Is Ahmadinejad Islamic Enough for Iran?

Why the Iranian president's latest fight with the supreme leader could be his last.

While most of the Middle East region has been risking life and limb for the sake of a democratic future, in Iran, different factions in the regime have been busy debating the virtues of the ancient Persian King Cyrus the Great. Neither side brings any new historical insight, but it hasn't been an exercise in mere navel-gazing -- in Iran, debates on ancient history have been a high-stakes affair. Today, the question is whether the Islamic Republic should pay closer attention to the country's pre-Islamic Iranian heritage; the answers recently offered by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten the collapse of the current regime.

The dispute itself is nothing new. For decades, if not centuries, the twin enigmas of Iran's identity and the nature of Islam in Iran have bedeviled Iranian scholars and politicians alike. Iranian identity is bifurcated, split between the pre-Islamic traditions of Zoroastrian and Manichean millennium before Islam, and the Islam-influenced developments of the last 1,300 years.

But there has never been a consensus about which side of this bifurcation should be privileged. Even in the first centuries after the arrival of Islam in Iran, though Iranians had a decisive role in formulating Islamic laws, governance, and literature, there was considerable tension between Arabs and Persians: The former routinely referred to the latter with the pejorative moniker Ajam. Some Arabs (and some Iranians) even questioned whether Shiism -- the dominant sect in Iran today -- qualifies at all as a legitimate branch of Islam, arguing that it was actually a thinly disguised form of Iranian nationalism. Indeed, many scholars have pointed out that key ideas singular to Shiism in the Islamic world -- like the concept of a messiah (mahdi), and millenarian optimism -- are in fact a reincarnation of pre-Islamic Iranian ideas and concepts drawn from Zoroastrian and Manichean philosophies.

Negotiating these tensions has long been a requirement for any Iranian regime. The shahs of the Pahlavi era, seeking to blunt Islam's role in public life, accentuated the pre-Islamic age. The grandest example of that campaign came in 1976, when the shah spent several hundred million dollars to celebrate 2,500 years of Persian monarchy in a tent-city he specially erected outside Persepolis, the capital of ancient Persia. He even changed the national calendar for the occasion, away from one of Islamic origin to one that claimed to have its genesis in the age of Cyrus, the ancient Persian king praised in the Old Testament for freeing Jews from their Babylonian captivity (though the change lasted only two years).

But when the Islamic regime came into power in 1979, it attempted to obliterate the Persian pre-Islamic past and emphasize only the Islamic component. It was an agenda that required some heavy cultural lifting, to say the least, in a country where people still routinely decried the "Arab invasion" of a millennium past, and practiced with pride and care a language that had survived the era of Arab imperialism. Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic's founder, made Iran's pre-Islamic Persian holidays a special target: He derided Nowruz, the Iranian New Year celebration held on the first day of spring, as a "pagan" festivity.

Iranians, for the most part, resisted the regime's ambitions in this regard. The popular response has been to insist on even more ostentatious celebrations of traditional Persian festivities and support for campaigns to "purify" the language of any Arabic words and names. And just a few years ago, during the days of Mohamad Khatami, Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessor, an Iranian scholar published a five-volume treatise chronicling the two centuries of fierce fighting by Iranians before they accepted Islam, contradicting the regime's official history that Iranians accepted Islam eagerly and as soon as they had heard its message.

It is this sort of national pride that Ahmadinejad and his closest advisor, Esfandiar Mashaei, have been tapping into with their recent calls for an "Iranian Islam." They have made Iranian nationalism a pillar of the Ahmadinejad government, repeatedly and profusely praising pre-Islamic Iranian grandeur.

Rather than neglect Nowruz, Ahmadinejad marked the occasion this year by inviting 20 heads of state to Persepolis -- once so reviled by Shiite clerics that in the early days of the revolution Sadegh Khalkhali, a hard-line judge, tried to have it bulldozed (he was stopped by angry locals). Though Ahmadinejad gave in to heavy criticism and decided against having his celebration at the ancient site, he refused to heed the threats and advice of conservatives and held it in Tehran. It was rightly seen as a direct challenge to the clerical authorities.

Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, pointedly refused to meet with any of the invited guests and even left town during the festivities. Ahmadinejad and Mashaei also played a key role in the much-celebrated temporary return to Iran from its permanent home in London's British Museum of the Cyrus Cylinder, a small clay cylinder inscribed with words considered the first declaration of human rights in history. Ahmadinejad has openly praised Cyrus on numerous occasions, including when the cylinder first arrived in Iran.

