Stretching My Gambes

Posts Tagged ‘Ahmadinejad

Iran: the failed protests

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Published on the newstatesman.com (11/02/2010).

The Islamic Republic’s 31st anniversary was unlikely to pass without incident. However, reformist and opposition figures have been left disappointed with their achievements.

Mass celebrations at Azadi Square, in central Tehran, were greeted by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The president appeared to make good his promise to deliver a “telling blow” to the west: he declared that Iran was now a nuclear state, with the capacity to enrich uranium to 20 per cent.

One day they said we cannot enrich uranium, but with the resistance of our leader, nation . . . and with the help of God, the Iranian nation has become nuclear.

The reformist “Green Movement” had planned demonstrations to express popular discontent with the lack of democratic accountability and representation in Iran. However their attempts were quashed by a security apparatus clearly prepared for them. The movement had declared that “each Iranian is a media outlet”, but their attempts to use technology to co-ordinate their protests were disrupted by blocks on Gmail and weak internet connections.

Demonstrators were met by the Basiji and Revolutionary Guard, who ensured that large groups of oppositionists could not congregate. The tactics appear to have been effective, leaving a representative of the National Iranian American Council to conclude on its live blog:

One thing I’m struck by is just how much the government has been in control today. Sure, they chartered busses and lured tens of thousands to the official government rally with free food, but they have also managed to keep the opposition activities largely on their terms today.

Despite the government’s tight management of the main scene in Tehran, there have been reports of clashes with notable political figures.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s granddaughter has reportedly been arrested, along with her husband, a brother of Mohammed Khatami.

Mehdi Karroubi’s car was attacked and a number of his followers were arrested, including his youngest son, Ali. Karroubi himself suffered pepper spray and tear gas burns. You can read an interview with one of his sons here.

Reports from later in the day have claimed that Mir Hossein Moussavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, was attacked by plain-clothed militia forces. It is said that postings on Moussavi’s website corroborate these claims.

Attacks on high-profile reformist individuals are likely to add weight to calls for accountability and justice, fuelling the demonstrations against the government. Events may have been state-managed well today but the reformists’ message remains the same. Although the government isn’t teetering towards revolution as some commentators may claim, tensions continue to fester and seem unlikely to disappear.

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Written by Henry Smith

17/03/2010 at 23:36

Rafsanjani’s manoeuvrings

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At Asia House on Thursday evening there was a panel discussion entitled ‘Iran in Crisis’. Whilst there were a range of issues discussed regarding the post-election fallout, one of the more interesting and pertinent discussions focused on the Friday prayers led by Rafsanjani yesterday.

Despite the candid attacks he made on the regime, a more nuanced interpretation of his speech can establish some interesting observations about the future of the Islamic Republic.

It is the first time in two months that Rafsanjani had led the prayers, and the first time since the much-debated election. Rafsanjani holds significant financial and political clout within the Islamic Republic, and heads the institution which theoretically has the ability to oust Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Assembly of Experts.

As he was firmly behind the ‘reformist’ candidate Mousavi, some observers (somewhat wishfully) hoped that this speech would directly challenge or threaten the regime. He openly criticized the illegal detentions and violence perpetrated by the regime, and appeared to question the current legitimacy of the Islamic Republic:

“Today is a bitter day… people have lost their faith in the regime and their trust is damaged. It’s necessary that we regain people’s consent and their trust in the regime.”

However, I believe the subtle undertones contained in the speech are of more significance.

Firstly, Rafsanjani appears to be positioning himself to play the role of arbiter between the various factional interests in the Islamic Republic. Indeed, Ian Black (The Guardian’s Middle East Editor) quotes one unnamed ‘veteran Iranian political analyst’:

“This was an effort to play the role of power-broker – the role that Khamenei should have played but did not.”

