National Security Network

Iran Turmoil Continues

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Report 4 August 2009

Iran Iran Obama Administration


Yesterday the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei formally approved Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the next president of Iran. However, the political situation is hardly settled. The security state appears firmly entrenched; yet a violent crackdown and show trials have not stopped demonstrations or rifts within Iranian political elites. Ahmadinejad is due to be sworn in on Wednesday and sizeable demonstrations are expected.

The US continues to face a multi-pronged challenge – Ahmadinejad has tried to blame foreign intervention for the protests at every opportunity.  The Obama administration is walking a prudent line:  repeatedly condemning the crackdown but also avoiding giving the Iranian regime any pretext to accuse the U.S. of interfering in its domestic affairs. The Administration has increased the pressure on the Iranian regime by quietly garnering significant international support for its approach. US diplomacy has had a shrewd dual purpose – rebuilding international consensus toward a tough stance on Iran if need be and, by signaling willingness to engage, chipping away at the consensus inside Iran that the country must stand united against a Western threat at all costs. Continued American commitment to negotiations sends a clear signal to the Iranian demonstrators that a new relationship with the West is possible and that the obstacle standing in the way is not the United States but the Iranian regime.

Ahead of Ahmadinejad’s inauguration, Iran’s political situation continues to remain volatile and grows more complex. Despite the formal approval of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei yesterday, there has been no indication that the country’s political crisis is abating.  As the New York Times reports, senior officials and top clerics were conspicuously absent from Ahmadinejad’s confirmation ceremony: “Some of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s most prominent opponents, including the former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, stayed away from the event, which is typically attended by top-ranking officials. A number of other senior figures, including high-ranking clerics and members of Parliament, also seemed to be absent. In a break from precedent, the ceremony was not shown live on state television and journalists were not allowed to attend, prompting speculation that the authorities wanted to prevent timed protests and absences from being noticed.”  According to the Los Angeles Times, despite the regime’s attempt at secrecy, the opposition used the event to protest: “hundreds and possibly thousands of protesters gathered at various locations around Tehran in marches against Ahmadinejad, prompting plainclothes Basiji militiamen to attack demonstrators with clubs and tear gas, according to witnesses and amateur video posted on YouTube. Witnesses described shots being fired into the air, trash fires and plainclothes security officers chasing people into parks and side streets.”

The Associated Press noted that Iran’s opposition intends to use Ahmadinejad’s inauguration ceremony as an opportunity to protest the actions of the regime.  “Iranian opposition groups called for a new round of street protests to coincide with the inauguration ceremony for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday… Several pro-reform blogs and Web sites, including some linked to Mousavi, appealed for demonstrators to gather in front of parliament, where Ahmadinejad is to be officially sworn in for a second term. They also called for protests at main markets in other cities around Iran. Any protests will almost certainly be met by a heavy security presence, as the government has harshly cracked down on any opposition demonstrations over the disputed election.”  [NY Times, 8/3/09. LA Times, 8/03/09. AP, 8/4/09]

As part of its effort to legitimize crackdown, Iranian regime alleges foreign interference – US offer of engagement remains key tool to blunt this critique, throw regime off-balance.  In order to excuse its actions against the opposition, Iran’s conservative establishment has cited outside interference again and again.  The regime’s latest attempts came via the announcement that over 100 opposition figures would stand for trial.  The New York Times reported: “The Iranian authorities opened an extraordinary mass trial against more than 100 opposition figures on Saturday, accusing them of conspiring with foreign powers to stage a revolution through terrorism, subversion, and a media campaign to discredit last month’s presidential election.” “Analysts say the confessions read at the trials are meant to lift the morale of hard-liners upset by coverage by reformist news outlets and Persian-language news channels abroad as well as to frighten opponents and take the wind out of the sails of the protest movement,” noted the Los Angeles Times, demonstrating how the regime has sought to use foreign involvement to boost its credentials.  As the post-election crisis was unfolding, Iranian national television played clips of FOX News as evidence of outside interference, and the regime has cited the condemnations from countries like Great Britain as evidence of a foreign conspiracy.  Affirming that the regime is looking for an excuse to clamp down, David Ignatius wrote this weekend that “[m]eddling on behalf of the opposition would be a mistake.”

The Obama administration’s continued efforts to engage Iran are a shrewd response. Roger Cohen writes, “One conservative Iranian official put it this way to Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: ‘If Iran can’t make nice with a U.S. president named Barack Hussein Obama who’s preaching mutual respect and sending us greetings, it’s pretty clear the problem lies in Tehran, not Washington.’”
[NY Times, 8/02/09. LA Times, 8/02/09. Huffington Post, 6/16/09. David Ignatius, Washington Post, 8/02/09.  Roger Cohen, NY Times, 8/02/09]

U.S. leads a unified international approach towards Iranian regime. During the Bush years, divisions between allies and the international community as a whole complicated efforts to mount an international response toward Iran.  Today, due to the reactions against Iran's violent crackdown and the Obama administration's diplomatic efforts, all the key players are closer to a common outlook on how to address the Iran problem.

•    The Obama administration has remained committed to its policy of engagement, though, as Defense Secretary Gates said last week, America’s commitment to engagement with Iran is “not open-ended.”

•    The G-8, which includes Russia, issued a statement earlier this month that “deplore[d] post-electoral violence, which led to the loss of lives of Iranian civilians. Interference with media, unjustified detentions of journalists and recent arrests of foreign nationals are unacceptable,” and “call[ed] upon Iran to solve the situation through democratic dialogue on the basis of the rule of law.”

•    French President Nicolas Sarkozy explained the European approach:  “We want to give negotiations every chance... If that works, then great. If that leads nowhere, then that won't be without consequences.” President Obama said of the G-8 response that “what we wanted was exactly what we got.”

•    Israel has accepted this approach as well:  The New York Times reported last week that, “[a]fter traveling on to Amman on Monday, Mr. Gates said at a news conference that he had received assurances from the Israelis that as long as there was a time limit on the outreach to Iran, ‘the Israelis were prepared to let it go forward.’”

•    The US and allies have already begun discussing possible next steps.  David Sanger of The New York Times reported this weekend that, “[t]he option of acting against companies around the world that supply Iran with 40 percent of its gasoline has been broached with European allies and Israel, officials from those countries said.”

[NY Times, 7/27/09.  G8 Declaration on Responsible Leadership for a Sustainable Future: Political Issues, 7/8/09. President Barack Obama via the AP, 7/10/09. Secretary of State Clinton 7/05/09. The Hill, 7/09/09. Vice President Joseph Biden, 2/07/09. NSN Daily Update, 7/07/09. NY Times, 7/10/09. Reuters, 7/05/09. White House, 7/06/09. NY Times, 9/27/09. NY Times, 8/2/09]

What We’re Reading

Bill Clinton arrived in Pyongyang, North Korea on Tuesday to negotiate the release of two American journalists who have each been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for illegally entering North Korean territory. Sources in South Korea report that Clinton could return with the journalists to the United States as early as Wednesday.

With little more than three weeks left before the presidential election, Afghans are growing increasingly concerned about insecurity and the potential for fraud, casting a pall over the credibility of the race. A string of rockets struck Kabul at around dawn this morning, reflecting the extent of the pre-election instability that is currently gripping the country.

Australian authorities arrested four men believed to be linked to al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamist group, in Melbourne on Tuesday, accusing them of planning to stage a suicide attack on an army barracks in Sydney.

British Foreign Minister David Miliband has admitted that his country’s troops may not return to southern Iraq to finish their mission in the country.

Dozens of militant supporters of President Hugo Chavez stormed the Caracas headquarters of Globovision, an opposition TV station, yesterday in an apparent escalation of Venezuela's so-called "media war".

A judge in Sudan has adjourned the trial of Lubna Hussein, the young woman who faces up to forty lashes for wearing pants in public, amid protests that the law gives no clear definition of indecent dress. Sudanese riot police today fired tear gas on more than 100 demonstrators who were gathered outside Khartoum courthouse.

The Obama administration is reportedly working on a new approach to its Darfur policy that may soften some sanctions against the Sudan government, which is implicated in the killing and displacement of tens of thousands.

Commentary of the Day

The Washington Post writes that the “contemptible spectacle of show trials” that the Iranian regime has embarked on as a means of punishing its opponents exposes the hard-liners’ increasingly wobbly grip on power and underscores the dilemma the Obama administration faces as it clings to a strategy of engaging Iran to contain its nuclear ambitions   The Telegraph argues that rather than clinging to the hope that the moderates in Iran will one day gain power, the West should now start giving serious thought to how it intends to respond if and when Tehran refuses to unclench its fist. Meanwhile, Jamsheed Chosky claims that the current conditions in Iran indicate that its theocracy will inevitably implode.  

Nicholas Blincoe examines the four elements that he believes Fatah must incorporate into a new, transparent structure if the Palestinian party’s conference is to be a success.

Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times predicts that the economic instability in the Baltic states will ultimately undermine the European Union.

The Guardian’s Jonathan Steele argues that while Georgia’s war with Russia was a disaster for its people, its president Mikheil Saakashvili has still not had to pay a serious price for leading his country into conflict.

Bill Powell of Time Magazine asks if the Chinese economy is ready to drive the world.

Simon Tisdall relates the Obama administration’s decision to dispatch Bill Clinton to Pyongyang to the historically consistent “circular” nature of US policy toward North Korea.