June 25, 2009

MORE SHI'A, NOT LESS:

Iran's Struggle, and Ours: How a Movement Could Transform the Region (Robert D. Kaplan, June 24, 2009 , Washington Post)

The Iran of the ayatollahs was never a one-dimensional tyranny such as Saddam Hussein's Iraq; it is a complex system with an elected parliament and chief executive. Likewise, Iran's democracy movement is strikingly Western in its organizational discipline and its urbane use of technology. In terms of development, Iran is much closer to Turkey than to Syria or Iraq. While the latter two live with the possibility of implosion, Iran has an internal coherence that allows it to bear down hard on its neighbors. In the future, a democratic Iran could be, in a benevolent sense, as influential in Baghdad as the murder squads of a theocratic Iran have been in a malignant sense.

Iran is so central to the fate of the Middle East that even a partial shift in regime behavior -- an added degree of nuance in its approach to Iraq, Lebanon, Israel or the United States -- could dramatically affect the region. Just as a radical Iranian leader can energize the "Arab street," an Iranian reformer can energize the emerging but curiously opaque Arab bourgeoisie. This is why the depiction of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi as but another radical, albeit with a kinder, gentler exterior than President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, completely misses the point.

As in the former Soviet Union, change in Iran can come only from the inside; only an insider, be it a Mousavi or a Mikhail Gorbachev, has the necessary bona fides to allow daylight into the system, exposing its flaws. Only a staunch supporter of the Islamic Republic such as Mousavi would have been trusted to campaign at all, even as he is now leading a democratic movement that has already undermined the Brezhnevite clerical regime. It is unfinished business of the Cold War that we have been witnessing the past few days. The Iranian struggle for democracy is now as central to our foreign policy as that for democracy in Eastern Europe in the 1980s.

It is crucial that we reflect on an original goal of regime change in Iraq. Anyone who supported the war must have known that toppling Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab -- whether it resulted in stable democracy, benign dictatorship or sheer chaos -- would strengthen the Shiite hand in the region.


Clash of the Clerics: Iran's ayatollahs fight over the future of the Islamic republic. (Henry Newman, June 24, 2009, Slate)
The options for change in Iran should not be understood as a choice between democratic Western-style secularism on one hand and a military dictatorship in the name of Islam on the other. There are many options on the table, and most Iranians seek evolutionary rather than revolutionary change, to paraphrase journalist Roxana Saberi. The ultimate realization of this evolutionary change will, of course, depend on the ability of the proponents of differing visions to triumph over their opponents. It should be recognized that the ideological vision of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and its implementation through the corrupt election of June 12 does not represent a continuation of the status quo but is itself a new trajectory. Ahmadinejad's supporters have labeled his power grab as revolutionary, describing his election as Iran's third revolution. (They consider the first to be that of 1979 and the hostage crisis the second.)

Ahmadinejad's vision owes a large debt to his spiritual "guide," Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, who has been satirically caricatured as a crocodile in the Iranian press. The cleric is a hard-line conservative committed to a literal interpretation of the Quran and is a fierce opponent of Iran's reform movement, so much so that he allegedly issued a fatwa sanctioning cheating in the recent elections. Mesbah-Yazdi and his Haghani Circle of followers reject even the limited elements of popular sovereignty, such as presidential elections, of today's republic and demand more Islamic government. Despite the influence of the Haghani Circle on the president and within elements of the Revolutionary Guard, Mesbah-Yazdi lacks widespread accreditation from other mullahs. Senior clerics have not yet recognized him as a grand ayatollah, or marja.

An alternative vision comes from the Association of Combatant Clerics. This group, populated by many of the founding fathers of the Islamic republic and some "veterans" of the hostage crisis, now advocates a reformist vision. Mohammad Khatami, president from 1997 to 2005, is its most famous member. After Khatami withdrew from the election campaign in March, he endorsed Mir Hossein Mousavi. The association has expressed concern at the "massive engineering of votes" in the recent election and has openly called for pro-Mousavi rallies.

Other important voices have joined Ahmadinejad's critics: Grand Ayatollahs Yousef Sanei and Lotfollah Safi-Golpaygani have both cast doubt on the election results, as has Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri. Montazeri, once Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's chosen successor, has been the republic's bête noire since he openly questioned Iran's human rights record in 1989 and then challenged Ali Khamenei's credentials to replace Khomeini as supreme leader. All three grand ayatollahs and their supporters have questioned the election results, and in doing so they have challenged the authority of the supreme leader.


Use Islam to End the Iranian Regime: Thirty years ago, Iranians used Islam as a catalyst to overthrow the shah. Nazee Moinian, who lived through that revolution, on how the protesters on the streets of Tehran can use religion to bring down the current leadership. (Nazee Moinian, 6/24/09, Daily Beast)
The sense of witnessing a historic transformation from a feudal and stagnant country to a modern oasis was not lost on my parents or the people of their generation who had seen harder times. Iranians were running, not walking toward modernity. The country was making great strides. With a treasury flush with funds from the oil boom of the 1970s, the shah pursued ambitious programs. Like his father, Reza Shah, the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was determined to bring Iran into the 20th century, and was prepared to ignore all outward signs of discontent, which were slowly gaining substance and momentum.

As the pace of change quickened, the youth felt left out, the intellectuals insulted, the bazaaris and clerics threatened.

And then the riots began. Downtown Tehran became a hotbed of anti-shah demonstrations. In a show of defiance, clean-shaven, European-styled young men stopped shaving and threw off their ties. They stood on street corners handing out free cassette tapes of Imam Khomeini. They filled the streets and shouted “Death to the dictator,” imploring their “brothers and sisters” to listen to the “truth” and “denounce the lies.” They threw rocks at the police and chased them out of neighborhoods; then regrouped at night and set cars ablaze.

