The cat and the coup is out

Remember that post about the computer game in which you played Iranian PM Mossadegh's cat?

Well the game is now out for Mac and PC. And it's very, very, cool.


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

Those angry Iranian women

From a recent RAND poll of Iranians:

  • A majority of respondents view the economy as being “average” or better, though many may have hesitated to express their dismay with the economic situation.
  • In general, gender and education level were important predictors of attitudes. Women and less-educated respondents tended to voice views on security and overall relations that were unfavorable to the United States. Men and those with greater social means tended to be more favorably inclined.
  • A majority of respondents expressing an opinion opposed the reestablishment of ties with the United States. Women and less-educated respondents were least likely to favor the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, but those most comfortable with the survey were more likely to favor such reestablishment.
  • Respondents were divided on the issue of nuclear weapons, with a significant portion favoring their development. Those most comfortable with the survey, men, and those with the highest level of education expressed the most opposition to development of nuclear weapons. The lower classes and those with the lowest level of education supported the development of nuclear weapons. 
  • A majority of respondents did not view sanctions as having a negative effect on the economy, though a significant number viewed sanctions as having a negative impact.Women, poorer respondents, and those most comfortable with the survey rated the impact of sanctions as most negative. 

Like all surveys, take with a grain of salt. It's interesting that the higher the education level, the least in favor Iranians are of developing nuclear weapons. Perhaps it's because they understand better that, officially, Iran is not trying to develop weapons but secure its right (according to the NPT) to enrichment. Of course at the popular level on all sides of this conflict it's become about nukes, even when the real matter at hand is enrichment and inspections. I also don't quite understand why the pollster is making guesses about the willingness of Iranians to criticize the state of the economy (reported by some to be quite dire) and not take them at their word on this issue when they do on the other issues.


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

WSJ on Iran vs. Saudi

The WSJ has a long piece on the rivalry between Iran and Saudi that it is selling as a new Cold War. The piece covers an important topic, and makes some good points, notably on Bahrain, but has many other problems. To wit:

For decades, the two sides have carried out a complicated game of moves and countermoves. With few exceptions, both prefer to work through proxy politicians and covertly funded militias, as they famously did during the long Lebanese civil war in the late 1970s and 1980s, when Iran helped to hatch Hezbollah among the Shiites while the Saudis backed Sunni militias.

But the maneuvering extends far beyond the well-worn battleground of Lebanon. Two years ago, the Saudis discovered Iranian efforts to spread Shiite doctrine in Morocco and to use some mosques in the country as a base for similar efforts in sub-Saharan Africa. After Saudi emissaries delivered this information to King Hassan II, Morocco angrily severed diplomatic relations with Iran, according to Saudi officials and cables obtained by the organization WikiLeaks.

As far away as Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, the Saudis have watched warily as Iranian clerics have expanded their activities—and they have responded with large-scale religious programs of their own there.

A couple of things here. First — and I'm astonished how often this happens — Hassan II died in 1999. His son Muhammad VI is the king now, and was the one who decided to break relations with Iran. Secondly, while it is true that the Moroccan security services were worried about Iran (although the sudden interruption of relations, which was probably a quid-pro-quo in exchange for Saudi financial support, was widely criticised in Morocco as astoundingly petty diplomacy), they should be much more worried about Saudi Arabia's religious propaganda. Take for instance the Salafist sheikh from Marrakech who, a few years ago, advocated sex with nine-year-old girls and joked "they were better at it", and who had to flee the country to escape prosecution. Where did he go to? Saudi Arabia, which funded his activities. Where do Saudi princes come to give money to religious fanatics during the day and have sex with young girls in the evening? Morocco. A few summers ago in Rabat a story was going around that one particular Saudi prince liked to recruit teenage girls and give them 5,000DH simply to break they hymen with his finger. The Saudi royals are vile, the product of decades of excesses and unlimited wealth, a bunch of latter-day Neros but without the culture or military prowess. 

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The cat and the coup

The Cat and the Coup - Trailer from Peter Brinson on Vimeo.

