September 18, 2009

What a political coup, a stolen vote, and popular protest movement signify

Rostam Irani (Ph.D.)

19 July 2009

I- Rationale for the Establishment’s Political Coup

The June 12th presidential election in Iran has proved deeply contested and massively consequential..  The official decision to declare Mr. Ahmadinejad as the winner has been openly challenged by Mr. Mir-Hossein Mousavi (the rightful winner). And the consequent popular movement against election fraud – dubbed ‘political coup’ by the opposition - has been met with a bloody campaign of repression by the state’s military and security apparatus and their semi-official militias and violent plainclothes vigilantes. Even according to unreliable official figures, scores have been killed in the course of peaceful street demonstrations, hundreds have been injured, and over 2000 have been arrested. Many of whom still remain in custody, with a number of prominent political activists under severe torture to make videoed bogus confessions. Still on-going outcry by the outside world, inclusive of high-level statements of concern and denunciation by governments, United Nations, human rights advocates, and civil society and academia, have confronted the Iranian authorities with a very difficult situation in the international community.

What has been perplexing to political observers, at home and abroad, has been the rationale behind the seemingly perplexing gamble by the conservative establishment to thwart the actual outcome of a highly participatory election. According to all predictions prior to the vote and all indications on the elections day, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the pro-reform, pro-change candidate, should have won with a wide margin. That explains the shock and bewilderment gripping the country ever since, and the sudden emergence of the “where is my vote” protest movement, at home and abroad. The central question since the election day has revolved around the role of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, in the still unfolding drama. Even if the Ayatollah had tried in his public pronouncements prior to the elections to portray himself as being equidistant to the official candidates vetted by the Guardian Council, his not-so-disguised clear preference for Ahmadinejad was out there for everybody to see. Especially that various conservative circles and the religious networks (mosques,…) and their press and media mouthpieces, most prominently national television, and also his personal representatives in the armed forces and other public institutions, had been more candid for months in making known – even openly propagandizing - the Leader’s choice.

Given the Ayatollah’s known hostility towards the reform platform and pro-reform candidates – since the 1976 surprise victory of Khatami and throughout his 8-year presidency – and also the institutional support extended to Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005, such a preference this year was quite understandable or not difficult to speculate or analyze. What proved particularly problematic was the range of restrictive and illegal practical measures introduced and executed by the Interior Ministry during the run up to the elections and in the course of voting negatively affecting the other candidates, and above all, the totally unprecedented and out of the ordinary manner in which the Ministry started announcing the vote count and the final outcome. Equally so was the Ayatollah’s hasty decision on June 13th – the minute the final tally had been announced by the Ministry - to issue a lengthy statement on the elections and congratulating Ahmadinejad as the winner. Worse still, in a sermon at Friday prayers a week after the elections – 6 days after millions of people had already taken to the streets protesting fraud and defying the declared outcome – the Ayatollah almost shocked everybody with his posture and words. To everybody’s amazement, he chose to discard his apparent impartiality as the Guardian Jurisconsult (Vali-ye Faqih), and throw his lot fully and one-sidedly with Ahmadinejad and against the thwarted winner and the majority who had voted for him. In the same sermon, the presumed Leader of the nation and a jurist by learning and position with high moral claims, openly threatened the critics with blatant violence should they choose to continue their defiance and street protests. Contrary to all previous cases during the past two decades where his rulings had been obeyed by everybody within the entire political system – albeit in cases with reluctance and muted expressions of displeasure – his ruling this time was openly defied by Mousavi and Karrubi, who issued statements, and the street demonstrations continued apace. The popular chants of “down with the dictator” addressed to Ahmadinejad during the first week of street demonstrations were complemented with “death to Khamenei” the day after his sermon.  That slogan has now become part of the nightly shouts from the rooftops in Tehran signifying the continuation of resistance and defiance, even though open brutality and a pervasive, heavy-handed military and security presence on the streets have managed to drive the demonstrators off the street – as a daily occurrence.  Spontaneous protests in 25 different places in Tehran on July 9th on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of student demonstrations a decade earlier and also on the margins of the congregational prayers this past Friday signified that the relative quiet on the streets has been tactical and calculated. 

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September 16, 2009

Who are Running the Show in Iran?

Rostam Irani (Ph.D)
4 September 2009
I- Stealing the vote and crackdown
II- Who are the putschist gang?
III- The Ayatollah and the military-intelligence community
IV- The Putsche programme: purge and consolidation
V- Concluding remarks: the immediate future?

Executive Summary

The post-election political crisis in Iran , initially quite murky and perplexing, seems to have clarified itself for the most part. It has come to light that the Thar-Allah Command of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (Sepah), in coordination with the Office of the Supreme Leader – Ayatollah Khamenei - decided to steal the vote, thwart the rightful winner – Mir-Hossein Mousavi - and produce a fraudulent winner – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The crux of the election coup - putsche - has been to prevent the victory of the pro-reform, pro-change challenger – even though an ardent supporter of the existing Constitution – and ensure maintenance of the status quo and safeguard huge economic rent and interests. The unexpected popular resistance defying the fraud led to the worst repressive campaign in modern Iranian history. Having unleashed the full weight of the security-repressive apparatus against the principal cadres of the major pro-reform parties and organizations, as well as unarmed peaceful demonstrators, the coup-makers have decide to go for the juggernaut and endeavoured to effectively push the pro-reform forces out of active political arena. Through resort to Stalinist-type show trials, the putschist gang have tried to defame and discredit the pro-reform leaders and activists for complicity in the Western-instigated “velvet revolution,” and prepare the grounds for banning their political organizations and parties. The Sepah, having developed in recent years, especially during Ahmadinejad’s first term (2005-2009), into the country’s biggest economic entrepreneur and contractor, appears to have decided to seize the opportunity to buttress its economic and political position and move towards its ultimate objective of consolidation of total power within the existing governance structure. The election coup also has brought to light that the Ayatollah, having gradually and steadily increased his political reliance on the military-intelligence community as opposed to the wide range of other political forces within the framework of the existing system and Constitution, has decide to throw his lot fully and one-sidedly with Ahmadinejad and the Sepah – a classic case of political expediency and mariage de convenance.

The putschist gang has succeeded in imposing Ahmadinejad on the Iranian people – and for that matter, on the international community. The new cabinet, comprising of a large number of Sepah officers or those with close liaison and association with it or with the Baseej (paramilitary militias), has just received the vote of confidence from the Majlis (Parliament). While the new administration is officially instituted and the protest movement – the Green Movement - has been pushed off the streets in large measure with the use of sheer force and cruelty, Ahmadinejad and his team are doomed to face a very difficult situation on both domestic and foreign fronts.  The still unfolding drama on the fate of political detainees, the show trials, and the question of rape of women and even men at the Kahrizak detention center seem to be the most burning issues impacting the immediate domestic political scene in the wake of the formation of the new cabinet. The big question mark, however, revolves around the situation at universities at the beginning of the academic year in late September. The domestic scene from now on will inevitably be fraught with all kinds of uncertainties, which will be a subject of the respective approach and policies of both the government and the Green Movement – and their interaction, if at all or however defined. The foreign picture will be similarly difficult and fraught with uncertain minefields - the most urgent issue being the nuclear dossier and the 5+1 high-profile focused pressure on the late September deadline for Iran ’s engagement in substantive negotiations or alternatively their oft-repeated threat to resort to harsher, biting sanctions. Ahmadinejad’s publicly announced upcoming visit to the United Nations General Assembly session aims at breaking out of the current international isolation, also hoping to be able to open some direct channels of communication with Washington. Whether the Obama people will be in a position under the current awkward circumstances to respond positively to such “desperate” vibes from an illegitimate president or not, one thing seems to be certain: he will receive a very warm welcome outside the UN building by throngs of Iranian and American protesters and quite probably a generally cold shoulder inside the building. Regardless of his intentions, preferences or hopes, his deeply challenged and much weaker position at home, and equally important the presumed recalcitrance of his Sepahi backers (the group with the most intractable and maximalist position on the nuclear issue), might make it extremely difficult for him under the circumstances to afford entering into serious meaningful negotiations on the nuclear issue, much less making compromising deals. Vintage Iranian foot dragging on the nuclear issue might be the most probable course of action to be expected from Tehran in the coming months.

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September 11, 2009

Laughter and Tears: On Being Accused of Spying for MI-6

Photo by Maria FotouLondon, Saturday 1st August: one of those weird moments when glum silence is the most sensible reaction. A colleague telephoned to spill the bad news. ‘This morning, in a preliminary statement before the highest court of the Islamic Republic of Iran’, he began, ‘you were named by the Deputy State Prosecutor as a co-conspirator in an organised attempt to overturn the present regime by means of a velvet coup d’état.’ Surely a prank call, I thought. I hesitated. ‘What? Co-conspirator? Who else?’ My colleague sounded serious. ‘Jürgen Habermas. Richard Rorty. You’re together accused of acting as CIA and MI-6 agents. I’ll e-mail more details this afternoon.’

Laughter: so utterly absurd was the news that the end of the telephone conversation triggered a belly laugh of deep animal dimensions. So far as I know, there is no right to be ridiculous, but that was exactly what the government prosecutor seemed bent on proving to the court, and to the outside world, or so it first seemed. I soon learned that a few weeks earlier the same accusation had first been floated in the prominent Tehran Newspaper Kayhan. In a 5-part ‘treatise’ published between the 4th and 9th of July - just a few days after the election that tore apart the country’s heart - the ‘researcher’ and ‘best-selling author’ Payam Fazlinejad had caused a great political stir by alleging that various people linked to the former president Mohammad Khatami were hatching a plot to take over the state by means of a ‘velvet counter-revolution’.

Almost certainly repeating thoughts obtained from an intelligence source behind the scenes, Mr Fazlinejad said not a word about the elections, or about the fact that millions of Iranians had already reached the conclusion that the result might well be rigged by a power group bent on hanging on forever, using every conceivable dirty trick, blessed by the Supreme Leader. That is of course what soon happened. Mr Fazlinejad instead alleged a nasty conspiracy – a latter-day trahison des clercs organised and paid for by a global network of scheming foreign agencies, including the United States Congress, the Dutch parliament, the German Association for Foreign Policy, the National Endowment for Democracy and my own University of Westminster. Standing at the heart of the grand conspiracy, he claimed, were ‘three thinking engines of the CIA and MI-6’. Habermas, Rorty and I were said to be ‘security and intelligence theorists’ who had managed to ‘transform the project of “civil society” into “civil struggle”, this time targeting Iran. Mr Fazlinejad went on to conclude that Rorty was a ‘fascist’ theorist and an ‘old spy’; and that Habermas, ‘the most distinguished German philosopher’, is in reality a soiled champion of ‘civil struggle’ and the ‘American project of “transition to democracy”’.

How should scholars react to intimidation wrapped in lies? I cannot speak for Jürgen Habermas, with whom I have corresponded about the matter; sadly, Richard Rorty is no longer with us, though almost certainly his first response to these allegations would have been a sceptical smile and signature shrug of the shoulders. What must be said is that the allegations border on libel - and that they may warrant legal action. They are wholly false. Mr Fazlinejad and the state prosecutor and the Fars news agency - the only media organisation allowed to cover the trials now taking place - have twisted and distorted facts to suit their own perverse ends. Their intelligence sources are dumber than they suppose. Their abracadabra gets everything wrong. I am not ‘Civil Society Professor at the University of Westminster’ (I am Professor of Politics). The Centre for the Study of Democracy was not founded in 1988 (it was a year later) and it has never hosted a ‘project on Iranian Civil Society’. I am neither a ‘theorist of MI-6’ nor its ‘brain’ (I have had no contact with any such organisation, and on principle would never knowingly do so). I am no ‘master key’ of things, people or events, although for Mr Fazlinejad and the state prosecutor, who both think in terms of crude substitutions, anything is possible: A stands for B, C stands for B, therefore C is A and A, B and C are causally intertwined and therefore ultimately identical in motive and substance. I am not the ‘hidden figure’ who arranged ‘consultations’ with ‘the American Council on Foreign Relations and the German Foreign Policy Association’. I have not ‘travelled frequently to Tehran’ (I have travelled twice, on both occasions thanks to official invitations and for the purpose of establishing scholarly links). I have indeed met Saeed Hajjarian - a victim of the current trials - with whom I had pleasant and polite conversation, but not for the purpose of ‘soft subversion’ or ‘conveying the latest instructions’ from the shadowy organisers of the planned ‘velvet coup d’état’. In 2004, during one such visit to Tehran, I indeed taught an officially approved short course based on research for The Life and Death of Democracy (which has just been published). This four-part course of scholarly lectures was not a ‘training workshop on the transition to democracy’. It is not true that I participated in ‘operations geared to the collapse of the governments of Eastern Europe’. I did not spend ‘the years 1973 and 1975 in Czechoslovakia’ (I lived in Canada during this period) and at no time have I ‘often travelled to Poland’ or worked for the ‘Polandising of Iran’.   

