Tag Archives: middle east

Too late for a reformist momentum?

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

After a turbulent start, the Iranian presidential election race has entered a new phase. Now, the presidential candidates are aiming their slogans and promises at Iran’s youth. But is it too little, too late to create a reformist momentum?

Over the last two weeks, Mir-Hossein Musavi – the candidate for which Khatami stepped down a month ago – has received support from major organizations on the ‘reformist wing’. The Combatant Clerics Coalition (the main ‘reformist’ clerical body), The Participation Front (the main ‘reformist party’), The Organization of the Islamic Revolution’s Mujahedin (a key political group) and the central committee of The Third Wave (a pro-Khatami movement) have all announced that they will back Musavi in his bid for the presidency (sources: 1, 2, 3, 4). Furthermore, the ‘centrist’ Executives of Reconstruction Party – which is aligned with the powerful Ayatollah Rafsanjani – has also declared its support for Musavi (even though Rafsanjani himself has not yet voiced support for any candidate).

What may be quite important in terms of factional battles is that Musavi apparently received the blessing of most marâje‘-e taqlid (Sources of Emulation: the highest ranking Shiite clerics) during a recent trip to Qom, Iran’s religious center. According to a pro-Musavi weblog, the state-media was ‘shocked’ by this show of support, and have tried to downplay its importance. It seems as if the marâje‘-e taqlid have refused to meet Ahmadinejad as a group. The fact that they met with Musavi can thus be seen to indicate their support for change in government.

Despite the recent string of statements, the support is not unanimous. A key member from the Combatant Clerics Coalition, Mohammad-‘Ali Abtahi, has joined Musavi’s competitor, Mehdi Karubi, as an advisor. Abtahi has stated that other members of the Coalition will vote for Karubi. The Executives of Construction Party may support Musavi, but its secretary-general, Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, announced his support for Karubi several months ago. In some ‘reformist’ circles there have been talk of bringing in former interior minister Abollah Nuri as a ‘real reformist’ candidate instead of Musavi. Even in the main ‘reformist’ party, Moshârekat, key members – Khatami’s brother Mohammad-Reza and leading theoretician Sa‘id Hajjariyan – had called for a new candidate, but in the end, they accepted the party’s endorsement of Musavi. In other words, the many declarations of support are not indicative of a universal consensus on the ‘reformist wing’.

In any case, this show of support is far from enough to secure a ‘reformist’ victory. Apart from the fact that the ‘reformist’ vote is split between several candidates, the major obstacle is that the young segment and the politically active students remain hesitant and unconvinced of the ‘reformist’ nature of Musavi – and his ability to change anything. Consequently, Musavi has started currying favor with this segment. A couple of weeks ago, he announced that if he were to become president, he would dismantle the so-called Guidance Patrols (gasht-e ershâd), also called religious police in Western media. These patrols enforce Islamic moral values and dress codes among young Iranians and are hugely unpopular with the less conservative youth. Recent years have seen the implementation of the ‘Social Safety Program’ under which patrols periodically launch harsh campaigns against ‘morally deprived’ young Iranians. By announcing that he will stop these patrols, Musavi is trying to win young votes. Karubi – who has also promised cash handouts to all young Iranians if he is to win – has jumped on this wagon, and announced similar promises. He has threatened to go to Khamene‘i if the patrols continue their harassment of young Iranians.

However, such promises seem like nothing but hot air. Indeed, it is – as pointed out yesterday by Iranian judicial authorities – not up to the president to make such a decision. A judiciary spokesman stated that the patrols are ‘interminable’ and the Disciplinary Forces (niru-ye entezâmi) Commander Ahmadi-Moqaddam blasted Musavi and Karubi, warning that such statements are unacceptable. Nonetheless, Musavi continues his efforts to attract young voters. He has stated that he knows the young and their trends better than any other candidate; that ‘we should trust the youth’ just as in the early years of the revolution; that confronting the young only leads to ‘pessimism’; and that instead of ‘authoritarian methods’, the state must work with cultural means to reach out to the youth.

