Posts Tagged 'Iran'

Iran and the Democratic Struggle in the Middle East

By: Yadullah Shahibzadeh

Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in the mid 19th century to explain the meaning of what they called; a specter that was haunting Europe, ‘the  specter of Communism’ and pointed to  “a holy alliance [trying] to exorcise this specter: Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.”[1] The specter of communism was the metaphor Marx and Engels used to describe the popular struggle that was going to reconfigure the political scene in Europe entirely. According to twentieth century interpretations the 19th century struggles changed the criteria for deciding who has the right to govern and popularized the idea that all citizens have equal rights to govern. But this democratic idea did not prevent the labor party government in Britain (1945-1951), with a history that can be traced back to the Communist Manifesto, to do all that was in its power to get rid of the specter of democracy in the Middle East displayed by the Mosadiq nationalist government, the only democratic government in the region in the early 1950s.[2]

Since the late 19th century the specter of democracy has haunted the Middle East and Iran in particular under the guise of socialism, nationalism and Islamism but the democratic kernel of these movements has been eliminated from within or by external forces. These days that the specter of democracy appears with its real name in the Middle East; it seems stronger than the “new holy alliance” that tries to get rid of it. The new holy alliance consists, of Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United States and many European states that have opposed democracy in  the Arab countries because of their concern for, “stability”, the “peace process”, “orderly transition toward democracy”, and “human rights”, and Iran’s leadership which opposes democracy in Iran but supports it elsewhere. Iran’s regime assumes that the current Iranian democratic movement known as the Green Movement serves the American interests in the region and is backed by the US. Officially, Iran supports the democratic struggles in none-friendly or less friendly countries such as  Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, but it prosecutes its own citizens when they  demand the same political rights that the Egyptians’, Yemenis’, and  Bahrainis’ demand.

Two weeks ago, the leaders of the Green Movement, called upon the Iranian people to take to the streets on 14 February as a gesture of solidarity with Egyptians and Tunisians.[3] Mir-Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karubi, the leaders of the Movement, sent a formal request to Iran’s interior ministry to make security arrangements for the suggested day of solidarity with Tunisians and Egyptians in their struggle for democracy. The call for demonstration in support of the Egyptians and Tunisians put the leadership of the Islamic Republic in a difficult situation. While approval of the Green Movement’s request would result in de facto recognition of the Movement and its democratic demands by the current leadership, denying the Movement to show its solidarity with the people of Egypt and Tunisia would expose the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime which claimed to have supported democratic struggles in these countries.[4] In order to avoid the embarrassment, Ahmadinezhad’s government did not respond to the request of the leaders of the movement. However, despite the tight presence of security forces, tens of thousands of Iranians took to the street of Tehran and several other cities. But unlike 2009 and 2010 demonstrations in which the demonstrators were chanting against Ahmadinezhad, 14 February demonstrations targeted Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khamenei and the demonstrators demanded resignation of the leader. There are several reasons for portraying 14 February demonstrations as a turning point in history of the Islamic Republic. On one hand, the moderate conservatives who have shown sympathy with the Green Movement or remained silent since the disputed presidential election in 2009, started to condemn 14 February demonstrations and accused the leaders of the Movement to have broken away from the Islamic Republic in order to serve the interests of the US.[5] On the other hand, the leaders of the Green Movement compared the Islamic Republic with the pre-revolutionary monarchy deposed in 1979.[6] Yet the leaders of the Green Movement claim that they have remained true to the constitution of the Islamic Republic.[7] For the leaders of the Green Movement the Iranian constitution not only guarantees freedom of expression and assembly, and free and fair elections but also authorizes constitutional changes toward more a democratic constitution through referendum.[8]

