Tag Archives: politics

New article on ethnic unrest in Iran

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

I would like to draw to your attention my recently published article on ethnic unrest in Iran:

‘State of Mind, State of Order: Reactions to Ethnic Unrest in the Islamic Republic of Iran’ in Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, vol. 8, issue 3, December 2008. Read the abstract here.

The looming threat of sectarian violence on Iran’s borders

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Jondollah, a Baluchi militant group, has executed 16 Iranian police officers. Now, Tehran accuses Saudi-Arabia of supporting Sunni terrorism in Iran’s restive southeastern border area.

Jondollah (also spelled Jundullah, Jundallah, etc.) – ‘God’s Army’ in Arabic – has been active for at least four years. Its young leader Abdolmalek Rigi is Iran’s most wanted man. Rigi has stated that his band of Baluchis – an ethnic minority living across the deserts between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – are fighting for their rights as a Sunni Muslim community in Shiite-ruled Iran. He also claims to fight for a democratic Iran respecting human rights. Yet, in 2006-7, Jondollah launched a string of gruesome terror acts. In March 2006, Jondollah militants dressed as Iranian soldiers stopped a convoy of cars on a remote desert road. The militants pulled the travelers – a mix of civilians, military officers and local administrators – out of their cars and shot down all 22, execution-style. In May 2006, during a similar ambush, Baluchi militants killed 12 travelers and took others hostage – this time near Kerman, in the centre of southern Iran. Video footage of Jondollah beheading hostages reached Iranian web sites. And in February 2007, Jondollah detonated a bomb in the provincial capital of Zahedan, killing 18 Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Basiji officers on their way to work.

Iranian officials condemned the attacks as ‘blind terrorism’ and pointed accusing fingers at Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the US for supporting Jondollah. Iran has also criticized Pakistan for not cooperating in the hunt for Rigi and his group. The province of Sistan-Baluchistan – Iran’s poorest region and historically home to bandits and smugglers – has since seen a heavy military presence and severe security measures. Baluchi proponents have claimed that innocent civilians are harassed and local Sunni clerics persecuted while the leader of Jondollah hides across the borders in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. Due to the inaccessible location and due to restrictions, it has been difficult for international media and human rights groups to verify claims of human rights abuse.

In June 2008, it was reported that militants abducted the police officers of a checkpoint near Saravan on the Iran-Pakistan border. Rigi claimed responsibility for the attack and demanded the release of 200 of his compatriots from Iranian prisons in return for the hostages. BBC reported that one of these prisoners was probably Rigi’s own brother, who had allegedly been handed over by Pakistani authorities to Iran. In October, one hostage was released; however it was also reported others had been killed. Indeed, the Arabic news channel Al-Arabiyya showed footage of the execution of three police officers.

Then, last week, deputy police commander Ahmad-Reza Radan confirmed that all 16 officers abducted from Saravan had been killed. Since the news broke, the Iranian government has promised to give a “tooth-breaking” response to Jondollah. On Monday, state-run Tehran Times reported that “Iranian intelligence and police forces have arrested some terrorists who were behind the killings of 15 Iranian police members”. The Minister of Intelligence, Hojjatoleslam Mohseni-Ezhe‘i stated that Pakistani authorities “did not cooperate sufficiently” in anti-Jondollah operations. MP Kazem Jalali said that Islamabad, after receiving evidence that Jondollah is supported by Pakistani “elements”, had promised to strike down on “terrorist groups”. Jalali also reported that footage of the trial against those arrested would soon be aired on national TV. Indeed, in this footage, Iranians are to see ‘nation-betrayers’ confessing to their terrorist acts and to the ‘regional and international’ support they have allegedly received. Furthermore, Jalali promised tougher action against smugglers of opium and heroin from Afghanistan. Iranian authorities and media have often linked Baluchi militant groups to the thriving drug trade that has blossomed since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Just as they did after previous Jondollah attack, Iranian media outlets have recently accused foreign powers of supporting the Baluchi militants. State-run Press TV quoted Pakistan’s former Army Chief, who allegedly stated in July that Jondollah was “the main recipient of US financial and military aid”. Iranian media has also used the work of investigative journalists from the US itself: Press TV regularly points to a 2007 ABC News report about US aid for Jondollah and to Seymour Hersh’s alleged revelations about US Congress funding for ‘covert operations’ in Iran. Indeed, in the Jondollah case, the Iranian state has found yet another tool to turn the ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric on its head and present US as a major hypocrite in world politics. Thus, during Tuesday’s Security Council session, Iran’s UN representative could justly state that “Iran is a victim of terrorism. It has taken practical and effective measures in its fight against terrorist and extremist groups including Al-Qaeda and Jundullah”. The case of Jondollah’s terror is thus used to present Iran as an innocent victim of the West’s double standards.

However, this time, the accusing finger not only points to Washington but also to Iran’s rivals across The Persian Gulf. Apparently, the Arabic news website Nahrayn Net recently quoted ‘informed sources’ in Peshawar claiming that Jondollah is supported not only by the US but by the secret service of Saudi-Arabia. The Iranian News Agency Shahâb News wrote: “These sources stressed that evidence from Peshawar shows that Saudi-Arabia’s intelligence agency is directly and fully supporting Jondollah in its terrorist acts in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province …”. In the report, it is claimed that Riyadh is financially supporting Jondollah and that the ruling family in Saudi-Arabia has commanded Arabic media to report regularly on the actions of Jondollah.

Thus, Iranian media today portray Jondollah as a proxy army with which several enemies are fighting the Islamic Republic. Such reports should of course be seen on the historical background of tensions between Iran and its Arab neighbors in the Gulf. Indeed, when Al-Arabiyya showed the Jondollah footage in October, Iranian Press TV published a piece titled ‘How to sponsor terrorism, Saudi-style’. The issue of Jondollah has become yet another point of conflict between Iran and Saudi-Arabia.

The Islamic Republic’s media exposure of Jondollah’s terror have caused politicians and spokespersons across the board to express their disgust with the group. However, this wide publicizing of Jondollah’s acts can also hurt the government itself. Student activists use the issue of Jondollah’s terror to depict the state apparatus, and Ahmadinejad’s government in particular, as incompetent. Speaking in the language of nationalism and patriotism, student groups have demanded that the government respond to the threat, confront Jondollah and force Pakistan to take responsibility for security on its side of the border. The main student organization, The Office to Consolidate Unity, recently criticized Ahmadinejad’s government for focusing on international issues, on defending Iran’s nuclear energy program and on repressing peaceful opposition in Tehran while the real threat is actually on Iran’s borders. The students also lambasted Iran’s security and intelligence agencies for being incompetent and inefficient in combating the terrorist threats.

However, the issue should not be reduced to the fight between the Iranian state and a militant group. What is much more dangerous is the lurking threat of a widening Sunni-Shia divide in Iran. Iran is predominantly Shiite and the political system dominated by Shiite clerics. However Baluchis, Turkmens and many Kurds are Sunnis, which makes them a sort of ‘double minority’ in majority-Persian Iran. Recently, Iranian Sunnis have become increasingly vocal in their expression of discontent with discrimination and marginalization. Indeed, there have been many signs of rising tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in Baluchi areas: last month, a Sunni cleric was killed in Saravan, the border town mentioned earlier. Thus, when Iranian officials, state media and even opposition forces describe Jondollah’s attacks as a fetne – the Koranic word for discord – they convey an imbedded warning of sectarian violence looming on the horizon. There is indeed good reason to fear that Jondollah’s actions will provoke Shiites to attack Sunnis and cause further persecution of proponents of Sunni and ethnic minority rights.

Last but not least, the case of Jondollah threatens to make Iranians, and the world community, forget the plight of the Baluchi people. In their 2007 report, Amnesty International portrayed a broad-ranging clampdown on ethnic activists as well as militants. Despicable human rights breaches in the region and the economic and cultural discrimination against civilians were among the issues Amnesty pointed out. Furthermore, as the line between criminal and political activity has been blurred in the state discourse, it is feared that Iranian authorities use the fight against drug smuggling as a pretext for executing Baluchi activists. Thus, with Jondollah’s terror warfare, there is no room left for the voices of ethnic and religious minority rights. Indeed, over the last couple of weeks, Baluchi students at Zahedan University have protested against violent attacks by security forces – attacks that have resulted in the death of a student and the wounding of many others.

The question that remains is: if Western powers or Arab states are indeed supporting Jondollah, are they not in fact doing Iran’s Baluchis a great disservice? It is true that, potentially, Jondollah’s attacks can further destabilize the region and even cause confrontations between Iran and its neighbors. However, we must not forget that, apart from Iranian officers, the real victims are the Baluchis, who are being criminalized and persecuted on a daily basis as punishment for Jondollah’s actions.

The public debate in Iran leaves no doubt that Jondollah as a terrorist group is hated by common people. Even though its leaders have learned to place the group in the headlines of Iranian and international media, Jondollah is not a positive contribution to the democratic struggle in Iran – or to the fight for its own people.

Student Day in Iran – updates

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

In connection with my piece on Saturday on the Iranian student movement, here are some updates on what’s happened so far in connection with Student Day:

Update #2

According to an eye witness report, around 3-4,000 students demonstrated in Tehran University. When security forces and plain clothed officers tried to prevent hundreds of students from other universities from entering campus, fighting ensued and one of the main gates was forced open. Students shouting ‘Death to dictatorship!’ apparently attacked university intelligence offices after which security forces entered campus. University authorities prevented a full-scale attack and the students proceeded with speeches in which they expressed support for the women rights movement, the labor movement and ethnic minority activists. Key speakers were prevented from entering university.

After the speeches, students continued demonstrating, allegedly shouting ‘Seyyed ‘Ali Pinochet, Iran will not become Chile!’ (a reference to ‘Ali Khamene‘i, Iran’s Supreme Leader). The state-affiliated news agency Fârs reported that ‘extremist’ students tried to create unrest in the streets but that security forces ‘kept their cool’ and prevented chaos. Amir Kabir University Newsletter reports that several students were severely injured during battles with security forces – however, there are no reports of arrests yet. There are also reports of student demonstrations in other places such as Kermanshah and Mazandaran and tomorrow in Shiraz.

