Edition 23 Volume 7 - June 18, 2024

Iran's elections

A revolutionary situation -   Yossi Alpher

If the militants prevail, we are looking at an Islamic dictatorship, not an Islamic republic.

The world must let Iranians solve their domestic problems -   Saad N. Jawad

The western response to Iran's elections is more critical than the instability in Tehran.

Liberty leads the people, even in Tehran -   Mark Perry

The people in the streets of Iran are not protesting the outcome of a vote, but the foundation of a system.

Historic elections -   Sadegh Zibakalam

A new political dawn appears to have emerged

A revolutionary situation
 Yossi Alpher

Thirty years ago, I followed the revolution against the Shah of Iran closely on behalf of the government of Israel. One of the key lessons I drew from that experience was that a "revolutionary situation"--whether in Iran or elsewhere--does not lend itself easily to logical intelligence analysis. It is impossible to predict how it will end, if only because the protagonists on the ground do not themselves know how it will end or even, in some cases, how they want it to end. The best anyone--participants or observers--can do is try to describe accurately what is happening. As for the future, we can only speculate on the basis of our knowledge and experience, with no assurance whatsoever that this or that scenario will ultimately reach fruition.

Now, 30 years later, we again appear to be confronting a revolutionary situation in Iran. The most superficial attempt to describe it tells us that it is radically different from the revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini against the Shah. Back then, militant Shi'ite Islamists organized carefully from the grassroots to overthrow a secular monarchy and create an Islamic republic. Now, in contrast, we are witnessing a falling out within the Islamic regime. Militant elements who support President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad apparently falsified election results to ensure that they remain in power by defeating Mir Hussein Mousavi. The latter seemingly represents a less doctrinaire and extreme face of the regime, but he is most decidedly part of it and seeks to right the situation by appealing to regime institutions.

Nor do Mousavi's followers, the millions of citizens taking to the streets of Iran's cities night after night, appear as an organized group to be challenging the principles and underpinnings of the Islamic Republic. True, the pro-Mousavi masses feel betrayed by the regime they supported and served. Some undoubtedly have more extensive "freedom" agendas that may yet emerge in a more coherent form, and there is no telling where that might lead them. But for now no one is proposing an alternative to the Islamic regime.

Three decades ago, too, the broad regional and global communities recognized that an Iran weakened and destabilized by revolution might fall prey to hostile or opportunist neighbors like the Soviet Union or Saddam Hussein's Iraq or to secessionist minorities like the Kurds. That is precisely what happened when the Kurds revolted and Iraq invaded Iran barely a year after the revolution.

Today, with the possible exception of Iranian ethnic minorities that traditionally rear their heads when Tehran is weak, this is probably not the case. Certainly Iran's state neighbors do not pose a threat. Iraq is weak, fragmented and militarily occupied and is subject to heavy Iranian influence. Russian forces no longer sit on Iran's borders. Were the United States, with its extensive military deployment in and around the Gulf, still led by George W. Bush or his followers, conceivably they would see an opportunity here to intervene. But not the Obama administration, which advocates soft diplomacy and dialogue and remains poised to engage whoever comes out on top in Tehran. Hence Israel, too, will sit tight. Besides, outside intervention would play right into the hands of Iran's militants.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the powers that be in Iran would have seen no need to "fix" these elections had Bush still been in power: one interesting theory that explains what is happening is that the prospect of Mousavi dialoguing with Obama is precisely what set off the hardliners' decision to void the former's election in the first place--though they obviously grossly underestimated the popular reaction.

The Middle East has been characterized in recent years by the strength of its non-Arab (Iran, Israel, Turkey) and non-state (Hizballah, Hamas, al-Qaeda) actors and the weakness of the Arab state system and Arab leadership. Now, if the chaos continues, we have to contemplate the ramifications of a weak and destabilized Iran. Regardless of who is ultimately declared president, an unstable and convulsed Iran could turn in either of two directions: its temporary weakness could cause it to be more accommodating to the West, reduce its own penetration into Iraq and seek to negotiate nuclear issues; or it could become more extreme and more dangerous to the region. It is impossible to say at this juncture how a victorious Ahmadinezhad or a victorious Mousavi would address the region in terms of the domestic political and global strategic interests of his camp.

Three broad conclusions, however, do appear fairly certain. First, any Iranian government will pursue the country's nuclear program, if only as a bargaining card (Mousavi, after all, inaugurated that project some 20 years ago). Second, if the militants prevail, we are looking at an Islamic dictatorship rather than an Islamic republic. This might have the beneficial effect of rendering Iran and its allies and proxies somewhat less attractive to the Arab masses. And finally, the substance of the anticipated US-Iran dialogue will of necessity change as a result of these events.- Published 18/6/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

The world must let Iranians solve their domestic problems
 Saad N. Jawad

Iran's elections caused two main features of the domestic situation in the country to stand out. One is the undeniably large support for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad among the poor of Iran. The other is the depth of disappointment of the young, educated and urban intelligentsia with his re-election.

This last group feels that long awaited moves toward modernization of Iran and better relations with the outside world have been aborted by the re-election of Ahmadinezhad. How long these people will continue their protests and how effective these demonstrations will be is not clear. It is safe to assume, however, and in view of Iran's political, social and religious systems, that the popular unrest will not affect the result of this election.

Some analysts believe that what is really happening is a struggle for power between the conservatives, headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinezhad, and the moderates, headed by the previous president Mohammad Khatami and the challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi. Others believe that both Khatami and Mousavi are simply a front for the challenge of Akbar Hashimi Rafsanjani, another former president, who is trying to return to power through Mousavi. Whatever the case, the young and educated Iranians just now protesting in the streets will have to wait another four years to pursue their dreams of modernization, unless the United States or Israel foolishly step in, thereby either consolidating the rule of the religious institutions or turning Iran into another haven for backward and terrorist groups, as in Iraq.

Indeed, the response of the United States and European countries to the results and the re-elected president is more critical than the unstable situation in Tehran. Are these countries going to show the same interest in opening a dialogue with an incumbent returned to power after an election shrouded in controversy? Are they prepared to let down the huge number of liberals who have taken to the streets of Tehran?

Perhaps the muted reaction and the mild official protests by the above-mentioned governments are indicative. They may mean that western governments are neither going to endorse the results nor are they prepared to deal with the elected president. It also means that the West may now see an opportunity to work, unofficially and mainly through the media, to destabilize Iran.

But if this happens, Ahmadinezhad and his administration will escalate their defiance of the US and the West. And this will augur ill for the region in general and Iraq in particular. One of the most efficient ways to counter any US-European attempts to weaken the Iranian regime will be for Iran to challenge the US-European influence and presence in the region. The weakest link, needless to say, is Iraq.

It is a well-known fact that Iranian influence in Iraq is both significant and effective. Iran could easily impair US plans to withdraw from Iraq, or, alternatively, prevail there after a withdrawal. In other words, instead of being weakened and besieged, Iran will expand its influence into Iraq and will complete a physical axis stretching from southern Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Iran. Such a scenario, combined with the continued difficulties the US-European coalition is facing in Afghanistan and Pakistan, would not only endanger the position of the coalition but could also be the end of any presence or influence for any such western coalition in the region in the medium term.

This will clearly bring Israel into the picture again, and western opposition to Israel's stated desire to carry out air strikes against Iranian nuclear and military targets will wane. This is despite the fact that such action will likely only strengthen the Iranian regime by silencing the opposition.

How prepared the US-European coalition is to risk such a potentially dramatic strategic change is something only the reactions of the US and the European Union will answer. Only the wise decision to not get involved in what is a domestic Iranian matter, and thus leave the Iranian opposition free to continue demonstrating peacefully, will keep the Iranian regime embroiled in its domestic turmoil and thus unable to trouble other regional and international actors.

