Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Iranian turf war

How should Obama react to the Iran crisis, everyone seems to be asking. Should he take Mir Hossein Mousavi's side or should he just express concern and stay out it?

While watching the events unfold on TV, an expected thought popped into my head. I wondered if the people of Iran, especially the middle class which is sensitive to world opinion, would have ever reacted so violently if Bush hadn't made such a big deal about Iran being part of the "axis of evil"? His branding may have been unfair, but considering the rhetoric from Admadinejad, it isn't surprising that a huge demographic just want him gone.

It also occurred to me that Pakistan and Iran can (could) take to the streets because there is some sort of a democratic process that already in place. It made me think about Iraq and Afghanistan. Could the people have ever been so organized? I suspect they can now. But could they have done so earlier? Just a thought.

But back to Iran. I've been reading about this with great interest. Here is some history for those of you who need a refresher course (although it ends about three years before today).

I spoke to Afshin Molavi, a fellow at the New America Foundation in DC, and he told me a few really interesting things. He said, essentially, if you look at the players in this election (outside the Ayatollah) then it is a battle between the 1st gen and 2nd gen of politicians. The 1st gen came into play when the Shah was overthrown (also, ties with America). This includes the saviour de jour, Mousavi, who is fighting to be the next president. Ahmadinejad is part of the 2nd gen, which came into political maturity during the Iran-Iraq war. Therefore, they are anti-US.

If you look at the majority of the supporters of the two candidates (I'm keeping it simple for the purposes of this discussion) then there is a clear divide. Ahmadinejad has the support of the rural base while Mousavi has the support of the middle class.

Now, from my understanding (which I suppose was wrong) it seemed to me that Iran might clamp down on democracy, but elections are largely free and fair. However, with allegations that entire boxes of votes were not counted, or that the powerful Guardians Council was making up numbers of votes, clearly it seems my instinct was way off. I only thought this because Ahmadinejad was a surprise win in his time and also because the presidential debates etc were so robust and healthy in the run-up to the election.

What was going on during these debates? Mousavi blamed Ahmedinejad for leading Iran down a dangerous path. Not just isolation from the world, but what many people don't know is that there is enormous frustration with the economy. Ahmedinejad came to power with a cash rich economy (oil money) but now look at the state of affairs. There is enormous frustration at that.

But while Mousavi and others were making the case of incompetence (and staunch conservatism) , Ahmedinejad wasn't too far behind. He essentially blamed his opponents of being fat cats who have been taking bribes and are corrupt. Look at their big houses, he said. Afshin Molavi (the analyst I'd mentioned) said that this will definitely spark a crisis of legitimacy in the Islamic Republic of Iran, no matter who is in-charge.

And that brings us to the Ayatollah. It is well known that he supported Ahmedinejad, but there are a few other factors to take into consideration. There is a school of thought that believes that he won't be averse to a moderate coming into power, because it makes dealing with America simpler. In the sense that earlier, with Bush, it seems perfectly normal to have a conservative who ranted against the US on the high table. But now, with Obama, and his desire to perhaps cooperate with Iran on the matter of nuclear energy, a moderate might make it easier to resume dialogue. In fact, a month before the election, the Ayatollah went to visit Mousavi's sick father, and many saw this as a big hint. Other cracks also appeared: the Ayatollah had sent a letter to the AMC (Association of Militant Clergy) that they should support Ahmedinejad, but that led to rumours that many in the AMC were angered by this and in fact, oppose Ahmedinejad.

Given all this, and a demographic re-entering the electoral fray. Yeah, thats right. The middle class never ended up voting last time, and so this time they have been super involved. Now that their man didn't win (or maybe he did) they have taken to the streets, but unfortunately, things have turned bloody. But what has come out of this is that a tried and tested way of mobilising the middle class is the Internet, and internet activism is here to stay. I also wrote about this here.

Back to my question. Obama. What should he do. I keep thinking of something Jon Stewart said the other day ... who knew Iran would turn out to be the most democratic country in the Middle East?

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Lines Crossed

My day began with an interesting twist; I had to run to the US State Dept for a press briefing. The new guy -- well, the new old guy -- PJ Crowley, spokesperson, was addressing the press about the issues of the day. Predictably, US policy in the Middle East because of Obama's visit ("why does he call it the 'Muslim' world, as if they are all one") and US policy on China, given the anniversary of Tienanmen Square ("China has a come a long way in terms of human rights") were the highlights, but there was a different reason I was there.

I was to ask Crawley what the US response to Hafiz Saeed being let off was. You know the story -- Saeed (Pakistani) is the leader of Jamaat ud Dawa, which India believes is not really a charity organization but a front for the LeT. The UN put sanctions on the charity in December 2008. Well, our lone terrorist, Ajmal Kasab, in his confessions said that Saeed was one of the many people who visited the terrorist camps while they were being trained in arms/explosives, in the run up to the Mumbai terror attacks. India, being the restrained force that she is, decided to pursue a diplomatic track and not attack Pakistan, and with some pressure from the US on Pakistan, Saeed was put in jail. And Pakistan did agree that Saeed had a role in the attacks.

Now, Saeed has been released. I've read a lot about this and I'm quite unsure what the US can do -- well, in an obvious way. But let me explain what I mean. Pakistan claims there is not enough evidence to hold Saeed under house arrest anymore and has let him go, but voices within Pakistan have come out to say that they will appeal this order by the Lahore High Court as this will tarnish the reputation of Pakistan in the international community. We obviously expect the US to be aghast on our behalf, but it isn't saying much. I have read views in India that the government should release evidence against Saeed so that the Pakistanis can detain him, but it seems we are not doing that. Nor does it seem likely that Pakistan will, as we would love, send him to India for trial.

So back to Crawley. I asked him if the US wasn't worried that this move to build up Indo-Pak tensions, after all, the US has been trying to convince Pakistan to shift its focus to the Afghanistan/Taliban problem. Crawley gave me a long winded answer about respecting Pakistan's rule of law, and that they continue to impress upon Pakistan the need to carry on with the Mumbai attack investigations, but that right now Ambassador Holbrokes focus is on the humanitarian crisis resulting from the Swat attack in Pakistan. That was that, another journalist pressed on, but he did not take the bait.

I had to come back to work to file the story. As it turned out, the client was Times Now, and so I sent them a report from Washington saying that the US is not involving itself in this legal matter and that in Washington (really) this is hardly a concern. But, as Crawley had mentioned, Holbroke will have private discussions and this matter could be discussed. Times Now ignored that part of my report and chose to highlight that the US is asking Pakistan to continue with the 26/11 investigations. Fair enough, but they didn't stress that, what they stressed was that they were not going to do anything about it.

What is clear is that Pakistan attacking the Taliban is the biggest thing over here, and India is not going to ruin that for them by crying about the release of Saeed. I woke up in the morning to find out that a travel advisory had been issued against INDIA because, I believe a LeT operative was captured in Delhi. My father, who I spoke to on the way to work, said that the Congress had been voted in for non performance, and why was SM Krishna the minister for external affairs and not Kapil Sibal, Pranab or even Shashi Tharoor -- people more vocal and forceful?

What exactly is the US position on India? I know people are waiting for Hillary to come in July to get a clearer position. In fact, a few months ago (or was it weeks) when she made statements which seemed to reflect the situation in South Asia correctly (that Pakistan need not be obsessed with India and that Pakistan has not been using the money the US has been giving them for the intended purpose), it seemed that there might be a policy shift, finally. But as of right now, it is frustrating to find that it is not.

Holbroke has now said that other countries should also give aid to Pakistan -- he's appealing to the Europeans and Muslims. (Ah, there you go lumping all the Muslims together). But the real point is that it seems, poetically, in their eyes, they are saving a Muslim country from the brink of extremism and really, unless we have the exact same problem, we will just have to get in line.

After all, the problem child gets all the attention while the good kid sits in his room, seething.