Iran at the Precipice of Now
The refrain from Republicans like House GOP Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) and some others is that Obama is not doing enough to assist the popular forces protesting the re-election of conservative Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was victorious in an apparent landslide over Mir Hossein Mousavi, the candidate Western media have characterized as a reformer.
Grandstanding by the Republicans aside they would be howling for impeachment right now were Obama to be moving destroyers into position Mr. Obama has, in fact, been doing nothing much other than continuing precisely the same policies put into place by his predecessor, George W. Bush. As reported by Steve Weissman for truthout.org, an entire program of funding Iranian "democracy groups" to the tune of $400 million was requested by the Bush Administration and authorized by the Democrat-controlled Congress, whose members were quite interested in being kept in the dark about exactly how that money would be used. According to Seymour Hersh, that money, and possibly other funds, was destined for, among other activities, a systematic program of "black ops" carried out by our Special Forces and by insurgent groups inside Iran. On the agenda was the kidnapping of members of Al Quds (a wing of Iran's Revolutionary Guard), assassinations, and bombings.
That's right: the United States, with funding blessed by the Democratic leadership that controlled Congress in 2007, is sponsoring terrorism in Iran. Note the present tense: Weissman points out that there is no evidence that President Obama has rescinded this program, despite its unspeakable beneficiaries and its dubious record of achievements.
First, a major recipient of money from so-called "democracy" funds (including money from the National Endowment for Democracy) has gone to Abdel Malik Regi, seen at left, a major trafficker in the West Asian heroin trade that is pumping narcotics into Europe so aggressively that street prices on horse have dropped by as much as 90 percent in some places. Mr. Regi is a former member of the Taliban, but is now attached to a radical Sunni group perhaps eerily similar to what would become the group called "al Qa'ida" led by Osama bin Laden almost a generation ago.
Second, as if funding terrorist heroin traffickers leading radical religious separatist movements were not bad enough, the results are once again, as they have in the past, proving contrary to the fantasy-driven expectations of the geniuses at Langley and the Pentagon who dream up these wars by disreputable proxies. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is opposed by the predominantly more urban voters, the young, the intellectuals, the upper-middle class, and a swirl of political opportunists. For support, he appeals to a huge reserve of people less attuned to the call of Western culture and all of its trappings. To some extent, without trying to oversimplify the electorate of Iran, his is the presidency of the rednecks, the simple, the devout, and the disaffected. He is, in some ways, George W. Bush in policies with Sarah Palin's draw. He speaks of standing up to the world, and he looks rough-hewn, more like the men of the countryside and those who frequently (and more willingly) go to the mosque.
When our paid terrorists bomb a mosque far from Tehran, when a shot takes out a local tribal leader, when a local man in Al Quds vanishes, the people out where it happens know what's going on: their leaders make it simple in telling them. It's the Americans, it's the British, it's the insurgents. The hip, with-it crowd doesn't buy it, especially when their chosen people, men like Mir-Hossein Mousavi, directly or indirectly benefit from those very same "democracy" funds.
Make no mistake. The whining Republicans demanding that Obama do something to help the "pro-democracy" forces in Iran have already gotten their wish: Obama most definitely has been doing something, and it is exactly what his predecessor in office, George W. Bush, was doing. To the extent that what Obama and Bush have done has worked, it has very likely worked at least in part to ensure a massive turnout for elections in Iran, with a huge vote in favor of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Whether or not the outcome was rigged is anyone's guess. Although we may have intelligence assets able to surmise what really happened, opinions fielded by anyone else, especially outside of Iran, are colored by hope for a more engaged, Western-leaning Iran, despite the fact that Mousavi is no reformer in the sense that most Westerners would like; the Guardian Council in Iran ensures that real reformers rarely, if ever, make it onto a ballot.
Does that mean Obama should pull back and do nothing other than deliver more soaring oratorical flourishes about respecting human rights and all that? Unfortunately, that option would be disastrous, now, but a deft hand is absolutely necessary. Events in Iran are out-pacing blunt, simplistic strategies.
