Archive for the ‘Ahmadinejad’ Category

Can Iran Change?

April 8, 2009



Ever since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first ran for President of Iran, four years ago, he has shown a canny understanding of communications. He has a blog, called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Personal Memos, in which he expounds on God, philosophy, and his childhood, and answers e-mails from readers. The signature videos for his 2005 Presidential campaign were two thirty-minute productions that expertly portrayed him as a man of the people. In one scene, Ahmadinejad is in line for lunch at a self-service canteen; in another, he walks among the poor. The videos were aired on television repeatedly. The campaign tagline was “It’s doable—and we can do it.”

The videos were conceived and produced by Javad Shamaqdari, a burly, bearded man who is the President’s “art adviser.” continue reading…



In the tumultuous story of Iran’s twenty-nine-year-old Islamic Republic, the battle over free speech has captured the world’s imagination, but the debate over free markets goes just as deep. Since the revolution, most industries in Iran have been owned either by the state or by enormous Islamic foundations. Inefficiencies are rampant. Iran’s economy is sustained almost entirely by oil; now that oil prices have fallen steeply, a crisis looms. Since the early eighties, Mohammad Tabibian and other trained economists have advised the government to dismantle trade barriers, drop price controls, and force companies to compete or perish. continue reading…

Bigger than Nowruz

April 5, 2009

Sports and politics

Tehran Bureau | comment

Fifty years ago, Greco-Roman style wrestling was the favorite sport of Iranians. Over the years, however, football has replaced wrestling as the most watched and played sport in Iran. For many football matches are the most important TV event of the week. For others still, the results of a football match are much more important than, say, who the next president is going to be. In Iran football is more than a sport or passion; it is, quite literally, an obsession. Perhaps you have to be Brazilian to understand.

For me, it all started with the two football clubs: Persepolis and Esteghlal. In school you had to be a fan of one. If you weren’t interested, you were left out and picked on. So as is the tradition in my family, I became a Perspolisi, a fan of Persepolis, or one of the Reds. (The Esteghlalis are the Blues.) Almost all of my fights in school were related to football. At every recess, we were divided into two teams, the Reds and the Blues. We played football until we were called back to class. Even when following a fight the headmaster confiscated our football, we played with a stone! It usually took an injury, such as a broken tooth, for our headmaster to be persuaded to return our ball.

The Esteghlal and Persepolis football clubs have dominated the Iranian football league for decades. Even when they haven’t been league champions, they have been the most followed. These two teams have very large fan bases; in fact, it has been suggested that Persepolis has the largest fan base in all of Asia. Both teams were founded in the pre-revolutionary era to represent the capital Tehran in the national league. Esteghlal used to be called Taj, or crown, but with the revolution all symbols of the monarchy were abandoned and the club was renamed Esteghlal, meaning independence. Persepolis was also changed to Piruzi, meaning victory but, the fans continued to call the club Persepolis — a rare manifestation of defiance in the Islamic Republic. The clubs play in Azadi stadium, which can hold 100,000 people. It is one of the largest stadiums in the world, and certainly one of the most monumental.

Thousands flock from all corners of the country for the popular Tehran derby, where Persepolis and Esteghlal face-off. The rivalry between these teams is like that of Barcelona and Real Madrid, or Juventus and Inter Milan. Fans are willing to endure just about anything: hours in long queues, camping outside the stadium overnight, enduring unsanitary facilities, among many other inconveniences. I have never watched the derby up-close myself, but each time younger members of my extended family gather at my aunt’s to watch the match, it is the greatest family event of the year, even bigger than Nowruz.

In recent years the match has become boring — suspiciously so. Games end predictably in a draw, as if ordered by authorities. Perhaps they are concerned that the fanatic supporters of the losing team will tear apart not only the stadium, but the whole city. Even when the match ends in a draw, hundreds of buses are vandalized and thousands of seats in the stadium are ripped apart.

As I was growing up, Iranian state television began to broadcast European football matches. It was the safest form of programming, with little or no need for editing or censorship. As a result, my generation avidly followed European football clubs. I favored the Italian club, Juventus, and my brother Bayern Munich. We even became passionate fans of foreign national teams. I have always been a strong follower of Germany’s national team, while many in my family are strong fans of either Italy or Brazil.

Our obsession however remains with Iran’s national football team. Our greatest source of pride is its success, our greatest despair its loss. I’ll never forget the historic match between Iran and Australia in the 1998 World Cup qualifier in Melbourne. I was just 14 then. Iran was down by two goals when Karim Bagheri and Khodad Azizi scored two goals. The tie, plus the previous one all draw in Tehran, meant that we were on our way to the World Cup finals. I was so ecstatic, I couldn’t stop jumping up and down for an hour after the match was over. The walls in my room were suddenly filled with posters of the new national heroes. Since then I have rarely missed a national football game, but I have to admit, the games have never been the same.

One match came close in 1998, the World Cup in France. The game was between Iran and the United States, the first ever public encounter between the two after the revolution. Iran won that game and the nation burst out in joy. Millions took to the streets and we celebrated throughout the night, dancing and singing. It was the first time the Islamic Republic had to deal with such crowds in the streets. Police tried to disperse the crowd, but they were outnumbered. We went on celebrating en masse, in definace of a many-year ban on such an act.

Iran managed to make it to the World Cup finals once again after that, in the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The deciding game was between Iran and Bahrain. We won and again the streets were filled with young people celebrating the victory. The victory coincided with the Iranian presidential elections, the one where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the president. As is custom around elections in Iran, the atmosphere was relaxed and the authorities used the celebrations to show freedom in the country.

The victory over Bahrain had another significance: It was a victory over an Arab team, the very team whose win over Iran in the previous World Cup qualifiers had denied Iran the chance of qualifying, thus sending the Saudis to the final stages. No one has forgotten that the Bahrainis took a victory parade around the stadium holding the flag of Saudi Arabia.

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia goes back many years. Iranians prefer to lose to South Korea (our other formidable Asian rival) by a six-goal margin than to lose or tie with Saudi Arabia.

Our worst nightmare was realized during these Nowruz holidays when Iran lost to Saudi Arabia at Azadi stadium during the 2010 South African World Cup qualifying games. The loss means that Iran has very little chance of making it to the finals. Worse still, we lost to Saudi Arabia. And we lost in Tehran, before a home audience, with hundreds of thousands of fans watching.

It is a bit like everything else that has gone wrong during the administration of Ahmadinejad: football has not been spared. Some superstitious people blame the defeat on Ahmadinejad’s presence in the stadium! Iran was ahead by one goal until he showed up, and then Saudi Arabia scored two goals.

It was not the first time that Iran lost in Ahmadinejad’s presence. A few months ago, in the final World Cup match of Greco-Roman wrestling, everything was going well. Iran was ahead in the overall team score and needed only one last victory to become the world champions. Iran’s heavyweight champion, Fardin Masoumi, was ahead of his Azerbaijani rival, then Ahmadinejad showed up in the stadium. Masoumi lost the match and Iran lost the title. This is why many blame Ahmadinejad for the failures of Iranians in sports!

To be fair, there may be some basis to this. Sports in Iran are a governmental affair. All of the major sporting clubs are run by the government and the whole thing is very political. Take Persepolis and Esteghlal. They are owned by the Iranian Sport Organization whose head is appointed by the president. The current chief of Iranian sports is a very controversial figure, Mohammad Aliabadi. He had no prior experience in sports or sport management before being appointed to the post. He is also head of the National Olympics Committee, which is banned under the Iranian constitution. His blunders and mismanagement have cost Iran much. In the Beijing Olympics, Iran’s performance was one of the worst in recent memory.

Through his insistence, Iranian football hero, Ali Daei, who has a limited coaching background, became the coach of the national football team. On his watch, the national football team, which many argue now possesses more talent than any othr time in its history, is being eliminated in the World Cup qualifying stage. In the past year, FIFA threatened to ban Iran’s football federation from international competitions because of the government’s intervention in the sport.

I think sports have come to symbolize many of the wrong choices Ahmadinejad has made for managerial posts in his administration over the past four years. Like almost every other sector, sports in Iran are in critical need of reform, reforms that a new president may be better suited to implement.

Realted reading
Notebook: Blind Luck
Notebook: Nowruz in Abu Dhabi

Will the Principlists rally behind Ahmadinejad?

March 15, 2009

As the June 12 presidential election draws nearer, there is sudden talk of ‘unity’ in the fundamentalist camp

Middle East
Tehran Bureau | election coverage

Once Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the 2005 presidential election, it was easy to forget the fear among fundamentalists during the campaign that their divisions would bring defeat.

For even when Mohsen Rezaei, the former Revolutionary Guards commander, withdrew just two days before the poll, there were still three candidates left who saw themselves as “principle-ists” or fundamentalists.

As many feared, the vote split between them. But as many hoped, Ahmadinejad had just enough votes to beat three reformists and pass through to the run-off ballot when he trounced Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

In office, Ahmadinejad has done little to unify the fundamentalist camp, preferring outreach with ordinary Iranians through provincial tours to bridge-building in Tehran.

His choice of ministers and conduct of government business has often alienated people who should be allies. He annoyed senior clergy in Qom by failure to consult them over decisions including the admission of women to football matches.

And president Ahmadinejad has faced growing difficulty gaining support in parliament. Conservative control of both the presidency and the Majlis has brought not agreed, coherent policies but rather a roller-coaster of spending buoyed by rising oil prices and now followed by sudden retrenchment.

Indeed, next year’s budget is still stuck with deputies, along with the president’s plan to phase out costly universal subsidies, even though the new Iranian year is just days away.

Ahmadinejad is vulnerable on the economy – after all, he won in 2005 on a slogan of “putting oil money on the people’s sofreh” [the dining cloth placed on the floor by poorer Iranians]. This can certainly cost him the election, especially if his opponents move from criticising his government’s economic mismanagement to communicating to Iranians some clear alternatives.

This is partly why Ahmadinejad’s supporters were so pleased by the announcement from Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president between 1997 and 2005, that he would contest the June 12 poll.

No-one is more likely to encourage unity among fundamentalists, who believe that Khatami, however committed to the Islamic Republic, would in office undermine it through encouraging “radical” elements. The fundamentalists’ sense of danger has been suitably sharpened by the likes of Mohammad Atrianfar, former editor of Shargh newspaper and an advocate of Khatami, relishing a “full-fledged confrontation” between Khatami and Ahmadinejad.

Hence the sudden talk in the fundamentalist camp of the need for unity. Amir Mohebian, political editor of Resalat newspaper, recently argued that if Ahmadinejad could “display an appropriate element of flexibility, and his flexibility were not seen as an election [ploy], he would make a very good choice” for all fundamentalists to support.

Mohebian, as ever, shows mixed feelings about Ahmadinejad. On the one hand he recognises the “skill and acumen in understanding the political arena of elections” that brought the blacksmith’s son to office in the first place. But on the other hand, he argues that “the views [of the principle-ist candidate] must be compatible with the consensual views of the principle-ists” .

This has hardly been the case during the four years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, but in recent weeks Ahmadinejad has launched a charm offensive with meetings with Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, a potential challenger, with clerics in Qom and with leading members of Motalefeh, the Islamic coalition party.

Suddenly, there are whispers of realignment with the aim of establishing a government after the election with support of the whole fundamentalist camp.

It is a difficult choice for Ahmadinejad. He has the momentum of incumbency – and when push comes shove, especially if Khatami does not withdraw, fundamentalists may feel obliged to back him. But on the other hand, if a single reformist clearly emerges as a challenger, the fundamentalists may worry they could lose the election.

A key figure in this could be Ghalibaf, the 47-year-old Tehran mayor, who seemed set to offer voters a more consensual style of fundamentalism and who several months back gathered celebrities and economists in his support with a slogan of “restoring tranquility.”

It may be that Ghalibaf, at the right price, will fall in behind Ahmadinejad.

A former national police chief and wartime military commander, Ghalibaf gained 4.08m votes in the 2005 election, missing the run-off ballot by only 1.6m votes, although his slick election style, including broadcasts, alienated many fundamentalists.

As Tehran mayor, Ghalibaf has enhanced his reputation for effective management without capturing the imagination the way he did as national police chief with simple ideas like the 110 emergency line and shifting policemen from Paykans to Mercedes.

So it may be that Ghalibaf can be persuaded to bide his time for a challenge in 2013, when he will still be 51, rather than face a second defeat now and become what one parliamentary deputy called a “burnt pawn.”

The 2009 presidential elections still have a long way to run.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

Straight Talk

March 11, 2009

Robert Wood
Acting Department Spokesman
Daily Press Briefing



MR. WOOD: Mm-hmm.

Can you talk about the discussions about a letter that possible President – that President Obama could be sending – considering sending to Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran as a possible overture to engage Iran?

I don’t have anything about any possible letter, but that would be something that I’d refer you to the White –

Well, there were some diplomats that briefed reporters over the last week that said that the Administration has kind of told the Europeans that one of the things that you’re considering in terms of your efforts to engage Iran is possibly – the way you would do that is to send a letter to President Khamenei – sorry, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Look, you know we have a policy review underway on Iran, and –

Is that one of the options being –

Well, I’m not going to talk about options that are being discussed within that review. But with regard to some type of presidential letter, that’s something that would have to come out of the White House. I’m not aware of it.

Well, this Administration never responded to President Ahmadinejad’s letter to President Obama congratulating him.

As I said, there is a review on Iran policy underway. I don’t have anything more for you on that, Elise.

Well, I mean, clearly you are looking for ways to engage Iran.

Absolutely. We have said that.

Could this be a possible –

I just don’t want to get into a discussion of those ways that we may or may not be planning to engage Iran.

Well, the first time this came up several weeks ago, both you from this building, and the White House from the White House building denied that there was any letter that was under consideration, and said that no one had been instructed to draft such a letter, and today it seems a little different. What’s the scoop?

I’m not saying anything differently. I’m just saying to you that there is an Iran policy review underway, and I’d leave it at that.

Well, but why can’t you say the same thing that you said before when this was first – this first bubbled up?

I don’t want to. I don’t want to. (Laughter.)

Well, that’s telling.

I mean, if you’re denying that it wasn’t true then, you’re not denying that it isn’t true now.

I’m just saying to you that there is a policy review underway with regard to Iran, and that’s how I’ve been answering those questions. I don’t want to discuss, you know, letters, policy ideas that have been floated; I don’t think that’s useful. I think once we have completed our review, we’ll be able to enunciate our policies, and then you’ll have – we’ll be able to answer a lot of your questions.

Covering Iran: Irish journo recounts a few battles

March 5, 2009

Gareth Smyth was based in Tehran for the Financial Times for four years. He filed this story for the British Journalism Review in 2007.

Tehran Bureau | notebook

Shortly before I left Tehran, an Iranian official asked me if I had faced any difficulties under the relatively new Government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Not really, I replied. Given we were about to eat lunch, it didn’t seem appropriate to mention my detention earlier in the year for four days by the intelligence section of the Revolutionary Guards after I had entered a national park without permission. The British Embassy had used their negotiations during my detention – along with that of freelance Angus McDowall – as a dry run for their handling, a month afterwards, of the arrest of 15 British sailors and marines in the sea border of Iraq and Iran. In different circumstances, I might have been the story myself, a hapless victim of the brutal Iranian authorities. Reporting from Iran can be compared to walking on eggs while being jostled by burly people. Sooner or later you are going to fall over and you have to hope you don’t end up in an omelette.

One of the problems with the trip to the national park to the south east of Namak Lake in central Iran was that the relevant authority – the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance, aka Ershad – had apparently not received my email saying I was going. This was a new rule introduced earlier this year: Ershad had to be informed about any leisure trip, in addition to the longstanding requirement that the ministry give permission for any work trip outside Tehran and for any interview with an Iranian official. So, back in the vicinity of Namak Lake, a vast salt flat, I didn’t suspect that asking directions from an “environmental station” in the midst of the rocks and sand dunes would lead to four days’ questioning by Revolutionary Guard intelligence in Garmsar, a small town just north of the vast desert and the nearest place of any size to the home village of President Ahmadinejad.

But with security on higher alert because of the U.S. arms build-up in the Persian Gulf, even an expanse of desert without missile silos or manoeuvres can be considered of military value. Hence our detention in a sports complex that was hardly the Ritz, although Angus and I found a good place in Garmsar to eat grilled liver for breakfast, and did watch the Arsenal v Chelsea league cup final from our bunks. Western readers and listeners are unaware of the constraints under which their information on Iran has been produced. While the number of resident reporters in the country is low and falling, many outlets retain the dateline by sending visiting hacks who hire quasi-official minders through Ershad. Even the resident reporter finds it hard to gain access to anyone, or any place, remotely near a real story, although to admit this to editors is dangerous when they are desperate to know what is going on in the “axis of evil”.

The yellow badges myth

The Iran reporter also faces the vocal power of the huge number of “Iran experts” that inhabit think-tanks, campaign groups and even newspapers in the West. One group, the Mujahidin-e Khalq, a cult previously allied to Saddam Hussein, is resented by every other Iranian I have met. Others are former supporters of the Shah, overthrown by the Islamic Revolution. There are “experts” who have never been to Iran. But they can all be skillful in meeting the agendas of Western politicians and news organisations. Back in May 2006, Amir Taheri – a contributor to the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal and Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab paper published in London – wrote in the Canadian National Post that Iran had passed a law requiring Jews to wear yellow badges on their clothes. This was quickly picked up by UPI and widely posted on websites. Chuck Schumer, a U.S. senator, called the Iranian regime “lunatic” and “pernicious” and White House spokesman Sean McCormack spoke of “clear echoes of Germany under Hitler”. The story was untrue and could easily have been checked in Tehran, where Maurice Motammed, the Jews’ deputy in Parliament, called the report “a mischievous act, a fresh means of pressure against the Iranian Government.”

Jews wearing badges is not an isolated example of misinformation. Early this year a long-time American opponent of the Islamic Republic persuaded some media outlets that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, was dead or dying. And graphic reports about the British sailors – one described them as incarcerated in dank cells near my favourite park in north Tehran, with mobs outside shouting: “Death to Britain” – were filed from Israel and supposedly based on telephone calls to “sources” among the Revolutionary Guards. Although absurd, such fictions fed appetites in London to know “what’s really going on?” and “what’s going to happen next?” in Tehran. “Make a few calls and find out if Osama bin Laden’s son is in town. Find out when the sailors are going to be released. Surely the regime is in panic because of banking sanctions?” All this makes your minor scoops and understandings – like knowing the British Embassy was using your own case as a model to get their sailors back – look very minor indeed.

I was used to struggling for stories. I was one of the last reporters to do vox pops in Baghdad as the kidnappings accelerated in June 2004 and I’d done my time with Kurdish guerrillas in the mountains in the early 1990s. My car had turned over three times on the day Baghdad fell, and I still filed. Iraq was a gold mine when you could get out and about. Perhaps a certain chaos is good for journalism. But if America’s lack of any agenda for post-Saddam Iraq created a fertile field for reporting, no easy pickings have emerged from the careful security that has enabled the Islamic Republic to resist the Americans for 28 years. Getting a grip on Iran requires years of patience and false starts, lots of “softly, softly.” It requires traveling to avoid confusing the country (bigger than Iraq, Turkey, Syria combined) with the elite of northern Tehran. It means keeping an open mind and a permanent skepticism.

But Iran is at the centre of political attention. It has the world’s second-largest oil reserves and its second-highest gas reserves. It has a long border with Iraq and shares the Shia religion with the majority of the Iraqi people. And its regime arose from the overthrow of the Shah, a well-armed and pivotal U.S. ally. This is hardly a recipe for “softly, softly”. Mere reporting is too flimsy to shift the basic paradigms of the powerful in the West, in Israel and Saudi Arabia.

When I arrived in Iran in December 2003, before the polarisation between Iran and the West escalated over Tehran’s nuclear programme, there was a strong western view that the reformists (popular, goodies) were confronting the conservatives (unpopular, baddies) over social freedom and women’s clothes. Everything had to fit that model. In the parliamentary elections of February 2004, a wide selection of newspapers, including The Times of London, seized on the “story” that eight people died in clashes after the results were announced. The interior ministry denied anyone had been killed and no convincing details, much less names, were ever published. The Iranian news agencies made it clear that the clashes – in Firouzabad and Izeh, in south west Iran – had been the result of local factors. By the time the story made the international press, via the wire agencies, it had been fitted into the rivalry between reformers and conservatives and the notion of Iran in crisis. When it reached George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who was due to report to the Senate in Washington that the regime in Tehran was “secure for now”, he – perhaps under pressure from mounting criticism over Iraq – indicated that the chance of internal violence remained, so keeping alive the exiles’ and U.S. neo-conservatives’ hopes of regime change. The reality on the ground was that Iranians were disenchanted with politicians of all hues and no more obsessed with politics than anyone else. Yet the view persisted in the media that, to quote one editor, voters were “naturally reformist.”

Hence the shock when Ahmadinejad won the 2005 presidential election by calling for a return to the ideals of the 1979 Revolution and to an economic egalitarianism that the Western paradigm had ignored. To recognise the importance of economic issues would have been to treat the election as a “normal” one, and to contradict the Iran “experts” and U.S. politicians who had predicted a low-turn out and now said the poll was entirely manipulated. I was the only Western reporter who had actually interviewed Ahmadinejad – albeit in a fax questionnaire sent to all the candidates – during an election in which the Western media consensus, perhaps helped by his camp offering interviews on condition that they were positive, had been that Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was a shoo-in. Victory, it was reported, would result from Mr Rafsanjani’s support for rapprochement with the West and for social freedoms.

No time for post mortem

Of course, once Ahmadinejad was elected, the real circus began in such haste there was no time, even had there been the inclination, for any rational media post mortem. American and Israeli officials – and some news editors – questioned the new president’s sanity and intelligence. Many “Iran experts” dismissed him as a puppet of fundamentalist clergy, who controlled a monolithic state and government. Former American hostages said Ahmadinejad had been among the organisers of their imprisonment in the Tehran Embassy during the 1979 revolution, encouraging at least one British television reporter-celebrity to pile in with a graphic first-hand account. In fact, as should have been evident from his election win, Ahmadinejad was a more adept politician than his critics hoped. He certainly understood the Iranian people better than most of them.

Right from the start of the campaign, when Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, the conservatives’ eminence grise, asked Ahmadinejad to withdraw because he was trailing other fundamentalist candidates in the polls, Ahmadinejad insisted he would increase his popularity by criticising Mr Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad never actually mentioned his rival by name in public, but based his whole campaign on attacking corruption and tapping the wide belief, justified or not, that Rafsanjani and his family were living off the fat of the land.

Iran is a land of surprises. Ahmadinejad came to power as a fundamentalist but then ordered sports authorities to lift the ban on women attending top football matches. By then Syast-e Ruz, a newspaper close to the President, had scoffed at election-time rumours that he would segregate men and women on pavements and in cemeteries. Those who knew Ahmadinejad best were least surprised. They said his religion was closer to the organic faith of the mass of Shia Iranians than to the learned ayatollahs. “People have been wrong to see him as someone who wanted strict segregation of the sexes,” said Nasser Hadian, politics professor at Tehran University and friend of Ahmadinejad since school.

Ahmadinejad has made a big imprint on the management of Iran’s nuclear programme, with commentators around the Arab and Muslim worlds noting a popular warming to his strong assertion of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium. Under previous President Mohammad Khatami, Iran treated its nuclear programme as an affair of realpolitik and diplomacy. Under Ahmadinejad, it quickly became a popular mission, part of his desire to bring “justice” to earth in the name of Shia Islam and to play a nationalist tune that resounded around a proud nation. Ahmadinejad likes popularity as much as any other politician. But this was a challenge to the Western paradigm. Rather like the January 2006 Hamas election victory in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, Ahmadinejad’s popularity belied the notion that Western policies commanded majority support in the Middle East. Ahmadinejad’s fierce condemnation of Israel early in his presidency further fueled smouldering Western disquiet.

The visit to Tehran in February 2006 of Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader, highlighted how Islamists had risen to lead the Palestinian national struggle in the 27 years since Yasser Arafat was one of the first overseas leaders to arrive in Tehran after the Islamic Revolution. Unsurprisingly, Ayatollah Khamenei supported Hamas’s stand on not recognising Israel as a Jewish State in advance of negotiations to end Israeli occupation. But while many Iranians supported the Palestinians’ right to a State, with Jerusalem as its capital, reformists were wary of President Ahmadinejad capitalising on anti-American sentiments in the Arab and Muslim worlds to become a radical international figure. Dangerous times, they felt, required cool heads.

Although Ahmadinejad’s questioning of Israel’s existence as a Jewish State was universally condemned by European, U.S. and Arab leaders, the reaction in the Arab and Muslim world has been very different. Mohsen Kadivar, a leading Iranian cleric who has in the past been jailed, and whose books are generally banned, told me: “The Muslim world has been radicalised by U.S. foreign policy… and because modernity has brought dependence not independence for Muslim countries.” And Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, the former reformist vice-president, said: “Ahmadinejad is a radical, but he is clever in public relations and identifies his target supporters. Anyone who talks about Israel like this is welcomed across the Islamic world.”

President Ahmadinejad also scoffed at Israeli and U.S. military might. Many in Tehran believed he and his immediate supporters even welcomed UN sanctions and U.S.-led informal sanctions for giving them an external enemy against whom to mobilise public opinion. The more hardheaded in the regime aren’t fooled by the President’s dismissal of American military strength. “Iran’s leaders are very well aware of the hellish power of the U.S. Air Force,” one insider told me privately earlier this year. “Mr Ahmadinejad says we have nothing to fear. But even if there are ways we can hurt America, there are many other ways they can hurt us.”

However horrified are the realists in the Iranian political class – aware that Israel had at least 200 nuclear weapons and shocked by the extent of the Israeli destruction of Lebanon – they are reluctant to say so publicly. So where is it all going? Hard facts have a way, sometimes, of confounding both propaganda and inaccurate and malicious reporting. Lessons can be learned, and the truth can be recognised. But one thing is clear. If it comes to a U.S. or U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran, Western readers and listeners are likely to be even worse prepared than they were for the invasion of Iraq.

Reprinted with the permission of the British Journalism Review.

Iran’s Presidential Elections, Part I: The Landscape

February 28, 2009

Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Second National Congress of “Fajr Afarinan,” honoring Muslim political prisoners before the revolution. January 29, 2009. Photo/TehranBureau.

Los Angeles
Tehran Bureau | election coverage

Iran will hold its presidential elections on Friday, June 12, 2009. Although some Iranians, particularly those who live in the diaspora, may dismiss the elections as being ineffectual and devoid of any possible meaningful consequence, the truth is that the significance of the upcoming elections cannot be over-emphasized. The reasons are twofold. One is that at no time in the past 100 years has Iran faced as many problems and crises as it is grappling with now. (I will return to this point shortly.) The second reason has to do with the fact that no other election in Iran has held such importance in the contrasting and fundamentally different views it represents in the path Iran should take domestically, as well as internationally.

One side espouses a fundamentalist, confrontational approach to both domestic and international problems. Internally, it wants to suppress all the dissidents, even among its own ranks, and silence any voice of moderation. Internationally, it advocates an aggressive and uncompromising approach. In contrast, the opposite camp favors an open society at home, which can move on a democratic path, albeit slowly, while advocating a rational and sober diplomatic approach to the international problems that Iran is facing.

Therefore, no election in Iran has ever been so polarized.

In this article and the sequels, I discuss the main players in Iran’s upcoming elections, the messages that they have, the political groups that support the candidates, and the possible implications of the victory of the reformist or fundamentalist candidates on Iran’s future. In the present article, I describe Iran’s political landscape; that is, present conditions, on both the domestic and the international level. Part II will describe the political groups in Iran, and the extent of popularity that they enjoy. Part III will describe the main candidates and their chances for getting elected. Part IV will discuss the implications for Iran of the victory of each of the main candidates.

The International Landscape

Consider first the situation and problems that Iran is currently facing in the international arena. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there have been many developments in the Middle East that have benefited Iran and its national security. Although in his infamous speech of February 2002, former U.S. President George W. Bush made Iran a charter member of his absurd “axis of evil,” and even though the situation looked totally bleak for Iran after Saddam Hussein was easily overthrown by the British and American forces in April 2003 and Bush declared “mission accomplished,” we now know that the invasion has benefited Iran’s national security. While Iraq’s invasion was illegal, and has resulted in the destruction of much of Iraq’s infrastructure, human loses and suffering at catastrophic scales, its net result for Iran has been the elimination of its arch foes Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi branch of the Ba’ath Party (the Syrian branch has been in a strategic alliance with Iran over the past 30 years). The fact that the Shiite groups that spent their exile years in Iran and were supported and armed by Iran are now in power in Iraq can only benefit Iran. Moreover, because of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has been in no position to pose a serious military threat to Iran, at least in terms of a land invasion.

At the same time, the overthrow of the Taliban in the fall of 2001 eliminated another of Iran’s bloody enemies on its eastern borders. Recall that Iran and the Taliban almost went to war in September 1998, after the Taliban murdered 8 Iranian diplomats and a journalist. Given that the enmity between Shiite Islam and the Wahabi sect of Islam, to which the Taliban (and al-Qaeda) adhere, has deep historical roots, elimination from power of the Taliban was also greatly beneficial to Iran. Although the Taliban are now resurgent, they are mainly preoccupied with defeating the Western forces; and from a military point of view, they do not yet pose a major threat to Iran’s national security.

The steep increase in the price of oil, rising to almost $150 a barrel in the summer of 2008, could have also been beneficial to Iran, both economically and strategically. But while the economic benefits to Iran of the oil boom has been minimal (see below), its strategic significance cannot be overlooked. For the next few years at least, the world would not be easily able to replace Iran’s oil exports if they are eliminated from the international market by military attacks on Iran, for example. This fact, together with Iran’s effective control of the Strait of Hormuz, implies that Iran will continue to play an important role in the energy sector.

Therefore, given such developments, it would be natural to think that Iran, with its size, natural resources, young and dynamic population and strategic position, is on its way to become the most powerful nation in the Middle East. While Iran does have such potentials, it also faces major hurdles, many of which have to do with the aggressive, yet what I consider naïve, foreign policy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in particular, and the Iranian fundamentalists, who control all major centers of power, in general. To see this, consider two of the most complex issues that Iran is facing, namely its confrontation with the West over its nuclear program, and the possibility that Israel may attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, especially now that a far-right government is emerging in Israel after its recent elections.

Even during its peak revolutionary zeal in the first several years after the 1979 revolution, Iran was not the subject of so many intense discussions and speculations at the international organizations. There were no United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions against it. In fact, aside from going to the UNSC to express its grievances against the United States or Iraq, it was neither forced to go to the UNSC to defend itself, nor was it condemned at the UN General Assembly. Aside from the United States, no country of any importance had imposed any significant sanctions on Iran.

Compare that with the present situation. There are four UNSC resolutions against Iran, namely resolutions 1737, 1747, 1803, and 1835, all filed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter that deals with peace and international security. Although solid arguments can be made against the legality of the resolutions, the fact is that they are there, and so as far as a significant part of the international community is concerned, Iran must abide by the resolutions’ demands, which Iran has so far refused to do. The resolutions have also imposed some economic sanctions on Iran that have begun to hurt the ordinary people in Iran. At the same time, gross violations of human rights in Iran have been the subject of debate at the UNGA and the Human Rights Council of the UN.

The February elections in Israel have brought to power a coalition of right-wing and ultra-right wing parties that are hell bent on attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. If the attacks do take place, they will not only give rise to a war that would engulf the entire Middle East, but also threaten Iran’s territorial integrity, not to mention the great destruction that the war would inflict on Iran. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric about Israel (even though what he said about Israel disappearing has been mistranslated), his denial of the Holocaust, and the Holocaust conference that he held in Tehran, only exacerbated the animosity between the two nations.

But that is only half the story. Pakistan has been in a chaotic state for at least 2 years. The Pakistani allies of the Taliban have made great gains, particularly in the Swat valley, to the point of being able to force the Government of President Asif Ali Zardari to sign a peace treaty with them, and allowing them to impose the Islamic Sharia in the regions that they control. The possibility that Pakistan’s Sunni fundamentalists might overthrow the government and take control of the 60 or so nuclear warheads that Pakistan has is truly terrifying. Add to that the fact that a low-intensity war between the great Sunni majority and the relatively small Shiite minority has been going on in Pakistan for several years, and recall that the separatist Jundallah forces have been staging terrorist attacks against Iran in the province of Sistan and Baluchestan, and the result is a huge threat to Iran’s national security.

The Internal Landscape

Iran is in a terrible economic situation. Since 2005 it has earned at least $250 billion, and probably as much as $300 billion, from its oil exports. Yet now that the price of oil has collapsed and is hovering around $40 a barrel, the government has difficulty meeting its domestic obligations. Iranian economists predict a budget deficit of at least $30 billion for the new Iranian year that will begin on March 21.

Aside from its fundamental structural flaws, Iran’s terrible economic conditions have mostly to do with the mismanagement — some say incompetence — of President Ahmadinejad’s government, which appears to have no long-range plans for the country. It has scuttled Iran’s 4th five-year development plan, started by former President Mohammad Khatami, and has even ignored the so-called Twenty-Year Outlook — a long-range vision for Iran’s economic development proposed by the Expediency Council and approved and supported by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Close to 60 of Iran’s leading economists warned Ahmadinejad in an open letter that his policies would ruin the economy, but he ignored their advice. The Ahmadinejad administration has dissolved many of Iran’s fundamental institutions, even some that had survived the revolution of 1979, such as the Organization of Budget and Planning.

Many of Ahmadinejad’s actions and policies have been opposed even by some in his own cabinet and administration. He has so far replaced 10 of his ministers, and three Central Bank governors. If he replaces one more minister, there would be a constitutional crisis, because he would have to obtain the approval of his entire cabinet from the parliament again. The Iran parliament, which is supposedly controlled by Ahmadinejad’s supporters, has also fiercely opposed some of his policies.

The Ahmadinejad administration has also been embroiled in one scandal after another. Many of the senior positions in his administration have been filled by young, and relatively inexperienced people. Each Minister who was fired went on to harshly criticize the government and reveal some behind-the-scene developments that the public was unaware of. One of Ahmadinejad’s ministers, former Interior Minister Ali Kordan, turned out to have not only a fake doctoral degree, but also fake M.S. and B.S. degrees, and was forced to resign. His vice president for parliamentary affairs, Ali Reza Rahimi, is strongly and credibly rumored to also have a fake doctoral degree. Another vice president, Esfandiar Rahim Moshaei, who is also a close relative, spoke favorably about Jewish people, and was harshly attacked for it. The present Interior Minister, Sadegh Mahsouli — the third under Ahmadinejad — is known as the “billionaire minister,” for the wealth (close to $200 million) that he has reportedly amassed illicitly. Ahmadinejad’s chief spokesman, Gholamhossein Elham, holds three official positions, which is against the law. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly replaced deputy interior minister for political and security affairs, who is also in charge of administering the elections. Elham’s wife, Fatemeh Rajabi, has been attacking viciously and with immunity all the reformist and pragmatist leaders, from Khatami to former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; others, who have criticized the government or its policies, have been jailed.

Politically, Ahmadinejad’s government has been repressive. It has closed all but a few reformist newspapers, which are however heavily censored. It has banned many university student organizations, has jailed many student activists and has clamped down hard on the activities of advocates of respect for human, women, and children rights. Two months ago, the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, founded by the Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, was closed, her law office was attacked, and she was viciously criticized by right-wing newspapers. No major reformist group is allowed to publish a newspaper, but there are tens of right-wing newspapers and publications. Bloggers have been increasingly attacked and jailed, and the parliament is contemplating a law that would make it a capital punishment to cross certain red lines.

It is against this bleak backdrop that the Iranian presidential elections are going to take place in June. Part II of this series will describe the main political groups, their positions and their likely roster of candidates.

On the Brink

January 27, 2009

Washington D.C.
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Anger is boiling over in the Middle East over Gaza, and the result of the war has been to boost radicalism throughout the region, to strengthen the terrorist-inclined fanatics of Hamas, and to enhance the muscle of terrorist-inclined Israelis, including far-right parties such as Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and, of course, Likud’s bombastic Benjamin Netanyahu.

You probably didn’t know that the reason the Bush administration, in its last days, reversed course on Gaza is because they feared that U.S. embassies in the Middle East might be stormed by angry crowds if they did nothing. You’ll remember that, after weeks of supporting Israel’s invasion of Gaza, the United States suddenly reversed course and allowed the UN Security Council to pass a unanimous resolution demanding a ceasefire. (The United States didn’t vote yes, but it abstained — rather than threatening its oft-used veto.)

Speaking on January 14 at the New America Foundation, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilizad, said explicitly that the United States feared a violent explosion in the region, including the seizure of U.S. embassies by angry mobs, if the United States continued to block action by the UN. A central concern, said Khalilzad, is that mosque leaders all over the Middle East would mobilize the anger and direct it against the United States.

“What happened with this particular resolution is that there was a judgment made by our government that, after so many days of fighting, that given the pressure that the moderate Arabs were facing, and given that the Arabs were willing to accept a reasonable resolution, … [we needed] a reasonable resolution that emphasized a durable ceasefire …

“Given the Friday prayers that were coming — this was Thursday we are talking about — the fear was that if there was no resolution by the Security Council…by the prayer time, in the broader Middle East,that there would be embassies overrun, there would be a huge amount of violence. There was a lot of Egyptian and French diplomacy going on, and perhaps waiting…might have been a good idea, if the mosque issue was not a factor.”

In case you think the anger against Israel and the United States among theArabs is limited to Hamas and Hezbollah, consider the stunning comments of Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service, who also served as the country’s ambassador to both Great Britain and the United States:

“In the past weeks, not only have the Israeli Defense Forces murdered more than 1,000 Palestinians, but they have come close to killing the prospect of peace itself. Unless the new U.S. administration takes forceful steps to prevent any further suffering and slaughter of Palestinians, the peace process, the U.S.-Saudi relationship and the stability of the region are at risk….

“America is not innocent in this calamity. Not only has the Bush administration left a sickening legacy in the region — from the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to the humiliation and torture at Abu Ghraib — but it has also, through an arrogant attitude about the butchery in Gaza, contributed to the slaughter of innocents. If the U.S. wants to continue playing a leadership role in the Middle East and keep its strategic alliances intact – especially its ‘special relationship’ with Saudi Arabia – it will have to drastically revise its policies vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine.”

These sentiments, that sort of anger, are virtually unprecedented coming from a top Saudi leader. He went on to suggest a possible Saudi alliance with Iran — yes, Iran! — in support of a jihad against Israel:

“Last week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran wrote a letter to King Abdullah, explicitly recognizing Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds and calling on him to take a more confrontational role over ‘this obvious atrocity and killing of your own children’ in Gaza. The communiqué is significant because the de facto recognition of the kingdom’s primacy from one of its most ardent foes reveals the extent that the war has united an entire region, both Shia and Sunni. Further, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s call for Saudi Arabia to lead a jihad against Israel would, if pursued, create unprecedented chaos and bloodshed in the region.

“So far, the kingdom has resisted these calls, but every day this restraint becomes more difficult to maintain.”

So: a top U.S. official says that American embassies were on the verge of being “overrun” by mobs, and a top Saudi official warns that his government is finding it hard to resist a “jihad” along with Iran.

“Heckuva job, Olmerty.”

Copyright 2009, The Nation, used with permission of Agence Global.

Dear Mahmoud

January 2, 2009

The Huffington Post

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s congratulatory letter to President-elect Barack Obama, the first of its kind in the thirty-year history of the Islamic Republic, has so far gone unanswered. President-elect Obama has understandably been busy with filling cabinet and sub-cabinet posts, as well trying to figure out what on earth he’s going to do with the various messes he’s inherited (including the Bush administration’s jaw-dropping position on the situation in Gaza, an aerial bombardment with American-made F-18s and hellfire missiles that has killed hundreds of Palestinians and has handed yet another PR coup to would-be terrorists the world over), so it’s not surprising that writing a thank you note to Mahmoud has not been on the top of his to-do list.

