News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
I went off in search of Ahmadinejad voters today in Tehran. They are noteasy to find.
It's perfect election weather in Iran, relatively cool today with a nicebreeze and clear skies, and at polling station after station, theturnout was huge. I began my day at the 7th Tir Technical School incentral Tehran. It is a relatively prosperous, middle class area, andscores of people were on line this morning, ID cards in hand, waitingpatiently to vote. A dozen election officials were milling around, andwhen they noticed that I was a reporter, out of nowhere appeared a traywith tea. An official checks my press credentials and says, "Welcome."
The people in line were solemn, men and women, some with kids. I do astraw poll, quietly asking voters who they plan to cast their ballotsfor, and why, and it's clear that at this station at least, it's MirHossein Mousavi country. Tarandeh, 38, a teacher with an M.A. inEnglish, says, "I'm someone who has never ever voted before in theIslamic Republic, not once. I was the first on line today, at 8 am. Andthe gentleman looked at my voting book and asked me, 'Where are yourother votes?' I told him, today is my first." Tarandeh's father was anadmiral in the Iranian Navy, and he knows Mousavi from his days as primeminister in the 1980s. "I am sure he will not insult and disrespect thebeliefs of others around the world, for instance, by talking about theHolocaust." She notes than Iran has a Jewish minority.
Further north, in the Fereshteh neighborhood of north Tehran, theturnout for Mousavi is overwhelming. Hundreds of people are waiting online to vote at a mosque and cultural center, men to the left and womento the right. As I walk down the aisle between them, a young womannotices that I am an American reporter. "Vote for Mousavi!" she says. Itell her that I can't vote, but that I voted for Obama. A crowd isgathering. "Obama!" Three or four people applaud. Several of them say,"We like Mousavi!" Few speak English, but they are translating for eachother. I say, "Perhaps Mousavi and Obama will meet soon." By now thereare 30 or 40 people listening to the conversation. All of them breakout into cheers and applause. It's a startling, and stunning moment.Outside, voters are eager to talk. Hessam Omidi, 24, is a student who'sonly voted once before. "I am here for the future of my country," hesays. "We have been isolated in the world, lost our connection with therest of the world." Nasser Hakimi, 70, a doctor, says, "I am here forMousavi, because I don't like Ahmadinejad. Actually I don't care aboutMousavi, I just want Ahmadinejad out." He says virtually everyone in theneighborhood is for Mousavi, except for a handful who won't vote at all."Mousavi can talk to Obama, and he can negotiate a compromise on Iran'snuclear program." His wife, Elly, a yoga instructor, nods her head. "Weare not cattle or cows or sheep to follow orders. We live in an ancientcountry with a proud history." She says that nearly all women in Iranare sick of the current situation, and lowering her voice, she adds, "IfAhmadinejad wins, I predict there will be another revolution."
Last night, worried about exactly that prospect, the commander of Iran'sRevolutionary Guards issued a stern warning that the security forceswill not tolerate a "Green Revolution" if Mousavi loses and hissupporters refuse to accept the results.
Finding few, if any supporters of the president, I head west to theNarmak area of Tehran, well known as Ahmadinejad's neighborhood, becausehe lived there for years. Unlike the previous places I visited, this isa run-down working class area. But it's still hard to find a supporterof Ahmadinejad, surprisignly. "Ahmadinejad did not fulfill hispromises," says Milad Saki, 22, a student with spiky hair. FarazKhaveri, 25, who works in a publishing house nearby, says, "This is theneighborhood of Ahmadinejad, but there is massive support for Mousavihere." Mohammad Reza, 22, a student at Sadr University in Tehran, says,"The situation in Iran is critical. And all Ahmadinejad talks about isIsrael!"
On the sidewalk outside, I approach a group of conservatively dressedwomen in black chadors, expecting that perhaps -- unlike the women incolorful scarves -- they might be backers of the president. "Mousavi orAhmadinejad?" I ask, to the group of six or eight women. I am stunned,again. "Mousavi! Mousavi!" they all say, laughing and smiling. One pullsour a hidden green armband. Again, a crowd is gathering around me, andsoon two dozen people have assembled. "We are waiting for someone torevive and rebuild this country!" says someone. "We want freedom!" saysanother. "Freedom of speech." A woman looks at me. "And stop the hijabpolice!" referring to the notorious dress-code cops who prowl Tehran.Sudden;y they are all talking at once. "Ahmadinejad is a liar!"
Still looking for Ahmadinejad backers, I head to south Tehran, thepresident's reputed stronghold. The first polling place I visit, at theSangy Mosque, under twin towering minarets tiled in blue, white, andgold, is decidely Ahmadinejad territory. The officials are grim andunfriendly. Guards armed with machine guns stand outside, though no suchguards appeared at the other polling places I've visited. They scowl atmy credentials, and tell me I can't interview voters. But in fact thereare few voters to be found. Compared to the other places, where hundredsof people waited in long lines, here there are no more than half a dozenpeople.
A few blocks away, at another mosque, still deep in poverty-strickensouth Tehran, the officials are more welcoming. About three dozen peopleare waiting in line. I approach Reza Zarei, 37, a taxi driver, whointroduces me to his entire family: wife, brother in law, father in law,various cousins. I've approached him because he has the appearance of anAhmadinejad guy, with a beard, conservative clothing, and a wife in fullblack chador. But no. "We are all Mousavi!" he says, and his relativesnod and smile in agreement. "Just like the Amercans voted for Obama, weare going for Mousavi," he says.
Nearby, a young man tells me, "You are not going to find anyone forAhmadinejad here." His friend, Hamid Ghadyani, agrees. "In this areait's maybe 50/50," he says, then corrects himself. "Well, most are forMousavi, and the rest are for Karroubi." Mehdi Karroubi is the otherreformist candidate, who's pledged to support Mousavi if he wins. "Weare not going to vote for Ahmadinejad. The way he deals with othercountries is not what we expect in a president. He is too aggressive.The policy of Islam is peace."
It's Saturday afternoon in Tehran, and the streets are generally quiet. But the aftermath of Iran's rigged election, in which radical-right President Ahmadinejad and his paramilitary backers were kept in office, has left Iran's capital steeped in anger, despair, and bitterness.
Last night, after the polls closed, heavily armed troops from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps were in evidence in the streets. In one area of north Tehran, where backers of opposition challenger and reformist ex-Prime Minister Mousavi are concentrated, I saw a convoy of at least fifteen military vehicles filled with armed guards idling along the side of the road. The street in front of the Interior Ministry, where votes are counted, is blocked and heavily guarded after rumors that Mousavi supporters might gather there to protest the election count.
