Sunday, December 27, 2009

Is this Iran's Berlin Wall moment?

The Times (of London)

Dec. 28, 2009

By Robin Wright

It is time to start wondering out loud whether Iran’s uprising could become one of those Berlin Wall moments.

This is not yet a counter-revolution. And the new “green movement” is a coalition of disparate factions — from former presidents to people who have never voted at all — who view the issues through vastly different prisms. Yet the pattern of public outpourings since the disputed election six months ago is setting historic precedents.

The opposition has proven it has the resolve and resilience to sustain its risky challenge, despite the regime’s ruthless use of force, mass arrests, show trials and reports of torture and rape in prison. In the escalating political showdown the opposition has the momentum.

Just as important, the emergence of people power is also setting a new precedent in the last bloc of countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. Thirty years ago, Iran’s revolution redefined politics throughout the Middle East by ending dynastic rule and introducing Islam as a modern political idiom. Iran’s uprising is doing it again — this time by taking to the streets to demand an end to dictatorship as well as calling for fundamental rights such as free speech, a free press and respect for the individual vote.

But the green movement is far more than simply sporadic eruptions. This is the most vibrant and imaginative civil disobedience campaign in the world.

There’s the currency campaign, for starters. Thousands of rial notes have been stamped with a simple green “V” for victory. Others bear handwritten slogans that echo the public chants denouncing the regime. Some have even been reprinted with pictures: one is a cartoon of President Ahmadinejad with “people’s enemy” written underneath. Another carries a picture from the mobile phone images of Neda Agha Soltan as she lay dying on the street from a sniper’s bullet. Underneath is written “death to the dictator” — a common public chant against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The currency campaign even denounces the regime’s foreign policy. “Khamenei the non-believer is the servant of [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin,” declares one slogan, written in green, on a 20,000-rial note. Another chastises: “They stole money and give it to [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez.” Some messages simply appeal for others to join the campaign to write anti-regime messages on one billion banknotes. The Government reportedly tried to take the marked notes out of circulation, but found there were too many to replace.

Then there is the boycott of goods advertised on state-controlled television. People in line at markets whisper to other shoppers not to buy certain products that help to subsidise the Government’s broadcasting monopoly — and its version of events. The opposition has also called for boycotts on mobile phone companies that provide technology to the Government. It is impossible to assess the impact but it adds a critical economic component to the political confrontation.

Civil disobedience is often brazen. Graffiti is increasingly showing up on public walls — in green spray paint — to berate the authorities or to announce a new demonstration. Large posters of arrested protesters and dissidents demanding their freedom have appeared on campuses, often timed for the appearance of a pro-regime event or speech.

At football matches and in subway tunnels, mobile phone videos record spontaneous outbursts of the two key opposition chants: “death to the dictator” and “God is great”. The latter was the pivotal revolutionary chant against the monarchy that has been usurped to denounce the revolution’s hardliners. The implication is that God has abandoned the revolution to side with and protect the green movement.

Participation in civil disobedience is far more widespread than the protests. It includes individual, uncoordinated acts, such as a challenge to the Supreme Leader by Mahmoud Vahidnia, an unassuming maths student with no record of dissent. At a meeting with Iran’s academic elite Ayatollah Khamenei warned that the “biggest crime” was questioning the June 12 election. Mr Vahidnia then went to the microphone and criticised the government crackdown, asking about alleged prison abuses and why no one was allowed to criticise the leader. He also told him that he lived in a bubble.

So far the green movement has insisted on non-violence. Perhaps the ultimate irony in the Islamic Republic today is that a brutal revolutionary regime suspected of secretly working on a nuclear weapon faces its biggest challenge from peaceful civil disobedience. And even such a militarised regime has been unable to put it down.

