Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The State of the Iranian Regime/ Olmert on Peace and Settlements

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Update from AIJAC

July 21, 2009
Number 07/09 #09


This Update adds more discussion of the state of the Iranian regime, as the protests continue, and former President Rafsanjani gives a sermon declaring the regime has lost the trust of many of the people. A roundup up of more details and interpretation of events in Iran is here.

First up, Iranian-American journalist Bourzour Daragahi looks at the weakening of the reverence given to Iran's Supreme Leader, in the wake of his blatantly political stances in the current crisis. Daragahi talks to many in Iran, including a number of moderate clerics, who make the point that Khamenei has weakened his role and possibly crippled his ability to govern. The piece also points out that it is primarily the military, not his fellow clerics, who have overtly denounced Khamenei's opponents, and that while this may keep him in power, it limits his legitimacy. For this important look at how the Supreme Leader is being viewed inside Iran, CLICK HERE.

Next up is Robin Wright, veteran journalist and author specialising in Iran, who agrees with Daragahi that the regime looks badly shaken. She says that a mere month or so ago, the regime had never looked stronger, but now things have changed completely, not only in terms of internal legitimacy, but in terms of Iran's international standing. She also identifies the two new dominant coalitions in this clash, which she calls the "New Right" and the "New Left", and who is in each, as well as what the future might hold for their confrontation. For this important article on Iranian political realities in full, CLICK HERE. Additionally, speculation on whether the Iranian government has lost the international standing it was cultivating in the non-aligned movement in the wake of the unrest is here.  

Finally, former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert has weighed into the debate between Washington and Jerusalem about a settlement freeze and the best way to advance Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He says unequivocally that concentrating on a settlement freeze is a mistake, and goes over the provisions of an agreement that was reached with Washington in 2005 that limited construction in settlements to prevent any interference with the peace process, but did not demand a stop to all construction everywhere. Olmert reviews the history of his own discussions with the Palestinians, and how tangential the settlement issue was to it, and urges that time not be wasted now with a confrontation over the definition of a settlement freeze when more important issues need to be negotiated urgently. For Olmert's complete argument, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, reviewing the exact details of Olmert's offer to the Palestinians and drawing some lessons is Israeli journalist Aluf Benn. Further, arguing that the current Israeli-American public discussions over a settlement freeze may hurt the Palestinian Authority is former Bush Administration Middle East official Elliot Abrams.

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Supreme leader Khamenei diminished in Iranians' eyes

Since Ayatollah Ali Khamenei openly sided with President Ahmadinejad with the election results still in dispute, 'opposing him is no longer the same as opposing God,' one analyst says.

By Borzou Daragahi

Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2009

Reporting from Beirut — For two decades he was considered to be above the petty political squabbles, a cautious elder contemplating questions of faith and Islam while guiding his nation into the future.

But Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose title of supreme leader makes him Iran's ultimate authority, has gotten his hands dirty. His decision in recent weeks to so stridently support the nation's controversial president after a disputed election has dramatically changed his image among his people, setting in motion an unpredictable series of events that could fundamentally change the Islamic Republic.

"Public respect for him has been significantly damaged," said one analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Opposing him is no longer the same as opposing God."

The venerated Khamenei has even become the target of public jokes and criticism.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "commits crimes, and the leader supports him," was a popular slogan during the riots of June 20, the day after Khamenei delivered a blistering Friday sermon in which he said that the election a week earlier had been won by Ahmadinejad.

At July 9 demonstrations, protesters mocked the ayatollah's son, Mojtaba, who many believe hopes to succeed his father.

'Khamenei-jad'

In seeking to fill the robes of the Islamic Republic's late founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Khamenei has never been deemed to have the same level of religious credentials or oratorical skills. Over the last two decades, he has invested more in building up support among the nationalistic leaderships of the Revolutionary Guard, security apparatus and militias than in cultivating a clerical establishment that increasingly reflects the values and aspirations of modern Iran.

But his decision to tilt heavily toward raw force rather than the power of the turban has exposed a dilemma. His right to rule is based on Khomeini's theological concept of velayat-e faqih, guardianship of religious jurists, which places him as a spiritual guide hovering above the political structure. Now, for many, Khamenei has lost his aura of infallibility and is seen as just one more political infighter -- "Khamenei-jad," as one commentator in the capital joked, combining his name and that of his controversial protege.

"It's gotten so bad that people stare at me on the street thinking because I'm a cleric I must be an Ahmadinejad supporter, until I hold up my two fingers and show my support for [opposition candidate Mir-Hossein] Mousavi, and the people become happy," Ayatollah Hadi Ghaffari, a reformist cleric, told a giggling crowd in a popular audiotape distributed around the Internet and on YouTube.

"Mr. Khamenei, you're making a mistake. I am committed to guardianship of the jurisprudent more than Khamenei . . . but I might have something to say to the guardian at the time," he said.

Another reformist cleric, Mohsen Kadivar, told Germany's Der Spiegel magazine that Khamenei's decision to tie his fate to Ahmadinejad's disputed election win was "a great moral, but also political, mistake."

Reformist journalist Issa Saharkhiz, who was recently jailed, wrote that Khamenei "has chosen the path of tyranny which the people of Iran and the world have already thrown into the waste bin of history several times."

Few believe the Islamic Republic is on the verge of collapse or revolution. The military, numerous high-ranking clerics and segments of the population continue to support the absolute power of the leader.

But recent developments might make it difficult for Ahmadinejad to govern, much less implement the hard-line agenda he shares with Khamenei of tightening social restrictions and confronting the West.

"Khamenei has always ruled from a position of insecurity vis-a-vis his clerical contemporaries and also the population," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has studied much of Khamenei's writings. "Now he's in a situation where not only is he disliked, but he no longer elicits the same fear that he did before the election."

Broader opposition


The threats to Khamenei no longer come from just the reformists. Even some staunch Ahmadinejad supporters said they were disheartened by Khamenei's decision to play such a key role in blessing the controversial election results. One Iranian conservative, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that "it diminished the office" of the House of the Leader, the supreme leader's headquarters, meant to be revered by Shiite Muslims.

"He has lost a remarkable number of his own religious and traditional walks of people who had traditionally been supporters of the Islamic system in Iran," said Bizhan Bidabad, an Iranian intellectual in Tehran.

As Khamenei's credibility and powers of persuasion with moderates have collapsed, so has his ability to keep protesters under control without the truncheons and tear gas of the security forces. With Khamenei's golden halo gone, the Revolutionary Guard and its allied radicals might figure he no longer serves a purpose, said one political analyst.

"I think that Khamenei is finished as a politician," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He has always played the role of a balancer. Now that he's removing one part of the balancing act, the remaining actors might decide at some point that they are better off without him."

Portions of the Iranian population have long quietly resented Khamenei because they opposed the Islamic Republic's theocratic constrictions, but for the better part of two decades his political views remained ambiguous, even nebulous. That changed after the election, when he blessed the vote even before it was officially ratified and delivered a momentous speech in which he personally stood up for Ahmadinejad, who won amid fraud charges, and described the president's views as "closer" to his.

"It was not the right decision to congratulate the current president prior to the ratification of the election result," said Mohammad-Ali Dadkhah, a human rights lawyer, days before he was jailed. "The supreme leader made a prejudgment, not a judgment."

The president's opponents took on his challenge and continued questioning the vote, damaging the supreme leader's personal credibility by forcing him and his adjutants to make further defenses of the election results.

"For nearly two decades Khamenei has wielded power without accountability," Sadjadpour said. "Those days are over. Formerly sacred red lines have been crossed. For the first time, people have begun openly questioning whether Emperor Khamenei has any clothes on."

While direct anger at Khamenei has been rare over the years, people are now shouting slogans against him from rooftops. One political cartoon making its way around the Internet shows him riding double on a motorcycle with a club-wielding Ahmadinejad, likening the pair to the Basiji militiamen who have stormed crowds of demonstrators.

Pondering next step

Khamenei's allies seem at a loss over whether to bandage his hemorrhaging legitimacy by singing his praises or utilizing the blunt instruments of state. Despite jailings and beatings, Iranian authorities have yet to squelch vocal defiance of Khamenei's order to end debates and protests over the election. Notably, it has been mostly military officials and not clerics who have rushed to the system's defense, denouncing Mousavi's green-bedecked supporters as subversives.

"The green movement was intent on piling pressure on supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic establishment," Gen. Yadollah Javani, a hard-line commander of the Revolutionary Guard, said this month. "The sedition's eye was injured but it was not blinded. Now we have to blind it totally before gouging it out."

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Tipping Point in Tehran

A Gathering Opposition Faces a Weakened Regime  

By Robin Wright

Washington Post, Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How much has changed for Iran in one occasionally breathtaking month. The erratic uprising is becoming as important as the Islamic revoluti on 30 years ago -- and not only for Iran. Both redefined political action throughout the Middle East.

The costs are steadily mounting for the regime. Just one day before the June 12 presidential election, the Islamic republic had never been so powerful. Tehran had not only survived three decades of diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions but had emerged a regional superpower, rivaled only by Israel. Its influence shaped conflicts and politics from Afghanistan to Lebanon.

But the day after the election, the Islamic republic had never appeared so vulnerable. The virtual militarization of the state has failed to contain the uprising, and its tactics have further alienated and polarized society. It has also shifted the focus from the election to Iran's leadership.

Just a day before the election, Iran also had the best opportunity in 30 years to end its pariah status. Since the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy, Tehran has sparred with five U.S. administrations. President Obama's offer of direct engagement is the most generous to date. He had the world's major powers and a growing number of Americans on board.

The tide has turned. At its summit in Italy last week, the Group of Eight industrialized nations "deplored" the post-election crackdown and urged "democratic dialogue" with the opposition. At his news conference there, Obama noted the G-8's "strong condemnation about the appalling treatment of peaceful protesters post-election in Iran" and "behavior that just violates basic international norms."
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Given its advancing nuclear technology and regional influence, Iran believed before the election that it held the trump cards in any negotiations. Now, politically disgraced, it is the needy one. Yet Washington might also pay a price for engaging with a government that brutalizes its people. Any involvement could effectively bestow legitimacy on a disputed election and reject the transparency and justice that protesters are seeking.

The uprising has transformed Iran's political landscape. Over the past month, dozens of disparate political factions have coalesced into two rival camps: the New Right and the New Left.

The core of the New Right is a second generation of revolutionaries, called principlists, who have wrested control of the security instruments and increasingly pushed their elders aside -- at least for now. It includes Mojtaba Khamenei, the supreme leader's son and chief of staff; Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, a presidential adviser and campaign manager; Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejehei; Interior Minister Sadegh Mahsouli; Major Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari of the Revolutionary Guards; Basij commander Hasan Taeb; influential commentators such as Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the newspaper Kayhan; and industry titans like Mehrbad Bazrpash, the former cabinet minister for youth affairs who now heads Saipa, the automobile manufacturer.

The New Left is a de facto coalition of disparate interest groups that found common cause in anger after the election. The name comes from opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was considered leftist as prime minister in the 1980s, and the opposition's goal is to open up the rigid theocracy.

Its organization, tools and strategy are weak, but it is the most extensive coalition since the 1979 revolution. The New Left includes former presidents, cabinet ministers and members of parliament as well as vast numbers of young people (the dominant demographic), the most politically active women in the Islamic world, white-collar professionals and inflation-sapped laborers.

What was a political divide has become a schism. Many Iranian leaders served time together in the shah's jails; today, their visions of the Islamic republic differ so sharply that reconciliation would be almost impossible.

What happens next will be determined by three factors: leadership, unity and momentum.

The opposition is most vulnerable on leadership. The big unanswered question is whether Mousavi, a distinctly uncharismatic politician, can lead the new opposition over the long term. He was an accidental leader of the reform movement, more the product of public sentiment than the creator of it. Without dynamic direction, the opposition may look elsewhere.

The regime is most vulnerable on unity. Many government employees, including civil servants and members of the military, have long grumbled about the strict theocracy. In 1997, a government poll found that 84 percent of the Revolutionary Guards, which include many young men merely fulfilling national service, voted for Mohammad Khatami, the first reform president.

Momentum may be the decisive factor. The regime will need to shift public attention to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's second-term agenda. Though Ahmadinejad blames the outside world for the protests, he may focus on regional or international goals to win the legitimacy that his presidency is unable to get at home.

For the opposition, the calendar of Shiite rites, Persian commemorations and revolutionary markers is rich with occasions to spark demonstrations. The opposition also has supporters in Iran's parliament who are likely to challenge Ahmadinejad's cabinet choices and economic proposals. Further arrests and future trials could also spark new tension. With each flash point, the regime's image is further tainted, its legitimacy undermined.

Robin Wright, a former Post reporter, is the author of "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East" and is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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How to Achieve a Lasting Peace

Stop Focusing on the Settlements

By Ehud Olmert

Washington Post, Friday, July 17, 2009

Israel's partnership with the United States is one of its greatest strategic assets. The United States provides Israel with crucial security and economic aid and invaluable political backing in the international arena. Amid the legitimate rapprochement President Obama has initiated with the Arab and Muslim world, it is important not to underestimate the multifaceted nature of U.S. relations with Israel, the only real Middle Eastern democracy whose founding principles are based on the Western values of liberty and freedom for all.

During the tenure of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and my administration after that, we, together with President George W. Bush, boosted Israeli-U.S. relations at all levels and on most issues. This progress was based on deep and candid understandings, both written and oral.

Throughout the second intifada, America provided unprecedented support for Israel's struggle against Palestinian terrorism and Israel's construction of the security barrier. Together, we envisioned the "two-state solution" as the only way to end the conflict by adopting and implementing the "road map" and its sequencing.

By vast majorities, Congress endorsed President Bush's 2004 letter elaborating Israel's right to defend itself, by itself, against any threat and recognizing new realities on the ground in which the Jewish population centers in the West Bank would be an inseparable part of the state of Israel in any future permanent-status agreement. America acknowledged that the future Palestinian state would represent the solution to the Palestinian refugees, resettling them there and not in Israel.

In November 2007, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Bush administration convened in Annapolis with the unified goal of solving all outstanding issues. Annapolis provided the framework for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians toward bringing an end to the conflict and to all claims.

Yet today, instead of a political process, the issue of settlement construction commands the agenda between the United States and Israel. This is a mistake that serves neither the process with the Palestinians nor relations between Israel and the Arab world. Moreover, it has the potential to greatly shake U.S.-Israeli relations.

The settlements are a known issue of contention between Israel and the United States; although America has not supported their construction, it has, on some occasions, recognized the realities that have developed over 40 years.

Sharon reached understandings with the U.S. administration regarding the growth and building of settlements, as part of the road map. The understandings included that:

-- No new settlements would be constructed.

-- No new land would be allocated or confiscated for settlement construction.

-- Any construction in the settlements would be within current building lines.

-- There would be no provision of economic incentives promoting settlement growth.

-- The unauthorized outposts built after March 2001 would be dismantled (a commitment that Israel, regrettably, has not yet fulfilled).

These understandings provided a working platform and, in my opinion, a proper balance to allow essential elements of stability and normality for Israelis living in settlements until their future would be determined in a permanent-status agreement. I adopted these understandings and followed them in close coordination with the Bush administration.

Moreover, during the run-up to Annapolis and in meetings there, I elaborated to the U.S. administration and the Palestinian leadership that Israel would continue to build in the settlements in accordance with the above criteria.

Let me be clear: Without those understandings, the Annapolis process would not have taken on any form. Therefore, the focus on settlement construction now is not useful.

The insistence now on a complete freeze on settlement construction -- impossible to completely enforce -- will not promote Palestinian efforts to enhance security measures; the institution building that is so crucial for the development of a Palestinian state; better movement and access to the Palestinians; nor an improved economy in the West Bank. Nor will it weaken the Hamas government in Gaza. It will not bring greater security to Israel, help improve Israel's relations with the Arab world, strengthen a coalition of moderate Arab states or shift the strategic balance in the Middle East.

Only a political process that demands courageous decisions from leaders on both sides will bring a solution to the issue of settlements.

To this day, I cannot understand why the Palestinian leadership did not accept the far-reaching and unprecedented proposal I offered them. My proposal included a solution to all outstanding issues: territorial compromise, security arrangements, Jerusalem and refugees.

It would be worth exploring the reasons that the Palestinians rejected my offer and preferred, instead, to drag their feet, avoiding real decisions. My proposal would have helped realize the "two-state solution" in accordance with the principles of the U.S. administration, the Israeli government I led and the criteria the Palestinian leadership has followed throughout the years.

I believe it is crucial to review the lessons from the Palestinians' rejection of such an offer.

The focus on settlement construction, while ignoring the previous understandings, unjustly skews the focus from a true political process and from dealing with the real strategic issues confronting the region.

Settlement construction should be taken off the public agenda and moved to a discrete dialogue, as in the past. This would enhance our bilateral relations and allow us to deal with the essential issues: the political process; preventing Iran's attempt to obtain nuclear weapons; eliminating Islamic extremist terrorism; and creating the necessary dialogue for normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab world.

The time to deal with such important matters is running out. We cannot waste what time we do have on non-priority issues.

The writer was prime minister of Israel from 2006 to 2009.

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