Back to the Bad Old Days

A diplomatic spat over Iran’s ambassador to the United States has Washington and Tehran at odds again.

TEHRANAfter months of warming relations, the United States and Iran reverted last week to their more familiar role as enemies. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's choice of Hamid Aboutalebi as his new ambassador to the United Nations set off the latest bout of recriminations: Aboutalebi had served as a translator in the 1979 hostage taking at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, leading American senators to brand him as an "acknowledged terrorist" and causing President Barack Obama's administration to announce that it would deny him a visa to enter the United States in order to take up his post. Iranian lawmakers, meanwhile, accused the United States of "bullying."

The quarrel shows just how wide the gap between the U.S. and Iranian understanding of their shared history remains -- and highlights why rapprochement remains so difficult. Despite the recent talks over Iran's nuclear program, Washington and Tehran continue to hold wildly different views on Iran's place in the world, and the Rouhani administration's mandate to engage with the West is under constant threat of being undermined by the country's hardliners.

The very idea of improving ties with the United States, after all, marks a stark departure from the Islamic Republic's foundational principles. Habib Ahmadzadeh, a former captain in Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and author of several novels on the Iran-Iraq War, explained that resistance to Western dominance, rather than Islam, is the core of the ideology that sprung from the revolution.

"Imagine a child who keeps tormenting a kitten," he said, drawing an analogy about America's supposed attempts to push Iran around. "After getting a lot of beatings, the kitten scratches back."

Ahmadzadeh rehearsed a long line of American injustices perpetrated against Iran, starting six decades ago -- when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was the center of the CIA-supported coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. That previous experience, he said, helps explain why Iranian students took over the U.S. embassy in 1979.

"What would you think our people would later on say if we allowed the embassy to stay open and then there was another coup?" he says. "After the Snowden leaks we now know that the U.S. spies everywhere. We know that embassies can be centers for listening in on people and they can be centers for creating civil war."

The hostage crisis, in which 52 embassy staff members were held captive for 444 days, was a crucial moment for U.S.-Iranian relations -- and also for shaping the revolution's nascent ideology. The incident remains a pillar in the post-revolutionary psyche: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini intoned that by storming the embassy, the students proved that America couldn't "do a damn thing" against the rise of political Islam. The compound's outside walls, adorned with well-maintained anti-American propaganda, is still one of Tehran's few tourist attractions. Every year, crowds of regime supporters celebrate the anniversary of the takeover with rallies and chants of "Death to America."

For Ahmadzadeh, it's hard to compare the hostage crisis to what he sees as the long list of American misdeeds. In 1988, he reminds me, the U.S. Navy shot down an Iran Air civilian passenger flight over Iranian airspace, killing 290 Iranians.  Meanwhile, the biggest injustice of all, according to him, was America's support for Iraq during its war with Iran. After having stood idly by while Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched chemical weapons at Iranian soldiers, he is incredulous that the United States is now trying to limit Iran's pursuit of peaceful nuclear energy.

"Everybody hypes up the U.S. embassy takeover, but the truth is that all the people who were taken hostage were returned home safely," says Ahmadzadeh. "Which one is worse? That, or 290 dead Iranians?"

While Ahmadzadeh's views are fairly representative for mainstream regime loyalists, he doesn't fit the stereotypical image painted in the West of men in his position. He opposes many of the Islamic Republic's current policies, including religious restrictions on arts and culture, which have been tightened the past few years by what he calls "shallow moralists" who use Islam as a political tool. 

Similarly, the 56-year-old Aboutalebi also escapes typecasting. With a degree in sociology from a Belgian university, the rejected U.N. envoy speaks fluent French and English, and has stellar diplomatic credentials after serving as ambassador to Italy, Australia, Belgium, and the European Union. As a close advisor to Rouhani, he is viewed inside Iran as a moderate and a proponent of closer diplomatic relations with the United States. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, himself widely respected for calming diplomatic waters, has called Aboutalebi "one of our most rational and experienced diplomats."

Aboutalebi's role in the embassy takeover seems to have been marginal. In a March interview with Iranian media, Aboutalebi said he only acted as interpreter a couple of times, "based on humanitarian motivations."

Nor is Aboutalebi the only senior figure in Iran today who was involved in the event. In fact, several students more deeply involved in the crisis have gone on to become prominent reformists in the Rouhani administration.

Take Masoumeh Ebtekar is one of Iran's former vice presidents and the head of its Environmental Protection Organization. In 1979, she acted as spokesperson for the students at the embassy, and became known to Americans as Sister Mary. Today, she is the highest-appointed woman since the Islamic Revolution, often held up by Western media and diplomats as a torchbearer for reform. With impeccable English skills, Ebtekar also regularly meets foreign dignitaries visiting Iran and maintains an English-language Twitter account.

Conservatives see the ban on Aboutalebi as yet another instance of direct American meddling in internal Iranian affairs -- something they warned long ago would be the only result of trying to curry favor with Western powers. And they have used it to stoke skepticism about the Rouhani administration's broader diplomatic aims.

