Sunday, June 28, 2009

U.S. dollars and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

American ethnic communities have a tradition of supporting political causes in the old countries. For example, many U.S. dollars from Americans of Irish descent went to help fund the Irish Republican Army over many years. Peace finally arrived in Northern Ireland and a big factor was the eventual Irish self-criticism of the extreme nationalist rhetoric on both sides of the conflict but another major factor was the re-direction of American support from one side of the armed conflict to peace.

The conflict between the people of Israel and the Palestinian Arabs remains unresolved after half a century. There are a multitude of reasons why peace has yet to be achieved but one of the current flash points pertains to the issues of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Like the Northern Ireland experience, there appears to be an American contribution to the problem and potential American contribution to the solution. Ronit Avni examines private American support for the Israeli settler movement:
This month, both at Cairo University and from the Oval Office, President Obama has called on the Israeli government to stop the expansion of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. He should send the same message to the Americans who are funding and fueling them.

There are more than 450,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to Peace Now, an Israeli organization that opposes the settlements. Some of them are Americans. And some of the most influential, militant figures in the settler movement have been Americans, too. Among them were Baruch Goldstein, the doctor from Brooklyn who fired 100 shots at worshiping Muslims in Hebron in 1994, killing 29; Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the Kach party, which was banned in Israel in 1988 on the grounds that it was racist; and convicted terrorist Era Rapaport, a member of the Land Redemption Fund, which coordinates the acquisition of Palestinian land in areas targeted for settlement expansion.

Before the settlers were removed from Gaza in 2005, I visited a group of them while shooting my last film. Some of the settlements' most passionate advocates spoke about their deep roots in the Gaza Strip even though they were actually Americans. Years earlier, while working as a human rights advocate, I had received reports from colleagues who had been threatened or physically attacked by young settlers as they tried to protect Palestinian farmers during harvest. The attackers often included North American Jews, my colleagues said.

Evangelical Christians in the United States also support the settlements, raising millions of dollars for them, according to a recent National Public Radio report. The Colorado-based Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, for example, encourages churches and ministries to connect with "the pioneers of Biblical Israel" through the "adopt-a-settlement program." Sondra Oster Baras, director of the organization's Israeli office, estimates that more than half of the West Bank settlements receive direct or indirect support from Christians, according to the NPR report.

A handful of wealthy businessmen, including American casino magnate Irving Moskowitz, are widely reported to have donated to groups such as the Brooklyn-based not-for-profit Hebron Fund, which raises money to support residents in the West Bank city of Hebron. According to the donation page on its Web site, the organization aims to "keep Hebron Jewish for the Jewish people." Friends of Itamar, also based in Brooklyn, engages in domestic, tax-deductible fundraising for the West Bank settlement of Itamar. All this comes at the expense of the U.S. government, which loses tax revenue by allowing these groups to operate as not-for-profit entities.

Not all support for the settlements comes through charitable organizations. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported that in 2007, the settler organization Amana held "housing fairs" in New York and New Jersey to encourage American Jews to buy property in the West Bank. According to the Jewish Voice and Opinion, a self-described "politically conservative Jewish publication" in New Jersey, approximately 250 people attended and as many as 10 properties were slated for purchase.

Last year the Palestinian village of Bil'in filed suit in Canada against two Quebec-based companies that built and sold residential units in a West Bank settlement. The case is still pending, but it demonstrates that people are beginning to pay attention to non-Israeli influences on settlement growth.

If the courts can't find a way to dissuade settlement expansion, perhaps the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control should intervene. The U.S. government has already designated Kahane's movement a foreign terrorist organization for reasons unrelated to settlement financing, but in doing so, it has prohibited U.S. citizens from providing financial support to this group.

The First Amendment protects the right of the settlement advocates to express their views, and so it should. I am not suggesting that non-profits should lose their tax advantages simply because they are at odds with American foreign policy. But the settlements are widely considered a violation of international law. Thirty years ago, a U.S. State Department legal adviser issued an opinion that called the settlements "inconsistent" with the Fourth Geneva Convention. In recent weeks, officials at State and in the White House have declined to say whether the 1979 opinion reflects official government policy, but President Obama's comments have hardly been ambiguous. "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," he said in Cairo. "It is time for these settlements to stop."

Maybe it's also time for Americans to stop supporting them.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Who are Iran’s security forces?

There are different layers – ranging from official to vigilante – to the various forces engaged in the crackdown on the Iranian people on behalf of the conservative power structure. The video clip above from Al Jazeera and the text below from The Reaction blog shed some light on who these people are.
Following a few days of restrained responses to opposition protests, the Iranian regime is now starting to violently clamp down. As seen in other situations of popular unrest, the cohesiveness of its security forces is one of the most crucial factors. The big question, therefore, is whether Iran's security forces follow orders or fragment and switch sides to join their fellow citizens. The regime's security apparatus is not a unified entity -- and each of its constituent parts has different responsibilities as well as different allegiances.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is the ideological and military guarantor of national security for the Islamic Republic, with responsibility for security challenges ranging from Iran's nuclear program to containing domestic disturbances. They have also been the core beneficiary of the militarization of the regime, with an increasing presence in all branches of government.

The paramilitary Basij is a "people's militia" that is the frontline, street-level expression of repression. It reportedly numbers close to a million men, mostly in small units that are attached to a mosque or university campus, and is tasked with controlling, mobilizing, and indoctrinating the wider population.

The third group involved in suppressing the protests is Ansar-e Hezbollah, a small vigilante group formed in the 1990s by former Basij and other hardliners with a passionate devotion to "purifying" the 1979 revolution. Its exact number is unknown, but it probably counts in the low one thousands and comprises the vanguard units used to intimidate regime opponents.

While Ansar-e Hezbollah is comprised of ideological stalwarts whose regime loyalty is seen as unshakeable, both the IRGC and the Basij are susceptible to fragmentation. Due to IRGC's increased participation as a political actor, it has the potential to splinter along the same fissures as the rest of the political elite.

