Friday, January 27, 2006

Ross, Gerecht and the question of honesty

Lewis Gropp interviews Salman Rushdie covering, among other things, Rushdie’s latest novel “Shalimar the Clown” set in Kashmir. Also, Pedram and Mitra over at the Eyeranian outline Ten Reasons Not to Attack Iran.

The two articles for today discuss in greater detail their visions of the contours of the ideal American posture on Iran with greater emphasis upon how best to affect some internal trends and developments.

We see proposals to explore options that range from playing factions against one another and tapping into an already simmering discontent and further encouraging internal dissent. One of them also explores whether or not it’ll be productive to link more forcefully in the publics mind the Apartheid regime of South Africa and the Iranian regime.

We see also a more detailed discussion of the role sanctions should play and the need to pressure Iranians in general--Iranian students in foreign universities and scientists in particular--to get at the regime. Both showcase Mr. Ahmadi Nejad as their centerpiece.

The image of a fanatical, delusional man anticipating Mahdi’s return is now, at least in the first article, being dismissed as product of a smear campaign initiated by competing mullahs. In both, Mr. Ahmadi Nejad predictably appears as an honest, fanatical man.

Let’s start with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and The Mullah Wars

Western governments are scrambling…with no evident overarching strategy for preventing the regime from obtaining nuclear weapons. But one little-discussed strategy that perhaps holds the most promise is exploiting the political battles currently raging inside Iran.

The political battles are centered around new Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Far from being an ordinary politician, Ahmadinejad is an idealist, one whose ideals are rooted in the bloodstained Iranian revolution. Ahmadinejad's total devotion to these revolutionary principles caused Amir Taheri, an astute observer of Iranian politics, to refer to the president as "Iran's perilously honest man."

Part of Ahmadinejad's perilous honesty is exposing the Iranian political establishment's corruption.

Ahmadinejad thinks that the mullahs themselves have been compromised. In this regard, the ruling mullahs have milked the system and, having become rich, can no longer share the revolutionary aspirations of the poor masses."

Far more noticeable to Westerners, though, is Ahmadinejad's honesty about the Iranian regime's ideals.

Ahmadinejad believes that the world should hear only the true revolutionary message rather than watered down pronouncements about a "dialogue of civilizations."

Even Khamenei may be threatened by Ahmadinejad's dangerous idealism..

Observers think it possible that Ahmadinejad could try to replace Khamenei with Mesbah Yazdi.

BOTH RAFSANJANI AND KHATAMI have orchestrated a campaign of character assassination against Ahmadinejad in recent months designed to paint him as a delusional figure who believes that the Hidden Imam guided him through a September speech before the United Nations.

THE UNITED STATES needs to be keenly aware of these divisions within Iran so that it can exploit them.

Even while pursuing the U.N. Security Council as one option for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, the U.S. needs to carefully follow, and be willing to exploit, the power struggle within Iran.


It annoyed me terribly that at least in the following sections the irony had been lost both on the writer and the editors:

Far more noticeable to Westerners, though, is Ahmadinejad's honesty about the Iranian regime's ideals. Unlike past president Mohammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad doesn't quote Habermas in his speeches for the benefit of Western audiences. In his eyes, the tendency of Iranian political elites to give speeches pleasing to Western ears one day then say something different in Farsi after coming home is evidence of their lack of faith.

Part of that exploitation will be surely covert, but the U.S. needs also to carefully tailor its public rhetoric about Iran. The right approach is exemplified by State Department undersecretary for political affairs Nicholas Burns's recent speech to the School of Advanced International Studies, in which he launched a stinging attack on Iran and Ahmadinejad, and stated, "There is a clear struggle underway between the reactionary Iranian government and the moderate majority." Burns's speech appears designed to highlight what the United States hopes are the new battle lines being drawn in Iran: between people and government, rather than within the regime between "reformists" and hardliners.


The above approach appears to have become a fundamental pillar of a particularly pernicious critique of all things Middle Eastern. That’s partially why for some one like Mr. Reuel Marc Gerecht, Ahmadi Nejad has become a godsend:

Let us state the obvious: The new president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a godsend.

Mr. Gerecht’s take is a bit broader than what we encountered with Ross and it covers the whole of Iranian society:

In Iran, the very Anglo-American understanding of "truth and consequences," where mendacity leads to pain, is reversed: Honesty, especially with strangers, is likely to cause trouble.

There is, however, a unique place of honor carved out for Mr. Ahmadi Nejad within an establishment acculturated in the art of dissimulation:

Where Ahmadinejad differs with his two colleagues and with Iran's former "reformist" president Mohammad Khatami (who also can sound like a faithful child of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini when talking about Zion, the Jews, and the destructiveness of American civilization) is that he never really practices taqqiyah, the very Iranian-Shiite art of dissimulation, which historically grew from the trials and tribulations that Shiites have endured in the much larger, often unkind Sunni Muslim world

Mr. Gerecht's argument is rooted in his personal vision of this war as both a quest for the Holy Grail of Hayba and Jihad against Hope. To his credit, he has successfully refined his argument; although, the more sensible approach would have been to go back and re-evaluate the initial assumptions. That said, let’s continue to examine why Ahmadi Nejad is not deemed a habitually dishonest Iranian:

Ahmadinejad, a child of the Iran-Iraq war's volunteer force of die-hard believers, the Basij, and the more elite but no less determined Revolutionary Guards Corps, who have become a state within a state as the Islamic Republic has aged, has very little of the old-school mendacity. In my experience, Revolutionary Guards actually don't like to lie. Their raison d'être is at odds with the historical weakness and fear that underlie taqqiyah or, as it is also often known in Persian, ketman.

