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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

The Need for Strategic Patience on Iran

Does President Obama have the strategic patience he'll need to deal with Iran?

It isn't clear.

Things are exceedingly unsettled inside Iran, and it's not likely that Iranian leaders will respond any time soon to US overtures or to the multilateral effort to restart serious talks with Iran over its nuclear program. The opposition in Iran isn't going away. Yesterday, the leaders of the Green Movement called for a silent rally of mourning for the death of Neda Agha-Soltan on Thursday at Mosalla, the gigantic, half-finished prayer hall in central Tehran, and although permission for the event was denied, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and other leaders of the movement have called for it to take place anyway. Instead of Mosalla, Mousavi and Karroubi plan to hold the memorial at Tehran's main cemetery, which is heavy with symbolism because it was used in 1978-79 as a rallying point for the revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini. The Thursday protest is likely to result in new clashes between security forces and protesters. There've been scattered protests in Tehran recently, and the opposition movement is trying other, quieter tactics too, such as boycotts. Meanwhile, outrage is building over the treatment of those arrested, tortured, and killed by the regime's security forces. Some detainees (including one of the most prominent, Saeed Hajjarian, a key adviser and strategist for Mousavi) have been or will soon be freed, although hundreds (or thousands) remain in prison. And Iran's radical-right court system has announced plans to begin trials of protesters, charging, according to the BBC, that they committed crimes "including bombings, carrying weapons and attacking security forces." Outrage over the treatment of prisoners spans the Iranian political spectrum, from liberal reformists to hardliners to several outspoken clergy, including grand ayatollahs.

Meanwhile, among the hardliners, there is a growing, increasingly bitter dispute between Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Leader, and President Ahmadinejad, that could have explosive consequences. It began last week, when Ahmadinejad appointed Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, a controversial rightist who had infuriated hardliners by once saying that Iran has no quarrel with the Israeli people, as his deputy. For a time, Ahmadinejad defied Khamenei's demands to dump Mashaie, finally relenting -- and then naming Mashaie to the presidential staff. (Mashaie happens to be Ahmadinejad's son-in-law.) Then, perhaps in response, Ahmadinejad fired several members of the Cabinet, including the minister of intelligence, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei, and the minister of culture and Islamic guidance, Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi. It's gotten so rough that some hardliners, including a group close to Ali Larijani, the speaker of the parliament and a key conservative, are warning that Ahmadinejad could be deposed, i.e., ousted. Another bloc of hardliners, including Mohsen Rezai, the founder of the Revolutionary Guard, and his allies -- among them, the former mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, and Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Khamenei -- continue to oppose Ahmadinejad. On June 12, Rezai ran against Ahmadinejad, and he's keeping his powder dry: two weeks ago, Rezai appeared silently beside Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and billionaire, when he delivered a blistering, opposition sermon at Friday Prayer in the presence of Mousavi and Karroubi.

Bottom line: the opposition is staying strong and organized, and pressure is building on all sides against Ahmadinejad. Though it's unlikely, it isn't impossible that Khamenei could decide to dump Ahmadinejad in order to placate the opposition. At the very least, it isn't clear in Iran who has the upper hand: Ahmadinejad or Khamenei. It isn't clear to Iranian analysts who really controls the security forces and the Revolutionary Guard. In other words, Iran remains in grave turmoil.

That's why it's especially troubling that the drumbeat of US and Israeli confrontation with Iran is getting louder.

Iran is too unsettled to respond intelligently, if at all, to US diplomatic overtures. The Associated Press reports today: "The U.S. is hearing only silence from Iran on its offers of dialogue. Iran's leaders, who initially seemed to welcome engagement, are turning inward to deal with the post-election crisis. ... Too much is in flux to answer the two main questions: Whether Khamenei and the rest of the leadership even want a dialogue -- and, if they do, whether they are in a position to pursue it."

But that doesn't stop hardliners -- and some Israelis -- from pushing for a showdown. The always reliable John Bolton, writing from his perch at the American Enterprise Institute, blasts Defense Secretary Robert Gates for his efforts during his trip to Israeli this week to "dissuade Israel from carrying out military strikes against Iran's nuclear weapons facilities." And Bolton orgasms:

"Striking Iran's nuclear program will not be precipitous or poorly thought out. Israel's attack, if it happens, will have followed enormously difficult deliberation over terrible imponderables, and years of patiently waiting on innumerable failed diplomatic efforts. Absent Israeli action, prepare for a nuclear Iran."

Other hardliners are weighing in, too, and in response both Gates and Hillary Clinton have started making more and more noises about supposed "deadlines" for the US overture toward Iran. Unfortunately, President Obama has fed that fire, first with his talk in May -- during his news conference with Bibi Netanyahu -- about a December timetable for measuring progress with Iran, and then during the G-8 meeting in Europe when there was talk about setting a deadline of September for the start of talks. In fact, neither deadline will be met. Perhaps September will come and go, with no talks. So what? By moving toward a harder line -- say, unilateral Western sanctions or a gasoline blockade -- Obama will strengthen the hardliners in Iran. He'll undo a lot of the progress made by the opposition in Tehran, and he'll give Khamenei and Ahmadinejad a justification for a tougher attitude toward the West -- and a more violent crackdown on the opposition.

That's why Obama will need to exercise strategic patience. And he needs to start making that case now, to the American public.

The Wall Street Journal reports on what it calls the "simmering dispute between the U.S. and Israel over Iran's nuclear program," and other US hardliners.