What in my opinion was really surprising today was the issue of ethnic minorities. First of all, the Kurdish students at Tehran University chose to have their own demonstration – apparently in protest against the main student organization’s ‘nationalist behavior’. This is interesting since DTV recently has supported ethnic minority rights. Secondly, it was reported that when an Azeri student spoke in defense of Azeri cultural rights, a group of ‘pan-Iranists’ – that is, radical Persian chauvinists who are opposed to ethno-nationalist sentiments among Iran’s non-Persian groups – tried to silence him. One can see this as a positive sign: i.e. that ethnic groups are finally being allowed to speak and be heard, and that the issue of ethnicity is no longer a taboo. However, the apparent tension between ‘pan-Iranists’ and ethno-political proponents, even amongst the students, could also point to a broader, more worrying tendency in Iranian identity politics.

Update #1

BBC reported that Ayatollah Khamene‘i did not attend yesterday’s Students Day at The Science and Industry University in Tehran as planned. No official reason was given but it is probable that the tense atmosphere in Iranian universities right now is behind the decision. Apparently, Iran’s Minister of Science has declared that ‘counter-revolutionaries’ are trying to exploit Students Day. Members of a government-loyal ‘student group’ have argued that ‘liberals and those who reject the Imam [Khomeini]’ should not be allowed to mark Student Day. It also seems that today’s meeting in which Khatami was scheduled to talk has been cancelled.

Students from Amir Kabir University in Tehran have reported that ‘more than 1,800’ students joined protests against the ‘security atmosphere’ imposed by authorities here. In particular, the students objected to the installment of ‘security gates’ around university, which they think. In Hamadan, ’thousands’ of students joined an illegal demonstration to mark Students Day. Security forces fired tear gas into the crowd while the students were singing a song. It seems the authorities excused this attack by saying that signing was inappropriate since yesterday also marked the martyrdom of a Shiite Imam.

In Tehran University, pro-government students marked Students Day in their own fashion and staged a rally against, among other things, ‘Imperialism’. Fârs News Agency claimed that ‘1,000 students’ had joined this demonstration and shouted slogans such as ‘Death to America’, ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Students are aware, they are tired of Obama’.

It is reported that authorities have taken extreme security measures in Tehran University as pro-democratic students have called for a demonstration today under the banner “The Cry of Freedom”.

Student Day in Iran

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Today, it is Ruz-e dâneshju or ‘Student Day’ in Iran: it is time to reassess the status of and situation for the Iranian student movement.

Revolution, reformism, repression, revival
Since ‘modern’ universities were established in Iran in the 1920s and 30s, they have been key centers of political dissidence, arenas for ideological battles and homes to alternative voices. Universities played central roles in the revolutionary movement that ousted the Shah in the late 1970s and in the reformist movement that brought Khatami to power in 1997. Indeed, during the so-called ‘Tehran Spring’ of 1997-99, it seemed as if a democratic student movement was ready to burst out of university and revolutionize Iranian society.

However, the severe clampdown on students – and in particular, the violent attack on Tehran University dormitories in July 1999 that resulted in widespread riots throughout Iran – curtailed this movement. The repression eventually seemed close to completely wipe out the Iranian student movement through juridical and extra-juridical measures, violence and threats. The state apparatus placed legal obstacles on student groups and partially seized their organizations, harassed and intimidated their spokespersons, and closed down their facilities and newsletters.

However, instead of disintegrating, the key organizations of the movement – the so-called Islamic Student Societies (anjoman-hâ-ye eslâmi-ye dâneshjuyân) and their umbrella organization, The Office to Consolidate Unity (daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat, hereafter DTV) – underwent a painful divorce from the parliamentary reform movement, its institutions and its head, Khatami. DTV succeeded in distancing itself from the waning image of the reformists and has since struggled to transform itself into a platform for a wide variety of grass roots and civil society groups. The aim of DTV today is to reach out beyond the walls of universities and into Iranian society.

While the process of bridging the intellectual and theoretical discourse of a student movement with general discontent in other layers of society has been quite difficult, the greatest challenge came with the election of the neo-conservative hard-liner Ahmadinejad in 2005.

Since this election, government has sought to ‘re-Islamize’ and control universities by discharging critical professors and appointing loyal managers, by segregating facilities in certain universities, by installing CCTV surveillance and by burying ‘martyrs’ of the Iran-Iraq War right on university campuses and thus imposing the militant ideology on students. Student activists all over Iran have faced official and unofficial reprimands, abductions to secret interrogation facilities, mock trials, torture, incommunicado detention and heavy sentences that span from exclusion from university and forced transfer to other universities to fines and jail sentences. Individual students are even given ‘stars’ depending on his/her level of political activity in a ludicrous evaluation scheme aimed at intimidating and punishing student activists.

