Tag Archives: US

The unsurprisingly sad irony of nuclear politics

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

While the war against Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program continues – with its usual suspects at the forefront and behind the screens (1, 2, 3, 4 … and counting) and with the usual stream of unreliable ‘sources’ being quoted liberally by global media to prove evil Iranian schemes and distorting the issue beyond recognition – a related and very relevant news item has received surprisingly little attention.

Last week, Muslim-majority states in the UN nuclear assembly pushed for a resolution – albeit, a nonbinding resolution – urging Israel to allow UN inspection to all its nuclear sites and to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty. What is amazing is that this is the first time in 18 years the nuclear conference has been able to pass a resolution criticizing Israel for its illegal, ‘clandestine’ program.

It has been a public secret for years that Israel has the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, yet Israel has never confirmed or denied this. Furthermore, Israel is the only nation in the Middle East not to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It is, of course, part of the absurdity in the global Israeli propaganda war and constant military threats against Iran that those Western and Israeli politicians, ‘experts’ and lobby groups so worried about an Iranian bomb rarely if ever discuss the issue of Israel’s weapons – as if it was completely unrelated to the nuclear politics of the region. It comes across as particularly hypocritical and ludicrous when the chief delegate of the US – a nuclear-armed nation that wages wars in the Middle East while actively obstructing any attempt to hold Israel accountable in the nuclear conference – rejected what she called ‘redundant’ and ‘an attempt to use this resolution to criticize a single country’.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Iranians have sought to capitalize on the resolution and the setback it represents for Israel’s allies who have prevented the resolution for nearly two decades. The Iranian ambassador Ali-Asghar Soltanieh has hailed the resolution as a ‘glorious moment’, and ‘a triumph for the oppressed people of Palestine’. He added that Tehran would happily pay the expenses connected with a probe into the clandestine Israeli nuclear program ‘for the sake of global peace and welfare’.

The Israeli response shouldn’t come as a surprise either. The Israeli delegate stated that the resolution was ‘openly hostile to the state of Israel’ and that the Iranians and Syrians are trying to create a smokescreen for their own pursuit of nuclear weapons.

It is the sad irony of nuclear politics that Israel is just as big a threat to the fragile NPT regime as Iran is: outraged when the US hints it might be a good idea for it to join the NPT, and then deriding the NPT for not being a ‘miracle cure’.

It is the sad irony of global politics that a state such as the current Iranian regime is put in a position to capitalize on the resolution and thus present itself in the Muslim world as a righteous power while doing its own dirty work at home.

However, none of this should come as a surprise. Should it?

Gaza? It’s more than that!

Guest post by Poya Pakzad, Independent Analyst, Denmark.

There is no longer any virtue in reviewing the premeditated US-Israeli massacre in Gaza from December to January. Virtually no disparity exists between the human rights organizations inside Israel or abroad. The record is unambiguously clear. Israel disrupted the “six months of lull”; maintained its “illegal blockade”; committed “grave breaches of international humanitarian law” and denied any attempt at continually offered nonviolent alternatives. As always, Israel reflexively denies any allegation without providing counter evidence. [1]

It’s hardly a challenge to lay bare this methodical pattern in the gladly forgotten record of Israeli aggressions.

No, one must refuse to plunge into this discussion. The largely manufactured hullabaloo serves for the most part to sidetrack attention from the rather palpable steps towards peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

It bears crucial notice that an international consensus on a two state solution to the conflict has long subsisted in an otherwise changing world.  The following assessment is an attempt to elucidate this accord and two immediate discrepancies. (1) Why has the conflict not been settled? And (2), what is the efficacy of the resuscitated appeal for a one state solution? Each question merits a study much beyond the scope of this piece. The purpose of the subsequent text is to inform as well as incite an exchange.

The provisions of the broad agreement are based on the central diplomatic document, issued against the backdrop of the six day war, entitled UN Security Council Resolution 242. The preamble states that there can be no acquisition of territory by force in accord with customary international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention. The basic interpretation is a settlement along the “green line” with “minor and mutual adjustments” to uncurl the arbitrary cease fire lines.

The resolution further stipulates that all states in the region have a right to “live within secure and recognized borders.” The latter has been reiterated for decades, even as US-Israeli rejection of the conditions has been the chief motor of occupation since the seventies.

