Iran Election Guide

Donate to EAWV

Or, click to learn more


Entries in Robert Fisk (4)


Iran: More than Khamenei v. Rafsanjani? (Gary Sick and a Response)

The Latest from Iran (23 June): Preparing for Thursday
Iran Latest: A Khatami Action Plan?
Iran: 2+2 = A Breakthrough? (Mousavi and the Clerics)

Receive our latest updates by email or RSS- SUBSCRIBE TO OUR FEED

RAFSANJANIKHAMENEI3I think Gary Sick's work is among the best in US-based analyses of Iranian politics, and this blog is no exception. He considers the Supreme Leader's decision "to get out in front as the spokesman of the regime" and focuses on the manoeuvres of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani as he "stay(s) behind the scenes as a master strategist".

That said, I think Sick reduces the situation too much to a Khamenei v. Rafsanjani contest. Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mohammad Khatami, and Mehdi Karroubi are far from bystanders or foot soldiers in this battle; indeed, they have moved towards centre stages in the last few days (see our posts over the last 48 hours on the developing steps in the protest movement). And there are numerous arenas in this contest, from the seminaries at Qom to Parliament possibly to the inner sanctum of the Revolutionary Guards.

And I think Sick (like Robert Fisk in his column today in The Independent of London) risks "disappearing" the demonstrators who have reshaped political dynamics since a week ago Monday. This is not to say, of course, that People Power replaces Rafsanjani in any potential showdown with Ayatollah Khameini and President Ahmadinejad. On the other hand, Rafsanjani, Mousavi, Khatami, and Karroubi depend on a continuing protest and, yes, resistance for leverage in their political challenge. It is very much a hand-in-hand relationship (at the risk of stretching an analogy, as was the case in the Philippines in the toppling of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986).

So I think we may be past the point where, as Sick puts it, there will be "a negotiated solution in which everyone saves face". But whether negotiation or confrontation, this is not just (again to borrow Sick's analogy) a chess match. It is three-dimensional chess, and there are more than two players.

Reading the Crisis in Tehran


Here are a few observations about the situation in Iran based on my own experience of watching the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis from the White House thirty years ago.

Don’t expect that this will be resolved cleanly with a win or loss in short period of time. The Iranian revolution, which is usually regarded as one of the most accelerated overthrows of a well-entrenched power structure in history, started in about January 1978 and the shah departed in January 1979. During that period, there were long pauses and periods of quiescence that could lead one to believe that the revolt had subsided. This is not a sprint; it is a marathon. Endurance is at least as important as speed.

There may not be a clear winner or loser. Iranians are clever and wily politicians. They prefer chess to football, and a “win” may involve a negotiated solution in which everyone saves face. The current leadership has chosen, probably unwisely, to make this a test of strength, but if they conclude that it is a no-win situation they could settle for a compromise. The shape of a compromise is impossible to guess at this point, but it would probably involve significant concessions concealed behind a great public show of unity.

Leadership is key. Ayatollah Khamene`i, the rahbar or Leader, has chosen – again probably unwisely – to get out in front as the spokesman of the regime. Unlike his predecessor, the father of the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini, he has openly taken sides with one faction over another. He is clearly speaking for the ultra conservative leaders of the Revolutionary Guards and their equally reactionary clerical supporters, who fear any possible threat to their dominant power. Curiously, President Ahmadinejad has largely vanished from sight, which adds to the impression that he is more of a pawn than a prime mover in this affair.

On the other side is Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the erstwhile colleague and now principal antagonist of the rahbar. He has chosen, as he usually does, to stay behind the scenes as a master strategist, leaving the public field to Mir Hossein Mousavi and the other disappointed candidates and their followers.

The irony of two former colleagues now competing for power over the expiring corpse of the Islamic Republic that they created with such grandiose expectations, is lost on no one. The important sub text, however, is that these two understand very well what they are doing. They know how a revolt can be turned into a revolution. They also know they have everything to lose. The shared consciousness of high stakes has until now prevented an all out political confrontation between rival factions in the elite. That may help explain why the rahbar and the Revolutionary Guards were so reckless in their insolent contempt of the reformers and the public. They may have believed that no one would dare take it to this level.