In actual fact the specter of democracy has been all over the Middle East since the late 19th century, but the political moment which could contribute to its materialization has not occurred in such a wide and intensive manner. The current democratic political movements in the Middle East are in no way a result of the US or European projects of democratic reforms in the region. The project of building good governments which respect the basic human rights did not take into account that democracy was about the right of all members of every society to govern their common affairs. The twisting of democracy into good government and protection of human rights was based on some distorted assumptions. It was assumed, for instance, that since democracy was congruent with the current definition of interests of the US and Europe in the region, they presented as the only conceivable force to guarantee both building and protecting a democratic future in the region, a democratic future that has never come, because it has constantly been postponed. The postponing of democracy in the Middle East has been justified through the knowledge produced on this region. According to the knowledge produced on the Middle East the region is not ready for democracy unless its people are emancipated from their mode of being through gradual education carried out by the guarantors of democracy.

Now the reality of the democratic struggle in the Middle East tells us that the people of this region like all human beings everywhere can not only educate themselves but educate their educators. Not unexpectedly, in order to keep the traditional position of the educator of this region, the educators raise the question whether the current struggles in the Arab countries choose the failed Iranian model that is an Islamic state or the successful Turkish model.[9] The necessary requirement for raising the Iranian and Turkish models as examples of success and failure is total ignorance of the recent history of the region. The Turkish model as a success history is based on an historical amnesia. It forgets that with the eruption of the Iranian revolution and the raise of the Islamic Republic in Iran, this country was surrounded by the most brutal dictatorships in the history of Turkey, Iraq and Pakistan, all supported by the US and Europe, and Iran had to endure a brutal war with a member of this Western oriented axis of dictatorship until the late 1980s. In an area surrounded entirely by dictatorships, Iran’s attempts to unfold its own democracy is expressed very clearly in its 1979 constitution which until recently was the only constitutional law made by democratically elected constitutional parliament in the entire region. The politicians who support or lead the democratic struggle in Iran these days are the same people who founded, defended, and led the Islamic Republic in 1980s while Turkey was a vicious dictatorship and a US-European ally. So the prediction about the future of the Arab democratic struggle with regard to these two political alternatives is based on the one hand, on the confusion of the democratic potentials of the Iranian revolution with the current regime of Iran and a selective narrative of the Turkish politics since the late 1970s and early 1980s. This narrative would like to forget that Turkey was allowed by its Western allies to think and act for itself only after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The absurdity of the comparison between Iran and Turkey does not lie in the fact that the majority of those who founded the Islamic Republic of Iran are the leading members of democratic opposition in Iran, but in the original lessons that both Iranians and Turks can learn from the current Arab democratic struggle and display them on their own political scenes. The lessons of the democratic struggles in the Middle East would be of major significance for anyone who thinks that democracy is not a project achieved and completed by the West as the expression of the end of history and politics, and thus ready to be exported to other places.  The democratic struggle in the Middle East reminds us that democracy is a process through which a people in a society try to overcome democratic deficits of their government regardless of its name and regardless of its position in democracy ranking. This means that the inventiveness of the current democratic struggle in the Middle East would enrich conceptualization of democracy in general, regardless of whether the new holy alliance which is concerned with ‘stability’,  ‘orderly transition toward democracy, the ‘peace-process’, good governments and “human rights” succeed to exorcise the specter of democracy in this region or not.



[1] Marx-Engels,, Coomunist Manifesto

[2] Fakhredin Azimi, Iran : The Crisis of Democrracy, (London: , 2009,I.B.Tauris), p.273

[3] Mir-Hussein Mouusavi, Iran’s prime minister in the 1980s and Mehdi Karubi, Iran’s speaker of parliament in the late 1980s and the early 1990s

[4] Hillary Clinton exploited the situation without hesitation and  said;  Tehran’s crackdown on demonstrators, after it had praised the popular uprising in Egypt, shows the “hypocrisy” of the Iranian government.,

[8],,5202171,00.html and  Iran’s Constitution, Article 59

Iran-Iraq relations revisited: energy cooperation

By: Annette Wolden

The relationship between Iran and Iraq is complicated. Factors of historical, religious, economic and military nature are interwoven and make it difficult for politicians to resolve one issue without having to tackle the others as well. With regards to the energy sector, large investments have been made, and plans to further cooperation in the sector have been discussed. Among the issues discussed are the countries’ approach to border oil fields, the planned oil pipeline between Abadan and Basra, and Iranian assistance to Iraq with regards to electricity and infrastructure.


In approaching the subject of shared natural resources, such as oil and gas fields in the case of Iran and Iraq, states may feel that their sovereignty is being threatened, posing a security dilemma. To give an example, Norway and Russia have been negotiating over fishing resources and the rights to search for and exploit petroleum resources in the Barents Sea and Artic Ocean since 1970. The final agreement was only reached in April 2010. This agreement establishes for the first time the boundary between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean.[1] The petroleum and fishing industries are vital for Norway, as is the petroleum sector for Iran and Iraq. The end of the Cold War made it possible for Norway and Russia to re-embark on the subject of their shared frontier, and perhaps the removal of Saddam Hussein will provide for a similar opportunity for Iran and Iraq.


Iraq Business News reported in May 2010 that Iran and Iraq had come to an agreement to provide a Master Development Plan for the development of five shared oilfields.[2] According to Iraq Business News “Iran and Iraq have different legal and contractual systems to develop their oil and gas fields. Once a common ground is established between the two nations, development of the shared border fields can be on the agenda”.[3]


In October 2010 al-Maliki went to Iran to meet with both president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Here, al-Maliki described the two countries’ relationship as strategic, saying “we ask Iran and our neighbors to support our reconstruction and to boost economic and commercial co-operation, which will help improve stability in our region.”[4] In January 2011 Iraq Business News once again reported that Iran and Iraq had reached an agreement to develop their joint oilfields in border areas. According to this report the deal was inked during the first meeting of the two countries’ joint executive working group in Tehran.[5] Based on the new agreement, Iran and Iraq will set up expert committees to finalize technical and financial details of the agreement to develop the border oilfields.[6] Iranian deputy Oil Minister Mohsen Khojastehmehr said that Iran has finalized a plan for the speedy development of the joint oil and gas fields, adding that Iran will start drilling at Azar oil field in the Anaran block, near the Iraqi border.[7]


In view of these developments on the issue of border fields it will be interesting to see whether the attempt to achieve cooperation in the energy sector will spread to other areas as well, and whether this will promote a general tendency toward cooperation between the two neighboring countries. This would be a development in stark contrast to the previous decades of animosity.


Iran, Iraq, and energy

By: Annette Wolden

There are many issues that have to be resolved in today’s Iraq. First and foremost, in order to get the country back on track, the energy sector needs to be back on track. A large contributor to the rebuilding of the sector is neighboring country Iran. Iran’s energy exports to Iraq in 2009 reached $1 billion, of which $400 million accounted for electricity exports and $300 million to petroleum products.[1] Iran has also been involved in rebuilding Iraq’s energy infrastructure. In 2007 Tehran signed a $150 million contract to build a 300-megawatt power plant in Baghdad,[2] and in 2008 it agreed to build a 400-megawatt electricity line between Abadan and al-Harasa.[3]

Prior to the fall of Saddam, Iran and Iraq had competed against each other over regional hegemony for decades and had been engaged in a war against each other. The fact that Iran is now a large investor in Iraq is a matter of huge controversy. Politically, a close relationship with Iran, is a sensitive issue in Iraq. Moving closer to Iran is perceived by many as a sign of weakness and of Iran trying to control Iraqi affairs. In addition, the changing quality of Iran-Iraq relations has led the region’s political leaders to express their concern of the development of a “Shia Crescent”. A term that refers to a new trend of Shia dominance stretching from Beirut to Tehran, and the fear that this development will cut through the Sunni-dominated Middle East. A closer relationship between Iran and Iraq would enforce this “Shia grip” over the region.

