NDN Blog

More evidence elections a setback for Ahmadinejad

The Times has another story tonight on how the initial returns In Iran appear to be a setback for Ahmadinejad.

Iran Round-Up Part I

I watched New America Foundation's "Dealing with Tehran" event today and was impressed, as always, by the insight of NAF Senior Fellows Flynt Leverett and Steve Clemons.  Unfortunately, the event was overshadowed by apparent White House interference in the CIA pre-publication review process of an op-ed Leverett wrote for the New York Times.  As a former Senior Director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, Leverett submits all his writing to the CIA to make sure it does not contain classified information.  According to him, Clemons and others, the White House requested the document from the CIA and redacted large sections of already publicly known information. 

You can read much more about this unprecedented move by the Bush Administration on Steve Clemons' blog The Washington Note. Expect this to be a big story going forward, especially following Tony Snow's denial at today's White House press briefing. Attempting to muzzle a widely respected expert on Iran and the Middle East like Flynt Leverett, just because he has criticized White House policy might be the ideal frame needed to explain the lack of transparency and flawed thinking of the Bush foreign policy team.

I'll have an in-depth wrap on the "Dealing with Tehran" event tomorrow, for those of you who missed it.  In the mean-time it's well-worth watching online in its entirety. 

While this important event, and ensuing drama, was going on, there were two important stories on Iran that may have flown below the radar.  First, Iran held elections on Sunday for its Assembly of Experts, the powerful body that selects Iran's Supreme Leader.  The Washington Post said:

Allies of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad failed to dominate elections for a powerful Iranian clerical body and local councils, according to early results Sunday, in what analysts said was a setback to the hard-line leader's standing...turnout of about 60 percent and Ahmadinejad's close identification with some candidates, particularly in Tehran, suggested a voter shift toward more moderate policies and away from the president's often-confrontational positions.

These election results support Leverett's argument that Iran is not a monolithic country, and that President Ahmadinejad should not be seen as all powerful in Iran's complicated political system.

Iran also announced over the weekend that it was switching its foreign currency reserves from dollars to euros in response to US restrictions on Iran:

An Iranian spokesman said all its foreign exchange transactions would be conducted in euros and its national budget would also be calculated in euros as well as its own currency.

"There will be no reliance on dollars," said Gholam-Hussein Elham...Washington has sought to exert financial pressure on Iran, which it accuses of flouting international law by trying to acquire nuclear weapons.

This development opens up a diplomatic window for the US as we attempt to apply pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear weapons development and stop supporting terrorism.  If Iran could be forced to give up its dollar holdings, surely it could forced to give up its euro holdings as well, leaving it without a strong foreign currency to support its economy. 

Of course that would require close diplomatic cooperation with our allies, not the Bush Administration's strong suit. 

Time Magazine’s Person of the Year is – All of Us

I could not have designed a better cap on the theme of my posts for the last week. I have been hammering at the theme that the new progressive agenda, the new ideas that will truly solve the challenges of the 21st century are emerging all around us. The answers to our problems won’t come from the one great candidate, they will come, and are coming from all of us in an explosion of creativity that we have not seen for a long time.

And now Time magazine validates that theme by giving their prestigious annual award not to some one individual who happened to stand out, but to all the people who emerged from the bottom-up - enabled by the new Web 2.0 tools that are just starting to really transform our world.

Here’s Time’s opening passage that sets up their frame:

The "Great Man" theory of history is usually attributed to the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who wrote that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." He believed that it is the few, the powerful and the famous who shape our collective destiny as a species. That theory took a serious beating this year.

To be sure, there are individuals we could blame for the many painful and disturbing things that happened in 2006. The conflict in Iraq only got bloodier and more entrenched. A vicious skirmish erupted between Israel and Lebanon. A war dragged on in Sudan. A tin-pot dictator in North Korea got the Bomb, and the President of Iran wants to go nuclear too. Meanwhile nobody fixed global warming, and Sony didn't make enough PlayStation3s.

But look at 2006 through a different lens and you'll see another story, one that isn't about conflict or great men. It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It's about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.

