Stretching My Gambes

Posts Tagged ‘Iran

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.

Written by Henry Smith

17/03/2010 at 23:36

Freedom unfulfilled for Iranians

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

The anniversary of the Islamic revolution has traditionally been greeted with mass celebrations by Iranians congregating around the Azadi or Freedom Tower in Tehran. However, the government’s celebrations are set to be marred by protesters calling for increased accountability and representation.

While the government attempts to demonstrate its strength to the outside world in light of pressure over its nuclear program, principally through rocket launches and enhancing uranium enrichment – ostensibly for the production of medical isotopes – they face a renewed bout of domestic dissent.

The trajectory of the revolution has been fiercely contested since power was initially seized from the Shah by a heterogeneous mix of Marxist, nationalist, religious and secular movements but the months following the disputed elections in June 2009 have arguably produced the most severe and violent clashes witnessed since 1979.

There have been moments of unrest from marginalised ethnic groups and student movements in Iran, but they lacked the broad support base that the “Green movement” appears to generate. The movement’s followers come from a mix of social and ethnic strata and resultantly is not restricted to rich, Westernised northern Tehranis. Moreover, they are increasingly hard for the regime to handle with their use of digital media. While the mix of individuals is perhaps a new challenge to the Islamic Republic, their message is not.

Iran has arguably fulfilled two thirds of its revolutionary demands: “Independence, Freedom and the Islamic Republic”, however the call for freedom remains unfulfilled and it is this that maintains the demonstrations. Hamid Dabashi makes a similar point:

The history and the political culture of revolt against tyranny actually predate the Islamic revolution of 1977-1979. The young Iranians pouring into the streets of their homeland in recent months to demand their civil liberties are nourished and inspired by the same fountain of liberty that moved their parents in the years leading up to the 1979 revolution. …What we are witnessing in the streets of Iran and among Iranians around the globe is the resurgence of a vibrant political culture that gave rise to the 1979 revolution.

The majority of demonstrators will not be calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic but for the accountability and representation they have been denied through electoral irregularities and the government’s brute displays of force. Even those who have chanted “Death to Khamenei” are not calling for a revolution but wish to display their dismay at the violence they have observed.

Yasaman Baji, an Iranian reporter based in Iran, details a conversation she had with one such supporter:

“I don’t agree with this slogan but I shouted it along with the crowd,” he said. “We were angry. How else can empty-handed people respond to the violence that is directed at them?”

The nominal leaders of the Green Movement have called for non-violent demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the revolution but have also emphasised that the struggle is with despotism, not the Islamic Republic. Amidst rumours of conciliatory gestures between leaders of competing factions, Mr. Moussavi said in an interview on his website Kaleme.org: “Dictatorship in the name of religion is the worst kind. The most evident manifestation of a continued tyrannical attitude is the abuse of parliament and the judiciary. We have completely lost hope in the judiciary.”

Written by Henry Smith

17/03/2010 at 23:27

Obama’s Iran policy could quash dissent

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Published on newstatesman.com (01/02/2010)

The United States is ramping up its military presence in the Gulf with the reported sale of patriot missile systems to Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), together with the deployment of two warships capable of shooting down missiles directed at the littoral states in the Gulf.

This can be interpreted in two ways. First, Obama is signalling its capability and intent to an Israeli regime that appears particularly interested in taking unilateral and pre-emptive strikes against Iran’s nuclear programme. Second, Obama is attempting to demonstrate that America is willing to take military action against Tehran.

Being seen to placate Israel, again, will only damage Obama’s reputation further in the region, which has sunk and sunk since its zenith – when he delivered a speech at the Al-Azhar University in June 2009.

More importantly, however, the decision is exactly the sort of American action the incumbents in Tehran need, and probably want, in order to cement their position. While Iran’s leadership has survived the protests and demonstrations that resulted from the disputed election in June, severe discontent still exists within different elements of the Iranian population. By ramping up the threat of military action against Tehran any renegotiation of political power in the country can be seized by hardline elements with a vested interest in maintaining poor relations with the US.

Since the election protest the regime has routinely attempted to cast the protests and demonstrations as a result of foreign meddling in the country’s affairs. A list of 60 blacklisted organisations has now been published by the regime, the majority of which are foreign institutions perceived as a threat.

The country’s history of interference at the hands of American, British and Russian agents developed an anti-imperialist norm that remains pervasive throughout the population. The CIA and MI6 orchestrated coup d’etat against Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 is an event imprinted in Iranian consciousness.

The very foundation of the Iranian revolution in 1979 was the rejection of foreign interference in the country’s affairs. Pre-revolutionary writings from intellectuals like Jamal Al-e Ahmad and Ali Shari’ati spoke of the “Westoxification” of Iran and the need for the country to “return to oneself”. These slogans transcended different political factions regardless of their positions as Islamists, Marxists, republicans or socialists, and manifest themselves in the revolutionary slogans of “Neither East nor West, just the Islamic Republic” and “Independence, freedom, Islamic Republic”.

