Skip to comments.Iranian Alert - December 27, 2004 - Choices on Iran
Posted on 12/26/2004 9:43:30 PM PST by DoctorZIn
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Choices on Iran
New York Sun Staff Editorial
December 23, 2004
President Bush surely mis-underestimated himself when he spoke, during a year-end press conference this week, of his reliance on European allies to achieve American aims in Iran. "We're relying upon others, because we've sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran," Mr. Bush said. It can't be a good sign when the president of a superpower is going around claiming he lacks influence. It's not even accurate.
The fact is that there are plenty of ways in which Mr. Bush could exercise influence on Iran. He could go on a radio program aired by pro-democracy Iranians and express support for the Iranian people in their struggle for freedom. He could meet with pro-democracy Iranians in the Oval Office and distribute photos of the meeting, along with a statement of support, to pro-democracy Iranian bloggers. He could go to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with a speech detailing Iranian-funded and supported terrorism against Americans and against Iranian opposition figures in Europe, and invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty binding the other NATO allies to mutual assistance and collective action to restore security.
Strategically, Mr. Bush could go to the Congress and ask for an emergency appropriation to step up funding for radio, television, and Internet operations against the Iranian regime. He could fund training for Iranian democracy activists similar to the American-funded training given to Ukrainian democracy activists that has paid off so splendidly at Kiev. Yet Mr. Bush temporized, saying, "It's much different between the situation in Iraq and Iran because of this. Diplomacy had failed for 13 years in Iraq." This seemed intended as some kind of explanation of why the Iranian situation had not yet risen to the gravity of the pre-war situation in Iraq.
It's not, however, as if America has newly stumbled upon the idea of trying diplomacy to get Iran to halt its terrorism and efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Back in July 1993, the Group of Seven said, "Concerned about aspects of Iran's behavior, we call upon its Government to participate constructively in international efforts for peace and stability and to cease actions contrary to those objectives." Or consider the following exchange: Question: "Mr. President, the Iranian government, of course, has changed. And the question to you is: Is there hope that there might be restored some kind of relations with that country?" Answer: "I stated the other day what it would take to have improved relationships. And that would be a renunciation of terror. We do not need, we can't have normalized relations with a, with a state that's branded a terrorist state." That was from a press conference with the President Bush holding office on June 8, 1989.
It is true, as President Bush pointed out, that diplomacy failed for 13 years in Iraq. But diplomacy in respect of the Persian problem has failed now for more than 15 years. In that time, the Iranian regime has edged ever closer to a nuclear capability that could threaten America and our allies. It has expanded its missile capability. It is funding anti-Israel terrorist groups. There are reliable reports that it is harboring Al Qaeda leaders. In answering the Iran question, the president said, "Diplomacy must be the first choice, and always the first choice of an administration trying to solve an issue of, in this case, nuclear armament." The "first choice" here has been tried with little success for more than a decade. On Iran, it's past time for Mr. Bush's team to present him with some other choices with better chances of success.
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Freeing Ourselves to Take Bold Diplomatic Action[Excerpt]
By Robin WrightSunday, December 26, 2004; Page B01
Shortly after the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized on Nov. 4, 1979, several of the 52 American hostages were herded into a room festooned with skeletons, witches, ghosts and goblins. An Iranian, mystified by the images of death and evil, demanded an explanation. Joseph Hall, a military attache, described Halloween traditions and the embassy party that had taken place a few days earlier.
In disbelief, the hostage-taker replied, "You do this for children?"
Army Chief of Staff Is Third Major Visitor to Troops in Iraq
I visited Tehran last month for the 25th anniversary of the embassy seizure, one of several stops on various trips over the past five months to Iraq, Iran, Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In each place, I was struck by how much political and cultural fissures still shape our relations a quarter-century later -- not only in Iran, but regionwide.
After hearing a wide array of opinions in the region, I also came away with an urgent sense that President Bush won't be able to achieve his lofty goals of a democratic, peaceful and nuclear-free Middle East unless he takes bold and imaginative strokes -- a kind of "shock and awe" diplomacy -- to generate movement in a different direction.
The region now has the feel of being on the cusp of profound change. It's not just the obvious flashpoints: An increasingly chaotic and costly war in Iraq. Tensions with Iran over its nuclear program, with rumblings of U.S. military planning on yet another front. The unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict entering unknown territory with the death of Yasser Arafat and the pending withdrawal of Israel's troops from the Gaza strip.
It's also the hint of new forces reshaping the Middle East -- and challenging U.S. interests -- in unknown ways: "Energy terrorism" targeting petroleum pipelines and workers in several countries and further roiling oil markets. Rising sectarian fears among Sunni Muslims about Shiite intentions regionally, playing off the change in Iraq's balance of power. Increasing violence and rippling instability even in authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia.
A year ago, in his major speech on the Middle East, Bush warned that it would be "reckless to accept the status quo" in the region. "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe," he said at the National Endowment for Democracy. Without political change, the region "will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export."
Yet many in the Muslim world -- even admirers of the United States -- believe the Bush administration still charts Middle East policy with a double standard. It wants democratic change in Egypt, but it also wants President Hosni Mubarak's loyalty and intervention on Arab-Israeli peace. It wants Saudi Arabia to open up politically, but it also wants the royal family to crack down on Islamist dissidents and do whatever it takes to protect the oil fields. It wants free and fair elections in Iraq, but it also wants a pro-American government that will write a constitution to our liking.
Arabs, Persians and others no longer believe that Washington is well intentioned or that its goals will benefit them. Over the past four years, trust in the United States has plummeted from over 50 percent in key countries to the single digits, according to University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami, who has polled the region. The antipathy was evident at the first "Forum for the Future" in Morocco this month. Muslim allies virtually rebuffed a dialogue with U.S. and European officials on democracy, largely on the grounds that other issues, such as the 56-year Arab-Israeli conflict, were their priority.
Over the next four years, it's going to take much more than regime change in Iraq to retrieve U.S. hopes for the region, even if Iraq turns out to be a success story. The stakes are enormous. "The relationship established over the next four years with the Islamic world will define the outlook for a generation. We're facing decisions akin to the decisions after World War II in defining America's relations with a large part of the world. That's the magnitude of the challenge," Telhami said.
Fostering political change has never been easy in a region as complex and as diverse as the Middle East. But next year will witness a rare confluence of opportunities -- elections in Iraq, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, as well as Iranian-European talks on nuclear disarmament -- for bolder initiatives to help close the fissures between the United States and the region. Many voices in the foreign policy community, both Republicans and Democrats, are now proffering ideas to take advantage of the moment on four of the most vexing issues. ...
IRAN: For 25 years, U.S. policy has been based on containing Iran. Estrangement has lasted longer than the break between the United States and China after the Chinese communist revolution or with Vietnam after a war that killed more than 58,000 Americans.
In pressing Iran to abandon development of a nuclear weapon, the question is whether Tehran will fully cooperate as long as it feels vulnerable living in a nuclear neighborhood and with U.S. troops now a major presence in countries on its borders. Throw in its own eight-year war with Iraq, when the world did nothing while Saddam Hussein killed some 50,000 Iranians with chemical weapons, and the answer is probably not -- unless the United States participates in the final deal, analysts say.
The situation is now ripe to test Iran with diplomacy, said Dennis Ross, a Middle East envoy for both Republican and Democratic administrations, "with the clear understanding that if engagement fails, isolation will be the result. This would require Washington to talk directly with Tehran, coordinated with the Europeans to finalize an agreement."
The key is to develop a package that addresses security concerns on both sides, said William Quandt, a former National Security Council staffer in the Nixon and Carter administrations who just returned from a visit to Iran. The package could include Iran terminating its nuclear weapons program in exchange for security guarantees. It could also focus on ending Tehran's support for all extremist groups in exchange for Iraq and the United States evicting the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, the largest Iranian opposition group, from Iraq.
Reengagement may also spur political change, add some analysts. "The more Americans go there, the more things will change," said Quandt. "It's like all those things that went on between Russia and the United States before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It weakens the Old Order and gives sustenance to those who want to do things differently."
THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT: For the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, peace depends on principles laid out in their "road map." But it has failed to end extremist violence against Israel or to produce a temporary Palestinian state, which was supposed to happen a year ago. For the Israeli government led by Ariel Sharon, peace is based on its impending troop withdrawal from Gaza and a barrier separating Israel from the West Bank, which falls short of the road map.
The question is how to reconcile the two visions -- and finally produce movement after a new Palestinian leader is elected on Jan. 9. "Sharon's 180-degree shift has turned Israeli politics upside down -- and the United States should be as bold as the prime minister," said Geoffrey Kemp, a former Reagan administration national security aide now at the Nixon Center.
To make progress, many analysts say, the United States and its partners can offer incentives: With the Palestinians, strike a deal to move decisively to end terrorism against Israel in exchange for mobilizing international resources to rebuild the Palestinian Authority and its economy. Otherwise, with the Authority in crisis and unemployment rampant, they have few prospects for the future.
With Israel, strike a deal requiring them to freeze Jewish settlements and to acknowledge that eventual dismantlement will not end with four West Bank settlements -- part of the Gaza withdrawal proposal -- in exchange for a U.S. security role, possibly as monitors.
If that doesn't work, the time may have come for the United States to outline the final framework for peace, say the foreign policy advisers to two former presidents who recently appeared together on CNN's "Late Edition." "If you leave it wide open, the Israelis and the Palestinians distrust one another so much that they'll never move towards peace," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser. "But if we lay on the table a package -- and there are several key elements of that package which are generally known and understood -- and say, this is what the settlement will be based on, then I think we move the parties concerned toward serious negotiations."
Added Brent Scowcroft, who was the first President Bush's national security adviser, "There are a few rough edges that need to be honed off, but it is not difficult to see what a settlement is now. But we are the ones that have to impose it."
DEMOCRATIC REFORM: Transforming the Middle East politically is the unifying theme of disparate U.S. actions in the region. The question is whether Muslim societies will take Washington seriously as long as its closest Arab allies are among the world's worst human rights offenders.
The answer may be in Egypt, which has over half the Arab world population -- and elections next year. "The great and proud nation of Egypt has shown the way toward peace in the Middle East, and now should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East," Bush also said in his 2003 speech. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, 76, has ruled since 1981.
The Bush administration could press Cairo to lift the emergency law, in place for decades, that is "a huge inhibiter of political life," said Thomas Carothers, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's democracy project. That law limits the number of people who can meet without a government license and empowers the regime to detain people without charges, in turn inhibiting free speech. "It would be a political shock for Egypt," Carothers said.
As a far-reaching step, President Bush could "have a serious tete-a-tete with Mubarak to say the time has come to be the pacesetter on democracy in the region -- another way of saying we don't want him to run" for a sixth term, said Quandt.
Whatever happens on these four issues, this much is clear: In his first term, President Bush created grand expectations for the Middle East. Like every president over the past half-century, he has experienced the region's frustrating volatility. He now faces extraordinary pressure to deliver during his second term. Accomplishing his agenda, analysts say, will require greater diplomatic engagement -- and perhaps imagination -- than demonstrated by the administration thus far.
Robin Wright covers U.S. foreign policy for The Post. She has reported on the Middle East for the past 30 years.
Holding Tehran accountable
The U.N. General Assembly took a step in the right direction on Monday by passing a resolution criticizing the Iranian government's abysmal human-rights record. The General Assembly voted 71-54 with 55 abstentions to condemn the regime's repression of free speech and use of torture against political opponents.
The resolution was sponsored by Canada, which has long pursued a policy of engagement with Iran through trade and political dialogue. But ties between Ottawa and Tehran have significantly deteriorated ever since Zahra Kazemi a photojournalist who was a citizen of both countries was beaten to death while in Iranian police custody in July 2003.
The resolution, which passed on Monday, expressed "serious concern"about "continuing violations of human rights" by the Iranian government. It pointed out that the situation has been worsening, and that problems include "crackdowns by the judiciary and security forces against journalists, parliamentarians, students, clerics and academics; the unjustified closure of newspapers and blocking of Internet sites." The resolution also expressed concern about other actions taken by the radical Shi'ite regime amputations and stonings, discrimination against women, and arbitrary arrests and detentions against religious minorities, including Sunni Muslims, Christians, Jews and Baha'is.
