Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Campaign for Peace and Democracy's Latest Letter:
To Sign or Not to Sign?

In November of last year, the Campaign for Peace and Democracy issued a petition regarding U.S. foreign policy toward Iran and has since garnered the signatures of a great many respected academics, activists, journalists, and others. Since the letter was published in The Nation it has received even more attention and endorsements.

This letter was forwarded to me by a number of people over the past couple months. I have consistently declined to add my name to the list of signatories. Here's why:

Although most of the content is fine (and parts are far better than most Iran-related letters out there), there are some glaring problems in the CPD petition that make it impossible for me to endorse. The biggest problem, as usual, is the letter's presentation of the specifics regarding June 2009. The letter states that in June 2009, "hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, took to the streets to demand their democratic rights." Which rights were they demanding, pray tell? If this was the right to elect a president by popular vote, that right was fully exercised by the Iranian people, as pre-election polls and public opinion predicted - almost perfectly - the results of the June 12, 2009 vote. Absolutely no evidence of voter fraud or of a stolen election has ever been found. The Mousavi campaign, for example, had 40,676 registered poll observers on election day. Ahmadinejad had 33,058. These observers spent all day monitoring polling stations and closely watched the vote counting after the polls closed. To date, not a single one of Mousavi’s registered observers has claimed to have been turned away or prevented from observing. Additionally, not a single representative has come forward alleging vote tampering or disputing the vote count totals at his/her polling station.

As analyst Eric A. Brill has pointed out:

Shortly after the election, Mousavi claimed in his newspaper (Kaleme) that 10 million people had voted without showing proper identification, but his complaint to the Guardian Council mentioned only 31 such voters. Widespread ballot-box stuffing was alleged, but not a single stuffed ballot box has been identified. Wholesale buying and selling of votes was alleged, but Mousavi has identified only four instances, in each case without any evidence. Thousands or millions of Mousavi votes were said to have been thrown away, replaced by thousands or millions of Ahmadinejad votes, but no one has identified any of the perpetrators, nor mentioned exactly where or how this was accomplished. Vote counts from the field, approved by tens of thousands of Mousavi's observers, were said to have been altered by the Interior Ministry in Tehran, but no one has identified a single ballot box where this occurred – even though the data have long been available to compare the counts for all 45,692 ballot boxes. The silence of Mousavi's polling station observers is especially deafening. Most or all of them may believe that electoral fraud occurred all over Iran, but apparently each is equally adamant that it did not occur where he spent election day.
This myth should really be put to rest by now and not continuously trumpeted by the American peace movement, as all available facts run counter to this accusation.

For instance, immediately following the election, protesters in Iran (primarily in Tehran and its elite surrounding neighborhoods) carried signs, many of them in English, reading "Where's My Vote?" and "Down with the Dictator!" meant to highlight the perceived government effort to silence the will of the majority. It should not need pointing out that the protesters in Tehran demanding to know the location of their votes seemed to be unaware that their preferred candidate, Mr. Mousavi, actually won Tehran (with over 54% of the vote) and its wealthy northern suburb Shemiranat (with over 66%), according to the officially released results. So, where were their votes? Apparently, they were right there with Mousavi's victorious district totals.

Perhaps even more instructive was a report filed by NBC Nightly News Tehran bureau chief Ali Arouzi during an interview with Brian Williams on June 17, 2009, just five days after the elections, at the height of the anti-Ahmadinejad protests. Arouzi, recounting his experience at a pro-Mousavi rally earlier that day, reported:
We were out on the streets today in a huge rally near where we are right now. There were maybe 40 or 50 thousand people outside, protesting peacefully, wearing the green signs of support for Mousavi. I came across one young man, who was holding up a banner saying, 'You can ban the foreign media, you can block our moblie phones, you can block text messaging, but you can't suffocate our voice.' I asked him if I could take a closer look at his banner and he asked me, 'Do you speak English?,' I told him 'I do' and he asked me to translate the banner for him. I asked him, 'Why are you holding up a banner that you're not sure what it says?' and he said, 'This isn't for the people out here, this is for the people, for the rest of the world to see.'"
Clearly, some dissidents in Iran seemed to be content carrying signs that they couldn't even read and , naturally, the irony of this interaction was lost on both Arouzi and Williams. Also, if the banner was meant as a message to the "world," presumably just the English-speaking world, why would the Iranian government be addressed as "you"? Additionally, the protester must have simply assumed it was a message for the rest of the world since he didn't even know what his own banner said in the first place and needed someone to translate it for him. (Perhaps part of the CIA's $400 million, ascribed to destabilize the Iranian government, was going to Kinko's. How spontaneous! How courageous! How democratic!)

Additionally, the notion that the Iranian government is not viewed favorably in Iran and that the Iranian people not only view themselves as victims of severe government oppression, but that they long for regime change and a new form of government, is also unsupported by evidence. Naturally, as in any country, not every Iranian is a fan of its government - far from it. But the repeated perception and implication here in the US that Iran is at war with itself - the "regime" vs. the "people" - is disingenuous and does a disservice to the complexities of Iranian society and politics. The claim that the Iranian government is a paranoid, if not totally irrational, entity that exploits and overly emphasizes foreign intervention (as if it needs to exaggerate) in order to subjugate its people and aggressively militarize is, in itself, taken straight from the jingoist playbook.

Over the past few years, numerous polls have shown these ideas to be unfounded. For instance, in several post-election polls in Iran, more than 70% of respondents said they saw Ahmadinejad as the legitimate, democratically-elected president of the country and around 80% viewed the 2009 election as free and fair.

Furthermore, more than 80% of Iranians polled said they were satisfied with the current system of government.

A poll conducted this past September (over a year after the election and aftermath) finds that about 60% of Iranians say they voted for Ahmadinejad - a percentage which is not only consistent with every single pre- and post-election survey, but also essentially matches the official results.

Also, this recent poll, conducted by the International Peace Institute, revealed (unsurprisingly to those who have been paying attention) that only about one-third of Iranians view opposition leaders Mousavi and Karroubi favorably, while a mere 26% have positive feelings about the so-called "Green Movement."

These findings are, once again, completely in line with the June 2009 election results.

Nearly 60% of respondents also said that the government's response to the riots and protests which followed the vote was appropriate (19% said the reaction "went too far"). Iranians also continue to support the combination of a theocratic and republican government (which it currently has), though they overwhelmingly believe that Iran will become even more democratized over the next decade.

By using the supposedly ominous phrase, "the Ahmadinejad regime," this petition implicitly infers that, in the signatories' opinion, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the symbol of Iranian oppression is disingenuous to say the least. Remember, he's the one who called for women to be allowed to attend soccer games shortly after his first inauguration. He was lambasted by the religious conservatives. Just a few weeks ago, Ahmadinejad appointed another woman to his Cabinet. Farahnaz Torkestani, now the head of the National Youth Organization, joins three other female Cabinet members, including one of the Health Ministers and two Vice Presidents for Legal Affairs and Science and Technology. He has also, repeatedly, stated his belief that the government has better things to do than restrict women's clothing and police public "immodesty."

Just this past summer, Ahmadinejad publicly stated his opposition to the dress-code crackdown, saying, "The government does not agree with this behavior and will respond to and control it as much as it can. It is an insult to ask a man and woman walking on the street about their relation to each other. Nobody has the right to ask such questions." Ahmadinejad even went so far as to condemn the "humiliating high-profile police crackdown already underway" and suggested, instead, a "'cultural campaign' against interpretations of Islamic dress that have been deemed improper by authorities."

Ahmadinejad has also pushed back against the theocratic nature of the Iranian government. In early 2010, he sought to emphasize the importance and vitality of "pragmatic values" in state affairs, thereby undercutting, as Newsweek put it, "the religious basis of the clerics' political authority." It was also reported that both "hardline clerics and parliamentarians grumble that Ahmadinejad and his ministers regularly defy the Supreme Leader." The Newsweek article continued:
Ahmadinejad has publicly chastised his rivals in the government for "running to [the religious city of] Qom for every instruction," adding that "administering the country should not be left to the [Supreme] Leader, the religious scholars, and other [clerics]." His chief of staff, and relative through marriage, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, echoes those views: "An Islamic government is not capable of running a vast and populous country like Iran. Running a country is like a horse race, but the problem is that [the clergy] are not horse racers." Mashaei further riled the mullahs by criticizing prophets like Noah and Moses as ineffective administrators akin to the contemporary clergymen who wield power in Iran.


When addressing an Iranian university in November, Mashaei took the attack on the mullahs' authority much further: "God does not unify humans…[because] each person's [notion of] God varies from the God of others based on individual understanding."
These reports are consistent with a recent diplomatic cable from Baku, Azerbaijian and released by WikiLeaks last month. Though its veracity has been questioned, the cable reports that, during a Supreme National Security Council meeting in mi-January 2010, Ahmadinejad spoke of the Iranian people feeling "suffocated," and advocating the necessity of "more personal and social freedoms, including more freedom of the press." In response to such a suggestion, an "infuriated Revolutionary Guard Chief of Staff Mohammed Ali Jafari" yelled at the president and "slapped [him] in the face, causing an uproar."

Is this honestly the man who, in the eyes of the signatories, symbolizes oppression? Hardly.

It should also be noted that the perception of the Iranian opposition here in the United States has been completely shaped by the media and U.S. government spin. This perception was also emphasized in another recently released diplomatic cable from January 13, 2010. The cable, which came from the IRPO (Iran Regional Presence Office) in Dubai, stated: must note the 'selective perception' bias that tends to over-emphasize the GPO [Green Party Opposition]'s potency. Some pro-GPO bias stems from their being the (relative) 'good guys' in this drama, to the extent that their agenda encompasses principles dear to Western democracies. Additionally, Western media's Iran contacts tend to be pro-reformist, with Western press quoting pro-GPO activists and analysts almost exclusively. Also USG [U.S. government] officials' interactions with Iranians tend to be largely limited to Iranians willing and able to talk with us, with a disproportionate number of them being those seeking USG assistance in helping fight the regime. Finally and in many ways most importantly 'if it bleeds it leads,' so there are no 'Youtube' uploads on demonstration days of the millions of ordinary Iranians who are going about their business.

In this regard, many IRPO interlocutors comment that for most in Tehran, life is going on as normal, with no sensation of living in 'a police state' (except on the key dates targeted by the GPO, and only then for people in specific areas where clashes occur). In other words, it seems that the vast majority of Iranians, though more critical of the government to greater or lesser degrees, are continuing to live their lives as normal. There is no reason to assume that those 'radical' GPO elements seeking to fundamentally change the system represent most Iranians. At most, it appears that many and possibly most Iranians want a peaceful reform of the system as opposed to another revolution with an uncertain outcome. (emphasis added)
Even the last part of the cable appears to reflect some wishful thinking on the part of the author, considering the results of the public opinion polls referenced above. The cable also reveals that the Iranian opposition "doesn't seem to have a significant ethnic or labor component, and doesn't seem to have 'broken out' of Tehran in a significant way to other major urban centers."

If the pro-peace movement here in the United States truly wishes to stand with the "pro-democracy" elements in Iran, it should also respect the results of a democratic election in Iran. As such, this would mean, first and foremost, acknowledging that Ahmadinejad actually won the June 2009 presidential election and that the Iranians protesting this result - and supported by both progressive and conservative forces here in the US - are actually opposing the result of a democratic election, instead of promoting one.

Also, the American progressive movement should also be well aware that the so-called "pro-democracy" dissidents in Iran (the ones this petition urges us to support) do not represent a movement dedicated to change the disposition of the Islamic Republic or to establish a wholly secular government in Iran. What seems to be forgotten is that the Iranian opposition movement chants tend to include "Allah O Akbar!" – God is Great – along with "Peace be upon the prophet Mohammad and his family!" and "Ya Hossein!," which are all deeply religious phrases that prove the dissident movement in Iran is not a "secular revolution," as many would perhaps hope, but rather has strong undercurrent of religiosity like most aspects of Iranian culture.

The color green, which has been appropriated by the opposition movement and seen by Western commentators and casual observers as the bucolic color of progress, environmentalism, clean energy, rebirth, and renewal, is also the color of Islam. Iranians are well aware of the symbolism of wearing green. Green is one of Iran's national colors, not some chromatic infiltration of kaleidoscopic revolt and freedom.

Opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi has written to his supporters, "Let's not abandon the green color which is a symbol of spirituality, freedom and religious mentality and moderateness and the Allah O Akbar slogan that tells us of revolutionary roots…This is the color and slogan that is still unifying our nation and will be the best measure to connect our hearts and needs." Mousavi has also declared, "We, as those who are loyal to the Islamic Republic and its constitutional laws, consider the Holy Jurisdiction one of the fundamentals of this regime and follow the political movements within legal frameworks." Even Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a highly-regarded champion of women's rights in Iran, felt the need, during the post-election tumult, to remind a group of students that she and her husband still believe strongly in the ideals of the revolution and don't regard anti-Islamic Revolution elements as their allies.

A year after the election, on June 15, 2010, Mousavi published a statement, the majority of which defended his loyalty to the legacy of Imam Khomeini, the ideals of the Iranian revolution, and the Islamic Republic. Mousavi also wrote of the importance of national self-determination and sovereignty, as well as warning of the dangers of foreign intervention. Meanwhile, Green movement supporters continue to deny the democratic will, and self-determination, of the Iranian public by denying the results of the June 2009 election without providing even a shred of proof to back up such a claim. As Eric A. Brill has concluded, "One side will always be disappointed with an election result - but that is democracy, not fraud. Fraud requires evidence, not merely surprise, disappointment and suspicion."

Sadly, petitions like this one circulated by Campaign for Peace and Democracy fall victim to the very same anti-Iranian propaganda that grips right-wing warmongers. Yes, opposing sanctions and military attacks is great, but coupling that with repeated myths about the so-called "democratic" struggle in Iran serves almost the same purpose, which is to demonize the Iranian government and strengthen the call for U.S.-funded regime change.

As an added element to this, please refer to this June 9, 2003 statement from the Campaign for Peace and Democracy with regards to ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba:
As advocates of democratic rights and liberties everywhere, including Cuba, we strongly believe that democratic change in Cuba must be achieved by the Cuban people themselves, not by threats, embargoes or intervention by a U.S. government bent on reasserting its domination over that country. We call on the Bush administration to respect the right of Cuba, and all other countries, to self-determination.
Does the CPD extend the same courtesy to the people of Iran? If so, why do they not respect the Iranian Constitution, which was adopted by national referendum with 98.2% of Iranians voting in favor (and yes, that included women)? Is the U.S. Constitution subject to review and renewal referendums every year, every five years, every decade? No, of course not.

Still, I do believe (or, at least, want to believe) that the authors of the Iran statement (and the past statements by CPD), namely Joanne Landy and Thomas Harrison, have the best of intentions. As they declare in a March 2003 statement condemning political imprisonment, repression, and censorship in Cuba:
As anti-war, social justice and human rights advocates, we condemned the brutal Saddam Hussein regime, and we oppose the United States occupation of Iraq. We support civil liberties and democratic rights everywhere, regardless of the country's economic, political or social system. We believe it is imperative to be consistent in opposing repression wherever it takes place, whether in Iraq or Saudi Arabia, Israel or Cuba, Turkey or the United States.
I sincerely think that CPD is trying to be consistent in both their condemnation of repression and advocacy for justice. Unfortunately, I believe CPD has bought into too much of the anti-Iran propaganda without doing enough research of its own. By advocating an end to the "predatory wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan; supporting a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Middle East; giving real support to Palestinian rights rather than continuing one-sided support to Israel," and urging the dismantling of more than 1,000 U.S. military bases around the world, the CPD is, in fact, articulating official Iranian policy itself - goals and desires articulated time and again by Iranian politicians, mostly notably by Ahmadinejad himself year after year at the United Nations and elsewhere. And yet, that never makes it into their declaration, because it would undermine the apparent "necessity" of condemning the Iranian government, as if only by doing so can progressives be taken seriously in the current political climate.

Petitions like this one seem to solidify the unfortunate, and never-changing, narrative within American discourse regarding Iran: The Iranian government, especially the administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is unsavory and dangerous - both to their own countryfolk and to the world at large. It wields no popular mandate and is therefore illegitimate and unrepresentative of its citizenry, all of whom are routinely oppressed, harassed, and brutalized. therefore, solidarity with those struggling for "freedom" and "democracy" is a necessary moral obligation, if not essential.

As a result of this construction, both the left and right, the progressives and neoconservatives, the peace movement and the warmongers, here in the United States, begin any discussion of Iran from the same place. It is only in their suggestion of if, how, how much, and to what end the US government should intervene that they begin to differ. By opposing intervention of any kind (including sanctions, isolation, covert infiltration, and military action) but not first countering the erroneous claims of anti-Iran hawks and exposing the lies fed by the media and politicians, the progressive peace movement essentially validates the right-wing position and winds up presenting its viewpoints as just another, though equally legitimate, alternative option, rather than a necessity of international law, common sense, and human decency.

It is for these reasons that I cannot sign onto this petition, as well-intentioned as it may be.



January 13, 2011 - Middle East analyst and constant Ahmadinejad-basher Reza Aslan has a piece published in The Atlantic today entitled, "Do We Have Ahmadinejad All Wrong?"

The article addresses a number of the issues raised in the post above, which I had written a week earlier. Aslan wonders whether Ahmadinejad "is actually a reformer whose attempts to liberalize, secularize, and even 'Persianize' Iran have been repeatedly stymied by the country's more conservative factions," despite his reputation here in the West as "a leading force behind some of Iran's most hard-line and repressive policies."

Aslan writes that "it might seem shocking to both casual and dedicated Iran-watcher that the bombastic Ahmadinejad could, behind Tehran's closed doors, be playing the reformer" and concludes:
If you oppose the Mullahs' rule, yearn for greater social and political freedoms for the Iranian people, and envision an Iran that draws inspiration from the glories of its Persian past, then, believe it or not, you have more in common with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than you might have thought.
Well, Reza, you might be shocked and surprised, but I'm not. Perhaps you should have started reading Wide Asleep in America a couple years ago and saved yourself a heap of time coming to these startling revelations.


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