A New President of Iran (Part 2)

As noted in the first part of our overview of the recent presidential elections, power and influence in Iran depend on the interplay between the different sources of political legitimacy, the formal and informal institutions of the system, and the networks of connections in the society. Among the main sources of legitimacy are, on the “official” side, the relationship with the figure of the founding Leader and the 1979 Revolution, the appeal to the teaching of Islam, to velayat e-faqih, or to the  Constitution, and the religious or political stature of the person. On the “unofficial” side, one’s involvement with previous moments of popular revolt (eg. the Green Revolution of 2009), the relationship with the informal leaders of the “opposition” (Moussavi, Khatami), or with other “moderate” figures (Rafsanjani), are similarly relevant.

Although there are no official political parties in Iran, the formation of coalitions of interests is a natural process within any society; these networks might take different forms or names, but they are generally recognized as representing different positions. Within Iran, one can distinguish a spectrum ranging from, on one end, those most faithful to the original intent and spirit of the Revolution and to Khomeini’s legacy (and thus most closely following his specific interpretation of Shia Islam) – to, at the opposite end, groups and people associated with the recent movements of popular protest, who have been excluded, or have excluded themselves, from the official political process. In-between these there is a broad political middle, trying to be a part of the process, with some walking a centrist line while having their bearings more in the traditionalist direction, and others belonging to the reformist camp.

Of course, various readings are possible; in the media, very often the political life is simply divided into traditionalists and reformists, But a bare bones description does not do justice to the complexity of the situation on the ground. For example, the traditionalist direction, usually identified as “the principalists”. is by no means monolithic; an important dividing line has formed recently between the “deviants” or radicals, as Ahmadinejad’s populists are called, and those who are closer to the Supreme Leader Khamenei and to the clerical circles. This conflict burst out in 2009, when Ahmadinejan “walked out” of cabinet meetings for almost two weeks, in protest to Khamenei imposing his people and influence within the government.

Given the exclusion from the official political competition of those who had a direct involvement in the 2009 events, the centrist-reformist part of the spectrum covers a broad range as well, but is generically where the dissatisfied place their hopes and votes. Within this group there are many figures who have occupied or still occupy important positions in the system, and who have been a part of it for decades, and thus possess not only popular appeal (being a reformist voice), but also official, institutional legitimacy. Among them, Hassan Rouhani has been known for a long time as a not-so-prominent moderate voice.

Given the complexity of the factors listed above, it is easy to understand that the Council of Guardians probably did not have an easy job vetting and selecting the candidates “qualified” to run for the presidency. At the end of the registration process there were almost 700 people who manifested their intention to run in the election; true enough, most of them had no chances of being taken into serious consideration. For example, among them there were several women, although the Constitution prescribes that the President must be a male Shia Muslim. From the CoG’s perspective, however, the most important decisions had to be made about a small number of prominent players, who possessed the political and religious backgrounds that made them acceptable for the regime, and were (at least potentially) attractive to the people. Two of these, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, were especially interesting cases, Rafsanjani because of representing the moderate pragmatic line and having a reputable political past (friend of Ayatollah Khomeini and two-time Iranian president), and Mashaei because of enjoying the forceful backing of Ahmadinejad’s camp (which certainly did him no good with either Khamenei or the Council of Guardians).

At the end of the selection process, the Council of Guardians ended up with a brief list of eight suitable and suited candidates (biographies), including, on the traditionalist side, the Khamenei-backed mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf; the adviser to the Leader, Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel; the former head of the Iran Revolutionary Guard and adversary of Ahmadinejad, Mohsen Rezaei; and the chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, strongly supported by the Ahmadinejad people. On the centrist, or pragmatic-reformist side, the approved candidates were Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Foreign Minister close to the Rafsanjani circles; a former vice-president of Iran, current member of the Expediency Council, and prominent friend of Khatami, Mohammad-Reza Aref; and a lesser-known cleric and former chief nuclear negotiator named Hassan Rouhani. An unknown quantity, perhaps straddling the two camps, but with a long political-administrative record, was the eighth and last approved candidate,  Mohammad Gharazi.