Notably, one of this year's presidential challengers, Mohsen Rezai, was head of the IRGC from 1981 to 1997, and still enjoys much prestige among current IRGC rank-and-file. In fact, while Defense Minister Mostafa Najjar has sided publicly with Ahmadinejad, Guard Commander Ali Jaafari has not signaled his position. Also, based on unsubstantiated eyewitness reports from Iran, IRGC troops have refrained from entering most cities, and some IRGC commanders have been removed from their posts due to their refusal to confront the protesters.

Most of the killing seems to have occurred in confrontations between Basij and demonstrators. In 2005, the Basij mobilized the vote for Ahmadinejad, but it may be less reliable as a fighting force. In suburban and rural areas, its members are embedded in their home communities in a manner that restrains their actions. In the cities, it is easier to bus Basij from different parts of town and reinforce their hostility to the protesters by adding class conflict to the mix, since most of the Basij are from lower classes.

But even there, most of the Basij are not equipped or prepared for outright battle; according to different estimates, less than 100,000 are actually armed and full-time activists. The remaining are part-time volunteers, whose motivations are frequently not ideological, but professional. In Iran, with rampant unemployment and a bloated public sector, government jobs are one of the few avenues for social mobility. As a Basij in Isfahan put it to me last year, "Behtar az daneshgah" -- "It's better than going to university."

It is difficult to predict how these mercenaries will operate when their "enemies" are unarmed citizens supported by respectable national leaders. Witnessing large-scale killing and beating of fellow Iranians could lead to mutiny among some and break force cohesion. So while the leadership is ready for escalation, they may not be able to count on their foot soldiers.

What next in Iran?

Gary Sick, a Middle East analyst for the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations has these thoughts on the current situation in Iran:
Don’t expect that this will be resolved cleanly with a win or loss in short period of time. The Iranian revolution, which is usually regarded as one of the most accelerated overthrows of a well-entrenched power structure in history, started in about January 1978 and the shah departed in January 1979. During that period, there were long pauses and periods of quiescence that could lead one to believe that the revolt had subsided. This is not a sprint; it is a marathon. Endurance is at least as important as speed.

There may not be a clear winner or loser. Iranians are clever and wily politicians. They prefer chess to football, and a “win” may involve a negotiated solution in which everyone saves face. The current leadership has chosen, probably unwisely, to make this a test of strength, but if they conclude that it is a no-win situation they could settle for a compromise. The shape of a compromise is impossible to guess at this point, but it would probably involve significant concessions concealed behind a great public show of unity.

Leadership is key. Ayatollah Khamene`i, the rahbar or Leader, has chosen – again probably unwisely – to get out in front as the spokesman of the regime. Unlike his predecessor, the father of the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini, he has openly taken sides with one faction over another. He is clearly speaking for the ultra conservative leaders of the Revolutionary Guards and their equally reactionary clerical supporters, who fear any possible threat to their dominant power. Curiously, President Ahmadinejad has largely vanished from sight, which adds to the impression that he is more of a pawn than a prime mover in this affair.

On the other side is Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the erstwhile colleague and now principal antagonist of the rahbar. He has chosen, as he usually does, to stay behind the scenes as a master strategist, leaving the public field to Mir Hossein Mousavi and the other disappointed candidates and their followers.

The irony of two former colleagues now competing for power over the expiring corpse of the Islamic Republic that they created with such grandiose expectations, is lost on no one. The important sub text, however, is that these two understand very well what they are doing. They know how a revolt can be turned into a revolution. They also know they have everything to lose. The shared consciousness of high stakes has until now prevented an all out political confrontation between rival factions in the elite. That may help explain why the rahbar and the Revolutionary Guards were so reckless in their insolent contempt of the reformers and the public. They may have believed that no one would dare take it to this level.

Now that it has arrived at this point, both protagonists are faced with decisions of unprecedented gravity. There has been nothing like this in the thirty year history of the Islamic Republic, and today there is no Khomeini father figure to moderate and mediate among the warring factions. They must improvise in conditions of severe uncertainty. If anyone tells you that they know how this will turn out, treat their words with the same regard you would have for any fortune teller peering into a crystal ball.

For the United States, the watchword should be Do No Harm. The situation in Iran is being exploited for short term domestic political purposes by those who have been looking for an opening to attack the Obama administration. Wouldn’t it feel good to give full throated expression to American opposition to the existing power structure in Iran? Perhaps so — but it could also be a fatal blow to the demonstrators risking their lives on the streets of Tehran, and it could scotch any chance of eventual negotiations with whatever government emerges from this trial by fire.

The crisis in Iran is an Iranian crisis and it can only be resolved by the Iranian people and their leaders. There is no need to conceal our belief in freedom of speech and assembly and our support for the resolution of political disputes without bloodshed. But we should not be stampeded by domestic political concerns into pretending that our intervention in this crisis could be anything but pernicious.

Can President Obama play chess as well as he plays basketball?
The video clip above is from the past day or two and shows troops and/or police in the streets and a rally.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Events in Iran this past week mirror what happened in 2005 and 1999 but time is on the side of the reformers

Dilip Hiro explains in the Guardian how events in Iran this past week mirror what happened in 2005 and 1999. However, given the demographics of the country time is on the side of the reformers:
For Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the eight-year presidency of reformist Muhammad Khatami (1997-2005), was a trying time. He resolved to ensure this was to be a one-off episode during his lifetime. That is the key to understanding the events of the past 10 days.

Khatami was committed to expanding the social, cultural and ¬political rights of citizens, whereas ¬Khamenei wanted to restrict them. When the number of publications more than doubled in the first year of Khatami's presidency, Khamenei used the conservative-inclined parliament to tighten up the press law.

But when the general election of 2000 turned the parliament into a bastion of reformists, with almost two-thirds of the seats, Khamenei's problems multiplied. He resorted to asserting his overweening authority directly to thwart the reformist moves by the two popularly elected institutions.

In June 2005, Khamenei got a chance to block a repeat of his years-long exasperating experience when seven candidates entered the presidential race. Of these, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative, was the favourite, followed by the former Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, a moderate reformist, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardline mayor of Tehran, with the remaining four contestants trailing far behind.