Mousavi himself has pledged to fight the verdict, using words like "tyranny" and adding, "I will not surrender to this dangerous charade."
To get some perspective on the crisis, today I went to see Ibrahim Yazdi, a leading Iranian dissident and Iran's foreign minister in the early days of Islamic republic. Here is the text of the interview:
What is your reaction to the results of the election?
Many of us believe that the election was rigged. Not only Mousavi. We don't have any doubt. And as far as we are concerned, it is not legitimate.
There were many, many irregularities. They did not permit the candidates to supervise the election or the counting of the ballots at the polling places. The minister of the interior announced that he would oversee the final count in his office, at the ministry, with only two aides present.
In previous elections, they announced the results in each district, so people could follow up and make a judgment about the validity of the figures. In 2005, there were problems: in one district there were about 100,000 eligible voters, and they announced a total vote of 150,000. This time they didn't even release information about each particular district.
In all, there were about 45,000 polling places. There were 14,000 mobile ones, that can move from place to place. Many of us protested that. Originally, these mobile polling places were supposed to be used in hospitals and so on. This time, they were used in police stations, army bases, and various military compounds. When it comes to the military compounds and so on, if even 500 extra votes were put into each of the 14,000 boxes, that is seven million votes.
Mousavi and Karroubi had earlier established a joint committee to protect the peoples' votes. Many young people volunteered to work on that committee. But the authorities didn't let it happen. Last night [that is, election night] the security forces closed down that committee. There is no way, independent of the government and the Guardian Council, to verify the results.
I've heard people say that President Ahmadinejad is gathering so much power that he might be able to use the Revolutionary Guard and his other allies to make a coup d'etat against the state.
A coup d'etat? They've already made one! They've created a dictatorship, in fact. Do you know that last night the security forces occupied the offices of many newspapers, to make sure that their reporting on the election was favorable? They changed many headlines. They fixed the election.
The Guards are taking over everything, including many economic institutions. The ministry of the interior is increasing its control in all the provinces.
We have information that Ahmadinejad is thinking about changing the Constitution to allow the president to serve more than two terms, to make his presidency more or less permanent.
Of course, there are strong voices in the establishment that will challenge him. It is not clear that he and the Sepah (the Revolutionary Guard) will be strong enough to overcome them. But there will be clashes over this.
Where does the Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stand in regard to this?
The problem is that there is concern about the relationship between the Leader and the Guards. To what extent can the Leader control or moderate the Guards? This is a difficult question.
After the last election , after Ahmadinejad was first elected, there were many questions raised about Ahmadinejad's effort to isolate the Leader. We talked openly about this. This time, in preparation for the vote, they isolated him even further. For instance, in years past [former President] Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani was influential, perhaps even more influential than the leader. Now, with the slogans being used at Ahmadinejad's rallies, things like "Death to Hashemi!", they have created a deep rift. Khamenei has also lost the support of many high-ranking members of the clergy.
Many old comrades of the  revolution don't trust Ahmadinejad. It is only the Sepah that supports him.
And what do you mean by "isolating" the Leader?
By monitoring and controlling the flow of information to him. Unfortunately, God will not reveal information to him directly. Where does he get his information, his data? The system works in such a way that information is very powerful. And Ahmadinejad controls the ministry of the interior, the ministry of information, the ministry of intelligence.
What do you think will happen now? So much energy was devoted to support for Mousavi, and so much hope was created. Do you think it will result in a crisis?
Certainly, we are concerned about spontaneous reactions. Iran's youth has been engaged and mobilized. Around the country, there have already been some violent clashes.
We do not agree with violence, because violence will only give the Right an excuse to suppress the opposition.
Certainly, the gap inside Iran, politically, will be widened. Our main concern is how to keep the enthusiasm that was created for the election alive, in order to monitor and constrain the power of the government. The only way to counter it is the power of the people. We need to organize them.
In this we have an experience to guide us. During the era of the Shah, there was only one moment in which the power of the people was mobilized against the Shah and to support changes in the Constitution, and that was during the era of [Prime Minister] Mossadegh. [Mossadegh was ousted in the 1953 coup organized by the CIA and British intelligence.] In that era, there was a very powerful political movement inside the country that checked the power of the Shah. Today we have to do the same. We are nor after subversion. We do not want to change the Constitution. We do want to create a viable political force that can exert its influence.
It's a quiet Thursday in Tehran. Campaigning and electioneering isforbidden on election eve, and the crowds are gone, but the tension ispalpable. Here and there are still visible people wearing the ubiquitousgreen armbands that signal support for former Prime Minister Mousavi.Everyone, but everyone, has only one thing on their minds, and rumorsare flying, gossip is exchanged, and the latest news--true or not--ispassed from mouth to mouth and via cell phone and text messages. Outsidethe gigantic, concrete edifice of the Interior Ministry, which hasresponsibility for counting the votes, a pair of young women wearinggreen smiled as we passed each other. It's inside that building,overlooked by a huge portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini, where many Iraniansworry that the vote will be stolen.
Though quiet now, over the past several days Iran has seen an outburstof political activity that far surpasses anythinge the gathering stormof the 1978-79 toppling of the Pahlavi dynasty. Last evening, I strolledacross the campus of Tehran University, Iran's largest and mostprestigious school. In the streets outside, thousands of green-cladstudents were laughing, cheering and carrying banners, and from therooftops across the street people were throwing confetti that raineddown on the streets below. Cars and vans, flying green flags, cruisedthe streets. A small group of supporters of President Ahmadinejadmarched past, drawing jeers and mocking chants. A guard at the gate, anolder man who lost a leg in the 1980s war with Iraq, smiled approvinglyand said, of the Mousavi crowd, "It's a revolution."
A revolution. That's a phrase I've heard over and over again in the lastfew days, from students, office workers, taxi drivers, and passersby.
In fact, it may be something less than that, since all three challengersto Ahmadinejad, including Mousavi, are establishment figures. Yetthere's no denying the political and social movement that is buildingagainst the president, mostly around Mousavi's brilliant campaign. Andthe contempt for Ahmadinejad is everywhere, from well-connectedobservers and analysts, government officials, and ordinary Iranians I'veencountered. A few days ago, as I headed over to Ahmadinejad's campaignheadquarters, I stopped a man to ask directions. "Ahmadinejad! Why doyou want to go see him? He destroyed the country!" A few blocks later, awell-dressed man comes up to me, just outside the president's governmentoffice and down an alley from the campaign headquarters. He introduceshimself as an employee in the office of the president. He says thatAhmadinejad is a fool. And he adds: "The mullahs [the Iranian clergy]are like idols. They must be broken!" He pulls down his shirt to show mea bullet wound from the war.