Surprisingly, the right of Palestinians to self determination remained unspoken between the partition of 1947 and the first unanimous international call in the seventies. The change is worth paying attention to. In 1973 the PLO tacitly agreed to a formula of full Israeli withdrawal and full Arab recognition in a General Assembly resolution. Yet another call was made informally through the Security Council in 1976, explicitly putting a Palestinian state on the international agenda. Israel flatly rejected it and the United States effectively vetoed.

In 1980, a Security Council Resolution repeated these legal obligations, the US vetoed and since then US-Israeli rejectionism has been consistent. A change occurred on the other side however, as the Palestinian National Council accepted the two state settlement in 1988 from tacit approval to formal advocacy. This put the US and Israel in total international isolation, deeming every departure point of “peace process” negotiations as a rejection of the consensus.

Today the consensus enjoys the support of authoritative political, legal and human rights bodies. The most representative political body in the world, the General Assembly, presents the modalities of the settlement each year and the vote has been identically lopsided every time. The entire state system is on one side and Israel with the US along with South Pacific atolls on the rejectionist side. In 2004 the International Court of Justice, the highest authoritative legal body in the world, rendered an advisory opinion on the wall Israel has built in the West Bank. The court judged the wall to be illegal; confirmed the illegality of “territorial acquisition resulting from the threat or use of force” and deemed Gaza, the West Bank including East Jerusalem to be “occupied Palestinian Territory.” [2]

What might come as a surprise to the devoted reader of the press is the fact that Hamas since 2005 has been more forthcoming to this consensus than Israel. The first document Hamas signed when they were elected freely and fairly was the so-called Prisoner’s Document in which Hamas declares their agreement with Fatah on the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders – incidentally supported by 77 % of the Palestinian population. It has since been conceded, even by NY Times, that Hamas is willing to negotiate along the lines of the Saudi Peace Plan and to recognize Israel de facto but not de jure. All 22 Arab states have signed the Saudi Peace Plan, which is essentially a transcript of Resolution 242 – including non-Arab states such as Iran. [3]

What has been recognized as the most contentious aspect of the conflict, namely the right of return, has surprisingly not been the most disputed issue during negotiations. At Taba, they accepted a “pragmatic settlement” which wouldn’t change “the demographic character of Israel.” The main problem has been Israel’s unwillingness to have a 1:1 land swap, i.e. the “minor or mutual adjustments” [4]. The right of return is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Resolution 194 of 1949. It is unambiguously supported by the international community, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International (and also in principle by Israeli Jews, who established their own state on the notion of that very right.)

American presidents including Barack Obama have demonstrated time and again, that they are not honest brokers. The institutional permanence of vast diplomatic, economic and military support suggests state guidelines across the political spectrum. The doctrine of policy deems Israel a “strategic asset” in the heart of the energy producing region, serving as “cops on the beat,” effectively “educating” the “savage Arab” into submission. This course of action serves to strengthen US-Israeli intransigence against Palestinians and renders the international corpus of rules null and void. It doesn’t require a doctorate to discover US hegemony in the region and the European Union toddling behind, maneuvering where it can, and obeying where it must.

This can be exemplified by comparing reactions towards state violations of customary norms, such as “serious breaches of the prohibition to use force”, the “right to self determination” and fundamental standards of human rights and humanitarian law. When the Security Council fails to perform in accord with Article VII owing to “the Tyranny of the Veto”, the General Assembly typically doesn’t hesitate to assert its duty by calling for the implementation of economic, financial and diplomatic sanctions, notably in the case of South Africa. Such comparisons can be found in an exhaustive study by Marc Weller and Barbara Metzger from Cambridge University. They conclude a “double standard” granting Israel “complete immunity” from reflexive remedies with regard to Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor such as “arms embargo,” “sanctions” and “international presence” of monitors and peacekeeping forces. [5]

Israel’s latest defiance of the Council’s calls has likewise been backed by US President Barack Obama’s administration. US support has continued and been amplified apart from Obama’s rhetorical superfluities. The near unanimous European euphoria over the election of Obama is a back hand admission of both its recognition of the double standard and its awareness that it isn’t able to do much without the consent of the Super Power. [6]

Recognizing this milieu of inaction and “facts on the ground”, elements of the left (and extreme right for dissimilar reasons) lends support to the proposal of a one state solution based on the egalitarian principles applied in South Africa and elsewhere. It requires a shift of paradigm terminologically replacing “occupation” with “Apartheid.” Indeed apartheid is a component of the occupation, yet annexation is a far worse crime than any comparable stage of colonization in South Africa. Annexation is an altogether different sort of imperialism, suggesting practically no alteration of behavior even if historical Palestine was to be developed into one state. A single state is no guarantee; take a simple look at the existing ones!

