Tag: Iran

Iran’s Stalinesque Show Trials

Stalinism was dropped even by the Soviet Union when the murderous Joseph Stalin died, but it has never disappeared completely.  North Korea, for instance, mimics the bizarre personality cult promoted by the Soviet dictator.

Now Iran appears to be adopting the Stalinesque tactic of staging show trials, with “confessions” from the obviously brutalized accused.  Reports the Wall Street Journal:

On Sunday, reaction by Iranian newspapers and Web sites to the trials of some 100 detained opposition members, including a former vice president, was polarized as some raised questions about whether their confessions were coerced.

The trial by Tehran’s Revolutionary Court appears to be paving the way for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to secure his grip on power and cap a gradual takeover of Iran’s political landscape by hardliners. Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose government claimed victory in the disputed June 12 presidential elections, is to be inaugurated Monday for a second four-year term. Opposition leaders said the election was rigged.

Top reformist figures appeared in court Saturday looking disheveled and dazed. They sat in the front row wearing gray prison pajamas and plastic slippers without socks, in an apparent attempt to humiliate them in public. The reform leaders were unshaven and had lost weight.

Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a cleric and former vice president to former President Mohamad Khatami, appeared without his robe and turban. Mr. Abtahi, who should legally be tried at the special tribunal for clerics, clutched a piece of paper and took the stand to give an elaborate confession. He said that reform leaders had been plotting for years to take over the government and had vowed to stick together.

By putting its outrageous repression forward front and center, the regime–fronted if not controlled by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad–has delivered its own affirmative answer to the question whether the recent ballot was stolen.   Although the regime has sufficient coercive force to remain in power at the present, it has sacrificed any remaining legitimacy at home as well as abroad.  The oligarchy led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is likely to have an ever more difficult time fending off challenges within the governing elite as well as among the people.

Americans should wish the forces of liberty and democracy well.  There is little that the U.S. government, with an unsavory record of supporting repression in Iran, can do, other than ensure that Washington does not divert attention from the responsibility of the Tehran regime for the many problems facing the Iranian people.  But people around the nation and world can help publicize the struggle in Iran and provide Iranians with the tools of freedom, including freer access to the Internet.  The Iranian struggle against tyranny is one with which all lovers of liberty should identify.

Continuing Erosion of the Iranian Regime’s Legitimacy

The gravest threat to the survival of the repressive regime in Tehran may be the continuing attacks on its perceived legitimacy.  Part of the factional infighting undoubtedly reflects a simple power struggle.  However, religious principles also appear to be at stake.  A number of Muslim clerics are denouncing the authorities for their misbehavior.

For instance, Iranian cleric and blogger Mohsen Kadivar recently applied several Islamic principles to the Iranian government:

The fourth question concerns attempts by some to cite the protection of the Islamic state to justify suppressing people’s efforts to defend their own rights.

The response is that an Islamic state cannot be protected through violence.

The fifth question is about what Shari’a law says are the signs of suppressive guardianship.

The response is that a leader who fails to respect Shari’a law, promotes violence, and rejects the public’s demands is a clear sign of oppressive guardianship and that leader is oppressive. The recognition of those signs is the responsibility, firstly, of Islamic jurists (experts in religious law) and, secondly, of ordinary people.

His words alone will not topple Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and those behind and around him.  But as the regime’s moral foundation further erodes, the long-term possibility of significant changes in Tehran grows.

Americans should cheer for the advance of liberty in Iran.  But the U.S. government, with precious little credibility for promoting democracy in Iran, needs to stay far away.  The last thing Iranian human rights advocates need is for their struggle to become a contest between the Iranian and American governments instead of the Iranian government and Iranian people.

Biden’s Situational Sovereignty

Vice President Biden was on “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos yesterday talking about Israel bombing Iran:

STEPHANOPOULOS: But just to be clear here, if the Israelis decide Iran is an existential threat, they have to take out the nuclear program, militarily the United States will not stand in the way?

BIDEN: Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination, if they make a determination that they’re existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.

The vice president made this point three times.

I suppose it would have been tangential to point out that Biden’s view of sovereignty has not always been so robust. Or that he is effectively renouncing the international laws of war, which dictate what self-defense allows.  But Stephanopoulos might have at least acknowledged the irony of this particular exchange. Iran, the country being bombed in his question, is also a sovereign nation. Biden’s needlessly universal principle – U.S. deference in the face of a sovereign nation’s determination that it is in danger – would protect its right to build nuclear weapons. 

Biden is being overly broad to obscure the fact that he’s granting Israel special rights, of course. But it’s still worth pointing out that it’s a bad principle, if “not dictating” means never saying “bad idea.” When considering war, the opinions of other nations are generally worth knowing. Some of our European friends argued in 2002 that invading Iraq would not enhance our security, after all. Useful advice! Offering our opinions is perfectly consistent with a policy of military restraint.

The problem here goes beyond the principle though. We give Israel all sorts of aid. The F-16s and F-15s carrying out the bulk of the attack would be U.S.-made. They might pass through Iraqi airspace that the U.S. effectively controls. Historical U.S. support for Israel means that people around the world reasonably hold Americans responsible for what Israel does to Iran. Sooner or later, probably sooner, an Israeli attack on Iran would be likely to produce blowback, diplomatic or otherwise, that would damage us. Given that, our position should be that attacks on Iran are unacceptable, and would cost Israel our support.

For analysis on Israel’s ability to disable Iran’s nuclear programs, read Whitney Raas and Austin’s Long’s work.

Iraq’s Future Is Up to Iraqis

The U.S. is not yet out of Iraq, but American forces have pulled back from Iraqi cities.  Iraq’s future increasingly is in the hands of Iraqis.  And most Iraqis appear to be celebrating.

Reports the Washington Post:

This is no longer America’s war.

Iraqis danced in the streets and set off fireworks Monday in impromptu celebrations of a pivotal moment in their nation’s troubled history: Six years and three months after the March 2003 invasion, the United States on Tuesday is withdrawing its remaining combat troops from Iraq’s cities and turning over security to Iraqi police and soldiers.

While more than 130,000 U.S. troops remain in the country, patrols by heavily armed soldiers in hulking vehicles as of Wednesday will largely disappear from Baghdad, Mosul and Iraq’s other urban centers.

“The Army of the U.S. is out of my country,” said Ibrahim Algurabi, 34, a dual U.S.-Iraqi citizen now living in Arizona who attended a concert of celebration in Baghdad’s Zawra Park. “People are ready for this change. There are a lot of opportunities to rebuild our country, to forget the past and think about the future.”

On Monday, as the withdrawal deadline loomed, four U.S. troops were killed in the Iraqi capital, the military announced Tuesday. No details about the deaths were provided. Another soldier was killed Sunday in a separate attack.

The Bush administration never should have invaded Iraq.  The costs have been high: more than 4,000 dead American military personnel.  Tens of thousands more have been injured, many maimed for life.  Hundreds more military contractors and coalition soldiers have died.  And tens of thousands of Iraqis – certainly more than 100,000, though estimates above that diverge wildly. 

The U.S. has squandered hundreds of billions of dollars and the ultimate cost is likely to run $2 trillion or more, as the government cares for seriously injured veterans for the rest of their lives.  America’s fine fighting men and women have been stretched thin and America’s adversaries, most notably Iran, have been strengthened.  Yet another cause has been added to the recruiting pitch of hateful extremists seeking to do Americans and others harm.

Nevertheless, let us hope that Iraqis take advantage of the opportunity they now enjoy.  It will take enormous statesmanship and restraint to accommodate those of different faiths and ethnicities, forgive past crimes committed by Sunni and Shia forces, eschew violence for retaliation and revenge, resolve even bitter disagreements peacefully, and accept political defeat without resort to arms.

Other peoples who have suffered less have failed to surmount similar difficulties.  But it is no one’s interest, and especially that of the Iraqis, to lapse back into sectarian conflict and political tyranny.  Let us hope – and dare I suggest, pray? – that they prove up to the challenge.

Who Said “No Comment”?

In this morning’s Washington Post, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has some advice for the Obama administration regarding the protests in Iran:

[T]he reform the Iranian demonstrators seek is something that we should be supporting. In such a situation, the United States does not have a “no comment” option. Coming from America, silence is itself a comment — a comment in support of those holding power and against those protesting the status quo.

I just did a quick search on www.WhiteHouse.gov, and I did not find the words “no comment” as it pertains to the Iranian elections. I did, however, find two statements on the protests by President Obama:

  • Speaking to reporters following a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on June 15th, President Obama said:

I am deeply troubled by the violence that I’ve been seeing on television.  I think that the democratic process — free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent — all those are universal values and need to be respected.  And whenever I see violence perpetrated on people who are peacefully dissenting, and whenever the American people see that, I think they’re, rightfully, troubled.

and

I think it would be wrong for me to be silent about what we’ve seen on the television over the last few days. And what I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process, I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation…

and

[P]articularly to the youth of Iran, I want them to know that we in the United States do not want to make any decisions for the Iranians, but we do believe that the Iranian people and their voices should be heard and respected.

