Tag Archives: things this blog really cares about

Thoughts on Iran, part II

What we are witnessing in Iran right now is nothing short of revolutionary. Protests are larger than they have been since 1979, there are deep chasms emerging within the clerical establishment that has ruled the country for three decades, and people are quite literally risking (and, seemingly by the dozen, giving) their lives to claim what they feel has been taken from them. This is not necessarily to say it will all culminate in a revolution or even a change in the election results. As one of the most interesting analyses I have read of the Islamic Revolution, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran,  reminds anyone when looking at protest movements it’s a fool’s errand to try to predict the outcome of events once a certain level of chaos and upheaval has been reached. Nevertheless, it is a historic moment in the life of the Iranian state.

The Iranian government itself obviously recognizes this. Initial attempts to bunker down and ride it out (cut off all methods of communication that could be used to organize, issue multiple statements hailing the fairness and accuracy of the results, staging a “victory” rally, and thwarting the ability of foreign media to move around and report) were a spectacular failure. Taking a new tact of limited appeasement, the Supreme Leader reversed his own (twice stated) judgment that nothing improper or irregular happened and has opened the door for a partial recount. It would not be inaccurate to call this a stunning development. In general, the clerical leadership, while holding the real power in the country, stays behind the scenes. Khamenei is not one to seek out the spotlight, least of all to reverse his own publicly stated position on the crisis of this magnitude, which will probably define his tenure. One can reasonably interpret this shift as a nod to the gravity of the threat the regime perceives.  

I think it’s critical to understand the context in which this threat arises. The protesters are not calling for an end to the concept of an Islamic state — far from it, in fact. Just because elements of the opposition are seen as friendlier to the West, it doesn’t translate into a monolithic “Westernizing” force. And that is why it is potentially so dangerous to the stability of the status quo.

The leading faces speaking out — Mousavi, Rafsanjani, Montazeri — are figures who were among Khomeini’s inner circle in 1979. Montazeri, a Grand Ayatollah who was once seen as the successor to Khomeini, is of particular note. Think of it: a man who was once considered a probable successor to the founder of the Islamic Republic has now come out and said, in no uncertain terms, that the protesters are right and the government (including the clerical leadership) is wrong. No longer are we just questioning the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s presidency — rather, Khamenei himself and the institution he represents is called into question for abetting it. The most serious threats, it seems, are always from within and this is just one example of the fault lines developing within the clerical leadership that will reverberate for years to come regardless of how the current crisis is resolved. Once the “crisis of legitimacy” genie is out of the bottle, it’s impossible to get back in. People will always remember and internalize these events, coloring how they see every subsequent action by the government (much in the way the U.S. assisted coup in 1953 still hangs over U.S.-Iran relations).

Ultimately, despite everything that has transpired, I still think it’s a safer bet to assume the outcome of the election will stay as is. What does the U.S. do about this? Thus far, I think President Obama has it mostly correct. The Iranian nuclear program has attained a place of central importance in U.S. foreign policy. That leaves us with the need for a negotiating partner on the Iranian side. Although I’ve read some stirring and inspiring calls for the U.S. to be more critical of what is transpiring, including one written by a colleague/friend whom I respect a great deal, I simply can’t see how that is in anyone’s long-term interest. Three reasons why:

1) In matters of international affairs, one can’t choose one’s interlocutor. All things considered, it’s generally better for one to play the hand one is dealt than to try to interfere with the dealer. The U.S. has nothing to gain by crying foul here. The likely-to-continue President Ahmadinejad will use any and every statement to that effect as evidence of an American vendetta against him and as an excuse to avoid serious pressure for negotiations. Giving him yet more ammunition in this respect would be counterproductive.

2) Expressing strong support for Mousavi/the opposition would give pro-Ahmadinejad forces a great big brush with which to paint them as Western agents trying to undermine the Islamic Republic — in short, to obfuscate the true nature of the who and why behind what is taking place, playing into the idea of a U.S. backed “velvet revolution” much like the 1953 coup. Obama/America would become the face of the opposition, thereby making it much more difficult to organize the average person.

3) But isn’t America the great beacon of freedom? The shining city on the hill? The embodiment of the principles that infuse any movement based on a yearning for greater freedom and fairness? Then how — how — you ask can we sit here and do nothing to help (even when “help” is only strongly condemn the situation and call it what it is over and over again), and engage with Ahmadinejad going forward, while people are quite literally dying to have their votes counted? History has shown over and over again that real, lasting, change can’t be imposed; it has to come from within.

Maybe these events will snowball into something that fundamentally changes the character of Iranian leadership or maybe they will simply serve as another step taking them closer to that end. For now, I think it’s too fluid to tell with any certainty. The U.S. needs to let the Iranians sort things out and, ultimately, deal with the world as it is rather than as we would like to make it. This might mean dealing with a leader whom the entire thinking world can ascertain held onto his position through some combination of fraud, force, and lies.

With hundreds of thousands out on the streets of Iran, however, it’s too preliminary for the U.S. to throw its hat into that corner at this point. Just as we have nothing to gain by taking a hard line against Ahmadinejad’s supposed re-election, we have nothing to gain by overtly recognizing it at the moment either. President Obama and his team have been wise thus far in staking out a middle ground of observation rather than involvement, and one hopes they maintain that position until the landscape becomes clearer.

EDIT (June 17): Thank you to everyone who has clicked over here from the link by Andrew Sullivan this morning!

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Thoughts on the Iranian election

I’ll refrain from a blow-by-blow of what has transpired over the last few days and instead confine my post to the two points surrounding this that really stand out for me.

1) Sometimes, when one is between a rock and a hard place, observation is the only action one can take. This, I think, is where the U.S. finds itself now in this debacle. There is little doubt that the official results reported by the Interior Ministy were falsified to some extent or another. This purported landslide victory with almost no deviation in vote share between candidates from one region to the next makes no logical sense for a whole list of demographic reasons, which could take up the rest of this post. Whether the lie amounts to making a small win larger, adding some extra padding to secure a victory in the first round and avoid a run-off next week, or an outright reversal of the real results and the stealing of an election, something is amiss.  

So…what does the U.S. do about this? Nothing — because there’s nothing we can do that will have any positive impact on the situation. Khamenei has already certified the results and encouraged everyone to get along with each other and be happy with this “divine assessment.” For all intents and purposes, the book has been closed on the election. Nothing the U.S. says or does will change these facts and, more likely than not, would only feed into hardline propaganda about the opposition being puppets for the West. Would it be the morally correct thing to stand and say, “this is a ridiculous sham?”  Sure. It almost seems wrong not to. But the only people who can say that with impact and authority are the millions of Iranians who cast a ballot for change only to have it seemingly snatched away. Over the next few days, we’ll see whether the post-election protests develop into something more.

2) Reports of the death of the mainstream media have not been greatly exaggerated. They have heretofore almost completely missed this story. Sure, there’s the requisite story in NYT and WaPo, but it gets barely a blip on cable news and there’s very little real analysis. The blogosphere truly has broken and driven this story over the last three days. From nitty-gritty analysis of statistical data, demographics, and historical voting patterns to translation of Persian language tweets about events on the ground (seriously, if you aren’t on Twitter, you need to be) to incredible documentation of protests on Flickr and YouTube, citizen-journalism has won the day here.

Bring on the popcorn, with a side of social change

I saw the movie “Milk” the other night. It once again demonstrated Sean Penn’s incredible talent as an actor far and away makes up for his occasional bizarre bouts of political commentary. Seriously a great performance on his part and a movie that is worth seeing.

I would be remiss in not mentioning how disappointing it is to think we are still dealing with some of the same issues vis a vis gay rights all these years (decades!) later. Or how the talk of Prop 6 made me think about Prop 8, which always makes me think of my lovely college friend who moved to California a little while back and married her girlfriend over the summer. That their marriage, like so many others, is caught up in that absurd mess makes me more than a little angry.

However, that terrain has been covered backwards and forwards, so I want to spend a moment touching on a less obvious angle. The movie begins when Penn’s character, Harvey Milk, is just an anonymous 40 year old nine-to-fiver in NYC. He was 40 years old before he even had an inkling of getting involved in politics and he went on to both symbolize and galvanize a movement on a national level. Just goes to show it’s never too late and one is never too “ordinary” to do great things that make an impact in one’s life, community, or even the world.

All these things and more

The revolution may not be televised but it will surely be Facebooked. This week, among a stellar lineup of stories, NYT Magazine explores the role (actual and potential) of Facebook in fostering the growth of civil society in repressive states. Using that lovely site for something other than memorializing bar crawls or finding out that guy you sat next to in freshman English and are still “friends” with got engaged? Who knew. Although this is by no means a groundbreaking notion, their lengthy case study focusing on Egypt is quite interesting. I would excerpt some highlights here but, really, it’s worth clicking over to read the entire piece…

Revolution, Facebook-Style: Can social networking turn disaffected young Egyptians into a force for democratic change?

While you’re there, skim the exhaustively long cover piece on the mysteries of female desire/arousal. Lest the male portion of my readership (such as it is) hope to find answers to the riddles of the fairer sex, I assure you none are provided as it reads rather circuitously. It does, however, present some interesting food for thought in the age old discussion of how women differ from men.

Finally, there’s a nice little bit about the complete lack of guilt/shame/remorse exhibited by those who played prominent roles in bringing our economy to the depths of the abyss where it is now. Walter Kirn asks, “Where is the shame and remorse on Wall St.?” Good question, sir, good question.

Basically, the entire thing is great from cover-to-cover this week, so go read it.

Two faces of the same coin

I started my news day, as per usual, by clicking over to WaPo immediately upon arrival at my office. I don’t know if the print version reflects this, but one of the headlines on the front page was an analysis piece entitled, “War on Terror Comes to an End.” That, my friends (oh, no, I sound like John McCain), would indeed have been news to me. Only upon clicking the link does one see that the full title was referencing Bush’s version of it, if you will. All in all, it’s a bit of a fluff piece recounting facts that would not be news to anyone who has paid attention at all in the last couple years and arguing the change in administration marks a departure from all that has come before.

After perusing the WaPo soliloquy to the sea change afoot on that front (for, “sea change”, read: closing the public relations disaster that was Gitmo sometime in the future after an alternative approach can be implemented and officially banning practices that the intel/military community had already moved away from in light of public exposure a couple years ago), I then clicked over to NYT and came upon this front page article. 

If you’re like me and hate clicking links, I give you this from the opening paragraph…

“The emergence of a former Guantanamo Bay detainee as the deputy leader of al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch has underscored the potential complications in carrying out the executive order President Obama signed Thursday that the detention center be shut down within a year.”

I know, reflexively, the executive orders he has signed surrounding Gitmo, interrogation techniques, etc., play well for the liberal base of the party. Beyond the public relations impact though, which I acknowledge can be very important in diplomacy, there’s little substance there. Nothing has changed in terms of the global challenges we are facing. All the complicated questions surrounding how we address those issues (e.g. what to do with the people at Gitmo?) are still there. Obama acknowledged as much in his inaugural address.

Although I think it’s pretty refreshingly awesome that we will now have a team in place at the highest levels that recognizes the role of diplomacy and all the things inherent to that, I am kind of surprised at all the hype surrounding these initial executive orders. One would almost think the “war,” as it were, had actually ended (oh, WaPo, how that abbreviated title amused me this morning). This marks a new chapter, undoubtedly, but it remains to be seen how much will substantively change in approaching current and potential realities facing  U.S. foreign policy.

Some thoughts on the Gaza situation (with links)

I don’t agree with his entire assessment, but this is a good one on whether this campaign is the right one at the right time from a strategic perspective…

Where is Israel Going? 
“That does not mean I question Israel’s right to respond to the rocket onslaught from Gaza. Of course, it has that right. Any country has the right, even the obligation to respond militarily to thugs who rain down thousands of rockets on its people, leaving its children quaking in terror. The question is not whether Israel has the right, but whether exercising it this way is right.”

On how the challenges (present and future) to Israel as we currently know it are different than those it has previously faced. I particularly like the mention of shiting demographics, which isn’t something generally brought up in these conversations…

Why Israel Feels Threatened
“Between 1948 and 1982, Israel oped relatively well with the threat from conventional Arab armies. Indeed, it repeatedly trounced them.  But Iran’s nuclear threat, the rise of organizations like Hamas and Hezballah that operate from across international borders and from the midst of dense civilian populations, and Israeli Arabs’ growing dissaffection with the state and their identification with its enemies, offers a completely different set of challenges. And they are challenges that Israel’s leaders and public, bound by Western democratic and libera norms of behavior, appear to find particularly difficult to counter.”

You might be able to pick your war, to a certain extent, but you can’t necessarily pick your peace. Good analysis of how govering Gaza in the wake of this will present quite a challenge…

Is the Real Target Hamas Rule?
“Even if Israel intends to hold back from completely overthrowing Hamas, its tactics could head that way anyway. And the Israelis might already be facing a kind of mission creep: after all, if enough of Hamas’ infrastructure is destroyed, the prospect of governing Gaza, a densely populated, refugee-filled area whose weak economy has been devastated by the Israeli-led boycott, will be exceedingly difficult.”

On the shifting face of public diplomacy and getting one’s message out in a high-tech world (if you’re on Twitter, you can follow @IsraelConsulate)…

The Toughest Q’s Answered in the Briefest of Tweets
“Since the definition of war has changed, the definition of public diplomacy has to change as well,” said David Saranga, the head of media relations for the Israeli consulate in New York, which conducted the Twitter news conference on Tuesday..”The Israeli government is trying to explain a conflict that people write books about, a conflict that newspaper writers struggle in 2,000 words, in 140 characters at a time.”

To infinity (or 2025) and beyond

What will the world look like in 2025? The collective wisdom of the U.S. intelligence community has some ideas in, Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World.

I find the use of “transformed” rather than “transforming” noteworthy. There’s an inherent supposition that a lot of fundamental shifts will have already occurred, and indeed that is what the report projects. Projects rather than predicts because the report seeks not to be a crystal ball but rather a forecast of the natural progression of preexisting trends. However, the transformations that happen can be as much a result of inaction as action (i.e. on energy).

I had the misfortune of nearly falling asleep pleasure of hearing the National Intelligence Council chairman give a preliminary overview two weeks ago and have been eagerly awaiting the release ever since. If you don’t feel like reading the entire 100+ pages, the executive summary is at least worth a glance. (However, if you go that route, you’ll miss the four campy “fictional” scenarios they created to illustrate key points, including a diary entry from the U.S. prez in 2025 and an absurdly colloquial letter from the Russian leader to him…I have no idea what value they thought these added, I find them all silly). If you don’t even feel like reading the summary, I’ll recreate the high points here.

We start with a list of what are termed “relative certainties.” The rest of the report is spent on gaming how different responses to these certainties about what the world will look like could impact the U.S., various other key countries, and global stability more generally. Of note, with my own little commentary following…

  • A global multipolar system is emerging with China and India on the risealong with an increase in the relative power of nonstate actors — Play a sad little tune for the demise of a nation-state based international community
  • Unprecedented shift in relative wealth from West to East — Upside: diversification means we all have a stake in maintaining geopolitical stability so as not to upset the apple cart. Downside: countries that might not always like us and who are following an alternative path to development (Russia, China) have the $$$ (and thus, influence) to back up their worldview
  • U.S. will remain single most powerful country but with relative power and dominance in decline — Taking the flag pin off my lapel (oh, wait, I’m a Democrat so I can’t have one :P) and looking at it from a global sense, there are certainly arguments to be made for the stability of an international order led by one power…and an equal number of arguments against, neither being made here right now. Regardless, it’s a huge shift.
  • Continued economic growth will strain resources (energy, food, water) — Development in rising nations will lift millions out of abject poverty and into something approaching middle class, putting an enormous (unsustainable?) demand on the most basic resources. Long story short, technology is the only answer here, so we need to get on that.
  • The appeal of terrorism could decrease over time if development continues and economic growth spreads to the Middle East — Or the point above could lead to backlash against immigrants in the West fueling cultural divides, petro-states could neglect the opportunity to promote other industries and face massive problems with a global shift to alternative energies, and what attacks do occur could be on a massive scale as technology diffuses along with basically everything else in the globalized world. Really more questions than answers on the points relating to conflict/peace.

The key to how all of these issues play out rests entirely in how quickly and cohesively the world recognizes and addresses them. The report envisions what different trajectories, action, inaction, competitive action, etc., could mean for the U.S., the world, and individual countries that are more affected by this or that concern (geographically, demographically, economically, or otherwise). That sort of “choose your own adventure” exercise is exactly what gets my little mind going.