The actions of Ahmadinejad and his alter ego may seem innocuous enough, but they have deeply angered the conservative clergy. In any country, such faint praise for a past ruler of international, even Biblical, stature would have been normal. In Islamic Iran, it is considered something akin to sedition. In the first days of the Islamic revolution, key clerical figures in the regime, particularly the infamous Khalkhali -- a favorite disciple of Khomeini, who appointed him head of the revolutionary courts -- went on to call Cyrus a "Jew boy" and a "sodomite." Now, Ahmadinejad was spending millions to bring the Cyrus Cylinder back to Iran and praising its value and singularity. Meanwhile, in spite of an increasingly louder chorus of critics, some from the highest echelons of clerical power in Iran, Mashaei continued to wax eloquent about Cyrus, Iranian nationalism, and Iranian Islam.

What appeared as cause for a minor irritation has now morphed into one of the biggest challenges facing Iran's leaders since June 2009's contested presidential election. This new rift within the Islamic regime has appeared while the leaders of the Green Movement continue to be under house arrest and show no sign of compromise. Even Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful cleric, has refused to fully rejoin Khamenei's camp. Every indication is that serious economic hard times are ahead for the regime. There is open talk of Ahmadinejad's impeachment; Akbar Ganji, the well-known and usually reliable dissident journalist now residing in the United States, has alleged that the Ahmadinejad team worked with European Union to prepare the list of Iranian officials banned from travel for complicity in human rights abuses -- a list he alleges is composed only of Khamenei's allies, and includes no one from the Ahmadinejad team. According to Ganji, the president has sent a team of reliable aides to open secret negotiations with the United States and the EU. Other sources inside Iran allege  that the president's team was trying to steal documents from the Intelligence Ministry to blackmail other leaders.

The crisis came to a boil about 10 days ago when Ahmadinejad fired the minister of intelligence --the second cleric he has fired from that position in less than two years -- and Khamenei resisted the move. A few weeks earlier, Ahmadinejad had fired the foreign minister, another Khamenei ally. Instead of trying to solve the crisis behind closed doors, as has been his wont in the past, this time Khamenei wrote a letter, pointedly not to the president, but to the dismissed minister, and reappointed him to his post. There is absolutely no constitutional provision that allows him to unilaterally appoint a minister.

Although a majority of members of the parliament have written an open letter to Ahmadinejad asking him to comply with Khamenei's egregious breach of the constitution, the president has hitherto refused to accept the leader's interference. He has refused to attend cabinet meetings and has yet to make a public comment about the decision. Either Khamenei must cave and allow Ahmadinejad to fire the minister -- yet another major blow to his authority -- or Ahmadinejad might have to go, creating a political crisis just when the regime least can afford it. Of course, if Ahmadinejad caves, he will be more vulnerable to his many foes, and that can only add to the political instability in the regime.

So what kind of game is Ahmadinejad playing? Why the sudden surge of Iranian patriotism? And why the public fight over the Intelligence Ministry? Some see the moves as part of his calculated effort by to prepare for the upcoming elections by creating some distance from Khamenei and the clerical regime. According to this theory, Ahmadinejad knows how reviled the clergy are in Iran and is keen on either challenging them or at least distancing himself from them. His decision to dismiss the minister of intelligence simply brought what had been a mere confrontation to the point of explosion.

Another key question is why Khamenei and his allies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have decided to pick this fight now. On the one hand, Khamenei and the IRGC have been increasingly tightening the political screws, and ruling more and more through brazen force. But more crucially, with the economy heading toward a crisis -- the central bank just announced that the inflation rate for foodstuffs is 25 percent, another official announced the real unemployment to be near 30 percent and an influential member of the parliament declared that government economic statistics are either kept secret and those made public are all unreliable -- and with the continued winds of democracy blowing in the region, Khamenei seems to be preparing to sacrifice the president and blame him for the financial calamities faced by the country. But will Ahmadinejad go down without a fight?


Freedom #Fail

Why we shouldn't expect Facebook and its Silicon Valley peers to act in the world's best interests.

Last week, Facebook lobbyist Adam Conner accidentally made news. Asked by a Wall Street Journal reporter how the social networking giant, which is trying to break into the Chinese market, would navigate a country whose government is famously skittish about unfettered information exchange, Conner replied, "Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others. We are occasionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we're allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven't experienced it before."

Conner's statement shocked many observers, but perhaps it shouldn't have. Lauded as a tool of revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt, Facebook has surely provided a unique platform for mobilization. And yet, Facebook regularly comes under scrutiny for privacy and free expression violations and, unlike Silicon Valley peers such as Twitter and Google, has itself shied away from recognition as a political tool. Most recently, after pressure from an Israeli minister, Facebook staff began monitoring a page calling for a third intifada in Palestine, eventually taking the page down, claiming that it contained incitement to violence.