Real Peace -- Or A Mirage?

One way to keep Bibi Netanyahu from making trouble is to keep him so busy meeting US envoys and diplomats that he doesn't have time for anything else. That appears to be President Obama's strategy this week, since Netanyahu will be meeting with a veritable avalanche of Americans, including: George Mitchell, the US special envoy; Jim Jones, Obama's national security adviser; Robert Gates, the holdover secretary of defense who is showing no signs that he intends to go away; and Dennis Ross, the neocon-linked NSC official whose actual job remains ever vague.

Unless this is an covert effort to push Israeli hotel prices higher during the tourist season, the goal of the US effort seems to be to prepare Israel for what may, in fact, be a serious effort by the United States to resolve the Palestine conflict. There've been rumors floating that Obama may be thinking about proposing the outlines of a comprehensive US peace plan as early as this September. If so, it would be a plan that goes far beyond the nasty dispute over Jewish "settlements" -- i.e., massive, concrete and asphalt cities being built in the environs of Jerusalem and around the West Bank -- to include the elements of a final status agreement.

Or, on the other hand, Obama can do what AIPAC wants, namely, to continue to call for endless negotiations between the two sides.

It's been known for many years, or decades, what that might look like: the establishment of state called Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza, within borders slightly modified from the 1967 lines acceptable to both sides, with Palestine's capital in now-occupied East Jerusalem, an accord on Palestinian refugees' right to return to their homeland, etc.

A question is: what sort of guarantees will Obama promise Israel to get them to feel more secure? General Jones, the former NATO commander, is an advocate for stationing US and/or NATO troops in between Israel and Palestine, not as a fighting force but as observers and guarantors. Presumably, though Israel would insist that Palestine be "demilitarized," General Dayton and his US team of military advisers, who've been working closely with Jordan and the Palestinians, would accelerate their efforts to create Palestinian army and police units. There's talk about a formal US security guarantee for Israel, though what form that would take isn't clear. And some, including pro-Israel neocons in the United States, have proposed bringing Israel into NATO. Last week, Hillary Clinton proposed what sounded like a "nuclear umbrella" over Israel and the Arab states as a guarantee against an acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, and there's no doubt that the US will provide assurances to Israel about Iran. (In fact, however, the threat from Iran is wildly hyped by Israel and its allies, and there is much less there than meets the eye.)

Mitchell is trying to complete the package by working hard to bring Syria into the mix, which would be useful for several reasons -- because it would split Syria and Iran, because it would allow Syria to put some pressure on Hamas to make a deal with Fatah to re-unify the Palestinian movement, and because Syria could be helpful in reining in Hezbollah in Lebanon, especially now that Hezbollah has suffered an electoral setback in the June vote. After Mitchell's meeting with President Assad of Syria, Assad's spokesman said: "The messages coming to us from President Obama stress his administration's determination and resolve to open a new page with Syria."

A new report by the Center for American Progress says that the Israel-Palestine conflict is in "stalemate," but it says there is a "window of opportunity" to get things rolling, and it proposed four steps: a plan for Palestinian elections, the strengthening of Palestinian institutions, steps to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and "a public outreach and strategic communications effort in the Middle East outlining U.S. regional strategy, with increased attention to Israeli public opinion." The Center suggests "moving quickly toward first negotiating permanent borders between Israel and the West Bank." But the report stops well short of recommending that the United States put forward its own ideas on what a solution might look like.

A Saad Story

Last December, Mike McConnell, the outgoing director of national intelligence, said that Osama bin Laden's son, Saad bin Laden "has left Iran" and is "probably in Pakistan." Yesterday came the news that Saad bin Laden is dead, that even the CIA is not certain and the Taliban is denying the report. He was reportedly killed in one of the CIA's Predator drone attacks in Taliban-controlled tribal areas of Pakistan.

It's a mystery worthy of a spy novel.

In 2001, fleeing the US invasion of Afghanistan, Saad bin Laden and a small number of other top Al Qaeda officials ended up in Iran, though the vast majority of Taliban and AQ officials headed south and east into Pakistan. The choice of Iran was a curious one, since the anti-Taliban force in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance, was supported by Iran, Iran had nearly gone to war with the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the past, and Al Qaeda's militant Sunni fundamentalist ideology put it at odds with Iran's Shiite version of political Islam.

Exactly what Saad bin Laden and his allies were doing in Iran is also a mystery. Most analysts that I've spoken with over the years say that they believe the AQ leaders were under close watch and house arrest, and that they had no operational capabilities. Despite claims in some quarters that the Iranian-based AQ group, including Saad bin Laden, were responsible for directing acts of terrorism aimed at Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, no real evidence emerged to back up that theory. Nevertheless, during the Bush administration, officials -- including Nick Burns, a top State Department official -- often charged Iran with harboring Al Qaeda, adding that to the list of anti-Iran grievances that they piled up against Tehran. Yet it seemed extremely unlikely that Iran would expose itself to charges that it was cooperating with AQ. More likely, some analysts suggested, Iran was holding Saad bin Laden (who apparently stayed in Iran from 2001 to 2008) as a kind of bargaining chip, and that Tehran was willing to trade him and his comrades to the United States as part of a deal, perhaps involving the leaders of the anti-Iran Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK) that was based in Iraq and protected by US forces.

The Washington Post makes an explosive (and unsourced) charge in an offhand manner in its story today:

"In addition to his alleged involvement in a 2003 al-Qaeda bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, he also is said to have served as a link between the terrorist group and the Quds Force, an Iranian special operations group that has attacked U.S. troops in Iraq."

