.”
We can note, though, that there is significant support in Israel for talking with Hamas directly. The last time Tel Aviv University’s Tami Steinmetz Center recorded the answer to this question, in its February 2009 poll, it found that 45% of Israelis supported this. In other, earlier polls, pollsters found that an even stronger percentage of Israelis supported negotiating with a Palestinian team that included both Fateh and Hamas.
Regarding the new US opening to Syria, we should remember that it was Pres. Bush who decided to withdraw the US ambassador from Syria; and he did so, in February 2005, in response to the specific situation in Lebanon. Former PM Rafiq Hariri had just been assassinated there, and much of the evidence about that seemed to point towards Syria.
A lot has happened– in Lebanon, in Syria, and in the US– since then.
Back in February 2005 Syria still had some 35,000 troops in Lebanon, the remnant of a peacekeeping force that went into the country in 1976 with Washington’s blessing. After the Hariri killing, a broad movement of Lebanese arose that called for the withdrawal of those troops; and that withdrawal was duly completed in April 2005. After subsequent developments inside Lebanon, that included a nasty assault from Israel, elections, further discussions, and a new government, Lebanon and Syria agreed for the first time ever to have normal diplomatic relations with each other and exchange ambassadors.
That step took place earlier this year.
Meanwhile, the “evidence” that the Bushites and others had relied on to pin blame for the Hariri killing on Syria seemed to largely unravel. Earlier this year, four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals who had been imprisoned in Lebanon since 2005 were released by order of the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon. So there really has been little continuing rationale for Washington not to have an ambassador in Damascus. And meanwhile, Syria is a regional player of considerable significance in both the Iraqi and the Arab-Israeli theaters.
In recognition of that, Sec. of State Clinton called Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem May 31, and they agreed on a ‘Road Map’ for improving relations. Ten days later peace envoy Mitchell made his first visit to Damascus.
You can find my June 12 account of the recent history of the US-Syrian relationship here. My thoughts on the need to include Syria in the Arab-Israeli negotiations are here. My compilation of the 18-year record of Syria’s attempts to negotiate its own final peace with Israel is here. And my June 4 interview with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem is here.
It is intriguing, though, to see that we finally have a president who recognizes the importance of diplomacy and has the capacity and agility to start to rebuild a whole host of important relations that had, basically, been shredded by the Bushites.

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.

Good judgment on Iran: Sick and Parsi

Two of the people in the US who understand the most about Iranian politics and the dangers of its sometimes toxic intersection with US politics are Gary Sick, who was Pres. Jimmy Carter’s adviser on Iranian affairs back at the time of the Iranian revolution, and Trita Parsi, a younger scholar and activist who has done an amazing job building up an organization called the National Iranian American Council. NIAC has been a consistent voice organizing the hundreds of thousands of Iranian-origined Americans into a powerful and anti-war force in US politics.
Today, both these men have published good, strong commentaries– that in important ways reinforce some of the key points I’ve been making here over the past ten days.
Parsi’s main argument is one of support for the nuanced but basically restrained, and non-interventionist, position that Obama has maintained throughout Iran’s current turmoil.
However, I imagine that Parsi may be under some non-trivial pressure from his own constituency (that is, in his case, a constituency that he has done a lot to organize and create.) Many Iranian Americans are strong supporters of the Mousavi (Rafsanjani) movement in Iran. So Parsi adds this to his piece:

    But here is one legitimate criticism , the Iranians are missing two words from Obama: “I condemn.” Protesters and political leaders I’ve spoken to in Iran want the US to speak out forcefully against the government’s human rights abuses and condemn the violence.