It is difficult to stipulate Iran’s true intensions for investing heavily in Iraq, but from Baghdad’s point of view, Tehran makes out for both a security threat and a much needed investor. Since after the invasion in 2003 there has been talk of establishing a closer cooperation between the two nations’ energy sectors. The Basra-Abadan pipeline is one example, first proposed in 2005. If cooperation between Iran and Iraq’s oil sectors were to become a reality, the countries would obtain a unique place in the international oil market. By committing to cooperate, they would hold a larger marked share between them, enabling them to dictate output levels to a greater extent than what is possible now. This is also true for OPEC negotiations.

By deciding to strengthen the ties to Iran, Iraq will experience protests from within. Especially from the Sunni communities wanting to avoid Shia control. To cooperate will also mean risking appearing as a puppet-state under Iranian control. However, the close energy tie-up between the two nations could also serve as a buffer to any external political pressure on Iraq.

Cooperation demands a large degree of openness and it is not clear whether Iran is prepared to make that kind of commitment towards Iraq, or if Iran is hoping to be the stronger part in the relationship, and thereby dictate the premises.







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




Framing the conflict

By Kjetil Selvik

One year after the June 12. 2009 Presidential election, the battle over its significance for the Islamic Republic of Iran is far from over. Inside the country’s political class that historically agreed on the authority of Ayatollah Khomeini, two diametrically opposed narratives about the current stalemate have emerged. On the one hand stands the Green movement which importance lies in the fact that it is the first broad-based oppositional movement in Iran since the 1979 revolution. It strongly criticizes the Ahmadinejad government and demands full democratic rights. The government and the Leader have however developed their own narrative about the 2009 election and its aftermath to discredit and refute the claims of the opposition. They have their own interpretations about the current events and use their own labels. The following is a short introduction to how “the Greens” and the Ahmadinejad camp are framing the conflict.

The 2009 election

When representatives of the Green movement refer to the 2009 election they speak about a “coup d’Etat”. Ahmadinejad is the leader of a “coup d’Etat government” that has stolen the people’s vote. For hardline cleric Ahmad Janati, on the other hand, the 2009 presidential election was “one of the healthiest ever” and a model for other countries.[1] He follows Leader Ali Khamenei’s who on several occasions has praised the Iranian people for demonstrating the “profound meaning of religious democracy” to the world.[2]

Conflict line

There is an equally divided opinion of what constitutes the main conflict line in Iran today. For Mir Husayn Mousavi the presidential election was proof of a widening rift between the people and the ruling establishment that contradicts the essence of the Islamic Republic. A system that was made to bring freedom to Iran has ended up negating the rights of the people. For Ali Khamenei’s, however, the Islamic Republic is still the embodiment of the Islamic revolution, and the battle stands between the revolution and its enemies.

Threat perception

Defenders of the Green movement warn that Iran is in danger of becoming a dictatorship. As Grand Ayatollah Montazeri exclaimed in a September 14. letter to Islamic scholars, “what we see now is the government of a military guardianship, not the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists (i.e. velayat-e faqih)”.[3] In the rhetoric of the ruling segment, however, the most acute threat facing Iran is that of a ‘velvet revolution’. This refers to a plot where foreign powers’ subversive agents collude with “internal enemies” to seek regime change from within. When members of the reform movement were prosecuted in the August 2009 show trials, the main accusation held against them was their supposed affiliation with this velvet revolution.

State of the system

The gap is equally great between how the government and the opposition characterize the state of the system. For the Green movement (and in fact also many conservative figures) the regime is in the middle of a deep political crisis. The opposition argues that the government will not be able to govern normally until it accommodates the wishes of the people. President Ahmadinejad and his associates, on the other hand, deny as baseless the idea of a crisis. For them, it is still “business as usual” in Iran and the Islamic Republic is stronger than ever.

