June 19, 2009
Number 06/09 #08
As discussed previously, this Update will contain some analysis of the Palestinian reaction to Israeli PM Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech on Sunday. However, the pace of events surrounding the mass protest in Iran cannot be ignored, and there will also be two pieces by distinguished academic experts on Iran, looking at the protests and what they mean for the regime.
First, Palestinian Authority officials made an unprecedentedly harsh rejection of Netanyahu’s speech and his offer of immediate unconditional negotiations, laden with personal insults, as documented in this dispatch from the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). The Jerusalem Post‘s Palestinian Affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh explains why – the Palestinian Authority believes that US President Barack Obama will force Israel to meet all its demands and is acting on this belief (something similar was outlined by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to the Washington Post earlier this month.) Abu Toameh, himself a Palestinian, argues that the PA leadership is making a bad mistake, making themselves look rejectionist and unifying Israelis behind Netanyahu. For the full argument, CLICK HERE. Both the Wall Street Journal and New York Daily News also criticised the response to Netanyahu’s speech from the Palestinians and other naysayers.
Commenting on the Iranian situation first is Abbas Milani of Stanford University, who says that whatever happens with the mass protests, it is clear that the Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei has created a hobson’s choice for himself. Milani argues that he has only two choices – he can surrender his role and the survival of the regime to the demands of the Iranian public, or he can institute a very bloody crackdown. However, Milani argues that such a bloody crackdown can only be carried out by calling the Revolutionary Guards into the street, and this military organisation, already taking more and more power from the ruling clerics, will demand an even greater role if it violently takes back the streets from the protesters. For Milani’s complete argument, CLICK HERE. Also, more on the role and history of the Revolutionary Guards is here, while a New York Times article explains why the current unrest appears unprecedented in Iran and will require unprecedented force to supress.
Agreeing on the broad picture with Milani is Shaul Bakhash of George Mason University. He traces how what should have been a routine election got so out of control for Iran’s clerical rulers, and says the situation is now such that a backdown by Khamenei is unthinkable, but maintaing the regime by massive repression will have huge long-term costs. Ironically, Bakhash says that if Khamenei had simply allowed the opposition candidate Moussavi to win the poll, there would have been no real threat to the regime, as Moussavi would certainly have supported the status quo in all but minor details. However the hardliners, convinced that any relaxing of control would lead to disaster, were unable to see this but instead created the current situation. For his full discussion, CLICK HERE. A profile of Moussavi, the unlikely head of a liberalising revolution, is here.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Other excellent discussions of the Iranian situation come from a forum of scholars at the Washington Institute, from MEMRI expert A. Savyon and from Israeli academics Ephraim Kam and Guy Bechor. Plus, Thomas Friedman suggests the Iranian protests could be part of a larger regional trend based on new technology.
- The latest summary of Persian sources on the protests are here. Also, Michael Totten has been constantly blogging the latest information from Iran. And here’s an interview with a leading Iranian dissident.
- Haaretz points out that the support for the protesters signalled by the Iranian national soccer team is likely to be particularly painful for the regime.
- The Iranian government claims Israel is behind election day “terrorism” in Iran.
- American political philosopher Michael Walzer argues that while he understands the US government reluctance to support the Iranian protesters, there are not such constraints on civic society, and especially those on the left should offer their full support. Some ideas for internet activism in support (especially via Twitter) are here.
- Meanwhile, two US Republican politicians suggest some ideas for the US government to help dissidents. Other criticism of Washington’s relatively quiet reaction is here, here and here.
- Following the racist attack on the Holocaust Museum in Washington last week, which left a security guard dead, there has been a lot of interesting comment on the sort of racism that inspires such attacks – including from American columnists Michael Gerson and Richard Cohen, and British columnist Nick Cohen.
- Israel is officially a “developed economy” according to ratings agencies, as the Jerusalem Post notes.
Khaled Abu Toameh
THE JERUSALEM POST, Jun. 16, 2009
The Palestinian Authority leadership’s hysterical, hasty and clearly miscalculated response to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University on Sunday night is likely to boomerang because it makes the Palestinians appear as “peace rejectionists.”
The PA, perhaps, has every right to be angry with Netanyahu’s statements. However, its leaders should have been more careful in choosing the right words to express their sentiments.
Even before he completed his speech, several PA officials and spokesmen used every available platform to declare their total rejection of Netanyahu’s ideas, especially with regards to the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Some went as far as hurling personal insults at Netanyahu, branding him a liar, a fraud and a swindler. Others hinted at the possibility that, in the wake of his strategy, the Palestinians would now have to resort to another intifada.
PA representatives are now saying that Netanyahu “cannot even dream of finding one Palestinian to talk to.”
One senior official in Ramallah announced shortly after the prime minister finished his address that the Palestinians won’t resume peace talks with Israel for at least a thousand years.
