Posts Tagged 'Ahmedinejad'

Will Israel reassess its security strategies?

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft

Israel, with its legitimacy disputed in its region, drives vital political dynamics in the Middle East. All contending factions in the neighbouring countries relate to Israel and its policies, directly or indirectly, one way or the other. The region is now undergoing dramatic change in its political landscape.  As a result, traditional policies no longer work, in the sense that they fail to achieve intended effects, and may even have turned counterproductive. Will Israel reassess its security strategies?
Inevitably.
Israeli security strategies have been threefold:
•    uphold legitimacy as a democratic, Jewish state,
•    project superior power,
•    deter and, when perceived necessary, preempt attack.
There are currently two major challenges to these Israeli security strategies: Iran, a threat aggravated by its nuclear program, and the emerging regional power of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Power versus legitimacy
To explore the changing circumstances of Israel I will draw on the ideas of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Henry Kissinger, who, as professor and central policy advisor to President Nixon, became perhaps the foremost theorist and practitioner of diplomacy in modern times, in the sense of developing an overarching historical thesis on the relationships between states, while he exploited options and forged deals. In an interview with Der Spiegel on President Obama’s foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East, he reiterated his two requirements to stable and peaceful relations between countries: First of all a balance of power must prevent one country from overthrowing the existing order, but, secondly, to be stable, those parties to such an order must perceive it as basically just. None of these conditions are present in Israel’s relations with its region, but below I argue that the situation may evolve in this direction, conditional upon smarter moves by Israel in adapting to changing circumstances.

Israel’s problem
In the absence of political acceptance in the region of its existence, Israel has primarily staked its security on the projection of superior power.  Power projection is mainly effective against regimes controlled by one leader or limited ruling clique. But this is precisely the decisive condition that is now changing in Israel’s region as people take to the streets. They are not intimidated by power, unlike the dictators they strive to overthrow, but driven by a quest for justice.

Against Iran, which, pending the victory of the Green Revolution, remains a centrally controlled dictatorship, the traditional strategy of power projection is still the only effective strategy. But in relating to the Arab Spring, it has lost its edge to the point of becoming counterproductive – to the degree that people in the streets succeed in empowering themselves. Towards the Arab public opinion only shaping their perception of legitimacy will work.

Israel’s legitimacy undermined by Israeli policies
Israel has undermined its twofold legitimacy, as a democratic and as a Jewish state. The underlying problem is its failure to merge the Jewish identity with the ethnic, religious and cultural pluralism of a modern democratic state. This failure to forge a modern state identity in Israel causes a basic problem of attitudes towards Arabs under its rule, aggravated by the occupation of the Palestinians following the war of 1967. These attitudes towards Arabs have eroded the democratic legitimacy, while the Jewish identity has been undermined by imposing Israeli rule on a large number of non-Jews. The Israeli historian, Tom Segev, describes in his book “1967. Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East” how evolving policies, not an original design, resulted in the current state of affairs, which is incompatible with the dual basis for the state of Israel, modern democracy and Jewish identity.

Balance of power changing
It was the new sense of power, legacy of the victory of 1967, that according to Tom Segev deluded the Israelis to make short-sighted choices, neglecting the long-term effects that created the current Israeli predicament.  As a consequence of the changes in Israel’s regional circumstances, the balance of power is also changing. Therefore, the internal political pressure in Israel, that has driven the occupation and the boycott of Gaza, is losing weight relative to the new external pressure; this must be the emerging perception of the power equation in the Israeli political elite, or so we must assume. The traditional strategy of power projection towards Arabs is becoming less effective, perhaps even counterproductive.

Israel needs to avoid long-term effects of mistakes
The current occupation, despite the overwhelming power behind it, will not be politically sustainable in the larger strategic picture now emerging. As a consequence, Israel is now, without an effective Palestinian state, set on a course that, if not corrected, will result in a new pluralistic state in which the Jews will be in a minority, and where the new majority will not, in the predominant Israeli view, share Israel’s democratic values. Under the current political trends the new Arab majority in Israel, which would be formed by the current minority of 20 % if joined by the Arabs on the West-Bank now under occupation, will likely come under strong influence from the Muslim Brotherhood and its off-shot Hamas. In the perception of the Israeli political elite, Israel’s dual legitimacy would then erode. Israeli fear that such an altered Israel would no longer be democratic in the Western sense because they feel convinced that current Israel’s western democratic principles are not shared by the Muslim Brotherhood, especially the equality of women and acceptance of political dissent. Nor would Jews, with the trauma of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, feel safe in a state they no longer control. (In fact, according to the theories of the psychologist Philip Zimbardo, on the dynamics that cause humans to commit evil, the strong hostility Israel engenders could conceivably, in case power shifted hands, lead again to genocide.)

Israel needs regional allies against Iran
Where traditional power projection is still appropriate, the changed political circumstances of Israel make greater legitimacy in its region imperative. As Kissinger points out, without a shared perception of legitimacy, power will not produce stable relations. Israel will need political and probably military backing also from the regional powers to effectively and sustainably contain Iran, its overriding foreign policy concern also without Iranian nuclear arms because of Iran’s declared revolutionary vision aimed at Israel.
If Israeli politicians see a need to adapt policies to altered circumstances, they could take a clue from Kissinger. It was by his initiative to improve relations with China that the United States neutralized the potentially disrupting consequences of withdrawal from Vietnam. In the same vein, Israel will need to reduce current political tensions to forge regional alliances against Iran to off-set adverse effects of the changing political landscape. (At some point reduced tensions could even lead to improved relations with Iran. More about this in a later blog input.)
In forging regional alliances, the unresolved issues of the occupation and the boycott of Gaza will remain obstacles to those potential allies that share Israel’s concern over Iran. In Israel’s old ally Turkey popular resentment of Israeli policies limits the room for manoeuvre of the Government, should they find that concerns over Iran supersede resentment of Israeli policies. In Israel’s tacit ally Saudi Arabia, its ruling elite as well as its public opinion resent strongly what they perceive as Israel’s refusal to consider the Arab peace plan the King initiated, a sentiment shared by the other Gulf States.
Perhaps the single most important political actor bearing on Israel’s security interests now is the Muslim Brotherhood, an emerging regional political force based on political mobilization, because this movement wields significant power by its influence on Arab minds. But whatever the leadership could be persuaded to agree to, they will also have a limited room for manoeuvre towards Israel as long as the Brotherhood’s supporters resent so strongly Israeli attitudes towards Arabs, most blatantly manifested in the occupation and the boycott of Gaza.
For a balance of power in Israel’s region to be stable in Kissinger’s sense, alliances need to be more than tacit, transient, circumstantial or instrumental. Only a foundation of a shared sense of justice and perceived mutual benefits can provide peace and security. Perceptions and emotions shape motivation.
But should luck run out while a state of confrontation persists, even the coolest of minds cannot prevent everything from going terribly wrong; this was the lesson drawn from the Cuban Missile Crisis by one of crisis’ central actors, Robert McNamara, President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defence.

