A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

100 Posts in June

After my last post I happened to look over at the right column listing of posts and noticed that I had made 99 posts in June, the most for any month to date. Obviously the Obama speech, Lebanese elections, Iranian elections and subsequent crisis, were responsible, but I couldn't resist — this being the last day of June — doing one more post on the subject, making this the 100th for the month of June. That's more than a quarter of all the posts since I started in January.

Hariri Meets with Suleiman on Formulas

Sa‘d Hariri is meeting today with President Michel Suleiman to discuss various proposed formulas for the Lebanese Cabinet. Some of the scenarios are discussed here. As expected, he seems to be looking at a formula for a largish Cabinet, with half or so of the seats going to the majority March 14 coalition, a slightly smaller number to the opposition March 8 coalition, and several seats going to figures aligned with the President. In any event, the one-third-plus one veto, a demans of the opposition, seems likely: that is, the opposition alone, or the opposition aligned with the President's men, would be able to block decisions.

The exact formula will probably take a lot of negotiation, and how flexible the Cabinet will actually prove to be is hard to predict. But so far Hariri seems to be talking about conciliation rather than dominance.

Stirrings in Mossad over Succession, Iran

Some interesting stirrings in the Israel intelligence community. Mossad Chief Meir Dagan recently had his tenure extended for an additional year in order to monitor Iranian nuclear issues, which will give him an eight year tenure. But he has also recently stated publicly that Iran is five years or so from getting a nuclear weapon, a much longer calendar than the official Israeli government position. Lately there's been a lot of turmoil over Mossad: in Dagan's tenure, four deputy chiefs have either been fired or resigned, and the latest, a deputy identified only as "T", just quit, possibly over the extension of Dagan's term. Earlier reports refer to a deputy known as "T" who was apparently head of Operations, and this would indicate a key figure stepping down. T, in turn, reportedly replaced a previous Deputy, "N," who had a falling out with Dagan.

Opposition Kadima Member of the Knesset (MK) Jacob Edery has introduced a bill to limit the Mossad chief's tenure to four years — the same as the IDF Chief of Staff and the head of Shin Bet — with at most a one year extension in critical times. Some Israeli reports are saying that Dagan has served longer than any other Mossad chief, but that's not true: the legendary Isser Harel ran the agency from 1952 to 1963. But that was a different era. The same story reporting this claims that a friend of Dagan's has suggested that his successor will come neither from Mossad's own ranks nor from the IDF (the usual sources) but rather might be Yuval Diskin, the present head of Shin Bet. (If you're new to this, Mossad is the overseas intelligence arm, the CIA in American terms or SIS in British; Shin Bet is the internal security intelligence body, the FBI or MI5, but with responsibilities in the occupied territories as well.) Dagan had served with both the IDF and Shin Bet before being named to Mossad by Ariel Sharon in 2002.

Now, until the past ten years or so, the head of Mossad (and the head of Shin Bet) were never identified during their tenure; the head of Mossad was referred to as the memouneh or "responsible person" or "entrusted person", but never named. Today both chiefs are routinely identified and speak publicly in their own name. And prior to that most Israelis who had any real interest in the matter had a pretty good idea who the chiefs were. Mossad's headquarters location (north of Tel Aviv, along the coast road) is also one of those ill-kept secrets. You can find it marked on Google Earth, and my understanding is that that is indeed the correct site. But Mossad was never a disqualification for higher office: Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir spent a long career running Mossad in Europe, and Tzipi Livni and others have served in it.

The interesting thing is that, although Dagan seems to be off-message on Iranian nukes as far as the Netanyahu administration is concerned, he has been extended another year. And that has caused trouble within Mossad itself, apparently related to succession issues.

Mossad has long managed, through friendly writers and selective release of data, to enjoy a rather good reputation, going back to the aforementioned Isser Harel, who caught Adolf Eichmann. Certainly they are competent intelligence analysts, but their covert operations have often gone astray, sometimes very badly. Oddly enough the myth of the all-knowing, all-powerful, omnipresent Mossad seems to linger most in the minds of Israel's strongest supporters and also Arab countries convinced that Mossad is everywhere.

Meir Dagan's going off the reservation on Iran, at least to some extent, could be the beginning of some interesting maneuvering behind the scenes.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Iraq: We're Out a Day Early

Here I was trying to figure out what I was going to write tomorrow as the obligatory post about the final withdrawal from Iraq's cities, and General Odierno says it's already happened.

The Iraqis are celebrating National Sovereignty Day. As Marc Lynch noted today,
While I'm writing about this today because I just can't resist the sweet entreaties of our beloved editorial team, I don't actually think it's that big a deal. American forces have been drawing down in line with the Status of Forces Agreement expectations for months now --- it's not like tomorrow all of the Americans will suddenly click the heels of their ruby slippers and vanish in a puff of smoke.
He's right, but since I was planning on blogging it tomorrow, I'm not sure there's much more to say. US combat forces may be out of Baghdad, but we've still got Camp Victory sitting out at the International Airport. Sort of like withdrawing from Washington to redeploy at Tyson's Corner, though that will mean nothing to you outside-the-Beltway readers. This is an important symbolic step, but it sounds as if the actual transfers of power have been taking place over the past several weeks.

So unless something really big happens tomorrow, this will be my US-withdrawal-from-the-Iraqi-cities post.

Rafsanjani Seems to Defer to the Rahbar

In my earlier post I noted that some aspects of Rafsanjani's remarks could be read two ways: the "tangled mess" and "complicated plots" could be read as criticizing either the demonstrators or Ahmadinejad's supporters. But further reports seem to indicate that he also endorsed the conclusions of Ayatollah Khamene'i, the rahbar or Supreme Leader, and if Rafsanjani is on board — reluctantly no doubt, but apparently openly — then the clerical establishment is holding a firm line. I suspect Rafsanjani is unhappy and will continue to maneuver behind the scenes, but this suggests that round one of the post-election crisis is ending.

It took a year for the Shah to fall, of course, and there are visible fissures in the ruling establishment and much resentment among Mousavi's supporters. The story's not over, but I think round one is drawing to a close.

The Persistence of Blaming Britain

The flap between Britain and Iran over the arrest of Iranian employees at the British Embassy — some have now been released — and the burning of British flags by pro-regime demonstrators are the latest eruption of a reflex still seen in certain Middle Eastern countries, a tendency to see Britain behind everything.

Long after the sun set on the British Empire in most people's eyes, there is still a tendency on the part of Iranians in particular (and Iraqis to some extent) to see British manipulation behind whatever they do not like. The US may be the Great Satan, but there is still a built-in reflex to suspect a British hand in everything, and of course there is no US Embassy in Tehran to harass.

Some of this is a legacy of colonialism. Though Britain did not directly rule Iran it had its sphere of influence there, outright invaded during World War II, and was a party, with the US, to the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh.

That Britain no longer casts so long a shadow in the world seems to have escaped some in the region. I knew educated Iraqis who were convinced that in the 1991 war for Kuwait, the US was essentially doing Britain's bidding. After all, hadn't Maggie Thatcher been visiting George H.W. Bush when Saddam invaded Kuwait?

While I'm told my Irish great-grandmother shared a similar conviction that Britain was behind all the evil in the world, she had more immediate memories of British rule in Ireland than the young people of Iran do today. Frankly, I doubt if very many Iranians really believe Britain is the mastermind behind the demonstrations, but it is a convenient and accessible lesser Satan to blame in the absence of a US presence. (And of course, they're burning Israeli flags, too.)

Gordon Brown, given the political troubles he has at home right now, is no Maggie Thatcher, and he's certainly no Disraeli or Curzon or Churchill. But the persistence of blaming Britain endures.