Secondly, a number of positive references were made towards Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – the key figure behind the 1979 revolution and the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. This played two roles: (1) as others have pointed out it is a clear invitation to make an unflattering comparison with the recent behavior of Ayatollah Khamenei; (2) it is an invitation to draw positive comparisons between Ayatollah Khomeini and Rafsanjani.

Thirdly, Rafsanjani spoke of his positive relationship with Ayatollah Khomeini.

When these three points are combined, I think an interesting observation can be drawn. Drawing favourable comparisons between himself and Ayatollah Khomeini, highlighting their positive relationship, and attempting to act as a power broker and reconciler of the Islamic Republic, suggest to me that Rafsanjani has his eyes on being the next Supreme Leader.

It is widely rumored that Ayatollah Khamenei is in the final stages of prostate cancer, and the issue of who succeeds him will be a poignant one and may well have a bigger impact on the future of the Islamic Republic than the recent unrest. Some suggest that Ayatollah Khamenei is attempting to position himself for his son to succeed him; however I feel that this is unlikely to occur.

Mojtaba Khamenei lacks any formal religious stature (less than his father – a bone of contention itself with elements of the clergy). Furthermore, in Shi’ite jurisprudence and theology there is no tradition of dynastic succession. However, valiyat-e-faqih had no history in Shi’ism until Ayatollah Khomeini.

Whatever Ayatollah Khamenei’s intentions, it will be interesting to see how Rafsanjani behaves over the coming four years and whether he maneuvers himself to become Supreme Leader. I offer the time frame of four years, as I feel, unlike some observers, that President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei are here to stay. Unless assassination or ill health removes one or both of them.

Written by Henry Smith

18/07/2009 at 12:14

Iran’s new ‘Great Satan’

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The post-election scenes in Iran have grabbed ‘Western’ media institutions and social networking sites for a number of reasons. However, I want to pick up on two related issues that have been misrepresented or overlooked in the majority of the coverage: the possible impact of the election on Iranian foreign policy and why Great Britain has been demonised by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The idea that a Presidential victory for Mousavi would have shifted Iranian foreign policy to a significant detente with the ‘West’ (particularly the US) is far too simplistic.

Yes, all four supported improved relations with the ‘West’ (particularly the US).

Yes, all four candidates supported the completion of the nuclear cycle.

Yes, regardless of who has been President since the revolution support for the Palestinian cause has not significantly altered (including current members of the opposition: Khatami, Mousavi and Rafsanjani).

Whilst a change from the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad may have been a popular outcome among foreign diplomats, I personally do not think Iranian policy would have shifted dramatically.

There are certain recurring proclivities that are represented in the foreign policy of the Iranian state since the 1979 revolution: radical cultural and political independence; economic autarky; diplomatic and ideological mobilisation against Zionism; and resistance against US interference in regional and domestic affairs. More succinctly, anti-imperialism, cultural authenticity and independence can be identified as the central parameters of the Islamic Republic’s identity discourse.

These proclivities and preferences are a result of the dominant ideological narratives of the revolution: Bazgasht beh-khish and Gharbzadegi. The former juxtaposed the allegedly perfectly true and authentic identity of Iran as a nation with the unauthentic status of the fallen present under the Pahlavi Shah (Ali Shariati). Similarly, the latter articulated the growing gap between the supposed authentic self of Iran and the decadent and unauthentic status of Pahlavi Iran, distorted (‘Westoxified’) by ‘Western’ modernity (Jalal Al-e Ahmad).

I do not feel that any of the political figures involved in the current power struggle in Iran would have significantly shifted from these dominant revolutionary narratives. However, a rhetorical break from Ahmadinejad may have led to an improvement in relations with the US. Similar to the break from Bush that Obama achieved.

That break brings in my next point regarding the demonization of Britain by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Britain has a poor reputation amongst elements of Iranian society. Since the discovery of oil in 1901 Britain has a poor record of meddling in Iranian domestic affairs. Most infamously in 1953 with the coup to oust the nationalist Mussadiq, replacing him with the repressive Shah. Such sentiments towards the interfering British have been popularised through Iranian television series, like Uncle Napoleon.