The tool that makes this possible is the World Wide Web. Not the Web that Tim Berners-Lee hacked together (15 years ago, according to Wikipedia) as a way for scientists to share research. It's not even the overhyped dotcom Web of the late 1990s. The new Web is a very different thing. It's a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter. Silicon Valley consultants call it Web 2.0, as if it were a new version of some old software. But it's really a revolution.

And we are so ready for it. We're ready to balance our diet of predigested news with raw feeds from Baghdad and Boston and Beijing. You can learn more about how Americans live just by looking at the backgrounds of YouTube videos—those rumpled bedrooms and toy-strewn basement rec rooms—than you could from 1,000 hours of network television.

And we didn't just watch, we also worked. Like crazy. We made Facebook profiles and Second Life avatars and reviewed books at Amazon and recorded podcasts. We blogged about our candidates losing and wrote songs about getting dumped. We camcordered bombing runs and built open-source software.

America loves its solitary geniuses—its Einsteins, its Edisons, its Jobses—but those lonely dreamers may have to learn to play with others. Car companies are running open design contests. Reuters is carrying blog postings alongside its regular news feed. Microsoft is working overtime to fend off user-created Linux.

We're looking at an explosion of productivity and innovation, and it's just getting started, as millions of minds that would otherwise have drowned in obscurity get backhauled into the global intellectual economy….

This bottom-up revolution has hit politics and will continue to transform it in the coming years. The New Politics Institute has been all over this story for the last 18 months. We’ve seen it coming and have been doing all we can to help progressives adjust to the new realities, to restrategize and retool.

Thanks Time, for adding to the chorus that this is not any old development, this is a transformative moment that will have repercussions for a long, long time.

Peter Leyden

MySpace Launches on Cingular

At the last NPI event, I mentioned a number of trends in the private sphere relating to mobile that I saw as being of key importance for the political arena as well...

One key trend was the merging of social networks and the mobile space, and I mentioned that it was likley that we'd see a number of significant announcements as this trend accelerates.

Well, today was a big announcement: Cinglular announced Myspace integration to their service. From their joint press release:

"MySpace.com, the world's leading lifestyle portal, and Cingular Wireless, the nation's largest wireless carrier, today announced an exclusive partnership to offer enhanced MySpace functionality to all Cingular customers via their mobile phones. The landmark deal marks MySpace's largest-scale mobile partnership and gives Cingular's customers exclusive access to MySpace Mobile's rich tool set including the ability to edit MySpace profiles, view and add friends, post photos and blogs, send and receive MySpace messages, and much more -- all from the mobile phone."

Later the CEO of Myspace says: "Not only are we excited about the ability for customers to stay connected to their MySpace community while they are on the go, we think this will open up a new world of interaction and content for them to share via MySpace. The photo upload feature of MySpace Mobile means Cingular customers will now have the ability to capture, record and share their world as it happens via their MySpace profile, creating a more enriching experience for our customers as well as their MySpace friends."

The new service will be an additional $2.99 a month, and t will initially be available to over 30 phones, with 20 more coming shortly after.

A big announcement, and it won't be the last of it's type.

Word of mouth, Social networking, Personal Media and Mobile will be increasingly intertwined as this space evolves at a breakneck pace... co-incidentally doing so as we move toward the next election.

Great video on Obama's visit to NH

Set to the encouraging tune of "Move on Up" by Curtis Mayfield, this excellent video from RunObama.com chronicles Senator Barack Obama's recent trip to New Hampshire, showing us just how much his persona is resonating with those he encounters along his journey. Check it out below:

White House attempts to censor debate about Iran

Follow this developing story at its source, the Washington Note, the blog of my good friend Steve Clemons.

Powell agrees Bush will not offer a better way forward

The Washington Post has a very good story on the former Secretary of State adding his voice to the chorus voicing doubt about the Administration's current thinking on the Middle East:

Former secretary of state Colin L. Powell said today that the United States is losing what he described as a "civil war" in Iraq and that he is not persuaded that an increase in U.S. troops there would reverse the situation. Instead, he called for a new strategy that would relinquish responsibility for Iraqi security to the government in Baghdad sooner rather than later, with a U.S. drawdown to begin by the middle of next year.

