It’s that flippin’ Jumblatt again!

by Sune Haugbolle.

Summer’s almost gone, and CUMINet is coming back to life. And so, it seems, is Lebanese politics. Walid Jumblatt – the eternal flip-flopping turncoat of Lebanese politics – yesterday announced that he is parting ways with the March 14 coalition. Jumblatt, who has been hinting his departure for a while, chose an awkward moment to announce it, just days before a new cabinet was expected to be sworn in.

Jumblatt’s latest volte-face raises an interesting questions: how many times can a Lebanese leader change sides before losing credibility? Well, Jumblatt may just have made a 180 too many – he has certainly made a few through the years.  The problem is that his influence is not what it once was on the Lebanese scene. So while his latest move is obviously bad news for March 14, it may not sound the death knell for the tattered coalition. They still have the International Tribunal to fight for and too keep them united – not a small thing, and not an objective Jumblatt’s departure is likely to change.

What are his reasons for leaving? The first and most important is security. Jumblatt has seen the return of Syria as a powerful hegemon in Lebanon since the end of the Bush era, and even before. Courtesy of the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Syria, Damascus has moved decisively out of the cold. In that sense Jumblatt is not foreshadowing anything this time (an ability observers often praise him for), but merely reacting to well-established facts.

It is doubtful that we will see Jumblatt kiss and make up in Damascus any time soon, given the amount of garbage (‘Nazis’) he managed to throw at Bashar al-Asad and his regime over the last four years. But he will be hoping that at least he will not be seen as an arch-enemy of Damascus any longer.  

Furthermore, being surrounded by Shiite neighbours, his Shuf Mountains fiefdom needs neighbourly relations with an ever stronger Hizbollah to improve rapidly. And he knows that relinquishing the tough stance on Hizbollah’s weapons propagated by some of his, now former, allies in March 14, is the ticket that will allow him to enter into friendlier relations with the Shiite party.   

It is not yet clear where exactly Jumblatt will place himself in the, now re-shuffled, jigsaw of Lebanese politics. But the most likely move would be to join President Suleiman and possibly Nabih Berri in a third block the role of which will be to mediate when March 14 (or what is left of it) and March 8 are at loggerheads in a new coalition government.

Due to Jumblatt’s announcement cabinet seats, which were ostensibly all but lined up on Monday, will now have to be reshuffled, and a new government may not be formed before the end of this week or early next week.

Forgetting the Brethren

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

The Muslim Uyghurs of China are, in many ways, losers. Not just because they are a suppressed and persecuted minority suffering from economic and political marginalization, and not just because most of them live in poverty while their ancestral home is being colonized by Chinese settlers exploiting the region’s natural resources. They have also lost in the battle for headlines. It took a bloodbath before the Uyghurs finally caught some attention.

With its outrage over Chinese oppression in Tibet, Western media has for years engaged in a full-scale ‘war of sympathy’ on behalf of the Tibetans. Journalists, authors, artists and movie stars have used every occasion to highlight the plight of Buddhists in Tibet; the Uyghurs, however, being Muslim, have received none of this attention. Now, with over a hundred dead and thousands arrested, Western media have finally open its eyes to China’s other backyard. And still, there has been no clear expression of support for the Uyghurs by Western leaders who are too cautious not to harm their relations with the rising economic giant in the East.

Calling on the Muslim World
But how about the Muslim world? In the recent unrest in Xinjiang, at least one observer has noted what might be a conscious use of Islamic symbolism by protesting women to open eyes in the Muslim world. On The New Dominion, ‘OpkeHessip’ wrote about this picture:

“This is an image that will appeal powerfully to the Muslim world. This picture tells a story of brave boys who righteously stood up, as young men do, and who were punished by non-Muslim occupiers. The image is a mother, the keeper of tradition, the one who educates religious and ethnic values and traditions into her children, looking out for those children, missing them, coming to find them when they have lost their way. Here, she chides and scolds the men who have taken her son away, and, in their stillness, they seem to fear her.”

He also noted that

“Even if the participants were not necessarily religious, they would still identify as Muslims, making the headscarf a very visible symbol of unity, as well as difference from Han Chinese.”

and that

“…if someone politically savvy planned this action, then they may have actually called on female participants to wear headscarves. The image of a crowd of apparently traditional Muslims facing down what looks like a faceless army of Chinese can draw on over a billion sympathizers.”

The story behind the picture has indeed become front page material on the websites of Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, Al-Quds, Hürriyet, Milliyet, Sabah, Today’s Zaman, Yeni Safak etc. etc. On Pakistan Daily, one headline read ‘China to further ties with Pakistan’ and next to it, ‘Muslim Unrest in China’. Some of them carry extremely gory pictures of dead people. Xinjiang is clearly important stuff in the Muslim world. But not in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The issue of Iranian media responses to the Xinjiang unrest carries some interesting points.

From Pan-Islamic Solidarity to Tactical Realism
One of the main messages of the 1978-9 movement led by Ayatollah Khomeini was that the revolution was not just an Iranian revolution, but a Koranic uprising. The Islamic Revolution belongs to all Muslims, the  vanguard claimed; indeed, the revolution belonged to all mostaz‘afin: all the Third World masses who had been downtrodden by Imperialist powers. Khomeini blasted US, the Soviet Union and Apartheid South Africa. Iranian solidarity was to be extended to the whole non-aligned world; oppressed Muslims everywhere would receive Tehran’s support. When the revolutionary fervor settled, another picture emerged.

It is no secret that when clerics and their Islamist allies turned into statesmen, they quickly became realists, concerned primarily with the national interests of a clearly defined nation-state, and not the utopian visions of a global, boderless Ummah. In the long run, they even became pragmatists, calculating tactical decisions in their foreign policy that only rarely were based on considerations for the plight of Muslim brethren in other countries.

The Islamic Republic did not help the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 when they were massacred in Hama by the secular Ba‘thist regime of Syria; the Islamic Republic sided with the Christian Armenians against the Shiite Muslim Azerbaijanis in the fight over Nagorno-Karabagh; the Islamic Republic did not help the Chechens when they were under full-scale Russian attack; and the Islamic Republic even prevented an agitated crowd of Basiji Students from leaving for Palestine when the Israeli war machine was pounding the West Bank into smithereens half a year ago.

And now it seems that the Islamic Republic will not stand up for their Muslim brethren in Xinjiang. This is far from surprising: Iran is extremely dependent on Beijing for investments and support in the UN Security Council, and careful not to damage this crucial relationship.

Silence – and opportunities
This is also why there is so little attention to the topic in state-run and state-affiliated Iranian media. In today’s Kayhân, the Supreme Leader’s mouthpiece, there is a small piece tucked away in the International section that mentions anti-government unrest in Xinjiang. The article does not even mention that Uyghurs are Muslims.

There was no mention of Xinjiang on the front page of the state news agency IRNA’s website this morning. On the Foreign News page, a new Iranian refinery deal with China was categorized as ‘Important News’, followed by two pieces on Hillary Clinton’s response to the Xinjiang unrest and Hu Jintao’s return from the G8 Summit. References were made to ‘ethnic violence’ and to Rebiya Kadeer as a ‘local leader’ – but the Uyghurs were not mentioned let alone their Muslim identity.

On the front page of the state-run Irân daily, a headline proclaimed “China, Iran’s Biggest Trade Partner in Asia”. No mention of Xinjiang. The front page of the state-affiliated Mehr news told of ‘The opportunity for Iran and China to cooperate on gas for the next 100 years’. No mention of Xinjiang.

And so on.

The many similarities between the ongoing clampdown on Uyghur protesters in China and the repression of anti-Ahmadinejad protesters in Iran has not been lost on Iranian ‘reformists’, however. Masume Ebtekar – former US embassy hostage-taker, former vice president and a prominent ‘reformist’ – has seized the opportunity and stated:

“For years, the Islamic Republic would react whenever and wherever Muslims and downtrodden masses were oppressed and subjugated. But in recent years, we see that this ideal has been modified in relation to the Eastern Bloc.”

She argues that state-run media has failed to understand and portray this as a Muslim protest movement, and she compares the lack of official condemnation to the Iranian government’s silence vis-à-vis massacres on Shiites in Kashmir and Muslims in Chechnya. However, the most interesting point, is that she describes the government clampdown exactly like the clampdown Iranian opposition were subject to during the recent post-election unrest.

Indeed, there are many superficial similarities: Chinese authorities have brought in paramilitary forces to quell the protests; mobile phone network has been shut down and access to weblogs and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook has been restricted; state-run media portray the demonstrators as rioters and hoodlums; and the government claims that the unrest has been masterminded and directed from abroad. Finally, Ebtekar sarcastically concludes, with reference to the Iranian government’s accusation against the opposition:
“I’m not sure if these similarities means that we are talking about suppression of a velvet revolution or not!?”

Twitter-users in Iran have also noted the similarities. One Twitter wrote:
“It is interesting to note that Russia and China – two intimate friends of the Iranian regime – are killing Muslims and the Iranian regime says nothing”

Another wrote:
“Friends, I am proud that our Green Wave and its valuable victories has also reached China …!”

And a journalist added:
“Ahmadinejad: Palestinians are not the only Muslims! If you’re a man, voice your protest against China! … China massacred its Muslims, Ahmadinejad kept his mouth shut…”

The Iranian China Model: More East than West?
What remains of the ‘reformist’ press in Iran has picked up the story, which figures on the front page of Âftâb-e Yazd today. On the ‘reformist’ website Âyande News, there is a long article with many pictures and film clips from Urumqi. The title of the piece is ‘Attacking Zionists, Smiling at Communists!’:

“The ruling Communist party’s Chinese model of mischievousness and provocation has finally caused the people of Xinjiang – one of the country’s Muslim-inhabited regions – to lose their patience, and in the aftermath of a peaceful demonstration, a bloodbath occurred.”

The ‘Chinese model’ is clearly supposed to be seen in the light of a similar ‘Iranian model’. The article explains in detail how 20 million Uyghurs suffer from anti-Islamic policies and economic, political and cultural discrimination at the hands of the Chinese government. With what appear as occasional hyperbole and sensationalist claims, the article portrays the recent unrest as something close to genocide. Like in the Ebtekar blog entry, the article enumerates all the government measures. It also states that the Chinese government cracked down on the Tiananmen Square unrest in 1989 with the excuse that the demonstrators were manipulated by the US. The Iranian state has leveled the exact same accusations against protestors in Iran recently.

The article concludes, again in a sardonic tone:
“It remains to be seen how the diplomatic machinery and other justice-and-freedom-seeking organs [in Iran] – who wear mourning shrouds when there are minor events in Gaza – will retain a pragmatic silence vis-à-vis the horrendous killing of Muslims in the province of Xinjiang; or whether they will apply the famous prophetic saying, and answer the call of freedom from the Muslims of that region with diplomatic support?!”

Apart from being Muslims, the Uyghurs are also ethnic Turks – indeed, the radical ethno-nationalist Uyghur groups call their homeland ‘East Turkistan’. In Iran, somewhere around 25-30% of the population is also of Turkic origin, or rather, speak a Turkic language, generally alongside Persian. In recent years, Iran has witnessed a wave of ethnic mobilization and unrest, even among the Azeris, who are considered the most assimilated or integrated ethnic group.

Iran’s Azeris have taken notice of events in Xinjiang. Bizim Tabriz carries a gruesome video allegedly showing Han Chinese men killing three Uyghurs. The website also reports on Turkey’s nationalist parties’ reaction to the events. On Âzâd Tabriz News, a writer states that ‘the Islamic Republic goes hand in hand with those who murder Muslims in East Turkistan, Chechnya and Karabagh.‘ He laments that none of the major Shiite clerics responded with fatwas against Armenians killing Azeris during the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict, and he calls on Iranians to ask their spiritual guides now for a ruling on the Islamic Republic’s relationship with Muslim-killing countries such as China.

The radical Pan-Turkist groups are also paying full attention to the plight of their Turkic brethren. Milli Harekat has displayed gruesome pictures and are describing the latest events as part of a broader scheme to eliminate Uyghurs completely. Pan-Turkist groups have also sent condolences to their Turkic brethren in  the Uyghur World Congress.

An interesting facet is the way that not just radical groups, but also ‘reformist’ politicians can turn this into another point of opposition against the Ahmadinejad government. Indeed, when Ahmadinejad went to Russia during the recent unrest, Karubi evoked the centuries-old image of ‘The Russian Foe’ and stated that Russia has always interfered in Iran’s domestic affairs. This is an interesting twist to the blame game: normally, it is Ahmadinejad who accuses the ‘reformists’ of being lackeys of the West; now, the reformists can blame Ahmadinejad of being a lackey of both North and East.

Iran’s professed ‘Neither West nor East’ ideology is again questioned and the latent pan-Islamic ideals vs. national interests discussion can once again be (ab)used in factional rivalries.

It will be interesting to see if the Iranian opposition will capitalize further on the ‘Oppressed Muslims in China and Russia’ discourse. It is, however, most likely that the Uyghurs will again be forgotten – not just by CNN and BBC, but also by their brethren in the Muslim world.

Unrest in Urumqi

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

There were riots in parts of the provincial capital Urumqi in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province today. It appears members of the Muslim ethnic group the Uyghurs rallied against the Chinese government. Now listen to the official response:

“Echoing the assertions made by Xinjiang CCP Chairman Nur Bekri in a televised and delayed speech just an hour ago, the demonstrations were a criminal action organized by outside forces, in particular Rebiya Kadeer and the World Uyghur Congress.”

Does this rhetoric sound familiar? The next part certainly does:

“Nur Bekri went on to assert that QQ, social messaging software popular in China, and other forms of unrestricted on-line communication helped to organize the actions.”

I highly recommend The New Dominion, where they’re following events.

Time for a Movement Post-Mortem?

Guest post by Kevan Harris, PhD Student in Tehran.

It would have made a nice experiment to place microphones in various neighborhoods in Tehran and measure the intensity and variety of nightly calls and chants that occurred after the election. After the events of 9/11, sociologist Randall Collins did something similar in Philadelphia, informally keeping track of new displays of flags and pro-US stickers on various streets. He found that while over 90% of people claimed that they had displayed a flag or some other national symbol on their house or car in the weeks afterwards, only 40% of the houses and cars located in those places he was watching did so. Furthermore, this latter figure was only seen at the peak of the emotional intensity felt by many Americans, which quickly subsided.

Last night at 10:40 pm I heard one lonely Allah-u Akbar outside my window in a middle class neighborhood (not in Northern Tehran which has seized the fascination and ire of so many). Tonight there were none.

The social movement that just occurred in Iran was highly innovative and added many tricks to the general repertoire of protest movements, some of which became fetishized in the Western press. But it also borrowed from socio-cultural norms and symbols in Iran that run deeply through its history. This is how most effective social movements operate, and we should not be surprised that the coming together of millions in a highly charged emotional setting directed towards a single goal would generate such a development.

Yet the rituals, the symbols, the ramping up of emotions, and the amazingly informal way in which action was communicated, could not be sustained by themselves. Nor can they ever. Of course the response by the state contributed to the demobilization of hundreds of thousands. However, the opposite was possible, as many participants at the time were hoping. The lack of direction was palpable, and the best thing for anyone interested in Iran to do may be to seriously take a look at what problems existed within the opposition. Unfortunately, some of them stretch much farther back than 2009.

For one, its strategies still seemed to reflect politics as such in Iran over the last 30 years – every man for himself. Last week, on the same day, Karoubi, Khatami, and Mousavi’s people supposedly made three separate calls for rallies. The problem was that they were proposed for three different places in Tehran. Nothing demobilizes a social movement like the perception of incompetence and disorganization at the top. Obviously they and their representatives were, and continue to be, under duress. But a nonviolent movement especially requires good organization and discipline. The “no-party” system that has allowed for the survival of so many politicians in the Islamic Republic, unfortunately also fomented a very individualistic political style. The constant mutation of factional splits (perpetually perplexing the Western journalists) is the result. Note how easily many elites are sliding away from oppositional stances now, in exchange for an institutional home.

Another problem may have been the campaign rhetoric itself. Neither Mousavi and Karoubi laid out much of an economic plan, even with teams of economists and former Khatami and Rafsanjani technocrats at their side. The “destruction” of the Iranian economy that many claimed to have occurred over the last 4 years is not very accurate. Indeed, some of the economic policies that Ahmadinejad pushed through, such as the unpopular cutting of subsidies for gasoline, were proposed by Khatami years ago.

The main issues in Iran, if you ask people, are security of living standards and income for the poorer classes, job creation for the middle classes, and for the upper classes, well, they’re not seriously complaining about the economy. The welfare state in Iran is mostly a non-commodified one – people get their primary health care, medicine, staple goods, and energy at subsidized prices that don’t fluctuate or are free (Even Iran’s “market price” for gasoline after your monthly ration ends is a whopping $0.40 a liter/$1.50 a gallon). Thus the rise in inflation, while eating away at wages, did not have as much of a devastating effect as some argued. The state picked up the tab, and it could afford to over the last few years. The Iranian economy has problems, of course. But, comparable to other middle income states in the world economy, even those with oil, it is pretty much in the middle of the middle for measures such as wealth and inequality, and in the top of the middle for well-being measures such as health, literacy, and education. Karoubi’s dismissal of Ahmadinejad’s simple economic charts and figures may have appealed to some Iranians who figure all government data as skewed. But Karoubi’s own figures were wildly inaccurate (both sides had problems), and he and Mousavi’s economic proposals barely differed from the status quo rhetoric.

This posed a problem once the social movement began. The streets were not filled only with students, or only those with complaints about the hejab police, but the media overstressed its cross-class composition as expectations rose. Store owners and workers certainly watched the marches go by, and shut their shops down when violence swept through their square on particular days. Many in the rallies wanted to keep pushing the marches southward every day. As an overt strategy that would have been interesting, but it came only as an afterthought and I never heard it uttered from any of the leaders. The cleavages in Iranian society were not an inevitable barrier to the broadening of the opposition’s base, but they were not invisible, either. Papering over them will not do any good.

It was an emotionally intense period, one that peaked without much of leadership, organization, or self-reflection. We should not expect these to naturally emerge henceforth, but at least we should watch for signs of change as the political fallout begins.

Questions about the crisis in Iran, pt. 4

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Is this a military coup against the clerics?
Ever since the ‘election results’ were announced, observers and protesters have talked about a military coup in Tehran: that the elections itself and the subsequent clampdown were part of a pre-arranged coup masterminded and executed by the Revolutionary Guards (Sepâh-e pâsdârân or IRGC).

Other speculation includes reports about support for Musavi among the powerful Revolutionary Guards (see Ebrahim Nabavi here); and about defections among Revolutionary Guards generals. However, there are no reliable sources or verifiable documentation for these claims. No doubt, some Revolutionary Guards commanders are thinking about the future of Iran these days, and whether or not they are on the winning team. However, in the words of New York Times’ MacFarquhar:

“Anyone attempting to identify divisions within the Iranian security forces that may dilute the government’s ability to stop the protests has thus far searched in vain, according to Iranian analysts and American government officials … Although outsiders may be cheering on the idea of people power, there is no sign yet that any part of the military will switch sides …”

The quite uniform response of Revolutionary Guards commanders leaves us with the impression that the Guards stand united and firm behind the government and the Leader. And it has made some serious and respected scholars talk openly about ‘the coup’. In his recent blog post, Gary Sick writes about the topic that has ‘been ignored’:

“Why did the regime resort to such a frantic manipulation of the vote when it was entirely possible that Ahmadinejad would have made a respectable showing—or possibly even have narrowly won—a fair election, and when the opposition in any event was devoted to the concept of the Islamic republic as it existed? The answer may be that the corporate entity saw this election as one of the final steps in cementing its absolute control. Accepting the Islamic republic as it is and not as they wanted it to be was simply unacceptable. The emergence of a relatively mild reformer—or even a substantial reformist vote—would undercut the kind of absolute authority that they were getting ready to assert. It would, in a word, complicate the coup that they were in the process of carrying out.”

On CNN, Fareed Zakaria and a former CIA-agent assess that there has been a military coup:

“BAER: Fareed, I’m quite sure there’s been a military coup d’etat by the Islamic revolutionary corp in Tehran. They’re taken over. And the fact that the Basij came out so quickly. They could have only done that on orders from the IRGC. The fact that Ahmadinejad’s a former IRGC officer, he has the backing of senior officers. I think what we’ve seen is a military coup against the old clerical establishment.”

He might be right. I just want to add that, that the ‘Basij came out so quickly’ doesn’t prove anything. They have been mobilized in such speedy and massive fashion several times (and of course, such mobilization is ordered by the IRGC; nothing new there) – and authorities had already before the elections announced that there would be a massive security presence.

To Ali Nader of the RAND Corporation, there is no doubt: The Revolutionary Guards are the real winners of the elections:

“The Guards indicated even before the election that they would not allow Ahmadinejad’s challenger, Mir Hussein Mousavi, to succeed. And they are willing to use any means possible, including mass arrests of opposition leaders and the use of military force against protesters, to maintain their grip on power. Iran’s ruling political elite have earned much popular hostility in the last few days, but they appear to have enough military support to withstand the protests for now. Regardless, the Islamic Republic may no longer be able to count on the people’s will to maintain its legitimacy”

Nader sees the recent re-election (which ‘depended on systematic fraud’) as a battle between the younger military elite and the older clerical elite (see also the RAND report ‘The Rise of the Pasdaran’ here). To some extent, I think he’s right: when Ahmadinejad blasted Rafsanjani and Nateq Nuri on live TV for being corrupt, he was in fact sending a stern warning to all senior clerics in Iran, and their families – not just the two mentioned.

However, I still have a hard time buying the idea, floated among some observers, that Ahmadinejad is actually in total control now, and that Khamene‘i is merely his puppet. Surely, many clerics may now be threatened by an emboldened Ahmadinejad; however, it seems to me that:
a) Ahmadinejad could not do without the clergy; he will need their religious credentials to legitimize his government;
b) that so many clerics would not stay silent if they really felt threatened; we will have to see much more criticism from Qom before I can believe that the tables have turned in such a dramatic fashion. This is not to say that there isn’t criticism from Qom – more on that later.

An interrelated question is that of ‘Ahmadinejad’s crusade’ against ‘corruption’. If Ahmadinejad were to succeed in his self-declared mission to purge out the ‘mafia’, he will of course not do so only out of pure, idealistic conviction. The wealth will go to other people in power, and whomever they may be – including the Revolutionary Guards – they will need the aura of legitimacy that only a clergy can endow the religious-political system with.

And the stakes for the Revolutionary Guards are high, as this updated backgrounder from the Council on Foreign Relations point out:

“Political clout and military might are not only attributes of today’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. It is also a major financial player. The Los Angeles Times estimated in 2007 that the group, which was tasked with rebuilding the country after the war with Iraq, now has ties to over one hundred companies that control roughly $12 billion in construction and engineering capital. Former CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh has linked the guards to university laboratories, weapons manufacturers–including Defense Industries Organization–and companies connected to nuclear technology. Khalaji, of the Washington Institute, lists the Bahman Group, which manufactures cars for Mazda, among guard-owned companies. And Wehrey writes that “the IRGC has extended its influence into virtually every sector of the Iranian market.” The engineering firm Khatam al-Anbia, for instance, has been awarded over 750 government contracts for infrastructure, oil, and gas projects, he says.”

We could maybe describe this as the culmination of several years of militarization in Iranian politics, and a victory for the Revolutionary Guards establishment. Maybe we could also call the elections and the post-elections clampdown aspects of a military coup d’état. However, I still don’t think that the Guards and Ahmadinejad can survive without the sincere and voluntary support of the clergy. I might be wrong. Comments please!