Musavi is also playing his ‘artist card’ now. An architect and painter (you can see some of his works here), he enjoys some support among Iran’s artists (such as the famous film-maker Dariush Mehrjui), who are hoping for a more tolerant government and less censorship in the future. In a meeting yesterday, reformist politicians praised Musavi as a liberal figure who had defended artistic freedoms even in the early days of revolutionary fervor and cultural revolution. Musavi is not a man who will put up ‘barbed wire to prevent a flood’, one speaker stated, referring to the wave of cultural products flooding the globalized world and, consequently, also Iran. Such statements come at a time when Internet is more widespread and popular in Iranian society than ever; and at a time when the Revolutionary Guards have announced a cyber war on illegal websites.

Thus, Musavi is trying to cash in on the more ‘liberal’ image as an intellectual and artist. Furthermore, we will undoubtedly see more of Musavi’s wife in the coming months. Zahra Rahnavard is a scholar, writer and artist in her own right, and has recently criticized the discrimination of women in Iran.

As I have elaborated on earlier, Musavi is presenting himself as a cross-factional candidate. Since my last post on the topic, this has become even more apparent. Alongside ‘reformist’ statements such as the above on the patrols, Musavi has also stated that he will not work with anyone who tries to ‘break the framework’ of the political system; he has repeatedly stated that Iran must return to the revolutionary path; and he has avoided oppositional figures, pro-democracy student gatherings and visits with the families of political prisoners. Nonetheless, the praise for Musavi, which we have heard from some moderate conservatives the last couple of months, has yet to translate into direct support. Even if conservatives who are fed up with Ahmadinejad should actually support Musavi in his bid for president (and they might do this secretly, a ‘reformist’ has stated), this flirt with conservative forces will probably alienate an important constituency: the politically aware students.

As an example, the pro-Musavi website Qalam recently featured an article with the headline ‘Universities must take steps towards reaching the goals of pure Islam’. The article carried statements by a person identified as head secretary of Daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat (The Office for Consolidating Unity), which is the main pro-democracy student body. However, this was the secretary of a breakaway pro-conservative group known as the Shiraz Branch – and not the original group that helped Khatami to power in 1997. Pro-democracy students were infuriated that Qalam brought this article and on various student blogs and websites, the conclusion was drawn that there is no difference in Musavi and Ahmadinejad.

It is the apparent similarity with Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and ideological outlook that is Musavi’s Achilles Heel. Musavi will not be able to change his image without losing that same quality that makes him more acceptable to the ruling conservative elite than Khatami. Half-baked promises of removing the religious police from the streets will not satisfy the politically aware students and young Iranians. There seems to be a feeling that Musavi is either no better or different than Ahmadinejad, or maybe afraid to speak his mind. Furthermore, when it is rumored that even such central figures as Hajjariyan doubts Musavi’s ‘reformism’, it can come as no surprise that others can have a hard time imagining Musavi as a new Khatami.

‘Reformist’ blogger Bahman recently wrote:
“In my opinion, Musavi is not a reformist, just as Karubi isn’t either. Musavi is not representative of what we have fought for and talked about for the last twelve years [since Khatami’s presidential victory in 1997]. Musavi is one of the high-ranking executives of the political system who happens to believe more than most (maybe even most of all) in the political system, who wants to protect it and who wants to make it work efficiently. He sees the political system as a popular system: not in its modern sense but rather in the sense of the Ummah, or Muslim community. That is, to him, ‘the people’ are those he imagines as the real owners of the revolution and the political system.”

Indeed, if Musavi (or Karubi) were to win – would they be able to change anything? This ubiquitous question was formulated in an interesting way recently. Akbar A‘lami – former MP for Tabriz and an outspoken critic of Ahmadinejad’s government – has questioned the ‘reformist’ label for Musavi and Karubi. A‘lami himself has announced he will run for president, but it is doubted whether the unelected vetting body, Guardian Council, will admit him into the race. During his recent campaigning, which has received little if any attention from state-run media, A‘lami has invited Musavi and Karubi to an open public debate. In this invitation, A‘lami asked each candidate what he would do if he was to become president and was faced with a ‘state decree’ from The Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i?

This question is crucial as it reveals the impotence of any president in opposing these decrees issued every now and then by the Leader. The opaque yet overshadowing and unhindered power of the Leader is indeed a core problem of the Iranian political system. It is also yet another reason why some find the outfall of the presidential elections unimportant – and thus, participation in the election process pointless.

