Sunday, July 31, 2005
And Ganji Decides to DieOp-Ed by Dr. Said Farzaneh
Ganji is dying because he wants to be different
Akbar Ganji, the Iranian imprisoned dissident on his 51st day of hunger strike, is perishing his life in Milad Hospital, Tehran. At the time of this writing, the latest news according to his wife Massoumeh Shafiei is that during a 5 minute meeting Akbar, on the verge of life and death according to his Doctors, fainted and she agreed that he should be syringe-fed to avoid his loss of life.
Ganji has been in the news and in front of the conscious of many Iranians as well as leading international politicians and personalities, world public opinion and human rights advocates for many days to remember now. Scanning Iranian media pages, however, demonstrates the Islamic regime’s absolute determination of pretence of no big deal. The latest statement from the head of Iran’s judiciary is based on the argument that Ganji has not been helping his own predicament during his temporary release and with his outspoken statements openly questioning the absolute rule of the clerical leader, Ayattolah Khamenei.
I have read many opinions about Ganji’s hunger strike, signed petitions supporting his demands but begging him to stay alive, written letters to my Member of Parliament and received a reply demonstrating his concern as well as the representations by the British foreign minister on behalf of the European Union Presidency to the Iranian leaders to safeguard his life.
I am, however, alarmed by the lack of any efforts by some of us at understanding where Ganji is coming from and accepting him for what he has decided to do. In an opinion by the weblogger Hossein Derakhshan* entitled “Why Bush prefers a dead Ganji” he writes: “Only a dead Ganji would give Mr. Bush a unifying symbol (a martyr) for the future phases of their desperate efforts to change the regime of Iran from outside. That‘s why they are all loving him so much. Because a dead Ganji will not be able to have nuanced opinions and could easily be hijacked by the neoconservatives for their own agenda. The authoritarian regime of Iran is smart enough to keep Ganji alive and to use him for their own future plans. … Ganji, in my mind, has started a game in which the only winner will again be Khamanei and the biggest loser would be himself — and of course Mr. Bush”
Derakhshan is not the only person who is judgemental on Ganji’s decision and steadfastness in his political beliefs, and somehow miraculously links it with “Mr Bush” or Neo-conservatives’ design for regime change in Iran.
This serious misconception is based on a number of falsehoods:
1. The Iranian regime is entitled somehow and by some undeniable rights or conventions to imprison those who criticise its leader and call for him to go. I am sitting peacefully in my London Office and I can state categorically that “the Queen must go”! At most I would be branded as a minority republican sympathiser who is not in line with the mainstream British political opinion. The Ayatollah said the same thing about the Shah so many times - from 15 Khordad 1342 (1963) to Jan 1979 - and his maximum punishment was exile to Turkey, Najaf and then Paris.
2. A regime change can and will only happen in Iran from outside. Therefore, it is not Ganji that is calling the shots by Mr Bush. This is a misconception based either on the premise that all transitions to ‘democracy’ are somehow instigated by outside (the West) and the people in Russia, Poland, …, Eukraine etc have just been pawns in this grand scheme; or that as in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran’s transition to democracy will only happen as a result of direct forceful interference by a US-led coalition. This view emanates from a sense of dispowerment, frustration and helplessness that ordinary people, like Ganji, me and you can not change things and ascribes any political change to “the powers to be”.
3. Ganji’s actions and decisions become void of its personal human dimension. Ganji is a ‘political animal’ and yes he has been calculating every response to the many letters from friends and threats from foes such as notorious Sa’id Mortazavi, Tehran’s chief prosecutor-inquisitor, who has constantly been ‘negotiating’ his freedom terms with him. But after all he is also a human being and can decide for himself whether he is to ‘eat his words’ and stay his stay in the dungeons of his captives or to take any other course of action he feels appropriate based on his new found personal and ideological viewpoint.
Of-course like many other Iranians I fear for Akbar’s health and well-being. I want him alive and well, and the prospect of his death – as with any other needless human loss of life – lingers heavily on my shoulders too, but whatever happens next I have no doubt: Ganji never dies.
* Open Democracy web site (click here).
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Friday, July 29, 2005
Jerusalem Post | Who Lost Iran?Click here to go to Jerusalem Post web site
By Trita Parsi
Jul. 27, 2005
In October 1992, years before Iran enriched uranium or had ballistic missiles, Shimon Peres launched a campaign to portray Iran as "the greatest threat and greatest problem in the Middle East." Peres's premature warnings turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Today, Israel should be cautious not to repeat Peres's strategic mistake by pre-empting Iran's conservative president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, since history has shown that prophecies can come true.
As the Labor government opted for closer relations with the Palestinians and the Arab states in Israel's vicinity in 1992, Peres turned the decade-long Israeli doctrine of the periphery on its head and went all out against Iran.
Peres's timing was strange. Only six years earlier, at the height of Iran's ideological zeal, he had sought a "broader strategic relationship" with Iran. Peres had been a driving force behind what later became the Iran-Contra scandal and he even sent his aide to Iran together with Robert "Bud" McFarlane and Oliver North to meet with senior Iranian officials.
By 1992, however, when Peres started portraying Iran as a major threat, Teheran's revolutionary fervor had cooled considerably. Iran was struggling with its war-torn economy and it sought a thaw in its relations with Washington. The clerical regime had no uranium centrifuges, no Shahab-3s and no Fajr rockets in Lebanon. Yet it was a "global threat," Peres insisted.
Sensing a shift in Israel, Teheran concluded that Israel was behind the campaign to isolate Iran. Eager to rebuild its economy and regain its position as the gendarme of the Persian Gulf, Iran feared that a successful Oslo process, and Peres's portrayal of Iran as a threat to the Arab world, would result in Iran's permanent isolation and pariah status.
Consequently, Peres's reversal of the periphery doctrine prompted Teheran to annul Ayatollah Khomeini's dictum that Iran should never be a frontier state in the Palestinian struggle. Up until 1992, in spite of its ideological zeal, Iran had been only marginally involved in anti-Israeli activities. Teheran's opposition to Israel was primarily rhetorical, a fact that hadn't escaped Israeli officials in the 1980s.
IRAN EVEN lacked enduring ties to Islamist rejectionists groups due to the Shi'a-Sunni divide. And much to the anger of the PLO, contrary to Teheran's grandiose promises, the Iranian leadership refused to offer material support to secular Palestinian groups, due to their pan-Arab leanings. By 1994, all of that had changed.
Peres's preemptive portrayal of the Iranian threat contributed to the creation of that very threat. To his credit, Binyamin Netanyahu recognized the folly in the Labor Party's approach and significantly lowered Israel's tone, leaving Teheran alone in playing the rhetorical game. Netanyahu also recognized that Peres's vision of a New Middle East left both friends and foes in the Islamic world worried about Israeli hegemonic aspirations.
Today, premature reactions to Ahmadinejad's election risk repeating Peres's mistake. Much concern has been expressed in the media with regard to Ahmadinejad's possible foreign policy inclinations – will he reinitiate the export of the revolution and accelerate the Iranian nuclear program, or will he grudgingly proceed with Iran's quest to rehabilitate itself into the region as a status-quo state? Mindful of the lack of information about Ahmadinejad, most of the speculation is rooted solely in the fact that he defines himself as a conservative.
The conventional wisdom in Washington and Jerusalem reads that the actions of the West have minimal impact on Iran since the clerical regime is acting according to its ideological compass and not reacting to its environment. This is a serious misreading of Iran.
Though the extent of the powers of the Presidency in Iran is debatable, that Iran doesn't formulate its foreign policy in a vacuum is not.
Since the early 1990s, Iran has actively sought to break out of its isolation and win approval and legitimacy for what it considers to be its natural role – a leading state in the Persian Gulf region.
Increasingly, strategic considerations have taken precedence and ideology has become a secondary driving force of Iranian foreign policy. Though its rhetoric hasn't moderated as much as its behavior, there is a clear distinction between Iran's operational policy and the statements coming out of its Friday prayers.
Compared to the mid-1990s, Iran's strategic interest in Israel has decreased significantly. An Israeli-Palestinian settlement will not pose the same strategic threat to Iran's influence in the region today as it would have done in 1994. Consequently, Iran has no compelling strategic reason to escalate tensions with Israel, with or without Ahmadinejad as president.
Unless, that is, Israel and the US escalate first. The harsh rhetoric and preemptive threats coming out of the US and Israel will cause Iran to cling on to its deterrent capabilities. And if Ahmadinejad follows Iran's historic behavioral pattern, Iran will only actualize its deterrence if Israel or the US intensify their efforts to prevent Iran from finding a regional role commensurate with its geo-political weight.
Israel should be careful not to repeat Peres's mistake. The world is a different place today than it was in 1992. Then Israel's military superiority was at its peak. Today, Israel is within the reach of states like Iran.
Israel has nothing to gain from seeing its prophecy on the Iranian threat come true. Escalating tensions with Iran in anticipation of a harsher foreign policy under Ahmadinejad may do just that.
The writer is a Middle East specialist at Johns Hopkins University.
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Foreign Policy In Focus | The U.S. and Iran: Democracy, Terrorism, and Nuclear WeaponsClick here to go to Foreign Policy In Focus web site!
By Stephen Zunes | July 26, 2005
Editor: John Gershman
The election of the hard-line Teheran mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, over former President Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani as the new head of Iran is undeniably a setback for those hoping to advance greater social and political freedom in that country. It should not necessarily be seen as a turn to the right by the Iranian electorate, however. The 70-year old Rafsanjani—a cleric and penultimate wheeler-dealer from the political establishment—was portrayed as the more moderate conservative. The fact that he had become a millionaire while in government was apparently seen as less important than his modest reform agenda. By contrast, the young Teheran mayor focused on the plight of the poor and cleaning up corruption.
In Iran, real political power rests with unelected military, economic, and right-wing ideologues, and in the June 25 runoff election, Iranian voters were forced to choose between two flawed candidates. The relatively liberal contender came across as an out-of-touch elitist, and his ultraconservative opponent was able to assemble a coalition of rural, less-educated, and fundamentalist voters to conduct a pseudopopulist campaign based on promoting morality and value-centered leadership. Such a political climate should not be unfamiliar to American voters.
Of course, Washington did not provide the Iranians with much incentive to elect another relative progressive to lead their country. Since the 1997 election of the outgoing reformist President Mohammed Khatami, the United States has strengthened its economic sanctions against Iran and has even threatened military attack. Although most Iranians would like improved relations with the United States, they apparently got the message that U.S. hostility toward their country would continue whomever they chose as president.
