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Entries in Race for Iran (3)


Friends or Obstacles?: Iran, Human Rights, & US "Concern"

There was a time --- say, six months ago --- when I wrote often about US "experts" who offered analysis and advice on Iran. But, taking the advice of readers, I walked away from those pieces: I found myself getting frustrated and involved in diversionary battles which were more about pundits striking public postures than about the complexity of the issues in Iran.

What matters, not just in the end but from the beginning, is not the pronouncements and priorities of broadcasters and columnists but the hopes, concerns, and fears of Iranians.

Forgive me, but I am going to break the pledge of silence over US commentary for a moment today.

I am prompted to do so not by another one-dimensional portrayal of Iran or by the deceitful words of those invoking sensitivity for the Iranian people to justifying bombing the Iranian people. I do so because of two pieces, by two intelligent and thoughtful writers, which start from the premise that we need to review the approach to Iran.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt criticises "Sleepwalking with Iran":
I can't figure out who is actually directing U.S. policy toward Iran, but what's striking (and depressing) about it is how utterly unimaginative it seems to be....We continue to ramp up sanctions that most people know won't work, and we take steps that are likely to reinforce Iranian suspicions and strengthen the clerical regime's hold on power.

I think Walt is an excellent analyst and, even if you disagree with his position on sanctions and the nuclear issue, his critique of the US Government's tactics is incisively realistic:
The Obama administration's approach to Iran is neither feasible nor consistent. To begin with, our objective --- to persuade Iran to end all nuclear enrichment -- simply isn't achievable. Both the current government and the leaders of the opposition Green Movement are strongly committed to controlling the full nuclear fuel cycle, and the United States will never get the other major powers to impose the sort of "crippling sanctions" it has been seeking for years now. It's not gonna happen folks, or at least not anytime soon.

What got my attention, however --- especially given Walt's normally sure-handed evaluation --- was not the clarity in that paragraph but the resignation and confusiion in one later in the piece:
The first [problem] is the mindset that seems to have taken hold in the Obama administration. As near as I can tell, they believe Iran is dead set on acquiring nuclear weapons and that Iran will lie and cheat and prevaricate long enough to get across the nuclear threshold. Given that assumption, there isn't much point in trying to negotiate any sort of "grand bargain" between Iran and the West, and especially not one that left them with an enrichment capability (even one under strict IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards). This view may be correct, but if it is, then our effort to ratchet up sanctions is futile and just makes it more likely that other Iranians will blame us for their sufferings....Maybe our focus ought to shift from our current obsession with Iran's nuclear program and focus on human rights issues instead (though it is harder for Washington to do that without looking pretty darn hypocritical).

I think --- although I have to admit that I am trying to put this on paper after reading the above paragraph for the 20th time --- that Walt is saying: well, if we have to put pressure on Iran's nuclear programme and aspirations in the region, let's use rhetoric on human rights rather than sanctions as our weapon of choice.

Wrong. So wrong. I'm all for putting human rights up-front but it should not be picked up as an instrument simply because you don't like other tools in your foreign-policy box. Human rights should be acknowledged as an end, not a means. To do otherwise does not sweep away the hypocrisy that Walt notes, it reinforces the reality as well as the impression of deceit.

Which brings me to the latest intervention of Roger Cohen in The New York Times.

Cohen has been an important US voice on Iran for some time and, to his credit, he has tried to bring the internal situation to the attention of readers, having spent time before and after the 2009 election in the country.

And, to his credit, the starting point of Cohen's latest column is well-intentioned. He highlights and draws from the recent publication of Death to the Dictator!, the account of a protestor detained, abused, and raped by security forces.

Human rights, not just in this story but in thousands of others, not as a rhetorical device but as an important objective. Right?

Not quite. For Cohen uses his story for a personal goal: to set himself up as arbitrator between two viewpoints that he dislikes:
Since June 12, U.S. realists and idealists have had an Iranian field day. The realists have dismissed the Green Movement, proclaimed a stolen election fair, and urged President Obama to toss aside human rights concerns and repair relations with Tehran in the American interest.

The idealists have rained renewed fury on Ahmadinejad, called for his overthrow and urged Obama to bury outreach and back Moussavi.

Leave aside, for the moment, that Cohen's portrayal of "idealists" (not one of whom he names) is a caricature. My experience is that those who have criticised the Iranian Govenrment on "idealistic" grounds, i.e., human rights, have not called for a burial of outreach. To the contrary, if one wants to acknowledge the Iranian people, one has to reach out and establish connections: to learn, to understand, to disseminate information, and to discuss. Some, indeed many, may wish to see the back of President, but they do not necessarily advocate "overthrow" (which Cohen is using to imply military action or US-supported regime change).

Here's my problem, which goes far beyond Cohen's ploy of setting himself up as the centrist voice of reason.

When Cohen declares that we should "pursue engagement because isolation only serves the horror merchants", his "engagement" is --- ironically --- not on human rights concerns. It is a call for a resolution of the nuclear issue: "[Iran's] renewed interest in Brazilian-Turkish mediated talks is worth skeptical consideration".

I respect the position that, whatever our perspective, on the political and legal issues inside Iran, the priority must be on a resolution with the current Iranian Government. I understand the geopolitical reasons: not only taking the destabilising dispute over Iran's nuclear programme off the table but also furthering an accommodation over Afghanistan, Iraq, and regional issues in the Middle East.

What I find objectionable is the justification of that approach through distortion and mis-representation of the situation inside Iran. Now that the authors of Race for Iran, pushing for a "grand settlement" with Tehran, have finally publicly declared that human rights plays no part in their calculations, then let them stick to that position by offering no deceptive comment on developments over those rights.

And I'm just as opposed to using human rights as a sleight-of-hand to push a nuclear-first approach. Just because Roger Cohen, who has raised awareness of the situation in Iran and has a concern for those rights, is the perpetrator in this case does not affect that opposition.

Here is Cohen's concluding sentence in full: "[Iran's] renewed interest in Brazilian-Turkish mediated talks is worth skeptical consideration....if you believe Mohsen [the abused detainee in Death to the Dictator!]--- in the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate --- deserves a future."

I have no idea of Mohsen's position on the Iran-Brazil-Turkey declaration on uranium enrichment. I doubt Cohen knows. However, I think I have a good idea of what Mohsen, and many others who have suffered in the post-election period, think of the Ahmaidinejad Government. A President and a Government who are using the nuclear game as a distraction from internal issues. A President and a Government which, it must be appreciated, will present any agreement on uranium enrichment as a "victory" for their policy and, thus, as evidence of their legitimacy.

So it is a bit presumptuous for Mr Cohen to use (I would say "manipulate" had this come from a less benevolent commentator like Charles Krauthammer) Mohsen's story not for Moshen's interests but for Roger Cohen's agenda.

It is still deceitful --- irrespective of whoever carries out the act --- to use human rights as his/her instrument of the moment to seek a settlement which is far removed from human rights.

The Latest from Iran (22 May): Karroubi's Letter, University Protests

1810 GMT: University Protest. Video has emerged claiming to be of a protest on Thursday at Bani Akram University in Tabriz.


1530 GMT: University Protest. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports, from an unnamed student source, "Basij forces at the university attacked protesting students and injured several of them....Students were chanting 'Death to the Dictator' and 'Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein'."

NEW Iran Nuke Analysis: Reading the US-Turkey Discussions
Iran Analysis: Four Perspectives on the Uranium-Sanctions Dance
The Latest from Iran (21 May): Friday Rest?

1515 GMT: University Protest. Reports are coming through of a demonstration at Azad University in Tehran today, with "several hundred" chanting against the continued detention of fellow students. Human Rights Activists News Agency claims there was a heavy security presence, with possible arrests. The claimed video:


1110 GMT: Karroubi's Letter. The Associated Press has picked up on Mehdi Karroubi's latest intervention, in a letter to Ayatollah Mousavi Ardebili (see 0645 GMT):

The judiciary, required under the constitution to defend constitutional freedoms of the citizens, has become an instrument in the hands of the ruling system and security and military agencies. Instead of providing security to the people, the judiciary has turned to intimidation and imprisonment....

The present head of government [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad], with his strange behavior, has humiliated the Iranian nation.

0855 GMT: Sanctions Deals? In a separate entry, Ali Yenidunya looks at the tension in US-Turkish relations around this week's Iran-Turkey-Brazil agreement on the process for uranium enrichment talks.

Looks like Washington may have avoided such tensions with Moscow, however, over the path to sanctions on Tehran: on Friday, the US Government lifted any punishment of three Russian entities implicated in efforts to aid Iran's nuclear weapons and missile programmes.

0845 GMT: Rafsanjani Watch (cont.). The "hardline" journalist Fatemeh Rajabi has pronounced that Hashemi Rafsanjani's interpretation of Islamic rule is like "the time of the Shah".

0810 GMT: Economy Watch. This may be the most revealing statement in some time on the challenges to Iran's government. General Hassan Firouzabadi, who is a well-known economic expert as the head of Iran's armed forces, issued this declaration when he introduced Tehran Friday Prayers: "Reformists are responsible for the people's economic problems."

