Saturday, April 30, 2016

Self-Proclaimed Iran Expert Continues to Get Iran Election Predictions Wrong

Meir Javedanfar (Image: RT)

There's an apocryphal saying, sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, that goes, "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."

There's another one, not attributed to Twain, that goes, "The only predictable thing about Iranian politics is that it's unpredictable."

Nevertheless, despite these phony aphorisms, many of those who claim expertise on the machinations of Iranian politics and are often loudest in voicing in their opinions in the media make a habit of confidently prognosticating - to the point of hubris - about who will win when Iranians go to the polls to elect their presidents, parliamentarians, and other assorted representatives.

And, inevitably, they're almost always wrong.

There are plenty of examples. For instance, prior to the June 2013 election that saw moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran's president, the neoconservative editors of The Washington Post declared that "Mr. Rouhani, who has emerged as the default candidate of Iran's reformists, will not be allowed to win."

As if by a miracle, following the vote and Rouhani's election, the Post suddenly had it all figured out, declaring that "there was good reason" why Khamenei "chose to accept [Rouhani's] victory."

Similarly, Iranian-born Israeli commentator Meir Javedanfar predicted before the June 2013 vote that "it is safe to say that moderate candidate Hassan Rowhani has no chance of success," because, contrary to the potential will of the Iranian - "the supreme leader would not allow votes in [his] favour to be counted."

Once Rouhani had won, however, Javedanfar came up with all sorts of excuses as to why "the Supreme Leader allowed Rowhani's victory to stand," none of them of course having to do with the number of ballots the candidate had actually received.

Persistently committed to misinformed political analysis and refusing to learn from his egregious predictive track record, Javedanfar - who is somehow allowed to teach a course on "Contemporary Iranian Politics" at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv - decided to chime in on the February 2016 Iranian elections for Majlis (parliament) and Assembly of Experts, the official body responsible for selecting a successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Expounding in the Jewish Chronicle, a conservative British online outlet, Javedanfar wrote on February 25:
For the upcoming elections this weekend, the majority of reformist candidates who are considered President Hassan Rouhani's allies have been disqualified, as well as many of Mr Rouhani's own candidates who belong to his party. This means the chances of Mr Rouhani's 2013 presidential election allies winning a majority in the both the Parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections - which take place the at same time - are almost nil.
He added, with confidence: "In both elections, the best Mr Rouhani can hope for is to belong to a powerful minority" and predicted that "moderates will make up only 20 per cent of next Assembly," suggesting that conservatives clerics - who already made up about 77 percent of the Assembly - would pick up more seats than they already held.

This inevitability, Javedanfar explained, "may come as a shock to Western leaders who believed that the nuclear agreement would boost the position of Mr Rouhani and his moderate allies at home."

The implications of such tired, hackneyed commentary are obvious. They are meant to reinforce the already ill-informed assumptions of an audience predisposed to hostility toward Iran.

It works like this: if Iranian electoral politics are dismissed as wholly inconsequential, then it follows that change can never be made through the ballot box. Therefore, less conservative elected officials are seen as having no ability to affect policy, while more conservative politicians can be said to have no legitimacy abroad and no popular mandate at home.

So what's the point of making these claims? To question the sincerity of diplomatic agreements with Iran and doubt the commitment of the Iranian government to uphold its end of the deal - in this case, the nuclear accord signed last year between Iran and six world powers. By predicting setbacks for less reactionary elements of the Iranian state, those sympathetic to hawkish interests in both the West and Israel can convince themselves that, unless overthrown and replaced with a government deferential to the United States and Israel, the Iranian "regime" will never truly reflect the will of the Iranian people and that any attempts at what the West perceives as "moderation" or "liberalization," even by Iranian standards, will be met with a swift reprimand from up on high. Basically, this line of reasoning goes, Rouhani will be either a puppet of the most reactionary elements of the Iranian state or rendered politically impotent as punishment for defying it.

It is no surprise then that editors at the Jewish Chronicle applied an even more heavy-handed headline to Javedanfar's commentary: "Iran prepares to sideline Rouhani, the 'moderate' in which the West invested," making sure to put the word moderate in quotes, a backhanded dismissal of Rouhani's centrism and commitment to diplomacy.

