Monthly Archives: November 2008

Boroujerdi, Rafsanjani, executions, counterterrorism

A selective glance at Iran and Iranian media, November 30.

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

The dissident Ayatollah Seyyed Hosein Kazemeyni-Borujerdi has allegedly been beaten up and brought to an unknown location. Borujerdi has advocated the separation of religion and government. Here is some interesting footage from two years ago of Borujerdi, his followers and his opponents; here is an older article and here a more recent piece.

Mohammad Hashemi-Rafsanjani, younger brother of Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, has aired the possibility he might be a presidential candidate for the reformists. He has also stated that he do not know whether his older brother will be a candidate himself. Khatami’s former first vice-president, Mohammad-Reza ‘Aref, has also declared that he will run for presidency – if he receives support from the reformists.

Several media outlets have stated that Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf’s presidential campaign has started. Qalibaf is the mayor of Tehran and former chief of police. He is considered a ‘moderate conservative’ and he is known for his somewhat ‘modern image’ aimed at appealing to the young and affluent. At least Admiral Shamkhani, former Defense Minister, is ‘wise enough not to become a candidate!’.

The centrist / ‘moderate conservative’ Hasan Rowhani – a top advisor to Khamene‘i, former nuclear negotiator and currently the head of the Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research – has warned against paramilitary powers taking over the process of privatization in Iran. “Up until now, it was the government that hampered privatization, now it is being hampered by supra-governmental and paramilitary sectors”.

While one man was executed on November 18 for being an ‘Israeli spy’, authorities have now announced that they have unraveled a network of Israeli spies inside Iran. The network allegedly spied on Iran’s nuclear facilities (in English). Furthermore, three men have been sentenced to death for the April bombing of a mosque in Shiraz. Allegedly, the three are members of ‘a terrorist group’. They will be hanged in public.

Meanwhile, Iran has opened a Center for Advanced Studies in Counterterrorism. It is the purpose of this center to study the history of terrorism, ‘scientific strategies of counterterrorism’ and the ‘real face of the US’ as the culprit behind international terror today.

The knives of Zanjan

by Rasmus Christian Elling

Ahmadinejad Speech in Zanjan

This speech by Ahmadinejad is interesting for several reasons:

1) It is a classic example of his rhetorical prowess. He uses emphasis and intonation to bring the audience to a frenzy at regular intervals, with girls screaming as if at a pop concert; note his superb mix of traditional politician oratory and occasional references to the audience and his local ‘friends’ in a very laid-back and colloquial fashion; and note his body language, his laughs and his smiles. I’m sorry to say it – but he’s hellova good speaker.

2) This is the first time I’ve seen Ahmadinejad speak in the tongue of a non-Persian ethnic group (he might have done this before though, I’m not sure). Even though we all know he’s an unscrupulous crowd-pleaser, I was still surprised by this: the osulgarâ or neo-conservative faction has always been opposed to the ‘abuse of ethnic sentiments’ for political goals. Indeed, Ahmadinejad and his people have been very critical of what was seen as currying favor with ethnic groups during the Khatami period. Yet here we see Ahmadinejad trying his best Azeri: to one of the men in the crowd he suddenly says “hey Mr. Ghoraqi, what’s that gentleman over there saying?” (this is his usual approach: he asks ‘the people’ directly what they want and what they wish for); and, to the great delight of the audience, he announces that “Hand in hand, we must develop Iran together” – syllable by syllable in Azeri Turkish (albeit with an awful accent).

3) After he talked about how to build and develop Iran, he defended his economic policy of subsidy distribution against those who have called this policy gedâ-parvari [something like ‘pro-beggar’ or ‘beggar-supporting’]. This is actually a specific counterattack on Rafsanjani, who had called Ahmadinejad’s policies exactly that; but it is also a general attack on the elites or ‘those of you with full pockets and stomachs’.

4) He then talks of how one of his ‘friends’, a university professor, had told him about a doctoral student who had given the professor one of the famous Zanjan knives as a present. Ahmadinejad concludes that the Zanjan knife is “at the service of the people: you peel fruit with it, you make food with it, you work in the fields with it – that is, you serve with it. However! The ill-wishers must know this: if they threaten Iran’s rights, the Iranian nation will cut off their feet and hands with the knives of Zanjan!”.

Releasing its prisoners of conscience would benefit Syria

by Sune Haugbolle.