Now here's an unusual computer game:

The Cat and the Coup tells the story of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran. More specifically, the game presents events from Mossadegh’s life in reverse-chronological order, beginning  on his death bed following the CIA-sponsored coup d’etat in 1953. The coup was brought about by Mossadegh’s decision to nationalize Iran’s oil fields – an event I wasn’t aware of until playing the game. The game’s historical events play out in a way that takes the player back in time to the moment he was elected Prime Minister.

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Weirdest Iran video ever

I'm not sure what's the point here — that there's a nice upper class lifestyle available in Iran and not everybody is a mullah?


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

American priorities in Iran... vs. elsewhere

As many of you know, the nasty regime in Iran has repressed a return of the Green Movement on the streets yesterday, and now pro-regime MPs are even calling for opposition figures to be hanged. Meanwhile, protests were also brutally suppressed in Bahrain, Yemen and Algeria — respectively an absolute monarchy, a largely failed state and an incredibly brutal military dictatorship. In Jordan, another absolute monarch with one of the most feared and brutal security services in the region is also facing protests. Yet it's Iran that gets all the attention:
Mon, 14 Feb 2011 18:53:55 -0600

MR. CROWLEY: Well, that – what has guided us throughout the last three months and guides us in terms of how we focus on Iran is the core principles – the Secretary mentioned them again today – of restraint from violence, respect for universal rights, and political and social reform. There is a – it is hypocrisy that Iran says one thing in the context of Egypt but refuses to put its own words into action in its own country.

QUESTION: How about other countries – Bahrain, Yemen, or Algeria, or Jordan? Why you are not talking about those countries and you are condemning what is happening in Iran? 

MR. CROWLEY: Well, actually, in the other countries there is greater respect for the rights of the citizens. I mean, we are watching developments in other countries, including Yemen, including Algeria, including Bahrain. And our advice is the same. As the Secretary made clear in her Doha speech, there’s a significant need for political, social, and economic reform across the region, and we encourage governments to respect their citizen’s right to protest peacefully, respect their right to freedom of expression and assembly, and hope that there will be an ongoing engagement, a dialogue between people in governments, and they can work together on the necessary forms.

It's fine for the US to criticize Iran, but the other countries — in all of which the US has consequent military, intelligence and/or economic interests — surely deserve a mention too. What just happened in Egypt should have taught Washington a lesson about client-patron relationships in a dysfunctional region, but obviously some are slow on the uptake.

[Thanks, Nadia.]


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

Iran's Greens in solidarity with Egypt

Solidarity protest in Tehran on 14 February — may the Green movement get a second wind from Egypt and Tunisia!

To disgruntled Iranians, though, the sight of the Iranian government cheering on the Egyptian protesters is seen as deeply ironic. In 2009, when Iranians themselves launched massive protests against the government here, Iran's leaders labeled them "Western-backed rioters" and sent paramilitary forces wielding batons and tear gas to quash their revolt.

Still, opposition leaders are hoping to use the events in Egypt as a new catalyst, and are seeking permission from the government to launch a demonstration next Monday in the center of Tehran.

Former presidential challengers Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi said they wanted to invite people to march "to express solidarity with . . . the freedom-seeking revolts of the people of Tunis and Egypt against despotic regimes," Karroubi's Web site, Sahamnews, said on Sunday.

From Iran's opposition leaders hope to draw from protests in Egypt


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

Alastair Crooke on Ahmedinejad in Lebanon


"Firstly, let us put to one side the nonsense: The President of Iran’s visit was not about embedding Lebanon as a part of the Iranian state, nor was it about paving the way for any Hizbullah ‘take-over’ of Lebanon; and nor can the visit be described as a ‘provocation’. It was of course self-evidently intended to express defiance towards Israeli military hegemony and to assert a stand of counter-deterrence to any Israeli military threat, but that it is very different from an ‘act of provocation’ deliberately intended to draw an Israeli response.  All these claims for the purpose of the visit are just a part of the psychological warfare mounted against Iran, and can be ignored.

The visit was, in fact, a State visit. The Iranian President was formally invited by the Maronite Christian President of Lebanon some while ago. Iran is a prominent regional state, just as Turkey is – whose Prime Minister happens to be visiting Beirut today.

