Iran Cracks Down While Egypt Cracks Up

Tehran is claiming that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt reflect the heady days of 1979. Not so fast says the Green Movement -- it's 2009 that's a better parallel.

While the world's attention has been riveted by Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt this month, Iran's government has taken the opportunity to execute a record number of prisoners in an apparent bid to head off the return of the dramatic street protests that pushed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government to the brink in June 2009.

Meanwhile, Iranian officials have been spinning the turmoil in the Arab world as a victory for Iran and a replay of Iran's 1979 revolution against the U.S.-backed shah. But the mass protests that are ricocheting around the region -- spread in part by Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, and satellite television -- cut more than one way for Tehran. They remind Iranians of their own recent failed attempt to dislodge an increasingly authoritarian government.

"This is a reaction to the developments in Egypt and Tunisia," says Hadi Ghaemi, director of International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. "The Iranian intelligence forces want to show their power by executing so many people including even someone of European nationality."

The crackdown could be in part an effort to pre-empt more demonstrations as Iran on Jan. 31 begins the commemoration of the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. The climax of the so-called "10 days of dawn" that began with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's return from exile in 1979 is Feb. 11, the day the shah's last government fell. Last year, Iran also made a point of executing several political prisoners before that date.

This January, Ghaemi said, the Iranian government executed 83 people, including on Jan. 29 the first dual national deliberately killed in years: an Iranian-Dutch woman, Zahra Bahrami.

Bahrami, 45, was arrested in December 2009 when Iran's opposition Green Movement took to the streets during the Shiite Muslim holiday of Ashura. She was later accused of trafficking cocaine, a charge that her family asserts was fabricated. In response to her hanging, the Dutch government suspended diplomatic relations with Iran.

According to Ghaemi, Iran executed almost as many people in January 2011 as it did in all of 2005. Since Ahmadinejad replaced Mohammad Khatami in August 2005, the number of executions has risen steadily and now is the highest in the world per capita and second only to China in absolute terms. At least 250 people were executed last year, Ghaemi said, with perhaps another 100 put to death more quietly. In the eastern city of Mashhad near the Afghan border, he said, about 600 people are currently on death row.

Iran also has the dubious distinction of holding the world's oldest known political prisoner: Ebrahim Yazdi, 80, a former foreign minister who has suffered from high blood pressure and prostate cancer and underwent open-heart surgery shortly before his arrest in October. He is due to go on trial on unspecified charges in March. According to Ghaemi, another 500 political detainees are awaiting action on their cases while about 500 have been convicted and are serving sentences.

Iranian opposition figures point out the regime's hypocrisy in criticizing Arab governments for firing on peaceful protesters while crushing freedom of expression in Iran. Meanwhile, the official media waxes triumphant about the developments in the Arab Middle East.

Comments last week by Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the conservative Kayhan newspaper, were typical: "Look at the region. Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Bahrain. ... roaring in populous slogans and demands against their absolutist rulers; pay attention. All the demands and slogans are in complete congruence with the teachings of the Islamic revolution. Death to America; death to Israel; hail Islam; death to the seculars; Islam is my religion" (translation by

In fact, the demonstrations so far have been largely secular, though well-organized groups such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood might become more influential as political transitions more forward -- and Tunisia's exiled Islamic leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, returned Jan. 30to a hero's welcome by thousands of sympathizers.

Clearly, Iran has benefited from events that predate the current upheavals, especially the U.S. toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

"Iran has had a great string of successes thanks to us," says Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and veteran Middle East analyst. "Iran is the dominant player in Iraq; its alliance with Syria has been consolidated; its hold on Lebanese politics now transcends its connection with Syria; and we've shoved a Sunni Salafi group, Hamas, into its arms" (by rejecting Hamas's 2006 electoral victory over Fatah, the secular Palestinian party).

Watching Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30-year presidency twist in the wind is also giving Iran "a great deal of schadenfreude," Freeman says, noting the Egyptian leader's long hostility toward Tehran and vice versa.

At the same time, Freeman cautions against connecting what remain disparate dots, noting differences between Muslim countries and uncertainty about their future political trajectories.

"Iran is not a model for anybody not even in Afghanistan or Iraq," he said. "Iranians are trying to use these upheavals, but they don't have a connection to the Iranian revolution, its ideology, or to skillful Iranian diplomacy."

While Iranian state media link the Arab revolts to the 1979 revolution, Iran's Green Movement asserts that they were in part inspired by the mass opposition to Iran's 2009 rigged elections.

In a statement posted Jan. 29 on Facebook, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who challenged incumbent Ahmadinejad in that election, wrote that "the starting point of what we are now witnessing on the streets of Tunis, Sanaa, Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez can be undoubtedly traced back to days of 15th, 18th and 20th June 2009 when people took to the streets of Tehran in millions shouting 'Where is my vote?' and peacefully demanded to get back their denied rights."

Mousavi noted that the "collapsing political regimes in the Arab world" have also resorted to shutting down the Internet, cell phones, and social networks in an attempt to squelch political change. "Perhaps, they do not realize that continuing policies of intimidation will eventually turn against itself," he wrote in a clear reference to Iran as well as Arab despots. "Pharaohs usually hear the voice of the nation when it is too late."

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Did the Hu Summit Mean Anything?

A tour through the WikiLeaks cables suggests that the China-U.S. relationship is far too strained for a single state dinner to resolve.