Well, I am all for condemning violence. But it should be a universal condemnation, given that the protesters have also used some violence. (Update 10 a.m.: Laura Rozen is reporting that Obama will do some “condemning” at a news event at 12:30 today.)
Sick’s piece, on his blog today, is a magisterial view of what’s really been at stake in Iran.
Some highlights from what he argues there:

    1. “Don’t expect that this will be resolved cleanly with a win or loss in short period of time… This is not a sprint; it is a marathon. Endurance is at least as important as speed.”
    2. “There may not be a clear winner or loser.”
    3. Gary’s clear assessment that what is happening is not primaily between Ahmedinejad and Musavi but between Khamene’i and Rafsanjani. (I made that point here on June 15— though at that point I thought it was already over and Khamene’i had won.) In Gary’s post today, he adds the significant point that “President Ahmadinejad has largely vanished from sight, which adds to the impression that he is more of a pawn than a prime mover in this affair.”
    4. He emphasizes the size of the stakes and the extreme uncertainty surrounding the outcome.
    5. He gives even stronger suport than Parsi does to Obama’s stance of non-intervention:

      Wouldn’t it feel good to give full throated expression to American opposition to the existing power structure in Iran? Perhaps so — but it could also be a fatal blow to the demonstrators risking their lives on the streets of Tehran, and it could scotch any chance of eventual negotiations with whatever government emerges from this trial by fire.
      The crisis in Iran is an Iranian crisis and it can only be resolved by the Iranian people and their leaders.

The point Gary makes regarding the size of the stakes, for Iran’s Islamist political order and its people, is a crucial one. Regarding Khamene’i and Rafsanjani he writes:

    The irony of two former colleagues now competing for power over the expiring corpse of the Islamic Republic that they created with such grandiose expectations, is lost on no one. The important sub text, however, is that these two understand very well what they are doing. They know how a revolt can be turned into a revolution. They also know they have everything to lose. The shared consciousness of high stakes has until now prevented an all out political confrontation between rival factions in the elite. That may help explain why the rahbar [leader, i.e. Khamene’i] and the Revolutionary Guards were so reckless in their insolent contempt of the reformers and the public. They may have believed that no one would dare take it to this level.
    Now that it has arrived at this point, both protagonists are faced with decisions of unprecedented gravity. There has been nothing like this in the thirty year history of the Islamic Republic, and today there is no Khomeini father figure to moderate and mediate among the warring factions. They must improvise in conditions of severe uncertainty. If anyone tells you that they know how this will turn out, treat their words with the same regard you would have for any fortune teller peering into a crystal ball.

The only thing I’d disagree with there is his description of the Islamic Republic as an “expiring corpse.” I think that’s ill-considered language that actually undermines the important argument that he makes later on there: “If anyone tells you that they know how this will turn out… ”
Numerous well-meaning people in this country who are supporters of the pro-Mousavi movement in Iran have taken to calling that movement an “intifada.” (Interesting that this Palestinian-origined term is now one seen as having overwhelmingly good vibes within our discourse here in the US.) But the etymological root to “intifada” has to do with “shaking off.” And it occurs to me that one of the big questions about the pro-Mousavi movement has been that it’s never been clear what exactly they were seeking to “shake off”– that is, how deep of a revolt/revolution/counter-revolution they were agitating for.
Some, it seems, were seeking “only” a correction of a claimed error in the operation of the Islamic republic’s own rules– that is, to restore integrity to the existing system.
Others seemed more intent on effecting either deep change within the system, or its complete overthrow. (Seeing Baby Shah leaping into action in Washington DC yesterday as certainly a blast from the past.)
The Mousavists did what they could to dress their actions up in the symbolism of the Islamic revolution, including by their appropriation/expropriation of the “green” color-theme and the use of “Allahu Akbar” as a rallying cry.
Frankly, I was struck by a bit of cognitive dissonance thinking about all these Iranian glamor-puss young women with their streaked hair, nose jobs, tight jeans, etc, out there shouting “Allahu Akbar” to express their feelings. But the more important question is “What do all these people who have rallied around Mousavi’s electoral claims actually want?”
Gary Sick is right (in everything but the “expiring corpse” thing.) This is a big-stake confrontation within the heart of the Islamic Republic. Sort of Stalin vs.Trotsky if you will. (But hard to distribute these roles appropriately among today’s main antagonists. Regarding continuing to expand or consolidating the revolution, Khamene’i is more Trotskyist than Rafsanjani. Regarding the dictatorialness of his rule, he seems more Stalinist– but this judgment is based on the notion than Trotsky, if he’d won, would have been less dictatorial than Stalin, which obviously is quite unknowable.)
My judgment is that the Mousavi/Rafsanjani camp has done quite a lot to provoke the most recent confrontation. Mousavi (who’s the front man) has been just as confrontational in his way as Khamene’i in his. What pushed the M/R camp to take this stand? Did they get spooked by the prospect that a re-elected Ahmedinejad would start to take some significant actions against the extremely profitable Rafsanjani-led economic enterprises, and therefore they decided to plan a big pre-emptive push against allowing that to happen?
There is certainly a large-scale, intra-regime back-story to everything that’s going on in the Tehran streets these days… I imagine we won’t learn about that part of the story for a long time yet, if ever.
Meanwhile, for us Americans, non-intervention has to continue to be the watchword.
(By the way, am I the only person to think that all this business in Tehran may well also be connected in important ways to the fact that the US forces are about to leave the cities of Iraq?)