Such a position will also demonstrate US-European respect for the popular will and democratic choice of a people. The worst option now for the West is to try to impose democracy in the same way it did in Iraq and Afghanistan.- Published 18/6/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Saad N. Jawad is a professor of political science at Baghdad University.

Liberty leads the people, even in Tehran
 Mark Perry

We in the "the West" have a special place in our traditions for anniversaries. We celebrate two important ones just now. It was twenty years ago that thousands of children arrived in China's Tiananmen Square to petition their leaders for greater rights. They built a papier-mache statue of a white-clad lady that looked familiar to us. They carted her around for a time, as a kind of icon for their movement. Then one night they were murdered in their thousands, as the world looked on. The US ambassador there, James Lilley, told me, "it is a sad time for the Chinese people".

It was a sad time for all of us.

The lady first appeared 220 years ago this July, in a painting by Jacques-Louis David, a French painter and revolutionary. By most accounts he was not a pleasant man, but he knew about mass appeal. Painters before him had focused on the Messiah. But David took him down from his cross, clothed him in white, made him a woman and placed a tricolor in his hand. Women who came to see the painting sank to their knees, as Mary once had before the empty tomb. The painting changed the world: on one side of this new symbol of modernity a boy surged into the future. All innocence, eyes ablaze, he understood the meaning of freedom. On the other, a wounded veteran and patriot marched, dedicated to the new catechism of freedom. Jesus no longer led the people; it was a simple woman. Liberty.

Zhou En-lai, the former premier and foreign minister of China got this right. Asked once in the 1950s to assess the impact of the French Revolution, he answered, "it's too soon to tell." She moves on, this woman, like a wave.

After Tienanmen the symbol was no longer western, but universal, as was democracy itself. Liberty led the people in South Africa and South America and in Eastern Europe. The impossible happened through no agency of our own: the Berlin Wall fell and the politburo washed away so suddenly it left us breathless. Ideas themselves did what no force could accomplish.

We anger history to ignore this, do violence to our ideals to reject it. They our not simply "our" ideals, they are everyone's. Mother Courage bore witness to what happened to the revolutionaries of France; they transformed a society of nobles into a nation not of "peoples" but people. They bore witness to the children of Tiananmen who stood helpless in the face of those who, acting on behalf of "the workers" and "the party", shed their blood. We, in the name of realism, stood silent.

What is it that Barack Obama doesn't get about this?

The people in the streets of Iran are not protesting the outcome of a vote, but the foundation of a system. It does not matter who won. The issue is not votes, but the system. No recount will set it right. It is not a recount Iranians seek, but freedom. They do not fear their leaders; they fear a future without liberty. It does not matter to them whether we support them or not, and it will make no difference to their inevitable victory. But it will matter to us. Our silence will show complicity, especially from the current US president.

Barack Obama is showing great care, because after a season of meddlesome politics America must show that nations and people must act on their own. And he has said this. That's all to the good. But that's not enough. America did not elect Barack Obama simply because we hoped he would be a realistic president--though that is certainly what we wanted. We also elected him because he talked in ideals. We believe in those ideals. We understand them. We would like to live up to them, knowing we often do not. And so Barack Obama must say the obvious: we will not meddle, we will not interfere, and we will leave this to the Iranian people. But in each and every instance, when the people speak we are with them. We are for the people of Iran and we must hope they prevail.

Liberty is leading the people again, this time in Tehran. We must stand with them and with her.- Published 18/6/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mark Perry is the author of "Partners in Command, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace". His most recent book is "Talking To Terrorists" (Basic Books, 2024).

Historic elections
 Sadegh Zibakalam

Even before the astonishing results of the Iranian presidential election became known, some Iranian analysts had referred to it as a watershed in the history of post-Islamic Revolution Iran. When Mohammed Khatami, the ex-president and symbolic leader of the country's reform movement, quit the presidential race in February, many Iranians assumed that was the end of the reformists. The only chance for the reformists and for that matter anyone else who opposed President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, was for Khatami to lead the reformists in the election. With his sudden and unexpected departure, many believed there was no other serious challenger to Ahmadinezhad.