Does the Quds Force, about which almost nothing is known, maintain a secret liaison with Al Qaeda? It might -- stranger things have happened in the shadowy world of intelligence -- but there's precious little evidence that it does, certainly not enough for the Post to say that it "is said" that it does without providing detailed sourcing and some contrary opinion as well.

In contrast, the New York Times shies away from incendiary charges such as a Quds-AQ alliance, and it offers a different theory:

"Saad bin Laden was one of a number of Qaeda operatives detained inside Iran in recent years. American officials have long puzzled over the exact circumstances of their captivity, but they think that Iran was holding the militants in part as a deterrent against a Qaeda attack on Iranian soil."

I'm not willing to give Iran and the Quds Force, which is an arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a free pass. But it seems unlikely that Iran would need to use AQ for any real purpose, since it has plenty of operatives of its own to play with. (Hezbollah comes to mind.) Using AQ would expose Iran to a direct US assault, among other things, and then there's that little matter of the ideological divide. (As the Times points out, Iran is more likely an AQ target than a sponsor!) But then there is this question: why, and how, did Saad bin Laden leave Iran for Pakistan last year? Did he escape? That seems preposterous. Did Iran let him go? If so, why? Did Tehran get tired of holding the hot potato? Was it a gesture to the United States? And then this question: Is Saad bin Laden really dead?

Invisible Iraq

You'd never know that the prime minister of a nation occupied by 130,000 US troops is in the United States, but he is. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is in Washington to meet President Obama and other US officials today and tomorrow, but the press coverage is weak. And in yesterday's press briefing by Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, the issue of Iraq didn't come up at all. Not once.

But it's a critical visit, and I'll be updating this entry today and tomorrow as developments warrant. Obama and Maliki are scheduled to appear at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon at the White House, and I'll comment on that. Tomorrow morning, I'll be attending a speech by Maliki at the US Institute of Peace, and I'll report back.

Sadly, the mainstream media seems to be buying into the idea that Maliki has suddenly transformed himself into an ardent Iraqi nationalist. Don't be fooled. If anything, Maliki has conducted a power grab in Baghdad, arrogating to himself increasingly broad powers that have led many Iraqis to view him as a dictator-in-the-making. But he is still the head of the secretive Al Dawa party, an Islamist political formation that has long had ties to neighboring Iran. It's true that Maliki has noticed that the political winds in Iraq have shifted from sectarianism and religious identity to a more nationalist orientation. As I reported extensively in The Nation, the January 2009 provincial elections gravely weakened the most extreme manifestations of the sectarian/religious movement in Iraq, including the Iran-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the fundamentalist Sunni, Muslim Brotherhood-led Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP). To accommodate that trend, Maliki has increasingly tried to portray himself as a nationalist, but there's no evidence that he's changed his sectarian spots.

Certainly, the turmoil in Iran has enormous and unpredictable implications for Iraq, where Iran has accumulated a lot of influence since 2003. Recently, Iran's Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Iranian officials have been pressing Maliki to reconstitute the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the Shiite religious coalition that included Maliki's Dawa, ISCI, the forces of Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Fadhila party of southern Iraq into a single unified electoral bloc. So far, Maliki hasn't agreed -- but he did make a pilgrimage to Tehran to meet with the hospitalized leader of ISCI, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, who is Iran's key ally in Iraq. Maliki himself has close ties to Iran, and it's unlikely he'd do anything to jeopardize them.

Both Maliki and Iran agree that it's important to divide and conquer the secular opposition in Iraq, including the current and former Baathists, members of the Iraqi resistance, the forces that assembled into the Sons of Iraq movement, secular parties such as Iyad Allawi's group and Saleh Mutlaq's group. Obama, Vice President Biden, and others half-heartedly have tried to persuade Maliki to make concessions to the opposition, but so far he hasn't budged. Will the crisis in Iran make Maliki more likely to make a deal with the Iraqi opposition? I doubt it.

Obama seems to hope that he can avoid dealing with Iraq until 2010. That's a big mistake. Iraq isn't going away. Last year, during the campaign, Obama made the sensible argument that the international community, including the UN, had to convene a conference to help Iraqis rewrite their constitution in a manner that would weaken centrifugal federalism in favor of a stronger national state and would take some power out of the hands of the separatist Kurds and Shiites. I'd say that's the last thing on Obama's mind now. Another mistake. Meanwhile, the White House seems content to let the Pentagon make its Iraq policy. The State Department has been nearly absent from Iraqi policy in 2009.The US ambassador in Baghdad, Christopher Hill, is a complete beginner on Iraq, and he's been nearly invisible. There's no "special envoy" for Iraq, unless Obama considers General Ray Odierno to be his special envoy there.

UPDATE The news conference with Obama and Maliki, which ended around 3:35 pm, didn't make much news. Obama cited security gains and a decline in violence, though he didn't mention that violence is rising since June 30, when US troops mostly pulled out of Iraq's cities. Obama stressed that the US seeks no bases in Iraq, and he reiterated the two coming deadlines: August, 2010, for the withdrawal of combat forces and December, 2011, for the complete withdrawal of all US forces. He did say that the US would continue training assistance to "capable and nonsectarian" Iraqi security forces. He said several times that Iraq must accommodate all Iraqis -- i.e., Sunnis and Kurds -- into the Iraqi government and security forces, in part by making deals over Iraqi oil allocations and "internal borders," i.e., the undefined borders of the Kurdish area of Iraq outside the three provinces that the Kurds formally control. In response, Maliki talked about something called an "Iraqi national unity government," but he didn't define it, and he certainly didn't make any public comments about being more inclusive.