Iran’s popularity on the streets should not surprise anyone.  It is real, and it is heartfelt – and extends beyond the Shi’i of the south of Beirut.  Having been present here in Beirut throughout the war of 2006, I experienced the almost universal shock at how leaders and so-called ‘friends of Lebanon’ such as Tony Blair and Condoleezza Rice tried to fend-off and delay a ceasefire – in order to allow Israel more time to ‘finish the job’, i.e. to destroy more bridges, more infrastructure and impose civilian casualties – as our ‘price’ to be paid for Hizbullah’s seizure of Israeli soldiers. Feelings here are still raw on this point, and all sectors of opinion know that the only real support for Lebanon in those dark hours came from Syria and Iran.  Unsurprisingly, there was a direct element of gratitude in expression to Iran in recent days both for the support then, and its subsequent economic assistance to repair the damage."

Glad someone is taking the time to debunk the "who invited him anyway" line coming out in Washington. But I'll have to beg to differ about Crooke's conclusion that Ahmedinejad articulates a global revolt against market capitalism or alienated elites — not only are Iran's elites at times as alienated from ordinary people as those anywhere else, but in that country you see two rival elite clusters (broadly identified around the Rafsanjani crowd and the Republican Guards) use corruption, state control and even violence to gain control.

Ahmedinejad in Lebanon

Note: This is much shorter version of  post written earlier and then lost because of #$@^!* system. Couldn't be bothered to redo it fully.

The above pic from the Lebanese blog Beirut Spring illustrates the division about Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's visit to Lebanon today. A bunch of Lebanese bloggers have decided to note the visit with humor, like this list of 10 things to expect during the visit.

See the FT, the WSJ, Reuters, and Rami Khouri who makes some interesting points about both the domestic Lebanese reaction and the nervousness in the US and the Arab world. The State Dept's response that Ahmedinejad's visit infringes on Lebanese sovereignty is rather mind-numbing, between 2006 and now they must have grown to care a lot about Lebanese sovereignty. 

My own take to the question of Iran-US relations will come in the form of this picture I took last May, near Times Square in New York. I think it explains everything pretty clearly.


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

Rattling the saber on Iran

The Atlantic magazine is one of the slightly subtler stalwart supporters of Zionism in the American media, taking a gentler approach than, say, the New Republic or its conservative doppelganger Commentary or The Weekly Standard. (It's also, in terms of editorial quality speaking, a far superior magazine.)
Which is why it is far more deadly when it pushes out a piece of propaganda like James Fallows' odious 2002 piece Who Shot Muhammad al-Dura, which tried to impute blame on Palestinians without talking to a single one of them, or the currently much-talked about Jeffrey Goldberg article on why Israel is almost certainly to bomb Iran. The aim of the piece is pretty clear from the get-go: it tries, not always directly but always implicitly, to argue that since Israel is about to strike Iran, the US may as well back it in the endeavor or carry the deed itself. This may very well be the beginning of the campaign for a US attack on Iran, not just an apology for an Israeli attack.
I won't discuss the article at length here because others have done a pretty good job. But I urge others to read it, and perhaps marvel with me how much of it is suffused with talk of the Holocaust and how much sympathetic justification it contains for what would be, after all, an unprovoked attack on a UN member by a nation that already has a considerable nuclear arsenal outside of the international non-proliferation framework. The case for Israel putting a stop to Iran's nuclear program is quite dubious, as most experts and Goldberg concede. The US is both much better able to carry out such a strike, and deal with the long-term conflict that might ensue. Hence the need for this article and a campaign to manipulate US public opinion into thinking that striking Iran is unavoidable. And why would it be unavoidable? Because Iran is being sold as a potential Nazi Germany,  even though Iran — as Stephen Walt argues — is not much of a threat to the US. (See also Walt's thoughts on Goldberg mainstreaming the idea of war with Iran in the US.)
You must do what we can’t, because if you don’t, we will, is the gist of what Goldberg is doing, argues Paul Woodward.

Worried about an Israeli attack on Iran? That’s the idea.

You must do what we can’t, because if you don’t, we will.

This is how some Israelis are trying to twist Washington’s arm to get the US to attack Iran.

