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Iran’s Elections: Days of Rage

June 16th, 2009 No comments


Is this Iran’s Tianamen?

Tehran’s restive urban class does not appear to be slowing down its outrage over what opposition supporters are terming a “Stolen Election.” Though without maintaining empirical evidence thus far, those opposed to the Ahmadinejad government here in the West are absolutely inclined to support such claims. Thousands of people, who mostly appear to be under thirty, continue to pour into the Iranian capital’s smog choked boulevards not for another so-called revolution, but to make their voices heard and their votes counted. It remains to be seen whether Tehran today will be more like Beijing in 1989 or Tehran in 1979. The Dear Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hoseyni Khamenei, has indicated that his divine assessment may in fact need to be reassessed. No small feat for a grand man so divine, Khamenei may be genuinely worried about his and his Qom-based epigones hold on a tiered absolute power. As his history has shown us all with Shah Reza Pahlavi, there are moments in time where one man cannot withstand the will of millions of dissatisfied, motivated people. No doubt the present dualist Qom-Tehran based power structure has not lost this irony. Though admitting such after three decades of moribund revolutionary rhetoric is akin to heresy in modern Iran. Ahmadinejad, though somewhat charismatic and often inadvertantly amusing on the global stage, has largely been an abject failure domestically. Iran’s power projection into Iraq and Afghanistan during the calamitous Bush wars has been nothing short of remarkable. But as Iran punches its green fist outward into its neighborhood, its economy has remained thoroughly stagnant even as oil prices soared at record highs. Minority unrest has continued to flare up in the country’s remote corners (purportedly egged on by the CIA according to the New Yorker’s Sy Hersh) with discontent has been simmering among elements of the Left, Center and Right.

The United States has been trying to promote democracy across the Middle East for years and here it is in all of its blood red and Islamic green glory. It scored a recent coup with the victory of the Hariri-led bloc in Beirut last week and Islamism is not dogmatically triumphant in the Middle East contrary to the group-think following the Hamas win in Gaza. The U.S. has boxed itself into a bit of a foreign policy corner and only the most deft of manouveres may speed its hoped for exit. The demonstrations have certainly created a conflict for Israeli hawks who love nothing more than another unequivocal Ahmadinejad win to justify their often aggressive rhetoric. A Mousavi government in Iran would throw the arithmetic of the Netanyahu-Lieberman coalition out of whack and force groups like AIPAC in Washington to reconfigure their hardened stance towards a boogieman vanquished not by a calculated air raid, but by internally driven democratic transition.

AZADI!

UPDATE: According to what the BBC is reporting from a statement by the Guardian Council will be conducting a vote recount. Power to the people? We will see…

The Islamist Revolution

April 17th, 2009 No comments

crooke-bookI attended an event with Alastair Crooke, author of Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution and veteran EU Middle East diplomat at the New America Foundation here in Washington. The event was webcast on the The Washington Note and Crooke’s presentation was little short of spellbinding. Flanked by Amjad Atallah and Daniel Levy from NA’s Middle East Task Force, Crooke took the audience through the rise of modern political Islam in the late twentieth century beginning with the earthquake of Imam Khomeni’s revolution up until the present. In a thorough bit of comparative historical analysis, he wove the narrative of the pairing of an evolving Protestant Reformation in the heart of what would become modern Europe with Enlightenment capitalism and the invisible hand. This pairing according to Crooke, led to the rise of the Western notion of strong individualism which would later clash with Islam’s concepts of communitarian social equity and justice. The invisible hand was meant to maximize human, and therefore individual, wealth. Combined with a belief in the “spontaneous natural order of the body politic” spurred by competitiveness would form the two pillars of modernity that would bring Islamic societies to near extinction with the rise of the (Westphalian) nation state and attendant human rights. 

According to Crooke, “powerful, unitary nation-states were necessary to create economic markets.” Thus with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire came a modern dark age for traditional Islamic societies. Western Europe’s Sykes-Picot version of the Middle East, creating definable state borders with centrifugal client leadership (and subsequent dependent economies) was devastating to regional cultural order. Using the rise of Kemalism in Turkey as a prime example, Crooke noted the Armenian Genocide and the state orchestrated oppression of Kurds as “Mountain Turks” and transfer of the indigenous Greek population as an enormously destructive result of revolutionizing Turkey from a fluid multi-ethnic empire to a monolithic market-state modeled after Western Europe.

In the aftermath of the Great War, simultaneously, Marxism was attacking Islamist ideology from the bottom up squeezing religion out of the political space as revolutionary communism mimetically competed with branded Western capitalism throughout most of the twentieth century, much of it through imperial or neo-imperial enterprise. Genuine political Islam says that “social justice must be subordinate to markets” making it diametrically opposed to the “two pillars of modernity” mentioned above. Crooke mentioned that what most in the West consider “revolutionary” Islam is in fact a counterrevolutionary brand of the faith’s implementation of politics. Islam’s counterrevolution is “dogmatic and anti-heterodox”. The West has used this form of Islamism in it’s containment strategies of “Nasserism, Marxism, Shi’ism, and Soviet Communism” to name several. 