However, the difficulties facing the student movement are not just political. Students are also confronted with a wide array of problems including the fierce competition for enrollment in prestigious universities, the dwindling quality of teaching and research in Iranian universities, the severe problem of brain drain, social problems such as drug addiction and suicide as well as issues related to everyday student life such as appalling conditions in dormitories, lack of pastime facilities and, of course, the prospect of post-graduation unemployment.

Yet despite all these obstacles and challenges, there is still good reason to argue that student activism is alive and kicking in Iran today. Indeed, students have staged small but vocal demonstrations and sit-ins, and some have even attacked Ahmadinejad’s policies directly. Recently, it seems students have become particularly active. Tensions have been felt as far away as Sistan-Baluchestan on Iran’s southeastern border, where students have clashed with security forces. In the provincial capital Hamadan, students have reported a wave of intimidation and threats by local authorities that are concerned with student activities.

Student Day 2008
Thus, the Iranian student activists are to mark Student Day today – a tradition that dates back to 1953 when 3 students from Tehran University were killed by the Shah’s security forces. This year, students have not limited themselves to Student Day itself but have indeed declared December 2 to 9 a ‘Students Week’. The last month or so, Iranian media have claimed that students are secretly preparing unrest and mayhem around Students Day. A Basiji student group has claimed that ‘violence-seeking’ individuals are ‘planning riots’ on Khajeh Nasir University in Tehran. And on the conservative website Tâbnâk, journalists reported that ‘some domestic extremist groups’ have been planning to provoke unrest, including melli-mazhhabi proponents (Religious-Nationalist, i.e. the domestic opposition of moderate ‘Islamo-nationalists’), who have allegedly called for a student-led riot like that of July 1999. The journalists even claimed that students from ethnic minorities studying in Tehran are planning disturbances to further their ethno-nationalist aims and that DTV has been in contact with opposition activists in exile. DTV denied this report and criticized it together with a series of accusations and rumors published by state-run dailies and news agencies.

With the severe security measures installed by the neo-con government and its cohorts in the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij militias and the police forces in mind, it is difficult to see how students could indeed create such unrest. ”Students are under attack from all sides by the government and the fundamentalist media”, Bahare Hedayat from DTV’s public relations bureau stated recently. Hedayat, who has been imprisoned for her activities several times, argued that “the stored-up concerns and discontent amongst students over the last three years” were the result of “the clampdown by authorities outside the universities” on student activists and “the erroneous [university] management of officials selected by the Ministry of Science”.

According to Hedayat, ‘unrest’ is simply a negative term hyped by media controlled by ruling forces who are afraid of student activism: “The sick minds who cannot tolerate even a student protest gathering in university, are referring to peaceful meetings and protests within the milieu of the university as ‘unrest’”, she stated. Even ISNA – the Iranian Students News Agency, which was founded to reflect the voices of students – has “been turned into a platform for anti-student organizations”, Hedayat argued.

Student activists, in particular those at Amir Kabir Technical University, have reported that pro-government groups, Basiji students and university authorities are coordinating a counter-strike in case of student unrest on or after Student Day. These reports surfaced while DTV a week ago published its call for marking Student Day. In a thinly veiled attack on Ahmadinejad’s government, DTV stated: “[O]nce again, we will rise and sound the call of protest against oppressors who are busy stripping Iran and the Iranians of their national resources, honor and integrity, and whose erroneous policies have resulted in pervasive corruption, widespread poverty, disregard for civic rights, destruction of Iranians’ prestige all over the world, international sanctions, unemployment, and thousands of other problems”. DTV has called for a demonstration in Tehran University tomorrow and Khatami has said that enshâ‘allâh, he will come to speak. Four years ago, students heckled Khatami when he came to Tehran University on Student Day. It could become an interesting moment when Khatami and the students come face to face.

The students and ‘the reformists’
With the 2009 presidential elections looming on the horizon, the so-called ‘reformists’ seems to be looking to the student movement, hoping it could again play a significant role. Indeed, the ‘reformists’ would benefit from a re-activation of the huge potential among Iran’s two million university students. Yet, significant change is needed: since Khatami’s ‘lame duck years’ as president, and in particular, his reluctant and belated response to the state clampdown on students in 1999 and subsequently, the activist milieu has been marked by a profound skepticism towards the ‘reformists’. Indeed, the spokeswoman of the DTV stated that “reformists should know that the students are watching their behaviors and will not forget”. In other words, reformists will certainly have to redefine their ambitions and strategy in order to attract the much-needed votes of Iranian students. It seems the students, despite previous boycotts, have not yet rejected the idea of participating in the elections – so it might pay off for reformists.

However, when evaluating the ‘potentials’ of the student movement, one should keep in mind that since they ‘divorced’ from the parliamentary reformist faction, DTV and its local cells have focused on social, cultural and civil society activities – indeed, DTV declared in 2005 that it would henceforth function as a ‘Civil Society Watch’. In an interview with Roozonline.com two days ago, DTV secretary, Mehdi Arabshahi, stated that the new DTV would not repeat the fault of earlier generations in this organization: that is, to act as a political party and to play the role of opposition within the boundaries of the political system. Thus, we should not expect the students to act as a sort of ‘youth division’ of any political faction, including the reformist, in the future. Indeed, stated Arabshahi, the new DTV would not repeat the old mistake of seeing elections as “a remedy for all the nation’s troubles”.

