The revolution will not be digitized

What happened in Baharestan Square on Wednesday? According to a woman who called in to CNN, Iranian security forces unleashed unimaginable brutality upon a few hundred protesters gathered in central Tehran. “They beat a woman so savagely that she was drenched in blood, and her husband, who was watching the scene, he just fainted,” the anonymous caller screamed into the phone. “This was—this was exactly a massacre. You should stop this. You should stop this. You should help the people of Iran who demand freedom. You should help us.”

Clips of the phone call ricocheted across the Web and cable TV. The message was corroborated on Twitter, where a post by @persiankiwi brought horrific news from Baharestan Square: “we saw militia with axe choping ppl like meat – blood everywhere – like butcher – Allah Akbar.”* News organizations around the world told of a brutal crackdown—Iran’s Tiananmen. But at the same time, other reports suggested the rally was a far tamer encounter. A reader on the New York Times’ Lede blog wrote in to say that the protest had been cleared by security forces with minimal violence. The blog of the National Iranian American Council, which has been closely following all the news out of Tehran, published a report from a “trusted source” who said that while the rally was “tense,” it didn’t match the CNN caller’s account. “The moment we stood in one place, they would break us up,” the source wrote. “I saw many people get blindfolded and arrested, however it wasn’t a massacre.”

Over the last couple of weeks, those who believe in the transformative powers of technology have pointed to Iran as a test case—one of the first repressive regimes to meet its match in social media, the first revolution powered by Twitter. Even in the early days of the protest, that story line seemed more hopeful than true, as Slate’s Jack Shafer, among many others, pointed out. Since last week, though, when the state began to systematically clamp down on journalists and all communications networks leading out of the country, hope has become much harder to sustain. The conflicting accounts about what happened at Baharestan Square are evidence that Iran’s media crackdown is working. The big story in Iran is confusion—on a daily basis, there are more questions than answers about what’s really happening, about who’s winning and losing, about what comes next. The surprise isn’t that technology has given protesters a new voice. It’s that, despite all the tech, they’ve been effectively silenced. [continued…]

How quarreling Ayatullahs affect Iran’s crisis

One leading conservative ayatullah declared, during Friday prayers at Tehran University, that people protesting Iran’s election are waging war on God. Ayatullah Ahmad Khatami demanded that those calling for demonstrations be “ruthlessly and savagely” punished. Yet, just a day earlier, one of the country’s most senior mullahs, Grand Ayatullah Hussein-Ali Montazeri — a longtime liberal critic of the regime — branded the authorities’ response to the electtion protests un-Islamic. And a second leading conservative theologian, Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, called for the dispute over the election to be resolved through “national conciliation.”

To an outside world accustomed to viewing Iranian politics as a conclave of like-minded mullahs, the current turmoil within Iran’s political and religious establishment defies explanation. The conflict between two regime insiders, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi, has created the most profound political crisis in the Islamic Republic’s 30-year history. Both men proclaim their fealty to the ideals of the 1979 Islamic revolution; both claim the backing of senior clergy; and both appeal to Iranians’ sense of Shia justice to rally support.

The fact that such discord is possible among factions who all claim allegiance to the principle of guidance by the clergy is rooted in the distinct nature of Shi’ite Islam. Shi’ism differs from the Sunni tradition in a handful of important ways — not only in its belief in who was the legitimate heir to the Prophet Muhammad’s leadership of the community of the faithful after his death, but also in its attitudes toward political authority and devotion. But one of the most important differences is the Shi’ite tradition’s unique practice of ijtihad — the use of independent reasoning to pass new religious rulings. While Sunni Islam effectively abandoned ijtihad in the tenth century, the practice remained an essential core of Shi’ism. The result is that virtually every aspect of Shi’a doctrine, from the principle of clerical rule to minute matters of religious observance, is open to differing interpretation, and has been debated throughout history. [continued…]

A deal to save Iran?

Reliable sources in Iran are suggesting that a possible compromise to put an end to the violent uprising that has rocked Iran for the past two weeks may be in the works. I have previously reported that the second most powerful man in Iran, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the Assembly of Experts (the body with the power to choose and dismiss the supreme leader) is in the city of Qom—the country’s religious center—trying to rally enough votes from his fellow assembly members to remove the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from power. News out of Iran suggests that he may be succeeding. At the very least, it seems he may have gained enough support from the clerical establishment to force a compromise from Khamenei, one that would entail a runoff election between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main reformist rival Mir Hossein Mousavi. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The rumor that the Assembly of Experts might play a decisive role in forging a compromise or even unseating Khamenei has been floating around for some time.

Ahmad Ghabel, an exiled dissident, scoffs at the suggestion:

…do really think that members of the Council of Experts, who have had to pass through the extreme filter of the Guardian Council, particularly the exceptionally harsh filtering that is exercised in case of the Council of Experts, have the ability or courage to question the competence of the supreme leader? Given how brutally they [the coup makers] have been able to crackdown on everyone under current circumstances, with such a high turnout in the elections, what do you expect from a few senile men without any serious public backing?

Mir-Hossein Mousavi slams Iran’s leaders

After days of relative quiet, the candidate defeated in Iran’s disputed presidential election launched a broadside Thursday against the nation’s leadership, an indication that the country’s political rift is far from over.

In his statement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi issued a rare attack on supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accusing him of not acting in the interests of the country, and said Iran had suffered a dramatic change for the worse. [continued…]

NSC names Ross senior director

The White House sought for the first time Thursday to answer basic questions about a key player in President Barack Obama’s approach to what the administration is calling the “Central Region” of foreign policy, a vast tract of the globe spanning from Pakistan to Israel.

The National Security Council announced that Dennis Ross would serve as its senior director, and as a special assistant to the president, with responsibility for developing a coherent strategy across a region whose dynamics have been scrambled by the violent aftermath of a contested election in Iran.

Some of Ross’s more hawkish allies suggested that his arrival at the White House implied a rightward turn for the administration, but several government officials suggested that the shift is more subtle, and that Ross’s main addition will be a clearer sense that the broad region’s many problems are deeply connected. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — An earlier report by Time said: “With his proximity to the President, Ross will probably supersede special envoy George Mitchell as the most powerful voice in the Administration on Middle East peace talks.”

Politico‘s sources indicate otherwise, saying that Mitchell’s stance on pressuring Israel will continue to “hold sway.” “Mitchell’s much closer to the president on the subject matter than Dennis is,” the White House official said.

Want to stop Israeli settlements? Start with Americans

This month, both at Cairo University and from the Oval Office, President Obama has called on the Israeli government to stop the expansion of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. He should send the same message to the Americans who are funding and fueling them.

There are more than 450,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to Peace Now, an Israeli organization that opposes the settlements. Some of them are Americans. And some of the most influential, militant figures in the settler movement have been Americans, too. Among them were Baruch Goldstein, the doctor from Brooklyn who fired 100 shots at worshiping Muslims in Hebron in 1994, killing 29; Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the Kach party, which was banned in Israel in 1988 on the grounds that it was racist; and convicted terrorist Era Rapaport, a member of the Land Redemption Fund, which coordinates the acquisition of Palestinian land in areas targeted for settlement expansion.

Before the settlers were removed from Gaza in 2005, I visited a group of them while shooting my last film. Some of the settlements’ most passionate advocates spoke about their deep roots in the Gaza Strip even though they were actually Americans. Years earlier, while working as a human rights advocate, I had received reports from colleagues who had been threatened or physically attacked by young settlers as they tried to protect Palestinian farmers during harvest. The attackers often included North American Jews, my colleagues said. [continued…]

Palestinian violence overstated, Jewish violence understated

The Israel Project hired pollster Stanley Greenberg to test American opinion on the Middle East conflict — and got a big surprise. In September 2008, 69% of Americans called themselves pro-Israel. Now, it’s only 49%. In September, the same 69% wanted the U.S. to side with Israel; now, only 44%.

