Monthly Archives: February 2009

March 4th 2009: The End of Sudan?

by Anders Hastrup.

It’s official: On March 4th, 2009, the International Criminal Court in The Hague, ICC, will make public their decision about whether or not they will issue an arrest warrant on Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir accused of genocide in Darfur.

This will end weeks of speculation in the media about the ICC decision. Many leading US newspapers including New York Times and Washington Post have in the past weeks reported that the ICC have already issued the warrant. To many, the ICC decision to issue an arrest warrant signals a triumph for international global justice where action is put behind words and no world leader can get away with committing countless atrocities and genocide against his own people. No matter if it takes place in one of the remotest corners of the world, justice will prevail and the guilty will be punished. No matter if the accused is the President of a sovereign nation-state, he will be brought to justice. If the arrest warrant is issued they will forever see March 4th as a day of triumph for justice and cherish the brave decision by ICC.

For others, including myself with 2 years experience as a relief-worker in Sudan, primarily in Darfur, scepticism is my immediate response and I am preparing myself for a worst-case scenario. Let me explain:
The horrors will not stop in Darfur, they will mutate and embrace the entire country, unleashing a total mayhem in Africa’s largest country. Relief agencies responsible for the provision of food aid to up to 4 million people in Darfur – the most expensive relief- operation in the world – will be kicked out, international agencies will be targets of deliberate violent attacks and all diplomatic relations between Sudan and the international community will be severed.

The true victors will not be the international community and their bodies of justice and the collective sense of rights and wrongs in the world that UN member-states share imbedded in the declarations the member states have signed The victors are anarchy, terrorism, Islamic extremism and general violence. The victims are the civilians, not only in Darfur, but also in the entire country. In more detail:

A pragmatic revival of Islamic extremism
Sudan emerged as a place of particular Western concern with regards to international terrorism after the Islamist revolution in 1989, where military officers took power in a bloodless coup d’état. In the first half of the 1990s Sudan housed a range of international terrorist networks from across the Middle East. Most famous of these was Al Qaeda. Osama Bin Laden spent years in Khartoum investing in various infrastructure projects and expanding his network. The Sudanese government’s decision to provide such a safe haven for extremists resulted in international isolation and sanctions.

The revolution was masterminded by Hassan al-Turabi, the “Ayatollah of Sudan”, who left the presidency in the hands of the un-intellectual war- veteran Omar al Bashir. However, “Mind” and “Muscle”) had a fight, allegedly over divisions of power. President Bashir placed the revolution’s chief-architect Turabi under house arrest. The Islamic revolution had lost its momentum and while the Bashir government took a more pragmatic stance, the extremists went elsewhere.

In the first half of this decade, Sudan realised the benefits of having better diplomatic relations with the outside world. It paid off to have friends – especially as oil was discovered and the country was desperate for infrastructural investments. The rhetoric was cooled down a bit, the hijabs applied more loosely around women’s heads and “special tea”, Heineken in tea mugs, was served at the Chinese restaurants in Khartoum. Sudan had eased up.

However with the ICC threatening the President, who also vehemently opposes the deployment of UN troops in Darfur, the Islamist momentum is consciously re-invoked. By warning that Darfur will turn into a “new Iraq” if international troops are deployed, Bashir has successfully gained sympathy throughout the Arab world and has pitted the Arab League and AU against the UN, US and ICC. As head of the Sudanese National Security Council? Salah Gosh said in a recent interview about the consequences of an ICC arrest warrant:

“We [the government] were Islamic extremists then became moderate and civilized believing in peace and life for everyone. (…) However we will revert back to how we were if necessary. There is nothing any easier than that”.

This statement underlines with utmost clarity the opportunist approach that the Sudanese government has toward Islamism. Osama bin Laden rightly criticized the Sudanese government for being tujjar fi al diin, “merchants in religion”, ready to trade their beliefs for political power and selling out for the purpose of buying in elsewhere.

If the ICC issues an arrest warrant, the Sudanese government will put up a stall in the global terrorist suq, attracting ruthless criminals from around the world with the promise of a hot ticket to the latest frontier in the war against the Zionist, Christian crusaders and their colonization of dar al Islam. It takes one suicide-bomber in an international relief agency compound in Darfur or Khartoum and all international agencies will withdraw leaving as many as 4 million civilian Darfurians without the humanitarian assistance they so desperately need to survive.

The CPA and National Elections
The threat is not only to the civilian Darfurians and the international agencies. An arrest warrant will make the Sudanese government less willing to implement their part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between North and South Sudan that ended the 23-year civil war in 2005. Though this peace agreement is full of holes and fighting has since erupted again in the South, it did bring about a sense of stability for the Southerners as the climate of constant war was replaced by a new reality. The Southerners were given an interim period of 6 years after which they will decide to remain part of a unified Sudan or become an independent nation-state.

Mid-term elections throughout the country are scheduled for later this year. But how will Bashir react? Will he care about the elections that are to be closely monitored by a variety of international bodies? When the CPA was signed in Naivasha, Kenya in 2005, it was the beginning of a new spirit of cooperation between Washington and Khartoum. The US was very much in need of Sudanese intelligence in the War on Terror, and Sudan realised the benefits of stopping a very costly and endless war against the South. Through skilful diplomacy and a great deal of patience the CPA was signed. It is far from perfect, but it has provided a room for manoeuvre. The door to that room is being shot firmly by the arrest warrant that will not only affect future solutions to the Darfur crisis, but will seriously endanger the CPA.

“Contradictory” is a euphemism if one is to analyse the overall Sudan policy and the steps taken by the various international actors involved in bringing peace to Darfur and Sudan as a whole. The problem in my view is that Darfur is perceived as an isolated incident in the history of Sudan, an unprecedented genocide erupting out of nowhere. It is not. The campaigns in Darfur, where Arab militias are armed to do the dirty work for the Sudanese government is a structural repetition of the way the war was fought against the Southerners. Living in South Sudan, my friends would often tell me that they were puzzled by the attention Darfur was getting. “Why is everyone only talking about Darfur? We have lived through the same things for more than 20 years!”

Grave human rights violations have been committed in the war against the South, no doubt, and horrific crimes are being committed in Darfur. The international community should look back at the mechanisms that brought about the CPA and apply the same patient tactful diplomacy in its negotiations with the President Bashir to end the nightmare in Darfur. This is the only way a window of opportunity can be opened and the civilians of Darfur can see a new horizon – and a chance for peace and a better future.

Assault on a Tehran University: Martyr Burials and Violence

UPDATED

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

This morning, armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran buried war victims inside the campus of Amir Kabir University in Tehran. The so-called unknown martyrs were buried amidst tumult and despite protests from student activists. Another symbolic and violent battle between regime-loyal and pro-democratic forces is being fought right now.

The idea of burying martyrs inside Tehran’s universities has a history. Ever since the idea was floated some six years ago, when Ahmadinejad was Tehran’s mayor, it has been a hotly contested topic. Pro-democratic students have protested against the plans because they see it as an instrument for the regime’s oppressive policy: a) it is a way to impose on the university milieu and student life a militant ideology that praises shahâdat (the martyr death), war and military values associated with the Revolutionary Guards and the eulogizing of the eight-year war with Iraq; b) it is a practical way for authorities to clamp down on student gatherings and demonstrations since it is stipulated that the area surrounding martyr graves be treated with utmost respect – indeed, it is prohibited to gather in large numbers in such areas for any other purpose than mourning (which certainly rules out political or cultural meetings); and thus, c) it is a part of a strategy to suppress dissident voices within Iran’s lively university environment. It is one of many tactics in the conservatives’ battle to ‘re-Islamize’ and regain control with Iran’s universities – universities that have struggled to persevere as the vigorous centers of political debate, dissident activities and alternative youth they became during the early days of Khatami’s reformist presidency in the late 1990s.

Thus, the issue of martyr burials has become a battleground between the regime and the pro-democratic forces. Anticipating student protests, the authorities planned today’s burial in advance. A couple of weeks ago, authorities started rounding up key members of the dissident Islamic Students Association (Anjoman-e eslâmi-ye dâneshjuyân) in Amir Kabir Polytechnic University, Tehran – an university known for its vibrant and diverse pro-democratic activist milieu. And yesterday, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i prepared the ground by issuing a public message hailing the martyrs and stating that the youth of today is indebted to these anonymous war heroes to be buried in their campus yard. Thus, the highest political authority blessed today’s aggressive action.

Amir Kabir University’s Student Newsletter website, autnews.us, has reported on the events (here and here). They explain that the atmosphere had been tense through the last couple of days when a parade of chest-beating mourners delivered the martyr coffins this morning. Before the parade, security forces, Basiji campus police, Revolutionary Guards, plain clothed intelligence officers, armed vigilantes known as Ansâr-e hezbollâh (a violent Islamist organization under the unofficial sway of the Supreme Leader) and even the fire brigade gathered inside and around the university compounds. Authorities denied those key activists who had not already been arrested entry to campus but other students – allegedly as many as 1,500 – created a barrier, preventing for some time the parade from executing the burial ceremonies.

The regime forces violently attacked protestors. Students reported that the security forces and vigilantes used clubs, tear gas sprays, iron knuckles, knives and other weapons in order to wound the protesting students. At least 25 have been arrested and 9 hospitalized with knife wounds and other injuries so far, and the fighting continues while this is being written. One student commented on the Amir Kabir website that he/she had never before seen so many security and intelligence forces in action. In a reference to a leader of thugs that was paid by the Shah to disrupt mass gatherings in opposition to the Shah’s regime in the 1950s – Sha‘ban ‘Bi-mokh’ Ja‘fari (‘The Brainless’) – the student wrote

“Really, the Brainless Sha‘bans of the Islamic Republic cannot even be compared to the Brainless Sha‘bans of the Shah!”.

Or, as formulated in another student slogan repeated on the website: “Ansâr commits the crime, the Leader supports it”.

According the Amir Kabir Newsletter, students carried placards and yelled slogans such as “University is not a graveyard”, “Death to Dictatorship”, “Run off, Ansâr”, “Incompetent Basijis, Carrying the Koran on a Spear” and so on. These harsh slogans reveal the profound animosity amongst students against the militant ideology of the regime. Amir Kabir Newsletter reported earlier today:

“… the situation in university is horrible. While protesting students of the university are being beaten up and wounded, the coffins of the so-called nameless martyrs have been placed in a corner, left in a disgusting fashion along the graves while clerics are signing mourning hymns …”

The latest news – posted on Amir Kabir’s website around 8 PM Tehran time – is that the security forces have surrounded university and is now arresting all student protestors trying to exit campus.

Indeed, the Iranian state and its forces have once again brought death into universities with the intent of stifling discontent and strangling freedom of speech and thought. However, the Iranian student movement might come alive again from such brainless actions as that carried out this morning by the state. One student, identifying him/herself as ‘Patriot’ wrote:

“Right in front of me, they kicked and carried off a couple of the kids in a red van. I swear by [Imam] Ali, from now on, I count the minutes until the fall of this regime and I will do anything. Long Live Freedom, Death to Dictatorship”.

UPDATE
State-run and state-affiliated news agencies such as ISNA, Fârs and Mehr have all reported that yesterday’s martyr burial ceremonies were a success. Fârs wrote:

“The immaculate bodies of five unknown martyrs of the eight years of Holy Defense were [moved from] Tehran University and buried in Amir Kabir University with the attendance of a mass of students and people who are in love with the school of self-sacrifice and martyrdom”

In his speech at the burial, Hojjatoleslam Ali-Reza Panahian said that ever since the Islamic Revolution, the enemies had been wishing for the revolution to go astray but that

“after 30 years [since the Islamic Revolution], we are witnesses to the fact that the Holy Order of the Islamic Republic, by the blessing of martyr blood, has the first word to say in the world [i.e., is a major power].”

Panahian clearly referred to the protesters in this quote:

“One should not call the martyrs’ tomb a graveyard since the martyr is not dead and should not be seen as one of the dead”.

He also referred to the fact that many scholars had asked in their wills to be buried in universities. The Fârs report continued:
“In this spiritual ceremony, a number of students – who can be counted with fingers, and who are connected to the illegal group of ‘Allâmeh [Daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat] – tried to create unrest and obstruct the martyr burial ceremonies by provoking their leaders; however a large group of value-driven students directed them out of the central space of Amir Kabir University and into a corner of campus, and thus prevented their rioting.”

Fârs also stated that these “troublemakers” had thrown bottles at “the students” (i.e., those who attended the burial ceremony) and tried to abuse the events for political aims. Fars also reported that the “value-driven” students numbered “thousands” and that they had responded to protesters with slogans such as “The Martyrs are Alive, Allâho Akbar”, “The Blood in Our Veins is a Gift for the Supreme Leader” and “Martyrs, Martyrs; We are Indebted to Your Blood for Our Freedom Today”. Fârs claimed that the “radicals” wounded a number of “students”, but that those attending the ceremony kept their calm and thus prevented the “conspiracy” from unfolding.

The Ahmadinejad-affiliated Rajânews brought the same report but with another intro and headline: “Daftar-e tahkim’s militia’s attack on the martyr burial ceremony”. Here, it was stated that the protesters were the ones who attacked, not the other way around; and that the protesters only numbered “50 persons”.

Needless to say, these reports are in conflict with the reports by Amir Kabir University Student Newsletter, AKUNews. This site reported today that “more than 70 students” have been arrested – but that allegedly more than 40 of them have already been released. The students have also uploaded two videos here and here and series of pictures here and here and here. From these videos and pictures it seems pretty clear that we are talking about a lot more than 50 protesters. However, from the other side of the showdown, IRNA has brought these pictures. AKUNews has also reported that security forces have stormed the homes of key present and former members of The Islamic Student Association at Amir Kabir University today, arresting four.

COMMENT

A scholar wrote me this interesting comment:

“All nations honor their martyrs especially the unknown soldiers and Iran is not an exception. Maybe the regime is wrong in burying martyrs inside universities, but this is such a sensitive issue in Iran that the so-called “pro-democracy” movement should leave it alone. A tomb of unknowns in a university has never stopped any nations from achieving democracy. This shows how distant some reformists are from the reality in Iran.”

This is also an issue that has been discussed in the comments by another reader.

The issue of whether “the reformists” are distant from the reality of many ordinary Iranians is very interesting. As I have elaborated on in my earlier writings on the topic, I think this is correct: the intellectual discourse of how to build a civil society and rule of law was simply too complex for many Iranians to bother about. What most ordinary Iranians do think about are skyrocketing prices on everything, unemployment, inflation, crime etc. This is also why the reformists lost the presidential elections in 2005. It will be interesting to see if the “reformists” are able to re-invent themselves before the coming elections – otherwise, Ahmadinejad’s victory is certain.

