February 17, 2010
Number 02/10 #05
This Update focuses on the aftermath of the Feb. 11 celebrations of the anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Iran, where a massive effort by the security forces seems to have largely dampened planned opposition protests.
First up, Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East policy explains that Feb. 11 was indeed a setback for the opposition and a battle won by the regime, but that the crisis of legitimacy for the regime is far from over. Khalaji points out that the regime remains divided and the narrowing circle of support for supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei makes it more fragile while economic crises and policy choices are creating additional discontent. On the foreign policy front, Khalaji predicts that the success last week will give Khamenei confidence and make compromise on the nuclear issue less likely. For this full analysis, CLICK HERE.
Next, veteran Iranian exile writer and journalist Amir Taheri sees last week’s events as part of a larger pattern of increasing military dictatorship in Iran. Taheri argues that the regime actually has reason to view less than sanguinely its “success”, given the requirement to turn Teheran into a sealed citadel, and shut down anniversary celebrations in many other towns and villages. He argues that the increasing power of the Revolutionary Guards – hardline and in control of the nuclear programs – means that there is no prospect for a political deal and regime change seems the only hope as a policy for stopping an Iranian nuclear weapon. For the rest of his argument,
CLICK HERE. An earlier article by Taheri discussed further why the anniversary should not be seen overall as a success for the regime given the limits placed on the festivities by political opposition. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seems to agree with Taheri that the regime is increasingly looking like a military dictatorship controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, as does this piece in Newsweek, emphasising President Ahmadinejad’s role in challenging clerical rule.
Finally, the Washington Post editorialises on the sort of sanctions that should now be applied in Iran, and questions whether the Obama Administration’s preference for sanctions targeting the Revolutionary Guards and other leading regime institutions will be enough. The paper urges that Obama sign into law a bill passed by both houses of Congress that would allow sanctions against companies that sell petroleum to Iran as an additional form of pressure. The paper also urges greater concrete efforts to assist Iran’s political opposition. For all the details, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Post columnist David Ignatius urges a multi-faceted approach including continued attempts at engagement.
Readers may also be interested in:
- American commentator William Kristol and Middle East-based freelancer Michael Totten both make the case that regime change should be US policy on Iran.
- Thinktanker specialising on Iran Reuel Marc Gerecht also urges this policy and argues that a democratic Iran could profoundly change the region for the better.
- Israeli proliferation expert Efraim Asculai sees Iran’s brinkmanship in moving to enrich its uranium to 20% paying off, effectively moving Iran to a nuclear status.
- Israeli PM Netanyahu was in Moscow yesterday and reportedly found growing Russian support for serious sanctions. Meanwhile, US National Security Advisor James Jones appeared to concede in a weekend interview that China is still opposed to any serious UN sanctions.
- Australian Federal MP Michael Danby on why China will be partly to blame if Iran goes nuclear or a military strike is launched to stop this eventuality
- An interesting report from US “60 Minutes” on Iran’s success in using middlemen to obtain embargoed technology.
- The full judgement on five men sentenced to long jail terms for terrorism offences in Sydney earlier this week. Shorter extracts are here.
By Mehdi Khalaji
February 12, 2010
A few hours after the official demonstration marking the February 11 anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stated, “Was the presence of tens of millions of motivated and aware people in the festival of the thirty-first anniversary of revolution enough to awaken [to their mistakes] the internal enemies and deceived individuals who sometimes hypocritically speak of ‘the people’?” Khamenei had spent months worrying that the opposition Green Movement would hijack the anniversary. Yesterday, he seemed to regain his self-confidence by proving that he could manage Tehran’s streets. In light of this development, how will the Supreme Leader deal with both Iran’s political crisis and the nuclear dossier?
What Happened on February 11
By controlling a huge city like Tehran on such a sensitive day, Khamenei proved his operational capabilities as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. A few days before the anniversary, the regime clamped down on all communication channels, from internet to cell phones to satellite television, interrupting them or placing them under surveillance in order to diminish the opposition’s ability to organize protests. It also raised the level of intimidation, making daily arrests of political and student activists as well as ordinary people and publishing wanted posters of individuals who had participated in the December 2009 Ashura demonstration. Meanwhile, the streets in which opposition protests were supposed to take place were closed twenty-four hours beforehand. Even as the pro-regime demonstration unfolded, hundreds of thousands of Basij militiamen and Revolutionary Guards (some deployed from other cities) were able to control the city, assaulting Green Movement demonstrators as soon as they shouted antigovernment slogans. The movement’s leading public figures were targeted directly: Mehdi Karrubi and Zahra Rahnavard, Mir Hossein Mousavi’s wife, were both beaten up badly, while Karrubi’s son and dozens of his close friends were arrested.