Technology Can Serve the Regime, Too, But With Uncertain Results

A week ago the conventional wisdom of a lot of commentators was that social networking sites had transformed protest, that the Iranian demonstrators were able to circumvent the usual repressive controls by using Twitter, Facebook, and other social media against the regime. It may be time to rethink that analysis, which always had its critics. Farhad Manjoo at Slate is arguing that the regime itself is now effectively using the Internet against the protestors, and that, because all Internet traffic is routed through a single choke point, the government has a surveillance capability far beyond any possessed in earlier totalitarian societies:
According to the Wall Street Journal, Iran has one of the world's most advanced surveillance networks. Using a system installed last year (and built, in part, by Nokia and Siemens), the government routes all digital traffic in the country through a single choke point. Through "deep packet inspection," the regime achieves omniscience—it has the technical capability to monitor every e-mail, tweet, blog post, and possibly even every phone call placed in Iran. Compare that with East Germany, in which the Stasi managed to tap, at most, about 100,000 phone lines—a gargantuan task that required 2,000 full-time technicians to monitor the calls. The Stasi's work force comprised 100,000 officers, and estimates put its network of citizen informants at half a million. In the digital age, Iran can monitor its citizens with a far smaller security apparatus. They can listen in on everything anyone says—and shut down anything inconvenient—with the flip of a switch.
In other words, technology can be used to impose an Orwellian state as well. I think the important point here is that until the election troubles began, Iran was not a totalitarian society on East German lines, but an authoritarian state on the familiar Middle Eastern pattern, allowing enough freedoms to ensure a certain amount of societal acceptance of the system. There were independent voices and multiple competing candidates, even if some points of view were suppressed.

Since June 12, that has changed. Foreign media are either expelled or confined to their hotels. Opposition papers are seized or silent; many opposition figures, including prominent ones, have been arrested. As a result, the confusion Manjoo points to (including the wildly differing accounts of what happened at Baharestan Square last week) is actually intended. Confusion spreads terror. Stories of massacres and many dead keep people off the streets even if they didn't occur, and this works to calm things down. Something similar happened after the crackdown at Tienanmen Square in Beijing 20 years ago: to this day no one knows the real casualty figures.

The problem I see for the regime is that when one opts for the mailed fist, one makes choices. One of those choices is shutting down the flow of information. But in an information-driven globalized economy you also wall yourself off from commerce. It can work for a while, but eventually you either have to open up the Internet to some extent (even if with strict controls on content, as in China), or else you become a hermit kingdom like Burma or North Korea. I don't think most of the Iranian clerical establishment wants that. And of course, the tighter the totalitarian control, the more vulnerable it may be to collapsing when things ease just a bit. Manjoo noted parallels to East Germany, but the instant the wall opened, the fate of the German Democratic Republic was sealed: to mix a couple of metaphors, the handwriting was on the breached Berlin wall. Gorbachev tried, though glasnost and perestroika, to depressurize the Soviet Union without ending the Communist system, but the system, the Party, and the USSR itself soon imploded. The tight crackdown now in Iran may mean that when change does come, whether in a month, a year, or a decade, it will actually be a greater change than if a moderate reformist like Mousavi had won office this time.

Rafsanjani Makes His Move?

Yesterday Ayatollah ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani finally spoke after 16 days of public silence. As I noted recently, Rafsanjani may be the key to what happens next. His comments that the results are "a tangled mess, perpetrated by suspicious sources whose objectives are to create differences and separations between the people and the system and eroding the trust of the people in the Islamic system," are opaque enough since you could read them as criticizing either side or even both, but it's clear he's calling for some sort of reconciliation.

What's perhaps worth remarking is the fact that Rafsanjani chose to speak on a particular revolutionary anniversary known as Hafte Tir (the seventh of Iranian month Tir), the date in 1981 when Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, head of the Judiciary and head of the Islamic Republic Party, and in the system at the time essentially the second most powerful cleric after Khomeini, along with a large number of other party officials, were killed in a bombing of party headquarters. It's one of the great landmarks of revolutionary symbolism, and Martyr Beheshti is a major figure in the revolutionary pantheon, so Rafsanjani, by choosing his audience (family members of those killed) is reminding everyone that he was an intimate of Khomeini and the real leaders of the revolution back when Ahmadinejad was a callow revolutionary youth. He does know how to choose his audience, but whether he has played his hand too late is hard to determine.

Sa‘d Hariri Gets the Nod

Unsurprisingly, on Saturday Lebanese President Michel Suleiman designated Sa‘d Hariri, son of the late Rafiq Hariri and head of the Future (Mustaqbal) Movement, as Prime Minister designate in Lebanon after 85 MPs out of 128 endorsed him. He had the support of his own Future Movement and its March 14 allies, plus the Shi‘ite Amal Movement, whose chief, Nabih Berri, was just reappointed Speaker with the support of Hariri. (Funny how that works.)

Now of course Hariri, who's spent much of his adult life running family business in Saudi Arabia and spent much time after his father's assassination in Europe, has to play the Lebanese Cabinet-building game. As I've said before, the goal here is consensus, something not always understood by Westerners used to a zero-sum two-party system. The Cabinet is likely to include some opposition figures and some Presidentially-backed figures in order to retain a one-third veto for the opposition, though in a technical sense March 14 has enough seats to govern by itself.

Manas Airbase Extension

Remember how the Kyrgyz government had ordered the US out of Manas Airbase in Bishkek? Earlier postings on the subject are here. Back in February Parliament voted 78-1 against the base and gave us six months to leave.

Well, never mind. Last Thursday the Kyrgyz Parliament ratified a new extension agreement, which still needs to be signed by the President.

Oh, yes: the US payment has gone from $17.4 million a year to $60 million a year. I guess that tells us what this dispute was really about all along.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Weekend Links

As usual, I leave you on this Friday afternoon with some links for further reading:

"She was a Splendid Beast": The Arabic Transliteration Problem

I'm an editor. Editors have to decide how things are spelled. Arabic is not English. These three statements may be the only indisputable sentences to occur in this entire post.

In previous posts about the Arabic language and related issues, I've said I will deal with the question of transliteration sometime. It's time. I held off because it's one of those insoluble problems, since you can never really put a square peg in a round hole, and you can never really put Arabic into English, at least without so burdening the typesetter with macrons and diacriticals that it becomes impossible to read. That's true, I suppose, of all languages written in non-Roman alphabets, but there are only two or three ways of transliterating modern Hebrew, and two dominant ways of doing Chinese (Wade-Giles and pinyin). Why is Arabic such a problem? At least one site has come up with 32 transliterations of Qadhafi's [+31 alternates] name.

Somewhere earlier (forgive me, I'm too lazy to find the link), I've noted that the Guide of the Libyan Revolution seems to have achieved the signal distinction (aside from his claim of contriving the one universal system of world government, the Jamahiriyya) of having more tranliterations of his name than perhaps any other human being in history. This web page lists those 32 different ways to translate the name of the Libyan leader and Revolutionary Guide, Brother Colonel [insert transliteration here]. And they don't even include any versions with his kunya, Abu Minyar. Nor do they include diacritical marks, which produce wonders like the true "scientific" method of reproducing his name, which is beyond my HTML skills but would start with "al-Qadhdhafi", but with digraphs under the "dh" sounds, and a long vowel sign over the A. And as I noted sometime back, Libya is astride a major cultural dividing line which I, and many before me, informally refer to as the couscous line because it's where couscous supersedes burghul and other wheat grains; Tripoli sounds more like Tunis, Benghazi sounds more like Alexandria; the area in between, where Brother Colonel was born, sounds more like the Sahara. Libyans don't even agree on how to pronounce their leader's name, let alone spell it in Roman character.

An old Guardian article on the subject.

The reasons are multiple: though literary Arabic is a single language, its pronunciation varies from country to country; a transliteration that works for English does not work for French, so continental and English-speaking transliteration systems differ; loan-words and such also complicate matters. In North Africa, where local pronunciations often are far from the classical, the convention is to use the French tranlisteration, not the "scientific" English one: the average reader who is baffled by Bu Raqiba may have heard of Bourguiba. Don't even ask about Berber names. Then there are standard conventions: to refer to Cairo as al-Qahira sounds pedantic and obscures one's meaning; we don't write Köln for Cologne, or München for Munich, though we expect Germans to. And we don't write Baile atha cliath for Dublin, either, though a few ultra-nationalist Irish may. I once had an extended debate with the late Majid Khadduri, who helped found the Middle East Institute and was writing for it into his early 90s: he insisted that the holy city of Islam must be referred to as Makka. For years, we have used the conventional Mecca in the Journal. In the end I compromised on "Makka (Mecca)". We still get into debates with our authors over transliteration systems. In this blog I am a bit more liberal than the Journal itself is (we still say ‘Abd al-Nasir, not Abdel Nasser, because we've been doing that since before he was famous), but I recognize there are no perfect solutions short of what looks like a typographical disaster.

But the most famous of all comments on Arabic transliteration is certainly that of T.E. Lawrence ("of Arabia"), in a 1926 exchange with his proofreaders, which may be found here in part and reads, in full:

Q: I attach a list of queries raised by F. who is reading the proofs. He finds these very clean, but full of inconsistencies in the spelling of proper names, a point which reviewers often take up. Will you annotate it in the margin, so that I can get the proofs straightened?