Scott’s choices (re. Iran matters)

(title tip to Gary Sick’s stimulating blog. )
Four compelling commentaries about Iran developments:
1. Suzanne Maloney’s “Clerical Error,” on Council on Foreign Relations web site:

The convergence of… — mass mobilization and elite infighting — has produced the most serious threat to the survival of the Islamic Republic since the early years of its existence. However the election turmoil plays out, it has irreparably shattered the Islamic Republic’s most important underlying assets — elite cooperation and popular participation….

Four weeks ago in these pages, I reviewed why “elite cooperation” was key to Iran’s complex decision making. Whether the consensus forming mechanisms can be restored is indeed a vital question.

The closest parallel to the current protests is the mass mobilization that preceded the 1979 revolution. Then, as is happening now, disciplined crowds spanning Iranian society’s traditional cleavages among generations, ethnic groups, and social classes poured into the streets…. The dissent that Mousavi is encouraging violates the central tenet of the Islamic Republic’s political culture, which is based on a shared commitment among “khodi,” or insiders, to the preservation of the system….

Maloney is less convincing on where this is going, yet provocative:

“The reformists on the streets and in the corridors of power have emphasized the moderate nature of their demands; neither group is seeking to overturn the Islamic system. This caution may help enable the regime to prevail, but its short-term survival may leave it fatally weakened. In the aftermath of a stolen election, Iranians will remain mobilized in unprecedented numbers against their government and the leadership will be undercut by profound internal cleavages…. What follows will — in either the short or long term — represent a genuine improvement for both the Iranian people and the international community.”

2. Anything by Roger Cohen, including his on-the-street account on Sunday, and especially his take in tomorrow’s NYTimes on “The Children of Tomorrow.
Among keepers in his Sunday essay, Cohen observes how Supreme Leader Khamenei “factionalized himself” by taking sides in a dispute central to the system. Instead of soothing the wounds, last Friday’s sermon catalyzed further broad demonstrations by “people of all ages. — an old man on crutches, middle-aged office workers and bands of teenagers.”
To Cohen’s doubts about whether the world, or the UN could help the protesters, one woman tellingly realized: “So, we are on our own.”
Even as the world indeed is watching, “in the end that is true. Iranians have fought this lonely fight for a long time: to be free, to have a measure of democracy.” Therein may be their best “weapon,” in the Iranian context — self-reliance.
For tomorrow’s column, Cohen movingly writes:

Continue reading “Scott’s choices (re. Iran matters)”

Americans, the events in Iran, and nuclear prospects

Pres. Obama has been coming under a lot of pressure to express a more forthright stand in favor of the pro-Musavi demonstrators in Iran. He is quite right to resist those pressures, for a number of reasons.
Meanwhile, the deep split within the Iranian regime that was dramatically revealed by Rafsanjani’s absence from Khamenei’s sermonizing yesterday raises a whole new set of sobering prospects– for Americans and for everyone else.
The first and most compelling reason why Obama’s stand of non-intervention in Iranian politics is the right one is that this is a core principle of international affairs that goes back to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. This principle, remember, underlay the international order in Europe in which liberal democracy had the space to evolve in, in the first place.
Sticking to the principle of non-intervention doesn’t at all preclude Obama or anyone else from expressing a strong preference for non-violence and the rule of law. But it really does preclude our government’s leaders from expressing sympathy for one side or the other in a conflict inside another country.
Especially after eight years of rabid and disastrous George Bush interventionism overseas, restating the principle of non-intervention– and acting in accordance with it– is more necessary than ever.
Secondly, a more “instrumentalist” consideration: It is highly likely that any open expression of sympathy by our president for the pro-Musavi side would backfire. (Update Sun a.m.: See Joe Klein on this, too.: “it seemed clear to me when I was in Iran–and even more clear, given the events of the past few days–that the protesters realize that they have to do this on their own. And that an American endorsement would taint their movement, perhaps fatally.”)
Many Americans like to think that now that we have a new president, and especially after Obama’s great speech in Cairo, Muslims everywhere must suddenly love America. That is absolutely not proven. If there is a deep change in Muslim attitudes to Washington, it will happen over time, and will be informed by Washington’s actions not just our president’s words.
In the GWB era, most of my friends in pro-democracy movements in Muslim countries were quite clear that the loud support that Bush expressed for their aspirations was a “kiss of death” for the movements they hoped to build. That may be changing in the Obama era. But it is far too early to say, yet, that what some people like to call “the Obama effect” has turned things completely around.
In Iran, the situation is further complicated by the involvement of the US government– as started by Bush but also, sadly, continued by Obama– in covert projects to foment dissent inside different parts of the country. And of course also by the tragic record of what happened in Iraq under a US occupation regime that for several years tried to justify its existence primarily in terms of a campaign for “democratization.”
Bottom line here: An open “embrace” by Obama or the US Congress of the pro-Musavi movement is much more likely to backfire than to help Musavi.
Finally, and most importantly, we as the US citizenry need to keep our eye on the main ball in this question of our relationship with Iran.
As Americans, our strongest duty in all this to do what we can to avoid our government getting rushed, by anyone, into a military attack against Iran; and indeed to ensure that our government speedily ramps down the very dangerous degree of tension against Iran that it got locked into over the past 16 years.
We urgently need Washington to sit down the Iranian government in a constructive and broad-ranging negotiation over a number of issues including: Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear program, the punishing sanctions we have maintained against Iran for many years, and how to coexist within a strategically rebalanced Persian Gulf region over the years ahead.
From this point of view, the present situation of unresolvedness in the leadership struggle in Tehran is quite possibly the worst outcome. For three reasons:

    1. If there is no single, uncontested authority in Tehran, no-one there can make any strategic-level decisions concerning, or within, a big negotiation with Washington.
    2. Instead of the US-Iran negotiation being conducted (or even planned) in an atmosphere of calm and realism on both sides, it will itself become inevitably tangled up with the leadership struggle in Tehran.
    3. So long as internal dissension continues inside Tehran, there will be powerful voices in Washington that argue against any negotiations with it.

There is a very significant matter of timing here, too. We know that Israeli PM Netanyahu is eager to have a speedy deadline before which he wants the attempt at negotiation to show success. (And if it’s not met, he will presumably sharply escalate his calls for a military attack.) We also know that Obama has said he wants to get the talks well underway by the end of the year.
Trita Parsi is the only other person I’ve seen who has zeroed in on this crucial issue of timing. He wrote:

    if political paralysis reigns in Iran, valuable time to address the nuclear issue through diplomacy will be lost.

He wrote that, with great prescience, a week ago. Now, a week later, it is quite evident that what is underway inside Iran is a deep split within the core of the regime that will certainly take a long time to heal, and perhaps even to resolve.
As Gary Sick noted about Khamenei’s fateful sermon yesterady — and I’ll quote this in full–

    First, and perhaps more important than the words themselves, was the fact that Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani did not attend. This is extraordinary. Khamene’i and Rafsanjani were fellow revolutionaries in 1978-79. They have been associates – sometimes close colleagues – for more than 50 years. Many believe that Rafsanjani was instrumental in getting Khamene’i his position as Leader. Rafsanjani today heads the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for monitoring the performance of the Leader, among other things. This was possibly the single most fateful speech by Khamene’i in his 20 years as Leader of the Islamic Republic. How could Rafsanjani not attend? Did he simply boycott the event? Was he under house arrest? It probably didn’t help that several of Rafsanjani’s children were arrested in the previous 24 hours. We have never had such a graphic demonstration of political differences within Iran’s ruling elite.