At the main demonstration, Khamenei sounded and appeared self-confident and in no mood for compromise — the events of the day suggested there was no need to accept the advice of relatively moderate conservatives who had urged that course of action. The regime’s radicals, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, have always believed in taking the offensive when it comes to domestic or foreign policy. Ahmadinezhad has criticized former president Muhammad Khatami for his detente policy and said Iran would not be able to convince the West of its nuclear rights “by begging for them.” The regime’s leaders have a similarly uncompromising attitude toward the domestic crisis — a fact that will no doubt radicalize the Green Movement further, increasing the possibility that social and economic discontent will transform into a politically motivated uprising.
The Crisis Continues
The political crisis in Iran is not limited to what goes on at the street level; ending it will require more than massive security operations during Tehran’s frequent government-sponsored rallies. Another aspect of the crisis is deep controversy and divisions among the Islamic Republic’s elites. In addition to the split between the hardliners and the Mousavi-Karrubi-Khatami camp, there is also bitter enmity between Khamenei and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (who now heads the Expediency Council and Assembly of Experts), as well as between Ahmadinezhad and Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani’s faction. A more self-confident Khamenei may increase pressure on the political circles associated with Karrubi, Khatami, Mousavi, and Rafsanjani, making arrests, condemning some individuals to long prison sentences, or executing more detainees as the judiciary has already promised to do. This would infuriate Ahmadinezhad’s critics in the government and associate Khamenei with the president even more than before. By eschewing compromise and offering greater support to Ahmadinezhad, Khamenei is tightening his circle of supporters and making his authority more fragile, despite yesterday’s outcome.
In addition to the political crisis, Ahmadinezhad’s economic policies seem to have generated discontent, especially within the lower and lower-middle classes that the president claims as his main constituency. Last month, Tehran city’s security council raised the issue of a “workers’ crisis” in the capital. Many factories have gone bankrupt and shut down, and many laborers have not been paid for months or were fired without benefits. Recently, laborers, drivers, and other workers in a variety of industries — including the Tehran Metro (especially Sadr Station), the Isfahan Steel Company, the Farnakh and Mahnakh companies in Qazvin, the steel operations in Malayer, the Tube company in Ahvaz, the telecommunications industry in Shiraz, and the third phase of Abadan refinery — either went on strike or protested against their working conditions. Many of these workers were fired or arrested; Mansour Osanloo, head of the Tehran Bus Drivers Syndicate, is still in prison.
Ahmadinezhad has overcome strong objections in the Majlis to his controversial program of phasing out extensive subsidies, especially on energy, which currently account for about one-fifth of Iran’s national income. Consumers will have to pay much higher prices as this plan goes into effect beginning March 22, the Iranian New Year. To be sure, the subsidies have encouraged waste, and consumers may adjust by buying less so that their total outlay does not increase dramatically. To compensate for the change, the regime had pledged to make cash payments to low-income families, but this plan has been thrown into doubt. Ahmadinezhad has proposed a budget that greatly expands government spending over the next year at a time of declining oil revenue. He plans to finance this budget in part by postponing cash compensation for the subsidy phase-out and, in the long term, limiting those payments to only a portion of the revenue generated.
The president’s proposed budget has drawn ridicule from economists and businessmen for a number of reasons, including its projection that Iranian state firms will be able to borrow 9.5 billion euros on international markets despite U.S. pressure. The Majlis will almost certainly make considerable changes. In any case, given the tough economic environment, the government is unlikely to make cash payments that fully compensate for the subsidy phase-out. This may pose political problems by generating unrest among those who have come to depend on the low prices. Such problems could be compounded by the higher inflation rates that economists expect to flow from the subsidy phase-out and huge budget deficit.
Implications for Iranian Foreign Policy
In light of yesterday’s outcome, Khamenei no doubt believes that he is firmly in control. In his anniversary statement, he warned, “Friends and enemies of the Iranian people should know that the people … have made their decision and will destroy any obstacle before their path toward progress and prosperity.”
Similarly, Ahmadinezhad has long argued that tough action — be it against domestic opposition or the outside world — brings results. In his speech yesterday, he defiantly stated that “every day Iran will produce in Natanz several kilos of 20 percent nuclear fuel…. We have the ability to produce…80 percent enriched uranium.” His remarks illustrated that Iran’s leaders link their domestic self-confidence with their nuclear negotiating tactics. It seems less likely now that the regime will feel an urgent necessity to resolve the nuclear dispute. In fact, it might adopt a tougher stand on the issue, with hardliners believing they need not endorse compromise with either the international community or the domestic opposition. And if the West and its partners soften their proposals, the regime could well interpret it as further proof that a tough stance reaps positive results. That turn of events would only reinforce the hardliners’ position that Iran should plow ahead on the nuclear front irrespective of what the UN, the West, or the United States does.
Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on the politics of Iran and Shiite groups in the Middle East.
The Revolutionary Guard now has more power than the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader
By AMIR TAHERI
Wall Street Journal, FEBRUARY 16, 2010
At first glance, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might seem a happy man. The pro-democracy movement had promised that last Thursday, the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, would be a turning point for the cause of freedom. But Mr. Khamenei’s regime contained the mounting opposition.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) controlled Tehran with the help of tens of thousands of club-wielding street fighters shipped in from all over the country. Opposition marchers, confined to the northern part of the city, were locked into hit-and-run battles with the regime’s professional goons. An opposition attempt at storming the Evin Prison, where more than 3,000 dissidents are being tortured, did not materialize. The would-be liberators failed to break a ring of steel the IRGC threw around the sprawling compound.
With the Internet shut down and foreign radio broadcasts jammed, the regime imposed its own version of events. State television showed large crowds chanting “Death to America” while marching in front of giant portraits of the Supreme Leader.
And yet, despite all of this, Mr. Khamenei’s message thanking the pro-regime marchers after the “glorious events of the day” had a surprisingly subdued tone. He has reason to feel unhappy.
For the first time the regime had to transform Tehran into a sealed citadel with checkpoints at all points of entry. The IRGC was in total control. Code-named “Simorgh,” after a bird in Persian mythology, its operation created an atmosphere of war in the divided city. Warned that his life may be in danger, Mr. Khamenei was forced to watch the events on TV rather than take his usual personal tour.
To ensure control of Tehran, the regime had to abandon plans for celebrations in other parts of the country. Only 20% of Iranian towns and cities and less than 9% of villages had the privilege of marking the anniversary of the revolution.
The transformation of the Khomeinist regime from theological despotism into military dictatorship started almost a decade ago. And as a keen student of Islamic tradition, Mr. Khamenei must know that history is repeating itself.
All Islamic states in history were initially built around an individual claiming divine legitimacy, first the Prophet himself and then a caliph. All have ended by losing that legitimacy and maintaining their power by force.
Even the most successful Islamic dynasties—such as the Umayyids, the Abbasids and the Fatimids—came to depend on mercenaries known as the Mamluks, who were recruited from pagan tribes of Central Asia. Often the Mamluks seized power by murdering the caliph or keeping him as a puppet.
The IRGC is a modern version of the Mamluks. Their leaders are more strident than many of the regime’s leaders, vetoing countless attempts by mullahs and politicians to reach a compromise with the portion of the opposition still calling for reform rather than regime change. Revolutionary Guard generals frequently appear on television to call for mass arrests and show trials. A weak and indecisive caliph, Mr. Khamenei has so far refused to endorse the kind of “final solution” the generals demand.
Abroad, the Revolutionary Guard pursues an aggressive policy aimed at “filling the vacuum” the generals hope will be created when the U.S. disengages from Iraq and Afghanistan by funding terrorist groups and their political front organizations. The IRGC has reportedly created a special desk to monitor the coming parliamentary elections in Baghdad and Kabul with the aim of helping pro-Tehran elements win power.
The generals also reject any compromise on the country’s nuclear program. With the entire program under their control, it is not far-fetched to suggest that even Mr. Khamenei might not quite know what’s going on.
President Barack Obama’s hopes for a dialogue with Tehran, repeated Sunday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a visit to Qatar, sound increasingly surreal. Mrs. Clinton’s announcement that the U.S. might allow one more year for the elusive dialogue to materialize unfortunately undermined her tougher talk yesterday about sanctions. One thing is certain: The regime, now dominated by the Revolutionary Guards, will settle for nothing less than total victory on the nuclear issue.