Popular protest

For the Green movement, popular protests are a sign of hope. They imply that the people refuses to resign to government repression and continues its fight for self-determination. The Green movement’s organizational body is named “the green path of hope”. In government rhetoric, by contrast, popular protests are associated with chaos, or fitna which is the Arabic word used to denounce a breakdown of the Islamic order. Websites affiliated with the president consequently use the expression saran-e fitna, i.e. “leaders of sedition”, when speaking about Khatami, Karubi, and Mousavi.

Action needed

The way to end the current crisis is according to the Green movement to reconnect the Islamic republic with the people. As Mousavi says in his 11th statement, “a restoration of public trust is not possible without the acceptance of the right of the people to govern itself”.[4] For government forces, however, the question is one of punishing “troublemakers” (eghteshashgar). Following the December 2009 Ashura protests Interior minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar warned that “anyone who takes part in riots will be considered as mohareb (waging war on God) and an opponent of national security”.[5]

Ultimate authority

The bottom line is that the government and the opposition have different ideas of what constitutes the ultimate authority in the Islamic Republic. The Green movement points to the 1979 Constitution as the embodiment of the “national will” and the guideline for all political interactions. They quote the late Ayatollah Khomeini saying that “the criterion is the vote of the people” (mizan ray-e mardom ast). The neo-conservatives, by contrast, place Ali Khamenei above the law as the Islamic Republic’s ultimate authority.






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.

Comparing what?

By: Marie Naalsund Ingvaldsen

In my last blog post I had collected the female labor force participation rate for several countries in the Gulf region and presented them in a diagram. In this blog post I would like to dwell a little with these figures.

Any introductory textbook to either statistics or econometrics can tell you that when comparing data you have to compare the same thing. Any introductory textbook to development economics can inform you that this is far more difficult in real life than in theory. Especially when considering data across countries or over time, which is often the kind of data we consider. Any student in economics can tell you that we do it anyway. (It should be noted that one can come around several of the potential problems through different econometrical procedures, but that is not the story of this post.)

The Female Labor Force Participation Rate is defined as female share of total labor force and this might intuitively seem quite straight forward. The fact that the figures are collected from the same international sources indicates that they are collected in a way that is comparable across countries. However, when producing this statistics, international organizations usually have to rely on information from national agencies. Although effort has been made to coordinate the data collection, there are always possible that countries are not measuring exactly the same variable in exactly the same way.

A problem of particular interest when studying labor force statistics in the Gulf Region is how to deal with the migrant workers. In Saudi Arabia, foreigners account for more than half of the total labor force. One could decide not to care. A woman is a woman and as long as she lives in Saudi Arabia her participation in the labor market is equally important whether or not she has a Saudi citizenship. However, migrant workers in the Gulf region are not a well-integrated part of the society. They do not have the same rights and privileges and are normally not moving to a Gulf country to settle down with their family and build their life in this new society. Rather they work there in order to send money home and help providing for their families in their country of origin. If one wants to study how culture and religion affects women’s labor supply decision in for instance Saudi Arabia, it might be that foreign women are not bound to the same unwritten norms and barriers and therefore have a more easy access, or at least that their decisions are made based on other criteria than those faced by Saudi women.

Another problem is work performed in the informal sector. Labor force participation rate is normally calculated as share of economically active population which again is defined as a person that provides labor in exchange for cash or non-cash income. To what extent this includes the informal sector is unclear. An example is Iran: In the statistics I presented last time, Iran was represented with a female labor force participation rate of almost 30 percent. However, in an article I recently came across by Valentine Moghadam, a professor in Sociology with special interest in female labor in the Middle East, it appears that in Iran’s last census, women constitutes only 15 % of the formal sector. The problem is not that the figure from the World Bank obviously includes (at least part of) the informal sector, but that it is hard to tell to which extent this is the case for the rest of the countries.

