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With the December 6 news that it plans to build twenty new uranium enrichment facilities, Iran has dealt a serious blow to hopes of peacefully resolving its nuclear standoff with the West. After months of courtship by the international community, Iran’s announcement appears to be both a rejection of the West’s advances and a signal of its intent to step up its pursuit of a nuclear program. With the US running out of cards to play, many fear that the two countries are on a collision course to military confrontation.

Much like North Korea, the consequences of an Iranian possession of nuclear bomb are dire. The Obama administration has sought to right the wrong of American Cold War policy, when the US provided its then-ally Iran with nuclear reactors in an attempt to curry favor. Preventing proliferation is a priority for the Obama administration and confirmation that Iran has a nuclear bomb would trigger an arms race in the Middle East, with heavyweights such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia seeking to counter Iranian domination in the region. An Iranian nuclear bomb would also bring Israel and Iran closer to war. Iran’s anti-Semitic leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicised his hatred of Israel so often that Israeli leaders deem a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat. Just last year an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear sites was narrowly averted after George W. Bush refused to give Ehud Olmert the green light. The Obama administration has since tried to convince the Israelis of the virtues of diplomacy with Iran, but the latest setback means that hawks in Israel and the US will be circling Iran with greater intensity.

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Americans are having trouble believing it—their president is not making regrettable statements about the Iranian election.  Millions of facebook networkers, twitter users, and bloggers responded to what was immediately called an unfair election and its brutal aftermath.  Politicians and political junkies on both sides of the aisle chastised the great Obama for not taking a stand on the contested outcome and sequential outcome.  President Obama responded appropriately and thoughtfully.

As a huge Obama fan, I’m unapt to begin criticizing our President without all the facts.  He has responsibilities to his own people, to those who came before him, to the Iranian people, to the world’s people.  Completely isolating and insulting either Mahmud Ahmadinejad or his challengers could prove disastrous later in international affairs.  Illegitimating the unfavorable outcome of the election in Iran, a nation that had so hoped for a fair election, did not really feel right, especially while we were all still a little high on HOPE.  The appalled president condemned the actions of the Iranian government in a timely manner, but did not take the stand that so many Americans still thought was necessary

He still walks a “tightrope,” as CNN called it.[1] Jon Stewart joked that America can’t win and that seems to be true… or at least, Obama can’t win.  He was criticized by almost everyone when he didn’t say much and then was called a meddler and compared to President George W. Bush when he called for the violence to stop.  America got in trouble for meddling in 1953 and again in 1979, and now that we’re not meddling, suddenly we’re not doing enough.

I thought I was crazy or ignorant for being proud that Obama was taking the time to mull things over and react wisely.  My qualms were soothed after attending the June 22 New America Foundation forum on the Iran Election.  Most of the expert panel agreed that Obama was for the most part, doing the right thing: Read the rest of this entry »

With just over a month to go until the Iranian Presidential election the election process is heating up.  475 people have registered as official candidates, including 42 women.  Here are two of the most interesting contenders:

  • Rafat Bayat is the most well-known women to have submitted her candidacy.  She is a former member of the Majlis, the Iranian Parliament who had attempted to run in the last presidential election in 2005.  She has been a critic of the Ahmadinejahd administration’s economic policies and has stated that if elected her first deputy will be a woman.
  • Koresh Mouzuni is believed to be the youngest candidate at twelve years old.  He appears to be a fan of current president Mahmood Ahmadinejahd and has said that if elected he will appoint him as his first deputy.  When asked about his stance towards Israel he answered, “I will buy Hawaii, Obama’s birthplace, from the United States and lease it to Israelis who will go live there – so that they don’t kill the children in Gaza.”  So does this mean that he supports talks with America without preconditions?

The Guardian Council will take the list of 475 potential candidates and narrow it down it a handful of top contenders, with the announcement of their selections expected to come on May 22nd.  The top candidates are expected to include two conservatives: incumbent President Mahmood Ahmadinejahd and former head of the Revolutionary Guard Mohsen Rezai, and two reformists: former speaker of Parliament Mehdi Karroubi and former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Rezai, Karroubi, Mousavi have each criticized Ahmadinejahd’s administration, especially his handling of the economy.  Fellow conservative Mohsen Rezai has said that Ahmadinejahd “would drag the country over a cliff” if reelected, while Mehdi Karroubi has declared Ahmadinejahd’s statements about Israel to be undermining Iran’s international credibility.