Yet, at the same time, Arabshahi would not rule out the possibility that the election of a new government could bring about better conditions for social movements. Hedayat, the spokeswoman mentioned earlier, also explained in a separate interview that the situation had changed dramatically since the DTV boycott of the presidential elections in 2005: now, said Hedayat, a fresh analysis was needed. In other words, DTV might not boycott elections. Whatever the DTV chooses to do, Hedayat stated that the organization would strive to have its demands and issues reflected during the elections.

DTV and the student movement in general has been criticized for not participating in the 2005 elections and thereby having contributed to the loss of votes for the reformists and thus, indirectly paving the way for a neo-con victory. However, student activist spokespersons stand by their old decision. The former DTV figurehead, ‘Abdollah Mo‘meni, who is now spokesman for DTV’s alumni division, Advâr-e tahkim, stated in an interview that he would defend the decision and that the failure of reformists to mobilize voters could not be reduced to the role of students. Indeed, said Mo‘meni, the reformists had much graver problems than DTV’s election boycott: the fact that they couldn’t even agree on a single candidate to represent them, that they had made their constituencies disillusioned and that they participated willingly in a ‘commando-election’ – these were more likely the reasons for their failure.

In other words, the reformists will have to ‘deliver’ if they want to have any hope of regaining the confidence of the young generation: they will need a strong and charismatic leader, a clear and resolute program and they will need to address the key issues championed by social movements, the women rights movement and the student movement.

A student movement?
So, the question remains: can we speak of an Iranian student movement today? ‘Ali-Reza Raja‘i, a melli-mazhhabi, recently argued that “the activist atmosphere has been restricted to some extent. However, it is perfectly clear that if there is an opening of the political environment, [the student] movement will take on more visible forms”. In other words, Raja‘i thinks that the student movement right now is not a movement per se, but rather a potential movement waiting for a window of opportunity to become active again and develop into a broad-based movement.

However, the wounds inflicted over the years upon the student movement, and indeed the tormented history of democratic struggle in Iran, has left many pessimistic. Indeed, there is a widespread feeling that it will take more than a new government and more than a student movement to change Iran. “Democratic struggle is eating itself from within”, wrote the renown dissident Taqi Rahmani recently: without an active civil society and without organizations representing, for example, professional, labor or ethnic minority interests, any democratic movement is doomed to failure, Rahmani argued. This is why Iranians are prone to be disillusioned when they see that their votes have not brought about a miracle. This is why the Iranian voters are tired and weary: the constant impediments and numerous obstacles placed in front of democratic movements by the rich and powerful elites throughout history. Only by creating a strong and vibrant civil society can Iran move towards democracy.

While DTV has yet to announce its position vis-à-vis the presidential elections, it is clear that people like Raja‘i are warning the students not to boycott the elections. Indeed, Raja‘i and his ilk – the tolerated ‘opposition’, ‘the reformists’ and ‘the moderates’ – still believe that it is possible to reform and change Iranian politics and society through elections. Even though DTV earlier seemed to reject the possibility of the Islamic Republic reforming in a democratic direction, they have, as stated, not rejected a possible participation in next year’s elections. It remains to be seen what the student activist milieu would do if Khatami – or another key reformist figure – was to run for president again; and it remains to be seen what measures the neo-conservative government and its supporters in the clerical and paramilitary elites would take to obstruct the reformists. No matter what happens, it is too early to rule out a revival of the Iranian student movement.

Boroujerdi, Rafsanjani, executions, counterterrorism

A selective glance at Iran and Iranian media, November 30.

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

The dissident Ayatollah Seyyed Hosein Kazemeyni-Borujerdi has allegedly been beaten up and brought to an unknown location. Borujerdi has advocated the separation of religion and government. Here is some interesting footage from two years ago of Borujerdi, his followers and his opponents; here is an older article and here a more recent piece.

Mohammad Hashemi-Rafsanjani, younger brother of Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, has aired the possibility he might be a presidential candidate for the reformists. He has also stated that he do not know whether his older brother will be a candidate himself. Khatami’s former first vice-president, Mohammad-Reza ‘Aref, has also declared that he will run for presidency – if he receives support from the reformists.

Several media outlets have stated that Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf’s presidential campaign has started. Qalibaf is the mayor of Tehran and former chief of police. He is considered a ‘moderate conservative’ and he is known for his somewhat ‘modern image’ aimed at appealing to the young and affluent. At least Admiral Shamkhani, former Defense Minister, is ‘wise enough not to become a candidate!’.

The centrist / ‘moderate conservative’ Hasan Rowhani – a top advisor to Khamene‘i, former nuclear negotiator and currently the head of the Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research – has warned against paramilitary powers taking over the process of privatization in Iran. “Up until now, it was the government that hampered privatization, now it is being hampered by supra-governmental and paramilitary sectors”.