None of the candidates secured the 50% plus one vote. As expected, Rafsanjani topped the list with 21% of the ballots. But, unexpectedly, the upstart Ahmadinejad trumped Karroubi. He got 19.5% of the vote with Karroubi at 17.5%.

Karroubi cried foul. He alleged that ballot boxes were stuffed in Isfahan, the second largest city, that the Basij militia had illegally campaigned for "one of the candidates" and that Khamenei's son Mujtaba had canvassed for Ahmadinejad.

The supreme leader was livid. He accused Karroubi of "raising tensions" and casting aspersions on the Islamic system. A disappointed Karroubi instantly resigned as an adviser to Khamenei.

As a face-saving device, the guardian council took note of Karroubi's complaint. It claimed that it did a recount in Isfahan – behind closed doors – just as it is doing now. In the end, it certified the election without publishing its findings.

In retrospect, the ballot rigging on a minor scale in 2005 was a dry run for what happened earlier this month – a flagrant exercise which, according to the reformist challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, was planned "months in advance".

As with vote rigging, so too with repressing street protest. On 7 July 1999, when the parliament, with conservatives forming the largest group, passed the first reading of a bill to tighten up the 1985 press law, adopted during the Iran-Iraq war, students in Tehran protested.

The vigilantes, assisted by security forces, raided Tehran University student dormitories overnight. The protest escalated to other universities in the capital and 16 other cities. As now, so then, the most popular slogan was "Death to dictators" – with some students chanting, "Khamenei haya kon, rahbari to raha kon", Khamanei, have shame, let go leadership. Journalists working for 20 newspapers went on strike.

As now, so then. Khamenei blamed foreign enemies, especially America, for the rioting.

By 13 July, when the street protest had led to 1,400 arrests, the security forces – assisted by the Basij militia, and the vigilante Ansar Hezbollah, patrolling the streets throughout the night – restored law and order.

What has happened this time around is on a much wider scale on all fronts. Since the presidential poll was a nationwide phenomenon, the vote rigging, masterminded by the interior minister, a former campaign manger of Ahmadinejad, was centrally directed.

So too was the popular response and its subsequent suppression by the coercive instruments of the state.

The options for Mousavi were stark: give a clarion call for continued defiant protest, likely to result in the death of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young lives; or retreat for now to fight another day.

Reformists have lost this battle. But given the demographic makeup of Iran, time is on their side. For an increasing number of voters, the 30-year old Islamic revolution, stuck in its old mould, means less and less by the month.
In the meantime the struggle continues. The video clip above was posted on YouTube today without any explanation as to where in Iran this took place. It appears the two young men have been shot and presumably the noise in the background is gunfire.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The reported election results in Iran don’t add up

The British think tank, Chatham House, has issued a report examining the reported results of the recent election in Iran compared to previous elections. Their findings include:
• In two Conservative provinces, Mazandaran and Yazd, a turnout of more than 100% was recorded.

• At a provincial level, there is no correlation between the increased turnout, and the swing to Ahmadinejad. This challenges the notion that his victory was due to the massive participation of a previously silent Conservative majority.

• In a third of all provinces, the official results would require that Ahmadinejad took not only all former conservative voters, and all former centrist voters, and all new voters, but also up to 44% of former Reformist voters, despite a decade of conflict between these two groups.

• In 2005, as in 2001 and 1997, conservative candidates, and Ahmadinejad in particular, were markedly unpopular in rural areas. That the countryside always votes conservative is a myth. The claim that this year Ahmadinejad swept the board in more rural provinces
flies in the face of these trends.
In the video clip above of a demonstration in Tehran, today the translation of what they are yelling is "Have no fear, we are all together. Don't be afraid, don't be afraid, we are all together!" and then "Down with dictator".

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Mousavi ready for martyrdom as Iranians defy Khamenei

As Iranians defy Ayatollah Khamenei, Mir-Hossein Mousavi tells supporters he is ready for martyrdom and renews his call for a new election. This from the Telegraph:
He dramatically raised the stakes in the standoff with Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, after publishing a letter to the country's highest electoral authority in which he cited examples of electoral fraud to support his "undeniable right" to call for a re-run of the election.

Mr Mousavi made his defiant call during a speech delivered in southwest Tehran, according to an ally, who telephoned a western news agency shortly afterwards to report: "Mousavi said he was ready for martyrdom and that he would continue his path."

A witness told Reuters that Mr Mousavi had called for a national strike if he was arrested.

It was an unprecedented act in defiance of Ayatollah Khamenei, who has declared President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner of the June 12 election and on Friday ordered an end to protests by demonstrators who say Mousavi was the winner.

It came as a few thousand protesters defied threats of bloodshed from Iran's rulers and attempted to march through central Tehran - only to be beaten back by riot police. Heavily armed police and militia flooded the streets and used tear gas and batons to attack them.

Only an estimated 3,000 dared to show themselves, far fewer than the hundreds of thousands who filled the streets during the last few weeks. The two main protest leaders, Mr Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who were beaten by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the disputed poll nine days ago, had both called off their official rallies.

Earlier in the day, the pair had been offered a minor concession when the Guardian Council, which supervises elections, promised to recount 10 per cent of the votes to check for election fraud - a suggestion that had previously been dismissed by protesters as a cynical ploy to buy time.

In their first real show of force since massive street rallies erupted in central Tehran last week, the authorities deployed thousands of riot police and plainclothes Basij militiamen in the city centre. Helicopters buzzed menacingly overhead.

As protesters began to gather near the university campus, chanting "death to the dictatorship", the police set upon them with baton charges, water canons and tear gas.

"Lots of guards on motorbikes closed in on us and beat us brutally," one protester said. "As we were running away the basiji (militia) were waiting in side alleys with batons, but people opened their doors to us. Iran has become Palestine."

Another report described gunfire at a rally and at least one casualty. Separately, there were reports that a man had died in a bomb attack at the Ayatollah Khomeini shrine a few miles south of the city - likely to have been launched by one of the ethnic separatist groups that have carried out periodic attacks in Iran.

