Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Iran Imploding?

Iranian politics is as much about what the people in the street feel and express, as it is about the bizarre behind the scene politicking and the power play that makes Iran the strange enigma that it is. To simply view the election fraud as limited to what President Ahmadinejad manipulated misses out some key aspects of undercurrent of why such a massive election fraud was done in the first place. It simply could not have been the fear of a Reformist election victory since in 1997 and 2001 Reformists did come to power. The fact that Ayatollah Ali Khameni the Spiritual Leader intervened into the election process and clearly supported Ahmadinejad before the election and was quick to endorse the fraudulent results the day after the election might hold some of the clues as to whether a internal coup is under way in Iran.

Previously Khameni has accepted Reformist governments and in both terms of office of these governments he balanced the reformist impact by appointing ultra conservatives to the Judiciary and the Media ensuring that the reformist governments were reined in and not as effective as they would like to be. At the start of this election campaign a shift started to appear as the important elements of the clergy, especially from Qom were expressing statements that they would not support any of the candidates. For these very conservative clergy from Qom, who have supported every conservative candidate in the past elections, to say they will not support anyone was simply the politically correct way of saying they do not agree with Ahmadinejad's policies.

Keeping in the that the former President being the head of the Assembly of Experts, a power group from the parliament who advise the Guardian Council was supporting the Reformist Mousavi in the election and is known not to have a great relationship with Ali Khameni could well hold the reason why this election was allowed to be rigged and why the Grand Spiritual Leader is taking sides so openly.

Unlike his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeni, Ali Khameni has ambitions of protecting his vast business and political interests within the country. He also wants to ensure that his son Mojtaba, has a role in the political future of Iran and it is strange that for the past year conservative media close to the clergy have been portraying Ali Khameni as 'Ali of the Age', almost giving him a special place in history and perhaps making a subtle reference to Imam Ali, the First Shia Imam who passed on the reins to his son Hassan. Whether or not Mojtaba has the standing or the support to take his fathers place is moot, but one thing is clear that Ali Khameni does wish to protect his business interests and a Reformist government with Rafsanjani heading the Experts Assembly and the clergy in Qom not happy with the way Ali Khameni has blindly endorsed the reign of Ahmadinejad all indicates that this current situation in Iran is as much a battle for the survival of Ahmadinejad as it is of Ayatollah Ali Khameni.

It is thus not surprising at in some of the street demonstrations there have been calls to also reform the Iranian system to ease power, which is absolute, from the Spiritual Leader back to the elected government. Had the Ali Khameni not taken sides the issue would have been easier to resolve by asking for an impartial inquiry and dependent on the results a re-election. Now, ofcourse, the lines are being be drawn harder by the day. The arrests and the nature of the reprisal by Ahmadinejad and his supports to the demonstrators and voices of disagreement shows that the hard liners are fully aware that the stakes are high. Mousavi supporters and his political machinery are being careful not to let the demonstrations spill over into violent clashes giving the State apparatus to impose curfews and a full scale crackdown.

The worlds response has been rather muted, calling it Iran's internal affair. This is a convenient side step if I may say, because events in other countries are not seen as 'internal affairs'. If the world does want to see the rule of the ballot box then Iran's current situation does call for the condemnation of the election fraud, and the end to the repressive measures being used against opponents of Ahmadinejad. There cannot be two ways about it and this is a matter of political and human ethics and not one of diplomatic niceties.

As far as the effect on the Middle East, it is clear that a 're-elected' Ahmadinejad will feel more vindicated, even if in his own eyes, about his past policies and may continue his policies of the past four years. There is a highly unlikely possibility that Ahmadinejad may try and become a reformed man and deal with the Middle East and the West differently to show his political acumen and in a way deflect attention from his crackdown on the reformists opposing him. His bet will be that the West accepts the dictates of political realities and if he can soften his position on some key issues he may find Washington and the West will be happier dealing with a devil they know, and who is trying ti change, rather than see further turmoil within Iran. I am afraid that with time this might well be the outcome of the situation as it seems the current impasse will not be resolved by a recasting of votes, unless ofcourse the powerful Guardian Council has a change of heart and signals that the clergy will not support Ahmadinejad. I would call this the Qom effect, where it has become clear that the Qom clergy, who unfortunately command more spiritual importance than political power, have abandoned Ahmadinejad.

Whether Ali Khanemi can come to realize the precarious situation the country is in with is partisan policies is another matter. Perhaps the pressure from the clergy itself may allow him to save face by leaving matters to the Guardian Council to decide and play more of the spiritual patriarch that he is supposed to be. This will be the only solution to the current problem, unless ofcourse the reformist tire of the demonstrations and the lack of progress and resign themselves to another four years of Ahmadinejad.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Winning the peace

The Pakistan military has been scoring some much needed military victories against the Pakistan Taliban in the region of Swat. Indeed the ferocity of the Pakistan army has been boosted by discovering bodies of Pakistani soldiers with their throats slit bringing about an attitude to yield no quarter to the Taliban. In a sense this does mean that the Taliban and the Pakistan army have now started to carry grudges and there are reports of Taliban being meted out a bit of their own medicine in terms of the harshness with which they are being dealt.

However, the Pakistan military is being asked to reverse the tide of the Taliban given that the Taliban gained control not because of the military failure but due to the spineless of the current government in Islamabad. The tricky question is that winning ground from the Taliban is one thing but winning the peace is another. I feel there are two major threats to the current series of victories of the army.

Firstly, the Taliban may well be giving up strategic towns like Mingora and others in the Swat valley, but lets not forget some of these Taliban are fading into the country side in smaller bands and mingling with the population. While this is not that easy its never the less an army of zealots who can feed of the population without necessarily having the contraptions of a standing army.

Secondly, the Internally Displaced Persons, or IDP, as they are being labeled, are more restless than before as they seek to go back but to their destroyed homes and start to rebuild their lives. A failure of the Government and the international donors to Pakistan to deal with the pressing issues of these people will result in a back lash that the country can ill afford to witness at this stage.

The military is not equipped with the mindset to seek the quick rehabilitation of the IDP's and the government is woefully inexperienced to gather the resources to rebuild the infrastructure and the homes destroyed during the fighting. Historically the government machinery is not geared up for the quick response that the situation demands.

If long lasting goodwill is not created with the displaced people of the Swat valley then clearly the battle for the hearts and minds of the people will suffer an irreparable setback. The Taliban's tactics of revenge attacks in the cities of Peshawar and Lahore have not won them any friends in the country and the government should not consider this as enough reason to be winning the war against the Pakistan Taliban. On the contrary it is a matter of urgency that the Swat Valley towns should be rebuilt and essential services restored showing that defeating the Taliban is only the first step to building the confidence of the people in the government.

However, in terms of the Taliban roll back one has to not rejoice too much considering that the Taliban tactic is that after a major defeat they lie low and regroup, usually taking two to three years before they come back into the forefront. Thus to say a military victory will have rid the country of the Taliban menace would be too optimistic. The strategy has to be clear that while the Taliban burrow down over the next couple of years, the government and all other positive segments of society should accelerate education, economic reforms aimed at the grass root level and widespread engagement of the people in the areas at risk to the next Taliban encroachment so that the Taliban cannot feed of the dissatisfaction of the people.