Iran’s barandazinarm: ‘soft overthrow’ or democratic reform?

iran - jahanbeglooMy writings talk only about nonviolent change and reform, Ramin Jahanbegloo told his Iranian interrogators in the notorious Evin prison (below).

My interrogators would say that nonviolent reform is the same thing as a velvet revolution, but for me there is a distinction, he writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“You have been brought here because you are accused of a conspiracy against the Iranian state. You are implicated in a barandazinarm.”

I had never heard that term before. The direct translation from Farsi would be a “soft overthrow.” Later I realized that he must have meant a velvet revolution. I asked him, in my confusion, to clarify.

“You know better than I what a soft overthrow is,” he said.

I realized that there would be no rational basis to our discussion. These men were not trained in political theory or in law. Their only skill was the ability to intimidate.

“You see, Mr. Jahanbegloo, we know for a fact for whom you are working. We’ve been iran evin prison Jahanbegloo-evinthrough your emails. We have two rooms full of documents, with video clips and writings, newspaper cuttings, and voice recordings on you and all that you have done with your life. It all testifies to your guilt. So you’re better off telling us from the beginning what your role is in this soft overthrow and giving us the details of how your employers instructed you to carry it out.”

“What employers? What are you talking about?”

He exhaled his cigarette smoke slowly, patiently, and I felt it enveloping me from behind like a fog of uncertainty.

“The United States and Israel, of course. Do you think we’re stupid? We know you’ve been meeting with American and Israeli scholars, with politicians, with activists. You’ve done it all out in the open. There are video recordings of your meetings with them, countless articles and books that you’ve collaborated on with them. Shall I go on? You know best what role you’ve played in working with them, and that your intention has been to change the government of the Islamic Republic to better suit their interests.”….

How could I convince these men that I was innocent; that what they had interpreted as wrongdoing was merely my wish to see my country do better, to treat its citizens with respect and dignity, to show that reform did not necessitate a complete change of government or a swing toward subservience and the foreign domination we had endured in the past? But there was nothing to say. In their eyes, I was already guilty.

I had nothing to confess. I merely repeated their words, he adds:

Keeping my eyes down the entire time and reciting it all as bluntly as I could, I said that my work on nonviolence was directly tied to the interests and designs of the United States, that American agents had approached me and put me in contact with people at the National Endowment for Democracy, and that this had given shape to my plans and aims.

None of that, of course, was true. My fellowship at the NED required me to collaborate with the Journal of Democracy, which I did, and nothing more. But that was considered espionage here, although spies rarely have time to do research and write on philosophical or political issues. At the end of my fellowship, I said now, I had prepared a report comparing Iranian civil society with that of Eastern Europe at the time of the velvet revolution.

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Ramin Jahanbegloo is an associate professor of political science and holds the York-Noor Visiting Chair in Islamic Studies at York University, in Toronto. This essay is adapted from his new book, Time Will Say Nothing: A Philosopher Survives an Iranian Prison, just out from the University of Regina Press.

Iran prepares for leadership transition?

irankhameneiThough Iran has been broadcasting pictures and videos of top state officials and noted foreign dignitaries visiting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the hospital, the health of the man who has held the most powerful post in the Islamic Republic remains unclear, notes Kamran Bokhari, Advisor for Middle Eastern and South Asian Affairs at the STRATFOR Global Intelligence consultancy.  

The unusual public relations management of what has been described as a prostate surgery suggests Tehran may be preparing the nation and the world for a transition to a third supreme leader. Iranian efforts to project an atmosphere of normalcy conceal concerns among players in the Iranian political system that a power vacuum will emerge just as the Islamic republic has reached a geopolitical crossroads.

Any transition comes at the most crucial time in the 35-year history of the Islamic Republic due to unprecedented domestic political shifts underway and, more importantly, due to international events. Pragmatic conservative President Hassan Rouhani’s election in June 2013 elections led to a social, political and economic reform program facing considerable resistance from within the hard-right factions within the clerical and security establishments. The biggest issue between the presidential camp and its opponents is the ongoing process of negotiations with the United States over the Iranian nuclear program. 

A New Supreme Leader

On top of this stressor, uncertainties surrounding Khamenei’s health have shifted Iran’s priorities to the search for a new supreme leader. The unusual manner in which Tehran continues to telegraph Khamenei’s hospitalization to show that all is well — while at the same time psychologically preparing the country and the outside world for the inevitable change — coupled with the (albeit unverified) 2010 release by WikiLeaks of a U.S. diplomatic cable reporting that the supreme leader was suffering from terminal cancer suggests the political establishment in Tehran is preparing for a succession. Khamenei himself would want to prepare a succession before he can no longer carry out his official responsibilities…….