"Resistance and firmness are the only solution with America and the West," read an editorial in Sobh-e Sadegh, a weekly belonging to the IRGC. "Having hope in negotiations and dialogue to resolve bilateral issues is an unrealistic hope."

Until now, Rouhani's opponents have had little to gloat about -- the president, after all, still has the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But if speed bumps like this continue to stack up, Khamenei could shift his support.

"The supreme leader has adopted an ambiguous position. He is striking a balance between conservatives and Rouhani's group," said Davoud Hermidas-Bavand, a professor of international relations at Tehran's Allameh Tabatabaei University and a spokesman for the National Front, an opposition party founded by Mossadegh. "But his inclination is much stronger toward conservatives."

Speaking in the living room of his North Tehran apartment, Hermidas-Bavand said that the economic havoc wrought by international sanctions and eight years of mismanagement under Ahmadinejad had left the supreme leader with no choice but to give negotiations a try.

That kind of concern for the general state of the country doesn't necessarily weigh on ordinary lawmakers. Parliament, which is dominated by conservatives and heavily influenced by the IRGC, has already attempted to obstruct the government's policies. In December, dozens of parliamentarians tried to force Zarif's resignation for comments he made about American military supremacy, while Rouhani's pledge to relax control on the Internet and social media has likewise run into fierce opposition. Hardline MPs will likely use any affront from the United States to dig in their heels further.

"They are thinking of factional rather than national benefit," said Hermidas-Bavand. "The parliament wants to curtail Mr. Zarif."

So far, the diplomatic standoff continues: Iran refuses to name a replacement for Aboutalebi, and the United States refuses to let him in the country. While the diplomatic brawl causes headaches in Tehran, it may also prove to be a lost opportunity for Washington.

"[Aboutalebi] is a chief advisor to Rouhani," said Reza Marashi, the research director at the National Iranian American Council in Washington. "It would have been valuable to have him in New York to make sure that messages were conveyed authoritatively." 



Ghost President

Algeria's ailing, invisible strongman is a lock to win a fourth term as president. But things are not so quiet behind the scenes.

TUNIS — Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika looks healthy enough in campaign posters. At a rally for Algerian expatriates in Tunis, the septuagenarian gazes warmly at the crowd from glossy poster stock, his trademark moustache and wispy thatch of hair not entirely overtaken by gray. In the background, his campaign jingle blares over loudspeakers, an ode to the highs and lows of the Algerian football team.

"He's the candidate who inspires hope, and he has achieved many things for our country, especially bringing peace," says Amar Saadani, the less-than-charismatic secretary-general of Bouteflika's National Liberation Front (FLN) and one of the president's most vocal supporters.

But the youthful campaign photos bear little resemblance to the man spotted only sporadically in public over the last year. A ghost candidate, Bouteflika didn't appear at a single rally throughout the campaign, not even the grand finale in Algiers on April 13. No surprises there. Since he suffered stroke last April, the aging president has struggled to stand or speak. There has been much speculation about who has been running the show since then, especially during the three months Bouteflika spent recovering in a Parisian hospital. There is also talk of updating the ever-malleable constitution later this year to create an official vice president, just in case. Unofficially, his brother, Said Bouteflika, is believed to be pulling the strings, but nothing can be said for sure.

Bouteflika's reelection campaign is a well-oiled machine -- so efficient that even in his invisibility, the aging strongman is the only candidate with a real shot in the April 17 election. But his regime has grown increasingly brittle. The president's frail health has deepened divisions within the ruling elite, and united the typically fractious opposition, which has declared its intention to boycott the vote.

Still, Bouteflika's supporters are confident he will win a fourth term in office: "We know how to run elections," Saadani says dismissively, when asked if the anger Bouteflika's candidacy has provoked risks undermining the credibility of the elections. Six candidates are technically running for the presidency, but the vote is set to be the usual one-horse race, with all the standard allegations of systematic fraud. With the president too ill to campaign himself, his political allies have risen to the occasion. Along with Saadani, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal resigned last month to run the campaign.

Bouteflika has been in power since 1999, in the depths of the Algerian civil war, when he won election with the backing of the military. In that contest, all six of his opponents withdrew in protest on the eve of the election, and he received nearly 74 percent of the vote. Since then, his margin of victory has only gotten wider. In the 2009 elections -- already controversial because the constitution had been altered to allow Bouteflika to run for a third term -- he was reelected with an astonishing and almost certainly fraudulent 90 percent of vote. Officially, the turnout was 74 percent, but the U.S. embassy's estimate was "25-30 percent at most," a diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks reveals. This time around, Saadani predicts that a more modest 60 percent of Algerians will vote to return the president to office.  

In the lead-up to the election, there has been little freedom for public debate. A wave of peaceful anti-Bouteflika protests was viciously suppressed by security forces. At many demonstrations, plain clothes police officers and members of the media outnumbered protesters. Last month, authorities shuttered the privately owned Atlas television station after its coverage became "too critical." Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both condemned government abuses in recent months.

