The Ayatollah in His Labyrinth

The competing forces in Iran's political system are poised to collide in this summer's presidential election.

At the heart of Iranian politics there is an irreconcilable tension, rooted in the democratic nature of the 1979 revolution and the undemocratic power structure that emerged afterwards. On the one hand, there is the country's quasi-republican institutions and regular, albeit controlled elections; on the other is the state's guiding concept of god as the sole sovereign, and the Supreme Leader as the unimpeachable manifestation of this divine authority.

The contradictory aspects of Iran's political system are poised to collide in the June presidential election. The testy relationships between the Supreme Leader and elected presidents has long been the most obvious reminder of the tensions within the Islamic Republic: As Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, the closest ally of Khamenei, announced recently, every president since Khamenei became leader 24 years ago -- Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- has lacked a firm enough belief in his divine mandate. In the coming election, the Supreme Leader has the difficult task of ensuring the election of a pliant president without provoking the rise of uncontrollable domestic discontent.

Three different sources of tension threaten to make this election problematic for the Islamic Republic. First, the widening rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei -- supported by his allies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the conservative clergy -- is increasingly hard to hide, even manage. A key element of this feud is Ahmadinejad's effort to not only challenge the authority of Khamenei, but to ensure the election of his own hand-picked successor -- Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who at one time held 14 important posts in the government and is also father-in-law to the president's son.

For a long time, it has been the common lore of Iranian politics that Ahmadinejad and Mashaei are planning to do a Dmitry Medvedev-Vladimir Putin duet in Iran, swapping the presidency back and forth between each other. The conservative clergy, including Khamenei himself, have in the past openly objected to Mashaei, accusing him of all manner of malfeasance and disreputable views -- particularly the belief that Shiism's 12th Imam has been directly guiding and managing the affairs of the Ahmadinejad camp. As conservative clerics never tire of claiming, such "contacts" and "guidance" from the 12th Imam are the monopoly of the Supreme Leader -- and a critical source of his claimed legitimacy.

Money will be a key weapon in this struggle for power: According to sources inside the regime, Ahmadinejad has amassed billions of dollars in a slush fund to use in the upcoming election. In an unprecedented act, the government's own intelligence minister -- who Ahmadinejad had fired, but was then reinstalled by the special order of Khamenei -- warned last month that government funds might be used illicitly in favor of one candidate. The government also announced a plan to hire hundreds of thousands of new employees, a move denounced by Ahmadinejad's opponents as an attempt to place his supporters in areas needed to ensure his victory. The hiring spree was subsequently declared null by the Government Accounting Office, which added that governors who hire anyone will be prosecuted.

The vitriol between the Ahmadinejad and Khamenei camps is only getting worse. Some in the regime have accused Ahmadinejad of being in secret negotiations with not just the United States, but with the domestic opposition. High-ranking officials in the regime's security and intelligence apparatus have warned of planned disturbances even larger than those after the 2009 election, where an estimated 3 million people came out in Tehran to protest what they considered Ahmadinejad's rigged reelection. This time, the officials claim, the "troubles" will begin in smaller cities and spread to the capital.

Ahmadinejad has proved his willingness to strike back against his rivals. The president's camp is reported to have many potentially damaging documents and recordings from prominent members of the regime, giving the upcoming election a peculiar air of theatrical and political anticipation. The show has, in fact, already begun: In February, Ahmadinejad played a recording in the Majlis that purported to show the speaker's brother asking for kick-backs.

Considering the increasingly harsh criticism of Ahmadinejad by high-ranking members of the IRGC and the president's continued defiance of Khamenei, there is even a low possibility the president might not be allowed to finish his term. Last month, the Khamenei-controlled state television broadcast a half-hour documentary ostensibly about the impeachment of the Islamic Republic's first president, Abolhassan Banisadr. However, many saw it as a direct warning to Ahmadinejad that a similar faith might await him if he continues on his current path.

The second source of tension revolves around whether reformists will be allowed to participate in the election -- and even if they will want to. If they do participate, the question will be who they are allowed to field as a candidate. Khamenei recently met with a delegation of three reformist leaders, and 18 reformist groups subsequently asked for another meeting with the supreme leader -- indicating at the same time their view that the only viable candidate who can help navigate Iran through this period is Mohammad Khatami. Some reformists have also named Rafsanjani as a possible compromise savior.