Containment strategies in their inherent quality are by and large a short term, ill conceived methodology that often give birth to larger, less reconcilable quagmires. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the mujahideen in 1980′s Afghanistan are examples of this flawed policy. Amjad Atallah noted that U.S. policy in Cold War Afghanistan didn’t differentiate between sponsoring Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami and Ahmad Shah Masood’s Jamiat-i-Islami and even encouraged the more virulent ideology of the former rather than the more pragmatic Islamism of the latter.

The West, he said, ends up on the wrong side (of history) with its policies and actions (that are reinforced) with its own dogma and literalism. Having Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia (read: apostate) on the “throne” in Baghdad, the seat of Abassid glory, is akin to Hulagu’s sacking of the city’s ancient incarnation in the twelfth century and heretical Mongol siege of the city in the eyes of Salafis

Speaking on the transformational ascendency of Hassan Nasrallah across the breadth of the Middle East among Sunni and Shi’i alike, Crooke said “If you want to get a taxi quickly to the airport in Doha, wait until Nasrallah gives a televised speech”. Nasrallah’s charisma breaching entrenched social and doctrinal boundaries in part highlights the struggle for the future of the whole region within the Middle East’s competing indigenous ideologies since the era of classic great power competition in the Middle East has ended and a new era of affinities both regional and imported, rather than hardened alliances, has been ushered in. 

Categories: Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine Tags:

Iran: Asia’s Other Rising Power

January 16th, 2009 No comments

As Israeli tanks and soldiers pound their way through the Mediterranean’s most destitute outpost, let’s think about how we arrived at this point.

During the 2006 war between the Israeli state and Hezbollah, the Middle East raged with hell fire once again. Israel has been battling the Shia milita cum political party for decades most notably in the unsuccessful offensives of 1993 and 1996. The Israelis have tried to “dislodge” and “cleanse” the Party of God from southern Lebanon with both airstrikes and a failed twenty-two year military occupation. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have never been able to accomplish their goal of neutralizing their northern enemies much less quell internal and external Palestinian dissident factions. In July and August of 2006, the IDF and the Israeli Air Force (IAF), attempted to achieve the same goals with an unyielding strategy of occupation and collective punishment. However, there has been a drastic paradigm shift in the power dynamic of the Middle East, and Israel’s political and military leadership hasn’t altered policy or their grand designs accordingly. Today the IDF and IAF are reigning down terrifying technology on their southern Sunni enemies, Hamas in Gaza. In contrast, Iran’s clerics appear relatively comfortable and unfazed.

In the recent past Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicly stated a sort of “let’s not be more Catholic than the Pope” policy regarding Iran’s patronage of Palestinian resistance movements. Though the Iranian government has said that if the Palestinians come to a lasting accord with Israel regarding their future that Iran would be forced to accept such an outcome, the Iranian establishment is only too pleased when tensions between Israel and its Palestinian and Lebanese neighbors become physically acrimonious. When Sunni Arab Hamas acts out its agenda in a violent form, it doubles as a fitting proxy for Iran’s schizophrenic dreams of regional hegemony. In a clever dichotomy, Iran is both Persian and Shia (de facto anti-Arab/Sunni) on one hand while striving to appear broadly Islamic and anti-Western on the other. The Nasserite dinosaurs in Egypt and Syria appear pathetic in comparison. The Iranians, being enshrined as pariahs since the end of the Carter administration, are perhaps the only power in the region that feels no compunction whatsoever to acquiesce to any international status quo since the demise of Iraq and Afghanistan as fellow black sheep states following their respective Anglo-American overthrows. In short, Hamas is backed by a power with which the United States has essentially no leverage. With Israel, in the eyes of America’s critics, the U.S. does not posses enough leverage to reign in its undisciplined client. American diplomacy is faltering either way.

While fearing and antagonizing Iran, Western powers and Israel failed to recognize its ascendency in the region and in the context Asia as a whole. While the Op-Ed pages of major American newspapers are constantly touting the “Rise of India” and the “Rise of China”, they seem to missing a third and vital player: the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran. While more as an Asian regional power than a world power, it is likely due to our bias and consistently backfiring, think tank-inspired policy that leads Americans to readily ignore this almost passé sea change. Pundits often decry Iran as a power in persistent decline and as a volatile “petro-authoritarian” clerical fiefdom ready to implode at any moment in some unwieldy demographic time bomb. None of these things have happened. Iran has been consistently gaining strength and has only been encouraged by rudderless American leadership for the last eight years.

Just as the Chinese are asserting themselves in the Pacific theater by vastly increasing their naval capabilities and the Indians are opening up consulates in Afghanistan, the Iranians are firming up their doctrinaire military proxies in the Middle East and Central Asia. Foremost among Iran’s proxies are Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Hezbollah are part indigenous resistance movement and part creation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. Hezbollah was formed in the early 1980′s to resist the military occupation of Lebanon by foreign forces; those consisted of an invading Israel from the south and American, French, Italian and British troops landing in the country under the guise of peacekeeping.

