27 June 2009

Reflections on events in Iran

In Iranian election: a tragedy in the making I suggested that Friday 12 June, the day of the Iranian Presidential election, would come to be seen as a watershed in the nation’s history. Two weeks on, it is clearer still that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i has made a strategic error in his explicit and uncompromising support for current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

From its foundation in the events of 1979 the Islamic Republic of Iran has run a pretty tightly controlled democracy. The country is run by a complex system in which the higher clerics between them have the real power. To understand contemporary events, however, it is worth remembering that by no means everyone who participated in the tumultuous events that led to the downfall of the Shah and the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Iran meant it to be that way; this is just the way things turned out.

The Iranian revolution of early 1979 combined a very disparate group of forces who were united in their dislike of the Shah’s despotic and increasingly repressive regime, and his massive expenditure on the armed forces at the cost of economic and social development at home.

Apart from the clerical forces involved, there were strong secular elements. The first post-revolution Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan, was a true democrat. There was a liberal movement led by the National Front, which had strong support among the middle class. There was a radical left that attracted university students. The Communist Party, the Tudeh, had a long history of struggle against the monarchy, and there were senior traditionalist clerics who felt that mullahs should refrain from involvement in politics.

Unfortunately there was a second Iranian revolution in 1979, in which Ayatollah Khomeini seized the opportunity created by the occupation of the United States Embassy to break loose from the messiness of coalition politics and establish his vision of an Islamic society. Khomeini exploited the hostages as a means of radicalising the electorate; he claimed that the revolution was in danger from the United States and its accomplices within Iranian society, and was able to reframe the political contest as one between the theocracy-led revolution and the depredations of the external enemy. In this charged atmosphere, Iran held elections for the Parliament and for the Assembly of Experts, which was to evaluate the draft constitution, and Islamist forces were able achieve dominance of both.

The new constitution embodied Khomeini’s grand political innovation, the unprecedented theory of velayat-e faqih, under which a religious leader overseas all national affairs. The Supreme Leader was empowered to control the armed forces and the newly created Revolutionary Guards, to dismiss any elected official, to countermand parliamentary legislation, and to declare war and peace. The Supreme Leader would be subject neither to elections nor the scrutiny of the elected institutions. A Guardian Council composed mainly of clerics would vet all legislation to ensure its conformity with Islamic law, and Islamic law would displace all existing legal codes, thus circumscribing individual rights and prerogatives.

This anti-democratic constitution was ratified by the public on 3 December 1979, with the anti-American hostage crisis in full swing.

This left Iranians with a very circumscribed form of democracy, but the events of the last two weeks have demonstrated that the urban populace at least considers the amount of say that they are supposed to have as being worth fighting for. They have also demonstrated to my mind that Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i would have been well advised to leave well enough alone – to accept whatever verdict the people made within the confines of the choice they were presented with.

The process of vetting the candidates left the public with a choice of four establishment figures. Apart from the incumbent Ahmadinejad, there was a wartime Prime Minister (Mir-Hossein Mousavi), a former Speaker of the Majlis (Parliament), Mehdi Karroubi, and a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezaei. None of these was a revolutionary figure, but each of them, and Mousavi in particular, held out the prospect of desirable evolution of the system – a freer information environment, equal treatment for women, and control of the law enforcement agencies by the elected President. And he hearkened back to the liberalizing purposes of 1979. The goal of the 1979 revolution was freedom

We wanted to become free and progressive in the world, not faced with backward ideas and notions today.

In his concern to prevent evolution of the system, by ensuring the victory of his preferred candidate (who might well have won anyway), Ayatollah Khamene’I has ensured that sooner or later the system will break. He has demonstrated to the political elites and the educated middle classes that the election system cannot be relied upon, even after the vetting of the candidates, and hence compromised acceptance of the “victor”; in an election process in which everyone had confidence most people would have accepted the outcome as being the electorate’s choice, but now they do not need to do so. There is a rival claimant to the throne, and nothing can put that genie back in the bottle.