Many in the reformist camp have hinted that freeing reformist leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi -- who has been under house arrest for their role in the 2009 protests -- is a precondition of their participation in the election. Clearly Khamenei and the IRGC have to make a cost-benefit analysis: Does the domestic discontent, the increasingly dire economic situation, and their international isolation pose enough of a threat to justify bringing Khatami or Rafsanjani -- two men they have vilified in the past four years -- back into the fold? Or would such a tactical retreat only bring them embarrassment and signal their weakness?

Khamenei and his allies could, of course, allow a nominally reformist candidate -- one with little name recognition or charisma -- to run. Such tokenism might help fulfill the regime's stated goal of engineering a large voter turnout: the head of the National Police said that according to their surveys, a minimum of 60 percent of voters -- but more likely around 70 percent -- will participate in the upcoming elections. The fact that local council elections are slated to take place at the same time as presidential election is also intended to increase voter turnout.

There is clearly discord in the current regime over how to proceed. Two of the most important IRGC commanders have recently been replaced -- one was in charge of the IRGC's university, and the other was in charge of one of the IRGC's most important economic conglomerates, a firm called Khatam al-Anbia that is engaged in everything from building roads to defense to oil and gas pipeline construction. Moreover some of the more radical elements of the IRGC continue to insist that reformists of all hue are "tools" of American, British and Israeli designs to defeat the Islamic regime. 

The third source of tension in this unfolding saga is the behavior of the candidates clearly favored by Khamenei and his allies. This troika calls itself the 2+1 Coalition, and is made up of Ali Akbar Velayati, for many years Iran's foreign minister and now a senior advisor on foreign relations to Khamenei; Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaff, the mayor of Tehran and former commander of the IRGC's air force; and Gholam Ali Hadad Adel, Khamenei's son's father-in-law. Each of the three has carved out a niche for himself: Velayati markets himself as the experienced, pragmatic foreign policy hand, Ghalibaff is a capable manager of the economy, and Hadad Adel's claim to fame is his proximity to the leader. There are a disproportionate number of "fathers-in-law" in critical positions of authority in Iran -- a subject that might one day deserve a study of its own.

The coalition appears poised to present a united front in the coming election. Velayati recently announced that the group will soon announce their candidate for the presidency, and said that they are already in the process of forming a cabinet - which, he added, will surely include the two other members of the coalition.

While the troika has positioned itself as closest to the Supreme Leader and most subservient to his wishes, there are at least two other announced candidates who consider themselves part of the same "Principalist" camp: The longtime IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaei and the colorless former Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who was embarrassingly fired from his job while he was negotiating in Africa. There is almost no chance that either will emerge as a serious candidate in the months ahead.

There is one more important factor to consider: The outcome of the upcoming election is related not just to normal domestic feuds, division of spoils, and concerns about the level of discontent in society, but also to the regime's international policies. The nuclear negotiations and sanctions are forcing the regime to make tough choices -- to either go down the path of some accommodation regarding its nuclear program, or further entrench its defiant posture.

Some of the reformists have indicated that the burden of proof of the peaceful nature of the country's nuclear program now rests with Iran, due to its past mismanaged policies and reckless statements. Thus, they favor more intrusive and comprehensive inspections. But even advocates of the status quo seem poised to accept more limited stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium and more flexibility in allowing inspections, in return for an end to sanctions. The latter group, led by Khamenei, is really insisting that whatever the nature of a possible agreement, the Islamic regime must be allowed to declare victory.

No matter the outcome of the coming election, Khamenei and the IRGC will still hold the key levers of power in Tehran. But who will be allowed to participate -- and who will be allowed to win -- will be a crucial sign in understanding the labyrinth of power in Iran, as the regime prepares to tackle its mounting domestic and international problems.



Living Up to the Statue

After two decades of advocacy, we finally have a U.N. Arms Trade Treaty.

Beltway insiders yawned at the progress of the United Nations' Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the first treaty to regulate the massive global trade in conventional weapons that are responsible for most conflict deaths worldwide, from its near death in the summer of 2012 to its Easter-week resurrection and General Assembly passage. But if you're interested in international regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, financial transactions, nuclear weapons or the Internet -- or if you're opposed to any and all regulation and want to know how the United States can stave it off -- then consider the Curious Case of the Idea that Wouldn't Die.