Powell's comments broke his long public silence on the issue and placed him at odds with the administration. President Bush is considering options for a new military strategy -- among them a "surge" of 15,000 to 30,000 troops added to the current 140,000 in Iraq, to secure Baghdad and to accelerate the training of Iraqi forces, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others have proposed; or a redirection of the U.S. military away from fighting the insurgency to focus mainly on hunting al-Qaeda terrorists, as the nation's top military leaders proposed last week in a meeting with the president.

But Bush has rejected the dire conclusions of the Iraq Study Group and its recommendations to set parameters for a phased withdrawal to begin next year, and he has insisted that the Iraq insurgency is not a civil war.

"I agree with the assessment of Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton," Powell said, referring to the study group's leaders James A. Baker and Lee Hamilton. The situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating and we're not winning, we are losing. We haven't lost. And this is the time, now, to start to put in place the kinds of strategies that will turn this situation around."

Speaking on CBS's "Face the Nation," Powell seemed to draw as much from his 35-year Army career, including four years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as from his more recent difficult tenure as Bush's chief diplomat.

Last summer's surge of U.S. troops to try to stabilize Baghdad had failed, he said, and any new attempt was unlikely to succeed. "If somebody proposes that additional troops be sent, if I was still chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my first question . . . is what mission is it these troops are supposed to accomplish . . . is it something that is really accomplishable . . . do we have enough troops to accomplish it?"

Although he said he agreed with Central Command head Gen. John Abizaid that there should be an increase in U.S. advisers to the Iraqi military, "sooner or later you have to begin the baton pass, passing it off to the Iraqis for their security and to begin the draw-down of U.S. forces. I think that's got to happen sometime before the middle of next year."

Before any decision to increase troops, "I'd want to have a clear understanding of what it is they're going for, how long they're going for. And let's be clear about something else. . . . There really are no additional troops. All we would be doing is keeping some of the troops who were there, there longer and escalating or accelerating the arrival of other troops."

"That's how you surge. And that surge cannot be sustained." The "active Army is about broken," Powell said. Even beyond Iraq, the Army and Marines have to "grow in size, in my military judgment," and Congress must provide significant additional funding to sustain them.

Powell also agreed with the study group's recommendation that the administration open talks with Syria and Iran as it gropes for a solution to the Iraq problem. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have explicitly rejected talks until Syria ends its destabilizing influence in Lebanon and support for anti-Israel militants, and until Iran suspends its nuclear enrichment program. The administration has charged both countries with aiding the Iraqi insurgency.

"Do they get marginal support from Iran and Syria? You bet they do," Powell said of the Iraqis. "I have no illusions that either Syria or Iran want to help us in Iraq. I am also quite confident that what is happening in Iraq is self-generated for the most part. The money, the resources, the weapons are in Iraq already."

"Are Iran and Syria regimes that I look down upon? I certainly do. But at the same time, I've looked down on many people over the years, in the course of my military and diplomatic career, and I still had to talk to them."

Sunday papers look at the Middle East

The NYTimes' Week in Reivew section today devotes lots of space to the Sunni-Shiite dynamic in the Middle East, a subject we've been writing about a great deal in recent weeks, and yesterday.    

Their main story talks mostly of Cheney's "Shiite tilt" theory, an idea that seems to be getting the appropriate amount of cold water thrown on it in Washington.  A second piece offers lots of good insight on how to think about Iran.  And a third gives some basic background on the Sunni-Shiite split. 

It is refreshing to see American elites beginning to come to terms with the complexity of finding a better path forward in the Middle East today, a process greatly accelerated by the Iraq Study Group Report.  But at the same time this complexity, and the utter mess our Iraq policy has brought, seems to be causing a dangerous paralysis in the White House.  As the Washington Post reports this am, and has been confirmed in many other stories, our President seems to be rejecting any new thinking on the Middle East, and will end up deciding to ride out his current failed strategy.  

No matter how they dress up this version of "stay the course," progressives cannot for one moment accept a "new path forward" that is not a better one.  All of us need to prepare for what is shaping up to be a major and sustained debate about the objectives of American foreign policy and a new strategy for the Middle East early next year.

More on Iran, a response to the Agonist

Blogger Sean-Paul Kelley has written that my characterization of the Iran-Iraq war in a recent post was inaccurate, and has also taken exception to several of my conclusions about what is happening in the Middle East today.  I will not respond to all his points here today, as many of them are addressed in other recent posts about the worsening situation in the Middle East.  I will however address one very spot-on criticism directly, my characterization of the Iran-Iraq war. 

