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

Thomas Friedman Could Not Be Reached for Comment

Link:

The Chinese government has intensified its crackdown on the internet, describing online criticism of the ruling Communist party as illegal and airing a televised confession from one of the country’s most popular online commentators.

An article in Monday’s edition of the influential party journal “Seeking Truth” described online criticism of the party and government as “defamation”, while Chinese-American investor and internet personality Charles Xue appeared on state television in handcuffs on Sunday to praise new legislation that in effect criminalises online dissent.

The moves are part of a wider campaign launched in recent weeks by newly installed President Xi Jinping to stifle calls for political reform in China and assert control over the country’s unruly internet.

Mr Xue, who boasts 12m followers on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo, was arrested in August for allegedly hiring prostitutes for group sex sessions, but most analysts and even senior officials say his arrest was intended as a warning to other prominent internet personalities.

There was no mention of the prostitute allegations in a 10-minute segment aired on China Central Television on Sunday, during which a chastened Mr Xue described how he had contributed to an “illegal and immoral” atmosphere on the Chinese internet.

“I felt like the emperor of the internet,” Mr Xue said when describing the thrill of speaking directly to more than 12m followers. “How do you think that felt? Awesome.”

The shackled Mr Xue also praised a legal interpretation issued by China’s judicial authorities last week, which allows people to be prosecuted for defamation or “spreading online rumours” if their posts are viewed by more than 5,000 internet users or forwarded more than 500 times.

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.

Internet Freedom--or the Lack Thereof--in China

Paul Rosenzweig reports on what one has to put up with:

  • The one time I thought to go to an Internet cafe for access, I was waved off by my guide.  Turns out I would have had to show my passport (which was back in the hotel in a safe) to get access.
  • We had a Gmail account (since deleted) for email contact.  Every time I tried to access it the processing got =very= slow.  By contrast, all the connections to Chinese websites were quite quick.  I strongly suspect that some serious filtering was slowing access.
  • The same was true for access to non-Chinese, Western web sites.  Efforts, for example, to navigate to cnn.com or google.com proved to be exercises in either patience or frustration.  In the end, I had better things to do with my time and mostly gave up.
  • The highlight (or lowlight) of the exercise was on my last attempt to get to the Gmail account.  I was using Internet Explorer 7 (old stuff) and as I went to the Gmail page, an explosion of pop-up web pages started propagating.   It got up to 58 different browsers opened before I could halt it with a 3-finger (CTL-ALT-DEL) hard stop.  I haven’t seen a virus (I assume it was a virus) like that on a US computer in several years.

I'd very much like to visit China, and I might be willing to put up with all of this hassle in order to do so. But it is a hassle. And it shouldn't be. Contra Rousseau, man may not have been born free, but in a host of places, he is in chains.

Jean-Paul Sartre: Apologist for Tyranny

Good Sartre jokes aside, his reputation deserves to take a serious hit:

. . . starting in the mid-1940s, and increasingly over the next 10 years, Sartre begins to worship at another altar: the altar of Communism. This is an ideology that has notoriously little use for individual freedom; instead of human beings freely making themselves, it sees them acting out the roles imposed on them by the class struggle. In the mission statement for Les Temps Modernes, the magazine he launched in 1945, Sartre seems to reject any notion of artistic independence. The writer, he now believes, is always already committed to history, and has no choice but to take part in the political battles of his day. “The writer is situated in his time; every word he utters has reverberations. As does his silence,” Sartre warns.

In the pages that follow, we witness the strange and, eventually, repellent spectacle of this tribune of freedom becoming an apologist for the worst kinds of oppression, so long as it comes waving the banner of liberation. A key text here is “Portrait of the Adventurer,” published in 1950 as the introduction to a book about writers who were also men of action, like T.E. Lawrence and Andre Malraux. Subversively, Sartre turns his piece into a rejection of precisely that type of human being, in favor of what he calls “the militant”—that is, the militant Communist, the party member. When he writes, “Rather than taking your ego from you, the Party gives it to you,” he means this as high praise: the militant extinguishes his individual personality and becomes a pure function of the class struggle. “He is never alone because he discovers himself through the others. He possesses neither depth nor secrets.” At the end of this hymn to soullessness, even Sartre himself seems to recoil: “Yet a socialist society in which future Lawrences would be radically impossible would strike me as sterile,” he confesses.

Eventually, Sartre wised up . . . kinda:

By 1968, the Soviet crackdown on Czechoslovakia left Sartre with no choice but to abandon his illusions about the U.S.S.R. “The Socialism That Came In From the Cold,” his essay on Czech culture under communism, is as clear-eyed an analysis as any dissident could offer. Yet even then, he condemns this socialism in the name of a potentially better one. By then, he has transferred his illusions about liberation to the Third World. In his famous introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, he writes with unconcealed glee about the prospect of Algerians killing their former masters, which happen to be the French. At the bottom of much of Sartre’s politics, in fact, there lies a frank enjoyment of hatred, which also expresses itself in some of his polemics against enemies and former friends. That is why We Have Only this Life to Live ends up seeming less like an inspiration than an existential warning: a great intellect alone, it shows, does not make a great man.

 

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.

What the Chinese People (Shockingly) Don't Know

June 4th was the 24th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre. NPR reports  that thanks to Chinese government censorship, a lot of people know very little about the history of the massacre:

. . . it's important to remember that a lot of people here have some familiarity with what happened 24 years ago, but a lot of people aren't that clear on it. For instance, I'll just give you an example. Back in 1997 when I first came to Beijing, I met a number of young women - they were in their 20's - and they were chatting with some American men. And the American men said, you know, we really respected what the Chinese did back in 1989 and that man standing up against those tanks.

And the women said: What man? What tanks? They hadn't actually ever seen that image. More people now, because the Internet is so big here, have seen it. But by and large, people aren't that familiar with what actually happened.

In China, Big Brother is winning. 

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.