Chinese President Hu Jintao's recent trip to Washington seemed to go smoothly enough. There were few awkward moments of the sort that Hu confronted on his last visit to the United States or that President Barack Obama ran into on his first trip to China in 2009. But the cables recently released by WikiLeaks open a larger window into the underlying, troubled relationship between Washington and Beijing. Reading the cables, it's worth asking whether any summit could ease the mistrust between the two countries.

When Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger carried out their historic opening to China, the diplomacy was so closely held that it took more than a quarter-century for historians to learn the essential details of what had happened. Kissinger had written in his memoir, for example, that during his initial meeting with Zhou Enlai in Beijing in 1971, the issue of Taiwan was "mentioned only briefly." When the actual notes of their conversation were released 30 years later, it turned out that Taiwan was discussed at considerable length; it was, along with Vietnam, one of the two main subjects of discussion.

Now, with the release of the WikiLeaks documents, there is no such time delay. Readers can gain direct access to some of the private conversations in recent years between U.S. and Chinese officials. And what the documents reveal, almost in real time, is a relationship marked by mistrust, gamesmanship, and occasional, highly provisional cooperation. We of course can't know what the United States and China will look like a few decades from now. But future historians will probably see in these WikiLeaks cables the concrete evidence of a period of profound change in the relationship between the two countries. In the cables, one finds China often testing the implications of its growing economic strength, and the United States struggling to cope with an increasingly assertive China.

There are some instances of hidden cooperation that come to light in the cables. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, at a working lunch with Dan Piccuta, then the charge d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, a senior Chinese official referred to collaboration on international economic issues by what he called the "troika" of China, the United States, and Britain.

The Chinese official "felt that the U.S.-U.K.-China 'troika' had been effective," reported Piccuta. "Beijing could persuade the developing countries, Washington could influence Japan and South Korea, and London could bring along the Europeans."

But Americans were sometimes privately warned to be skeptical about the Chinese regime's public versions of reality. One embassy cable describes how one of China's future leaders told the American ambassador not to trust some of the country's most important economic statistics.

"GDP figures are 'man-made' and therefore unreliable," Li Keqiang, then a provincial Communist Party secretary, now in line to become China's next premier, told then-U.S. Ambassador Clark Randt over dinner four years ago. Li said he relied on a few economic indicators that are less easy to manipulate, such as electricity consumption and the volume of rail cargo. "All other figures, especially GDP statistics, are 'for reference only,' [Li] said smiling," according to Randt's cable.

While this is impressive candor, for the most part the leaked cables only point out the gulf between public face and private reality. While Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said in public in early 2009 that China was concerned about the security of its holdings in U.S. Treasury bonds, a cable shows that the U.S. government nervously explored what Wen had meant and whether China might be planning to dump its Treasuries. In another cable about trade and economic disputes, the embassy in Beijing reported that "USG [U.S. government] complaints -- absent a credible threat of retaliatory action or other leverage -- are falling on increasingly deaf Chinese ears."

The WikiLeaks files frequently show U.S. officials (from both the George W. Bush and the Obama administrations) trying and failing to get help from China. They repeatedly ask for China's help in persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and for Iran to end its nuclear program. They are regularly rebuffed.

In private talks, Chinese officials seem willing to swap stories or offer insight about North Korea and Iran -- to volunteer, for example, news about whether North Korea's Kim Jong Il looked healthy or not in meetings with Chinese leaders or to suggest theories about the latest political intrigue in Tehran.

But in most cases, the private Chinese responses to U.S. pleas for help on North Korea and Iran are roughly as vague and bland as their public statements. According to one cable, State Councilor Dai Bingguo told Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg in 2009, "With a history of mistrust and mutual suspicion between the United States and Iran, it would not be easy to resolve the Iran nuclear issue," and "urged the United States to have more patience."

The WikiLeaks cables make clear that in private, at least, the U.S. government is under no illusions about the nature of the Chinese regime. One of the cables listed the financial interests of various Chinese leaders and their families, describing how different members of the Communist Party hierarchy controlled China's oil, banking, and real estate industries, electric power, and precious gems. These personal interests, it was suggested, gave the leaders a personal stake in preventing the development of a free press, which might investigate and write about high-level corruption.

One of the most astonishing accounts of Chinese media censorship that has ever come to light is contained in an embassy cable about how extensively the regime had controlled TV coverage during a Communist Party congress in October 2007. Quoting Chinese media contacts, the cable said that for seven days, China Central Television (CCTV) banned all negative images from television screens in China -- not just in TV reports about the party congress, not just in other news shows, but even in entertainment programs.

"During the Congress, CCTV would not show images of people crying, regardless of the circumstances," the embassy reported. "Even nature shows depicting animals stalking and killing prey were cut because such scenes were considered 'inharmonious.'"

At January's Washington summit, both governments put a positive gloss on how things were going. Much was made of Hu's forced assertion at the White House that "a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights" -- but this was, in fact, boilerplate language that Chinese officials have used for more than a decade.

We'll find out whether the summit was truly a success over the coming months, when we see whether the two countries can begin to work together to deal with North Korea, Iran, the trade and currency disputes that have divided them, or China's imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. And those are just the short-term issues. The long-term sources of friction were described in one WikiLeaks cable to Washington from Randt, then the U.S. ambassador in Beijing:

"The list ... includes China's authoritarian political system, China's support for unsavory regimes, China's breakneck military modernization, China's paranoid fear that the United States secretly promotes regime change and 'separatists' in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, growing nationalism and the sense in some quarters in both Washington and Beijing that the United States and China are commencing a long-term struggle for global political, economic and military supremacy."

That's a list that no single summit, however smoothly orchestrated, can possibly fix.