Ahmadinejad the Weak

The protests in the Tehran bazaar during the past few weeks weren't tied to the Green Movement. Even so, they are bad news for the regime.

Casual Iran-watchers were captivated last week by the intrigue around erstwhile nuclear spy Shahram Amiri and his successful homecoming. But the Islamic Republic was likely keeping closer tabs on the Tehran bazaar -- where shopkeepers and traders were on strike for more than seven days -- than on Washington's Iranian interest section, where Amiri awaited departure. The bazaar protests had little to do with the nuclear impasse or the Green Movement, but they are a sign of popular economic discontent and a likely harbinger of further turmoil to come.

Iran's traditional covered marketplaces earn their reputation as objects of historic and architectural interest, but they aren't just tourist destinations. They are still-active trading posts where small peddlers hawk their wares, and some of the country's most wealthy import-exporters and wholesalers conduct their business. The immense, covered complex in downtown Tehran, for example, is home to tens of thousands of would-be entrepreneurs. The bazaars are not quite as central to Iranian life as they used to be -- in the past 30 years, many of the most prominent bazaaris have either moved their headquarters to new business centers in Tehran and Dubai, while the Islamic Republic has carved out a privileged position in international and domestic markets for government foundations -- but they are still at the heart of the national economy. The bazaaris are an interest group keenly aware of the leverage they wield, and unafraid to use it.

Last week's protests were spurred by the national government's attempt to increase the merchants' annual income tax by 70 percent. Even though the government quickly adopted a conciliatory tone, the strikes persisted. The announcement last Monday that the government and the Guild Council, the bazaar's official representatives, had negotiated a modest 15 percent tax increase made no difference: The shops remained shuttered, leading to clashes between bazaaris and government security forces. It was only this past weekend that traders agreed to again open their businesses.

The government is right to be concerned. The Iranian capital's marketplace has proven among the most reliable catalysts of political upheaval in the country's long history. Bazaaris have used similar methods of resistance to channel opposition to rulers and show support for larger political movements.  Bazaari dissent was instrumental to the successes of Iran's constitutional movement of 1905, the nationalization of the oil industry in the 1950s, and the overthrow of the monarchy in 1979.

With those historic resonances, it's no surprise that the Green Movement and its sympathizers have paid such keen attention to the marketplace rebellion. And the merchants' implicit message of "no taxation without representation" fits broadly with the Greens' liberal defense of civil rights. But expanding the already unwieldy and battered Green Movement tent to include the bazaaris may be a case of wishful thinking. There is little evidence that the bazaaris' actions of the past week were anything more than a defense of their economic interests and profits. A revolutionary coalition is probably not in the making.

But even if the bazaar protests weren't part of a larger political front, they do reflect deep tensions in Iran's political economy that can't and shouldn't be ignored. Negotiations between the guilds and the government over taxes are nothing new, but these debates rarely spill over into the alleyways of the bazaar or lead to physical confrontations with security forces. The fact that in 2010 they have is a symptom of the perilous state of Iran's broader economy and polity.

The macroeconomic data on Iran is not encouraging. Though the government has proudly touted that inflation has gone down to single digits, this is probably a product of economic recession and the cooling of the housing market rather than a sign of fiscal health and economic stability. The economic sanctions passed by the United States and Europe will also soon take their toll. Ordinary Iranians will probably pay higher prices at the cash register, but the sanctions will have implications for the commercial networks that import, export, and distribute consumer and other goods. Sanctions will bolster the position of shadowy transnational networks and middlemen, as well as the role of politically powerful actors, such as members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp, who are best equipped to skirt these regulations. Iranians are also bracing themselves for the impending radical reform of the subsidy system, which will replace broad price controls on basic goods with cash payments.

The combination of high unemployment, political turmoil, and continued threats of a military attack will soon lead to a drop in consumer spending and a cut in bazaari profits. Already, there's reportedly been an epidemic in Iran of bounced checks. The bazaaris' stance during this year's tax negotiations was no doubt informed by the ominous economic horizon.