However, during the 1979 revolution it was America and, partly by extension, Israel that was demonised by Iranian society. They were respectively known as the ‘Great Satan’ and ‘Little Satan’. However, following Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech on Friday, Britain appears to have taken that mantle.

I maintain that Britain has replaced America as the ‘Great Satan’. Obama has shifted the American language towards Muslims and the Middle East so significantly that an attack on him would be politically damaging for Ayatollah Khamenei at this moment in time. On the other hand, Gordon Brown is a sitting duck. The current domestic unpopularity and weakness of the British government makes Brown such an easy target when one considers Britain’s historical record in Iran. It is just too easy.

That said, Obama’s comments today may lead to a verbal backlash from Iran. Perhaps Britain may take a backseat role again.

However, I disagree with Obama when he claims that the Iranian government’s criticisms of other countries is just an attempt to divert attention from the domestic situation. Alternatively, it is reflective of the normative currents contained in the revolution of 1979, which appear alive and well today. Personally, I believe that Ayatollah Khamenei is aware of how his claims regarding Britain resonate domestically.

It is not the 1979 revolution that is being questioned in Iran, rather where Iran moves next and under whose control.

Ahmadinejad is causing trouble again…

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Following all the debate as to who was or wasn’t going to attend, and what should or should not be included in the draft statement, the UN anti-racism conference in Geneva went ahead earlier today. 

Unsurprisingly, it was Ahmadinejad, the only head of state in attendance, who took the limelight. The label given to him by a far more astute observer than myself, ‘the Justin Timberlake of Iranian politics’, appears more apt the more I read about and observe this man. 

Ahmadinejad branded Israel a ‘cruel and oppressive racist regime’, claiming that the state of Israel was created ‘on the pretext of Jewish suffering’ from the second world war. Cue the exit of UN Ambassadors from predominantly European countries (the US was never there, probably because they knew they’d have to get up and leave anyway).

Alternatively, why not engage with the inaccuracy of his remarks? Why grant him the coverage he craves? I don’t think that Ahmadinejad actually believes what he claims, why not illustrate the inaccuracy for him. Encouraging and engaging with the right to freedom of speech only helps to denounce the fallacies that people construct; we need to demonstrate how and why Ahmadinejad is wrong. 

Had Netanyahu claimed that Iran was an anti-Semitic and racist state (which he has), he would not have received the same response from European dignitaries. The issue of freedom of speech appears again. In the international community it is only those that appeal to the dominant ‘Western’ norms and ‘truth conditions’ who are encouraged and granted the freedom to speak, whilst those who counter accepted norms and ‘truth conditions’ are too easily denounced. Ahmadinejad’s willingness to do this, and to question the legitimacy and behaviour of Israel, thus grant him legitimacy in the eyes of those still feeling the brunt of American, European and Israeli action in the Middle East and the Gulf, particularly those who see Iran as a bastion against the spread of Zionism in the Middle East, and the neo-imperialist policies of the US (Iran is popular in Latin America).

Ahmadinejad is an idiot, and his denial of the holocaust goes beyond disrespect, but the issues that his claims raise are valid regardless of the content of his speech. Anti-Iranian sentiment is encouraged by his behaviour but it also encouraged by the US, Europe and Israel, through rhetoric and policy, particular the neoconservative establishment in the US. The reality of Jews living in Iran is often overlooked; Jewish cemeteries in Tehran are not desecrated with schwastickas as in some Western European capitals.

As much as he graves the limelight and is perhaps to stupid to engage with the broader issues that his behaviour raises, it does raise important issues about the monopolisation of truth and freedom of speech in the international community. 

Whilst his statements are false and inaccurate, I just wonder if had someone else have raised them if the response would have been the same? Would JT himself have inspired such a walk out?

Written by Henry Smith

20/04/2009 at 23:59