Last night I appeared on WCAX TV in Burlington, Vermont to discuss the uprising in Egypt and its possible repercussions around the region.

 
 
Gordon's column from Wednesday's Gulf News.

What was most surprising about Hillary Clinton's Iran comments was the lack of reaction they elicited here at home.
 

Wishful Thinking?

30/06/2009

 

Those of us who are not professional historians (and a few who are) tend to view the past through the wrong end of a telescope. We mark America’s independence on July 4, 1776, conveniently ignoring the fact that it took seven years of war and of peace negotiations before the declaration of Philadelphia became a reality. The French Revolution and overthrow of the monarchy are popularly associated with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. But on July 15 Louis the XVI was still very much king. It would be another three and a half years before he was guillotined.

In Iran the overthrow of the Shah is conveniently pegged in February 1979. But his departure was preceded by months of rising unrest, and was followed by two years of turmoil and political maneuvering as his would-be successors jockeyed for power.

What brings all of this to mind is the impassioned and heartfelt, but ultimately wishful, commentary on Iran that we have seen here in the West over the last two weeks. Ten days ago American news programs were showing video from Tehran and intercutting it with scenes from the Philippines in 1986, the Berlin Wall in 1989 and Boris Yeltsin at the Russian Parliament building in 1991. There was talk of “regime change” (a phrase one might have thought American pundits would have learned to avoid).

By last weekend those images were gone, as was the talk of a quick revolution. In there place were assurances that, whatever may happen in the short run, everything in Iran has changed. I’ve lost track of the number of pieces I’ve read that declared this moment the end of the First Phase of the Second Iranian Revolution.

Perhaps those other commentators are right. Perhaps, as happened in 1978-79, the deaths of the last month will set off a series of rolling, and ever-growing, mourning demonstrations that will shake a discredited regime to its core. Perhaps.

Or maybe nothing of the sort is going to happen. Maybe Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s regime, having demonstrated sufficient ruthlessness to intimidate every opponent who matters, will use the coming months to complete its evolution into a full-blown national security state. I have even read a few articles speculating that, like China after Tiananmen, what we have seen over the last three weeks will be the beginning of a process through which Iran evolves toward authoritarian openness. Again, maybe. But it is worth remembering that it took post-Tiananmen China a very long time to open up and become the officially-Communist-yet-free-market state we know today. Were I an Iranian I’d take little comfort from that analogy.

There are clearly two struggles going on in Iran right now: one in the streets where protests over a stolen election have become something bigger and more deeply felt; and another within the high councils of the regime.

One cannot rule out the possibility of a real revolution – a genuine change of political system, as occurred in the communist bloc in 1989, and in Iran itself a decade earlier – emerging from all of this. But it is equally, if not more, likely that any ‘change’ ultimately will be for the worse, involving a far-ranging and brutal crack down of which we have only seen the beginning combined, perhaps, with some reordering of figures at the top of the regime.

What absolutely bears watching in the coming weeks will be the reaction around the Arab World. Ahmedinejad has built a surprising following among ordinary Arabs with his heated denunciations of America, Israel and the West in general. The fact that a Persian Shiite could command such respect among ordinary Sunni Arabs always said less about him than about the widespread discontent many Arab citizens feel for their own governments. That, however, was before he stole an election with even less finesse than the average Arab president usually manages and sent paramilitaries into the street to put down protests in a way many ordinary Arabs will find depressingly familiar.

Whether this new Ahmedinejad remains an admired figure on the proverbial Arab Street may, in the near-to-medium term, tell us a lot about how receptive Arab citizens are to Barack Obama’s call for a new American relationship with the world of Islam. Among Arabs part of Ahmedinejad’s appeal always lay in the fact that he said the things Arabs longed to hear while having a degree of genuine popular legitimacy. With the legitimacy gone, will rhetoric alone be enough to maintain his image with this most unlikely constituency?

 
 

When questions about engaging with Iran come up at my talks and lectures I try to remind the audience that engagement is a two-way thing. Even before the present crisis I had seen little evidence the Iranian government was eager to engage with us. This does not mean we shouldn’t try – even now, we absolutely should – it does mean we need a back-up plan in case negotiations never get started in the first place.

