Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

“Iran’s Supreme Leader Warns Protesters”

Posted in The Iranian Presidential Elections by Dan on June 19, 2009

Ayatollah_Ali_Khamenei

This is the most updated headline coming out of Iran’s election turmoil, in which tens of thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets in opposition to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s unethical democratic practices. Of course, these anti-Ahmadinejad rallies are old news to anyone who has paid attention to world affairs over the last couple of days.  However, what appears to be relatively new on the scene is the tremendous amount of pressure that is resulting from these protests: a swath of criticism against Khamenei that Tehran’s Islamic government has yet to experience on such a large scale.

Now for the most recent news.  The social unrest that has been unleashed throughout Iran’s cities over the past week has finally forced the Supreme Leader himself to address the Islamic Republic in a direct way.  Speaking to the public in perhaps one of his most important Friday-sermons, Khamenei defiantly lashed out against the opposition for sparking an unwanted and unnecessary violence against Iran’s security forces.  In case you happened to miss the highlights of his speech, here are a few phrases that all but characterize the Ayatollah’s belligerent behavior towards this domestic crisis.

-“Any extremist move will fan up another extremist move.”

-“If the political elite want to ignore law and break the law and take wrong measures which are harmful willy nilly, they will be held accountable for all the violence and blood and rioting.”

-“Eleven million votes difference?  Sometimes there’s a margin of 100,000, 200,000, or 1 million maximum.  Then one can doubt maybe there has been some rigging or manipulation or irregularities.  But there’s a difference of 11 million votes.  How can vote rigging happen?

-Some critics “wanted to indicate that as a doubtful victory; some even wanted to show that this is a national defeat.  They wanted to give you bad taste in the mouth.”

-“Enemies try through various media, and some of those media belong to the Zionists, ill-wishers.  They try to make believe in those media that there is a fight between supporters of the Islamic establishment and the opposition.  No, that’s not true.”

-Chants of “death to Israel, death to America,” and “death to Britain” were shouted throughout Khamenei’s speech.

The quotations from Iran’s highest authority certainly speak for themselves.  These statements not only expose Khamenei for the type of leader he is, that is a man who is completely out of touch with the population he is supposed to govern.  The speech also gives the United States and Israel an extraordinary opportunity to forge a concise and united international front against the Islamic state’s threatening nuclear program.  Whereas such an attempt has been routinely halted in the past by China and Russia in the U.N. Security Council, Khamenei’s self-destructive rhetoric (of which includes a public threat of force against Iran’s peaceful protesters) may raise a few questions in the minds of Chinese and Russian policymakers: One of which could very well be, “why are we protecting the Iranians from harsher sanctions when these same people continue to defy common principles of the international community (i.e. universal human rights)?

Moscow and Beijing would certainly not risk losing their credibility by siding with a clerical regime that fails to embrace their own people’s democratic wishes.  With such a large amount of western foreign direct investment keeping Chinese and Russian firms afloat, both countries may wish to avoid antagonizing Americans and Europeans over a position that is slowly gaining criticism from others in the Third World.

As I have stated earlier in this blog, the rigged election and the quick crackdown by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may be a blessing in disguise for the United States, Israel, and the Arab world.  The domestic turmoil that Iran’s leadership is currently experiencing may result in a widespread opposition against the very pillars of the Islamic revolution.  As the Ahmadinejad opposition continues to strengthen by the day, and as Khamenei continues to feel the heat from within his own inner-circle, this hope is gaining fruition.  On a more realistic note, today’s speech by the Supreme Leader may finally bridge a gap that has far too often limited the possibility of stronger U.N. penalties on Iran’s nuclear non-compliance.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-The report from Badi Badiozamani, Christiane Amanpour, and Joe Sterling contributed to this blog.

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“Realism and Iran”- A Response to Stephen M. Walt

Posted in The Iranian Presidential Elections by Dan on June 19, 2009

First and foremost, it is highly unlikely that the Islamic Republic would concede to western demands with respect to its highly contentious nuclear program. All in all, it really does not matter who is president of Iran, considering the fact that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (the Supreme Leader) holds the final say in all state matters, whether it involves economic policy or its role in the Middle East.

One only needs to look back at the recent article by Ranj Alaaldin in this very same magazine.  It is almost universal to conclude that  Tehran’s conservative establishment would kill any attempts by President Mousavi to open up Iranian society to westernization.  In addition, the likelihood that Mousavi would be willing to practice what he preaches remains skeptical. Who is too say that Mr. Mousavi’s campaign for change against the incumbent Ahmadinejad was not just a ploy to win the presidential election?  He is a politicain after all.  This question is a very reasonable one to ask, especially when the history of Iran’s “reformist” candidate is intimately involved with political persecution.  Lets keep in mind that this is the very same man who oversaw the execution of thousands of political prisoners throughout the 1980’s.

-Daniel R. DePetris

What Do The Arabs Think?