How to explain this dramatic shift? Greenberg himself suggested the answer years ago when he pointed out that, in politics, “a narrative is the key to everything.” Last year the old narrative about the Middle East conflict was still dominant: Israel is an innocent victim, doing only what it must do to defend itself against the Palestinians. Today, that narrative is beginning to lose its grip on Americans.

Well, to be more precise, the first part of the old narrative is eroding. Nearly half the American public seems unsure that Israel is still the good guy in the Middle East showdown. But the popular image of the Palestinians as the violent bad guy is apparently as potent as ever. The number of Americans who say they support Palestine remains unchanged from last September, a mere 7%. And only 5% want the U.S. government to take such a position. [continued…]

Arab activists watch Iran and wonder: ‘why not us?’

Mohamed Sharkawy bears the scars of his devotion to Egypt’s democracy movement. He has endured beatings in a Cairo police station, he said, and last year spent more than two weeks in an insect-ridden jail for organizing a protest.

But watching tens of thousands of Iranians take to the streets of Tehran this month, the 27-year-old pro-democracy activist has grown disillusioned. In 10 days, he said, the Iranians have achieved far more than his movement has ever accomplished in Egypt.

“We sacrificed a lot, but we have gotten nowhere,” Sharkawy said. [continued…]

Secret voices of the new Iran

For reasons best not explained, I’ve come to know a former member of the Revolutionary Guards really well.

He’s done some pretty dreadful things in his life, from attacking women in the streets for not wearing the full Islamic gear to fighting alongside Islamic revolutionaries in countries abroad.

And yet now, in the tumult that has gripped Iran since its elections last week, he’s had a change of heart.

He’s become a backer of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist candidate who alleges fraud in the elections. He’s saved up the money to send his son to a private school abroad, and he loathes President Ahmadinejad.

He’s not the only one. [continued…]

Iranians pay respects at Neda Agha-Soltan’s grave

Security was tight around the bare grave of Neda Agha-Soltan on Thursday. Militiamen and police stood nearby, witnesses said, and it was difficult for visitors to hold a conversation within sight and hearing of the glaring officers.

But the visitors come nonetheless to pay their respects to Agha-Soltan, who was fatally shot by an unknown assailant during the protests Saturday over Iran’s disputed presidential election. Her dying moments were captured in a video that made its way onto the Internet and the international airwaves.

“I read the news on the Web, and I saw the picture of the grave,” said one man, hovering near the burial site. “I figured out the location of the grave and came.” [continued…]

Rare show of unity by Lebanese politicians

Lebanon took the first step yesterday towards forming a new cabinet with the re-election of Nabih Berri to his fifth term as speaker of the parliament in a vote that showed widespread political support for the opposition figure from the majority.

Mr Berri and his Amal Movement played a large role in the opposition’s unsuccessful attempt to unseat the majority in elections this month, but his close ties to some majority parties – not to mention a dearth of alternatives acceptable to Lebanon’s Shiite community – all but ensured his re-election. Under an unofficial tradition that divvies up power among Lebanon’s various confessions, the speaker must be a Shiite Muslim, while the president is Christian and prime minister a Sunni.

Mr Berri saw some opposition from Christian parties in the majority, who argued that his role in the political battles that paralysed the most recent parliament should exclude him from returning, but with the endorsement of Saad Hariri, the Future Movement MP and the man many expect to be named prime minister tomorrow, he was able to win 90 of 128 votes. A total of 28 MPs from the Christian majority parties refused to vote in the election, only offering blank ballots. [continued…]

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  1. DE Teodoru

    Democrats bend over every which way with resolutions for campaign funds; proof is that they went “AC” condeminig the violence of the Bajilis killing a few dozens while, just a few months before, going “DC” endorsing the Israeli massacre of 1500 Gaza Palestiinans civilians. What can Obama expect from A Congress that goes down any way that pays? Is that how Ross got a closet job? Thanks to campaign $ we have a really “queer” government, sending our volunteer heroes to die in Mideast!

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