This is not to say that the presidency is a post completely devoid of significance. The Iranian votes have proved time and again to reflect important shifts in public opinion. Constrained as he might be, the president is nonetheless Iran’s face abroad and a representative of a significant segment and interest in society. Yet it becomes increasingly difficult for voters to discern the differences between candidates’ political outlook – and correspondingly harder for Iranian politicians to persuade the population to believe in the system and the power of their votes in bringing about change.

With less than two months left before the presidential elections, something close to a miracle – or at least, a fundamental change of strategy – is needed. If not, Ahmadinejad will most probably win with a slight majority and continue into his second round as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

[more to follow ...]

UPDATE

Just to prove my point that the reformists are desperately addressing the Iranian youth these days:

Mehdi Karubi is reported to have visited a group of pop musicians, including the rapper Sâsi Mânkan (!). This unprecedented move is shocking since the hugely popular underground music, and in particular Persian Hip Hop, is effectively outlawed. As I have commented earlier, the political system sees Hip Hop as a threat to society. It will be interesting to see if state-run media will pick up on this story!

Two pieces on the ‘Iran-Hamas’ discussion

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had time in the new year to reflect on the most important topic in the discussion of the Middle East right now: the Israel-Hamas War in Gaza. Fortunately, other people have had time! I recommend the following pieces:

Daniel Luban criticizes the neoconservative and Israeli statements and narratives of Hamas being an ‘Iranian proxy’ to drive home the point that it is not. In these days of all-out propaganda warfare against Iran and actual all-out war on the Palestinian people, this is important reading.

However, with her recent brilliant piece on ‘Israel, Gaza War, Return of “Emboldened Iran” and Obama’, Farideh Farhi places the discussion in a broader perspective. Instead of dwelling on what has become an art in itself – i.e. to determine, weigh and define the nature of Iranian influence on Hamas – Farhi maintains that the recent linking of the Gaza events with ‘the Iran threat’ is part of the general crisis over how to deal with Iran. Farhi also treats an extremely interesting aspect: the Basiji ‘Gaza volunteer’ sit-in in Tehran’s airport. The ‘volunteers’ are demanding to be sent to Palestine, but the state refuses (just as it seems to be restraining Hezbollah). Why? Read Farhi’s article!

More to follow soon!

Student Day in Iran – updates

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

In connection with my piece on Saturday on the Iranian student movement, here are some updates on what’s happened so far in connection with Student Day:

Update #2

According to an eye witness report, around 3-4,000 students demonstrated in Tehran University. When security forces and plain clothed officers tried to prevent hundreds of students from other universities from entering campus, fighting ensued and one of the main gates was forced open. Students shouting ‘Death to dictatorship!’ apparently attacked university intelligence offices after which security forces entered campus. University authorities prevented a full-scale attack and the students proceeded with speeches in which they expressed support for the women rights movement, the labor movement and ethnic minority activists. Key speakers were prevented from entering university.

After the speeches, students continued demonstrating, allegedly shouting ‘Seyyed ‘Ali Pinochet, Iran will not become Chile!’ (a reference to ‘Ali Khamene‘i, Iran’s Supreme Leader). The state-affiliated news agency Fârs reported that ‘extremist’ students tried to create unrest in the streets but that security forces ‘kept their cool’ and prevented chaos. Amir Kabir University Newsletter reports that several students were severely injured during battles with security forces – however, there are no reports of arrests yet. There are also reports of student demonstrations in other places such as Kermanshah and Mazandaran and tomorrow in Shiraz.

What in my opinion was really surprising today was the issue of ethnic minorities. First of all, the Kurdish students at Tehran University chose to have their own demonstration – apparently in protest against the main student organization’s ‘nationalist behavior’. This is interesting since DTV recently has supported ethnic minority rights. Secondly, it was reported that when an Azeri student spoke in defense of Azeri cultural rights, a group of ‘pan-Iranists’ – that is, radical Persian chauvinists who are opposed to ethno-nationalist sentiments among Iran’s non-Persian groups – tried to silence him. One can see this as a positive sign: i.e. that ethnic groups are finally being allowed to speak and be heard, and that the issue of ethnicity is no longer a taboo. However, the apparent tension between ‘pan-Iranists’ and ethno-political proponents, even amongst the students, could also point to a broader, more worrying tendency in Iranian identity politics.

Update #1

BBC reported that Ayatollah Khamene‘i did not attend yesterday’s Students Day at The Science and Industry University in Tehran as planned. No official reason was given but it is probable that the tense atmosphere in Iranian universities right now is behind the decision. Apparently, Iran’s Minister of Science has declared that ‘counter-revolutionaries’ are trying to exploit Students Day. Members of a government-loyal ‘student group’ have argued that ‘liberals and those who reject the Imam [Khomeini]’ should not be allowed to mark Student Day. It also seems that today’s meeting in which Khatami was scheduled to talk has been cancelled.

Students from Amir Kabir University in Tehran have reported that ‘more than 1,800’ students joined protests against the ‘security atmosphere’ imposed by authorities here. In particular, the students objected to the installment of ‘security gates’ around university, which they think. In Hamadan, ’thousands’ of students joined an illegal demonstration to mark Students Day. Security forces fired tear gas into the crowd while the students were singing a song. It seems the authorities excused this attack by saying that signing was inappropriate since yesterday also marked the martyrdom of a Shiite Imam.

In Tehran University, pro-government students marked Students Day in their own fashion and staged a rally against, among other things, ‘Imperialism’. Fârs News Agency claimed that ‘1,000 students’ had joined this demonstration and shouted slogans such as ‘Death to America’, ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Students are aware, they are tired of Obama’.

It is reported that authorities have taken extreme security measures in Tehran University as pro-democratic students have called for a demonstration today under the banner “The Cry of Freedom”.

Student Day in Iran

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Today, it is Ruz-e dâneshju or ‘Student Day’ in Iran: it is time to reassess the status of and situation for the Iranian student movement.

Revolution, reformism, repression, revival
Since ‘modern’ universities were established in Iran in the 1920s and 30s, they have been key centers of political dissidence, arenas for ideological battles and homes to alternative voices. Universities played central roles in the revolutionary movement that ousted the Shah in the late 1970s and in the reformist movement that brought Khatami to power in 1997. Indeed, during the so-called ‘Tehran Spring’ of 1997-99, it seemed as if a democratic student movement was ready to burst out of university and revolutionize Iranian society.

However, the severe clampdown on students – and in particular, the violent attack on Tehran University dormitories in July 1999 that resulted in widespread riots throughout Iran – curtailed this movement. The repression eventually seemed close to completely wipe out the Iranian student movement through juridical and extra-juridical measures, violence and threats. The state apparatus placed legal obstacles on student groups and partially seized their organizations, harassed and intimidated their spokespersons, and closed down their facilities and newsletters.

However, instead of disintegrating, the key organizations of the movement – the so-called Islamic Student Societies (anjoman-hâ-ye eslâmi-ye dâneshjuyân) and their umbrella organization, The Office to Consolidate Unity (daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat, hereafter DTV) – underwent a painful divorce from the parliamentary reform movement, its institutions and its head, Khatami. DTV succeeded in distancing itself from the waning image of the reformists and has since struggled to transform itself into a platform for a wide variety of grass roots and civil society groups. The aim of DTV today is to reach out beyond the walls of universities and into Iranian society.

While the process of bridging the intellectual and theoretical discourse of a student movement with general discontent in other layers of society has been quite difficult, the greatest challenge came with the election of the neo-conservative hard-liner Ahmadinejad in 2005.

Since this election, government has sought to ‘re-Islamize’ and control universities by discharging critical professors and appointing loyal managers, by segregating facilities in certain universities, by installing CCTV surveillance and by burying ‘martyrs’ of the Iran-Iraq War right on university campuses and thus imposing the militant ideology on students. Student activists all over Iran have faced official and unofficial reprimands, abductions to secret interrogation facilities, mock trials, torture, incommunicado detention and heavy sentences that span from exclusion from university and forced transfer to other universities to fines and jail sentences. Individual students are even given ‘stars’ depending on his/her level of political activity in a ludicrous evaluation scheme aimed at intimidating and punishing student activists.

However, the difficulties facing the student movement are not just political. Students are also confronted with a wide array of problems including the fierce competition for enrollment in prestigious universities, the dwindling quality of teaching and research in Iranian universities, the severe problem of brain drain, social problems such as drug addiction and suicide as well as issues related to everyday student life such as appalling conditions in dormitories, lack of pastime facilities and, of course, the prospect of post-graduation unemployment.

Yet despite all these obstacles and challenges, there is still good reason to argue that student activism is alive and kicking in Iran today. Indeed, students have staged small but vocal demonstrations and sit-ins, and some have even attacked Ahmadinejad’s policies directly. Recently, it seems students have become particularly active. Tensions have been felt as far away as Sistan-Baluchestan on Iran’s southeastern border, where students have clashed with security forces. In the provincial capital Hamadan, students have reported a wave of intimidation and threats by local authorities that are concerned with student activities.

Student Day 2008
Thus, the Iranian student activists are to mark Student Day today – a tradition that dates back to 1953 when 3 students from Tehran University were killed by the Shah’s security forces. This year, students have not limited themselves to Student Day itself but have indeed declared December 2 to 9 a ‘Students Week’. The last month or so, Iranian media have claimed that students are secretly preparing unrest and mayhem around Students Day. A Basiji student group has claimed that ‘violence-seeking’ individuals are ‘planning riots’ on Khajeh Nasir University in Tehran. And on the conservative website Tâbnâk, journalists reported that ‘some domestic extremist groups’ have been planning to provoke unrest, including melli-mazhhabi proponents (Religious-Nationalist, i.e. the domestic opposition of moderate ‘Islamo-nationalists’), who have allegedly called for a student-led riot like that of July 1999. The journalists even claimed that students from ethnic minorities studying in Tehran are planning disturbances to further their ethno-nationalist aims and that DTV has been in contact with opposition activists in exile. DTV denied this report and criticized it together with a series of accusations and rumors published by state-run dailies and news agencies.

With the severe security measures installed by the neo-con government and its cohorts in the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij militias and the police forces in mind, it is difficult to see how students could indeed create such unrest. ”Students are under attack from all sides by the government and the fundamentalist media”, Bahare Hedayat from DTV’s public relations bureau stated recently. Hedayat, who has been imprisoned for her activities several times, argued that “the stored-up concerns and discontent amongst students over the last three years” were the result of “the clampdown by authorities outside the universities” on student activists and “the erroneous [university] management of officials selected by the Ministry of Science”.

According to Hedayat, ‘unrest’ is simply a negative term hyped by media controlled by ruling forces who are afraid of student activism: “The sick minds who cannot tolerate even a student protest gathering in university, are referring to peaceful meetings and protests within the milieu of the university as ‘unrest’”, she stated. Even ISNA – the Iranian Students News Agency, which was founded to reflect the voices of students – has “been turned into a platform for anti-student organizations”, Hedayat argued.

Student activists, in particular those at Amir Kabir Technical University, have reported that pro-government groups, Basiji students and university authorities are coordinating a counter-strike in case of student unrest on or after Student Day. These reports surfaced while DTV a week ago published its call for marking Student Day. In a thinly veiled attack on Ahmadinejad’s government, DTV stated: “[O]nce again, we will rise and sound the call of protest against oppressors who are busy stripping Iran and the Iranians of their national resources, honor and integrity, and whose erroneous policies have resulted in pervasive corruption, widespread poverty, disregard for civic rights, destruction of Iranians’ prestige all over the world, international sanctions, unemployment, and thousands of other problems”. DTV has called for a demonstration in Tehran University tomorrow and Khatami has said that enshâ‘allâh, he will come to speak. Four years ago, students heckled Khatami when he came to Tehran University on Student Day. It could become an interesting moment when Khatami and the students come face to face.

The students and ‘the reformists’
With the 2009 presidential elections looming on the horizon, the so-called ‘reformists’ seems to be looking to the student movement, hoping it could again play a significant role. Indeed, the ‘reformists’ would benefit from a re-activation of the huge potential among Iran’s two million university students. Yet, significant change is needed: since Khatami’s ‘lame duck years’ as president, and in particular, his reluctant and belated response to the state clampdown on students in 1999 and subsequently, the activist milieu has been marked by a profound skepticism towards the ‘reformists’. Indeed, the spokeswoman of the DTV stated that “reformists should know that the students are watching their behaviors and will not forget”. In other words, reformists will certainly have to redefine their ambitions and strategy in order to attract the much-needed votes of Iranian students. It seems the students, despite previous boycotts, have not yet rejected the idea of participating in the elections – so it might pay off for reformists.