Washington’s primary criticisms of Teheran focus on the Iranian government’s suppression of political freedom, its support for terrorism and subversion, and its nuclear program. Though all three of these are legitimate areas of concern for the international community, the double standards exhibited by both the Bush administration and the bipartisan congressional leadership in pressing these issues have done little to promote individual liberty, counterterrorism, and nonproliferation in Iran or the region as a whole.
U.S. Criticism of the Electoral Process
The Bush administration has attempted to use the flawed election process in the Islamic Republic of Iran to further isolate that country and discredit its government. Yet, despite a call by some U.S.-based exiles for a boycott, more than two-thirds of Iran’s eligible voters went to the polls during the first round, a higher percentage than in recent U.S. presidential elections.
Many, though not all, reform-minded candidates were prevented from running, and since President Khatami was unable to significantly liberalize the political system, unelected ultraconservative clerics are still capable of dominating Iran. Despite these very real limitations, however, the election campaign was utilized by the growing pro-democracy movement to encourage greater political discourse and to deepen popular involvement in the civic process.
For the first time since Iran became a republic a quarter century ago, a presidential election was forced into a second round. The disappointment with the choices offered led to a much lower voter turnout during the runoff, but the majority of Iranians apparently considered the outcome significant enough to warrant their involvement in the electoral process. Most Iranians felt they had at least some stake in the system.
Still, President Bush insisted that the Iranian vote failed to meet “the basic requirements of democracy” and that the “oppressive record” of the country's rulers made the election illegitimate.1 Such comments appear to have actually catalyzed Iranian voters from across the political spectrum, many of whom recall how the United States engineered the overthrow of their country’s last genuinely democratic government in 1953 and backed the repressive regime of the unelected shah until his ouster in a popular revolution in 1979.
Efforts by the Bush administration to portray the political situation in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan as superior to Iran’s similarly failed to convince Iranian voters. Although those countries recently experienced relatively fair electoral processes, both are suffering from bloody insurgency campaigns led by Islamic extremists and even bloodier counterinsurgency campaigns orchestrated by the United States. Moreover, Baghdad and Kabul exercise little direct control over much of their respective countries, and neither of these elected governments has thus far been able to demonstrate any real independence from U.S. military and economic domination.
A look at most other U.S. allies in the region does not offer much inspiration for those desiring greater freedom and democracy, either. There are no competitive elections for president, for prime minister, or for any kind of legislature that can initiate and pass meaningful laws and make real policy in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, or Azerbaijan, even though these autocratic governments are bolstered by U.S. military and economic aid. Indeed, the majority of U.S.-allied governments in the region are even less democratic than Iran.
At least the ruling Iranian government does not massacre demonstrators by the hundreds or boil dissidents to death, as does the U.S-backed Karimov regime in Uzbekistan. Nor do current Iranian leaders usurp most of the nation’s riches and restrict political power to a single extended family, like the U.S.-backed family dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and the other sheikdoms of the Arabian Peninsula. And Iranian voters were spared election day brutalities like those in Egypt under the U.S.-backed Mubarak dictatorship, where police recently escorted pro-government thugs to attack a group of women who dared to hold a nonviolent protest in support of greater political freedom.
Yet only Iran, not these U.S.-backed dictatorships, endures President Bush’s complaints that power is in the hands of “an unelected few.”2 Echoing his selective criticism, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice challenges the legitimacy of the Iranian elections, because female candidates were barred from the presidential race, but she praises the far more restrictive local council elections in Saudi Arabia, where women, unlike in Iran, were not even allowed to vote.3
Such double standards in no way justify the repression, the lack of real choices in the election process, and the many other failures by Iranian leaders to conform to international standards of human rights and representative government. They do, however, indicate that Washington’s bipartisan emphasis on the lack of democracy and human rights in Iran stems not out of a desire to enhance these ideals but rather from an urge to punish, isolate, and militarily threaten an oil-rich country that refuses to sufficiently cooperate with U.S. economic and strategic designs in the Middle East.
Subversion and Terrorism
U.S. hostility toward Iran often follows accusations of subversion and terrorism beyond its borders. For example, Washington tried to blame Teheran for the popular anti-government resistance movement in the Arab island state of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, where the Shiite Muslim majority began to resist the autocratic rule of a Sunni Muslim monarchy during the 1980s. The United States also sought to link Iran with acts of terrorism—both through its own agents and through local groups—and accused Teheran of military threats and acts of subversion against Arab monarchies in the region. Even Arab states suspicious of Iran’s intentions, however, have expressed concerned about the U.S. tendency to define “Iranian-backed terrorist groups” so broadly as to include, for example, Lebanese guerrillas fighting Israeli occupation forces prior to Israel’s withdrawal in May 2000.
Although Iranian agents have trained, financed, and funneled arms to a number of extremist Islamic groups, U.S. charges of direct Iranian responsibility for specific terrorist acts against Israeli or American targets remain dubious. For example, Washington exerted enormous pressure on the Saudi government to implicate Iran in the 1996 terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers in Dharan, which killed 19 U.S. soldiers, even though Saudi investigators found no such link. Iran has challenged the United States to present evidence in an international judicial forum to prove its allegations, but Washington has refused.4 Many now believe this terrorist attack may have been one of the first strikes by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.
U.S. State Department investigations reveal that Iranian support for terrorism emanates almost exclusively from the Revolutionary Guards and the Intelligence services, both of which are beyond the control of Iran’s president and legislature. Furthermore, most acts of international terrorism clearly linked to Teheran have been directed at exiled Iranian dissidents, not against the United States.5 Iran’s immediate post-revolutionary zeal to export its ideology was short-lived, as internal problems and outside threats deflected the attention of its leadership. In addition, Iranians are culturally and religiously distinct from the Sunni Arabs who dominate most of the Middle East. The hierarchical structure of the Shiite Islam practiced in Iran limits the revolution’s appeal as a model for other Middle Eastern states.
There is little evidence to support Washington’s warnings of aggressive Iranian designs in the Persian Gulf, either. Iran has not threatened—nor does it have any reason for provoking—a confrontation over sea lanes, as several U.S. analysts have feared. Iran is at least as reliant as its Arab neighbors on unrestricted navigation, so if it closed the Straits of Hormuz, Iran would be primarily hurting itself. With few pipelines servicing its southern oil fields, Iran is far more dependent on tanker shipping than any other country on the Persian Gulf coast.
Iran has dramatically reduced its military spending due to chronic economic problems. Indeed, in constant dollars, Iranian military spending is barely one-third what it was during the 1980s, when Washington was clandestinely sending arms to the Islamic Republic.6 Mirroring increased Iranian procurement of sophisticated missiles, the Arab sheikdoms along the Persian Gulf have similar missile capabilities, serving (along with the U.S. Navy) as an effective deterrent force.
The United States has also cited Iran’s occupation of three small islands claimed by the United Arab Emirates as evidence of aggressive Iranian designs in the Persian Gulf.7 However, Iran originally seized the islands—Abu Musa, Greater Tunbs, and Lesser Tunbs—in 1971 under the shah and with U.S. and British encouragement.8
One litmus test of a country’s aggressive designs on its neighbors is military procurement. As a country amasses arms, bolsters troops, and acquires training, the chance that it may initiate war escalates, because the probability of success rises. On this front, Iran also seems less of a threat. Iran’s military procurement relative to the Gulf States is far less than it was during the 1970s under the shah, when the United States was actually promoting arms sales to Iran. In addition, much of Iran’s naval capability was destroyed by the United States in the 1987-88 tanker war, and Iran lost much of its ground weaponry during Iraq’s 1988 offensive. As much as half of Iran’s inventory of major land-force weapons were destroyed in the course of the war with Iraq.9 Although Iran’s defensive capabilities have improved somewhat, there is little to suggest that Teheran poses any kind of realistic offensive threat to the region. Indeed, Iranian tanks and planes actually number less than in 1980.10
Regarding potential conflicts on the country’s eastern border, Iran came close to declaring war against Afghanistan’s Taliban government in 1998 in response to repression against the country’s Shiite minority and the killings of nine Iranian diplomats in the Northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Iran accepted nearly two million Afghan refugees during more than 20 years of war in Afghanistan, a country with which the Iranians have close ethnic ties. Iran also provided military support for the Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban. Despite all this, the Bush administration has warned Iran not to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, an ironic admonition coming as it did after months of U.S. interference in Afghanistan that included heavy bombing, ground combat, the ouster of one government, and the installation of another.
The Bush administration has also claimed that Teheran allowed al-Qaida members to seek sanctuary in Iran, though it has been unable to present much in the way of evidence to that effect. In reality, Iran has strongly opposed al-Qaida and welcomed their ouster from Afghanistan. Likewise, al-Qaida has been antagonistic toward Iran, in part due to its Shia Islam, which Osama bin Laden and his Sunni followers view as heretical.
U.S. claims of Iranian support for the Iraqi insurgency are particularly ludicrous, given the close ties with the Iraqi president, prime minister, and leaders of the majority Shiite coalition in the national assembly. Iran has absolutely no interest in supporting the Sunni-led insurgency, though—like most Iraqis—it would like the United States to withdraw its forces as soon as possible and allow the elected Iraqi government greater sovereignty.
Nor, despite claims by the Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties, is Iran a serious threat to Israel. Israel is separated from Iran by over 600 miles, and the Israeli air force is more than capable of shooting down any Iranian aircraft long before it could reach Israel’s borders. Israel also possesses a strong defense system against medium-range missiles. It is highly unlikely that Israel would have clandestinely armed the Ayatollah Khomeini’s government throughout the 1980s if the Islamic Republic was considered a threat, particularly since hard-line anti-Israel elements were more prominent in the Iranian government during that period than they are now.
Iran’s Nuclear Program
Having already successfully fooled most of Congress and the American public into believing that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program, the Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties are now claiming that it is Iran that has an active nuclear weapons program. As with Iraq, the administration does not look too kindly on those who question its assumptions. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is the United Nations body legally responsible for monitoring compliance with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Iran, the United States, and all but a handful of countries are members. When the IAEA published a detailed report in November 2004 concluding that its extensive inspections had revealed no evidence of Iran pursuing a nuclear weapons program, the Bush administration responded by attempting to oust the IAEA director.
For the time being, the Iranians have been able to avert a crisis through negotiations with representatives of the European Union (EU). Iran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment and processing programs until a permanent deal is reached, which the Iranians hope will also include political and economic concessions from the Europeans.