A more honest way of making the argument would be to say this: If the US won’t attack Iran, then Israel will — even though it won’t accomplish its military objectives and it will open Pandora’s box. Desperate nations sometimes do desperate things. You have been warned.

Another name for this: blackmail.

It’s hard to counter an irrational argument when the irrationality is intentional. Such are the means by which someone like erstwhile Israeli army corporal and current Atlantic commentator, Jeffrey Goldberg, attempts to persuade his readers — not through cogent reasoning based on clear evidence, but by an insidious form of argument that has the clarity of slime.

Consider the way he tries to close his case for an attack on Iran — even while avoiding saying straight out that he supports such a course of action.

The United States must not take the risk of letting Israel attack Iran because if President Obama orders US forces to attack instead, this would be the most patriotic thing to do. Obama would not be serving Israel’s interests; he would be defending Western civilization.

Goldberg, of course, operates with the conceit common to many access journalists, who assume that what they’re hearing from their sources is the unvarnished truth, told to the journalist because they presumably trust him as a confidante and recognize the value of his opinions and insights. Let’s just say that such is the conceit that makes it so easy for those in power in Washington to seduce marquee name journalists to carry water for them by anointing them as “special”, cultivating in the illusion that they’re insiders privy to the inner thoughts of the key power players.

In your dreams, Jeff: The Israelis talk to you because they want to convey a particular message in Washington; and the White House talks to you because they want you to convey a particular message to the Israelis and, more importantly, to some of their most powerful backers in America.

Making Aggression Respectable | The National Interest: Here Paul Pillar makes an important point:

Perhaps one reason a prospective launching of a war against Iran has not gotten the condemnation it deserves is that the one big recent exception to the American tradition of non-aggression—the Bush administration’s war in Iraq—has shifted the terms of reference and the definition of the mainstream so much that even an offensive war has come to be considered a policy option worthy of consideration. And this has happened despite the mess in Iraq that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein and despite George W. Bush’s restraining (to his credit, as mentioned in Goldberg’s article) of hotheads in his administration who were itching to attack Iran.

Yes you can dispute America's tradition of non-aggression, at least in the postwar era, but the fundamental point that Iran shouldn't be attacked simply because it's against international law is crucial. We have yet to deal with the illegality of Iraq's war.

Other reactions worth reading:

Did top Obama donor carry Israeli message to W.H.? Here Justin Elliott picks up on a side revelation in Goldberg's article, that a senior Israeli military official traveled to Chicago to urge one of the most important early Obama backers in the Jewish community to have a word with him.

How propagandists function: Exhibit A Gleen Greenwald.

The Leveretts, whom I don't like on Iran's internal politics, catch the same thing: THE CAMPAIGN TO TURN IRAN INTO AN “EXISTENTIAL THREAT”

Steve Clemons points out the interesting stuff about Bush being against an Iran attack late in his presidency in Jeffrey Goldberg Probes Israel's Iran Strike Option: Is Netanyahu a "Bomber Boy"?

And finally, coming back to The Atlantic, it's worth highlighting this bizarre line in this Robert Kaplan article about how to deal with a nuclear Iran:

Indeed, I would argue that because Sunni Arabs from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Egypt perpetrated the attacks of September 11, 2001, and because Sunni hostility to American and Israeli interests remains a conspicuous problem, the United States should theoretically welcome a strengthened Shiite role in the Middle East, were Iran to go through an even partial political transformation.

Because, of course, all Shias and all Sunnis think alike. And this article's main argument is that the US should be more willing to consider a limited nuclear war with Iran, and limited wars in general. Chilling.

It's what's going on inside Iran that matters

Interesting piece by Gary Sick on Iran:

The key question about Iran today is not whether it will be attacked or collapse under sanctions. It is whether Iran is capable under its present leadership to take a sober decision about how to deal with the outside world. The Revolutionary Guards have established a dominant position in Iran’s military, its economy, and its politics. Iran increasingly comes to resemble the corporatist states of southern and eastern Europe in the 1920s and ‘30s that we call fascist. Iran is conducting an interior battle with its own demons, from the millenarians on the far right who choose to believe that Khamene`i  is the personal representative of God on earth, to the pragmatic conservatives who simply want a more responsible leadership, to the reformists of the Green movement whose objective is to put the “republic” back into the Islamic Republic by giving the people a greater voice.