That same week, Facebook hosted a virtual "town hall" with President Barack Obama, in which curious citizens could ask the president questions (selected by Facebook staffers) or just follow along at home (if they were willing to sign up for a Facebook account and "like" the event's page). By choosing Facebook, Obama's team implicitly endorsed a company whose actions, in China and elsewhere, run counter to the principles of Internet freedom set forth by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her much-remarked-upon January 2010 speech on the subject. And while a town hall is usually a public meeting, Facebook is not a public space, even if its more than 500 million users treat it like one -- it is a privately owned enterprise with the freedom to do whatever it wants, be it mining user data to sell to advertisers or deleting pictures of your friends and family on a whim.

The Obama campaign's choice of venue spoke volumes about the assumptions that people now make about the social media tools that have increasingly permeated our lives -- and Conner's comments are a reminder of why those assumptions are no longer enough. Corporations can and do act in a manner that upholds the principles of Internet freedom that Clinton and others have articulated. The problem lies in figuring out what to do when they don't -- and when the U.S. government chooses to ignore such failures.

One of the first inklings that a globalized Internet was going to pose these sorts of thorny ethical dilemmas arrived in 2000, when then-dominant tech giant Yahoo was taken to court in France for allowing the sale of Nazi memorabilia on its auction site. After various proceedings, Yahoo ultimately backed down, choosing to ban items associated with hate groups. The lesson? It is often easier to appease a foreign government than to fight it in the global commons.

U.S. tech companies, particularly those that host user-generated content, have walked a fine line ever since: Censoring content brings the wrath of free expression advocates, while, as Google learned in China, not censoring is the fastest way to lose a conservative emerging market. Some companies have leaned toward a principled stance, others choose to comply with government demands, and still others filter content of their own accord.

In 2006, Google consented to appeasement when it launched in China. Caught between a rock and a hard place -- the prospect of losing an emerging market on one hand and of going against the company's "don't be evil" mantra on the other -- Google weighed its options and decided that while filtering search results compromised Google's overall mission, failing to provide search capabilities to a fifth of the world's population compromised its mission more severely. But four years later (and nine days before Clinton's remarks on Internet freedom), Google had a change of heart: Noting the global debate centered on free expression and increasing Chinese repression, the company announced it would stop filtering content, a policy shift that effectively ended Google's business in China. The change followed a series of attacks on critical Google infrastructure -- some of them targeting Chinese human rights activists -- that the company suspected had been committed by the Chinese government.

In her January 2010 speech, Clinton referenced Google's China conundrum, noting that U.S. companies have taken steps to make free expression online a greater consideration in their business decisions. And indeed they have; in September of that same year, Google hosted a conference in Budapest on Internet freedom, bringing together experts and activists from around the globe. Google has also worked toward greater transparency, offering up an interactive map showing government requests for removal of content or user information.

The Mountainview-based giant has since been joined by Yahoo and Microsoft in forming the Global Network Initiative (GNI), whose stated aims of protecting and advancing freedom of expression and privacy online have earned plaudits from the State Department. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's last-ditch attempt to quash the nascent Egyptian revolution with an unprecedented Internet shutdown in January brought a dose of moral clarity to the issue and prompted technology companies to rapidly innovate. Twitter and Google built Speak2Tweet in a weekend, allowing Egyptians to call a number and share news. Facebook had similarly responded to government meddling in Tunisia by quickly making HTTPS -- a secure access protocol -- available to users there, more than a month before unveiling the feature site-wide.

But other companies have made very different calculations. Take Microsoft, for example, whose Bing search engine emerged in 2009 as a serious competitor to Google. But unlike Google, Bing automatically enforces safe search on users who set their home base to one of several countries, among them India, Thailand, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, and the entire Arab world. Flickr, the photo-sharing site owned by Yahoo, recently came under fire for deleting a series of photographs posted by Egyptian journalist Hossam El-Hamalawy. The images of state security officers had been retrieved from Amn El Dawla, the Egyptian security apparatus, and contained no offensive content. Flickr's justification? El-Hamalawy hadn't taken the photos himself, therefore they were in violation of the site's terms of use.

How do you ensure that online enterprises err on the side of free expression? Legislation is one option. The Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), would bar U.S. companies from aiding the censorship and surveillance operations of repressive foreign governments. The bill -- which Smith first proposed in 2007 and revived in late 2009 -- seems unlikely to reach the floor of the House of Representatives anytime soon. But while the legislation is imperfect -- among other things, it would limit companies from hosting sensitive user data in "internet-restricting countries," which could discourage investment in certain places -- it would go a long way toward preventing companies from violating human rights. The companies, of course, would rather police themselves, and multi-stakeholder initiatives like the GNI are an effort to do that. But while the GNI has benefited from working closely with human rights organizations, it has had limited success in bringing new companies on board.

American companies ultimately have a tough choice to make: Uphold American values and the principles of Internet freedom set forth by Clinton, or focus on the bottom line. And as Facebook's calculations on China show, until external enforcement measures exist, they are all too likely to choose the latter.