To counter the Mousavi green, the Ahmadinejad campaign has wrappeditself in the Iranian flag--literally. Like proper ultranationalistextremists, or perhaps like Republicans, the president's campaign isusing Iran's tricolor flag as its election symbol. At an Ahmadinejadrally, thousands of Iranian flags are handed out by campaign workers,and the crowd shakes the flags as if they were spears in combat. But ata competing Mousavi rally, 20,000 supporters chant: "Mousavi! Mousavi!Take back my flag!"
There's worry and anger about cheating and unfair campaigning.Yesterday, the state-run Iranian TV gave Ahmadinejad twenty minutes offreeair time for a speech, while offering one minute each to his threerivals. (They turned it down contemptuously.) At a Mousavi rally, peoplechant: "Iranian TV has become Ahmadinejad's PlayStation!" A man saysthat if there is evidence of cheating, people won't stand for it. Later,the crowd chants: "If there is any cheating, we are going to make hellin Iran!" Rumors that people would storm the offices of Iranian TV ifAhmadinejad were given the free time proved unfounded, and the speechwas aired without incident.
But there's an uneasy feeling that, especially if the vote is close, oneside or the other won't accept the results. Perhaps the greatest dangercomes from the angry, inflamed supporters of Ahmadinejad, though ahighly informed analyst says that Iran's Leader, Ali Khamenei, will beable to control the backers of Ahmadinejad in the event of a Mousavivictory. But there's no question that Iran is highly divided, and whenthe results are announced--probably Saturday morning--there will be afew days of tension before it's clear how the voters on the losing sidereact.
"I hope the gap is wide enough that the losing side accepts it," says awell-known professor at Tehran University. If Ahmadinejad loses, if thegap is wide, Khamenei will put a lot of pressure on him not to maketrouble."
The reality is that Khamenei and his all-powerful Council of Guardianshas approved all four candidates, and virtually everyone I've spokenwith says that the Leader will be happy if either Ahmadinejad or Mousaviwins. It's even likely that Khamenei may have decided that Ahmadinejadhas served his purpose, and that a more acceptable, more moderatepresident would better serve Iran's broader interests. "When Bush waspresident, perhaps Iran needed a barking dog to response to the barkingdog in Washington," says one Iranian observer. "But now, with Obama,it's different."
Perhaps. The neoconservatives argue that, whoever wins, the rulingpowers-that-be will remain--and that's true, as far as it goes. Butthere's no denying that two vastly different, competing social movementshave been mobilized for this election, and that very real social forcesare at work.
Foreign policy is front and center in the Iranian electoral debate. It's clear from countless discussions I've had in Tehran this week that many Iranians blame Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for isolating Iran, creating a needless confrontation with the United States, provoking a harsh set of economic sanctions that has crippled Iran's oil, aviation, and computer/IT industries.
Those Iranians want the next president, whoever he is--and all signs continue to suggest that Mir Hossein Mousavi will be the winner--to make restoring Iran's relations with the United States a top priority.
Of course, that might be difficult.
I spent much of Wednesday morning in discussions at the Iranian foreign ministry. For two hours, I spoke with Ali Akbar Rezaie, the director-general of the ministry's office responsible for North America. He credits President Obama for his efforts in Cairo and elsewhere to put an end to the "civilizational" conflict between the West and Islam. "Compared to anything we've heard in the last 30 years, and especially in the last eight years, his words were very different," he says. "People in the region received the speech, from this angle, very positively, with sympathy."
He seemed to hint that the election would set the stage for a real Iran-US dialogue. "After the election we will be in a better position to manage relations with the United States. We'll be at the beginning of a new four-year period, and the political framework will be clear."
But the devil is in the details, he suggests. On the nuclear issue, the biggest stumbling block so far, he says that Obama was, well, fuzzy. While Obama said that Iran has the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, he said nothing--either way--about Iran's right to enrich uranium on Iranian soil. From Iran's point of view, says Rezaie, the fact that Obama didn't rule out (or condemn) the possibility of an Iran-based enrichment program is a good sign. "But it is still vague for us. It is not clear whether he omitted that point intentionally or not. We don't know what he has in mind."
Of course, negotiating the details of a solution to this thorny problem is precisely the point. During my visit, a number of well-connected Iranians have said that if the United States creates a hospitable climate for relations beween the two countries--for instance, were Obama to stop saying that "all options are on the table" including military action--the whole process might move forward more easily. "From a technical point of view, there are many things that both sides can talk about, but those points won't tabled as long as there isn't enough political will, on both sides," says Rezaie. "I understand it's difficult to define the right level of political will, but it should be enough to convince the other side that it is serious. So far we have seen good words [from Obama], but it's not enough yet."
At least five separate, very influential Iranian officials and former officials have said that the key is for the United States to deal directly with Ali Khamenei, the Leader, rather than worry about who is president. (Of course, were Ahmadinejad to be ousted on Friday, it would be infinitely easier for Obama to sell the idea of talking to Iran to a skeptical US public.)
Sadegh Kharazi, Iran's former ambassador to France, expressed frustration about America's seeming unwillingness to deal directly with Khamenei. "The audience for the United States should be the Leader," he says. "After the election, the United States can work directly with the Office of the Supreme Leader. They know people who work with the Office of the Supreme Leader." Among them, he and other Iranians suggest, are Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Khameni, and Kamal Kharazi, Sadegh Kharazi's uncle and head of Iran's Council on Foreign Relations. Both served as foreign minister previously. Perhaps half a dozen other leading Iranian figures can serve an intermediary, Iranian sources say.
"In Iran, the Iranian leadership--the president, the Leader, everyone--looks at Obama very positively," says Kharazi. "But we need a comprehensive plan from him. ... If Obama makes a practical gesture, Iran would immediately respond."
Currently, Kharazi is a chief foreign policy adviser to Mousavi's campaign. When I met him yesterday. he was exhausted after a long campaign swing to southwest Iran, where he addressed a 10,000-strong Mousavi rally in Iran's oil capital of Ahwaz. He laid out for an eight-point plan for rebuilding US-Iran relations, including "transparency of Iran's nuclear program," i.e., strengthened safeguards to prevent the diversion of uranium into military use and a more stringent inspection regime.
Several other Iranians, perhaps less constricted by their official and semi-official positions were even more blunt about the problem.
Saeed Laylaz, a private businessman and economic analyst, earlier served in a top post in Iran's ministry of industry, until he ran afoul of President Ahmadinejad. He's on a personal campaign now to make sure the United States understands how to deal with the highly complex political system in Iran.
As we talked, he received a steady stream of phone calls from friends in Iran's far-flung provinces about the election outlook. Laylaz calls Ahmadinejad "stupid" and blames him for mismanaging Iran's faltering economy, including squandering $300 billion in oil revenue over the past four years that was "wasted and looted." But he is beside himself over America's inability to understand that power in Iran lies in the hands of Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad.
When Obama sent his remarkable Nowruz New Year's greeting last February, Iranians were stunned, he says. "People were excited and surprised. We realized that the US dialogue with Iran has changed basically and dramatically."
But Laylaz says that the US blew it. Very quickly after Obama's message, Khamenei responded with a public statement welcoming improved US ties and, he says, laying what he calls a "roadmap" for better ties."But Mr. Khamenei's response did not get the appropriate reaction in the United States." For instance, he says, Khamenei raised the question of Iran's frozen assets held in the United States dating back to 1979, a sum that amounts to something like $8 billion to $12 billion now, according to Laylaz. "Obama could have asked for a report about those frozen assets," he says. Doing so, even quietly, would have sent an enormous signal to Khamenei tha his message was heard loud and clear.
There are minefields aplenty in the coming US-Iran dialogue. Both sides are hugely suspicious of the other, and there are real, underlying issues that reflect conflicting interests between Washington and Tehran. On both sides, there are radicals and hardliners intent on sabotaging the prospect for better relations. In Iran, whatever happens in the election, there is bound to be a period of political instability during which the losing side (or sides) may not accept defeat quietly. (See the June 9 entry on The Dreyfuss Report about the forces that Ahmadinejad is mobilizing in support of his faltering campaign.)
But every day Tehran looks greener, as the Green Wave of the Mousavi campaign gathers momentum. Politics is getting raucous, with Ahmadinejad hurling accusations of corruption at his rivals, and their backers, including the powerful, wily former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Last night, Rafsanjani struck back, issuing a blistering letter attacking Ahmadinejad. It's an unprecedented display of vitriol, and increasingly it's looking like it's Ahmadinejad and a few cronies against, well, everyone else.
On Monday I wrote about Iran's Green Wave, in support of reformist MirHossein Mousavi. Today I am writing about the Red Tide. That's thered-armband-wearing, virtual fascist movement in support of reelectingPresident Ahmadinejad.
Picture the scene: hours before a rally held at a huge, special indoorprayer auditorium in downtown Tehran, tens of thousands of Ahmadinejadsupporters began gathering for a pre-election rally. It's hot, sweaty,and dusty, and a ear-splitting sound system is playing martial music asthug-like young men chant slogans. As the crowd gathers, variousspeakers whip up a frenzy of anger, xenophobia, and religious ecstasy.Appeals are made about the need to honor the suffering of various,long-dead holy men of Islam, and speakers denounce the president'sopponents.
Dark conspiracies are hinted at. "The buses and subways have been shutdown! They don't want you here! It's the work of Hashemi Rafsanjani!"Rafsanjani, a former president and wheeler-dealer, is supportingMousavi, and Rafsanjani's son runs the Tehran metro system. In fact, noshutdown has happened. It's a lie, but the crowd roars: "Death toHashemi!" You can see the hatred in their eyes.
In the VIP section is a mullah, 42, from Lahejan, who gives his name asGilani, refusing to indentify himself further. White-turbaned andslender, with the required beard, he is serene and supremely confidentin his gray robes and white shirt. He views the crowd proudly. Why doyou support Ahmadinejad? I ask. He doesn't hesitate:
He is anti-superpower. He is against Zionism. His thinkingis divine thinking. He is going to continue the way of the martyrs. Hewants to establish a government for the entire world, a government to beestablished under the rule of the Hidden Imam.
As he says this, he looks smug and adopts the attitude of a man whoknows the truth. He has access to the inner secrets, he implies, lookingat me as if I can never understand. In the crowd many agree. Arough-looking man, probably a member of the Basij militia, defendsAhmadinejad's absurd Holocaust-mongering. It's hard to hear what peopleare saying, the din is so loud.
Soon, the chants are: "Death to Israel!" and of course, "Death toAmerica!" They get louder and louder. The crowd is getting angrier, andmore excited. The martial music grows in volume. Suddenly, the crowdrushes the stage, as the time for Ahmadinajad's speech draws near. Atthe doors, thousands of people left outside and pushing through thedoors, trampling guards and old people, climbing through windows,scrambling up air conditional scaffolding to drop through ceiling-levelwindows.
It's a near riot. Crushed in a sea of people, floating a wave of angrypeople, I push my way through the crowd to a window exit as hundreds ofpeople push in.
In the end -- though I've left the frenetic rally -- Ahmadinajed is ano-show. Despite perhaps 50,000 ecstatic followers, a lumpenproletariatcrowd of roughnecks and fanatics, he cancels his appearance, without anyexplanation. As the rally breaks up, thousands of Ahmadinejad backersflood Tehran. In vans and pick up trucks and aboard motorcycles, theyswarm the city, blocking traffic, chanting, shouting, carrying banners.The demonstration, city-wide, goes on past midnight, and the city --whose normal traffic is gridlocked -- comes to a complete standstill.
What does it all mean? To me, there's no question that Iran is at acrucial turning point.
The contrast between the Ahmadinjad rally and the Mousavi rally that Iattended on Saturday in Karaj could not be more complete. The level ofenthusiasm at the Mousavi rally was very, very high. But there were noangry chants. Instead of "Death to America!" the green-clad Mousavisupporters chant: "Death to potatoes!" ridiculing Ahmadinejad's practiceof giving out sacks of potatoes to his poor supporters. The women at theMousavi rally are sheathed in scarves, but their stylish hair is visibleunderneath, they wear attractive makeup and pink lipstick, and belowtheir short outer garments are visible jeans and, in many cases, highheels. At the Ahmadinejad rally, the women -- in the thousands -- aresegregated from the men, and they are dressed head to toe inall-covering black.
Ahmadinejad's base is one that worships him, worships authority, andbelieves in dark plots against Iran. It is profoundly religious andultra-nationalist, and it's the ultra-nationalism that worries me mostof all. Combined with religious fanaticism, and they are fanatics,backed by the paramilitary Basij and the Revolutionary Guard. Many oftheir commanders are graduates and devotees of the same religious schoolin Qom as Ahmadinejad, led by reactionary Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi.
If Ahmadinejad loses, as seems likely, in Friday's vote, where will thisforce go? What will happen to the whipped-up, ultra-nationalists andreligious right? Will they submit meekly -- or will they revolt? It's ascary thought.
Mousavi supporters are confident about the outcome. Even the clergy isturning against Ahmadinejad, and there are rumors that the Leader,Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is having second thoughts about the president,too. One well-connected mullah, Sheikh Ahmed Karimi, who is working inthe Mousavi camp, told me that the vast majority of Iran's approximatelythirty or so grand ayatollahs supports Mousavi. One of them, GrandAyatollah Yousef Saneei, who's been banned by the regime for hispolitical activities, still manages to send out coded SMS text messagesto countless followers urging them not to vote for Ahmadinejad becausehe is a "liar." There are even more radical forces in the Mousavi camp,including some who challenge the authority of Khamenei himself.
In the provinces, especially in Azerbaijan (the Turkish north) and inKhuzestan (the Arab southwest), and in other minority, non-Persianregions of Iran, the vote is overwhelming for Mousavi, travelers fromthose areas tell me.
It's true, of course, that the president has a limited, if importantrole, in Iran, and the power rests chiefly in the hands of the Leader.Many observers have said that, whoever wins, the Leader, the SupremeNational Security Council, and the other insiders are intent onexploring a dialogue with the United States. But sometimes, oncepowerful forces of fanaticism are riled up and unleashed, it's hard tocall them back. It's entirely possible that even the Leader is concernedabout the power that Ahmadinejad is trying to amass, in alliance withthe paramilitary forces.
There's electricity in the air in Tehran. Beneath the snow-capped peaksthat tower over the city, crowds gather every night to argue in the streets. Campaign posters touting candidates in the June 12 vote cover the city. A year ago, when I visited Tehran in advance of the parliamentary elections, there was apathy. Voters then were convinced that their votes didn't matter, and that not voting was the best way to protest the current state of affairs. No longer. There's a wave building, and all signs point to a resounding victory for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the pro-reform candidate who is challenging President Ahmadinejad.
That wave is green. All over the capital, there are green signs and banners supporting Mousavi. Cars flying green flags speed through the city, honking horns for Mousavi. For years, the hardline clergy and their allies, including Ahmadinejad, have feared nothing more than an Iranian-style "color-revolution." Now, Mousavi--with solid establishment credentials, an Islamic revolutionary pedigree second to none, and an outspoken pro-reform message--finds himself at the head of a green parade.
Of course, the hardliners and Ahmadinejad have a lot of aces up their sleeve, including the security services, the judiciary, the Revolutionary Guard, and the interior ministry, which counts the votes.
On Saturday, my first day in Tehran, I traveled some 25 miles outside the capital to Karaj, a city of three million people, for a rally for Mousavi at a huge soccer stadium. The scene was frenzied with excitement. At least 20,000 people waving green flags and dressed in green scarves packed the place. They did the wave. The cheers were deafening, and Mousavi hadn't even arrived yet. In the VIP section, I ran into an Iranian Olympic wrestling champion, Ebrahim Javadi, who'd come to show his support. "I am sure Mr. Mousavi can help us survive this crisis," he said. And better relations with the United States? "One hundred percent!" he said. Nearby, a middle-aged mullah, dressed in brown robes and white turban, said he'd watched President Obama's speech. Akbar Hamidi, 48, is a specialist in Persian literature. "Please take our message of peace to America," he told me. "I hope we elect Mousavi so he can start negotiations with the United States."
When Mousavi entered, the frenzy hit new highs. A roar went up. People chanted: "If there is no election cheating, you are Number One!" and "Ahmadinejad, shame on you! Let's get rid of you!"
And then: the power went out. Mousavi could not speak. He waved to the vast crowd, and they waved back. After half an hour, he waved goodbye. Rumors flew that someone--the most often mentioned culprit was the Basij, the paramilitary force that supports Ahmadinejad--had sabotaged the rally. Just another day of politics in Iran. The next day, another Mousavai rally was canceled at a stadium north of Tehran when the stadium management informed Mousavi staff that the rally would damage the playing field in advance of a match next week."Just an excuse," said an Iranian observer.
Later that night, more than 300 Iranian artists--painters, sculptors and others--convened an extraordinary gathering in support of Mousavi, whose outspoken wife is also an artist and who, in a step unprecedented in Iran, campaigns side by side with him, even holding hands. Hundreds of people gathered at the Gallery Mellat, and in an auditorium they listened to a speech by former President Khatami, the reformist, who is supporting Mousavi. "The government," said Khatami, "has turned being anti-art into an art form." Mousavi, who was prime minister from 1981-1989, had garnered across-the-board support from Iran's intellectual community, including writers, artists, musicians, actors, and others. At the event I spoke to many world famous Iranian artists, each of whom said that each and every work they produce must be cleared by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. And there was enormous buzz about Obama's opening to Iran. "People hope we can find a new way with Obama," said Farah Ossouli, who helped to organize the artists' exhibition. "But if Ahmadinejad stays, we are not sure he wants relations with the United States."
The next day, at Mousavi headquarters, I met Mostafa Hassani, 27, the whiz kid who came up with the idea of using green. It's a concept that Hassani, a prize-winning design student, came up with in 2008, even before he knew who'd be running. "I wanted something that could unite the country. We decided on green. Everyone can have access to something green, and when you make something common, like a logo, people can adopt it." He brought the idea to the Mousavi campaign a few weeks ago, and it clicked. He started with green arm bands, and it's expanded. The latest innovation is a green-paint handprint and a green checkmate, for a vote. "People can slap their hands on the wall, even in remote areas."
It's a long and difficult climb for Mousavi, of course. But everywhere, it seems, support for Ahmadinejad is lackluster, and the Mousavi green wave is growing. The campaign, including an unprecedented series of TV debates, is growing bitter. Today, I'm going to a rally for Ahmadinejad, the former mayor of Tehran, in the center of the city. Stay tuned.
I'm arriving tonight in Tehran, where I expect I'll get a lot of interesting reaction to President Obama's speech yesterday. (My own reaction was posted here, at length, yesterday.)
But I want emphasize one thing today: that by not mentioning "terror" or "terrorism" in his 55-minute address, Obama has formally turned the corner on the post-9/11 nightmare conjured by by President Bush and his ilk. If Obama sustains this, it has enormous potential not only to improve US relations with the Muslim world. It will utterly alter the discourse inside the United States, which for nearly eight long years has been distorted by the fear-mongering, Muslim-bashing, Osama-inflating, homeland security-worrying neoconservatives and their political allies.
As I pointed out yesterday, Obama stunned right-wing and centrist Israeli and pro-Israeli observers by referring with equanimity to Hamas, describing the Palestinian organization as having legitimate support among ordinary Palestinians and calling on Hamas to join the dialogue. A top Hamas official, Ahmad Yousef, an adviser to Ismail Haniya, the Hamas leader and prime minister, said:
"The things he said about Islam and the Palestinian suffering and their right to have a state is great. It is a landmark and a breakthrough speech."
Now comes the test of Obama's sincerity, in three immediate senses. We all get to taste the pudding and see if there is any proof in it.
The first test comes tomorrow in Lebanon, whose election will determine whether or not Hezbollah and its allies, including a chunk of Lebanon's Christian bloc, gain a majority and will lead the new Lebanese government. The results won't be known until Monday, at the earliest, and it's a complicated, multi-confessional election that is certain to be marred by vote-buying, intimidation, and sectarian voting en bloc. But if Hezbollah and Co. win, it will be a severe test of Obama's willingness to embrace political Islam. Were Obama to reject any contacts with a Lebanese government under a pro-Hezbollah majority, it will undo much of the positive spin in the Muslim and Arab media that has so far given Obama plaudits.
The second test comes June 12, in Iran. The election there pits President Ahmadinejad against two reformist rivals -- ex-prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and cleric Mehdi Karrubi, a former speaker in parliament -- and a conservative rival, Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guard. The results there might not be known until after June 19, because if none of the four wins an outright majority, there will be a two-man runoff. If one of the reformists wins, it shouldn't be hard for Obama to welcome his victory and renew his offer to sit down and talk. But, and here's the test, if Ahmadinejad wins -- with his radioactive rhetoric about the Holocaust and his defiant anti-Americanism -- will Obama be able to reach out to Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, for talks? To do so will require Obama to sell the idea of talking to Ahmadinejad to a skeptical US public, already conditioned by Bush, the neocons, and yes, Hillary Clinton, into react in knee-jerk fashion to the Iranian firebrand. But talk we must. No doubt the Obama team is already trying to figure out how to sell that at home. I hope.
The third test, of course, involves Hamas itself. Rather than treat Hamas like it was carrying swine flu, Obama should encourage Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- the two countries he just visited -- to help put the Palestinian Humpty Dumpty back together in a new Fatah-Hamas unity government in advance of scheduled January elections. Announcing, as Bush did, that the United States will have no contact with such a coalition effectively undermines its very creation, since Hamas has no incentive to join one. Obama should gesture, ever more overtly, in support of exactly such a coalition. Yes, the Israeli right will go bananas.
But the neocons and the right, including the Republicans, are already denouncing Obama for undermining Israel, abandoning the holy democracy mission, and ending the Global War on Terror (GWOT). My favorite quote is from the always entertainingly stupid Michael Rubin, of the American Enterprise Institute, who foamed at the mouth over Obama's de-emphasis of Project Impose Democracy. "Bush can look in the mirror and know that he liberated fifty million people," wrote Rubin, neglecting to mention that Bush killed about a million of them in the process. "Obama will look in the mirror and admire how handsome he is."
Well. Perhaps the pudgy Rubin can't do the same when he gazes into his bathroom mirror. But the emerging apoplexy on Planet Neocon is a sign that Obama did something right in Cairo. Interesting, isn't it, that with Hamas praising Obama, the only criticism of the Cairo speech is coming from (1) the neocons and their allies, and (2) Osama bin Laden, who is clearly panicking about Obama's play for mainstream and conservative Muslim opinion. Strange bedfellows, indeed.
I watched President Obama's Cairo speech from Dubai, the sprawling and frenzied city of gold and shopping malls on the shores of the Arabian--er, Persian--Gulf. (I'm on my way to Tehran tomorrow, to report on the July 12 presidential elections there, and I'd better keep my "Arabian" and "Persian" Gulfs straight.)
Based on early returns from a decidedly unrepresentative sample of Arab public opinion, Obama hit a home run. I agree. (Incidentally, it's not easy to find Arabs in Dubai, a desert kleptocracy run by a super-rich ruling clan, whose population is overwhelmingly from South Asia, East Asia, southern Sudan, and other parts of Africa.) In Dubai, at least, and in its media, Obama's speech was topic one, two and three all week.
That's good and bad. Obama's arrival in Saudi Arabia and Egypt was greeted in two ways. First, it had the trappings of a visit by an all-powerful but distant Great White Father--okay, he's black, but anyway--on whose words the fate of the Arab and Muslim world hangs, which is understandable in light of the fact that American troops and sailors are everywhere. And second, in contrast, sophisticated Arab opinion was truly hopeful that Obama's remarks would make concrete the sharp break with the Imperial America as represented by the administration of George W. "Crusader" Bush. I think the latter prevailed. Obama was appropriately humble, and he laid down important markers that signal a new U.S. approach to the Middle East and beyond.
And, as CNN reported, "No one threw a shoe at his head."
He acknowledged the current state of tension, along with the history of colonialism and Cold War power politics that treated Muslim nations as chess pieces. He correctly laid the root of the tension on the Muslim world's reaction, especially among conservatives and the Islamic right, to "modernity and globalization." He acknowledged that a speech doesn't change everything. He quoted the Quran, and he spoke eloquently of the West's (and the world's) debt to Islamic civilization. "I have known Islam on three continents," he said. And he added: "Islam is part of America." Words, true – but words that I have been waiting for a long time to have heard from a president of the United States.
With Osama bin Laden's recent communiqué still echoing, Obama drew out the contrast between Islam and bin Laden's version of "violent extremism." He said that the United States has no designs on Afghanistan and no plans to establish permanent bases there. And on Iraq, he said the same: "We pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources"--i.e.,, oil. And he reiterated that all U.S. forces will be out of Iraq by 2012. (All of this, of course, will require some insistence by American voters and the "Arab and Muslim street" to hold Obama to his promises.)
But it was on Palestine that Obama hit the gong:
For more than 60 years they've endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations -- large and small -- that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.
How long has it been since a president spoke movingly about Palestinian suffering? And in a speech so high profile, even game-changing?
He even nodded to Hamas, acknowledging that Hamas has support among the Palestinians, and – amazingly – did not refer to the organization as a "terrorist group." And, of course, he kept up the pressure on Israeli expansionism by yet again slamming the settlements in the occupied territories – an issue, that likely as not, will bring down Bibi Netanyahu's right-wing government.
On Iran, Obama stated clearly that Iran has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Indeed, it is precisely that issue that will be at the core of the coming U.S.-Iran dialogue, since for Iran its ability to enrich uranium on Iranian soil is a no-compromise concern. Yet there are plenty of ways to finesse, regulate, and internationalize that.
On democracy, Obama said that "there is no straight line" to create representative governments in the Muslim world, such as Egypt – meaning that he won't push too hard, a la Bush and the neoconservatives, for instant democratic transformation. I think he hit precisely the right note.
His closing was pure Obama:
The Holy Koran tells us: "O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another."
The Talmud tells us: "The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace."
The Holy Bible tells us: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."
The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God's vision. Now that must be our work here on Earth.
Okay, it's a speech. But it's a good start.
It's a mistake to see President Obama's June 4 speech in Cairo merely as a repudiation of George W. Bush's wrecking-ball approach to the Middle East.
It's certainly true that during the eight years of the Bush administration, the United States lost a great deal. Bush's War on Terror, which in a moment of candor he called a Crusade, was widely viewed by Arabs, Iranians, Afghans, Pakistanis, and others as an assault on Islam itself, a conclusion that was reinforced by right-wing US Christian denunciations of Islam as a religion of violence and by neoconservative and pro-Israeli efforts to exaggerate the importance of Al Qaeda in the broader Muslim world. The Bush administration's policy of regime change -- applied in its ugliest form in Iraq -- was originally intended to include Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Sudan, as well, creating the image of the United States as a born-again imperial power in a region still recovering from the British, French, Italian, and other colonial powers that exited the region only recently. And Bush and Co. lumped together all of the region's anti-Western political forces, rolling Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Iran's Shiite clergy, Saddam Hussein, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia's Wahhabis, and the Syrian Baath party into one big "Islamofascist" ball of wax.
It is, of course, easy to find advocates for all of that, still, in the neocon-linked thinktanks and in the pages of the National Review, the Weekly Standard, the New Republic, and the Wall Street Journal editorial pages.
So the first thing Obama can do is to officially renounce that, all of it. If I were writing the speech, here's a line I'd put in it. "There is no Clash of Civilizations. There never was. Instead, I suggest that, working together, we can create a Partnership of Civilizations."
But Obama will have to do a lot more than be not-Bush.
The tricky part of Obama's speech is navigate the intricate relationship between (1) the need for the United States to establish strong, state-to-state relationships with autocratic and less-than-democratic leaders in the region, from pro-Western military strongmen like Egypt's Mubarak to the conservative and kleptocratic Arab royal families of the Persian Gulf to Syria's secular regime and Iran's clerical one; (2) the challenge posed by the rise of political Islam, from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait to the power of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine to Iraq's Shiite fundamentalist government and on to Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; and (3) the question of democracy, elections, and representative government.
Let's take those in reverse order.
The Bush administration, especially in its first term, made democracy the center of its rhetoric. For Bush, "democracy" was a code word for "regime change." Bush argued, falsely, that lack of democracy fostered Al Qaeda-type, anti-US terrorism. Spurred by neoconservatives, who touted the model of the Soviet Union's dramatic transformation, Bush argued that peaceful revolutions in the Middle East were inevitable, and that the United States stood ready to encourage them. Obama will have to make clear in his speech that while the United States supports progressive, democratic reform in the region, he recognizes that such change is likely to be evolutionary, not revolutionary, and that the United States will not try to impose a democratic form of government anywhere in the world. And certainly not by force of arms. Here's another line for Obama's speech: "While we support the ideal of democracy in government, we will never, ever attempt to impose democracy by force."
An issue directly related to democracy is the rise of political Islam. In this, Bush was hoist by his own petard. While he supported democracy in principle, he refused to acknowledge the real-world victories of Islamist formations in Palestine (Hamas), Lebanon (Hezbollah), and Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood). Bush dealt easily with Turkey, but he never acknowledged the frankly Islamist character of the ruling AK party. And, of course, Bush never acknowledged the real, if flawed, nature of Iran's electoral system. This is an area where Obama, over the next year or so, can take steps toward opening explicitly to all of these movements, one by one. Just as it doesn't mean that the United States embraces the Egyptian or Saudi autocracy when it deals on a realist, state-to-state basis with those regimes, it doesn't mean that the United States embraces religious-fundamentalist political movements when it deals with them, either. And when they win elections, as they did in Palestine (and as Hezbollah is likely to do next week in Lebanon), then the United States will have to swallow hard and accept them as duly elected.
Here's a quote, cited in my book, Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, from a 1992 speech by Edward Djerejian, then the assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, who made the first effort by a US official to address the rising power of political Islam:
"Much attention is being paid to a phenomenon variously labeled political Islam, the Islamic revival, or Islamic fundamentalism. ... We detect no monolithic or coordinated international effort behind these movements. What we do see are believers living in different countries placed renewed emphasis on Islamic principles and governments accommodating Islamist political activity to varying degrees and in different ways."
"The US government does not view Islam as the new 'ism' confronting the West or threatening world peace. ... The Cold War is not being replaced with a new competition between Islam and the West. The Crusades have been over for a long time."
Obama could do worse than to quote those lines in his speech.
As for relations with the autocratic, monarchical, and kleptocratic regimes, Obama will have to acknowledge that, for the foreseeable future, they're not going anywhere. We can deal productively with each and all of them, without sacrificing American principles.
At the core of his speech, of course, Obama will have to succeed not just in rhetoric, but in concrete policy terms.
He's made a start by ordering a drawdown in US forces in Iraq, and it would help his case to reiterate that, to accelerate it, and to make it clear that the United States has no designs on Iraq and its oil and that the US will not seek to establish permanent military bases in Iraq.
What makes Israel's right-wing government nervous, and what is worrying the center-right Israel lobby in Washington, of course, is the fact that in order to make his approach to the Muslim world credible, he will have to sustain his already robust effort to roll back Israeli settlements and to pressure Israel into accepting a state in Palestine. Virtually all of the neoconservative commentary on Obama's Cairo speech focuses on their preference that Obama tell the Muslim world to look inward, to correct its flaws, to get its own house in order, to suppress extremism, and so on. And no wonder -- because they desperately want to change the subject from the Israel question.
More than anything else -- more, even, than the invasion of Iraq -- it was Bush's unquestioning embrace of Israel, his refusal to deal with Yasser Arafat, his endorsement of Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon and its 2008-2009 war in Gaza that angered Muslims around the world. True, those actions were exploited by Muslim autocrats seeking to divert their populations from problems at home. True, those actions were used by Al Qaeda and its allies to recruit angry, desperate young men to violence. But that's the point. America's blind support for Israeli expansionism and intransigence bolsters the power of autocrats and provides recruiting slogans for Al Qaeda et al. It also is a stumbling block to better relations with Iran.
By committing the United States to an unwavering, international effort to rally support for a deal between Israel and Palestine, Obama can put the capstone on the break not only with the Bush administration, but with decades of American policy that put Israel first. King Abdullah of Jordan -- no radical, the son of king who was literally on the CIA payroll -- has suggested that peace will be a "23-state solution," i.e., peace between Israel, Palestine and the 21 members of the Arab League who support the Saudi-inspired Arab Peace Initiative. Not only that, but such a deal would include the 57 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), who've broadly endorsed the Arab plan.
This is a lot to put on one speech. And, of course, the speech is just the beginning, not the end. As it turns out, I'll be in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates on June 4, on my way to Iran to cover the June 12 presidential elections there for The Nation. I plan to blog from Tehran regularly during my visit -- so stay tuned. It will be interesting, to say the least, to learn Iranians' reaction to Obama's speech first hand.
Five days before the crucial elections in Iran on June 12, voters go to the polls in another Middle East country: Lebanon. The stakes in Lebanon are high, since it's looking more and more likely that Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite fundamentalist group, and its allies will win a majority and take control of the government in Beirut. That would create a fundamental choice for the Obama administration: does the United States continue to have contact with, and send military aid to, a Lebanese government controlled by Israel's implacable foe?
Last year, in a power-sharing deal brokered by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, Hezbollah was given a share of power in the Lebanese state proportional to its strength in parliament and on the ground, after massive pro-Hezbollah demonstrations rocked the country.
Expect a lot of outside meddling in Lebanon during the next two weeks -- on all sides.
An early shot was fired this week from Germany, where Der Spiegel, the conservative weekly magazine, revealed that investigators probing the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri have concluded that Hezbollah, and not Syria, is responsible for the spectacular bombing that killed Hariri, a pro-Western billionaire with close ties to France and Saudi Arabia. (Hariri's son, Saad Hariri, is leading the anti-Hezbollah coalition in the June 7 election.)
What's interesting about the Der Spiegel exclusive, if true, is not only that it exonerates Syria, but that it blames Hezbollah. The magazine reports that the UN special tribunal in the case intended to withhold its conclusion until late June, i.e., until after the election. The fact that it is now being reported makes the Spiegel report seem like a calculated leak designed to undercut Hezbollah's election chances.
Reports the magazine:
Spiegel has learned from sources close to the tribunal and verified by examining internal documents, that the Hariri case is about to take a sensational turn. Intensive investigations in Lebanon are all pointing to a new conclusion: that it was not the Syrians, but instead special forces of the Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah ("Party of God") that planned and executed the diabolical attack. Tribunal chief prosecutor Bellemare and his judges apparently want to hold back this information, of which they been aware for about a month. What are they afraid of?
That's a good question -- "What are they afraid of?" -- but another good question is: what's the motive of the people who leaked the super-secret conclusion? (And two other questions: is the Der Spiegel report correct that the UN panel has concluded that Hezbollah killed Hariri? And, if they have concluded that, is their conclusion true?)
Writing in the Washington Times, former Dick Cheney aide John Hannah, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel thinktank with neoconservative ties, rings every alarm bell he can reach:
Make no mistake: Hezbollah's triumph would constitute a major U.S. defeat. Despite the Obama administration's overtures to Iran, it remains the case that across the Middle East, the battle for Lebanon is understood as part of a much larger struggle for power being waged by Washington and Tehran.
The formal collapse of the Cedar Revolution would send shockwaves throughout the region, providing powerful confirmation of Iran's ascendancy and America's decline. It would dramatically embolden Teheran at a time when Washington hopes to negotiate an end to Iran's nuclear weapons program, its support for terrorism and its escalating efforts -- frequently using Hezbollah operatives -- to subvert pro-U.S. governments across the Arab world from Iraq to Egypt to Morocco.
From Iraq to Morocco! Whew! Talk about the Domino Theory. In fact, the Hezbollah victory would do nothing of the kind, except that it would ratify the democratic expression of what the Lebanese people want. If Hezbollah does win, its victory will be marginal, only a few points, and Lebanese politics will continue to be balanced on a knife's edge, complicated by the presence of armed militias and ethnic warlords across the political spectrum.
America's view of the Lebanon election is pretty clear. Recently, both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made high-profile visits to Beirut to boost the chances of the Hariri-led coalition. No doubt, pro-American, conservative Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are pouring millions of dollars into the anti-Hezbollah effort, while Iran is doing the same -- along with Syria -- for the other side.
Meanwhile, less might be at stake than Hannah suggests. As the Jerusalem Post notes, Hezbollah will be a power in Lebanon whether it wins or loses:
Even if Hizbullah loses the upcoming election, it will continue to control Lebanon. It is the strongest force in Lebanon by far, and the country's Shi'ite community is growing. The Christians in the North have been weakened, and the Druse in the central region will strike a deal with anyone who furthers their interests. Nobody will separate Hizbullah from its weapons, and the group will continue to strengthen and deepen its control of Lebanon.
What's really at stake is not Hezbollah's power and its ability to send dominos toppling, but its international credibility -- and the crucial question of whether the United States will (a) deal with a Hezbollah-controlled government or (b) treat it like Hamas, which was duly elected in the Palestinian territories and then quarantined by the United States.
As the New York Times reports today, Hezbollah is already gaining legitimacy:
Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group, has talked with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union about continued financial support to Lebanon in the event the group's political alliance wins the June 7 parliamentary elections, Hezbollah officials said Wednesday.
In Beirut last week, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said future American support to Lebanon, which includes military aid, would depend on the elections' outcome.
European governments have not issued any such veiled threats, and Western leaders have recently shown a greater willingness to engage in political dialogue with Hezbollah's patrons, Iran and Syria. Britain's Foreign Office said in March that it would re-establish relations with Hezbollah's political wing.
My guess: if Hezbollah wins, the Obama administration will figure out a way to finesse its dislike of the group, hold its nose, and continue to support the Lebanese government. To the utter consternation of John Hannah, the neoconservatives, the Israel lobby, and Israel's new right-wing government.
Interestingly, the elections come just two days after President Obama delivers a major speech in Cairo aimed at "re-booting" US relations with the Muslim world. Isolating Hezbollah, should it win a free and fair vote -- at least, as free and fair as Lebanon can produce! -- won't help with the rebooting, unless Obama's main audience is the royal family of Saudi Arabia.