The risks of fallibility
Henry Kissinger, in the interview in Der Spiegel, described Obama as a “chess player”, Kissinger’s professed ideal for a foreign policy operator. In this ideal, Kissinger unfortunately fails to grasp the limits to rational analyses and control, limits described by the Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman, as I have set out in a previous blog input. Kissinger therefore fails to address the weakness in his balance of power ideal, how it can maintain under stress the stability which is its purpose. Kissinger notoriously fails to address the close call of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in his own diplomacy in the Middle East in the aftermath of the 1973 war he acted more like a poker player, pressuring the Soviets by raising the US nuclear alert.
Kissinger’s Middle East brinksmanship of 1973 is an analogy to the current confrontation with Iran. The requirements of diplomatic pressure are seen to need the option of war to be credible. The problem for crisis management is that the path to building diplomatic pressure by making the threat of war more credible is the same as to actual war. When the parties to such a confrontation edge towards the brink of war, they could by inadvertence, if not by design, tip over the edge and find themselves in a situation immeasurable worse than what they set out to avoid.
Kissinger, in the interview, stated that the concept of victory in war is now meaningless.  There would be no victors in a war between Israel and Iran, only losers. Kissinger has joined other central actors from the Cold War in calling an end to all nuclear arms since they serve no purpose, but remain an existential threat. As a step towards realizing this vision in the region, trust must be established that no new nuclear arms are in the process.

From power projection to consensus building
But Kissinger still fails to address the basic risks inherent in any power thinking, be it by “chess players” or “poker players”: the ramifications if one “player” tries to outsmart or call the bluff of a posturing opponent.  Everybody could easily find themselves without bearings in situations resembling what Clausewitz described as “the fog of war”. Kissinger’s basic assumption is flawed, the primacy of the power equation, one nation’ power relative to others. Today, almost all national interests can only be protected in cooperation with other countries as self-motivated partners, while conflict entails huge costs to all, especially opportunity costs.
Kissinger’s work “Diplomacy” of 1994, setting out to summarize his ideas, makes his flaw clear. The book starts out with the peace negotiations following the end of the Thirty Year War resulting in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, in hindsight seen as the starting point for the modern international system of nation states pursuing national interests to be mutually checked by a balance of power. Kissinger’s hero was the French leader Cardinal Richelieu for his adept exploitation of this principle, then a novelty, to pursue the national interests of France. But Kissinger, in his analysis of the innovative principles driving the negotiations leading up to the agreement of Westphalia, commits a serious omission: It was not the novel principle of Richelieu, pursuance of national interest by power, that prevailed as much as another novel principle, consensus-building diplomacy, driven by the unassuming Trautmanndorf, the emissary of the weaker party, the Austrian emperor.

From confrontation to cooperation
Israel today, dominated by the spiritual heirs of Richelieu, probably needs to find another Trautmanndorf. He bequeathed the heritage of consensus by compromise, a necessary first step towards effective cooperation in joint interest, such as the current European cooperation.
In fact, only cooperation and economic integration along the European model can solve the really serious security problem in the region, economic stagnation and unemployment. Especially young unemployed men are a ticking bomb in any society. Only effective economic cooperation can prevent despair, desperation and aggression caused by a feeling of hopelessness.  To cope with this security threat, Israel could, in the spirit of Trautmanndorf rather than Richelieu, take the European Union’s agreement with those non- members that qualify for membership, the European Economic Area, a proven instrument for peace, security and prosperity, and suggest to neighbouring countries and the Palestinian Authority that relevant parts of it could be applied selectively and gradually. That could be a beginning to a new regional process that in everybody’s interest.

Israel’s options
What can Israel now do to escape the long-term effects of the mistakes of 1967 that Tom Segev points out? In this perception of the current predicament, the only option available to Israel is to exercise its right to terminate the occupation of the West Bank. (Israel already did so in Gaza.) In the same vein, the single most effective move to counter Iranian ability to conduct “asymmetric warfare” in Lebanon would be to reach an agreement with the post-Assad regime in Syria over the Golan, to deprive Iran of its channel to Hezbollah.
Kissinger’s point that those parties to the political order must perceive it as basically just, or legitimate, has important implications for both Israeli and western considerations of strategies in the altered circumstances: It matters what the Muslim Brotherhood, the emerging regional political power, thinks of Israel and the West, perhaps even more than what Israel and the West think of them. They are today the most effective channel for influencing the perceptions of the new emerging elite that will shape Israel’s vicinity.

Conclusion
Israel, in its inevitable reassessment of its security strategies, may lament the passing of the old dictators for the stability they provided, but indulging in such counterfactual thoughts, which some Israeli seem to do, remains an exercise in futility.  Within Israeli power, however, is the ability to influence perceptions among the emerging Arab political elites of options in relating to Israel, on the continuum between confrontation and cooperation.

Implications of 2012 Parliamentary Elections in Iran

By: Yadullah Shahibzadeh

Iran’s parliament elections are scheduled to take place in early March 2012.[1] Last two parliament elections were engineered by Iran’s Guardian Council of the Constitution in such a way that conservative forces close to Mahmud Ahmadinezhad won the majority of the seats in the parliament. Disqualification of hundreds of reform oriented candidates in the previous parliament elections and the suspicious results of 2009 presidential election convinced reform oriented forces close to Iran’s former president Mohammad Khatami, to stay away from the debates on 2012 parliament elections. While conservative political organizations and politicians supporting Ahamadinezhad in the 2009 presidential elections are preparing themselves for the coming elections they express their concern over the consequences of eventual absence of reform oriented forces in the elections which may put popular legitimacy of the political system in danger.[2] The absence of reform oriented forces in the election would certainly result in low voter turnout, something the Islamic Republic has tried to avoid throughout its history even though it has not always been able to handle the consequences of high voter turnouts as the outcomes of the 2009 presidential election have shown. The 2009 presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi who contested the results of the election are now under house-arrest and many politicians and political activists who supported them in their presidential campaign have been sentenced to prison and their newspapers and organizations closed down. Right now, reform oriented forces led by Khatami are united behind the demands he put forward as a condition of their participation in the elections according to which all political prisoners must be released, freedom of expression and assembly must be protected, and finally free and fair elections must be guaranteed by the government.[3] Since last year, Khatami reiterated these demands several times but has not received any positive response from the conservatives in power. The reluctance of the reform oriented forces to be engaged in the debates on the coming elections has irritated veteran conservative figures who assume that the reform oriented forces may pursue undercover electoral strategies in the elections. According to this supposedly secrete strategy they will not participate in the elections officially but would select and support candidates declared by the Guardian Council as qualified candidates provided they follow a reform oriented politics in the parliament.[4]  The absence of the reform oriented forces from the coming elections makes the efforts of the conservative forces with their meetings, debates and negotiations to form a joint list of candidates in the coming elections to look like a worthless effort since the elections seem to lack real electoral competition. While the absence of a real electoral opponent should have made conservative forces to expect an easy electoral victory, it makes them more cynical and has intensified their divisions and inner fighting. At the moment, there are three conservative sub-factions expecting to win the majority of the seats in the new parliament. Traditional conservatives alliance the United Front of Principalists (jebheye motahed-e osulgarayan) led by the current president of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Mahdavi Kkani, the neo-conservative radical forces, which paved the way for Ahamdinezhad’s  presidency in 2005 and 2009, in the Resistance Front (jebheye paidari) led by Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi and finally supporters of Ahmadinezhad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaiy referred to as deviators (monhatefin) by their conservative rivals.[5]

The traditional conservatives believe they would benefit from participation of reform oriented forces in the elections, because it would restore the popular legitimacy the state enjoyed but has been seriously damaged in the aftermath of 2009 presidential election and force Ahmadinezhad’s allies to obey the majority rule within the conservative faction which they have ignored in the previous elections since 2005. But popular legitimacy is a strange word for Ahamdinezhad and his neo-conservative allies whether in the Resistance Front or among those backing Rahim Mashaiy. They both prefer to get rid of reform oriented candidates at all costs.

The traditional conservative faction has good reason to worry about unpredicted consequences of its internal rivalry and the informal support of reform oriented forces to little known reform oriented parliamentary candidates. In the case of a unified conservative list of candidates, the Guardian Council would have an easy job to disqualify unwanted candidates but it might be unable to perform its function satisfactorily when conservatives forces enter the elections with different lists of candidates, because in that case unknown reform oriented candidates cannot be easily recognized, classified and disqualified. There is a chance, the conservatives assume, that as a consequence of their internal confusion the reform oriented forces come out victorious from the elections without compromising their demands as a condition for their electoral participation. Unlike presidential elections in which voters distinguish candidates according to their political affiliations and in terms of their reformist or conservative approach, parliament elections entail many regional and local interests and concerns. For instance, there is an elite competition between Arabs and non-Arabs in the province of Khuzestan which has been exploited by conservatives close to Ahmadinezhad and Mohsen Rezaiy, former commanders of the Revolutionary Guard, in the previous elections and it will be exploited in the forthcoming elections as well. While the former can mobilize Arab voters behind Arab candidates in the south-west of the province, the latter would invest his political influence in the north-east of the province to mobilize non-e Arab voters behind his own candidates. With regard to the split within the conservative faction in this province, reform oriented forces may support Arab or non-Arab candidates advocating local causes and would like to join the reform oriented politics. The political scene in the province of Bushehr is friendlier for such reform oriented electoral maneuvering since the local public sphere in this region is dominated by local intellectuals and political activists who are unanimous in their support for democratic reforms on a local and national scale. Local intellectuals and political activists in this region would support reform oriented candidates since they can transmit their voice and discuss local grievances in the parliament and force governments to take the interests of their province and cities into consideration.[6] The current representatives of Bushehr in the parliament are supportive of reform oriented city councils and local non-governmental organizations and raise their voice against central government’s policies in the region. So it is more likely that local intellectuals and political activists in this region give their support to, at least, two current parliament members if they stand as parliament candidate and are qualified by the Guardian Council.[7]

 

 

EU sanctions against Iran

By: Annette Wolden

Since 2003 Iran has not been fulfilling its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) obligations. In response to the controversies around the Iranian nuclear program, the UN announced its first round of sanctions against Iran in 2006. New rounds of sanctions have since been announced in 2007 and 2008. The passing of the forth round, the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSC) 1929 on 9 June 2010, was partly a result of the uncovering of a new nuclear facility in Qom in 2009.

 

After the announcement of the new UN sanctions, the EU declared that it too would be imposing sanctions on Iran, based on the UN sanctions. However, according to sources, the EU sanctions go even further in targeting Iran’s nuclear program and in preventing investments in Iran’s oil and gas sector. According to the Council of the European Union’s press release, the Council adopted on 26.07.10 “a Decision implementing the measures contained in UNSC 1929 as well as accompanying measures, with a view to supporting the resolution of all outstanding concerns regarding Iran’s development of sensitive technologies in support of its nuclear and missile programs, through negotiation.”[1] The press release further states that “the aim of the EU is to achieve a comprehensive and long-term settlement which would rebuild international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, while respecting Iran’s legitimate rights to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy under the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty.”

 

Officials said the package was “by some ways the most far-reaching sanctions adopted by the EU against any country”.[2] The sanctions focus on preventing oil and gas investment, stopping dealings with Iranian banks and insurance companies, and stemming financial transfers. What has been described by some as the hardest-hitting element of the sanctions, is the move to prohibit new investment in and technical assistance to Iran’s refining, liquefaction and liquefied natural gas sectors which are a mainstay of its energy-based economy. The sanctions are intended to put financial pressure on Iran, which is the world’s fifth largest crude oil exporter but has little refining capacity and has to import about 40 percent of its gasoline needs for domestic consumption. According to Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, most of the sectors that have been targeted in the EU sanctions are ones over which Europeans have a substantial leverage.[3]

 

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast reacted to the passage of EU sanctions stating that “these sanctions will not help in resuming talks and will not affect Iran’s determination to defend its legitimate right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program”.[4] According to EU officials the sanctions will be the end for international companies operating in Iran.

 

By targeting the energy sector, the EU sanctions will have economic implications for Iran. The UN sanctions have already affected Iran’s ability to export oil. OPEC statistics show that Iran’s crude oil export has declined by 8.5% since 2005.[5] The sanctions have also led to a market shift, where Asia has become one of the largest markets for Iranian exports, rising from 23% of Iran’s total oil exports in 1995 to 36% in 2009. Exports to Europe made up 47% of the total exports in 1995, but only 25% in 2009, even before the implementation of the new EU sanctions.[6] European refiners still buy at least 238,000 barrels per day (bpd) from Iran, down from 608,000 bpd in 2008, while Asian refiners take roughly 1.4 million bpd.[7]

 

The reasoning behind the EU sanctions was to increase pressure for a diplomatic solution after the nuclear negotiations stalled last year. New negotiations were to be held from November 11-17. However, an adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated on the 31.10.10 that Iran would not discuss its nuclear program at talks with global powers.[8] In addition, Iran fueled the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear plant earlier in the week.[9] These actions both contributed to adding fresh doubt to the chances of a negotiated end to Iran’s standoff with the West.

 

 

 

 


Did the Visit to Lebanon Refresh Ahmadinezhad’s Memory?

By: Yadullah Shahibzadeh

Two weeks ago, after a long wait, Ahmadinejad paid his first state visit to Lebanon. 7 years earlier, in 2003 Mohammad Khatami was the last Iranian president to visit Lebanon. He was also the first Iranian president to visit this country. Ahmadinezhad’s and Khatami’s visit to Lebanon took place in the same international and regional political scenery. According to the US and European powers and their regional allies Iran was, is and will be a danger to peace and security in the region. However, Ahmadinezhad and Khatami visits to Lebanon represented two totally different political environments in Iran. While all significant political forces in Iran recognized Khatami’s mandate as Iran’s president without hesitation since he was elected in a landslide and an undisputed presidential election, the legality and legitimacy of Ahmadinezhad’s presidency have been disputed by reform oriented faction and millions of Iranians since the 2009 presidential election. While Khatami’s visit to Lebanon symbolized the friendship and cooperation of two political forces (reform oriented faction in Iran and Hezbollah) whose political power was achieved through democratic rules, poplar support and electoral constituency, Ahamadinezhad’s visit to Lebanon was no more than performance of a ritual to remind the regional and international players that Iran and Hezbollah support each other no matter what. While Khatami’s visit signified the correlation of the state and popular sovereignty for both Lebanon and Iran and thus justified their resistance to the hegemony of foreign powers imposed by military force as well as economic and political sanctions, Ahmadinezhad’s visit represented the Iranian president’s  paradoxical approach to the state and popular sovereignty. Ahmadinezhad’s government has disfranchised many Iranian politicians who have been the most passionate supporters of Hezbollah and its resistance against the Israeli occupation since the early 1980s and the genuine critics of the American hegemony in the region since the Iranian revolution. That is why Ahmadinezhad’s visit to Lebanon may have caused discomfort amongst the Hezbollah leadership whose main supporters have been among the reform oriented faction. Mohammad Reza Khatami(not to be mistaken for his brother, Iran’s ex-president), the former leader of the Participation Front that held the majority of the Iranian parliament in 2000-2004,  wrote an open letter to Hassan Nassrollah the leader of Hezbollah while Ahamadinezhad was in Lebanon. He wrote that Iranians expect that the leader of Hezbollah ‘ask the jailers of Imam [Khomeini]’s friends to stop oppression in Iran and ask them do for their own nation what they which for Lebanese nation in general and Shia people in particular.’[1] Mohammad Reza Khatami reminds the leader of Hezbollah that Ahamdineznad cannot be sincere in his support for the Lebanese resistance against the Israeli tyranny while Iranian people are persistently tyrannized by his government.[2] The former leader of the Participation Front believes that he has every reason for writing such a letter to Nasrollah because the reform oriented faction invested all its democratic credibility in Iran to support Hezbollah and the democratic process in Lebanon while Mohammad Khatami was in power. At the time Khatami visited Lebanon, in addition to the presidency, the reform oriented faction dominated the parliament and the local councils in undisputed elections.  At that time nobody had heard about Ahmadinezhad in Iran let alone the region. Bur few days before his visit to Lebanon, Khatami’s government held the most democratic election since the Iranian revolution. Thanks to the low turnout in Tehran’s local election and the division amongst reform oriented political forces, an unknown list of candidates supported by the revolutionary guard won the local elections in Tehran and appointed Ahamadinezhad as the capital’s mayor and fabricated him, not without the help of Western media, into a political phenomenon in the entire region, after he became Iran’s president in 2005. By means of 2003 local elections the reform oriented faction in Iran was hoping to show that what the region needed was more than a ‘democracy’ designed by the American neo-conservatives, guaranteed by political hegemony and military supremacy of the US and its allies in the region in order to secure their economic interests, but democracy in the real sense to serves the common good of the people of the region.[3] However, the result of the most democratic election in Iran was the empowerment of an anti-democratic political force, the Iranian neo-conservatives that used democratic rules to ascend to power, and then suspended its function. Ahmadinezhad who has represented the Iranian neo-conservatives ever since, knows very well that without Khatami’s democratic reforms and his effort to inaugurate local elections he had no chance to ascend to power in Iran. However, he would like to forget these facts. This is why his government attempts to get rid of all the signs that remind him, how he did ascend to power. Only few days before his visit to Lebanon, his government expelled the majority of the members of Ahvaz city council, the provincial capital of Khuzestan, and hence dissolved the council.[4] A member of the council who had received most of the votes in the 2007 local elections was arrested when he attempted to expose the misuse of power and corruption in the local government in a press conference.[5] Ahmadinezhad’s government suspended the Ahvaz council because its members still believed that as a popularly elected branch of the state the council should not surrender to the illegal pressure and dictates of the government.

At the time of his visit to Lebanon, Khatami defended a consistent democratic argument. Khatami’s rejection of the US military presence to impose its political hegemony in the region, his defense of the political rights of the Lebanese Shia, his support for Hezbollah which defended the sovereignty of Lebanese state against the Israeli occupation were consistent with his own pro-democracy efforts in Iran. On the contrary, Ahamadinezhad’ critique of  the US and Israel for imposing their own will on the people of Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East is in contradiction with his persistent attempts to impose his own will, and that of his militarized government on Iranian people through undemocratic means. 

 


[3] When democracy in the Persian Gulf region and the entire Middle East is reduced to some of its functions, ‘good government’ and little ‘human rights’, it becomes very natural to maintain peace and security in this region through militarization of the entire region by selling tens of billions of dollars military equipments to states in which politics as the empirical fact of democracy has never occurred.

 

The Implications of the New Election Law in Iran

By: Yadullah Shahibzadeh

A few weeks ago the Iranian parliament passed a new election law on simultaneous presidential and local elections. This new law has two obvious outcomes. The first outcome of the new law is postponement of the expected local elections in the early 2011 for two years. The second outcome of the election law is that the current members of the local councils keep their seat until June 2013.[1]

The main argument supporting the parliament decision concerning the new election law was that frequent elections in Iran generate unnecessary political excitement and extreme politicization in the Iranian society and the political system. According to this argument the ‘over-politicization’ of the political system has been the main cause of the underperformance of the executive branch.

Despite the serious political dispute which started since the 2009 presidential elections neither the reform oriented minority in the parliament nor did the leaders of the opposition such as Mousavi and Karubi oppose the suspension of the 2011 local elections. In fact the new election law had little to do with the political crisis that followed the last presidential election. The silence of the reform oriented political forces on the issue seems to indicate their indifference to the elections or their distrust in any election that the current government might hold.

One expects that Ahamdinezhad’s government supports the new election law and its consequence namely the delay in the local elections which could give his government more space to continue its work without unexpected political excitements which could pose a threat to his government. But, surprisingly he opposed the new election law.[2] Why did Ahmadinezhad oppose a law which seemed to have deprived his opponents another opportunity to assemble their forces and challenge his government in every single community throughout Iran?

In fact Ahamdinezhad had no problem with the simultaneous presidential and local elections.[3] His main problem was with the continuation of the current councils for two more years. He hoped to get rid of the rest of his opponents in the local councils. Ahamdinezhad is well aware that the absolute majority of the members of the local councils in Iran are not his supporters. The current members of the councils belong either to the reform oriented forces or to the major moderate or pragmatic tendencies within the conservative faction. And now with the new election arrangement he has to live with them until his turn in office is over.

The disagreement between the Ahmadinezhad government on one side and the parliament and the Expediency Council on other side on the new election law is another expression of the political conflict which is going on within the conservative faction. While according to the new law the term of current councils is extended to 2013, Ahmadinezhad insisted on holding local elections as planned in the early 2011 even though the elected members of the councils had only two years to sit in the councils.

The decision to pass the new election law which includes postponing of the 201l local elections implies the distrust of the parliament and the Expediency Council in Ahmadinezhad’s government to hold a fair and free election by the accepted standards of electoral competition in the Islamic Republic. It seems that after the dispute over the 2009 presidential election results these institutions of the Islamic Republic cannot trust the Ahmadinezhad government to hold another election since they are afraid that instead of competitive local elections his government delivers an election with a surprising result in favor of his own government.

It seems that Ahmadinezhad has several reasons for his dissatisfaction with the local councils. He may consider these new institutions a threat to his authoritarian politics since the local councils remind him of the little support he has among the local population in general and among the local elite in particular. There are various concrete reasons for Ahmadinezhd’s lack of support in the local communities.

His government has a total disregard for local opinion and the expectations of the local elite. For instance, after his presidency in 2005, his government appointed a provincial governor for the southern province of Bushehr. Though the governor was conservative by orientation he received the support of the local elite. But this governor was not considered a loyal supporter of Ahmadinezhad, so he was replaced by a commander of the revolutionary guard in the summer of 2008.[4]

The reason for the replacement of a governor who received solid support of the local elite with a commander of the revolutionary guard seems to have become clear after the 2009 presidential election results. Here is a symptomatic question which can be applicable to any other province or region in Iran: Can we find a connection between the results of the 2009 presidential election in the pro-reform region of Bushehr and the replacement of a conservative but seemingly disloyal governor with a commander of the revolutionary guard?

