Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A Lesson From Akbar Ganji’s Case

If we honestly look at the course that imprisoned journalist Akbar Ganji’s case has taken, we can learn some useful lessons from it.

Three months ago at the height of the presidential race, domestic and foreign press focused on Akbar Ganji’s case. They admired his heroic hunger strike. Even his opponents began to express their admiration. International institutions, human rights groups and personalities from Kofi Annan to George Bush called for his release and gave prominence to his calls. Pressure was applied from all fronts onto the Islamic Republic to address the issue. The mobilization of world opinion was the product of Ganji’s determination and resistance. I say all the credit goes to him because when the time came to actually something concrete about it at home, only a few were willing to pay the price of making a direct claim on the government. About two hundred held sit in demonstrations and some were arrested.

In the course of this event, there were those who gave up, there were opportunists who changed colors, there were threats, there was force, etc. These are all part and parcel of any serious political struggle. So what was the product and achievement of all these? Yes, the Islamic Republic was shown one more time to be a violator of human rights. But what else?

One result has been that Ganji was removed from Milad hospital where he had been quarantined for weeks, and taken back to a solitary confinement cell in the notorious Evin prison, where he is again denied his visitation rights and is thus cut off from the outside world. One of his defense attorneys, not Shirin Ebadi, visited him for a few hours recently and said the fact he (the attorney) could visit him, shows that Ganji is in better health!

As an Iranian and someone who cares about Ganji and my country, I am unhappy about the outcome of this situation. I see indifference taking over, even in a case like his. I call on all political activists and groups to take another look at what happened and where we are today. Perhaps, as I believe we can, we should search for lessons from this event, and learn to improve ourselves and the way we struggle. I believe there is a lesson in this.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Iran and the US Once Again

Those who work in the field of communications, or in the words of Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief negotiator at the Iran IAEA/EU-3 talks, have stepped into it the field, know that the international sophisticated media have perfected the art of effectively molding public opinion. Recently the CNN broadcast a film on US public opinion on political issues. In the film, a journalist asks two questions of ordinary citizens: Where is the Middle East, and what kind of a place is it?

The answers Americans gave is perplexing. None of the 23 people asked could answer them correctly. Three of them name Iran in reference to the Middle East, while the rest mentioned Cuba, Brazil, even Canada, France, Italia, Korea, and Mexico.

The answers to the second question were just as confounding. Without exception, all of them used such harsh adjectives such as enemy, dangerous, disaster, headache to depict the Middle East.. The CNN field reporter then held a map of the world and asked people to put an object on where Iran was. It was appalling that only one person, and he too after a hesitation, put it in the right place. The other places that were marked as Iran were Africa, North America, next to Australia, and Japan.

If this film alone is studied, the conclusion would be that the US government has succeeded to plant this idea in the minds of its citizens that the Middle East means Iran, and Iran means a thorny enemy and a calamity. This is a big success for two groups that appear to be in opposition to each other but in practice are in unison: Iranian hardliners and a group of Zionist redneck American warmongers. These two groups have worked to pin Iran and the US against each other during the last quarter century. And each of them derives a benefit from this.

So what will be the result of all of this? I think the first is that if the US comes to the conclusion that its mid- and long-term economic and political interests need – and would thus benefit from - another war, something that has happened before in the 20th century, then Iran would be at the center of the options and the leading candidate for a war against. The 24-hour reports of US media have already prepared the usually simple-minded American public opinion for this. What remains in this scenario is the assessments of the thinking circles and the realities of the day. One of the considerations that impacts the thinking circles is the state of the last war the US has engaged in, i.e. Iraq. One may safely assume that so long as conditions in Iraq have not been stabilized to an acceptable level of control and thus stability, conditions are not ripe for another military engagement. But this is only one of the many considerations for that decision. If the US military establishment comes to the conclusion that it can engage in another war, despite the conditions in Iraq, and if Iran provides more justification to further convince the American public opinion, for example it to raise to 45 percent from 30, and if the economic pressures inside the US reach a point where war may seem as the only way to change that, and of course other ifs, the conditions in Iraq will lose their deterring effect.

Iran’s Behavior

The Iranian government has faced a tough choice regarding Iraq in recent years. With the departure of Saddam Hussain’s Sunni regime and the accession to power of Shiis and Kurds, there is now an opportunity to increase its influence in the country. To turn this potential into a reality, Iran’s leaders would have to exercise the kind of sophistication and prudence that would win over the Iraqi Shiites and their leaders. This is not a grueling task for Iran and the Iraqi Shiites because strong ties already exist between the two. One of the things Iran would have to forego in its relations with Iraq is its demand for war reparations for the eight-year war between the two neighbors. But this is not easy as it conflicts with another interest it has. This one relates to stability in Iraq. If the decision-makers in Tehran throw their full support and influence to rapidly establish the Shiite regime in Iraq and even help neutralize the current opposition to it, then they are also helping the American come to the point where Iraq will no longer be an issue in their drive to solve the other regional problems, i.e. Iran. They would thus be giving the American military precisely what they want to close the Iraqi chapter.

It is the type of paradox that comes up often in politics. This is contrary to the beliefs of the hardliners in Tehran who assume that politics means deciding between “good” and “evil”. It is like a patient who has two conflicting illnesses in which any one medicine that cures one, aggravates the other. In such situations doctors hospitalize the patient so that they can minutely control the treatment and application of the medicine for one illness so that it does not aggravate the other.

Ever since September 11, 2001, when the Pentagon hastily pulled out its plans and created an image of Muslims that some circles in the US and in Europe dreamed of, it was clear that Iran would be in a difficult situation. Even simple minds like mine warned that we should not be happy that our enemies, i.e. the Taliban and Saddam, were now trapped. We had to look beyond that and get ready for it. Neighborhood with the US, which is today almost complete, requires new thoughts.

We are now in the post September 11 era. One view is that of the kind that those in or from Kayhan newspaper in Tehran have. They say they are happy that the US is now in our neighborhood because we can hurt it. The other view is what our diplomacy machinery has held, i.e. we should promote confidence-building policies that do not provoke others, and that aim at relaxation of tensions in the region. This is of course contrary to what the hardliners in Iran and the neocons in the US want and share – both are war mongers.

Prior to September 11, 2001, we Iranians were in a satisfactory situation. The reformers were in power whose goal was to relax the tensions Iran faced from abroad. In the US too, democrats lead by Clinton were in power. This was an exceptional situation. President Khatami took a small and cautious step towards the US. Clinton returned it with two small steps. Suddenly Iran’s hardliners were terrified that their slogans would soon die and that their “great satan” would be gone, and with it the scapegoats for their failures and incompetence. They all got into action against what was going on, until the opportunity drifted away. Had that momentum continued, Americans would have responded differently to the questions of the CNN reporter when asked bout Iran. Furthermore, Iran would not have been on the agenda of the Pentagon and the State Department in the United States, and its case would not be bouncing back and forth between Europe and the US.

The governments in power today in Tehran and in Washington have a different view. Iran’s diplomacy tries to juggle with the two interests it has in Iraq, and I would admit it has so far not done too bad. But for how long and what next?

During the Khatami period when the hardliners wrecked the reformers’ attempts to institute deep and fundamental reforms in Iran, and to end the hostility between Tehran and Washington, his team aptly and in desperation turned to Europe. Under the pretext of the nuclear issue, it began to tango with the three major European powers. So Iran began to take advantage of the Euro-American differences, something that George Bush had said should not take place. But even that game is now over, thanks to the hardliners entrenched in Tehran.

The recent demonstrations in front of the British embassy in Tehran and UK’s accusations that Iran had a hand in the recent Iraqi skirmishes in southern Iraq, made headlines in the international press. At the same time Britain announces that the insurgents in Iraq who recently killed a number of British soldiers used Iranian supplied arms. So now the public opinion on both sides is ready for a confrontation.