For the hardliners, already deeply unnerved by what they see as an extremely troubling moderate path adopted by Rouhani, it is imperative that the next supreme leader not be sympathetic to the president. From their point of view, Khamenei has given the government far too much leeway. For his part, Rouhani knows that if his opponents get their way in the transition, his troubles promoting his domestic and foreign policy agenda could increase exponentially. 

Iran_Org_Chart simple STRATFORPossible Successors

The country’s elite ideological military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, will no doubt play a key role in who gets to be supreme leader. Likewise, the religious establishment in Qom will definitely have a say in the matter. The revolutionary-era clerics who have long dominated the political establishment are a dying breed, and the Assembly of Experts would not want to appoint someone of advanced age, since this would quickly lead to another succession. 

Stratfor has learned that potential replacements for Khamenei include former judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a cleric close to Khamenei and known for his relative moderate stances. They also include Hassan Khomeini, the oldest grandson of the founder of the republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He is close to the president’s pragmatic conservative camp and the reformists, but pedigree may not compensate for his relatively left-wing leanings and his relatively young age of 42. Finally, they include current judiciary chief Mohammed-Sadegh Larijani, the younger brother of Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani who some believe is the preferred candidate of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

The key problem that has surrounded the post of the supreme leader since the death of the founder of the republic is the very small pool of potential candidates to choose a replacement from: Most clerics either lack political skills, while those that do have political savvy lack requisite religious credentials. Khamenei was a lesser cleric to the status of ayatollah shortly before assuming the role of supreme leader, though he has demonstrated great political acumen since then. 

Khomeini was unique in that he had solid credentials as a noted religious scholar, but also had solid political credentials given his longtime leadership of the movement that culminated in the overthrow of shah in 1979. Since Khomeini fell out with his designated successor, Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, in 1987, no one has had both qualities. Whoever takes over from Khamenei will be no exception to this, even though he will need to be able to manage factional rivalries at one of the most critical junctures in the evolution of the Islamic Republic.

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Iran’s Nuclear Chess: a nation or a cause? Change regime or behavior?

Iran’s dilemma is whether the political costs of an agreement—alienating hardline interest groups, especially the Revolutionary Guard, upon which the regime’s survival depends—outweigh its economic benefits, according to a senior analyst.

In Iran, the nuclear issue is a surrogate for the more fundamental debate over the country’s future relationship with the outside world—whether, in former President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s words, the Islamic Republic is a “revolutionary state” or an “ordinary country,” writes Robert Litwak, vice president for scholars and director of international security studies at the Wilson Center. The embedded, proxy status of the nuclear question within this broader political context is a key determinant of whether nuclear diplomacy can prove successful, he writes in an important new report.

Regime change or behavior change

In America, Iran’s nuclear challenge—concern that a weapons program is masquerading as a civilian program—has also been a proxy for a more fundamental debate about the threat posed by “rogue states” in the post-9/11 era. The Obama administration dropped the Bush-era “rogue” moniker in favor of “outlier.” This shift reframed the Iranian nuclear issue—from a unilateral, American political concept, in which threat is linked to the character of “rogue” regimes, to a focus on Iranian behavior that contravenes international norms. Yet the tension between the competing objectives of regime change and behavior change continues to roil the U.S. policy debate.

President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatic centrist, campaigned on a platform of resolving the nuclear issue to end the country’s isolation and the punishing international sanctions that have weakened the economy. While acquiescing to Rouhani’s revitalized nuclear diplomacy in the wake of his June 2013 electoral mandate, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, remains the final arbiter of any prospective agreement. His decision, based on a strategic calculus that has regime stability as its paramount objective, will hinge on how he manages the unresolved tension in Iran’s competing identities—revolutionary state/ordinary country.

Quasi-democratic character

An important feature distinguishing Iran from other countries of proliferation concern—North Korea under the Kim family regime or Iraq under the former Saddam Hussein regime—is its quasi-democratic character. Iran has an engaged and somewhat cynical public, which has an uneasy relationship with a regime whose political legitimacy was damaged by its brutal crackdown on the Green Movement in 2009. Rouhani’s election, a reflection of that disaffection, produced a rare consensus across Iran’s political elite for revitalized nuclear diplomacy. But old divisions persist, even if tamped down by the Supreme Leader during the ongoing P5+1 negotiations.