[1] Khaney-e Melat, Khabar Gozariy-e Majles Shoray-e Eslami, 04.08.2010

[2] http://www.aftabnews.ir/vdcfxjdyew6dxva.igiw.html

[3] http://www.tabnak.ir/fa/pages/?cid=11919

[4] http://www.nasimjonoub.com/sardabir/showblog.asp?id=188

The fear of a Shia axis

By: Bjørn Olav Utvik

An idea is afloat in the Arab world and beyond that a Shia axis is growing in strength and influence. It reached one high point in the aftermath of Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006, when Hasan Nasrallah and Mahmud Ahmadinezhad scored highest on the list of important leaders in the Arab world in a survey carried out by Zogby’s. Nasrallah and his Iranian backers were carried high on a wave of popular anger against Israel and its Western supporters. More than anything the Lebanese Hezbollah stood forth as a movement that time and again had shown that, uniquely among Arabs thus far, it could hold its own in a military confrontation with Israel.

The reaction from the Arab capitals was the forging of an image of a sinister Shia challenge, and the pouring out of literature depicting the Shia as an age-old enemy of the majority Sunni Muslims.

In addition to Iran and Hezbollah the emerging axis supposedly consisted of the Shia parties dominating the new political set-up in Iraq, many of whom had spent long years of exile in Teheran, and of Syria and  Hamas.

There are severe problems with this.

To the extent that the parties mentioned constitute an axis in the sense of exhibiting a degree of solidarity among them on the regional scene, something which is highly contestable in the case of the Iraqi Shia groups, religion is hardly the base of this alliance. While strong religious and ideological bonds exist between the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran, whose Revolutionary Guard helped set up the organisation in the first place in the early 1980s, no ideological love is lost between the Iranians and the staunchly secular Syrian regime. The fact that many Syiran leaders have  a family background from the minority Alawi population, who adhere to a theologically obscure Shia sect, does hardly make them religious bedfellows with the leaders in Teheran. Their ideology is secular Arab nationalism, and the religious beliefs of their sect are very far removed from those entertained in the clerical seminaries of Qom in Iran. As for the Palestinian Hamas it is distinctly a Sunni movement. All this means that the so-called Shia axis is really a set of alliances dictated by more or less overlapping political objectives that have preciously little to do with religion. Most supposed partners in the axis have a common enemy in Israel and seek allies against it  where they can be found. But one should be careful with the role of Iran here. Despite the flamboyant anti-Israeli rhetoric of Ahmadinezhad Iran is obviously the least directly affected by Israeli power politics. Iran’s prime concern is to seek allies against the dominance in the area of the United States and its Arab allies. No better cause to champion then than the struggle against Israel, a role abdicated by the Arab regimes but deeply resonant with the feelings of the Arab masses (while on the home front the Iranian people remains more aloof).

What, then, is behind the scaremongering from some Arab capitals?

At one level it reflects a fear of the growth of internal opposition, more often than not led by Islamists. Movements like Hezbollah and Hamas are seen as exerting a dangerous influence in that they galvanise oppositional elements into believing that change is possible. Through their defiant stance against Israel they also throw into stark relief the inability and unwillingness of most Arab governments to act in defence of the Palestinian cause. By portraying these movements as mere tools in the hands of an expansionist non-Arab and non-Sunni Iran the governments hope to undermine the popular legitimacy of the Islamists.

At another level what is at stake is an historical unwillingness to come to terms with the existence of Iran as a major regional power. In any future stable Middle East Iran with a population equal to Iraq and the six Gulf monarchies combined will carry a lot of weight by the mere size of its economy. It also has strong religious, cultural and historical ties with the other side of the Gulf and with Iraq in particular. The majority of Iraq’s population belongs to the same brand of Islam as do ninety percent of the Iranians. The fall of Saddam Husayn has reopened contact across the border, and many leading politicians in current Iraq spent years of exile in Teheran.

Obviously the current power holders in Iran are not very nice people in terms of their internal policies. No doubt they are active at many levels, not all of them legitimate, to increase their influence over the political process in Iraq. But to interpret all evidence of Iranian influence in the region as signs of a threatening expansionist scheme on the part of Teheran, points to a potentially dangerous lack of preparedness for a future Middle East where no superpower hegemony will shield the local powers from having to deal with each other’s actual local strength.

Attempting to turn the tables on Iran

By: Ingrid Krüger

Iran is among the top three holders of proven oil reserves in the world and is OPEC’s second largest oil producer and exporter. The Iranian state has subsidized domestic gasoline for years, an expensive shortsighted policy, because it could afford it. Since Iran has limited refinery capacity, the oil rich country has made itself dependent on gasoline import. President Obama, who is very concerned with Iran’s nuclear programme, is well aware of this weak spot and sees it as giving him an opportunity to affect Iran’s foreign policy. Last week the U.S. Senate approved a sanctions bill targeting those who export gasoline to Iran.

The Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad congratulated Obama on his election-win in 2008. Anticipations grew before President Obama’s speech in Cairo last year. The Cairo Speech was held a week before the disputed presidential election in Iran and some months before Iran admitted building a uranium enrichment plant. President Obama then spoke under the banner of ‘a new beginning’. He admitted a ‘tumultuous history’ between the US and the Islamic Republic of Iran, but stressed that the US was prepared to move forward.

Last week, in The 2010 State of the Union Address, Obama’s language had changed. Obama now stated that Iran has become more isolated by insisting on violating international agreements in pursuit of nuclear weapons. ‘[A]s Iran’s leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise.’

If the House and the Senate agree on how to merge their two versions of the sanctions bill, all that is needed for the bill to become law is President Obama’s signature. After years of having tried to please the Iranian public with dirt cheap gasoline, domestic gasoline demand has grown far beyond what Iranian refineries are capable of producing. To please the Iranian public, Iran has become dependent on importing gasoline, despite its vast oil reserves. President Obama is now exploiting this vulnerability in an attempt to turn the tables on Iran.