The Bush administration has not been supportive of the European negotiating efforts, however. John Bolton, the former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security and currently the UN ambassador-designate, declared that the EU’s strategy of negotiating with Iran was “doomed to fail.”11 Washington has instead advocated a more confrontational approach of UN sanctions in response to Iran’s apparent earlier violations of IAEA agreements. Bolton has argued for “robust” military action by the United States, if the UN Security Council fails to impose the sanctions that Washington demands.12
The Bush administration’s efforts have not received much support, however, in part because of U.S. double standards. The United States has blocked enforcement of a previous UN Security Council resolution calling on Israel to place its nuclear facilities under IAEA trusteeship. Washington has also quashed resolutions calling on Pakistan and India to eliminate their nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.13
Despite accusations from U.S. officials that “there is no doubt that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons production program,”14 no one has been able to cite any evidence supporting such a charge. As with the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, however, Democratic congressional leaders have contributed to the Bush administration’s alarmist rhetoric about a supposed nuclear threat from Iran and have defended White House double standards that focus on the alleged nuclear weapons program of an adversary while ignoring the obvious and proven nuclear weapons arsenals of U.S. allies like Israel, Pakistan, and India. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, widely seen as the front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, declared that the prospect of Iran also developing nuclear weapons “must be unacceptable to the entire world,” since it would “shake the foundation of global security to its very core.”15 Similarly, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called for the establishment of “an international coalition against proliferation” modeled on the multilateral effort to combat terrorism. She suggested that instead of organizing against nuclear proliferation in general, such a coalition should focus on Iran, despite the Islamic Republic’s apparent current cooperation with its NPT obligations.16 As with the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, congressional Democratic leaders appear willing to blindly support the Bush administration in its exaggerated and highly selective accusations of an imminent threat from a distant country that just happens to sit on a lot of oil.
It is important to recognize that even if Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful, the enormous expense and environmental risks from nuclear power production make it a poor choice for developing countries, especially those with generous energy resources. And the risk of it being used as a cover for a secret nuclear weapons program is certainly real.
However, the United States is still obligated under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to allow signatory states in good standing to have access to peaceful nuclear technology. Ironically, this provision promoting the use of nuclear energy was originally included in the NPT in large part because of Washington’s desire to promote the nuclear power industry. In any case, whatever the extent of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and whatever the outcome of the ongoing EU talks, the United States is in a poor position to assume much leadership in the cause of nonproliferation.
Lost in Bush’s current obsession with Iran’s nuclear intentions is the fact that the United States—from the Eisenhower administration through the Carter years—played a major role in the development of Iran’s nuclear program. In 1957, Washington and Teheran signed their first civil nuclear cooperation agreement. Over the next two decades, the United States provided Iran not only with technical assistance but with its first experimental nuclear reactor, complete with enriched uranium and plutonium with fissile isotopes. Despite the refusal of the shah to rule out the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons, the Ford administration approved the sale to Iran of up to eight nuclear reactors (with fuel) and later cleared the sale of lasers believed to be capable of enriching uranium. Surpassing any danger from the mullahs now in power, the shah's megalomania led arms control advocates to fear a diversion of the technology for military purposes.
The Washington Post reported that an initially hesitant President Ford was assured by his advisers that Iran was only interested in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy despite the country’s enormous reserves of oil and natural gas.17 Ironically, Ford’s secretary of defense was Donald Rumsfeld, his chief of staff was Dick Cheney, and his head of nonproliferation efforts at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was Paul Wolfowitz, all of whom—as officials in the current administration—have insisted that Iran’s nuclear program must be assumed to have military applications.
Iranian Perceptions of Defense Needs
Concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons in a volatile region, Teheran has called for the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone for the entire Middle East. All nations in the region would be required to give up their nuclear weapons and open up their programs to strict international inspections. Iran has been joined in its proposal by Syria, by U.S. allies Jordan and Egypt, and by other Middle Eastern states. Such nuclear weapons-free zones have already been established for Latin America, the South Pacific, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
The Bush administration has rejected the proposition, however. A draft UN Security Council resolution in December 2003 calling for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East was withdrawn when the United States threatened to veto it. The Bush administration, with bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, insists that the United States has the right to decide which countries get to have nuclear weapons and which ones do not, effectively demanding a kind of nuclear apartheid. Not only are such double standards unethical, they are simply unworkable: any effort to impose a regime of haves and have nots from the outside will simply make the have nots try even harder.
Since Iranian efforts to establish a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East have been unsuccessful, it is certainly possible that Iran may someday develop nuclear weapons. However, Washington errs in assuming that the Islamic Republic would use them for aggressive designs. Indeed, the Iranians may have good reasons to desire a nuclear deterrent.
In early 2002, Iran was listed with Iraq and North Korea by President Bush as part of “the axis of evil.” Iraq, which had given up its nuclear program over a decade earlier and allowed IAEA inspectors to verify this, was invaded and occupied by the United States. By contrast, North Korea—which reneged on its agreement and has apparently resumed production of nuclear weapons—has not been invaded. The Iranians may see a lesson in that.
In addition, soon after coming to office, President Bush decided to unfreeze America’s nuclear weapons production and launch a program to develop smaller tactical nuclear weapons for battlefield use. It is important to remember that the only country to actually use nuclear weapons in combat is the United States, in the 1945 bombings of two Japanese cities, a decision that most American political leaders still defend to this day.
Furthermore, the United States is allied with Pakistan, which borders Iran on the east and possesses nuclear weapons and sophisticated delivery systems. The United States is also a strong ally of Israel, located 600 miles to the west and capable of launching a nuclear strike against Iran with its long-range missiles in a matter of minutes. Unlike Iran, neither of these countries has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and both are in violation of UN Security Council resolutions regarding their nuclear weapons programs. However, the Bush administration’s view is that rather than focusing on countries that actually do have an acknowledged nuclear weapons program, actually do possess nuclear weapons, and are in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, the focus should instead be on a country that does not have a confirmed nuclear weapons program, does not yet have nuclear weapons, and is not in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.
The only realistic means of curbing the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is to establish a law-based, regionwide program for disarmament encompassing all countries regardless of their relations with the United States. Ultimately, the only way to make the world safe from the threat of nuclear weapons is by establishing a nuclear-free planet. And the United States—as the largest nuclear power—must take the lead. Polls show that a sizable majority of Americans do not believe any country, including the United States, should possess nuclear weapons.18 Neither the Bush administration nor the leaders of the Democratic Party, however, appear willing to even broach the subject.
The Issue Is U.S. Hegemony
Iranians are convinced that U.S. hostility toward Iran is not really about nuclear weapons, terrorism, or anything other than opposition to the very existence of an Islamic republic in a country once ruled by a compliant, U.S.-installed, absolute monarch. This is why both “conservative” and “reformist” elements in Iranian politics support their country’s right to develop a nuclear energy and research program under IAEA supervision.19
Besides Iraq, Iran is the only Middle Eastern country with a sizable educated population, enormous oil resources, and an adequate water supply. Among Middle Eastern nations, only Iraq and Iran have shown the potential for pursuing domestic and foreign policies independent of the dictates of powerful Western governments or the international financial institutions dominated by these governments. In order to control Iraq, the Bush administration decided it had to take over the country by military force.
There is little question that there were similar plans in store for Iran, until U.S. difficulties in stabilizing and managing Iran’s once-powerful Arab neighbor made it apparent that an additional occupation would be unwise. Pentagon troop strength is already severely stretched, and the financial and political costs of the ongoing war in Iraq are becoming difficult for the Bush administration to manage.
Iran would also be far more difficult to invade and occupy than Iraq. Iran has more than three times Iraq’s population and land mass, and the country has far more mountains and other geographical hindrances to invasion and occupation. Unlike Iraq in the dozen years prior to the U.S. invasion, Iran has not been under a strictly enforced international arms embargo and has been able to build up its military defenses.
And as problematic as Iran’s political system may be, Iranians enjoy far more political pluralism than did Iraqis under the totalitarian regime of Saddam Hussein. As a result, Iranians harbor more hope that change is possible from within. Although Iran’s population consists of several different ethno-linguistic groups, there is a very strong sense of nationalism that would likely result in far more Iranians rushing to defend their country from foreign conquest and occupation than was the case with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The legal case for military action against Iran is even weaker than it was in regard to Iraq. Great Britain, Poland, and other allies that supported the United States in invading Iraq have made it clear they would not take part in a conquest of Iran.
An outright invasion of Iran is therefore unlikely, but this does not mean that military action is not forthcoming, either directly or through Washington’s client state Israel. The most likely scenario might resemble the half decade prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq complete with periodic bombing raids and missile attacks against suspected military, industrial, and government targets. Though not as calamitous as a full-scale invasion, such military action would nevertheless constitute a tragic blunder.
Iranians would probably find ways to retaliate against such attacks, including a refusal to cooperate with the IAEA and an increase in support for terrorist groups. Reaction to such attacks would almost certainly fan anti-American and anti-Israeli extremism in the region, even within the pro-Western and anti-Iranian Arab sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf.
Furthermore, as Iranian human rights lawyer and Islamic feminist Shirin Ebadi observed, “Respect for human rights … can never be imposed by foreign military might and coercion—an approach that abounds in contradictions.” The 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, jailed by the Iranian government for her dissident activities, went on to observe that not only would an attack on Iran “vitiate popular support for human rights activism, but by destroying civilian lives, institutions, and infrastructure, war would also usher in chaos and instability. Respect for human rights is likely to be among the first casualties.”20
Up to this point, U.S. pressure on Iran has primarily been through strict unilateral economic sanction. Unlike international sanctions against the former apartheid government of South Africa or the current military junta in Burma, Washington’s sanctions against Iran are not predicated on significant legal or moral imperatives. As with similar extraterritorial efforts regarding Cuba, U.S. attempts to pressure other nations to get tough with Iran have alienated even America's strongest allies, who consider such measures to be in violation of World Trade Organization principles.