Since these candidates were not selected so as to have only one representative of each faction (as they are not officially recognized), during the campaign that followed (and which included televised debates) they had to take some strategic decisions in order not to dilute the vote that would go in support of the direction they represented. Accordingly, Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel withdrew in order to strengthen the so-called “conservative” camp. In the reformist camp, it was important, but for a long time not clear, behind whom would Rafsanjani and Khatami throw their support; finally, their choice was Hassan Rouhani. In consequence, Mohammad-Reza Aref withdrew, for Rouhani’s benefit. Slowly but surely, through careful messaging and key endorsements, Rouhani rose to become the candidate representing the reformist direction. With his established past and moderate reformist rhetoric, he became the attractive choice for pragmatists, moderates, reformists – and, by default, for those who had been engaged with the opposition movement. An interesting contrast arose, therefore, between a carefully calibrated, generically encouraging, yet moderate rhetoric from the candidate, and the increasingly larger and louder crowds of supporters (who at one rally even chanted the name of detained opposition leader Mir Hussain Mousavi).

The possibility of such a broad, popular coalition forming behind Rouhani has its explanation in the generalized unhappiness with the state in which Iran finds itself – with inflation, recession, youth unemployment, a conflict-ridden foreign policy, and general insecurity about the future. No amount of ideological rhetoric, not even the most exacerbated one, can supplant the failure of a regime to provide these basics elements of security, and there is no factor that undermines a government’s messaging more, than a failing economic situation.

This large and widespread disaffection with the regime – including Ahmadinejad’s administration of the economy and the Khamenei-lead control over the society – and the safety that both the people and possibly also the regime could find in such a centrist, experienced, economically-minded candidate like Rouhani, might explain why he was both successful in the campaign, and tolerated by the powers that be. Rouhani’s messaging, meanwhile, maintained his moderate positioning, and he kept his statements generic and well-meaning enough, to contain hints both toward the Green Movement people, and the ideological power establishment.

But what do we know about Rouhani? Hassan Rouhani is a Shiite cleric, born in 1948. Until the June elections, Rouhani has been serving on the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts; before that, he was a leading member of the Majlis for 20 years. His security and foreign policy background also goes back a long way, starting with the leadership role he played during the Iran-Iraq war; afterward, for 16 years he was a member (and then the head) of the Supreme National Security Council; and until recently he lead the Center for Strategic Research. In 1999 he came out forcefully against the popular protests, on the side of maintaining public order. Between 2003 and 2005 he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, brokering agreements with the EU. In recent years he was a constant critic of Ahmadinejad’s mishandling of both the foreign policy and the economy.

During the campaign, he carefully defined his position: “I have no problem working with Principalists or Reformists, I have a problem with extremists… and I have come to replace extremism with moderation.” He further clarified this self-definition when he mentioned by name the three key representatives of these factions (Supreme Leader Khamenei, Rafsanjani and Khatami), connecting himself neatly with all of them: “my close relationship with all three men began before the revolution and God-willing it will remain that way.” Thus, a moderate figure – but one of reform and pragmatism, against the thick ideological overtones of the previous president and of some hardliners. He said things that sounded good to the people, while not alienating the regime, as when he advocated for the need to pay attention to the impulses toward change that arise from “religion, freedom, and the people’s movement towards democracy.” No wonder that the people responded, pinning their hopes – for change, for a different voice, for a channel for their discontent and frustration after the uprising of 2009 – on him.

And the people expressed this support on the polling day, at the voting booth.  In Iran, the president is elected by popular vote, in two rounds. In the first round, all candidates are in the run (six, in our case). If no candidate obtains over 50%, a second round is organized, with only the top two candidates participating (those who obtained the most votes); in the second round, the candidate with the most votes (surely a majority) wins the elections. On June 14, the date of the first round of voting, there was an atmosphere of expectation, waiting to see if the regime would simply impose its will (as it did 2009), and who would qualify to the second round. To most people’s surprise, not only was the regime quick in making public the results, but the winner became apparent already from the first round of voting: it was Hassan Rouhani, with about 51% of the vote (results; results). According to the authorities, 72 % of the 50 million Iranian voters (including Iranians from abroad) participated in the elections. The win was clear and quite overwhelming – especially given the precedents.

