Saturday, June 27, 2009

What's happening in Iran?

A few words about what's been happening in Iran the past couple of weeks. The two main candidates in the Iranian presidential election - Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - were both essentially establishment figures. Both had been vetted and approved by Iran's 'Guardian Council' before being allowed to stand, as is the normal procedure. Mousavi had been Iran's Prime Minister during the early days of the revolution, during the Iran-Iraq war where the US backed Saddam Hussein. As President he may have taken a less belligerent rhetorical stance toward the West than Ahmadinejad, but the substance would have remained: opposition to Israel on the Palestinian issue and an insistence on Iran's right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Poliferation Treaty. However, though Mousavi's establishment credentials were pretty much impeccable, he did hint at a relaxation of the various restrictions of personal liberties within the Islamic Republic, attracting him some support from Iran's overwhelmingly young population (over 60 per cent are under 30). Exactly how much support in the final instance is, of course, the question.

By now you will be familiar with the fact that the presidential election result is under dispute, with Mousavi and thousands of protesters claiming fraud and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei insisting that the announced result is legitimate and will stand. Based on the expert analysis I've seen, it seems reasonably clear that fraud is likely to have taken place. Though it should be noted that no hard proof exists of this, the point is that those who have crunched the numbers and those who know Iranian politics and society have examined the purported election results and see them not just as surprising but as wholly implausible. See this report by researchers at St Andrews University, edited by Iran historian Ali Ansari, or these three posts by the University of Michigan's world renowned Middle East historian Juan Cole. Statistician Walter Mebane, also of the University of Michigan, has examined the data and concluded that "the results suggest very strongly that there was widespread fraud in which the vote counts for Ahmadinejad were substantially augmented by artificial means".

So why fake the election result, if that is indeed what happened? As I've pointed out, Mousavi was hardly going to lead a revolution to topple the regime since he is, after all, a long-standing part of it. Indeed, its also worth reminding ourselves that Ahmadinejad is not unpopular, and its possible that he may have run Mousavi close and prompted a run off election if the actual votes had been counted. The Guardian's editorial shortly after the "result" was announced has what to my mind is the best explanation. Mousavi had been attracting mass rallies of energised young people to the point where any victory for him would have looked like a rejection of the regime from the Iranian youth, even if Mousavi hadn't intended it as such. The Supreme Leader could not allow such a serious undermining of the regime's credibility, fearing where it might lead, and so the hopes of those who had voted for Mousavi were, it appears, summarily crushed. Opponents were then arrested, massive demonstrations though largely peaceful were met with violence, and journalists were targeted.

Has it worked? Its hard to say, but one doubts it. If anything, the Iranian establishment now looks split down the middle. Iran's most senior cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri has openly said that "no one in their right mind can believe" the official results. This may reflect growing disquiet amongst Iran's clerical elite, who perhaps never wholly bought into the regime's radical innovation of direct religious rule, adhering instead to the Islamic tradition that the clergy should keep out of politics. Meanwhile, even the hardline conservative Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani has said that a 'majority' of Iranians dispute the election results and, though he disagrees with them, they should be respected - not a tone that's entirely aligned with that of the Supreme Leader.

So allow me to speculate briefly about what will happen next. Say the stability of the regime over the past three decades has been based on a mixture of legitimacy (by which I mean a sufficient level of public perception that the regime is a legitimate one) and fear. The two pillars of legitimacy are the electoral system on the one hand and the religious character of the system on the other. The fear element is inspired by the security services and their known history of abuses. People either think the regime is legitimate, or are too afraid of it to challenge its existence, or both. Hence it stays in place.

What we can now see is potentially the two pillars of legitimacy crumbling. On the one hand, as Larijani has said, a majority believe the election result was a fabrication and many of those actively refuse to let this stand.

On the other hand, the late Ayatollah Khomeini's radical innovation of clerical rule may now be coming under renewed scrutiny within the clerical establishment. Khamenei's weak religious qualifications for the post of Supreme Leader don't help to uphold the credibility of vilayet-i faqih (clerical rule). This, it appears, is some of the background to Montazeri's strong remarks.

If the pillars upon which the regime's legitimacy rests are crumbling then the fear element is all that's left. That's not nothing. But still, unless the regime is now prepared not only to quell unrest with extreme violence, but to follow this up with a general, lasting (i.e. years long) crackdown on persistent dissent, then its hard to see how major changes can be escaped.

But if the dissidents are an uneasy alliance of privileged elites and disadvantaged citizens, what are the prospects going forward? If Mousavi stitches up a deal with Khamenei to end the whole thing (after all, this is a system that has generally treated him more than fairly) what happens to the demonstrators on the street? We'll learn the answers to these questions in the weeks and months ahead.

A final word about Western involvement. Britain and the US have a long history of interference in Iranian affairs, leading right up until the present day (I've reviewed the historical record in a bit of detail here). The crucial concern has been to deny or counter Iranian independence and retain it within or return it to the Western sphere of influence, for obvious reasons that include Iran's vast reserves of oil and natural gas. We can therefore assume that London and Washington are not indifferent to what happens next in Iran. This does not mean that hundreds of thousands of Iranian protesters have somehow been manufactured or brainwashed by the West, as the Supreme Leader is rather pathetically attempting to claim. However, we should be alive to the strong possibility that if some sort of new Iranian revolution does break out, the US and Britain will be using all the considerable tools at their disposal to ensure that the Iran that emerges from that process will be the Iran they would want to see, irrespective of the wishes of the Iranian people themselves. It may be that for now London and Washington have calculated that their best bet is to stay well out of things lest they taint the Iranian protesters with their unwanted attentions. But don't bet on that staying the case. The reason events in Iran deserve our attention is precisely because of our governments' lamentable role in that country's affairs. Our concern should now be that the Iranian public are allowed to choose their own path free both from internal tyranny and foreign interference.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Mr Obama goes to Cairo

While British Politics has been consumed with petty intrigue, life in the rest of the world goes on. Last week, US President Barack Obama gave a keynote speech in Cairo addressed to 'the Muslim world'. You can watch the speech here, or read a transcript here. Obama's speech is important to us because, to a rather pathetic extent, US foreign policy is automatically British foreign policy. So we should listen to our master's voice, and hope he's at least a slight improvement on the last guy.

Before the speech was made the Washington Post ran a good article assessing the views of Obama's principle target audience, the people of the Middle East. The report found a chasm between the way American policymakers saw US actions in that region and the lived experience of the people most affected. On his blog, Time editor Tony Karon stressed that given this, it would take concrete actions, more than nice words, for Obama to salvage Washington's reputation in the Middle East.

After the speech, reaction was mixed. The best and most comprehensive analysis comes from
Noam Chomsky, who notes beneath the rhetoric substantive continuities between Obama's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (perhaps the central topic of the speech) and that of previous administrations. Egyptian commentator Ahdaf Soueif also saw the continuation of America's pursuit of its own narrow interests, despite the change in tone. On the other hand (though I don't think this necessarily contradicts Chomsky and Soueif's interpretations) Tony Karon, who before the speech had been clear on the importance of a decisive material change in US actions over any cosmetic rhetorical shift, felt in the end that the language Obama used had itself represented a material difference in approach, which may bode well in terms of more practical measures further down the line. For Karon, Obama had shifted the terms of debate on the Israeli-Palestinian issue; inadequately but still substantively and progressively.

In response to the speech, Hamas repeated its long-standing position of accepting a Palestinian state on the legal 1967 borders and pledging not to stand in the way of any international efforts to effect that solution. On the Israeli side, by contrast, shock and confusion reign at the realisation that when the Obama administration asks Israel to moderate their colonisation of the West Bank in some minor way, they - unlike previous administrations - actually mean it. And the next generation of American-Israeli colonists seem less than impressed with Obama's stance on their adoptive homeland.

That's the gap between the two sides: an end to illegal colonisation or a continuation of it. So is Obama merely going to tell the Israelis not to steal even more Palestinian land, but that they can keep what is already stolen, which is already so much as to render a Palestinian state unworkable? Or is he preparing to tell Israel further down the road to start dismantling a substantive amount of its
illegal settlements in order to effect a settlement that broadly accords with international law and the international consensus? Those are the key questions that will be answered over the next few months - a period which could prove seminal in the history of this conflict.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Fascists ruined my sex life

The British National Party advocate banning mixed ‘race’ relationships. Being of mixed background myself, that poses me with a particular problem. Under a BNP government, would I only be able to go out with a girl who’s half Indian, quarter English and quarter Scottish? My Scottish side is actually descended from French Huguenots who made their way to Scotland via Ireland, so there might be some Celt in there as well. For all I know the quarter English bit could be any kind of mixture of Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Celt, Viking, etc etc. The Indian half is Telugu-speaking from Andhra Pradesh. But they came to the UK via Mauritius, so does that have a bearing on it?

Anyway, thing is, you don’t meet that many girls like that.

Also, if these new laws condemned me to a chaste life, restricted to seeking solace in pornography (not a particularly monkish definition of 'chaste', I grant you), would I then only be allowed porn that starred only girls who were half Andhra Pradeshian Telugu Indo-Mauritian, quarter French Huguenot Scots and quarter miscellaneous English? Cos that is one niche market, and I’m not sure how well its catered for.

The BNP would be a bad joke if they didn’t exist. It’s a worse joke that they do, especially in the country whose most credible claim to national glory is our grandparents’ defeat of Nazism in the Second World War. They only need a small proportion of the vote in Thursday’s elections to get themselves a seat in the European parliament (the BNP, not our grandparents), and that would give them access to European funds and parliamentary facilities, the right to vote on new laws, and a level of credibility their deranged views hardly deserve.