What Khamene’I has achieved by manipulation he will be required to sustain by force. For that he will probably have to rely increasingly on the basij militias, whose ranks are overwhelmingly drawn from the poor and uneducated. With the regular military there will be too much danger that their sons and daughters will be participating in the demonstrations, and that there are Mousavi supporters within their ranks. This does not sound like a recipe for long-term durability of the regime, but of course it is not on the threshold of collapse or anything like it.

All of this comes at a cost to the rest of us. United States President Obama has from the outset of his Administration signaled a wish to normalise relations with Iran and resolve outstanding issues. This was quite saleable and achievable, even with a re-elected Ahmadinejad, but with a regime whose legitimacy is being contested within its own society, it is both a much harder “sell” to the United States public, and of more dubious value.

Definitely events that continue to bear watching.

Click the Iran label for 22 previous posts on Iran.

Principal source for the 1979 background: Ray Takeyh, Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic, Henry Holt & Company, 2006

24 June 2009

Double standards

On radio this morning 24 June Opposition front bencher Tony Abbott deplored, in relation to the current inquiry into the fake email, what he alleged was the use of all of the apparatus of the state to intimidate and secure political advantage.

Tonight on the ABC’s 7.30 Report Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull agreed with this and added his disapproval of what he said was the steady trickle of leaks from the Australian Federal Police inquiry.

These are two men who sat in Cabinet throughout the Mohamed Haneef affair, in which Haneef was subjected to a damaging campaign of leaks by law enforcement agencies and the government played the issue for every last drop of political advantage it could wring from it (see Wikipedia entry here).

Passionate supporters of Israel

On the front page of The Age, Wednesday 24 June 2009, there is a story by Jerusalem correspondent Jason Koutsoukis about the visit to Israel of the delegation to an Australia-Israel leadership forum, plus a photograph of Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Member for Higgins Peter Costello rekindling the eternal flame at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.

The article notes that Ms Gillard had been Acting Prime Minister at the time of the January Israeli offensive against Gaza, in which 1300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed and says:

At the time, Ms Gillard condemned Hamas for shelling southern Israel, but pointedly refuse to criticize Israel’s response …

It goes on to describe Opposition representative Peter Costello in the following terms:

Speaking on behalf of the Opposition, Mr Costello reflected on his own passionate support for Israel that dated back more than 30 years.

He said his position was shaped in part by the anti-Israel rhetoric of those on the left of politics.

Let us unpack that first sentence a bit, because I do not understand what it means for someone to be a “supporter” of a foreign country. Does it mean that, rather than forming a dispassionate, analytical case by case view of the actions or policy settings of that country based on the objective circumstances of specific matters, the individual in question declares an a priori predisposition to support that country’s position no matter what – a sort of “their country right or wrong” position? Why would that be appropriate for any Australian citizen, let alone for someone who aspired to the highest office in the land? What would be the consequences of that position in a case where the interests of Australia were in conflict with the interests of Israel? Or is the person in question unable to conceive of a circumstance in which we would have different national interests? There are people in the United States doing jail time for espionage because they failed to make the distinction and hence believed that there should be no secrets between their country and Israel.

Is this any more than a morally and intellectually lazy position which says, “My mind was made up in the 1970s and therefore I do not have to think about issues that trouble other people, such as two invasions of Lebanon, the bombing of the southern suburbs of Beirut, Ariel Sharon’s involvement in the massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, in which at least 800 died, and possibly as many as 3,500 (see Robert Fisk’s harrowing first hand account here), the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas of Lebanon in 2006, the deliberate shelling of UN observation posts in Lebanon resulting in the deaths of Indian truce observers, or the 952 Palestinian minors killed by Israeli security forces in the period September 2000 to December 2008 (see Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem’s data here), or the 2,290 Palestinians not taking part in hostilities who were killed in the same period, the invasion of Gaza in January 2009, or the refusal of Israel to allow in building materials for reconstruction of the destroyed dwellings”. No qualms about any of that, or the proportionality of Israeli responses to provocations, because “I am a supporter of Israel”.

No worries about illegal settlements, the confiscation and destruction of property, the destruction of orchards, the illegal quarrying, the diversion of water, and all the Palestinians’ daily humiliations that bother President Obama?