This split within the regime is now so deep that “resolution” of it, and repairing the regime from its after-effects even once it has been resolved– even if that were to happen tomorrow, which it almost certainly will not– will probably take many months, if not a number of years.
A deep split in the heart of a regime that commands considerable capabilities in nuclear technology: That is another big consideration.
The fact of this split itself might well further propel the efforts of those in the regime who want to hasten the “breakout” from a civilian nuclear program to a military nuclear program. As happened in Pakistan, these people might well see this as their best defense against those from outside who want to continue to foment trouble inside their country.
… And meanwhile, the time-period within which the split inside the Iranian regime gets resolved and healed, or doesn’t get resolved and healed, bumps up against the deadline that Netanyahu and his many remaining supporters in the US Congress have established for “resolving” the Iranian nuclear question.
Dangerous months ahead, I think.

Evidence of Iran Discontent

I appreciate that some respected observers remain doubtful about the extent of the protests in Iran. Yet as I (Scott) see and sense it, the evidence has been building for several days that popular disquiet over the recent elections returns is nationwide, in all regions, across all socio-economic, ethnic, regional, and linguistic groupings.
Two quick items for consideration:
1. Five pictures from Esfahan, Iran’s second largest city (and among my favorite places in all the world), showing perhaps a million protesters jammed into and spilling out of the world famous Imam Square. (aka maidaan-e naqsh-e jehaan)These pictures were forwarded to me via a western based Iran scholar, who received them directly from a relative in Esfahan.
To grasp how huge Imam Square is (80,000+ square meters), try visualizing a football field, turn it sideways at one “narrow” end of Imam Square, and then add 14 (fourteen) more football fields after it. Or for the google maps generation, try this image.
That Esfahanis might show up in such large numbers to protest does not surprise me, as a week ago, I highlighted a huge rally in the same spot for Musavi during the campaign. (See these pictures.)
2. An important oped essay by my long time friend Eric Hooglund, syndicated by Agence Global, entitled “Iran’s Rural Vote and Evidence of Election Fraud.”
Professor Hooglund (now of Bates College) is an authority on the subject, having lived in and frequently traveled to rural Iran for nearly four decades. He literally witnessed Iran’s revolution unfold, as he was there working on a dissertation later published as Land and Revolution in Iran. Earlier this year, he wrote a splendid review of 30 years of post-revolutionary rural development achievements and problems for Middle East Report. He was again in Iran recently, and I know of no one with a broader network across Iran’s diverse rural landscapes.
In his oped, Hooglund – Eric – challenges the widely heard media refrain of Ahmadinejad’s strength being “rural” by giving us details of what is happening in just one of the villages he knows well. (though I understand he prudentially changed names.) I encourage readers to read the whole essay, to find out why even in a rural village, Ahmadinjad had become quite unpopular, and why it is now “seething” with “palpable moral outrage” over the irregular handling of the local ballots and by the results.
Eric has shared with me multiple accounts of similar anger building all across the country. Eric also adds a critical distinction: the disquiet he senses is not so much a blanket referendum against the system, but for reform from within it, and that’s the hope they saw in candidate Musavi, even as he indeed is one of the elite. Yet within that political elite, a profound division has erupted., as Eric well summarizes it,

“over how Iran should be governed: a transparent democracy where elected representatives enact laws to benefit the people or a ‘guided democracy’ in which a select few make all decisions because they do not trust the masses to make the right ones.”

This dispute exposes core fissures at the heart of the system that cannot be easily swept back under the Persian carpet. The smoldering discontent will not be easily extinguished, and it’s far too early to declare a winner in the deeper contest.
Today (Thursday) will likely be an interesting further barometer of these pressures.

