Stretching My Gambes

Posts Tagged ‘Mousavi

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

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.