And what is a “passionate” supporter? – presumably someone who holds the uncritical “supporter” position, but more intensely.

Considering the suitability of such a person for the office of Prime Minister, wouldn’t it tend to be a disqualification? A person holding such a position could hardly be considered a suitable contributor to any strategic thinking about Australia’s relationship with the rest of the Middle East, Arab or Iranian, because “I am a passionate supporter of Israel”. Presumably such a person would not know what to think until there were a declared Israeli position to “support”?

And what are we to make of a person who admits that his view of such an important question was shaped by the fact that people he didn’t like held a different view?

We are also told in this article that senior Israeli minister Israel Herzog, chairman of the Israel-Australia parliamentary association is “a personal friend of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd”. What does that mean exactly? Does it mean that they have a friendship which has nothing to do with the offices they hold, that even if they were both private citizens they would be exchanging Christmas cards and keeping up with the progress of each others’ kids? Does it mean that Mr Rudd would do something for Mr Herzog that he would not do if they were not “personal friends”?

The Israelis are very good at duchessing people. I had been Secretary to the Department of Defence for only a few weeks when I received a visit from the late Sir Peter Abeles, with the Israeli Defence Attaché in tow. They had come in ostensibly to talk about the merits of Israeli missiles – not a very profitable use of their time or mine because we buy military materiel through open competitive tender, so however impressed I might be with the capacities of Israeli missiles, it was not going to make any difference to anything.

The real purpose of the visit was dropped in right at the end. The Government of Israel would like to invite me to visit Israel, all expenses paid, and of course you must bring your wife, you will have a wonderful time. I thanked them politely and made a mental note that that was never going to happen; how could I as a public official place myself in the position of being beholden to a foreign government?

A pity not all of our Parliamentarians feel that way.

21 June 2009

In praise of Rotties

Rottweillers sometimes come in for a bad press. As someone who lived with one for ten years I can say that any reputation they might have in the tabloid press for being savage or unreliable is thoroughly undeserved. A more placid and even tempered dog it would be hard to find.

The origin of the breed goes back to Roman times; they are largely derived from, and similar in appearance to, a kind of bristle-coated dog the Romans used primarily for herding. As such, it is one of the oldest of herding breeds.

In the absence of refrigeration and suitable food preservation techniques, when in AD 74 they invaded Germany the Romans were obliged to feed the legions with meat on the hoof, and so they brought their droving dogs with them on the long route over the Alps via the St. Gothard Pass, and into the Württemburg region. The breed became established, with admixture from mastiff-like dogs from England and the Netherlands, particularly around the market town now known as Rottweil, so named because when in about AD 700 the locals constructed a church on the site of an old Roman villa, they turned up some red tiles (rote Wile) in the course of the excavation.

They have exceptional ability as droving and stock protection dogs, but from the 19th century when railways became the main means of moving livestock their numbers declined, and they were mainly used as draught animals undertaking deliveries for small farms. Interest in the breed revived in the lead up to the First World War, when they were used as police dogs.

Two Rottweiler clubs with different objectives were established in Germany in 1907; they subsequently amalgamated. In 1935 the breed was officially recognised by the American Kennel Club, and by the 1990s it had become the number one breed being registered with that Club.

Rottweilers are very powerful dogs with well-developed herding and guarding instincts. As working dogs they are very intelligent, trainable, obedient, and eager to work (gain approval). As dogs that are bred to work around animals they are very calm and self confident, and hence very reliable with children. Any potentially dangerous behaviour is attributable to irresponsible ownership, abuse, neglect or lack of training. As with any powerful breed, it is important that they be cared for, treated well and trained sufficiently to respond reliably to voice commands at all times.

Jacq the Dog entered our lives as a small furry slug with legs so short that he could climb the stairs in our house only with difficulty. By the time he was twelve months old he weighed in at 68kg (don’t take any notice of literature that tells you that a typical male weighs 50kg, it isn’t so). I calculated that during the course of his first year his body weight increased by 150 grams per day.

Unfortunately the breed is not a long lived one and Jacq died at just a few months over ten years old.

And here are a few photos of Jacq the Dog: