Talisman Gate

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Iran's Retro-Revolutionaries

December 28, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >


Nibras Kazimi counsels taking Iran's mad tyrants at their word

December 28, 2005
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/25054

The generation that bled away its youth to establish Iran's Islamic Revolution is now in power, and its leading lights are going through a dangerous mid-life crisis. But instead of cruising around in flashy sports cars, they seek to recapture their revolutionary virility by possessing a nuclear bomb. The world community has tried to set-up a pleasant 'intervention,' but Iran increasingly looks as if it needs to be forcefully checked into rehab.

The salt-and-pepper bearded top echelons of the Revolutionary Guard are replete with smart and scary men, who are now in their late 40s and early 50s. Why would such obviously capable - and in some cases charming and sophisticated - men choose to remain beholden to a fanatic ideology that is being overwhelmingly rejected by younger generations of other capable Iranians? Part of the answer may lie among the soggy trenches turned crowded graves along the Iran-Iraq border that witnessed a raging and senseless war for most of the 1980s.

Bulldozers and backhoes had turned hundreds of miles of dirt into a topographical template of mud walls and killing fields. Where the land has been more-or-less de-mined, one can wander and explore a terrain strewn with empty and rusting shell casings, mangled bullets, and ragged chunks of shrapnel, outnumbering pebbles and whatever nature spent millions of years placing there. A howling wind would seem to echo the anguished cries of men - no older than boys for the most part - screaming their fears into the red-brick earth as they ducked whatever was exploding around them.

These days, teenage boys with a boombox in North Tehran may convulse into a break-dancing routine along the tree-lined Vali-e-Asr Avenue, while young ladies in deliberately slipshod hijabs and nose-job bandages strut by. But these where not the sights and sounds encountered by a young 24-year-old Tehran kid called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he signed-up as a Revolutionary Guard and saw wartime action. His youth was about watching friends die and personally conducting behind-the-lines sabotage operations against Iraqi oil installations. And he and others did not put in the sacrifice so that these brats today would flirt along Vali-e-Asr during peacetime. No, Ahmadinejad suffered those agonizing years on the frontlines while ecstatically longing for the name-sake of Tehran's main avenue who also goes by another name, the Mahdi, or the awaited Messiah.

And as the case whenever crippling wars drag out, these grizzled veterans turned bitter and felt betrayed, even by somebody of the standing of the revolution's leader, Imam Khomeini, who had been hemmed in by a coterie of ambitious sycophants such as Hashemi Rafsanjani, the main schemer for the prolongation of the war, and the rival that Ahmadinejad would trounce at the polls for the office of president last June. With all the ceremonial tribute paid to Khomeini the founder, a visitor to his "shrine" would be confused by the slapdash nature of this prefab and grimy edifice, with one badly-constructed minaret leaning to its side. But the revolution has other symbols, like the rows of war dead at the immaculate and touching Beheshti-Zahra cemetery where many Revolutionary Guard comrades of Ahmadinejad's are buried not far from Khomeini's last resting place.

The war began as a defense of the Iranian homeland and its Mahdist insurrection against the Arab and Sunni onslaught waged by Saddam Hussein, but after his armies were pushed back, Rafsanjani's rationale for continuing the fight was a lunge at Karbala, the holy battlefield where Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson and the Mahdi's great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, was killed and beheaded. But after many waves of Mahdi-lovers had perished, the war was suddenly called off and peacetime ushered in as Iran tried to pull itself together into a "normal" republic. "But what about preparations for the Mahdi's coming, after over a millennia in hiding and occultation? What about liberating Karbala? What about the utopia of justice we had been promised?" cried the watery-eyed veterans of that long and cruel war.

The legions of the shell-shocked headed back to a normal civilian life, where nothing much has changed since the Shah. The rich could still live it up and slowly erode, through bribery and day-to-day brazenness, the strict order of the revolution. The poor remained poor and helpless. Ahmadinejad and his band of brothers saw elements of the counter-revolution as the peacetime ingrates went about their lives and dabbled in capitalism, democracy, and successive make-believe attempts at reform enacted by President Khatami.

It would be wrong to dismiss Ahmadinejad - who holds a PhD in transportation planning and previously served as mayor of Tehran -as some country bumpkin from Hicksville up to outrageous antics such as denying the Holocaust, and holding a World Without Zionism conference. But even the village fool would realize that the world of Shia Islam is today under direct threat from Zarqawism and its call for "final solutions" to the "treacherous" presence of Shias in the Middle East - at the heart of a caliphate in the making.