Mr. Khamenei has other reasons to be unhappy. According to the Ministry of Labor more than a million jobs have “vanished” in the past 12 months thanks to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s populist policies. In the same period, the nation’s currency, the rial, has lost a quarter of its value against a basket of other oil-based currencies in the region.
Some foreign companies with long histories of aiding Iran are beginning to understand that the regime, while not on the verge of collapse, is vulnerable. A consortium led by the Austrian oil company OMV has withdrawn from multibillion-dollar projects designed to ship Iranian natural gas to Pakistan, India and Europe. Germany’s Siemens has terminated all of its activities in Iran, ending a presence dating to 1875. A group of Malaysian investors recently walked out of a scheme to help Iran sell government bonds on the global capital market. A plan for creating two new Turkish banks to help their Iranian counterparts beat U.S.-imposed sanctions has been abandoned.
Countries such as Spain, Austria, Greece, Dubai and Malaysia that have helped Iran beat sanctions for years are beginning to review their policies. Overall trade between Iran and the European Union fell by 13% in 2009. Even China is showing concern. Scheduled talks with Iran about building 10 oil refineries and at least five nuclear-power stations remain frozen.
For three decades major democracies, including the U.S., have attempted to persuade the regime to change aspects of its behavior. The subtext was that the West would turn a blind eye to the regime’s repression inside Iran as long as it behaved more responsibly abroad.
This has not worked. Perhaps it is time to reconsider regime change as a possibility. Even so-called realists must concede that the Khomeinist establishment, under the emerging leadership of the IRGC, is not the only actor on the Iranian scene. There is another actor: the popular movement for change. To ignore the democrats and fail to support them in clear and strong terms would be a sign of poor political judgment—even under the most cynical version of realpolitik.
Mr. Taheri’s new book, “The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution,” is published by Encounter.
Washington Post, Saturday, February 13, 2010
THURSDAY’S EVENTS in Iran looked like a defeat for the opposition green movement — and for the cause of stopping the regime’s nuclear weapons program. A massive deployment of force and an information blockade that included the interruption of the telephone system and satellite broadcasts appeared to prevent large opposition crowds from gathering on the anniversary of the 1979 revolution. The government, meanwhile, assembled a large audience for one of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s boasting rants.
The green movement is far from dead; its long-term triumph remains more likely than not. But if the regime of Mr. Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gains confidence from the week’s events, it will be even less likely to respond to Western offers of a deal to end its race for a bomb. Instead it will press ahead with provocations, like the stepped-up enrichment of uranium that Mr. Ahmadinejad bragged of. That means the Obama administration will need to look for new ways to push back.
The administration has take some important steps in recent days. The Treasury Department brought new U.S. sanctions against companies and individuals associated with the Revolutionary Guard, and administration spokesmen have continued to speak out forcefully against the regime’s abuses. But more should be done to help the opposition. For example, the Internet and satellite television blockages might be overcome with more U.S. support for private groups working to counter the regime’s jamming and firewalls.
A rethinking of the administration’s sanctions strategy may also be in order. In addition to the Treasury measures, the State Department has been pursuing a new sanctions resolution at the U.N. Security Council — the fourth — that also would be aimed at the Revolutionary Guard. But there’s little indication that China’s resistance to the measure can be overcome unless most of the resolution’s teeth are removed. During his presidential campaign, President Obama spoke about much tougher measures — including steps to prevent Iran from importing gasoline and other refined products. The administration has since edged away from that idea, partly because of the difficulty of winning support from other governments and partly out of concern that it would persuade average Iranians to rally for rather than against their government.
Yet for every expert who argues that a shortage of gasoline would somehow help Mr. Ahmadinejad, there is one who believes it will deepen popular rejection of the regime. France, among other European governments, has been talking tough about the need for sanctions that bite; a U.S.-backed gasoline embargo would put that resolve to the test.
At a minimum, Mr. Obama should be prepared to welcome and sign into law legislation, now in a congressional conference committee, that would authorize U.S. sanctions against firms that sell gasoline to Iran or provide tankers and insurance. Secondary sanctions are a blunt instrument, especially when directed against companies from friendly countries. But the threat of them might be needed to prod the Security Council or an ad-hoc Western alliance into taking steps that will break the Iranian regime’s dangerous gathering of momentum.