It will be interesting to see whether or not having two candidates from each the reformist and the conservative camps will play out.  Will one reformist candidate drop out of the race in order to avoid splitting the reformist vote?  Rezai has said that he will work with reformers- will he make a deal to form a coalition government?  Will the Guardian Council disqualify any of these candidates in an effort to support Ahmadinejahd?  We’ll have to wait to find out.

The case of Roxana Saberi, which I discussed briefly two weeks ago, has experienced some swift and worrying developments in the last couple of days.  Yesterday Saberi was found guilty of espionage by a Revolutionary Court and sentenced to eight years in prison.  The case has created some serious complications for the already complicated budding relationship between the United States and Iran.

Saberi was arrested three months ago, originally charged with buying alcohol.  She was then accused of continuing to work as a journalist after her press credentials had been revoked.  Just last week the charges were changed to the much more serious accusation of espionage and by yesterday the trial was held and the sentence of eight years in prison had been given.  This “trial”, however, was held in secret and only included written evidence which Saberi’s father claims she was tricked into giving.  Neither Saberi or her lawyer were given time to prepare her defense.

Saberi’s conviction has revealed divisions within the Islamic Republic.  President Ahmadinejahd has written a letter to the head of the Iranian judiciary, asking that Saberi be allowed to offer a full defense in her appeal.  Sergey Barseqian notes that the case “shows that the judiciary and Ahmnadinejad have not reached an agreement over ties with the West”.  While Ahmadinejahd clearly wants to continue to be open to American overtures, it would appear that hardliners within the judiciary are wary of any sort of détente.  Some have even suggested that Iranian officials are planning to negotiate Saberi’s release for the release of five Iranian men captured by American authrities in Iraq.

Regardless, it is clear that Saberi’s case is more of a political statement than a judicial proceeding.  The timing of the whole affair seems very odd to me: Saberi was arrested three months ago, why have a such a hurried and clearly unfair trial right now?  Are some Iranian officials trying to use the case to gain leverage in any eventual negotiations with the U.S.? Are they trying to influence the political culture within Iran, in hopes of affecting the outcome of the June 12th presidential elections?  I don’t know.  But it saddens and frustrates me to think that whoever is trying to make such a political statement is doing so with a young woman’s life.

The current rift between the US and Iran is argued to be based on false perceptions and speculated intentions of the other.  For the last four years, the Iranian government has chosen to pursue uranium enrichment without international inspectors overseeing its production and ensuring that it is for peaceful purposes of producing energy.  The reason for the Iranian government to refuse the IAEA to enter its nuclear facilities is where the speculation begins and political inferences and agendas are crafted.  Clearly, communication is the first step to clear the air of speculation and reconcile this highly politicized and vulnerable schism, but who will actually do something about it?

US President Barack Obama has already taken the first steps of extending an olive branch to the country very strategic for US interests.  Both on Obama’s first television interview and at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first meeting last week on the matter with the world’s major powers, the Administration made it clear that there is a shift in US policy to Iran.  Obama is willing to directly speak with Iranian officials to find a resolution to the tumultuous relationship that has escalated since 2005.

In the US, peace organizations and activists are holding Obama under the limelight to ensure he follows through with the promises of his campaign.  Not only are activists pressuring government officials and legislators to be true to their word, they have even taken the matter in their own hands and have sent several peaceful delegations to Iran to meet with Iranian citizens there.  These delegations aim to promote citizen diplomacy and build bridges over the lack of communication that have plagued the two governments for the last few years.  As a country that largely expressed its support for the victims and their families of September 11th, Iranians’ sense of humanity is remarkable despite differences between their government and foreign governments.  Acknowledging their vast amount of similarities and empathy for the American community is a first step to reconciling a relationship for which each country has been starving.

The Iranian government, specifically President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made many similar public statements of wanting to open dialogue and build this bridge of peace.  Without the pressures of being recorded, broadcasted, and having public demonstrations against his policies, I attended a meeting with Ahmadinejad last September where he repeated his sentiment for the need for open dialogue.  When we brought up the issue of permitting more Americans to visit Iran, he even concurred and pressed the Iranian officials present to address that issue.  This was a bold and reassuring step in my mind that he was willing to be proactive about the situation but I was also not going to hold my breath.

Thank God I didn’t.

I originally had plans to be on one of the citizen diplomacy delegations to Iran this past August 2008.  Unfortunately, the entire delegation’s visas were denied, which is one main reason why we confronted him with this issue in September.  I was rescheduled to go on a similar delegation this month but, alas, had my visa denied again.  I was a bit worried about this happening since not only was a US women’s badminton team had their visas denied a couple of weeks ago after being invited by Iran but also because a British organization that promote cultural and education ties have also been under scrutiny lately.  These events are contradictory to Ahmadinejad’s statements.  I can only speculate as to why the Iranian government has chosen to tighten down on foreign visas into Iran, but I am sure that it is the wrong direction for Ahmadinejad.  Barring communication and interactions between the two countries will prolong a unnerving relationship already on the rocks with false perceptions and speculations.  I can only ask for Ahmadinejad to uphold his convictions he convincingly portrayed five months ago and open the Iranian borders for others to witness the beauty of Iran and its people…the lasting effects will be priceless.

Over the past two weeks there have been a number of celebrations throughout Iran commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic.  Here’s a round-up of how some groups are marking the occasion:

  • Iranian President Mahmood Ahmadinejahd spoke at a large rally commemorating the surrender of the Shah’s army on February 10th, 1979 at Azadi Square in Tehran.  His speech was full of the usual rhetoric and verbal posturing as he declared that Iran has achieved superpower status and as he announced that the “era of domination, force and mistreatment [by foreign powers] has come to an end”.  He did indicate that Iran would be open to talks with the United States, provided that they were based on “mutual respect”.  All in all, however, the tone of his presentation did not differ from his usual script of berating the West and asserting Iran’s power.  I have to wonder how he really couldn’t come up with anything more original to say on such an important occasion.
  • The blog, Iran Human Rights Voice, offers a different take on the 30th anniversary of the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran after his years of exile.  They note that it only took Khomeini a month of being in power for him to declare: “Don’t listen to those who speak of democracy. They all are against Islam.”.  They remind us that while the Revolution did dispose of the tyrannical Shah, the current regime has proved to be equally hostile to dissenting opinions.
  • Amnesty International has created a video chronicling their work studying human rights violations in Iran.  They report that widespread human rights violations continue in the form of the arrests and harassment of political dissenters, women’s rights activist, labor organizers, and minority activists, and inhumane forms of punishment such as stoning and the execution of minors.  Malcolm Smart, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program, observes, “Thirty years on, some of the worst abuses of the Shah’s time – torture, executions and the suppression of legitimate dissent – are still being replicated in Iran, despite the efforts of the country’s growing and valiant community of human rights defenders,”.
  • Reformers within Iran have also stated that the Revolution has not lived up to its potential and its promises.  One reformist politician, Rajabali Mazrouei argued, “We have achieved political independence. But two basic goals of the revolution — that is to say freedom and justice — have not yet been achieved nor have we achieved the economic development we had been promised,”.

It is clear that the legacy of the Iranian Revolution is a complex and conflicted one.  Most can agree that the overthrow of the Shah was an important and necessary revolt; but many argue that Iran has simply traded one form of tyranny for another since many of the Shah’s most repressive tactics are still being used against Iranian citizens.  Many of the participants of the Revolution are still waiting for the ideals which they acted on thirty years ago to become realities.  I only hope that they won’t have to wait another thirty years to see these dreams achieved.

There has been a lot of buzz about Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s recent announcement that he will be running against incumbent President Mahmood Ahmadinejahd in the up coming Presidential elections.  Many anticipate a fierce campaign with Khatamai taking up the banner of the reformist movement against Ahmadinejahd and his follow entrenched hardliners.  The Christian Science Monitor claims that “[t]he fight promises to be a clash of Iran’s political titans, between men representing opposite sides of Iran’s political and social chasm”.  The International Herald Tribune notes that “Khatami’s decision to run against Ahmadinejad could significantly shake up Iran’s politics, appealing to citizens disillusioned by the country’s failing economy and Ahmadinejad’s staunch anti-U.S. foreign policy”.

If I were an Iranian voter, however, I would not be particularly excited.  Both Ahmadinejahd and Khatami have experience in the role of President, meaning that voters can examine their records side by side and make a truly informed choice.  This choice leaves much to be desired.

Ahmadinejahd’s legacy is pretty clear.  He has alienated the international community with his fiery rhetoric, clearly mishandled Iran’s economy, and his term has been marked by the increased harassment of those who do not agree with hard line conservatives.  Ahmadinejahd has largely defined himself in opposition to George W. Bush and now that Bush has left office, he is starting to appear obsolete.  I find it difficult to believe that in the face of a global economic downturn and with the promise of a renewed relationship with the United States that the Iranian people will choose more of the same overblown rhetoric and financial fumbling.

Khatami’s presidency from 1997 to 2005 was indeed more moderate but in some ways equally dissatisfying.  While he was Iran’s first reformist president, his ability to create real change was severely limited by conservatives in the Guardian Council which often vetoed his bills.  He did enact a period of economic liberalization and of increased freedom of expression but many fellow reformists were disappointed with the limited nature of these reforms.  The ideological leader of the reformist movement, Abdolkarim Soroush, went so far as to attack Khatami for his inaction, writing, “your failure to keep the vote and your wasting of opportunities put an end to it and disappointed the nation”.  Perhaps it is unfair to attack Khatami for his lack of action when his power was so clearly limited, but one is forced to wonder what he thinks he could do differently if given a second chance.

If Khatami seriously expects to be granted another term he is going to need to prove to the Iranian people that this time he can do something differently; whether it is uniting the diverse factions of the reformist movement or devoting time and energy to drumming up grassroots support for reformist programs.  He will have to try extra hard to reach out to the thousands of young voters who were particularly disillusioned by the inaction of his last term and who represent a large percentage of the vote.  But with four months to go until the election we will have to wait to see how Khatami’s message will resonante with the Iranian people.

As I sat down to write this post about the blogging scene in Iran, I stumbled upon this excellent video about just that subject.  Check it out!

“Iran: A Nation of Bloggers” was made by Vancouver Film School students Aaron Chiesa, Toru Kageyama, Hendy Sukyara, and Lisa Temes, and written by Kate Tremillis. The video uses powerful illustrations (inspired by Marjane Satratpi‘s “Pesepolis“) to show how for many Iranians blogging is the most effective way to express themselves. Online forums can empower them to discuss and debate topics that are banned from the public discourse.

This video highlights the fact that blogging is a risky endeavor for Iranian citizens. According to Reporters Without Borders, “Iran has the biggest number of threatened cyber-dissidents in the Middle East and dozens of websites are shut down each year”. Some high-profile arrests of bloggers have recently made international headlines. Hossein Derakhshan, referred to as the “Blogfather” of the Iranian blogosphere, is reported to have been arrested for charges of spying for Israel, a crime punishable by death. Another blogger, Shahnaz Gulami, has also been arrested for blogging about Iran’s treatment of ethnic minorities.

The government has felt so threatened by the blossoming of dissident blogs that the Iran Human Rights Voice is reporting that the Revolutionary Guard has started 10,000 weblogs “for the purposes of adding “quality content” to the Internet” and to establish “the presence of the guards in the weblog publishing domain”. Even Iranian President, Mahmood Ahmadinejahd has his own blog.

Iranian Internet users also face the additional challenge of Internet censorship. The government has banned as many as five million websites, including YouTube and Facebook. All Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, must be approved by the Ministry of Culture and must install filters that block all sites and emails deemed inappropriate. All websites must also register with the Ministry. Internet censorship is certainly limited to Iran. Other countries, including Turkey, China, and even Australia, use, or are considering using, filters to block their citizens’ access to illegal and offensive material.

But despite all of these challenges, Iranian bloggers continue to publish their opinions, thoughts, hopes, and criticisms. The diversity of opinion among Iranian bloggers is remarkable. While some call for democracy and reform, others debate the tenants of Islamic law. Still others discuss their personal lives or post poetry and art. Like bloggers around the world, their goal is to express themselves. Hopefully someday that expression will not have to be limited to the Internet.

The American populace is increasingly publicly wondering and debating whether or not Bush and/or members of his administration have intentions of making Iran country #3 that America has invaded during the past two presidential terms. Bush’s, Cheney’s, Rice’s, and, up until his recent resignation, Rumsfeld’s rhetoric towards Iran has run the gamut from threatening military response against members of the Axis of Evil (of which Iran is obviously a member) in the 2002 National Security Strategy to stating that the US will not even talk to Iran about compromising until Iran compromises first (which doesn’t make sense for Iran to adhere to, which is another blog for another day).

Steven Clemons, Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, recently posted an op/ed on Salon.com debating this issue and ultimately concluding that Bush will not attack Iran. He delves into great detail describing how the US administration’s threats would lead one to think that Bush is seriously considering an invasion, but that in fact his military and intelligence advisors have warned him of the problems with this plan (not the least of which is America’s quickly deteriorating popularity in the Muslim world), making Cheney and his neoconservatives unsuccessfully try ever harder to convince Bush and the public of the necessity of an invasion. However, Clemons mentions only briefly the possibility of an "accidental" confrontation.

The scenario of a covert attempt to create war deserves much greater thought than Clemons included in his article, despite his mentioning that it is worth worrying about. When considering Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s past roles in using fake memos from Niger to drum up a war in Iraq, blatantly ignoring the intelligence community’s cries that the sources were questionable, why would they not repeat a similar scandal for war with Iran? This time, however, it is likely that they will not use the public to vet their phoney intel, but will instead quietly put ants in Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s pants until he lashes out, giving the administration something to respond militarily to with the full support of the public, who will think they know the whole story – simply an angry Muslim country attacking the US, yet again.

Many people criticize me for saying that I care about my peers in Iran (I do), and simultaneously advocating a militarily hands-off approach by the United States when it comes to the regime oppressing them.

However, here is one reason why any outside military intervention (by any state) would be a bad idea in Iran.

The Iranian government has gotten 54 students involved in pro-democracy activities expelled from their university in Tehran, and is forcing them into the army.

An Iranian student holds a placard, reading:
Iranian youth activists face boot camp

Robert Tait in Tehran
Thursday March 1, 2007

Guardian Unlimited

Students
involved in an angry protest against the Iranian president, Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, have been expelled and earmarked for compulsory military
service, in an apparent act of official retribution.

Authorities
at Tehran’s Amir Kabir University, a traditional hotbed of student
protest, have ended the studies of 54 students, ostensibly for
repeatedly failing their exams.

However,
most of the students singled out are political activists who took part
in December’s demonstration at the university at which president
Ahmadinejad was greeted with chants of "death to the dictator". Many
students with equally poor academic records have been allowed to
continue, activists said.

The
demonstration, which sparked violent clashes between protesters and
Basij volunteers loyal to the president, was triggered by student anger
over a campus clampdown by the government.

One
activist displayed a banner reading: "Fascist president, the
polytechnic is not for you." Others held portraits of Mr Ahmadinejad
upside down and set them alight. One student had his nose broken by a
cabinet minister’s aide and a member of Mr Ahmadinejad’s security team
fired a stun grenade to disperse demonstrators.

Several protesters later went into hiding, fearing for their lives after being threatened by the president’s supporters.

Mr
Ahmadinejad later announced that the dissenting students should go
unpunished. Ali Azizi, vice-secretary of the Islamic Students
Committee, said the wave of expulsions broke that pledge.

"Many
of the expelled students are political activists and were present at
the protests … It demonstrates revenge against the students’ protests
… In the past, questions over academic performance have not [been]
considered reason for expulsion. Students with even worse academic
records exist among student organisations supported by the government
but they have not faced expulsion."

The
university chancellor, Ali Reza Rahai, an ally of Mr Ahmadinejad ,
accompanied the expulsion orders by signing eligibility notices
allowing the students to be enlisted into the armed forces.

That
effectively makes good a threat by Mr Ahmadinejad that he would arrange
for students with three stars under the university’s disciplinary code
to be enrolled as army sergeants. This system has been extensively used
to punish those involved in political activities on campus.

The
protest against Mr Ahmadinejad was also related to moves to segregate
female and male students, the closure of campus magazines and the
demolition of buildings belonging to the students committee. Campus
guards were also ordered to refuse admission to women wearing makeup
and "too short" coats.

These students are our peers. We should find some way of showing them peaceful solidarity. Ideas?

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