Monthly Archives: September 2010

STL deadlock continues

Who needs the Milibands when you have Lebanon? The March 14th-March 8th imbroglio continues amid uncertainty over the future of the Special Tribunal. (Literally everything on the Daily Star RSS feed is about the STL. It’s getting kind of addictive – I’ve just spent over an hour and a half reading up. Don’t worry, I’m going for a drink directly after writing this.)

The cabinet has delayed a decision on future funding of the tribunal as opposition leaders objected to the 2011 budget’s allocation of funding from the Lebanese government. A meeting yesterday ended without a decision from the cabinet, which engaged in lively debate that Hariri urged them not to leak to the media. But they did, because this is Lebanon. Hizbullah also raised the issues of false witnesses and Israeli spies, saying that these needed to be investigated before the tribunal can release inditements. Future MPs stressed that the false witness issue would be dealt with by the cabinet after inditements.

Future Movement officials have also been busy denying allegations that Syria asked Hariri to declare Hizbullah innocent and withdraw his support for the tribunal, should it accuse Hizbullah of involvement in the assassination. AlAkhbar published the claims on its front page; ministerial sources said they were designed to undermine Hariri and the tribunal and have been vigorously reiterating Hariri’s support for a non-politicised investigation. Geagea and Gemayel have been vehemently supporting the STL as well; Gemayel said recently that the fall of the tribunal would mean a return to the ‘law of the jungle’.

Hizbullah officials, on the other hand, are emphasising their ‘absolute right’ to defend themselves by any means necessary if the party is accused of involvement in the Hariri assassination. They repeated their claims that the STL is politicised, saying that US Special Envoy Jeffrey Feltman’s recent comments on the tribunal were proof in themselves of its politicisation.

And Jumblatt is just being Jumblatt. He ‘raised more ambiguity regarding his position on the STL’, saying he wished it had never been created. (Man, that’s so just Druze of him!) He also made the following glorious statement: ‘The Tribunal is present and we must be aware’. I couldn’t agree more.


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Not one occupation, but two

A great piece in the NYRB by Nathan Thrall on the Fayyad government in the West Bank:

In October, Dayton will retire and be replaced by a three-star Air Force general, Michael Moeller. During the next year, Moeller is scheduled to receive the USSC’s largest ever appropriation. His tasks, as the deadlines for both the Fayyad plan and the end of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations approach, will be to advance two irreconcilable goals: building a Palestinian force that can guarantee Israeli security while also lessening the perception that the US is firmly supporting what many residents of the West Bank, like the independent politician Mustafa Barghouti, have come to describe as not one occupation but two.

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Rifts in Iranian regime

Esfandiar Mohamed Mashaei, Ahmedinejad’s brother-in-law and chief of staff, was quoted today as calling for more women’s rights in Iran. ‘Women have been oppressed and treated unjustly in our society in the past, and this oppression still exists,’ said Mashaei, before saying Iran should ‘guarantee women’s rights’ and ‘take women’s rights into consideration more than ever’.

His statements are likely to further the rift between Ahmedinejad and Iran’s clerics. (Mashaei also recently said something like ‘the mullahs should be removed from government’, although I can’t find the source for that at the moment.) Khamenei reportedly has warned the president against setting up ‘alternative power structures’, probably to a reference to the foreign policy responsibility he has given to Mashaei, making him a rival to Iran’s foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who was appointed by Khamenei.

Ahmedinejad has also been embroiled in a battle with Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, over the Tehran metro – the Majlis has earmarked $2m in funding for renovation of the metro, which the president is refusing to spend. This is, allegedly, because the metro company is owned by the son of Akber Hashemi Rafsanjani, an opponent of Ahmedinejad’s who has lent support to the Green Movement.

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Monday links

Back in Cambridge after a busy week packing, chasing up articles for TCS and generally diddling around in London town.

‘We were looking for a nice, peaceful place near Jerusalem…’

Rachel Shabi explores the West Bank settlement property market for The Guardian.

Ya Libnan, ya Libnan…

The Hariri case and the next civil war? AlJazeera summary of the current miasma.

Iran, Bushehr, and cyber sabotage

Sophisticated computer worm attacks Iranian nuclear plants.

When Arabs tweet

Great piece by Rami Khouri on social media, political activism, and Western doublethink.

Iran, India, and a strategic paradox

India opposes Iranian nuclear ambitions, but also opposes sanctions.

Afghanistan’s Warlord TV networks

Archival footage of hunting the Taliban on horseback, anyone?

Charles Melville on the Shahnameh

The crystal lynx (and my director of studies…) all up on the Economist talking about Persian art

‘The young Hariri will have little choice but to resign…’

Qifa Nabki on the March 8th-March 14th war of words

A new approach to a nuclear Iran

Iran has enriched, get over it, says Alistair Crooke


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Monday links

Hizbullah’s growing pains

Excellent summary of Hizbullah’s place in Lebanon

Egyptian succession: possible outcomes

POMED notes on a GWU panel on Egypt’s future

How to rebuild Pakistan

Pakistan needs aid, but the right kind of aid

The Haystack scandal and the internet freedom fraud

How a software company fooled the world and endangered Iranian activists

Lebanon should be wary of its economy

Never mind everything else…

‘The U.S. and EU states should put aside simplistic clichés about Turkey “turning East”, “joining an Islamist bloc” or “turning its back on the West”.’


Goldberg out of touch with mainstream opinion

Adam Shatz on why the man is wrong

Just when you thought the NDP couldn’t get any worse…

Egyptian curriculum edited to reflect its ‘pseudo achievements’

Nasser’s legacy: ‘the power and the pain’

He wasn’t as great as this makes out, but still interesting

US policy on Sudan is offering Bashir one last chance

FP article argues West is prioritising the referendum at the expense of Darfur

Ahmedinejad and Persian nationalism

Is the Iranian president changing tack?


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The Mubaraks, the military, and the mystery

Suzanne Mubarak, Egypt’s first lady, recently said on the subject of the Egyptian presidential succession: ‘I do not have a comment about this issue, when the right time comes, I will speak.’ This follows her husband’s similarly vague, Beach Boys-esque comment a few months ago that ‘only God could know’ who will next rule Egypt. With ElBaradei calling for an election boycott, Gamal Mubarak diddling around in America, and mysterious Omar Suleiman posters popping up around Cairo, next September is looking increasingly interesting.

Gamal’s name is the one most often touted around, and his recent trip to America to accompany his father to the US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace talks was seen as the latest stage in the attempt to groom him for the presidency. He faces opposition not only from pro-democracy activists, who believe a Mubarak-Mubarak succession would leave Egypt with just another pharaoh and who have been campaigning against him, but also from the older factions of the NDP. Gamal’s rise to power within the NDP has been supported by younger, wealthier businessmen who have grown rich during the years of NDP ‘structural adjusment’ (read: neoliberal economic policies and massive privatisation). The NDP ‘old guard’, who are associated with the military, are suspicious of Gamal and those who surround him.When mysterious posters appeared around Cairo supporting Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s intelligence chief, some pointed to a split within the ruling elite, especially when they were rapidly removed and newspapers were forbidden from reporting on them.

Egypt’s military – who, since Nasser’s takeover in 1952, has provided Egypt with leaders – faces a choice over succession, and its influence means it will most likely have a role to play. It’s the most powerful institution in the country, bolstered by huge amounts of US military aid – around $40bn over the last 30 years. Like the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, it has gone beyond its military function to civilian life where it has large and complex business interests. It forms an important part of Egyptian political life and is seen as able to make or break a candidate. Although it faces a dilemma over Egypt’s next leader, it is in a good position. Any establishment candidate will want its support; so if it chooses to go with Gamal, it can let the Mubarak machine sweep him into power, and if it decides to go with someone else, then their power within the NDP is such that they can engineer a different succession in a kind of ‘soft coup’.

The Egyptian opposition is carrying on, despite a scenario in which it can succeed looking ever more unlikely. Mohamed ElBaradei recently called for an election boycott and a campaign of civil disobedience that would mean ‘the end of the regime’. But the opposition is disunited on this issue and on others, and has not gathered significant popular support. Massive demonstrations that will force a free and fair election in Egypt look like a distant possibility. Next September, it seems, Egyptians face the unappealing choice between Gamal and a military coup – not that they will have much choice in the matter, as the succession drama will be ‘about securing strong negotiating positions for elements of the regime, from the security services to the military to political apparatchiks and businessmen,’ according to The Arabist. Unless, perhaps, Suzanne Mubarak is waiting to make her radical pro-ElBaradei announcement. I’m not holding my breath.

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Ahmedinejad the great

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad recently unveiled the Cyrus cylinder in a ceremony in Tehran. The cylinder, on loan from the British Museum, is seen by some as the world’s first charter of human rights. Leaving aside the bitter irony of the Iranian leader posturing next to a human rights document – which one opposition website described as ‘a stranger in its own home’ – the implications of Ahmedinejad honouring Iran’s pre-Islamic past in this way are interesting.

The Persian past, including hero-kings such as Cyrus, was used by the Shah to justify his rule, portraying his Peacock Throne as a natural continuation of Iran’s tradition of kingship. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 overwhelmingly rejected such symbolism, basing their rule and Iranian identity on Islam and decrying the Persian past as pagan. Yet Ahmedinejad seems to be reclaiming the symbolism and traditions of the pre-Islamic kings for his own. ‘One of our kings replaced that dictatorship with a just regime,’ said Ahmedinejad at the ceremony. ‘His name was Cyrus…I want to make a historical parallel here. Cyrus conquered Babylon and freed people from the brutal regime of Babylon. However, while going there to free the people, he did not hurt a soul. He does it in a way that the dictatorship in Babylon falls apart. And then he issues the Declaration of Human Rights.’ The focus on Cyrus has not gone down well with the Iranian religious establishment: ‘The president should be aware that he is obligated to promote Islam and not ancient Iran, and if he fails to fulfil his obligation, he will lose the support and trust of the Muslim nation of Iran,’ said one Iranian MP.

Some see Ahmedinejad’s new tack as the influence of his brother-in-law and close advisor, Esfandiar Mashaei. Mashaei is a controversial figure within Iran, where he is hated by the clerical authorities – Ahmedinejad originally tried to make him vice president, but was forced to demote him to chief of staff after an outcry by the clerics. He has challenged Iran’s foreign policy line, saying that the country is friends with the US and Israel and ‘has no international enemies’. In August he provoked more controversy by urging a group of expat Iranians to promote a national ideology, rather than an Islamic one. As part of Ahmedinejad’s own diplomatic team, who operate independently of the Supreme Leader-controlled Foreign Ministry, Mashaei works as Middle East envoy, meeting foreign leaders under the president’s personal instruction. Mashaei’s presence at the heart of government is worrying for the Iranian clerics, who see him as a subversive who is undermining Iran’s Islamic character and may even be secretly working with the Green movement. Ahmedinejad, in the face of their opposition, has repeatedly supported Mashaei and stood behind his statements.

There is a possibility that Ahmedinejad is grooming Mashaei for the presidency; Ahmedinejad is constitutionally forbidden from running again when his term is up, and some observers guess that he plans to install Mashaei for one term and then take back power for himself when Mashaei’s time is up. Yet the risks Ahmedinejad is taking, and the struggle between him and the clerics, also suggest that the Iranian picture is more complex that merely conservatives vs. reformers. His defiance of the clerics has gone beyond the Mashaei issue; the recent release of Sarah Shourd, the American hiker imprisoned in Iran, was apparently against the wishes of the religious establishment, who are also opposed to the Iranian leader’s trip to the UN General Assembly in New York. Ayatollah Khamanei’s continued support for Ahmedinejad make his position, for the time being, unassailable. Yet Mashaei himself has said that it will not be long before ‘certain people are calling Ahmadinejad an apostate.’

Juan Cole sees Ahmedinejad’s Persian posing as evidence of ‘the ingredients…for a new Iranian nationalism’. He points to Iran’s relative economic comfort – oil prices are stable, the country is not having to import any petrol, and exports to China and Japan are increasing. From a foreign policy perspective, Iran is close with its regional allies, and the US seems to have no recourse but arming Saudi Arabia and hoping for the best. According to Cole, Ahmedinejad is, for good or for bad, the ‘confident representative of a fiercely independent Iran’.

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