Think it’s unlikely? The BNP have already had councillors elected, and their leader Nick Griffin polled 16% when he stood for Oldham West and Royton in the 2001 general election. That’s one in six voters in Oldham turning out for the Nazi. Far right parties have made big gains in Europe recently, especially in Italy where they form a substantive part of the governing coalition. And though the prospect of a BNP government in Westminster is certainly remote, any strengthening of their presence in British society will make life very uncomfortable, not only for those of us who don’t look like them, but for anyone who likes multi-cultural, multi-‘racial’ Britain just fine the way it is.

Griffin once described the BNP as “a strong, disciplined organisation with the ability to back up its slogan 'Defend Rights for Whites' with well-directed boots and fists”. “When the crunch comes”, he went on to say, “power is the product of force and will, not of rational debate.” With the world economy in meltdown and the credibility of Britain's corrupt political class standing at roughly zero, Griffin will hope that “the crunch” is coming soon (as it did in the 1930s). Bottom line: the BNP is not a normal political party, and even slight electoral gains for them could translate into seriously unpleasant outcomes for the rest of us.

Because of the proportional representation system in the European elections, any vote you cast for any other party will shrink the proportion of the vote polled by the BNP., blocking their route to public office. If you’re voting in council elections you might need to look up the last set of results for your area and decide if you need to vote tactically. But the main thing is to vote. For anyone but the BNP. Voting takes just 10-20 minutes of your day, but the effect – of voting or not - is felt for years afterwards.

Do it, if for no other reason than for sympathy at how complicated my life would become if these goose-stepping, peabrained shitsacks ever got a whiff of power.

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Monday, June 01, 2009

Rethinking Economics (and other good reading material)

Here's some interesting stuff I've been reading over the last few days.

First, the economy. There are two good articles in today's Guardian on how to reassess our economic ideas in the wake of the financial crash and subsequent depression. Robert H Frank makes a few thought provoking observations on how economic policy can be informed by our understanding of how different elements of human nature and behavioural patters can affect market outcomes. In short, it turns out that the neo-Thatcherite/New Labour ethos of letting personal greed run riot can actually have some quite damaging results. Who knew?

Meanwhile, Larry Elliot laments the dearth of serious heavyweight economists alive in the present day to offer the empirical rather than theoretical analysis that the world economy desperately needs.

Also on economic matters, Alex Kroll gives a good breakdown of how the US financial bailout effectively rewards the authors of the banking crisis, at huge cost to the taxpayer, and in a way that sets the scene for repeated disasters further down the line. Barack Obama shares responsibility for these measures, incidentally. So much for putting the needs of Main Street before the needs of Wall Street.

And so much for new beginnings on US foreign policy. Tom Englehardt sets out here the ways in which the Obama White House is transplanting many of the worst crimes and misjudgements of the Bush era onto America's new "Af-Pak" (Afghanistan-Pakistan) war. Extrajudicial executions? Aerial bombing causing massive civilian casualties which in turn breeds further extremism? How many of those who voted for Obama signed up for more of this?

There does appear to be some small movement however on the Israeli-Palestinian question, with the Obama White House making US support for Israeli colonialism less than totally unequivocal as compared to the Bush approach. The changes in policy are actually fairly minor. Instead of mumbling that Israel's expansion of its illegal settlements on colonised Palestinian land is "unhelpful", and then continuing to fund it anyway, Obama and his administration are now saying strongly that expansion must cease. That's something. But note that we've yet to see what action the new White House is prepared to take to enforce this, if it comes to it, and note also that the problem is the extent of existing settlements, not merely the possibility that they might grow further. The existing settlements already preclude the viability of a Palestinian state, taking as they do the best land on the West Bank and cutting off East Jerusalem, the beating heart of Palestinian economic, religious and cultural life, from the other Palestinian population centres. These settlements are in any case 100 per cent illegal and allowing any of them to remain would be to reward aggression and theft on the international stage. Obama therefore has barely begun to deal with this issue properly, and nor can we assume that he will. But even so, these small moves have sent Israeli leaders into paroxysms, like spoilt children who suddenly realise the game is up. This dispite the fact that in reality, Israel is not being asked to concede anything that is more than symbolic, which in itself gives you a sense of the warped relationship of dependency and indulgence that it has with the US. Rami Khouri of Lebanon's Daily Star gives a fair assessment of the situation here. And in recent weeks I've also been enjoying the blog Mondoweiss, which gives a sensitive and intelligent account of the issue from a liberal Jewish-American perspective. That's updated at least once daily, and its a good way of following debates on the US-Israeli relationship.

Closer to home, Gareth Peirce writes in the London Review of Books on New Labour's complicity in torture under the war on terror. This unsettling article lays bare an altogether sinister side to the way our country is governed. If you think ID cards are a sign of creeping authoritarianism, Peirce's article will rather put that in perspective. Her earlier article on the severe pressures facing British Muslims in the current climate is a good companion piece.

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