Arguments for a one state solution is usually based on justice – acknowledging quite accurately that the two state solution is far from just. Yet, justice, apart from discussions in academic seminars, is limited in the real world by the fact of feasibility. No one says that Hopi Indians should renounce their claim to their ancestors’ land, but then, no one advocates it either. The arguments become tautological: “No settlement is acceptable unless it’s acceptable.”

If there is a series of steps leading to the one state solution it should by all means be discussed. Trying to create an environment conducive to this settlement today seems impossible and may well be a recipe for further conflict. The idea of boycotts and divestiture requires the active participation of important actors within Israeli society. The struggle in South Africa took decades to establish with mayors already committed to civil disobedience and corporations agreeing to the “Sullivan conditions.” If such a strategy will look like an attack on Israeli society it is likely to be counterproductive. I have seen serious debate regarding the efficacy of the two state settlement. How can you divide Cis-Jordan for example? How can Palestinians realize a “rump state”? Yet, as an interim solution, far from the final status anathema it has become, the struggle for normalization, fulfillment of rights and integration shall continue.

[1] Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “The six months of the lull arrangement,” December 2008 |Human Rights Watch, “Precisely Wrong,” June 2009 | Human Rights Watch, “Rain of fire,” March 2009 | Amnesty International, “Israel/Gaza: Operation “Cast Lead”: 22 days of death and destruction,” July 2009 | Bt’Selem, “Guidelines for Israel’s Investigation into Operation Cast Lead,” February 2009.

[2] International Court of Justice, ”Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” 2004.

[3] Avi Issacharoff, “Poll: 77 % of Palestinians support the Prisoner’s Document,” June 2009, Ha’aretz | Mouin Rabbani, “A Hamas Perspective on the Movement’s Evolving Role: An Interview with Khalid Mishal: Part II,” Summer 2008, Journal of Palestine Studies vol. 37 | Avi Issacharoff, “Meshal: Hamas backs Palestinian state in ’67 borders,” April 2008, Ha’aretz | Amira Hass, “Haniyeh: Hamas willing to accept Palestinian state with 1967 borders,” September 2008, Ha’aretz | Middle East Online, “Hamas calls for Palestinian state in 1967 borders,” June 2009 |Hamas, “We Do Not Wish to Throw Them Into the Sea,” February 2006, Washington Post | Jay Solomon & Julien Barnes-Dacey, “Hamas Chief Outlines Terms for Talks on Arab Israeli-Peace,” Juli 2009, Wall Street Journal.

[4] Ron Pundak, “From Oslo to Taba: What Went Wrong?,” Autumn 2001, Survival p. 31-45, The International Institute for Strategic Studies.

[5] Marc Weller & Barbara Metzger, “Double Standards,” September 2002, PLO Negotiations Affairs Department | for further deliberations see: Yoram Dinstein, “War, Aggression and Self Defense,” 4th ed., 2005, Cambridge University Press p. 302 and David Cortright & George A. Lopez, “The Sanctions Decade: Assessing UN Strategies in the 1990s,” 2000, Lynne Rienner.

[6] The Bush Sr. administration went beyond rhetoric objecting to illegal settlement by denying economic support for them. Oppositely, Obama administration officials state that such dealings are “not under discussion” and that any pressures will be “largely symbolic”: Helene Cooper, “U.S Weighs Tactics on Israeli Settlement,” May 2009, NY Times | Grant F. Smith, “$2.775 Billion in US Aid Supports Israeli Nuclear Weapons Program,” June 2009, Online Journal.

The looming threat of sectarian violence on Iran’s borders

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Jondollah, a Baluchi militant group, has executed 16 Iranian police officers. Now, Tehran accuses Saudi-Arabia of supporting Sunni terrorism in Iran’s restive southeastern border area.