The harsh response of the PA is the direct result of high hopes that its leaders have pinned on the administration of US President Barack Obama.
Reports about a looming crisis between the administration and Netanyahu over the future of the Middle East peace process, combined with Obama’s conciliatory approach toward the Arab and Muslim worlds, created the impression in Ramallah that the Israeli government had no choice but to accept all the Palestinian demands.
Briefing reporters on the eve of Netanyahu’s speech, some of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s top aides predicted that, in the wake of increased US pressure, Netanyahu would be forced to give in, freezing settlement construction and accepting the two-state solution.
That’s why most of these aides expressed surprise when they heard the prime minister’s uncompromising position on most of the sticking issues.
By completely rejecting Netanyahu’s offer of a demilitarized state and his demand to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, the PA leadership has climbed a high tree from which it will find it difficult to climb down.
As in previous cases, this leadership has chosen to look at the empty half of the glass.
The fact that Netanyahu is even prepared to talk about a Palestinian state is in itself a major achievement. And so what if the future state of Palestine doesn’t have an army and an air force? Why would Palestine need tanks and warplanes? Don’t the Palestinians already have enough security forces and armed militias? Don’t they already have enough ammunition and rockets?
The future state of Palestine will have to invest in government institutions and infrastructure instead of weapons. The Palestinians need jobs and good government more than they need an army and tanks.
True, Netanyahu’s speech does not fulfill the entire aspirations of the Palestinians. But it would have been wiser for the PA leadership to also look at some of the positive elements in the speech, such as Netanyahu’s acceptance of the idea of a Palestinian state.
Whether Palestine would be demilitarized or not is an issue that the two sides could always continue to discuss through negotiations. But the PA leadership has chosen to say no to this idea, thus playing into the hands of those who have long been arguing that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
When Yasser Arafat back accepted the “Gaza-Jericho First” formula, he knew that he would subsequently receive more territory in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip through negotiations.
Netanyahu has outsmarted the PA leaders in Ramallah by dragging them into the debate over Israel’s Jewish character – a demand that the Palestinians have also totally and vehemently rejected.
If anyone has reason to be worried about Israel’s desire to be a Jewish state, it’s the 1.4 million Arab citizens of the state. But this is an issue that should be solved through dialogue between the Israeli establishment and the Arab citizens. The Palestinians, after all, are fighting for separation from Israel, while the Israeli Arabs are fighting for integration.
It’s also unclear why PA representatives are surprised to hear about the demilitarized state and Israel’s Jewish character. Former US president Bill Clinton also mentioned the idea of creating a demilitarized state for the Palestinians, as did all of Netanyahu’s predecessors. And the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is also not new.
Had the PA leadership responded positively to any of Netanyahu’s offers, or at least used a less harsh tone in rejecting the entire speech, it’s highly likely that they would have triggered a political crisis in Israel – one that would have even threatened the prime minister’s coalition. PA leaders and officials should have taken into account the fact that a majority of Israelis – according to recent public opinion polls – favor the two-state solution, regardless of Netanyahu’s stance on the issue.
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Ayatollah Khamenei’s massive miscalculation about the extent of his power.
by Abbas Milani
The New Republic, June 17, 2009
The Iranian regime is currently facing one of the greatest challenges of its 30-year history. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei–whose rule has been absolute and whose words have been the law of the land–is facing the most public challenge to his authority. His two decades since succeeding Ayatollah Khomeini have been defined by a tendency to keep his options open, a verbal dexterity that allowed him to skirt tough political positions, and an appearance of impartiality in Iran’s fierce factional feuds. His caution has been the key to his success and survival.Ayatollah Khamenei
But Khamenei has thrown this caution to the wind by unabashedly favoring Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Four years ago, his support was instrumental in getting the little-known Ahmadinejad elected president. Even as criticism of the president has been on the rise in the country over the past year, Khamenei reportedly promised Ahmadinejad and his cabinet four more years at the helm.
The ayatollah failed to recognize the mounting tension over this month’s presidential election–what former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani described in a pre-election letter to him as a seething “volcano” of discontent. Even Sobhe-Sadeq, the political organ of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, warned in a lead editorial that the opposition’s use of the color green had become dangerously similar to the kind of “color revolution” that dethroned governments in Ukraine, Lebanon, and Georgia. (Khamenei had even commissioned a group of scholars three years ago to investigate the evolution of these “color revolutions.”)
Only hours after the polls closed, Khamenei issued a statement urging everyone to support the supposedly reelected president. Khamenei seems to have underestimated Ahmadinejad’s opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has proved willing to defy, if not challenge, Khamenei’s dictates. Following Mousavi’s lead, angry demonstrators swiftly took to the streets, with protests erupting in major cities and universities across the country. On Monday, June 15, hundreds of thousands of Iranians flooded the streets of Tehran to protest the election results.
