Deeds. Not Words. Deeds.

Ray Takeyh is right on the money when he reminds us what we should expect from Hassan Rohani before we go around calling him "a reformer":

Rouhani's attempt to refashion Iran's image and temper its rhetoric should be welcomed. After eight years of Ahmadinejad provocations that often unhinged the international community, a degree of self-restraint is admirable. However, judge Tehran by its conduct and not its words.

It is not enough for Rouhani to condemn the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Is he prepared to withdraw the Revolutionary Guard contingents that have done much to buttress Assad's brutality?

It is not sufficient for Rouhani to speak of transparency; he must curb Iran's troublesome nuclear activities and comply with the U.N. Security Council resolutions.

And it is not enough for Rouhani to speak of a tolerant society unless he is prepared to free his many former comrades and colleagues who are languishing in prisons under false charges.

Rouhani's reliability has to be measured by his actions, not by his speeches or tweets.

There are many out there who are willing to believe that Rohani is a reformer based solely on cosmetic gestures and somewhat more mild rhetoric--especially when compared to Ahmadinejad. These people might very well be setting themselves up for a major disappointment

Very Interesting--and Ultimately Irrelevant--Facts about Ali Khamene'i

I will freely admit to finding Akbar Ganji's article about Iran's supreme leader fascinating--especially excerpts like this one:

As a young man, Khamenei loved novels. He read such Iranian writers as Muhammad Ali Jamalzadah, Sadeq Chubak, and Sadeq Hedayat but came to feel that they paled before classic Western writers from France, Russia, and the United Kingdom. He has praised Leo Tolstoy and Mikhail Sholokhov and likes Honoré de Balzac and Michel Zévaco, but he considers Victor Hugo supreme. As he told some officials of Iran’s state-run television network in 2004,

In my opinion, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is the best novel that has been written in history. I have not read all the novels written throughout history, no doubt, but I have read many that relate to the events of various centuries. I have read some very old novels. For example, say, I’ve read The Divine Comedy. I have read Amir Arsalan. I have also read A Thousand and One Nights. . . . [But] Les Misérables is a miracle in the world of novel writing. . . . I have said over and over again, go read Les Misérables once. This Les Misérables is a book of sociology, a book of history, a book of criticism, a divine book, a book of love and feeling.

Khamenei felt that novels gave him insight into the deeper realities of life in the West. “Read the novels of some authors with leftist tendencies, such as Howard Fast,” he advised an audience of writers and artists in 1996. “Read the famous book The Grapes of Wrath, written by John Steinbeck, . . . and see what it says about the situation of the left and how the capitalists of the so-called center of democracy treated them.” He is also a fan of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which he recommended in March 2002 to high-level state managers for the light it sheds on U.S. history: “Isn’t this the government that massacred the original native inhabitants of the land of America? That wiped out the American Indians? Wasn’t it this system and its agents who seized millions of Africans from their houses and carried them off into slavery and kidnapped their young sons and daughters to become slaves and inflicted on them for long years the most severe tragedies? Today, one of the most tragic works of art is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. . . . This book still lives after almost 200 years.”

So, Khamene'i has an intellectual and literary bent that I didn't know he possessed. I guess that is worth a "wow," or two, but ultimately, readings like this one do more to inform readers about Khamene'i's "leadership" than does the list of novels Khamene'i has claimed to have read. As mentioned in my recent New Atlanticist article (this in relation to the election of Hassan Rohani as Iran's new president), there is precedent for believing that an affinity for Western culture on the part of the leader of some adversary nation means that said leader is inclined to make that adversary nation into a friendly one (see, e.g., Yuri Andropov and his supposed fondness for jazz, which was supposed to bring about the new détente between the United States and the former Soviet Union). But as we saw in Andropov's case, an affinity for Western culture on the part of a foreign leader is not a sign that the leader in question is going to implement positive changes in his/her country's foreign policy. Something to remember as we contemplate the larger meaning of Khamene'i's supposed list of favorite novels.

Hassan Rohani May Disappoint Us Yet

My latest for the Atlantic Council discusses whether Hassan Rohani will prove himself a genuine reformer. On that issue, I have my doubts:

The Islamic Republic of Iran has a new president: Hassan Rouhani. There has been a lot of talk about Rouhani’s supposed political moderation and pragmatism, just as in 1982, there was talk that Yuri Andropov’s supposed fondness for jazz indicated a liking for the West in general, and the possibility that there would be a thaw in Soviet-American relations. In Andropov’s case, such thinking proved to be too optimistic. Similarly, there may be no justification for optimism in Rouhani’s case either; both because Rouhani has been a mainstay of the Islamic revolution in Iran, and because the Iranian president has significantly less power than many Western observers seem to think he does.