As for Rouhani, in his first press conference after winning the elections, his emphasis did not change a bit; the word he kept repeating was “moderation”. Then. on August 4, 2013, he was inaugurated as the new President of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Of course, the challenges for him and for the Iranians who greeted his election with immense enthusiasm are just starting. After the task of forming a government (i.e. making the right selection for members of the cabinet), the people of Iran (and also the rest of the world) will look eagerly to see if he will be willing, as the new President, and if he will be able, within the limits of this position, and the intricate Iranian political system, to transform his talk about moderate reform, economic pragmatism, and less tense foreign relations – into effective action.

NOTE

An excellent source documenting the campaign and the elections was Wilson Center’s Iran Election Update series, prepared by Hanif Zarrabi-Kashani (Scribd). Al Jazeera also followed very closely and reported abundantly on the process.

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A New President of Iran (Part 1)

On Sunday, August 4, Hojatoleslam Sheikh Hassan Rohani was inaugurated as the new president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Previously, on June 14, the Iranians had voted overwhelmingly to elect him as president, already from the first round. The result was greeted with great elation on the streets of Iran, and with surprise in the West. But what does this election mean, and how did it come about?

THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN

For the past eight years, the Western media was dominated, in all things Iran, by the figure – at times grotesque, at times comical – of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the eyes of the media he stood for all things threatening or questionable about Iran’s Islamic government – and also, quite problematically, he stood for “Iran” itself. Yet this image neglected an important fact – that Ahmadinejad was only the President of Iran, namely the holder of an elected position limited to two mandates, of an office that is in no way the most important or influential one, in the Iranian political system.  “President” might sound like a grand title, but it is not. It is a position of power, indeed, but one of the many, in the intricate web of formal and informal institutions that constitute the Iranian political system.

At the heart and foundation of Iran’s political system are an originating event, a founding figure, and a grounding theory; respectively, the Revolution of 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, and the ideology of velayat e-faqih. The Islamic Republic was founded as a result of a popular uprising against the brutal regime of the Shah, regime that had been established and maintained with the visible support of the governments of US and of Great Britain. Turning against this regime in 1979 was a broad coalition of varied forces, from Marxists to Islamists – and, of course, the population. Yet, no matter how wide the ideological range of those who rose against the Shah, the best organized and most prominent were the determined followers of the charismatic (previously exiled) leader, Khomeini. And after the removal of the Shah, they proceeded to swiftly purge the institutions of the state, and the country itself, from the competing revolutionary groups, and to establish a political system and a society that would be based on Khomeini’s own theory of government, the “guardianship of the jurisprudent” (velayat e-faqih).

Most Iranians belong to Shia Islam, and more particularly to Twelver Shia Islam, whose peculiarity is that the believers live in expectation of the return of the twelfth Imam, a descendant from Muhammad’s line who was supposed to become the next leader of the Muslims, before he disappeared in the year 874 CE. This is very important because, following Muhammad’s model, the leader of the Muslims is supposed to be the leader in all aspects of life – including what concerns us, the political. This is in keeping with the fact that, within Islam, ideally there is no justifiable separation between the religious and the social, between what is known to be right and just, and what is practiced, in all aspects of life (even if historically these spheres became separated not very long after the Prophet’s death). Therefore, since the (religiously) legitimate ruler of the Shia Muslims, the Imam, is not present, the question emerges as to who can rule them, and under what circumstances, so that they can live in faithfulness to the Quran and to the Islamic traditions. While in exile, Ruhollah Khomeini sat down to formulate an answer to this question, and the resulting theory, velayat e-faqih, became thus the fundamental principle of the new socio-political arrangement. In its essence, it states that, until the return of the Twelfth Imam,  the community of the (Shia) Muslims is put under the “guardianship” of the “jurists”, namely under the temporary guidance and rule of the trained scholars and clerics who know best, through their vocation and education, how to interpret Islam and apply it to the challenges of the day. A fairly commonsensical solution, given the premises; yet a solution that is by no means accepted by all Shia clerics and scholars, a number of whom consider it an abuse or deformation of Islam; and rightly so, since who gave Khomeini the authority to establish such “rules of the game”?

