What We Got Right

Against terrible odds, the foreign media did a remarkable job covering the last year's turmoil in Iran.

Ten days after last summer's presidential election, I received a call from a sympathetic member of the Basij, the pro-government militia force, warning that I would be shot by snipers if I continued going out. Sixteen agents were already outside my apartment building, where they stayed for three days until I finally decided to leave the country. Those threats and intimidation were part of a concerted campaign by the Iranian government, as chaos descended after the election, to prevent information from leaving the country and reaching the outside world. Visiting journalists were expelled; resident journalists were barred from stepping outside their offices. Those who disobeyed, as I did, faced frightening consequences. All of us watched as our sources -- the roster of sympathetic Iranian analysts and insiders -- were rounded up and jailed. And the regime spared nothing in amplifying its own propaganda, declaring the post-election protests a plot masterminded by outside enemies.

But despite those all the obstacles put in its way, the media has done a remarkable job in properly identifying the enormity of the past year's events. The Green Movement has, indeed, shaken the very core of the Islamic Republic. The country is polarized and the regime's legitimacy has been compromised. All of this, the Western media -- at least, those of us who had any real experience covering Iran -- got largely right.

We managed to do so because so many of the most important developments were observable from afar. For instance, when former president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani openly allied with top candidates Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karrobi (and against incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his backer, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) in the run-up to the election, experienced reporters knew to pay attention.  Rafsanjani, a man described by a fellow regime insider as "one of the two owners of the revolution, along with Ayatollah Khamenei," has long had the reputation of being one of the most reliable barometers of Iran's prevailing political winds.

When Rafsanjani, at the Friday prayer services he lead in July, withheld his condemnation of the protests, to the delight of the Green Movement and in defiance of Khamenei, the Western media knew this was a sign of a deep division in the ruling establishment. (Rafsanjani has subsequently faced the wrath of regime hard-liners, who have issued an arrest warrant for his son, summoned his daughter to court, jailed other members of his family, and threatened to dismiss him from his post atop the Assembly of Experts, the council that has institutional authority over Khamenei.)

The unprecedented cracks in the rulings elite revealed themselves in other ways, if you knew where to look. Informed Iran-watchers knew that Khamenei had reason to harbor deep personal antipathy for the Green Movement. He and Moussavi, the movement's ostensible leader, had a bitter rivalry throughout the 1980s, when Mousavi served as prime minister and Khamenei was president. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the charismatic founder of the revolution, often intervened in their disputes to support Moussavi. He even blocked Ayatollah Khameni from ousting Moussavi in 1985.  Both before and after the election, outlets like the Financial Times and the Economist explored the tension and rivalry between the two men.

Of course, Iran's ban on on-the-ground reporting -- and its jailing of veteran analysts -- meant that certain important aspects of the burgeoning Green Movement were inaccessible to the Western media. The Western media was often late or absent in reporting on the positions of and discussions among senior clerics, which are often shrouded in secrecy. The foreign media did report the increasing gap between senior moderate clerics in Qom with Ayatollah Khamenei. But it failed to report a February trip by Grand Ayatollah Abdolkarim Moussavi Ardebili, a senior cleric and head of the judiciary after the 1979 revolution, from Qom to Tehran to visit Ayatollah Khamenei. Persian language websites later reported that Ardebili himself emphasized it was the first time in 17 years that he had made such a trip. "Your failure is the failure of the revolution, Islam and the Shiites," Ardebili was quoted as saying. Ayatollah Khamenei's refusal to accept the grand ayatollah's two requests -- to release the political prisoners and to distance himself from the hard-liners around Ahmadinejad -- was understood among clerics as a rebuke to moderates in Qom and an endorsement of the arrests of nearly a dozen of the children and grandchildren of senior clerics there last summer. By contrast, Grand Ayatollah Safi Golpaygani, one of the most influential clerics in Qom, has hosted dissident clerics repeatedly in recent months at his home. These were important testimonies to how critical the political situation had become, but the Western media missed them.

Going forward, the West should try to avoid making a final misreading. The movement's lack of ability to muster large protests as it did last summer does not mean the movement is dead. Yes, the movement lacks leadership and a political agenda. But it has retained its vitality in the past year in the face of increasing brutality. Even if the government manages to end the protests, in the same way that it suppressed the student protests in 1999 and 2003, they will only emerge again on a larger scale.

In this way, Western commentators should not be so dismissive of all the Iranians around the world trying to make a difference. The Iranian diaspora, for the first time in three decades, has become politically engaged. Many of these Iranians are in contact with relatives back home and get important first-hand information. And they have raised funds to help activists who were forced to flee the country and have formed networks like United4Iran to publicize human rights violations by the government. In the long term, these are things that can make an important difference.

Western journalists were right last summer in insisting that the events in Iran were a momentous event. They would still be right if they claimed the same thing today.

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China's Cheonan Dilemma

We take it for granted that North Korea is dependent on China, but key parts of China are dependent on North Korea as well.

The biggest loser from the ongoing tensions surrounding the sinking of a South Korean vessel may not be Seoul, or Pyongyang, but Beijing.

By refusing to condemn North Korea for its deliberate attack and sinking of a South Korean Navy corvette in March, China has lost hard-won credibility and reminded countries throughout Asia of the importance of the United States and its dominant presence in the Western Pacific.

The recovery of the vessel, the Cheonan, and dredging the seabed revealed a smoking gun -- the remains of a North Korean torpedo. A South Korean report drawing upon the participation of experts from Australia, Britain, Sweden, and the United States and released in late May laid the blame squarely at the feet of North Korea, thus prompting the real aftershocks of the incident.

In response to the report, Beijing chose not to take a clear stand and simply acknowledged the report, as well as North Korea's shrieks of denial. Rather than condemn North Korea's violent act, Beijing ignored the findings of the international investigators after  reportedly having been invited to join the team but declining. In early May, before the report's release, both South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had summits in China with President Hu Jintao to plead their respective cases, but neither came away satisfied.

China's decision to protect North Korea reflects not only a careful policy calculation based on parochial self-interest, but also Beijing's desire to maintain the regional security balance that, as the country's leaders see it, is dependent on a strong China-North Korea relationship. Failure to support North Korea could lead to its collapse -- which could bring far worse consequences for China than most outside observers realize.

China fears the potential for chaos in North Korea for a number of reasons. For starters, the prospect of starving refugees and the remnants of the Korean People's Army so close to its own border is an obvious concern. The 1,400 kilometers of river that separate the two countries is narrow and shallow in many places, presenting an insignificant barrier to refugees and bandits seeking to cross. It is no coincidence that of all China's 14 borders with neighboring states, the country's People's Liberation Army is the lead authority only for those frontiers that border North Korea and Myanmar.

Meanwhile, integration of North Korea's economy and China's northeastern provinces, particularly the provinces of Liaoning and Jilin, ensure that northeast China will pay a significant price should North Korea implode. Economic stability in these "rust belt" provinces, part of the struggling industrial region known informally in the West as Manchuria, is a key concern for Beijing. Having banked on trade with North Korea as a central part of their development plan (about half of the Chinese investors in North Korean joint ventures come from just these two provinces), these northern provinces might suffer significant economic impacts from further instability in North Korea. Not only is all politics local, but sometimes foreign policy is local too.

We take it for granted that North Korea is dependent on China, but key parts of China depend on North Korea as well. Regional authorities in Jilin have invested billions in infrastructure to create an economic corridor from the Chinese city of Changchun, running across the border, and ultimately linking to China's lease on a pier at North Korea's port of Rajin. Jilin's plans have been blessed at the highest levels in Beijing. Should North Korea fail, the catastrophe would hit Beijing in the heart -- and the northeast in the wallet.

Another motivating factor for Beijing is the notion held by many Chinese leaders that their relationship with North Korea maintains a fragile balance in Asia, pitting two erstwhile communist countries against the United States and its allies. Failing to support North Korea, in the minds of some Chinese strategists, even after such an egregious provocation as the Cheonan attack, might ultimately lead to the demise of the People's Republic of China.

China's unwillingness to allow North Korea to collapse under the weight of its own political and economic mismanagement reflects all these concerns. While China appears willing to pay the cost of at least maintaining the regime, neither China nor South Korea is willing to pay the price of rebuilding a failed state, resulting in an uneasy status quo.

Not surprisingly, China's unwillingness to punish North Korea for its action or deter the regime from taking aggressive action in the first place has laid bare the limits of Chinese influence in the region and has been met with frustration in many parts of Asia.

China's handling of the incident has already caused political shock waves in Japan. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's resignation and the sudden resolution of the status of the Futenma Air Station on Okinawa have injected tremendous uncertainty in Japanese politics that will undoubtedly affect the Diet's upper-house elections in July. China's response has only guaranteed a large U.S. military presence in Japan for the foreseeable future.

Although the Cheonan incident was traumatic for the South Korean people, President Lee has handled it deftly with a cautious, transparent, and measured response that appears to have prevented an escalation of tensions. However, the Cheonan tragedy will undoubtedly shape South Korean politics and unification policy. The North Korean torpedo is an exclamation point on the demise of the "Sunshine Policy" -- South Korea's much-criticized approach to economic engagement with the North. Any potential that China might have held in South Korean eyes to act as an intermediary or honest broker between North and South has likely evaporated as well.

China's strategy to woo neighbors throughout Asia with promises of economic integration and repeately asserting its peaceful intentions has suffered a significant setback, even as China's decision to "postpone" U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates's visit to Beijing reflects China's unease with the current regional security situation.

In the coming weeks and months, it will only become more unmistakable how the sinking of the Cheonan has roiled the region.

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