Popular anger has boiled over into violence on more than one occasion, and several pro-Bouteflika rallies have been cancelled as a result. One, scheduled to take place on April 5 in the eastern region of Kabylie, where the president is especially unpopular, was called off after the venue was burned to the ground.

The controversy surrounding his bid for a fourth term has divided the ruling oligarchy to an extent not seen in years. In the three previous presidential elections, the generals of the military and the all-powerful intelligence service, known as the DRS, were unified in throwing their support for Bouteflika.

Since his 2009 reelection, however, the balance of power between the presidency, the DRS, and the military has been in serious turmoil. Bouteflika has sought to establish a more independent presidency, attempting to rein in the intelligence chief, Gen. Mohamed Mediène, known popularly as Gen. Toufik, who has been considered an untouchable force since his appointment in 1992 (Toufik reportedly describes himself as the "God of Algeria").

In response to Bouteflika's attempts to reduce the DRS's political power, media loyal to the intelligence chief have been attacking the president and his loyalists.

The DRS has spent years gathering files on everyone who is anyone. In January 2010, it began leaking information about the corrupt dealings of top employees at Sonatrach, the state oil company which accounts for fully 98 percent of Algerian exports. Among those implicated by the leaks was Bouteflika's protégé, ex-energy minister Chakib Khelil, and his entourage. Khelil was, among other things, a key interlocutor with the United States, where he fled in 2013 to avoid arrest.

One of the powerful DRS figures -- and Toufik allies -- whom Bouteflika had tried, unsuccessfully, to remove in 2009 was Ali Tounsi, the national police chief. Tounsi refused to step down, telling the media that "A mujahid never retires." In February 2010, he was assassinated under mysterious circumstances.

The Sonatrach leaks hit even closer to the president's inner circle when a series of newspaper articles alleged that his brother, Said Bouteflika, was heavily involved in corruption dealings at the oil giant and that Khelil had taken the fall for him. On April 24, 2013, for example, the leading daily El Watan published an article titled "Corruption case: Said Bouteflika, is he implicated?" It was the first in a series of articles implicating the president's brother in the massive corruption scandal. Bouteflika suffered his stroke three days after it appeared in print.

The back-and-forth has escalated since then. Saadani, as the public face of the Bouteflika clan, attacked Gen. Toufik by name in a stunning -- and unprecedented -- Q&A published by the website Tout sur l'Algérie on Feb. 3. Among other things, he accused the spy chief of playing a role in the 1992 assassination of President Mohamed Boudiaf. The tone of these unprecedentedly public clan wars became distinctly low-brow the following day, when another leading pro-DRS paper, Le Jeune Independent, ran a front page story denouncing Saadani under the homophobic headline: "Quand un homo provoque un homme," or "When a homo [sic] attacks a man."

When it comes to his battles against Toufik's supporters, the FLN secretary-general is tight-lipped: "That's an internal matter. I don't have a response," he tells me.

As the election draws closer, Bouteflika's backers appear to have bested the DRS for now. They have promised to deliver additional reforms to the national intelligence service -- Toufik has proven impossible to fire, but they can continue to clip the wings of his agency -- suggesting that the balance of Algerian political life has indeed been permanently transformed. Of course, that doesn't mean Toufik won't put up a fight, and the power struggles between the self-proclaimed Gods will very likely lead to yet more violence and turmoil for mortal Algerians. 

According to Michael Willis, a professor of North African politics at the University of Oxford, the ruling elite doesn't want to take any chances of putting in place a president who might be too independent. Despite simmering clan feuds, Bouteflika is still viewed as the most "manageable" way to preserve the status quo. "It suggests they're running out of ideas," he says. "On some level, if you have somebody who's very, very ill and not very active, then at least well they know that that person won't go off on their own and create problems."

On the sidelines of the Tunis rally, an FLN official argues that Bouteflika is the only guarantor of stability. When I point out that Bouteflika is not exactly immortal, he insists that the wheelchair-bound president's fourth term will be the one that prepares the terrain for a democratic transition.

Faced with messy transitions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, not to mention a ticking time bomb in Syria, it appears the international community is placing its bets with Bouteflika, who has been a key U.S. ally since 2001.

"There may be some thinking that given what's happened in the Maghreb, that stability is more important than an open, democratic regime," Willis says, referring to the messy revolutions in Tunisia and Libya. "I personally think that would be a mistake."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's April 2 visit to Algiers has been interpreted by many Algerians as an implicit blessing for Bouteflika -- and by extension the military establishment -- and the supposed "stability" he represents. Ultimately, however, the West has little control over Algeria's internal power struggles, as the unceremonious departure of Khelil, a key U.S. ally within the regime, demonstrates.

And so the security card has trumped reform yet again, even though the supposed guarantor of stability could very well die in office. Indeed, the metaphor of death has become a recurring theme in the election, with critics of the aging strongman imploring him, in the words of commentator Kamel Daoud not "to take the country to the tomb with you." Algerian cartoonist Ali Dilem may have said it best without using words at all: In a series of recent cartoons for the newspaper Liberté, he has variously portrayed the president as a mummy, the Bouteflika campaign team as medics, and the presidential chair as a gravestone.

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