Robin Wright is a senior Fellow at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. The author of five books on the Middle East, she has visited Iran regularly since 1973

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The real stakes in Afghanistan

By Robin Wright
Thursday, December 10, 2009

Oddly, President Obama's West Point speech never probed the critical long-term stakes for the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Three issues central to the outcome should enter the public debate as his strategy is launched.

The first is America's place in the world in the 21st century. Officials from Moscow to Beijing, from Iran's revolutionaries to Somalia's pirates, will scrutinize this last-ditch U.S. effort -- and weigh their actions, reactions and interactions with the United States on how Obama's effort fares.

Failure by the world's mightiest military power, backed by the largest military alliance, to uproot the Taliban -- a force without an air force, armored corps, long-range artillery, satellite intelligence or powerful foreign backer -- would vividly illustrate the limits of U.S. power. The consequences could dwarf those of the defeat in Vietnam, even if the loss of life was smaller.

The era of a unipolar or uni-power world is effectively over, but a U.S. failure in Afghanistan and Pakistan could mark its formal end, just as it did for the bipolar world when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan. Indeed, the period from Vietnam to Afghanistan -- with withdrawals under pressure from Hezbollah extremists in Lebanon and warlords in Somalia along the way -- could come to be seen as the period marking the demise of American power.

And not just "gun" power. At its core, American power is also supposed to be about moral power -- using might to confront, contain or prevent fascist, totalitarian or unjust regimes from unacceptable aggression, repression or injustice. American power has been abused. Neither party has clean hands. But few other nations have been willing or able to assume that role.

U.S. standing in the Islamic world is also at stake. The historic rule of thumb is that winners have influence; losers don't. Winners get to set standards. Their ideas get more attention. Their leaders gain greater authority.

And the outcome of the U.S. confrontation with various branches of al-Qaeda and the Taliban is pivotal to the future of the Islamic world. Almost a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Muslim world is at a crossroads. Polls show key Muslim societies are increasingly rejecting extremism -- even if respondents are still not enamored of the United States. Vast numbers of Muslims now recognize that Bin Ladenism can't provide answers to everyday challenges such as education, housing, jobs and health care. There's an air of fatigue about al-Qaeda; it's becoming somewhat passé. The search is on for something better.

U.S. strategy in South Asia is now based not only on defeat of the forces behind the Sept. 11 attacks; it's also designed to help build credible alternatives to extremist ideologies and governance. Winning on this front in Pakistan and Afghanistan is as important -- and potentially harder -- than the military campaign. The winner is likely to have greater sway among the world's 1.3 billion Muslims. And "winner" means not so much the United States as the principles, such as more accountable government, modern education and economic opportunity from legitimate trades.

Finally, U.S. interests in the wider region are also at stake, notably on two fronts.

Obama's strategy will deeply affect India, the world's largest democracy. Long-standing tensions between Pakistan and India have taken the world closer to the brink of nuclear war than any conflict has since World War II -- and still could, since Pakistan has failed to contain extremists responsible for terrorist atrocities in India, including the Mumbai attacks last year. U.S. failure to help nuclear Pakistan expand or shift its military focus from India to the more immediate threat from its internal extremists risks allowing those tensions to deepen.

Just as worrisome are the stakes with Iran, which borders both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Afghanistan has become for Iran what Iraq once was: a surrogate battlefield with the United States. Once Afghanistan's rival, Shiite-dominated Iran has reportedly supplied the same weapons and explosives to Sunni Taliban fighters that it provided Shiite militias in Iraq, on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend -- at least for now.

Iran manipulated (and often fueled) the problems that ensued after the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In the process, it has become a regional superpower rivaled only by Israel. U.S. failures in Afghanistan and Pakistan would further strengthen Iran's position as its increasingly authoritarian government cracks down on a legitimate opposition movement and threatens to expand its nuclear program.

Many Americans are tired of the war in Afghanistan. We're alarmed at the cost in human life to all sides, the drain on our national treasury and armed forces -- not to mention on the Afghan people -- and the length of this conflict. We have doubts that the fast-paced initiative Obama has proposed will work. But as U.S. actions are evaluated over the next 18 months, we should remember that the outcome will determine America's goals and standing far beyond the South Asian theater for years to come.