0750 GMT: Noticing. A burst of attention in the US media to internal affairs in Iran. William Yon and Michael Slackman write in The New York Times, "As Iran approaches the first anniversary of a contested presidential election that touched off a deep political crisis, opposition supporters remain under intense pressure, with student leaders [Bahareh Hedayat and  Milan Asadi] receiving long prison terms and a prominent opposition politician [Mohammad Ali Abtahi] and a filmmaker being attacked."

(I leave it for readers to consider whether the recent attack by the authors of Race for Iran on Nazila Fathi of the Times has actually spurred the newspaper to maintain its focus on the Government pressure before the 12 June anniversary.)

The Los Angeles Times picks up on the "bad hijab" campaign. It adds to our review of Ayatollah Jannati's Friday Prayer sermon in Tehran and then turns to Ayatollah Ahmad Alam-al-Hoda in Mashhad:
Badly veiled women and girls are like foot soldiers of the United States. Our enemies intend to pull the rug of religion from under the feet of our youth by spreading bad veil in the society. Anytime badly veiled women and girls sport strong makeup to deviate a young man from the right path, the enemy will be pleased with victory.

0745 GMT: Political Prisoner Watch. Journalist and filmmaker Mohammad Nourizad has been relocated to Evin Prison's general ward, but he says he will continue his hunger strike until a verdict is issued and he is freed.

0740 GMT: The Students Fast. Azad University students, despite pressure from intelligence agents, observed a one-day political fast on Wednesday to mark the 100th day of student Ali Malihi’s detention. The fast was broken on Thursday in an Iftar ceremony outside Evin Prison.

0735 GMT: Rafsanjani Watch. Mohammad Hashemi, a member of the Expediency Council and brother of Hashemi Rafsanjani, has again declared --- citing Ayatollah Khomeini --- "If people are not satisfied by a Government, the nezam [Iranian system] lacks acceptance."

0725 GMT: Rahnavard Speaks. Le Monde publishes an interview with Zahra Rahnavard, activist and wife of Mir Hossein Mousavi, who declares, "Victory will come one day to the Iranian people," and links the Green and women's movements:
[This] is a movement that has echoes claims of the Iranian people that actually date back to over a hundred years, the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. And the presidential election was an opportunity to remember: freedom, rule of law, democracy. The Green Movement does not want the regime to fall; what it wants is reform. It comes from civil society and peaceful means. I repeat, peaceful, even if the regime has no shortage of weapons and uses violence.

This movement is expressed in various ways through meetings, rallies, civil society, and  literary and artistic expressions. All components of society are represented: teachers, workers, athletes, artists, representatives of ethnic minorities....Women, who represent half of the population, and students have played a special role and have an important place within the movement.

My message to Iranian women is, "Move on, raise your level of knowledge and studies to be eventually accepted as full citizens." I campaign for it and against polygamy, violence, and decades of discrimination. Iranian women have no choice; they must continue the fight.

0645 GMT: Karroubi Intervenes. The morning starts with news of a long letter from Mehdi Karroubi to Ayatollah Mousavi Ardebili.

Much of the letter is Karroubi's well-known call for justice and responsibilty. He harshly condemns the violation of the Islamic Republic's Constitution and wonders who will defend it: the Parliament is not serving as a representative of the public and the judiciary is not defending people's rights. Karroubi also complains about the "destruction of revolutionary personalities", economic decline, and the President's lack of diplomacy, "which has led to the humiliation of the Iranian people".

There is a twist, however. Karroubi defends the late Ayatollah Khomeini and Mir Hossein Mousavi against recent accusations that they accepted executions in the 1980s.

An EA correspondent evaluates, "."With Mousavi and Khomeini being accused of accepting executions during their rule, criticism has reached the core of this Iranian system. Although Karroubi defends him and Khomeini, he also complains that those incidents were never investigated. Clever tactics, declaring himself as the most acceptable Green candidate. In any case the genie is out of the bottle."

UPDATED Iran Special: Executions, Politics, and the Attack on Nazila Fathi and The New York Times

UPDATE 14 MAY, 0640 GMT: The authors of Race for Iran have posted an attempted rebuttal of this column. As it is largely a misrepresentation of my analysis and a continuing assault on Nazila Fathi, I will not post a detailed response. There is no value in continued conversation with or even recognition of those who are void of information and deaf on ethics and morality.

I will note, however, how the authors met this challenge that I set on Wednesday: "1. Make their own critique of the material surrounding this case of the 5 executed Iranians and present that critique; 2. Alternatively, acknowledge that they have no concern with human rights, justice, and fairness within the Iranian system; 3. If they do so, disclaim any ability to assess the legitimacy of the Iranian Government since they are not concerned with issues — human rights, justice, fairness — which may affect the legitimacy of that Government in the eyes of the Iranian people."

The authors make no attempt to meet the first test, but they do tacitly accwept the second and third challenges: "[Race for Iran] is not focused on human rights; it is focused on Iran and its geopolitics."

UPDATE 14 MAY, 0630 GMT: The Iranian newspaper Kayhan has portrayed Sunday’s executions of “terrorists” as a test of “leaders of recent plots”. However, it regrets that those leaders refuse to “retreat” and “repent”.” (see today's updates).

I look forward to Race for Iran's denunciation of Kayhan, given its linkage of the executions and Government pressure on opposition leaders, for its "pro-Green bias".

The Latest from Iran (14 May): The Meaning of the Strike?

Let us assume, as their defenders claim, that the recent attack by the authors of Race on Iran on the reporting of Nazila Fathi was motivated solely by a concern over misleading journalism, with unsubstantiated links and unsupported claims. Let us assume that there was no wider motive of wiping away objections so "official justifications" for the execution of five Iranians could remain standing or of discrediting any attempt --- by labelling any critique as "pro-Green" --- to consider the legal and political context of the executions.

Let us assume that --- in contrast to the authors' claim of The New York Times' "agenda-driven, threat-hyping approach" and Fathi's "misleading reporting driven by an inflammatory agenda" --- Race for Iran has no agenda and no wish to hype any Government or institution.

Let us consider Race for Iran's narrow allegations:

1. Fathi has no basis for the link in the following paragraph:

"The Iranian government hanged five Kurdish activists, including a woman, on Sunday morning in the Evin prison in Tehran in what appeared to be an effort to intimidate protesters from marking the anniversary of last year’s huge anti-government rallies after the June 12 election."

The background to Fathi's story is that, two weeks before anticipated demonstrations on 22 Bahman (11 February), Mohammad Reza Ali Zamani and Arash Rahmanipour were executed. Many activists at the time saw this as an effort to intimidate the opposition, for Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the Guardian Council, had stated in Friday Prayers:
God ordered the prophet Muhammad to brutally slay hypocrites and ill-intentioned people who stuck to their convictions. Koran insistently orders such deaths. May God not forgive anyone showing leniency toward the corrupt on earth.

Fathi does not cite this background. Instead, she cites Hadi Ghaemi of the International Committee for Human Rights in Iran, who no doubt is aware of this background when he stated, “The executions show that this government resorts to any kind of terror and violence to put down any challenge to its authority.”

Now Race for Iran could have done its own research. They could have considered the background, they could have checked out not only ICHRI's release on the executions but their significant collection of material on cases leading up to those executing and considering Ghaemi's claim of numerous sources amongst "Iranian civil society analysts and activists", they could have even taken a look at the case, dating back to detentions in 2006.

They do none of this. They have no sources beyond the reference to "official justifications" (without actually considering those justifications). They have no context --- political or legal --- for their case.

(Consider how this failure to provide any information beyond the attack on Fathi undermines Race for Iran's limited analysis: "The New York-based human rights activist opines that [the hangings] could lay the ground for the execution of post-election protesters'. But, Ms. Fathi herself reports that the five people executed on Sunday were sentenced in 2008—well before the June 12, 2009 presidential election."

The salient point is that, having been detained for 2-4 years, the five prisoners were suddenly rushed on Saturday night towards execution with no legal process and no notice to lawyers or families. Thus, the question, "Why Now?" The possible --- possible, not confirmed --- answer is that there was a political motive, in the context of current and forthcoming events and developments, for public executions.)

However, that is immaterial for the authors, for they have a wider aim beyond any detailed examination of the case: "Ms. Fathi seems to have been intent on using the story of Sunday’s executions to 'keep hope alive' for a revival of the moribund Green Movement".

Now the authors, who have loudly criticised Fathi's unsubstantiated claims, have no evidence for their own. They have no confirmation of Fathi's political views. They have no evidence of her connections to the Green Movement. They have no proof that the story is being disseminated amongst Iranian activists, inside and outside the country, to whip up demonstrations on 12 June.

But proof, let alone journalistic enquiry or analytic rigour, is not their aim. Instead, they wish to establish guilt by assertion: Fathi and The New York Times have a "pro-Green political agenda".

Which means, of course, that the authors can dismiss any article in The New York Times which they do not like --- without having to resort to evidence or context or analysis --- as politically biased.

(Declaration: I write this wearing the badge, when I have been named by Race for Iran, not of professor, academic, or journalist but of "Green Movement partisan".)