The Meaning of the Green Movement

By: Yadullah Shahibzadeh

It seems that the Green Movement, since its eruption in June 2009, has created more misunderstanding than clarity for a number of analysts of Iranian politics. The misunderstandings can easily be detected in the contradictory remarks they make on the nature of the movement and its historical origin. The perplexity of these analysts with the nature and origin of the Green Movement is revealed in their misreading of the relation between the structure of the Movement’s main argument and its democratic content. The Movement’s democratic argument is based on two premises; first, there was a popular revolution that produced a constitution which declares that all Iranian citizens have equal political rights, secondly there are Iranian citizens who now demand these political rights. The constitution made specific promises such as freedom of expression, of assembly, of demonstration, of organization as well as free elections.  And now the people want to realize these very promises. It was the people’s action on the streets during the revolutions in 1979 which legitimated the constitution. Now the people have come out en masse and  demand these rights from their government. They claim that every citizen of the Iranian society is a potential member of the governing power. The consistency between the form of the Movement’s arguments and the forms of its actions cannot be understood unless the sequences of events since the Iranian revolution are fully understood. We cannot expect the analysts of Iranian politics whose conception of democracy is limited either by ‘culturalism’ or neo-conservative ideology or a combination of both to understand the core of the movement’s argument, and its forms of expression. However, we should expect that he or she makes statements which are not contradictory. As soon as these analysts try to explain the democratic content of the movement they disconnect it from its historical condition of emergence. By giving a critical interpretation of two statements of an analyst of Iranian politics published recently, I try to reveal both the contradictory nature of these statements and shed light on the nature and origin of the Green Movement.

[Abbas] Milani believes the main reason for the creation and expansion of the Green Movement is that the founders of the Islamic republic failed to live up to their promises…”If you look at the statements of [Ayatollah Khomeini] in the months leading to the revolution, it was all about democracy. He promised a democratic government. When the Velayat Faqih principle was [adopted], people realized that a historic promise had not been kept,” he says.[1]

And only a few days later our analyst makes the following comments;

Today’s great struggle in Iranian politics pits Mousavi against Ali Khamenei. It was that way from, more or less, the birth of the regime…Genuine ideological differences undergirded this rivalry.[2]

The first statement claims that the leaders of the Iranian revolution made a promise, and that promise was democracy or a democratic government, but that promise was broken from the moment the Velayat Faqih principle was adopted.  This means the Green Movement must be understood as an attempt to realize the broken promise of democracy given during the revolution. What our analyst tries to say is that the Islamic Republic has been an oligarchy since its appearance, the leaders who took the government did not share it with its people. The analyst does not specify what makes a government democratic. The basic principle of a democratic government is the right of every citizen to govern or the rights of every citizen to political and ideological contestation. No doubt, the Islamic Republic since its consolidation has not recognized the full political rights of a great part of its citizens but this has been justified until the  late  1980s on the pretext of the oppositional political forces’ reluctance to recognize the Iranian constitution as well as the monopoly of central government over the means of violence. This actual reciprocal misrecognition of the Islamic Republic and its opposition in the first two years after the revolution created a picture of Iran as a country on the brink of a civil war, a consequence of which was Saddam Hussein’s dream of an easy victory in his war against Iran in 1980. This reciprocal misrecognition has never been fully addressed and which is at the heart of the great misunderstandings concerning the nature and the origin of the Green Movement.