Saber-rattling is exactly what Iran shouldn't be doing, but then again, its leaders are not thinking straight. Their dirty diplotalk while twirling the keychain to a nuclear reactor is born out of sense of insecurity in their autumn years. All that Ahmadinejad and the retro-revolutionaries who engineered his succession see is their idealized past and the glorious future they long for. But they miss the cumbersome realities of the present: realities such as the world does not want to live with a nuclear armed Iran, that they will not be able to turn neighboring Iraq into a sister Islamic Republic, and that the oil bonanza is masking serious economic flaws that could come back to bite them, soon. Never mind that the early satanic icon of the revolution, the United States, liberated Karbala from Saddam's grip and there is a historic opportunity to exchange good behavior for a temporary alliance against the threat of resurgent Sunni Islam.

America is short on options in dealing with testosterone-drunk and vainglorious thugs like Ahmadinejad. Sanctions would be ideal: this is a situation where punishing the people of Iran would make sense - after all, they did elect Ahmadinejad. But with oil-lust at historic highs, the rest of the world, especially China and Russia, is not going to tag along. Waging war has always been a bad idea, because Iran's millennia-old consciousness of its self would be reasserted as a determined and tenacious insurgency. And short of an invasion, regime change is unlikely; the mullahs will always up the ante when it comes to intimidating the masses into submission, and liberals unfortunately are too timid to counter in equal sums of agitation.

Maybe someone needs to be cast for the role of a false messiah; such a stunt would go a long way to discredit those feverishly awaiting him in the presidential complex in Tehran. Sometimes, problems need to be enlarged before they can be solved, and America needs to think unconventionally as it juggles its many Middle Eastern woes. There are no easy answers, but more should be done to defuse dangerous ideas while they still seem tacky. Ahmedinejad may now seem as ridiculous as Hitler in his beer hall putsch days. The civilized world should learn from past mistakes.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

December 28, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Lost Round

December 21, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >

A Lost Round

December 21, 2005

URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/24807

Iraq did not hold an election last week - it held a census. Shias voted for a "Shia" list, Sunnis for a "Sunni" list, and Kurds turned out for a "Kurdish" list. The margin for non-sectarian lists - all encompassing, issues-specific "Iraqi" lists - has thinned out since the elections last January. Almost three years after liberation and probably midway through a harrowing insurgency, Iraq's various communities are closing ranks unto themselves in anticipation of even more difficult times ahead, thus, the very act of voting has became an allegory for inter-communal civil strife.

The Shia community did not vote as a confident majority of the population: they followed the voting pattern of a ghettoized minority still scarred from many years of dictatorship. Rather than think for themselves and exercise their individual right to choose, they have abdicated this responsibility in favor of their behemoth communal shepherd: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

And the Iran-leaning Shia Islamists running on the United Iraqi Alliance list seized the day, and did some very irreligious things such as lying, cheating, bullying, stealing and probably violating a couple more commandments in their drive to grab the majority of seats in the new parliament just in case Sistani's hint and wink didn't do the trick.

First, there was a religious directive from Najaf, which is slightly less binding than a full-blown edict, or fatwa. It was first reported in this column three weeks ago, and it was the doing of Muhammad Ridha Sistani, the grand ayatollah's very ambitious son. Through mosque sermons and catchy jingles, the Shia faithful got the message that voting against "Haydar's Candle" would be a vote against their own Shia identity; Haydar is an alternate name for their patron saint, Imam Ali, while the ballot symbol of the UIA list was a candle. Out in the rural countryside, things got even more surreal: women were told that their marriages to their husbands would be nullified in the eyes of God should their spouses vote for any rival lists.

Shia-Sunni tensions are at historical highs, and Shia voters still feel vulnerable and insecure as to their political future, so they voted UIA to spite the Sunni terrorists who have been waging a low-level campaign of extermination against Shias in mixed areas. Iraqi Shias were unconcerned with deteriorating basic services under Jaafari as they headed to the polls; they could live with little electricity and less water, but they can't go on looking over their shoulders for a suicide bomber whenever they do grocery shopping.

But what really clinched the outcome took place in the 48 hours before the election opened. An anti-liberation Iraqi commentator called Fadhil Al-Rubaiee appeared on one of Al Jazeera's most controversial shows and said nasty things about Sistani. This did plenty to bolster the impression that Shias are under attack and needed to close ranks behind their grand ayatollah and his "blessed" list, the UIA, even though it prompted every Tom, Dick, and Harry of Iraqi politics to jump at the opportunity of expressing fealty to the Uber Ayatollah. Even the "secular" Ayad Allawi sent a telegram of indignation at the incident and eternal adoration to Sistani.

