Thursday, June 18, 2009

Iranian Revolution, Part 2?

There has been much excitement, especially in the Western media, about what has been going on in Iran over the past few weeks. Some commentators – concentrating mostly on the superficial similarities between the demonstrations then and now – have even gone so far as to compare events with the days that shook the world almost exactly 30 years ago, leading to Khomeini’s return to Iran and the establishment of the Islamic Republic. But such comparisons are far from justified: they simplify, and overestimate the differences between Ahmadi-Nejad and his opponents. Both are very much products of the current Iranian establishment – Musavi perhaps even more than the incumbent.

This is not a popular uprising – rather, it is a classical intra-elite affair, where different factions within the Iranian leadership use ‘the masses’ to improve their positions in a struggle for power. Let’s not forget that Musavi was prime minister during the heyday of the Islamic Republic, when Ayatollah Khomeini – the same Khomeini who issued the fatwa against Salman Rushdie – was supreme leader. One of his allies is none other than Mohsen Razai, a former commander of the Pasdaran – the Revolutionary guard – known for its ideological rigidity. Musavi is openly supported by former president Hashemi Rafsanjani – known for both his pragmatist (and self-enriching) tendencies within Iranian society, but still a pillar of Iran’s clerical establishment. A change from Ahmadi-Nejad to Musavi could perhaps modify the style and form of Iranian discourse (no more “wiping Israel of the map”), but it would not even dent the fundamental principle of the Islamic Republic – Velayat-e Faqih, Guardianship of the Jurisprudent, that uneasy combination of electoral democracy and theocracy. It would, moreover, still leave the most fundamental levers of power – control of the military and, especially the Revolutionary guard, and all security forces – safely in the hands of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. At best, one could get a return to the Khatami era, where the freedom of movement of a reformist president was easily frustrated and limited by the ever-dominant conservatives in the Guardianship Council and the Assembly of Experts.

And as for the nuclear issue – while Musavi might perhaps be more susceptible to outside pressure (partly because of his more liberal take on Iran’s ramshackle economy), the conservatives within the security establishment would most likely ensure continuity there as well. As Al-Baradei correctly pointed out this week, Iran has very deep-seated motives to either obtain a nuclear bomb outright, or, at the very least, master the technology required to manufacture one at short notice. First and foremost come state and regime security – the contrast between Iraq and North Korea would indeed lead any government to see nuclearisation as the ultimate guarantee of survival. A quick look at the map also shows how Iran is surrounded by nuclear powers – Russia, Israel, Pakistan – two of whom obtained their nuclear capability outside the NPT. How could Iran realise its long-standing claim to regional power status without a nuclear arsenal?

What many – especially in the West – tend to forget is that the country’s nuclear programme was started in 1958 by the Shah, who thought imperial Iran wouldn’t be quite that imperial without ‘the bomb’. The Islamic Republic decided to restart the programme in the final years of the Iran-Iraq war – partly in response to lessons drawn from that war, partly, also, out of a long-held conviction that Iran – the Mellat-e Bozorg-e (Great Nation) – would have to find its place in the world. Iran’s nuclear propensities survived the Iranian revolution; and just like the Islamic Republic, they’ll most likely survive what comes next.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Obama follow-up

Clinton: If Iran strikes Israel, expect retaliation
By Haaretz Service
Tags: Iran, Israel News, UN

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday that Iran must expect full retaliation from a "a battery of nuclear weapons countries" should it ever attack Israel. [...]

As I said in my previous post, extended nuclear deterrence could be Obama's plan B regarding Iran.....

Friday, June 5, 2009

Obama pushing the right buttons - but now what?

As a rhetorical exercise, yesterday’s speech by the President of the United States could not fail to impress. On a discursive level at least, the winds of change emanating from the White House are palpable. Gone are the days when presidential speeches consisted of incoherently mumbled Manichean simplicities – “good versus evil”, “with us or against us”. The insight that the world – and, especially, the Middle East - is much more complicated is a good start; but much more will be needed if this US administration is to repair the years of malign neglect displayed by its predecessor towards the Middle East peace process. To undo the damage done to American soft power in the world at large, and the Islamic world in particular, words will have to be translated into action – and, in view of the inherent complexities and dilemmas contained within the objectives Obama has set himself, this will be a thankless task indeed.

As numerous pundits haven’t failed to point out, the Cairo speech was indeed based on a deep understanding of what irks the Muslim and Arab world today. Gazing back at their long-lost golden age, Islamic – and Arab – societies do have this sense of greatness lost, and a fear of globalisation-as-Westernisation. Those portions of the speech expressing respect for the immense cultural heritage of Islamic civilisation, and the West’s endebtedness towards it, were clearly aimed at tackling the wounded pride so useful to radical Islamists. The shift in rhetoric on Iran was equally dramatic – with a clear acknowledgment of the historical fears that have acted as the primary drivers of Iran’s anti-Western stance, and its decades-old quest for nuclear weapons. And, while acknowledging the "unbreakable" bond between the United States and Israel, president Obama did, in unprecedentedly frank language, criticise the building of settlements, by Zionist extremists, in the Occupied Territories. The sufferings and humiliations of the Palestinians were, again, acknowledged in ways that would have been unthinkable only a year ago, balanced by an admonition to radical groups like Hamas to disavow violence. This president’s commitment to a two-state solution (admittedly one of his predecessor’s rare positive legacies) was equally made crystal-clear. Issues like democratisation and women’s rights also figured prominently, balanced by a commitment to respecting the cultural specificity of Middle Eastern and Islamic societies. All-in-all, the speech combined America’s immense power with something that had been absent in recent years – humility, and the realisation that the US must speak softly in this world precisely because it carries a big stick.

But how is this ambitious programme going to be put into action? Words are not enough, and many gaping questions remain after the speech; the objectives set by this administration are a tangled web of potential contradictions and complex dilemmas that would have to be resolved successfully if good intentions are not to drown in that merciless swamp called the 'Middle East'.

What is this administration going to do about a nuclearised Iran? Acknowledging Tehran’s deeply-held motives for acquiring the bomb is one thing, dissuading them from their path is quite another. Bombing Iran seems to be off the table - at least for now; does this indicate Washington has reconciled itself with the possibility of a nuclear Iran, its declarations to the contrary notwithstanding? It might very well have to, as mastering nuclear technology seems to be one of Tehran's strategic imperatives, surrounded as it is by official and unofficial nuclear powers. If that is the case, what is Obama's plan B? Extended nuclear deterrence - providing a nuclear umbrella to its non-nuclear allies in the region? Certainly, this would be the only way to stop a regional nuclear arms race - but does the United States truly have the stomach to make such a wide-ranging commitment in this regional hornets' nest?

Obama's stated commitment to democracy is equally problematic. There has been much talk recently of the US taking on the role of ‘offshore balancer’ in the Middle East (once it withdraws from Iraq) by increasingly acting through its allies and proxies (as it currently does in much of East Asia) – but that would mean increased strategic reliance on these allies, most of whom are far from democratic; how does that combine with Obama’s stated commitment to democratisation and human rights? How exactly will this administration balance this universalist democratic commitment to cultural specificity? Will the Obama administration recognise democratically elected governments headed or dominated by radical groups like Hezbollah and Hamas – something strongly hinted at in the speech (“Hamas must take responsibility”)? Then there is the ever-present problem of modernisation-as-Westernisation; even if the United States does not impose its values as forcefully as before, it will, by default, remain the dominant cultural force in the processes of globalisation that affect all Middle Eastern societies, continuing to elicit reactions from traditionalists. While America as a Jeffersonian city-on-the-hill, with values you take or leave at your own behest, certainly represents progress over a United States that will ram 'freedom' down your throat, if need be, there are things even the Obama can't control.

Above all, however, there is that hornets' nest called Israel/Palestine. It is clear that Obama intends to take a more balanced approach to what is the region's longest-running conflict. This administration also seems to view the Middle East as an integrated security complex, whose different conflicts are intensely interrelated, necessitating an equally integrated approach. If you want peace in Israel/Palestine, you need to include Syria and Iran, alongside Israel and the Palestinians, in your calculations. This means either driving a wedge between the Damascus and Tehran (thus physically separating the Iranians from the Western Levant), something that has been tried unsuccessfully on many occasions, or coming to some kind of agreement that satisfies the Iranians, the Syrians, the Palestinians, the Israelis, and AIPAC. Already, there are voices in Congress criticising Obama's opposition to settlements; meanwhile, victories by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Ahmedi-Nejad in Iran may very well remind us that in the Middle East, the next crisis is always around the corner. In final analysis, it seems Obama will need all the luck he can get if his good intentions are not to drown in the quicksands of the Arabian desert.