In Henry Kissinger’s apt formulation, “Iran has to make a decision whether it wants to be a nation or a cause.”2 Yet, since the 1979 Revolution that swept the Shah of Iran from power and led to the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the country’s ruling regime refuses to make that choice. On the nuclear issue and on other issues affecting Iran’s national interests, Tehran fastidiously asserts its rights as a “republic” in an international order of sovereign states. At the same time, the theocratic regime pursues an ideologically driven foreign policy (such as its support of Hezbollah) to maintain revolutionary elan at home. Tehran’s rejection of what it views as a U.S.-dominated international order is at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s identity and worldview. Without these “revolutionary thoughts,” as then President Hashemi Rafsanjani once candidly acknowledged, Iran would become an “ordinary country.”3

Iran’s competing dual identities—revolutionary state/ordinary country—continually roil the country’s politics, including the domestic debate over the nuclear program. This political schism underlies the violent clash between the country’s hardline theocratic regime and the reformist Green Movement in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections.

While calling for democratic governance within Iran, the Green Movement leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, also called for an end to foreign policy “adventurism,” which, among other negative consequences, had led to Iran’s international isolation and the imposition of UN sanctions over the regime’s intransigent stand on the nuclear question.

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Remaking Iran?

irankhameneiIs U.S. strategy on Iran sufficient for dealing with a revolutionary state on the march in the Middle East? a senior analyst asks.

There was always something peculiar about segregating Iran’s nuclear pretensions from the region’s raging conflicts, notes Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been busy fortifying the Assad dynasty in Syria, ensuring that a pliable regime remains in power in Iraq, nurturing Hezbollah and arming Hamas as it wages war against Israel,” he writes for the Washington Post:

In Khamenei’s telling, the United States is a crestfallen imperial state unable to impose its mandates on a defiant region. In a recent speech, he mocked the notion of U.S. military retribution, declaring, “There are very few people in today’s world who take these military threats seriously.” Whatever confidence-building measures his diplomats may be contemplating, Iran’s most consequential decision-maker sees in America’s retreat a rare opportunity to project power in a contested Middle East. Nuclear weapons capability is central to the ambitions of an aspiring hegemon.

Yet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently marked the end of his first year in office with further evidence of his efforts at domestic reform and geostrategic reorientation, argues Said A. Arjomand, Director of the Institute for Global Studies at the State University of New York.

“The strongest factor working in Rouhani’s favor is the support of Khamenei, the country’s Supreme Leader, for the president’s domestic policies – just as he has fully backed the nuclear negotiations,” he writes for Project Syndicate:

In his speech to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death on June 4, Khamenei fully appropriated the discourse of the dissident clerics aligned with Khatami. Thus, he described the regime instituted by Khomeini as a religious democracy in which all high state offices, including his own, derive their legitimacy from the will of the people as expressed in elections.

But Rouhani needs more than Khamenei’s backing. Khamenei is 74 and has health problems. With Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, the 83-year-old chairman of the Council of Experts (the body of clerics that elects the supreme leader) gravely ill, Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, an influential member and former intelligence and security minister, has suggested that the Council should proceed to elect Khamenei’s successor now. Clearly, the clerical elite is concerned about the future of its leadership after Khamenei. Should a succession process begin soon, it would significantly constrain Rouhani’s room for maneuver.

Nonetheless, tension is simmering beneath the surface,” Arjoman observes. “The IRGC’s commander, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, has publicly expressed his hostility to Rouhani’s administration, while General Hassan Firouzabadi, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, has countered by expressing his support for the president.”

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Iran’s ideological vs. pragmatic conflict erupts in culture wars

IRAN ROHANI RFERLIran’s military has called the breaking of cultural norms a national security threat and urges all government institutions to help it enforce the law in a move that reflects conservative officials’ growing concern of over the direction of President Hassan Rouhani’s cultural policies, Arash Karami writes for Al-Monitor:

Culture Minister Ali Jannati has been engaged in a series of public disputes with conservative officials over his promotion of a more lax cultural policy, especially in regard to Internet censorship. …During a speech at the office of the supreme leader in Qom July 11, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, who leads the hard-line Endurance Front said, “Those who take religion as a toy and entertainment and in the name of religion do ineffectual things have been deceived by the world.”

Indirectly addressing Jannati, Mesbah Yazdi continued, “An official some time ago said that ‘The development of culture needs freedom and with filtering websites one cannot develop culture.’ On this, the supreme leader said sometime after the new year [late March], ‘You cannot make everything suitable with the excuse of freedom.’”

The statement by the armed forces reflects some of the many concerns of conservatives with respect to the administration, Karami adds.

“One of the goals and strategies of the domineering countries and a front line for the enemies of the Islamic Revolution … is to weaken the religious will and commitment in order to promote carelessness, promiscuousness and to spread … violations of religious and legal norms in Iran’s Islamic society,” the statement read. “Paying attention to the efforts of the obstinate front [Western countries] to collapse the cultural-religious foundations and replace it with a vulgar Western culture has great importance.”

“There is no doubt that if from society, especially the cultural officials and custodians, in regard to the warnings by the supreme leader about the cultural invasion, ambush, massacre, plunder and the soft war, there was understanding and a feeling of a high and serious responsibility, today we would not witness some people … breaking cultural and norms.”irancyber

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The culture spat coincides with a growing struggle between the pragmatic camp, led by Hashemi Rafsanjani and Iranian President Hassan Rohani, and the ideological camp, led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – which has been escalating in intensity over the past year, the Middle East Media Research Institute reports:

This further exacerbation stems from the worsening of Iran’s situation due to external reasons. The first of these reasons is the conquest of parts of Iraq by the Islamic State (IS, formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) and the threats to Iran’s territorial integrity from both the Sunni camp, headed by Saudi Arabia. The second reason is the imminent declaration of independence by Iraq’s Kurds – a move that will threaten Iran because of the impact it is expected to have on Iran’s own Kurdish minority, and on its other ethnic minorities.

Also sharply increasing lately is the challenge that is being called “cultural” by the ideological camp – that is, the infiltration of Western influence via the Internet and satellite television.

These crises have struck Iran before it has had a chance to establish the nuclear hegemony towards which it has been striving, which it seeks in order to deter the Sunni world from confronting it, and at a point where it cannot muster an appropriate response tothe danger posed by the IS or to the Sunni threat in general.

In its frustration, the ideological camp has been escalating its attacks on the pragmatic camp at home (see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1101, Recognizing The Limitations Of Its Regional Power, A Frustrated Iranian Regime Turns Its Wrath Towards Its Domestic Rivals , June 26, 2014).

As part of this intensification, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the commanders of the IRGC, and the daily Kayhan, which is the mouthpiece of the ideological camp, attacked Rafsanjani and Rohani, naming them specifically – something which up until now they have not done. In turn, Rafsanjani and Rohani have stepped up their responses to the level of open confrontation.

It should be noted that on July 9, 2014, in an interview with the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, Rafsanjani delivered instructions to Rohani how to act in the nuclear issue vis-à-vis the West and to view favorably Iranian cooperation with the U.S. in Iraq. This is in stark contrast to the stated position of Khamenei, who opposes such cooperation.

The Ideological Camp Attacks

Leader Khamenei

In a May 22, 2014 Majlis speech, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei implicitly accused Hashemi Rafsanjani and government officials calling for dialogue with the West of treason: “People who want to spread reconciliation and submission to the thugs [i.e. the West, led by the U.S.] and accuse the Islamic regime of warmongering are committing treason… All [Iranian] state officials in various fields – including economic, scientific, cultural, policy, legislative, and negotiation – should know that we are at the height of a struggle and on a path of continuing the fight for the existence and survival of the Islamic regime…….

The Pragmatic Camp Responds

Hashemi Rafsanjani

In a June 26, 2014 speech to students, Rafsanjani said: “The ‘new converts to Islam’ are harming the revolution and the people. This opportunistic group, which never participated in the struggle [against Shah Reza Pahlavi – apparently a reference to the IRGC] today sees power as something that it will hold onto forever, and that it will bequeath to its descendants. The power-mad, those who cannot relinquish power, those who see power as something that they will hold forever and that is bequeathed to their descendants, had better think again. How they have tried to block the Internet in the country! How many satellite dishes they have collected from the roofs of homes! I don’t know how much impact this has had. Their operation did nothing to weaken awareness among the people – in fact, it only added to it… ……

Rohani

In a speech at a June 12 conference, Rohani said: “A number of people, who though few in number own many propaganda outlets, seek to weaken this hope [of moderation] that dwells in the people’s heart [and that won the people's vote]. We announce to all those who choose a path and speech that oppose the people’s choice [that] the people [hereby]declares… that it rejects violence and extremism… that it has one government, one nation, and one rule… and that no group and no faction can appropriate the revolution for itself…

“It appears that some people still live in the Stone Age.”[10]

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