More generally, the clash between bazaaris and government agencies also reflects the public's deep and longstanding lack of trust in state institutions -- a situation that predated, though was no doubt exacerbated by, the disputed 2009 election and its aftermath. Two years ago, when the bazaars of Tehran, Isfahan, Tabriz and other cities banded together for a similar protest, the issue was a proposed Value Added Tax that would have required businesses to open up their accounting ledgers to government tax collectors. The bazaaris refused, largely out of fear of what else the government might do with the information. According to recent reports in Iranian newspapers, this year's protests were also motivated by the state auditor's insistence on having more control over bazaar receipts.

The new strikes and the government's reaction underscore just how badly the government's authority has eroded and how dependent it is on coercion when seeking the public's compliance. What Iran's recent protests have in common is their challenge to the regime's sincerity. In the summer and fall of 2009, the government's intent to conduct a fair election was at issue; this summer, the bazaaris were questioning the government's good faith in establishing a basic quid pro quo of taxation in return for public goods and social services. The bazaaris' hesitancy to accept the settlement between the government and the Guild Council suggests that many traders do not identify with their own state-recognized "representatives"; perhaps their recognition by the state is enough already to discredit them.

Finally, the inability of the government to extract taxes from the bazaaris is a symptom and symbol of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's own lack of authority among the greater public. It is yet another example of the president having to backtrack from an openly stated policy to increase the government's tax receipts. Ahmadinejad wanted revenue to establish a more efficient bureaucracy that, among other things, can better manage the economy. But Iranians who don't feel bound to their hard-line president by a social contract have refused to back his reforms of the state.

Forced to compromise on the tax rate, the president has projected personal weakness, which may inspire future protests. Indeed, however demonized he is by the West, at home Ahmadinejad is seen as eminently vulnerable. Over the last year his government has faced open challenges from all sides: from ordinary citizens who have marched in street rallies, and conservative parliamentarians and newspaper pundits who openly rebuke his policies and question his commitment to the constitution. Meanwhile, workers have engaged in isolated, but regular protests against work conditions and lack of pay, and industrialists last week complained that their factories have not been receiving enough electricity.

The bazaar protests did not exhibit coordination with major civil organizations, nor did they rely on the kind of solidarity across socioeconomic groups that could truly threaten the regime. Yet, in a situation as politically fluid and economically brittle as Iran's, minor events can embolden groups and undermine the most confident of rulers. These latest bazaari protests have not yet earned their place alongside the major Iranian protests of the 20th century, but they are pregnant with potential. Indeed, Tehran's jewelers, textile sellers, and carpet merchants may ultimately have more to say in determining Iran's future than the country's nuclear scientists.

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End of the Establishment

Where have all the serious Republicans gone?

When Mitt Romney denounced the new START treaty in the Washington Post last week, he didn't simply demonstrate that he's determined not to allow Sarah Palin to outflank him on the right. He also affirmed something else -- the decline and fall of the Republican foreign-policy establishment.

Of all the potential contenders for the 2012 presidential nomination, Romney, who was a moderate governor of the state that once was the bastion of what the legendary Washington journalist and snob Joseph Alsop referred to as the "WASP ascendancy," might seem like the most logical candidate to restore the traditions of pragmatic Republican internationalism after the neoconservative domination of the past decade. Instead, he has offered a potent reminder that anyone serious about seeking the nomination of today's Republican Party has to establish his or her right-wing bona fides on foreign policy by acting as though Russia -- not to mention the State Department and the CIA -- remains an enemy of the United States. No sooner did Romney attack new START than the National Review effusively praised him in an editorial: "For anyone who can truly calculate our interests, it's a travesty. All honor to Mitt Romney for setting out the case against the treaty so cogently. We hope Senate Republicans are listening."

