Categories
Iran The Opinionsphere

A few disjointed thoughts on Iran

Thomas Erdbrink in the Washington Post:

When asked about protests and complaints, Ahmadinejad said that it was important to ask the opinions of “ true Iranians” on the election. “Like the people you meet at my rallies,” he said. He described the protesters as soccer hooligans who were disappointed that their team lost the match. “This is not important,” he said. “We have full freedom in Iran.” [my emphasis]

I’ve already heard Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described as the Sarah Palin of Iran – and this invocation of the “true Iranians” only seems to make the analogy more apt – reminding me at least of Sarah Palin’s invocation of the “pro-American” parts of America.

I honestly don’t know what to make of this – Ahmadinejad’s joke about whether or not Mousavi was under house arrest:

“He ran a red light, and he got a traffic ticket,” Mr. Ahmadinejad quipped when asked about his rival.

The moment I heard that Ahmadinejad was announced as the winner, my mind flashed to an Andrew Sullivan post about a texted joke making the rounds in Tehran:

The Election Commission has announced in its last statement regarding the election that writing names such as monkey, traitor, fascist, silly, and [expletive] on the ballots will be considered a vote for Ahmadinejad.

Pepe Escobar in the Asia Times points out a rather odd statistical nugget about the election results for the other reformer in the race:

Karroubi not only didn’t win in his home province of Lorestan, he had less votes than volunteers helping in his campaign.

Escobar also explains the odd sequence of events that led to the announcement of Ahmadinejad’s “election”:

The polls closed at 10pm on Friday, Tehran time. Most main streets then were fully decked out in green. In an absolutely crucial development, the great Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf told Radio Farda how Mousavi’s main campaign office in Tehran received a phone call on Saturday at 1am; the Interior Ministry was saying “Don’t announce Mr Mousavi’s victory yet … We will gradually prepare the public and then you can proceed.” Iranian bloggers broke down the vote at the time as 19.7 million for Mousavi, between 7 and 8 million for Ahmadinejad, 7 million for Karroubi, and 3 million for Rezai.

Then all hell seemed to break loose. Phones, SMS, text messaging, YouTube, political blogs, opposition websites, foreign media websites, all communication networks, in a cascade, were shutting down fast. Military and police forces started to take over Tehran’s streets. The Ahmadinejad-controlled Ministry of Interior – doubling as election headquarters – was isolated by concrete barriers. Iranian TV switched to old Iron Curtain-style “messages of national unity”. And the mind-boggling semi-final numbers of Ahmadinejad’s landslide were announced (Ahmadinejad 64%, Mousavi 32%, Rezai 2% and Karroubi less than 1%).

The fact that the electoral commission had less than three hours to hand-count 81% of 39 million votes is positively a “divine assessment”.

Pre-election, Robert F. Worth had a few prescient words in his Times piece:

Some Iranians believe that the unruly democratic energies unleashed over the past few weeks could affect this country’s politics no matter who wins…But hope has often outpaced reality in Iran…

Categories
Barack Obama Foreign Policy Iran National Security Politics Videos

Biden Says Talks With Iran To Go Forward

[digg-reddit-me]

On this morning’s Meet the Press, Joe Biden said that the Obama administration has made the decision to go forward with talks – despite the administration’s clear doubts about the fairness of the election.

I thought Biden made this point particularly well:

[T]alks with Iran are not a reward for good behavior. They’re only a consequence if the president makes the judgment it’s in the best interest of the United States of America, our national security interests, to talk with the Iranian regime. Our interests are the same before the election as after the election, and that is we want them to cease and desist from seeking a nuclear weapon and having one in its possession, and secondly to stop supporting terror.

The Obama administration’s approach to these elections has been – in my opinion as an informed amateur – nearly flawless. They have made clear that they are prepared to talk with Iran – regardless of how the elections went, rather than giving the Iranian people or leadership an ultimatum; they have declined to endorse a side in the election, letting the Iranian people decide themselves; they have been clear about their principles, but circumspect in their goals; and they have extended a clear hand in friendship – which most reports suggest the Iranian people desperately want to grasp. By refusing to give our rhetorical support to the opposition, the Obama administration is frustrating the Iranian regime’s desire to paint this uprising as an American creation – as Ayotollah Khamenei  preemptively sought to blame unrest after the election on “the enemies [of Iran who] may want to spoil the sweetness of this event … with some kind of ill-intentioned provocations.”

The Obama administration’s approach has been praised by Iranian human rights groups, as one was quoted in the Huffington Post:

The Obama administration’s approach to the election — keeping its comments low-key and not signaling support for any candidate — was exactly the right approach. While tempting, empty and self-serving rhetorical support for Iranians struggling for more freedoms serves only to aid their opponents. History has made Iran wary of foreign meddling, and American policymakers in particular must be sensitive to giving hardliners any pretense to call reform-minded Iranians foreign agents. That’s why Iran’s most prominent reformers, including Nobel-laureate Shirin Ebadi, have said the best thing the U.S. can do is step back and let Iran’s indigenous human rights movement progress on its own, without overt involvement from the U.S-however well intentioned.

As Andrew Sullivan explained:

This is not about us. It’s about them. And any interference would only backfire to the regime’s advantage.

The Obama administration realizes what Bush never did – that democracy cannot be imposed by force or ultimatum; that it must be taken by the people; that fine words extolling democracy are not enough – but a hand extended in friendship can destabilize a regime propped up by its demonization of us.

And so, the outreach to Iran and its people goes on.

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On this morning’s <em>Meet the Press</em>, Joe Biden said that the Obama administration has made the decision to go forward with talks – despite <a href=”http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22425001/vp/31353317#31353317″>the administration’s clear doubts about the fairness of the election</a>.

I thought Biden made this point particularly well:
<blockquote>[T]alks with Iran are not a reward for good behavior. They’re only a consequence if the president makes the judgment it’s in the best interest of the United States of America, our national security interests, to talk with the Iranian regime.  Our interests are the same before the election as after the election, and that is we want them to cease and desist from seeking a nuclear weapon and having one in its possession, and secondly to stop supporting terror.</blockquote>

Categories
Foreign Policy Iran National Security Pakistan

Afpak & Iran

I’ve highlighted a bunch of different articles in the past week about the upcoming challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan with Iran as a potential complicating factor. Here’s my attempt to cram all of these highlights into one post…

Jodi Kantor in the New York Times on Richard Holbrooke and Afpak:

For now, Holbrooke is both raising expectations and lowering them. He is talking about Afpak – Washington shorthand for his assignment – as his last and toughest mission. But along with the rest of Obama’s foreign-policy staff, he is also trying to redefine success in the region, shifting away from former President George W. Bush’s grand, transformative goals and toward something more achievable. 

Fareed Zakaria has some ideas on what at least one of these less exalted goals should be:

In May 2006 a unit of American soldiers in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan valley were engulfed in a ferocious fire fight with the Taliban. Only after six hours, and supporting airstrikes, could they extricate themselves from the valley. But what was most revealing about the battle was the fact that many local farmers spontaneously joined in, rushing home to get their weapons. Asked later why they’d done so, the villagers claimed they didn’t support the Taliban’s ideological agenda, nor were they particularly hostile toward the Americans. But this battle was the most momentous thing that had happened in their valley for years. If as virile young men they had stood by and just watched, they would have been dishonored in their communities. And, of course, if they were going to fight, they could not fight alongside the foreigners.

In describing this battle, the Australian counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen coins a term, “accidental guerilla,” to describe the villagers. They had no grand transnational agenda, no dreams of global jihad. If anything, those young men were defending their local ways and customs from encroachment from outside. But a global terrorist group—with local ties—can find ways to turn these villagers into allies of a kind. And foreign forces, if they are not very careful, can easily turn them into enemies.