Further to my previous post, my friend Hanin Ghaddar from Now Lebanon reports that SKeyes, the foundation for the defense of cultural and media freedom in the Arab Mashreq, which is part of the Samir Kassir foundation, hosted a press conference on Monday in Beirut where they called for the release of Michel Kilo, Mahmoud Issa and other prisoners of conscience. Kilo and Issa have been imprisoned by the Syrian authorities for co-signing the Damascus Declaration, a document from 2006 that calls for a better Lebanese-Syrian relationship, border demarcation and diplomatic relations. And a document that pissed the authorities off so royally that those who signed it were accused of treason.

Of course, since 2006, Syria has indeed moved towards normalisation with its smaller neighbour. The joint decision to exchange embassies, made at Michel Suleiman’s visit to Damascus earlier this year, has opened a new page in Lebanese-Syrian relations – even if one chooses to take a cynical view of Syria’s reasons for such a move, as many Lebanese (including Hanin and many March 14′ers) do. They believe that the normalisation simply adds to Bashar’s position of strength, as described in my previous post, and that it is the first step towards a return to the 1990s when Syrian control over Lebanon – the combination of control, manipulation, safe-keeping and plundering that was the post-war period - was blessed and encouraged by Europe and the US, who saw no other way to keep Lebanon quiet.

Compared to Syria’s moment of engagement today, back in 2006, the situation inside Syria was much more tense, and the imprisonment of dissenting intellectuals a clear sign of a nervous and weak regime. The point is that Bashar al-Asad has not translated his increasingly powerful position both inside Syria and in regional and internationalal affairs into easing his grip on prisoners of conscience. This is both wrong and stupid. From a security point of view the attempt to silence the likes of Kilo is utterly unnecessary. Unlike Syria’s Islamists – who of course receive much harsher treatment - the harakat mujtama’ al-madani (civil society movement) simply do not have enough of a social base to be a threat to the regime.

In fact, the repeated bogus trials in Damascus which attract Western diplomats and human rights groups arguably give Syria a lot of bad publicity that they could really be without at this point of Western engagement. So, both from a human and a policy point of view, releasing its prisoners of conscience would benefit Syria.

Stir in weblogistan, new Interior Minister, Rafsanjani’s feminism

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

A selective glance at Iran and Iranian media, November 21.

The (in)famous Iranian weblog writer Hossein Derakhshan – who has caused a stir in ‘weblogistan’ ever since he (allegedly) started the first weblog in Persian – has apparently been arrested in Iran (more here). His critics – and they are many – tend to see the irony in this: first of all, Derakhshan himself moved to Toronto (and later London) to escape censorship and control; secondly, in the past few years, Derakhshan was seen as a supporter of the Islamic Republic and President Ahmadinejad. One of the things that really upset pundits was when Derakhshan, also known by his online name Hoder, implicitly defended the Iranian state’s arrest and interrogation of the secularist intellectual Ramin Jahanbeglu.  Among his many other controversial ideas and actions was his denouncement of the ‘Zionist conspiracy’ – however, not before after he actually went to Israel himself, which is probably the reason why he is in jail in Iran now (i.e. being an Israeli spy). Derakhshan apparently had planned to go back and live in Iran when he was arrested a month ago. The state-run Iranian news agency IRNA has brought what seems as the first part of his ‘confessions’, in which Derakhshan tells how Iranian writers and journalists were “encouraged to leave the country and write against” the political system in Iran “in exchange for financial guarantees” and how the US blackmailed others to criticize Iran. In the ‘statement’, Derakhshan is alleged to have said that these anti-Iran activists now “used tranquilizing drugs” and “attempted suicide” to cope with the pressure put on them. More on this issue later.

Hosein Mar‘ashi, member of the ‘centrist’ Kârgozârân party has stated that Khatami will run for president while a key member of the pro-reformist Participation Front (Jebhe-ye moshârekat) stated that Karrubi’s participation in next year’s presidential elections doesn’t mean Khatami cannot participate too. It now seems certain Khatami will let us wait until last second before announcing his candidature.

Ayatollah Ha‘eri-Shirazi has argued that “the election of a black man in the US is the result of Ahmadinejad’s letters”. According to ILNA (Iranian Labour News Agency), the Ayatollah referred to the letters Ahmadinejad  sent to Bush and lately also to Obama: “Some criticize this letter [to Obama], however the election of a black man to Presidency of the US is itself a result of these same letters”. He also added that ‘Imperialist powers’ had stolen the medieval poet Sa‘di from Iran when they took one of Sa‘di’s quotes and placed it on the UN headquarters building in NY.

Iran’s new Interior Minister is the not-so-experienced politician (but millionaire and ex-Revolutionary Guards member), Sadeq Mahsuli. Even though it seemed he might not receive the Parliament’s endorsement (which was necessary), he was finally approved November 18. It seems he was helped by a campaign of propaganda-by-SMS. I have wondered for some years now about the use of SMS for the purpose of political propaganda in Iran. I do not have any info on the affiliation of telecommunication companies to the state apparatus, but there is no doubt that the authorities can use this medium at their discretion. I received an SMS from none other than Khamene‘i when I was in Iran earlier this year, reminding me to vote in the Parliamentary elections and thereby ‘support the people-serving government’. However, the related question is: how does ‘the state apparatus’ – being so fragmented and run by competing factions – divide the access to SMS distribution channels? Or is it just Khamene‘i who can use this service? In that case, there can be no doubt that the Supreme Leader supports Ahmadinejad and his team – including the new Interior Minister.

It has been known for years that the Iranian authorities are blocking access to many websites. However, now it’s official (wow!). According to Shahab, the official statistics show that 5 million websites are currently ‘filtered’ by Iranian judicial authorities.

Former President and Head of the Expediency Council, Ayatollah Rafsanjani has stated that “with the victory of the Islamic Revolution, women found their real place [in society]“. He appeared together with his wife at the 6th Int’l Convention for Female Koran Researchers and said: “For a long period … Muslim women were not active and stayed at home. However, with the Islamic Revolution, the way has been opened [for their participation in society], in the shade of the Koranic blessing’s light; and now we see: 40,000 student dissertations on the subject of the Koran written by women and that shows in which direction women are moving”. He also added that the issue of women should not be treated with radicalism and extremism: “Some interpret women freedom to mean unrestrained behavior; however, one must certainly stay away from such radical and extremist [interpretations]”.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the Turkish TV- and radio-giant TRT has launched its Persian services.

Clampdown on alternative voices

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

The Iranian singer / rapper Tataloo has apparently been arrested.

The Hip Hop scene has been growing in Iran over the last seven years with rappers such as Hichkas and Pishro rising to fame amongst Iranian youth from the urban middle class, but also – as I have suggested in my earlier research – from other parts of society. As Internet access keeps spreading throughout Iran and into the geographical periphery and the ghetto suburbia of Tehran, kids have picked up the microphone and brought Hip Hop into the homes of millions and on to the forefront of a growing underground music scene.

Although Persian rap generally is not overtly political, themes have, as one could and should expect from Hip Hop, tended to be provocative. In exceptionally blunt language heavy with slang and occasional swearing, rappers have described the lives of young people in a world of restlessness, anomy and apathy, about the pressures of economic realities, social restrictions and political repression and about illegal parties, drugs, drinking and dating. The days when the small-minded, humdrum pop of LA’s exile-Iranian scene posed the greatest musical challenge to the Islamic Republic are long gone.

This is the reason why Tataloo was arrested. The conservative website Tâbnâk reported three days ago that ‘a famous and morally corrupt rap singer’ had ‘recently’ been arrested. “With the increasing numbers of rappers and the lack of respect of these individuals for moral and cultural issues, we have witnessed a spread in the use of foul and obscene language to rhythms”, the Tâbnâk article stated. Apparently, Tataloo had performed abroad and was arrested when he returned to Iran.

Tâbnâk suggested what appears to be two kinds of rap in Iran: “Apart from rappers who use foul and obscene language and tries to attract fans by destroying the culture of society, there are also a number of rap groups and singers who uses this new format within the cultural boundaries of our country to express their opinion about issues in society – such as sympathy with the victims of the Bam [earthquake in 2003. H]owever, on the other hand, some people – by choosing wrong Western role models and by disrespecting the principles and foundations of the nation – are promoting a kind of vulgarity and socio-cultural depravity…”.

Finally, Tâbnâk stated that in the near future, “large-scale measures for the arrest of morally corrupt rappers” will be taken. The same threat was allegedly issued a couple of years ago when it was believed Hichkas, Pishro and other rappers had been taken into custody and intimidated by authorities. In online Persian rap forums it is rumored that Tataloo has received a 3-year jail sentence.

It is, by the way, not just fancy performers from the capital who are hit by the authorities’ clampdown on dissident voices in music.

On Monday, Shâr News (a local bureau from the predominantly Kurdish city of Saqqez in Western Iran) reported that two local Kurdish singers are to be sentenced for “propaganda against the [political] Order”. Apparently, Seyyed ‘Ali Hosseini and Mohammad Zarifiyan paid tribute to “a singer associated with a group opposed to the Islamic Republic” at a commemoration in September, during the Ramadan. They can expect to be sentenced between three months and one year in prison.

Miliband and Europe’s endorsement of Bashar’s self-image

by Sune Haugbolle.

What to think about the recent spout of European state visits to Damascus, and the Western attempt to engage Syria? First, let’s be realistic about the engagement: the many debates about what it would mean are moot, because it has in fact already happened, and there is little reason to believe that it won’t continue on the all important American front once Obama takes office early next year. David Miliband’s visit this week completes an extended “summer of love” for Bashar al-Asad, who can now look back at the time in 2005 and 2006 when his regime seemed under real pressure, from the Hariri tribunal and the general international sidelining of Syria, and smile. He has been vindicated in his policy of steadfastness, and he knows it. Ordinary Syrians may still be struggling with dire economic problems outside the Damascus circle of prospering cronies, and the UN tribunal may still throw up surprises that could incriminate the regime when it comes into action in the coming years. But unlike in 2005, these are now hurdles Bashar will feel he can handle from a position of strength.

That strength partly derives from the changing regional and international conjectures: a weakened US in the Middle East and the defeat of Bushism generally, Hizbollah’s steadfast resistance to Israel’s attempt to wipe it out in 2006, Lebanon’s inability to present a united front, and new leaders in France and now the US who appear to have “rediscovered” Syria’s potential as a central arbiter in the Middle Eastern jigsaw. Bashar is exactly where he wants to be, because Western diplomats increasingly see him as he wants to be seen: as a man in control of a country that would be chaotic without him, and with fingers in every regional pie of any importance, from Iran to Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. To near-quote The Streets, he is good to know, and he knows it.

What we also know is that there is a dark side to Asad’s Syria. Western diplomats have not found this the right moment to confront Bashar with his country’s human rights record, which is arguably no less appalling than Saudi Arabia’s or Egypt’s, but still unacceptable. The “regrettable” aspects of Syria’s policies for Europe and the US have always been Damascus’ self-styled role as “capital of Arab resistance,” ie. its links with Tehran, Hizbollah, and Palestinian and Iraqi groups. It is only right that Miliband and others should cease to view Syria’s foreign policy as a stumbling block for negotiations. After all, Bashar al-Asad has shown that he can be moved, and that there is room for negotiation on almost all of the abovementioned fronts. Syrian-Israeli peace may even be within reach, to the benefit of all people in the region.

But it is not right that Miliband and other visitors to the Qasiyoun palace leave the complete lack of democratic reforms in Syria out of their policy of engagement. In fact, it is a slap in the face for the people who have struggled for years for political and human rights reform, and who continue to be imprisoned for asking for the most basic rights. Allowing Syria back in the fold without asking tough questions about these well-documented facts is nothing short of an endorsement of Bashar on all fronts. And although he may not be as bad as some have portrayed him, Bashar al-Asad’s legacy of stalled reforms is not one we should endorse, however badly we wish for normalisation in the Middle East. One can only hope that the US engagement, when it starts to take shape early next year, will do what the Europeans seem incapable of doing, and raise all the issue that are not part of Bashar’s self-image but that are very much part of daily life in Syria.

Obama, Iran and Iraq

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

[Updated]

Admittedly, there are many confusing, contradictory and ambiguous signs of where US-Iran relations are heading right now. On the one hand, you have both oppositional and conservative pro-regime forces in Iran together with left-wing commentators in the US saying that nothing will change, and that it might even get worse as Obama will gradually be forced to increase pressure on the Iranians. On the other hand, there are optimistic signs. Take this comment for instance: Robert Dreyfuss argues that the reason the US-Iraq Security Pact has finally been drafted and is up for approval is Iranian support. Even though it is ‘not a done deal’, the fact that the drafters could reach this stage points, in Dreyfuss’ opinion, to Iranians’ giving it the green light. If this is so, it is of course a sign of willingness to cooperate with a US under Obama:

“The election of Barack Obama changed Iran’s calculus, and so Iran decided, very subtly, to shift to neutral on the pact. As a result, many politicians in Iraq who are either influenced by Iran or who are outright Iranian agents now support the pact. It’s an important sign from Tehran to Obama that they’re willing to work with the United States” writes Dryfuss.

On the other hand, Dreyfuss reminds us that Iran is not ‘thrilled’ over US forces staying for another three years; and that ‘if things get sour’, Iran can again start supporting militant insurgent groups like Sadr’s forces.

Apparently, Ayatollah Shahrudi – head of the Iranian Judiciary and considered a close (yet somewhat ‘moderate’) aide to Khamene‘i – has endorsed the pact, stating that “security and stability is in the interest of the regional nations”… Now, I guess the next question would be: does this mean Khamene‘i agrees with this point? Even though Khamene‘i sometimes drop his veil of ‘neutrality’ in domestic factual disputes and sometimes deliberately parts from his favorite image of ‘impartiality’, Khamene‘i doesn’t need to state his views. This is why the Iranian foreign policy line appears so opaque or engimatic to many observers: since Khamene‘i is not a President but a fatherly ‘Guardian’ / supreme-authority-behind-the-curtains, he can just let various aides and associates voice different policy options or views without us knowing which one is actually going to be implemented.

Thus, I see this as yet another classic example of Iran’s two-pronged strategy of suddenly airing surprisingly moderate/constructive/appeasing signals (enhanced when stated by conservative figures and clerics) – while letting other officials repeat the same old songs against the Global Arrogance of Imperialist Powers etc. Nonetheless, I cannot help labelling this as a comparatively ‘suprising’ and relatively ‘conciliatory’ statement.

On a relevant note: it seems Iran has ‘accepted’ Turkey playing the possible role of mediator between US and Iran if Obama is to go ahead with talks. Nonetheless, this acceptance was of course followed by usual skepticism from Tehran:

… the reality is that the issue and problems between Iran and the United States go beyond the usual political problems between two states”; “Some 30 years after the Islamic Revolution, the US still has a negative stance towards Iranians,” the Iranian spokesman said.

Endorsement, mixed reactions to Obama, security measures

by Rasmus Christian Elling

A selective glance at Iranian media, November 13 / 2008.

Yesterday, the newspaper Vatan-e emruz reported a 3-hour meeting between former presidents (and former rivals) Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Allegedly – and I stress this as it must still be considered within the realm of rumors – Rafsanjani called on Khatami to run for president in next years elections. Khatami – according to this report – will wait until last minute to announce his candidature. Furthermore, in his endorsement, Rafsanjani even stated that another ‘reformist’ candidate, Mehdi Karubi (who seems to run for presidency every time but never succeeds despite a loyal constituency in specific areas), could be persuaded to step down. If this is the case, then Khatami could be the sole ‘reformist’ candidate – a development with profound consequences that demands a thorough analysis.

UPDATE: A spokesman from The Expediency Council, Rafsanjani’s stronghold, has denied the report…

One thing is certain: the conservative forces, despite all their internal differences, would probably have to unite around Ahmadinejad if Khatami enters the race. Other conservatives such as Hojjatoleslam Pur-Mohammadi (who also has announced his candidature) will certainly not be able to unite the different wings; and, personally, I have never thought that ‘Ali Larijani could muster enough support even though he is periodically hyped as a pragmatist with clout and support from the Supreme Leader Khamene‘i.

As the first president of the Islamic Republic to do so, Ahmadinejad congratulated Barack Obama on his election victory by writing a letter. Since then, Ahmadinejad has received a mixed review for this. Not surprisingly, his own Ministry of Foreign Affairs has supported him; Larijani and another key conservative, Tavakolli, have criticized him; and Student Basij, the university division of the hard line Islamist paramilitary force sufficed to claim that Obama had learned his ‘Yes We Can!’ slogan from Ahmadinejad!

Meanwhile, skepticism about Obama’s intention in the Middle East seemed to spread in conservative Iranian media: Fars reported how Zionists rejoiced at Obama’s choice for Head of Staff; the state-run Kayhan daily announced that a ‘Son of an Israeli terrorist is Obama’s first selection’; and Raja News showed a picture of Obama with a skullcap, thus portraying him as “The Zionist Foe”.

Indeed, with the Iranians testing a new long-range surface-to-surface missile yesterday, some Western media expressed skepticism about the much-anticipated rapprochement between the US and Iran while others speculated a pre-Obama Israeli attack on Iran.

Middle East Times, quoting UPI (and Iran’s PressTV) stated that the Kurdish guerilla organization, PJAK (Party for a Free Life of Kurdistan, a PKK-affiliate) has suspended operations against Iran. This would be a surprising turn as the organization has gradually increased its attacks on Iranian border guards since 2005.

At the same time, Iranian security forces were launching unprecedented major exercises throughout Tehran. Over six days, 30,000 officers trained urban scenarios under the banner of ‘Public Security and Tranquility’, reported Shahab News. ‘Quarantine of sensitive and important areas such as the bazaar and banks, 2.5 kilometer long parades in Tehran’s main streets and squares, enhancing security at strategic centers, the swift transfer of forces from other provinces to the capital and the rendering of services to the people in cases of emergency, such as earthquake, were among the goals of this maneuver’, the news agency stated. However, Shahab News rejected claims by ‘some political circles and media’ that the maneuver should be seen in the light of ‘recent changes’ in the command structure of the Security Forces (niru-ye entezâmi); Shahab News also ridiculed reports such as that in Al-Jazeera, which claimed Iran was ‘getting ready for unrest’.

Meanwhile, a debate is raging in Iran over the proposed installment of CCTV in certain areas of Tehran. Ahmadinejad has rejected this idea, floated by high-ranking security officers; later, a commander stated that the Security Forces did not intend to ‘control the personal lives of citizens’ and that only limited surveillance was in the planning.

BBC Persian also reported that the much-dreaded Operative Basij Patrols (gasht-e ‘amaliyâti-ye basij) have returned to Tehran after police replaced them in the years after the revolution. The basij, a paramilitary force known for its hard line Islamist ideology, is going to support the police in Tehran. Even though Tehranis have experienced many different kinds of gasht patrols, this is probably going to be one of the toughest when it comes to moral policing. Last but not least, BBC also reported that Tehran’s governor announced the opening of a new Council for Social Security in Tehran to combat crime and unrest.

In the view of Ahmad Zeidabadi – an experienced Iranian journalist now working for the BBC – there can be a positive and a negative interpretation of all these measures: the positive being that ‘social insecurity’ (that is, crime) has reached a point in Tehran, where such measures are indeed necessary; the negative of course being that the state apparatus seeks to frighten and harass the population, and prevent riots and uprisings – such as those one might expect to occur on the background of constantly rising food prices, inflation and unemployment.

Zeidabadi also pointed out Ahmadinejad’s opposition to the installment of CCTV in Tehran, which seems, to Zeidabadi, ‘mysterious’. Indeed, how come Ahmadinejad has blamed the security forces for creating a bad atmosphere of policing in the capital? Here, Zeidabadi states two possible interpretations: either Ahmadinejad was unaware of the security measures and now feels sidelined (thus maybe showing that the President will not be supported by the security apparatus in the upcoming elections); or that Ahmadinejad pretends he was unaware of the measures in order to paint a portrait of himself as a ‘moderate’ in the public mind (and thus attracting voters). Finally, Zeidabadi also mentioned that some analysts see these measures as part of a preparation for US attacks during the last months of Bush’s presidency.

US presidential elections and Iran-US relations

by Rasmus Christian Elling

The following is a slightly modified manuscript for my talk at the seminar ‘How Will the Next President Change US Policy in The Middle East?’ at The University of Copenhagen, October 22, 2008. Apart from myself, Sasha Polakow-Suransky (Associate Editor, Foreign Affairs), Sune Haugbolle (Associate Professor, Uni. of Copenhagen) and Bjoern Moeller (Senior Researcher, DIIS) participated.

Of course, we all know how the US elections turned out, and the ‘if’ part of this writing is now only of historic interest. Nonetheless, I hope that the glimpses of optimism in this piece – and in so many other op-eds written these days – will not one day be regarded as historical naivety.

What effect will the US presidential elections have on Iran-US relations?

First of all, we need to discuss what kind of change is actually conceivable. If you look at this question from a perspective of whether or not Iran will be ‘contained’, back down from its nuclear program and renounce its regional ambitions – then the US elections will probably not change anything. Iran will continue to have a nuclear energy program and not much can change that; furthermore, one might argue, Iran is in its good right to have such a program. Iran has accepted treaties and protocols that countries armed with nuclear weapons like Israel and Pakistan have never signed. And even though there are still many critical questions and even though there have been signs that the Iranians, at least until 2003, ran a covert arms program, the basic fact will not change: Iran is entitled to a nuclear program and the broad Iranian populace supports what is seen not only as a natural right but a question of national sovereignty.

I think that the most sensible thing we can hope for is to reach an agreement with the Iranians that clearly respect this right at the same time as maintaining and expanding IAEA access to the Iranian sites in question. In other words, the best we can hope for in this regard is to reach an agreeable level of transparency: to be able to monitor Iranian nuclear activities and thus hopefully prevent a conversion of the civil program to a military one.

This is not a defeatist view – this is a realist view. It is an acknowledgment of the fact that economic sanctions so far have not worked sufficiently. It is recognition of the fact that Chinese and Russian interests in Iran are not lessening– they’re expanding; and that we cannot expect Moscow and Beijing to support tougher sanctions on such a vital trading partner. It is recognition of the fact that a US military intervention – whether a limited air strike or a regular invasion – is now virtually out of question. Even if it was to drum up a minimum of international support, the US does not have the resources to achieve its goals in Iran by military power. The sense of patriotism that permeates an Iranian population, which sees itself as having 2,500 years of continuous history as an independent nation-state, means that whether or not the majority is dissatisfied with the current rulers, they would rally behind the government if the country were attacked. Furthermore, American forces are already tied up in two major armed conflicts that have stretched US resources to its limits.

Thus, to sum up: even though the next US president will probably not, at least on the rhetorical level, take the option completely off the table, military intervention should be out of the question; in their current form, sanctions will not work; and most importantly: none of these will change the ambitions of the Iranian government – or the view of the broad populace. Again, this is not an apologetic view: I personally think nuclear technology is potentially dangerous and problematic, whether in the hands of Iranians, Indians, Americans or Swedes. No doubt it is dangerous in Iranian hands too. However, I guess everybody here can agree on an answer if we were to choose between a completely opaque and secretive Iranian nuclear program and a relatively transparent one.

Yet, I think there is some reason to be fairly optimistic. There is no doubt that any president of the United States is constrained by pressure from interest groups and that no one – neither Obama nor McCain – could move swiftly towards a solution on the Iran issue. There is no doubt that any US politician is extremely wary of appearing too appeasing or too ‘soft’ when it comes to the question of Iran’s nuclear program. However, there is a slight chance that a moderate and sensible president – if he was to be supported or allowed at home by his constituencies, the congress and other key entities – might just be able to lead the way towards dialogue. A pragmatic and prudent president might, for example, follow up on Condoleeza Rice’s recently floated idea of re-opening a diplomatic mission to Tehran, 30 years after Islamists occupied the US embassy. And that would truly, in my opinion, change the picture.

But then again, I feel I have to be optimistic. Because the alternative to dialogue is that nothing will change: Iran will continue a secretive path towards nuclear goals, the Islamist rulers will continue supporting anti-American forces in the region and Ahmadinejad will continue his ludicrous statements about Israel. Psychological warfare and tension-creating propaganda will continue to flow thick from both sides and nobody will benefit. Instead of bringing in Iran as a potentially constructive discussion-partner and maybe even a beneficial working partner in, say, rebuilding and stabilizing Afghanistan and Iraq, hostile relations will result in more and bloodier proxy conflicts. And yes, uncontained, that might eventually lead to a direct confrontation that will have catastrophic repercussions for the world economy, for regional security and for innocent civilians all over the world – and in Iran in particular.

How about the Iranians? I think it is time to correct certain views. First of all, Iranians are not suicidal fanatics and they are not ruled by a small cult of messianic maniacs, the way some would like us to think; Iran is governed by many different and competing centers of power; there are rational voices both within the ruling elite and in the opposition; secondly, Iran will not start a nuclear war – indeed Iran has never threatened to do so; and, thirdly, despite layers of ideological rhetoric, the Iranians have for many years put the global mission of Khomeini’s revolution after national interests when shaping their foreign policy. Thus, there have been many signs – in particular during the pro-reformist presidency of Khatami, but also during the presidency of Ahmadinejad – that the Iranians are sincerely interested in dialogue and direct negotiations with the US. Let us for example not forget that the real leader in Iran – Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamene‘i – in 2003 allegedly proposed to drop support for Islamist terror groups and to provide full transparency of Iran’s nuclear program in return for US disbanding Mujahedin-e Khalq and accepting Iranian nuclear ambitions. Let us not forget the numerous attempts at positive engagement, bilateral cooperation and good will gestures during the presidencies of Rafsanjani and Khatami. And let us not forget that the beef, to use a colloquialism, is between the political rulers of Tehran and Washington, not the people; and that caught in between as a hostage there is a young and vibrant generation of Iranians longing for freedom, progress and equality.

Even if we choose to see the road to rapprochement as a cynical plot conceived in Tehran and aimed at portraying US as defeated and forced to sit at the table with the Iranians – it might not be such a bad thing after all. It might, as pessimists will claim, give an immediate triumphal effect for Ahmadinejad on the domestic scene:  i.e., that he was the one who was able to finally force the Great Satan to recognize Iranian ambitions. However, just like Ahmadinejad’s other rash statements and overconfident maneuvers, it will certainly backfire. Direct dialogue with the archenemy will alienate radical anti-Western forces in Iran and open the way for more far-reaching demands of rapprochement from the opposition and the broad populace; it will open the stored-up hopes for re-joining the global community and liberate Iran from its status as a pariah. Combined with dwindling oil prices, the Iranian government will eventually be forced to talk to and work out a sort of understanding with the US and Europe. And all this can lead the way to a broad bargain that includes mutual recognition of ambitions and goals, talks on the region in general and finally – and what should be the most import goal – talks on the deplorable situation of human rights and the lack of democracy in Iran. One could indeed argue that this is a good chance to do what Nixon did with China in the early 70s and a good chance to get an even better deal than the US recently got with North Korea.

However, I think that the US should not ‘settle’ for that. Indeed, an Iran-US rapprochement could be a constructive move towards adjusting the US to the slowly but surely emerging multi-polar world and its limited horizon of US options. This is a world in which you cannot introduce democracy and human rights at gunpoint and in which wholesale enforcements of cultural norms and across-the-board manipulation of internal affairs in sovereign states is no longer the accepted way ahead. It might be a hard pill to swallow – but it may also be a good chance for America to re-discover and re-invent itself and its role in the world.

Such a move requires that the next US president stop doing Iranian hardliners the huge favor of presenting America as their biggest existential threat. If the US were to drop its thinly veiled threats of regime change it would not only strip the Iranian leaders of their number one claim to legitimacy; it would also leave the Islamic Republic with one main enemy: itself. The Iranian people has more than one hundred years of democratic struggle on its CV and the Iranian people will change the authoritarian system when internal circumstances and conditions allow them to. Right now, one of the biggest reasons for the militarization of Iranian politics is the threat from Washington. It is giving the current Iranian rulers an opportunity to clamp down on advocates of human rights, the women’s movement, the student movement, the workers movement, regime-critical journalists and proponents of ethnic and religious minority rights. Without foreign intervention and without a foreign bogeyman, Iran will be left alone with its mounting economical catastrophe, severe factional infighting and 30-40 million discontented young Iranians. Indeed, Tehran will have more than enough on its hands and Iranian rulers will eventually be forced to reform the system and accept constitutional and democratic changes along the lines of what Iranians themselves define as proper for their own future. It is actually quite straightforward: instead of presenting itself as a threat, the US should again become a source of inspiration.

So, in that sense, this is a crucial moment in US-Middle East history. If a moderate and dialogue-seeking politician with an understanding of the challenges of the new world and with a renewed respect and consideration for rival states and their populations is elected, I dare say that conditions for improving US-Iran relations will be in place. Of course, we should remain perfectly aware that it takes much more than willingness to talk in order to ameliorate US-Iran relations. In the last 30 years since the Iranian occupation of the US embassy and in the last 55 years since the CIA-sponsored overthrow of the Iranian Prime Minister Mosaddeq, many wounds have been inflicted on both sides, and it will take much more than diplomatic talks to patch them up. The road to dialogue, rapprochement and normalization will be beset by criticism and attempts to hinder progress from hard-liners on both sides, by frustrating stalemates and by much uncertainty. We might even see an escalation in the war of words before it gets better. However, dialogue will be worth it.

Last but not least, I would like to repeat that the ultimate goal with a US-Iran dialogue should be to enhance world security, to promote democratic values, to improve the lives of civilians and to protect human rights. In other words, the ultimate goal should not be to bring Iranian oil and gas back on the world market – it should be to help the Iranian people, the Middle East, the World and the role of US within it.

So, it goes without saying that it takes more than a new President to better relations – a change in attitude and policy is needed. However, with this reality check in place, I must say that I cannot help being optimistic. Even though the road ahead is extremely difficult and can be full of ugly surprises, this might actually be the window of opportunity that moderates and progressives on both sides have been hoping for. Let’s hope it is.

Tasters

by Sune Haugbolle.

As-salamu ‘alykum! Under this signature of CUMINet you’ll be able to follow the bits and pieces of my work that makes it onto the blog. There’s going to be a fair bit of Lebanese affairs as that is my main orbit in the universe of things Middle Eastern (as much as I try to break loose from it). I was in Beirut recently and will return in January, and regularly, and one of my next entries will be about the situation there.

Second, I’ll be writing about my research with the New Islamic Public Sphere Programme. My current project deals with secularism as a (dying) force in Arab media and the cultural industries – you can read more about it here. At the moment I’m ploughing my way through a stack of old articles from the Lebanese press on secularism that I collected at the as-Safir archives. There’ll be an entry on that at some point if I ever make sense of it.

I will also be devoting time to theoretical debates, anecdotes, field notes, and Middle East studies discussions. On that note, I’ll be blogging MESA 2008 from Washington D.C. from November 21 to 24. The programme looks promising this year. I’ll be chairing a panel with my Oxford friend and former al-Jazeera starlette Nahid Siamdoust on memory in popular culture, Sunday morning at 8.30. Other than that we’ll see what comes up. I’ve definitely got the panel on “Arab Thought in the Post-Liberal Era, 1939-1975” marked down. Nothing could be more important in Hourani-inspired work on intellectuals than to fill the gap on the period immediately after Arab independence. It’ll be fun. MESA is always an occasion for meeting old friends, tuning in to debates and trends in the field, and meandering between films, books, and ending up with something unexpected. – More soon!