Many errors, multiple distortions, countless confabulations: my spontaneous belly laugh had clearly been triggered by nonsense nurtured by reasoning based on substitutions, non sequiturs and vengeful paranoia. Seconds later, I felt fear. When my colleague hung up, animal laughter morphed into a cloud of pensiveness, riveted by the thought that words can ruin lives, or torture and kill. It is no laughing matter for scholars to be lumped in with plotters, mercenaries and secret agents of ‘Western’ and ‘Zionist’ reaction. It is incomparably worse to be the victim of a carefully constructed narrative whose crude aim is to recast the civil disturbances triggered by a rigged election as a conspiracy orchestrated by foreigners, initially by convicting many of the country’s best and brightest minds, probably for the ultimate purpose of consolidating a coup d’état by banning outright all opposition with ‘green’ democratic sympathies.

I think of Kafka. The whole sordid affair reminds me of his description of the writing machine whose razor sharp ink jets etch words into the blooded flesh of its victims. For over two months, the arrested, dressed in grey-blue prison pyjamas and rubber sandals, have been daily dragged before a revolutionary court in Tehran and subjected to a form of verbal torture. Forced to sit in silence through lies big and small, they stand accused of orchestrating the post-election violence which took the lives of more than 30 people, injured hundreds more and frightened untold numbers of innocent citizens who want nothing more than to live in a country where power is peacefully shared, human and civil rights are respected - and nobody lives in fear of the authorities.

When and where this campaign of intimidation, terror and violence will end nobody knows. From a scholarly point of view, the most worrying development, recently confirmed by the Supreme Leader, is the link that has been drawn between the human sciences, the universities and the so-called ‘velvet counter-revolution’. The attack on the human sciences as treasonous is in effect an assault on all independent scholarly investigation of power, its history, present-day fortunes and desirable limits. It is a recipe for hubris - and the blind hallucinations, follies, third-rate leadership and serial wrongs that it necessarily breeds. The witless assault on scholarly integrity explains why I wish to pass a message to those who are or have been on trial, and to those researchers and teachers who are now being targeted as enemies of state because their vocation is to study society and government. The message is plain: I am just one of many whose thoughts are with you. We suffer. We weep as you are pushed and shoved through pitch-black tunnels of rumour, insults, slander, nightly beatings, false charges, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, rape, forced confessions and kangaroo court sessions. Your prosecution and long-term imprisonment will achieve nothing. It will not put an end to public disaffection, unemployment, poverty, regional instability and rotten government. Whatever is said, or done, hubris, cruelty and incompetence do not have God on their side. Detention without trial - which is prohibited by the constitution - and death in custody have nothing to do with reason or justice, or with the Prophet’s call for listening to people and treating them with kindness and respect. Friends: that is why you know that whatever you say or do in weakness will be used against you - and why you have resolved to be strong, cling to your integrity with all your might and to find courage and consolation in the assurance that your loved ones, and millions of people around the world, will not forget you, or accept your ghastly predicament as fate.

John Keane
9 September 2009

June 19, 2009

What is the role of facebook, twitter and blogs here?

It is a fair argument to say that social network websites may not be objective. It is also fair to say that they do not reflect the whole truth. However, things have to be seen in the right context. These networks do not exist in a vacuum. They have turned out to be the only means through which a part of the Iranian population is trying to make its voice heard around the globe.

Yes, we have had an unprecedented turn out for election, for which we must be proud. But a high turn-out in elections is not synonymous with a landslide victory. Is it possible to fake 11 million votes? Yes, if the body in charge of the elections has everything to win in it and has monopoly over all the mechanisms of the voting in the country (which painfully seems to be the case). So, once there is objectivity and there is independent supervision and monitoring, for sure it would be extremely difficult to fake a landslide and hijack 11 million votes. In the absence of independent monitors, it is very much likely to happen, particularly when we have seen the precedents of it very frequently in the past.

Is it people’s ‘duty’ to vote? Or is it their ‘right’ to vote? I think we are now facing a corrupt political literature which is undermining the very basic principles of political literacy and reinventing a fallacious way of dealing with democracy.

Going back to social networks: yes, they should never be our only sources of information, but in the absence of any reliable source and while all ‘different’ media outlets have been systematically silenced (why silenced if we claim to be right?), they can at least be beacons of the desperate attempts of a population which goes unheard and suppressed.

Is it only social networks on the internet? Then how do we explain the chanting of Allah-u Akbar every night on rooftops and in the streets of Tehran and other cities?

I think social networks serve to tell us, more emphatically than ever, “Hey! Something terrible is going on here that they do not want the rest of the world to know about!” This we can say with a degree of confidence.

I completely understand why some of the supporters of Ahmadinejad are so infuriated by the breathing of social networks: it does not allow them to silence just about everything (the same thing goes for BBC Persian TV even if they claim it is not impartial). That is the whole point and that is why they want to discredit and disclaim the entirety of it.