Now that it has arrived at this point, both protagonists are faced with decisions of unprecedented gravity. There has been nothing like this in the thirty year history of the Islamic Republic, and today there is no Khomeini father figure to moderate and mediate among the warring factions. They must improvise in conditions of severe uncertainty. If anyone tells you that they know how this will turn out, treat their words with the same regard you would have for any fortune teller peering into a crystal ball.

For the United States, the watchword should be Do No Harm. The situation in Iran is being exploited for short term domestic political purposes by those who have been looking for an opening to attack the Obama administration. Wouldn’t it feel good to give full throated expression to American opposition to the existing power structure in Iran? Perhaps so — but it could also be a fatal blow to the demonstrators risking their lives on the streets of Tehran, and it could scotch any chance of eventual negotiations with whatever government emerges from this trial by fire.

The crisis in Iran is an Iranian crisis and it can only be resolved by the Iranian people and their leaders. There is no need to conceal our belief in freedom of speech and assembly and our support for the resolution of political disputes without bloodshed. But we should not be stampeded by domestic political concerns into pretending that our intervention in this crisis could be anything but pernicious.

Can President Obama play chess as well as he plays basketball?

Lebanon and Iran Elections: It's All About (The) US

Related Post: Lebanon’s Elections - From Global “Showdown” to Local Reality

lebanon-flagiran-flag11This piece started as an update on our main analysis of the results of Lebanon's elections, but with the US and British media's misreading, simplifications, and exaggerations spreading like kudzu, a separate entry is needed.

For Michael Slackman of The New York Times, it's not just a question of Washington shaping the Lebanese outcome: "Political analysts...attribute it in part to President Obama’s campaign of outreach to the Arab and Muslim world." You can slap the Obama model on top of any election to get the right result: "Lebanon’s election could be a harbinger of Friday’s presidential race in Iran, where a hard-line anti-American president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may be losing ground to his main moderate challenger, Mir Hussein Moussavi."

Simon Tisdall, normally a shrewd observer of international affairs, trots out the same simplicities in The Guardian of London: "It's possible that watching Iranians will be encouraged in their turn to go out and vote for reformist, west-friendly candidates in Friday's presidential election. Lebanon may be just the beginning of the 'Obama effect'."

Juan Cole has posted a more thoughtful assessment, even as he opens with the reductionist and sensationalist declaration, "President Obama's hopes for progress on the Arab-Israeli peace process would have been sunk if Hezbollah had won the Lebanese elections." And Howard Schneider of The Washington Post, although premature in his anointing of Saad Hariri as Lebanon's next and primary leader (setting aside not only President Suleiman but also presuming that Hariri will be chosen as PM), sets out "the choice...between a showdown with his supporters, a showdown with Hezbollah or -- the more likely outcome -- a continued stalemate over the very issues voters hoped they were addressing in Sunday's balloting".

But if there is to be a simplification, in light of the internal political issues that follow the election, I would like it to come from Robert Fisk in The Independent of London:
What stands out internationally is that the Lebanese still believe in parliamentary democracy and President Obama, so soon after his Cairo lecture, will recognise that this tiny country still believes in free speech and free elections. Another victory for Lebanon, in other words, beneath the swords of its neighbours.


Lebanon's Elections: From Global "Showdown" to Local Reality

Related Post: Lebanon and Iran Elections - It’s All About (The) US


UPDATE --- IT'S ABOUT (THE) US: For Michael Slackman of The New York Times, it's not a question of Washington shaping the Lebanese outcome: "Political analysts...attribute it in part to President Obama’s campaign of outreach to the Arab and Muslim world." You can slap the Obama model on top of any election to get the right result: "Lebanon’s election could be a harbinger of Friday’s presidential race in Iran, where a hard-line anti-American president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may be losing ground to his main moderate challenger, Mir Hussein Moussavi."

Simon Tisdall, normally a shrewd observer of international affairs, trots out the same simplicities in The Guardian of London: "It's possible that watching Iranians will be encouraged in their turn to go out and vote for reformist, west-friendly candidates in Friday's presidential election. Lebanon may be just the beginning of the 'Obama effect'."

Juan Cole has posted a more thoughtful assessment, even as he opens with the reductionist and sensationalist declaration, "President Obama's hopes for progress on the Arab-Israeli peace process would have been sunk if Hezbollah had won the Lebanese elections.")