The last few days have offered ample evidence that the people currently running Iran are more interested in scapegoating the West in a bid to cover up their own brutal actions than in engaging on any level. For all the discussion about whether the events of the last two weeks should alter President Barack Obama’s desire to ease America’s long cold war with Tehran, engagement is probably going to have to wait if only because it is hard to see the Iranian government showing much interest in it anytime soon.

First there were Supreme Leader Ali Khameini’s charges that the U.S. and Britain were behind the unrest. Then came President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s demand that President Obama “apologize” for his carefully-measured criticisms. Finally, on CNN this afternoon, the Iranian ambassador to Mexico blamed the CIA for the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan, the protestor whose much-viewed death from a sniper’s bullet has made her the face of this would-be revolution. According to the New York Times, one Iranian newspaper is making the even more ludicrous claim that a BBC correspondent had her killed.

The strange thing is that a lot of the people spouting this nonsense may actually believe it. The Middle East has long been especially fertile ground for conspiracy theories – a tendency reinforced by the fact that a few especially wild-sounding plots (the Lavon Affair, Iran-Contra, the fact that Kim Philby really was a spy posing as a journalist) actually were true.

It is easy for us in the West to dismiss the sort of rhetoric that has been coming out of Iran as the credibility-challenged ravings of a regime that has little to fall back on. But anyone familiar with the Middle East knows there is a portion of the population inclined to view the world in this way. I suspect this sudden spate of accusations and conspiracy theories is mainly an effort to rally the regime’s base (in the councils of power as much as, if not more than, in the streets) rather than turn back the protests.

The thing to watch will be the degree of traction the charges achieve, particularly among the young. Just as Republican accusations that Obama is a “socialist” have lacked resonance with younger Americans who remember the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall only as boring stuff they suffered through in history class, so it may be that the demon-like United States conjured by the Iranian leadership will not resonate with the under-40 crowd who have little or no memory of the Shah.

The rhetoric of the last week is also a helpful reminder that Iran’s leaders may have the upper hand, but they are clearly feeling cornered and put-upon. Conspiracy theories allow them to retreat to a familiar world-view at a moment when, from their perspective, everything appears suddenly shaky.

For the people currently running Iran the question is whether the accusations of foreign perfidy will be enough to shore up their power. For America this will be a test of the “Obama Effect”. Will the president’s personal popularity, his visibly measured response and his oft-stated desire to deal respectfully with the Muslim World earn him the credibility and good-will America is going to need? As with everything else in Iran it is too early to say, but the result bears watching.

 
 

At the risk of being labeled a wet blanket at a potentially great and paradigm-shifting juncture of history, it needs to be said that American television news coverage of Iran ought to come with a warning label.

There is the obvious observation that pundits who specialize in the analysis of Washington politics do not necessarily know any more about Iran than the guy you sat next to on the subway this morning – they’re simply less willing to admit it. What is less obvious is the degree to which broadcasters have allowed a combination of frustration and misplaced enthusiasm to cloud their news judgment.

Their frustration is directed at Iran’s authorities, who have expelled most foreign reporters from the country and confined those who remain to their hotels. The lockdown is far from leak-proof. Some of the remaining reporters – the New York Times’ Roger Cohen has been especially noteworthy – are doing an excellent job of conveying the views and voices of the people they are meeting.

The reporting restrictions represent a particular burden for the TV networks. Slipping out of the hotel with a camera is a lot harder than slipping out with only a notebook. As a picture-driven medium television has, perhaps understandably, turned to YouTube and Twitter in a desperate search for both information and images. This is the place where the reporting, such as it is, needs to be a lot more transparent.

TV newsrooms, especially those in the cable world, are frenetic places at the best of times. Contrary to what many outsiders believe their bias tends not to be political but rather toward whatever appears to be new and eye-catching. In recent years the TV networks have been increasingly aggressive in encouraging viewers to send in homemade video of news events. For the networks, this promised an enviable combination of circumstances: it made viewers feel more involved. In doing so it kept them watching. Perhaps best of all, at a time of tightening budgets it promised a cost-free supply of new and dramatic pictures.

All of which is good as far as it goes. The trade-off, however, is a loss of context. I left CNN just before the send-us-your-videos era began, but everything I have seen as a viewer and heard from friends who still work there (and at the other networks) leads me to believe that viewer-supplied videos get on the air mainly because they are judged to be “good TV”. From an executive producer’s standpoint riots, explosions, flames and gunfire almost always constitute “good TV”. Usually, however, one also has a reporter either on the scene or somewhere nearby to put the dramatic images into some sort of context.

What distresses me about the last ten days of coverage is not that loss of context, but rather the failure of virtually everyone standing in front of a camera to acknowledge it. The tools of 21st century technology are great. In giving ordinary Iranians new ways to defy their oppressors they have been inspiring. But network anchors would do us all a favor by gushing less over the technology and either being more selective about what they choose to air, or more transparent about why a particular clip makes the cut.

Of course, it is unlikely we will ever see Wolf Blitzer or Shepard Smith look into the camera and say:

“We’ve just received new video from someone who says he’s in Tehran. We’ve no idea who sent us this, when it was shot or where these events took place. The sender says these pictures show bad people attacking good people and that seems pretty plausible, but it’s important to let you know we can’t actually vouch for that. We do, however, know there is a very cool explosion about 13 seconds in. That’s why our producers felt we simply couldn’t pass on this one and chose it rather than the 30 or so similar clips we’ve received this morning.”

Don’t get me wrong. I know that everyone at CNN, Fox, MSNBC et al is trying hard to get this right. But if you want to be an informed viewer it is important to understand how folks in the TV business think; and when competitive pressures run up against a lack of facts and video nuance tends to be the first thing to go. By all means, keep watching, but be skeptical whenever the person presenting the video does not seem to know any more about it than you do.

 
 
Gordon Robison's column from Wednesday's edition of Gulf News (Dubai):

Right now Iran looks like the worst sort of crisis: the kind where everyone agrees that the US needs to do something despite the fact that, realistically, there is not much it can do.

 

Now, what?

14/06/2009

 

Watching the unfolding events in Iran it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe that Friday’s presidential election was not rigged. This is not to say that President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad lacks a significant base of popular support. But the widespread unrest in the capital, reports of significant clashes between security forces and supporters of Ahmedinejad’s rival, Mir Hussein Mousavi, in a number of provincial cities, the crackdown on opposition politicians that appears to be taking place and, perhaps most importantly, the clampdown on communications technology and media coverage all make the president’s official 2-to-1 margin of victory seem far from credible.

Iranian elections have sometimes been described as factional disputes among the ruling elite. The vetting system built around the Council of Guardians effectively guarantees that a genuine outsider has little or no chance of standing for office in the Islamic Republic. Thus, what we seem to have here is a palace coup.

To go further than that, however, is to venture far into the realm of speculation and rumor. It will probably be a while – perhaps quite a while indeed – before anyone outside of Iran’s political and military inner circle really knows what has happened over the last few days. Did the Supreme Leader conspire with President Ahmedinejad or has he been pushed aside, relegated to the status of a figurehead? If this was a palace coup who was behind it? The Supreme Leader? Ahmedinejad? The military? The Revolutionary Guards? We have no way of knowing; and the truth, whatever it may be, is likely to emerge only with the passage of time. That may seem obvious, but it should also serve as a note of caution. Moreover, the situation is still developing and changing. Whatever the behind the scenes truth of today is, things may look very different tomorrow or next week – let alone next month or next year.

For a clear timeline of what we can be fairly certain we now know about the palace coup see the June 13 post: “Iran’s Political Coup” at Gary Sick’s blog.

Sick, an Iran specialist at Columbia University who served on the National Security Council staff during the Carter administration, also offers the following analysis:

In 2005, when it appeared that no hard line conservative might survive the first round of the presidential election, there were credible reports of ballot manipulation to insure that Mr Ahmadinejad could run (and win) against former president Rafsanjani in the second round. The lesson seemed to be that the authorities might shift the results in a close election but they would not reverse a landslide vote.