A: Annotated: not very helpfully perhaps. Arabic names won't go into English, exactly, for their consonants are not the same as ours, and their vowels, like ours, vary from district to district. There are some 'scientific systems' of transliteration, helpful to people who know enough Arabic not to need helping, but a wash-out for the world. I spell my names anyhow, to show what rot the systems are.

Q: Slip 1. Jeddah and Jidda used impartially throughout. Intentional?

A: Rather!

Q: Slip 15. Bir Waheida, was Bir Waheidi.

A: Why not? All one place.

Q: Slip 20. Nuri, Emir of the Ruwalla, belongs to the 'chief family of the Rualla.' On Slip 23 'Rualla horse,' and Slip 38, 'killed one Rueli.' In all later slips 'Rualla.'

A: Should have also used Ruwala and Ruala.

Q: Slip 28. The Bisaita is also spelt Biseita.

A: Good.

Q: Slip 47. Jedha, the she-camel, was Jedhah on Slip 40.

A: She was a splendid beast.

Q: Slip 53. 'Meleager, the immoral poet.' I have put 'immortal' poet, but the author may mean immoral after all.

A: Immorality I know. Immortality I cannot judge. As you please: Meleager will not sue us for libel.

Q: Slip 65. Author is addressed 'Ya Auruns,' but on Slip 56 was 'Aurans.'

A: Also Lurens and Runs: not to mention 'Shaw.' More to follow, if time permits.

Q: Slip 78. Sherif Abd el Mayin of Slip 68 becomes el Main, el Mayein, el Muein, el Mayin, and el Muyein.

A: Good egg. I call this really ingenious.

Since I can't top that exchange, I'll stop now.

More Signs of Back-Channel Diplomacy

A piece in Al-Masry al-Youm noting that the Qatari Prime Minister has met with Omar Suleiman under Saudi auspices in an attempt to patch things up between Qatar and Egypt. (The Qatari PM, who is also Foreign Minister, is quoted as saying that there are no tensions between Egypt and Qatar, and they're all Egypt's fault. Go figure.)

But this is yet another sign that while we've all been focused on Iran these past two weeks, the back channels have been busy. The Saudis and Syrians are trying to reconcile; Lebanon is forging a new government; the US and Syria are moving towards normalization; and the Gilad Shalit situation is possibly on the verge of resolution. I won't even link to the previous posts; just scroll down for the last couple of days to find them.

In the two weeks since the Iranian elections we have all, justifiably, been focused on Tehran. But there is clearly movement elsewhere. Whether we are on the verge of some sort of breakthrough is hard to say: I've been around the Middle East too long to indulge in excessive optimism. But back-channel diplomacy seems to be producing some results.

Shalit Deal After Three Years?

I'm starting to get a growing sense that back-channel diplomacy is a lot more active than the open indications. would suggest Not only are there those signs of some sort of US-Syrian-Lebanese-Saudi grand bargain I blogged about yesterday, but there seem to be real indications of an imminent breakthrough in the Gilad Shalit hostage case, on its third anniversary.

Shalit is the young Israeli tanker (tank gunner actually) captured by Hamas in 2006 in a raid across the Gaza border. He was 19 when captured, 22 now; a corporal when captured, promoted to Staff Sergeant in captivity. Efforts to free him have been continuous since then, and there have been plenty of rumors of imminent deals which then slipped away, or were never really true in the first place.

On Tuesday the Palestinian Maan News Agency reported he would be transferred to Egypt within hours. Nothing happened and the Israeli government denied the story. This time it's the Israeli press reporting a breakthrough, and citing a "reliable European source."

This Haaretz article is claiming the deal was reached quite recently (the last two daysl, suggesting that the Maan story was merely premature) and that Shalit will be transferred to Egypt until an agreement is reached on the prisoners Israel is to release. It credits the US as the primary instrument in striking the deal, though it's well known that Egypt has been working very hard on this for years:
The idea to transfer Shalit to Egypt in exchange for the release of Palestinian women, teens, cabinet ministers and parliamentarians being held in Israeli prisons was raised about a year ago during a visit by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter to Damascus, Jerusalem and Gaza. Apparently Carter raised it again on his visit earlier this month, during which he met Noam Shalit, Gilad's father.

According to the plan Shalit will be entrusted to Egyptian intelligence, and his parents will be allowed to visit him. He will be returned to Israel after an agreement is reached regarding the list of Hamas prisoners to be released that was previously submitted to the cabinet.

It hardly needs to be said that once Shalit is in Egyptian custody, regardless of the terms of the transfer, Egypt, as a country with diplomatic relations with Israel and a participant in all peace efforts, would have no real legal right to hold him. A deal that they would hold him temporarily would be conceivable, but it's hard to see how, if Hamas is unsatisfied with Israeli concessions, they could hold him indefinitely.

The story goes on to suggest that this is part of a broader deal to bring about a Palestinian reconiciliation:
...The deal would put the Gaza Strip under the leadership of a joint committee subordinate to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, removing it from the control of the government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Pressure is building; the Shalit family and their supporters have held a big rally in the Hakirya (government ministries) quarter of Tel Aviv for the third anniversary (Jerusalem Post version here; the Yediot Aharanot version here).

In this part of the world, one must never, ever, count the chickens before they're hatched. But if the US — Haaretz never exactly explains what the "US brokered" role was — has actually managed to find a breakthrough here, then maybe things really are changing. Even if this was really an Egyptian breakthrough, and certainly they have to be intimately involved in any deal, it means that there are tectonic shifts going on behind the scenes.

I don't like hostages, or prisoners of war in undeclared wars. Gilad Shalit has been a pawn for three years. It's time to let him go home and hope that after that, Hamas and Israel can find some potential common ground. And that the deal can let Hamas find a way to integrate Gaza and the West Bank again. A two-state solution, if it is to ever be achieved, depends at a minimum on that.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nabih Berri Re-Elected Speaker

I posted earlier about the emerging "grand bargain" that seems to be coming together on reconciling Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia and perhaps other parties. Unsurprisingly but a necessary prelude to any deal: Nabih Berri has been re-elected Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, with 90 votes out of 127 deputies present (of 128); 28 cast blank ballots and there were a smattering of votes for other candidates, including one who is dead. Various accounts may be found here (Daily Star), another here (Naharnet) and from the opposite political pole here (Hizbullah).

In typical Lebanese fashion, Parliament didn't vote until the deal was already guaranteed by Sa‘d Hariri's public endorsement of Berri, though since the Speaker is a post reserved for Shi‘ites, Berri was the only really serious candidate, since a Hizbullah figure was not a credible option.

The Lebanese habit of firing automatic weapons into the air to celebrate — well, just about anything — killed at least one civilian.

Watching Lord of the Rings in Tehran

An interesting piece by an anonymous author from Tehran over at Salon, noting that the regime has been running extra movies on television to keep people occupied, and offering some interesting reflections on the fact that they keep running Lord of the Rings. As the author notes, that story of a quest, of a battle against evil by outnumbered forces, has all sorts of resonances that the censors may not have picked up on.

Podcast of Nomi Stone's Poetry Reading

I mentioned earlier that my former Assistant Editor at The Middle East Journal, Nomi Stone, now a PhD candidate at Columbia and a published poet, had a reading last week at MEI. Earlier, I had linked to a story in the Jerusalem Post about Nomi. So it seems only appropriate to link to the MEI podcast of her appearance last week, which I, unfortunately, missed. (In the new website, podcasts start playing when you click on the link: a warning if you're in a group office.)

And if you want the book, here's the Amazon link. And here's her website.

Package Deal? Talk of Saudi-Syrian-Lebanese Grand Bargain

Yesterday came word that the US will soon return an Ambassador to Damascus, reports now apparently being quietly confirmed. But there's a lot of buzz out there that suggests some kind of grand bargain is in the making. To sum it all up before I start linking: Syria is going to accept the idea of Sa‘d Hariri as Prime Minister in Lebanon. In turn, Saudi Arabia is going to patch up its relations with Syria. King ‘Abdullah will then visit Damascus. And if the Lebanese can smooth out the outlines of a unity government of some sort, Syria won't stand in the way.

