Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Iranian Playbook

Nibras Kazimi, New York Post:
The hottest best seller in the small market niche of books for autocratic Middle Eastern tyrants is the "Iranian Handbook of Feigning and Thwarting Reform." It has eclipsed the previous chart-topper in the Self-Preservation aisle of the bookstore, "The Dummies' Guide to Fueling Insurgencies." read more

At a recent and informal brainstorming get-together of Arab and Iranian democrats, ideas were exchanged about what to call a pan-Middle Eastern block of activists that stands in solidarity with indigenous democrats fighting autocracy. The Arabs were all excited about the term "reformer" but were taken aback when the Iranians explained how this term had become an eight-letter dirty word in their own political vernacular.

Many young Iranians, who were in their teens or mid-20s when President Khatami rose to power through elections eight years ago, invested their pent-up capital of hope and optimism in such reformers. Last year, the market of new ideas crashed in Tehran, and these once-exuberant investors are broke and spiritually broken. The reformers failed, in the face of an intransigent power structure, to deliver real change. Consequently, the youth of Iran are increasingly finding refuge in personal escapes; either borne onto a chemically-induced magic carpet ride of amphetamines and heroin, or finding religion. Not the state sanctioned religion of the Islamic Republic but rather older Iranian religions like Zoroastrianism or the mellow spiritual outlook of Sufism. Either way, these young men and women played loose and lost on the stock market of real political change, and they were defeated by the corporate sharks, the mullahs.

Guess who invented the game of chess? It was the ancient Persians, the forerunners of modern Iranians. The mullahs ruling that ancient land figured out that reform can be a form of frivolous and recreational entertainment. They were facing a powerful opponent: the inevitable movement of history. Arrayed against them were the potent and vindicated ideas of human liberty, and the ticking time bomb of youth demographics. In desperation, they employed the tactics of "guerrilla chess" that are inspired by the fundamental premise of guerrilla warfare: you win by not losing. So what did they do? They demonstrated that holding elections does not equal democracy, and that Mr. Khatami can pronounce ad infinitum about lofty ideals, but that real power - the power to thrash about with batons, assassinate dissidents, and fire into crowds - is firmly wielded by the state and its henchmen. Such a state apparatus has a vested and vital interest in staying in power, at all costs.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria, three other important autocratic states in the Middle East, thought that they could check the advance of history through stoking the fires of the insurgency in neighboring Iraq. Their thinking was that democracy would be discredited by the chaos and mayhem of the terrorists. Their subjects would conclude that change was a bad idea, and that it was relatively better to keep things as they stand. But something happened on the eve of the Iraqi elections and democracy suddenly became viable in the Middle East and these three states had to go to Plan B: employ the Iranian tactic of discrediting and sullying reform and democracy as a process toward change. The audience they had to persuade were their younger generations that are coming of age and finding few jobs and little dignity in the corrupt and mismanaged status quo. The task of these regimes is to turn the terminology of democracy and reform into dirty words.

I absolutely hate being the Cassandra of doom and gloom. But when the New York Times publishes an editorial saluting a supposed wave of democracy washing over the Middle East, well, I get a little jittery. For, after all, to put it mildly, those editors have been slightly off on all things Middle Eastern for quite a while.

We are witnessing the counterattack of the tyrants: the Saudis will be sloppy as usual, the Syrians will be murderously bold, and the Egyptians will be the most cunning.

The Saudi royal family seems to think that putting together a consultative talk-shop will be enough to defuse popular anger and give a new set of talking points to their hired lobbyists in Washington to spin its progress toward change. It is more akin to a dress rehearsal of feigning reform rather than the opening night. The Egyptians need those annual billions of aid dollars courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer, and will dance to whatever tune the Bush administration plays, as long as the Egyptian people realize that the Mubarak dynasty are their latter-day Pharaohs. In both cases, reform as a process is a glittering show to delude their people and a cynical show-off to appease the American ally.

The Syrians, pretty much in the news these days, are exhibiting their puppeteering skills in Lebanon. They can badger their long-term clients, Hezbollah, to send hundreds of thousands of ostensibly pro-Syrian protesters into Beirut's streets to drown out the smaller anti-Syrian crowds. They can arm-twist the Maronite Christian patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, by pointing out that the full implementation of the Taif Accords, signed in 1989 to end the Lebanese civil war and stipulating Syrian troop withdrawal, would also speed up the enactment of a provision that ends the practice of sectarian-based power sharing, thus spelling out the demise of Maronite control over key levers of power. The Syrians can even start talking about a population census, not held since 1937, that would confirm what everyone knows but refuses to address: The Shias, led by Hezbollah, are the plurality. The Syrians can even get their Saudi partners in self-preservation to be publicly indignant at Hariri's death, but to privately ameliorate the anti-Syrian anger of his successors and instruct them to tone it down.

Yup, the Syrians are very adept at playing dirty, while the Americans are not. The Syrians can appear to be making piecemeal concessions in the face of Western pressure, but the Syrian people and the Lebanese are getting the message that the Assad dynasty is pretty much in control of the situation, and that events are running according to a Syrian timetable.

Westerners, living in cold climates, are ecstatic about what they are calling a Middle Eastern spring. Little do they realize that in that turbulent region, springtime is the brief respite preceding a scorching summer. So, in the face of these challenges, is the defeat of democracy inevitable?

No. And why is that? There are 135,000 American soldiers defending the newborn democracy in Iraq. Lately however, the Americans have dropped the ball: defeating or ending the insurgency has become their top priority, which is a policy that lends itself to lowered expectations of what a new Iraq could become, and what role it can play in the region. As evidence, the Iranians are adding a new chapter to their playbook: They are actively trying to exploit the election victory of their own long-term Islamist clients to infiltrate the new power structure of Iraq. The Iranians intend to fan out within the system to undermine Iraq's democracy, especially through the security structure. They have 11 months to do this before the next round of elections, and they need to make sure that should Iraq really develop into a democracy, then the Islamists would be well-poised through the military and intelligence services to seize power violently.

The American government should be doing all it can to deny the Iranians this outcome, and yet the Americans have been wishy-washy about it so far. America is wringing its hands and basically saying that the political aftermath of the elections is a sovereign Iraqi concern. Hell no! Democracy should not be a vehicle for those seeking to throttle it to come to power.

The priority should be turning a democratic Iraq into a nightmare scenario for the neighboring autocrats. Can Hezbollah credibly decry "foreign intervention" if the call for liberation and freedom is coming from Baghdad? America should subcontract Middle Eastern dirty tricks to a mischievous Iraqi democracy. Iraq is geographically, culturally, and economically situated at the confluence of the region's unfolding drama. A strong and self-confident Iraq can be the engine of reform and change: Millennia have conspired to lend legitimacy to what is uttered in Baghdad or Najaf and having it reverberate audibly throughout Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Saddam's regime had his finger in every Middle Eastern pie; a new Iraq can play a similar role but aiming for a radically different outcome.

Democracy must emerge victorious and unsullied. Should these autocrats succeed in thwarting it, then the frustrated youth of the Arab Middle East, much like their Iranian counterparts, will turn to escapes like drugs and religion. But their newborn religious creed will not be mellow and introverted, because bin Laden-style Islam, unlike the popularly tested and rejected version in Iran, is still lurking in the shadows as an option for violent change.

The attitude of comfortable complacency and hubris in Washington over what seems to be progress is delusional and dangerous. Iranian tactics have shown us that self-professed reformed wolves cannot be trusted to manage a successful poultry farm. These regimes must go, and a democratic Iraq must be guided and empowered to become America's ally in getting this strategic task done, and done faster.

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