The second statement points to two important characters of the Green Movement concerning its origin and its ideological character. The movement is presented as an old struggle between two opposing ideological and political forces, each of which demonstrates a particular approach towards freedom and political equality.[3] While in the 1980s Mir-Hossein Mousavi as Iran’s Prim-Minister defended freedom and equality, the President, Ayatollah Khamenei fought for the particular interests of a conservative faction whose main concern was; how to make profit of the war, crush all political dissidents, and how to restrict the cultural and political sphere in Iran. Neither Mousavi nor Khamenei have changed their allies or changed the content of their dispute. This is what any reader infers from the article. Thus, the Green movement shows the peak of their political battle, when the public discovered that they were cheated by the undemocratic side of this old struggle, they decided to give their verdict by coming out to the streets and demand their political rights. But the article does not make clear; why did people care about this political struggle? One answer sounds like this; people say this was and still is our struggle. The question is not fully answered unless we understand, how Mousavi convinced the people, during the election that this very old struggle, between him and his allies on the one side and the conservatives on the other side, was about their own political rights inscribed in the constitution. His only argument was clear and simple; he remained true to the promises of the constitution and promised that he would fight with the people to make those constitutional promises a reality. His other promise was that he remained true to the previous political movement led by Mohammad Khatami unleashed by the 1997 presidential election. Hoping to generate a new political movement he integrated the promises of the revolution with the promises of the Reform Movement. By the standard of liberal democracies Iranian elections cannot be called entirely free and fair but presidential elections in Iran inaugurated two important political movements in recent years and introduced several leaders such as Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mohammd Khatami and Mehdi Karubi who fight for democracy in Iran.

This indicates that the Green Movement cannot be disconnected from the political experiences of its different agents generated by the culture of political contestation within the Islamic Republic. The statements made by the leaders of the movement which remind the Iranian people of the unfulfilled promises of the revolution are supplemented by the people chanting on the streets, on their roofs and in the university grounds, chanting the same slogans that were chanted during the revolution. The movement’s driving force is not only the declarations, interviews and speeches of the leaders and the political passion they arouse among ordinary Iranians, but the claims that they have remained true to the promises of the Revolution as well as to the Reform Movement. In response to the question of what the promises of the revolution were, the leaders of the Green Movement refer to the rights of citizens in chapter 7 of the Iranian constitution in which freedom of expression, of assembly, of social and political associations, and the rights to demonstrate and protest are protected. The leaders of the Green Movement argue that the demonstrators on the streets do nothing but exercise their constitutional rights. The demonstrators and the leaders of the Green Movement try to establish in every occasion the relation between the words of the constitution and their own actions.  They refer to the promises made, their democratic content and the popular demand for fulfillment of the promises. The demonstrators and the leaders of the Green Movement do not refer to what Ayatollah Khomeini wished for his people but to a legal document written by popularly elected constitutional parliament and for which the overwhelming majority of Iranian eligible to vote, voted for in a referendum in 1979. While some took the constitution seriously and considered it as a legal document to be implemented some others did not. Those who took the constitution as a serious legal document tried to participate in its implementation. The history of Iranian democratic politics since the early 1980s is the history of those who took the constitution seriously. This is why Khatamni and Mousavi are the only people who managed to create an extraordinary passion for politics and symbolized two political movements worthy of the name in the post revolutionary Iran because they took the Iranian constitution seriously.

The promise of the leaders of the revolution was not a democracy or a democratic government but a constitutional government. These two should not be confused with each other, because democracy is realization of political equality of anyone and everyone in a constitutional government. The degree of democracy can be disputed in every constitutional government.  Ayatollah Khomeini left behind when he died a constitution in which political rights of all citizens were promised, and a culture of political contestation which are the most important requirements for democracy. We should understand the post-revolutionary actual political practices in their own proper context, as an interaction between the promises made by the constitution and the political contestation within the political system that convinced the people to enter into political action either as activists of the Reform Movement during Khatami’s presidency or as activists of the Green Movement since June 2009.

[1] Abass Milani in an Interview with the Voice of Free Europe (Radio Liberty)

[2] Abbas Milani; The Mousavi Mission; Iran finds its Nelson Mandela , The New Republic ; February 17, 201

[3]The subtitle of the article I quote above is, Iran finds its Nelson Mandela and  Mandela fought for freedom and political equality of every citizen in the South African society.