Yesterday's violence and Mr Mousavi's continued defiance came after a week of the biggest street protests seen in Iran for 30 years - and divisions between hardliners and reformists that mean the country may never be the same again.

Cordons of riot police, dressed in their military green uniforms with white stripes down the trouser legs and wearing heavy black helmets, stood in lines three deep along Enqelab (revolution) and Azadi (freedom) streets.

Together, the two roads form a long east-west highway bisecting the centre of the city and running past the main gates of Tehran University, a scene of turmoil throughout Iran's modern history.

It was along this street that millions of people surged to accompany Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini when he returned from exile to usher in Islamic rule in 1979.

According to a regular participant in last week's demonstrations, the protesters yesterday hoped to form large groups in side streets before bursting onto the main highway, thwarting attempts to disperse them.

Unconfirmed video footage posted online showed groups of people charging through the streets as teargas and smoke from a burning car swirled around them. Riot police and men with sticks could be seen in the background.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The economy – it’s way too early to return to business as usual

Christina Romer, chairwoman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers and a scholar of the Depression, warns against a premature return to economic orthodoxy. She sets out the example of how the success of the New Deal economic policies was undermined by a return to orthodox economic practices in 1937 triggering a new recession:
The recovery from the Depression is often described as slow because America did not return to full employment until after the outbreak of the second world war. But the truth is the recovery in the four years after Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 was incredibly rapid. Annual real GDP growth averaged over 9%. Unemployment fell from 25% to 14%. The second world war aside, the United States has never experienced such sustained, rapid growth.

However, that growth was halted by a second severe downturn in 1937-38, when unemployment surged again to 19% (see chart). The fundamental cause of this second recession was an unfortunate, and largely inadvertent, switch to contractionary fiscal and monetary policy. One source of the growth in 1936 was that Congress had overridden Mr Roosevelt’s veto and passed a large bonus for veterans of the first world war. In 1937, this fiscal stimulus disappeared. In addition, social-security taxes were collected for the first time. These factors reduced the deficit by roughly 2.5% of GDP, exerting significant contractionary pressure.

Also important was an accidental switch to contractionary monetary policy. In 1936 the Federal Reserve began to worry about its “exit strategy”. After several years of relatively loose monetary policy, American banks were holding large quantities of reserves in excess of their legislated requirements. Monetary policymakers feared these excess reserves would make it difficult to tighten if inflation developed or if “speculative excess” began again on Wall Street. In July 1936 the Fed’s board of governors stated that existing excess reserves could “create an injurious credit expansion” and that it had “decided to lock up” those excess reserves “as a measure of prevention”. The Fed then doubled reserve requirements in a series of steps. Unfortunately it turned out that banks, still nervous after the financial panics of the early 1930s, wanted to hold excess reserves as a cushion. When that excess was legislated away, they scrambled to replace it by reducing lending. According to a classic study of the Depression by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, the resulting monetary contraction was a central cause of the 1937-38 recession.

The 1937 episode provides a cautionary tale. The urge to declare victory and get back to normal policy after an economic crisis is strong. That urge needs to be resisted until the economy is again approaching full employment. Financial crises, in particular, tend to leave scars that make financial institutions, households and firms behave differently. If the government withdraws support too early, a return to economic decline or even panic could follow. …


Now is also the time to think about our long-run fiscal situation. Despite the large budget deficit President Obama inherited, dealing with the current crisis required increasing the deficit substantially. To switch to austerity in the immediate future would surely set back recovery and risk a 1937-like recession-within-a-recession. But many are legitimately concerned about the longer-term budget situation. That is why the president has laid out a plan to shrink the deficit he inherited by half and has repeatedly emphasised the need to reduce the long-term deficit and put the debt-to-GDP ratio on a declining trajectory. In this regard, health-care reform presents a golden opportunity. The fundamental source of long-run deficits is rising health-care expenditures. By coupling the expansion of coverage with reforms that significantly slow the growth of health-care costs, we can dramatically improve the long-run fiscal situation without tightening prematurely.
Paul Krugman made essentially the same argument earlier this week – even though the crisis seems to be easing, don’t abandon the fiscal stimulus effort yet and return to business as usual.

You can read Romer’s entire piece here and Krugman’s column here.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Will Khamenei sacrifice Ahmadinejad to save himself?

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian analyst for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and formerly for the International Crisis Group, believes Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is in a tough spot. Sadjadpour says Khamenei, “believes that if he compromises too much it could project weakness and invite even more protests. At the same time, if he refuses to compromise at all, he may face his own demise for the sake of saving a very unpopular president in an election that is widely seen as fraudulent.” He may feel he has to sacrifice Ahmadinejad to save himself. Here is his interview at the Council for Foreign Relations website:
The demonstrations and the opposition efforts to overturn the official election results in Iran continue. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has approved a partial recount by the Guardian Council, but opposition candidates are demanding a new vote. What do you think is going to happen over the next several days?

Something historic is afoot today in Iran. The scale of the protests is unprecedented. The depth of people's sense of injustice and rage is palpable. People are continuing to bravely take to the streets, risking their lives, despite the fact that they've been told the Basij [Iranian paramilitary force] and Revolutionary Guards have been authorized to use force. This has not dissuaded them. The fissures we're seeing amongst revolutionary elites are also unprecedented. It's very difficult to see how the status quo ante could prevail no matter what happens.

The supreme leader's decision to delegate responsibility to the Guardian Council was classic Khamenei in the sense that he doesn't cede authority--the Guardian Council is essentially under his jurisdiction--but he buys time and deflects accountability. He was calculating that if he could buy time, the scale of these protests would gradually diminish. So far, that hasn't been the case. He may eventually be faced with a situation of whether to sacrifice President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose "reelection" he announced, or go down himself with the ship.

Some people have speculated, including Professor Arang Keshavarzian, that perhaps Ahmadinejad is running the show and Khamenei is just going along. Do you think that's at all possible?