When the Iran resolution was debated last month by the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights, it was opposed by members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, led by Pakistan. Other governments that tried to derail it included Belarus (often described as the sole remaining Communist dictatorship in Europe) and Sudan, whose own Islamist regime is engaged in genocide against Muslims. For its part, Iran denounced the resolution as "unreal" and "invalid."
In fact, the Iran resolution may be a sign that the United Nations is feeling the heat over its hyprocrisy and double standards on human rights. In January, for example, U.N. special investigator Ambeyi Ligabo of Kenya issued a report documenting how intellectuals and journalists were being subjected to harassment and imprisonment for criticizing the government. But in April the commission ignored the Ligabo report and refused to condemn Iran. At the same time, commission members passed five resolutions condemning Israel and officially mourned the assassination of Hamas terrorist boss Ahmed Yassin by Israel. Several weeks later, they voted to give Sudan one of the world's worst human-rights violators another term on the human-rights commission.
To be sure, problems still remain. In October, for example, a Swiss U.N. human- rights rapporteur investigating world hunger decided to ignore genuine crisis situations in states like Burundi and Congo while publicly calling for a boycott of Israel. But the General Assembly's condemnation of Iran suggests that at least some member states realize that world body will never be taken seriously so long as it remains infested with such blatant hypocrisy on human rights.
Moreover, unlike North Korea and Saddam's Iraq, Iran values its international standing. If there is a nonmilitary solution to Iran's nuclear aspirations, it may be found in denying Iran the international standing and connections it so values unless they give up their nuclear weapons program. This U.N. vote is a small step down that path.
Alert to what? Earthquakes?
I wouldn't count on the UN to shine my shoes.
Seems to me that the wealthy Iranians over here
should try to create a revolution INSIDE Tehran. Maybe they are, I don't know.
Remember that it is the anniversary of the "BAM" earthquake.
It happened last year and around 40000 people died in the disaster.
"Iranian Alert" is the title of the Thread
Iranian Alert Daily Thread
12 Months Since Earthquake in Bam
Monday, 27 December, 2004
Reporter: Kasra Naji
PETER CAVE: It just happens to be a year since an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter Scale struck the southern Iranian city of Bam on Boxing Day and turned it to rubble. That earthquake killed more than 30,000 people, almost a quarter of the population.
A year on, Kasra Naji reports from Bam, the town is slowly getting back on its feet.
KASRA NAJI: At the city's cemetery, this woman is grieving the loss of her husband and two small children in the earthquake. Everyone here has lost loved ones, some their entire families.
A year later, healing Bam's emotional scars remains a huge task. A UNICEF survey of some 20,000 tents has found emotional trauma a major problem. Some 80,000 people, both children and adults, have registered for group counselling sessions. Doctors say everyone here needs help.
At the staffroom of a girls high school here, Asam, a mathematics teacher, is finding it hard to cope. She says "I cannot bear it any more. If God were just, he would have taken me too." She's lost her husband, both parents, two brothers and a sister in the earthquake. Asam says she needs help with her mental state.
A counselling session at the girls high school here, they are beating on their knees as they count to deflect painful thoughts. Counselling is part of the weekly program now.
The session is an emotional affair. This girl, who's lost her elder sister, says the passage of time has not helped her overcome her grief. She says she cannot bear to see her parents sad again.
Doctors say many here suffer from grief, trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The grief and the trauma here is as fresh as ever, but Bam is struggling to prevail.
At an intersection in the city centre area traffic is moving again. Shops are open and operating from big shipping containers. These, and pre-fabricated rooms, have replaced the tens of thousands of tents that once housed the survivors in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.
Andrea Swinburne-Jones is an Australian aid worker with the Christian relief organisation, World Vision.
ANDREA SWINBURNE-JONES: The big thing that people are talking about is wanting to be back in their home that they originally had before the earthquake. People living in these temporary shelters, I guess, these metal portable containers, some even are shipping containers, I guess with the winter approaching again, the temperature will be dropping, so shelter is an issue.
KASRA NAJI: Children, those who've survived, have come out to play again. More than 4,000 have lost one or both of their parents. They live in child care centres like this one. The staff here say the children are getting better. They are more talkative and playful, they're using more colours in their drawings, unlike in the immediate months after the earthquake, when they used only black and brown and drew walls and houses falling down.
This is Kasra Naji in Bam, southern Iran, reporting for AM.
I remember. I was thinking about that this morning as the death toll began to rise. Just think if that quake had been on land instead of the middle of the ocean.
"Iranian Alert" is the title of the Thread
I understand that it is an Iranian alert thread. But what is the alert for?
Good morning F14, how is everything with you today? Did you go anywhere for Christmas?
There was a picture from Bam that I wish I had saved, because it's no longer online. It showed an Iranian man giving roses to American rescuers.
EU to begin trade talks with IranBy Daniel Dombey in Brussels
Published: December 26 2004 20:20 | Last updated: December 26 2004 20:20
Trade talks between Iran and the European Union are set to begin on January 12 as the EU drive to improve ties with Tehran gathers pace.
France, Germany and the UK have been keen to offer Iran incentives to restrict its nuclear programme, which the US suspects is intended to develop atomic weapons. Tehran says the programme is wholly peaceful.
The talks, aimed at establishing a Trade and Co-operation Agreement between Iran and the EU, resume negotiations that were interrupted in June 2003 because of mounting international concerns about Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Those concerns were most vocally expressed by the US, which has cast doubt on the prospects for the EU drive and has sought instead to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council.
But in comments this month, President George W. Bush gave the EU's policy of engagement his strongest support yet and even seemed to criticise his own administration's more confrontational approach.
"We don't have much leverage with the Iranians right now," he said at a press conference last week, arguing that the US instead had to rely on the contacts that had been made by the Europeans.
"We're relying upon others, because we've sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran, to send a message that. . . we expect them to listen to those voices," he said. "We're a part of the universal acclaim [for the EU approach]. . . This is how we're dealing with the issue," he said. "And so diplomacy must be the first choice."
However, there are enduring doubts whether the EU can forge a lasting compromise with Iran, which has sought nuclear capacity for decades and is surrounded by enemies, many of them nuclear-armed.
The trade talks are an offshoot of three working groups set up by Iran and the EU, looking at economic, security and nuclear issues.
The groups, which were formally convened in Brussels, are expected to next meet in Tehran early next year.
Iran Eases Up Stance on US 'Greater Middle East' Initiative
Iran on Sunday eased up its previously rejecting stance on the US-sponsored "Greater Middle East" Initiative, but said the initiative would not solve problems of the region, the official IRNA News Agency reported.
"Iran has maintained an open stance on the 'Greater Middle East' Initiative, but we believe it will not solve the problems of the region," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi was quoted as saying.
Initiatives emanating from outside the region will only bring more problems. Most states in the Middle East region are against the initiative," Asefi said.
The problems in the Middle East have their roots in the policies of the Zionist regime and the US biased support for this regime," he added.
Asefi also said Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi had discussed the initiative with leaders of Syria, Lebanon and Turkey during his recent visits to the three countries.
The "Greater Middle East" Initiative, proposed by the United States, is aimed at promoting the westernized democracy and economic reform in the region. Iran earlier rejected the initiative, terming it as "serving the US' own interests."
RUSSIAN-IRANIAN NUCLEAR COOPERATION TO BE ACCELERATED IN JANUARY
MOSCOW, December 27 (RIA Novosti) - Russia may start the supply of nuclear fuel to a nuclear power plant in the city of Bushehr, Iran, in 2005. An agreement on the return of spent nuclear fuel is to be signed in January. "The probability of this is very high," Alexander Rumyantsev, the head of Russia's Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), stressed on Friday.
Russia is interested in economic cooperation with Iran, whose economy has grown at a rate of 6% this year. Tehran has promised new nuclear contracts for Russia. Iranian Minister of Economy and Finance Safdar Hoseini said on December 17, "It has been decided that work on the second generating unit of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant may begin [with Moscow]." The first unit cost $800 million. Tehran hints that the construction of another seven generating units worth $10 billion is planned for the near future.
The Russian fuel should arrive in Bushehr no later than six months before putting the nuclear power plant into operation, Vremya Novostei writes. The "unit is set to be commissioned in late 2005 or early 2006," Mr. Rumyantsev said. Rosatom sources have repeatedly stressed that the nuclear fuel has already been stored and is ready for dispatch to Iran. Although Moscow is certain there are no political obstacles to fuel supplies to Iran, some Western observers believe US pressure is the main cause for the delay in fuel supplies (they were postponed throughout 2004). Russian nuclear fuel deliveries to Iran have become a sore point in Russian-American relations. Washington has accused Iran of wanting to develop nuclear arms and included in "the axis-of-evil." Now the US is trying to persuade Moscow to give up plans to cooperate with Tehran in the nuclear sphere.
The situation in the region is tense. Last week, the Iranian Air Force was ordered to shoot down all unidentified aircraft over the country. The press had previously reported on unidentified aircraft flying over the nuclear facilities in Isfahan and Bushehr. It is no secret that Iran is apprehensive about US and Israel flights, as the two countries have repeatedly promised to prevent Iran developing its nuclear capabilities by any means.
Bomber Targets Top Shiite Leader's Home
Monday December 27, 2004 7:46 AM
AP Photo BAG104
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - A suicide bomber detonated his car Monday at the gate to the home of the leader of Iraq's biggest political party, killing and wounding several of the guards but leaving the cleric unharmed, his spokesman said.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq - the country's most powerful Shiite political group - was in his residence in Baghdad's Jadiriyah district when the attack occurred, said Haitham al-Husseini. He was unharmed.
The blast shook the district and sent a cloud of smoke high above the area.
``It was a suicide attack near the gate leading to the office,'' al-Husseini said. ``Several of the guards were killed and wounded.''
Police confirmed that several people were killed and wounded but could not provide figures.
Hakim also heads the candidate list of the 228-member United Iraqi Alliance coalition, which is expected to dominate Iraq's new constitutional assembly following the first free elections on Jan. 30. The coalition is supported by Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The residence, where Hakim has his home and offices, was previously the house of Tariq Aziz, a jailed former senior aide to Saddam Hussein who has been in prison since April last year.
Political and religious leaders of the Shiite community, who strongly back the holding of next month's vote, have been repeatedly targeted by the mainly Sunni Muslim insurgents since Saddam's ouster.
The Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, have traditionally been dominated by the Sunni minority, which accounts for about a fifth of the population. Their leaders are eager to translate that numerical superiority into political power after next month's ballot - the first free elections since the overthrow of the monarchy 45 years ago.
In August 2003, a suicide bomber killed Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, elder brother of Abdul Aziz and former leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Like his late brother, Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim is a Shiite cleric who opposed Saddam Hussein from exile in Iran before returning to Iraq after last year's U.S.-led invasion.
IRAN'S POINTLESS PREZ RACE[Excerpt]
By AMIR TAHERI
December 27, 2004 -- THE turban or the hat? This is the question that Iran's leaders face as they pre pare for presidential election next spring.
The turban represents the Shiite clergy that, ever since its creation in Iran almost five centuries ago, has had an ambivalent attitude towards political power. The hat is the symbol of Iran's Westernized elites that started securing a power base in the middle of the 19th century and ended up by dominating the government from the first decade of the 20th century until the mullahs seized power in 1979.
During the 1978-79 revolution the people of the hat cooperated with the people of the turban to drive out the Shah.
The alliance worked for a while as the people of the turban allowed the people of the hat to fill major positions of power, including the president of the Islamic republic and the premiership. The people of the turban stayed in the shadows or were assigned middling positions in government. Gradually, they realized that running a government was no big deal. Within a year the people of the turban, who had tasted power and liked it, decided to cancel the arrangement and monopolize the big jobs.
For years the people of the turban have held top positions such as president of the republic, chief justice, minister of security and intelligence, minister of the interior, speaker of the Islamic Majlis (Parliament), minister of justice, and minister of culture and guidance.
They control key institutions such as the Council of the Guardians of the Revolution, the High Council of National Defence and many others.
Last but not least, the position of the "Supreme Guide" or Faqih Al-Wali (the Theologian Jurisconsult) is reserved for a turbaned head, although, theoretically (a hat-wearer could also fill it).
So, why is the turban-or-hat debate revived at this point?
First, the ruling mullahs hate being called "mullahs," a term that reminds the rest of the world of the Taliban. Many believe that it is time to allow a hat-wearer to act as president of the republic, thus helping change the regime's image (incumbent President Muhammad Khatami is not allowed to stand for a third consecutive term).
In any case, under the Khomeinist constitution, the president of the republic holds little real power, and could be dismissed by the "Supreme Guide" who is the real head of state with powers that no other ruler has anywhere in the world. The president is a sort of prime minister who, though directly elected, cannot exercise power without the permission of other mullah-dominated institutions.
Second, many Shiite clerics are concerned about the negative impact of clerical rule on Iranians' view of Shiism, indeed of Islam: People may project anger generated by political or economic failures onto religion. A hat-wearing president could act as a human shield, taking the flak for the government's shortcomings.
Third, a strong segment of the revolutionary establishment consists of hat-wearers who feel frustrated at the prospect of never getting any of the big jobs. These are people who joined the revolution in their teens, took the U.S. diplomats hostage, manned the firing squads against the enemies of the revolution and fought in the Iran-Iraq war. ... Yet, because they are not mullahs, they have no hope of reaching the highest rungs of the ladder.
The party of the turban has two leading candidates.
One is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a mullah-cum-businessman who served as president for two terms between 1989 and 1997. Many regard Rafsanjani, aged 71, as the regime's "strongman." And, thanks to his personal fortune and vast network of business associates, he certainly has a power base.
But he may be the most unpopular figure within the establishment. Even committed Khomeinists admit that the return of Rafsanjani may do more harm than good.
Worse, "Supreme Guide" Ali Husseini Khamenei is reportedly opposed to Rafsanjani's return to the presidency. The two men have been friends for 30 years, and Khamenei may owe his present position to Rafsanjani's maneuvring on his behalf in 1989 in the wake of Khomeini's death. But if Rafsanjani returns as president, his stature and personal network could diminish the position that Khamenei has built over the years.
The second mullah to throw his turban into the ring is 63-year-old Hassan Rouhani, a mid-ranking cleric who impressed the Europeans with his negotiating skills in the talks concerning Iran's nuclear program.
According to the buzz in Tehran, Khamenei tilts toward the hat solution. Recently, he indicated his preference by promoting his own son-in-law Ghulam-Ali Haddad-Adel to become the first non-turbaned Speaker of the Islamic Majlis.
Again according to unverifiable reports, Khamenei would like the presidency to go to Ali-Akbar Velayati, his adviser on foreign policy. Velayati, 65, has one problem: He faces an international arrest warrant issued by a Berlin Criminal Court on charges of involvement in murdering four Iranian Kurdish dissidents in 1992.
Other "hats" that may be thrown into the ring include Ali Larijani, the former head of the state-owned radio and television network and the establishment's chief propagandist for more than 10 years; Ahmad Tavakkoli, a former commerce minister and hard-line Khomeinist, and the Revolutionary Guards may well field a candidate of their own, Gen. Muhammad-Baqer Qalibaf, who has close ties with the hard-line factions.
The pro-reform coalition that swept Khatami into the presidency almost eight years ago has all but evaporated. Attempts at encouraging former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mussavi to stand as a hat-wearing candidate collapsed when he said he would not seek any office under the present constitution. The remnants of the Khatamist movement are pinning their hopes on Mostafa Moin, a former minister of education with no base and even less name recognition.
Hat or turban, one thing is certain: Whoever wins the presidency will be firmly in the camp of the hard-liners. The Islamic Republic has decided that this is not the time to play with political reform, and that the Chinese model of economic opening and political control is the best, at least for the foreseeable future.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian author of 10 books on the Middle East and Islam and a member of Benador Associates.
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