Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The prospects of the Iranian protesters/ Demilitarising a future Palestinian State?

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Update from AIJAC

June 23, 2009
Number 06/09 #09


This Update offers some more discussion of the Iranian protest movement, concentrating especially on the question of what it would require to fundamentally change the Iranian regime. It also contains an additional backgrounder on Israeli PM Netanyahu's call for a future Palestinian state to be demilitarised.

First up, Washington Institute for Near East Policy military expert Michael Eisenstadt says the key to any hopes for fundamental change in Iran will be the attitudes of the security forces, and he outlines what forces exist, and how they have been used in the past. He goes over the history of the relationship between the various security forces and protests and unrest in Iran, and leaves at least some hope that sections of those security forces may ultimately assist or refuse to suppress the protesters. For Eisenstadt's knowledgeable analysis, CLICK HERE. Agreeing with Eisenstadt that the key to any major achievements by the protesters will be some support from security forces is thinktanker specialising in Iran Michael Rubin.

Next up, Jack DuVall, an expert on non-violent conflict and protest, argues that regardless of the outcome, the protests will have a long-term effect on Iran. He argues that this is not just due to the the moving imagery of a million peaceful protesters, but also the demonstrated organisational ability and confidence their leaders will have gained, which will have profound effects in terms of creating an "unprecedented new public space in Iran."  He uses past examples such as Solidarity in Poland, Pinochet's Chile and the overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines to illustrate his point. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE. A much more pessimistic view of the impact the protesters can have comes from analyst and recent visitor to Australia Dr. Jonathan Spyer.

Finally, the British Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) has a very useful background paper on the history of the concept of a demilitarised Palestinian state as demanded by Israeli PM Netanyahu in his speech last week. The paper demonstrates that this has in fact been a constant feature of past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and agreements and one the Palestinian Authority accepted under Arafat using the terminology of a "a state with limited arms." The paper also explains the Israeli strategic rationale for requesting this. For this historical analysis of the concept of a "demilitarised Palestinian state", CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas discusses Netanyahu's other key requirement for a Palestinian state - recognition of Israel as "the nation state of the Jewish people."Some misunderstanding of this concept and other myths about Zionism are discussed here and here.

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The Security Forces of the Islamic Republic and the Fate of the Opposition

By Michael Eisenstadt

PolicyWatch #1538,
June 19, 2009

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's Friday sermon, which called for an end to mass protests contesting the outcome of last week's presidential elections and which carried an implicit threat of "bloodshed and chaos" if they continued, has raised the stakes in the ongoing standoff between the government and opposition in Iran. The stage may now be set for a violent showdown. Past experience, however, raises questions whether the security forces can be uniformly relied on to implement an order to violently quash the protests, and whether such an order could in fact spark unrest within the ranks of the security forces that could have significant implications for the future stability of the regime.

Security Organs of the Islamic Republic


According to the constitution of the Islamic Republic, the army is responsible for defending Iran's borders and maintaining internal order, while the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is responsible for protecting the regime. In practice, matters are not so clear-cut. During the Iran-Iraq War, the IRGC (and its popular militia, the Basij) fought alongside regular military units at the front.

This ambiguity regarding roles and missions has continued until today: the regular military and IRGC routinely hold joint military exercises, while the Basij has, in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, played a greater role in preparing to confront a foreign invasion, implementing the regime's new "mosaic" doctrine, and preserving the values of the revolution. The IRGC and Basij also routinely participate in exercises that hone their ability to deal with domestic unrest. The Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) is a partner with the Basij (and ultimately the IRGC) in these efforts to maintain domestic order.

A History of Civil-Military Tensions and Ferment in the Ranks

The intermittent unrest that has racked Iran since the early 1990s has occasionally exposed latent tensions between the country's political and military leadership, as well as political differences between the senior echelons of the armed forces and the rank-and-file, raise questions about the implications of a violent crackdown in Iran today.