My immediate reaction to the results of Lebanon's elections, in which a "March 14" coalition of largely Sunni Muslim and Christian groups including Saad Hariri, the son of the slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, maintained a Parliamentary majority (71 of 128 seats) over a "March 8" coalition of largely Shia Muslim and Christian groups including Hezbollah?


Not surprise at the result, even though many observers expected the Hezbollah coalition, which also included the Shia party Amal and the Christian party led by former President Michel Aoun, to take a narrow majority of seats. The balance of the result came in a handful of seat in largely Christian areas, and those groups in March 14 were able to mobilise their supporters more effectively than their counterparts in March 8.

The surprise instead came as I read, in American and British media, the sometimes vapid, often reductionist, possibly counter-productive framing of the outcome: "Pro-Western bloc defeats Hezbollah in crucial poll", "a Western-backed coalition...thwart[ed] a bid by the Islamist Hezbollah party to increase its influence". "a hotly contested election that had been billed as a showdown between Tehran and Washington for influence in the Middle East". Even one of the best "Western" analyses of the result, Robert Fisk's assessment in The Independent, was converted through an editor's headline to "Lebanese voters prevent Hizbollah takeover".

Anyone reading these headlines could be forgiven for concluding that the March 8 group consisted solely of "Islamist" Hezbollah, even though it fielded only 11 candidates (all of whom won) put forth by the coalition. Conversely, the March 14 bloc needed no further identification beyond "US-backed". The New York Times account did not even bother, apart from one phrase buried deep in the article, to explain what "March 14" was. It was enough to depict in the opening paragraphs "a significant and unexpected defeat for Hezbollah and its allies, Iran and Syria" and "Hezbollah itself — a Shiite political, social and military organization that is officially regarded by the United States and Israel as a terrorist group".

The post-election reality is likely to be far more mundane though important, not for US and British interpretations of "Hezbollah v. US (and Israel), but for the Lebanese people. Since the assassination of Rafik Hariri in June 2005 and Syria's withdrawal from the country, Lebanon --- with a fascinating but often frustrating political system trying to hold together Sunnis, Shi'a, and Christians --- has struggled to maintain a working national government. After months of effective suspension, a "National Unity" Cabinet with former General Suleiman as President was finally agreed in 2008. Members of the March 8 bloc held 1/3 of the Cabinet seats and a veto on proposed legislation.

The nominal March 14 majority does not resolve that situation. As Robert Fisk observes, "The electoral system – a crazed mixture of sectarianism, proportional representation and 'list' fixing – means that no one ever really "wins" elections in Lebanon, and yesterday was no different." So today Lebanon returns to the issue of whether that system will be maintained. While not making an explicit commitment, Saad Hariri said all parties must "give a hand to each other and have the will to go back to work". Hezbollah leader Sheikh Nasrallah, conceding defeat, offered conciliation: "We accept the official results in a sporting spirit. I would like to congratulate all those who won, those in the majority and those in the opposition."

The first post-election issue is likely to be whether the March 8 groups will retain their Cabinet veto. Withdrawing it risks a breakdown of "unity" and a return to the pre-2008 suspension of Government; maintaining it limits the scope for legislation and precludes the demand, put forth by Israel and the United States, for the disarming of Hezbollah's militias. And even before that, there is the question of who becomes Prime Minister: according to Al Jazeera, US officials prefer current PM Fouad Siniora to Hariri.

No doubt the veneer of Lebanon's result as a critical step in the Middle East peace process will continue for a few days, as. The Wall Street Journal declared, "The push back of Hezbollah is seen as providing President Barack Obama more diplomatic space to pursue his high-profile Arab-Israeli peace initiative." The reality, however, is that this image of Lebanon --- and beyond that, the Hezbollah v. US-Israel-peace-loving countries narrative --- is more pretext than substance, especially with the post-2005 Syrian pullback. I suspect that the issues that preoccupy most Lebanese are internal rather than external, and the space to deal with those political and economic matters would be welcomed.

So the danger is not that a Lebanon led by Hezbollah, and behind Hezbollah its "masters" in Iran, will emerge to challenge Israel and the US. Instead, the political knife cuts the other way: external rhetoric of the Hezbollah danger, a rhetoric which can always be escalated not to advance the regional peace process but to block it, would simply add to the internal tensions as Lebanon tries to find a stable political leadership in a time of great economic and social change.

