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Iran in Iraq

March 21, 2007

In the last few days the Times has given us a summary of the recent economic penetration by Iran into Iraq. We could view this negatively, as many in Washington are wont to do. But from the viewpoint of all but the hardest line Sunnis, it should be considered as a real harbinger of hope for the future.

The stores are full of Iranian produce, air conditioners, automobiles and much else. Several Iraqi cities, including Basra, depend on Iran for their electricity. Iran has loaned Iraq one billion dollars and is establishing a bank in Baghdad. Iran is helping to relieve a severe gasoline shortage in Iraq by bringing gasoline in from Turkmenistan. Iranian trade with the Kurdish region now amounts to one billion dollars a year. Iranian tourism, particularly to the shrines in Karbala and Najaf has added considerably to the economy in some areas. Iran has assisted in the building of tourist facilities in both cities.

Mujahedin-e-Khalq

March 21, 2007

The New York Times latest report is that “Iraqi insurgents, guerrilla fighters and death squads are being trained in secret camps in Iran with the blessing of top Tehran leaders, an Iranian opposition figure said Tuesday.” After we get beyond the alarming details of how Iraqis are recruited, sent to Iran for training, and then reintroduced to drive the Americans out, we are told that this information comes from the spokesman of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq in Washington. The Mojahedin-e-Khalq (referred to as the National Council of Resistance, PMOI, MEK, MKO etc.) was formed as an anti-government organization under the Shah. It evolved into a syncretic Islamic-Marxist group that engaged in many terrorist acts. Its membership and leaders were decimated twice, once under the Shah and once in the early days of the Khomeini regime. It then resurfaced in Europe and Iraq. Its forces allegedly took part in Saddam’s war against Iran and especially the suppression of the Kurds. How much of this is true is unclear, but clearly the movement was openly supported and maintained in Iraq by Saddam up to the American invasion It appears that most Iranians see it as an anti-national organization. After the American invasion, the military encampment of the group was sealed off by the Americans and partially disarmed, but never destroyed. It is alleged that the Americans are now using persons from the camp to infiltrate Iran. Certainly, much of the information on the Iranians nuclear program (true or not) has been traced to this group. Because it is violently opposed to the current Iranian regime, its cause has been taken up by many conservative Americans in Congress and elsewhere (strange bedfellows: Americans wanting to mix religion and politics allying with Iranians wanting their strict separation, and the radically feminist organization MKO allying with American opponents of the ERA.).

In the 1990s, the organization fell under the control of the Rajavis, Massoud and Maryam, with Maryam elevated to near divine status. She was elected “president” of Iran by a resistance council in 1993. She is to serve as President until elections are held following the overthrow of the Mullahs. The camp in Iraq is described by a New York Times here. The reporter describes a totalitarian cultist center. Family members live apart, and the most personal decisions made by the leadership. No criticisms of the Rajavis or their decisions are allowed. Regular self-criticism sessions are held and taped. Discussants are expected to confess their sexual desires. Informants are everywhere.

I do not know what to make of all this. Obviously, the Iranian opposition within Iran and overseas is split many ways, and many groups hate one another. However, I am inclined to believe the negative descriptions of the Mojahedin by many in the opposition. The American Department of State and many other foreign services see the group as a dangerous far left terrorist group with no real commitment to human rights or democracy. Even if it were a bona fide group, I would examine their intelligence on what goes on in Iran with the utmost care. As it is, I think it is disastrous for American politicians and the even the New York Times to discuss their reports as though they were credible.

Iran and Its Neighbors

January 26, 2007

Iran’s relation to the new state of Azerbaijan to the north is complex. On the one hand the country was for many years a province of Iran. Its people are largely Azerbaijanis with a language and culture close to that of the more larger Azerbaijan section of Iran. Most of the independent Azeris belong to the same branch of Shi’ism as the Iranians (being converted by the Safavids at the same time). On the other hand, generations of Soviet control has changed the country. Its leaders are post-Soviet secularists and its language Russified. These leaders have also been courted by the Americans, as has been the case with the leaders of most of the post-Soviet Republics. Iran also has lingering fears that the existence of an Azeri state on its borders may fuel separatist ambitions on the Iranian side of the line. The counter-intuitive result is that the Iranians have developed very close relations with the new Armenian state, especially after Ahmadinejad’s election. A new highway and tunnel connecting the countries will be built. Iran is helping with the building of a new power plant and laying a new gas pipeline into the country. It is hoped that a new pipeline bringing in gas from Turkmenistan will reduce the price enough to make this feasible.

Iran has been working for several years on developing a closer relationship with Tajikistan in Central Asia. Although they have no common border, the countries have a close historical relation. The Tajiks speak a language almost indistinguishable from Modern Persian, although the introduction of large numbers of Russian loan words an the use of the Russian alphabet has set them apart. Iran is investing in a new power plant, the reconstruction of the country’s power network, and helping to construct a new tunnel. The countries are laying plans for the construction of a road connecting the Tajikistan with Iran through Afghanistan, thereby ultimately opening up improved access of the country to the Indian Ocean. There is also talk of a free trade zone that would include Afghanistan and Turkey. Tajikistan and Iran have also agreed to help Pakistan with its looming energy crisis by making available excess power and other means.

Promoting Democracy: Rethinking Priorities

January 23, 2007

The threat of a Kabul court a few months ago to execute a man for converting from Islam to Christianity raised in an especially clear form the contradiction between “democracy” as we understand it and “democracy” as it may reasonably be understood by others.

Democracy was understood by ancient Greek scholars and the Founding Fathers to be a dangerous form of government. They saw it as mob rule, and they knew that a mob could easily be swayed one way or another by emotions, often stirred up by demagogues. Many of these Fathers saw the French Revolution as a confirmation of their opinions, which most of the them (with the partial exception of Jefferson) saw as a lesson to be avoided.

In this climate of opinion, they drew up a plan for a nation based on a Constitution that circumscribed the political rights of ordinary people in several ways. First, political power was to be exercised through elected representatives rather than directly. In addition, the senate and the president were to be indirectly elected. Today, the electoral system allows for a clearer expression of the popular will than it did originally, but our constitutional system still limits the ability of the people to directly affect how the country is run, especially in the short term. Most important, the Constitution established a system of rights guaranteed by courts presided over by judges that at least at the top were not elected and served for life. The rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were effectively “set in stone”. The Constitution could be changed, but changing it was a lengthy process. The amendments that were accepted over the course of the next 200 years expanded guarantees of freedom and equality, but did not fundamentally change the structure the Founders had created.

When American representatives proclaim in international forums that they support the universality of democracy, they appear to be asking all peoples without democracy to change their systems of governance in three rather different directions. First, they are seen to be asking other countries to accept a political system similar to ours. Or they are understood to be asking other peoples to establish political systems in which “free and fair” elections are the essential ingredient. Or, they are asking other peoples to institute political systems that guarantee international human rights, particularly those characterized as civil liberties. It is seldom pointed out to other publics or understood by American communicators that these three aspects of democracy can contradict one another.

In the Islamic world, America’s promotion of democracy becomes especially problematic. Many Islamic countries are quite prepared to establish electoral systems for choosing the people who will lead them. But they understand that those elected should be limited in their decision power, much as they are in our own Constitution, by courts established on the basis of operative legal traditions. In their case, the best known legal tradition is Islamic, and the highest courts may be Shari’ah courts, courts based on principles and ideas that are quite different from those prescribed by modern definitions of human rights. Islamic leaders might well note that American democracy is even today not always on the side of what are now considered international human rights, particularly in areas such as polygamy and capital punishment. In America, “the people” are free to enact legislation violating international standards. This legislation remains the law of the land as long as it is not countermanded by our courts. On the other hand, our non-elected judges are also free to decide against international standards on the basis of what they understand to be American legal tradition.

So in bringing “democracy” to Islamic countries, we are faced with the fact that an Islamic people may through electoral processes decide on laws and procedures that go very much against our modern concept of democracy, such as prescribing the stoning of adulterers. We also must face the fact that accepting the American idea of an independent judiciary would seem to lay the basis for enshrining in law and practice Shari’ah provisions that are simply not “acceptable” to the modern West. It is very difficult to say that in instituting democracy in this way, they are not adopting at least one of the proffered definitions of democracy.

This suggests that those of us who promote democracy should step back and rethink what we are about. Two changes appear to be necessary. First, we should be clearer in our own minds about what changes should have highest priority in moving the world toward greater freedom. It would seem to me that the first priority must be the creation of a world of responsible states that progressively exhibit increasing respect for international human rights while preserving their capability to secure the peace internally and within their regions. Given this change of focus, we should be less enthusiastic in our promotion of “democracy” without qualification in Islamic countries. America’s democratic role should be to increase respect for human rights in such countries, building the bases for the emergence of a true western-style liberal democracy sometime in the future. Secondly, when we campaign for an expansion of democracy, we should stop defining our goal primarily in terms of elections. We should make it understood that we understand a democratic society to be one based on modern liberal institutions. In our democracy campaign, it will also be helpful to deemphasize American models, asking other peoples to consider a wider range of models, some of which are more decisively in the modern liberal tradition than we happen to be. It is particularly important that we not identify capitalism with democracy. While capitalism with a variety of qualifications has characterized our own democratic success, other countries have succeeded as democracies with governments and peoples much more dedicated to egalitarianism and a larger degree of governmental intervention in the economy than has characterized the United States.

With this approach, we will be less likely to seem brazenly inconsistent in our advocacy of democracy, as we have been characterized after we effectively rejected the coming to power of Hamas in Palestine through free and fair elections. We will also have created a more understandable platform from which to criticize the human rights performance of Afghan or Iranian governments that have established ostensibly democratic constitutional systems under our tutelage.

Limited Authoritarianism

January 22, 2007

A recent article in the Washington Quarterly (30,1,Winter) by Hen Tov is entitled “Understanding Iran’s New Authoritarianism”. It purports to show how Iran is quickly evolving from a specialized theocratic state into a standard authoritarian regime of the kind that has long characterized the region. He tells us that “a new group of younger ideologues is taking over the conservative establishment”.

In fact, this is not what is happening. It is not happening for a variety of reasons. First, the governmental system is a complex mixture of electorate decisive factors and clerical-elite decisive factors. To succeed in the system, it is not enough to get elected and develop a cult of personality. In addition, Iran has a much more lively public opinion and media input into public affairs. And in spite of the nondemocratic vetting, those competing for office have a more equitable chance to achieve office and influence than in states such as Egypt. Campaigning is much freer and more open than in any Arab states outside Lebanon (in its better days).

By mid-January it had become apparent that Ahmadinejad’s belligerent language and world tours had produced a backlash among the Iranian people. The Head of State has felt it necessary to openly censor the President (New York Times, January 19). Two hardline newspapers, one owned by the Head of State, called on the president to stay out of all matters nuclear. The Times piece claimed that the president is not officially in charge of foreign affairs. Government officials are saying that the sanctions do have a potential to seriously hurt the economy. Fifty legislators wrote a letter calling on the president to appear before parliament to defend his nuclear policies. 150 legislators signed another letter criticizing the president for his economic policies and his failure to submit a budget on time. The stock market has been in a steady decline for a month. A group of businessmen has met with the National Security Council to ask for a moderation in nuclear policies to help stem the slide.

After the December elections, Rafsanjani has become the head of the Assembly of Experts that will choose the next Head of State. There is reason to think that he is positioning himself for that position as he looks forward to the retirement of Khamenei. Several of the other people who were defeated in the 2005 presidential election now hold high positions in government. It seems to be elite government by consensus modified by electoral inputs.

American advocates of instant, universal democracy often refer to the Iranian system as a fraudulent democracy. Yet it is well to reflect that the dangers from ostensible democracies that we face in the world come from persons, usually populists, who are able to use democratic institutions to achieve electoral and then personal supremacy. These were the roads to power of Mussolini and Hitler. We have often faced such dangers in Latin America, and today we fear the regimes taking shape in Venezuela, Bolivia, and possibly once again in Nicaragua. The essential problem is that there are not sufficient institutional controls to head off mobocracy. We might consider the advantages for the world of a more controlled democracy in which a loose cannon such as Ahmadinejad may be more easily controlled, even if the democracy is in other ways defective.

Iran’s Complex Political System

January 19, 2007

There is a great deal of talk in the Western media about the anti-democratic or non-democratic nature of the Iranian government. It is surely not the kind of liberal democracy that many in the West think they would like to see in Iran, but it is neither a closed society or a dictatorship. It is important to understand the system before we attempt to support its opponents or to open a dialogue with the country’s leaders. Let us take a brief look. Later blogs will apply this look to what has been happening recently.

Iran’s Constitution provides for one of the most complex systems of government that I am acquainted with. It is a mixture of elected and unelected officials with some interesting twists. It has both formal and informal aspects.

At the top is the Head of State (currently Khamenei: this position is also referred to as Guardian Jurisprudent, or Supreme Leader). Elected by the Assembly of Experts, he may be dismissed at any time by that body. Aside from this, he has broad and nearly unlimited powers. He is Supreme Commander of the military, appoints the head of the judicial branch, declares war and peace, and can call for a mobilization. He also appoints the Guardian Council, a branch in some ways equivalent to a Senate.

The Assembly of Experts consists of 86 Mojtahids or religious scholars popularly elected for eight-year terms. They “oversee” the Head of State and may dismiss him at any time. Since they are popularly elected, the head of state is himself indirectly elected and overseen by elected persons.

The Guardian Council oversees and vets all candidates to national office, or to the Assembly of Experts. Six members are clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader and six are lawyers proposed by the head of the judiciary and approved by parliament. The Assembly of Experts, the Guardian Council, and the Head of State must all be generally accepted religious leaders (or “experts in religious law”, in a law-centered religious system). It must approve all laws passed by parliament before they become law.

Parliament is elected on the national level from single and multi-member districts. It makes the laws or at least passes on them.

The Expediency Discernment Council is meant to mediate disputes between parliament and the Guardian Council when they cannot agree on legislation. Its 34 members are directly appointed by the Head of State.

The National Security Council was established after the basic structure. Its functions are rather similar to those of the NSC in the American system, but it appears to have higher status. It is concerned with national security policies understood very broadly. Its members include the heads of executive, legislative and judicial branches, the head of the armed forces, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Intelligence, as well as appointees of the Head of State (who apparently also selects the head of the NSC).

The President (currently Ahmadinejad) is directly elected, although again candidates must be vetted. His powers are quite limited. In theory, he is head of government, appoints ambassadors and proposes cabinet officers to the parliament. He appoints governors, but he no longer appoints mayors. He must approve all legislation and is automatically head of the National Security Council.

Below the national level, local and village councils are also elective.

While formally, it would seem the system is completely under the thumb of the Shiite hierarchy, for several reasons this is not as decisive as might be thought. First, there is no Shiite hierarchy comparable to that of a tight organizations such as the Mormon or Catholic churches. There are a large number of religious figures with sufficient standing in the religious world to be considered for government positions. Each with his own lay and clerical following. Some of these mujtahids are highly regarded throughout the Shi’a world, such as Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf. (Incidentally, Sistani who has long disapproved of the Iranian system has his own following in Iran, people who regularly teach and propagandize in his favor among clerical students) These men range from highly conservative to relatively liberal. Sometimes they reach consensus, but not always. Secondly, although many people, clerics or not, are not allowed to run for office because of the vetting process, in recent elections, the candidates standing for parliament, local positions, or the Assembly of Experts have represented many different constituencies, with positions from right to left. There is also a quite active public opinion with many outlets within Iran, especially now with the internet. What the general public believes evidently affects the thinking of the Head of State, a man who by inclination or the nature of the system is a far cry from being a dictator.

Negotiating with the Iranians

December 23, 2006


Repeated suggestions that the United States should negotiate with the Iranians seem to come to naught. President Bush has somehow gotten it into his head that Iran is an “evil state” on a par with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before our invasion. He wonders how such an evil government can be negotiated with. Sometimes he insists that if Iran changes, or if Iran renounces its present policies, then perhaps we could have something to talk about. One suspects that his demonization of Iran is a reflection through intermediaries of the bitter hostility of Israel to Iran, because of Hezbollah and because of a real fear that Iran might develop a nuclear weapon that would threaten the existence of Israel. The close connection between the thinking of the neocons that has been so influential in this administration and support of Israeli objectives is well known. (Incidentally, it is odd that concern for Pakistan’s already existing nuclear capability remains muted, in spite of the fact that Musharref might be unseated by an Islamist coup at any time and Pakistan has a record of sharing nuclear information with other states.)

Two recent events have affected the possibility and usefulness of negotiations. First, nationwide local elections including an election of the “experts” who choose the actual head of state has resulted in a setback for Ahmadinejad in Iran. The moderates and reformists have made critical gains. This would seem to offer an opening to any power that really wanted to engage the Iranians. Moreover, the exercise itself has once again shown that Iran is in no way in the league with North Korea and Saddam’s Iraq. It is a much more modernized and vibrant state, with possibilities for real choice and discussion, in spite of the continuation of controls over the media and the jailing of opposition figures.

Second, and less promising, the United States and Great Britain have announced that they are increasing the size of their fleets in the Persian Gulf. This reversion to “gunboat diplomacy” will hardly make Iran’s leaders anxious to negotiate about anything. Neither is it likely to be well received by the Iranian opposition that remains hotly nationalist in spite of everything.

At this juncture, two American diplomats who have participated in past negotiations with Iran have published an Op-Ed in the New York Times (December 22, 2006) that argues persuasively that the Iranians are never going to be willing to negotiate about particular items in an American agenda. They have been repeatedly disappointed by narrower agreements. For example, they cooperated with us in the defeating the Taliban, but in the end received nothing in return but hostility. Against this background Iran will need to be offered a broad and open agenda. In particular, it wants security guarantees from the United States and a guarantee that we will respect its borders, and no longer work for “regime change”. (The authors of the Op-Ed tell us that what they print is a censored version of what they wanted to say. But for our purposes here, the question of censorship is irrelevant. Their main points get through.)

As Baker, in discussing his Report, has pointed out: “If you have problems in a relationship, you sit down and discuss them. And you cannot have such a discussion if you insist that your partner yield on major points before the discussion begins.” One can only hope that this administration reconsider the Report’s recommendations for talks, and not just talks to avert catastrophe in Iraq. Iran and the United States share many more interests than that.