Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Realpolitik, Change and the Iranian Struggles

I have almost given up on the Australian news media these days. It strikes me as sadly dumbed down and virtually irrelevant to anyone wanting to get some grasp of what's happening in the world and that includes our ABC. Since I've been catsitting over the last couple of weeks I've really largely ignored the TV and, of course, I don't bother with newspapers either. The internet gives me access to a wide variety of news sources, including analysis, undreamt of 15 years ago in Brisbane when I would buy Guardian Weekly to complement the daily papers but could rely on a good news coverage and analysis from the ABC and SBS.

One of the news sites I like to check out is Asia Times Online (you can find out more about them here). Yesterday, I read two rather fascinating and somewhat contradictory articles about the situation in Iran. Even though their assessment of the situation there is contradictory, I think both shed fascinating light on the current crisis.

The first, 'Color' revolution fizzles in Iran, is by M K Bhadrakumar. Ambassador Bhadrakumar is "a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey." As the title suggests, Bhadrakumar holds no hope for a people power movement for democracy in Iran and believes the whole game is now over. on Ahmadinejad versus Mousavi, Bhadrakumar draws on the analysis of regime critic and author, Amir Taheri to say:

Taheri estimates that while Mousavi's fame might have spread far and wide in the Western intelligence circles, his principal appeal at home is confined to the urban middle classes who wish the "Khomeinist revolution would just fade away ... People like Mousavi and former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani have long ceased to be regarded as genuine revolutionaries".

From another direction, Taheri came to virtually the same definitive conclusion as the Israeli intelligence chief reached. Namely, that a weak interlocutor without a "Khomeinist base" like Mousavi could never make concessions that the US, the Europeans and the Arabs demanded, whereas Ahmadinejad can afford a softening of position as it will only seem a clever maneuver. Paradoxically, negotiating with Ahmadinejad might prove easier for the West, as he has a genuine constituency.

Looking back at the past four years, the fact remains that Ahmadinejad restored the connectivity of the regime with the radical populist discourse. "Four years ago", Taheri writes, "the image of the regime was one of a clique of mid-ranking mullahs and their business associates running the country as a private company in their own interest. The regime's 'downtrodden' base saw itself as the victim of a great historic swindle. Under Ahmadinejad, a new generation of revolutionaries has come to the fore, projecting an image of piety and probity, reassuring the 'downtrodden' that all is not lost."

Ahmadinejad's populism is a double-edged sword. If carried too far, it may undermine the legitimacy of the regime, which included corrupt sections of the clerical establishment. But Ahmadinejad is a clever politician. He has certainly grown while on the job these past four years. Although he self-portrayed with gusto as a locomotive that charges ahead without brakes or reverse gear, he knew where to stop and when to glance over his shoulder. Thus, he hit at many corrupt practices and threatened to bring key figures to justice, but stopped short of landing the big catch. The big question is whether Ahmadinejad will cast his net wide in his second term....

As Taheri put it, "So-called 'Iran experts' did not realize that Mousavi was a balloon that a section of the Iranian middle class inflated to show its anger not only at Ahmadinejad but also at the entire Khomeinist regime. Otherwise, there is nothing in Mousavi's record ... to make him more attractive than Ahmadinejad."

But what I found most fascinating about this article was the way Bhadrakumar outlines some of the realpolitik being played out internationally involving most surpisingly Israel as well as the United States:

the first warning that the adventurous project to mount a "Twitter revolution" in Iran was doomed to fail had to come from the Israelis....

In an extraordinary media leak at the weekend, just as Khamenei's historic speech at the Friday prayer meeting in Tehran ended, Meir Dagan, head of Israel's Mossad, let it be known that a win by Iranian opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in the presidential election on June 12 would have spelled "big problems" for Israel.
Israelis have a way of saying things. It was a subtle acknowledgement of political realities in Tehran. Speaking to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset (parliament) last Tuesday, Israel's spymaster could foresee that the protests in Iran would run out of steam. According to Ha'aretz newspaper, Dagan said: "Election fraud in Iran is no different than what happens in liberal states during elections. The struggle over the election results in Iran is internal and is unconnected to its strategic aspirations, including its nuclear program."

He explained: "The world, and we, already know Ahmadinejad. If the reformist candidate Mousavi had won, Israel would have had a more serious problem, because it would need to explain to the world the danger of the Iranian threat, since Mousavi is perceived in the international arena as a moderate element. It is important to remember that he is the one who began Iran's nuclear program when he was prime minister."

The assessment is faultless, perfect. By a masterstroke in "back-channel" diplomacy, Israel signaled to Tehran it had nothing to do with any "color" revolution. It was a timely signal. Indeed, divisions have come to surface that have existed for years within the Iranian regime. But it is very obvious that there is no scope for a "color" revolution in today's Iran.
He then continues:

At the end of it all, the international community can only heave a sigh of relief that while this complex and extremely confusing political drama unfolded, George W Bush was no more in the White House in Washington. United States President Barack Obama could grasp the subtleties of the situation and adopted a well-thought-out, measured policy and broadly stuck to it despite apparent pressure from conservatives.

His remarks have not even remotely called into question Ahmadinejad's locus standii, let alone Khamenei's, to lead the country. Nor has Obama identified himself with Mousavi's call for a new poll. If anything, he ostentatiously distanced himself from Mousavi. Certainly, not once did Obama threaten to go back on his offer to directly engage Iran in the near future.

