Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Iran’s Presidential Election Becomes a Two-Man Race

Farideh Farhi

Although some news outlets prematurely announced his candidacy last week, former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaie officially entered Iran’s presidential race today.

Despite his entry, the contest is increasingly looking like a two-man race between the current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mussavi. The race, the official registration for which will begin on May 5th, also looks highly contested with both sides, particularly Ahmadinejad, hoping to avoid a runoff election by getting more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round.

The initial expectations for this presidential race were different. Given the reformist weakness and lack of access to resources, the anticipation was that Ahmadinejad’s only real challenge would come from the conservative ranks, some of whom are increasingly unhappy with his expansionist economic policies and erratic management style. Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Tehran’s current mayor, was perceived as the most likely conservative candidate given his relative popularity in the city of Tehran and his rather tense relationship with the president over issues connected to the metropolis.

Mir-Hossein Mussavi’s entry into the race and the organizational support he has received from reformist organizations across the board changed the dynamics of the race, finally forcing several hesitant conservative coalitions and organizations to join hard core Ahmadinejad supporters and come out publicly in his support as the unity candidate of the so-called principlist camp.

At the end of the day, support for Ahmadinejad had nothing to do with his personality or policies and had everything to do with electoral numbers and the political realities on the ground.

A significant conservative challenge to Ahmadinejad was made impossible by his refusal to step aside if conservative activists chose another candidate and the perception that Mussavi will be able to pick up a good chunk of the anti-Ahmadinejad vote.

Qalibaf - a man with serious presidential aspirations who already lost a presidential election in 2005 - could not afford risking another loss by competing against both Ahmadinejad and Mussavi and endangering his chances for future elections. And this calculation ultimately became the reason for his refusal to run on his own. Reported attempts to make him a co-runner in a president/vice-president team with others such as former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati also failed.

To be sure, Mohsen Rezaie is a conservative running against Ahmadinejad because of his stated dissatisfaction with the state of the country. But given lack of support from conservative organizations, he is unlikely to pose a serious challenge to either Ahmadinejad or Mussavi. The most his candidacy can do is to give cover to prominent conservatives who do not want to support Ahmadinejad by allowing them to maintain their impartiality in the contest between the two conservative candidates.

It is no secret that good portions of the principlist camp have been unhappy with Ahmadinejad and this showed in their rather late and begrudging endorsement. Conflicts abound within the camp and there is no guarantee that they will go away by election time.

Ultimately, however, this week’s endorsement of the Followers and Leadership and Imam Front, a coalition of 14 conservative groups led by more traditional conservative groups such as the bazaar-based Islamic Coalition Party and Islamic Engineers Society signaled the calculation that Ahmadinejad is the only candidate who can keep the presidency in the conservative column.

Interestingly, the clerical counterpart in the traditional conservative camp, the Society of Combatant Clergy, has so far refused to take a stance, publicly stating that it is delaying its decision to after the period of registration and vetting by the Guardian Council. It may even choose to remain mum. The chatter in the Iranian papers and websites is that the organization – whose prominent members include former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former interim prime minister Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, and former Majles Speaker and presidential candidate Ali Akbar Nateq Nuri – preferred Mussavi but the pressure on all conservative organizations to tow the line has prevented it from taking a stance.

Similar dynamics seem to be at play within the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers, another clerical organization, even if a couple of prominent clerics in that organization – Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi and former chief justice Mohammad Yazdi – are known to be strong Ahmadinejad supporters. So far there has been no endorsement.

The Iranian parliament is also caught in this conservative drama. Speaker Larijani, no fan of Ahmadinejad, has mooted the idea of impartiality in the election on the part of the 200-member conservative caucus in the name of separation of power between the legislative and executive branches; an idea vociferously objected to by about 70 diehard Ahmadinejad supporters in the Parliament.

Larijani is caught between a rock and hard place. As the representative of the city of Qom, he simply cannot ignore the views of the religious establishment, which in unhappy with Ahmadinejad. At the same time, he has a rather rambunctious group of Ahmadinejad-nudged deputies to deal with. There are already noises in the Parliament, hinting at an attempt to bring back the previous speaker Gholamreza Haddad Adel to replace him. This is unlikely, but the fact that there are such noises reflects the extent of disagreement that Ahmadinejad tends to generate within the conservative camp.

The drama will continue until Election Day. Something to look for until that day is the public positioning of conservative politicians like Larijani and Qalibaf. Their silence will in effect be a signal that Mussavi’s election is fine with them.

For Mussavi, this is the best he can hope for as he is running a campaign not based on charisma - he doesn’t have much - and generation of popular excitement as former president Khatami would have done, Instead, he is making a calculated effort to peel away votes from Ahmadinejad. This is why he has called himself a reformist that regularly goes back to principles in order to draw the support of both reformists and principlists. He has also been focused on Ahmadinejad’s policies and management capabilities, specifically criticizing them while pronouncing himself to be the true progeny of Ayatollah Khomeini.

He has attacked Ahmadinejad for weakening Iran’s managerial class, economic policies that have harmed the poor and middle classes, deviation from economic development plans, and his adventurist and extremist foreign policy. To be sure, Mussavi has made clear that Iran’s nuclear program is not negotiable. No government can go against popular will on this issue, he said. But, for instance, just last weak he blasted Ahmadinejad for going to Geneva and allowing to be insulted while everyone knew that this was going to happen. He has also said that he will be willing to meet with Barrack Obama, perhaps in a not so hidden hint that chances of Obama meeting with him are much higher than with Ahmadinejad. He has also explicitly used the term d├ętente– a term used during Khatami’s presidency – with the world as a general guide for his foreign policy.

Mussavi's campaign is not without flaws or challenges. He lacks charisma and so far his campaign organization does not seem up to par. It is to be seen whether help from some key Khatami lieutenants will bring organizational order and vibrancy to his campaign.

But the most serious challenge to Mussavi comes from the so-called ‘Sheikh of Reform,’ former Majles speaker Mehdi Karrubi, who is running on a platform of change and refuses to abandon the field in favor of Mussavi. Mussavi has managed to receive the enthusiastic support of former president Khatami and endorsement of major reformist organizations, including Islamic Iran’s Participation Front, Islamic Revolution’s Mojahedin, Servants of Construction Party, and Combatant Cleric Association due to some bad blood between some of these organizations and Karrubi but more so because they think he has a better chance of beating Ahmadinejad. But key members of these organizations such as former Tehran mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi, former head of Planning and Budget Organization Mohammad Ali Najafi have chosen to work in Karrubi’s campaign and several well known human rights activists such as Emadeddin Baghi and journalists such as Abbas Abdi have publicly identified Karrubi as their preferred candidate due to his support of student and prisoner rights as well as his ability to take strong stances when faced with opposition.

This division among reformists is likely to harm them unless one begins to envision the possibility, as some reformists do, that not only Karrubi will increase participation but also draw more votes away from Ahmadinejad than Mussavi. This argument is based on the belief that in the 2005 election, the 5 million or so vote that Karrubi received in the first round of that election was based on his populist promise of giving out money to every Iranian. This bloc of vote, it is believed, went to Ahmadinejad in the second round contributing to the 17.2 million votes he received. Today, it is argued, these votes are up for grabs because of Ahmadinejad’s failure to deliver on his redistributive policies. Karrubi’s presence may lead his previous supporters to move away from Ahmadinejad and come back to him particularly since Karrubi’s promised economic policies again rely on the idea of distributing the oil money among the people as opposed to sending it to government coffers.

Ethnic links are forwarded as another reason why Karrubi’s presence may be helpful. Karrubi is a Lor and in the last election did well in provinces in the Zagros region. There are talks that he will also do well in border provinces most unhappy with Ahmadinejad policies such as Kordestan and Sistan and Baluchestan (although in the latter Mussavi will also do well since in the last election, the reformist Mustafa Moein won in that province).

Mussavi, who is an Azeri, is expected to do well in the two Azerbaijan provinces and Ardebil and this combined provincial strategy is hoped to be at least sufficient enough to take the election to the second round between Mussavi and Ahmadinejad. Mussavi, of course, will take a first round win if he can. But he is not yet quite well known among the voters and this will work against him in the first round.

In a second round confrontation with Ahmadinejad, however, Mussavi is more likely to benefit from a large number of ‘anti’ votes cast against Ahmadinejad; the same way in the 2005 election such votes were cast against Hashemi Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad is much better known and has his sure to vote supporters estimated to be somewhere between 10 to 12 million out of the total electorate of about 46.2 million and a likely voting population of about 28 to 30 million; but he also has high negatives and these high negatives will kick in the second round.

Rezaie’s presence may also help Mussavi in so far as it drives up the total number of votes, pushing Ahmadinejad’s base vote to less than 50 percent.

I must admit that I really don’t have any up-to-date yardstick to assess such an analysis. Certainly the reference to the previous election makes sense in so far as estimating the committed Ahmadinejad votes. The 10 to 12 million number comes from the total number of votes for the three conservative candidates – Ahmadinejad, Larijani and Qalibaf - in the first round of 2005 election.

However, few have a feel for the extent to which Ahmadinejad’s populist policies have bought him permanent support, extending his base. This is because, unlike let us say in Chavez’ Venezuela, Ahmadinejad’s populism has been mostly hand-out based. There has been no transfer of assets (land in particular). Money has been handed out, food distributed, short term loans given, immediate financial problem perhaps solved but the fundamentals of the economy, particularly in terms of higher prices, have made these remedies short-term and fleeting.

This is perhaps why just this week, campaigning in the poor area of Islamshahr which is south of Tehran, Ahmadinejad was again telling everyone that had the Majles allowed his policies would have given a family of five close to $300 a month in cash subsidies. In all likelihood, given his promise of bringing oil money to people’s tables in the last election, an alert electorate is less likely to fall for these types of promises. But, in the absence of reliable polling, nothing is really known for sure.

Also unknown is the systemic will to re-elect Ahmadinejad. Iran’s elections are run by the Interior Ministry and supervised by the Guardian Council. Both of these institutions are currently headed by solid Ahmadinejad supporters. Certainly there will be some voter manipulation in his favor. Voiding ballots is a favorite instrument; so is encouragment of people, financially or otherwise, by provincial governor generals and governors appointed by the Interior Ministry to vote in blocs. National television, where most Iranians get their information, is also critical in favoring one candidate over another and giving or not giving sufficient time to candidates who are lesser known than Ahmadinejad. What is not clear is the extent to which these types of instruments will and can be used if all the candidates running are more or less acceptable to significant players and political groupings of Iran.

So far, one key player, Ayatollah Khamenei, has publicly said that he will not make his individual choice in favor of any candidate become public, signaling that he is fine with any of the candidates and promising a fair election. But this is his public posture in every election - although in this election he has taken the unusual step of publicly pointing out that his support for Ahmadinejad as president should not be confused with support for him as candidate - and questions about his “real” preference remain.

Mussavi’s attempt to represent himself as someone who has a foot in both reformist and principlist camps must hence be seen in the light of his attempt to peel away votes from Ahmadinejad and reduce the will to cheat. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad’s will to win should not be under-estimated.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bakshi: Where Religion Meets Politics

There is no doubt that religion and politics make for a potent mix and the recent UN resolution, condemning the ‘defamation of religion’ has created quite a stir in the international community. In the following article Gitanjali Bakshi analyzes the possible implications of this resolution and what it could mean for the on-going debate on religion and politics.

Where Religion Meets Politics…

By Gitanjali Bakshi

There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions" – Dr. Hans Kung

In 1992 Samuel Huntington claimed that culture and religion would be the primary source of conflict in the ‘post cold-war era’. Some have argued against his theory -- stating that modern wars are as much a product of limited resources as they are a ‘Clash of Civilizations’. Others contest that civilizations have clashed and will clash for eons to come, and that Huntington was simply stating an age old fact rather than a new phenomenon.

Nevertheless, on the 26th of March 2009, a resolution passed by the Human Rights Council, condemning the ‘defamation of religion’, spoke to the very essence of Huntington’s assertion. This resolution is significant because it has once again emphasized the importance of religious debate within the international political arena. With both strong supporters and strong detractors, the resolution is forcing policymakers to deal with the proverbial elephant in the room: religion.

Pakistan and the 22 other states that advocated a resolution against the ‘defamation of religion’, claim that individuals have faced intolerance, discrimination and even acts of violence as a result of certain stigmas about their religious beliefs. In particular, they agree that in recent years there has been a vilification of Islam -- that the religion has often been associated with terrorism, extremism and human rights abuses and that this vilification has led to an irrational fear or even hatred against Muslims, often called ‘Islamophobia’. The resolution, supporters say, is an effort to curb the harmful consequences of this unwarranted slander against any one religion. These 23 advocates speak to an individual’s inalienable right to practice their religion without prejudice, without condemnation.

On the other hand, opponents of the resolution, claim that it is a “shot across the bow of free speech” – one of the central tenets of the Human Rights Charter. They are concerned that the resolution is simply a ruse to stifle debate and inquiry in countries that already suffer from poor human rights records and even poorer press freedoms. The 11 states that voted against the resolution argue that religion must be questioned in order to reform and that individuals must enjoy their right to communicate their opinions freely. A decision to punish those responsible for expressing their beliefs is a decision to steal from human beings one of their most unassailable rights: the right to speak up against what we perceive as unjust or wrong, the right to our own convictions.

While both sides have valid points and both highlight certain undeniable realities, the answer lies somewhere in between.

While engaging in dialogue, we must be careful with our words, we must weigh our thoughts and we must, as much as possible, refrain from the harshest of judgment. Along with freedoms come responsibilities. Unrestrained freedom of one individual can quite possibly mean the curtailment of freedom for another. This is why President Obama has highlighted that it is important to engage the Muslim world and not just criticize them; because the foundation of any dialogue, and especially inter-faith dialogue, must include a certain level of receptivity and respect.

At the same time, saying that religious ideas must be ‘respected’ does not mean that they should go unchallenged. Religion is redundant if it cannot adapt to time and circumstance. The only reason why religion has been subject to reform over the ages is because it has been scrutinized and examined. If we didn’t have the right to question religion, we would not be able to speak up against archaic and cruel practices like sati, witch-hunts and female genital mutilation. These laws are an affront to the most basic human rights of freedom, justice and peace and we must be able to express our collective voice against them.

These guidelines are of course applicable to both opponents and advocates of the resolution against the ‘defamation of religion’. All institutions of governance must undergo change and reform in accordance with their sufficiency in the time and circumstances that we live in. Similarly, religions must award respect to the beliefs of others, if they want respect in return.

But above all, leaving both sides of the debate behind, the recent resolution on the ‘defamation of religion’ has emphasized that -- in a world where we grapple with modern theories like the ‘Clash of Civilizations’, in a world where Political Islam is becoming a clear and undeniable reality and in a world where cartoons criticizing a particular faith can create world wide civil protest -- we can no longer segregate religious debate from political debate.

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An appreciative thanks to Juan Cole for posting my latest essay during this season of remembrance for the uprising at Tiananmen. I will be posting essays and excerpts on the topic in the next few weeks, linking Global Affairs to sites such as The China Beat and Frontier International. For more information on my forthcoming book, "Tiananmen Moon" published by Rowman & Littlefield, please see minzhuwansui.



by Philip J Cunningham

“Tiananmen” is a taboo topic in China. But even in places where it is remembered and commemorated, the Beijing student movement of 1989 is best known for its bloody ending on June 4, a tragic turning point of unquestioned significance, but one which tends to obscure the amazing weeks of restraint, harmony and cooperation in crowds that swelled to a million at the height of an entirely peaceful and extremely popular social movement.

Twenty years ago, as hundreds of thousands demonstrated day after day in Beijing, as ordinary citizens joined in or supported the student protesters with offers of food, drink and hearty cheers, crime all but disappeared and with it everyday suspicions and the habitual selfishness of an alienated populace. A remarkable degree of forbearance was evident on all sides, the government included, making it possible for a truly peaceful mass movement to emerge and blossom in the sunshine of that fateful Beijing spring. Even the provocative hunger strike, despite its grim overtones of self-starvation, did not claim a single victim and was wisely called off after one week.

Given the way the media works, perhaps reflecting something intrinsic to the workings of memory itself, there is undue focus on the big-bang at the end, the ultimate failure of the movement, rather than its peaceful flowering. The brutal crackdown of June 4 tends to eclipse the breath-taking accomplishments of April 27, May 4, May 10, May 13 --indeed nearly every day in mid-May 1989—until martial law was declared. After the troops were moved in, protesters started to panic and mutual threats became more pointedly violent.

Of course, mourning the dead and injured, mourning the lost opportunities for China, bemoaning the injustice is essential in taking measure of what happened. But what about the good times that preceded the blow-out, the soaring dreams taken wing, the beauty of a peaceful uprising?

The understandable, but ultimately misplaced media focus on a handful of nervous politicians and their hot-headed student interlocutors has obscured not only the considerable restraint showed by the communist party and its leaders for much of the period in question, but also occludes the positive, in some cases, outright remarkable contributions of the student leadership who performed brilliantly as crowd facilitators and morale boosters. Key actors on both sides of the barricades were less than democratic in word and deed, but they were adept at utilizing native, communist-influenced political tools to manage people power to an impressive degree.

The focus on the failure of the movement, and the foibles of those best known as its representatives, also obscures the even more weighty and valorous contributions of tens of thousands of ordinary citizens whose defiance was singular and courageous, who made China's biggest peace fest both peaceful and festive. Nobody was really in charge of the crowd, as much as student activists and government emissaries might try, the crowd was self-policing and constantly undergoing spontaneous transformations, at once creating the conditions of its own existence and reacting to subtle shifts in the prevailing political winds.

While focusing on a handful of individuals is perhaps necessary for narrative simplicity, if not coherence, we need to constantly remind ourselves about the multifarious ‘silent majority' who were out there in the streets of Beijing, hoping to augur in and witness the re-birth of a more equitable and just China. Even for those without a clue as to what democracy might mean, there was courage and conviction in the way so many showed their feelings with their feet, voting with their bodies rather than ballots, putting their lives on the line, come sunrise, come sunset, at Tiananmen Square.

Now that twenty years have passed, it is time to go beyond the hate inspired by the crackdown, beyond the ad hominem attacks on inept octogenarians, dithering party cadre and inexperienced student activists, and instead to look at the larger picture of a million souls gathered purposefully and with great self-discipline on the streets and plazas of Beijing, and many more across China, who were part of a rare transformative moment in history. Nearly everyone involved, despite their disagreements, stubbornness and imperfections, exhibited a potent love for country and fellow citizens.

Now that twenty years have gone by, it is a time for reconciliation, a time to ponder the tragedy not with a desire for revenge or recrimination but with a plain telling of the truth, as best as a multidimensional and in some respects unknowable truth can be told, and to accept that this revolutionary drama-turned-tragedy, this alternatively uplifting and gut-wrenching karmic kaleidoscope, was composed of ordinary, mostly well-meaning people acting in predictably human, if not always completely noble, ways.

When mourning the victims of June 4,1989, when challenging the uncomfortable silence that has descended upon an otherwise much reformed, much more open China, let us recall not just the bloodshed that ended the popular uprising at Tiananmen, but the sustained participation of hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks who, simultaneously empowered and laid vulnerable, contributed to the inspirational flourishing of peaceful protest in May 1989.

Philip J Cunningham marched with student protesters in 1989 at Tiananmen Square and conducted interviews with student activists for BBC and ABC news. His memoir, Tiananmen Moon; Inside the Chinese Student Uprising in 1989, will be published in May by Rowman & Littlefield.

see the following websites for more information:

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

On Iran’s Sincerity in Nuclear Talks

Farideh Farhi

Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute had a piece in the Wall Street Journal on April 12 that really got me wondering about the extent to which opponents of U.S. engagement with Iran are willing to twist the truth to make their case against US-Iran talks.

Reflecting on the history of nuclear negotiations between the EU-3 and Iran, Rubin finds the Iranians to have been as “insincere as European diplomats were greedy, gullible or both. Why? Because Iranian negotiators of all colors have proven to be committed to Iran’s nuclear program!! He identifies this as Iranian insincerity.

But, ironically, the only insincerity that I see reflected in the WSJ piece is the author's!

What do I mean? Well, let's start with the public consistency of the Iranian government's position on its nuclear program. One doesn’t have to agree with Iran’s nuclear program to acknowledge that from day one, Tehran has said publicly that it will not agree to the permanent suspension of its enrichment or enrichment-related programs. Even when it suspended its program in 2004-5, it said it would do so only temporarily and for the purpose of building confidence.

Perhaps people have forgotten the trajectory of the EU-Iran negotiations but, as explained here, 2004 negotiations in Paris were only saved when the Europeans agreed to change the language demanding suspension and instead used the language of "objective guarantees" regarding the peacefulness of Iran's program. If others thought that this was a bargaining ploy or something else, it was not because of lack of consistency or sincerity on the part of the Iranian negotiators.

Now let's turn to Michael Rubin. He uses two quotes in his piece to make his point that to me are highly questionable. The first one is from Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, government spokesman during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency. The quote is drawn from a reporting of a debate between the reformist Ramezanzadeh and a hard-liner by Fars News, which should never be relied upon in its reportage of what reformists say in public debates because its reports are clearly slanted towards the hard-line right.

Even assuming that Fars News is engaged in accurate reporting, the way Rubin takes the quote out of context manages to change the meaning of it. This is how Rubin translates the quote:

“We should prove to the entire world that we want power plants for electricity. Afterwards, we can proceed with other activities.”

The clear implication that Rubin wants the reader to draw is that Khatami’s government was "trying to lull the West into a false confidence so that Iran could pursue illicit nuclear activities." In fact, the words I have placed in quotation marks here are Rubin's exact words in an old post in the National Review's Corner blog about Ramezanzadeh's quote.

Rubin makes a couple of subtle changes in the translation but, more importantly, what Rubin does not report are Ramezanzadeh’s prior sentences which make it clear that by other activities he is still talking about a civilian program. This is the full context of Ramezanzadeh’s quote:

“If we want the right to nuclear energy for the bomb, then it is clear that the world doesn’t want this. But if we want it for electricity, they say you don’t have a nuclear power plant, why do you want the fuel? Just take a look at what the Russians have done to us over the Bushehr power plant? With the current speed of enrichment it will take us 25 years to reach enrichment self-sufficiency. Even then, from where are we going to get our fuel? [The extent of] our reserves are not even unclear. The solution is to prove to the world that we want the power plant for electricity and then begin other activities.”

In fact, anyone with little knowledge of Iran’s domestic discourse on nuclear issues should know that the idea of a nuclear program beyond a civilian one simply does not have a place in public conversations. The Iranian government has been successful in selling the idea of enrichment precisely because it has always maintained that it is pursuing a civilian program, a "right" made possible by NPT, and no illicit activities.

So for Michael Rubin to imply that Ramezanzadeh was saying something beyond that Iran should "prove to the entire world that we want power plants for electricity" - a statement in support of the act of confidence building embarked upon during the Khatami era - is simply disingenuous.

Even more disingenuous is what Rubin does with the interview of Iran's former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani. In response to a question about his failures as a negotiator, Rowhani discusses Iran's strategy for 10 long paragraphs. Rubin takes isolated and out of context sentences – even half-sentences - from different paragraphs, weaves them together as though these were sequential sentences and makes it seem as though Rowhani was making an argument for Iran’s deceptive approach during negotiations.

In fact, Rowhani says that Iran suspended because there was an international consensus against Iran and because the negotiators were led to believe the Europeans were going to negotiate in good faith and that the Americans were interested in a diplomatic resolution of the conflict. He also says that he made abundantly clear to the Europeans that permanent suspension was out of the question and Iran came out of suspension not under Ahmadinejad but under Khatami (which is an often forgotten fact).

Now I fully understand Rubin's position regarding US-Iran talks, even if I disagree with it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, as it is often said but misrepresentation is another story.

Of course, there is always the possibility that Rubin's Persian is not very good (or his translators are not very good). For instance, in his reaction to one of Roger Cohen's pieces in NYT, Rubin writes in the National Review Corner blog:

"One of Cohen’s interlocutors, at least according to his February 5, 2009 column, was former IRGC Chief Mohsen Rezai. Here is Rezai in today’s Iranian press: “Our enmity with the U.S. has no end." Cohen painted him as a bit more reasonable."

Rezaie in fact said exactly the opposite, using a double negative. He said: "Our enmity with the U.S. is not without end"!

So mistakes can be made in translation. But what Rubin does with Rowhani’s and Ramezanzadeh’s quotes suggests that something more than a mistake is going on.

Iran and the United States are about to begin serious rounds of talks about Iran’s nuclear program. At the center of the controversy is Iran’s enrichment program, which is a civilian program. Iran’s interlocutors have so far taken a "zero-option" position demanding Iran to suspend all enrichment and enrichment-related activities for the fear that this civilian program will give Iran the ability to build a weapons program.

Iran, in turn, has consistently and publicly said it will not suspend its program permanently under any circumstances. It said so during Khatami administration and it is saying so today.

There is an exclusivity of positions and a deep conflict here that may or may not be resolved or compromised over in the future talks because, even though the Obama Administration has given up suspension as a precondition for talks, it is not yet clear whether it is prepared to give suspension up as negotiation objective in exchange for more intrusive inspections and some limits on Iranian program.

But the reason the Obama administration is finally coming to the table is not because it is not aware of this deep conflict of positions or it is gullible enough to be misled by Iran's deceptive diplomatic maneuvers, as Rubin seems to suggest. Rather it is changing course because more than half a decade of useless diplomatic wrangling with frequent deadlines and red lines, repeatedly crossed by Iran, have not been effective.

Iran is now spinning more centrifuges, has continued work on its heavy water plant, while the international community’s inspection regime, even though still in line with Iran’s treaty obligations, has become less extensive mainly because Iran has stopped implementing the Additional Protocol that it used to implement voluntarily before its case was referred to the Security Council.

In fact, a case can easily be made that the gullible and insincere folks in this process were the ones who refused to face reality and kept claiming, despite evidence to the contrary, that deadlines and red lines, military threats and economic pressures, will work despite repeated straight-forward statements by Iranian officials of all hue that they will not.

Misrepresentations of the Iranian position seem to be the only munitions left in defending a failed policy.

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As the 20th anniversary of "Tiananmen" approaches, I would like to post excerpts from "TIANANMEN MOON," my forthcoming memoir about Beijing Spring 1989 to commemorate in a modest but heartfelt way the many moments of wonder, soaring hopes, dashed dreams and raw terror as experienced in the heat of the action, each entry posted twenty years to the day of events described. The excerpts will run chronologically, from May 4 to June 4, including highlights such as the May Fourth demonstration, the ten-thousand bicycle demonstration, the hunger strike, the occupation of Tiananmen Square, the water strike, the imposition of martial law, the arrival of troops and the midnight crackdown.

-Phil Cunningham

Please see Frontier International and Tiananmen Moon for more information.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Will Pakistan Become A Theocracy?

The Pakistani Parliament has now passed the bill authorizing Shari'a laws in Swat - and perhaps in other territories. Punjab, according to the NYT report, United Militants Threaten Pakistan’s Populous Heart is also in grave danger of going Islamic in a meta-way. Baluchistan has broken out into violence and protests since the president of the Baluch National Movement, Mir Ghulam Mohammad, was kidnapped (along with two other senior associates), shot to death and then their bodies ditched from a helicopter. The primary suspicion falls upon the military or military intelligence. That leaves us Sindh. Karachi, the biggest city in Pakistan, is having a battle of the bands. More seriously, it is also been the scene for ethnic riots against the Baluchi recently.

In the meantime, the Obama administration has, to this point, authorized over 60 drone attacks for an al-Qaeda kill rate of 2%. Wonderful.

So, given all this, is there a likelihood of an Islamic Revolution in Pakistan? Is it Game Over?

Before we get there, I want to review a couple more things about Pakistan and its relationship with its constitutive parts. Swat merged with Pakistan, constitutionally speaking, in 1969. However, it has retained the status as a "Special Area" granted under the Yahya Khan One Unit proclamation of 1955. This special status was is recorded into the '73 Constitution, Article 247. According to this status, they are free to make their own laws and govern themselves. The President can, from "time to time", give some directions to the Governor but the Parliament, Supreme Court or any High Court has no jurisdiction. So, the Swat "Shari'a" deal is a capitulation insofar as Pakistan has never amended its Constitution to make the FATA territories squarely under its law. Additionally, the Swat deal seems to be the only way to curb Maulana Fazlullah, at the moment. If Obama is going to talk about "good Taliban" in Afghanistan, Pakistan certainly has the right to make political negotiations to get a cease-fire. The human impact of the last 3 years on Swat valley has been intense - over 300,000 have fled.

Baluchistan, another princely state which was militarily merged with Pakistan after Partition, had no role in the federal state. After the 1955 One Unit Proclamation, the Khan of Kalat tried again to declare sovereignty. General Tikka Khan ("the butcher of Bengal") was sent to Baluchistan in 1958 under Ayub Khan's military rule to enforce federal writ. Things simmered until Bhutto has to send more army troops against another militant uprising in the region from '72-'74. So, there is no love lost between the center and Baluchistan.

Sindh, Karachi, and the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) are another beeswax. Only recently, rumors were afloat that Musharraf was cutting a deal with MQM and give them autonomy under a federated Pakistan.

Now, to return to this "question". I would argue that such a formulation of impending doom is one of the main reason Pakistan is in this mess. There is a rich vein of "Pakistan on the Brink" theorization that has dominated US foreign policy since the 50s. Back then, it was the Communist revolution, and now it is the Islamic one. This particular mind-set has propelled one disastrous policy over another for the last 40 years. We have supported dictator after dictator and stood by, silently, when civilian regimes floundered under internal economic and political crises. Once again, this question dominates the Obama policy and will restrict any real re-thinking of the Pakistan issue or re-evaluation of the regional scene. So, let's just categorically understand that:

1. There is a world of difference between "Taliban" and any given Pakistani citizen, even the most devout believer. The Taliban, strictly understood to be warlords operating with or in support of Mullah Omar, are a very particular political group. They _are_ political. They _have_political goals. They are not, in effect, a religious ideology that has the danger of sweeping Pakistan. They don't have doctrinarians or theologians. Al-Qaeda does. Taliban don't. It may seem like splitting hairs but I think it is very important to differentiate between the historically situated Taliban and the groups that have emerged in Pakistan bearing the name "Taliban". In the later case, the term is actually masking other political goals and differences that we need to be carefully attuned to. Similarly speaking, there is a world of difference between a specific political group, however broadly defined, which can be numbered in the thousands and a state of 160-plus million peoples. The people of Pakistan have demonstrated, through a number of elections over the last 60 years, that they do not want their religious leaders in political power. There is no dismissing that reality.

2. The most powerful entity in Pakistan in its national army. The second most powerful entity is its civil bureaucracy. The third most powerful are the landed and industrial elite. None of these entities are about to give it up (whatever "it" is - from nukes to bank accounts) to some ragtag bunch of jihadis. Certainly Zardari, wants to keep everything, don't you know it.

3. There is a robust, active, critical media. A media which has played a prominent role in some amazing events in civil and political theaters in the last 3 years.

So, I reject the premise in which the Swat Deal becomes a stepping stone to the "Talibanization" of Pakistan.

Second, Pakistan has always been the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Pakistan has always self-imagined itself to be a "homeland for Muslims". The question really is: what kind of a homeland? Saudi Arabia is a homeland for Muslims. It has Shari'a and a King. Malaysia is another homeland for Muslims - with a different sort of emphasis. Turkey, with its emphatic secularism, falls on the far end of such a homeland for Muslim spectrum. Where does Pakistan fit in? And where does it intend to go? I think that is the more important question. What is Pakistan to Pakistanis now? Who is a Pakistani, in effect? As I pointed out in an earlier discussion on the idea of Pakistan, there has to be a fundamental re-articulation of Pakistan as an entity, as a nation-state, within its constitutive parts. The urgency of this task is evident - there are other claimants with answers. Claimants who carry guns and who can brutalize a population in the blink of an eye. There is also the United States agenda, which continues to treat Pakistan as nothing more than a client-state. Somewhere in this pincer, somewhere between the taliban and the drone, the Pakistanis have to begin forming a sense of their whole. I am not big on nationalism and I don't think that re-imagining Pakistan as a nation is an easy task, either. (( Sometime ago, I would have loved to see a future South Asia Union - akin to the EU - where Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka found themselves in harmony with our uncle India. What a difference a war on terror makes. )) But, I am not simply talking about some ideological mumbo-jumbo that Islamabad can cook-up.

The most crucial step is that the civilian federal state of Pakistan has to listen - really, actually, listen - to the people of FATA, the people of N.W.F.P, the people of Baluchistan, the people of Sindh and the people of Punjab. It has to provide its citizens with basic security, shelter and welfare. It needs to protect its citizens from terrorism. It needs to strengthen its civic engagement with non-governmental organizations. It needs to ensure that basic human rights and access to a basic educational system is guaranteed to all citizens. These are actions that can be taken and should be taken and they will have a far greater impact than any 1.5 billion dollar aid. The Pakistan military, and the US, must allow for this. It must enable the state, it must pressure the state to fulfill its pledges to the people. Part of that means a military operation against the Taliban (narrowly defined) and al-Qaeda (defined as "foreign fighters" in the press) in Swat and in Baluchistan. This must be under-taken by the Pakistan military.

From such a process, a major process of stabilization, the state can start to re-build. It's a tall order, I know. There are too many de-stabilizing forces. Not to mention, an open question mark over whether there is actual political will to do all this. Yet, I remain hopeful. Pakistanis - however we categorize them - have a lot of heart, a lot of soul and great fortitude. For the last 8 years, they have been paying the price of a proxy-war waged on their soil. A decade before, they suffered through another proxy-war which gave them millions of refugees and a radicalizing ideology. They have persevered. I am still in awe of the hundreds of thousands who galvanized against Musharraf and the millions who cast a vote in the election last year. We must support those many millions in taking the next step.
{x-posted to CM}
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Wednesday, April 8, 2009



The elegant Rainbow Room, like the vast city of New York over which it towers, has seen better days. On a recent visit I was pleased to discover the doormen were not at all strict about the dress code until I got inside and realized they were happy to have any customers at all.

The top floor of Rockefeller Center’s soaring main tower wasn’t completely empty, at least not the cozy bar with southern exposure where the dim lighting and tall windows offer unparalleled views of the Empire State Building, The Chrysler Building and Times Square in the foreground, with the towers of Wall Street and New York’s great suspension bridges twinkling like pearl necklaces in the distance.

But the only party ordering drinks with abandon the night I stopped in was a group of Japanese businessmen, high level cadre from Mitsubishi from the sound of it, and even with their perfunctory, big-hearted spending, one suspected the generosity was corporate, a way of rewarding themselves for laboring over serious business matters late into the night.

Nearly everywhere I went in New York in the days that followed, in the subway and streets, in half-empty cafes and idle shops, I heard talk of the economic downturn, lost fortunes, fear of depression, unemployment, social unrest. So prevalent is talk of financial matters of doom and gloom in America’s economic capital --TV news shows seem to talk of nothing else—except perhaps the latest Obama appearance, or that of his dashing wife.

Even street hustlers were in on the deal, a 34th street vendor of discounted goods of uncertain origin had a hand-painted sign on his sidewalk pushcart, urging customers to support the President’s “stimulus.” Everyone, except perhaps Mayor Bloomberg, who cut his teeth on Wall Street and has emerged from this mess as the city’s richest man, has had some belt-tightening to do.

Among the more puzzling editorials I read before returning to Japan were fear-mongering pieces that suggested America, if it didn’t deal with the downturn in just the right fashion might turn out like Japan. Like Japan? What’s wrong with glittering Japan, I wondered, where restaurants are packed, the cars are spotless and designer goods the domain of every housewife?

A few days later I found myself back in Tokyo, again in a tower looking down on a dazzling city. If you’ve seen Sophia Coppola’s film “Lost in Translation” you know exactly what kind of serenely isolated enclave hotel I am talking about. Why the hotel is so tall the lobby doesn’t even start until the 41st floor! A cup of good tea in the said lobby goes for around 2000 yen, twice the price of a glass of house wine in the Rainbow Room. The faux New York steak-house at the top of the Tokyo hotel, up yet another elevator, was to my great surprise packed with well-dressed customers. I didn’t see “Bobby” DeNiro, who the local Hollywood hack claims is a regular, but you’d have to be a movie star to afford the prices. No wonder those Japanese businessmen could afford to order several rounds of drinks. The real New York is still cheap for them.

So, where’s the doom and gloom in Tokyo? Well, it’s in scant evidence in the city’s fanciest hotels and swank downtown restaurants, but that’s to be expected in a society --once relatively egalitarian and in possession of a decent social safety net-- that has seen the rich get richer and the poor get poorer during a decade-long economic downturn.

For doom and gloom of a political nature, however, one only need to look a few hundred meters north to another striking tower, the sterile, over-bearing and heavy-handed monstrosity called “To-Cho.” Tokyo’s vertical city hall is a monument to architectural arrogance, which suits well the nature of the long-reigning mayor, rightwing firebrand Ishihara Shintaro.

While the economic downturn is not immediately evident in the gleaming towers of Nishi-Shinjuku, there are clear signs of security downturn, or the paranoid perception of such, what with helicopters buzzing the air, government compounds ringed with car-bomb barriers, parcel inspection at the elevators and tabloids making war cries at North Korea. PAC-3 interceptor missiles were put on line in Ichigaya in the heart of Tokyo.

Disguised missile or failed satellite?

That Japan is in a political downturn is undeniable, the easy-to-kick North Korea was of much less interest and right-wing fanatics didn’t fare nearly as well when things were going swimmingly for the nation.

But for true, and tragic signs of Tokyo’s economic downturn, one has to ride the rails. If you take the popular Chuo Line, a major east-west artery known for its fast trains that speed through local stations without slowing down, you may find your train delayed due to “self-destruction” on the tracks. It’s Tokyo’s suicide line, and while some barriers have been installed and stern admonitions issued that victim families pay for the cost of cleanup, social policy has not sufficed to curb the tragic trend.

Japan’s national suicide rate has remained above 30,000 for as long as the downturn, suggesting there is some kind of social dysfunction at work with a link to the economy.

In a face-conscious society known for its busy-bee industriousness, where one’s job is often synonymous with one’s identity, firing workers is arguably more hurtful and more fraught with social risk than in America where people change jobs often and enjoy more social mobility. Layoffs of contract workers are bad enough, now even full-time Japanese workers, for whom the exacting but remunerative dedication to a sole employer was part of the status quo social compact, are in danger of being let go of.

The once tightly-woven social fabric that made Japan a relatively crime-free society for so long is coming unraveled. Several bloody killing sprees, most notably in the “Akihabara indiscriminate knife attack” --Japan mercifully remains a society of few guns —have been attributed to layoffs at blue chip firms and their subsidiaries. This parallels a sickening spate of indiscriminate gun violence in the US which has taken dozens of lives in the last month alone.

But putting aside for the moment the possible relevance of a rising crescendo of desperate acts, it is not immediately obvious walking the streets, let alone stalking the high-life bars of Tokyo, that people are poor or in deep trouble, though economic statistics suggest increased distress. For one, poverty is relative, Japanese may have less than before, but it is still the second wealthiest country in the world and has a level of “poverty” that most Third World nations can only dream of.

If anything, the recent downturn is more vivid in New York where the shock is recent and the reversal of fortunes more dramatic, epitomized in the strange case of Bernie Madoff, trusted con man to millionaires. Tokyo, which has been in the doldrums for the tenure of at least half a dozen prime ministers, wears its downturn a bit more flippantly, --why shouldn’t the rich be out on the town enjoying life?-- they still have more than anyone else and plenty of yen to spare.

If there is a danger in US catching the dreaded “Japan disease” that editorial pundits like to ruminate about, the reduction of aggregate wealth is less scary than the increase of stark inequality and sharp urban hierarchy.

Japan is broken, but not particularly poor. It’s in the doldrums alright, newspapers are shrinking like elsewhere, local editions of Esquire and Playboy have gone out of business, the popularity of the ruling party and inept prime minister are hitting rock bottom. But none of that compares to the way “little” people are getting hurt; first rendered poor, then invisible.

What makes Japan’s downturn tragic is the self-punishing shame of society’s losers who become afraid to show their face; lock-ins are rampant and people too proud to be poor have literally starved to death in their own apartments. Out of sight, out of mind.

Japan, Incorporated, hums along while it discards people like unwanted rung-out rags, things looking superficially much as they always did, while those who have no political voice or fancy connections wither away in anonymity and quiet despair.

On the US side, trillion dollar taxpayer-funded bailout plans are of the bankers, by the bankers and for the bankers.

One only has to descend from the tower and get back on the streets again to feel the pain being inflicted on the public from on high.


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Monday, April 6, 2009

Thursday, April 2, 2009



“Freeman's only qualm about the killing of pro-democracy students at Tiananmen in 1989 was that the Politburo waited too long before ordering the People's Liberation Army to start shooting. Even a hard-headed realist ought to distinguish between the need to cooperate with China and a betrayal of America's true allies. Freeman was brought down by the wrong forces for the wrong reasons."

--Boston Globe editorial, March 30, 2009

It’s editorials like the one quoted above, in which the Boston Globe viciously attacks veteran diplomat Chas Freeman for alleging that the Israeli lobby influences US politics-- that makes me despair for the future of newspapers.

It makes the Boston Globe sound like a blog, and not a very good one at that, not so much a respectable rant written by a gentlemen in his bathrobe as a cheap, anonymous, ad hominem attack on a US statesman which doubles up as a veiled attack on China.

Does the Boston Globe really want to telegraph to the world its provincial and deeply prejudiced anti-China, pro-Israel lobby stance? It does that already in the stories it chooses to commission and highlight in its pages, need it be any more explicit?

One could make a cogent argument to the effect that China, not Israel, deserves a special relationship with the US. That it is in the interests of world peace and prosperity that the richest country with the biggest arsenal be at peace and constructively engaged with an up and coming economic giant that is the world’s most populous country.

As for the allegation that Chas Freeman wanted the PLA to shoot at civilians, it’s libelous and deliberately twisting nuanced things he has said on a complex topic.

I was on a campus in Beijing during the 1989 street protests and I joined fellow students in marching from a gated educational enclave to Tiananmen Square, fully expecting the police to stop the march and perhaps even to swing a few batons and toss some tear gas canisters to push us back. That we could march to the Square, day after day with impunity, then set up a tent city on the scale of Woodstock, was exhilarating and uplifting and rather odd.

One can make a good argument for governmental tolerance; letting the demonstrations take wing, letting students vent their grievances, establishing an honest dialogue or at least showing restraint until the demonstrators played themselves out, and that would have been my preference.

Conversely, in the realpolitik view that I think is in accord with what Mr. Freeman reports hearing from Chinese interlocutors, one could argue that firm police cordons and strict back-to-school orders observed fairly and consistently from day one might also have avoided a tragic showdown on the Square.

The point is, a firm but restrained handling of the unrest from the outset would have been preferable to what instead took place; mixed signals leading to a debacle. Government dithering, due to factional fighting as we now understand it, led one hand of the state to slyly encourage, the other hand to viciously crack down. This allowed things to escalate to the point that put thousands of lives at risk, in the end hundreds of demonstrators and scores of soldiers were killed in a melee of violence.

Just as liberal humanitarians might have wished for more tolerance, diplomatic realists such as Freeman bemoan, and not without wisdom, the lack of a benign crackdown at the outset; the point being that a large scale bloody uprising and military crackdown was in no one’s true interest, except perhaps for well-paid editorial writers in their New England armchairs who want to say tsk tsk to the Chinese government.

There were no winners at Tiananmen, it was a tragedy for all sides, soldiers included. The Boston Globe has no high moral ground in this instance.

Indeed, if recycling hateful cliches is the best the Globe’s editorial writers have to offer, --and it comes on the heels of an even more odious and withering ad hominem attack on the same foreign policy expert by the Washington Post— then maybe slashing staff and letting the moribund, increasingly insolvent opinion leaders stew in their own juice is just desserts.

It’s like raising the old canard about Iran wanting to “wipe Israel off the map,” a devious soundbite that Juan Cole and other linguists have demonstrated to be an inaccurate translation, but it keeps getting circulated anyhow. If it serves its purpose to rally readers in a desired direction, what matter the truth?

Why should what precious credibility the Globe or the Post has earned through the reliable writing of its reporting staff be sullied by editorial cheap shots and anonymous attacks?

The Wall Street Journal has made an art of such distinguished mud-slinging but I would hardly consider it an exemplar of good editorial policy.

There is a place for signed opinion and signed commentary in newspapers, but it increasingly seems to me that unsigned editorials, the sort of diktat from above that one associates with Pravda or the People’s Daily of old, are dinosaurs that should go the way of dinosaurs.

Given the economic downturn and pressures on papers to survive, I suggest the hacks who write unsigned editorials at the Washington Post, Boston Globe and other big papers be given their pink slips. Save the money for reporting or honest commentary. Forget about what the “Globe” thinks, or what the “Post” thinks, --do newspapers really think? Instead, keep a small editorial staff sufficient to sift through letters from readers and signed commentary with diverse authorship (not agented hack pieces and PR pabulum of the sort that the New York Times, owner of the Boston Globe, routinely trades in.)

I love newspapers. Delivering them was my first job, reading them gave me a rudimentary education in world affairs, saving old copies on historic dates a hobby and writing for them has been not so much remunerative as a pleasure in itself.

But hate speech of the sort emanating from editorial board rooms in recent years, the kind of speech that contributes to a country going to war or slapping sanctions on people they don’t know and don’t understand, is unacceptable. If newspapers don’t reinvent themselves in a more equitable fashion, they deserve to wither on the vine. Read more on this article...