BLOG 377 January 8, 2018
Wow! We’re in a New Year. Now, that eight days have passed, you’ve probably already forgotten about those resolutions. Whatever – we have a new year of possibilities and problems before us. What shall we say?
The curtain came down on 2017 with riots in the streets of Iran, the longest since 2009. The younger generation and merchants struggling to survive had enough of the regime spending millions on spreading terrorism and building bombs. The latest report indicates ten deaths, and hundreds arrested. Where will this revolt go in 2018? Probably nowhere because several years ago the Revolutionary Guard wiped out the last group of protestors and probably would do so again.
But problems with Iran won’t go away.
The Arab Spring has fairly well turned into winter. In Egypt the economy is no better than it was before all the rioting. Egypt’s currency is now worth less than half what of what it was in 2011. Tourists are staying away. The killings of 395 worshippers in a mosque didn’t help the country.
The Egyptian Christians possibly had an even rougher time. Hundreds of Muslims attacked a Coptic Christian diocese south of Cairo. The church’s contents were destroyed and members assaulted before security arrived. The Coptic of Egypt may possibly be the oldest institutional expression of Christianity. However, Christians constitute only 10% of the Muslim population. On December 30, a gunman on a motorcycle opened fire on a Coptic Church in a Cairo suburb. Eight Coptic Christians were killed before the lone assassin was felled. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi tried to prevent yearly attacks, but failed.
Of course, the world is aware of President Trump’s arbitrary decision to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem. The world responded that he further damaged peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Trying to get the United Nations behind the move, America received a rebuke from friends and foes. After the embarrassment, Ambassador Nikki Haley threatened the world that the US was “taking names” and would retaliate financially against everyone in sight. All of which made America look like a bully and further denigrated diplomacy.
Trump’s actions have only isolated Israel further and diminished American’s influence to negotiate for peace. Isolationists could care less while folks struggling for a better world can only mourn.
With a total unpredictable White House, who can predict what will happen in 2018. Putin will run for office in an already rigged election – but doesn’t take a prophet to predict that result. The rest is up for grabs.
When I was with Pope Francis last June, we discussed the critical situation in the world. The Pope suggested that everyone should pray for peace. I can’t think of a better word for what’s ahead.
Don’t count your chickens until they are clearly out of the nest! The first round of talks to inhibit Iran’s nuclear intentions was highly encouraging. However, that’s only step one. During my time in Israel, I found considerable concern about what the Iranians will actually do. These reservations appear to be confirmed by recent statements by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Last week, Khamenei unveiled a new strategy aimed at resisting international sanctions. Dubbed “resistence economy,” the idea is to encourage new technologies within Iran. Observers suggest this idea has been developed in case there is a breakdown in the negotiations.
The Supreme Leader’s position is, perhaps, more complex than generally recognized. Significant turmoil exits within Iran with three camps represent combating ideologies. Nuclear activists maintain that Iran’s rights to develop technology should remain uninhibited. They oppose any compromise. Nuclear detractors want to stop the current nuclear enrichment. While they are probably the least substantial group, they remain a factor. Nuclear centrists believe their nuclear program is only one of many issues that must be considered. The current president Hassan Rouhani came out of this group. Because he was elected by significant numbers, Rouhani represents a new and major force in the current government. The push and pull of these groups presents a major problem for Khamenei.
While sympathetic to both activists and centrists, the Supreme Leader is caught in the center. His “resistance economy” may be hedging his bets with both groups should the forthcoming negotiations fall apart. This unresolved dynamic reflects a struggle within Iran that is more complex than generally reported. Certainly, merchants on the street have felt the sanctions more significantly than anyone else. It doesn’t take an in-depth reading of the country to recognize that the government has real problems keeping this element under control. The suppressed rebellion several years ago reflected their economic problems.
Khamenei maintains control far more by consensus than by decree. If he goes too far, he will not be able to keep the lid on the unseen but persistent boiling difficulties. One remaining factor is the Revolutionary Guard, a considerable right-wing force that supports nuclear nuclear armament. Some observers fear the Guard might attempt to undercut President Rouhani and kill a long-term credible deal. Should that happen, Iran would retreat into increased belligerence and isolation.
Would Iran really opt for such a retreat? The answer lies not in what is rational, but what is emotional. And therein is the greatest danger. You can count on the fact that Israel will not allow the development of a Bomb. Shouldn’t that fact halt irrational thinking? “Should” isn’t the issue. The reality is that religiously motivated idealism has never been halted by logic. Let us hope this element does not gain the ascendancy.
Iranian elections are always an interesting process to watch – from a distance. We’ve already seen what happens when demonstrators step outside the party line. The last go-round left a young girl dead in the street as well as other protesters struck down by the Revolutionary Guard. With the elections set for June 14, should this year be any different?
On Saturday, a new event entered the race when Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei showed up to thrown his hat in the ring at the last moment. Mashaei holds views contrary to alliance of conservative Shiite clergy and Revolutionary Guard commanders. They have labeled him a “deviant” because Mashaei holds the view that a person can have a relationship with God without a clerical intermediary. The Guard also warned former President Al Akbar Hashemi Rafsanhani not to run and called him a traitor for supporting opposition leaders they do not approve of.
A clue for what may be ahead broke out when Moashaei showed up to register to run and a fist-fight erupted in the press room. Microphones were knocked off the table as the fighting continued.
Technically, any Iranian citizen is free to run in an election. However, the process doesn’t quite work out that way. Actually, a group called the Guardian Council considers all candidates and makes a decision about who they will allow to run. Rafsanjani had to wait at home all day Saturday to wait and see if he was given permission to run.
One of the undeclared reasons that the United States has pressed Israel not to attack is to allow sanctions to work on Iran is the hope that their government might not prevail in an election because of economic pressure. It is no secret that the youth of the country are not behind the dictatorial mullahs who actually control the power. Violent protests demonstrated the fact that if it were not for the harsh military leadership of the Revolutionary Guard, the clergy might have been overthrown much earlier. The average man on the street has never had much interest in the pursuit of nuclear weapons. That pursuit of nuclear weaponry is held primarily at the top.
Undoubtedly, the entry of these late applying candidates could have an important effect on the outcome of the election. Could they change the course of Iranian politics in pursuit of nuclear power? Probably not, but they could be a definite moderating factor.
Recently, I reported the comments made by retired Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, while speaking at the University of Central Oklahoma. Colonel Wilkerson sounded the warning that America’s current posture in dealing with Iran could lead to war. At this point, America enforces an embargo on Iran’s oil shipments that has slashed the country’s oil revenues by 45%. No small impact there!
With the colonels warning in mind, how do we gain reliable insight into where Iran actually is going? Not an easy task.
Interesting comments came out of Tehran this past Saturday that bare examination. The supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that Iran was not seeking nuclear weapons, but should they decide to build them, no “global power” could stop them. An interesting but contradictory message! The comments appeared to be aimed at the United States and Israel. Several years ago, the imam declared that building such weapons would be a horrendous sin, but now leaves this judgement behind. Sounds contradictory and certainly signals why the Iranians are not trusted around the world. You can’t speak out of both sides of your mouth and be credible.
The supreme leader told a group of visitors in his home that Iran held the conviction that all nuclear weapons around the world should be eliminated. He further stated that direct talks with the United States would not be possible because the USA was “pointing a gun at Iran.” He called on the USA to show logic in talking with Iran but didn’t spell out what he meant. In the past, the Iranian government has stated that talks are not possible as long as sanctions are in place. Under current conditions, the process remains stalled.
Equally intriguing was the Ayatollah’s criticisms of President Ahmadinejab for quarrelling with the speaker of Iran’s Parliament. What is going on behind the scenes? These combined episodes suggest that a power struggle continues in Iran with Khamenei insisting that he is still on the top of the heap. However, recent evidence suggests that the Revolutionary Guard are not small contenders in such a struggle.
One of the key problems the West faces with Iran is who should we really be talking with. Possibly Khamenei isn’t the man who actually controls the weapon making process. Moreover, President Ahmadinejad may not be in the driver’s seat either. If the actual power brokers are the military, then all bets are off on predicting where the struggle is actually going. One possible interpretation of the Ayatollah’s pronouncements was that he was actually talking to the Revolutionary Guard and reassuring them that he might not attempt to block further development of The Bomb. We know that Iran has sent military personnel into the civil war to save the Assad regime in Syria. Recent history appears to support the contention that the Iranian leadership love conflict and a good old fashioned war.
The bottom line? Iran continues to lack stability and is economically hurting. The man on the street is not happy with their national plight. The waiting game that been played by the Obama administration may prove to have more wisdom that meetss the eye.
Waiting could allow the Iranians to do themselves in.