I don't think that's plausible. If it were, Ahmadinejad certainly wouldn't have gone on an official visit to Russia. He would have stayed in Tehran and directed things. By all accounts, anyone whom you talk to amongst the political elites in Tehran will tell you that Khamenei had become more powerful than he's ever been in his twenty-year tenure as leader. The Islamic Republic's most powerful institutions--the Guardian Council, parliament, the presidency, the Revolutionary Guards--are all currently led by individuals who are either directly appointed by Khamenei or unfailingly obsequious to him. Khamenei has in many ways become a modern-day shah, with a turban instead of a crown. But I believe he miscalculated. This election, or I should say this "selection," was an insult to people's intelligence. Political, economic, and social malaise had been brewing for many years and this "selection" was for many people the last straw.

You mentioned a little earlier that Khamenei might "go down with the ship." What does that mean?

Previously sacred red lines in Iran are now being challenged. People are now beginning to openly question the institution of the velayat-e faqih, or the rule of the jurist, which is the Khomeinist system of governance that was implemented in 1979. It is unprecedented that people would begin to openly challenge Khamenei's legitimacy as supreme leader, and indeed question the legitimacy of the institution of the supreme leader. There are widespread reports that [Akbar] Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khamenei's kingmaker, is trying to assemble a coalition of grand ayatollahs in Qom against Khamenei. Rafsanjani is head of the Assembly of Experts, a body that has the constitutional authority to anoint and remove the supreme leader.

Ayatollah Montazeri--who was Ayatollah Khomeini's former heir apparent, a genuine grand ayatollah, not someone who had mid-ranking credentials and was made an ayatollah overnight like Khamenei--has openly challenged both this election and Khamenei's reign.

People are not calling for a wholesale revolution as they were in 1979. I'm not hearing the word enqelab, i.e. revolution, mentioned by the protestors. There exists a political maturity now that didn't exist then. People don't have the same naïve, utopian dreams that they had in 1979. They want a system that is representative of the people. Many people believe that the Islamic Republic does have important institutions, such as the institution of the presidency and parliament. But what they want to see is the unelected institutions, which currently have the majority of the constitutional authority, to be either removed or their authority seriously limited.

That's a big order. These are the people who have the guns right now. How do you get them out of power?

We shouldn't view the clergy or the Revolutionary Guards as monolithic entities. It's true that the senior commanders in the Revolutionary Guard were handpicked by Khamenei, and they're going to remain unfailingly loyal to him. But the Revolutionary Guards are a huge group--over 120,000 men. I used to occasionally meet with some of them when I was based in Iran, and many of them understand that this "death to America" culture of 1979 is obsolete in 2009. Many among the rank and file were widely thought to have supported Mohammad Khatami's presidency. If the Revolutionary Guards are ordered to massively clamp down on the Iranian people--men, women, children--I'm not sure that they'll remain intact. I believe there are real fissures among them. Mohsen Rezaei [one of the opposition candidates] was the longest-serving senior commander of the Revolutionary Guard and has voiced opposition to Ahmadinejad's election. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, former senior Revolutionary Guard commander and current mayor of Tehran, is one of Ahmadinejad's archrivals. So we shouldn't see the Revolutionary Guards as simply 120,000 crazed Khamenei devotees willing to martyr themselves to retain Ahmadinejad's presidency.

What sequence of events has to happen? Does Ahmadinejad have to be forced to resign? Does Khamenei have to resign? How do you do this without massive bloodshed?

It's important to try and understand the worldview of Ali Khamenei. [He] has long believed that when you're under pressure, you should never compromise. Compromise projects weakness and will invite even more pressure. This is the way he approaches foreign relations, and this is the way he approaches domestic policy as well. And incidentally this was the lesson that many Islamic Republic political elites learned from the 1970s during revolts against the shah. They believe that when the shah started to acknowledge people's discontents--when he famously said "I've heard your revolution"--he thought that was going to pacify the protestors. On the contrary, that's when the revolutionaries smelled blood and pounced. Khamenei is in a very delicate position, because he believes that if he compromises too much it could project weakness and invite even more protests. At the same time, if he refuses to compromise at all, he may face his own demise for the sake of saving a very unpopular president in an election that is widely seen as fraudulent.

This is extremely delicate and the situation is so dynamic. We clearly have to be on the right side of history here, but if we try to insert ourselves into the momentous internal Iranian drama that's unfolding we may unwittingly undermine those whom we're trying to strengthen.

Can he make a deal with the Mousavi forces?

The dilemma that Khamenei faces is that if [Mir-Hossein] Mousavi becomes president, he's not going to be a subordinate president like Ahmadinejad is and like Khatami was. In the 1980s, Mousavi was prime minister when Khamenei was president, and he was widely thought to have been more influential and powerful than Khamenei was. It's widely known, despite the fact that they are [distant] relatives (Reuters), that they have a very contentious relationship. Given what transpired over the last two weeks, Khamenei has lost enormous political capital with the Iranian public. He's lost enormous political capital with the Iranian political elite. He's going to have to calculate whether he wants to save Ahmadinejad's presidency at all costs in order to have a subordinate president who's not going to challenge him, or whether he's willing to compromise by accepting a Mousavi presidency and a potentially much more limited political role for himself.

Do you think this will go on for another week before such a decision is made? Does it require the people to face continuous threats and everything else to go out on the streets?

People are paying an enormous cost for this. I have tremendous admiration for the bravery of these people, not just in Tehran but throughout the country. They're risking their lives every day for a very simple request: a greater political voice to rectify the profound sense of injustice they're feeling. What we saw in the 1979 revolution was that when the shah's government clamped down and began killing people, the protests actually mushroomed and the scale of the demonstrations increased.

One important distinction between the shah's regime and the current regime is that many of the political, military, and intelligence elite of the shah's era had alternative options when the going got tough. Many were educated in the United States and Europe and could subsist outside of Iran. But for the Islamic Republic's political and military elite, Iran is all that they have. They weren't educated in Europe; their formative years were in the seminaries of Qom and in the battlefield against Iraq. They have always known that if they want to stay in power, there are going to be times when they have to use force. But again, having themselves been on the other side of history in the late 1970s, they're cognizant of the fact that if the force isn't properly calibrated, it could augment their vulnerabilities rather than their security.