The ATT is the child of a 1990s observation -- that the civilian carnage of developing-country violence sprang not just from ideological conflict or ineffable ethnic hatreds, but from a globalized trade in black- or grey-market small arms -- married to organizing techniques of the information age. Its passage is the revenge of the much-maligned "clicktivist," the middle powers that use the United Nations as a power-multiplier, and the Nobel Peace laureates who led the charge. In some small way, it is also the U.N. system's revenge on John Bolton, who worked so tirelessly to discredit the ATT and the U.N. system in general. Finally, it is a testament to the oldest, least trendy trick in the advocacy playbook: what Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, who worked for the treaty's passage both at Amnesty International USA and at the U.S. Department of State, calls "a determined group from civil society waging the long war."

In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, rights campaigners identified a troubling trend: Where small arms move cheaply and unaccountably, conflict with devastating civilian consequences tends to follow. (Think Libyan weapons flooding into Mali.) According to Amnesty International, roughly 60 percent of documented human rights violations involve the use of small arms. In Colombia, nine out of 10 civilian victims of internal strife are killed with small arms. A French parliamentary inquiry concluded that even in Rwanda in 1994, where the vast majority of genocide victims were killed with agricultural tools, it was vast shipments of conventional weapons that emboldened the perpetrators to launch the mass killing.

By 1993, concern about the effects of the arms trade had grown strong enough that members of both the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe made non-legally-binding commitments to trade arms responsibly and with consideration for human rights.

Brian Wood, now Amnesty International's manager of arms control, security trade and human rights, recalls that making those commitments legally-binding "was an idea that seemed obvious to four of us in an Amnesty International room in 1993, looking at examples of the arms trade contributing to very serious human rights violations." But how to transform that intuitive idea into 154 "yes" votes on the floor of the United Nations had Wood and other advocates tearing their hair out for years.

Wood recalls getting lawyers from Oxford and Cambridge Universities to write up a treaty text and then promoting it around the European Union. They found a champion in former Costa Rican president, Nobel laureate, and peace activist Oscar Arias, who invited them to present the draft treaty to a convention of Nobel peace prize winners, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, chief U.N. arms inspector Richard Butler, and the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker lobbying organization. (Note to funders: please don't assume this is a replicable strategy!)

Arias's effort globalized the idea and slowly interested human rights leaders like Finland and Tanzania, as well as countries like Cambodia and Mozambique, whose citizens had paid a high price for conflict. Remember when then-Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) got a Republican Congress to mandate that the U.S. negotiate an international code of conduct for arms transfers with human rights at its center? Human rights campaigners do.

But the ultimate goal of an arms trade treaty remained elusive. In 2003, several big Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs) launched a consortium called Control Arms, which came to include more than 100 partner organizations from 120 countries, from West Africa to Brazil to Tajikistan to Afghanistan. At the same time, significant local expertise and advocacy power grew up in Central American countries racked by violence -- first associated with politics and later with drugs -- as well as in post-conflict countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone. Advocates from these regions gave the effort global legitimacy -- and significant emotional power aimed back at the West.

Arms control advocates got a big break in 2005, when Tony Blair's Labour government decided to throw British support behind an arms trade treaty -- not entirely coincidentally, as British politics were racked with recriminations over the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Britain was the first major arms supplier to support treaty regulation. (Someday, someone will write a book about how British NGOs incubated and exported the ideas that became the ATT, the George W. Bush administration's AIDS initiative, and corporate social responsibility, giving Britannic self-righteousness -- with a nod to the Irish for Bono -- its deserved superpower status.)

In 2006, Control Arms pulled off perhaps the biggest U.N.-targeted feat of online activism ever, sending a "Million Faces" to New York. Later that year, the U.N. General Assembly voted to ask the Secretariat to explore an arms trade treaty. But the George W. Bush administration voted "no" and civil society and government campaigners alike assumed that, with other big arms exporters like Russia sheltering behind Washington's opposition, no effective regime could be created. 

But campaigners slyly shifted gears, sending record number of submissions to the Secretary General on how to create effective, commonsense monitoring of arms transfers. They also began to leverage their expertise, which sometimes exceeded that of diplomats and negotiators, partnering with governments and the private sector to hold seminars on how trade oversight -- of the kind that the U.S. and European governments already had in place -- would work.

By 2009, when the General Assembly voted to begin treaty negotiations, the only "no" vote came from Zimbabwe. The new Obama administration, though it had not prioritized the ATT or even spoken much about it publicly, chose to position itself to protect U.S. concerns within the negotiating process by voting for the treaty. The Control Arms groups had mounted a worldwide campaign and placed a giant pair of eyeglasses in the U.N. lobby: "We are watching you," they said.

Over the next three years, U.S. negotiators obtained key concessions that enabled the American Bar Association's Center for Human Rights to write that the treaty "would not require new domestic regulations of firearms" and was "consistent with the Second Amendment." Campaigners agonized about whether those and other concessions made the treaty worthwhile, but they also obtained concessions of their own, including partial regulation of ammunition transfers, which had been thought impossible.

But then another NGO, the National Rifle Association (NRA), entered the fray and virulently opposed the treaty. It insisted the ATT would not only compromise Second Amendment rights, but that it would lead inexorably to further domestic regulation.

When the treaty text came toward a vote in the summer of 2012, the NRA's energetic activism, coupled with its fearsome reputation in a tight election year, was enough to inspire a letter from 51 U.S. senators asking the administration to vote against any treaty that violated Second Amendment rights. On the very last day of negotiations, the United States announced that it would not support the text; Russia and China quickly followed suit.

While Washington declared the treaty dead, the campaigners got busy, promoting statements of support from defense industry leaders like this one from Rolls Royce: "The aim of an ATT is to regulate global trade in conventional arms more effectively, not to reduce or to limit the scope for legal trade." Large industry calculated wisely that it would benefit from being at the negotiating table, and from creating a distinction between "legitimate" arms deals and "illicit" ones.

U.N. officials and leading government supporters expected the treaty to do better in 2013, after the U.S. election. Its path may also have been smoothed by the tragic shootings in Newtown, Conn., and the way the subsequent U.S. gun safety debate seemed to separate the NRA from its base of citizen gun owners -- a lesson campaigners of all stripes might consider.

The United States initially insisted that the treaty text be subject to adoption by consensus. But when it became clear that North Korea, Iran, and Syria would block the initiative, treaty supporters sought to find another avenue. Their subsequent decision to seek approval by a majority vote in the General Assembly may be one of this process's most important outcomes because it clearly placed dissenters on the wrong side of mobilized global public opinion -- a coup that Washington had not been able to pull off with decades of sanctions or four years of "strategic communications."

Now the campaigners have their treaty. But does actually it matter?

Nossel looks at the track record of recent U.N. conventions that gained similar support from private citizens and sees grounds for optimism: "The pattern that we see is that even countries that don't sign change their behavior... the use of landmines, for example, is stigmatized and delegitimized," she said in an interview. Since the negotiation of a land mines treaty in 1997, for example, land mine fatalities have dropped by almost two-thirds, and only one country -- Assad's Syria -- laid new land mines in 2012. Similar progress has been made with the International Criminal Court. Just last month a Congolese warlord decided that he was better off facing ICC indictment than his foes on the battlefield -- and chose to surrender to an American embassy, probably unaware that the George W. Bush administration attempted to "unsign" the ICC statute in 2002.

Don Kraus, president and CEO of, puts it more bluntly: "if this is anything, it's a tool for civil society to beat their governments on the head."

Jeff Abramson, a policy advisor at Control Arms, sees the ATT process as another step in the maturation process of global civil society: "Civil society is now recognized as a driver and actor for international regimes in ways that may not have been true before, certainly before the Mine Ban Treaty. A part of civil society's value is its expertise -- which is separate from its mobilization ability -- and I think you'd find all states agreeing that civil society brought knowledge and useful suggestions to the effort," he said in an interview.

Which returns us to greenhouse gases, nuclear weapons, and Internet security. In commercial, intellectual, and scientific pursuits, it is increasingly the case -- and not just in the developing world -- that more expertise resides outside governments than in. That expertise now has its own channels to influence top policymakers and drive public opinion, abroad and in the United States. As numerous academics have pointed out, those networks don't fit well inside classical political science theories of power -- and their fit with how American politics engages with the world is even worse. But they can shape the terrain on which U.S. power operates, and limit -- or expand -- the options open to U.S. policymakers. They have created facts on the ground -- or, in the landmines case, facts no longer on the ground. Taking a cold look at how they do it -- and incorporating strategies for influencing and working with networked global civil society -- is the ultimate form of realism.

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