The Ayatollah's Point Man

Meet Saeed Jalili, the holier-than-thou front-runner in Iran's presidential election.

In politics, vapid certitudes, fortified by real or professed pieties, form a dangerous brew. Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator for the past six years, not only proudly drinks it like Kool-Aid, but offers servings to the troubled people of Iran as a panacea for their economic, cultural, and political challenges, and also as a path to salvation in the afterlife.

Jalili, at 47 years old, is the youngest candidate in the presidential election taking place this Friday -- and he owes his meteoric rise to his unabashed fealty to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. We are, the Iranian presidential candidate has repeatedly declared, travelers through this fleeting material life -- but residents of the other, more important eternal Existence. "All across the region we can hear our battle cry, 'Ya Ali,'" he said, referencing the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, a vaunted figure in Shiism. "We heard it in Lebanon with the victory of Hezbollah. We hear it in our resistance against the Zionist regime. Time and time again we have proved our strength through this slogan."

Jalili, who was declared the front-runner in the presidential race early on by media outlets close to Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is often praised as "our living martyr" due to his loss of one leg in Iran's eight-year war with Iraq. He was appointed director-general of the office of the supreme leader in 2001 and then became an advisor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad following the 2005 presidential election. The confrontation between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad did not damage the supreme leader's trust in Jalili, however, as Jalili was entrusted with the Islamic Republic's nuclear file in 2007. Iran's position in its negotiations with the West became more uncompromising after his appointment: A U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks reported how an EU official "was struck by his seeming inability or unwillingness to deviate from the same presentation" and described him as "a true product of the Iranian revolution."

Such sentiments, however, have not protected Jalili from attacks by Khamenei's other loyalists. Ali Akbar Velayati, the other candidate known to be favored by the supreme leader, used the last televised debate to lambast Jalili for his utter failure in nuclear negotiations: Iran is facing harsher sanctions, it has repeatedly been referred to the U.N. Security Council, and its nuclear program is less accepted by the international community than when Jalili took over the portfolio. Jalili returned this verbal fire in kind, saying that his foreign-policy choices are based on a "pure Islam."

The two men's attacks on each other are particularly revealing -- and ironic -- as they have both repeatedly said in the past that Iran's nuclear policy is set by Khamenei. In other words, they are debating an issue over which they say they have no control. This is just one of the many paradoxes that define modern Iran: In the presidential election, Khamenei desperately wants what he referred to as people's "epic" participation on election day, but at the same time he laid the groundwork for a motley crew of "vetted" candidates seemingly designed to provoke apathy.

Jalili embodies the stale political consensus sanctioned by the supreme leader. The regime has tried to drum up support for him: No sooner had he announced his candidacy than sites close to Khamenei praised him as the embodiment of Islamic values and virtues, while local offices of the Basij -- a militia connected to the IRGC -- tried to organize rallies in support of him.

But the surge of support failed to materialize. Even the commander of the Quds Force -- a critical part of the IRGC, responsible for foreign operations -- was quoted as saying he would be voting for another candidate. Polls published by some sites loyal to the regime found Jalili garnering no more than single-digit support. Meanwhile, some conservative sites claimed that Jalili was in fact Ahmadinejad's stealth candidate, while others criticized him for his lack of executive experience.

Win or lose, Jalili's candidacy is the perfect metaphor for what has befallen Iran. He is one of the most successful alumni of the centerpiece of the Islamic regime's education system, Imam Sadiq University. As products of the regime, both the university and Jalili represent Iran's shifting place in the world since the 1979 revolution.

In the years before the revolution, a family of innovative Iranian industrialists succeeded in collaborating with Harvard University to set up a satellite campus of the famed American university in Tehran. The team set up a state-of-the-art campus and began giving out Harvard MBAs -- but its doors were shuttered after the revolution. The campus was eventually turned over to Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, who in the early days of the revolution was the head of revolutionary committees and a trusted aide to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and is now an ally of Khamenei. The Harvard campus was renamed Imam Sadiq University; since then, it has been a Kani fiefdom, and the school's mission statement makes it clear that it considers its duty to select students based first and foremost on their professed piety.

If success is based on one's pious pedigree, Jalili succeeded with flying colors. It is often claimed, falsely, that he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Prophet Mohammed's foreign policy. In fact, the subject of his dissertation, which was finished in 2001, is the political paradigm of the Quran. In a language chilling in its certitude, he not only claims that Islam's holy book offers a complete, inerrant, and timeless model for politics and life, but adds that the sine qua non of belief is complete submission to -- and implementation of -- the book's divine wisdom. His dissertation advisor was Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday prayer leader of the city of Mashhad and one of Khamenei's most stalwart allies. In Alamolhoda's most recent sermon, for example, he claimed that anyone who does not vote in the upcoming election will certainly go to hell.