Jondollah (also spelled Jundullah, Jundallah, etc.) – ‘God’s Army’ in Arabic – has been active for at least four years. Its young leader Abdolmalek Rigi is Iran’s most wanted man. Rigi has stated that his band of Baluchis – an ethnic minority living across the deserts between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – are fighting for their rights as a Sunni Muslim community in Shiite-ruled Iran. He also claims to fight for a democratic Iran respecting human rights. Yet, in 2006-7, Jondollah launched a string of gruesome terror acts. In March 2006, Jondollah militants dressed as Iranian soldiers stopped a convoy of cars on a remote desert road. The militants pulled the travelers – a mix of civilians, military officers and local administrators – out of their cars and shot down all 22, execution-style. In May 2006, during a similar ambush, Baluchi militants killed 12 travelers and took others hostage – this time near Kerman, in the centre of southern Iran. Video footage of Jondollah beheading hostages reached Iranian web sites. And in February 2007, Jondollah detonated a bomb in the provincial capital of Zahedan, killing 18 Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Basiji officers on their way to work.

Iranian officials condemned the attacks as ‘blind terrorism’ and pointed accusing fingers at Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the US for supporting Jondollah. Iran has also criticized Pakistan for not cooperating in the hunt for Rigi and his group. The province of Sistan-Baluchistan – Iran’s poorest region and historically home to bandits and smugglers – has since seen a heavy military presence and severe security measures. Baluchi proponents have claimed that innocent civilians are harassed and local Sunni clerics persecuted while the leader of Jondollah hides across the borders in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. Due to the inaccessible location and due to restrictions, it has been difficult for international media and human rights groups to verify claims of human rights abuse.

In June 2008, it was reported that militants abducted the police officers of a checkpoint near Saravan on the Iran-Pakistan border. Rigi claimed responsibility for the attack and demanded the release of 200 of his compatriots from Iranian prisons in return for the hostages. BBC reported that one of these prisoners was probably Rigi’s own brother, who had allegedly been handed over by Pakistani authorities to Iran. In October, one hostage was released; however it was also reported others had been killed. Indeed, the Arabic news channel Al-Arabiyya showed footage of the execution of three police officers.

Then, last week, deputy police commander Ahmad-Reza Radan confirmed that all 16 officers abducted from Saravan had been killed. Since the news broke, the Iranian government has promised to give a “tooth-breaking” response to Jondollah. On Monday, state-run Tehran Times reported that “Iranian intelligence and police forces have arrested some terrorists who were behind the killings of 15 Iranian police members”. The Minister of Intelligence, Hojjatoleslam Mohseni-Ezhe‘i stated that Pakistani authorities “did not cooperate sufficiently” in anti-Jondollah operations. MP Kazem Jalali said that Islamabad, after receiving evidence that Jondollah is supported by Pakistani “elements”, had promised to strike down on “terrorist groups”. Jalali also reported that footage of the trial against those arrested would soon be aired on national TV. Indeed, in this footage, Iranians are to see ‘nation-betrayers’ confessing to their terrorist acts and to the ‘regional and international’ support they have allegedly received. Furthermore, Jalali promised tougher action against smugglers of opium and heroin from Afghanistan. Iranian authorities and media have often linked Baluchi militant groups to the thriving drug trade that has blossomed since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Just as they did after previous Jondollah attack, Iranian media outlets have recently accused foreign powers of supporting the Baluchi militants. State-run Press TV quoted Pakistan’s former Army Chief, who allegedly stated in July that Jondollah was “the main recipient of US financial and military aid”. Iranian media has also used the work of investigative journalists from the US itself: Press TV regularly points to a 2007 ABC News report about US aid for Jondollah and to Seymour Hersh’s alleged revelations about US Congress funding for ‘covert operations’ in Iran. Indeed, in the Jondollah case, the Iranian state has found yet another tool to turn the ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric on its head and present US as a major hypocrite in world politics. Thus, during Tuesday’s Security Council session, Iran’s UN representative could justly state that “Iran is a victim of terrorism. It has taken practical and effective measures in its fight against terrorist and extremist groups including Al-Qaeda and Jundullah”. The case of Jondollah’s terror is thus used to present Iran as an innocent victim of the West’s double standards.

However, this time, the accusing finger not only points to Washington but also to Iran’s rivals across The Persian Gulf. Apparently, the Arabic news website Nahrayn Net recently quoted ‘informed sources’ in Peshawar claiming that Jondollah is supported not only by the US but by the secret service of Saudi-Arabia. The Iranian News Agency Shahâb News wrote: “These sources stressed that evidence from Peshawar shows that Saudi-Arabia’s intelligence agency is directly and fully supporting Jondollah in its terrorist acts in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province …”. In the report, it is claimed that Riyadh is financially supporting Jondollah and that the ruling family in Saudi-Arabia has commanded Arabic media to report regularly on the actions of Jondollah.

Thus, Iranian media today portray Jondollah as a proxy army with which several enemies are fighting the Islamic Republic. Such reports should of course be seen on the historical background of tensions between Iran and its Arab neighbors in the Gulf. Indeed, when Al-Arabiyya showed the Jondollah footage in October, Iranian Press TV published a piece titled ‘How to sponsor terrorism, Saudi-style’. The issue of Jondollah has become yet another point of conflict between Iran and Saudi-Arabia.

The Islamic Republic’s media exposure of Jondollah’s terror have caused politicians and spokespersons across the board to express their disgust with the group. However, this wide publicizing of Jondollah’s acts can also hurt the government itself. Student activists use the issue of Jondollah’s terror to depict the state apparatus, and Ahmadinejad’s government in particular, as incompetent. Speaking in the language of nationalism and patriotism, student groups have demanded that the government respond to the threat, confront Jondollah and force Pakistan to take responsibility for security on its side of the border. The main student organization, The Office to Consolidate Unity, recently criticized Ahmadinejad’s government for focusing on international issues, on defending Iran’s nuclear energy program and on repressing peaceful opposition in Tehran while the real threat is actually on Iran’s borders. The students also lambasted Iran’s security and intelligence agencies for being incompetent and inefficient in combating the terrorist threats.

However, the issue should not be reduced to the fight between the Iranian state and a militant group. What is much more dangerous is the lurking threat of a widening Sunni-Shia divide in Iran. Iran is predominantly Shiite and the political system dominated by Shiite clerics. However Baluchis, Turkmens and many Kurds are Sunnis, which makes them a sort of ‘double minority’ in majority-Persian Iran. Recently, Iranian Sunnis have become increasingly vocal in their expression of discontent with discrimination and marginalization. Indeed, there have been many signs of rising tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in Baluchi areas: last month, a Sunni cleric was killed in Saravan, the border town mentioned earlier. Thus, when Iranian officials, state media and even opposition forces describe Jondollah’s attacks as a fetne – the Koranic word for discord – they convey an imbedded warning of sectarian violence looming on the horizon. There is indeed good reason to fear that Jondollah’s actions will provoke Shiites to attack Sunnis and cause further persecution of proponents of Sunni and ethnic minority rights.

Last but not least, the case of Jondollah threatens to make Iranians, and the world community, forget the plight of the Baluchi people. In their 2007 report, Amnesty International portrayed a broad-ranging clampdown on ethnic activists as well as militants. Despicable human rights breaches in the region and the economic and cultural discrimination against civilians were among the issues Amnesty pointed out. Furthermore, as the line between criminal and political activity has been blurred in the state discourse, it is feared that Iranian authorities use the fight against drug smuggling as a pretext for executing Baluchi activists. Thus, with Jondollah’s terror warfare, there is no room left for the voices of ethnic and religious minority rights. Indeed, over the last couple of weeks, Baluchi students at Zahedan University have protested against violent attacks by security forces – attacks that have resulted in the death of a student and the wounding of many others.

The question that remains is: if Western powers or Arab states are indeed supporting Jondollah, are they not in fact doing Iran’s Baluchis a great disservice? It is true that, potentially, Jondollah’s attacks can further destabilize the region and even cause confrontations between Iran and its neighbors. However, we must not forget that, apart from Iranian officers, the real victims are the Baluchis, who are being criminalized and persecuted on a daily basis as punishment for Jondollah’s actions.

The public debate in Iran leaves no doubt that Jondollah as a terrorist group is hated by common people. Even though its leaders have learned to place the group in the headlines of Iranian and international media, Jondollah is not a positive contribution to the democratic struggle in Iran – or to the fight for its own people.

Obama, Iran and Iraq

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

[Updated]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endorsement, mixed reactions to Obama, security measures

by Rasmus Christian Elling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US presidential elections and Iran-US relations

by Rasmus Christian Elling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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