What is happening reminds me of Iran’s foreign policy during the days of Prime Minister Mossadegh in the 50s. He tried to show to the Iranian hardliners of the time that there was a difference between leftist-oriented labor party and the right-wing conservatists in Britain, just as there was between the Democrats and the Republicans in the US. However, by looking at the Tudeh communist party publications and those of the right-wing opposition to Mossadegh, one realizes that they negated such differences between the political parties in Britain and in the US. Soon the labor party lost the elections in Britain and conservatists lead by Winston Churchill occupied Downing Street. In the US too, democrats lost their grip and Republican General Eisenhower went to the White House. This is when the two countries across the Atlantic joined hands and their product was the coup d’etat in Iran against Mossadegh. Iranians paid a heavy price for that event. Everybody paid dearly, even those who after 25 years saw an opportunity to rebuild the country. And even the Shah himself. The generation after the 1979 revolution too had to pay. Only Mossadegh came out victorious, all of whose mistakes were condoned and he became a national hero. The virtues of his opponents too were ignored and his dedicated enemies at the time, now have turned into his sympathizers. Today, we still quarrel over the issue, indicating our extremisms.

Today, the right-wing politicians inside the new government remind the public of Mossadegh’s greatness and the movement to nationalize the Iranian oil industry in an effort to mobilize the people through their national sentiments. Mossadegh’s traditional enemies, on the other, complain about the reference to Mossadegh, while a major street in Tehran is still named after him. It is ironic and comic.

The power of each of the state, the US and Iran speaks of the influence of their word. The Americans have launched a rumor that Ahmadinejad had a hand in the Iranian hostage taking of the American embassy staff in 1979 while the Iranian ayatollah’s claim that the US has provided $40 million to Iranian religious speakers to sing inappropriate religious hymns to deface religious events.

Go figure out which of these two claims will spread among the public. And what will its results be. We can only watch.

Monday, October 03, 2005

A Step for a Calmer Domestic Atmosphere

The internal rules for the operations of the Expediency Council of the Islamic Republic, that according to Mohsen Rezai who is its current secretary, were approved by ayatollah Khamenei just one month after the June 2005 presidential elections and were publicly announced two months later, is aimed at calming the domestic political factions while also presenting the official opposition groups with an active option rather than withdrawing and rejecting the political structure.

Launching the Expedience Council instead of the Constitutional Court that some countries have is a measure that can provide hope to those political groups that feel the current political structure and atmosphere is too narrow for them to operate in so they can join in and participate in the process. The current political atmosphere is the product of the issues that came up during the recent presidential elections due to the low level of activity by reformers and the dispersion of their candidates and activists, and on the other, also partly due to the hardline and rough policies of their opponents, which lead to a disenchanted public. In that atmosphere, Padgan party played the field. In fact so confident he seemed at the end of the elections that he now even calms his audiences about the next round of elections four years from now by promising them another victory, when he claims he can get some 10 million voters into the ballot boxes. The boycott of the elections that was pursued by some reformers and activists also discouraged segments of the public. This was exactly the opposite of what had happened 8 years ago when people believed their votes counted and the outcome of the elections were not pre determined. So they went out and voted. That belief was absent, or dissipated, so many saw no reason to vote.

The new role for the Expediency Council may be viewed by some as another official game. If the new role and process is allowed to work, then it may actually institutionalize political parties and their activities. If so, then it will also allow political groups to free themselves from the two principal defects they have had, namely monopolizing power after their victory, and try to completely eliminate their rivals. An example for the first issue is the role the Guardian Council plays in eliminating all others in participating in anything, while for the second issue it is what the current government is doing by replacing even second level managers and directors in the government bureaucracy.

It should be noted that when the current Majlis rightly rejected the president’s nominee for the oil ministry because technocrats and industrial workers did not see him fit for the job, president Ahmadinejad was so displeased that he called the decision makers to be foreign agents and the Majlis (Parliament) to be a pawn in the hands of the oil mafia.

This approach in dealing with political issues does not need a major international crises to create a closed domestic political atmosphere. And with just three months into the new presidency, by looking at the record of what has been accomplished, one can conclude that his most important jobs have been to give speeches and promise changes. This is not taking into account that with just one speech, the president threw out all that had been achieved during the last two years in the nuclear negotiations with the international community. Whatever the new administration has done, points to its inexperience and immaturity.