Where are the ‘moderate conservatives’?
Ali Larijani – speaker of parliament, former presidential candidate and a pragmatic politician considered close to the Leader – has made several statements critical of the regime’s brutal response to the protests. He has condemned the violent attacks on Tehran University, called for investigations, stated that he would wish the Guardian Council was impartial and that Musavi should be given a chance to appear again on state-run TV.

To EurasiaNet’s reporter Yasin, Larijani – along with his brothers Sadeq and Mohammad-Javad, their cousin Ahmad Tavakolli and Ali Motahari – represents a ‘third force’ between ‘hardliners’ such as Khamene‘i and ‘progressives’ such as Musavi.

Larijani has recently made yet another interesting statement:

“A majority of people are of the opinion that the actual election results are different than what was officially announced,” Larijani said in comments posted by the Khabaronline website. “The opinion of this majority should be respected and a line should be drawn between them and rioters and miscreants.”

If Larijani is quoted correctly, it is indeed a significant statement. However, it can also be interpreted as pure opportunism – and part of the internal rivalries, as Yasin notes:

“There would appear to be an element of personal animosity at work in Ali Larijani’s relations with Ahmadinejad. Prior to becoming parliament speaker, Larijani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, but was pushed aside by political maneuvering carried out by the president and his neo-conservative allies, and undertaken with the backing of the supreme leader.”

Marsha B. Cohen, writing for Tehran Bureau, has a lengthy and detailed account of Larijani, which is highly recommended reading.

Another ‘moderate conservative’ is Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, former Revolutionary Guards commander and now mayor of Tehran. Qalibaf seeks to appeal to the young voters and is considered a likely future candidate for the presidency.  Qalibaf has stated that the ‘election law is flawed’, that the protest rallies should be ‘legalized’ and he has condemned the violence. However, he has of course refrained from siding with Musavi. There are now calls for Qalibaf to join the new Special Committee which the Guardians Council has created to investigate the opposition’s allegations of fraud. It remains to be seen if Qalibaf would make a difference to the work of this committee.

Ahmad Tavakolli – who is the chief of the Parliament’s Research Center, a former presidential candidate and a prominent ‘moderate conservative’ – might also have made a surprising statement; however, he allegedly did so under a pseudonym.

Ayande News, a reformist website, indicated that Tavakolli used the name ‘Javad Kargozari’ to write a piece on his website Alef News recently (however, Ayande then changed the text of their article making it unclear who is behind the article). Of course, it is impossible for me to confirm this claim.

Nonetheless, if the statement is indeed Tavakolli’s – or if it represents Tavakolli’s opinion – it is remarkable: ‘Kargozari’ severely criticizes the state-run TV & radio for ‘illegal activities’, including the showing of fake declarations of guilt by pro-Musavi protesters, introduced on TV as ‘rioters’. These ‘rioters’ have been arrested during recent protests and allegedly forced to confess to working for Iran’s foreign enemies. ‘Kargozari’ demands to know who has given the state media permission to show such illegal ‘confessions’ before the persons have even been tried in a court.

A major figure among the ‘moderate conservatives’ is of course Mohsen Reza‘i – former Revolutionary Guard commander and himself a presidential candidate who has also rejected the election results. Despite the fact that there are still reports of ‘ambiguities’ surrounding Reza‘i’s votes coming out, and despite his recent letter to the Guardian Council calling for a change in the members of the Special Committee, he has apparently withdrawn his own complaints – citing concern for the security situation.

This does not bode well for Musavi and Karubi, who are now more or less alone with their complaints.

I think that the ‘moderate conservatives’ are following a calculated effort to appear 100% loyal to the system and the Leader while using the opportunity to air their criticism of Ahmadinejad. However, this should not be interpreted as support for Musavi/Karubi or for the protest movement. The ‘moderate conservatives’ are cunning opportunists – and certainly not interested in fundamentally reforming the Islamic Republic or in putting the human rights of the Iranian people at the top of their agenda.

This ‘third force’ is concerned with its own economic interests and political power under the government of an emboldened Ahmadinejad. Nothing more, nothing less.

Questions about the crisis in Iran, pt. 3

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

How does the region react to the unrest?
According to Rami Khoury, the Arab world has reacted in a mixed way – but mostly with ‘forlorn envy’:

”[O]rdinary Arabs would feel jealous were the demonstrators in Iran able to topple their regime for the second time in 30 years –because this would highlight the chronic passivity and powerlessness of Arab citizens who must suffer permanent subjugation in their own long-running autocratic systems without being able to do anything about it.”

However, the unrest may also inspire Arab populations. In the words of Jamal Dajani:

“Those leaders and others may have a lot to worry about as Iran’s demonstrations have caused many in the Arab world ask to themselves why they cannot do the same. This might not be evident in the media, but all you have to do is talk privately to some of the youth and read the blogs. Although Iran failed to penetrate the Arab world with its 1979 revolution, it may have succeeded with the recent popular uprising.”

By the way, Dajani also asks a very important rhetorical question (which may be unrelated to the Iran crisis itself but important for the discussion of how Western media have portrayed the events – a topic to which I will return):

“Now here is a question to all those “brave, fair and balanced” journalists, pundits, bloggers and analysts in the U.S. who have been using strong terms to condemn the Basij and the Iranian government’s crackdown on demonstrations, such terms as brutality, murder and horror: why can’t you use the same language when you watch and film Israeli soldiers beating Palestinian children in the town of Bil’in, or when they evict a helpless widow from her ancestral home and throw her out to the cold? Why?”

As one could expect, pro-Iranian organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas and various Iraqi groups, have congratulated Ahmadinejad on the victory. Furthermore, the Lebanese Hezbollah has accused ‘the West’ of ‘fomenting Iran turmoil’.

According to this article from NY Times, US-aligned Arab states, on the other hand, ‘savor turmoil in Iran’:

“The good-news thinking goes like this: With Mr. Ahmadinejad remaining in office, there is less chance of substantially improved relations between Tehran and Washington, something America’s Arab allies feared would undermine their interests. At the same time, the electoral conflict may have weakened Iran’s leadership at home and abroad, forcing it to focus more on domestic stability, political analysts and former officials said.”

More on the Arab world:
On Bitter Lemons, four experts reflect on how Arabs are reacting; and Josie Delop and Lane Green’s observations are to be found here.

In Turkey, reports Yigal Schleifer, the unrest has presented Ankara with a ‘diplomatic challenge’:

“The Turkish public has greeted the crisis in Iran with a mix of indifference and confusion, while on the official side, Ankara is treading with extreme caution. Not wanting to possibly strain bilateral ties, Turkish officials are refraining from criticizing Iranian hardliners, or questioning the results of the country’s recent contested elections.”

In Afghanistan, Afghans are also ‘tracking Tehran power struggle’.

Questions about the crisis in Iran, pt. 2

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Will the establishment seek to appease the reformists?
While the state apparatus has admitted that there were ‘irregularities’ – which could in itself be seen as a gesture to the protest movement – I still don’t believe that there will any major concessions: Khamene‘i has stated several times that Ahmadinejad is the clear winner, that his victory was divinely inspired and that there can be no discussion about the results. In its attempt to control the chaos and justify its actions, it will be very hard for the regime to admit to any major wrongdoing.

However, there are still rumors that Khamene‘i together with oppositional forces and high-ranking clerics will try to work out some kind of compromise: that there might be a new run-off between Ahmadinejad and Musavi; that the issue will be referred to the (Rafsanjani-controlled) Expediency Council rather than the (pro-Ahmadinejad) Guardian Council; and that, since the deadline for investigating fraud in the Guardian Council has been extended for five days, there can still be some kind of face-saving gesture on its way. However, I personally do not believe that the state (that is, Khamene‘i) will allow any of these measures – which leads me to the next question:

Will Rafsanjani try to oust Khamene‘i through the Experts Assembly?
There has been a steady stream of rumors alleging that Rafsanjani is seeking to gather clerical support for ousting Khamene‘i, and in particular, that a majority of the Experts Assembly have agreed to Rafsanjani’s call for convening an extraordinary session. There have even been rumors that Rafsanjani wants to replace the position of the Leader with a ‘college’ of clerics.

However, none of the reports have been verified. If they are true, it seems that Rafsanjani has failed (at least in his early attempts); and if they are untrue, the rumors must be dismissed as nothing more than the anti-Ahmadinejad coalition’s information warfare against the government.

Khamene‘i praised Rafsanjani as a comrade in last week’s sermon. He would probably not have done so if a Rafsanjani-led coup attempt were under way in Qom (something the Leader would clearly be aware of). Furthermore, even though the Experts Assembly is mandated to oversee the performance of the Leader, it is not easy for it to dismiss the Leader. I think it would demand a near-consensus – and, some observers claim, a re-write of the constitution. On top of this, the latest news is that Rafsanjani is apparently composing a communiqué in which he will praise the Leader.

Thus, even though rumors of Rafsanjani’s maneuvers persist, I do not see them as credible. Rafsanjani is certainly struggling to maintain his power and his allies in the clerical world – something the shrewd cleric is known to be good at. However, this does not mean that he is preparing to remove Khamene‘i. The Economist mentions speculations of Rafsanjani’s impending capitulation:

“So complete is Mr Rafsanjani’s eclipse, at any rate for the time being, that information on his movements and intentions now consists of hearsay. According to one account, he has been busy in the seminary town of Qom, canvassing senior clerics to back a move to sack Mr Khamenei. Another suggests he may signal his surrender to the inevitable by attending Friday’s prayers, whereas he was conspicuously absent when Mr Khamenei gave his sermon on June 19th. “

Nonetheless, intra-clergy politics is probably the least transparent and predictable of all sectors of Iranian politics. This is surely not the last we hear from Rafsanjani. It is, however, important to remember that Rafsanjani is notorious for defending his own interests, even if it demands an about-face. As I have written earlier, the protest movement should not have any hopes or expectations from Rafsanjani.

Just before I was going to post this piece, I saw that the Expediency Council – the Rafsanjani-led assembly set up to resolve conflicts between Parliament and the Guardian Council and to advise the Leader – has met today and released a statement. It praises the Leader – as always in this kind of communiqués – and hails the Iranian system of ‘religious popular rule’ (mardom-sâlâri-ye dini) as having prevailed in a glorious election that has chocked the ‘world that claims to be democratic’. The Assembly then sums up three points:
1) That both sides of the struggle adhere to the law to solve their differences
2) That the Guardian Council review all claims of fraud, which includes using ‘experts’ and creating confidence in the public
3) That all candidates cooperate closely with the Guardian Council

I think that this communiqué further supports my points above.

Questions about the crisis in Iran, pt. 1

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Here are my reflections on some of the discussions, news and commentaries on the Iran post-election unrest in the last week or so. What was supposed to be one blog post has turned into several posts. I will publish them over the next couple of days.

Talking about a revolution?
No. As Arshin Adib-Moghaddam so eloquently argues in his important commentary:

“When some commentators say that what we are witnessing is a revolution they are at best naive and at worst following their own destructive agenda. The dispute is about the future path of the Islamic Republic and the meaning of the revolution not about overthrowing the whole system.”

I would add that to many of the demonstrators (as testified by eye witness accounts, Twitter, YouTube videos etc. etc.), the last two weeks have certainly resembled a revolution-like eruption. This is particularly so due to the conscious use of slogans, images and tactics similar to those of the revolution that brought down the Shah 30 years ago. We could maybe even speak of a ‘revolutionary’ atmosphere and feeling.

However, that does not make it a revolution. There are simply too many components so far missing for the street-level protests to bring about a revolution. Furthermore, a revolution is far from what the leaders of the movement aim for. As long as the leaders – symbolic or actual – of the protest movement are from the ‘reformist’ camp associated with Musavi and Karubi, the goal cannot be ‘revolution’.

Thus, even when we hear slogans change from ‘Bye, bye Ahmadinejad’ to ‘Bye, bye Khamene‘i’, we should still not interpret the movement as one united in the aim of completely dismantling the Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, the image produced by Western media is often that of a young, pro-Western, secular, anti-Islamic, Twitter-savvy generation’s revolt against old conservative mullahs and violent Basiji maniacs. Reality is, of course, more complex.

The protest movement is very diverse and may not be united by much more than their rejection of the official election results. Sure, there are certainly elements within the movement who are calling for, or at least hoping for, an end to the Islamic Republic. However, it is my impression that such voices are still in the minority. Most people want justice, they want their voices to be heard and their votes to be counted. Sure, many not only reject the results but also the political culture that has produced them. However, even though many have lost faith in the system, only few are prepared for yet another revolution.

That does not mean that ‘the Islamic Republic has prevailed’ or anything similar to that. Both the personal image of the Leader and his president of choice and the ideological image/legitimacy myth of the political system have been severely tarnished. No matter how much it clamps down on protesters – and even though it might launch a series of ‘pragmatic’ concessions to appease the opposition at some stage – the ruling regime can never fully recover from this ordeal.

So, in the classical sense of a wholesale toppling of a political order, this is certainly not a revolution yet.

What will happen next?
Yet, it is important to remember that the nature and discourse of resistance – both on street level, in the more or less tolerated opposition and in the illegal opposition – has changed significantly. The protest movement has been radicalized in a short time, and even though it might not reach its immediate goal in this first phase, it will remain an active volcano under the ruling regime. In the words of Hamid Dabashi:

“I see this moment we are witnessing as a civil rights movement rather than a push to topple the regime”

See Dabashi’s interview with Democracy Now! here, where he also dismisses the myth of the current crisis being a battle between ‘rich/urban and poor/rural’ (for more on that, refer to Eric Hooglund’s piece here).

However we label it, the movement will define Iran’s future. As always, I highly recommend Gary Sick’s writings, now on his blog. In his latest post, Sick wrote:

“Don’t expect that this will be resolved cleanly with a win or loss in short period of time. The Iranian revolution, which is usually regarded as one of the most accelerated overthrows of a well-entrenched power structure in history, started in about January 1978 and the shah departed in January 1979. During that period, there were long pauses and periods of quiescence that could lead one to believe that the revolt had subsided. This is not a sprint; it is a marathon. Endurance is at least as important as speed.”

I highly recommend the whole piece. It is impossible to predict the short- and long-term outcome of the crisis, but Sick has some very smart observations and important points.

Were the elections rigged?
The debate is still intense. I have referred to Meedan, where the two camps and their arguments are summed up nicely with loads of links: the case for and the case against.

The ‘rigged’-camp has been boosted by a detailed report from Chatham House, which can be downloaded here; and with another Juan Cole piece here to follow up on the report:

“The election was stolen. It is there in black and white. Those of us who know Iran, could see it plain as the nose on our faces, even if we could not quantify our reasons as elegantly as Chatham House”

As we now know, the Guardian Council has already admitted large-scale ‘irregularities’ involving not a couple of thousand but three million votes. These might not be the last officially confirmed reports of fraud. I’m amazed that there are still intelligent people out there arguing that the elections weren’t rigged. The argument that the majority of Iran observers project their own wishful thinking on the issue is an insult to the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who have protested in the streets; and an insult to the intelligence of all the Iranians across the globe who are asking where their votes are.

The question we can ask is: how massive was the fraud? Are we talking 3, 5 or 15 million votes? It is, as I have argued earlier, important not to forget that Ahmadinejad surely has many followers – even if they are not 25 million strong. However, to many Iranians, the numbers doesn’t even matter any longer. We will probably never know the truth. Nonetheless, in the words of Dabashi: that the elections were rigged is now ‘a social fact’ in Iran.

Western companies helped Iranian intelligence

by Rasmus Christian Elling

I don’t normally post on a single article, but this one deserves its own spot. This is just one of so many frustrating, disgusting and depressing news coming out of the post-election unrest in Iran.

Wall Street Journal reports that ‘Iran’s Web Spying Aided by Western Technology‘. Just look at this quote:

“Nokia Siemens Networks provided equipment to Iran last year under the internationally recognized concept of “lawful intercept,” said Mr. Roome. That relates to intercepting data for the purposes of combating terrorism, child pornography, drug trafficking and other criminal activities carried out online, a capability that most if not all telecom companies have, he said.”

Remember that all protesters have been labelled ‘terrorists’ by several Iranian authorities.

If this report is true, Nokia Siemens and several other European companies have Iranian blood on their hands.

Victims of clampdown so far

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

I have received several lists of journalists, intellectuals, reformists and protesters detained so far. I cannot personally verify such lists, but I have seen these same persons mentioned in many reports – and the first list is from a trusted source. However: it is possible that some of the persons have already been released (it seems as if the tactic is to arrest some key people, then release them shortly after and picking up others); and it is, anyway, certain that there are many others who are not yet on this list. Thus, many of the ‘normal’ protesters are generally not mentioned on these lists.

First list.

Source: Human Rights activists in Iran.

Sa‘id Hajjariyan (member of the reformist party Islamic Iran’s Participation Front’s central committee, known as the theoretician of the reformist movement under Khatami; in 2000 he was shot in the head by an assailant and is today disabled)

Mohammad Atrianfar (founding member of the Executives of Construction Party, a Rafsanjani-related ‘centrist’/reformist group, former editor-in-chief of Hamshahri newspaper, has held various government positions)

Mohsen Aminzadeh (chief of the reformist coalition that backed Musavi in the presidential elections; was among the activists during the US embassy hostage crisis, founding member of the Participation Front)

Mostafa Tajzadeh (member of the Participation Front’s central committee, member of the Islamic Revolution’s Mojahedin [not to be confused with the terror group MEK], worked in Khatami’s government)

Abdollah Ramezanzadeh (former spokesman of Khatami’s government, former governor of Kurdistan province, member of Participation Front’s central committee)

Mohammad-Ali Abtahi (reformist cleric, reknown blogger, advisor to Khatami, supporter of Karubi in this election)

Behzad Nabavi (member of Islamic Revolution’s Mojahedin, former government advisor, former MP, then rejected by Guardian Council)

Mohsen Mir-Damadi (Chief secretary of the Participation Front, former MP and chief of National Security and Foreign Policy Commission in the parliament, rejected by Guardian Council)

Mohsen Safa‘i Farahani (former president of Football Association, key member of Participation Front; Ahmadinejad apparently accused Farahani in one of the TV duels)

Hedayatollah Aqa‘i (member of Executives of Construction party, Musavi-supporter)

Davud Soleymani (member of Participation Front’s central committee, former MP, rejected by Guardians Council)

Ali Tajerniya (member of Musavi’s campaign’s Tehran office, member of Participation Front, former MP)

Jahanbakhsh Khanjani (former spokesman of Khatami’s Interior Ministry, member of Executives of Construction, active in Musavi’s campaign)

Mohammad Tavassoli (first Tehran mayor after the revolution, member of Nehzat-e âzâdi, The Freedom Movement of Iran’s central committee)

Ahmad Zeidabadi (journalist, chief secretary of Advâr-e Tahkim alumni organization, Karubi supporter)

Sa‘id Leylaz (expert of economy during Khatami’s presidency, Musavi supporter)

Abdolfattah Soltani (human rights lawyer, member of the Association for Human Rights Defenders)

Mohammad Quchani (editor-in-chief of E‘temâd-e melli daily, which is Karubi’s National Trust Party’s organ)

Shahab Tabataba‘i (chief of the campaign office for Youth Supporting Musavi)

Bahman Ammu‘i (journalist, reformist author)

Zhila Bani-Ya‘qub (journalist, reformist author, womens rights activist)

Keyvan Samimi (manager of Nâme monthly, one of the religious-nationalist activists (melli-mazhhabi)

Abdolreza Tajik (political activist, journalist, close to religious-nationalist forces and The Freedom Movement of Iran)

Mahsa Amrabadi (journalist at E‘temâd-e melli)

Mohammad-Reza Jala‘ipur (spokesman for Puyesh, a pro-Musavi campaign, son of Hamid-Reza Jala‘ipur, who is a reknown reformist intellectual)

Somayyeh Towhidloo (sociology expert, political activist, pro-Musavi blogger)

Ebrahim Yazdi (secretary-general of the Freedom Movement of Iran, former minister of foreign affairs, was arrested in hospital, taken away, and then – reportedly – again hospitalized)

Abdollah Mo‘meni (secretary of The Office to Consolidate Unity [Daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat], Iran’s largest student organization)

Behzad Bashu & Seyyed Khalil Mir-Ashrafi (journalists)

Haniyeh Yusefian (arrested during protests)

Ruhollah Shahvar (Mashhad), Masha‘allah Heydarzadeh, Hamideh Mahozi, Amanollah Shoja‘i, Hosein Shokuhi (Bushehr), Mojtaba Purhasan (Rasht) (all journalists)

Shiva Nazar-Ahari (human rights activist, arrested two days after elections)

Amir Ariyazand, Ali Purkheyri, Shahin Nurbakhsh, Mohammad Shokuhi, Ashkan Mojalali, Meysam Varahchehr, Sa‘id Nurmohammadi, Ali Taqipur (all members of Participation Front)

Ali Vefqi, Hamze Ghalebi, Sa‘id Nik-Khah, Ehsan Bakeri, Homa‘i, Fattahi, Zakeri (all members of Musavi’s Tehran campaign offices)

Maziyar Bahari (NY-based journalist, arrested in Tehran)

Hosein Zaman (pop singer)

Atefeh Nabavi and Mostafa Nabavi (politically active students)

Naseh Faridi (former secretary of Tarbiyate Modares University’s Islamic Student Association, human rights activist)

Maryam Ameri (member of Karubi’s election campaign office)

Zia‘od-Din Nabavi (secretary of The Council for the Defense of the Right to Study)

Second list (with many overlaps)

Source: Reporters Without Borders (
“Twenty-three journalists have been arrested in the week since the presidential election results :
14 June:
Somayeh Tohidloo, who also keeps a blog (
Ahmad Zeydabadi
Kivan Samimi Behbani
Abdolreza Tajik
Mahssa Amrabad
Behzad Basho, a cartoonist
Khalil Mir Asharafi, a TV producer
Karim Arghandeh, a blogger ( and reporter for pro-reform newspapers Salam, Vaghieh and Afaghieh, who was arrested at his Tehran home.
Shiva Nazar Ahari (see her blog:

15 June:
Mohamad Atryanfar, the publisher of several newspapers including Hamshary, Shargh and Shahrvand Emrouz, who has reportedly been taken to the security wing of Evin prison.
Saeed Hajjarian, the former editor of the newspaper Sobh-e-Emrouz, who was arrested at his Tehran home on the night of 15 June despite being badly handicapped.
Mojtaba Pormohssen, who edits the newspaper Gylan Emroz and contributes to several other pro-reform newspapers and radio Zamaneh. He was arrested in the northern city of Rasht.

16 June:
Mohammad Ali Abtahi, also known as the “Blogging Mullah,” who was arrested at his Tehran home. His blog:
Hamideh Mahhozi, arrested in the southern city of Bushehr.
Amanolah Shojai, who is also a blogger. Arrested in Bushehr.
Hossin Shkohi, who works for the weekly Paygam Jonob. Arrested in Bushehr.
Mashalah Hidarzadeh, arrested in Bushehr.
17 June:
Saide Lylaz, a business reporter for the newspaper Sarmayeh, who had been very critical of Ahmadinejad’s policies. He was arrested at his Tehran home.

Rohollah Shassavar, a journalist based in the city of Mashad.

18 June:
Mohammad Ghochani, the editor of Etemad Meli.

20 June:
Jila Baniyaghoob, editor of website Canon Zeman Irani (,
Bahaman Ahamadi Amoee,
Ali Mazroui, the head of the Association of Iranian Journalists.”

[end of quote]

Possible additions to these list:

Majid Dorri / Dari (?) (student activist)

Allegedly released:

Fa‘ezeh Hashemi (Rafsanjani’s daughter)