Contested elections, human welfare, world peace

I have two big concerns regarding the situation in Iran. The first is for the wellbeing of the 65 million Iranians and the health and integrity of their society, and the second is for the avoidance of hostilities between my country and theirs.
Regarding the wellbeing of Iranians and the health of their society, it is heart-wrenching to see the violence being deployed there, most of which is, I believe, being used by supporters of Mr. Ahmadinejad. But it is also heart-wrenching to see the depth of the social and fissures within Iranian society that are revealed by the street scenes.
Here in the U.S. we had a deeply contested election back in 2000– one that I still think was “stolen” by the Supreme Court on behalf of George W. Bush… On that occasion, our country became deeply divided, and there were scenes of heated wrangling around those Florida vote-counting halls and courthouses.
But thank G-d neither side was deploying baseej thugs to intimidate and beat up the other side. And finally, after many weeks of that wrangling, the Supreme Court ruled and those of us who wanted a different outcome all went home.
We also had some deep social/political fissures over the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. I remember how lonely it was in the early months of the war, standing on the street corner in Charlottesville, VA, with our little band of pro-peace demonstrators, and getting yelled at by non-trivial numbers of passers-by. But again, no-one was actually beating us up there… And the consensus of national opinion slowly swung around to our viewpoint on the war, which we could witness directly in the gathering amounts of support we got as we stood on the corner week after week after week.
In both those cases, underlying the sharp political differences among our country’s citizens were differences in social outlook that were often equally as sharp, if not sharper.
So how is it now in Iran, and how will it be in the weeks ahead? Can the two sides there– and the heavy-duty political forces that stand behind each of them– find a way to get through their present differences, including by building, as necessary, a new form of internal social compact?
The news from Tehran that Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i is calling a meeting of all the presidential candidates and that Guardianship Council is ready to undertake a partial recount of the votes suggests that some such resolution may be possible, though the time-frame for it is still extremely unclear.
I deeply hope this comes about– for the sake of Iran’s people, and for the sake of world peace, too. A prolonged and worsening political stand-off in Iran could tempt opportunists in Israel or elsewhere to start suggesting something along the lines of “Great! Now is the time to move in for a swift bout of regime change”, using all kinds of provocateurs or other special-ops type people, or even a bombing of suspected nuclear sites.
I sincerely hope that no such plan is launched. Sure, under some circumstances it might “succeed” in the short run. But then what? We’ve already seen most graphically in Iraq that removing a regime you disagree strongly with is only one, very easy first step… And then, what do you do afterwards?
The same with “taking out” a nuclear facility or two. (An action that would swiftly rebound, of course, against the US forces strung out in very vulnerable positions along the whole Gulf.)
Prolonged political instability and uncertainty in Iran could tempt malevolent outsiders to undertake many different kinds of mischief. But our country needs Iran’s cooperation more than ever right now– in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Recently, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett reminded us that Obama has actually been continuing with some of the plans the Bush administration had put in place that were designed to destabilize the Iranian regime from various angles.
In the present circumstances those plans need to be stopped immediately.
Americans and our government should be quite forthright in urging de-escalation of the violence inside Iran. Part of that stance also involves urging Iranians (inasmuch as any of them are listening to us) to work speedily and creatively with each other to find a resolution to their current crisis that is both fair and sustainable. What we should not do is try to “call” their election for them, or otherwise interfere in their affairs.
Also, of course, as a footnote here, our country’s credibility in calling for de-escalation anywhere in the world– but especially in that region– is considerably dented given Washington’s own massive use of violence in the recent past in Iraq and its continuing recourse to violence and escalation in Afghanistan. So maybe we ought to think harder about our government’s behavior, too?