Looking at it now, it was not the most artfully written part of the post, so let me restate what I was trying to say.   Iraq invaded Iran in 1980.  Iran defended herself, and the two countries went to war.  One of the main reason Saddam attacked Iran was to slow the march of Shia Islam, newly emboldened with the success of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  Many of the leaders of the Iranian revolution trained at the Shiite religious center of Najaf, in southern Iraq.  Saddam was worried that the the revolution could spread to Iraq, and eventually topple his Sunni-led government.  So while there were many reasons for this conflict, one of the main reasons the war broke out and lasted so long was the Sunni-Shiite tension beneath it all. 

The United States backed Saddam Hussein in this eight year-long war.  Even though Iraqi Shiites fought against Iranian Shiites for eight bloody years, and the Iraqi identity trumped the Shiite one, there can be no question that we sided with the region’s Sunni Arabs in a war against the revolutionary Shiite in Iran.  We too wanted to slow the momentum of the Iranian revolution, one that was virulently anti-American. 

In the Middle East today we are trying to prevent Iraq from becoming a proxy war between the Sunni Arabs and the Persian Shiites and their allies.   Iran has regional hegemonic ambitions.  With the coming to power of Shiites in Iraq, the first Shiite-led Arab government in Islam's history, Iran was given an historic opportunity to weaken the Sunni political hold over the lands where the Shiites live, and where they have been oppressed for more than a thousand years.  In Lebanon, for example, the current efforts of Iran's proxy and ally, Hezbollah, to topple the pro-Western Lebanese government, if successful will strengthen the hand of the pro-Iranian Shiite Hezbollah at the expense of the Sunni-backed government, and further tip the balance of power towards the Shiites in the region.  Sunni Saudi Arabia has become so alarmed at all this that they have made it clear that unless America contains the Shiites there could be a regional Sunni-Shiite war. 

Finally, the stories this week about the Iranian-backed Holocaust denier conference in Tehran is a must-read for anyone trying to make sense of all this.  Calling from the eradication of Israel and holding a conference for those who believe the Holocaust never happened confirms that the current Iranian government is a dangerous, destabilizing and belligerent political force in the Middle East.  It is no wonder the Israels are terribly worried about Iran developing nuclear weapons, and imagine the international reaction if an Israeli leader called for the elimination of an Arab state like Syria.  The Iranians need to be held to the same standard in a fragile and explosive part of the world. 

The Iranian political leadership has repeatedly called for the elimination of Israel.  It is funding and training the most radical Shiite militias in Iraq, who are a critical part of the Shiite-led Iraqi government.  It has funded and built Hezbollah into a regional force which is now trying to topple a democratically-elected government in Lebanon, and provoked a military confrontation with Israel (remember that the Sunni Arab nations of the Middle East backed Israel’s effort to weaken the Shiite Hezbollah, the first time Arab nations has backed an Israeli military action in history).  It funds Hamas, another regional force bent on the destruction of Israel and now currently fighting the more moderate and pro-Western Fatah faction in Palestine.  It has blown off the international community’s efforts to stop their illegal nuclear program.  Its greatest source of income is from oil, and thus has a financial incentive to foster instability in the Middle East to help keep oil prices high. The well-respected Freedom House rates Iran as one of the least free nations in the world today. 

While Iran may not control Sadr, Hamas and Hezbollah, they are political allies, and are working together for a common cause: the weakening of those who have power today in the Middle East – the Sunnis, the Americans and America’s ally, Israel. 

As progressives look to correct the great foreign policy failures of the Bush era, and I for one believe that we must foster some sort of regional peace and reconciliation process that includes all the actors in the region, including Iran and Syria, we cannot view Iran through rose-colored glasses.  No matter what happens in the Iranian elections this weekend, Iran is a nation controled by radicals, has aggressive regional ambitions, has called for the elimination of America's greatest ally in the region, and is looking to alter the ancient balance between Sunni and Shiites.  Iran will be a difficult and destablizing force in the Middle East for some time to come and cannot be treated with kid gloves.   

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