  • The following day, the president hosted South Korean President Lee  Myung-Bak. Despite the fact that they had a number of very urgent topics to discuss, President Obama took time to state that while it was “not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations,” for the U.S. president to be “meddling in Iranian elections,” he wished to repeat his remarks from the previous day:

[W]hen I see violence directed at peaceful protestors, when I see peaceful dissent being suppressed, wherever that takes place, it is of concern to me and it’s of concern to the American people. That is not how governments should interact with their people.

and

I do believe that something has happened in Iran where there is a questioning of the kinds of antagonistic postures towards the international community that have taken place in the past, and that there are people who want to see greater openness and greater debate and want to see greater democracy. How that plays out over the next several days and several weeks is something ultimately for the Iranian people to decide. But I stand strongly with the universal principle that people’s voices should be heard and not suppressed.

So, President Obama has not been silent, and he has never said “no comment.”

Judging from the text of his op-ed, Wolfowitz seems most frustrated that the Iranian election dispute might not prove a precursor to regime change in Iran on par with the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986 and the ascension of Boris Yeltsin in Russia in 1991.

Wolfowitz admits that no historical analogy is perfect, but he doesn’t dwell on what really differentiates the overthrow of Marcos in 1986 and the Yeltsin countercoup of 1991 from the situation today in Iran: a pattern of trust and amicable relations on the one hand, and an equally clear pattern of suspicion and hostility on the other.

In 1986, the United States had been supporting the Filipino government for roughly 40 years. No one could have painted Aquino and her spontaneous “people power” protests as the leading edge of a regime-change operation funded and choreographed by the CIA. When Ronald Reagan’s personal emissary, Sen. Paul Laxalt, communicated with Marcos privately, the message was crystal clear: time’s up.

In a similar vein, George H.W. Bush’s close ties to Mikhail Gorbachev, painstakingly cultivated for several years, built an atmosphere of trust that extended beyond Gorbachev’s personal circle of advisers. The United States had not been engaged during the Bush adminstration — and not even during the closing days of the Reagan administration, for that matter — in attempting to overthrow the Soviet government. The collapse came from within. When the counter-counter-revolutionaries attempted to take back power, Yeltsin never feared being tarred as an agent for the West. Instead, he sought out and embraced U.S. support. And yet, the most important communications between Washington and Moscow were conducted in private.

Contrast this conduct with what the neocons have done and would have us do. The Reagan and first Bush administrations engaged in “diplomacy”: back-channel communications, moral suasion, gentle pressure. The neocons have painstakingly sought to destroy the very concept, equating “diplomacy” with “appeasement.” Having succeeded in thwarting efforts to resolve the stand-off with Iraq by peaceful means, they got their war, and now they’ve moved on. They have since drifted off to the private sector and friendly think tanks from whence they can write op-eds on what to do next.

In truth, their efforts began years ago.

Mere weeks after the United States invaded Iraq, Richard Perle said publicly of neighboring Iran and any other country who would dare to oppose the United States: “You’re next.” Behind the scenes, the Iranians are reported to have approached the Bush administration in the spring of 2003 with an offer to negotiate an end to their nuclear program in exchange for normalized relations (Nicholas Kristof posted the docs on the NYT blog).

The Bush administration’s response? “No comment.” Instead, they effectively let Richard Perle do the talking for them. Within a few years, the small circle of reformers who had been willing to reach out to the United States were gone from power, replaced by Holocaust-denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Since then, pro-democracy advocates in Iran have had a simple message for the Americans who purport to be their saviors: butt out. Most notable among this group is Nobel-laureate Shirin Ebadi, who has been outspoken in calling the elections a fraud, but has been equally clear in urging American leaders not to anoint the Iranian reform movement as America’s choice. Ebadi has praised Obama’s approach. A more outspoken, or even hostile, posture by Washington would certainly evoke a counterreaction among fiercely nationalistic Iranians.

In short, the louder the neocons become in their braying for a free and fair counting of the election results, the less likely it is to occur. In their more candid moments, a few are willing to admit that they would prefer Ahmadinejad to Mousavi.

Before the election, Daniel Pipes told an audience at the Heritage Foundation (starting at 1:29:26 in the clip), “I’m sometimes asked who I would vote for if I were enfranchised in this election, and I think I would, with due hesitance, vote for Ahmadinejad.”