Jalili is still focused on piety at the expense of practical realities. He refuses to recognize the existence of a serious economic crisis, even as oil exports have been reduced to the lowest levels in more than a half-century. Instead of proposing solutions on how to end sanctions and reduce tensions, Jalili offers facile certitudes about the need for an "economy of resistance." In one televised interview, he suggested Iran's economy could be improved if Iran stopped buying millions of dollars of ice-cream sticks from Germany: As he put it, "Imagine how many jobs we can create in our villages by producing ice-cream sticks ourselves."

One of the main slogans of Jalili's campaign is hayat tayyebe -- "pious living." It is a phrase that comes from the Quran and, according to Jalili, demands absolute belief in the righteousness of Khamenei's leadership. He often repeats verbatim what the supreme leader has said -- that pious living is political resistance, not compromise.

Jalili's views on social issues are also framed through his conception of "pious living." In a meeting with a group of women in late May, he drew a sharp distinction between the Western and "Islamic" view of the role of women. In Islam, he said, the most basic unit is the family, and "women's identity is through family, which is the same as being a mother." Iranians should not, he claimed, be ashamed of this view -- it is the West that should be ashamed.

In today's Iran, where more than 60 percent of college science degrees are earned by women -- in spite of the obstacles the regime throws in their way -- ideas like Jalili's are a hard sell. That might be why, with every passing day, his candidacy is also proving to be a harder sell -- even for his powerful supporters.



America: Choosing Security Over Liberty Since 1798

Sorry, Edward Snowden -- the United States has a long, dubious history of putting national security before people's freedoms.  

In the past week, Americans have learned of a dizzying array of heretofore unrevealed surveillance programs, part of a hidden security structure ostensibly designed to prevent terrorist attacks from ever occurring on U.S. soil again. Reactions from commentators have ranged from furious outrage to reasoned concern to outright dismissal of the programs' implications. Those in the latter camp have begun to rail against former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor Edward Snowden for his release of the National Security Agency documents that have sparked a furious debate over the balance between privacy and security in the digital age; meanwhile, opponents have dismissed him as an unhinged narcissist or a sociopathic nerd.

Whether his actions are moral or justifiable is up for debate, but Snowden himself made his motivations clear in his email correspondence with Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman. In his view, America's security state has simply become too large and intrusive in the face of the relatively minor threat of terrorism. "We managed to survive greater threats in our history … than a few disorganized terrorist groups and rogue states without resorting to these sorts of programs," he told Gellman.

It's a fascinating quote. But one must wonder whether his statement -- so compelling on its surface -- holds true after an examination of U.S. history. Precisely when, exactly, was the period that he refers to, when a threat greater than those we face today was bravely met without any serious infringements on liberty? Was there ever such a period?

Moving backward through history, we can first quickly dispense with the last 12 years. Following 9/11, President George W. Bush's administration enacted policies that will likely become synonymous with executive overreach, the policies many of President Barack Obama's supporters are now disappointed he didn't do more to rein in. These included the National Security Agency's program of illegally wiretapping American citizens without a warrant, first revealed in 2005, which set the stage for today's concerns about whether the agency is in the habit of using its vast infrastructure to find and store every crumb of data about millions of people in the country. Muslim Americans also saw themselves the frequent victims of assaults on their civil liberties, finding themselves on the receiving end of enhanced scrutiny and frequent harassment from law enforcement.

It's equally doubtful that Snowden was thinking of the 1960s and 1970s when he spoke to Gellman. Befitting a period of social change and upheaval, many of the threats the government sought to counter during this period were internal in nature. It was also a time when U.S. security agencies, both domestic and foreign, held more power than they ever have at any point, as Congress routinely ignored its oversight responsibilities. The work of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is best remembered for the harassment of civilians taking part in the civil rights movement or other activities deemed subversive. Even as lauded a peace advocate as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. found himself the target of FBI snooping, as agents gathered dirt to potentially discredit him and his movement. The FBI's Counterintelligence Program -- better known as COINTELPRO -- reached into the lives of people across the ideological spectrum, from the Black Panthers to the Ku Klux Klan, all in the name of protecting security.

It took Congress finally stepping in after Watergate to bring the FBI and other agencies to heel. In the course of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, better known as the Church Committee, a vast network of actions hidden from the public was exposed, ranging from the reading of Americans' mail to crackdowns on Vietnam protesters to Projects SHAMROCK and MINARET.