This is a yeasty and unpredictable mix. No one knows what is going to happen next.

And this is the reality that the Obama administration must deal with. The danger is not that the administration will back the wrong horse in Iran. The real danger is that the Obama administration will be so preoccupied with domestic American politics and its constant demand to look tough when dealing with Iran that it will inadvertently rescue this cruel but hapless regime from its own ineptitude by providing a convenient scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in Iran.

I would still be cautious about a strike on Iran happening — Israel and its allies in America are as irrational as Ahmedinejad — but good to remember the dramatic internal shifts that have taken place in Iran in the last decade, empowering a new breed of plutocrats from the RGs.


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

That lousy US Congress

Here's the latest bill going around Congress:

Expressing support for the State of Israel's right to defend Israeli sovereignty, to protect the lives and safety of the Israeli people, and to use all means necessary to confront and eliminate nuclear threats posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the use of military force if no other peaceful solution can be found within reasonable time to protect against such an immediate and existential threat to the State of Israel.

Of course no such concern for the sovereign of Iran, or the protection of its civilians. The bill explicitly expresses support for an Israeli attack on Iran:

(4) expresses support for Israel's right to use all means necessary to confront and eliminate nuclear threats posed by Iran, defend Israeli sovereignty, and protect the lives and safety of the Israeli people, including the use of military force if no other peaceful solution can be found within a reasonable time.

It was supported by 46 Congressmen, mostly Republicans I believe.

Meanwhile, there's also a bill supporting democracy in Egypt [link corrected], introduced by Russ Feingold and supported by John McCain. It makes general commitments to democracy and calls for greater democracy, free elections, repeal of the emergency law and other issues, but does not introduce any idea of conditionality in the relationship. In fact the only different thing it advocates from what is currently being practiced is:

(7) recalls that pursuant to the laws of the United States, organizations implementing United States assistance for democracy and governance activities, and the specific nature of that assistance, shall not be subject to the prior approval of the Government of Egypt.

On Fadlallah

I happened to be in Beirut when the news of Sheikh Fadlallah's death hit the news a few days ago, although since I was there for a wedding, I did not don my reporter hat or stay for the funeral yesterday, as I had a plane to catch back to Cairo and then another for Casablanca. I won't comment on the man — take a look at what Asa'ad AbuKhalil said, or Rami Khouri — but do want to touch on the American perception of him.

In Fadlallah, one had a spiritual leader for millions of Shias who was neither an ultra-conservative nor an apologist for autocracy. He was the only Shia figure with the authority not only to counter the Vilayet al-Faqih doctrine now dominant (and state-endorsed) in Iran, but also the political quietism and all-out conservatism of Iraq's Sistani. Yes, he was a political radical by the standards of of American hegemony in the region — he opposed occupations, backed armed action against occupiers include suicide bombings — but in some respects at least preferable to the alternative religious leaders in the region. He was not simply "Hizbullah's spirtual leader" as so many American journalists, and the American government, apparently continue to consider him as, despite the obvious fact that Hizbullah's leadership looks to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatolah Khameini.

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Testimonies from IRGC defectors

Do watch the short film here featuring testiminonies from former Revolutionary Guards on the Iranian regime's reaction to the June 2009 elections turmoil. Apparently a plane was on standby to whisk Ahmedinejad and Khameini to Syria...


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,


Toto... can't tell them apart.

No, that's not a misspelling of tautology. It refers to the crossed wires in Thomas Friedman's brains that allow him to say make assertions whose relationship to reality are so threadbare that they amount to sleight-of-hand. Several years ago I decided to stop blogging about Friedman (whom I refer to, in my internal monologue, as "Toto"), because he gets very boring, and by and large I haven't even read him in a while. But the moral outrage he summons in his latest piece is so distasteful and selective it's worth spending a little time on. 

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Iran, Brazil, Turkey and the US

Yesterday morning I was at the UN building in New York, with a small group of journalists meeting Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. One of the issues that came up was Iran — in fact the buzz at the UN generally speaking is that Iran is the main topic of conversation at high-level meetings and the G-summits, no matter what's officially on the agenda. Ki-Moon had just received news that the US had just gotten a tentative agreement over a new package of sanctions on Iran and shared it with us, although he didn't have much to say about it apart some vague statement that the best way of addressing the Iran issue was through dialogue.

Shortly before Hillary Clinton announced the consensus over a new sanctions resolution, which is going to the UN Security Council soon, Brazil and Turkey had successfully inked a deal with Iran. The deal would have Tehran turn over about half of its nuclear fuel stockpile for a period of a year, a similar deal that the US had earlier said it would be amenable to. So the announcement on new sanctions came as a big f-you to not only Iran, but also Brazil and Turkey, as Gary Sick writes:

Only hours before Clinton’s announcement, the foreign minister of Turkey held his own press conference. Obviously unaware of what was about to happen, he described in some detail not only the tortuous negotiation process with Iran, but his perception that he was acting directly on behalf of the United States.
According to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, he had been in “constant contact” with Clinton herself and with national security adviser James Jones, while his prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had face-to-face encouragement from President Obama in December and April.
The objective of Turkey and Brazil was to persuade Iran to accept the terms of an agreement the United States had itself promoted only six months ago as a confidence-building measure and the precursor to more substantive talks. There were twelve visits back and forth between the Turk and his Iranian counterpart, some 40 phone conversations, and eighteen grueling hours of personal negotiations leading up to the presentation of the signed agreement on Monday.
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China, Iran and the Saudis

All illustrations on this post are actual Iranian postage stamps.On some level, the debate over sanctioning Iran appears to boil down to what China's position will be — another sign of what one might call the slow but steady multi-polarization of Middle Eastern geopolitics. 

From Ben Simpfendorder's New Silk Road blog:

China’s foreign policy is at an inflexion point. The country is emerging as a major power, but that will require tough choices.
The toughest choices are usually found in the Middle East. The region doesn’t like major powers sitting on the fence, and it’s only time before China will be forced to climb down.
It is Iran that will likely force a decision. China has so far maintained its policy of non-intervention─as one Beijing-based policy advisor said to me, “if we intervene in Iran, it would set a bad precedent for our relations with other countries”.
Fair enough. But so would a failure to intervene. It would suggest that China isn’t concerned about its other regional partners, especially Saudi Arabia. Let’s not forget. Iran might supply 13% of China’s oil supply, but Saudi Arabia supplies an even larger 20%.
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Iran sanctions: lessons learned from Iraq

Photo by Iranian Flickr user Leila

As someone who spent part of the late 1990s working on Iraq, I am adamantly against pervasive, population-centric economic sanctions (as opposed to sanctions directed at elites). Perhaps to a greater extent than the invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration, the UN sanctions regime pushed by the Clinton administration's "dual containment" policy were criminally destructive, paving the way for the past decade's civil war and the complete breakdown of Iraqi society. Charles Tripp, in his history of Iraq, wrote of the sanctions:

Food and medecines were theoretically exempt from the embargo. However, the import of fertilizers, agricultural machinery, pesticides and chemicals that might have a dual use, as well as parts for restoring Iraq's ruined electricity and water purification systems, was forbidden. Within a relatively short time, the effects of these enforced shortages were being felt by the Iraqi population, as malnutrition and disease took their toll, causing infant mortality rates to rise to levels not seen in Iraq for over forty years. This had little impact on the regime's priorities.

A more devastating assessment is made by Geoff Dwyer in his The Scourging of Iraq : Sanctions, Law and Natural Justice, which equates the sanctions with war crimes targeting civilian population. The type of sanctions carried out against Iraq were wrong, just as the current siege of Gaza is wrong, and similar sanctions against Iran would also be wrong.

Photo from Flickr user Iraqwar

So it's somehow alarming to see move for generalized sanctions from the US Congress and energy companies already cutting their links with Iran:

Energy executives said Vitol, Glencore and Trafigura, which have hitherto sold Iran half of its petrol imports of 130,000 barrels a day, stopped supplying Tehran because of mounting political risk. “The political and public relations problems more than outweigh the business rewards,” said one executive.
The sale of petrol to Iran by non-US companies is legal as fuel imports have yet to be included in sanctions against the country. The companies declined to comment.
Vitol’s decision is particularly important as the company is by far the world’s largest oil trader. One executive familiar with Iran’s trade said “Vitol consciously decided not to participate in Iran’s tenders” at the start of the year. Trafigura, the Switzerland-based oil and metals trader, stopped selling to Iran about three months ago, an industry executive said. “They have concluded that there’s too much political and financial risk,” the executive said. Glencore stopped supply in late 2009, breaking a relationship with Iran of more than three decades.

The FT further analyzes where the Iran debate stands, and it's scary to see this line of thinking:

Supporters, including US lawmakers, argue that cutting off supplies would bring the country’s economy to its knees. To cope, they say, Tehran would need to reduce subsidies to slash consumption, an unpopular measure that would also stoke inflation.

The imposition of petrol rationing in the summer of 2007 led to public anger, with protesters setting a dozen fuel stations on fire. Some opposition supporters hope the increase in energy prices or further economic pressure from sanctions may encourage poorer people finally to join the anti-regime Green Movement.

“If the regime faced damaging economic pressure from a significant reduction in gasoline supplies ... it might decide that a nuclear bomb, instead of being the guarantor of the regime’s survival, could be the catalyst of its demise,” says Mark Dubowitz, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which supports sanctions.

I'm not convinced that sanctions would really stop Iran's nuclear program (some argue that they might accelerate it), but even worse is the idea that they would push people to join the Green Movement. We know from the Iraq experience that sanctions hurt more than helped any resistance to the Saddam regime, and gave it extra tools to pacify the population. 

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Iran, the US, and democracy promotion

A protestor in Tehran, from Flickr user Green Movement

POMED's account of a recent Congressional hearing on what policy to pursue towards Iran, and most notably whether and how to support its opposition movement, made for some interesting reading. Several of those testifying — former Bush administration officials, regional experts, etc. — made the case of a human rights-based approach, with the US taking steps to challenge the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic's regime on human rights grounds. The approach being suggested by, if you compile the different witnesses' testimonies to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is basically:

  1. Highly targeted sanctions to hurt the elite, esp. the IRGC;
  2. Open support for the Green Movement, which can decide whether it accepts that support or not;
  3. More funding for democracy promotion through the National Endowment for Democracy and other vehicles (although it's not clear who would eventually receive that money);
  4. A commitment to continue to side with the opposition no matter what takes place in the negotiations over the nuclear program, so that no "betrayal" of the Green Movement takes places if the regime is willing to back down;
  5. A public diplomacy campaign and commitment to internal regime change as an ultimate goal, which would also solve the nuclear issue.

I should add that Genevieve Abdo in particular was less gung-ho, and suggested that a reconciliation between the regime and opposition leaders could very well take place by the next parliamentary elections, which would leave the more radical elements of the Green Movement out on their own. I don't know much about Iran but I also see no reason a more democratic government in Iran would not be attached to a nuclear program considering the threats the country faces in the region. Logically, all of the larger Middle Eastern powers should pursue WMD programs of some sort, and indeed they all have (mostly chemical and biological for Egypt, Syria and Iraq and of course Israel's nuclear arsenal).

All of this to say: we are seeing considerable Congressional enthusiasm for a tough, democracy-driven (at least on the surface) policy towards Iran. Yet, at the same time, democracy is effectively absent from the relations between the US and Arab states (no, I will not count the State Dept. annual rights report). It is true that Iran's opposition is potentially much more credible than opposition movements in Arab countries, with seemingly real elite and popular traction. But that's also because in many respects are less democratic, and have less healthy political systems, than Iran's theocracy.

I am very supportive of the Green Movement, whatever it may actually be, and the goal putting an end to the militarization of the Islamic Republic, its corruption and its human rights abuses. I hope it's possible, and am conscious the US can influence this. But when I see US policy elsewhere in the region, I would warn Iranians: don't take this democracy talk too seriously. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan (invoked in the Congressional hearing for an uncompromising stand on Iran): don't trust, and verify.