Given your analysis, what should the Obama administration do? Should it stay hands-off rhetorically or should Obama condemn the efforts of the Iranian authorities to crack down? Should it call for a new election?

This is extremely delicate and the situation is so dynamic. We clearly have to be on the right side of history here, but if we try to insert ourselves into the momentous internal Iranian drama that's unfolding we may unwittingly undermine those whom we're trying to strengthen. Historically that's often been the case in Iran.

It goes without saying that the Obama administration should clearly not acknowledge the results of these contested elections. This would demoralize people. We should also be pushing all of our allies not to acknowledge the results of these elections until justice prevails in Tehran. I was disappointed that Turkey's Abdullah Gul and Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai did not hesitate to congratulate Ahmadinejad.

But again, if we overtly take sides the regime could well react with a massive and bloody crackdown on the demonstrators using the pretext that they are acting against an American-led coup. And the sad thing is that much of the global media would focus more on what Obama said than what the Iranian government did.

That said, the president should condemn the flagrant violence against innocent civilians, including women and the elderly. The Iranian regime likes to talk a lot about justice, and we should make it clear we want to see justice and the will of the Iranian people prevail.
You can read the entire interview here.

What WE should do about Iran

Michael Walzer on what we – not the government – should do about the situation in Iran:
I AM a statist in many ways and in many areas. I believe that government has an important role to play in the economy, in health care, in protecting the environment, and certainly in foreign policy. But reading about the mass demonstrations in Iran, my first thought isn’t about what the U.S. government should do or what President Obama should say. It is about what the rest of us should do and say.

We boast of our lively civil society, and those of us on the liberal left call ourselves internationalists. So let’s use all our organizations and associations to act internationally—in support of liberals and leftists, friends of democracy, wherever they are. Confronting mass protests in Iran, where at least some of the protesters, perhaps many of them, are our political friends, let’s help them through our parties, and unions, and religious groups, and magazines. Let’s write about them, publish their stories, raise money for their activities, condemn their arrests, hold meetings, sign petitions, picket Iranian embassies in every country where we can mobilize the picketers. Let’s explore every possible means of agitation and advocacy on behalf of our principles and our friends.

This is an ideological struggle, and that kind of struggle isn’t first of all the business of governments. It is the business of politically committed men and women. We need to be clear about who we are and what we stand for and why we oppose the religious zealots and tyrants who have ruled Iran for the last decades.

Over much of those same decades, I have been arguing that our government should establish diplomatic relations with the Iranian zealots and tyrants. For liberals and leftists—opposition and nothing else; for state diplomats—handshakes and negotiation. The difference in the two roles is important. It doesn’t mean that heads of state cannot defend political principles, but they also have other things to do. Right now, the most important task of the U.S. government with regard to Iran is not regime change. The most important task is to persuade or coerce the Iranian government to give up the effort to produce nuclear weapons. Doing that will require some mix of toughness and conciliation—and that necessary mix will still be necessary whoever actually won and whoever finally wins the Iranian election. What Obama says must be guided by what he has to do.

The rest of us are much freer. We can distinguish between the Iranian presidential candidates, all of whom were approved by the religious leadership, and their followers, many of whom have dissident views that the religious leaders would not approve. The dissidents are the people we should be supporting, whose stories we should be telling. And we should be talking to them about the kind of support they want and need. They and we are aiming at, and have every right to aim at, regime change. Organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, though they can’t acknowledge it, aim at regime change whenever they condemn the practices of tyrannical regimes; and so should union members and democrats of every sort, and religious moderates committed to freedom, and faculty members and students who believe in the integrity of the university. Regime change (it used to be called revolution) is our business, and we should embrace it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Is Iran approaching a Tiananmen Moment?

Mark LeVine has these thoughts:
… regardless of whether there was significant fraud the power elite could decide collectively that the protests are not motivated by broader concerns and thus do not threaten the stability of the system.

This could also lead them to agree to a broad recount or run-off, even at the risk of a Mousavi win, and it is worth mentioning here that Mousavi is no liberal; the "core values" of Khomenei's revolution - to which he advocates a return - are well within the mainstream of Iran's clerical culture.

Alternatively, if the protests do not lose steam in the coming days, the leadership could decide that the opposition is too broad and deeply rooted to attempt to crush it.

In this case, it would have little choice but to cave in to the protesters' demands or face losing its legitimacy in the eyes of the broader Iranian public, particularly if large numbers of protesters are arrested, injured or killed.

The greatest degree of uncertainty surrounds a scenario in which the power elite both concludes that the mass protests reflect deep-seated discontent by a large segment of the population, yet at the same time believes it has a narrow window of opportunity to deal with this situation forcibly before losing control to the rapidly encroaching street politics.

In this case, Iran could quickly approach a Tiananmen moment, in which the Iranian government calculates that crushing the pro-reform opposition will give it time to push the reformers back in the closet for the foreseeable future, and push the cosmopolitan liberal-cultural elite who have the ability to leave, to do so.

The problem is that Iran can't follow China's path.

It is true that if oil prices continue rising, they will produce enough revenue for the government to keep the poor and working classes happy, or at least quiescent.

But what allowed the Communist party in China to maintain its hegemony rather than merely dominance over Chinese society was its willingness to liberalise culturally at the same time as it closed down politically.

Cultural liberalisation became the safety valve that allowed the emerging generation of Chinese citizens to accept the continued power of the Communist party.

Needless to say, no such safety valve exists in the Islamic Republic, where a cultural perestroika is precisely what Ahmadinejad and his supporters in the leadership and among the people want to prevent.

In China the government struck a bargain with the people, telling them: "You can do whatever you want as long as you don't challenge the power of the state."

The Iranian government has over the last two decades negotiated a very different and more narrow bargain with its citizens: "You can do what you want behind closed doors, as long as you keep the music down. But we own the street and the public sphere. So put your headscarf on before you leave the house, and don't think about challenging cultural or political limits publicly."

That bargain has now collapsed as hundreds of thousands of Iranians have, at least for the moment, reclaimed the streets.

If Ahmadinejad has been railing against "velvet revolutionaries" since he took office, he is today counting on the situation in Iran resembling the Czechoslovakia of 1968 rather than 1989.