Similarly, U.S. efforts to subvert the Iranian government are contrary to international legal conventions that recognize sovereign rights and principles of nonintervention. They also directly counter the Algiers Declaration of 1981, under which the United States unequivocally pledged not to intervene politically or militarily in the internal affairs of Iran. Still, even while acknowledging that Iran is a sovereign government, the Bush administration insists that it has the right to attack governments that do not “exercise their sovereignty responsibly.”21
What neither the Bush administration nor Congress seems to appreciate is that even if Iranians were free from clerical domination and the electoral process in Iran were completely fair and open, the result would almost certainly be a government that—though presumably not as fanatically anti-American as the current hard-line clerics in power—would never consent to the role of a compliant ally. In Washington’s eyes, Iran’s most serious offense lies not in the area of human rights, terrorism, nuclear ambitions, subversion, or conquest but rather in daring to challenge U.S. hegemony in the Middle East. Iran is the most important country in the Middle East actively opposing U.S. ambitions for strategic, economic, and political domination over the region. By arranging for the Iranian government to be overthrown or crippled, American policymakers hope to acquire unprecedented leverage in shaping the future direction of the Middle East.
And this brings us to the final irony. Serving as an impediment to Washington’s ambitions gives Teheran a degree of credibility and legitimacy that it would not otherwise receive from large numbers of Middle Eastern peoples resentful of such foreign domination. This strengthens the current Iranian government’s grip at home as well as its influence throughout the Middle East and beyond.
Cited in Robin Wright and Michael Fletcher, “Bush Denounces Iran’s Election,” Washington Post, p. A18, June 17, 2005.
Interview on Fox News Sunday, June 19, 2005.
Houman A. Sadri, “Trends in the Foreign Policy of Revolutionary Iran,” Journal of Third World Studies, vol. 15, no. 1, April 1998.
Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State, Patterns ofGlobal Terrorism—2000, Section I: Overview of State-Sponsored Terrorism, April 30, 2001.
Anthony H. Cordesman, Trends in Iran: A Graphic and Statistical Overview, Washington: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1999, p. 17.
Jamie McIntyre, “Iran Builds Up Military Strength at Mouth of Gulf,” CNN World News, August 6, 1996, available at
Hooshang Amirahmadi and Nader Entessar, eds., Iran and the Arab World (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), p.127.
Anthony Cordesman, “The Changing Military Balance in the Gulf,” Middle East Policy, vol. VI, no. 1, June 1998, p. 82.
Cordesman, Trends in Iran, op. cit., p. 31.
Cited in Scott Ritter, “Sleepwalking to Disaster in Iran,” Al Jazeera, March 30, 2005.
See UN Security Council Resolutions 487 (1981) and 1172 (1998).
Ritter, op. cit.
Remarks by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to the 2005 American Israeli Public Affairs Committee Conference, May 24, 2005, available at
Remarks by Representative Nancy Pelosi to the 2005 American Israeli Public Affairs Committee Conference, May 24, 2005.
Dafna Linzer, “Past Arguments Don’t Square with Current Iran Policy,” Washington Post, March 26, 2005.
WM Lester, “Most Americans Say No Nations Should Have Nuclear Weapons,” Associated Press, March 31, 2005.
See Michael Ryan Kraig, “Realistic Solutions for Resolving the Iranian Nuclear Crisis,” Stanley Foundation Policy Analysis Brief, January 2005, p. 2.
Shirin Ebadi, “Attacking Iran Would Bring Disaster, Not Freedom,” I ndependent (UK), February 19, 2005.
National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, 2005.
Stephen Zunes is Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project (www.fpif.org) and a Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco.
For More Information
Bush Administration Support for Repression in Uzbekistan Belies Pro-Democracy Rhetoric
By Stephen Zunes (June 20, 2005)
Bush Administration Attacks on Amnesty International: Old Wine, New Bottles
By Stephen Zunes (June 6, 2005)
Undermining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—It Didn’t Start With the Bush Administration
By Stephen Zunes (June 2005)
Recognizing the Power of Nonviolent Action
By Stephen Zunes (March 2005)
Crediting Bush for Growing Lebanese Demands for Freedom Misplaced By Stephen Zunes (March 22, 2005)
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Tuesday, July 19, 2005
Cultural Revolution to Eliminate Rafsanjani
Click here to go to the original site Rooz Online!
From amongst the events and comments on Iran since the election of Ahmadinejad as the new hardline president of Iran, it appears that there may be a movement to launch a cultural revolution of Chinese style to eliminate Rafsanjani from Iran’s political landscape. But is it possible?
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has a long history of political leadership in Iran since the revolution of 1979 that toppled the monarchy and brought the clergy to power. He was first recognized as a man of power when he stood next to ayatollah Khomeini in Alavi School in Tehran when all the world attention was on the founder of the Islamic state. As a member of the Revolutionary Council that planned the ouster of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, he presented Khomeini’s order to Mehdi Bazargan to form a government and be the Republic’s first Prime Minister. He then again gained prominence at ayatollah Motahari’s memorial service when he announced that the clergy in Iran would not make the mistake they had made in the Constitutional Movement of 1906 by relinquishing their power to the secular groups and this time would remain in power and in political control. Until then it was believed that Khomeini’s proclamation that the clergy would return to their teaching centers after the collapse of the monarchy would be followed, and thus the importance of Rafsanjani’s announcement. He formed the Islamic Republican Party and even though he failed to win Khomeini’s approval for its first presidential candidate (Jalaleldin Farsi), the party succeeded in winning the majority of the seats of the first Islamic Majlis (i.e. Parliament).
A year into the revolution, Rafsanjani and other leaders i.e. Mohammad Beheshti, Mosavi Ardebili, Mohammad Javad Bahonar and Ali Khamenei together warned Khomeini who was ill in hospital through a letter of the impending assault by secular forces to oust the clerics from power. The letter was never delivered to Khomeini, but it indicated their frustrations due to lack of Khomeini’s support for extending the role of the Islamic Republican Party and its workings.
Working as the speaker and leader of the Majlis whose majority belonged to the Islamic Republican Party (i.e. IRP) led by Rafsanjani, he weakened then President Bani Sadr’s (who was a non cleric) selection of a uniform cabinet and widened its attacks on him. While continuing to promote the party despite Khomeini’s disinclination to strengthen and expand it. When the time for another round of elections came up, Khomeini again did not support the IRP, and thus Rafsanjani, in its choice for a Prime Minister. So Mohammad Ali Rajai was overwhelmingly voted by the Majlis which was led by him and thus imposed on to him. Rafsanjani demonstrated his powers in his opposition to Bani Sadr and through the same Majlis that he ran soon impeached Bani Sadr, bringing on a difficult period of conflict and civil war with the Mojahedin Khalq Organization. After Bani Sadr’s departure, Rafsanjani acquired was given the additional powers of overseeing the war with Iraq, something he directed till its end.
Political observers have said that a group of Khomeini’s advisers led by his son Ahmad were against the consolidation of political power in the hands of the IRP, contrary to Rafsanjani’s wishes. The party was eventually dismantled but the struggle for its growth and then life explains the support this group around Khomeini gave to the split within the powerful cleric association Jame Rohaniyate Mobarez to form the Majmae Rohaniyate Mobarez, the opposition to the Anjmane Hojatiye, an established right-wing cleric association, the opposition to Ali Akbar Velayati becoming Prime Minister (presented to the Majlis by Khamenei) and the selection of Mir Hossein Mousavi as the Prime Minister, all against Rafsanjani’s wishes.
The seven years that ended with Khomeini’s death brought and kept Rafsanjani as the number two man in the Islamic Republic. He made Khomeini accept the termination of the eight-year war with Iraq and accept responsibility for it, despite calls by others to continue fighting. But more importantly was the removal of ayatollah Montazeri as Khomeini’s successor, once dubbed by Khomeini as the fruit of all his life. Montazeri had been criticizing the management of the country’s affairs for a while – management that was essentially in the hands of Khamenei and Rafsanjani - specifically the executions and the policies of the hardliners. Right-wing politicians rejoiced at Monazeri’s removal from power, while Rafsanjani, Khamenei and Mousavi Ardebili kept their silence over the issue. This despite the fact that Montezeri blames Rafsanjani and Ahmad Khomeini for his downfall in his memoirs.
Scanty reports indicate that as Khomeini’s health deteriorated, Ahmad Khomeini and Rafsanjani had agreed on Khamenei succeeding Khomeini. Khomeini, who was conscious only a few hours a day during his last days, had called in both Hashemi and Khamenei repeatedly and stressed to both to stay together and not allow others to instill discord between them. Ahmad, Khomeini’s only surviving son before his death is said to have expressed his father’s concern about difference between Khamenei and Rafsanjani, pointing out that if that takes ground then all will be lost, meaning the republic they had created.
After Khomeini’s death, the meeting of the Experts Council to decide on a successor to Khomeini was lead and guided by Rafsanjani, who also got his nominee Khamenei into the leadership position even though others had been proposed as well, i.e. grand ayatollah Golpaygani, Mosavi Ardebili and Ahmad Khomeini, among them, and despite the fact that Khamenei did not have the religious qualifications to take that position as the constitution had specified. Soon, the assembly that was working on amending the constitution concluded its sessions by eliminating the position of Prime Minister, giving all his powers to the President and strengthening the powers of the President and the Leader. Khamenei resigned as President to take up the position of Leader and fresh elections were called for a new President. In short, Rafsanjani was already there.
Observers have said that in Khomeini’s absence, with Khamenei as Leader and Rafsanjani as President, the best solution was found for the post-Khomeini years, i.e. the second decade of the revolution. Soon, Rafsanjani found himself disengaged and in opposing with the hardliners in the country and in practical terms confronting their powers and activities. During Khatami’s presidency, Rafsanjani more or less maintained his power as the number two man in the Islamic Republic, despite his near defeat and subsequent resignation to the Majlis. But he prepared himself for a post Khatami period. He formed a new coalition and banked on the middle class that he had help create, along with the technocrats who had always supported him, to cast him their votes in the seventh presidential elections in June 2005. It was believed, and not unjustly, that the votes of the 16 million pro-reformists, versus the 11 million who had voted for Ahmadinejad, would cast their ballots for Rafsanjani in the runoff elections. But politics is full of surprises. Ahmadinejad the unfamiliar face of the hardliners and revolutionary Islam, beat the powerful and seasoned leader of the revolution.
This defeat for Rafsanjani was different from the one he had suffered 4 years ago during his run for the Majlis. This time the volume of criticism and misinformation about him was carried out by precisely the people whom he had nurtured and on whose vote he depended: the middle class, the technocrats, clergy in Qom, the second generation Passdaran guards, and even the para-military Baseej. But why had the second generation of the Revolution turned its back to its first generation leaders?
Several theories circulate.
One is that he himself did not heed to the calls to refrain from taking part in the elections and chose to challenge it, even when he discovered that his friend of fifty years had someone else set to get into the presidential saddle.
Another is that this is in fact a Chinese style cultural revolution aimed at wiping out the accomplishments of the last 16 years. It has no other means than to incite public sentiment. So any means is used to wipe Rafsanjani out to clear the way for the cultural revolution. Will Hashemi be the Teng Xiaoping of Iran? And like him, will Rafsanjani rise to power again and then take his revenge?
The third theory has it that because of Khamenei’s serious illness, hardliners are busy laying the foundation for their next Leader, and Rafsanjani is not on their list.
Still another view believes that because of the widespread dissatisfaction among the public, the regime is in search of someone who it can dump so as to keep the hope of reform alive for the future.
And there are those who believe that the hardliners have generally succeeded in driving out all the moderates from power (Bazargan, Bani Sadr, and Montazeri) and now it is merely Rafsanjani’s turn.
Rafsanjani’s strategy was similar to the Shah’s in promoting economic development while keeping the lid on political reforms and freedoms. In this regard, Ahmadinejad is right in proclaiming this to be a new revolution. But this time it was against Rafsanjani.
To sort out through these views and make meaningful conclusions, perhaps one may look at the events since the elections. Majlis deputy Elias Naderan, the man who had in the past opened a case against Rafsanjani has again asked the Ministry of Intelligence to investigate the comments of a manager of an oil company who has stated that he had heard Rafsanjani’s son Mehdi Hashemi say that he must provide the expenses for his father’s presidential campaigning. He has also opened up another file involving a bribery suit against a Danish oil company that had received bribes from an Iranian source to win an oil contract. In this regard, a manager of a company in London claims that he was asked to collect monies from the Danish company for Mehdi Hashemi. These accusations and claims were refuted by the government of the time. Naderan is a colleague of Ahmadinejad and a former Passdaran Revolutionary Guard chief so these talks these days acquire a different meaning. And it is no accident that Keyhan newspaper writes on Rafsanjani that it appears that the number two man of the Islamic Republic has been exercising more influence than his due right, so that power and influence have gone wherever he has gone.
Those opposing Rafsanjani have plenty to point to in their drive to eliminate him from the political arena. But Rafsanjani remains the first politician to write on the dealings behind the scenes while being still in power. And what he has written puts him in the center of all the major events in the country, ranging from executions to assassinations, and to economic miseries. He himself sees his role as such, and thus remains polluted with wealth and power.
And it is because of his position, power and history that those who wish to remove him may only succeed if they embark something as grand as a cultural revolution. After all, Rafsanjani is publicly held responsible for much of where we are in today. In this sense, removing his is not more difficult than removing Montazeri, but the question then is this: who will remain for the Islamic Republic after Rafsanjani?
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THE TRANS-ATLANTIC RESPONSE TO THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN (ASPEN BERLIN CONFERENCE)“IRAN AND DEMOCRACY IN THE GREATER MIDDLE EAST”
MAY 23-24, 2005 – AMMAN
CONFERENCE PAPER II:
THE ARAB HUMAN DEVELOPMENT REPORT 2004
AND THE TRANS-ATLANTIC RESPONSE TO THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN
Peter Skerry, Boston College and The Brookings Institution
Of the many grave issues facing the world today, one of the gravest is the political future of Arab and Muslim nations. Because it tackles this issue, the Arab Human Development Report 2004 promises to be even more widely discussed than its predecessors. Many people around the world will welcome its broad argument that Arab governments need to move toward freedom and democracy – ideals which have resonated as much in the Arab world as in Europe and America.
Yet complications immediately arise. The Report begins by articulating imprudently high standards by which to gauge political progress in the Arab world – standards so high that were they taken to heart, they would soon lead to disappointment and disillusionment. Not surprisingly, the authors of the Report reject that path and opt instead for so much less than what they originally identify as optimal that they wind up open to the charge of opportunism. In the final analysis, the Report lacks sufficient intellectual rigor and moral clarity such that it manages simultaneously to misjudge the consequences of American policies and to neglect aspects of Islam that could prove valuable to all nations in the decades ahead.
As a study of Arab societies this Report is understandably silent on Iran. Yet its findings might well have been relevant to an evaluation of the world’s one revolutionary Islamic regime. Unfortunately, the Report is not very helpful in this regard. Indeed, it is only by inference that one can extract any guidance to inform the on-going efforts on both sides of the Atlantic to deal with Iran at this particularly tricky juncture.
The Report begins curiously by ignoring religion generally and Islam specifically. Defining “human development” as not limited to material well-being, it specifies “the non-physical, non-material aspects of a dignified human life: freedom, knowledge, aesthetic pleasure, human dignity and self-fulfillment.” Not only is religion, or even some mention of the transcendent, not found at this critical juncture, but the Report explicitly identifies its purpose as “humanist.” When discussing civil and political liberties in Arab countries, those specifically cited include freedom of “opinion, expression, and creativity.” Once again, religion is overlooked. To be sure, later on the Report does allude to religion when it emphasizes that it is “unacceptable to prevent any societal group, including religious groups, from forming a political party.” (my emphasis) But on balance, the authors’ stance toward religion ranges from indifference to obtuseness and scepticism – such as when they repeatedly reduce religion in the Arab world to tribalism.
More curiously, the Report overlooks basic aspects of Islam seemingly relevant to problems facing many societies at the outset of the twenty-first century. To begin, the authors invoke the term “liberation” not only in the context of 1950s-era “Arab liberation movements,” but in the context of contemporary Western societies, where “liberation” speaks to individual desires to be freed from the domination of large bureaucratic institutions in order to pursue more authentic definitions of self. Specifically citing writers such as Herbert Marcuse, the authors nevertheless seem oblivious to how such critiques of advanced capitalism, which had their heyday during the 1960s, have contributed to the hedonism whose full-flowering in Western societies now so profoundly offends Muslim values.
Indeed, it is quite surprising that in a document concerned with the social and political implications of Islam in the modern world, the authors use the terminology of “liberation” without any apparent sense of irony or even self-consciousness. For quite the opposite of liberation, Islam literally refers to the imperative of man’s submission – to the will of God. And in the context of contemporary capitalist societies, perhaps especially in the United States, Muslims are developing important critiques of what they regard as the obsessive, individualistic greed and hedonism on which they are based. Such critiques are precisely why many young women embrace Islamic modesty, including the hijab, which they view as a conscious choice of submission to the will of God instead of to the wiles of executives in Hollywood and Madison Avenue. And though such Islamic critiques of capitalist societies can be pushed to extremes, I for one am not prepared to dismiss their basic insights as completely wrong. But all this is apparently lost on the authors of the Arab Human Development Report 2004.
More directly related to the Report’s focus on politics and government in Arab states, we are confronted with the overriding problem of the authors’ extraordinarily high standards for defining liberty and democracy in the modern world. They begin by calling for “institutions which operate . . . with complete transparency.” The authors also declare that “human development is incompatible with any type of discrimination against any groups of human beings whether defined by gender, social origin, creed or colour.” They also assert at the very outset that “human development is most profoundly seen as a process of expanding ‘the range of human choice’. . . [and] people must have the freedom to choose among alternatives. This becomes an “absolute priority.” In the same vein, the Report goes on to insist that “human entitlements, in principle, are infinite, and they develop and change continuously in accord with human advancement.”
Now, each of these assertions is subject to serious challenge. To begin, no effective institutions can ever operate with “complete transparency.” There are of course degrees of openness that can and ought to be achieved in democratic societies, but sooner or later the price becomes too high – due either to diminished effectiveness of the institutions or to outright disillusionment with them. This problem has been demonstrated in recent years in the political system which is undoubtedly the most open in the world and where levels of disaffection and disillusionment are high – that is, the United States.
As for discrimination, the United States can again be relied on for some relevant experience. While as a people Americans have certainly proved capable of acknowledging our racist past, we have yet to arrive at a common understanding of what today constitutes “discrimination” toward specific groups – either in the context of wrongs to be rectified or policies to overcome presumptive wrongs. Is “discrimination” to be determined and judged on the basis of the intentions of individuals and policies, or on the basis of outcomes, independent of intentions? While social scientists, the courts, and many of our political elites have generally opted for the second, structural understanding of discrimination, it is equally clear that large numbers of ordinary Americans have not.
When it comes to human choice, the authors’ strong preference for maximizing it not only would seem to collide with the powerful ethos of submission in Islam, but with parallel tendencies among many non-Muslims – including some Americans. At a minimum, the authors might want to consider how choice can undermine social cohesion and solidarity, and even efficiency. The latter is certainly the finding of many recent experiments conducted by sociologists and economists, demonstrating that when faced with too much information and too many choices, individuals tend to freeze and avoid making any choices. Obviously, there are trade-offs here that the “absolute priority” the authors assign to choice fails to take into account.
Lastly, the assertion that “human entitlements, in principle, are infinite” seems profoundly wrong. At least to this writer, “in principle” entitlements are by definition limited. Even if by an entitlement we mean some material benefit deemed of fundamental importance to fellow citizens, or to human beings generally, it must almost certainly be limited. To declare otherwise is to render the notion of an entitlement meaningless. Of course, the seductive implication here is that we can avoid making the difficult choices that are the essence of politics and government by assuming that the critical nature of some desired good translates into its ready availability.
Again, the experience of the United States seems pertinent. American political culture is profoundly suspicious of government and politics. One way that we Americans have figured out how to respond to the demands that a modern citizenry places on its government, without appearing to rely on politics, is to label all variety of benefits as “rights” – another term for entitlements. In this way, the point is made that what is being sought is of such fundamental importance that it should not be subjected to the ordinary vicissitudes of politics. As a result, all variety of rights – to education, to housing, to medical care, etc – are routinely invoked by advocates and politicians alike. Yet in practice such rights are frequently not fully implemented. For sooner or later, they must be voted on – by politicians! Such are the games that we play with ourselves in the United States – and that the authors of the Arab Human Development Report 2004 would now apparently imitate.
But like us Americans, the authors of the Report manage to avoid the full implications of their strong words. Having taken such an aggressive stance on human rights, they then assert that such rights – which many Arabs and Muslims argue are in fact tainted by Western assumptions and cultural norms – should be reconciled with Islamic culture, Shari’a law in particular:
It may be appropriate to work towards a concept of human rights in the Arab context, that respects international human rights law in its entirety, while recognizing the Arab national identity and its aspirations as an historical legacy of critical importance in defining Arab reality, and in shaping the Arab future.