While one man was executed on November 18 for being an ‘Israeli spy’, authorities have now announced that they have unraveled a network of Israeli spies inside Iran. The network allegedly spied on Iran’s nuclear facilities (in English). Furthermore, three men have been sentenced to death for the April bombing of a mosque in Shiraz. Allegedly, the three are members of ‘a terrorist group’. They will be hanged in public.

Meanwhile, Iran has opened a Center for Advanced Studies in Counterterrorism. It is the purpose of this center to study the history of terrorism, ‘scientific strategies of counterterrorism’ and the ‘real face of the US’ as the culprit behind international terror today.

The knives of Zanjan

by Rasmus Christian Elling

Ahmadinejad Speech in Zanjan

This speech by Ahmadinejad is interesting for several reasons:

1) It is a classic example of his rhetorical prowess. He uses emphasis and intonation to bring the audience to a frenzy at regular intervals, with girls screaming as if at a pop concert; note his superb mix of traditional politician oratory and occasional references to the audience and his local ‘friends’ in a very laid-back and colloquial fashion; and note his body language, his laughs and his smiles. I’m sorry to say it – but he’s hellova good speaker.

2) This is the first time I’ve seen Ahmadinejad speak in the tongue of a non-Persian ethnic group (he might have done this before though, I’m not sure). Even though we all know he’s an unscrupulous crowd-pleaser, I was still surprised by this: the osulgarâ or neo-conservative faction has always been opposed to the ‘abuse of ethnic sentiments’ for political goals. Indeed, Ahmadinejad and his people have been very critical of what was seen as currying favor with ethnic groups during the Khatami period. Yet here we see Ahmadinejad trying his best Azeri: to one of the men in the crowd he suddenly says “hey Mr. Ghoraqi, what’s that gentleman over there saying?” (this is his usual approach: he asks ‘the people’ directly what they want and what they wish for); and, to the great delight of the audience, he announces that “Hand in hand, we must develop Iran together” – syllable by syllable in Azeri Turkish (albeit with an awful accent).

3) After he talked about how to build and develop Iran, he defended his economic policy of subsidy distribution against those who have called this policy gedâ-parvari [something like ‘pro-beggar’ or ‘beggar-supporting’]. This is actually a specific counterattack on Rafsanjani, who had called Ahmadinejad’s policies exactly that; but it is also a general attack on the elites or ‘those of you with full pockets and stomachs’.

4) He then talks of how one of his ‘friends’, a university professor, had told him about a doctoral student who had given the professor one of the famous Zanjan knives as a present. Ahmadinejad concludes that the Zanjan knife is “at the service of the people: you peel fruit with it, you make food with it, you work in the fields with it – that is, you serve with it. However! The ill-wishers must know this: if they threaten Iran’s rights, the Iranian nation will cut off their feet and hands with the knives of Zanjan!”.

Releasing its prisoners of conscience would benefit Syria

by Sune Haugbolle.

Further to my previous post, my friend Hanin Ghaddar from Now Lebanon reports that SKeyes, the foundation for the defense of cultural and media freedom in the Arab Mashreq, which is part of the Samir Kassir foundation, hosted a press conference on Monday in Beirut where they called for the release of Michel Kilo, Mahmoud Issa and other prisoners of conscience. Kilo and Issa have been imprisoned by the Syrian authorities for co-signing the Damascus Declaration, a document from 2006 that calls for a better Lebanese-Syrian relationship, border demarcation and diplomatic relations. And a document that pissed the authorities off so royally that those who signed it were accused of treason.

Of course, since 2006, Syria has indeed moved towards normalisation with its smaller neighbour. The joint decision to exchange embassies, made at Michel Suleiman’s visit to Damascus earlier this year, has opened a new page in Lebanese-Syrian relations – even if one chooses to take a cynical view of Syria’s reasons for such a move, as many Lebanese (including Hanin and many March 14’ers) do. They believe that the normalisation simply adds to Bashar’s position of strength, as described in my previous post, and that it is the first step towards a return to the 1990s when Syrian control over Lebanon – the combination of control, manipulation, safe-keeping and plundering that was the post-war period – was blessed and encouraged by Europe and the US, who saw no other way to keep Lebanon quiet.

Compared to Syria’s moment of engagement today, back in 2006, the situation inside Syria was much more tense, and the imprisonment of dissenting intellectuals a clear sign of a nervous and weak regime. The point is that Bashar al-Asad has not translated his increasingly powerful position both inside Syria and in regional and internationalal affairs into easing his grip on prisoners of conscience. This is both wrong and stupid. From a security point of view the attempt to silence the likes of Kilo is utterly unnecessary. Unlike Syria’s Islamists – who of course receive much harsher treatment – the harakat mujtama’ al-madani (civil society movement) simply do not have enough of a social base to be a threat to the regime.

In fact, the repeated bogus trials in Damascus which attract Western diplomats and human rights groups arguably give Syria a lot of bad publicity that they could really be without at this point of Western engagement. So, both from a human and a policy point of view, releasing its prisoners of conscience would benefit Syria.

Stir in weblogistan, new Interior Minister, Rafsanjani’s feminism

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

A selective glance at Iran and Iranian media, November 21.

The (in)famous Iranian weblog writer Hossein Derakhshan – who has caused a stir in ‘weblogistan’ ever since he (allegedly) started the first weblog in Persian – has apparently been arrested in Iran (more here). His critics – and they are many – tend to see the irony in this: first of all, Derakhshan himself moved to Toronto (and later London) to escape censorship and control; secondly, in the past few years, Derakhshan was seen as a supporter of the Islamic Republic and President Ahmadinejad. One of the things that really upset pundits was when Derakhshan, also known by his online name Hoder, implicitly defended the Iranian state’s arrest and interrogation of the secularist intellectual Ramin Jahanbeglu.  Among his many other controversial ideas and actions was his denouncement of the ‘Zionist conspiracy’ – however, not before after he actually went to Israel himself, which is probably the reason why he is in jail in Iran now (i.e. being an Israeli spy). Derakhshan apparently had planned to go back and live in Iran when he was arrested a month ago. The state-run Iranian news agency IRNA has brought what seems as the first part of his ‘confessions’, in which Derakhshan tells how Iranian writers and journalists were “encouraged to leave the country and write against” the political system in Iran “in exchange for financial guarantees” and how the US blackmailed others to criticize Iran. In the ‘statement’, Derakhshan is alleged to have said that these anti-Iran activists now “used tranquilizing drugs” and “attempted suicide” to cope with the pressure put on them. More on this issue later.

Hosein Mar‘ashi, member of the ‘centrist’ Kârgozârân party has stated that Khatami will run for president while a key member of the pro-reformist Participation Front (Jebhe-ye moshârekat) stated that Karrubi’s participation in next year’s presidential elections doesn’t mean Khatami cannot participate too. It now seems certain Khatami will let us wait until last second before announcing his candidature.

Ayatollah Ha‘eri-Shirazi has argued that “the election of a black man in the US is the result of Ahmadinejad’s letters”. According to ILNA (Iranian Labour News Agency), the Ayatollah referred to the letters Ahmadinejad  sent to Bush and lately also to Obama: “Some criticize this letter [to Obama], however the election of a black man to Presidency of the US is itself a result of these same letters”. He also added that ‘Imperialist powers’ had stolen the medieval poet Sa‘di from Iran when they took one of Sa‘di’s quotes and placed it on the UN headquarters building in NY.

Iran’s new Interior Minister is the not-so-experienced politician (but millionaire and ex-Revolutionary Guards member), Sadeq Mahsuli. Even though it seemed he might not receive the Parliament’s endorsement (which was necessary), he was finally approved November 18. It seems he was helped by a campaign of propaganda-by-SMS. I have wondered for some years now about the use of SMS for the purpose of political propaganda in Iran. I do not have any info on the affiliation of telecommunication companies to the state apparatus, but there is no doubt that the authorities can use this medium at their discretion. I received an SMS from none other than Khamene‘i when I was in Iran earlier this year, reminding me to vote in the Parliamentary elections and thereby ‘support the people-serving government’. However, the related question is: how does ‘the state apparatus’ – being so fragmented and run by competing factions – divide the access to SMS distribution channels? Or is it just Khamene‘i who can use this service? In that case, there can be no doubt that the Supreme Leader supports Ahmadinejad and his team – including the new Interior Minister.

It has been known for years that the Iranian authorities are blocking access to many websites. However, now it’s official (wow!). According to Shahab, the official statistics show that 5 million websites are currently ‘filtered’ by Iranian judicial authorities.

Former President and Head of the Expediency Council, Ayatollah Rafsanjani has stated that “with the victory of the Islamic Revolution, women found their real place [in society]”. He appeared together with his wife at the 6th Int’l Convention for Female Koran Researchers and said: “For a long period … Muslim women were not active and stayed at home. However, with the Islamic Revolution, the way has been opened [for their participation in society], in the shade of the Koranic blessing’s light; and now we see: 40,000 student dissertations on the subject of the Koran written by women and that shows in which direction women are moving”. He also added that the issue of women should not be treated with radicalism and extremism: “Some interpret women freedom to mean unrestrained behavior; however, one must certainly stay away from such radical and extremist [interpretations]”.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the Turkish TV- and radio-giant TRT has launched its Persian services.

Miliband and Europe’s endorsement of Bashar’s self-image

by Sune Haugbolle.

What to think about the recent spout of European state visits to Damascus, and the Western attempt to engage Syria? First, let’s be realistic about the engagement: the many debates about what it would mean are moot, because it has in fact already happened, and there is little reason to believe that it won’t continue on the all important American front once Obama takes office early next year. David Miliband’s visit this week completes an extended “summer of love” for Bashar al-Asad, who can now look back at the time in 2005 and 2006 when his regime seemed under real pressure, from the Hariri tribunal and the general international sidelining of Syria, and smile. He has been vindicated in his policy of steadfastness, and he knows it. Ordinary Syrians may still be struggling with dire economic problems outside the Damascus circle of prospering cronies, and the UN tribunal may still throw up surprises that could incriminate the regime when it comes into action in the coming years. But unlike in 2005, these are now hurdles Bashar will feel he can handle from a position of strength.