So, as the Middle Eastern road show returns to more established venues --- George Mitchell in Israel and possibly Syria this week, a Hamas delegation including Khaled Meshaal going to Cairo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising a major foreign policy speech --- here's a proposed follow-up for the headline writers on Lebanon.

Leave It Be.

Obama's Strategy in the Middle East: Resetting with Rhetoric One More Time

obama42One useful way of considering tomorrow's grand Middle Eastern speech by President Obama is to recall that it was supposed to be delivered three or four months ago. Soon after the election, Obama's advisors briefed the press that the new President, within weeks of the Inauguration, would be addressing the world from Cairo. His high hopes for a new region, with the vision that long-term enemies could live and progress together, would be followed by talks fostered by US representatives.

Israel's invasion of Gaza ruined that plan, so the Obama White House went to Plan B. Obama's special envoy, George Mitchell, and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made high-profile trips to the region; there were specific missions by diplomats, such as Jeffrey Feltman's and Daniel Shapiro's trip to Damascus. Middle Eastern leaders --- Abdullah of Jordan, Netanyahu of Israel, Abbas of the Palestinian Authority --- came to Washington.

The only hitch is that, after all the travel and photo opportunities, there has been no notable advance. Israel, now led by the Government of Benjamin Netanyahu, has not only balked at any prospect of talks that would lead to a Palestinian state or a headline measure such as a freeze on settlement expansion in Jerusalem and the West Bank. And, with Tel Aviv making no movement, Arab governments have pulled away from the symbolic advance of "recognition", for example, by allowing overflights of their countries by Israeli commercial planes.

So Obama takes the podium in Cairo, after talks in Saudi Arabia today, empty-handed. Speaking to the Israeli Parliament on Monday, Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly slapped down the American demand on settlements --- his Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, is in the US offering the "compromise" of "dismantling unauthorized settlement outposts", which does nothing to address the American concern about legally-authorized construction. Obama, rather weakly, told the BBC that he would look to Arab States to offer some measures for a regional peace process, knowing (I suspect) that there is no prospect of that. Saudi Arabia wants some signal from Tel Aviv that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, launched by Riyadh, is a starting platform. Damascus, with Israel not even creeping towards a resumption of indirect talks, plays a waiting game.

What, oh what, can this President do? Well, he will do what he has done best so far. He will by-pass the specific difficulties with the clarion call to engagement based on mutual respect and interests. It worked in his Inaugural Speech, it worked in the Al-Arabiya television interview in January, and it worked in his address in Ankara (which is now our #1 story in the last eight months and continues to be in the Top 5 on most days). Obama's rhetoric may be derided by some domestic critics for its refusal to situate Islam as subservient to "American values" and for his "apologies" for past actions in US foreign policy, but it has succeeded with many overseas listeners precisely because it recognises those listeners, rather than demanding adherence first to an American position.

That is why, in recent days, Obama and his advisors have shifted from discussion of particular elements in a "peace process" to the general statement, repeated on two occasions by the President in his interview with National Public Radio on Monday, that it is "early in the process". The President will undoubtedly mention (according to McClatchy Newspapers, "forcefully endorse") a Palestinian state, but he will set out no timetable or specific steps towards that state. He will cite "areas of mutual interest" with Arab and Islamic countries but will be more concrete in his suggestions on defeating "violent extremism" than on negotiations toward political and economic agreements.

One could argue, of course, that is still quite an achievement after 4+ months in office, especially as every US President since Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 has pursued an Arab-Israeli settlement and none --- with the notable exception of Jimmy Carter --- has had a lasting success. And it looks like Obama will wow his observers in the American media (with the exception, of course, of ardently pro-Israeli outlets and of Bush Administration supporters who cling to the fiction that "democracy promotion" was the primary aim of that President's eight years in office). The working consensus is "a brave and possibly historic effort" with "an evenhanded approach", and Obama's rhetorical power is likely to sustain that praise.

(Beyond well-meaning support for the President, there are the more troubling hurrahs of self-serving sycophancy. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, after preening that he told Obama a joke during their 20 minutes of phone time, offers without further awareness or reflection: "The president has no illusions that one speech will make lambs lie down with lions. Rather, he sees it as part of his broader diplomatic approach that says: If you go right into peoples’ living rooms, don’t be afraid to hold up a mirror to everything they are doing, but also engage them in a way that says ‘I know and respect who you are.’ You end up — if nothing else — creating a little more space for U.S. diplomacy. And you never know when that can help.")

