Tag: mahmoud ahmadinejad

Iran, Stable but Miserable

Since Hassan Rouhani assumed the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran in August of last year, the economic outlook for Iran has improved. When Rouhani took office, he promised three things: to curb the inflation which had become rampant under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to stabilize Iran’s currency (the Rial), and to start talks to potentially end the sanctions which have battered Iran since 2010. Rouhani has delivered on each of these promises. From this, one might assume that the Iranian economy, and the Iranian people, are headed towards better times.

Unfortunately, the Misery Index paints a different picture. The Misery Index is the sum of the inflation, interest, and unemployment rates, minus the annual percentage change in per capita GDP. It provides a clear picture of the economic conditions facing Iranians.

Iran’s Search for a “Master of the Economy”

Iran’s Guardian Council announced yesterday that former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been barred from Iran’s presidency poll—reportedly due to his old age and debilitating health. In recent weeks, speculation over a Rafsanjani comeback bid had spurred some optimism among Iranians who recognize that their broken economy desperately needed a jolt. Some Iranian voters have described him as a “master of the economy” and the solution to their economic woes. However, a closer look at Iran’s misery index shows just how fatally flawed this perception is.

There is little doubt that the economic policies of current president Mahmoud Ahmadenijad have been a disaster. Even before the United States and European Union imposed economic sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s economy was hardly in good shape.

For decades, the Iranian economy has been cobbled together by a coalition of conservative clerics and Revolutionary Guard commanders. The resulting bureaucratic monstrosity has employed mandates, regulations, price controls, subsidies, a great deal of red tape, and a wide variety of other interventionist devices. Not surprisingly, Iran ranks near the bottom—145th out of 183 countries—in the World Bank’s Doing Business 2013 Ranking, which measures the vitality of free markets and the ease of doing business.

You might wonder, with all this sand in the gears, how has the Iranian economy been able to sustain itself and grow (until recently)?  The answer is—you guessed it—oil.

Iranian Rhetoric: Heard and Unheard

Commentators who believe that Iran would nuke another nation unprovoked tend to infer the clerical regime’s future intentions from its hyper-inflated rhetoric. The problem with this logic is that statements from its leadership often get cherry-picked.

Anti-Israeli diatribes made by Iran’s fiery-tongued President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are typically taken at their word, while statements made by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s top leader, go virtually unnoticed. For example, last month Khamenei repeated his country’s vow not to seek nuclear weapons. He called their possession a “sin,” “useless,” and “dangerous.” Last Thursday, Khamenei reportedly praised President Obama’s recent comment that he saw a “window of opportunity” to use diplomacy to resolve the nuclear dispute.

If Iran’s rhetoric is as reflective of its intentions as some lead us to believe, then the Obama administration should applaud these rare and positive overtures.

Indeed, Meir Dagan, head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency for eight years, last night on 60 Minutes declared, “The regime in Iran is a very rational regime.” When pressed to elaborate, he said, “No doubt that the Iranian regime is maybe not exactly rational based on what I call Western-thinking, but no doubt they are considering all the implications of their actions.”

That assessment echoes the chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, when he told Fareed Zakaria, “…[W]e are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor.  And it’s for that reason, I think, that we think the current path we’re on is the most prudent path at this point.”

The administration should be highlighting such statements publicly, especially to members of Congress in order to dampen their ever increasing pro-war hysteria.

Lula’s Diplomatic Embarrassment in Honduras

One of the big losers from yesterday’s successful election in Honduras has been Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who demonstrated that under his presidency, Brazil is not ready to play a positive leadership role in the hemisphere.

Not only did Lula seem to be complicit in smuggling deposed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya into the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa—an irresponsible move that risked the possibility of major confrontations and bloodshed in that country—but he stubbornly refuses to recognize yesterday’s election as legitimate.

Lula’s grandstanding has nothing to do with a supposed commitment to democracy, of course. After all he continues to lavish praise on the Castro brothers’ dictatorship in Cuba, has said that Hugo Chávez is the best president Venezuela has had “in one hundred years” and was one of the first world leaders in congratulating Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s blatant rigged election in Iran. Indeed, the same week he announced his refusal to recognize the elections in Honduras, he gave Ahmadinejad a warm welcoming in Brasilia.

Some had hoped that due to its size and recent assertiveness in world affairs, Brazil could play a constructive role in Latin American affairs. It’s quite clear that this won’t happen under Lula’s watch.

Instead, Lula continues to be much more responsible on domestic matters—supporting market democracy in Brazil—and reckless in foreign affairs. Or, as Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner says, a sort of Dr. Jekyll y Mr. Hyde.

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.

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.