Hassan Rohani: Really NOT a Moderate

So, much of the media is making a fuss over the possibility that we might actually have an Iranian president who acknowledges the Holocaust and all of its horrors--including the horrors specifically visited on Jews. It's amazing that we are still debating whether the Holocaust happened, and it is even more amazing still that there are those who are positively rejoicing at the possibility that Hassan Rohani may potentially be not quite as antediluvian as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but given all of the fatuous nonsense that we had to put up with during the Ahmadinejad presidency--including, but not limited to Holocaust denial--I suppose I can understand if people want to celebrate small victories.

Only, here's the problem: We may not have even a small victory to celebrate. As Michael Moynihan writes, Rohani is not nearly as enlightened on the Holocaust as some might want to believe he is. Consider the following regarding a recent Rohani interview on CNN:

. . . Christiane Amanpour, an Iranian-Brit who apparently speaks Farsi, asked the inevitable question, the one that would uncover further evidence of moderation and counterbalance the sinister views of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who famously revealed himself to be an amateur scholar of the Second World War: Does the right honorable gentleman from Tehran believe the Holocaust actually happened? The translator, perhaps fearing that rendering every word would weaken the meaning, offered the following English rendering of Rouhani’s response: “I’ve said before that I am not a historian and that when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust, it is the historians that should reflect on it. But in general I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime that Nazis committed towards the Jews as well as non-Jews is reprehensible and condemnable. Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn...”

A bit slippery, but surely an improvement over Ahmadinejad's contention that Auschwitz was an elaborate hoax. But according to the Fars News Agency—which is just like a real news agency, except run by Iran’s psychopathic Revolutionary Guards—this wasn’t exactly what Rouhani said:

“I have said before that I am not a historian and historians should specify, state and explain the aspects of historical events, but generally we fully condemn any kind of crime committed against humanity throughout the history, including the crime committed by the Nazis both against the Jews and non-Jews, the same way that if today any crime is committed against any nation or any religion or any people or any belief, we condemn that crime and genocide. Therefore, what the Nazis did is condemned, (but) the aspects that you talk about, clarification of these aspects is a duty of the historians and researchers, I am not a history scholar.”

*The Wall Street Journal verified the broad strokes of the Fars News Agency translation (no one else bothered), and there are indeed subtle but substantial difference between these two versions. So to recap: CNN probably botched a Farsi translation and an official Iranian news agency rushed to its leader’s defense, lest the libel spread that he acknowledged the Holocaust as a real historical event.

But while Revolutionary Guards philologists are rather insistent that Rouhani never said “Holocaust,” condemned “whatever criminality [the Nazis] committed against the Jews,” or said the word “reprehensible,” all agree that he employed the old Holocaust deniers tricks of “questioning” the death toll, averring that many others groups were also victims, and claiming that a well-established historical fact requires further examination by “historians and researchers,” while repeatedly pointing out that he is “not a historian” (Ahmadinejad told NPR in 2010, that he was “not a historian” but that “we should allow researchers to examine all sorts of questions because it's quite clear that when they do, they will reach different conclusions"). And even in CNN’s translation, Rouhani condemns unspecified “crimes,” while encouraging historians to “clarify” what actually happened.

Moynihan's entirely justifiable conclusion is that Rohani, just like any other "skilled Holocaust denier," "parses, dissects, and molests language, quibbling with the word 'denial'—they typically acknowledge that many Jews died, but were victims of various typhus epidemics—and wondering why shadowy forces are hamstringing dissenting historians." He tells us that there is little to no difference between Rohani on the one hand, and Holocaust-denying "historian" David Irving, who gets condemned by the New York Times, even though the Times claimed that Rohani was no Holocaust denier. To be sure, there are arguments back and forth over what Rohani really said, and you should read the whole of Moynihan's piece to get a sense of those arguments, but it would appear that we have yet more evidence that Hassan Rohani may not be the moderate that many think he is.

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

Hassan Rohani Is No Moderate

To wit. Of course, one does not have to be a "historian" to know that the Holocaust occurred anymore than one has to be a physician to know that the appendix is not responsible for higher cognitive functions. And of course, it should surprise precisely no one to see that the standard language used to denounce Israel remains in use.

Perhaps President Obama could write a letter to Rohani, reminding him that if one wants to be taken seriously as a moderate, one actually has to act like a moderate. And perhaps, we ought to put aside for the moment all of this talk about a thaw in relations between Iran and the rest of the world.

Oh, and don't say that you weren't warned that Rohani is no moderate.

Going from Bad to Worse (Syria Edition)

I missed the president's speech on Syria, but looking through it, I can't find anything that makes me feel more confident in the White House's handling of the situation. Chemical weapons are awful and horrendous things, but I don't see any rationale for making the use of chemical weapons the trigger for a possible American intervention, especially since before the use of these weapons, we've known that "[o]ver a hundred thousand people have been killed," and that "[m]illions have fled" Syria. It seems to me that we have had a monumental humanitarian catastrophe on our hands even before the use of chemical weapons. Why didn't we intervene before that catastrophe got worse, before chemical weapons were used? Other than telling us that "we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan," the president doesn't explain why humanitarian catastrophes brought about without chemical weapons are somehow less deserving of international attention than are humanitarian catastrophes brought about with chemical weapons.

The president tells us that "[i]f we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons," and that in addition, "other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them." But what reason do they have to stop now? Will the "unbelievably small" consequences that the Assad regime might have to face somehow deter the regime, or "other tyrants"? Will the fact that a coalition of the willing that is smaller, less coalesced and certainly less willing than its predecessor coalition--along with possible Russian assistance that will help Syria replace bombed assets--help deter the Assad regime, or "other tyrants"? We are told that if we do not intervene, fighting might possibly spill "beyond Syria’s borders," which would mean that "these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel." This raises some questions:

  1. How and why do we think that fighting might spill "beyond Syria's borders"? I have read my Clausewitz and I know that war is difficult to control, but why do we think that a civil war might possibly spread to other countries? By what particular mechanism will spillage occur?
  2. Who exactly will "threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel"? The Assad regime? If so, they would be fools to do so; such an act would directly bring American national security interests into the picture and spell the regime's doom. Seeing as how it is not in the regime's interests to destroy itself with so brazen and militaristic an act, one rather doubts that they will do so. The Syrian rebels? If so, why are we potentially acting to help them?

There are, of course, no answers to these questions in the president's speech. But the president goes on to tell us that

. . . a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.

Look, Iran wants nuclear power. We all know that. The Iranians have wanted nuclear power since the shah's time. Given this history, how seriously can anyone take the administration's claim that Assad's use of chemical weapons will encourage the Iranians to get nuclear weapons, when history plainly shows that Iran has not waited for the Assad regime's cue in order to work to obtain nuclear power?

The president goes on to promise "targeted strikes," and swears up and down that the campaign will not be "open-ended," or "prolonged," which is just another way of assuring the Assad regime that if it hunkers down, it will survive any American attack and that once the attacks are finished, the regime can go ahead and continue to gas opponents. How this is expected to constitute deterrence is anyone's guess.

Later on, we get this:

Other questions involve the dangers of retaliation. We don’t dismiss any threats, but the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military. Any other -- any other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day. Neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise. And our ally Israel can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakable support of the United States of America.

If this is the case, then why worry that fighting might possibly spill "beyond Syria’s borders," which would mean that "these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel"? If "[n]either Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise," why do we think that there may be spillage? The president plainly believes that Assad won't encourage or bring about such spillage and if there are elements in the Syrian opposition that might encourage or bring about such spillage, then we shouldn't be helping them, should we? And if "our ally Israel can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakable support of the United States of America," then doesn't that mean that spillage--while potentially a serious issue--is one that we can handle without the use of preemptive airstrikes that are too weak to accomplish anything in the first place?

I chuckled a little bit when the president said that "al-Qaida will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death." I presume that he would have no problem with the following very similar statements:

  • "Al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Iraq if people see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death."
  • "Al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Iraq if people see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being persecuted, tortured and executed for their political beliefs."
  • "Al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Afghanistan if people see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being persecuted, tortured and executed for their political beliefs."

I had no idea that the president is secretly a fan of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He must be, because similar logic applies to both countries. You learn something new everyday.

The latest development in the Syrian sitzkrieg is that John Kerry, our secretary of state, stepped in it recently:

This, apparently, is how diplomacy happens these days: Someone makes an off-hand remark at a press conference and triggers an international chain reaction that turns an already chaotic and complex situation completely on its head, and gives everyone a sense that, perhaps, this is the light at the end of the indecision tunnel. 

Speaking in London next to British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that perhaps the military strike around which the administration has been painfully circling for weeks could be avoided if Bashar al-Assad can "turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that.” 

The fact that Kerry immediately followed with, “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously,” didn't seem to bother anyone. (Probably because they were focusing on his other slip-up: calling the promised strikes "unbelievably small.")

The Russians immediately jumped on the impromptu proposal, calling Kerry to check if he was serious before going live with their proposal to lean on Syria. An hour later, they trotted out Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Mouallem, who said he too was down with the proposal, which was a strange way to get the Syrians to finally admit they even had chemical weapons to begin with. Before long, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, the English, and the French were all on board, too.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, the White House was just as surprised as anyone. Asked if this was a White House plan that Kerry had served up in London, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken was unequivocal. "No, no, no," he said. "We literally just heard about this as you did some hours ago."

So that's good. At least everyone's on the same page.

Read the whole thing. While reading, be sure to remember that John Kerry once wanted to be president. Probably still does. Anyone want to tell me how easy it will be to (a) stop a civil war; and (b) send in an international force that removes all chemical weapons before (c) announcing to civil war participants that it's okay for them to shoot at each other again? Or will we just not bother with (a)? As Julia Ioffe notes, this proposal--and its possible embrace--mean that "Moscow and Damascus have all the time in the world, and the Kremlin, which has never met a legal norm it couldn't waltz around, will quibble and hair-split and insist that this is all done legally—whatever that means in Moscow." The Obama administration has officially been bamboozled out of its ability to launch "unbelievably small" strikes against the Syrian regime, which takes some doing, if you ask me.

If all of this is not bad enough for you, read Colum Lynch:

A day after President Obama expressed hope of a "breakthrough" on Syria's chemical weapons, Britain, France, and United States clashed on Tuesday with Russia over the terms of a plan that would place Syria's chemical weapons under international supervision and require Syria to join the international Chemical Weapons Convention.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dubbed a U.S.-backed French initiative threatening possible military action against Syria "unacceptable." The plan to monitor Syria's chemical weapons "can work only if we hear that the American side and all those who support the United States in this sense reject the use of force," Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a television address.

The Russian stance left in disarray Western plans to establish a legally binding inspection regime, backed by the threat of force. The move also raised questions about whether a diplomatic breakthrough welcomed by President Obama is still in reach. Yet Security Council diplomats said that Russia's abrupt decision on Tuesday to drop its demand for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council suggested there was still hope of diplomatic progress.

In an effort to overcome Russian opposition, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry plans to travel to Geneva to meet on Thursday with Lavrov. American, British, and French diplomats, meanwhile, pressed ahead here at the United Nations with efforts to refine the French U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government and placing Syria's chemical weapons program "under international control" in preparation for their destruction.

If they succeed in gaining passage of their resolution, they will give the United Nations a new reason to do business with President Assad. The senior Arab diplomat said, "This all reminds me of Iraq, when Kofi Annan said he has a partner in Saddam Hussein," who then spent years in a cat-and-mouse game with U.N. weapons inspectors. "Do we know we have a partner in Bashar al-Assad?"

All of which means that the proper response to the question posed by the title of Lynch's column is "yes." But hey, let's "trust the Russians." What could possibly go wrong with that plan?

Finally, to close out this very long post, let's take a trip down memory lane. Somewhere, Mitt Romney laughs.

The Rush to Feel-Good Belligerency

Some more useful links analyzing our seeming willingness to get involved in a completely unnecessary war:

  • Once upon a time, Barack Obama inveighed against unilateralism and thought that getting United Nations approval for American military actions overseas would be a good idea. Nowadays? Not so much.
  • Even if we bomb Syria, Russia might "replace any military assets the U.S. destroys in a strike." Assuming no Russian interference whatsoever, our strikes would be of limited value. But if the Russians work to help the Syrians replace bombed assets, our ability to change the situation on the ground for the better might be even further reduced. And are we really willing to get into a proxy war with the Russians in a conflict where no American national security interests whatsoever are at stake?
  • Seriously? I mean, who actually thought that this enterprise would bear fruit?
  • Once again, it is worth noting that the new coalition of the willing is less coalesced and less willing than its predecessor coalition.
  • Searching for fourteen missing people is going to require some big milk cartons.

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.

More on the First Round of the Iranian Presidential Election

In this post, I pleaded with Iranian reformists not to boycott the Iranian presidential elections in response to regime efforts to curb moderate and reformist participation in the political process. As I mentioned, "[t]he 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."

Apparently, this blog is rather well-read in Iran, because my calls were heeded:

. . . many veteran Iran political watchers, who had expected a conservative winner in what had been a carefully vetted and controlled campaign, expressed surprise.

“If the reports are true, it tells me that there was a hidden but huge reservoir of reformist energy in Iran that broke loose in a true political wave,” said Cliff Kupchan, an Iran analyst for the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm in Washington. “It was unpredictable — not even tip of the iceberg visible two days or three days ago — but it seems to have happened.”

Farideh Farhi, an Iranian scholar at the University of Hawaii, while careful not to draw conclusions until the official result was known, said it was clear that reformists and other disaffected voters in Iran had summoned energy to mobilize for a heavy turnout despite their own doubts about the system.

“Everyone’s assumption was they would not be able to create a wave of voters in the society,” Ms. Farhi said. “This outcome was not something planned by Ayatollah Khamenei.”

The mood in the country led to the reformist decision to participate heavily in the election:

In surveys and interviews throughout the campaign, Iranians have consistently listed as their top priorities the economy, individual rights and the normalization of relations with the rest of the world. They also said they saw the vote as a way to send a message about their displeasure with the direction of the country, which has been hobbled by economic mismanagement and tough Western sanctions, stemming from the government’s refusal to stop enriching uranium.

This episode should teach reformists that they have the numbers and the power to change the political process for the better if they insist on continuing to participate in that process. Hopefully, there will be no more talk of boycotts and no more arguments that reformists should abstain from politics. Yes, the hardliners will do everything within their power to prevent reformists from changing Iran for the better, but reformists shouldn't make the hardliners' job easier by deserting the political field. 

I do have to take issue with one part of the Times story, in which we are told that Hassan Rohani's "closest competitor in the early results, Mr. Ghalibaf, is also considered a moderate, a strong manager who has improved the quality of life in Tehran in his eight years as mayor." Qalibaf is a moderate? Really?

Is Iran’s presidential hopeful Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf a hard-liner or a moderate? It depends on his audience, apparently.

Recordings of two starkly different accounts given by Qalibaf of his role in the crackdown against protests have emerged online.

One recording was allegedly made
 at a meeting Qalibaf is said to have held a few weeks ago with hard-line Basij students.

In it Qalibaf, Tehran's mayor and a former Revolutionary Guards air force commander, appears to take credit for cracking down on Iran’s student movement. He says he personally beat up students with batons in the 1999 crackdown in Tehran and obtained permission from Iran’s Supreme National Security Council to shoot at student protesters in 2003. The Basij forces in recent years have been accused of being actively involved in repressive measures against students.

Yet, a few weeks later, in another meeting with students at Tehran’s Sharif University, Qalibaf had a very different account of the same 2003 event: He said he received the order to shoot at students but refused to do so.

Qalibaf's contradictory accounts appear to be part of an attempt to appeal to voters from different sides of the political spectrum as the June 14 presidential election approaches.

Why would any Iranian trust a presidential candidate who talks out of both sides of his mouth like this?

 

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.

All Hail Kambiz Hosseini

If you were an Iranian living in Iran, you would seek some sanity in the midst of all of the lunacy your own government keeps inundating you with. Thankfully, Kambiz Hosseini is dedicated to spreading sanity

In the world of Iranian actor Kambiz Hosseini, almost everything about his country's presidential elections is side-splittingly funny.

"Becoming the president of Iran is like making a James Bond movie," Hosseini said in a recent CBCRadio program. "The characters stay the same, but they just keep changing the actors." He goes on to single out each one of the eight men selected last month by Iran's Guardian Council to contend for the presidency, leaving no one unblemished.

Hosseini's scathing and hysterical news podcast, is an essential part of the weekly media diet of Iran's middle class. Produced by the New York-based 
International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, and incorporating sound bites from the week's headlines and commentary from Hosseini, the show channels the pathos of a generation desperate to intervene in a meaningful way in Iran's political charades.

Gaining access to Hosseini's show can be a complicated affair for Iranians. In Iran's capital, Tehran, years of Internet censorship and a crackdown on independent media that intensified after the 2009 Green Movement have transformed the way Iranians consume media. In a thriving city of 12 million, unfettered access to the Internet and satellite television channels has long been out of reach. Yet with less than a week before the nation goes to the polls to elect a new president, the appetite for independent political commentary in Iran is perhaps at its highest point in the last four years, only to be met with increased government censorship of websites like Facebook, YouTube, and Google.

It's perhaps difficult for web and media savvy Americans to imagine what its like to consume news in Iran.

"People are sick and tired of the state-run agencies with anchors who sit in front of them and deliver news with this dry structure," Hosseini says. Full of energy and always talking at lightening speed on his weekly podcast, the Hosseini that sits before me at a Starbucks in lower Manhattan is more contemplative. Nicknames and political debauchery aside, the longer arch of Hosseini's career reflects someone genuinely interested in how acting and journalism can play out in the political arena.

Here's hoping that more people like Hosseini speak up, make Iranians laugh, offer them some relief from their day-to-day troubles, and bring about genuine and positive sociopolitical change in the country. Iran deserves no less.

Political Freedom--Or the Lack Thereof--in Iran

I really look forward to the day when I don't have to read stories like this one.  But I fear that day won't arrive for a very long time:

A senior Iranian diplomat linked to Iran's reformists, who has been detained at Tehran's notorious Evin Prison for three months, has been denied access to his attorney for the entire time, sources familiar with the case told Reuters on Monday.

Bagher Asadi, who was previously a senior diplomat at Iran's U.N. mission in New York and most recently a director at the secretariat of the so-called D8 group of developing nations in Istanbul, was arrested in mid-March in Tehran for unknown reasons, sources said last month.

"He has a lawyer but he has been denied access to him for three months," a source familiar with the case told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "He (Asadi) has not been given the papers to sign by the authorities so he can see his lawyer. It's just a way of denying him (the lawyer) access to his client."

Another source confirmed the remarks. Iran's U.N. mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Heads: Iranian Hardliners Win. Tails: Iranian Reformists Lose.

It's not enough for the Islamic regime in Iran to disqualify certain reformist candidates for the presidency; it must also punish people who attend campaign meetings for reformist candidates who are actually allowed to run for president.

Stories like this one are why I have an objection to calling the regime a "theocracy." In fact, it is best to describe Iran's system of government as a theocratic mafiocracy. The regime is as corrupt as it is brutal, and its hardline faction has no compunction whatsoever about showing both its corruption and its brutality in trying to hold on to power.

The Ghosts of Lincoln and Douglas Weep

It's bad enough that the presidential election process in Iran consists of having hardliners eliminate reformist candidates so that the former can hold on to power without having to actually bother to steal the election (though 2009 showed quite clearly that hardliners are entirely willing and eager to steal an election if that is what it takes to hold on to power). It's even worse that the interaction amongst the candidates who are allowed to run makes it extra special clear that the Iranian presidential election is an utter farce:

Iran's first debate between candidates for the presidency degenerated into acrimony live on state television on Friday when, instead of discussing the economy, some of the hopefuls resorted to sniping over the questions and format.

The testy exchange between the moderator and reformist Mohammad Reza Aref, moderate Hassan Rohani, and conservative Mohsen Rezaie was the subject of wide ridicule by Iranian viewers who had tuned in for the four-hour discussion.

They were among eight candidates for the June 14 vote presenting their ideas on an 
economy buffeted by international sanctions over Iran's disputed nuclear program, rising unemployment, and inflation running at over 30 percent, according to official figures.

[. . .]

The debate's first half allowed the eight to give a three minute answer, with a 90 second response from the other seven. Then moderator Morteza Heydari asked them an economic question that could only be answered yes, no or with an abstention.

One question was: If you want to select an official for your administration, what is their most important quality? Candidates could choose between a lack of corruption, experience, expertise or prudence.

They were also presented with pictures, such as an agricultural scene, a market, or a cargo ship, and asked to say whatever came to mind.

[. . .]

The three, seated with their colleagues in a line of desks in front of a backdrop of flowers and rolling woodland, said the format was farcical and did not allow them to present their plans to the country or engage in dialogue with each other.

Several times they simply refused to answer the question.

"In honor of the dear people of my country I will sit here, but I will answer none of your test questions," said Aref, gesticulating with his pen towards the moderator standing in front of an image of Khamenei.

"I am a patient person and I can tolerate a lot," added Rezaie. "With these repetitive, discontinuous, short, one-to-three minute answers, the people are being harmed and the eight people up here are being insulted."

Rohani, the most prominent moderate candidate in an election dominated by hardliners, said: "People will see this style of debate as insulting."

I fearlessly predict that future debates will include the "if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?" question.

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.