The issue, however, is whether Obama's audience in the Middle East and beyond will settle for feel-good but abstract advances. US supporters of the President are exalting his forthright stance on Israeli settlements, but the fact remains that Tel Aviv has been equally forthright so far in rebuffing Obama. If that intransigence continues, Washington's Plan B is vague, limited so far to talk of not guaranteeing an American veto in defence of Israel in the United Nations Security Council (and not even mentioning, as the George H.W. Bush Administration did, withholding of US economic and military aid).

And, of course, the settlements are only Tel Aviv's first line of defence against an attack for a two-state Israel-Palestine resolution. If Washington gets its way, there will then be the issue of the Israeli wall cutting across the West Bank, and then the issue of the status of Jerusalem, and then the Palestinian civilian "right of return" to the lands they lost in 1948, and then the Israeli military's "right of return" to the West Bank if it perceives a security threat, and then the small matter of a place called Gaza.

One might respond that Israel-Palestine is only one issue in the complexities of the region. True, but it is a touchstone issue (rather than, for example, Israel's preferred option of Iran). Symbolically, the failure to get a resolution that accords not respect but a meaningful economic and political status for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will be held up by others, whether for the benevolent reason that they see it as an essential case of justice and rights or for the less-than-benevolent reason that they want to divert attention from issues in their own communities and countries or the very malevolent reason that they want to justify hostile and often violent action against perceived enemies.

But, for those who want a context beyond Israel and Palestine (or, rather, Israel and the West Bank of the Palestinian Authority), Obama has set himself even bigger problems. There are the questions of how Obama can walk the tight-rope between support for political freedom and US alliances, powerfully demonstrated by the location of the President's speech, with far-from-democratic regimes. A less noted but just as significant difficulty with "local" politics emerged in a question from National Public Radio:
You’ve mentioned the — many times, the importance of reaching out to Iran with an open hand; trying to engage that country. Are you also willing to try to engage with Hezbollah or Hamas?

Obama responded with a pretty firm "they can just shove off":
Iran is a huge, significant nation-state that has — you know, has, I think, across the international community been recognized as such. Hezbollah and Hamas are not. And I don’t think that we have to approach those entities in the same way.

The President might as well have said "illegitimate". When the NPR questioner persisted, "Does that change with [Hezbollah's] electoral gains?", Obama refused to grant the political party --- which is likely to be a significant, if not dominant, entity in Lebanon's ruling coalition after this month's elections --- any status:
If — at some point — Lebanon is a member of the United Nations. If at some point they are elected as a head of state, or a head of state is elected in Lebanon, that is a member of that organization, then that would raise these issues. That hasn’t happened yet.

There was a bit more flexibility --- but only a bit --- with Hamas, as Obama said "the discussions...could potentially proceed" if Hamas accepted the conditions of the US-UK-EU-Russia Quartet.

The danger for the President is that, for all his talk of respect and equality, many will see him continuing rather than renouncing the US priority of getting the "right" governments. Vice President Joe Biden's trip to Beirut in the midst of the electoral campaign did not go unnoticed by Lebanese observers. There are suspicions, after a West Bank firefight that killed two leading commanders of Hamas' military wing, that the US is supporting (and possibly prompting) the Palestinian Authority's crackdown on its rival for power. Maybe, in the context of a grand speech, these are just troubling and tangential details. In the absence of an American strategy that offers concrete measures as well as rhetoric, however, the details can take on significance.

I'm not sure that I want to share Robert Fisk's dark vision of tomorrow's events: "I haven't met an Arab in Egypt – or an Arab in Lebanon, for that matter – who really thinks that Obama's 'outreach' lecture in Cairo on Thursday is going to make much difference." On the other hand, I am just as unsettled by talk from the White House that they are "re-setting" the Middle East.

Because, as any gamer knows, you don't hit the Reset button when you are doing well. And while that might bring a change in fortunes, if you keep hitting Reset (the Inaugural Speech, the Al-Arabiya talk, Ankara, now Cairo), an observer may begin to think that no one ever wins.