The Revolutionary Guard is too often portrayed in the Western mainstream media as monolithic and thuggish. It is not. It is a professional, modern military force. Its leaders for the most part are not the spinning-eyed crazies that took hostages at the American embassy a generation ago; they are, instead, the hardened survivors of the ungodly Iran-Iraq war. More importantly, although an elite group that is highly disciplined, factions exist within the ranks, both at the top and in the barracks. Already, reports are surfacing that the commander of the Revolutionary Guard, General Ali Fazli, has been arrested for refusing to prosecute Ayatollah Khamenei's vow to crack down on protesters. Contrast the possibility of the head of the Revolutionary Guard being hauled away with a report published June 21 that this same military unit is declaring that it is going to 'crack down' on the protesters.
Most of the footage slipping out of Iran shows police and paramilitary Basij personnel, not Revolutionary Guard soldiers, dealing with protesters. Although Basiji may be under nominal control of the Guard, they ultimately take their orders, as all Iranian military personnel do, from Khamenei, who is the supreme authority. Although probably more complicated than an article like this can describe, the story goes that the Basij is seen by the Revolutionary Guard in much the same way as lower, paramilitary, and part-time, "weekend warriors" are seen by any professional armed forces service people. Basiji are portrayed in the Western media as head-knocking, brutish brawlers hot-rodding on motorcycles and running in packs. The perspective on them by elite Iranian troops is not much more charitable.
Those thuggish sorts of the Basij type are quite useful to entrenched autocrats and dictators, though. The story goes that, during the 1989 student protests in Beijing that led to the massacre at Tiananmen Square, the ruling communist leadership came to realize that the regular army soldiers did not have the stomach to resolutely stop the protests, and so a much more brutish, more violent class of soldiers was brought in, compliments of the modern Chinese equivalent of the old-fashioned warlords who still control the field divisions far from the cities and their more urbane ways of living and thinking. The Basij are carrying on in old tradition, much praised by those for whom they do their dirty work; but the consequences can occasionally be pretty bad for the knuckle-draggers. In the case of Iran, if push comes to shove and Ayatollah Khameini is kicked out by the only Iranian council that might be able pull it off, the Assembly of Experts, although the Revolutionary Guard takes its work as seriously as any professional army, from its guns might come the necessary task of clearing the streets not just of the protesters, but also of Basiji.
And that brings us to the next complication. The Assembly of Experts is influenced by those who have most decidedly not benefited from Ayatollah Khameini's ambitions and mastery of the power politics of the clergy. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose daughter and other family members were detained for having vocally supported Mousavi, and who lost to Ahmadinejad in the presidential election of 2005, may now take the matter of ending Khameini's continued supreme leadership quite personally. The same goes for Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who has been taken down more than once by none other than Khameini. And just to point out how precarious the Supreme Leader's position really is, right now, the Majlis (Parliament) Speaker Ali Larijani is calling into question the accuracy of the vote tally that gave Ahmadinejad such a sweeping victory that a much-anticipated second round of voting was not required.
With all of this intrigue, both that from the United States with its black ops program that has now spanned two presidencies and that from inside the complex and nuanced halls of power in Iran, itself, calls from American Right-wingers for some new, high-handed action are the very epitome of simplistic, opportunistic thinking. Playing the proverbial bull in the china shop would do nothing to save the dinnerware for America's feast of Middle Eastern interests.
Unfortunately, sitting back and doing nothing at all is an equally bad idea, too. Pretending that what happens in Iran stays in Iran ignores the regional problems that could become decidedly worse if events continue to head the way they are.
If Ahmadinejad stays as President, Ayatollah Khameini will get his "Islamic bomb." Only the utterly clueless believe that Iran's nuclear enrichment program is exclusively for peaceful purposes. The country is surrounded by a matrix of difficult, if not downright problematic, neighbors of all kinds: the Americans; the Israelis; the Kurds; several fundamentalist Sunni groups with ambitions to keep their drugs-and-arms trade going without interference from holier-than-thou mullahs; imbecile clerics like Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq with his Mehdi Army of idiots with rusty AK-47s; gutless wonders like Syria's President Bashar al-Assad for friends and Lebanon's Hezbollah welfare case Hassan Nasrallah for permanent child support payments; and neighboring backwater hicks with unbelievably sharp knives like the Taliban, who qualify as proxies you'd really rather not have sitting on your porch where Google Earth might photograph them for your better relatives to see.