The Meaning of Political Crisis in Iran

By: Yadullah Shahibzadeh

Despite their uncertainty about the nature and trajectory of the post-presidential election events, many analysts consider these events as the most challenging political crisis the Islamic Republic has faced since its establishment in 1979. It seems that the players on the Iranian political scene pay similar attention to the notion of political crisis. A glance at the released statements and speeches by politicians and political activists would verify this observation. These statements and speeches reveal the same eagerness for understanding of the nature of the crisis and show the same uncertainty towards the course of these events as the analysts. While the faction supporting Ahmadinezhad and the supreme leader denies the existence of any crisis in Iran and claims that every thing is normal, the reform oriented faction represented by Moussavi and Karubi claims that the rigged presidential election has brought the Islamic Republic into a deep internal political crisis which may destroy the entire system. But it is not only the reform oriented politicians who are concerned with the political crisis. For many others who have never been connected to the reform movement in any way the question is not whether there is a crisis or not but the real meaning of the current crisis. They ask about the depth, the main causes, and the extent to which it threats the current political system and discuss the measures that should be taken for passing through this political crisis.  The political movement known as the Green Movement seems to have delegitimized Ahmadinezhads presidency not only among millions of Iranians but also among a great number his former allies. For many this very movement is the convincing evidence that there is a deep political crisis in the system.  The denial of the political crisis seemed to have justified the oppressive masseurs taken by the government for a while. Now, these same oppressive measures have produced evidences proving the actuality of the crisis and the inability of the government and security forces to control the crisis. This is why the acknowledgement of the political crisis in Iran has become the red line for conservative politicians supporting Ahmadinezhad and the supreme leader as it has become the main goal of the reform oriented to force the former to declare such acknowledgement.

The dispute on the existence of the political crisis is not confined to Ahmadinezhad supporters and the reform oriented. The issue has engaged political players in the system whose political vision does not accord with democratic reforms by any standard and whose politics remains within a conservative politics. In this regard, senior religious leaders are a case in point. Recently, Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, one of these religious leaders, acknowledged that the political system is in a deep crisis and encouraged opposing political forces to announce truce as a precondition for future talks and compromises to find a common ground towards a viable political solution based on written principles authored by moderates of both sides. The acknowledgement of this senior conservative religious leader of the political crisis and the solution he offers indicate that acknowledgement of the political crisis requires a solution to cope with the crisis.

One of the most influential political figures in Iran is Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who is reluctant to be identified either with the reform oriented or with the conservatives and  he is considered as one of the founding fathers of the Islamic Republic and without his support Ali Khamenei’s leadership would have been unthinkable.  In the only Friday prayer he held in July Rafsanjani acknowledged the deep political crisis in Iran and offered his own solution for dealing with the crisis. He called upon the leader for release of political prisoners, and recognition of the oppositional forces questioning the results of the election and defended their freedom of speech and their rights of assembly and demonstration. In a recent statement, he blamed Ahmadinezhad’s government and the leader for their failure to persuade the people who doubted the election results as well as for their use of Basij militia and the Revolutionary Guards against the people. He asks those who deny the political crisis in Iran; if there is no political crisis in the country, why is not a minister of the current government capable of visiting a university, any university, and holding a speech, something members of previous governments did at daily bases, without being interrupted and even chased by angry students? He concludes that the fact of the angry protesters indicates that something unusual has happened in the universities and by extension throughout the entire country, which may jeopardise the entire system. In order to deal with the crisis Rafsanjani repeats his previous suggestions such as release of all political prisoners and giving the oppositional forces the same opportunity in the state media that the government supporters have to talk to people and argue their case and let people choose between different political alternatives. According to Rafsanjani if the people choose to oust the current system the defenders of the system including him and the leader must accept people’s decision. For Rafsanjani demonstrations in the streets are a natural reaction of a people whose government prevents them from making their voices heard.

The fact that acknowledgement of the political crisis reveals the urgency of a solution which considers political opposition as an equal part to Ahamdinezhad’s government, the Guardian Council and the Leader has prevented the hard-line conservatives from acknowledging the realness of the political crisis so far. Furthermore, the acknowledgement of the political crisis necessitates recognition of the reform-oriented faction within the political system and the popular political movement it represents. This means the recognition of the current political movement in Iran known as the Green Movement and the demands it puts forward is the rational conclusion of the argument for realness of a political crisis in Iran.
Rafsanjani considers himself the most qualified within the system to understand the nature of the current political crisis in Iran. Rafsanjani’s belief in his capability lies partly in his exceptional experiences of all sorts of crises in Iran since the revolution and partly in his attempt to make sense of the past crises recorded in his published diary of many volumes entitled passing through crisis (Obour Az Bohran). Rafsanjani is confident that based on his lessons from the past crises his understanding of the depth of the current crisis is the most realistic one. This is why he expects the supreme leader to join him in his acknowledgement of the political crisis and in his recognition of the Green Movement and its legitimate rights. However, Rafsanjani’s invitation of his lifetime friend Khamenei, the supreme leader, has not produced a tangible result so far. The reason for Khameni’s reluctance to listen to Rafsanjani might be that he thinks of the current crisis in the same manner Rafsanjani was thinking in the early 1980s. Rafsanjani, Khamenei and many current reform oriented politicians were part of this same political system that its repressive machinery sent thousands of political activists into the graveyards without paying attention to the former Prime-Minister Mehdi Bazargan and his friends in the parliament who called for more restraint and tolerance vis-à-vis oppositional forces. Rafsanjani and his allies did not want to make the same mistake that the Shah made during the revolution that is giving oppositional forces a free space for propaganda, and then recognise them as a legitimate political alternative to topple the political system. Nevertheless, Rafsanjani may justify his own policy towards oppositional forces during 1980s by pointing to two significant empirical facts. First, what challenged the Islamic Republic in the early 1980s was not a popular political movement but isolated political organisations detached from the ordinary people. Secondly, at that time, the leader of the Islamic Republic was a strong leader to whom every body in the system listened and this prevented a major split within the system. This means that the current political crisis is the expression of the crisis of leadership within the political system as well as the expression of the challenge the system faces in its encounter with a popular political movement whose main agents are ordinary people who claim they are as equal as the supreme leader in political matters.

