Monday, February 29, 2016

UNDERSTANDING IRAN 1. What Iran’s Election Didn’t Change Jonathan Tobin Commentary magazine 2-29-16; 2. Iran's Elections Are Magic...Don't get too excited. 3. Which countries execute the most people?


1.   What Iran’s Election Didn’t Change
 Jonathan Tobin  Commentary magazine   2-29-16
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As the results from Iran’s elections have come in, the headlines are telling what sounds, at least on the surface, to be an encouraging story. “Moderates Win Key Iran Elections,” says the Wall Street Journal. All accounts point to a repudiation of what we are told are “hard-line” opponents of the nuclear deal with the West and modernization of the country. That sounds good from the point of view of those hoping, like President Obama, that Iran will use the nuclear deal to “get right with the world.”
But informed observers need to ask two questions about the assumptions that those headlines are buttressing. One is whether the winning candidates in these elections are truly moderates rather than just a different faction of hard-liners. The other is whether these results have even the slightest chance of producing an Iran that truly is a moderate nation that eschews terrorism, poses no danger to its neighbors, no longer oppresses its own people, create a more open society and has no desire to build a nuclear weapon.
Unfortunately, any dispassionate analysis of the election makes it clear that the answers to those questions are, respectively, no and no.
Parsing the identity of the winners in the Iranian elections is no simple task. Most foreign observers are guided by the list of those endorsed by Iran’s supposedly moderate President Hassan Rouhani for inclusion in the Assembly of Experts that will choose a successor to current Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But there is a big problem with treating Rouhani’s list as a test of moderation or that of the endorsement of any other person labeled as a reformist leader.
We already knew that in Iran’s faux democratic system, a Guardian Council controlled by Khamenei vetted all of the possible candidates for office and disqualified virtually all those who had any real inclination to transform the country from a theocratic tyranny into something less awful. So, no matter what Rouhani or anyone else might say, the election winners that are called “moderates” in accounts of the vote are not actually moderate by any reasonable definition.
Bloomberg’s Eli Lake explains the reality of the election in a piece in which he points out that one of the victors considered a reformer is the same person who has called for the execution of leaders of the Green Movement that led protests against the regime in 2009 that ended in bloodshed and repression. Two others are former intelligence ministers that murdered dissidents. Others on those lists of moderates have made it clear that they resist the label and consider themselves part of the Islamist mainstream that supports the status quo. What apparently has happened is that faced with the disqualification of all of their candidates, reformers have endorsed others that do not share their views. That gives them the opportunity to declare victory today but is meaningless in terms of the impact of the vote on the future of Iranian society.
This brings us back to the question of whether Rouhani is actually a moderate. Compared to other even more extreme Iranian figures, perhaps he is someone whose views are less in keeping with the Islamist regime’s most medieval aspects. Moderation is, after all, a relative term that can’t be proven objectively. But as we have seen during since Rouhani’s election to a post that has far less power than that of Khamenei, he is not a force for moderation if by that we mean the creation of an Iran that poses less of a threat to both its own people or the rest of the world.
Despite the widespread belief in his moderation, Rouhani is a fervent support of the Islamist republic created by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. Any changes that he might favor would not loosen the iron grip of the theocrats on every aspect of Iranian society. He has done nothing to interfere with the efforts of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to spread their brand of Islamist terror around the world. Nor has he opposed Iran’s intervention in Syria where its own troops and Hezbollah auxiliaries have helped prop up the barbarous Assad regime. He is also not opposed to the Iranian nuclear program or Khamenei’s quest for regional hegemony. To the contrary, despite the widespread belief in his moderation, Rouhani has merely been a more palatable figurehead figure than his predecessor, the loathsome Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
What Rouhani and the moderates do want is more money from the West. Rouhani is a strong believer in the merits of the nuclear deal embraced by the Obama administration. And from Iran’s point of view, he’s right. By accepting a ten-year delay (assuming they don’t cheat) in their progress toward a bomb, Iran got Western approval for its nuclear program and a windfall in terms of frozen assets and the dismantling of international sanctions. Some hard-liners opposed the deal because they wanted to press ahead toward a weapon and because they think they are better off without Western cash. Rouhani’s moderation then is not so much an indication of his desire for a more liberal society but the function of a pragmatic desire to use the naïveté of the Obama administration to serve the interests of the hard line goals of the Iranian revolution. That’s not moderation. That’s just a much more clever brand of Islamist extremism.
That’s why even if Rouhani’s friends dominate the parliament; we shouldn’t expect any actual change in Iranian society or its foreign policy. Rouhani and his moderates don’t want a free Iran or even one that isn’t a threat to its neighbors. But they do want to exploit the foolish desires of Western liberals to pretend that the conflict with the Islamist regime is over.
It isn’t over and won’t be so long as the Islamists are in charge in Tehran. Far from justifying the nuclear deal, the results prove again that Western expectations about it were entirely unrealistic. The victory of the moderates doesn’t mean change. What it does mean is a longer, tougher fight for those who wish to defend the Middle East against an aggressive and a now richer — thanks to the nuclear deal — Islamist regime.

2.   Iran's Elections Are Magic...Don't get too excited.
 Eli Lake  BloombergView  2-29-16
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If you are following the Iranian elections, prepare to be dazzled. According to major news outlets from the BBC to the Associated Press, the reformists beat the hardliners.
But wait. Didn't Iran's Guardian Council disqualify most of the reformists back in January? Of course it did, but thanks to the magic of Iranian politics, many of yesterday's hardliners are today's reformists.
Take Kazem Jalali. Until this month, Jalali was one of those hardliners whom President Barack Obama had hoped to marginalize with the Iran nuclear deal. Jalali has, for example, called for sentencing to death the two leaders of the Green Movement, who are currently under house arrest. And yet, he ran on the list endorsed by the reformists in Friday's election.
Two former intelligence ministers, accused by Iran's democratic opposition of having dissidents murdered, Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri and Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, also ran on the list endorsed by Iran's moderate president for the Assembly of Experts, the panel that is charged with selecting the next supreme leader.
The initial Iranian reform movement of the late 1990s sought to allow more social freedoms and political opposition of the unelected side of Iran's government, such as the office of the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council. Over time however, the changes supported by the reformists like Mohammed Khatami, who was president between 1997 and 2005, were stymied by these unelected institutions. When the next generation of reform politicians ran for office in 2009 under the banner of the green movement, the unelected part of the state arrested their supporters when they demonstrated against what they saw as a stolen election. On Friday, many of the hardliners that opposed the reformists in the late 1990s and in 2009 are running under this banner. 
As Saeed Ghasseminejad, an expert on Iranian politics at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, recently said: "Putting a reformist or moderate label on hardliners does not make them reformist or moderate." 
In some cases, the transformation happened so quickly that the candidates themselves were surprised. Caitlin Shayda Pendleton, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project, wrote last week, two of the candidates on Rouhani's list for the Assembly of Experts told reporters they weren't asked to be included among the alleged reformists. These include Ayatollah Ali Movahedi Kermani, who defended the Guardian Council's vetting process against the reformists; as well as Ayatollah Mohammad-Ali Taskhiri, who told reporters, "I believe that the correct way is Principalist, and the way of others, like Reformists or moderates, is the incorrect way.”
As Pendleton wrote on Sunday, "Many (but far from all) candidates described as Reformists in both the parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections are actually Moderates who were endorsed by Reformist leaders as a fallback after the Guardian Council disqualified most of the Reformists trying to run."
The headlines, however, tell a different story. The Guardian, for example, says: "Iranian elections deal blow to hardliners as reformists make gains." The BBC concludes: "Reformists win all 30 Tehran seats." And on it goes.
Headline writers should be given some slack on this. After all, President Hassan Rouhani -- a moderate, but no reformer -- himself has celebrated the preliminary results in the elections as a major victory. After criticizing the disqualifications, he has held his tongue and tried to make the most of a bad situation, encouraging Iranians to vote nonetheless.
The same is true for many of the marginalized reformists. Khatami, who the state has decreed an unmentionable figure for Iranian media, took to the social network Telegram to urge his countrymen to vote. The logic here is that at the very least, voters could protest the most reactionary hardliners in favor of the slightly less reactionary hardliners. This is hardly a victory for democratic change in Iran. And that is what is important for Westerners trying to make sense of Iran's elections. While Iranian politicians have to make the best of a bad hand, we don't. Western journalists and analysts don't need to confer legitimacy on illegitimate elections, nor should we call hardliners "reformists." At the very least, it's important to hold out a higher standard for the day real reformers are allowed to compete fairly for power in Iran.
And yet many of Iran's alleged supporters in the West have gone along with the spin. Trita Parsi, an Iranian-Swedish activist whose U.S. organization played a key role in lobbying for the Iran nuclear deal, wrote on Sunday evening that critics of Friday's election didn't misread what he euphemistically called the "flaws in the Iranian political system." Rather these critics "misread the strength of the Iranian society and the sophistication of the Iranian electorate, who once again have shown that they have the maturity and wisdom to change their society peacefully from within, without any support or interference from the outside."
It's quite something when an Iranian who claims to support the opening of Iran's society praises the "maturity and wisdom" of an electorate offered "reformists" who support the disqualification of reformers.
But this is the magic of Iran's elections. In the end, Iran's supreme leader doesn't need to defend their legitimacy. He has plenty in the West eager to do it for him.
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In 2015 the number of executions in Iran for drug offences was the highest in 20 years.