Under SHAMROCK, all telegraphs to and from the United States were captured as signals intelligence, regardless of their origin or destination. At the program's peak, 15,000 telegrams a month were intercepted. MINARET, meanwhile, analyzed these electronic communications and passed along information on predetermined U.S. citizens to other intelligence and law enforcement agencies for follow-up. MINARET operated from 1969 until 1973, while SHAMROCK was allowed to continue from 1945 all the way until 1975 when NSA Director Lew Allen finally shuttered it. If you were to try to design a perfect historical analogue to today's digital concerns, the activities revealed in the Church Committee's investigations would come close -- with the added concern that the content of those documents were examined, rather than just logging the author and recipient before sending it on its way. (The concept of "metadata" was still a few decades away.) The committee's findings led to a series of reforms, including the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which instituted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to provide much stricter oversight of the executive branch's actions. Unfortunately, those reforms have been chipped away at by successive administrations since then, and the FISC was responsible for authorizing the NSA's metadata collection.

Back in the 1950s, the United States faced a true existential threat in the form of the Soviet Union, and nuclear war seemed a very real possibility. In this climate, the federal government used every tool at its disposal to root out potential subversives -- often bending or just outright shattering constitutional principles in the process. In an example of overreach in the legislative branch, that which is supposed to be most closely aligned with the interests of the people, the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation used the sweeping powers Congress had granted itself to conduct countless numbers of hearings into the communist threat to the homeland, including high-profile investigations of Hollywood's writers and actors and Sen. Joseph McCarthy's infamous allegations of communists throughout the government. The committees' investigations led to massive infringement on the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of association.

Going back another leap takes us to World War II, before Snowden's parents were even born. During the war years, the United States massively infringed on Americans' right to privacy in ways at least as great as we see today. In the days after Pearl Harbor, the Office of Censorship was set up under the First War Powers Act, granting its director "absolute discretion" in censoring internal communications. Under this arrangement, postal censorship was put into place in the United States, with all mail that passed through the U.S. Postal Service subject to opening, inspection, and follow-up investigation. The program worked closely with the Office of Strategic Services, later to become the CIA, and was deemed necessary to prevent messages between espionage agents planted within the country from going unnoticed. The end of the war saw the creation of the NSA, the new iteration of the wartime Armed Forces Security Agency, and the institution of Projects SHAMROCK and MINARET. And in perhaps one of the most repugnant instances of violating liberty for security, thousands of Japanese-Americans were rounded up and placed into internment camps on the West Coast for the duration of the war. No charges were brought against the families moved to these camps; their relatives' country of origin was evidence enough.

And Snowden probably wouldn't have been thrilled with the U.S. activities during World War I, which saw President Woodrow Wilson and Congress come together to pass the Espionage Act of 1917 -- making it a crime to interfere with military operations -- and the Sedition Act of 1918, which expanded the former to criminalize any speech that cast the government or the war in a negative light and which allowed the postmaster general to refuse to deliver any mail that he personally felt would inhibit the war. (If the government prosecutes Snowden for his actions, it would likely be under the Espionage Act.) The Civil War was no triumph of liberty over security either. In fact, it saw the beginning of the modern executive consolidation of power with regard to national security. Abraham Lincoln outright suspended the writ of habeas corpus, the constitutional provision allowing for a speedy trial, to advance the war effort, something no president since then has attempted to do against U.S. citizens. Lincoln also tasked his postmaster general (then a cabinet position), Montgomery Blair, with examining mail in order to root out Confederate sympathizers. As in world wars I and II, all post was considered a legitimate target for intelligence-gathering activities.

Even the Founding Fathers, the supposed exemplars to which Americans set their gaze in times of trouble, failed on this issue. President John Adams signed into law the Sedition Act of 1798 in the face of the "Quasi-War" against France. Under this provision, the U.S. government set aside the First Amendment it had so recently penned and restricted the ability of its citizens to publish documents or give speeches seen as anti-government -- all in the name of protecting the country from a threat that never materialized and that few Americans now remember.

Indeed, the truth is that we -- and Snowden -- do not live in an anomalous time. Rather, history is replete with instance after instance of the U.S. government suppressing or outright violating the rights of its people in the name of furthering national security. In each case, and at each point in history, we see evidence that goes against the idea of a utopian past in which freedoms and liberty went unimpeded while Americans' remained safe and protected within its borders.

This isn't at all to say that the NSA or the Obama administration should get a free pass on allowing these surveillance programs to grow and flourish under their watch. Nor is it meant to make light of the fact that the government now has the ability to copy and store the billions upon billions of pieces of information it intercepts indefinitely in databases for future use, something previous administrations could only dream of. Not nearly enough debate has gone on in the harsh light of day over just what freedoms we are willing to exchange in the name of security. But in conducting that debate, we would do well not to delude ourselves into falsely remembering a time when the United States was innocent of breaking the trust of its people in the name of protecting them. That time never existed.

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