There are so many errors inherent in this mode of thinking it's difficult to know where to begin challenging them. Most importantly, perhaps, is the fact that describing Iranian politicians as either "reformists" or "hardliners" is reductive and inaccurate. Political alliances and allegiances often shift, coalitions are versatile, strategic and frequently opportunistic. There are hundreds of registered parties, but, as Reuters has pointed out, Iran "has no tradition of disciplined party membership or detailed party platforms."

Moreover, Iranian citizens are never considered to have similar cares, concerns, worries or priorities as their counterparts in Western nations. They are all assumed to be one issue voters - and that issue is always foreign policy; or, more specifically, whether or not they approve of their government's relationship to the United States.

The idea that this election would be effectively a public referendum on the Rouhani administration handling of nuclear negotiations was pushed relentlessly in the Western press, ignoring the fact that Iranians - like most people on the planet - often weigh domestic issues, such as the economy, more heavily than foreign policy.

Nevertheless, even if the Iran deal played an outsized role in determining voter turnout and priorities, the media routinely ignored the fact that Iranian head of state Ayatollah Khamenei has never been an enemy of diplomacy over Iran's nuclear program. Quite the contrary, the negotiations were conducted with his express support; the deal was legitimized not only by a parliamentary vote, but also by his approval. Throughout the multilateral talks and the subsequent signing of the nuclear deal, Iranian public opinion strongly supported diplomacy and approval levels for both the Rouhani administration and the deal itself remain high.

The First Round - February 26, 2016

So what wound up happening when Iranians went to the polls?

Despite the outrageous purging of many (if not most) reformist and moderate candidates from the ballots by the Guardian Council, Iran's conservative electoral vetting body, deft political maneuvering (coupled with calls for a large voter turnout) on the part of President Hassan Rouhani and allies like former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani led to a veritable rout of so-called "hardliners" in both elections.

As the Associated Press noted following the vote,
Reformists, who favor expanded social freedoms and engagement with the West, won at least 85 seats, according to final results released by the Interior Ministry and broadcast on state TV. Moderate conservatives — who split with the hard-line camp and support the nuclear deal — won 73, giving the two blocs together a majority over hard-liners in the 290-seat assembly.
The coalition of candidates endorsed by Rouhani and Rafsanjani, made up of mostly reformist and centrist candidates for parliament known as "The List of Hope" and a slate of 16 centrists and moderates running for Tehran's Assembly of Experts seats, enjoyed particularly massive success, especially in Tehran, the nation's political and economic heart.

All 30 pro-Rouhani candidates in the influential capital district won their parliamentary seats, while, as analyst Adnan Tabatabai pointed out, "all but one of the 16 Tehran seats in the 88-member Assembly of Experts will be in the hands of this alliance of Reformists, moderates and government-leaning Principlists." Moreover, two notoriously ultra-conservative clerics lost their seats in the Assembly (one was even the sitting chairman), singling a strong popular rebuke of the most hardline elements.

Reuters described the results as "an emphatic vote of confidence" for Rouhani and his policies.

Moreover, the Rouhani and Rafsanjani-endorsed list of candidates won a whopping 59 percent majority of the Assembly of Experts. This is a far cry from the paltry 20 percent prediction of Javedanfar, who boasts on his website of having "briefed officials and academics from more than 30 countries on Iran" and being "the most frequently quoted Israeli expert on Iranian affairs in the international press."

In an effort to avoid acknowledging the error of his bogus predictions, two days after the vote Javedanfar cautioned against "jump[ing] to any conclusions yet." He even dismissed the results in Tehran as unsurprising since, as he wrote on his blog, "Tehran has always been more Reformist." If this was so obvious, it's curious Javedanfar didn't include this nugget of wisdom in his pre-election commentary in the Jewish Chronicle.

Due to the large number of independent candidates (Iran does not have a formal political party system, so officials are not necessarily obligated to toe a party line or particular platform), Javedanfar noted - rightly - that "it's difficult to know to which camp some of the winning candidates belong" and that it was impossible to confidently identify which side - reformists and moderates or conservatives and principlists - would eventually walk away with a majority of parliament. Also, of the total 290 seats in the Majlis, 68 spots still required runoff elections which wouldn't happen until late April.

When the dust settled after the first round, the Rouhani-Rafsanjani alliance held 106 seats against 64 won by conservatives. Independents won 52 seats.

For Javedanfar's prediction about the near impossibility of Rouhani allies winning a majority in parliament to come to fruition, reformists and moderates would have to suffer a crushing defeat in the runoff.

But that's not quite what happened.

The Second Round - April 29, 2016

"Iranian moderates and reformists who support last year’s landmark nuclear deal have won the largest number of seats in parliament following runoff elections," reported The Associated Press, after the runoff, "marking a shift away from hard-liners and boosting moderate President Hassan Rouhani as he looks to secure a second term in office."

While a number of news outlets were quick to note that no faction garnered enough wins to secure an absolute majority, the biggest gains were made by Rouhani allies, who make up a undeniable plurality of incoming MPs.

An Associated Press tally of the final results noted that the "reformist and moderate list claimed 37 seats in Friday’s vote, giving them a total of 143 seats in the assembly — just two seats shy of 50 percent. They are followed by hard-liners, with 86 seats, and independents, with 61. Twenty-two hard-liners and nine independents won seats in the runoff."

A more tentative roundup in the Iranian media gave Rouhani supporters at least 121 seats, while conservative principlists, more of whom oppose the president's policies, won only 83. The remaining seats were said to be held by independents, that could tip the scales in either direction.

Former Iranian diplomat Seyed Hossein Mousavian suggested that "the real unprecedented development of this election" was "the huge gains" made by independents. "How these independents act," Mousavian, now a scholar at Princeton University, "will determine what direction the next parliament takes and what decisions it makes."

Mousavian also noted:
Many of the MPs who opposed the nuclear deal were voted out, particularly those who were most vitriolic in their attacks on Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. This is a clear sign that the majority of the Iranian people support the nuclear deal and that the majority of the new MPs will uphold it. This ensures that the deal will not be undermined from the Iranian side.
If one thing is certain, it's that Iranian politics and elections will remain unpredictable. And while the fate of Rouhani and his political allies in the years ahead, namely the 2017 presidential election, is anyone's guess, it probably shouldn't be Meir Javedanfar's.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Revisiting 'Argo', Hollywood's CIA-Supported Propaganda Fable

Through his dogged pursuit of declassified government documents, VICE News reporter Jason Leopold has revealed that the CIA was directly involved in the production of Ben Affleck's Oscar-winning, propaganda fairy tale Argo.

Argo, along with other productions like an episode of Bravo's Top Chef , the USA Network series Covert Affairs; and CIA-related documentaries on the History Channel and the BBC, "all received 'support' from the CIA's Office of Public Affairs (OPA), the division that interacts with journalists and acts as the liaison with the entertainment industry," writes Leopold, who received the documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Additionally, and least surprisingly, the documents also confirm the agency's involvement in the making of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's pro-torture paean to the CIA.

While it's still unclear to what extent the CIA was involved in the production of Argo, Leopold quotes CIA public affairs director Dean Boyd as saying that, beyond protecting classified material and national security secrets, the CIA's engagement with the entertainment industry seeks to guarantee a positive portrayal of American spies - or, as Boyd puts it, "an informed, balanced portrayal of the women and men of CIA."

Leopold also notes that, in the case of Argo and a couple other projects, "foreign nationals 'may have participated in briefings, interviews, and visits provided by the CIA,'" and adds:
However, because of the lack of adequate records, we were unable to determine the extent of the CIA’s support to the eight projects, the extent to which foreign nationals participated in CIA-sponsored activities, and whether the Director/OPA approved the activities and participation of foreign nationals…. Failure on the part of CIA officers to adhere to the regulatory requirements could result in unauthorized disclosures, inappropriate actions and negative consequences for the CIA.
The CIA's support for Argo, which was released in 2012 and went on to win three Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, is not shocking. The film - which purports to tells the "true story" of six American diplomats who escaped the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, and hid out at the Canadian ambassador's house until finally leaving the country with the help of an American spy and a ludicrous cover story - is little more than a love letter to the CIA.

Nearly every fact about what really happened was either glossed over or totally reimagined in order to present a Manichean tale of American heroism and ingenuity triumphing over Iranian savagery and buffoonery, all but omitting any historical context for the Iranian revolution and deliberately downplaying the vital role of ambassador Ken Taylor and the Canadian government in the whole affair.

Indeed, even former President Jimmy Carter felt compelled to acknowledge that "90% of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian [while] the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA... Ben Affleck's character in the film was only in Tehran a day and a half and the real hero in my opinion was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process."

Taylor, who passed away last October, himself lamented in 2013 that Argo's Hollywood version of history demonized Iranians, playing into the long-maintained American narrative that Iran is merely "one long revolution and riot."

"The movie maybe didn't give a chance that there's another side to Iranian society which is unfortunate — that is a more conventional side, a more hospitable side and an intent that they were looking for some degree of justice and hope and that it all wasn't just a violent demonstration for nothing," Taylor said, describing the embassy takeover in realistic terms.

Summing up his own characterization of the film, Taylor added, "The amusing side is the script writer in Hollywood had no idea what he's talking about."

This view, from someone who actually spent three years in Iran, is strikingly different than that of Ben Affleck, who directed Argo. In an interview with Rolling Stone, when Argo was first released, Affleck described the embassy takeover and hostage-taking as having "no rhyme or reason," while in a Huffington Post interview, he claimed that he "tried to make a movie that is absolutely just factual."

But the fingerprints of the CIA were all over Argo and, despite their covert protocol, little was done to wipe them clean.

When he won the Best Director Golden Globe in February 2013, Ben Affleck praised the "clandestine service as well as the foreign service that is making sacrifices on behalf of the American people everyday [and] our troops serving over seas, I want to thank them very much," a statement echoed almost identically by co-producer Grant Heslov when the movie won Best Drama later that night.

"I want to thank the folks from the clandestine services who don't always get the credit that they deserve, but they do a lot of great work. And thank you to them as well," said Heslov, who once co-starred as a CIA intel officer opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in James Cameron's 1994 action blockbuster True Lies, which is widely regarded as one of the most Islamophobic and anti-Arab films ever made. That film "probably will stand the test of time as one of the most racist movies Hollywood has ever produced," said film scholar Jack Shaheen, author of Reel Bad Arabs, a study of Middle Eastern stereotyping in cinema.

The following month, Argo screenwriter Chris Terrio won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. In his acceptance speech, Terrio saved his most heartfelt gratitude for CIA agent Tony Mendez, the spy who - the story goes - concocted a clever ruse to help get the six Americans out of Iran. "I want to dedicate this to a man named Tony Mendez. 33 years ago, Tony, using nothing but his creativity and his intelligence, got six people out of a very bad situation," he said. As those close to the actual operation have already pointed out, Mendez was only in Tehran for a single day; he came, not alone, but with a partner; and he hardly did anything.

Oh, and the "fake movie" he and his Hollywood buddies invented to fool unwitting Iranians? That cover story was never actually needed - it was never tested, as the actual departure of the diplomats from Tehran was fairly uneventful. "The truth is the immigration officers barely looked at us and we were processed out in the regular way," recalled one of the actual diplomats involved. "We got on the flight to Zurich and then we were taken to the US ambassador's residence in Berne. It was that straightforward." No angry mobs, no phony storyboards, no high-speed chase down the tarmac. Even Mendez himself noted the whole operation was "as smooth as silk." The only glitch? The flight departure time was delayed by an hour. Harrowing.

When Argo won the Best Picture Oscar at the end of the night (and remotely presented with the award by non-other than First Lady Michelle Obama, beamed in live from the Diplomatic Room of the White House, while surrounded by U.S. military personnel), Ben Affleck took time not only to also thank Mendez, whom Affleck himself portrays in the film, but also "our friends in Iran, living in terrible circumstances right now." What?

Even before that, however, the cat was out of the bag. Shortly after the movie's release, Terrio said during a Hollywood Reporter's Writers Roundtable discussion that, in researching the story, "I spent a bunch of time with Tony Mendez and also bunch of other CIA officers."

Right before the movie came out, Affleck was interviewed on Fox News by Bill O'Reilly. The "serious aspect" of Argo, the director said, "was that this is really a tribute to the folks and our clandestine services and diplomats in the foreign service who are risking their lives over there... [and to] what they give up to serve us and to serve our country."

Responding to O'Reilly description of Argo as "a Valentine from Ben Affleck to the Intelligence Community - the same people who water-boarded, the same people who renditioned," Affleck said, "I've been to the CIA. I met General David Petraeus. These are extraordinary honorable people at the CIA. Make no mistake about it." He then went on to say that he "wouldn't oppose military action" against Iran in the event that "they need to be whacked."

Jason Leopold, in his article on the CIA's support for film and television projects, writes, "On the CIA's website, the agency says its entertainment industry liaison helps producers, screenwriters, directors, and authors 'gain a better understanding of [CIA's] intelligence mission.'" It continues:
"Our goal is an accurate portrayal of the men and women of the CIA, and the skill, innovation, daring, and commitment to public service that defines them. If you are part of the entertainment industry, and are working on a project that deals with the CIA, the Agency may be able to help you. We are in a position to give greater authenticity to scripts, stories, and other products in development."
Far from proving "greater authenticity," however, with the CIA's help, the producers of Argo spun truth into mythology. The "based on a true story" patina gives cover to a deluge of lies, carefully crafted and amplified to show noble American spies and diplomats vanquishing the bumbling barbarians of revolutionary Iran. As Salon's Andrew O'Hehir so deftly put it, Argo's supposed "authenticity" is "all elaborate window dressing for a propaganda fable," a "patriotic fantasy" and a "totalizing fiction" that "turns a fascinating and complicated true story into a trite cavalcade of action-movie clichés and expository dialogue."

It is no surprise then which film the U.S. government was rooting for on Oscar night. The day before the ceremony, a message from the State Department's official Twitter account, and attributed directly to Secretary of State John Kerry, declared: "Good luck @BenAffleck and #Argo at the Oscars. Nice seeing @StateDept & our Foreign Service on the big screen.-JK"

I've previously noted that the relationship between Hollywood and the military and intelligence arms of the U.S. government has long been cozy.

"When the CIA or the Pentagon says, 'We'll help you, if you play ball with us,' that's favoring one form of speech over another. It becomes propaganda," David Robb, author of "Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies," once told The Los Angeles Times. "The danger for filmmakers is that their product — entertainment and information — ends up being government spin."

Now, thanks to Jason Leopold's FOIA request, we know just how true that really is.

***** ***** *****

UPDATE: It's important to note that the love-fest between the filmmakers and the Central Intelligence Agency was not a one-way street. The CIA, in 2013, took to its Twitter account not only to playfully debunk some of Argo's wilder scenarios (separating the "reel" from the "real"), but also to heap praise on its own personnel - and Affleck himself.


Read my previous articles on Argo here:

10.12.12 - Argo's Asinine Auteur and his American Audience: Are We Hostages to Hollywood History?

02.23.13 - Oscar Prints the Legend: Argo's Upcoming Academy Award and the Failure of Truth

09.13.13 - New Documentary Reclaims “The Canadian Caper” from Affleck’s “Argo”


Friday, April 8, 2016

Location Location Location: The Unintended Symbolism of the White House Haft-Sîn

White House Nowruz, 2015 (Photo: The White House)

This week, Michelle Obama hosted the second annual White House Nowruz, a celebration of the Iranian New Year. Though a relatively apolitical affair, the placement of the reception's traditional haft-sîn, however, should have raised some eyebrows.

Nowruz, which literally means "new day" in Farsi, is an ancient festival of new beginnings, deeply rooted in Zoroastrianism, celebrating the first day of Spring and the Persian calendar.

Of the myriad traditions and festivities associated with Nowruz, the most universally recognizable may be that of the haft-sîn (هفت سین‎), a table arrangement decorated with seven (haft) items – each beginning with the Persian letter S (sîn) – and symbolizing renewal, reconciliation, good luck, and prosperity.

The shindig, MC'ed by comedian Maz Jobrani and catered by renowned Persian chef Najmieh Batmanglij, was held on April 6 – a few days after the official holiday season (which lasts roughly 13 days) had actually ended.

The White House, naturally, had its own haft-sîn on display at its Nowruz party. However, its location in the East Room, where the celebration has been held both years, was a bit curious and (probably) unintentionally laden with symbolism all its own.


The table containing such traditional items as wheat grass (sabzeh), garlic (sīr), vinegar (serkeh), apple (seeb), wheat germ pudding (samanu), sumac berries (somaq), and dried fruit (senjed) was placed - as it was last year as well - right beneath John Singer Sargent's 1903 presidential portrait of Theodore Roosevelt.

haft-sîn in the White House's East Room, on April 6, 2016. (Photo: Holly Dagres / @TheIranist)

One of the principal promoters of American imperialism at the end of the 19th century and in the first decade of the 20th, Roosevelt once wrote, "I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one." Roosevelt's belief was, as he told the Naval War College, "No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumph of war." It is said he carried around a list of six target nations on three continents.

In December 1904, Roosevelt issued his official Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, declaring that the United States would not hesitate to use what he called its "international police power" to destroy and replace regimes deemed hostile to American interests. Though initially used to justify military intervention, invasion and occupation of Western Hemisphere nations such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, Roosevelt sent a similar message to the entire world in late 1907, when he deployed the nation's Great White Fleet to circumnavigate the globe in a show of American power. The fleet consisted of 16 battleships and support vessels, crewed by 14,000 sailors. It sailed for 14 months, covering over 43,000 miles and made twenty port calls on six different continents.

Just as it is common practice today for U.S. presidents to deliver Nowruz remarks to the people, and sometimes leaders, of Iran, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries "American presidents were encouraged to exchange telegrams with the Shah of Iran on the occasion of the Persian New Year's Day."

"In 1902," note scholars Kamran Scot Aghaie and Afshin Marashi, "President Theodore Roosevelt even presented the Shah of Iran, Muzaffar al-Din, and his brother, Zill al-Sultan, with a copy of his book, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, recognizing that hunting was a favorite pastime of the Persian royal family as well."

At the time, Iranian leaders saw the United States - which had no imperial presence in the Middle East at that point - as a potential non-interventionist ally against persistent Russian and British encroachment on Iranian sovereignty. Following the Iranian Constitutional Revolution in 1906, Russia and Britain both occupied Iran in 1907 in an effort to dissolve the parliament and prop up the waning Qajar dynasty, dividing the country between them until 1911. Roosevelt remained neutral, however, a position subsequently maintained by Taft and all successive U.S. administrations through World War II, when Russia and the United Kingdom again invaded and occupied Iran to secure wartime supply routes for the Allied Powers and replaced the then Shah, Reza Pahlavi, with his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Kermit's Coup

On August 19, 1953, Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown in a military coup planned and orchestrated by the United States and Britain after nationalizing Iran's oil industry. Pro-Shah riots were staged, hundreds were killed, newspapers supportive of Mossadegh were ransacked and shuttered, and the prime minister was arrested and tried for treason.

The main architect of the coup, executed at the behest of British petroleum interests and under the guise of pro-active anti-communism, was the chief of the CIA's Near East and Africa division, Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. - grandson of President Teddy Roosevelt.

The ouster of Mossadegh, and the reinstallation of the Shah, by American intelligence operatives is a seminal moment in Iranian history and political consciousness, setting the stage for a quarter-century of tyrannical dictatorship propped up by torture, corruption and U.S. military aid, as well as establishing the United States as an interventionist power in the region. Popular backlash against the Shah, and his American backers, culminated in his overthrow by the Iranian Revolution, and the establishment of an Islamic Republic in 1979.

Roosevelt's Shadow

By honoring Iranian culture with a haft-sîn table set under the watchful gaze of Teddy Roosevelt - the godfather of American military intervention and the grandfather of the man responsible for Operation Ajax in 1953 - the White House is unwittingly sending a message of continued hostility and imperial hubris toward Iran.

In his annual Nowruz message, delivered right before his historic trip to Cuba, President Obama said that, "even after decades of mistrust, it is possible for old adversaries to start down a new path." At a time when Iran is fully upholding its end of the nuclear accord, while the residual effects of U.S. sanctions continue to cause problems for Iranians, optics remain important.

One possible step on the path to better relations would be to move the haft-sîn to the other side of the room.


Friday, April 1, 2016

The Mistakes and Missing History of CFR's #ThisDayinHistory Tweet on Iran

As part of its "This Day in History" series on social media, the Twitter account for the Council on Foreign Relations posted the following this morning:

At first glance a couple things are off about this tweet, admittedly minor, but worth noting nonetheless.

For one, the photo used in the tweet - taken by AP photographer Aristotle Saris, was taken not on "This Day in History" back in 1979, but actually on January 19 of that year, at a massive, million-plus person, pro-Khomeini rally against the government of the recently exiled Shah and in favor of the establishment of an Islamic republic in its place.

Also, "This Day in History" is actually yesterday. The advent of an Islamic republic in Iran was announced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on Farvardin 12, a date on the Iranian calendar that corresponds with April 1, except in leap years, when it's March 31.

This being 2016 - a leap year - CFR should have posted the anniversary tweet on Thursday, not today.

More importantly, however, the language used in the tweet's text is somewhat misleading. Of course, tweets are, by design, extremely limited in content - not too much context is possible in a mere 140 characters. Still, completely omitted from this quick retrospective is the fact that an Islamic republic replaced the Pahlavi dynasty - and with it millennia of monarchy - through the will of a popular referendum, not merely imposed by dictatorial mandate.

A Transitional Government, Two Referendums and a New Constitution

Just days after returning to Iranian soil after years of exile, Khomeini appointed Mehdi Barzargan as prime minister of the interim government. In a statement read by none other than Hashemi Rafsanjani, who would go on to become (and remain) one of the most powerful political forces in the country, Barzargan was granted not only "the authority to establish an interim government without consideration of any affiliation to parties or dependence on any factional groups," but also to arrange "a referendum and refer to a national public vote the issues of turning the country into an Islamic republic."

Iranians line up to vote to abolish the monarchy and establish an Islamic republic, March 30, 1979

Less than two months after the Shah was deposed, a referendum vote took place in Iran (and at Iranian embassies and consulates worldwide for Iranian citizens in the Diaspora) on March 30 and 31, 1979 to determine the future nature of the nascent post-revolutionary government. Over those two days, millions of men and women, 16 years of age and over, cast their votes.

Perhaps the outcome was never really in doubt. Placards and posters depicting Khomeini and the admonition, "Only an Islamic republic," were ubiquitous. An Iranian political economy professor, writing from Paris the day before the vote, noted that the "majority is expected to vote for replacement of the monarchy by an as yet undefined 'Islamic republic.'" A number of political and ethnic minority groups around the country boycotted the referendum on the reasonable grounds that not enough choices were presented to the electorate.

The ballot was binary, as described in a March 30, 1979 New York Times article entitled "In Iran Balloting, Only Victory Margin Is In Doubt," filed from Tehran by correspondent John Kifner:
The ballot came in three sections, like a perforated ticket. One section was for registration, the other two were the choices: the section in green, the color of Islam, had the word "yes" printed on it; the other was red, with the word "no."
'In the name of the Almighty,' the red and green choices said, enunciating the question on the referendum, which began today, 'to change the previous regime to an Islamic republic whose constitution will be approved by the people.'
...the voters presented a birth certificate or other identification, had it stamped and took the ballot, which was stamped again on the registration section. They would tear off either the green or red section and deposit it in a box on the table...The unused section of the ballot could be discarded or carried away.
The article also notes that, at that particular voting station, a precinct election judge "showed a visitor a wastebasket at the polling place at midday to indicate how the returns were going. Nothing but red 'no' slips could be found among the hundreds of crumpled papers."

The front page of Kayhan showed voters casting ballots on 11 Farvardin 1358 (March 31, 1979) [source]

Voting hours were extended until 10pm and the margin of inevitable victory grew, amidst some reports of seemingly intimidating polling environments and peer pressure. For instance, one observer "criticized the lack of privacy for voters. There were no booths, and voting was done in the presence of Islamic officials, often amid dozens of posters calling for a yes vote." Also, reported The New York Times:
There were many reports of polling officers tearing off the green-colored "yes" portions of the ballots and stuffing them in the boxes on behalf of the voters, who meekly got their identification cards stamped and left. A number of young voters told reporters that they were afraid to openly vote no in the presence of so many others who felt otherwise.
On April 1, 1979, the result was announced.

New York Times reporter Gregory Jaynes wrote that "Ayatollah Khomeini was jubilant over the two-day vote on his proposed Islamic republic," quoting the revolutionary leader's published statement: "I am declaring today the day of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and I would also like to declare that such a referendum is unprecedented in history - to establish a Government of righteousness and to overthrow and bury the monarchy in the rubbish pile of history."

As for the turnout and resulting percentages, Jaynes reported that the referendum commissioner Ahmad Noorbaksh said that "97 percent of the electorate had voted for the Islamic republic, out of the 98 percent eligible to cast ballots," though this was an unofficial assessment. Official results would not be released for a few weeks.

Nine months later, when the new Iranian Constitution was adopted, Chapter 1, Article 1 read:
"The form of government of Iran is that of an Islamic Republic, endorsed by the people of Iran on the basis of their long-standing belief in the sovereignty of truth and Qur'anic justice...through the affirmative vote of a majority of 98.2% of eligible voters, held after the victorious Islamic Revolution led by the eminent marji' al-taqlid, Ayatollah al-Uzma Imam Khomeini."
It has subsequently been reported that the total number of voters was 17,129,896. Of those, a reported 16,821,557 (98.2%) voted "yes" in the referendum, as opposed to the 308,338 voting "no."

Another source reports, "According to published records in this referendum 20,288,000 people voted 'Yes' and 241,000 people voted 'No,'" while yet another claims that 20,147,855 voted 'yes' and 140,996 voted 'no." This figure puts the approval rate at 99.3% of voters.

Overall, the voter turnout has been generally placed at 92%, though obviously this "official" number could be disputed.

Nevertheless, with an "Islamic Republic" founded, Iran now needed a new constitution.

According to Iran Chamber, here's what happened next:
The Ayatollah Khomeini regime unveiled a draft constitution on June 18. Aside from substituting a strong president, on the Gaullist model, for the monarchy, the constitution did not differ markedly from the 1906 constitution and did not give the clerics an important role in the new state structure. Ayatollah Khomeini was prepared to submit this draft, virtually unmodified, to a national referendum or, barring that, to an appointed council of forty representatives who could advise on, but not revise, the document. Ironically, as it turned out, it was the parties of the Left who most vehemently rejected this procedure and demanded that the constitution be submitted for full-scale review by a constituent assembly.
After a month-long campaign, elections for this 73-member body - dubbed the "Assembly of Experts" - were held on August 3, 1979, and a new draft of the constitution combining elements of republican and clerical rule was hammered out by mid-November.

On December 2 and 3, 1979, a second referendum was held to adopt the newly-written constitution. It is reported that the new Iranian Constitution was approved by 99.5% of voters (15,680,218 in favor; 78,516 opposed), with a 71.6% turnout.
A newly created seventy-three-member Assembly of Experts convened on August 18, 1979, to consider the draft constitution. Clerics, and members and supporters of the IRP dominated the assembly, which revamped the constitution to establish the basis for a state dominated by the Shia clergy. The Assembly of Experts completed its work on November 15, and the new Constitution of the Islamic Republic was approved in a national referendum on December 2 and 3, 1979, once again, according to government figures, by over 98 percent of the vote.
Obviously, this is too much information to summarize in a single tweet. But knowing the context is important, especially if we are to understand the revolutionary and political history of a nation that is all too often misrepresented, maligned, and marginalized in our own media.