What makes this moment different from past incidents of confrontation between the regime and the people is that, this time, many pillars of the regime are part of the opposition. Aside from Mousavi, who was prime minister for eight years, Rafsanjani, former president Mohammad Khatami, former speaker of the parliament Mehdi Karubi, and many other past ministers and undersecretaries are now leading the movement demanding new elections. Moreover, since the demonstrators come from all walks of life, it is more difficult than in the past to accuse them of immaturity or youthful impertinence, or of falling prey to the designs of the “Great Satan.”
Recognizing the growing tide of popular discontent, Khamenei blinked. He indirectly conceded that the election–which he had previously described as a divinely designed victory for the Islamic regime–might have been rigged. The twelve-man Guardian Council–which he appointed to “carefully” look into the allegations of fraud–will likely follow Khameini’s lead in their ruling. The question is how cowed the cleric will be in the face of powerful and persistent opposition.
The regime still has the capacity to contain the disgruntled demonstrators and maybe even co-opt their leadership. But the majestic power of large peaceful crowds, tasting the joys of victory embodied in acts of civil disobedience, and brought together by the power of technologies beyond the regime’s control, is sure to beget larger, more confident, and more disciplined crowds. When people defied Khamenei’s orders by gathering en masse on Monday, the regime’s armor of invincibility–so central to the regime’s authoritarian control–was cracked. Without it, the regime cannot survive, and reestablishing it can come only at the price of great bloodshed.
But if Khamenei wants a crackdown of this magnitude, he will have to turn to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)–a move that brings its own political costs. The IRGC was created by Khomeini shortly after the Islamic revolution as a more ideological and loyal alternative to the traditional military. The IRGC gradually became a force in its own right, developing its own air force, intelligence, officer academy, and think tank. Many commanders started companies that quickly dominated the economy by winning major government contracts. Today, a substantial number of provincial governors, mayors, cabinet ministers, undersecretaries, ambassadors, and managers of major state companies are from the IRGC’s ranks.
The IRGC has largely accepted the leadership of the clergy and Khamenei’s role as commander in chief. But while Khomeini strictly kept them out of politics, Khamenei has encouraged them to get involved in his political battles. In his eight-year tug-of-war with the reformist movement led by Khatami, Khamenei used the IRGC more than once to suppress Iran’s rapidly developing civil society and student movement. The most egregious example of this militarization of politics came in the 2005 presidential election, when Khamenei, worried about a possible Rafsanjani victory, reportedly ordered IRGC members to vote for Ahmadinejad and take members of their family with them to the polls. The rise of Ahmadinejad, himself once a member of the IRGC and reportedly an engineer in its infamous Al-Quds Brigade, has further encouraged the IRGC to seek an increasing share of political power.
It is difficult to imagine the IRGC quelling the current protests and then simply turning power over to the clergy. If a political compromise cannot be reached between the regime and the opposition, and the IRGC is used in suppressing the protests, its commanders would likely expect a bigger role in the government. It is even conceivable that faced with irresolution among the clergy, they will act on their own, and establish a military dictatorship that uses Islam as its ideological veneer–similar to Pakistan under Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.
Khamenei thus finds himself in a difficult situation as a result of his incautious gambit with Ahmadinejad. Whether he gives more power to the IRGC or to the opposition, there is little chance that he will emerge from the current crisis with his supremacy intact.
Abbas Milani is the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University where he is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. His last book is Eminent Persians (Syracuse University Press).
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By Shaul Bakhash
New York Forward, Published June 17, 2009, issue of June 26, 2009.
When Iran’s presidential campaign began two months ago, few expected much excitement or voter interest. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first four-year term had been characterized by increasing repression and an expanded role for the state’s security agencies. The major institutions of the state were firmly in the hands of conservatives and hardliners. The main opposition party initially even had a hard time finding a plausible candidate willing to challenge the incumbent. Yet the election took a surprising turn, and has ended up shaking the very foundations of the Islamic Republic.
The contest pitted Ahmadinejad against three members-in-good-standing of Iran’s power elite: former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who led Iran during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war; Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of parliament and one of the country’s leading political clerics, and former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezai.
Rezai is best described as a pragmatic conservative. Karroubi was associated with the reformist movement launched by former president Mohammad Khatami, but he had long since shed his more leftist leanings and, as parliament speaker, remained silent during the 2001 crackdown on the press, which proved a severe setback to the reform movement. Mousavi, for his part, had been out of the political loop for 20 years by the time of this election, and he had never articulated the kind of vision of a system based on the rule of law and a vigorous civil society championed by Khatami.
In the final weeks of the election, however, something remarkable happened. As expected, Mousavi and Karroubi criticized Ahmadinejad for mishandling of the economy. But they also attacked the president’s truculent foreign policy posture and Iran’s resulting international isolation; they called for greater freedoms, and for an end to the harassment of women and the young by the morals police; they championed the cause of women’s rights; they even criticized Ahmadinejad’s repeated denials of the Holocaust.
These issues were discussed with a candor foreign to Iran’s previous presidential campaigns. For the first time, presidential candidates debated face-to-face on national television, exchanging charge and counter-charge, and leaving viewers mesmerized. Mousavi campaigned with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a writer and former university president, at his side — another first in a country where politicians’ wives remain in the background — and she endorsed demands for legal reform and women’s rights that have landed other women’s advocates in prison.
The election unexpectedly became a contest between the champions of the status quo and the proponents of change. While Mousavi lacked Khatami’s charisma, the themes he took up led millions of Iranians to invest in him their hopes for freedom and for a more responsive government.
Four years ago, during the previous presidential election, middle-class voters and the young, dismayed by the failure of Khatami’s reform movement, stayed away from the polls in large numbers. This time, Iranians, particularly women and the young, turned up at Mousavi’s political rallies in droves and enlisted en masse in his campaign.
The enthusiasm for Mousavi as an agent of change clearly alarmed conservatives and hardliners, including Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As supreme leader, Khamenei has always resisted political liberalization, as he did at the height of the reform movement. It was Khamenei who initiated the 2001 crackdown that led to the closure of dozens of reformist newspapers and magazines. Khamenei fears that liberalization, once underway, will spin out of control. And he knows that reformists have, in the past, called for a curb on the supreme leader’s almost unlimited powers.
Khamenei is also skeptical of calls to engage America — a skepticism that is shared by the powerful Revolutionary Guards and the security agencies upon which the supreme leader relies for his continued hold on power. Hostility to America and standing up to “the Great Satan” have become pillars of hardliner ideology; any normalization of relations would rob hardliners of a convenient bogeyman. They fear that the trade, investment and tourism that would follow restoration of diplomatic ties would result in unwelcome changes at home.
If there is engagement with America, Khamenei wants to control it. In Ahmadinejad, he has a willing collaborator. In Mousavi, he might have had a president with a mind of his own.
These considerations may explain the decision to manipulate the election results — and the available evidence points to the conclusion that the results were, indeed, falsified — in order to give Ahmadinejad an undeserved victory.
Khamenei initially endorsed these results and described them as a “divine blessing.” He and his advisers, evidently, did not anticipate the outrage of Iranians who believe the election was hijacked.
Now, in the face of the outpouring of popular protest, Khamenei has called on the Council of Guardians, a body of senior clerics and jurists, to review allegations of election irregularities. This is vintage Khamenei: He pretends to stand above the fray as an honest broker between the political factions. But his interventions during political disagreements in the past were designed to mollify the opposition, even as he delivered victories to the hardliners.
On this occasion, too, Khamenei may be playing for time, anticipating that the protests will die down in a few days, allowing the Council of Guardians, hardly a neutral body, to tweak the vote count while still declaring the re-election of Ahmadinejad legitimate and binding.
Such an outcome, however, will not assuage Mousavi’s supporters. Their chant is “Where is my vote?” And they will not be satisfied until they get an answer.
The irony of all this is that Mousavi actually did not necessarily pose a fundamental threat to the status quo. Certainly, he would have softened the tone of Iranian foreign policy, reverting to the type of presidential rhetoric that preceded Ahmadinejad’s term in office. And even Khamenei himself has not ruled out engaging America, so long as it is done on his terms. In any case, Iran’s nuclear policy is set by the supreme leader, not by the president. Moreover, easing of social, press and political controls of the kind envisaged by Mousavi would have been limited in scope. Yet the hardliners persisted in the belief that any relaxing of controls would be the thin edge of the wedge that would destabilize the whole system.
As a result of the anger unleashed since election day, Khamenei now faces a serious dilemma: If he allows peaceful demonstrations to continue, they could escalate, making demands for change unstoppable. If, on the other hand, he and the security forces decide on a crackdown, as is likely, it could prove bloody and cost the regime both domestic and international legitimacy. Either way Khamenei and the forces of the status quo will have suffered a serious, and self-inflicted, blow.
To nullify the elections and hold a new ballot, as Mousavi and Karroubi demand, would be almost unthinkable for Khamenei and the hardliners, as it would constitute an admission of massive fraud by the government. Yet the regime must now reckon with a galvanized public demanding change. It can, once again, try to silence this demand. But successful repression will mean a younger generation of men and women disillusioned with politics and shorn of the belief that they can bring about peaceful change by participation in the political process.
For Iran’s leaders, the long-term costs of such dashed hopes could prove to be considerable.
Shaul Bakhash is a Clarence Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University. He is the author of several books and articles on Iran.