Al-Rubaiee's outburst allowed Muhammad Ridha Sistani and Iranian intelligence to orchestrate massive demonstrations across Baghdad and southern Iraq that came out denouncing Al Jazeera, supporting the UIA, and burning and tearing down all rival election posters and related paraphernalia. This was the clearest and most timely opportunity afforded to Sistani's camp to strongly suggest the existence of an opaque endorsement of the Islamists from the grand ayatollah.

And just in case Sistani and the threat of ethnic cleansing don't do the trick, Iranian intelligence came out swinging to systematize the electoral victory of their patsies in the UIA by stuffing ballots, intimidating rivals, rumor-mongering and conducting other massive violations of electoral law. The Iranians showed how weak the institutions of the Iraqi state really are; the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq was feckless in the face of flagrant and multiple abuses. Farid Ayar, the commission's chairman, keeps telling foreign journalists that he can't wait until this is all over "so that I can go back to my garden in London." Ayar is clearly not going to hassle the gun-toting fundamentalist militias, especially if the Americans and the Brits seem unwilling for a confrontation.

Now, after the results come into further focus, we can see that all the people Iran has been cultivating for decades are going to be the soon-to-be-crowned heads of the Shia community. It should be understood that these political factions were not elected on their own merit, but rather on Sistani's recommendation. They will have to do business with the soon-to-be-crowned heads of the Sunni community, who are loathed by ordinary Shias. Adnan Al-Dulaimi, the head of the largest Sunni block "The Consensus," was elected by a strictly sectarian bias; Sunnis did not listen to him or his allies in the Islamic Party when they called for voting "yes" on the constitution back in October. So, Al-Dulaimi is hobbled by the fact that his constituency controls him rather than the other way around, and thus he must stand as a hardliner against policies such as de-Ba'athification. That will further aggravate the Shia. The Consensus list speaks for the Sunnis, but cannot decide for them; it does not have the mandate to strike deals, and should the politicians err, the insurgents would have no trouble making their qualms known.

Iran's mullahs, who are increasingly getting belligerent across the board, pulled off a coup in Baghdad right under the very noses of the United States. But will Iraq's triumphant mullahs, who fought tooth and nail to nail this vote, allow free and unfettered elections in four years? Will they be wise enough to realize that there is more to running a state than penning ringing sermons and folding a turban? Will they extend a hand to political rivals with the managerial wherewithal to do something about this mess of a government? Will the Sunni leaders deliver some compromises and actually lead their community to a civil peace, or will they cower in the face of brash Ba'athists who are still intoxicated by the prospects of returning to power through violence and may even be toying with civil war as a conduit? Will the Iranians come to their senses and realize that what doesn't work for Iran will probably not work for a far more complicated and nuanced society like Iraq's?

So much about Iraq is up in the air, and much has already been abdicated to Iran's benefit. Liberal democrats, America's friends, are not on par with Iran's acolytes when it comes to fighting dirty. But the reality is that none of the Islamists would have had any chance of seeing Iraq again had it not been for America's determination to unseat Saddam. Are they grateful and friendly, and who do they answer to at the end of the day? The fact that so many American lives have been given, and so much American credibility and treasure are on the line, should not be lost on all players on Iraq's stage. America should behave like the superpower it is, and tell Iran to back off: this round was lost, but the showdown will not end in the establishment of a sister Islamic Republic in Iraq.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

December 21, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Mehlis Mess

December 6, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >

The Mehlis Mess

December 6, 2005
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/24041

The investigation launched by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis - as mandated by the United Nations Security Council resolution - into the assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri, has collapsed. It can now be demonstrated that Mehlis was duped by two witnesses whose testimonies provided the bulk of his October 21 report that at the time seemed to confirm widely suspected Syrian complicity in Hariri's murder.

Doubts had been cast on the veracity of a key witness, identified as "Zuhir Ibn Mohamed Said Saddik" in the Mehlis report, as early as September, when it transpired that he was a colorful con artist. Since then, Saddik was arrested in Paris as a possible source of disinformation, but his testimony was cited in the U.N. report nonetheless. The remaining certainty regarding Syrian culpability hinged solely on the man who became known in press jargon as "the masked witness"; first identified by a Lebanese satellite channel on November 23 as Hosam Taher Hosam: a 30 year-old Syrian Kurd, living in Lebanon. If Saddik's unreliability had frayed confidence in Mehlis's judgments, the emergence of this second witness led to the unraveling of the report's badly knit fabric.

New TV, the channel with the breaking story, is not known for its trustworthiness. It ran a story claiming that Hosam had first made contact with one of its producers some three weeks before Mehlis issued his report, claiming that he was the chief witness. He asserted that he had worked for Syrian intelligence directly under people like Assef Shawket, the Syrian president's brother-in-law, and Rustum Ghazaleh, the former Syrian "viceroy" over Lebanon. Both were fingered by Mehlis as top suspects in a draft that was leaked to the press before these references were expunged at the insistence of U.N. higher-ups. Hosam was bargaining for the rights of his story, and his phone calls were being taped furtively: "You need to know that 23 or 25 thousand dollars is a small amount. If I wanted to make a business out of this, you know Aljazeera or Alarabia would pay 200 or 300 thousand dollars," he told a contact at New TV. But what made his account credible was that Hosam had spoken of some of the information that ended-up verbatim in Mehlis's report even before its publication.

In the voice recordings, Hosam claims to have been debriefed by the FBI, who offered him money and American citizenship in return for information on Syria's secret weapons programs.

What happened next was even more puzzling: there was total silence among Lebanon's political and press elite on this topic. New TV's reporting was dismissed as sensational; they were accused of trying to pull an eleventh-hour stunt to discredit the Mehlis report. The thinking went: "Mehlis would never fall for this kind of nonsense." This eerie and enforced denial of Hosam's existence lasted until November 27, that is, when Hosam made it over the border to Syria and was showcased on the evening news for an hour and fifteen minutes.

Hosam declared that his testimony "against" his homeland was coached and paid for by Hariri's son, Saad, who had inherited his father's business empire and political mantle. In a colorful press conference the following day, Hosam cast himself as a patriot whose "donkey in the village is more dear to me than the new gleaming [car] given to me by Hariri."

I have been apprehensive about the dependability of the "evidence" used to incriminate the Syrian leadership for some time, and I first mentioned this in a column in late September. After the report was issued, I was skeptical of the witness - who since turned out to be Hosam - and said that he falls under the category of "too good to be true." Things just didn't add up: How could this witness be around in so many critical places, and claim to have witnessed so many incriminating circumstances, and then live to tell the tale to international investigators? I began thinking that something was wrong with Mr. Mehlis himself for not seeing through these cock-and-bull stories.

Furthermore, there was the stench of "coaching." How was it that the testimonies of Hosam and Saddik corroborated each other, if they were indeed both walk-in imposters hoping to cash in? Were they in cahoots? Or was there someone instructing them as to what to say to Mr. Mehlis? Were they allowed to cross paths after defecting into the arms of the U.N. investigation and thus have the chance to get their stories straight?

Mehlis is responding to such muffled critiques by attempts at bravado and saving face: "I have 500 other witnesses" he has been quoted as saying. He invited eight prominent anti-Syrian journalists who write for Lebanese and Arab newspapers to visit him at his secured compound, and - very revealing of his character - went out of his way to dispel rumors of Jewish parentage. Mr. Mehlis, apparently, had enjoyed the appellation of "Teutonic Fox," and his prickly pride wanted ever so desperately to hold on to some glamour. But the reality was that he was, in the very least, snookered by two second-rate guttersnipes, who may or may not have been coached by amateurs at play in the realm of intelligence. In an act that smells of retribution, Mr. Mehlis ordered the arrest of Hosam's Lebanese fiancee and his future father-in-law.

Nowadays, Mr. Mehlis wants to resign in a huff, and his self-promoting spin is that Kofi Annan is being too accommodating of the Syrian regime, and hence hampering the investigation. The other talking point is that his term is about to expire anyway. Mr. Mehlis must be fired and placed under investigation himself, along with the top echelon of his team. Their credulousness has worked to put Lebanon's fragile political balance in disarray and the Syrian dictator, Bashar Al-Asad, has managed to emerge triumphant. If Hosam and Saddik were Syrian plants, as some have suggested, well, let's have that examined too. But the Mehlis investigation is not longer salvageable; it must be revamped and rebooted.

Mr. Mehlis is supposed to hand in a "final" report by December 15, as soon as he wraps up interrogating five key Syrian officials, including Ghazaleh, who are currently in Vienna. The American ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, has insisted that Mehlis stay at his job, and there is speculation that the German will rescind his resignation. This is a terrible mistake that follows an even bigger mistake: the Mehlis investigation should not be America's casus belli against Syria's dictatorship. Why is the Asad regime being held to account for the murder of a Lebanese gentleman, while its murder of thousands of Syrians is overlooked? There is plenty of "evidence" that can be cited about Syrian bad behavior in international circles as well as murderous tyranny at home if the Bush administration is serious about regime change in Damascus.

But Mr. Mehlis needs to go, and a closer look into why his investigation had been so easily misled needs to be launched. This may also be a good time to widen the list of suspects for Hariri's murder instead of just going with the hypothesis of a Syrian role. I would take a closer look on the technical evidence that was cited and that may give an indication of jihadist involvement in Hariri's murder.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

December 6, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >