Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Iran 6/16 - The Fire Still Burning; An Incendiary Letter From Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, State Dept. Intercedes With Twitter & Obama Speaks Softly

Much is happening in Iran:

- Despite the theocracy's promise to do a selective recount of votes and despite Mousavi asking his followers not to protest today, Iran's electorate is not mollified. They are marching in the tens of thousands in Tehran and likely elsewhere. Reports are that today's protests are actually larger than Monday's.

- The theocracy has now cut off the visas of all foreign journalists, perhaps setting up for an attempt at a brutal repression.

- Throwing fuel on the fire - the model of Iraq and the words of Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, once the successor to Iran's revolutionary founder, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. Montazeri has written a letter calling the election a fraud, calling the supression of speech a relgious failing, and warning Iran's security forces that they will be judged by God and, therefore, should not repress the protests by force regardless of what they might be ordered to do.

- The State Dept. reportedly asked Twitter, now the prime engine of organization of this rebellion, not to go offline to do a planned upgrade.

- Obama's response yesterday to the ongoing protests in Iran was as strong as he could make it. Let's hope his covert response is far more robust.

The New York Times is reporting that large scale demonstrations continue in Iran despite Mousavi's call for his supporters to refrain from demonstrating today. The BBC is reporting that "[w]itnesses on the ground in northern Tehran are telling the BBC that a rally even larger than Monday's is currently taking place." And as the BBC's reporter in Tehran, Jon Leyne puts it: "This has gone way beyond disputed elections." What started as a protest over the Presidency is now on the cusp, if not already, a revolt of the people against the totality of a deeply corrupt and repressive theocratic regime. Thus it is not surprising that Mousavi's calls should not stop the protests. This from the NYT:

Tens of thousands of Iranians gathered in the streets here on Tuesday for a second day of mass demonstrations protesting the official results of Friday’s presidential election, unsatisfied by a top government panel’s agreement to conduct a partial recount.

As the political tumult grew, the Iranian government instituted tough restrictions on foreign journalists, formally shutting down their ability to report on the unrest on the streets. Press credentials of journalists temporarily in the country to cover the election were revoked; journalists stationed in Iran were required to get explicit permission to report beyond the confines of their offices.

Reporters Without Borders said that security services had moved into some newspaper offices to censor content and that four pro-reform newspapers have been closed or prevented from criticizing the official election results.

The result was a dearth of initial photographs and video of Tuesday’s enormous opposition protest, which began on Valiasr Street, a major thoroughfare, and headed north. The tens of thousands of marchers — perhaps more — gathered without the help of text messaging or cell phone service, relying on word of mouth and internet social media platforms such as Twitter.

A senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, used the Internet to issue a public letter supporting the peaceful demonstrations and excoriating the government for “declaring results that no one in their right mind can believe.” . . .

That last bit about Montazeri weighing in could become critical. Let me explain why. The theocracy imposed on Iran under Khomeini's theory of the velyat-e-faqi violates over a millenia of Shia apolitical tradition. That tradition holds that there should be separation between mosque and state. Moreover, the theocracy is widely viewed as wholly corrupt, with the wealthiest people in Iran today being clerics. All of this is brought into stark relief by the secular democracy next door in Iraq. And lastly, the Supreme Guide, Grand Ayatollah Khameini lacks religious legitimacy. He isn't a real Grand Ayatollah. He was a mid-level cleric appointed to that rank as an honorarium so that he could become Supreme Guide of Iran after Khomeini died. A 2007 article from the Boston Globe elaborates on many of these points:

Iran's ruling clerics have long prided themselves on running the world's only Shi'ite Muslim state -- a state that imposes religion, dictating what imams can preach, what the media can report, and what people can wear.

So some Iranians are intrigued by the more freewheeling experiment in Shi'ite empowerment taking place across the border in Iraq, where -- Iraq's myriad problems aside -- imams can say whatever they want in political Friday sermons, newspapers and satellite channels regularly slam the government, and religious observance is respected and encouraged but not required.

In Tehran's storied central bazaar, an increasing number of merchants are sending their religious donations, a 20 percent tithe expected from all who can spare it, to Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric -- rather than to clerics closer to Iran's state power structure, said Jawad al-Ghaie, 48, a wholesaler of false eyelashes and nail extensions and a respected lay donor.

Speaking carefully to avoid directly challenging the Iranian government, he and several fellow merchants suggested that Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani holds more spiritual sway because of his lifelong commitment to quietism. That is the school of thought that says Shi'ite leaders should stay out of government, and Sistani has stuck to it despite the great temptation to wade into the chaos of Iraqi politics.

Haamed Hussein Warraqi, another merchant, contrasted the different ways in which Sistani and the Iranian religious authorities deal with overly exuberant revelers on Arbayeen, an important Shi'ite holiday. In Iran, he said, riot police line the streets to rein in men who cut their scalps with knives -- a show of mourning that the Iranian government and some religious scholars deem Islamically incorrect.

In contrast, "Sistani uses the authority of his word," said Warraqi, 27. "The domain of Sistani is in religion, and he is obeyed by the people. Here they want to rule according to politics. That's why they have to use the riot police."

"Any time religion is imposed by the government," Ghaie added, "there is a bad reaction."

. . . But ever since US-sponsored elections brought the Shi'ite majority to power, Iraq's imperfect liberation has quietly influenced the debate among religious Shi'ites about the role of religion in government .

After Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini founded a state that rests on his concept of velayat e faqi, or guardianship of the jurist. There are elections and parliamentary debates, but ultimate authority rests with a supreme leader who is appointed by a council of clerics.

Traditionally, Shi'ites have believed that clerics should stay out of politics until the return of the Mahdi, the last of the revered early Shi'ite imams, who disappeared in the ninth century. Shi'ites believe he went into hiding and will someday reveal himself.

Only he can establish a perfect Islamic state, according to traditional believers -- including some in the Tehran bazaar, whose influential religious merchant class backed the revolution but has since grown more skeptical of the ruling clerics.

"Only the Mahdi is the genuine leader," said Ghaie's brother Mohammad, 45, whose family, like many Iranian merchants, has lived in both Iran and Iraq over generations.

Expressing such opinions is dangerous: Several prominent religious scholars -- chief among them Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri -- are under house arrest or other official sanctions for opposing clerical rule or proposing limits on it. . . .

Iraq's importance to what is happening today in Iran is being ignored, but it is of great importance. But that aside, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri carries a great deal of legitimacy. Montazeri is one of just a handful of Shia clerics who have earned the rank of Grand Ayatollah. He was in fact slated as successor to Khomeini, but fell out of favor because he supported quietism, not the autocratic theocracy Khomeini and now Khameini have created. Montazeri has been under house arrest since the death of Khomeini. Here is his letter spreading across Iran today. He offers full support of the protestors and a bald warning to those who would repress them by force:

In the name of God

People of Iran

These last days, we have witnessed the lively efforts of you brothers and sisters, old and young alike, from any social category, for the 10th presidential elections.

Our youth, hoping to see their rightful will fulfilled, came on the scene and waited patiently. This was the greatest occasion for the government’s officials to bond with their people.

But unfortunately, they used it in the worst way possible. Declaring results that no one in their right mind can believe, and despite all the evidence of crafted results, and to counter people protestations, in front of the eyes of the same nation who carried the weight of a revolution and 8 years of war, in front of the eyes of local and foreign reporters, attacked the children of the people with astonishing violence. And now they are attempting a purge, arresting intellectuals, political opponents and Scientifics.

Now, based on my religious duties, I will remind you :

1- A legitimate state must respect all points of view. It may not oppress all critical views. I fear that this lead to the lost of people’s faith in Islam.

2- Given the current circumstances, I expect the government to take all measures to restore people’s confidence. Otherwise, as I have already said, a government not respecting people’s vote has no religious or political legitimacy.

3- I invite everyone, specially the youth, to continue reclaiming their dues in calm, and not let those who want to associate this movement with chaos succeed.

4- I ask the police and army personals not to “sell their religion”, and beware that receiving orders will not excuse them before god. Recognize the protesting youth as your children. Today censor and cutting telecommunication lines can not hide the truth.

I pray for the greatness of the Iranian people.

That last warning to military and police could prove absoloutely critical as this protest goes forward. The protests are too widespread throughout Iran and too large for the riot police and the thug basij militia to put down. This is quickly headed towards the point where the theocracy will be tempted to repress the protests with massive military force. As I wrote several days ago, what the military opts to do, whether they follow orders to shoot, whether they remain neutral, or whether they defend the protestors could well become the deciding factor in all of this. Grand Ayatollah Montazeri's warning to the military and police that, whatever their orders, they will be judged by God could not be more important, nor more timely.

Elsewhere, the Telegraph is reporting that "Twitter, the social networking website, postponed a scheduled maintenance shutdown after a US State Department request that it keep publishing during the Iran election protests." With the theocracy trying to shut all communications in Iran, Twitter has proven invaluable. Thumbs up to the State Dept. for recognizing this and interceding with Twitter. And indeed, the Twitter site #iranelection is receiving about 1,000 twits every five to ten minutes.

And lastly, there is the question of U.S. response to this nascent revolution in Iran. Beyond doubt, the overriding goal of the U.S. - and indeed, the entire free world - should be to see an end the brutal, bloody, hyperaggressive, and soon to be nuclear armed theocracy in Iran. The goal should be to see a true democracy put in its place, both for our self defense and for the good of the Iranian people. The only restraint on that goal should be that none of our overt actions provide a pretext for the regime to claim that the grass roots resistance to the theocracy is actually a foreign plot - a replay of the 1953 CIA led Mossadeq coup. And do not underestimate Iran's fixation on that coup. It is central to the theocrat's historical narrative. Anything that smacks of U.S. invovlement in Iran's internal politics is cast through the lens of that coup.

With that in mind, as to Obama's speech yesterday, many seem upset by his lack of robust support for the protestors. For example, Gateway Pundit is pointing out that Sarkozy has denounced the Iranian election as fraudulent and taking Obama to task for not doing the same. Hot Air has similar criticism for Obama.

My own belief is that Obama went as far as he could reasonably go in his speech. We are not at the point where there is massive repression and tanks in the street. It would be very easy, therefore, for anything Obama says to cross the "Mossadeq" line and allow the regime to justify such acts of repression. In this case, Obama's failure to robustly promote democracy and stand foresquare with the protestors was probably for the best. That said, I am concerned about two things.

One, Obama's continued statements regarding his intent to go forward with unconditional talks is absolutely wrong headed. It sends the message that whoever occupies the Presidency in Iran will be sufficiently legitimate for the U.S. and, conversely, that the protests do not matter in that regards. Those are the polar opposite of the messages we should be sending.

Two, I am concerned that Obama may not be pursuing regime change in Iran, particularly given his statment on unconditional talks. Iran has been an intelligence nightmare for thirty years because it is so closed and repressive. But with the border between Iran and Iraq now open, and with thousands of Iranians and Iraqis crossing it every day, Obama has a golden opportunity for gathering intelligence and as a means to quietly support the protest movement. I hope that is what he is doing, but everything that I know about Obama - his apologetics for America, his refusal to actively promote democracy, etc. - suggests that we are not. Time will tell. Obama's promise to hold unconditional talks with Iran is naive and counterproductive. But a failure to exploit this golden opportunity for intelligence and to support regime change in Iran would be far worse. It would be criminal negligence.

Prior Posts

Breaking News: Vote Recount In Iran, Too Little, Too Late
The Fog Of War - & Twitter
Chants Of Deat To Khameini
Iran Buys Time, Obama Votes Present, Iraq's Status Is Recognized
Heating Up In Iran
Tehran Is Burning; What Will The Iranian Army Do? (Updated)
The Mad Mullah's Man Wins Again - For Now
The Next Moves In An Existential Chess Match (Background On Iran's Theocracy)


Ted Leddy said...

Excellent post GW

But I don't understand how Obama expressing support for the demonstrators would be crossing the "Mosadeq line" but covertly infiltrating Iran through the open border with Iraq in order to influence the demonstrators would not. Surely the latter is exactly what happened in 1953. If it happens in this case and it were exposed it would be a disaster for the movement.

Paul_In_Houston said...

Besides Gateway Pundit and The Strata-Sphere, most of the reporting I've seen has come from Michael J. Totten, who is currently post much of his Iran stuff at Commentary.

Hope all the links came through, as he is well worth checking out.


Right Truth said...

I'm sure any president has a delicate balancing act as to what goes on in public and what goes on behind the scenes. I don't think I could ever be a diplomat, ha. Every word, every nod, observed from every possible side for meaning, sub-meanings.

I do feel that Obama should have given a more positive word to the Iranian people.

Debbie Hamilton
Right Truth

GW said...

Debbie: I think Obama absoloutely must become more positive about support as violence and repression increase. The IRGC threatened violence and prosecution for anyone in Iran caught using Twitter or Facebook to pass information. Things like that should draw a sharp response from TOTUS, as should the use of Hezbollah to act as regime thugs.

Ted: You may be right, but this is a gray area and my fear is that Obama is not pushing into it.

There are numerous things we could be doing covertly to weaken the regime and assist the protestors. For example, we should be fighting a counter-communications battle against the regime attempts to shut off all media. We should be providing a conduit for information from inside to outside of Iran and vica versa. We should be insuring that our Voice of Persia broadcasts are coordinated to get out important information and our making it through IRGC attempts to block it. Indeed, Montazeri's letter should be broadcast ad infinitum into Iran.

More on the com war at Daily Beast today: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-06-16/how-irans-hackers-killed-big-brother/?cid=bs:featured2

Ted Leddy said...

I agree GW

As I understand it the US is responsible for the "proxy servers" that have enabled some protestors to continue their on line activities despite the regimes efforts to shut down the net.

Thats a start anyway.

MathewK said...

"- The theocracy has now cut off the visas of all foreign journalists, perhaps setting up for an attempt at a brutal repression."

That's exactly what'll happen, that's how the thugs that hussein obama wants to reach out to, apologize to and grovel before deal with dissent. What's worse is that the world, the UN, Europe etc impotent, cowardly, useless bastards will do nothing while it happens. Those useless sonsofbitches only have time to whine and cry at an America or Israel when they stand up to the thugs.

Ymarsakar said...

So now we see the ultimate gambit that Bush, knowingly or not, set up for America.

And Obama will be the one that cashes out by folding. Cutting his losses when the stakes go too high.

And yet, this is the solution or at least a strong ally against Islamic terrorism. The division between politics and religious authority is vital to ending AL Qaeda's influence on Muslims.

But Obama wants to fold. He desperately needs to fold. Because if there becomes an ally of such a caliber, he will crush them. They will, being freedom loving individuals, be against his Writ simply through their existence.