The current election appears to repudiate both of those rules. The authorities were faced with a credible challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who had the potential to challenge the existing power structure on certain key issues. He ran a surprisingly effective campaign, and his “green wave” began to be seen as more than a wave. In fact, many began calling it a Green Revolution. For a regime that has been terrified about the possibility of a “velvet revolution,” this may have been too much. …

It is still too early for anything like a comprehensive analysis of implications, but here are some initial thoughts:

The willingness of the regime simply to ignore reality and fabricate election results without the slightest effort to conceal the fraud represents a historic shift in Iran’s Islamic revolution. All previous leaders at least paid lip service to the voice of the Iranian people. This suggests that Iran’s leaders are aware of the fact that they have lost credibility in the eyes of many (most?) of their countrymen, so they are dispensing with even the pretense of popular legitimacy in favor of raw power.



And that brings us to the other question raised by the events in Iran: what does, or should, it mean for the United States and its announced desire to engage with the Iranian government?

On Meet the Press this morning Vice President Joe Biden was straightforward. “Talks with Iran are not a reward for good behavior,” he said. “Our interests are the same before the election as after the election.” He went on to identify those US interests as making sure Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons and getting Tehran to cease support for terrorism. It was a careful response, one designed neither to welcome a tainted victory nor to close off any particular avenue of contact. This approach has much to recommend it. Refusing to engage with a government we have long disliked because it rigged an election many Americans never expected would be free and fair (albeit the rigging seems to have been far more blatant than most anyone anticipated) seems like an exercise in self-punishment.

Which is not to say the election does not change things. It particular it seems certain to lead to a rethinking of how we deal with Iran. It is, for example, reasonable to ask to what extent a leadership willing to steal an election this openly can be counted upon to negotiate in good faith. This does not mean we should not talk (the North Koreans, from what I can see, never negotiate in good faith but we still talk to them) but it would seem to recommend a wary approach when the talking finally begins.

There will no doubt be some who see these developments as proof that military action is the only way to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions; but nothing emerging from this palace coup alters the unanswered questions lingering over every proposal for attacking Iran’s nuclear infrastructure (how effective can such an attack really be? How will we address an attack’s second and third-level consequences throughout the region?). It is worth remembering here that on the nuclear issue Mousavi’s differences with Ahmedinejad are mainly about style, not substance.

The Obama administration appears concerned mainly with not painting itself into any rhetorical corners. In a situation where events are fluid, and it is unclear even who all of the key players are, that seems, at least for now, like a good policy.

 
 

Let us begin by acknowledging that Iran is a complex society with an unusually opaque political system. Few outsiders genuinely understand the place. That makes understanding the country’s presidential campaign – and interpreting the events of the last 24 hours – particularly tricky.

As designed by the Ayatollah Kohmeini three decades ago the system of veliyat-e faqih, or guardianship of the jurists, consists of broadly democratic political institutions that are overseen and regulated by clerics. The clerics are charged with preserving the system’s adherence to the norms of Shia Islam as they, the clerics, define it. The system is built around the theory that a properly educated and religiously observant populace will, by its nature, choose the ‘right’ candidates when given an opportunity to do so. Should they fail to do so religious authorities are standing by to ‘correct’ their choices.

In practice this means running for office requires the approval of the Council of Guardians, a committee of leading clerics that vets aspiring politicians and prevents those deemed insufficiently committed to the system and its ideals from appearing on the ballot. This vetting process has long been the main hurdle anyone labeled a “reformist” had to overcome. This time around, for example, 475 people applied to run for president. The Council approved four.

The conventional wisdom, however, has long been that if one could get past the Guardian Council and secure a slot on the ballot the actual vote, while far from perfect, was relatively clean. More than anything else it is this assumption that has been challenged over the last 24 hours.

Anyone paying attention to CNN, the BBC or even Fox over the last week or two will have noticed reports about the extraordinary excitement generated by this election – Iran’s 10th presidential vote since the revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979. The broad storyline here in the West has been about the reformist former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi generating huge excitement, particularly among young people, in his bid to deny President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad a second term. Conventional wisdom has long held that one of the reasons Ahmedinejad was elected in the first place was because younger voters and cynics among the educated elite did not bother to vote back in 2005. With Tehran’s international reputation in tatters many appeared determined not to make that mistake again. The campaign rallies were huge. Televised debates (a first for Iran) reportedly attracted audiences of 40 million, which works out to around 85% of the potential electorate. Opinion polls showed Mousavi competitive with Ahmedinejad or even in the lead. There was talk that he might even avoid a run-off (scheduled to take place next week if no candidate got 50% in the first round). Turnout for Friday’s vote was widely reported to be heavy, with voting extended for several hours to accommodate the crowds.

Late Friday night Mousavi claimed victory. But within two hours of the polls closing state-run media announced that Ahmedinejad had won reelection by a 2-to-1 margin. The Interior Ministry (which runs the election) announced Saturday that the incumbent garnered just under 63% of the vote to Mousavi’s 34%. Mousavi is crying foul, but any hope that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might intervene was dashed Saturday when he issued a statement calling on all Iranians to support their newly reelected leader. Street protests described as the worst in a decade have broken out in the capital, Mousavi has not been seen in public and rumors are flying every which way.

Broadly speaking, there seem to be three scenarios for what is unfolding in Iran.

Scenario One: Ahmedinejad and his supporters stole the election, plain and simple. The revolutionary old guard felt threatened by the reformists so it rigged the vote to guarantee a conservative victory. As is usual in such cases there are rumors of ballot boxes stuffed, of precincts reporting numbers completely at variance with what poll watchers observed, etc., etc. From this perspective it appears that there was never a real campaign, and the outcome was always foreordained. Robert Dreyfuss’ excellent dispatch today in The Nation includes an interview with former Iranian foreign minister Ibrahim Yazdi in which a number of election irregularities are outlined. It is all standard dictatorship fare. This scenario sees the outcome, in effect, as a reassertion of power by the Supreme Leader and the religious old-guard. There is, however, another way of looking at things…

Scenario Two: There has been a coup. Ahmedinejad and the security services have taken over. The Supreme Leader has been preserved as a figurehead, but the structures of clerical rule have effectively been gutted and are being replaced by a National Security State. Reports that facebook, twitter, text messaging and foreign TV broadcasts have been blocked, that foreign journalists are being expelled and that large concrete roadblocks (the kind that require a crane to move) have appeared in front of the Interior Ministry all feed a sense that what we are now seeing was pre-planned. Underlying this is the theory that Ahmedinejad and the people around him represent a new generation of Iranian leadership. He and his colleagues were young revolutionaries in 1979. Now in their 50s they have built careers inside the Revolutionary Guard and the other security services. They may be committed to the Islamic Republic as a concept, but they are not part of its clerical aristocracy and are now moving to push the clerics into an essentially ceremonial role. This theory in particular seems to be gaining credibility rapidly among professional Iran-watchers outside of the country. Then again…

Scenario Three: Ahmedinejad won. Really. At moments like this it is easy to forget that Tehran is not Iran. Foreign media tend to congregate in capitals and, in any case, the Iranian security services do not make it easy for foreign journalists to travel outside of Tehran. Please note I am not pushing this theory, only saying it merits consideration. This article from Saturday’s Guardian makes especially interesting reading.

Four years ago Ahmedinejad was elected because the rural and urban poor bought into his populism. In the years that followed he showered his rural base with road-building, electrification and water projects. Moreover, is it so hard to believe that the antics which cause educated Iranians to cringe and westerners to recoil in horror might inspire in ordinary Iranians (particularly those who live outside the capital) a feeling of pride at seeing their president stand up for the nation and confront its enemies? If the career of George W. Bush taught us anything it ought to have been that being loathed by foreigners and the local elite can be good for one’s political fortunes at home.

So was it stolen? Are we watching a coup? Or did Ahmedinejad actually win? A decent case can be made for any and all of these scenarios and it is far too soon to say how the situation on the ground is going to play out.