Perhaps Romney truly thinks that the new START is a sellout to Moscow, but he appears to be less an avatar of the right than its most prominent hostage. He might even be suffering from a kind of Stockholm syndrome. The treaty, after all, has won the enthusiastic endorsement of a host of Republican foreign-policy eminences, including Brent Scowcroft, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and James Baker. Much of President Barack Obama's foreign policy, in fact, adheres to the prescriptions laid out by that generation of Republican realists -- relying on diplomacy in dealing with Russia and Iran, cultivating good relations with China, and recognizing the limits of U.S. power. But these moderate conservatives all have one big thing in common: They're in their dotage. Nor is there a successor generation in sight to uphold their legacy. The result is that despite the bungled Iraq war, the right remains on the offensive. An insurrectionist movement, it not only opposes liberal elites, but also the quisling patricians in its own ranks.

Just as Republicans have united by reflexively saying no to Obama's domestic program, so they are also attacking his approach to foreign affairs as tantamount to a new round of Carteresque appeasement of foreign adversaries. Any deviations from the catechism, such as Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele's comment that Afghanistan is "Obama's war" and may not be winnable, are excoriated with the verbal equivalent of a death sentence by stoning in Iran. The liturgy is enforced by the likes of Liz Cheney or William Kristol and obediently recited by party leaders such as Republican House whip Eric Cantor, who informed the Heritage Foundation on May 4 that America's defenses are "hemorrhaging" and that Obama's "policies bespeak a naive moral relativism in which the United States bears much responsibility for the problems we face around the world."

Add the welter of other conservative and neoconservative organizations dedicated to propagating the message that only a return to the principles enunciated by Ronald Reagan can restore American security and, by extension, the GOP's electoral dominance, and it becomes clear that the traditional Republican establishment isn't on the defensive; it's in danger of extinction. By moving solidly to the right, Romney underscores its decline and the rise of something else -- what Dean Acheson, Harry Truman's secretary of state and a prime target of right-wing obloquy in the early 1950s, called "the primitives."

The battles between establishment Republicans and the right are not new. Even a cursory glance at the establishment's past reveals that from the outset of America's rise to global power at the turn of the last century, East Coast Republicans have always enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the GOP itself. Consider the political odyssey of one of the foreign-policy establishment's founding fathers, Henry Stimson. Stimson, who attended Andover, Yale, and Harvard Law School and then served as President William Howard Taft's secretary of war, was a progressive Republican. He tried and failed to win Republican support for the League of Nations, watching disconsolately as his party embraced a not-so-splendid isolationism. In his memoirs, Stimson tartly observed that he "shared the oblivion which overtook most of the younger Eastern Republicans during the early 1920s." That oblivion didn't really end until Franklin D. Roosevelt took office and appointed Stimson secretary of war, and made the stalwart Republican, Frank Knox, secretary of the Navy. So it took a left-wing Democrat -- FDR -- to revive moderate Republicanism. At the 1940 Republican nominating convention, write Leonard and Mark Silk in their book The American Establishment, "the chairman of the Republican National Committee read both men out of the party."

The internationalists were taken back into the Republican fold with the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who, among other things, scorned the idea of radically increasing the military budget. Even Richard Nixon -- considered a right-wing hard-liner at the time -- was in favor of the Marshall Plan and the establishment of the United Nations as a congressman. The isolationist wing of the GOP, which had opposed entry into World War II as well as U.S. membership in NATO, was finished. But it morphed into a new Frankenstein: unilateralism married to nationalism. Put otherwise, suspicion of international institutions as dangerously infringing upon U.S. sovereignty remained, but it was now joined to militarism. The isolationists' place was taken by a bellicose, unilateralist right, led by Sens. Joseph McCarthy and William Knowland, known as "the senator from Formosa" for his fierce pro-Taiwan advocacy. They alleged that traitors in the State Department had lost China and that the Truman administration lacked the gumption to take the fight to the Reds.

In the 1970s, neoconservatives joined with the hard right to allege that Nixon and Kissinger were selling out human rights and U.S. national security to secure a bogus détente with Moscow. Gerald Ford came under similar attack. Ronald Reagan entered office by bringing on board a host of movement conservatives, but ended up relying on his cautious secretary of state, George Shultz, and winding down the Cold War, much to the consternation of the true believers. The right felt, once again, that it had been sold out by its own leadership.