Patience with Iran

You know things are off kilter when the Wall Street Journal supports industrial strikes, including a general strike by workers and merchants, but in yesterday's edition the paper did so, albeit in the context of Iran:

Oil workers, bus drivers and the bazaar guilds are mulling a general strike. ... Ahmadinejad can't seem to get traction for a second term. The so-called Green Revolution hardly looks to be over. Which raises a quandary: Why is Washington rushing to confer U.S. and international prestige on a regime that doesn't enjoy legitimacy among its own people?

It's true that the Green Wave in support of former Prime Minister Mousavi and his allies isn't over. Today, in Tehran, tens of thousands of Mousavi supporters gathered to hear Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafansjani deliver the Friday prayer sermon at Tehran University, where they were once again met with violence by the security forces.

But, like its right-wing confreres and, sadly, many human rights activists, the Journal opposes President Obama's insistent effort to deal with Iran diplomatically, including over its nuclear program. Yet Obama's policy, reiterated this week by Secretary of State Clinton, isn't about "rushing" to give legitimacy to Ahmadinejad. Rather than diplomatic isolation, more sanctions, military pressure, and war, Obama is offering to bring Iran into the community of nations. It's precisely that strategy that invigorated the opposition in Iran, who saw Mousavi as a vehicle for ending Iran's isolation and for dealing respectfully with the United States on the basis of mutual interests. During my visit to Iran in June, countless Iranians told me exactly that, from ordinary voters to Mousavi campaign officials. And by offering to talk to Iran -- and by making important gestures, such as the release this week of five imprisoned Revolutionary Guard "diplomats" captured in northern Iraq two years ago -- the United States is confusing the hardliners in Iran, who much prefer the bellicose bluster of George W. "Great Satan" Bush to Obama's more unsettling approach.

The radical right in the West, and the neoconservatives, are still spreading alarmism about Iran's nuclear program. The latest effort to do so was in Stern magazine in Germany, a notoriously unreliable publication which reported that Iran was on the brink of building a nuclear bomb, citing German intelligence:

Germany's BND foreign intelligence agency believes Iran is capable of producing and testing an atomic bomb within six months, much sooner than most analysts estimate, according to a report in the German weekly "Stern."

The report, which quotes BND experts, says the agency has information supporting the view that Iran has mastered the enrichment technology necessary to make a bomb and has enough centrifuges to make weaponized uranium.

"If they wanted to, they could detonate an atomic bomb in half a year's time," the story quoted a BND expert as saying.

This, of course, is nonsense. Iran has not an ounce of highly enriched uranium (HEU), having stockpiled only a limited quantity of fuel-grade, low enriched uranium (LEU) . To build a bomb, Iran would have to refine all of its current stockpile of LEU to have enough HEU to build one (yes, one) bomb. Then they would have zero enriched uranium left, no bomb, and a vastly hostile world surrounding them. It isn't known if Iran knows how to do any of this, and if they did, it would take place in the full view of the IAEA inspectors, who monitor Iran's uranium stockpiles. It's also doubtful that Iran's scientists have mastered the process of exactly how to build a bomb. Anyway, the next day the German BND pooh-poohed the Stern report, reports Bloomberg:

Germany's top spy agency said Iran could have an atomic bomb within four to six years, playing down a report in Stern magazine that the government in Tehran could detonate a nuclear device within six months.

The German prediction is in line with a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate issued in November 2007, a spokesman for Germany's BND intelligence agency said today in a telephone interview.

There's no reason to be alarmed about Iran's nukes. The world has plenty of time to deal with that problem. (Even the Mossad now says that Iran won't have a bomb until 2014 at the earliest, according to Haaretz.)

Obama, Clinton, and the G-8 have each said that talks with Iran ought to begin by September, when the United Nations begins its new session and the G-8 (or G-20) meets again. Perhaps they will. But the situation inside Iran is very fluid, and if things are still unsettled there in a few months time, Iran may be in no position to engage in serious talks. In the meantime, there's no sense in setting ominous deadlines for the start of those talks -- or, for that matter, for their successful conclusion, which could take many months or years. One thing is certain: Iran's leaders have had their confidence badly shaken. They are no longer feared as the Shiite cowboys riding a wave of Shiite radicalism into the Middle East and the Arab world. Instead, the tide has turned. The wave is against them, and it's bright green. Time is no longer on the side of the mullahs.

Iran's Opposition Speaks

The two leaders of Iran's not-so-loyal opposition will appear together tomorrow at Tehran University, when Mir Hossein Mousavi, the challenger to President Ahmadinejad, makes a public appearance alongside Ayatollah Ali Akbad Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and billionaire who supported Mousavi's campaign. Rafsanjani, who's boycotted his turn at leading Friday prayers since June 12, will deliver a closely watched sermon that is expected to lay out a direct challenge to Ahmadinejad. The fact that Mousavi will attend the event means that it's likely that other leading reformists will be there, including former President Khatami and cleric Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of Iran's parliament who also ran against Ahmadinejad in the June 12 election.

It's likely that the event will attract a huge crowd, perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands.

Iran's intelligence minister, a close ally of President Ahmadinejad and a follower of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, has already warned the opposition about tomorrow's event. "The vigilant Iranian nation must be aware that tomorrow's sermon should not turn to an arena for undesirable scenes," said Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei. "Hopefully we will not have a security question in Tehran in the coming days."

Neither Rafsanjani nor Mousavi, who isn't expected to speak, will call for a revolt. But they haven't abandoned their opposition. Rafsanjani, who hasn't spoken directly about the election results since June 12, has reportedly been mustering clerical and establishment opposition -- including the business community -- behind the scenes, and a political party that he leads has called the reelection of Ahmadinejad illegitimate. Mousavi continues to reject the election results, and he's announced plans to create a nationwide political party. Through his web site and in a limited number of public appearances since the crackdown, Mousavi has spoken out forcefully against the rigging of the vote, presented a detailed challenge to the result, and visited with relatives of those killed or arrested.

From AP:

The pro-Mousavi Web site mowjcamp.com said reformist leaders will hold street protests after attending the Friday prayers.

Thursday night, several hundred supporters gathered, some chanting "death to the dictator," as Mousavi and his wife visited the family of Sohrab Aarabi, 19, who disappeared during a June 15 protest, according to mowjcamp.com. Footage from the visit posted on the Web showed Mousavi moving through a crowd of well-wishers inside Aarabi's family home to his parents to express condolences.

Aarabi disappeared during a June 15 protest, and his family searched for weeks for news of his fate. They were finally notified on Saturday that he had been shot in the chest and died during the crackdown on postelection protests. Aarabi was buried Monday in the vast Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery on the outskirts of Tehran.

The report added:

"We won't let the blood of these youth go in vain," Mousavi told Aarabi's family during the visit, according to the Web site norooznews.org.

Aarabi's mother, Parvin Fahimi, said she would take the case of her slain son to domestic and, if necessary, international courts, the site reported.

Hundreds of candles were lit in the streets of the Tehran neighborhood where the family lives, mowjcamp reported. Inside the home, the walls were hung with pictures of Aarabi wearing a green scarf over his shoulders -- the color of Mousavi's opposition movement.

"Women Commandos" in Iran

On Monday, the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington assembled an all-star panel of analysts for perspective on the role of women in the recent Iran election and post-election upheaval.

Among the participants: Pari Esfandiari of IranDokht.com, a web site that describes itself as "an online media platform that connects the global community to Iranian women"; Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former member of Iran's parliament (2000-2004); Nayereh Tohidi, a Cal State professor; Norma Moruzzi, a professor from the University of Illinois, Chicago; and Jaleh Lackner-Gohari, from Vienna, a physician, activist, and vice president of innerChange Associates.

The moderator was Haleh Esfandiari of the Wilson Center, whose 2007 arrest in Iran made headlines around the world. So strong is the women's movement that a web site linked to Iran's intelligence ministry has begun referring to "woman commandos" in describing post-election protests, according to Haleh Esfandiari, who added that there are reports that Zahra Rahnavard, Mir Hossein Mousavi's well-known activist wife, is the leading voice behind the scenes urging Mousavi not to accede to pressure to halt his campaign against the election results. (So well known is Zahra Rahnavard that, when Mousavi became prime minister in the 1980s it was said in Iran that "Rahnavard's husband was named prime minister.")

The panel answered a lot of questions about the role of women in Iran today -- and left some questions hanging.

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, who quit her term in parliament in 2004 to protest against the Guardian Council's peremptory banning of hundreds of political candidates -- including not less than 80 members of parliament! -- in that year's election, described women in Iran as being on the "front lines" of the Green Movement and the election battles. Often, she said, they protected men from being beaten in the streets, and they formed ad hoc groups such as Mothers in Mourning or Peace Mothers to demonstrate at places like Evin Prison, where many protestors are being held.

Most interesting was the panel's emphasis on the fact that the women's movement in Iran didn't arise out of nowhere to prominence in the Green Movement but was, in fact, a long time in the works. Tohidi said women in Iran had been engaged in many years of quiet educational and organizational work, especially over the past fifteen years, and today the women's movement in Iran is the "strongest in the Middle East." Some of them, she said, were Islamists who have been formulating a more progressive and liberal version of "Islamic feminism" while others are secular women who've moved far beyond Iran's culture of revolutionary Islam. The two currents came together in 1997 in the massive vote that elected President Khatami, and since then they've brought strong pressure to bear on subsequent candidates. Jaleh Lackner-Gohari added that during the 1980s and 1990s, many women went into higher education and the professions precsiely because they were barred from politics and, she joked, "had nothing better to do." Quietly, they built networks, professional organizations, and channels for communications -- including, lately, blogs.

Norma Moruzzi, who's made numerous visits to Iran since 1997, stressed that women have jsut about reached parity with men, when measured in terms of metrics such as literacy. In 1980, she said, about half of Iranians could read and write, but the total favored men by 60 percent to 38 percent; by 2000, 92 percent of women were literate, compared to 96 percent for men. (In universities, neaerly two-thirds of students are women.) One paradox cited by Moruzzi: despite the regime's patriarchal laws that limit women's privileges and rights in areas such as dress, inheritance laws, and so on, since 1979 Iran has invested in education, health care, and family planning, in a way that has allowed women to flourish.

Pari Esfandiari -- no relation to Haleh Esfandiari -- noted the image of women in Iran is now vastly different worldwide. She drew a contrast between the movie, "The Stoning of Soraya M," a viscerally brutal film about the stoning to death of a woman in Iran, and the fact that in the post-election confrontations with the security forces in Iran many women were filmed throwing stones at members of the Revolutionary Guard, i.e., they aren't victims. Like other speakers, Esfandiari noted that women in professional organizations were a crucial part of the pro-Reformist coalition that supported Mousavi and cleric Mehdi Karroubi, the other reformist candidate, in 2009. Moruzzi noted that Iranian women formed behind-the-scenes pressure groups to meet with and grill candidates' aides, getting them to answer questions and fill out questionnaires about their attitudes towards women's issues.

Left unsaid, however, was the issue of: what now? Where does all this energy go, in a society in which nearly all levers of actual power -- in the government, in the (all-male) clergy, among military and Guard commanders, and virtually all of the regime's constitutional institutions -- are dominated by men, and reactionary ones at that?

And, when I asked about President Obama's options now, the entire panel came out against US engagement with Iran, for fear that by so doing the United States will "legitimize" the regime. "Now is not the time for Obama to sit down with this government," said Moruzzi. She suggested that the leader, Ali Khamenei, and President Ahmadinejad see talks with the United States as the "big carrot" that could restore their discredited regime to legitimacy. Others on the panel agreed. "They should not be invited to international meetings," said Jaleh Lackner-Gohari. "We should not negoitiate with the Ahmadinejad government," insisted Nayereh Tohidi.

To me, this is utterly wrongheaded, and self-defeating. If Iran wants to talk, President Obama can embrace such talks on a realist, state-to-state basis, without endorsing the regime's bad behavior. To reject an offer from Iran to talk, now, would fatally undermine Obama's carefully constructed opening to Tehran, pushing Iran deeper into isolation, strengthening the hand of the radical right, and weakening the very reform movement that human rights groups want to enhance. Indeed, it was Obama's opening to Iran since January that was partly responsible for the strength and ferocity of the opposition movement in Iran, as countless men and women told me during my two-week trip to Iran in June.

Part of the reason why the panel of women at the Wilson Center oppose US-Iran dialogue now is that many of them expect that the regime might collapse in the near-term. I disagree. Based on what we know now, it's more than likely that the regime will maintain control for a prolonged period to come, perhaps years. The opposition movement isn't dead, and it's not going away. But I'd venture a guess that Ahmadinejad will complete his four-year term. And the world can't wait for the regime to collapse. We're going to have to hold our collective noses and do business with these guys.

Talks with Iran by September?

Let's try to sort out what happening on the front of dealing with Iran's pesky nuclear program.

In Italy, the G-8 countries took a stab at addressing the issue, but the result is, well, less than clear.

First, here's President Obama's take, from a news conference on Friday in L'Aquila:

"This notion that we were trying to get sanctions or that this was a forum in which we could get sanctions is not accurate. ...

"There was the agreement that we will reevaluate Iran's posture towards negotiating the cessation of a nuclear weapons policy. We'll evaluate that at the G20 meeting in September. And I think what that does is it provides a time frame. The international community has said, here's a door you can walk through that allows you to lessen tensions and more fully join the international community. If Iran chooses not to walk through that door, then you have on record the G8, to begin with, but I think potentially a lot of other countries that are going to say we need to take further steps. And that's been always our premise, is that we provide that door, but we also say we're not going to just wait indefinitely and allow for the development of a nuclear weapon, the breach of international treaties, and wake up one day and find ourselves in a much worse situation and unable to act.

"So my hope is, is that the Iranian leadership will look at the statement coming out of the G8 and recognize that world opinion is clear."

A lot of verbiage, but Obama seems to be saying that "other steps" -- i.e., sanctions -- will be taken if Iran doesn't take up the offer to negotiate by September. In so saying, Obama is hinting at, but not exactly saying, that Iran has until September to start talking. Earlier, in May, he'd suggested that Iran also has until the end of 2009 or early next year to make progress toward a deal, so in a sense Obama is setting not one but two very rough deadlines: one for Iran to sit down and talk and one for Iran to convince the United States it's ready to make progress.

At least one Iranian official, Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Iranian foreign minister, signalled that Tehran might not be averse to opening the dialogue with the US. The Washington Post portrayed Velayati's comments thusly, after first referring to the surprise release of five Iranian diplomats seized by US forces in northern Iran in January 2007:

"The surprise release came a day after unusually positive comments about President Obama by a top adviser to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said Obama had tried to remain silent on the country's election outcome.

"The comments suggest that Iran's decision makers are still interested in discussing possible diplomatic relations with the Obama administration. 'America accepts a nuclear Iran, but Britain and France cannot stand a nuclear Iran,' Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister, said in an interview on state television on Wednesday.

It's true that Iran has been painting the UK and France as the evildoers, and Velayati's comments seem especially positive toward the US -- though he's wrong to suggest that the United States "accepts a nuclear Iran." Still, it's something.

So what about the G-8 -- and Russia? And China, which isn't even part of the G-8?

Here's what the G-8 actually said. While describing its "impatience" and suggesting it would review the Iran file when it meets in September, the G-8 said:

"We remain committed to finding a diplomatic solution to the issue of Iran's nuclear program. We sincerely hope that Iran will seize this opportunity to give diplomacy a chance to find a negotiated solution to the nuclear issue. We recognize that Iran has the right to a civilian nuclear programme, but that comes with the responsibility to restore confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear activities."

The G-8 statement seems open to interpretation. Here's Time magazine's take:

"When it came to Tehran's nuclear program, which President Barack Obama sees as the overriding strategic issue between the U.S. and Iran, the leaders struck a milder tone, urging negotiations and underscoring Iran's rights to a civilian nuclear program. It was the clearest indication yet that despite the postelection violence in Iran, Obama intends to stick to his strategy of offering carrots before sticks for handling Iran's nuclear ambitions."

As Velayati pointed out, both the UK and France were far more given to bluster about Iran's nuclear program. Perhaps it's a sign that, during his pre-G-8 visit to Russia, Obama figured out that he isn't likely to get Russia to go along with stronger sanctions, even in the wake of the post-June 12 crackdown in Iran. And China seems utterly uninterested.

Reuters described Velayati as "Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's top adviser on international affairs," and quoted his tough stance:

"Britain and France would want a weakened Iran at the negotiating table and are after the complete stoppage of Iran's nuclear activity. But the Islamic Republic of Iran will be present at the scene even more strongly than yesterday and will not retreat even one step from its peaceful nuclear activity."

It's worth pointing out that two days before the June 12 election in Iran, Senator John Kerry said that Iran has the right to enrich uranium, i.e., not just the right to "peaceful use of nuclear energy," as Obama says, but the inherent right to enrich its own fuel.

The Russians aren't likely to go along with tougher sanctions on Iran. A few days ago, Russian President Medvedev said as much:

"If I understand correctly, the United States would like to establish more open and more direct relations with Iran. We support this choice. It would be counter-productive to resort to other sanctions."

So, despite Iran's brutal repression of pro-democracy demonstrators, and the sweeping arrests of supporters and advisers to Mir Hossein Mousavi and his allies, it's not impossible that serious talks get underway by this fall. Cross your fingers.

New Showdown in Iran?

UPDATE Thursday, July 9--Clashes erupted today between at least a thousand protestors in Tehran and baton-wielding security forces. Demonstrations took place all over Iran -- according to one report, in 400 cities.

In Iran, a supposed sandstorm is being used to create its own "fog of war."

The Iranian opposition called for a three-day general strike to demonstrate their rejection of President Ahmadinejad, and in response the Iranian government ordered the shutdown of all banks, businesses, and universities because of a sandstorm.

And Thursday could be the start of a new street confrontation, if reports of a planned march that day are true. The Los Angeles Times reports that the opposition has called for a protest march on Thursday, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 1999 regime crackdown on student protestors. The call comes after a prolonged period of relative calm in the streets, and that they are urging marchers to carry roses:

Keep quiet under all circumstances, the circular advises those planning to march in Thursday's unauthorized demonstrations in Iran cities.

"The heaviest weapon to carry is one rose in the hand," it says.

As Iranians prepare for what could be another violent day of confrontations Thursday between demonstrators and security forces, including pro-government plainclothes Basiji militias, supporters of opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi have distributed instructions to try to keep any anticipated violence to a minimum.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

The three top leaders of Iran's opposition joined forces on Tuesday and their supporters began a three-day national strike, signaling a resurrection of protests. ... Opposition candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, joined by former President Mohamad Khatami, met to plot strategy and issued their first-ever joint statement, calling for an end to the government's arrests and what they called "savage, shocking attacks" on their advisers and supporters. ...

Simultaneously, Iran's government on Tuesday announced an unexpected public holiday for 48 hours due to emergency level of pollution and a dust storm covering the capital. Some speculated that it could be an attempt to mask the impact of the public strikes.

The government ordered all industries and businesses in the capital to remain shut and only vehicles with emergency business to come out, though Tehran often faces high-level pollution and the dust storm is reported to be worse in cities to the south and east.

The nightly shouts of "God is great!" and "Death to the dictator!" continue to echo from rooftops, in what has become the opposition's signature protest, and there are reports that the leaders of the opposition are calling for other steps, too, including spraying green paint on walls around the capital. (Green was the color chosen by Mousavi's campaign to rally its supporters.)

At the Monday meeting with Karroubi and Khatami, Mousavi declared that the "the government [of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] lacks legitimacy as it does not have the nation's vote," according to Iran's PressTV. But Mousavi and his allies are wary of provoking a showdown in the streets, and he added: "We should make every effort to pursue the case of our opposition by moving within a legal framework."

Karroubi, speaking to campaign supporters, added: "A government which takes over the wheel of the country without popular vote has no legitimacy and this reality gets more and more evident day by day."

As the opposition stands firm, the centrist bloc led by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafansjani seems to be standing with them. One day after Rafsanjani met in public with relatives of those arrested in the post-election crackdown, his political party issued a defiant statement:

"We declare that the result is unacceptable due to the unhealthy voting process, massive electoral fraud and the siding of the majority of the Guardian Council with a specific candidate."

Iran's Eye-Gougers

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is dropping the mask.

Until June 12, when the Guard emerged as the critical pillar of the regime in putting down the post-election protest demonstrations, the IRGC remained in the shadows. Intelligence specialists say that there isn't a lot known about the organization, structure and operational commanders of the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), otherwise known as the pasdaran. During my visit to Tehran last month, I spoke to one Iranian expert, a former journalist, who said that there are two things that are very closely shielded in Iran: the organization of the IRGC and the organization of the Office of the Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But now, at least, the Guard is openly acknowledging its role.

It began in the days before the election, when the IRGC's ideological chief warned that it would crush the reformist-led opposition, which had dressed its campaign in green. "There are many indications that some extremist [i.e., reformist] groups have designed a 'color' revolution," said Yadollah Javani of the IRGC. "Any attempt at a velvet revolution will be nipped in the bud." Now Javani is back, and he's sounding uglier, with talk about eye-gouging. Said Javani, who is the IRGC's "political director":

"We came up against a deep mischief during this election, a mischief that gave birth to the new divisions. During these events, the eye of the mischief was damaged, but it was not blinded. Now the eye of the mischief must be blinded completely and gouged out, and this can be done by illuminating the events behind the scenes."

The political director of the IRGC is an important post. Last year, when I visited Iran, I met with a former IRGC political director, M. Hossein Saffar-Haramdi, a close ally of President Ahmadinejad, who is currently the minister of culture and Islamic guidance. (Like many IRGC commanders, he's been since elevated to a key post in Iran's government.) As minister of culture, Saffar-Haramdi's job is to censor or shut down newspapers, oversee the creative arts (including painting, sculpture, film, and music), and ensure that Iran's women don't get too uppity. When I asked him then why he shuts down opposition papers, he said blithely:

"Any press activity that would disturb the fabric of society or create some sort of disruption, the law must be applied. "The press is free, as long as it does not start insulting political personalities and religious beliefs."

On Sunday, the current commander of the IRGC, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, admitted that the Guard had been placed in charge of putting down the current protests:

"Because the Revolutionary Guard was assigned the task of controlling the situation, it took the initiative to quell a spiraling unrest."

Thanks to the intrepid Borzou Daragahi of the Los Angeles Times, we know more about the current role of the Guard. In Monday's Times, he quoted more extensivelyfrom the statement of Gen. Jafari:

"These events put us in a new stage of the revolution and political struggles, and all of us must fully comprehend its dimensions. Because the Revolutionary Guard was assigned the task of controlling the situation, [it] took the initiative to quell a spiraling unrest. This event pushed us into a new phase of the revolution and political struggles and we have to understand all its dimensions."

General Javani, the same official who'd warned on June 10 about the threat of a velvet revolution, added:

"Today, no one is impartial. There are two currents -- those who defend and support the revolution and the establishment, and those who are trying to topple it."

That last quote is very significant, because it signals that the Guard, now openly emerging as a power in Iran, considers the opposition to be revolutionaries trying to overthrow the system rather than reformists seeking to modify it.

If you want to understand the importance of the Guard in Iran, I strongly recommend reading a 2009 publication from the Rand Corporation, entitled: "The Rise of the Pasdaran: Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps." It describes in detail how the Guard has developed from a military institution into a political and economic powerhouse. It has vast holdings in every sector of the Iranian economy. And because of those holdings, the Guard is institutionally opposed to rebuilding ties to the West. Why? Because among its various tentacles, the Guard is engaged in a wide-ranging smuggling enterprise that brings its commanders large profits. And if the Iran made a deal with the West that eliminated the sanctions strangling Iran, those profitable smuggling operations would disappear.

Says the Rand report:

From laser eye surgery and construction to automobile manufacturing and real estate, the IRGC has extended its influence into virtually every sector of the Iranian market. Perhaps more than any other area of its domestic involvement, its business activities represent the multidimensional nature of the institution. The commercialization of the IRGC has the potential to broaden the circle of its popular support by co-opting existing financial elites into its constellation of subsidiary companies and subcontractors.

Approximately one-third of Iran's imports are delivered through smuggling, the black market, and a network of sixty illegal ports under the control of the IRGC, according to Mehdi Karroubi, the reformist cleric, and members of the Iranian parliament.

As Rand notes:

As an economic organization more interested in monopoly rather than open competition, the IRGC may wish to keep Iran's economy closed off and under its tight control. If this is the case, U.S. and international sanctions may not weaken the IRGC, but instead enhance its formal and illicit economic capabilities.

The IRGC also has ties to the enormously powerful foundations, or bonyads that have risen since 1979, including the Mostazafan Foundation, headed by Mohammad Forouzandeh, a former IRGC commander, and the Shahid Foundation, headed by Hossein Deghan, the former head of the IRGC Air Force. The Mostazafan Foundation, Iran's largest, owns 350 companies in agriculture, industry, transportation, and tourism. It reportedly has ties to a secret foundation, the Nur Foundation, established in 1999 to import sugar, construction materials, and pharmaceuticals. The Shahid Foundation is also involved in dozens of enterprises.

According to Fariborz Ghadar, an Iranian economist who spoke last week at a forum I attended at the Woodrow Wilson Center, about one-third of Iran's entire economy is controlled by the bonyads. Another one-third is state-owned enterprises, and one-third is private sector. The IRGC has its hand in all three, since it controls several state-owned companies, controls many bonyads, and is awarded many private-sector contracts.

Part of the struggle in Iran involves an economic tussle pitting behind-the-scenes titans like Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a billionaire, and many private sector businessmen against the power of the IRGC. There's a strong economic dimension to Iran's political crisis. Many of the wealthiest Iranian merchants, who control tremendous power through Iran's networks of bazaars, are traditional conservatives who are increasingly unhappy with the mismanagement of the Iranian economy by Ahmadinejad and his IRGC cronies, and by the IRGC's corruption and greed. Indeed, if the political struggle is raised to the next level, watch the bazaar. A year ago, a nationwide strike by bazaaris (to protest a value-added tax) nearly shut down Iran's economy. (An analogy: imagine if all the shopping malls in America closed down at once.) This time, a bazaari strike could take on much more political, and therefore more explosive dimensions.

No wonder the IRGC is worried.

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