Unvarnished, unsophisticated, hardened, and usually embittered by one of the most merciless wars of the twentieth century and contemptuous of sinful, colorful, traditional culture, they are often men of sincere faith. They are pure as only men who've been scorched by war can be. They often cannot hear, let alone analyze, the outside world.

These are men whom Western secularists, especially spiritually inert "realists," barely understand. Western foreign-policy experts hunt for rational calculations and geostrategic designs where what is staring them in the face is faith, defining, for warriors like Ahmadinejad, both right and wrong and the decisive contours of politics and strategic maps. Westerners firmly believe that corruption, omnipresent in Iran, means a loss of religious virtue and zeal. In fact, in clerical Iran there is relatively little friction between violent faith and graft.

Think about the arguments the man outlines above and we’ll revisit them in some other post. In the following, we have some of his more dramatic either/or constructs:

Either we are going to have a serious policy incorporating but going beyond the European approach, …or we will descend into a surreal process of tepid, ineffective sanctions, orchestrated through the U.N.

Either the Bush administration makes a serious attempt at democracy promotion inside Iran… or it runs the serious risk of having its "transformational diplomacy" agenda… implode from an overdose of hypocrisy… Sustained insincerity toward either will desiccate the democratic spirit within the American government…

And his proposals, questions and admonitions:

A more serious American-European approach to clerical Iran's quest for nuclear weapons would cast the administration more conspicuously as the bad cop

The Iranians need to know that over the horizon waits George W. Bush, the mad bomber.

Senior American officials, and especially the president, need to remind Iran's ruling clergy, connoisseurs of machtpolitik that the United States is quite capable of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and simultaneously, if need be, launching airstrikes against the clerics' nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile facilities

The Bush administration should insist on adding benchmarks, with consequences…

The administration has worked up a whole series of possible nonpetroleum sanction measures against Iran

The State Department should have already pushed aggressively, starting in Paris, to get the French, Germans, and British to agree to small-scale sanction trip-wires that would operate independently and in advance of any referral to the Security Council.

For example, the gradual revocation of visas to Iranian students on government stipends studying the hard sciences in EU-3 countries and the cancellation of all science-related exchange programs

Ideally, what the United States needs is to replicate the economy-crushing sanctions the West threw at Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh after he nationalized British petroleum in Iran in 1951. There are many reasons why Mossadegh fell to a very lamely executed and inexpensive coup in 1953, but among the most important was the effective oil embargo, which helped turn a popular prime minister into an unpopular one in less than a year.

Such an embargo is unlikely today, when all in the West fear the possible economic shock from higher energy costs. But if there is such a thing as a non-oil-related intimidating sanction against the Islamic Republic

European sanctions--the doom and gloom need to be convincing from the start. Dribbling out little sanctions--the likely product of three years of US-EU-3 cooperation--won't do it.

Eventually, … we will have to make up our minds whether nukes in the hands of Khamenei, Rafsanjani, and Ahmadinejad are "intolerable" or not. If so, then we will have to prepare to bomb

AND SOONER, not later, we need to decide whether we are serious about promoting democracy in Iran, whether we will continue to hold democracy-promotion hostage to these quite possibly never ending discussions

Regularly give speeches defending dissidents in Iran--let's name them--and the institutions of free speech

Surrogate radio service for a country President Bush calls one of the gravest threats we face

We want RFE-RL[Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty] to develop an in-country network of sources

American officials give speeches defending religious freedom in Iran

Our objective is to generate internal debate, ... Iranian society is quite open to the power of the American bully pulpit. government decides to focus its attention inside

And is there any reason American covert action against clerical Iran essentially doesn't exist?

Since overt American activity and meaningful political NGO work inside Iran are excruciatingly difficult… pro-democracy covert-action programs are really the only means to confront the clerics inside Iran

Is there any ethical or strategic reason Iranians who want clandestine U.S. support for pro-democratic activities deserve it less than did Poles in the 1980s?

Why don't we let Iranians themselves judge whether they want to work clandestinely with the United States?

It is for them, not us, to decide whether helping dissidents stay afloat and organize unions is worthwhile.

If serious Iranians don't want to do these things, then such efforts will go nowhere. Covert action is a means of encouraging voluntary activity where the proof is always in the pudding.

Ultimately, Mr. Gerecht’s expectations or concerns for the future:

Remember: Ahmadinejad is heaven sent. Unfortunately, things in Iran are probably going to have to get a lot worse before they can get better. He and his supporters may ruin the economy and galvanize a much broader and braver base of internal opposition to the regime.

He may add jet fuel to internal clerical dissent and open up lethal fissures in the ruling elite. He will do all that he can to convulse and purify his society. Will we be ready to handle the challenge and the opportunity?

And last but not least, the Brooding Persian’s all-time-favorite, priceless gem of a parapraxis:

Somebody in the White House and Congress really ought to take CIA director Porter Goss aside and do a bang-for-the-buck audit of what Langley is doing against Iran. According to one CIA case officer in the Near East Division, there's not even a presidential covert-action finding "that would allow us to sh--in the country." The agency will never again become okay at covert action unless it tries.

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