Most fascinatingly, he concludes:

Clearly, the Iranians took note that Obama's statements remained carefully modulated, although Voice of America might have meddled in the turmoil, as Tehran alleges. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki's broadside on Saturday in Tehran singled out Britain, France and Germany, but omitted any reference to the US (or Israel). Among European countries, Tehran trained its guns on Britain.

Clearly, it's in the interests of the US to keep the situation in Iran 'stable' even if it means a government led by Ahmadinejad under Khamenei. It's Iranian influence that keeps a form of stability in Iraq thus enabling a US withdrawal form the Bush disaster so as to concentrate on its main game in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Again, here there is a certain confluence of interests. Neither Iran or the US want a restored Taliban regime in Afghanistan and both are regarded as the enemy by the Al Qaida inspired movements. Certainly, in Pakistan the country's Shiite minority has been regularly targetted by Taliban and Al Qaida militants and Afghan Shiites suffered grievously under the Taliban regime.

But I was struck by the way Israel saw its interests best served by the maintenance of the Iranian status quo. A reformist Iranian government swept into office by a tide of people power is likely to have a greater moral authority with the world than the current regime and would thus put Israel under greater scrutiny and pressure. A democratic Iran is certainly not going to be a pro-Zionist country. It was only under the Shah's dictatorship that there were friendly relations between Israel and Iran, demonstrating that greater freedom and democracy in the Middle East is not in the interests of the Zionist state, especially under its current rightwing government. Ironically, Netanyahu and Ahmadinejad need each other.

In contrast to Bhadrakumar, Pepe Escobar is far more upbeat. I have long been a willing reader of Escobar in a variety of online forums and have always had respect for his analysis. So maybe he is calling something promising in his piece Meet Shah Ali Khamenei. Escobar clearly admires former President Mohammad Khatami (as do I; I'm sure a lot of the neo-cons and Busheviks in Washington were glad to see him replaced by the easily demonised Ahmadinejad). He says:

The key move for the next few days revolves around Grand Ayatollah Husayn Montazeri's call for three days of mourning for the dead, from Wednesday to Friday. The progressive view in Tehran - and among the exiled Iranian intelligentsia - is that this is a very sophisticated, back to 1979, civil disobedience code, suggesting citizens should go indefinitely on strike.

To strike is safer, and much more subversive, than hitting the streets and being bloodied by the paramilitary Basiji. Strikes were a fundamental element for the success of the revolution 30 years ago. Montazeri is also subtly signaling the strategy to seduce Iran's silent majority - which may hover around 30% to 40% of the total population. This strategy, judiciously applied over the next few days and weeks, may expand the people power river into a formidable ocean.

It's as if an irresistible force might be whispering in his ear - "Mr Montazeri, tear down this [Islamic] wall."

Meanwhile, at street level, people power will be grieving the dead but at the same time fighting the state's implacable crackdown on all forms of modern technology by resorting to ... paper. Welcome to the 21st century return of the samizdat (distribution of government-suppressed literature or other media in Soviet-bloc countries).

In only one week, the green revolution, then people power, in Iran, has morphed into an entity way beyond Mousavi. The anger, rage, sense of having suffered a tremendous injustice (never underestimate this feeling in a Shi'ite society), the pent-up resentment; these emotions were so phenomenal, the regime so lost control of the arena of political debate, and the repression has been so brutal. A very simple idea underneath it all has finally revealed itself: we are fed up. You are liars. Death to the dictator. Allah-O Akbar. And we will cry every night, across our rooftops, at the top of our lungs, and we will not be silenced, until you get the message...

Mousavi, Khatami, Montazeri - they are not neo-revolutionaries (much less counter-revolutionaries). They are all accepting the principles and institutions of the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Basiji, but criticizing "deviations and deceptions", in the language of Mousavi and Khatami. They want nothing else but the "return of the pure principles of the Islamic Revolution". And they are keen to stress this implies every single form of freedom of expression.

People power in Iran now dreams of a constant, no-holds-barred dialogue taking place within civil society. And this step ahead does not necessarily have to do with Iran adopting Western liberal democracy. Persians are way too sophisticated; the whole thing goes way, way beyond. It's as if a road map was being laid out not only for Iran's post-modern remix of the French Revolution, but for Islam's Reformation as well. This is as serious as it gets

I hope he's right because the Iranian Revolution deserves a chance to break out of its theocratic straight jacket. But I suspect that, sadly the pragmatic diplomat might be closer to the mark. But there was one final piece of information in Escobar's piece which really brought home to me, despite all the demonising of Iran and Shiite Islam over the decades in the West, how much Iranian Islam shares with the West in terms of a common intellectual legacy. Escobar observes re the structure of Iranian government with it's Supreme Jurisprudent and Guardian Council superintending the whole political process "Khamenei's central thesis of velayat-e-faqih (the rule of jurisprudence) was never a divine revelation... it was influenced by Khomeini's reading of human, oh-so-human Plato and Aristotle"

Plato and Aristotle! I'm wondering whether Plato's Republic might be the text that was most influential for Khomeini. Earlier in the decade, I was part of a history of literary criticism reading group at UQ and I remember us reading the Republic. At the time some of us noted how much Plato's system resembled aspects of the ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic church. And Plato's ideas have also been brought to bear in Iran. A Platonic Islamic Republic!

UPDATE: Escobar has another piece in today's ATO, The Streets are Lost, but Hope Returns. It's definitely worth a read. I'm not certain if he's moving towards Bhadrakumar's 'pragmatic' position. Even if he is, he can still conclude:

The 1978/1979 Iranian revolution lasted, back to back, roughly one year. The seeds of the next one have already been planted. The angel of history silently surveys it all.

I hope so.

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