The contest that counted in Iran

Millions of Iranians turned out Friday to cast ballots in their presidential “election”. But the real contest there involved only two people: Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i and former president Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Khamene’i won.
He had apparently decided long before Friday’s vote to throw his weight behind incumbent candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Friday evening he moved quite inappropriately fast to declare Ahmadinejad the winner.
Rafsanjani, who runs a number of well-funded business institutions and has often been accused of large-scale corruption, was backing Mir Husain Mousavi, who was declared a loser.
In the two weeks before the “election”, the candidates were able to engage in robust debate, including during televised sessions that by all accounts got pretty feisty. (I didn’t watch them, but some of my friends who did said that A-N did pretty well in them.) Khamene’i even intervened at one point to urge all the candidates to behave more decorously. But I guess he and the group of revolution-guarding “conservatives” around him became increasingly worried at the signs that Mousavi’s supporters were becoming ever bolder in their campaign activities.
We will probably never know the exact count of the millions of votes cast on Friday. It is possible that A-N won the “election” fair and square, as this recent opinion poll had indicated he would. It is possible he didn’t. But Khamene’i rapidly made clear that he didn’t really care how many voters put their X in which box.
My main prediction now is that Khamene’i and A-N will start some large attacks against the bases of Rafsanjani’s business empire, under the rubric of a “move against corruption.” They may well have been planning this campaign all along, and were hoping to gain a strong popular mandate for it from the presidential “election.”
Well, Khamene’i and A-N do have a lot of support in the country. But the country’s social liberals and that other (quite possibly overlapping) group of people who are participants/beneficiaries in Rafsanjani’s business empire so far seem pretty determined to fight back.
The regime has used a quite unacceptable level of violence to quell the recent demonstrations. Those demonstrations have not, themselves, been wholly nonviolent, though Mousavi has called for his supporters to remain nonviolent and it’s possible some of the green-masked individuals seen tossing rocks at the police have been agents provocateurs.
All that violence should stop.
The whole internal struggle over these issues inside Iran is considerably complicated by the fact that the US government has, even under Obama, been continuing the Bush-initiated program of giving support to dissidents and members of national minorities. That program should stop.
Today’s WaPo has, for once, a generally pretty sensible editorial on Iran. It says,

    [A]s a first step, the Obama administration should take care not to signal more respect for [the “election”‘s] results than they merit. Administration officials are right to be responding cautiously and to let the process play out. But there are principles that the administration could be defending even now, squarely supporting the rule of law and democratic expression in Iran…
    President Obama has said, rightly, … that the West should explore all diplomatic possibilities before setting down a path of tightening sanctions or military action. That will remain true: The United States should be willing to talk about arms control and other areas of national interest with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and whoever else can speak for the nation’s foreign policy.

For those of us who are Americans, that last point is the main one we should focus on.
Update, 10:44 a.m.: A good Pepe Escobar explanation of what’s happening– from Tehran– is here. He also centers of the importance of the election debates, but says that A-N looked “deranged” in the one against Mousavi.
Added 2:22 p.m.:Very sensible words from the Leveretts: “Ahmadinejad won. Get over it.”
They mention the Mousavi’s “Rafsanjani problem”, and they include this important point:

    Ahmadinejad’s criticism that Mousavi’s reformist supporters, including Khatami, had been willing to suspend Iran’s uranium enrichment program and had won nothing from the West for doing so tapped into popular support for the program — and had the added advantage of being true.

A must-read.

Live blog sites 4 Iran events

Regarding the intensifying “controversy” {e.g. “rioting, unrest, civil protest, hooliganism, or (in A/N’s terms) “traffic violations” — take your pick} about the Iranian Presidential election results (and whether or not there’s been massive fraud or even a coup within the system), two valuable live blogs for following events:
1. from the Huffington Post
2. from National Iranian American Council (hardly a site pre-disposed to be ideological one way or the other)
Note especially the videos in the live blogs, and the calls for marches tomorrow (all over the country) and for a national strike on Tuesday. We shall see.
If jwn readers have other sites to help us discern events, (in english or persian), please post. Thanks!
I admit to being puzzled by the suggestion that an esteemed veteran journalist (Robert Fisk -who yes has long covered the Islamic Republic – among other things) who is now in one Iranian city on a short term visa, who can quote one friend “who has never lied to him” to the effect that “Ahmadinejad really won,” has more credibility than those of us who have studied Iran long and hard and who are monitoring the process from say, Michigan or Virginia. Maybe. Yet it’s not even clear if Fisk believes him.
Happens that I received a message from an ordinarily very cautious friend (a professional who has served the regime for nearly its entire existence), who is of the view that the election results are a clear “fabrication.” And golly, I also used to have “Persian only dinner” with him too (several as I recall) — in Tehran, in private. And as far as I know, he’s never lied to me either. :-}
Much still to sort out among fellow bloviators. I will reflect more on my own Thursday post later tonight. Advance hints: the genie unleashed in the past few weeks cannot be readily stuffed back into the bottle; the political fissures opened up will not be easily swept under the carpet.