Yet I would argue that such an approach will quickly and inevitably lead to double standards, especially since, as the authors conclude, “awareness of human rights principles is limited; such rights are not deeply rooted in the Arab cultural environment.” In such a context, the ever-present temptation for politicians to resort to hypocrisy and deceit will crowd out any meaningful progress on rights.
As for double standards, a case in point would be the authors’ brief evaluation of the situation in Iraq. Here I want to be very specific. The Report notes:
As a result of the invasion of their country, the Iraqi people have emerged from the grip of a despotic regime that violated their basic rights and freedoms, only to fall under a foreign occupation that increased human suffering. (emphasis added)
My focus here is on the clause in italics. However much suffering and death have been visited upon a humiliated Iraqi people, many of whom clearly regard themselves as under occupation by a foreign power, I would nevertheless challenge the authors’ conclusion that U.S. policy has resulted in “increased human suffering.” Perhaps this will be the considered judgment of the invasion of Iraq by fair-minded observers sometime in the future. But even if this assessment were to prove accurate, surely the removal of a despot requires force and violence that cannot be exquisitely fine-tuned and is therefore prone to mistakes and excesses. If the alternative is tyranny, how else can freedom and human rights be secured? Surely not by the kind of exquisite utilitarian calculus that the authors invoke here. Even a critic of the invasion could accept this point.
The Report’s authors are guilty here of what I would consider moral obtuseness, at best; pandering, at worst. Such is the likely consequence when political actors – whether elected officials, policy planners, or intellectuals – pursue overly ambitious, unrealistic goals. Eventually they seek to avoid failure or defeat by retreating from the high ground to the low road. Much better, I would argue, to avoid the disillusionment and anger that follow from backing away from such extreme positions and to rely instead on more modest expectations that are less likely to require such posturing.
In a similar vein, the Report’s authors open themselves to the charge of opportunism – or perhaps just trendiness. At least this comes to mind reading their approval of efforts by Muslim thinkers to reconstruct liberalism in order to achieve “the assimilation of the principle of individual freedom within a concept of the sociability of man.” This is an admirable goal. But it is a project already undertaken by, among others, French Catholic thinkers like Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier, who counterposed what the latter called “personalism” to liberal individualism.
The charge of opportunism perhaps more accurately applies to the authors’ frequent allusions to the situation of Arabs and Muslims in post-September 11 America, including their commentary on the Patriot Act. As they put it, in a section provocatively entitled “The Crisis of Democracy After September 11,” after that fateful day “the US administration moved to curtail civil and political rights, especially those of Arabs and Muslims, in the fight against ‘terrorism’ as the former defined it.” The Report goes on to cite specifically the Patriot Act and concludes that “many immigrant rights, including those of legal immigrants, have been curbed.” The authors then go on to make the more general point about the impact of post-September 11 policies on Arab nations: “The fact that some Western countries which Arab reformers had long held up as models have taken steps widely perceived to be discriminatory and repressive, especially with regard to foreigners, has weakened the position of those reformers calling for Arab governments undertaking similar actions to change their course.”
Such language simply misrepresents the situation of Arabs and Muslims in the United States since September 11. Again, I want to be very clear. In the fifteen or so months following the attacks on the World Trade Center, approximately 5000 Arabs and Muslims residing in the United States were detained and imprisoned – some for long periods of time – without benefit of legal counsel or communication with their families. Over time some of these were deported and an undetermined number remain in government custody. But it appears that by now most have been released.
Several points need to be made here. As the authors themselves indicate, such actions have been loudly criticized in the United States by various immigrant rights organizations as well as by Muslim and Arab advocacy and civil rights groups. Yet what is seldom noted is that few of these individuals were actually detained or prosecuted under provisions of the Patriot Act. For the fact is that though intensely and frequently criticized by many segments of American society, the Patriot Act has been infrequently relied on by federal authorities, and has in fact been little used against Arabs and Muslims in the United States. Yet the Act remains highly controversial and threatening, especially to Arabs and Muslims. As a result, it might be curtailed as it faces mandatory review this session of Congress, an aspect of transparency and accountability that the authors – given their focus here on “good governance” – might have at least alluded to.
It should be emphasized that Arabs and Muslims in the United States remain – understandably – uneasy and fearful. Hundreds simply fled the United States in the months following September 11. But many of these, along with many of those detained and eventually deported, were in violation of U.S. immigration laws. It is also true that Arabs and Muslims in the United States have been subjected to various forms of ethnic profiling at airports and other control points. And in December 2002, foreign nationals from selected Muslim and Arab nations were asked to report and register with the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service. At that time a few thousand individuals were detained, which had not been generally anticipated by the immigrants, their families, the general public, or apparently many government officials. Shock waves went through Muslim and Arab communities in the United States. Many of these detainees were eventually deported for immigration violations. Widely regarded as unfair and a public relations fiasco, this policy was soon rescinded.
What is one to make of all this? If I were a Muslim or Arab in the United States today, I would be concerned, anxious, even angry. Many, probably most, are certainly disaffected with their government, especially the Bush administration. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of Muslims and Arabs here go about their daily lives and enjoy the broad freedoms that all Americans do. Muslims and Arabs are not the objects of any generalized, sustained policies systematically depriving them of their rights. Of course, in the wake of the unprecedented attacks on the U.S. mainland, aggressive policies have been implemented; mistakes have been made; abuses have occurred. But the impression left by the Arab Human Development Report 2004 is that Muslims and Arabs in America today are living in a discriminatory and repressive society. This is simply not true. As most Muslims and Arabs here understand and readily acknowledge, they enjoy much more security and freedom – especially religious freedom – in the United States than they would in their countries of origin. But as they also know, and many say loudly and vehemently, their situation in the United States today is not what they have the right to expect and requires constant vigilance to ensure that government authorities live up to the letter and spirit of the Bill of Rights.
Finally, I would like to address the Report’s findings relative to the situation in Iran and the implications for democracy in Muslim societies. Iran of course is different from the pro-Western authoritarian Arab states on which the Report’s authors focus: it got rid of the Shah twenty-six years ago. Similarly contrary to the pattern envisioned by the authors, Iran never undertook liberal reform, either. It had a revolution instead. And most importantly, Iran does not have an Islamist opposition: it has an Islamist government and an opposition made up of dissident or reform-oriented Islamists as well as some liberals and secularists. These facts about Iran are self-evident, but need to be emphasized here in light of the Report’s understandable preoccupation with political developments in the Arab world.
In that world, the current reality is that the loudest and most potent opposition to established regimes is neither secularist nor liberal but Islamist. And until very recently, at best, the Islamist commitment to freedom, democracy, and what the authors refer to as “good governance” has been either weak or non-existent. For the authors, this fact is the elephant in the living room – something they would rather not confront, but must eventually. To the extent that the Report grapples head-on with the relationship between democracy and Islamism, it deserves the widest possible circulation. But to the extent that it tries to avoid the pachyderm in the parlor, it is frustrating to read.
Islamism is avoided in two ways. First, it is lumped together with liberal opposition, as though both were equally persecuted and there were no significant difference between them. For example, Part I of the Report contains a discussion of “Gains and Setbacks,” in which there are many vague references to “popular participation,” “civil society organizations,” and “independent political forces.” All of these have suffered repression, evidently. But nowhere in this discussion does the reader learn which of these suppressed entities were seeking democratic reform and which were seeking religious authoritarianism.
Second, Islamist movements are lumped together with “tradition” and “tribalism” as primarily cultural forces that impede political progress but do not represent a genuine political force. Again, this only reinforces the tendency of Western observers to see pressure for democratic reform coming primarily from modernizing secularist forces.
This is a problem, because in any given country the most crucial and delicate question seems to be: Which way is the Islamist movement likely to jump, and what will be the outcome? Will it resemble the current Turkish situation, in which a reformed religious party has won power and been governing without much, if any, threat to established secularist norms? Or will it resemble Algeria in 1991, where the imminent electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front was blocked by the army, sparking a vicious civil war?
The Algerian outcome points directly to what Arab governments and their Western supporters most fear. In the Report’s own words, the substance of this fear is “that opening up the public sphere to all societal forces – among the most active of which is the Islamic movement – will end with these forces assuming power, followed by oppression, such that democratic competition becomes history, after one and only election.” Admitting there is “some justification” for this fear “in contemporary Arab experience,” the Report nevertheless dismisses it as “the trap of the one-off election.”
Why a “trap”? Clever phrase-making will not eliminate the problem, and neither will the solution offered next: “We believe that the best insurance against this risk is to strengthen constitutional principles and clauses to safeguard society from abuses of majority power, and to secure at the outset the commitment of all political movements to respect those measures.” In other words, the solution is to create a tradition of respect for constitutional protections in a society that has not had genuine constitutional government. Not very plausible.
Further on, the Report does a better job of identifying the differences between Islamist and secular opposition movements. And in several places it holds out the promise of practical advice based on the experiences of actual polities. For example, Part II, Chapter Five, discusses “The Debate on How to Reform.” Seeing the headings “Change from top or at the grassroots?” and “External versus internal,’ the reader naturally expects some concrete examples to illustrate the complexity of the problem. Yet these discussions are entirely speculative, entirely abstract. And as befits such an airy exercise, the solution offered at the end is a tidy resolution of the dialectic: “The Optimum Choice,” in which “change stemming from within” combines with “dynamic social forces with a clear stake in such change.” And as for “Bridging the gap between social forces,” namely “the Islamists on the one side and the secularists, liberals, and nationalists, on the other,” the Report recommends “intellectual and methodological reconsideration by the parties involved.” In other words, all parties should put down their bombs and guns, and “develop a new way of thinking, more in keeping with the requirements of democracy and peaceful co-existence with competing movements.”
Again, this just does not offer much that is plausible or practical. What is lacking in the Report is a sense of realistic positive models to follow. There are plenty of negative models – these pages offer a primer on how not to govern. But there are very few down-to-earth questions here, let alone down-to-earth answers.
So how should the Western democracies think about the Islamic Republic of Iran and respond to developments there? One important factor that gets scant attention in the Report is nationalism. At least in Iran, what we have been watching unfold there for the past quarter century has been driven as much by nationalism as by Islamism – not that it would be easy to disentangle one from the other. Even more precisely, this is a nationalism forged in opposition to the United States, which got to be the Great Satan because it backed the modernizing monarchy that the Islamists overthrew.