The reason, Pipes explained, is that he would “prefer to have an enemy who’s forthright and blatant and obvious, who wakes people up by his outlandish statements, than a slier version of that same policy as respresented by” Mousavi. “If you get someone…who is saying the nice things that people want to hear, then there’ll be a relaxation, which would be the wrong step for us.”

Max Boot sees things in a similar light. “In an odd sort of way,” wrote Boot on Commentary blog last Sunday:

[A] win for Ahmadinejad is also a win for those of us who are seriously alarmed about Iranian capabilities and intentions. With crazy Mahmoud in office — and his patron, Ayatollah Khameini, looming in the background — it will be harder for Iranian apologists to deny the reality of this terrorist regime.

This does make sense, “in an odd sort of way” — if that is all you care about. Mousavi, for example, was instrumental in restarting Iran’s nuclear program (it had been initiated by our ally the Shah in the 1970s). It would be logical to guess, therefore, that he won’t willingly give it up.

And given that he doesn’t carry Admadinejad’s baggage, he might be more capable of convincing outside powers to normalize relations with Iran, and to allow his country to continue with a peaceful uranium enrichment program in exchange for a pledge not to weaponize. This must frighten those who refuse to countenance an Iranian nuclear program on par with that of, for example, Japan.

Perhaps that is what this loud talk is really all about?

It is possible to view President Obama as a more credible messenger, given that he opposed the Iraq war from the outset and has shown a willingness to reach out to the Iranian people. Perhaps a full-throated, morally self-righteous, public address in support of Mousavi’s supporters might have tipped the scales in the right direction.

It seems more likely, however, that Obama’s patient, measured public response to recent events is well suited to the circumstances. As the president said earlier this week, Americans are right to feel sympathy for the Iranian protesters, and we should all be free to voice our sentiments openly. But it is incumbent upon policymakers to pursue strategies that don’t backfire, or whose unintended consequences don’t dwarf the gains that we are trying to achieve. In many cases, the quiet, private back channel works well. And if we discover that there is no credible back channel to Iran available, similar to those employed in 1986 and 1991, then we’ll all know whom to blame.

Cooperating against the Censors

One of the consequences of governments attempting to crack down on dissent is increasing cooperation among groups in different countries pushing for greater liberty and human rights.  For instance, some of the most important aid for Iranian protesters is coming from Chinese dissidents.

Reports Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times:

The unrest unfolding in Iran is the quintessential 21st-century conflict. On one side are government thugs firing bullets. On the other side are young protesters firing “tweets.”

The protesters’ arsenal, such as those tweets on Twitter.com, depends on the Internet or other communications channels. So the Iranian government is blocking certain Web sites and evicting foreign reporters or keeping them away from the action.

The push to remove witnesses may be the prelude to a Tehran Tiananmen. Yet a secret Internet lifeline remains, and it’s a tribute to the crazy, globalized world we live in. The lifeline was designed by Chinese computer engineers in America to evade Communist Party censorship of a repressed Chinese spiritual group, the Falun Gong.

Today, it is these Chinese supporters of Falun Gong who are the best hope for Iranians trying to reach blocked sites.

“We don’t have the heart to cut off the Iranians,” said Shiyu Zhou, a computer scientist and leader in the Chinese effort, called the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. “But if our servers overload too much, we may have to cut down the traffic.”

Unfortunately, the struggle against government repression remains a difficult one.  But the development of a global human rights community with members willing to help each other wherever they are is an extremely positive sign.

Twitter and Iran - It’s Not About the U.S. Government

It’s fascinating to watch developments in Iran via Twitter and other social media. (Notably, when I turned on the TV last night to look for Iran news from a conventional source, there was nothing to be found - just commercials and talking heads yapping about politics.)

It was laudable that Twitter delayed a scheduled outage to late-night Tehran time in order to preserve the platform for Iranian users, but contrary to a growing belief, it wasn’t done at the behest of the State Department. It was done at the behest of Twitter users.

Twitter makes that fairly (though imperfectly) clear on its blog, saying, “the State Department does not have access to our decision making process.”

As Justin Logan notes, events in Iran are not about the United States or U.S. policy. They should not be, or appear to be, directed or aided from Washington, D.C. Any shifts in power in Iran should be produced in Iran for Iranians, with support from the people of the world - not from any outside government.

People are free to speculate that the State Department asked Twitter to deny its involvement precisely to create the necessary appearances, but without good evidence of it, assuming so just reflects a pre-commitment that governments - not people and the businesses that serve them - are the primary forces for good in the world.