Reduced to its simplest level, the goal of American policy in Afghanistan should be to stop creating accidental guerrillas. It should make those villagers see U.S. forces as acting in their interests. That would mark a fundamental turnaround.

Another major problems is – as Tom Ricks quotes Abu Muquwama to explain – that:

It’s tough to fight a war in Afghanistan when the opposing team decides to fight the war in Pakistan

At the same time, Pakistan seems to be dragging it’s feet with regards to destroying the forces it considered – until recently – it’s proxies in it’s struggle with India for regional power, the Taliban. This creates a nagging feeling of suspicion among Pakistan’s allies, as Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti explained in the New York Times:

In recent years, there have been some significant successes in the hunt for Taliban leaders. Pakistani operatives tracked Mullah Dadullah, a senior aide to Mullah Omar, as he crossed the Afghan border in May 2007, and he was later killed by American and Afghan troops.

Yet most of the arrests in Pakistan have coincided with visits by senior American officials.

The arrest of Mullah Obeidullah, the former Taliban defense minister, in Quetta in February 2007 coincided with the visit of Vice President Dick Cheney to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is unclear whether Mullah Obeidullah is still in Pakistani custody or was secretly released as part of a prisoner exchange to free Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, who was kidnapped last February and released three months later.

Schmitt and Mazzetti clearly convey the suspicion among top American officials that Pakistan’s wars against its terrorists are mainly a public relations effort to pacify America. Pakistan’s reluctance to fully accept America as an ally (believing we will again retreat from the region after we are done with Afghanistan one way or another, as we did after the Soviet Union was defeated there) is not our only challenge in the region. Parag Khanna of Foreign Policy describes how Afpak is also the center of maneuvering by other nations:

China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are also becoming increasingly important – not as neighbors of the chaos, like Pakistan, but meddlers in it. The United States is already failing to grasp not only the details of other powers’ maneuverings in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the extent to which these dealings could eclipse even the most brilliant U.S. shuttle diplomacy by Holbrooke.

He describes how China has become Afghanistan’s largest investor, how Saudi Arabia continues to funnel enormous amounts of money to fund religious extremism in the region, including Wahabbi mosques, and how Iran is taking steps to provide energy for what they anticipate will be shortages in Afpak and India. Khanna – seeing this pipelines and other relations between Iran, India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as inevitable as all partners stand to benefit – suggests America get out in front and support the pipeline. Better to build it ourselves than having it built without us.

Building roads and controlling their usage has for centuries been the foundation of spreading Silk Road influence, as well as the key to success in the 19th-century Great Game. Today’s struggle for control follows similar rules.

This Great Game – a term historically used to describe the strategic competition for influence in the region, especially when it involves great intrigues and turnabouts –  would seem to require us to neutralize or flip Iran into an ally. Roger Cohen of the New York Times makes the case:

Iran’s political constellation includes those who have given past support to terrorist organizations. But axis-of-evil myopia has led U.S. policy makers to underestimate the social, psychological and political forces for pragmatism, compromise and stability. Iran has not waged a war of aggression for a very long time.

Tehran shares many American interests, including a democratic Iraq, because that will be a Shiite-governed Iraq, and a unified Iraq stable enough to ensure access to holy cities like Najaf.

It opposes Taliban redux in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda’s Sunni fanaticism. Its democracy is flawed but by Middle East standards vibrant. Both words in its self-description — Islamic Republic — count.

Categories
Foreign Policy

Middle East Mayhem

Just a typical week in the Middle East these days as the vice president of the United States tries to derail peace talks with North Korea by releasing secret documents involving the Syria-Israel skirmishes of last fall and a ship associated with the American military in the Persian Gulf fires warning shots off the bows of two Iranian ships.  “Simmering tension” one of the section headings declares (as oil prices shoot up $3).

No kidding.