That strength partly derives from the changing regional and international conjectures: a weakened US in the Middle East and the defeat of Bushism generally, Hizbollah’s steadfast resistance to Israel’s attempt to wipe it out in 2006, Lebanon’s inability to present a united front, and new leaders in France and now the US who appear to have “rediscovered” Syria’s potential as a central arbiter in the Middle Eastern jigsaw. Bashar is exactly where he wants to be, because Western diplomats increasingly see him as he wants to be seen: as a man in control of a country that would be chaotic without him, and with fingers in every regional pie of any importance, from Iran to Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. To near-quote The Streets, he is good to know, and he knows it.

What we also know is that there is a dark side to Asad’s Syria. Western diplomats have not found this the right moment to confront Bashar with his country’s human rights record, which is arguably no less appalling than Saudi Arabia’s or Egypt’s, but still unacceptable. The “regrettable” aspects of Syria’s policies for Europe and the US have always been Damascus’ self-styled role as “capital of Arab resistance,” ie. its links with Tehran, Hizbollah, and Palestinian and Iraqi groups. It is only right that Miliband and others should cease to view Syria’s foreign policy as a stumbling block for negotiations. After all, Bashar al-Asad has shown that he can be moved, and that there is room for negotiation on almost all of the abovementioned fronts. Syrian-Israeli peace may even be within reach, to the benefit of all people in the region.

But it is not right that Miliband and other visitors to the Qasiyoun palace leave the complete lack of democratic reforms in Syria out of their policy of engagement. In fact, it is a slap in the face for the people who have struggled for years for political and human rights reform, and who continue to be imprisoned for asking for the most basic rights. Allowing Syria back in the fold without asking tough questions about these well-documented facts is nothing short of an endorsement of Bashar on all fronts. And although he may not be as bad as some have portrayed him, Bashar al-Asad’s legacy of stalled reforms is not one we should endorse, however badly we wish for normalisation in the Middle East. One can only hope that the US engagement, when it starts to take shape early next year, will do what the Europeans seem incapable of doing, and raise all the issue that are not part of Bashar’s self-image but that are very much part of daily life in Syria.

Obama, Iran and Iraq

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

[Updated]

Admittedly, there are many confusing, contradictory and ambiguous signs of where US-Iran relations are heading right now. On the one hand, you have both oppositional and conservative pro-regime forces in Iran together with left-wing commentators in the US saying that nothing will change, and that it might even get worse as Obama will gradually be forced to increase pressure on the Iranians. On the other hand, there are optimistic signs. Take this comment for instance: Robert Dreyfuss argues that the reason the US-Iraq Security Pact has finally been drafted and is up for approval is Iranian support. Even though it is ‘not a done deal’, the fact that the drafters could reach this stage points, in Dreyfuss’ opinion, to Iranians’ giving it the green light. If this is so, it is of course a sign of willingness to cooperate with a US under Obama:

“The election of Barack Obama changed Iran’s calculus, and so Iran decided, very subtly, to shift to neutral on the pact. As a result, many politicians in Iraq who are either influenced by Iran or who are outright Iranian agents now support the pact. It’s an important sign from Tehran to Obama that they’re willing to work with the United States” writes Dryfuss.

On the other hand, Dreyfuss reminds us that Iran is not ‘thrilled’ over US forces staying for another three years; and that ‘if things get sour’, Iran can again start supporting militant insurgent groups like Sadr’s forces.

Apparently, Ayatollah Shahrudi – head of the Iranian Judiciary and considered a close (yet somewhat ‘moderate’) aide to Khamene‘i – has endorsed the pact, stating that “security and stability is in the interest of the regional nations”… Now, I guess the next question would be: does this mean Khamene‘i agrees with this point? Even though Khamene‘i sometimes drop his veil of ‘neutrality’ in domestic factual disputes and sometimes deliberately parts from his favorite image of ‘impartiality’, Khamene‘i doesn’t need to state his views. This is why the Iranian foreign policy line appears so opaque or engimatic to many observers: since Khamene‘i is not a President but a fatherly ‘Guardian’ / supreme-authority-behind-the-curtains, he can just let various aides and associates voice different policy options or views without us knowing which one is actually going to be implemented.

Thus, I see this as yet another classic example of Iran’s two-pronged strategy of suddenly airing surprisingly moderate/constructive/appeasing signals (enhanced when stated by conservative figures and clerics) – while letting other officials repeat the same old songs against the Global Arrogance of Imperialist Powers etc. Nonetheless, I cannot help labelling this as a comparatively ‘suprising’ and relatively ‘conciliatory’ statement.

On a relevant note: it seems Iran has ‘accepted’ Turkey playing the possible role of mediator between US and Iran if Obama is to go ahead with talks. Nonetheless, this acceptance was of course followed by usual skepticism from Tehran:

… the reality is that the issue and problems between Iran and the United States go beyond the usual political problems between two states”; “Some 30 years after the Islamic Revolution, the US still has a negative stance towards Iranians,” the Iranian spokesman said.