It is no exaggeration if one said that the most important and destructive step that the new chief executive has taken during this short reign has been to help further divide society into two camps. And this at a time when solidarity should be the call of the day to deal with the serious crises facing the nation today. This division is the most serious calamity facing Iran during the last hundred years. During the rule of the first Pahlavi king modernism and modernity was used as a pretext to box a part of society that was not yet ready to embrace modernism. It is fair to say that during the of the second Pahlavi king the countryside and cities embraced the goal of progress and modernism, and thus narrowed, if not ended, the social split. This state of affairs continued till the fifties. It was in the seventies that the devil struck again and divided Iran into two camps. The devil was in the sharp rise in oil prices. Add a softening of the iron rule to this division, and you got street demonstrations and a complete revolution. During the first decade of the revolution, despite the serious daily issues that the public faced, it was still in one camp. Everybody stood in the same queues to buy their bread, meat, etc or was in the same boat when the war brought its disasters. It was during the second decade of the revolution that a group within society found its way to disregard the other sectors of the population and look at it as its prisoner or slave. The idea of “khodi” and “nakhodi” (with us vs. not from us) sprang from this new view. This view was first justified through security contexts which advocated narrowing the field for those who were not “from us”. In fact so narrow did the field of the “with us” become that a young president who came from their culture soon called the founders of the “khodi”s to actually be “nakhodi”.

The eight years of Khatami’s presidency provided an opportunity to rid this country of this me vs. you culture. But like other opportunities, it simply went down the drain. Towards the end of Khatami’s presidency even ayatollah Khamenei used the allegory of two wings of the same bird in flight to its destination in his effort to reduce this split and accept the reformers with their call “Iran for all Iranians” as part of the “khodi”s. The new administration however has disregarded even Khamenei’s call and chose the “us vs. them” approach from the leader’s words.

In practice, they are trying to show and prove that the second revolutionary generation is better and more efficient than the first. But in reality, all that is shown is that this new group simply wants to repeat the very same mistakes that the first generation made during its first decade. It is as if history never took place. They wish to ignore what the first generation learned the hard way. There is a difference between ideals and utopia, and realities of the world we live in. The old generation learned how you could arrive at the worst decisions through beautiful slogans and mottos. When it spoke of freedom, it arrived at totalitarianism, when it spoke of development it arrived at destruction, when it spoke of independence it arrived at enslavement, when it spoke of turning the country into one large school only to arrive a large prison.

Now a new group has arrived that while talking of kindness uses threats and force to try to arrive at it and in the process divide the country into two camps. The problem with the approach became clearer when the message left Iran’s borders. At the UN, they portrayed a message of kindness, but everyone heard war and confrontation. Even a peace loving nation like India which had earlier shown that it did not need gas and rewards, and was against injustice, changed its heart when it heard the “proposals” from this land at the UN General Assembly.

Ahmadinejad’s government has been promising benefits to the Iranian nation which can only be attained by still greater dependence on petrodollars. Any calculation of the promises and expenditures, versus income and resources will show that we are in a fix. These are not political arguments and views, but clear and hard statistics. Can such a government that has made all these promises now talk of not selling oil to the world, something it did just last week? Will these words and threats really scare anyone except those who utter them? The danger is that the world may very well trap the speaker into trying to carry out the threat.

The government can claim that it will shut oil supplies to the world so that Iranians reduce their dependence on petrodollars during a four year plan. If it really takes steps towards implementing this threat, others may believe it. But if the threats remain on radio waves and in speeches only, then they only show your naiveness or your deceipfulness aimed at pinning the nation against the gun.

So if the new mission of the Expediency Council is to block the new inexperienced hands and push to bridge the fast dividing line in the country, then it will be useful. Let me be clear that otherwise, Mr. Janati, Mesbah and the current administration are all capable of tightening the circle of the “khodis” so tight that for the next presidential elections, there will be no votes cast for anyone but themselves.