Read it all. Incidentally, it would appear that the Atlantic Council insists on spelling the new president's name as "Rouhani," when it should be "Rohani"; the first syllable rhymes with "roe" or "no." But as long as they keep publishing me, I will likely refrain from complaining.

The Iranian Presidential Elections: What Next?

Despite my disbelief  that Iran's theocrats would allow a perceived moderate to win the Iranian presidential election, a perceived moderate has gone ahead and done just that. It would appear that the turnout for the election was so significant and the votes for Hassan Rohani so overwhelming that the regime could not afford to implement the kind of post-election fraud that it tried to implement in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections.

So Rohani will become president on August 3, and the moderates have won one, right? Well, maybe not. I called Rohani "a perceived moderate" for a reason:

It’s not clear why much of the Western media continues to describe Iran’s newly elected president as a “moderate.” After all, Hassan Rouhani is a regime pillar: As an early follower of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Rouhani joined him in exile in Paris, and over the last 34 years, the 64-year-old Qom-educated cleric has held key positions in the regime’s political echelons, and served in top military jobs during Iran’s decade-long war with Iraq. As Iran’s chief interlocutor with the West on the regime’s nuclear portfolio, Rouhani boasted of deceiving his negotiating partners. Domestically, he has threatened to crush protestors “mercilessly and monumentally,” and likely participated in the campaign of assassinations of the regime’s Iranian enemies at home and abroad, especially in Europe. Currently, Rouhani serves as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s representative on the supreme national security council.

Aside from the fact that Iran’s English-language television station Press TV calls him a moderate, what exactly, in the eyes of the West, makes him one? After all, former president Muhammad Khatami labeled his public diplomacy campaign a “dialogue of civilizations,” which played right into Western ideas of tolerance and moderation. But Rouhani has nothing similar in his past.

“I think he gets that label because he has been Rafsanjani's factotum,” says former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, another regime pillar and former president of Iran, is typically referred to as a “pragmatist” in the Western press. “Compared to Khamenei's circle, these fellows seem moderate,” says Gerecht. “Rouhani ran their little think tank around which foreign-policy types, the types that Westerners meet, gathered. Also, Rouhani was party to the only temporary ‘freeze’ in Iran's nuke program. Some folks—most notably the EU's Javier Solana—made a lot out of this. They should not have.”

There is a difference between being a moderate and being clever. Rohani is certainly more clever than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose belligerence and outrageous statements caused the international community to rally against Iran, and he may be more moderate than Ali Khamene'i, who because of his weak theological credentials is not taken seriously by much of the clergy, and who has to rely on his hardline reputation and his relationship with Iran's Revolutionary Guards in order to keep power. But all of this does not moderation make. More:

Hassan Rowhani, Iran's president-elect, said he hopes the country can reach a new agreement with the West over its nuclear programme, but ruled out a halt to its controversial uranium enrichment programme.

Mr Rowhani, a moderate cleric who was declared winner of 
Iran's presidential election on Saturday, also described as unfair and unjustified sanctions imposed against the Islamic republic over the nuclear issue.

The 64-year-old's victory raised hopes of an easing of strained ties with Western nations, but he used his first news conference on Monday to rule out a halt to the enrichment programme.

"This period is over," Mr Rowhani said, referring to international demands for a halt to Tehran's uranium enrichment programme.

There were "many ways to build trust" with the West, he added, as Iran would be "more transparent to show that its activities fall within the framework of international rules".

No one should be surprised that the nuclear enrichment program is not ending anytime soon. Since the days of the shah, Iran has wanted nuclear power and it is utterly unremarkable that the Iranian government is continuing work to achieve nuclear capacity. But for those who might have thought that the "moderate" Rohani will curb Iran's nuclear program, news that he is resolved to continue it must come as a shock.

Rohani makes noises  about wanting better ties with the United States, but he won't engage in direct talks with the United States in order to bring about better ties. Thomas Erdbrink does a good job in describing the limits to Rohani's sense of "moderation":

. . . Mr. Rowhani, 64, is no renegade reformist, voted in while Iran’s leaders were not paying attention. Instead, his political life has been spent at the center of Iran’s conservative establishment, from well before Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the Islamic Revolution in the 1970s. And analysts say that Mr. Rowhani’s first priority will be mediating the disturbed relationship between that leadership and Iran’s citizens, not carrying out major change.

Even his nickname — “the diplomat sheik” — is testament to his role as a pragmatist seeking conciliation for the Islamic leadership. Whether in dealing with protesting students, the aftermath of devastating earthquakes or, in his stint as nuclear negotiator, working to ease international pressure as Iran moved forward with its nuclear program, Mr. Rowhani has worked to find practical ways to help advance the leadership’s goals.

To be sure, it will be interesting to see what happens next in Iran. Elections have consequences and the results of the Iranian presidential election will be sure to resonate . . . somehow. But as all Iran-watchers know, there are serious limits to the powers of the Iranian president. True power resides in the hands of Khamene'i, as the nation's supreme leader. And to the extent that Hassan Rohani has power, he may not use it in the service of moderation.

Surprising--and Unsurprising--News from the First Round of Iran's Presidential Election

First, the surprising news: The leading moderate candidate for the presidency has emerged as the strongest of all of the candidates after the first round of voting

Early results from Iran's presidential election put the reformist-backed candidate, Hassan Rouhani, in the lead.

With 2.9m ballots counted, the cleric had 1.46m votes, or 49.87%, well ahead of Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, with 488,000 votes, or 16.65%.

If no candidate wins more than 50%, a run-off will be held next Friday.

It remains to be seen if a second round can be avoided. If we end up having a second round, my fear is that at that point, the regime will work to ensure that the deck is stacked against Rohani. Unless the regime is absolutely determined to ensure that no one ever again accuses it of rigging presidential elections, I can't believe that it will allow a moderate to become president and give Ali Khamene'i yet another round of headaches.

And now, for the unsurprising news: 

Millions of Iranians took to the streets to demand a re-run after the last presidential election in June 2009, when the Supreme Leader dismissed claims by the three defeated candidates of widespread fraud.

Two of them, former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi and senior cleric Mehdi Karroubi, became leaders of a nationwide opposition known as the Green Movement, after its signature colour.

They were placed under house arrested in February 2011 when they applied to stage a protest in support of the anti-government uprisings which were sweeping the Arab world. They are still being detained.

No foreign observers are monitored this year's election and there have also been concerns that media coverage in the run-up has been unfair.

Many reformist newspapers have been shut down, access to the internet and foreign broadcasters restricted, and journalists detained.

On Thursday, the BBC accused the Iranian authorities of "unprecedented levels of intimidation" of BBC employees' families.

It said Iran had warned the families of 15 BBC Persian Service staff that they must stop working for the BBC or their lives in London would be endangered.

Tehran has so far made no comment on the allegation.

Proof positive that no matter who becomes president, the nature of the regime prevents the emergence of democratic discourse and the thriving of basic political/social/media freedoms.

Is This What Iranians Have to Look Forward to?

The frontrunner in the race to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran is Saeed Jalili. Don't know who Saeed Jalili is? Behold:

At his first presidential campaign rally, Saeed Jalili on Friday welcomed the cheers of thousands of young men as he hauled himself onto the stage. His movements were hampered by a prosthetic leg, a badge of honor from his days as a young Revolutionary Guards member in Iran’s great trench war with Iraq.

“Welcome, living martyr, Jalili,” the audience shouted in unison, most of them too young to have witnessed the bloody conflict themselves but deeply immersed in the national veneration of its veterans. Waving flags belonging to “the resistance” — the military cooperation among Iran, Syria, the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and some Palestinian groups — the crowd roared the candidate’s election slogan: “No compromise. No submission. Only Jalili.”

Mr. Jalili, known as Iran’s unyielding nuclear negotiator and a protégé of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is emerging as the presumed front-runner in Iran’s presidential election on June 14, an unsettling prospect for future relations with the West. Mr. Jalili, 47, who many analysts say has long been groomed for a top position in Iran, is by far the most outspoken hard-liner among the eight candidates approved to participate in the election.

Opposing “détente a hundred percent” and promising no compromise “whatsoever” with the West over matters like Iran’s nuclear program and involvement in Syria, Mr. Jalili seems set to further escalate Iran’s standoff with the United States and its allies if elected president.

“He seems to be Ahmadinejad Phase 2,” said Rasool Nafisi, an Iran expert based in Virginia, referring to Iran’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “He would probably not be a partner to negotiate for the nuclear issues, as we have seen before when he was headin
g the delegations.”

An analyst based in Iran, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, said Mr. Jalili was “the perfect follower of Khamenei.”

“If he gets elected I foresee even more isolation and conflict, as he doesn’t care about foreign relations, the economy or anything,” the analyst said.

The Iranian people can't catch a break, can they? Note as well the story's discussion of the blatant favoritism shown to Jalili by the regime and the media it controls. So much for democracy in Iran.

The State of Play Leading Up to the Iranian Presidential Election

As noted before, the notion that there is anything resembling democracy in Iran is nothing short of laughable. More can be found here on how the election has quickly turned into a farce. The BBC informs us--in what is, perhaps, the understatement of the year--that "[b]y the standards of democratic countries, presidential elections in Iran are neither free nor fair," something anyone not living under a rock since 1979 already knew. Human Rights Watch has more:

Serious electoral flaws and human rights abuses by the Iranian government undermine any meaningful prospect of free and fair elections on June 14, 2013. Dozens of political activists and journalists detained during the violent government crackdown that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election remain in prison, two former presidential candidates are under house arrest, and authorities are already clamping down on access to the internet, having arbitrarily disqualified most registered presidential and local election candidates.

As the elections approach, authorities have tightened controls on information by severely cutting back internet speeds and blocking proxy servers and virtual private networks that Iranians use to circumvent government filtering of websites. The authorities have also gone after government critics, summoning, arresting, and jailing journalists and bloggers, while preventing opposition figures and parties aligned with Iran’s reformist movement from participating in the elections by banning or severely restricting their activities.

“Fair elections require a level playing field in which candidates can freely run and voters can make informed decisions,” said 
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “How can Iran hold free elections when opposition leaders are behind bars and people can’t speak freely?”

How indeed? Of course, the system of repression put into place by the regime in Tehran affects far more than a mere presidential election, and has prompted a lot if righteous backlash from the Iranian artistic community (which is far more civilized and enlightened than Iran's current crop of "leaders" could ever hope to be). Quoth Asghar Farhadi, whose film A Separation was the first Iranian film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film:

THR: How was shooting The Past in France different? Did it help you with censorship back home?

Farhadi:
 I get the question very often if working abroad changed my way of working, specifically because of the restrictions and the fact that I had fewer restrictions here. The only image I can maybe use to try and say how I feel is that if you have been walking the same way for 40 years, and all of a sudden, they put you on a path that is flatter, more comfortable, less risky, you don't change your way of walking. You will still walk the same way. The difference is that you might just feel more reassured or more comfortable, because of the new path. I must say here in France I had more serenity or security as I was working, because I knew I was making the film the way I wished and that the film would be seen ultimately, which is not always the case in Iran. In Iran, you always work having in mind this worry of will I be able to carry on my project as I wish and will the audience see the film. Here, I didn't have these worries, for sure.

THR:
 How does censorship in Iran work these days? Any signs that the system is becoming more open or more restrictive?

Farhadi:
 The system happens to be very unpredictable. You can not say how it is, you can not describe it, because it is changing all the time. It's a new story every day. And maybe that's what makes it difficult for us. If there were specific rules, we would know how to deal with them or avoid them. Whereas now, your situation depends on the mood of the people who make the decisions. So, some day it feels more open, and some day all of a sudden it is more restrictive. And that's what makes it very difficult and unpredictable. You have to submit a film twice - first as a project when the script is written, and then just before releasing it. These are the two crucial moments we have. Seen from the outside, maybe it can be very surprising how under such pressure it is possible to still make films that have an impact and that give an impression of freedom and strength. This is because our filmmakers and artists in general go on fighting and finding ways of avoiding the censorship and creating despite all these restrictions. Sometimes they fail, sometimes they succeed.

The above does not a description of a free society make, and if anything, Farhardi understates the level of repression that afflicts Iran and the Iranian people. It is nice to see that the artistic community in Iran is finding ways to protest the repression that Iranians must put up with, but one wishes that they would not be given so much material by the regime.

In response to the disqualification of presidential candidates like Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani--who made noises supporting the Green Revolution back in 2009 and who is the closest thing the Iranian people have to a major reformer--and in response to the general sense of political and social oppression in Iran, there has been a lot of talk on the part of moderate and reformist voters about not even bothering to participate in the 2013 elections. After all, the candidates don't reflect reformist views, and there is a very good chance that like 2009, the election will be stolen again if the outcome goes against the wishes of hardliners in the regime. May I beseech any and all Iranians whose line of sight passes over this blog to please not engage in such a boycott? The regime would like nothing less than to see moderate and reformist voters disillusioned, dispirited, apathetic and un-engaged in the upcoming elections; after all, such a state of affairs makes it easier to elect hardliners without resorting to vote-rigging, and thus without generating controversy. If the regime wants to have the halls of government stacked with hardliners, it should be forced to engage in vote-rigging and it should be forced to generate controversy, crisis and scandal. The more this regime is forced to repeatedly show the world that it is illegitimate, tyrannical and utterly dishonest, the more Iranians will be prompted to replace this regime with a government more worthy of them. And let there be absolutely, positively no mistake whatsoever; the current regime is completely unworthy of the Iranian people, who have deserved better from their political class for a very long time now.