Cutting gasoline subsidies in Iran, post-presidential election unrest, and expectations of hard-hitting economic sanctions from abroad

By: Ingrid Krüger

The Iranian parliament has decided to turn around and back the plan of president Ahmadinejad to cut gasoline subsidies. It is surprising that president Ahmadinejad still pushes this highly unpopular plan, considering the post-presidential election unrest in Iran. Or is it?

After Ahmadinejad was elected for his first term in office in 2005, he continued underpricing a range of consumer products, including gasoline. The Iranian president spent oil revenues on an ad hoc and populistic basis to the point where he was forced to curb spending.

In addition, because of Iran’s enrichment of uranium, the fear of gasoline supplies from abroad being cut in the near future – in a country dependent on gasoline imports – puts pressure on Ahmadinejad to make Iran less dependent on gasoline imports today.

After Iran revealed its second nuclear plant in September and also test-fired a long-range missile, concerns grew that Iran could unleash a nuclear arms race in the region, although Iran has stated repeatedly that their nuclear program is a peaceful civilian nuclear energy program. Hard-hitting economic sanctions might delay any plans to spend resources on needed investment in refining capacity. If these economic sanctions also include cutting gasoline supplies to Iran, Iranians might turn the blame on the sanctioning states for the increase in domestic gasoline prices.

Since economic mismanagement helps explain the Iranian dependence on gasoline import, it might appear that cuts in gasoline supplies from abroad would turn the public against its government and thereby push Ahmadinejad to new negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. The sanctions are however a punishment for what Iranians consider their right, Iran’s nuclear program, and the protests are therefore likely to be turned against the sanctioning states instead.Ahmadinejad could argue that increasing the domestic gasoline price was a necessary step to adjust domestic consumption as gasoline supply from abroad was likely to be cut. The sanctions will then unlikely lead to the type of protests against president Ahmadinejad such as ‘you were the one that wanted this nuclear program, now look what economic problems it has brought with it’. Not only would cutting gasoline supplies be a bad targeted sanction, it is also likely to have some unwanted consequences for the sanctioning states.

Oil revenues, welfare policies, and uncertainty in Iran

By: Ingrid Krüger

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the Iranian presidential election for his first term in office in June 2005 on a populist economic agenda, promising to bring oil money to people’s dinner tables. His government later made some unpopular policy changes that affected Iranians’ daily lives – efforts to change gasoline consumption through rationing and cuts in gasoline subsidies in the following years sparked angry protests. It is well-known from economic theory that the gasoline underpricing seen in Iran is a waste of resources, but trust in and support of the president is essential in order to avoid future public protests and riots in Iran as further attempts are made to change domestic gasoline consumption.

Much of the debate on Iran’s economy today concerns how the citizens are ensured a share in Iran’s natural resource benefits. Iran is OPEC’s second largest oil producer and oil exporter after Saudi Arabia and has roughly 10 percent of the world’s total proven petroleum. Iran’s economic rent from its oil resource is the difference between the international market price and the cost of producing oil. Subsidizing gasoline domestically is a way of spending these oil revenues on the Iranians.

Gasoline was already heavily subsidized when Ahmadinejad entered his first term in office in June 2005. Ahmadinejad had made himself a popular presidential candidate during his campaign by promising a more equitable distribution of Iran’s oil revenues. Although welfare policies are naturally associated with taxation in representative democracies, it is not so that once you tax, you represent. The protests sparked by Ahmadinejad’s effort to change gasoline consumption patterns domestically after he was elected president might be explained by the Iranian citizens being uncertain about how they would benefit from the oil revenues unless the distribution was made directly through low prices. A move away from low prices might be interpreted as a move away from generosity. While trying to change gasoline consumption through rationing and cutting subsidies, it might have appeared to the Iranian president that he is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.

Although Iran is a large producer and exporter of crude oil, Iran’s refining capacity is insufficient to satisfy domestic demand for gasoline and Iran therefore has to import gasoline, making the gasoline subsidies very costly for the Iranian government. Two years after Ahmadinejad was first elected president, he reluctantly and out of necessity attempted to decrease domestic gasoline consumption by introducing rationing of gasoline through smart cards in Iran. The central government’s fiscal balance was in red ink the year before this move and Ahmadinejad feared the dependence on oil revenues. The president has argued that cheap fuel mainly benefit people with higher income, but Iranian citizens were used to unrestricted dirt-cheap gasoline supply at the filling stations and the rationing led to angry protests.

Gasoline is still heavily subsidized in the country. The rationed amount of gasoline was increased in March 2008 and gasoline sales above it was allowed at a higher price. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that the majority of motorists are permitted a monthly ration of approximately 120 liters of gasoline at around 10 cents/liter and that, in addition to this, special allowances are given to commercial vehicles, part-time taxis and government vehicles.

IMF reported in its Regional Economic Outlook from May 2009 that Iran is planning to significantly reduce its expenditures to preserve fiscal sustainability, pointing out that Iran was in deficit in 2008. At the end of 2008, Ahmadinejad proposed a bill to eliminate subsidies on basic goods and make cash transfers instead, but the lawmakers omitted this article in March this year, when approving the budget for 2009-2010. Cutting gasoline subsidies further may again spark angry protests within Iran, but there is obviously a fiscal need to reduce expenditures and it is crucial how oil revenues will be distributed instead. Although Ahmadinejad calls the doubts about the elections being free and fair ‘a psychological warfare in the West, trying to deviate the nation from its clear and bright path’, the important thing is what the majority of Iranians themselves believe, because this will be decisive with respect to the support Ahmadinejad can expect within the country as he continues on his economic reform plan to change domestic gasoline consumption.


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