By the time the police finally did open fire, the revolution had begun. Overnight, posters covered the streets of Tehran in remembrance of “martyrs” whose blood was nourishing the red tulips of the revolution. Blood-red flowers were clenched by angry fists pounding the air and chanting “tulips are springing—from the grounds of our martyrs’ bleeding.”

The revolution was no longer about corruption in the government or moral callousness in the court. It was about avenging the death of those killed on the streets. It was about self-martyrdom, a victimized death, the most sacred tenet of Shia Islam. It was about Imam Hussein, whose death more than 1,000 years ago at the hands of the evil Yazid still drove pious Iranian to tears.

And thus began a cycle of systematic violence.


Iran 2.0: The world of wired dissidents will grow. (Daniel Henninger, 6/25/09, WSJ)
Technology is unavoidably a major element now in the world of geopolitics. Iran can't grow economically, can't become "normal," without letting its people use Web 2.0. The same goes for Egypt, Syria and other politically significant players. Absent liberal use of Web 2.0, they will drop faster toward failure, which in our time infers a default to acquiring nuclear capability as a crude equalizer and then striking out at the winners.

This is a puzzle. Mr. Obama should task his smarter people -- for instance at the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment -- to find a path out of the State Department's standard model of our diplomats talking to their fake diplomats. That model made him look foolish this week. Nuance needs an upgrade. He should seek a new model that incorporates the wired dissidents not only because it is the right thing to do. But because it is unavoidable. Intelligent meddling.

Tehran the past week is not a one-off. The world of wired dissidents will grow at the same rate as communications technology. These dissidents and their overlords in Tehran and Beijing are the ones now shaping the rules and boundaries of the information-technology future -- what's allowable and what isn't.

A West led by passive leadership will find its commercial protocols written by mullahs and Chinese bureaucrats. (Though where centralizing Western governments think their interests lie in this competition between Web 2.0 and public authority is an interesting question.)

Some media has been spinning criticism of Mr. Obama's early passivity as "neoconservative opportunism." This is nonsense. The technology of Web 2.0 and beyond means no major power can hide from the forces in motion in Iran's streets today, and somewhere else tomorrow. Those who want to hide are the statist Left and the isolationist Right. This is old America. A new American foreign policy has to deal with the world as it exists. You have been watching it on screens large and small since last week.


Bet on Neda's Side (David Ignatius, June 24, 2009, Washington Post)
[O]ver the coming months and years, my money is on the followers of the martyred Neda. They have exposed the weakness of the clerical regime in a way that Iran's foreign adversaries -- America, Israel, Saudi Arabia -- never could. They have opened a fundamental split in the regime. The rulers will try to bind this wound with force, and salve it with concessions, but neither approach will make the wound heal.

We are watching the first innings of what will be a long game in Iran. President Obama has recognized that with his gradually escalating rhetoric. Yesterday, he was using powerful language to describe the "timeless dignity" of the protesters and the "heartbreaking" images of Neda. He suggested that the mullahs cannot win a war of repression against their own people. "In 2009, no iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to peaceful protests," he said.

Behind Obama's cool but confident talk is a judgment that, as one senior White House official puts it, the mullahs "can't put the genie back in the bottle." The official explained: "Iran will never be the same again. You don't have to know how this will end to know that. The regime has been challenged. They are now back on their heels."

The Sounds of Silence on Iran (Mona Eltahawy, June 25, 2009, Washington Post)

What's happening in Iran is not about the United States or Israel. It's not about Ahmadinejad or Mir Hossein Mousavi. It's not even about the poor or the rich in Iran. The demonstrations are about people who feel their will and voice have been disregarded. In Egypt, it's our secular dictator, in power for almost 28 years, who disregards our will. In Iran, it's a clerical regime in power for 30 years, hiding behind God.

Dictatorship by clerics is not more acceptable because its torture and beatings are committed in the name of God.

This must be especially difficult for political Islamic organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which congratulated Ahmadinejad on his "victory" and yet whose generational disagreements and divisions mirror those in Iran: A young generation of Muslim brothers and sisters has over the past few years challenged the Brotherhood's aging leadership on issues such as prohibiting female and Christian leaders.

That aging leadership gave the young Muslims the very undemocratic choice of shutting up or leaving.

How do we know? The same way we've known about much of Iran's strife -- through blogs and social networking Web sites such as Facebook and Twitter. These days, most of the noise in the Arab world is online.

Online, you will hear bloggers connecting repression in Iran and Arab countries. Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas, known for exposing police brutality on YouTube, was quick to send Twitter alerts that Iran's clerics, like the Mubarak regime, used plainclothes thugs to terrorize demonstrators. Online, you will hear young Arabs express envy over the huge Iranian demonstrations in the face of government crackdowns. Online, Arabs will expose U.S. hypocrisy and ask what happened to U.S. support for peaceful demonstrators when they were beaten and dragged off Cairo streets in 2005 and 2006.


Iran MPs boycott Ahmadinejad victory party: report (AFP, 6/25/09)
Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani and over 100 MPs refused to attend a victory dinner party hosted by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, newspapers reported on Thursday.

"Apart from 70 members of the (Islamic) revolution faction, which backs Ahmadinejad, only 30 other principalists (conservatives) turned up," the reformist Etemad Melli newspaper said, adding that 100 boycotted the event.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 25, 2009 6:22 AM
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