This history suggests that no matter what happens in Iran and no matter how we respond, a genuinely pro-American regime is not likely to emerge there. This does not mean that there aren’t strong currents of pro-American sentiment among Iranians; there are. Nor does it mean that there won’t be exploitable fissures among the ruling elites. But even if we’re lucky, we will almost certainly be in the position of supporting opposition elements that are likely to be as wary of us as we are of them.
This latter of course is a problem across all contemporary Muslim and Arab societies. We ought not to kid ourselves that our pro-democracy agenda is going to result in more, and more friendly, Muslim regimes. It just isn’t going to happen that way.
Nor is this a scenario that the American public is likely to be very tolerant of. It is certainly not one for which our leaders have done much to prepare us. Take, for example, the issue of women’s rights. It is striking how even conservatives in the United States have identified these as critical to the development of democracy in Arab and Muslim nations. For example, citing how 40 percent of voters in Afghanistan’s recent elections were women, President George Bush observed: “You can’t have a free and hopeful society unless women are full participants in the society.” While at one level undeniably true, we should also be mindful that women in the United States have had the vote in the United States for only eighty-five years. Does this mean that we weren’t a free society before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920? Or that France was not a free society until it granted women the franchise right after World War II? Of course not. But such examples point to how the standards we use to evaluate democratization need to be measured and reasonable. Again, it is not clear that our leaders are doing enough to help the American people move in this direction.
In any event, Iran’s Islamic regime will rely on anti-Americanism to play us off against our European allies – at a time when we are already distant from them. And of course the incentives for the mullahs to do precisely this will increase as the agenda becomes dominated – understandably – by Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Conversely, the importance of maintaining a coordinated strategy with our European allies is dictated by the importance of keeping Iran nuclear-free. But this goal is critical not only for the stability of the region, but also for the long-term benefit of the Iranian people – for whom nuclear arms would likely mean the reinvigoration and emboldening of the repressive hard-liners. .
Again, we Americans need to continue to engage Iran, supporting wherever possible opposition elements and civil society initiatives. But however strong pro-American sentiment there may be, this won’t be an easy path to follow. We will encounter plenty of obstacles and hostility, with which we will have to learn to be patient. We will also have to learn to dole out support and aid without necessarily getting much thanks in return. This is a tall order for the American people.
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PROMOTING CIVIL LIBERTIES AND DEMOCRACY IN IRAN THROUGH MEDIA (ASPEN BERLIN CONFERENCE)“IRAN AND DEMOCRACY IN THE GREATER MIDDLE EAST”
MAY 23-24, 2005 – AMMAN
CONFERENCE PAPER III:
PROMOTING CIVIL LIBERTIES AND DEMOCRACY IN IRAN THROUGH MEDIA
Eleni Klotsikas, Freelance Journalist, Berlin
Governmental media policy in Iran is about manipulation and oppression. Iran's ruling clerics, acutely aware of the explosive potential behind free media, have always moved hard against regime critics using a dictato-rial system to suffocate each and every sign of pluralism. According to Reporters Without Borders, Iran re-mains the biggest prison for journalists in the Greater Middle East. Writers and journalists, who refuse to function as a mouthpiece for the government, risk their very freedom at the hands of justice arbitrarily ap-plied by Islamic hardliners close to religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Journalists are on especially dangerous ground when they write about Islam, the activities of dissidents, the country's nuclear program or relations to the United States. It is often unclear where the "red line" is, as many decisions are made arbitrarily by the Mullahs.
The brutality of the regime and its harsh treatment of critical journalists have been well-documented by hu-man rights groups like Human Rights Watch, for example in the report "Like the Dead in their Coffins." The study documents systematic torture, illegal prisons, and secret trials. Particularly well known, of course, is the case of the Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi, who was beaten to death in her prison cell in June 2003. Nobel Peace Prize recipient Shirin Ebadi tried in vain to uncover details of the case.
The massive oppression and the use of torture serve as enormous deterrents, but even these extreme meas-ures have not silenced regime critical voices. Independent voices, sometimes working under different names, continue to open new papers even after the regime closes other ones down. However, it always seems to be only a matter of time until one has crossed the "red line" again. Most independent newspapers have disap-peared from kiosks. Independent journalists rely increasingly on the Internet. Of course, the Internet is also not entirely free from the influence of the Mullahs. They limit and control access to the Internet by means of state-run or private providers with license. Such officially licensed providers are obliged to filter certain websites, and users must sign a declaration pledging not to visit anti-Islamic websites. However, thorough control of the Internet is not possible, and as a result many dissidents use the world-wide web as a platform to disseminate information and to exchange and publish views. Young people in particular turn increasingly to the Internet. There are an estimated 64,000 Persian language blogs, trailing just behind those in English, French, and Portuguese. In addition, there are hundreds of Iranian blogs in English. Regular protests and demonstrations by Tehran's active student movement underscore the fact that resistance to the regime is very much alive in Iran.
THE POLITICAL POWER STRUGGLE AND FREEDOM OF THE PRESS
In the last years, the domestic power struggle between "conservatives" and "moderates" was largely played out through governmental media policy. President Khatami has consistently emphasized the need for toler-ance toward dissidents and for greater freedom of the press in general. In fact, since becoming President in August 1997 hundreds of new newspapers and magazines have been accredited, journalists’ associations and agencies for public relations and advertising have been permitted. While none of these steps towards liberal-izing media were comparable to Western norms, more room could have been created for a process of democ-ratization if these measures had been consistently enforced.
However, Khatami's opening of the press met with a strong reaction by the Clerics. According to Reporters Without Borders, some 100 reform-oriented publications have been closed and their editors arrested since 2000. For religious leader Khamenei, like his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini, any criticism of the Islamic Revolution and its regime is considered treason and is treated accordingly. Khamenei has gone as far as di-rectly intervening in the parliamentary process in instances where hardliners in the justice department were unable to prevail. An attempt by parliament in 2000 to liberalize the press law was blocked directly by Khamenei. He had a letter read in parliament, which stated:
"Should the enemies of Islam, the revolution, and the Islamic system take over or infiltrate the press, a great danger would threaten the security, unity, and the faith for the people, and, therefore, I cannot allow myself and other officials to keep quiet in respect of this critical issue .... the current law, to a degree, has been able to prevent the appearance of this great calamity, and similar actions that have been anticipated by the parliamentary committee are not legitimate and not in the interest of the country or the system."
CURRENT POLITICAL AND LEGAL FRAMEWORK FOR JOURNALISTS
The framework for press freedom in Iran is based on the concept of the Islamic state and is anchored in the Constitution of 1979. A key element of the Constitution is "velayat-e faqih," the "Rule of the Clerics." Stemming originally from the 19th century, this principle had been developed and concretized in exile by Chomeini. It bestows absolute power in one Shiite Cleric or a gremium of Shiite Clerics. Ultimate authority rests with the "leading Cleric" or "Revolutionary Leader." A limited democratic system is subordinate to the theocratic system. The Clerics always have the last word.
According to article 2 of the Constitution, Islam and rule of the Clerics is the defining feature of society, and this naturally applies to the press as well. Freedom to express one's opinion is subordinate to the dictates of the Mullahs as explicitly stated in article 24:
“Publication and Press reports can be presented freely, except when in conflict with the general law and the fundamen-tals of Islam.”
Moreover, the legal status of the press is established in the Press Law of 1985. In addition to various signifi-cant restrictions, this decree makes clear that every newspaper editor must have a permission to operate from the Ministry for Culture and Islamic Leadership and must use exclusively Iranian capital. There is a still an-other instrument of leverage for the Mullahs: Newspapers and magazines rely on advertisements and paper produced by the state.
CONNECTIONS BETWEEN THE JUDICIARY AND THE INTELLIGENCE SERVICE
The situation for critical journalism has gotten worse since the parliamentary elections in February 2004, in which the conservatives seized control. The biggest threat for journalists comes directly from the Justice Ministry. The Justice Ministry has developed its own intelligence activities against reformers, journalists, and NGO activists. These special units are colloquially referred to as Khamenei’s “obedient parallel institu-tions." As fanatical storm troopers they brutally break up meetings of dissident politicians, intellectuals, stu-dents, and NGO members. Offices of reformist newspapers have been repeatedly raided, with editors being threatened and sometimes arrested.
In the past months, student leaders have been kidnapped and human rights activists have been threatened, including Nobel Peace Prize recipient Shirin Ebadi. Likewise, political, cultural, and journalistic figures have been abducted. Journalists fear that these kinds of practices could be legalized by proposed legislation: Con-servative politicians in parliament propose that the pursuit of crimes against state order – previously under the responsibility of the Ministry for Information and Security – should directly fall in the jurisdiction of the judiciary.
Agents of these parallel institutions do not wear uniforms. They apparently control illegal prisons, which do not stand under any institutional control and whose numbers have grown in recent months, according to Hu-man Rights Watch. The names of the prisoners, the budget and information about the administration of these prison camps are allegedly unknown even to official ministry representatives.
According to Reporters Without Borders, journalists who were arrested or abducted for having written criti-cal reports can retain their freedom by submitting a self-degrading public statement of contrition and paying enormous amounts of money. These self-incriminations are often filmed and shown on public television.
STATE RADIO AS PROPAGANDA INSTRUMENT
Due to a relatively high illiteracy rate, print media, online publications, and weblogs do not play an impor-tant role in opinion shaping among the Iranian population. Much higher significance can be attributed to television and radio. This is supported by the result of a nationwide survey conducted by the Ministry for Culture and Islamic Leadership in the summer of 2002, according to which 96.2% of all families own a tele-vision set and 80.9% a radio. The daily use of television is, on average, 211 minutes, while the radio is lis-tened to for 85 minutes. In Iran, the operation of television and radio stations is monopolized by the state, commercial radio and television is interdicted.
The Iranian government’s broadcasting service, which houses approximately seven television channels, seven radio channels, three satellite television programs, an Arabic news channel, two foreign television channels, and a radio world service in twelve languages, serves as a pure instrument of governmental propa-ganda. The Mullahs had soon discovered the manipulative potential of such mass media, and expanded the “Islamic Republic of Iranian Broadcasting” (IRIB), into the largest broadcasting station in the Near and Middle East. The consolidation of broadcasting and regime is also manifest on the level of personnel: The IRIB’s director is directly appointed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and can be dismissed at any time.
The programs are designed to serve the Islamic leadership and education; entertainment plays a secondary role. Almost all programs are produced in Iran. Due to cultural and religious motivations, the import of for-eign programs was drastically reduced after the Islamic revolution. The instrumentalization of the media for the stabilization of the current regime is especially apparent in the proliferation of false information in the main newscasts: in foreign policy, hatred against America and Israel is preached, in domestic policy reports, heavy praise of the regime prevails. Activities of dissidents and freedom fighters, demonstrations, and pro-tests are systematically concealed.