Today Hezbollah is an extraordinarily powerful political force in the Lebanese polity holding ministerial positions in the country’s cabinet and multiple seats in parliament. Hezbollah demonstrated its heightened state of popularity within Lebanon when the group’s leader Secretary General Seyyid Hassan Nasrallah held a vast rally in which several hundred thousand (perhaps half a million) supporters turned out in a nation of just 4 million. Nasrallah defiantly declared a “Divine Victory” over Israeli forces and claimed that his party’s strength had not only remained undiminished, but rather the opposite had happened. Hezbollah had increased in strength and even formed an alliance with former rival General Michel Aoun’s Maronite Chrisitian “Free Patriotic Movement”. In a bizarre alliance achievable perhaps nowhere else but the Byzantine corridors of Lebanese politics, a secular Christian General once allied to Iraqi Sunni President Saddam Hussein can form a partnership with an audacious Shi’ite leader allied to the Iranian clerical establishment in Qom.

Though much of neo-conservative doctrine is viewed as bankrupt, the world is still forced to sift through its ideological rubble. Their talk of a “Greater Middle East” (read: Greater Israel) lives in intellectual isolation from reality. Sheikh Nasrallah’s sheer defiance and emboldened stance are in large part the product of Iran’s strengthening hand across its sphere of influence which now stretches from the Mediterranean Sea (Gaza) to the China’s western frontier (Persian-speaking Tajikistan).

Since the last gasps of the Carter years, American policy has been to isolate Iran politically, economically and when possible, militarily, in retaliation for being tossed out along with the Shah in the turmoil of 1979 when embassy staff were humiliatingly taken hostage and paraded on the world stage. Four years later, the Cold Warriors in the Reagan administration were routed out of Lebanon after the Marine barracks and US embassy bombings in Beirut, both of which were later ascribed to Hezbollah (albeit inconclusively). Israeli foreign policy has coincided, at some points converged with, and at other points, overridden America’s stated policy of post-revolutionary Iran as a sworn enemy to be thwarted at every turn. Today however, the notion of exporting sweeping eschatological revolution is now largely seen as defunct, and the only glowering a long dead Ayatollah Khomeni does these days are from billboards in Tehran and faded posters in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

The American military inadvertently elevated Tehran greatly in its response to the Wahabbi-inspired Sunnist suicide attacks against the United States in the fall of 2001. American commanders struck out by demolishing the minimal infrastructure of the militantly anti-Shia Taleban government in Afghanistan. Well less than two years later, the US eviscerated the authoritarianism of a vehemently anti-Persian Ba’ath party in Baghdad. By smashing the vitriolic Sunni regimes on either side of the modern Iranian state, itself a truncated core of the millennia-old Persian empire, Iran could now vastly expand it’s influence among it’s destabilized neighbors across their broken borders.

American foreign policy had performed an awkward u-turn after being attacked not by oft loathed millenarian Shi’ites, but rather by radical young men who were the sons of several outwardly pro-American Sunni states. For decades, the United States was closely allied with regimes that were both majority and minority ruled by Sunni governments unsympathetic to the generally poor, pious Shia populace in their midst. Desperately trying to ignore Iran for years and trying to undermine Hezbollah while Lebanon festered in civil war and occupation were seen as appropriate measures of inaction that fit squarely into a long outdated Arabist, pro-Sunni paradigm.

In the post-9/11 environment, the US quietly proclaimed a transparent victory for human rights in Afghanistan in the name of the Hazara, an embattled pro-Iranian Turkic Shia minority in the nation’s center. Shortly after Americas’ perceived Afghan triumph, key players in Washington and London wasted no time courting at motley parade of long exiled Iraqi Shia dissidents who could be brought in from abroad and placed in power in a simplistic Pentagon plan in the coming aftermath of toppling the dreadful President Hussein. For a brief but crucial period, American and Iranian interests dovetailed rather neatly. Suddenly, Shi’ites, once thought as a bloc of anti-American firebrands in the broad Western political psyche, now seemed a reasonable alternative to some of these odious regimes. This scenario would suit both Iran and our own neoconservative demagogues quite well. The romance between the U.S. and Iran after 9/11 was short lived. It ended in a bitter break-up once American troops occupied Iraq. Iran insisted on muscling its way into Afghanistan and Iraq during periods of heightened vulnerability the way it had done previously in Palestine and Lebanon. Previously, the Iranians could inflict pain on America indirectly by antagonizing the Israelis whereas now they have been able to clandestinely battle the “Great Satan” itself.

The significance of those 34 days of destruction in the Levant in 2006 may have seemed inconsequential when compared to the ongoing fitna, or intra-Islamic sectarian warfare, in Iraq. But one should realize the “Iraq Effect” (my quotes) in the context of the Lebanon war and the ongoing violence in Gaza. Iran has not been isolated further by being flanked by US troops on both its’ eastern and western frontiers as Pentagon planners would have dreamed. It has been fortified by such actions. As Israel risks treasure and futility in Gaza repeating many of its failures in Lebanon, Iran will undoubtedly feel victorious by default no matter who the tactical victor. As well as the industrial rise of China and the intellectual rise of India, a third power has risen in Asia and it is the Lion of Persia. Unlike the latter, this has certainly not been to everyone’s liking.