Iran: elite fracturing or political theater?

Ahmedinejads new cabinet will include allies of the basiji militia that violently suppressed post-election protests

Ahmedinejad's new cabinet will include allies of the basiji militia that violently suppressed post-election protests

The dramatic events in Iran following June’s fraudulent election have exposed a fundamental conflict within the ruling elite over the Islamic republic’s future, writes former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer. Does Iran seek openness or isolation, integration or destabilization?

“Like all partial modernizers in authoritarian regimes, Iran’s rulers want an advanced economy, technology, and infrastructure, but not freedom, democracy or the rule of law,” a fact that their obsession with color revolutions.

The rifts within the ruling bloc have been exacerbated by a new clash between President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei over the appropriate response to recent events. While Khamenei has adopted a conciliatory tone, disputing suggestions that the unrest was instigated by foreign powers, Ahmedinejad and his supporters in the Revolutionary Guards are demanding that reformist leaders be punished. 

Although he is aligned with the hardliners against the reformists, Khamenei appears wary of provoking further division, but he “is stuck with Ahmadinejad, and he is stuck with the Revolutionary Guards and their daily demands to arrest Moussavi,” said Abbas Milani, Stanford University’s director of Iranian studies. “He is trying to calm them down.”

Other analysts suggest that the apparent splits may be orchestrated political theater.  “Khamenei wants to try and rehabilitate his image as a magnanimous leader who stays above the fray, and hence he issues more conciliatory statements,” says Karim Sadjadpour, “while giving [Ahmadinejad] free reign to be the attack dog.”

Hardliners have been nominated for leading posts in Ahmedinejad’s new cabinet, indicating “a shift towards figures suspicious of the outside world,” including prominent Revolutionary Guards. Would-be defense minister Ahmad Vahidi, a former leader of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, is wanted by Interpol for his alleged involvement in planning the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.

The proposed interior minister, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, is another Revolutionary Guard veteran, and Heydar Moslehi, nominated as intelligence minister, is closely associated with the basiji militia, the cutting edge of the Revolutionary Guards’ post-election human rights abuses and suppression of protesters.

Afghanistan needs …. more democracy?

With the White House taking delivery today of a long-awaited report on Afghanistan strategy, analysts are stressing good governance as a critical factor in successful anti-insurgency prospects.

“The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort,” according to an assessment from General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of American and NATO forces there.

But, even as expectations of Afghan democracy have markedly diminished, the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Riedel insists that “more democracy not less is a good thing in this war.” The implications of Afghanistan’s presidential election will be “enormous” for President Barack Obama’s new Af-Pak strategy as the U.S. desperately needs a “legitimate and credible outcome” from the election, a precondition for securing the decent governance essential to winning the people’s hearts and minds.

The concern is that “the US has underwritten a flawed election and in due course will be seen as standing behind a new government of doubtful legitimacy,” an analyst notes.

But if incumbent President Karzai wins because of support from corrupt and tarnished warlords, prospects for good governance will be slim, Riedel cautions. While some fear the tribal polarization and potential conflict that could result from a second round of voting, Riedel argues that it would “build legitimacy and credibility” into the political process.

The centrality of good governance is also stressed by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “No outcome of the recent presidential election can make up for the critical flaws in a grossly overcentralized government that is corrupt, is often a tool of power brokers and narco-traffickers, and lacks basic capacity in virtually every ministry,” he writes.

Yet good governance demands certain preconditions, writes Daniel Brumberg, co-director of Georgetown University’s Democracy and Governance Program and Acting Director of the Muslim World Initiative at the United States Institute of Peace.

“To provide a sustainable basis for national reconciliation and democratic governance, elections must be preceded by some measure of successful state building, economic development and — most importantly — elite peace making,” he contends.

But President Obama faces the great conundrum that when the U.S. acts as both partisan and conflict mediator, it becomes as much part of the problem as part of the solution. “We cannot stay but we cannot go,” he writes.

The growing evidence of electoral fraud and President Hamid Karzai’s collusion with some of the most corrupt and violent warlords has led to the incumbent being perceived as Afghanistan’s Ngo Dinh Diem and to policy-makers considering alternatives to working with the compromised Kabul regime, including:

…..working around Karzai and to strengthen those ministries best equipped to deliver and least plagued by corruption; of empowering provincial level administrators by bypassing the central government to funnel aid directly; and even pressuring Mr Karzai to accept the appointment of a technocrat like [former finance minister Ashraf]Ghani as a “chief executive” to run the government.

In marked contrast to the official corruption and nepotism, this AFP report notes the sacrifice and commitment of those Afghans in democracy’s front-line:

Aminullah Fazly, an Afghan official who ran elections in Logar province, has spent three months barricaded in his office. He doesn’t want to leave — the Taliban want to kill him.

Japan poll a poke in the eye for ‘Asian values’ proponents

The landslide victory of the center-left Democratic Party of Japan ended a half century of almost uninterrupted rule by the Liberal Democratic Party, marking “the evolution of the developed world’s only one-party state into a more normal democracy.”

The DPJ won a secure majority, taking more than 308 of 480 seats in the lower house of parliament, in a victory that could have ramifications across Pacific Asia. The region’s democracy advocates will behoping that the DPJ will take a more assertive approach in promoting democracy to counter the China model of authoritarian modernization.

The election’s impact on Sino-Japanese relations will be closely monitored. The election campaign was barely reported in Chinese media, perhaps for obvious reasons. “It is not very smart for an autocratic ruling party to harp on about a neighbouring country’s election when China’s own people cannot partake of that privilege,” a recent report noted.

The official Xinhua news agency made a point of noting that the “DPJ puts more emphasis on ‘liberty’, ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’” than the LDP and chastised DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama for meeting the Dalai Lama.

The election also provides a further refutation of the surprisingly resilient “Asian values” argument that the region’s citizens have a cultural preference for authoritarianism.

“Indeed, it has often been said, by Japanese as well as foreign commentators, that a de facto one-party state suits the Japanese, writes Ian Buruma. “Stability, based on soft authoritarianism, is the Asian way, now followed by China. Asians don’t like the messy contentiousness of parliamentary democracy. “

But the DPJ’s victory “shows clearly that the desire for political choice is not confined to a few fortunate countries, mostly in the Western world,” he notes.

EU shows solidarity with Cuban dissident

Representatives of five European Union embassies visited the wife of jailed Cuban opposition activist Darsi Ferrer. Diplomats from Sweden, Britain, Hungary, Poland and Germany brought food and clothing to Ferrer’s wife, Yusnaimy Jorge Soca, at her Havana home (hat tip: Foreign Policy Initiative).

Ferrer’s case is another instance of activists being targeted for supposedly non-political offences. Cuban officials charged him with buying two bags of cement on the black market and “verbal assault” of a neighbor, insisting his arrest has nothing to do with his organized walks along Havana’s Malecon boulevard in support of human rights.

“There’s a question mark when it comes to this arrest,” said Ingemar Cederberg, deputy chief at the Swedish Embassy. “There are accusations that belong to the category of common crime, not really political, and [the visit] is a way of showing our interest that the case should advance and get clarified.”

Cuba may be “trying to invent something new and that is very worrying,” he said. But, he stressed, the EU diplomats’ visit “is a gesture of solidarity; it’s not a political act.”

FPI also notes The Miami Herald report of good news and bad news from Cuba: “The bad news: There’s a shortage of toilet paper, and officials in Havana say it will not ease until the end of the year. The good news: Day-old copies of the Communist party’s newspaper Granma, a traditional substitute, are available for less than a U.S. penny.”

Burma: sanctions or engagement? Or both?

Democracy and human rights activists have reacted with concern to Virginia senator Senator James Webb’s support for lifting sanctions and engaging the ruling military junta, fearing that his advocacy may influence the Obama administration’s ongoing Burma policy review. Webb called sanctions “overwhelmingly counterproductive” and suggested that the opposition participate in upcoming elections.

Other observers, while supportive of the country’s democrats and beleaguered citizens, argue that “by isolating Burma the West only serves to increase the rogue-state mentality that animates its rulers…..- the only people in the world who see the North Koreans as at least partly a positive model.”

Burma’s democrats are not opposed to contact with the regime, writes U Pyinya Zawta, one of the founding members of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance which led 2007’s Saffron Revolution. He rejects the polarized assumption that engagement must be an alternative to sanctions. Rather, he argues, it should be accompanied by increased pressure on the junta.

“Further engagement and further pressure are not mutually exclusive policies or tactics,” said Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher for Amnesty International. “And, so it needs more of both of those things.”

The country’s democratic movement – internally and in exile – does not have a monolithic view. “Some influential politicians and activists still cling to the hope that tough public statements, moral suasion and economic sanctions will force the Tatmadaw to return to the barracks,” according to one recent analysis. “The more hard-headed among them privately acknowledge, however, that this approach has failed to shift the generals from their entrenched positions over the past 20 years and is still unlikely to do so.”

If engagement takes the form of normalizing US-Burma bilateral relations, Maung Zarni fears, then Washington will “begin to treat the genuine process of democratization…. as an afterthought at best and an obstacle in pursuit of US commercial and strategic interests at worst.”

Zarni, a founder of the Free Burma Coalition, similarly suggests that the policy options are not as polarized as some suggest. “While pro-sanctions dissidents and political NGOs obstinately refuse to acknowledge that China, India, Thailand and Russia, with their vested Burma interests, will not heed their pro-democracy calls,’ he writes, “the engagers fail to recognize that the military regime has absolutely no desire to reconcile in any meaningful way with political opposition parties, dissidents or groups.”

“It is demonstrably true that American sanctions have not brought about change in Burma,” said Walter Lohman, Asian studies director at the Heritage Foundation. “But the answer lies in building the necessary international consensus to pressure it, not abandoning the effort,” he said.