Of immediate concern is Israel, which has recently conducted two massive military exercises in preparation for a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. The idea that President Obama can talk Israel down from an attack is sheer folly: Israel does not do what U.S. Presidents want unless those American leaders happen to want what Israel wants. Notwithstanding a few accommodations Tel Aviv made in accordance with protocols from the Oslo Accord, Israel has lots of problems and several good opportunities. Among its looming difficulties are a burgeoning population, Palestinian trouble-makers in its occupied territories who have human rights issues, and fresh water availability; and among its opportunities are the chance to get into the game of oil distribution and go further into the wildly lucrative international arms trade. The last thing Israel needs is an Islamic state with discernible ambitions of a pan-Arabic caliphate backed by fissile cooking utensils.
Whether or not Iran now or ever will try to expand militarily is irrelevant: Israel does not want it to have nuclear weapons, and Israel will ensure that it never does. That is the reality of the situation. The United States does not want Iran to have nukes, either, but ours is a strategic interest: with even a modest nuclear arsenal, the Persian state would be in a position to project regional influence more effectively; and, more importantly, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization comprising China, Russia, and a handful of smaller nations would be hard-pressed to keep Iran's application for full membership on the back burner. Iran's location would then put the oil transport route out of the Persian Gulf squarely in the hands of the SCO, a situation decidedly to the disadvantage of the United States, Western Europe, and our nominally allied nations in Asia.
Israel's military and political leaders could easily see the instability in Iran as a wide-open opportunity to take their shot, especially if it looks like Khameini and Ahmadinejad are going to come out on top. The pair would deal with their political enemies roughly, and any hope of improved relations with the West would be off the table for a long time to come. The stage would be set for using claims of Western meddling as a pretext to block further International Atomic Energy Agency inspections; angry street demonstrations in Tehran and elsewhere would be choreographed to show "support" for Ahmadinejad and whatever he would say and do; gruesome public hangings of former student demonstrators would be must-see TV; and the U.S. would have few policy options other than to continue pouring money into the hands of bad people just because they are the kind of bad people who cause trouble for Iran and its leadership. Following that, an attack by Israel to destroy the nuclear materials refinement facilities in Iran would turn the Persian nation into a basket case, with shards of violent military units going in every direction to control the internal population and foment ramped-up war in Iraq; environmental catastrophe billowing out on a regional scale; and a shattered infrastructure howling for the rest of the world to repair, given the way Israel simply departed Lebanon and the Gaza Strip and left the mess it had created by its bombings in those places for everyone else to pay for.
The current political strife in Iran needs to be resolved quickly, and it is in the interest of the United States to help ensure that the resolution is to the favor of Mousavi, whether or not he actually won the election, which we might never know. For us to claim that we cannot interfere in the democratic processes of another country, flawed as an election might have been, is simply ridiculous. Both George W. Bush and his successor, the supposedly liberal, more worldly Barack H. Obama, have been using the tools of war by proxy, disinformation, and terrorism to destabilize the regime in power in Tehran. This is definitely not the moment to feign belief in the right of Iran to resolve its internal political battles on its own, considering we have been responsible, at least to some extent, for setting in motion the events now playing out in the streets and at the Assembly of Experts, and especially since our sloth right now could easily lead to an Israeli resolution.
Mr. Obama is a bright man. Around him are men and women of considerable experience, if rather less noteworthy intelligence. Options are available, but they must be of the kind that encourages the Assembly of Experts to move toward a government by committee as an interim step to a more modern, transparently democratic process of electing political leaders without as much control from the ayatollahs, whose counsel must remain respected, but whose presence in political life must be subordinated to the trusted officials who will promote Iran's interests in accordance with the tenets of Islam.
We have ways to provide assistance without appearing to meddle any more than we have already. If we can be so willing to deliver brute destruction and willful mayhem to a nation we want to change, we can certainly find the thoughtful, unobtrusive means to offer worthwhile encouragement and quiet help to that same nation on the verge of change so many of its own people want.
President Obama must ignore the all-too-public calls of his political opponents who want him to do more about the Iranian political crisis; he must, instead, first resolve the crisis of thinking we have about how to remain a world leader in an age of competition from other nations that want to take our place and citizens of nations who want to have their voices heard.
At the end of the day, if America cannot find the means by which to lead while protecting those who want freedom, the future will belong to nations that are even less likely than we to craft policy that considers democracy other than a mere rhetorical flourish.
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