Political power is in the process of being renegotiated in Iran but threatening the regime in such an overt manner gives them the material it needs to quash the efforts of brave Iranians to confront the brutal authoritarianism displayed by the regime. Iran remains a post-revolutionary state, not a pre-revolutionary state, and the upheavals of 1979 are still playing themselves out.

However, by allowing the Iranian government to divert attention from domestic matters towards the imminent threat of America and Israel, Obama would risk closing the spaces that Iranians have carved for themselves.

Written by Henry Smith

01/02/2010 at 22:36

The Houthi uprising: Iran as a smokescreen

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Saudi Arabia’s ongoing attempt to quash the Houthi rebellion on its border with North Western Yemen has been variously labelled as either a response to territorial infringements or placed in the narrative of a proxy war with Iran. However, both reasons fail to recognise the government’s domestic fears over the marginalisation of its Shi’ite population as the motivation behind their offensive.

Preserving territorial sovereignty is hardly a unique policy, there are few who would criticise the Kingdom’s decision to do so. Indeed, reinforcing the integrity of your borders is particularly pertinent when an ailing Al Qaeda have turned to Bin Laden’s ancestral home as their hosts.

The argument that Saudi’s response is an attempt to counter Iranian meddling remains unclear. While Yemen has accused Iran of arming the Houthis, no evidence has been supplied to support this claim aside from the unverified allegation a captured munitions vessel. In reality the Houthis would have little problem procuring weapons domestically.

Iran has denied this claim and launched a thinly veiled attack on Saudi involvement; Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki stated there were “certain people who add fuel to some crises.” Going on to add: “those people should be assured that the smoke and the fire they have ignited will entangle them themselves.”

However, Tehran appears increasingly interested in the Houthis’ plight. Take Monday’s comment by Ali Larijani (speaker of Iran’s Parliament): “the deplorable events in the Islamic nation of Yemen which have intensified over the past two weeks and the Saudi interference in Yemen through repeated bombings by warplanes is astonishing.” Further, the Iranian parliament have blocked a bill on tax cooperation with Sana’a in opposition to the treatment of the Houthis

It is not unfeasible that Saudi would pursue proxy conflicts to balance against Iran. The Kingdom’s regional influence has diminished following 9/11. Indeed, it is one of the contradictions of the Bush administration’s Middle East policy that while Iran was blacklisted and marginalised, Washington inadvertently improved Iran’s standing at the expense of its regional allies.

In Afghanistan, the Taleban had a perennially poor relationship with the Iranian government. The former held nothing but contempt for the latter’s Shi’ite inspired governmental structure; tensions probably reached their peak in August 1998 when the Taleban killed eleven Iranian diplomats. Animosity between the two was so strong that Iran even offered America intelligence support in Afghanistan.

Similarly, the Islamic Republic never shared positive ties with Ba’thist Iraq. The antagonism initiated under the Pahlavi dynasty and Hussein’s anti-Iranian narratives was exacerbated by the expansionary tendencies of the revolutionary state, which culminated in a destructive eight year war – the longest of the 21st century.

Iran no longer suffers these tensions. The Ba’thist regime is gone and the Taleban are otherwise engaged. Iran now exerts greater influence in both countries and much to the chagrin of the Saudi’s, particularly in neighbouring Iraq.

The Saudis have responded by investing resources into countering Iranian influence in these countries, but they have most recently done so in Lebanon. Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on Martyrs’ Day, Tuesday 10th November, alluded to King Abdullah’s role in establishing the Lebanese unity government.

“We take positively the Syrian-Saudi summit, and we were the first to reap its fruits. We call for a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement to establish communication between the two countries.” This call for rapprochement seems unlikely given recent posturing over Yemen.

Claims of Iranian meddling are somewhat overstated and occasionally fabricated; however Khomeini’s fingerprint is detectable in many regional disputes. This may not always be overt Iranian support but rather through the imagery of the Iranian revolution and Khomeini himself serving as a role model for the oppressed. While not attempting to perpetuate the idea of a sectarian binary or ‘Shi’ite Crescent’, this imagery can be particularly powerful for Shi’ite groups in the region.

However, as Robert Worth highlights in the New York Times, the suggestion that a link between the Houthi and Iran is due to simple sectarian proclivities remains problematic. “The notion that the Houthis are natural religious allies of Iran is misplaced; Zaydism is doctrinally closer to Sunnism than to mainstream Shiism. But a raft of misleading news reports seem to be blurring that distinction.”

Iran does not appear overtly involved at the time of writing. “There is probably next to no Iranian involvement. I have seen no evidence for it and it’s really a bit too far afield,” stated Joost Hiltermann, the deputy Middle East program director of the International Crisis Group. He added: “The Iranians are just brilliant” he adds. “They play no role whatsoever, but they get all the credit, and so they are capitalizing on it.”

If true then what motivates the Saudi offensive? The unspoken reasons are the Kingdom’s insecurities about the marginalisation and oppression of its Shi’te population, who primarily based in the oil-rich Eastern province, and movements by second generation princes to assert their suitability for succession.

The on-going competition between second generation princes is part of a broader worry over succession in the Saudi ruling elite. Khalid bin Sultan is particularly eager to establish his reputation as a strong leader to aid his push for the post of Minister of Defence, which is currently held by his struggling father, who has been recovering from illness in Morocco for over a year.

The marginalisation of the Shi’ites is well documented in September’s Human Rights Watch report. The title of which makes the situation clear: ‘Denied Dignity: Systematic Discrimination and Hostility toward Saudi Shia Citizens.’ The report details the regular repressive measures employed by Saudi authorities: preventing religious gatherings through the closure of private prayer halls; incarcerating clerics; and routine bias in the education and judicial system.

It is the fear of the Houthis fermenting and mobilising the resentment latent in the Saudi Shi’ite population that drives the Kingdom to fortify and militarise the Yemeni border. Keen to prevent any interaction between the two communities, Prince Khaled bin Sultan the Saudi assistant defence minister, has stated that the offensive will stop once the Houthis had retreated dozen of kilometres from the border. The continued bombing this week indicates the Saudis are far from feeling secure.

Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme: the most important story of the past year?

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I recently had to answer the following question for a job application: apart from the global financial crisis and American elections, what was the most important news story of the last twelve months and why? The issue of what qualifies as ‘most important’ is immediately contentious; by what or whose barometer is importance measured? However, the coward in me avoided the philosophical response.

My immediate thought was the relegation of Newcastle United, but I felt the context of the question rendered this choice somewhat inappropriate. A friend suggested either Michael Jackson’s or Jade Goody’s death, however the examples given in the question suggested events and stories conventionally identified as ‘political’.

After some deliberation and the acceptance that Newcastle United are not as important to most people as they are to me I opted for the ongoing international diplomatic negotiations over Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme.

The narrative has developed over a number of years but it has escalated over the last twelve months. The following events all occurred within this period: reports that Bush refused American support for an Israeli attack on Iran, Obama’s claim that he desired reconciliation with Iran, the Iranian response, several missile tests and the disclosure of the nuclear plant at Qom. Finally, all of these developments were followed by the recent UN 5+1 talks.

The importance of this story for international political dynamics is multifaceted.

Firstly, whether Iran has nuclear weapons is linked to Obama’s electoral pledge of a world free from nuclear weapons. Thus, being seen to contain Iran’s alleged aspirations is crucial if Obama is to be seen as fulfilling his promises; especially at a time when his domestic and international popularity is dwindling.

Secondly, the behaviour of China and Russia in regard to Iran is of crucial importance for the future of their relationships with America. The importance of these relationships for international economic and political stability is well-documented. The outcomes may act as an indicator for future interactions, however today’s developments suggest that American-Russian relations are still somewhat ambiguous.

Thirdly, Iran’s alleged desire for nuclear weapons is inextricably linked to peace in the Middle East generally. Iran is inseparable from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict due to its antagonistic policies towards Israeli interests and its relationships with Hamas, Hizbullah and Syria. A nuclear-armed Iran would redefine the balance of power in the region and question Israeli hegemony.

Finally, I suggest a point which was not included in my initial response to this question. The pressure on Iran to cease an unsubstantiated pursuit of nuclear weapons indicates the ability of the international community, and particularly Western countries and institutions, to dictate the truth conditions of global political discourse.

Think of the media coverage of Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons and then consider that these claims are unsubstantiated. Most coverage does not mention the fact that head of the IAEA, El-Baradei, re-emphasised on last Monday that there is no proof that Iran has been or is pursuing nuclear weapons.

However, speaking at last week’s Conservative party conference William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, appeared to act on the premise that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons. He stated his party’s desire ‘…to deter and dissuade Iran from the final development of nuclear weapons’, before going on to threaten that ‘unless Iran changes course, the time is approaching for serious and far-reaching sanctions by European nations on Iran’s financial transactions and oil and gas development.’

The belligerent attitude to unsubstantiated claims of Iranian nuclear aspirations detectable in the output of the media and politicians’ speeches is somewhat reminiscent of the claims made against Iraq before the 2003 invasion. Let’s hope that Iran is engaged and not subject to the sanctions regime and warfare its neighbour was. Ultimately those that suffer are ordinary citizens and not those in positions of power. The similarities with period before the invasion of Iraq have been documented elsewhere.

In my opinion it is the combination and possible ramifications of these reasons that indicates the importance of this story. However, I would be interested to hear what you thought were alternative possibilities: the Georgian and Russian clash over South Ossetia, the termination of the Star Wars program, or the ongoing Af-Pak mess? Answers on a postcode please or just put them below.

Written by Henry Smith

13/10/2009 at 16:14

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.