2. Fathi is guilty of significant omission when she calls the Kurdish separatist movement PJAK an "armed Kurdish rebel group" and does not mention that it was designated as a terrorist organisation by the US Government in 2009.

Point taken. But if we are going to talk journalism and omissions, consider this omission from Race for Iran's critique.

Here is how the authors deal with the perhaps significant point that the four defendants accused of PJAK membership (the fifth was accused of connections with a monarchist group): "Ms. Fathi...notes that all five denied the charges of which they were convicted “in public letters posted on Web sites'. (She links to the website of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran to document this claim, but the link takes a reader to a page briefly describing such a letter from only one of the five prisoners.)"

Now the authors could have examined this. They could easily have found letters from at least three of the defendants. They could have cited the testimony of the lawyer for three of the defendants because it was in the ICHRI document that they mention. They could have considered reports on the case by Fereshteh Ghazi, Rooz Online, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Activists News Agency, Rah-e-Sabz, Kalemeh, and other outlets.

They did not none of this because, in my opinion, the fundamental issue of whether the defendants were actually members of PJAK was at best tangential to them. Instead, they want to dismantle the (pro-Green) "preferred narrative" with the possibility that "individuals convicted of terrorist crimes in Iran are members of a group that the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist organization".

So, yes, Fathi could have mentioned that PJAK is proscribed as "terrorist" by the US Government. What Race for Iran wants, however, is much more: they want that to be the dominant statement, not just part of the context. The real question here is not of omission but of priority --- does one, in reporting and analysis, privilege the political issue raised by Race for Iran or the legal and human rights issue raised by the PJAK claim in the trials and executions?


Nazila Fathi is not immune from criticism. No journalist should be. On occasion EA has challenged her reporting in these post-election months.

Nor should an author, simply because he/she takes a political position, be denied the legitimacy of critiquing a report. Race for Iran has its opinions;I have mine.

However, when that criticism is made, it should be done fairly, not only through a judicious reading of the journalism but by bringing other evidence and context to the table. In this case, Fathi's original article and analysis is based on two named sources, citation of an opposition website, and background material based on a range of unnamed sources.

Race for Iran's response is based on "official justifications" and precisely 0 sources, named or unnamed.

(Race for Iran has offered no comment on Fathi's follow-up article this week, considering the treatment of the families of the executed and the refusal to release the bodies of the prisoners, and its analysis, "The government’s refusal to hand over the bodies to the families appears to stem from a fear of antigovernment demonstrations during burial ceremonies in Kurdish areas.")

And when that criticism is made, it is not enough to deride the supposed "agenda" of one's target. One's own agenda and sources should be declared. If the authors of Race for Iran wish to turn Fathi's sources into her supposed membership of the Green Movement, then let us know the sources behind Race for Iran's commentary.  If the authors want to dismiss Fathi and The New York Times as "pro-Green", then --- in the context of this attack --- let us see the declaration that the authors are "pro-Iran Government", having defended the legitimacy of that Government since the June 2009 elections. Let us see the authors' declaration that, by tearing down Fathi and The New York Times, they may be bolstering the supposed legitimacy --- which has been questioned on issues such as justice, human rights, and fairness --- of that Government.

A final point: Race for Iran's last assault is to link Fathi to The New York Times' reporting, notably by Michael Gordon and Judith Miller, in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. I presume that is to make the connection that, as The Times prepared a false rationale for the invasion of Iraq, so its reporters with their "pro-Green" agenda are preparing a false rationale for the attempt to topple the Iranian Government.

Nazila Fathi is not Judith Miller. She did not report from Washington or New York in 2009; she reported from Tehran. She did so, even as journalists were being monitored, pressured, and in many cases detained (coincidentally, Maziar Bahari, detained from June to October 2009, wrote a powerful comment on the executions this week; Race for Iran seems to have missed this further example of "pro-Green" journalism). Fathi, as the post-election conflict, violence, and arrests escalated, continued to put out her reports. Finally, in summer 2009, she had to leave Iran.

This week, as other major "Western" outlets ignored the executions, simply repeated the account given by the Islamic Republic News Agency, or made glaring errors ("five demonstrators were killed"), Fathi considered the story in two articles.

Nazila Fathi is not Judith Miller. Her sources are not Ahmad Chalabi. And Iran 2009-2010, contrary to Race for Iran's attempted link, is not Iraq 2001-2003.

Iran 2009-2010 is Iran 2009-2010. And, rather than attacking any journalist who reports on Iran 2009-2010, simply because they do not like the news or the interpretation, it is high time that the authors of Race for Iran pursued journalism in addition to their political mission.