Obama’s advisors may have suggested that replying to the Iranian president will only strengthen his position in the run-up to the Iranian presidential elections of June 2009, and there may be some truth to that. However, it is also true that, much as when Lee Bolinger, the President of Columbia University, insulted Ahmadinejad before he delivered his speech there in 2007, the majority of Iranians will take a lack of response as an insult not just to Ahmadinejad (who some may even loathe as much as ordinary Americans), but as an insult to Iran, and Ahmadinejad’s position could just as easily be strengthened with Iranians rallying behind their leader (as they generally did in support of him after the Columbia debacle), as it could be weakened by a lack of response.

President-elect Obama’s foreign policy team should carefully consider how the Iranian people, as well as their government, will react to either an acknowledgment of Ahmadinejad’s outreach or the insult of complete silence. Given that in almost every foreign policy issue that Obama will face at the end of January 2009 Iran will figure prominently; whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian-Israeli issue, or Iran’s actual nuclear program; a response (or lack of one) to Iran’s president is of far more importance than one might ordinarily think, for either choice will set the tone for future negotiations, something Obama has promised throughout his campaign. (For example, even if Ahmadinejad is not re-elected president next year and a more moderate “reformer” is, that reformer or “pragmatist” will have a very hard time convincing the hard-line conservatives, who will continue to have the Supreme Leader’s ear, that the U.S. is ready to enter into negotiations on the basis of mutual respect.)

Should President-elect Obama decide to write to Mahmoud, his message need not contain anything he’s uncomfortable with. In fact, even using the language of diplomacy (and not the language of Lee Bollinger), it can still raise the issue of discomfort with Iranian rhetoric and question her intentions. (Iranians can handle it, and believe me, their skins aren’t any thinner than Americans’.) But with respect to the Iranian president’s letter, the Obama team must take into consideration the centuries old customs and manners of proud culture, which requires an acknowledgment of some sort, even if laced with criticism. Perhaps it might read something like this?

Dr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
President, Islamic Republic of Iran

I am in receipt of your congratulatory letter of November 5, 2008. I appreciate the sentiments you’ve expressed on behalf of your nation; an ancient land with a great culture that has contributed much to civilization as we know it.

As you are aware, during my campaign I repeatedly said that I would be prepared, as president, to talk to leaders of nations that the United States has disagreements (or even conflict) with, and I intend to follow through with my pledge at the appropriate time. I will take this opportunity, however, to express my deep concern with much of the rhetoric, bellicose rhetoric emanating from Tehran, that serves no purpose other than to further divide our two nations and to unfortunately isolate yours.

As I have repeatedly said, I have been deeply troubled by not just Iran’s nuclear program, but also its support of terrorist groups and the language Iranian officials use with respect to Israel, a U.S. ally. In addition, your questioning of the Holocaust, an undisputed historical fact, is also not only deeply offensive to me and other Americans, but hurtful to the many Americans who are either survivors (or descendants of both survivors and victims) of that human tragedy.

It is still my hope, as I have publicly expressed it, that with a vigorous pursuit of diplomacy on both sides, the U.S. and Iran will find a way to peacefully resolve their differences in the coming years.

Barack Hussein Obama
President-elect of the United States of America

Hooman Majd is the author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ.

Ahmadinejad’s letter to Obama

November 10, 2008

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Here is a copy of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s letter to the President-elect. Caveat: The file I got was a scanned (image) file, so using “OCR” (Optical Character Recognition) we turned it into a Rich Text Format to be able to cut and paste. There may have been several errors in the scanning process.

Unofficial Translation

Islamic Republic of Iran

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

His Excellency, Barak H. Obama
President-Elect of the United States of America

I would like to offer my congratulations on your election by the majority of the American electorate. As you know, opportunities that are granted by the Almighty to human beings are inherently temporary, and can be used both in the Interest of nations for the betterment of mankind or – God forbid – In the path of wrongdoing and against humanity. I hope that you will be able to take fullest advantage of the opportunity to serve and leave behind a positive legacy by putting the real interest of people as well as equity and justice ahead and above the insatiable demands of a selfish and unworthy minority.

It is the general expectation that your administration will accord the highest priority in its policies and practices to addressing clearly and speedily the demand of the American people as well as the people across the globe for fundamental change in the domestic and foreign policies of the United States Government.

The American people, who have strong spiritual tendencies, expect that the full potential and capabilities of the Administration should be employed In order to serve the people, overcome the current economic crisis, recover their spirit and restore their dignity and hope, eradicate poverty and discrimination, respect human dignity, security and rights and strengthen the foundations of family across the territory of the United States: values which are all among the common teachings of Divine Prophets.

At the same time, the people across the world expect that policies and practices based on justice and respect for the rights of peoples and nations, coupled with friendship and non-Interference in the affairs of others replace policies founded on war, occupation, coercion, deception, intimidation of nations, and Imposition of unequal and discriminatory bilateral and global relations; policies and practices that have enraged all nations and many governments against the US Administration and tainted the image of the American people.

Particularly, It is expected that the unjust practices of the past six decades in the sensitive Middle East region are reversed in order to achieve the full restoration of the legitimate rights of nations, specially the aggrieved nations of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The great civilization-building and Justice-seeking Iranian nation would welcome real, equitable and fundamental change in policies and practices, particularly towards this region.

If the path of righteousness and the teachings of Divine Prophets are followed, it is hoped that the Almighty will help and the Immense losses of the past will be somewhat remedied.

May the Almighty bestow His blessings of well-being, health, honor and prosperity upon all peoples and nations; and may He bless the leaders of societies with the courage to learn from the mistakes of predecessors, and the ability to use every opportunity to serve the people, obey His commandments, eradicate oppression and coercion and promote empathy, compassion and justice.

Mahmood Ahmadinejad