The first sign of trouble was the refusal of army and IRGC units garrisoned near Qazvin (a major town northwest of Tehran) to obey orders to quash riots there in August 1994. The commanders of these units apparently refused to turn their weapons on the Iranian people. The regime was forced to airlift in special IRGC and Basij antiriot units from elsewhere to put down the violence. The May 1997 election of reformist candidate Muhammad Khatami to the presidency put further stress on civil-military relations. Though senior IRGC officers had endorsed his conservative opponent (Majlis speaker Ali Akbar Nateq Nuri), credible post-election press reports indicated that IRGC personnel voted for Khatami in even greater proportions than did the general population (73 percent versus 69 percent).

This indicates that the IRGC -- a military organization long thought to have been a bastion of support for conservative hardliners -- was in fact riven by the same divisions as Iranian society. This, perhaps, should not have come as a surprise, due to the fact that for the past two decades, the IRGC has increasingly come to rely on conscripts to meet its manpower needs, due to a drastic decline in volunteers. This raised questions about the political reliability of the IRGC should it be needed to quell popular unrest.

The student riots of July 1999 provided the backdrop for the next crisis in civil-military relations. These riots were put down by the LEF (often aided by the thugs of the Ansar-e Hizballah, a shady vigilante group sponsored by the IRGC and Basij) who were relieved by the Basij once the situation had stabilized. These events highlighted the fact that by July 1999, a new division of labor within the security forces had emerged: the LEF had become the regime's first line of defense against domestic unrest, with the Basij providing backup. When necessary, they might be reinforced by the IRGC's "Special Units," followed by the IRGC's ground forces. The regular military's ground forces would be deployed only as a last resort.

At the height of the July 1999 unrest, twenty-four senior IRGC commanders sent President Khatami a letter that in effect threatened a coup should he not restore order quickly. Such a threat was unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic, though given the political divisions in the armed forces, it is unclear whether a coup would have succeeded. The result could well have been bloody street violence, perhaps even civil war. In the end, Iran's clerical leadership was able to restore calm, thereby preempting a coup, though the threat of overt military intervention was an unsettling new development.

Hardline elements, however, in the security services and armed forces had already covertly intervened in the political arena, through their participation in the murder of dissident and reformist intellectuals starting in the autumn of 1998 (and continuing through the spring of 2000). Through these actions, the senior leadership of the security services and armed forces threw their support behind the conservative rivals of President Khatami. This development raised doubts not only about the prospects of the reform movement, but also about the impact of the growing politicization of the armed forces on discipline and effectiveness.

The rise of these security hardliners accelerated under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad. A former Revolutionary Guard member, Ahmadinezhad was a manifestation of the ascendancy of a power elite comprised largely of IRGC veterans, who make up a majority of the cabinet and more than a third of the current parliament, and who have benefited from the expansion of the IRGC into nontraditional roles in business and industry. Under Ahmadinezhad, the IRGC -- through its current and former members -- has emerged as the main pillar of the regime.

The protests that followed in the wake of the 2009 presidential elections constitute the most serious challenge ever to the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. They have revealed new organizational arrangements for dealing with domestic unrest that raise questions as to whether the use of force to quell antiregime protests would produce unrest in the ranks, and spark a new crisis in civil-military relations. Film and television footage of the protests show that this time the Basij are in the lead in dealing with the unrest, with LEF playing a supporting role. IRGC units have not yet been committed. This is consistent with the growing role assigned the Basij since 2003 as the first line of defense against possible U.S. regime-change attempts -- whether through an invasion or a color revolution. It is not clear, however, that this apparent confidence in the Basij is justified.

While the recruitment base of the Basij is much narrower than that of the IRGC (which draws on conscripts from all sectors of Iranian society), it is a volunteer force that many join for opportunistic reasons -- for a paycheck, a scholarship, or a bit of authority. And while the Basij is probably more thoroughly vetted than other mass organizations (due to the role of local clerics and mosques in the recruitment process), it is hard to believe that its membership is insulated from the broader political forces at work in Iranian society today. Accordingly, some units might experience significant desertions if employed to violently suppress the protests.

Conclusions

So far, the government has avoided a head-on confrontation with the opposition, and has contented itself with harassing demonstrators and detaining or arresting opposition organizers and prominent reformist politicians. This approach, however, has not succeeded in slowing the momentum of the opposition protests. As a result, the regime might be tempted to employ greater violence in an effort to crush the opposition.

Iran so often surprises even the most seasoned observers that it is impossible to foresee the outcome of a violent clash between regime and opposition. Much will depend on the following questions: which security forces the regime chooses to employ (Basij supported by LEF, or by IRGC as well), how it chooses to employ them (confronting protesters through a massive show of strength with a relatively limited and focused use of violence, or by overwhelming numbers and an unrestrained use of violence), and how skillful the opposition is in encouraging dissent in and defections from the ranks of the security forces. But a violent crackdown, even if successful (as seems likely), could be the opening round of a long and bitter struggle, with far-reaching implications for the cohesiveness of the security forces and the long-term stability of the regime.

Michael Eisenstadt is a senior fellow and director of The Washington Institute's Military and Security Studies Program.

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The Power of Plenty

How the sight of massive protests can change a nation's mind.

by Jack DuVall

The New Republic, Post Date Saturday, June 20, 2009

The panoramic view on Thursday of more than a million Iranians filling the streets of Tehran, on the sixth straight day of swelling popular demonstrations against the Iranian regime's mangled election and ensuing street violence, has been an undeniable inspiration to the tens of millions who've seen it. But posting a photograph on a wall in an office in New York, or watching a few YouTubes in an apartment in Paris, doesn't begin to convey what the protesters have accomplished by creating such unprecedented new public space in Iran, and how much they've altered the psychological and political reality on the ground.

I am reminded of something that a Gdansk shipyard worker said about people power in Poland. The worker was Anna Waltentynowicz, and her firing at the Gdansk shipyard triggered the strikes that forced the Polish communist regime to legalize Solidarity in 1980. She recalled that a year before, when John Paul II returned from Rome to visit his country for the first time as pope, the government declined to involve itself in what it saw as a religious event, so the Catholic church and civil society had to organize everything. Never before had so many ordinary people been involved in such a massive public undertaking. Thousands of people got on-the-job training as organizers. The culminating event was an open-air mass in Warsaw's central square where three million people assembled--the largest gathering in Polish history.

"We could do all kinds of things by ourselves," one organizer said. "We didn't need the authorities." Suddenly millions of people who had lived under repressive rule all their lives looked in the mirror and saw themselves as stakeholders in what was happening. "We became braver," Walentynowicz said. Even after Solidarity was temporarily brought down by martial law, all through the difficult years underground, those organizers and the people who followed them didn't surrender their determination to succeed. And the leader of the 1980 strikes, Lech Walesa, became president in 1990.

Another instructive precedent might be the massive civilian involvement in protests and political organizing that preceded Chile's 1988 plebiscite, which Augusto Pinochet called so he could change the constitution and run for a third term. Just as with the Supreme Leader in Iran, he was forced to permit an open campaign in order to establish the perception of the vote's legitimacy. That campaign released enormous, fervent energy for change. When on election night an independent vote count showed that the opposition had won, Pinochet advised his fellow junta members that he was going to disregard the results and crack down on any action in the streets. Two of his fellow generals refused to go along, because they knew that most Chileans would resist--and, with the defection of the navy and air force, Pinochet realized that he had lost his capacity for effective repression. So he stood down. Eleven years later, one of the leaders of the '88 opposition asked a filmmaker how many Chileans could say, on the morning after the plebiscite, that they had accomplished this change, and then he answered his own question: "Seven million," he said.

Regardless of whether or not the Green Revolution in Iran succeeds in the coming days, the collective recognition by ordinary Iranians that it is, after all, their country--that its guidance and direction are not the property of one ideological faction or certain privileged clerics--is unlikely to fade. Once you learn how to drive a car, you don't forget. Once you've created space that has commanded the world's attention and caused armed rulers to hesitate, you are a factor in history and a force to be reckoned with, whether a million people come back on the street for another six days, or 16 days, or 60 days.

The Green Revolution has already created a new cohort of political organizers, the ability to mobilize and discipline Iranians of all social and economic backgrounds to comprise a major new political presence in Iranian life, and a stunning contrast in global images, between a self-confident, articulate Iranian people, and a balking, benighted government. If they persist, the new Green civilian army may even succeed in giving pause to the uniformed officers as well as the soldiers who would be summoned to put them down. The precedents for that are numerous. Aside from the Chilean example above, the People Power Movement against the Marcos regime in the Philippines divided his military to the point of ineffectuality. When Ukrainian armed forces were called to clear a half-million people out of the central square in Kiev in 2004, senior officers of the army and one other security service realized their own sons and daughters were in that square, and they thwarted other units who tried to follow orders. A revote in a presidential election was ordered.
 
But no outcome is inevitable. Success in civil resistance depends on the shrewdness of a movement's strategy, the quality of decisions made under pressure, and the resilience of people at all levels in its ranks and leadership. The one thing that can be said with certainty about events in Iran, however, is that six days of steady bravery, a serious new unity, and steadily growing nonviolent discipline have created the opportunity to alter the course of a great nation's history--and that new capacity for change will not easily be unlearned.

Jack DuVall is the co-author of
A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict (St. Martin's Press/Palgrave, 2001).

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BICOM Briefing: Demilitarisation and the future Palestinian state

Key points

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's call for a Palestinian state to be demilitarised is nothing new. It is documented in all major agreements between Israel and the Palestinian leadership, including the Oslo Accords, the Gaza-Jericho Agreement, the Camp David negotiations and the unofficial Geneva Accords. 
  • Previous peace treaties and other agreements signed between Israel and its neighbours all include clauses of demilitarisation to ensure long-term stability. Prominent examples include agreements between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria. 
  • The lessons of recent years in the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon illustrate the need for international guarantees and regional cooperation in preventing offensive weapons and arms from reaching terror organisations and posing a threat to the stability of the region as a whole.  

 Not a new idea: demilitarisation of a Palestinian state in previous agreements


 Documented evidence from previous negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership shows that there is broad agreement that strict limitations will be placed on the military capacity of a future Palestinian state. Restrictions of this sort commonly refer to limitations on weaponry possession, control over airspace, the monitoring of borders and limits on military treaties that may pose a threat to the security of Israel.

 In all substantive negotiations on the two-state model, the demilitarisation of a Palestinian state has been taken as a given and has been clearly stipulated. When PM Netanyahu noted this demand in his recent policy speech at Bar Ilan University, he was pointing to the fact that without the diffusion of potential threats of massive Palestinian military build-up, the Israel public will reject any future territorial concessions. It is for this reason, as well as for strategic considerations, that all former negotiations included clear references to the issue of demilitarisation.

 Oslo Accords (1993)


 The notion of demilitarisation dates back to the first substantial agreement between Israel and the Palestinian leadership - the Oslo Accords, signed by then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat in 1993. The agreement stipulated that "In order to guarantee public order and internal security for the Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Council will establish a strong police force, while Israel will continue to carry the responsibility for defending against external threats" (Article 8).

 Gaza-Jericho Agreement (1994)

 Similar prerequisites were made in the 1994 Gaza-Jericho agreement, which enabled the transfer of authority from Israel to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the Jericho region. The agreement between the sides clearly noted that "Except for the Palestinian Police referred to in this Article and the Israeli military forces, no other armed forces shall be established" (Article IX 2).

 Camp David negotiations (2000)

 The negotiations conducted by then-prime minister Ehud Barak with PA chairman Arafat led to the Clinton proposals in December 2000. The Israeli position was that Palestine should be defined as a "demilitarised state", while the Palestinian side proposed "a state with limited arms." As a compromise, President Bill Clinton suggested the term "non-militarised state." In essence, the differences of terminology do not dispute the fundamental agreement that necessary limitations will be placed on the military capacity of a future Palestinian state.

 Geneva Accords (2003)


 The unofficial Geneva Accords, signed between Palestinian and Israeli politicians outside of government in 2003, included the clause that "Palestine shall be a non-militarised state, with a strong security force" (Article 5, Section 3 ii). Furthermore, it was agreed that both sides would "refrain from joining, assisting, promoting or cooperating with any coalition, organisation or alliance of a military or security character, the objectives or activities of which include launching aggression or other acts of hostility against the other" (Article 5, Section ii 3). In this sense, the accords contained exactly the same demands presented by PM Netanyahu in his policy speech.

 Demilitarisation: lessons from Gaza and southern Lebanon

 The demand for the demilitarisation of a future Palestinian state also derives from the deterioration in the Gaza Strip since Israel's unilateral withdrawal in 2005. As the Gaza experience has shown, the accumulation of offensive weaponry in an uncertain political climate, and the threat that this may fall into the hands of terror groups, is not an unrealistic scenario.

 Since Hamas's takeover in June 2007, the EU inspectors force in charge of monitoring the border crossings between Gaza and Egypt was forced to flee; without sufficient control, the crossings were shut. Attempts by Hamas and other terror groups to continue building their arsenals of rockets, explosives and other arms have resulted in deteriorating conditions for Gaza's residents and a general instability in the region. Limiting the amount of weapons held by Palestinian forces, as well as restricting them to defensive and policing arms, is crucial to minimise the dangers of future destabilisation.

 Demilitarisation also requires close monitoring and inspection mechanisms, to control both border crossings and the situation on the ground. In his speech, PM Netanyahu specifically addressed the issue of international assurances as a condition for Israeli territorial concessions. This is understandable in light of the recurring failure to prevent the smuggling of offensive weapons into Gaza and the heavy rearmament of Hezbollah in Lebanon following the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Despite the establishment of a large UN force to ensure the demilitarisation of southern Lebanon under UN Security Council Resolution 1701, these forces have not been able to prevent the rapid build-up of Hezbollah's arsenal. Ensuring that demilitarisation is observed thus requires close cooperation and strict limitations that are implemented by all sides.

 Israel's minimum strategic requirements

 Israel is an extremely small and particularly narrow country. Excluding the West Bank, Israel at its narrowest point is eight miles wide. If Israel's borders were to be penetrated by an invading force in a time of war, it would be extremely vulnerable. This is not a theoretical fear for Israelis. It was a reality in Israel's War of Independence in 1948, and in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

 In terms of previous negotiations, Israel has always premised any agreement on there being a demilitarised territorial buffer, to provide Israel with a cushion in case one of its neighbours seeks to attack it. This was a feature of the 1949 armistice agreements that followed the establishment of the State of Israel; the agreement that led to Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula after the 1956 Suez-Sinai War; the disengagement agreements that followed the 1973 Yom Kippur War; and ultimately the Egypt-Israel peace accords. The Sinai Desert is now a demilitarised zone with a monitoring force that observes the limitations on military presence. The Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty signed in 1994 designated a narrow zone of demilitarisation on the Israeli side of the international border. Although Syria and Israel do not have a formal peace treaty, the agreement that has kept their border quiet for 36 years is a demilitarised zone agreed by both sides.

 The Palestinian territories are for Israel the most strategically sensitive of all, particularly for topographical reasons. A tank thrust from the highland of the central region of the West Bank into the Israeli coastal plain - the most densely populated part of Israel - could cut the country in two. Additionally, Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport is located only six miles from the West Bank foothills overlooking it. Under these unique conditions of vulnerability, the demand for demilitarisation of the future Palestinian state is a matter of existential importance and a condition that will assure the Israeli public that territorial concessions will not be used to further destabilise the region and threaten Israeli population centres.

 Conclusion

 Prime Minister Netanyahu's demand for the demilitarisation of a future Palestinian state is in line with previous agreements made between Israel, the Palestinian leadership and Arab states. The territorial vulnerability of Israel and the experience of recent years in Lebanon and Gaza have proven that this demand is not only of the utmost importance for the security of Israel, but also an important component for ensuring the stability of the Palestinian state itself and the viability of future treaties.

 Polls conducted shortly after PM Netanyahu's speech showed that the notion of a demilitarised Palestinian state receives the support of a clear majority of Israelis: over 60% support Netanyahu's proposal for a demilitarised state. Contrary to some claims, the demands posed by the Israeli prime minister do not pose an obstacle for the resumption of bilateral negotiations, but simply outline Israel's requirements for substantial progress to be made. Once talks resume, this issue, along with other core aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will become part of the negotiation process and will be for the sides to discuss and resolve. If a long-term solution is the goal, demilitarisation will be one of the key factors for its achievement.

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