The population’s trust in the Iranian government’s broadcasting service is – as a study conducted by the IRIB itself reveals – quite low. According to a large-scale survey from 1999, 87% of the people polled watch tele-vision news on a daily basis; however, only 38% believe in the objectivity and neutrality of the information offered. The author of this piece does not have access to more recent information. In light of the increasing dissatisfaction among the population, one can assume that the lack of trust has similarly intensified.
OUTSOURCING DEMOCRACY BY MEANS OF IRANIAN MEDIA IN EXILE
Satellite television programs run by Iranians in exile, based primarily in Los Angeles, undermine the ideo-logical indoctrination accomplished by state-run television. About a dozen of such stations broadcast their programs daily into Iran. These programs are especially popular among the younger population, as they offer entertainment – especially in the form of music videos, which are not permitted on state television.
In addition to many entertainment programs, the satellite stations also feature programs, which focus on the political situation and violations of human rights in Iran. Moreover, the programs transmit information about resistance movements, student protests, and the general situation of unrest. Some stations seek personal live contact to their audiences by means of telephone calls, fax machines, and the Internet. Iranians use these programs to freely express their resentment and frustration about the political situation in their country. In live shows, exile stations such as National Iran TV (NITV) encourage the population to turn against the re-gime.
As Zia Ataby, a former Iranian pop-star and current television manager of NITV, explains: “NITV for the Iranian Government is more dangerous than America or other countries and that is why they have tried any-thing to cut our voice.”
The channels are privately owned and financed primarily by wealthy Iranians in exile. The quantity and di-versity of the channels imply that the Iranians in exile conduct their initiatives largely independently from one another.
The following is a small selection of exile channels with their internet addresses without any claim on being complete:
• National Iranian TV (www.nitv.com)
• Channel One TV (www.channelonetv.com)
• Appadana International. Global Persian TV Station (www.appadanatv.com)
• IranTV Network (www.irantvnetwork.com)
• Melli TV (www.mellitv.com)
• IPN TV. International Programming Network (www.ipntv.com)
• Pars TV (parstvnetwork.com)
• Azadi TV ( www.irantv.com)
• Rang-e-Rang (rangarangtv.com
• XTV (www.sosiran.com)
• Tamasha TV (tamashatv.com)
• Tapesh TV. Persian Bradcasting Company (www.tapeshtv.com)
These channels are intensely feared by representatives of the regime; teenagers are publicly warned “not to be trapped by the evil stations that America has established.” Attempts to jam the stations by means of inter-fering transmitters are a common method by which the regime attempts to contain the “outsourced democ-racy.” In the meantime, the regime has reacted with a more effective strategy and called its own satellite pro-grams into being: Jaam-e-Jam1, 2, and 3. These sketch a friendlier picture of Iran, which is more loyal to the regime. The programs are officially directed towards Iranians in exile, but are meant to be seen by Iranians within the country.
Iranians can access information suppressed by the government through western foreign radio services. These are accessible in Farsi by means of short-wave radio. They include the music-oriented Radio Farda by RFE/RL, BBC Persian, which has a clear focus on information, and the Persian radio service of “Deutsche Welle,” which is broadcasted daily for two hours. However, many judge the influence of such radio pro-grams to be quite low, if not negligible – especially in comparison to the Los Angeles-based offensive “Tachangeles.”
WHAT HAS BEEN DONE UNTIL NOW?
The drastic measures taken by the Iranian judiciary in addition to the parallel institutions acting against crit-ics of the regime and proponents for reform create an atmosphere of fear and distrust among the Iranian population. NGO workers and embassy employees have difficulties initiating open dialogue with Iranians concerning the human rights situation, democracy, and the freedom of press. The participation in congresses, conventions, and seminars openly directed against the politics of the regime can result in prison sentences of several years. In 2000, seventeen Iranians who had participated in a congress on religious and political re-form, organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Germany, were arrested upon their return to Iran. Since then, the prevailing sentiment in Europe is that such actions are rather counterproductive. This applies all the more for comparable events within the country.
An employee of a German Embassy responded when asked about this issue: “We would never issue invita-tions to a seminar in direct opposition to the governing regime as we would endanger people in this manner.”
German efforts to strengthen democracy, human rights, and the freedom of press in Iran take these circum-stances into consideration and are thus designed very prudently. Projects such as the “Initiative Freie Presse” (Initiative for Free Press), which trains journalists in Afghanistan, are not possible in Iran. The British and Danish, who are also active in Iran with cultural and educational programs, have the same approach. Thus, European regimes limit their efforts to cultural programs and internet seminars.
The media dialogues conducted by the German and Iranian Foreign Ministries have had little effect until now. In the course of this project, German and Iranian journalists meet with the aim to establish new contacts and discuss current topics. In practice, however, honest dialogues with the Iranian colleagues were not possi-ble; these meetings rather served the regime as a platform for propagating their standpoint. As of yet, it is not clear whether further media dialogues are to take place.
On the EU level, no further projects besides the human rights dialogue conducted with Iran since December 2002 have taken place. The dialogue has taken place four times thus far and has been paused in light of the discussions over atomic energy. German political foundations such as the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is planning to open an office in Teheran, avoid public statements and keep secret any possible strate-gies they might pursue.
The US has lost any chance of influencing political or social development in Iran when it ceased diplomatic relations and froze Iranian capital. Thus, the establishment of NGOs and the promotion of human-rights and democracy projects by the US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor with a budget of US$ 36,448,000 – as, for instance, is done in China – is not possible in Iran. All initiatives and support of groups active in the country financed by American funds would not have a chance of existing in the country.
Only a few months ago, the State Department allocated US$ 3 million for “educational institutions, humanitarian groups, nongovernmental organizations, and individuals inside Iran to support the advancement of democracy and human rights.” The groups eligible for such funding have been called to present concrete program suggestions. The insignificance of the amount allotted and the fact that only few organizations and individuals located in Iran are able to apply openly leaves the effectiveness of this measure in doubt. Attempts by American senators to support the Iranian exile movements and especially the Los Angeles-based satellite channels have repeatedly failed in Congress.
CONCLUSION AND POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS
Until now, all attempts by western nations for democratization, supporting freedom of the press, and promoting human rights in Iran have not been sufficient. Moreover, initiatives to improve the situation in Iran itself have not been successful. The Mullahs effectively prevent the reforms attempted by President Khatami since assuming office, in addition to efforts at liberalization by reform-oriented members of parliament. In the meantime, most critics of the regime have been ousted from parliament, reform-oriented newspapers have been closed, and critical journalists and student activists have been arrested. This has led to legitimate doubts as to whether the regime as such can be reformed.
Reciprocal dialogues with Iran, i.e. the EU’s human rights dialogues and the German government’s “Islam Dialogues”, shape the strategy of the German government and the EU. This concept is geared towards hav-ing the leading religious elite comprehend the situation and thus improve it. The hope that the religious elite will realize the error of its ways and change the patterns of behavior, which are rooted in religious tradition and, in many cases, serve to support their own maintenance of power, is rather slim. Nonetheless, this ap-proach is useful, as it at least helps gain influence and access to the internal structures of the country.
Among the majority of the population – of which almost 70% are under 30 – the Mullahs’ system of rule meets rejection. Among other factors, this is indicated by the massive call for boycotting the presidential elections. Many younger people are politically frustrated and do not feel encouraged to rebel against the re-gime and fight for their freedom. An indicator for the fact that the system of power of the religious elite is not tolerated without resistance among the Iranian population is the systematic undermining of the law ban-ning satellite dishes. By means of these, especially young people gain access to exile stations to satisfy their desire for entertainment. Many are not turned away by the mediocre quality of these shows and prefer them to the strictly controlled state-run channels.
The support of free satellite channels, however, can only be a single tool in a collection of measures. Its ef-fects should not be underestimated. In the process of transforming a society, media can play a crucial cata-lyzing role. This has been proven by experiences with eastern European countries, where in situations of po-litical upheaval, reports by free media formed an encouraging reflection of resistance.
The possibility of high-quality television programs to hit the nerve and Zeitgeist of the majority of the Ira-nian population are not exhausted so far. High-quality programs which meet journalistic interests are rather expensive in their production and should thus receive enduring and significant financial support from the EU and the American government. As to not risk their credibility, Iranians in exile should be able to develop such programs independently. Educative and informative exile journalism, which earnestly addresses the economic, social, and political grievances in Iran could help further awaken the population and allow the desire for change to be articulated more loudly. Courageous activities by dissidents and opponents of the re-gime should find a platform on exile television stations. The use of television plays a large role in this proc-ess. More intensive cooperation between those responsible for the program of the satellite stations and dissi-dents active in Iran could result in further politicization and encouragement of the many young people whose dissatisfaction with the given situation has generally led to resignation and a drawback from political proc-esses.
The government’s harsh measures against projects endangering the regime should not prevent attempts to initiate undercover projects. The clandestine equipping of the active student scene and of critical journalists with financial means and small digital cameras with which to document their activities can unearth truths to a much greater degree and reach a broader audience than reports of NGOs up to now. The argument that this would endanger individuals to an even greater extent loses its power in consideration of the fact that they are endangering themselves by active resistance anyway. These government funds could also reach Iran through channels of private individuals and organizations.
These media policy measures should be supplemented by open declarations of solidarity by European politi-cians and the American government with the Iranian population. The EU’s human rights dialogues should condemn crimes committed by the Iranian regime against its own population in a more radical manner. Scheduling trade talks with Iran should depend on the extent to which the regime implements demands and concrete measures regarding human rights, such as the release of all political prisoners.
The open dialogue should not only be conducted with official representatives of the regime, but also increas-ingly with human rights organizations based in Iran itself, such as Shirin Ebadi’s Center for Human Rights Defenders.
After manipulated elections a new ultra-conservative president has come to power in Iran. It is to be ex-pected that the human rights’ situation in Iran will further deteriorate, and that increased pressure will be im-posed upon journalists. It is also likely that the Iranian economy will be negatively affected by a more con-frontational nuclear policy as announced by the new government and by growing social restrictions. Espe-cially in a situation like the current one, it seems important to provide the people in Iran with background information through an independent media. Moreover, European politicians should clearly and openly con-demn human rights’ violations and thus convey a sense of international solidarity to dissidents in Iran.