However, when evaluating the ‘potentials’ of the student movement, one should keep in mind that since they ‘divorced’ from the parliamentary reformist faction, DTV and its local cells have focused on social, cultural and civil society activities – indeed, DTV declared in 2005 that it would henceforth function as a ‘Civil Society Watch’. In an interview with Roozonline.com two days ago, DTV secretary, Mehdi Arabshahi, stated that the new DTV would not repeat the fault of earlier generations in this organization: that is, to act as a political party and to play the role of opposition within the boundaries of the political system. Thus, we should not expect the students to act as a sort of ‘youth division’ of any political faction, including the reformist, in the future. Indeed, stated Arabshahi, the new DTV would not repeat the old mistake of seeing elections as “a remedy for all the nation’s troubles”.

Yet, at the same time, Arabshahi would not rule out the possibility that the election of a new government could bring about better conditions for social movements. Hedayat, the spokeswoman mentioned earlier, also explained in a separate interview that the situation had changed dramatically since the DTV boycott of the presidential elections in 2005: now, said Hedayat, a fresh analysis was needed. In other words, DTV might not boycott elections. Whatever the DTV chooses to do, Hedayat stated that the organization would strive to have its demands and issues reflected during the elections.

DTV and the student movement in general has been criticized for not participating in the 2005 elections and thereby having contributed to the loss of votes for the reformists and thus, indirectly paving the way for a neo-con victory. However, student activist spokespersons stand by their old decision. The former DTV figurehead, ‘Abdollah Mo‘meni, who is now spokesman for DTV’s alumni division, Advâr-e tahkim, stated in an interview that he would defend the decision and that the failure of reformists to mobilize voters could not be reduced to the role of students. Indeed, said Mo‘meni, the reformists had much graver problems than DTV’s election boycott: the fact that they couldn’t even agree on a single candidate to represent them, that they had made their constituencies disillusioned and that they participated willingly in a ‘commando-election’ – these were more likely the reasons for their failure.

In other words, the reformists will have to ‘deliver’ if they want to have any hope of regaining the confidence of the young generation: they will need a strong and charismatic leader, a clear and resolute program and they will need to address the key issues championed by social movements, the women rights movement and the student movement.

A student movement?
So, the question remains: can we speak of an Iranian student movement today? ‘Ali-Reza Raja‘i, a melli-mazhhabi, recently argued that “the activist atmosphere has been restricted to some extent. However, it is perfectly clear that if there is an opening of the political environment, [the student] movement will take on more visible forms”. In other words, Raja‘i thinks that the student movement right now is not a movement per se, but rather a potential movement waiting for a window of opportunity to become active again and develop into a broad-based movement.

However, the wounds inflicted over the years upon the student movement, and indeed the tormented history of democratic struggle in Iran, has left many pessimistic. Indeed, there is a widespread feeling that it will take more than a new government and more than a student movement to change Iran. “Democratic struggle is eating itself from within”, wrote the renown dissident Taqi Rahmani recently: without an active civil society and without organizations representing, for example, professional, labor or ethnic minority interests, any democratic movement is doomed to failure, Rahmani argued. This is why Iranians are prone to be disillusioned when they see that their votes have not brought about a miracle. This is why the Iranian voters are tired and weary: the constant impediments and numerous obstacles placed in front of democratic movements by the rich and powerful elites throughout history. Only by creating a strong and vibrant civil society can Iran move towards democracy.

While DTV has yet to announce its position vis-à-vis the presidential elections, it is clear that people like Raja‘i are warning the students not to boycott the elections. Indeed, Raja‘i and his ilk – the tolerated ‘opposition’, ‘the reformists’ and ‘the moderates’ – still believe that it is possible to reform and change Iranian politics and society through elections. Even though DTV earlier seemed to reject the possibility of the Islamic Republic reforming in a democratic direction, they have, as stated, not rejected a possible participation in next year’s elections. It remains to be seen what the student activist milieu would do if Khatami – or another key reformist figure – was to run for president again; and it remains to be seen what measures the neo-conservative government and its supporters in the clerical and paramilitary elites would take to obstruct the reformists. No matter what happens, it is too early to rule out a revival of the Iranian student movement.

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.

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.