Yet with one of the world's youngest populations and an increasingly urban, educated and sophisticated citizenry, it is hard to know how long the Iranian government can continue to impose its conservative moral values upon a bourgeois-aspiring, culturally open technocratic class whose expertise and loyalty will be crucial for Iran's long-term social, economic and political development.
You can read his entire article here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Supporting universal values in Iran

George Packer on President Obama’s remarks on Iran:
Obama’s carefully chosen remarks about Iran yesterday made just the right points in just the right tone. And not a moment too soon. He said that the U.S. won’t interfere in Iranian politics, but that the violence inflicted on unarmed demonstrators violates “universal values” and demands a response; that the U.S. didn’t monitor the elections and has no direct evidence of fraud, but circumstances and Iranian public opinion seem to point in that direction; that none of this will change current American policy to seek a dialogue with the regime in Tehran. Finally, and most powerfully, he said: “I think it would be wrong for me to be silent about what we’ve seen on the television over the last few days. And what I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process, I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was. And they should know that the world is watching.”

Just when Obama seemed to have fallen a step behind events, he emerged from his silence to do what no politician in our time could have managed: emphasize American respect for Iranian sovereignty and yet, in measured terms, make it clear that the U.S. cannot be indifferent to the tragedy unfolding in Iran. He spoke with calm eloquence to the millions of people who have filled the streets at great risk—spoke to their hopes and their courage. He proved that an American President can lend his voice to “universal values” without sounding like a self-righteous fool. And he showed the emptiness of the eternal argument between realism and idealism. When foreign policy is articulated by a thoughtful politician in the middle of an intense and unfolding drama, the abstractions melt away. It’s actually possible to be pragmatic without being indecent. Why shouldn’t it be?

And yet the crisis in Iran has flushed out all the pathologies of American foreign-policy thinking, or feeling, in the post-Bush era. It’s become weirdly difficult for commentators on both the right and the left to have anything close to a normal reaction to what the world is seeing. Instead, everything gets filtered through what you think about Bush, Iraq, Obama, Israel, and other subjects that have extremely tenuous connections to internal politics in Iran and the actions of the people and the state there….
You can read the entire piece here.

The limits of democracy in American government

Matthew Yglesias contemplates the undemocratic representation and Rube Goldberg-esque nature of our national government:
…the entire structure of the US Congress with its bicameralism and multiple overlapping committees is biased toward making it easy for concentrated interests to block reform. Between them, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Chuck Schumer, Kristen Gillibrand, Bill Nelson, Dick Durbin, Roland Burriss, Arlen Specter, Bob Casey, Sherrod Brown, Carl Levin, Amy Klobuchar, Kay Hagan, Bob Menendez, Frank Lautenberg, Mark Warner, Jim Webb, Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Evan Bayh represent 50 percent of the country’s population. But that only adds up to 22 Senators—you need thirty-eight more to pass a bill.


The American presidency is a weird institution. If Barack Obama wants to start a war with North Korea and jeopardize the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, it’s not clear that anyone could stop him. If he wants to let cold-blooded murderers out of prison, it’s completely clear that nobody can stop him. But if he wants to implement the agenda he was elected on just a few months ago, he needs to obtain a supermajority in the United States Senate.
He continues:
… if you add together the two Republican Senators from Wyoming with the one from Alaska, one from South Dakota, one from New Hampshire, two from Maine, two from Idaho, two from Nebraska, one from Nevada, two from Utah, two from Kansas, two from Mississippi, one from Iowa, two from Oklahoma, two from Kentucky, one from Louisiana, two from South Carolina, and two from Alabama, the 28 of them collectively represent (on a system in which you attribute half the population of a given state to a senator) 11.98 percent of the American population.
Meanwhile, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein together represent 11.95 percent of the American population.

Now of course Texas is also a big state (though at 7.81 percent of the population it’s a lot smaller than California) and there are small states (like Vermont and North Dakota) that have two Democratic Senators. So the point here isn’t a narrowly partisan one, though the wacky apportionment of the Senate does have a partisan valence. The point is that this is an unfair and bizarre way to run things. If you consider that the mean state would contain two percent of the population, we have just 34 Senators representing the above-average states even though they collectively contain 69.15 percent of the population. The other 66 Senators represent about 30 percent of the people. If the Iranians were to succeed in overthrowing their theocracy and set about to write a new constitution, nobody in their right mind would recommend this system to them.

Then you add in the filibuster…
And let’s not forget the Electoral College and lifetime appointments of Supreme Court justices. It is a system devised through compromise in the 18th Century that barely serves the needs of a nation confronting the issues of the 21st Century.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Was the Iranian election stolen?

News from Iran during the past week or so looked promising for reformers to alter the direction of their nation. Mir Hossein Mousavi had become a serious challenger to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mousavi, a popular former Prime Minister (1981-1989), had rallied those dissatisfied with Ahmadinejad’s handling of the economy and confrontational attitude with the West as well as reformist elements in general in Iran. President Ahmadinejad hard line policies were divisive at home and abroad.

Recent polls and the size of crowds at campaign rallies led to expectations that Mousavi would win. Announcements that Ahmadinejad had won by a landslide has sparked riots. Mousavi and his followers have rejected the results charging that the election was stolen.

Election results should be respected but only if the electoral system has integrity. It is still too early to know what all has transpired during the election across Iran on Friday but there are reasons to suspect Ahmadinejad’s victory was not based on the votes cast. Juan Cole puts together the possible evidence that the election was fraudulent:
Top Pieces of Evidence that the Iranian Presidential Election Was Stolen

1. It is claimed that Ahmadinejad won the city of Tabriz with 57%. His main opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, is an Azeri from Azerbaijan province, of which Tabriz is the capital. Mousavi, according to such polls as exist in Iran and widespread anecdotal evidence, did better in cities and is popular in Azerbaijan. Certainly, his rallies there were very well attended. So for an Azeri urban center to go so heavily for Ahmadinejad just makes no sense. In past elections, Azeris voted disproportionately for even minor presidential candidates who hailed from that province.

2. Ahmadinejad is claimed to have taken Tehran by over 50%. Again, he is not popular in the cities, even, as he claims, in the poor neighborhoods, in part because his policies have produced high inflation and high unemployment. That he should have won Tehran is so unlikely as to raise real questions about these numbers.

3. It is claimed that cleric Mehdi Karoubi, the other reformist candidate, received 320,000 votes, and that he did poorly in Iran's western provinces, even losing in Luristan. He is a Lur and is popular in the west, including in Kurdistan. Karoubi received 17 percent of the vote in the first round of presidential elections in 2005. While it is possible that his support has substantially declined since then, it is hard to believe that he would get less than one percent of the vote. Moreover, he should have at least done well in the west, which he did not.

4. Mohsen Rezaie, who polled very badly and seems not to have been at all popular, is alleged to have received 670,000 votes, twice as much as Karoubi.

5. Ahmadinejad's numbers were fairly standard across Iran's provinces. In past elections there have been substantial ethnic and provincial variations.

6. The Electoral Commission is supposed to wait three days before certifying the results of the election, at which point they are to inform Khamenei of the results, and he signs off on the process. The three-day delay is intended to allow charges of irregularities to be adjudicated. In this case, Khamenei immediately approved the alleged results.

I am aware of the difficulties of catching history on the run. Some explanation may emerge for Ahmadinejad's upset that does not involve fraud. For instance, it is possible that he has gotten the credit for spreading around a lot of oil money in the form of favors to his constituencies, but somehow managed to escape the blame for the resultant high inflation.

But just as a first reaction, this post-election situation looks to me like a crime scene….


The public demonstrations against the result don't appear to be that big. In the past decade, reformers have always backed down in Iran when challenged by hardliners, in part because no one wants to relive the horrible Great Terror of the 1980s after the revolution, when faction-fighting produced blood in the streets. Mousavi is still from that generation.

My own guess is that you have to get a leadership born after the revolution, who does not remember it and its sanguinary aftermath, before you get people willing to push back hard against the rightwingers.

So, there are protests against an allegedly stolen election. The Basij paramilitary thugs and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards will break some heads. Unless there has been a sea change in Iran, the theocrats may well get away with this soft coup for the moment. But the regime's legitimacy will take a critical hit, and its ultimate demise may have been hastened, over the next decade or two.
You can read Cole’s entire blog piece here and his related article in Salon on here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Israel's interest in leaving the West Bank

Josh Marshall on why it is to Israel’s advantage to leave the West Bank:
Mort Zuckerman, owner and publisher of US News & World Report, has a lengthy opinion piece out in the magazine entitled: "Obama Should Not Abandon Israel in His Effort to Court Muslims."

The title summarizes the premise, which is that while Obama has reasons to court Muslims he is endangering or threatening Israel in order to do it. The core flaw to the reasoning though is that getting out of the West Bank doesn't endanger Israel. It's actually critical to the country's future well-being, even its survival.

There are a few core points to note in this regard. People who argue that the Palestinians and other Arab states are either unwilling or unable to make peace buy into a basic fallacy -- namely that 'giving up' the West Bank is a sacrifice that must be reciprocated by some meaningful and confirmable sacrifice on the other side. In other words, land for peace, as the phrase goes.

But are several levels of problem with his formulation. First, strategic considerations. It used to be argued that Israel couldn't surrender the West Bank because without it, the country would lack 'strategic depth.' In other words, the country's 'waistline' would be too narrow and an invader from the east could easily cut the country in half. But hardly anyone makes this argument any more. And for good reason: successive Israeli generals and members of the country's security establishment say this isn't true.

Next, the settlements themselves, particularly the outlying ones sometimes called 'political' settlements are a security liability in themselves since they're isolated population centers that must be defended in any conflict and occupation duty tends to degrade an army's war-fighting capacity.

But these pale in comparison to the real heart of the matter. Israel doesn't have enough Jewish citizens to make Jews the clear majority in both Israel proper and the Occupied Territories. Therefore, whatever the morality or international law of the matter, holding the Occupied Territories permanently puts Israel on a course to one of two options: becoming a binational state in which Jews make up half or less of the population or a non-democratic state which probably cannot survive under the norms governing first world countries in the 21st century.

Let's be clear what that means: a country that permanently holds territories with residents who lack citizenship, the vote and many of the rights of the citizens of the country in question. You can throw around inflammatory words like 'apartheid' which I don't think is appropriate or apt because of the very different origins of the two situations. But it strikes me as naive to believe that such a situation can be maintained peranently without growing international pressure and isolation that will strangle the country.

What this logic tells me is that getting out of the West Bank isn't a prize to be exchanged for peace if and when you can find a leader on the Palestinian side who you have perfect trust in. Getting out of the West Bank is quite simply necessary to the survival of Israel as a Jewish state. So ideally you get out in exchange for a durable peace. And you try to do it in the smartest and most orderly manner. But you get out regardless. And realizing the necessity of leaving means, at a minimum, as a first step, stopping doing things that make it harder, perhaps nearly impossible, to leave. And the first thing on that list is continuing to build new settlements and infrastructure which creates a growing constituency to stay in the settlements forever.

There's nothing remotely original about this argument. It's the same inexorable logic that has led former 'Greater Israel' advocates like Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert to come to more or less the same conclusion.

And let me note, to be emphatically clear, that there are many other reasons for Israel to leave the West Bank -- the prospect of a durable peace, which I think is probably achievable, its contribution to regional stability which is a real advantage to the US, the rights of the Palestinians to their own self-determination, etc. etc. etc. But I've focused on this point because at the end of the day it is undeniably in Israel's interest to leave the West Bank.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

U.S. post-Cold War military spending

The graph to the right from the Economist shows U.S. military spending in 2008 compared to other nations. The U.S. easily surpasses the next 14 biggest spenders combined. Only Israel spends more per person.

The United States has very legitimate defense needs and, of course, is currently involved in a nasty conflict in central Asia overlapping Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. The United States may soon find itself in a military conflict on the Korean peninsula. Still, twenty years after the end of the Cold War, this level of spending by any measure is huge.