Before withdrawing, Khatami stated publicly that he would wholeheartedly back Mir Hossein Mousavi. But many opponents of Ahmadinezhad argued that the younger generations, who are in their twenties and thirties, do not know Mousavi, who had been prime minister in the 1980s, and therefore would not vote for him. Others argued that Mousavi was too radical and leftist to be able to lead the present reformist movement that is broadly liberal in its orientation. But Khatami resisted this criticism and refused to stand as a presidential candidate. Mousavi thus entered the race with many reformists entertaining serious doubts about the chances of his success.

Two months later, an avalanche was shaking the Islamic Republic. Millions of Iranian youth were enthusiastically supporting Mousavi. Many of them were not even born when he was active as prime minister or at the most were attending primary school, yet were now determined to support him wholeheartedly.

It is still a mystery why millions of younger-generation Iranians decided to rally behind Mousavi. The "wave of support for Mousavi", as it became known in Iran, primarily started among the students when a handful of them wound a green stripe around their wrists. Their numbers grew rapidly, and by the end of May most of the students throughout the country had the green stripe. Many female students with full Islamic "hijab" pinned the green stripe to their long Islamic scarves.

The "wave", however, rapidly went beyond the universities. Green became the symbol for Mousavi's supporters. Then came the turn of the "midnight rallies". Nearly two weeks before the June 12 election date, from 10 at night until three or four in the morning hundreds of thousands of Iranians in large and small cities gathered on the streets to support Mousavi. Fearing a crackdown by the security forces, not many people initially went out. But to their surprise, they saw no police or Basiji paramilitary militia or any other security forces. As the late-night rallies continued, more people joined them.

Gradually, the crowd began to chant anti-Ahmadinezhad slogans. The fact that the supreme leader directly or tacitly supported Ahmadinezhad didn't stop the crowd. Those nights acted as a crash course in politics for the younger participants. For more than four years, Ahmadinezhad had spoken without his audience having a chance to reply. Now it was the turn of the people to express their views on what the hard-line president had said and done during the past four years.

Then came the turn of the candidates' debates. For the first time in the life of the Islamic system, the four candidates held live 90-minute debates with one another. The first round, between Mousavi and Ahmadinezhad just ten days before elections, turned into the climax. That debate, watched by 50 million Iranians, made history. Ahmadinezhad embarked on his well-known tactic, arguing that everything that happened before he became president was wrong, inadequate, inefficient and incomplete; that on the nuclear issue the people who were in charge had given in to the wishes of the 5+1 and had halted enrichment and that the country's nuclear program had to all intents and purposes been stopped. He went on to claim that the rate of inflation had declined, unemployment figures had dropped, more foreign companies were investing in Iran than ever before and, in short, he had revolutionized everything.

For the first time, however, he was challenged by Mousavi on every aspect of his achievements. It was at this point that he went for his next tactic. Ever since becoming president, Ahmadinezhad has tried systematically to project an image of someone who has launched a crusade against leaders who had abused their power to gain wealth and power. This time he named Hashemi Rafsanjani and his family as well as another senior clerical figure as examples of the kind of corrupt but powerful figures that he had been fighting against during the past four years.

This time, however, the tactic of appearing like a hero who was bravely fighting corruption and powerful vested interests didn't work. Ahmadinezhad clearly lost the debate. He appeared as a demagogue who recognized no limits in destroying others while Mousavi appeared as an honest person who would not be so ruthless in achieving his ends. The debate convinced many Iranians who still had not decided whether or not to take part in the elections, to vote for Mousavi.

It was against this backdrop that the officially declared results angered millions of Iranians who had queued for hours to vote. The election was declared by the Iranian supreme leader as yet another heavy blow to the enemies of the Islamic Republic; he thanked Iranians for their heroic sacrifices. While the ayatollah was declaring the elections over, thousands of Iranian youth took to the streets to demonstrate against the results. For many who had voted for the first time, a new political dawn appears to have emerged.- Published 18/6/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of political science at Tehran University.

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