Posted in The Iranian Presidential Elections by Dan on June 17, 2009

The last time I posted a response dealing with the statistical anomaly of the 2009 Iranian elections, several developments were occurring on an hour-by-hour basis.

First and foremost, hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters took to the streets within Iran’s capital to protest the questionable re-election of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinjead.

Secondly, the democratic opening that so many young Iranians were hoping for was squandered by recurrent counts of voting-fraud in favor of Iran’s conservative hardliner.  We are still seeing the immediate effects of this ballot-box coup through the numerous cases of looting: not to mention the clashes between the Islamic Republic’s security services and the mass of protesters that have resulted in a few civilian deaths.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the inaccurate electoral results has placed a tremendous amount of unwanted pressure on the Supreme Leader’s legitimacy.  In fact, residents of Tehran are so enraged that Iran’s Khamenei has agreed to investigate claims of abuse at the polls.  The powerful Guardian Council has gone a step further by declaring its willingness to conduct a limited recount, all the while calling for calm and national unity throughout the country.

Such widespread resentment is undoubtedly unprecedented for the traditionally-unchallenged Iranian autocracy, given the fact the Islamic Republic’s top leadership has often been able to suppress previous the constant calls for democracy and progression.  However, while U.S and world media has continued to cover the social unrest within Iran itself, very little attention is being paid to the Arab world.  What are politicians inside Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf States saying in the aftermath of Ahmadinejad’s “wide-margin” of victory?

According to a variety of reports, including sources within Iran and throughout the region, the reactions are anything but clear.  Saudi Arabia, a country that considers itself the primary defender of Sunni Arab rights in the Middle East, has labeled the Iranian election as a primary example of undemocratic politics.  As Abdul-Rahman al-Rashed in a Saudi daily newspaper comments, “falsifying the results is the easiest of tasks for a religious-security regime that does not believe in leaving to chance what it considers right.”  In other words, the Saudi’s strongly believe that Khamenei deliberately discarded the voices of the Iranian people in the hopes of restoring his dominance in Tehran’s government.  These statements are rather harsh, considering that Saudi Arabia routinely embraces authoritarian principles in its domestic affairs as well.

Nevertheless, it appears that Ahmadinejad’s re-election has created further strain between Riyadh and Tehran.  The Saudi’s now have an additional factor to worry about other than Iran’s developing nuclear program: they must now deal with an Ahmadinejad administration that will continue to advance a policy of Shiite dominance in the Muslim world.  As the major Sunni player in the region, such an agenda is especially concerning to a Saudi leadership that primarily relies on the United States for security guarantees.

While Saudi Arabia is clearly anti-Ahmadinejad (or more generally speaking, anti-Iranian), the smaller Gulf Arab governments are exhibiting a quite restraint with respect to Iran’s presidential election.  Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain have personally congratulated Ahmadinjad on his success throughout the campaign.  This positive sentiment could simply be a formality between the Gulf states and a larger Iranian power.  However, this is unlikely.  A more likely cause of this Arab praise may have something to do with Iran’s increasing influence in the Middle East, as well as the Islamic Republic’s technical improvements in weaponry and technology.  This is precisely why Egypt and Saudi Arabia should be worried:  the smaller Sunni nations on the Arabian Peninsula view Iran as a force that should not be reckoned with.

While Khamenei may be dealing with trouble at home, his decision to thwart internal democracy may have helped his regime pick up some unlikely allies for the future.  As the Iranians prepare for a potential showdown with the United States and Israel over its nuclear program, the addition of any Gulf ally is a remarkable achievement for Tehran’s mullahs.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Reuters and the Associated Press (authors Ali Akbar Dareini and Nasser Karimi) contributed to this blog

How Ahmadinejad’s Victory Could Actually Bolster Iranian Democracy

Posted in The Iranian Presidential Elections by Dan on June 15, 2009

After months of constant campaigning between incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, the results of the Iranian presidential election appear to be in.  Despite the millions of young Iranians pledging their devoted support for the reformist challenger, the Islamic Republic’s conservative president has won a landslide victory over the moderate establishment.  In fact, Iran’s state-run news agency concludes that Ahmadinejad has prevailed with a resounding 2-to-1 margin over Mousavi’s campaign: a detrimental blow to Tehran’s educated elite who often brand the anti-western president as both embarrassing and incompetent.

Unfortunately, the re-election of Ahmadinejad and the resurgence of Iran’s clerical base is only a small part of the country’s looming desperation.  What is more alarming to the international community is the apparent fraud that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorsed when the ballots were cast and eventually counted.  Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said it best: “I don’t think anyone anticipated this level of fraudulence…this was a selection, not an election.”  Indeed, the fact that President Ahmadinejad carried close to 66 percent of the popular vote only confirms this disbelief.  With so many Iranian citizens citing Mahmoud’s belligerent rhetoric and destructive handling of the national economy, how can this high figure possibly reflect the will of the Iranian electorate?

