May 24, 2009


Anyone but Ahmadinejad: The unlikely candidacy of Mir Hossein Mousavi. (Maziar Bahari, 6/01/09, NEWSWEEK)

"The choice is now between democracy and an authoritarian government," said Mohammed Javad Mozafar, a historian in the crowd at Milad Hall. "If Ahmadinejad wins, that means the end of this reformist dream for a while. Many of these young people will be depressed and even leave the country. But if Mousavi wins, that means the citizens have won despite Ahmadinejad's deceitful policies and the support he receives from above." Although Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei doesn't stoop to publicly endorsing a candidate, few Iranians doubt that Ahmadinejad is his man.

But whose man is Mousavi? Even by the baffling standards of Iranian politics, he and his candidacy are a puzzle. His revolutionary zeal made him a leading figure in the Islamic Republic's early years. Trained as a painter and architect, he accomplished a protean feat after the fall of the shah in 1979, building a name for himself as both a committed leftist and a fiercely loyal follower of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He served as prime minister throughout most of the 1980s until he dropped out of politics in 1989, after Khomeini's death. Most supporters at this year's Milad Hall rally were too young to remember those times; the crowd's average age looked to be about 25. In fact, roughly 75 percent of Iranians are under 30. Mousavi is 68. [...]

Many of Iran's young reformists want action, not compromise. Ex-president Khatami is begging them to be more realistic. "I'm sure those young people in Milad Hall who were chanting idealistic slogans know in their heart of hearts that those ideals are not realizable at the moment," says Khatami. The rally, billed as "the meeting of supporters of Khatami to support Mousavi," was their first public appearance together since Mousavi declared his candidacy. "We all would have preferred someone younger to be the reformist candidate," Khatami confesses. "But in the absence of that person, Mr. Mousavi is the best candidate. He can prepare an environment in which people like us can act as reformers."

The youngsters in Milad Hall seemed to know exactly what they wanted. "Anyone but Ahmadinejad!" whooped Somayeh Khodabandeh, a 19-year-old university student wearing a black chador that covered all but her giggly face. She was at the rally with her friends Elnaz and Fatima, also in chadors. They elbowed their way to the front of the hall and raised a poster showing Mou-savi in the foreground and Khatami hovering angel-like behind him. "Peace upon Khatami! Long live Mousavi!" the crowd chanted, and the girls joined in. On stage, Mousavi and Khatami raised the hands of another 19-year-old first-time voter. The kids went wild. Khatami looked utterly comfortable in his new role as kingmaker. As for Mousavi, that wan smile kept haunting his face. It was almost as enigmatic as his platform—or, for that matter, his prospects.

They May Not Want The Bomb: And other unexpected truths. (Fareed Zakaria, 6/01/09, NEWSWEEK)
Everything you know about Iran is wrong, or at least more complicated than you think. Take the bomb. The regime wants to be a nuclear power but could well be happy with a peaceful civilian program (which could make the challenge it poses more complex). What's the evidence? Well, over the last five years, senior Iranian officials at every level have repeatedly asserted that they do not intend to build nuclear weapons. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has quoted the regime's founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who asserted that such weapons were "un-Islamic." The country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa in 2004 describing the use of nuclear weapons as immoral. In a subsequent sermon, he declared that "developing, producing or stockpiling nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam." Last year Khamenei reiterated all these points after meeting with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei. Now, of course, they could all be lying. But it seems odd for a regime that derives its legitimacy from its fidelity to Islam to declare constantly that these weapons are un-Islamic if it intends to develop them. It would be far shrewder to stop reminding people of Khomeini's statements and stop issuing new fatwas against nukes. [...]

Iran isn't a dictatorship. It is certainly not a democracy. The regime jails opponents, closes down magazines and tolerates few challenges to its authority. But neither is it a monolithic dictatorship. It might be best described as an oligarchy, with considerable debate and dissent within the elites. Even the so-called Supreme Leader has a constituency, the Assembly of Experts, who selected him and whom he has to keep happy. Ahmadinejad is widely seen as the "mad mullah" who runs the country, but he is not the unquestioned chief executive and is actually a thorn in the side of the clerical establishment. He is a layman with no family connections to major ayatollahs—which makes him a rare figure in the ruling class. He was not initially the favored candidate of the Supreme Leader in the 2005 election. Even now the mullahs clearly dislike him, and he, in turn, does things deliberately designed to undermine their authority..

Tehran or Bust: A journey through the heart of Iran. (Hooman Majd, 6/01/09, NEWSWEEK)
The layers of contradiction that make up the modern Islamic Republic of Iran are both pervasive and confounding, and not any less so in Yazd. Set amid the blistering deserts of central Iran, the city is home to the kind of fierce religiosity bred in Islam's starker landscapes, and many of its sons were sacrificed to the bloody war with Iraq. Yet it is also a capital of pre-Islamic Persia, and is well known for its Zoroastrian temples and grave sites. (At one fire temple, priests continue to tend a flame that they claim has burned for more than 500 years.) It is the only city in the world that can boast two native sons, Khatami and Moshe Katsav, who simultaneously served as presidents of Iran and Israel. Even the mosque where Sadoughi leads prayers is named after a Jewish convert.

The sermon that Sadoughi had delivered that morning had been equally impossible to categorize. He defended the inflammatory speech that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had delivered earlier that week at a United Nations conference on racism, chiding Western nations who "allegedly are … defenders of free speech" for walking out. But he also criticized the government, in this case for failing to ensure that Iranian pilgrims traveling to Iraq were adequately protected, a large number of them having been killed the day before in a suicide bombing near Baghdad. And he conceded that the United States had elected a new president who had promised to change its relationship with Iran. He declared that Iranians were waiting to witness real deeds from Washington, not mere rhetoric. But at the end of his 30--minute sermon, unlike past Friday prayers and prayers that same day in Tehran, there were no chants of "Death to America" or "Death to Israel," not even halfhearted ones. Later that night in his office he repeated, wistfully, the same sentiment—that words alone were not enough from the United States, not for Iranians, who are master rhetoricians, and who well understand the many uses to which they can be put.

Anyone reading a translation of Sadoughi's sermon would quite likely miss the sincerity of his appeal, the doors it carefully left open. After 30 years of enmity, the United States and Iran have almost entirely lost the capacity to interpret such subtle signals. Very few serving U.S. officials have met their Iranian counterparts, and almost none have ever visited Iran. Yet such expertise is more critical than ever, as the administration of President Barack Obama prepares to embark on what could be months of difficult negotiations aimed at halting Iran's nuclear-enrichment program.

After Obama videotaped a Persian New Year's message for the Iranian people, reiterating his offer of unconditional talks, most Western commentators interpreted Khamenei's lengthy and defiant response as a slap in the face. But what would have been most significant to any Iranian listening was a passage at the very end of the speech, when Khamenei said, "If you change, our behavior will also change." Iran's supreme authority had never before used the word "change" in such a context, for up until now the Islamic Republic's position has been that there is nothing objectionable about its behavior. If the Obama administration truly wants to forge a new relationship with Iran, it will have to learn to hear the things Iranians are saying to them, whether it be the Supreme Leader or the rifle-toting Sadoughi.

I had come to Yazd to begin a road journey north, to Tehran.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 24, 2009 7:26 AM
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