None of this is set in stone until land unless it happens. But here are some of the recent indications:
  • Sa‘d Hariri has just announced that his movement supports the re-election of Nabih Berri as Speaker of Parliament, a gesture to the opposition.
  • There are multiple reports that Syria will not oppose Hariri becoming Prime Minister, and that this will facilitate a Saudi-Syrian rapprochement. (It needs to be remembered that until his father's death, the younger Hariri essentially was operating a business in Saudi Arabia.)
There are still some areas where the plans aren't coming together. Asad recently said that Syria does not see Netanyahu's Israel as a peace partner, since the latter seems unwilling to withdraw from the Golan and thus the peace process with Israel is set back. On the other hand, this piece by Akiva Eldar in today's Haaretz suggests that the US is intent on pressing forward on the Golan, in part as a means of achieving a Palestinian reconciliation. (One minor correction to the English version of Haaretz — introduced I'm sure by a translator and not by Eldar — it's Fred Hof, not Hoff. I've known him since college.)

But a Saudi-Syrian deal could undermine or at least offset Iranian influence in Syria, and a Syrian acceptance of Hariri (and Hariri's acceptance of Berri) removes some (though not yet all) of the obstacles to creating a new Lebanese cabinet. There are still some outstanding issues within Lebanon; the opposition, particularly the Aoun forces and Hizbullah, are still complaining about Cardinal Sfeir's intervention in the election campaign (See my "Holy War Between the Nasrallahs: the Sheikh and the Cardinal" and the links there, and also this column by Michael Young in today's Daily Star; I wish I'd used the "turbulent priest" headline). But a Syrian-Saudi deal, and the US-Syrian rapprochement, should make it easier to forge some kind of working government in Lebanon.

I suspect neocons and others will be upset by the creation of a modus vivendi among the various Lebanese parties if one is indeed achieved, but as I've noted before, the notion that Hizbullah was defeated is pretty much an American one. The March 8 coalition was defeated, but Hizbullah held its own everywhere it seriously contested; it's really Michel Aoun who was defeated.

Even six months ago before the Israeli and Lebanese elections, one could almost have believed a Syrian-Israeli deal would be easier to achieve than a Syrian-Saudi one. But Netanyahu's election and the Lebanese results have reversed the odds considerably.

Real Bad Ideas: Albania as the Jewish State?

Most of us have heard of the (seriously discussed) plan to create a Zionist state in Uganda rather than Palestine; but this report in Haaretz is new to me, though the idea is apparently that of a journalist rather than a diplomat, back in 1935: making Albania the Jewish state.

Obviously this is one of those ideas that never was seriously considered. Beyond the fact that Albania is overwhelmingly Muslim, raising obvious questions about its suitability, it would have overlayed the whole Middle Eastern question on the always enduring Balkan ones. My first thought was: and you thought Kosovo was complicated now?

Please, NO: You Can't Make This Stuff Up Department

Sometimes the news just doesn't really need any comment at all. Yesterday's Haaretz had a story headlined "Is Britney Spears Set to Star in a Holocaust Movie?" That should have been punchline enough, but read the opening paragraphs:
Is American mega pop star Britney Spears set to return to the big screen, seven years after starring in the box office flop Crossroads? According to reports, Spears has been offered a part in the upcoming Holocaust film The Yellow Star of Sophia and Eton, which integrates time travel, concentration camps and a love story.

If she accepts the role, Spears will be taking on the title role of Sophia LaMont, a woman who invents a time machine and succeeds in traveling to the time of the Second World War. According to the script, LaMont ends up at a concentration camp and falls in love with a Jewish prisoner named Eton. However, the budding love story is cut short when both are killed by the Nazis.

O....kay. Sounds Oscar worthy to me. Actually, you lost me at time travel. As Dave Barry used to say, I'm not making this up.

I suppose this is only marginally a Middle East post, but it did appear in an Israeli newspaper.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Backgrounder: The Rafsanjani Factor

There are enough all-Iran all-the-time blogs these days that I haven't felt obliged to comment on every rumor that circulates. For one thing, with the normal media suppressed and the foreign press either expelled or shut up in hotels, rumors become the primary coin of the realm, and many of them are just that: rumors.

A theme of sorts has seemed to emerge over the past week, however, that may deserve comment. This is the speculation about what Iran's former President, ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, is up to. Now, Rafsanjani is a very powerful man. For one thing, he is probably the richest man in the country, a wealth initially based on pistachios but over the decades since the Revolution much expanded through other ventures. He is no friend of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who beat him to win the Presidency in 2005 when Rafsanjani tried to stage a comeback, and Ahmadinejad attacked him during the election campaign as a symbol of the corruption of the old guard.

But Rafsanjani's power extends to other things as well. During the Iran-Iraq war he served as the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, deputized to that by Khomeini himself, and still has good ties with both the regular Armed Forces and the Revolutionary Guards Corps. He serves on both the Expediency Council (the oddly named*[see end of post] but powerful institution that can mediate between the Parliament and the Council of Guardians), and — this is what is helping spur a lot of speculation — the Council of Experts. The Council of Experts has only one, or arguably two, functions: it chooses the Rahbar, the Supreme Religious Leader. And, theoretically, it could remove him.

Rafsanjani is also someone who seems to prefer functioning behind the scenes. Not too surprisingly, he has been absent from the public stage during the current troubles, though several members of his powerful Hashemi family have been arrested and later released, including his daughter Faeza Hashemi. It's no secret he doesn't like Ahmadinejad: their bad blood is public. His attitude towards the Leader is more circumspect, but it's widely believed he's very unhappy with the election results.

As a result there has been a persistent rumor that has cropped up several times over the past week, and it generally goes like this: Rafsanjani has been meeting in Qom with senior clerics and/or the Council of Experts (which is composed of senior clerics) and there may be sentiment emerging that could lead to the Experts deposing Khamene'i. Now again, these are rumors: this sort of thing doesn't get announced publicly. One version of the rumors turned up in an Al-‘Arabiya story a few days ago; another version, emphasizing that Rafsanjani is likely to bide his time and only move when ready, is summarized here. I had posted earlier about this Al Jazeera analysis early on interpreting the whole crisis as a Khamene'i/Rafsanjani rivalry. This may not be the only paradigm for understanding what is happening, but I think it's a potentially credible one.

As a little background, when the Constitution was originally written, it was assumed that only occasionally would there be consensus on a single religious leader to practice velayat-e faqih, Khomeini's doctrine of rule of the religious leader, and that more normally, a committee of senior clerics would carry out the function. Khomeini's first chosen successor, Ayatollah Montazeri, had a falling out with Khomeini, and many assumed that when the Imam died there would be a collective religious leaderhship, but the constitution was actually changed to call for a single religious leader at all times. Khamene'i, a fairly junior cleric and certainly not a Grand Ayatollah, got the post, and some eyebrows were raised because it was argued his scholarship had never risen to the level of a marja‘, a "source of emulation" in Shi‘ism. Neither Khamene'i nor Rafsanjani rank at the top of the religious hierarchy, though they dominate the Revolutionary hierarchy.

Now if any of this is true — and let me emphasize that's a very big if — it would amount to a constitutional coup, though arguably one against the constitutional coup the opposition claims has been mounted by Ahmadinejad. I'd be more inclined, I think, to buy the version that says Rafsanjani will bide his time but will continue to work against the President. But if there were to be a renewal of violence — if the present lull is just a calm before another storm — or if, as some are threatening, the government moves to arrest Mousavi, then I think some intervention might be likelier. What is clear is that Ahmadinejad and Khamene'i will have a fight on their hands if they try to marginalize Rafsanjani, who has the clout to fight back.

[*The Expediency Council is really more oddly translated than oddly named. Something like "Council for Determining the Interests of the State" would be a better translation, but "Expediency Discernment Council" got established early on. And that was before Google translator.]

US Said to Be Sending Ambassador to Syria

CNN is reporting that the US will name an Ambassador to Syria soon. That, I think, is good news, and perhaps the first fruit of George Mitchell's mission, (though I'm sure neither he nor his senior staffers are among the "senior Administration officials" leaking the news). The US recalled its previous ambassador, Margaret Scobey (now Ambassador to Egypt) in 2005 after the Hariri assassination. The Embassy has been headed by a chargé ever since, though Syria kept Ambassador-level representation in Washington.

While expressing US outrage over the Hariri assassination made sense, the idea that George Mitchell is supposed to be negotiating with Syria and Israel when we don't have an Ambassadorial-rank representative in Damascus full time does not. It will be interesting to see whether the designee is a professional Foreign Service Officer or someone else; there've been rumors that one of Mitchell's people might get the job.

Rami Khouri on the Arab World Reaction to Iran

In a part of the world where shading and nuance are culturally important but too often absent from the rhetoric of the public square, Rami Khouri of Beirut's Daily Star is always a welcome exception. In this morning's Daily Star he has an op-ed on the Arab world's reaction to the events in Iran which I think captures some points often overlooked. You really should read the whole thing, but a few excerpts may help persuade you to click through:

The uncomfortable common denominator is that for both the people and the ruling power elites of the Arab world, whatever happens in Iran will largely be perceived negatively by a majority in the Middle East. This is a sad commentary on the condition of Arab political culture, which remains autocratic and rigid at the top, and passive and frustrated at the grassroots.

Most Arab regimes do not like Iran, they even fear it, because of its capacity to inspire revolutionary Islamism or at least mildly insurrectionary movements within their countries. A few Arab leaders even speak of Iran's predatory or hegemonic ambitions in the Gulf, Lebanon, Iraq and other lands. Only isolated pockets of power in the Arab world like or support the Iranian regime, including Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas and some other Islamist or nationalist forces. Yet even the few isolated exceptions, like Hamas and Hizbullah, that have effectively carved out small domains of their own sovereignty are in an uncomfortable zone regarding events in Iran . . .

. . . Arab regimes and leaders have worked themselves into a lose-lose situation whereby they would be unhappy if the Iranian regime stayed in power and unhappy if it were removed through popular challenge. The same awkwardness defines the perspectives of Arab citizens. Most Arabs do not want to live in an Iranian-style political system that blends theocracy with autocracy; but many were pleased to see the pro-American shah overthrown by Koran-carrying demonstrators. They would also be unhappy to see the Iranian regime overthrown because they enjoy its defiance of the US, Israel and the UN in particular, along with its development of a nuclear capability.

At the same time, ordinary Arabs would feel jealous were the demonstrators in Iran able to topple their regime for the second time in 30 years; this would highlight the chronic passivity and powerlessness of Arab citizens who must suffer permanent subjugation in their own long-running autocratic systems without being able to do anything about it. Whether Iranian street demonstrations challenged the shah or the Islamists who toppled him, Arabs watch all this on television with a forlorn envy.

But as I say, do read it all if you have the time. Whether you agree or disagree with Rami Khouri, it is both a challenging and stimulating argument.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Revolution Will Be Translated

Note to Farsi speakers: There's a translation wiki trying to promote volunteered translations of Farsi blogs and postings. Web 2.0 gets still more inventive. Thanks to the language blog Language Log for the link.

A Cockroach in the Knesset

On the lighter side, a cockroach in the Knesset cafeteria has created an uproar:
One Shas official called the incident a "scandal," adding that it was difficult to understand how a cockroach could be found on a plate at a cafeteria that operates under Kosher supervision.

"In addition to the grave Kosher problem in this incident, there is a health problem that the Knesset officials must face," the official said.

Interesting definition of a scandal.

Morocco's Local Elections

In all the sound and fury of the Iranian election crisis, I and just about everybody else pretty much ignored Morocco's local elections: they were local, after all, not national, and were overshadowed by the more dramatic events elsewhere. But for the sake of completeness, here's a wrapup at Maghreb Politics Review analyzing the results.

No Early Resolution?

An interesting piece today, again by Gary Sick, on why we shouldn't expect a quick resolution of the crisis in Iran. Read it all, but the key points:

Don’t expect that this will be resolved cleanly with a win or loss in short period of time. The Iranian revolution, which is usually regarded as one of the most accelerated overthrows of a well-entrenched power structure in history, started in about January 1978 and the shah departed in January 1979. During that period, there were long pauses and periods of quiescence that could lead one to believe that the revolt had subsided. This is not a sprint; it is a marathon. Endurance is at least as important as speed.

There may not be a clear winner or loser. Iranians are clever and wily politicians. They prefer chess to football, and a “win” may involve a negotiated solution in which everyone saves face. The current leadership has chosen, probably unwisely, to make this a test of strength, but if they conclude that it is a no-win situation they could settle for a compromise. The shape of a compromise is impossible to guess at this point, but it would probably involve significant concessions concealed behind a great public show of unity.

Leadership is key. Ayatollah Khamene`i, the rahbar or Leader, has chosen – again probably unwisely – to get out in front as the spokesman of the regime. Unlike his predecessor, the father of the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini, he has openly taken sides with one faction over another. He is clearly speaking for the ultra conservative leaders of the Revolutionary Guards and their equally reactionary clerical supporters, who fear any possible threat to their dominant power. Curiously, President Ahmadinejad has largely vanished from sight, which adds to the impression that he is more of a pawn than a prime mover in this affair.

More this afternoon.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Basij vs. a Group of Women

Basijis (I assume, they have batons) apparently getting the worse of it. Thanks to Gary Sick, who captions it "Don't Mess with Iran's Women." Original is here.

Hell hath no fury, or as my wife put it when I showed her the picture, "when the women are mad, watch out."

Chatham House Report on Iranian Vote

Juan Cole points to a new report from Chatham House that seeks to spell out the alleged rigging of the Iranian elections. The report is here (PDF) and the cover webpage here. Juan's analysis is here.

I'm no expert on statistics, but for those who've been asking where the evidence of fraud is, this may provide something of an answer. As I've said before, though, this has long since become an issue of perception rather than fact: virtually everyone outside Iran and increasing numbers inside are convinced the results were rigged, and the protests are likely to continue in any event.

Alea Iacta Est: Iran After the Weekend

Looking back at this weekend's events, I suspect that Saturday may prove to have been the hinge, the turning point, in the Iranian events, however they end. I may be overdramatizing a bit, but I think the violence and bloodshed are going to make compromise almost impossible, which means the possible outcomes remaining would be victory for one side or the other.

Until Khamenei's speech on Friday, hope for some sort of resolution still lingered. He threw down a gauntlet instead. Mousavi and the protesters seem to have picked it up; denied resolution, they chose revolution. The die is cast — for you non-Latinists, that's what the headline means — the Rubicon is crossed.

The heirs of the Islamic revolution are now profoundly split. The reformers and their allies such as Rafsanjani have to choose now whether to continue to stick with Mousavi despite the risks. As Franklin put it, they must all hang together or assuredly they will all hang separately. It's hard to see compromise emerging. Blood is flowing, the security forces have been unleashed, Mousavi is openly talking about martyrdom. Both sides went to the brink, and on Saturday, leaped off.

It's true that Sunday was calmer. It may be that the energy is spent. But it may also be a lull; Mousavi is sounding more militant, and the mourning days for those killed are approaching.

How it will end is impossible to predict. The regime could break; a new revolution, a Second Islamic Republic could emerge. Make no mistake that this is not a revolution against the Islamic system: Mousavi has sprinkled every statement with Qur'anic quotes and the young protesters are shouting Allahu Akbar from the rooftops at night — you can't make that illegal in an Islamic Republic — and Mousavi keeps invoking the Imam (Khomeini). Or there could be a Tienanmen-style resolution, the protesters ground down, leaving moving images (the man standing in front of the line of tanks) but little else. Or, like the 1999 student riots, the defeated protesters could retreat for a time, to fight again another day.

Much has been made in the media of the degree to which the death of the young girl Neda has become a rallying cry, but of the weekend's developments I'm particularly troubled by another event on Saturday: the claims that a suicide bomber tried to blow up the mausoleum of Khomeini sounds extremely suspicious: terrorist bombing is not the goal of this protest, and Khomeini is Mousavi's mentor and model. The bomber having been killed, of course, it's hard to say, but I cannot avoid the suspicion that he was actually an agent provocateur. It might be time to check the sprinkler system in the Reichstag. Is the regime that scared?

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Usual Weekend Links

As usual, barring something major occurring in Iran, I'll be off for the weekend — it's father's day in the US — meanwhile some readings to keep you busy:
  • Sadder news for us, though not for him: the excellent Lebanon blogger Qifa Nabki (Elias Muhanna) is returning to the US to work on his dissertation and, while still blogging, won't be on scene in Lebanon. His farewell to Beirut post has an amusing interchange with his doorman.

Iran After a Week

It's been a week since the Iranian elections, and Khamene'i's sermon today seems to be chellenging the demonstrtors rather than conciliating them. He appears to have said that he will hold Mousavi responsible for their actions if Mousavi does not call on them to refrain from the big demonstration planned tomorrow: that puts Mousavi in a spot: back off, and leave the demonstrators exposed, or cross the Rubicon and open up unforeseeable developments.

It's been a week that must have exhausted many of the energies of the protesters — as it has, I think, of the Western commentators as well. But I suspect that the real decisive moment may come this weekend: does Mousavi back off, which could begin a process of acquiescence in the results, or does he directly challenge the Supreme Leader himself?

I've said before that it isn't clear if this is leading to storming the Bastille or to Tienanmen, and at this moment a week into the drama, it's still very much up in the air.

Holy War between the Nasrallahs: The Sheikh and the Cardinal

Despite all our attention to Iran, Lebanon is still there and moving towards forming a government in the wake of recent elections. Meanwhile a public feud has erupted between two prominent clerics, Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah of Hizbullah and the Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Cardinal Sfeir, head of the Maronite church and a Cardinal in the Catholic Church hierarchy. The fact that Nasrallah's family name and the Cardinal's first given name are both Nasrallah (which means "God's victory") adds to the ironies of the clash of the clerics.

The latest round goes to Sfeir, who's commenting that "losers make excuses to justify their loss," referring to the fact that March 14 beat the Hizbullah-inclusive March 8 coalition in the elections (though Hizbullah's own representation stayed pretty steady). Sfeir — who is still pretty outspoken for an 89-year-old — fired off the first volley before the elections, warning that Lebanon's "Arab identity" would be endangered if the opposition won: meaning, of course, that Hizbullah is a stalking horse for Iran.

The sheikh fired back at the time that clerics should stay out of politics — seemingly an odd thing for a Shi‘ite cleric who heads a major political party to say, but maybe he just meant troublesome priests, not Shi‘ite clerics. After the elections Nasrallah (the sheikh, not the Cardinal) attacked Sfeir again for influencing the elections unduly.

Now the Christian community is defending Sfeir, or at least those on the March 14 side: Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea called Nasrallah's comments "an insult" and former President Amin Gemayel also criticized the attack on Sfeir, but as the Cardinal's comments show, he's capable of defending himself as well.

Anyway, the exchanges continue. It is a particularly Lebanese sort of quarrel, and the fact that both men have the name "Nasrallah" somewhere in their full names strikes me as particularly ironic.

NOTE: For 24 hours this post used the spelling "Nasrullah," till I noticed I've previously been using "Nasrallah": have changed it accordingly. I do plan to post on the transliteration issue soon.

Airport at Armageddon?

There's a proposal out there for a second International Airport in Israel, at Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley. It's being protested by locals and by environmentalists, since the area is some of the broadest open ground in Israel. The Jezreel Valley — also called, in the Bible, the vale of Esdraelon — is a spectacular valley bordered by Mount Carmel and the Samarian Highlands on the south and by Galilee on the north, and runs across Israel. From the tel at Megiddo, a crossroads of Biblical and classical antiquity, one can look out virtually from the Mediterranean to Mount Gilboa on the edges of the Jordan Valley.

The pass across the Carmel range just south of Megiddo was the main route for the "Way of the Sea" in ancient times, and therefore the hill that stood on its northern flank was the key to controlling both the main north-south route east of the Med and the main east-west route across the valley. No surprise that it was frequently fought over. One of the earliest battles for which we can offer a description of the tactics is the battle Thutmose III fought there in the 15th century BC; Megiddo was the crucially decisive moment of Allenby's Palestine campaign in 1918 as well. There were many other battles in between. Perhaps for these reasons the author of the Book of Revelation places the final battle between good and evil in this place, the Hill of Megiddo, Har Megiddo in Hebrew or Aramaic, Armageddon in the Greek of the Book of Revelation.

So, yeah, let's build an international airport at Armageddon. What could go wrong with that?

Christian fundamentalists of the impending-doomsday type might have issues of their own. My own main concern would be the environmental and aesthetic one that seems to be animating the locals. There's already a very big airfield in the Jezreel Valley, the Ramat David airbase, which was and I think still is the Israeli Air Force's largest base, intended as a defense against Syrian and Lebanese threats. A major new international airport near Megiddo would blight the views from the hill of Megiddo, from Carmel, from Nazareth, from much of the valley.

But given the small size of Israel, why is there a need for another international airport, particularly in the north? One in the Negev might make sense to help promote tourism to Eilat or to the Dead Sea resorts. And the Negev has plenty of space: there are three or four military airbases and the Eilat airport there already. But why Jezreel? Nothing there is more than a two hour drive or so from Ben Gurion airport; most tourists going to the north are either going to Haifa or to the Christian sites at Nazareth and elsewhere in Galilee, and the vistas deserve to be preserved.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Eve of Friday

I haven't posted on Iran today because despite the large, silent demonstration today, the real key is going to be tomorrow: Friday prayer guarantees large gatherings, and Khamene'i is expected to give a Friday sermon at the University, so much may become clearer depending on what he says in the sermon. In the meantime I thought simply repeating what's happening would be a bit redundant: it's not as if there's a shortage of coverage on the Internet.

Tweets on Imran Khan Appearance

Imran Khan, the Pakistani political figure and former cricket star, will be speaking at MEI at noon eastern time. The communications department will be tweeting throughout the speech at MEI on Twitter, for those who may wish to follow it.

"No Gamal and No Brotherhood: We Want Omar Suleiman!"

Thanks once again to The Arabist for catching this one: a new blog advocating ‘Umar (Omar) Suleiman for President. I've noted before the power of the Egyptian intelligence chief and Mubarak right-hand man, who I guess I'd better keep spelling as Omar as that's how I started out. As The Arabist notes, this site was the main headline bannered atop the front page in the opposition paper Al-Dostour today, which leads with "Internet Youth Enter the Mubarak Succession Battle." The blog's own banner (above) reads: "No Gamal and No Brotherhood: We Want ‘Omar Suleiman." ("We want" is ‘ayzin, an Egyptian colloquial usage. As a result it scans and rhymes like a campaign slogan or chant: La Gamal wa la Ikhwan, ‘ayzin ‘Umar Suleiman!)

There's also a Facebook group on the same theme. It has 68 members at the moment. Some of the messages posted so far have either pictures of Suleiman or, in one case, Ataturk. (What's that about? Secularist military savior?) Location of the group is given as "all the streets of Egypt."

Now, The Arabist notes that one of the major questions is who's behind this? Is it a real trial balloon for Suleiman as an alternative to Gamal Mubarak? Is it a trial balloon to test the waters, or perhaps a false flag operation of some sort?

Interesting too that they headline an article that appeared in the website Global Post: apparently this article about Gamal Mubarak that includes, on its second page, the following quote:

Hosni Mubarak may be his son's best chance of assuming the presidency because, analysts suggest, the military is suspicious of any new president not chosen from their ranks.

“I think Gamal Mubarak will not be elected because the army will not pick any person outside their institution,” said Amr Hashem, also of the Ahram Center.

The fact that the quote took some reaching to find suggests it's a message they wanted to emphasize. Is that because the blog represents a military point of view, or because someone wants us to think so? None of the pictures of Facebook members are in uniform. The site also has a lot of Arab and Western commentary on Suleiman's influence and power.

At this point I don't know the answer, but it's an interesting development, even if it's some kind of disinformation ploy. More likely it's probably what it looks like: a bunch of Egyptian secularists who want neither a republican monarchical succession or an Islamist alternative. But a lifelong intelligence man is hardly a liberal democratic choice.

It will be interesting what Suleiman's reaction may be. His is not the kind of job that traditionally welcomes publicity. But it is the kind of job that knows how to make you stop talking about him.

WAFA's Hebrew Site

The Palestinian News Agency WAFA has inaugurated a Hebrew language website. Here's Haaretz' article on the subject; here's WAFA's English language announcement; a comment by Mahmud ‘ Abbas on the matter; for those who read Hebrew, here's the site itself. My Hebrew is way too limited to comment on the content, but I am struck by WAFA English's comments that the website is "to contain daily news from the West Bank, in addition to the activities of Palestinians in Israel. It is also to include different topics on women’s issues, economy, business, art, culture, sport, analytic essays and features."

I guess Gaza just isn't part of the picture anymore for WAFA.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Quick Primer on Some Iranian Terms

As more and more people seem to be following Iranian bloggers, Twitterers, and YouTube posters, I've noticed many are referring to the security forces using their Persian names, and thought perhaps I should add a few notes for those who aren't familiar with them. An emerging story seems to be that the Army is clearly holding back, the Guards Corps is often doing so as well, and most of the violence is coming from the Basij, who are little more than street militia.

Basij (collective) or Basiji (individual) refers to the Mobilization, a popular militia recruited during the Iran-Iraq war. They are under the command of the Guards Corps, but without the elite training of the Corps proper. They're the enforcers, so far.

The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps is the elite force, separate from the regular armed forces and a major constituent in the support of Ahmadinejad. Although Western analysts most often refer to them as the Pasdaran (Guards), Iranians often use the word translated as "Corps" to refer to them: Sepah (collective) or Sepahi (individual).

The regular Armed Forces have remained aloof so far, although there are some reports that some officers have been arrested (similar reports relating to the Guards Corps have also circulated). Reading Iranian posters you may see the regular Army referred to as Artesh, the Persian word for Army.

Persian isn't actually one of my languages, but I've spent some time dealing with their military forces in earlier incarnations.

Why the US Should Not Openly Support the Protests

A fair number of political voices in the US, including former Republican candidate John McCain and several bloggers on the right of the spectrum, have been critical of President Obama's caution on Iran and have been urging a more open support for the protesters. I can't think of a more certain way to undercut the Mousavi supporters.

Back when I was discussing Eric Davis' "Ten Sins" in Middle East analysis, in the discussion of "Presentism," I noted that Iranians tend to be more historically aware of the US-backed Operation Ajax in 1953, when the US destabilized Mossadegh, than Americans are. Believe me, Iranians remember that, and many of the liberal protesters are the intellectual heirs of Mossadegh's followers. Believe me, too, that US support of the Shah has been drilled into everyone's consciousness through 30 years of revolutionary rhetoric.

Any open support the US offers, other than the cautious sort of comments made so far by Obama, could be used by the regime against the protesters. Being able to paint Mousavi and his backers as American puppets — and Ahmadinejad is trying hard to do that — would guarantee the outcome. We're the "Great Satan," remember? And Mousavi was Foreign Minister and Prime Minister in the days of Imam Khomeini himself: his approach has been to call for returning to the principles of the revolution, not to the policies of the monarchy.

I'm not talking here about private citizens: Bloggers who change their website color to green in empathy, for example, or the Twitter posters who last night were urging others to change their location and time zone to make it appear they were in Iran, in order to confuse the security forces trying to track down tweeting Iranians. What I'm talking about is any open governmental support such as McCain and others seem to be calling for. That would be precisely the wrong thing to do.

MEI on Twitter

The Middle East Institute is going to start tweeting on Twitter. Don't expect me to: I can never stop at 140 characters. The first tweet actually is a plug for this blog, but it will be used to update news, cover events, etc. You'll find a big new Twitter button over on the right column, right below the RSS feed buttons and above the MEI Links.

Interpreting this as a Rafsanjani-Khamene'i Feud

There were rumors last night and overnight — and let me emphasize only unsourced reports — that the Council of Experts — whose primary functions are to choose the Supreme Religious Leader in Iran, and, in theory, remove him — was being called into extraordinary session in Qom by former President Rafsanjani, who heads it. That would be a truly dramatic development, and since nothing more seems to have happened, I'd take it very cautiously.

However, this Al-Jazeera story, which interprets the whole election fiasco in terms of a Rafsanjani/Khamene'i power struggle, does not seem so far-fetched to me. Ahmadinejad beat Rafsanjani in the 2005 elections, and the bad blood has been evident. I recommend that readers at least think about this as a paradigm for understanding what's gong on,i without necessarily endorsing it.

Mossad Chief: Iran Riots Will Die Down, And That's a Good Thing

Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad, has told a Knesset committee that the riots in Iran will die down and there will be no revolution. What seems striking is why he seems to think that's a good thing for Israel:
"The reality in Iran is not going to change because of the elections. The world and we already know [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. If the reformist candidate [Mir Hossein] Mousavi had won, Israel would have had a more serious problem because it would need to explain to the world the danger of the Iranian threat, since Mousavi is perceived internationally arena as a moderate element...It is important to remember that he is the one who began Iran's nuclear program when he was prime minister."

Some Western neoconservatives also seem to want to see Ahmadinejad triumph because he's clearly seen as a Bad Thing while people might give Mousavi the benefit of the doubt. (Actually, Iran's nuclear quest began under the Shah, but yes, Mousavi presided over it at one time.)
Aluf Benn, Haaretz' astute defense correspondent, has a few words for those Israelis who are rooting for Ahmadinejad in "The Narrow Strategic Thinking of Pro-Ahmadinejad Israelis":
The prize for this week's most stupid remark has to go to the officials, officers and experts who described Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the candidate Israel prefers to win the election in Iran, and were even happy he did. It is hard to think of a more blatant manifestation of the narrow horizons of Israeli strategic thinking.

Agreed. But both Americans and Israelis who are investing a lot of themselves in all this need to remember: it isn't about us. Iranians are trying to work something out. It's their decision, not ours.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Nabawi Isma‘il

On a subject other than Iran — though perhaps one with echoes in Tehran today — Nabawi Isma‘il has died. I'm sure a great many younger Egyptians reading the news will find the obituary as meaningless as most outsiders will, but once the name was feared. As Anwar Sadat's last Interior Minister, it was Isma‘il who presided over the fierce crackdown of September 1981. Lashing out at a wide range of critics and in response to Islamist and other protests, Sadat and Isma‘il struck at a broad spectrum of targets, arresting the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood (‘Umar al-Tilmisani at the time), deposing the Coptic Pope Shenouda III, who was internally exiled to a desert monastery, arresting Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, the journalist/commentator whose later book Autumn of Fury was a ferocious retaliation for his treatment, dismantling Sadat's image rather thoroughly. Also arrested were officials of most of the opposition parties, including the ancient Fuad Seraggeddin of the Wafd Party, who had been King Faruq's last Interior Minister and was hardly a physical threat to the state.

The September crackdowns were an immediate trigger for the assassination of Sadat on October 6 of that year.

A career State Security man, Isma‘il was much feared at the time, and long after he left office radical Islamists were still trying to assassinate him. He seems to have been largely forgotten by the time he died, apparently yesterday. It's also easy to forget, in Mubarak's Egypt today, that in his first years in office Husni Mubarak went far to dismantle some of the more unpleasant aspects of the last days of Sadat: releasing the prisoners, restoring Pope Shenouda, replacing Isma‘il. In time, his government too would come to depend on State Security heavily, but never with as wide-ranging an attempt to silence critics as that of September 1981.

The image above is from the Ministry of the Interior's website, which has a gallery of former Interior Ministers.

So far, by the way, the label "obituaries" on this blog brings up only Ja‘far Numeiri and Nabawi Isma‘il. I hope eventually to find someone I can say unreservedly good things about, but not this time.

When the Messenger is Silenced

Foreign journalists have been banned from covering demonstrations in Tehran; hotels are said to be surrounded by security forces to keep ordinary Iranians from contacting foreigners. The result is that today's demonstrations are much less visible than yesterday's, as the regime no doubt intended, but also that Dame Rumor is running rampant, which may not work as the government intended. Thus the BBC reports claims that today's demonstration in North Tehran is even bigger than yesterday's, but notes that it can't confirm this. Other reports suggest it's more subdued, in part because Mousavi has warned against clashes with supporters of Ahmadinejad, and the latter pre-empted a planned demonstration in downtown Tehran by calling their own for the same place two hours earlier.

Ayatollah Montazeri, the onetime heir to Khomeini who has been under house arrest for years, has called for mourning for those killed so far. Montazeri is another powerful voice, if he chooses to use it.

I am more and more convinced that arguing about whether the results were rigged is increasingly irrelevant to the situation on the ground: the split down the middle of the ruling establishment is deepening day by day, and however this ends the Iranian government at the end of it all will be rather different, either purged of its moderates or upended by them.

Hegghammer on "Al-Sahab": Why the Internet is So Great

I'm pretty sure this is why the Internet was invented, even if gossip, UFOs and porn are the main trafficked sites: a truly interesting, informative, short blog by Thomas Hegghammer at Jihadica on "Why is Al-Sahab Called Al-Sahab?" Now Jihadica is the sort of specialized blog that can get away with the statement "Most readers probably know that the word sahab means 'clouds' and that it emerged as the name of al-Qaida’s media production company around 2002," because it's only read by specialists, some of whom, may actually know that. ("Every schoolboy knows..." always introduces something that very few if any schoolboys know.) This is the sort of careful, exegetic, interpretative reading of complex information that intelligence services pay dearly for, that used to be esoteric in its accessibility, and that now, if you know where to look, is free for the asking.

I couldn't have explained this without hours, or days, of research. (Actually, I never asked myself the question.) People used to pay a lot (probably still do) to consultants to tell them this esoteric stuff. Jihadica gave it to us free without our even knowing we needed it. Thanks, Thomas. Jihadica is becoming an utterly essential site. I get the RSS Feed and recommend you do the same, or at least bookmark it.

MEI Links Updated

The MEI Links box over in the right column has been updated so the links now all go to the proper pages of the new MEI website, though since the new website has a few categories not listed on the old one, there are new links to the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, the Center for Pakistan Studies, and the Center for Turkish Studies, the latter two being new additions to the fold. Do explore the new website, which will be expanding over time to include forums and other means of communicating with us. And though it's tiny (more a baby's fingernail than a thumbnail) you can, if you're keen of eye, find a picture of yours truly on the homepage.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Gary Sick and Karim Sadjadpour on NewsHour

Gary Sick and Karim Sadjadpour on Jim Lehrer tonight. Transcript and Streaming Video at the PBS site. Gary on what he planned to say before he was soundbitten here. I don't disagree with anything either of them say, but then, they're Iran experts and I'm not.

The "Ahmadinejad Won" Interpretation: Why I Think it's Suspect

Ever since the election, there have been some commentators, including some who know their Middle East, who have been arguing that Ahmadinejad's win is not necessarily a fraudulent result. Flynt Leverett has been one; Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty in the Washington Post had another; and others have argued that many in the West are identifying with a small, North Tehran elite who share Western values and are missing the real grass-roots popularity of Ahmadinejad.

I respect the viewpoint that the re-election of Ahmadinejad was a possibility all along; it's the nature of the way the results were released that raises my suspicions: first, reports that Mousavi has won, including his own claims to that effect; second, release of near-final figures long before they were expected to be counted; third, the mysterious shutdown of many media and Internet outlets as the results were announced; fourth, the sudden presence of security forces on the streets; fifth, the clear anger and panic of the Basijis who've been beating up protesters, and who apparently rampaged at the University of Tehran dorms on Sunday night. Notice I'm not repeating claims of numbers of dead or any specifics, but some of the charges are documented by photos and videos.

And finally, the fact that the demonstration today was not limited to the North Tehran elite: watch all the YouTube videos that are out there, and the still pictures being posted at the Iranian sites. These were students and workers, and middle-aged folks who were willing to take a beating to be heard. Whether there were tens of thousands or several million — and you can pick your estimate — it was clearly a huge crowd.

There is clearly anger out there, and not just on Twitter: something happened today. Something seemed to shift, including the fact that Khamene'i is now saying they will investigate the vote complaints. I'll leave the experts and the historians to figure out what the real vote totals were (if we ever can); my own sense is that something major is taking place regardless of what you think of the (still, to my mind, highly dubious) vote tallies. This is beyond recounts now. The establishment has split down the middle and the question is whether Khamene'i will try to heal the rift or deepen it.

Mousavi's supporters plan another major march tomorrow at 5 pm Tehran time and are trying to promote a national strike, though it appears the country is pretty much frozen in stasis right now anyway, with the universities shut down before finals, and people out on the streets being beaten by Basijis.

I still fear that it could end as a Tienanmen rather than a democratic reform, but in any event this looks to be a real turning point in modern Iranian history. Flynt Leverett has argued that Westerners should "get over it" and accept that Ahmadinejad won. It's not ours to get over. And it looks like a lot of Iranians aren't going to get over it so easily.

Tweeting the Revolution?

UPDATED: #iranelection is waging a campaign to dissuade Twitter from a scheduled maintenance downtime at 9:45 PM Pacific. Twitter says it has no control over the maintenance. 404 Error: Your revolution is postponed: server is down.

Seriously, Twitter: whatever one may think of the election results, whichever side one may prefer in the debate, when a regime is closing off all communications channels, the one that is still functioning should not be shut down.
Regardless of the pros and cons of who won this election, as an Editor and Publisher I feel I need to speak in defense of open communications. [Later: The protests worked. The host agreed not to have the maintenance downtime tonight.] The original post from this afternoon follows:

One of the things everyone seems to be remarking upon is the degree to which Twitter has become the communications medium of the demonstrations in Tehran. With social networking sites blocked and many other websites down by government attacks, Twitter seems to be the dominant way of spreading news. (#iranelection gets you a range of English language posts.)

Various reports and commentary on this phenomenon here, here, and a BBC roundup of various means of communication. And (via Gary Sick) one at the Christian Science Monitor. Or just go to Twitterfall.com, click on #iranelection, and watch it come in.

The downside, of course, is that the medium makes it easier to spread unfounded rumors as well as the truth. Anyone can start a rumor, or spread one. But what audiotapes were to Khomeini's revolution in 1979, Twitter may be to whatever this turns out to be.

Further Thoughts on Today in Tehran: Has the Regime Split Wide Open?

As I reflect on what's been going on in Tehran today it seems to me increasingly obvious that we're seeing something we haven't seen since the early years of the Revolution: an open split in the ruling establishment. Back in 1999, when Mohammad Khatami was President, student demonstrations were put down by the security forces, and to the dismay of many of the reformers, Khatami acceded to it. Ultimately the reformist within the system yielded to the system.

This time something different is going on. I'm not an Iranianist, but when you consider that according to various reports Khatami, his brother, Mousavi, at least one Grand Ayatollah, and other stalwarts of the Revolution were participating in the protest march, and consider that the other defeated candidates, Mehdi Karrubi (a former Speaker of the Majlis) and Mohsen Rezai (former Commander of the Guards Corps) have joined the call for new elections, it seems clear that the establishment itself is divided this time over what many see as a coup. Arguments over whether the election was stolen or not are really increasingly beside the point: the ruling elite is fighting among itself.

There have been reports that Rafsanjani quit the Expediency Council in protest, but I don't know if that actually occurred, but he's been sniping at Ahmadinejad for years anyway. There are reports of many faculty resignations at Tehran University.

This doesn't mean, of course, that the regime is on the way out. After all, when China cracked down on the Tienanmen protests 20 years ago, it marked the fall of Zhao Ziyang from power as well; it may be that in Iran the regime will consolidate with the reformist wing excluded. But it does seem to me that this could well be one of those critical moments that mark dramatic change — for good or ill.

Netanyahu's Speech

I suppose I need to say something about Netanyahu's much-anticipated speech over the weekend. The most immediate thing I notice is that while the speech seems to have been well-received by Israelis, including many who oppose Netanyahu politically but welcome his open acceptance of a two-state solution, it has been universally criticized by Arab spokesmen, both for the Palestinian Authority and also Arab countries active in the peace process, including Husni Mubarak of Egypt.

I think it's in part one of those glass-half-full, glass-half-empty things: Israelis, at least those on the dovish side, welcome Netanyahu's accepting a two state solution for the first time; Arabs focused instead on the preconditions he raised: demilitarization of the Palestinian state and Palestinian recognition, not only of Israel, but of Israel as a Jewish state. Of course Israelis have insisted on both before, so it's not really new: but by making these points so prominent, he seems to have undercut (from the Arab point of view) his openness to a Palestinian state.

The biggest point to be made, I think, is that the peace process was not particularly advanced by the speech; but then, the election of Netanyahu did not augur well for any early breakthroughs. We are farther from a solution than we have been in the past, but that isn't really new. The speech may have helped soften the growing confrontation with Washington by nominally accepting a two state solution, but the conditions mean that however Washington receives it, it was not seen as progress by the Palestinians.

Shots Fired?

Now there are reports that shots have been fired at today's big rally. Until now the government forces have not sought to crush the demonstration despite officially banning it. A spark could be very dangerous at this point, with some estimates of the crowd ranging into the hundreds of thousands.

At this point, in the age of Twitter and Facebook, it may be best to watch events develop and avoid either predictions or prescriptions of policy. I don't know, and I suspect those on the scene don't know, if the next act is the storming of the Bastille, or an Iranian Tienanmen, or something quite different. What is clear is that this is turning into the biggest thing in years, and I think the regime may have realized that today.