Certainly, the clerical regime’s ordering of mass fraud at the polls and the imprisonment of protesters in Tehran’s streets are a cause for concern throughout the international community.  This is especially the case given that an Ahmadinejad re-election may further complicate the already tense relations between the west and the Islamic Republic (not to mention relations in the Middle Eastern region between Iran and its Arab neighbors).  Yet, as young Iranians continue to voice their frustration through demonstrations and looting, this election creates an opportunity that many moderates inside the country may soon recognize.  The formation of a new era in Iranian politics is fast approaching.

A widespread popular movement against the oppressive rule of Ayatollah Khamenei may very well strengthen throughout Iran itself.  In particular, a feeling of anger is quickly expanding in a way that Tehran’s theocracy has yet to experience in their 30-year rule.  Small businessmen/women, professors, academics, and even some officials within the Republic’s bureaucracy are beginning to question the absolute authority of the Supreme Leader.  Should the constitution be changed in a way that would curtail the powers of the Ayatollah?  Is it time for Iran’s moderate candidates to unite and publicly undermine the very tenants of Islamic Government?  Is the democratic movement picking up steam?  These are the questions that will inevitably be asked in the days and months ahead:  the same questions that may generate a diverse anti-Khamenei coalition with the firm backing of ordinary voters.

These predictions may simply be personal beliefs of an optimistic American democrat.  Or if these predictions come to fruition, they may be crushed by a wave of government-sponsored coercion aimed at protecting the current Iranian power structure (we have seen this use of force practiced many times in the past).  Indeed, a popular overthrow of Iran’s religious autocracy seems impractical, if not downright irrational, to many scholars of Iranian politics.  However, the unrest that is currently being unleashed within Tehran’s many neighborhoods lends certain credence to this view.  Yes, Ahmadinejad may have won a massive victory in the face of numerous challenges.  But the scenes on the ground point to a much different perspective: the public is sick and tired of the Ayatollah’s illegitimate behavior.  Couple this with Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s (the head of the Council of Experts) apparent anger towards the corrupt-ridden electoral system and it may be safe to conclude that the strings of democracy within Iran have captured more and more supporters.  Ironically, Khamenei may have dug his own grave and the graves of his religious backers.

As is long due, people that have supported the regime’s principles may slowly discover its central motive:  suppressing the interests of the majority in order to protect the power of the few.  So far, the mass resentment among Tehran’s students and scholars is a welcoming sign.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Laura Rozen of Foreign Policy Magazine contributed to this blog

“Much Ado About Nothing”

Posted in The Iranian Presidential Elections by Dan on June 15, 2009

June 13, 2009 by Daniel R. DePetris

In the last couple of weeks, there has been a tremendous amount of fascination with the June 12 Iranian presidential election.  Washington, in particular, is perhaps one of the leading participants in the monitoring of the Iranian elections.  Of course, such a statement is understandable to officials within the United States Government:  through a popular ousting of a belligerent and anti-western incumbent (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), a new form of diplomatic dialogue may open up in the near future.  This is certainly what millions and millions of educated and middle-class Iranian citizens are hoping for, all too evident in the millions of Persian voters taking to the streets and advocating for the reformist challenger, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi.  Yet, while a Mousavi victory would be a detrimental blow to the conservative establishments within the Islamic Republic’s clerical regime, American and Israeli policymakers would be wise not too view this scenario as a “saving-grace” for democracy, toleration, and political cooperation in Iran.  The history of Iranian politics only confirms this:  despite past presidents who have labeled themselves within the reformist camp, foreign policy towards the west has remained essentially unchanged.

Michael Singh of Foreign Policy magazine is quite right when saying that “true power on vital issues such as Iran’s nuclear program and relations with the United States remain strictly in the hands of Khamenei.”  In other words, it is the Supreme Leader, not the president of the regime, which determines what course of action is acceptable.  This is precisely why Mr. Ahmadinejad’s consistent hardline stance towards the United States is essentially viewed as mere rhetoric:  the ability to dictate Iranian foreign and defense policy is beyond his immediate grasp.  With the Grand Ayatollah controlling every aspect of decision-making in these realms, it appears that a Mousavi victory on June 12 would bask more in symbolism than a 21st century Iranian revolution.

Even if Mr. Mousavi does defeat President Ahmadinejad by a slim margin, there is no reason to believe that his moderate initiatives towards the west would be successful in the face of the Iranian conservative ranks.  In fact, Mousavi’s tenure may prove as fruitless as the presidency of Mohammad Khatami:  an official that was virtually kept in check by the Islamic religious establishment, as well as the increasingly powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps.  With this being the case, it is rather difficult to imagine that a reformist victory would translate into a willingness to curb the country’s controversial nuclear program.  Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has already made it known that an effort to weaken Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities will be met with universal resistance.  Therefore, while the ouster of an Ahmadinejad administration is indeed impressive, we should all keep our optimism in check.  A new age in Iranian politics, one that will open up society and destroy the country’s Islamic tendencies while embracing personal freedoms, is not upon us at this time.  Of course, the death of Khamenei is a whole different story.

-Information from Michael Singh of Foreign Policy contributed to this blog