The last gasp of the Republican foreign-policy establishment came with George H.W. Bush's administration. To the consternation of many conservatives and neoconservatives, Bush tried to force Israel to back off on building further settlements in the West Bank, cultivated close relations with China even after the Tiananmen Square massacre, refused to continue on to Baghdad during the first Gulf War, and did not intervene in the collapse of Yugoslavia. For these departures from conservative gospel, the right deserted Bush during his failed 1992 reelection campaign against Bill Clinton, who promised swift action in the Balkans and decried the "butchers of Beijing."

The emergence of the western conservatism that disdained the effete East Coast elites reached new heights in George W. Bush's administration. Had John McCain won the 2008 presidential election, he would likely have attacked Iran, as his recent essay in the New Republic about unleashing "America's full moral power" suggested. Nothing nettles the neoconservatives surrounding McCain, as well as the liberal hawks who supported the Iraq war, more than the notion that Obama has abandoned humanitarian intervention abroad in favor of a new Munich.

It's a dangerous pattern. Again and again, as Sam Tanenhaus perceptively observes in The Death of Conservatism, the right has conceived insurgencies from within the government "in a spirit of hatred for a liberal elite who were perceived to be usurpers and hence subsversives." In their fixation with the State Department's putative readiness to appease foreign dictators, the movement conservatives bring to mind a passage from Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time mocking the British Foreign Office: "All very well a century ago to have a fellow who could do the polite to the local potentate... Something a bit more realistic required these days."

For now, Romney, Palin and any other candidate for the Republican nomination are vying for the right's mantle and depicting Obama as "doing the polite" to the world's potentates. The only dissenters from the new conservative orthodoxy are columnist George F. Will, who is decrying America's "misadventure" in Afghanistan, its foray into the dreaded nation-building, along with a handful of conservative congressmen such as Ron Paul and Jason Chaffetz, whose antipathy toward intervention marks them out as closer to old-line isolationists than internationalist Republicans.

In examining the predominance of the hawks, international relations professor and blogger Robert Farley recently asked why Kissinger, Baker, Scowcroft, and Colin Powell have failed to create their own institutional network. Farley concluded, "I suspect that at least part of the answer is personality-based; Baker and Scowcroft, for example, seem to have eschewed institution building in favor of cultivating an elite consensus." But it's also the case that Kissinger and Scowcroft have not been full-time policy advocates. Rather, they've gone into consulting, while their conservative ideological adversaries have, by and large, hunkered down at think tanks and magazines, conducting a kind of guerrilla warfare against Obama.

The closest thing to a younger, prominent realist internationalist today is Newsweek International editor and CNN host Fareed Zakaria, though he essentially bailed out on the Republicans in a 2000 essay in the New Yorker ridiculing conservative antics during the Clinton era, and today exercises virtually no influence on the party. The moderate Republican Robert Gates might have been a standard-bearer for this tradition, but he, of course, has been brought into the Democratic fold. It would be no small irony if the tradition of moderate Republican foreign policy were completely usurped by the Democrats, something that was already speculated upon during the 2008 campaign.

For its part, it looks as though the mainstream Republican establishment is headed straight back into the oblivion that Stimson complained about almost a century ago. In some ways, this might be inevitable. By its very nature, realism is a gloomy policy prescription that lacks the elan of neoconservatism; its conservative adherents have done little to promote their cause among the public; and it might even be inimical to America's sense of democracy to have an elite on the lines of the Republican establishment. In short, the age of the foreign-policy grandee may be coming to a close.

The only thing that might resurrect this tradition may be the much-speculated -- though repeatedly denied -- presidential ambitions of Gen. David Petraeus. Should Obama become a two-term president, Petraeus could play Eisenhower to Obama's Truman, leading a chastened GOP back toward realism. Until then, the Republican establishment, like a shorn Samson, will remain in a state of total eclipse without all hope of day.