However, I am not sure whether it is correct to call those who protested against the martyr burials yesterday reformists. We simply do not have enough information to make such a claim. Indeed, many pro-democratic student activists (and I recognize that this is a dubious term) have distanced themselves from the reformist discourse and politics over the last decade – and many new students have entered universities who might not be that fond of Khatami and his entourage.

What we do know is that these students were protesting against the burials not as a sign of disrespect against the martyrs, but as a sign of protest against the state: a state that dictates controversial measures despite the protests of students (remember that this is not just one tomb in one university; it is similar orchestrated maneuvers in several universities over the last year or so); a state that has clamped down on pro-democratic student activities in a harsh and systematic way for over a decade; and a state that will not allow free speech in universities.

Nonetheless, the scholar mentioned above has an interesting point: that these protests might not benefit the students’ cause in a broader perspective. The Iran-Iraq War was, by all accounts, the most traumatic event in recent Iranian history. The mental scars left behind by the war cut across classes, geography and political affiliations, and Iranians are very sensitive to the issue of war victims and martyrs. There is a deep feeling of frustration over injustice and Western hypocrisy amongst many Iranians, most of whom have lost a family member or friend during the war. It might be, as the scholar mentioned above, implies, that the students have now created a negative image of themselves – and of the “reformists”, with whom many will inevitably (but not always correctly) identify them with.

However, let us not forget that we have not heard any of the reformists groups and major leaders express their support for the students. Until now, Khatami, Mir-Hossein Musavi, etc. have all been silent. As usual, the students are left to fight their battles themselves.

Khatami is back – now what?

After a prolonged period of deliberation, rumors and speculation, Seyyed Mohammad Khatami has decided to join the 2009 presidential elections in Iran. Will he stand a chance?

Khatami, who was Iran’s president from 1997-2005, is identified as a ‘reformist’ (eslâh-talab) on the Iranian political scene. Under him, Iran did experience an initial ‘Tehran Spring’ from 1997-99, where young Iranians, women and ethnic minorities enjoyed a significant relaxation in cultural restrictions and where the press, civil society, art and pro-democratic organizations blossomed. The impact of this period was profound and forever changed Iranian society.

However, from the student uprising of July 1999 onwards, the conservative forces in Iranian society, headed by the Supreme Leader, the traditionalist right wing and the institutions they control – including the Revolutionary Guards, paramilitary Basij, intelligence and the judiciary – started a clampdown on the reformist movement. As Khatami and his allies (in the so-called Participation Front coalition) experienced one defeat after another in their struggles with the conservatives, and as the conservative Guardians Council constantly obstructed reformist legislation, Khatami’s popularity dwindled significantly. In the end, his image was close to ruined.

Now that Khatami has finally proclaimed his candidature, Iranian and international media is buzzing with discussion. Here, I will briefly take a look at some of this discussion. Hopefully I will find the time to follow up soon with a piece on the conservative camp and Ahmadinejad’s prospects in the future elections.

Khatami has proclaimed that

“Right now, our duty is to correct the present situation and the way to that goal is through elections. Of course, no-one will claim to [be able to perform] a miracle, and no-one will declare himself as a champion”

Indeed, Khatami did not launch a significant new program or hold an historic speech when he announced his candidature. It seems he is trying to be cool-headed, and lower the expectations of certain parts of the opposition. In respect to this sensible forecast, he can to some extent be compared to Obama – reminding his supporters of the immense tasks in front of him if he should be elected.

But the comparisons to the US do not end here. Juan Cole writes

“You have an economy in shambles, increasing international isolation, the danger of further wars, an unpopular millenarian president who thinks God put him in office to reshape the world, and an alarmed public across the board. And you have a liberal challenger to the woeful status quo who is known for an ability to reach out to conservatives and a dislike of social polarization, who is wildly popular with youth, women and liberals, but who might attract even conservative votes.

Sound familiar? I am talking about Iran.”

Quoting a speech by hard liner Ayatollah Jennati, Cole pointed to the fact that the conservatives see Khatami as a threat:

“The Iranian hard right is most of all afraid that Khatami, if he is reelected, will establish good relations with the US. Ahmad Jannati, a hardliner and chairman of the Council of Guardians (kind of a clerical Senate) told the reformist paper E’temad last week:

‘The people do not want a non-Islamic element to come to power in this country.” He added: “The person who wants to become the next president should in the first place be Islamic, and enjoy the characteristics required for Islamic governance, namely orientation towards justice and devotion to serve the people. In addition, he should fight against corruption and (global) arrogance. Naturally, such a person cannot show a green light to America.’

He went on say: ‘At the moment, with the change in the American administration, a number of members of grouplets (hostile opposition groups), who should really be in prisons, have been exploiting their freedom in the Islamic Republic, and have gone to America and have given its officials some hope about the restoration of relations (with Iran).” Jannati added: “If the pro-American tendencies come to power in Iran, then we have to say goodbye to everything. After all, anti-Americanism is among the main features of our Islamic state.’”

However, before dealing with such profound issues of foreign policy as relations to the US, Khatami have many other hurdles to worry about.

On Gooya, Babak Dad argued that for Khatami, a 100-day marathon with great obstacles ahead has started, and wrote:

“Now, Mr. Khatami is faced with dozens of important questions, that he will have to answer before June 11: questions, that have been troubling the minds of society, and until [people] receive answers, they will not place new trust in him …
[Khatami] wants to prove that he is ‘another Khatami’ and that he will not repeat some of the faults of the reformist government. The first signs of this ‘other Khatami’ have become clear already. But it is not enough; because more than any other, he has realized, that the ‘current Khatami’ will not win votes and is in need of ‘change’ …

Khatami has announced that he will join the presidential race with a new team and that their slogan will be “Political progress – no! Economic progress – yes!”. No doubt, this has a double function: first of all, Khatami signals to his conservative opponents that he will not aim at fundamental reform that would threaten the power of the clergy or the fundamental nature of the Islamic Republic; secondly, it is a way to recognize that the reason for Ahmadinejad’s victory and the reformist defeat in 2005 was that the reformists failed to recognize the economy as the main concern of the broad population. Now that Ahmadinejad has not been able to fix the economy, Khatami is hoping that he can present himself as the one who can bring real solutions.

However the question, as Babak Dad points out, is then: is this the right strategy? I.e., will Khatami be able to present himself as a savior to the many Iranians who see inflation, unemployment and rising poverty as the main problem? Or will Khatami alienate his potential core of supporters by downgrading political reform? The question of whether or not this “change of strategy” is correct “will soon be the greatest discussion” among people, concludes Babak Dad.

On the Âgâhsâzi website, a former political advisor to Khatami, Morteza Mobalegh, pointed to three major challenges ahead:

“The first challenge or worry concerns the widespread reactions, unethical actions and sabotages, which has started long ago, and will be strengthened in the future. These acts of disruption stems from certain groups, mafia rings and extremists in this country”.

It seems Mobalegh was talking about the conservative forces. The second worry, argued Mobalegh, is the question of “healthy elections”: in other words, the fear that elections will be rigged or otherwise manipulated by the abovementioned forces. The third worry was that of bias and partiality in the media as well as in funding and logistical support for the conservatives: in other words, the support of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i – through his massive machinery that includes institutions and state-run media throughout the political landscape – for Ahmadinejad.

However, there is also the question of intra-reformist competition. Hojjatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, seen as a ‘moderate, has already stated that he will not join Khatami in a coalition (even though this might change). Karrubi seems to be a candidate at every presidential and parliamentary election, and in 2005, he gained 17% and thus came in third after Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani. Karrubi has build up a strong base of voters, particularly in certain regions and amongst the ethnic minority of Lurs. Indeed, Karrubi has presented himself as the champion of ethnic rights in the 2009 elections.

Another potential rival is Mir-Hossein Musavi, who was prime minister after the revolution until this post was removed in 1989. There seems to have been quite some buzz around Musavi lately, especially amongst some reformist students. It also seems Musavi was very angry at Khatami’s decision to announce his candidature now. Indeed, (although it may very well be one of those anti-reformist ‘sabotages’ mentioned above) the state-run Kayhân daily reported this morning that Khatami had in effect turned around on his promise to support Musavi – and that Khatami had caught Musavi by surprise with his sudden announcement. It remains to be seen if Musavi will also run.

It also remains to be seen what the ‘center’ of the political scene – the forces around former president and powerful cleric Ayatollah Rafsanjani and figures such as Hassan Rowhani – will do. Will they support Khatami’s bid or will they rather present their own candidate? It seems Rafsanjani’s brother, Mohammad Hashemi, who is not a cleric, might run as a candidate for the centrist / ‘technocratic’ group Executives of Construction (Hezb-e kârgozârân-e sâzandegi). Again, this is something we will see within the next couple of months.

So, the question is: with at least three ‘reformist’ candidates, will Khatami stand a chance? In an interview with the exile-Iranian Rooz Online, Mohammad Tavassoli – leader of the political bureau of the more or less tolerated opposition group Freedom Movement (Nehzat-e âzâdi) – stated that this could be a serious problem.

The reformist camp, said Tavassoli, “must choose a single candidate”. If not, “the conservatives will certainly and undoubtedly win the future elections”. Khatami will have to cooperate and deliberate with the other candidates, argued Tavassoli, who presented the recent presidential elections in the United States as a good example of sound election ethics and pragmatism.

Yet, some aspects also speak for Khatami’s possible success. On Tehran Bureau, Golnoush Niknejad writes that

“Despite Khatami’s failures in his two terms, those who want change in Iran must realize that he is still the most likely reformist candidate to prevail upon the Guardian Council, a powerful organization charged with vetting candidates for office, among other constitutional powers”.

In an email, Iran scholar and Informed Comment contributor, Farideh Farhi of University of Honolulu wrote that Khatami

“… will make an argument that despite the protestation to the contrary his foreign policy placed Iran in a better place in the world, his economic policies brought inflation under relative control (relative in comparison to what has happened under Ahmadinejad) and reduced wasteful spending, and cultural policies left the country more open.”

Farhi continued:

“Whether or not [Khatami] remains a candidate until the end or leave the scene in favor of another reformist candidate (either Karrubi or perhaps even Mussavi), Khatami’s entrance will allow Iranians to engage in a conversation about two divergent governing styles and policies. To be sure, not every policy but certainly many policies. More importantly, if … [the elections] ends up being a two-way race between [Khatami] and Ahmadinejad, the Iranian electorate will also be faced with a choice based on policy differences and governing styles.”

In the view of Trita Parsi – Iran expert, author and president of the National Iranian American Council, writing for Huffington Post – Khatami faces three main challenges: firstly, he must “show greater strength and willingness to challenge the political boundaries”; secondly, he “must be able to mobilize his base – the more educated classes in Iran – and make sure they vote”; and thirdly,

”if elected, Khatami must show the courage to ruffle some feathers to implement his program. He has been given an undeserved second chance, an unexpected opportunity to run once more, which is largely due to the way Ahmadinejad’s poor performances has created nostalgia about Khatami. He won’t be given a third chance.”

Indeed, Khatami’s entry into the presidential race is of great importance – no matter what cynics and pessimists will claim. It is now up to “the Smiling Mullah” to re-invent himself and his political agenda: and to enter a vigorous battle with Iran’s current president and the neo-conservatives around and behind him.

Ahmadinejad: Iran is a superpower

The Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad spoke today at the celebrations marking the Islamic Revolution’s 30th anniversary. He said that

“In a loud voice, I declare that – due to God’s grace, divine favour and the Iranian nation’s steadfastness – the shadow of threat has been lifted from the Iranian nation for good”

and that

“I declare officially the Iranian nation to be a true and real superpower”

and that

“The Iranian nation is a prudent and justice-seeking power and the friend of all nations; it has never had an eye to the territories and resources of other nations, and it has always been the helper of nations. Today the Islamic Revolution, in its 30th year, is like a 15-year old kid, full of energy, joy and values, and like a 60-year old, full of experience, prudence and determination”

and that

“Iran is the dearest of nations, and all nations see Iran’s progress as their own progress, and they are happy when they hear news about Iran’s progress”.

On the English-version of their site, the state-affiliated student news bureau ISNA ran the same story however with emphasis on another part of the speech: “Ahmadinejad says Iran ready for dialogue with mutual respect”.

The pro-reformist website Bârân reported that Ahmadinejad-supporters armed with clubs wanted to attack former president and now presidential candidate, Mohammad Khatami – but that those participating in the festivities prevented this attack. The website also claimed that among their slogans, these ‘pressure group’ members (i.e., Islamist vigilantes) shouted ‘Death to Khatami’ (as well as the US, Mujahedin-e Khalq and other usual suspects).

Information Minister Hojjatoleslam Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ezhe‘i claimed that Iranian security forces had thwarted a plot by “enemies” to detonate a bomb during the celebrations. In Arak, former chief of the Revolutionary Guard, General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, stated that “oppressing regimes will in the coming decades be turned into Islamic Republic”.

US: PJAK are terrorists – Obama Iran overture?

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Yesterday, the US Treasury branded the Kurdish guerilla group PJAK a terrorist group. PJAK has been a menace to the Islamic Republic for years. Is this a sign of the Obama administration’s overture to the Iranians?

Even though it has tried to present itself as an independent organization and as a pro-democratic grassroots movement, the PJAK is clearly an integrated part of the militant Kurdish organization PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish state for 25 years. PJAK is seen as the ‘Iranian version’ of PKK. For years, it has waged a war of skirmishes and ambushes against Iran, killing scores of Revolutionary Guards and border patrols. In 2005, PJAK killed more than a hundred Iranian soldiers; and on April 3, 2006, alone, it killed 24 members of the Islamic Republic’s security forces in retaliation for the killing of Kurdish demonstrators. The declared aim – at least until recently – has been to fight for the rights of Iran’s Kurds, who make up some 7% of the population.

Now, the US– after years of Iranian accusations of US support for anti-Iranian groups such as the PJAK – has branded the organization as terrorist. The US Treasury stated yesterday that it had

“… designated the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), a Kurdish group operating in the border region between Iraq and Iran, under Executive Order 13224 for being controlled by the terrorist group Kongra-Gel (KGK, aka the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK)

The KGK leadership authorized certain Iranian-Kurdish KGK members to create a KGK splinter group that would portray itself as independent from but allied with KGK. PJAK was created to appeal to Iranian Kurds. KGK formally institutionalized PJAK in 2004 and selected five KGK members to serve as PJAK leaders, including Hajji Ahmadi, a KGK affiliate who became PJAK’s General Secretary. KGK leaders also selected the members of PJAK’s 40-person central committee. Although certain PJAK members objected to the KGK selecting their leaders, the KGK advised that PJAK had no choice.

As of April 2008, KGK leadership controlled PJAK and allocated personnel to the group. Separately, PJAK members have carried out their activities in accordance with orders received from KGK senior leaders. In one instance, PJAK’s armed wing, the East Kurdistan Defense Forces, had been acting independently in Iran. KGK senior leaders immediately intervened, however, and recalled the responsible PJAK officials to northern Iraq.”

According to this statement, the US will freeze the group’s assets and prohibit American citizens from doing business with it.

Seen as a common threat, ‘Axis of Evil’ member Iran and NATO-member Turkey have actually been cooperating in the fight against PKK/PJAK. Since 2006, this has led to Iranian and Turkish air and land raid across the border and well into Iraq, where the Kurds are enjoying near-autonomy. The PJAK base at Qandil Mountain in northern Iraq has been the main target for these attacks – but there have also been signs that Ankara and Tehran have cooperated in the border between Turkey and Iran. Experts have feared that Iranian incursions into Iraq could escalate into an open confrontation between US/Iraqi/Kurdish forces on one side, and the Iranian forces on the other. Iranian media even reported last year that the Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan had appealed to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i to stop shelling Kurdish villages in Iraq.

It is furthermore interesting (but maybe not that surprising) that this US Treasury declaration has been framed within the context of US-Turkish relations, not US-Iran relations. While it is true that a broad segment of the Turkish population harbors increasingly hostile sentiments towards the US – in particular over the question of US support for the Kurds in Iraq – and while it is true that PJAK is a part of the PKK and therefore an enemy of the Turkish state, it is important to remember that the PJAK’s declared goal has been to fight Iran: it is Iran’s citizens (or military forces), not Turkey’s, that are (or were) PJAK’s targets. Therefore, the decision to brand PJAK a terrorist group can be interpreted more as a present to the Iranians than to the Turks.

However, the US decision also raises many questions. It is, for example, very odd how it is stated in the press release that “in one instance”, the PJAK had acted independently in Iran. What did the Treasury mean by “in one instance”, “independently” and “as of April 2008”? It seems to suggest that PJAK foot soldiers have tried to separate itself from PKK command.

Nonetheless, the (PKK?) decision to withdraw PJAK from Iran has been surfaced before. Since fall 2008, there have been reports of a decline in PJAK activities. On January 13, 2009, Iranian Entekhâb News quoted a report in the Turkish Aksam daily that Iran had “destroyed” the PJAK and that therefore, the group had declared an end to its “separatist activities”. Indeed, Entekhâb claimed that PJAK would not aim at the secession of Kurds from the states of Iran, Turkey, Iraq or Syria any longer.

Iranian state media has of course picked up the story. The state-run news agency added to its report that

“The PJAK party is, after the Hypocrite Group [that is, Mojahedin-e Khalq], the second anti-Iranian terrorist group to be placed on US lists over terrorist groups”

Under the heading “The US government’s belated confession to the terrorist nature of PJAK”, Rafsanjani-affiliated Shahâb News wrote that

“While news are published about CIA’s financial and military aid to groups such as PJAK and Abdolmalek Rigi’s [that is, Jondollah, described later in the article as “the Iranian division of Al-Qaeda”], the US government has placed the PJAK group on terror lists”

In the article, the Shahâb writer claims that the US decision to call PJAK a terrorist group is due to the fact that the group had suffered severe defeats at the hands of Iranian forces recently, making it unable to function.

With the Iranian media already buzzing with rumors of secret talks between Washington and Tehran, it is not hard to imagine that Iranians will see this decision as a positive sign. So, could the decision be seen as part of the Obama administration’s attempt to reach out to the Iranians and maybe prepare the ground for a grand bargain? Some Kurdish proponents certainly think so – and they are and will most certainly be opposed to “appeasing” the “Mullahs”.

What do you think? Please comment!

New pressure on Iran’s student activists

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Ever since Student Day, December 6, pressure on Iranian student activists and organizations has increased. The main pro-democratic student body – the Daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat, or Office to Strengthen Unity (DTV) – has been outlawed, key student activists have been arrested and the regime media is preparing the ground for further clampdown. With a presidential election on the horizon, the situation for student activists is worsened day by day.

On January 21, Ahmadinejad’s Minister of Science, Mohammad-Mahdi Zahedi, declared that it was illegal to have any contact with the (genuine) DTV (also known as the ‘Allameh faction, which separated itself in 2002 from a pro-regime splinter group, also known as the Shiraz faction). The Minister added that “this faction” had already been “declared illegal” four years ago and that its members would not be allowed to function under the name of DTV. This means that if the students are to continue their activities, they will need to apply for registration under a new name – something government officials appointed by Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader will surely and easily reject. Indeed, pro-democratic students applying for a license to open a new organization have been rejected several times in the past, even during Khatami’s tenure. No doubt they would also be rejected today. Without a legally licensed organizational framework, the student activists will be effectively outlawed and even easier prey for authorities cracking down on oppositional voices amongst Iran’s two million university students.

However, as mentioned, this is not the first time pro-regime entities have tried to ‘coup’ DTV. After a clash with pro-reformist students in 2002, conformist students split with the main group. Soon, this splinter organization was taken over by ultra-conservative students who declared themselves ‘the real’ and ‘legal DTV’, and started to issue communiqués in DTV’s name. The pro-democratic forces continued their activities in the Islamic Students Associations and as the ‘Allameh faction’ of DTV. However, this time, authorities can hit DTV hard and completely disband the organization: indeed, there is practically no one to stop them.

In a lengthy interview, former DTV leader Abdollah Mo‘meni argued that the authorities are trying to “eliminate the authentic student movement”, just as Ahmadinejad’s government has suppressed other parts of civil society in recent years. According to Mo‘meni, the pro-regime faction of DTV only constitutes 3,5% of the organization’s members, yet they receive significant financial and logistical help from the Ministry of Research. To Mo‘meni, there is no doubt that the political rulers of Iran are trying to “steal the good name” of DTV to improve their image.

In yesterday’s Kayhân – seen as a mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i – a lengthy ‘report’ described in details how some student journals and newsletters are “poisoning university atmosphere” by criticizing the government and its instrumental use of Islam, its lacking respect for human rights and its oppressive policies against universities. Worst of all, reported Kayhân, were those students who questioned or even insulted the Supreme Leader.

It can have severe consequences to be accused of disrespecting the Leader. Thus, we can expect that the clampdown will be intensified over the coming weeks and months as we approach the presidential elections. It now seems 99% sure that Mohammad Khatami (and not Abdollah Nuri or Mir-Hossein Musavi) will run for the ‘reformist’ faction. He will need all the support he can get – especially that of the student movement: after all, it was due to groups such as the DTV that Khatami won in 1997. Khatami will simply not be able to win the June 2009 elections without the support of Iran’s young generation. It remains to be seen if Khatami understands that it is now time to stand up for the students. Otherwise, they will surely not stand up for him.

Heat wave in Copenhagen (and Mitchell in Beirut)

by Sune Haugbolle.

So, a US attempt to encourage direct Lebanese-Israeli peace talk is rumoured in parts of the Arab press. Is it based on real insights into the thinking of Obama’s Mid-East team, or is it another al-Siyassah duck? The Kuwaiti newspaper, known for its sensationalist scoops, which most of the time seem to be based on wild speculation or even politically motivated lies, but sometimes actually appear to have nailed the truth, on Tuesday brought an interview with an anonymous Egyptian diplomat ostensibly in the know that Mitchell is to visit his half-native Lebanon in April in order to jump-start Lebanese-Israeli peace talks, practically dead since 1983. The Daily Star took the story seriously enough to put it on the front page (although that’s not saying an awful lot).

 

 

Looking at the political reality in the region, which I just observed at closed range two weeks ago, the prospect of Mitchell arriving in Beirut with a message of peace between Lebanon and Israel seems just as likely as a heat wave in Copenhagen tomorrow. In fact, it looks a lot more like a desperate attempt to plant a feel-good story in the press by those who have been taken aback by the results of the Gaza war on regional politics. And I am not talking about the killing of hundreds of civilians here (that can hardly surprise anyone anymore) – I am talking about the sheer hatred towards Israel in all quarters of the Arab populations which has just about sidelined the Saudi-Egyptian axis. How on earth would Mitchell be able to walk into Beirut with as much as a mention of talks with Israel on his lips?

 

 

In Beirut, I got the sense, from talking to a wide range of Shiite and other observers, that, more likely, we are heading for another round of confrontation if not in the short then in the medium term. Sadly, Hassan Nasrallah’s promise of revenge for Imad Mughniyeh last week and Ehud Barak’s even more visceral response yesterday only add to the evidence that the fruits of Gaza (you know, those grapes of wrath) could well be picked in Lebanon. True, Hizbollah have elections to win in June. But there are different strains of thinking in the movement, different priorities and different objectives. And the group that believes in the ultimate battle with the Zionist enemy above everything else has just been given one thousand three hundred and fourteen (so says the Ministry of Health in Gaza) more good reasons to fight in the last month. So to the wishful thinkers in the region who believe that nothing has changed (or, as a newscast asked me on Danish TV last week, that “the slate has been wiped clean” between the US and the Arab world with Obama coming to power), someone should break it to them that there’s been a war, and that there could be well another one around the corner.