Robin Wright is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the author of "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East." A former diplomatic correspondent for The Post, she has reported on Afghanistan since the 1980s.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Latest Iran Protests Show a Resilient Opposition

Dec. 07, 2009

A new round of campus protests in Iran on Monday served up a sharp reminder that there's plenty of life left in the opposition Green Movement. Six months after the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad set off an unprecedented wave of political turmoil in the Islamic Republic, the regime was clearly taking no chances: Thousands of police, Revolutionary Guards troops and religious vigilantes closed off universities and fired tear gas at student marchers in Tehran, as the government cut off cell phone and internet access and forbade reporters from covering opposition demonstrations timed to coincide with the official observance of National Students Day.

Students Day commemorates the death of three students in protests against the Tehran visit of Vice President Richard Nixon in 1953, following the U.S.-backed coup that overthrew a democratically elected government and restored the monarchy. And the protests reflect the now-familiar Green Movement tactic of using the Islamic Republic's established calendar of official protest days as opportunities to mobilize displays of opposition to the regime. On Monday, that included once-taboo slogans demanding the ouster of Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei and challenging the very principle of an Islamic state. (See pictures of the latest Iran student protests.)

The latest street demonstrations are a reminder that the Green Movement is a diverse, even unlikely coalition that operates in three different layers. Its leading figures include pillars of the Revolution such as two former presidents and a prime minister, as well as longtime dissidents and opponents of the very idea of an Islamic republic.

The protest face of the movement is dominated by younger activists who are waging a wider civil disobedience campaign that includes dozens of less visible tactics, from commercial boycotts to wearing green en masse at televised sports events and graffitiing slogans on surfaces ranging from buses to banknotes.

On the eve of Monday's demonstrations, security forces arrested more than 20 members of the so-called Mourning Mothers, an informal group of women whose children were killed in the post-election turmoil. The Mothers had launched weekly demonstrations in Tehran's Laleh Park, according to human rights groups.

"The Green Movement belongs to the youth," says Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an exiled filmmaker who claims to speak for the opposition. "When the revolution took place, Iran's population was 30 million; now it's 70 million and most are young. They want freedom. They want to fall in love. They want the opposition. They want a normal life. " Anti-regime activities are often not coordinated; many initiatives emerge from small groups or individuals — "ordinary people who invite others to go to the streets, little people with charisma, like artists or writers who invite people to go to the streets," Makhmalbaf says.

The second layer of opposition comprises traditional politicians who've fallen out with the present leadership, among them three of the movement's key leaders: Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the former prime minister whose defeat in the presidential election by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June prompted cries of electoral fraud and widespread unrest; former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi, who also ran in the June 12 election; and reformist former President Mohammad Khatami.

Of the three, Karroubi has proven the most daring in his willingness to challenge those in power, especially when he went public with accusations that political prisoners were being raped and torture. Mousavi also remains defiant, vowing over the weekend that Iranians would continue to challenge those who "confiscate" their vote. Yet none of these three luminaries has provided a plan of action for the opposition. "The reformist leaders have not yet measured up," says Shaul Bakhash, George Mason University Iran expert and author ofThe Reign of the Ayatollahs. "They haven't shown adequate dynamism, courage or the ability to think strategically."

The third layer of opposition consists of feisty clerics who challenge the actions of the current regime. An increasingly hostile public debate among mullahs who support and oppose the regime reflects deep divisions in the world's only modern theocracy. The debate includes questions about the role of a Supreme Leader granted the absolute powers (and implied infallibility) of a political pope, and even the very principle of theocratic rule. The fact that the clergy, deemed guardians of the Islamic Revolution, are engaging in this debate also provides cover and legitimacy for the wider public to challenge the regime.