And here comes the second of the aforementioned foundational elements of the Republic of Iran: the figure of Ruhollah Khomeini. His intellectual and concrete leadership in overturning the Shah’s regime and establishing a new one, and his day-to-day rule over the newly formed republic, with him as ultimate decision-maker in all matters social, political and religious, make Khomeini the founding father of the Iranian polity as we know it. He is the source of the original ideology of the state, and he is also the revolutionary leader who established the new Islamic state. One could compare his figure to those of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Mao Zedong, Fidel Catro or, more recently, Cesar Chavez; but also to the more appealing  figures of the Framers of the American republic, Konrad Adenauer, or Charles De Gaulle: people who have shaped the founding principles of a state both through their ideas and through their actions, their actual leadership.

Thirdly, the other original source of legitimacy of the Islamic Republic is the 1979 Revolution itself, namely the social and cultural re-action to the authoritarian regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Given that that regime had been established and propped up through the very active involvement of Western interests, namely of Great Britain and the United States, against the will and desires of a good part of the people (see the 1953 intervention), the Revolution itself, at least in some circles, had a pronounced anti-Western, anti-American and anti-British coloring, as they were turning against the Shah and his backers.

The relevance of the three foundational elements of the Islamic Republic presented above is neatly evidenced in the preamble to the Constitution of Iran (which embodies the “guardianship of the jurists” theory, although it does not mention it); and this Constitution, together with velayat e-faqih, constitute the basic principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

FORMAL AND INFORMAL INSTITUTIONS OF POWER

To understand the role and relative importance of the presidential position, one needs to understand the system of institutions and functions that try to implement in reality the principles laid down in the Constitution and prescribed by the “guardianship of the jurists”. In keeping with the Islamic view of society, a polity will be moral and just only if it lives  in accordance with what is know to be true and right, namely the word and example of the Prophet, and the Islamic tradition. At the same time, within Islam, all believers are equal; even in religious matters, the “voice  of the people” can play a very important role. The Islamic Republic, therefore, is constituted so as to embody both these sources of legitimacy, and thus has two sets of institutions, one corresponding to each.

This situation is similar to that of other ideologically-grounded regimes, such as the People’s Republic of China. As the name states it, China is “the people’s republic”; accordingly, it has a set of institutions that is meant to make the people’s voice heard (the principle of representation), and also a parallel structure (the institutions of the Communist Party), which constitutes the ideological check on the system and on the representative institutions. Both in Iran and in China, the set of institutions that is more powerful is the one that provides the ideological leadership to the political system; accordingly, the representative institutions are weaker, and are kept in check (through the selection of candidates, or perhaps through sheer manipulation), so that they do not deviate from the ideological direction of the country.

It is worth noting here, perhaps, that such mechanisms or such an internal logic of the system are also found in what we consider to be liberal democracies. For example, in many countries the constitutional court is an unelected body that has the last say (or check) on the functioning and power of the representative institutions, based on a set of principles (or ideology) embodied in the founding principles (constitution, revolution) of that country. This is by no means a remark intended to create a false equivalency between the political systems of an Iran, a China, and a Germany, for example. It is however useful to understand the inner logic of a system, and to see that all these systems have a set of ideas at their basis, ideas which their supporters claim to embody the “truth” (i.e. the best form of government possible). The consensus today is that a form corresponding to the principles of representative democracy, freedom  (of speech, action, opinion), and what is broadly called “human rights”, is the optimal form of government, or what we usually call, in shorthand. “democracy”.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei meeting President Putin

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei meeting with President Putin

Returning to our discussion, it is relevant to note that, notwithstanding the similarities with China, the Iranian political system has a much stronger and more vocal “representative” component. Also, the ideological power is more diffused in Iran, within a range of formal and informal arrangements; unlike in China, where the Party’s institutions are more streamlined. But let us look at Iran.

At the top of the  political, social and religious structures of power in Iran is the Supreme Leader – currently, the Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei. Khamenei is only the second Leader after the founder, Khomeini. He was elected (since the Leader is elected by another institution) after the Khomeini’s death, in 1989, as a compromise candidate between various factions. Co-worker of Khomeini, he was President of Iran under him during the 1980s.

Immediately below the Leader, on the next rung of power, is the Council of Guardians. As the name suggests, this organ is at the heart of the system, expressing the idea of the guidance of the Islamic jurists over the direction of the society and of its institutions. Accordingly, the CoG has many powers, and a central role in making sure that both the institutions and the individual actors in the state follow the Quran and the Constitution. Of its twelve members, six are elected by the Parliament, and the other six are appointed by the Leader.

This being the heart of the ideological system, there are two other institutions that, although with more ideological rather than representative functions, are situated somewhere between the “democratic” (demos + cratos) and the “theocratic” dimensions of the system.

The Assembly of Experts is the institution that elects the Leader; again as illustrated by its name, this institution gathers people with theological studies (86 of them), who need to pass examinations in order to qualify; however, they are voted in by the population, through universal elections happening every ten years. As it is with most other elected positions in the system, however, the candidates are vetted and pre-selected by the Council of Guardians. It is interesting to note that theoretically the Assembly of Experts also possesses the power to dismiss the Leader, if found unfit.

The Expediency Council is a more recent institution, established not long before Khomeini’s death, and its role is to mediate the legislative and decision-making conflicts between the elected Parliament and the Council of Guardians. These being its formal roles, informally it is also an institution that gathers many of the most powerful individual actors in the Iranian polity: military leaders, top clerics, government ministers etc. Given that it is the Leader who appoints them to the EC, it can also be seen as a way for him to gather and maintain the informal support of the power players of the country.

On the “purely” representative side of the political system, Iran looks like a combination of a presidential and a parliamentary system. Its legislature is constituted by the unicameral parliament, the Majles, which is directly elected by the population, through universal suffrage, every four years.  Although both men and women can be members of Parliament (unlike in the institutions mentioned above), in order to run for election one needs to be a Muslim; there are however spots in the Majles that are reserved for the members of the religious minorities – Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians. In order to run for elections, the candidates need to be vetted by the CoG; and not all qualify. Nonetheless, the Parliament is a relatively powerful and active institution; it is after all the characteristic of any institution that, once formed, it tries to cut itself as large a slice of power as it possibly can.  Just like other parliaments, the Majles debates and passes laws, and is able to check on the government (executive); at times, it has not shied from passing decisions (which never became laws) trying to check on the power of the Council of Guardians.

The executive branch is constituted by the President (who is its head) and the Cabinet (ministers). The President is directly elected by the population, every four years, and is limited to two terms. Of course, the list of candidates for the presidency is first vetted by the Council of Guardians; some of the basic requirements are that the candidate be male, a Shia Muslim, and an ethnic Iranian (i.e. not an ethnic Kurd or Armenian, for example). The President shapes a good part of the policy (which makes him a relatively forceful head of government), but he does not have the last say over the overall direction of the country. For example, while he signs international agreements and appoints ambassadors, the general thrust of the external policy is in the hands of the Leader and of his circles of power. Most pointedly, given much of the West’s concerns, the President is only an executor, and not a shaper of policy,  in what regards Iran’s nuclear plans, The Cabinet functions as a “council of ministers”; its members are appointed by the President and are approved by Parliament.

The President (with his Cabinet) is essentially in charge with running the day-to-day business of government, but his appointments and initiatives need to be approved or passed by the Parliament, which can also remove Cabinet members. In this sense, given also the reality of a very activist Majles, one could say that governing power (on the “representative” side) is somewhat equally divided between legislature and executive. Their activity (meant to express the intentions of the people, and to benefit them) is ideologically checked for corresponding with the grounding philosophy of the regime: Islam and the legacy of the Revolution.

There are additional institutions, such as those necessary for maintaining order and control over the society and its institutions: the Army, the Police, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the judiciary, the judiciary’s secret police etc. As is to be expected, these are very large, numerous, and relatively secretive; and maintaining control over them is crucial. On the other hand, there are also quasi-nongovernmental (quango?) or para-statal organizations, with roots in the Iran’s social culture and its recent past. Such are the Foundation of the Disinherited, the Martyrs’ Foundation, the Foundation of the Oppressed; these are large, sprawling even “foundations” that fulfill social and economic functions. For example, they might distribute benefits to the veterans of the war between Iraq and Iran, which has left the deepest marks on Iranian society; on the other hand, they also have economic interests and activities so large that they are some of the main employers in the country.  These parastatal structures constitute therefore very important sources of patronage; and the last say over their activity and leadership belongs to the Leader. Another very influential social organization is that of the Friday Prayer Leaders. Having control over what and how is communicated to the population at the Friday prayer, given that within Islam there is no ecclesiastical hierarchy, and thus no institutional check over the clerics’ or scholars’ activity, is of course very important. Consequently, the ultimate influence over this body rests with the Leader.

Iran pol sys 10

It is important to have a picture of this network of formal or less formal institutions and relationships, in order to understand that to have and wield power in Iran is a not a simple, unidimensional challenge. After founding father and revolutionary leader Khomeini’s death, in the absence of his towering figure, the system had to negotiate a modus operandi, which in actuality looks like a sum of compromises and relationships between various centers of power. Even the fact that the current Leader, Khamenei, was initially a “compromise” and relatively non-threatening candidate illustrates that having and maintaining power in this system is not as simple or straightforward endeavor as it could seem. Here one can notice again some similarities with China, with the plays on and for power within the structures of the Communist Party. One needs to create a rely on a network of institutional, ideological and individual supporters, or interested actors – and the population itself is one of these actors. After all, no regime can survive a complete loss of legitimacy.

ROHANI’S ELECTION

This is why it is very relevant and important that Hassan Rohani was elected so overwhelmingly, obtaining over 50% of the vote from the first round, and that his election was received with such a huge cheer by the population and the “reformist” forces . But it is perhaps even more significant that, of a field of candidates that initially included almost 700 names (anyone could register), the Council of Guardians, surely with the acknowledgment of the Leader, vetted and selected eight persons, one of whom was Rohani.  Thus let us take a look at the circumstances of his election, the interplay of the various influences, and the interesting profile of the newly-inaugurated Iranian president, Hassan Rohani, in the second part of our analysis.

[VIDEO: Raucous Rohani Campaign Meeting]


Around the World (May 18, 2013)

Italy: New President & New Government

After  an undecided election and two months of uncertainty (chronicled here and here) about the options available for forming a government and electing a new head of state, the main Italian parties agreed on re-electing 87-years old Giorgio Napolitano as President of the Italian Republic, and on forming a kind of “grand coalition” in support of a new government. Napolitano’s re-election, albeit contrary to his original intentions, of not standing for re-election, paved the way for reaching the more important goal, of forming a new and stable government. Why was Napolitano’s election conducing to the formation of a government?

On the one hand, he is a personality amenable to both major parties (center-left Democrats and center-right People of Liberty), and thus “finding” a compromise candidate was actually possible; although the Democrats could have pushed through a candidate without Berlusconi’s support, that would have doomed any chances of forming a government. It took five voting sessions, in the special electoral assembly, to return to the choice of the outgoing President; along this tortuous process, the center-left experienced significant turmoil, including a change in leadership (Bersani resigning), and that also contributed to making an agreement with the center-right possible. Finally – but just as importantly – at the swearing-in ceremony Giorgio Napolitano gave a powerful, emotional speech (video), in which he chastised with harsh words the entire Italian political elite; according to many, this was a catalyst that gave a significant impetus to the said elite, to reach a compromise in the interest of the country. The arrangement they reached is a coalition government in which both the center left, the center right, as well as Monti’s alliance would participate, thus giving it (at least on paper) the broad parliamentary support needed in order to attempt the serious economic, social and political reforms that Italy needs (composition of the cabinet). The new center-left premier, Enrico Letta, is a sober and moderate figure, one that is able to inspire trust, even beyond the political fault-lines. The only political force remaining outside these arrangements, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, whose representation in Parliament and anti-political stance had an important role to play in the recent impasse, has expressed its opposition both to Napolitano’s re-election and to Letta’s coalition government.

Serbia and Kosovo Reach An Agreement

On April 19, the leaders of Serbia and of Kosovo have reached an important EU-brokered agreement addressing the status of the four ethnic Serb municipalities in the north of Kosovo (North Mitrovica, Zvečan, Zubin Potok and Leposavić). Although “parts of” Kosovo, these municipalities have been under a sort of self rule, which actually translated into a weak rule of law and the flourishing of underground, even criminal economic activities, and a survival of the region only due to significant financial support from Serbia. Under the new agreement, however, this region will form one unit that will become an integral part of Kosovo, subject to its laws and institutions, while retaining  some autonomous decision-making powers in the realm of  economic development, education, healthcare and town planning, and populating its judiciary and police forces with local people. The consequences of the agreement, although interpreted differently by the two sides, are far reaching; for Serbia, it opens the doors for starting the negotiations for joining the EU; for Kosovo, it signifies an implicit affirmation by Serbia of Kosovo’s independent status; for the EU and its foreign minister (i.e. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy), Katherine Ashton, this is a significant success, and a step toward solving the long-term NATO and EU involvement in the region. It also demonstrates the continued attractiveness (and “soft power”) of the “EU carrot” – of the promise of integration into the economic, social and legal structures of the Union; in many ways, this is another instantiation of the accomplishment of the original objectives of the EU: to become a space of peace and prosperity. The signing of the agreement was certainly helped by the fact that the leaders involved have well-established nationalist credentials among their people: Serbia’s prime minister, Ivica Dačić, was at one time Slobodan Milosevic’s spokesman; the deputy prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, used to be an extremist nationalist; Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaçi,  is a former guerrilla leader. The text of the agreement was approved with large majorities by both parliaments: by the Kosovo Assembly on April 22, and by the Serbian National Assembly on April 26. The only obstacle remaining – and quite a significant one – is the actual implementation of the agreement, given that the leaders and population of the said municipalities remain opposed to it; however, given that Serbia is the de facto financier of these municipalities, there are few options for them but to accept the deal.

The Obama Administration in Crisis

These weeks the Barack Obama-led executive is passing through what is probably its most difficult period, following revelations of abusive behavior by its tax institution, a continued lack of clarity about what happened in Benghazi, Libya last year, and the discovery of the fact that its Justice Department has been conducting wide-ranging investigations of journalists’ activities. The Internal Revenue Service-related scandal has to do with its targeting of “conservative” groups, while evaluating their tax-exempt status, i.e. in the course of deciding if they engage in political activities, which would make them taxable entities. The code words that the IRS used in selecting the targeted groups (such as “Patriots”, “Bill of Rights”), the sheer intrusiveness of the inquiries, and the slow response time of the agency, give the impression of a politically motivated activity by an institution of the state that has no role to play in politics. The events of September 11, 2012 in Benghazi have been used by the Republicans from the start, to attack the executive, accusing it of either being grossly incompetent, or of intentionally misleading the public and the Congress. The way in which the various actors in the administration have vacillated in their reactions to and description of the events, and the overall reluctance to provide, even nine months later, a transparent accounts of who did what, why, and under whose orders, did not help put an end to those accusations. Finally,  the DOJ revealed recently that it has secretly (albeit legally) obtained over two months of phone records belonging to 20 telephone lines assigned to the Associated Press; in addition, the Washington Post recently described the extensive investigation of a Fox News journalist’s interactions with a government official, in relation to some leaked information. These recent revelations cement the image (that has been developing for a while) of a White House that is probable the most aggressive administration in documented history, in terms of aggressively fighting and pursuing such so-called “leaks”.

The intersection of all these “scandals” looks very much like a “perfect storm”, from the perspective of Barack Obama’s political adversaries, but the negative reaction extends beyond party lines.  A US president’s political power is mostly based on influence, and this is why presidents entering the last two years of their mandate are called “lame ducks” – because there is little public support, positive image, or positions n government that they can transaction, in exchange for support from members of the Congress or at state level. Barack Obama has started his second and last term determined to push through with a very ambitious agenda, including some political unicorns like immigration reform, gun-control legislation, entering the implementation phase of the new health care law etc. Fresh from a solid elections victory, he looked to be in the best position to attempt this, because of the public’s demonstrated support, and a lack of direction,  ambition or legitimacy on the part of the Republican Party. Right now, however, only six months later, the Republicans seem newly energized, trying to craft a narrative that would tie together all these scandals, in the hope of forcing this administration to turn the corner into the “lame duck” stage sooner than anyone would have expected (with added benefits for the Congressional elections of 2014).  How the Obama administration will fare through these scandals will be crucial, therefore, in terms of its objectives, and of the mark that the President wants to leave in US history (a central concern of all presidents). Until now, the White House has been taking a different strategy, regarding each of these scandals: reacting quickly and strongly against IRS’s abuses; taking the line that the DOJ is simply doing its duty, with regards to leaks affecting national security; and characterizing GOP’s attacks on the administration, in relation to Benghazi, as over-inflated political rhetoric. The success of these White House defense strategies, and the degree to which the President will maintain the public’s support, will also depend on how he will manage his relationships with the Democratic members of Congress (a relationship that has never been too simple or too close) and with a press corps that until now has been largely favorable (and even cooperating).

Syria: Where Is the “Red Line”?

In March of this year several reports signaled the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, in the northern town of Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo. This was followed by other incidents with allegations of chemical attacks, and by statements suggesting that this might not be the first time when such weapons have been used. Syria is known to have a large stash of chemical weapons, and the fear was always that the government might actually deploy them against the rebel forces. The matters are complicated by contradictory accusations, with the Syrian government and some international observers stating that it was the rebel forces who might have used chemical components, while most international actors (US, France, Britain, Israel) and the  Free Syrian Army (FSA) blame it squarely on the Syrian regime, saying that only they would possess the capacity and the will to do so.  It is also not clear if these were actual chemical weapons, like the (nerve gas) sarin, which the regime possesses and might have used before, or simply chlorine, which is a readily available cleaning supply, and thus accessible to any of the forces engaged in the conflict.  The reports have however put the international actors, and especially the US, in a difficult position, as the use of chemical weapons has been qualified a while ago as a “red line” that, once crossed, would necessitate a more direct intervention on behalf of the population.  It is also clear that the “red line” expression was used originally in reference to the possibility of large scale use of chemical weapons, which would have devastating consequences – and not about local incidents. However, if large scale is an issue, then one has to wonder what actually constitutes a “red line”, given that, since the beginning of the conflict, more than 90,000 people have lost their lives, and more than one million have become refugees (summary). The ongoing vicious war of the Assad regime on the Syrian population, and the messy civil war that is being waged today at the cost of thousands of innocent victims, might have already crossed that “red line.” Yet it is not simple to see through the various, more or less organized groups battling the regime; as always in a mass uprising, their motivations, goals and composition vary with the place, the moment, and the group in question.  It is clear however that there are institutionalized opposition structures, such as the FSA and the Syrian National Coalition, which have become “official” partners of the international actors on behalf of the “rebels”, and who could be used more actively in the effort of ending the ongoing bloodshed. Meanwhile, Syrian society is being torn apart, probably with long term consequences (unsurprisingly similar to post-war Iraq); and those who bear the brunt of the conflict are, as always, the non-involved civilians and the minorities (eg. the Christians).

In Brief

According to the authorities, Hugo Chavez’s former right-hand, Nicolás Maduro, narrowly won the April 14 presidential elections in Venezuela, which were called after the former president’s death. The elections were followed by violent street clashes, amid heavy contestation of the results by the supporters of the opposition and of its presidential candidate,  Henrique Capriles – and amid a continued and vertiginous worsening of the economic situation.

On May 10, for the first time in history a former ruler of a country was condemned for genocide by a court from his own country. The trial of Efrain Rios Montt, the ex-military dictator who ruled Guatemala during a portion of its 36-years long civil war, concluded by finding him guilty of taking part in a genocide against the native Ixil Mayan population, and condemning him to 80 years in prison.

One of the defining political leaders of the second half of the twentieth century, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, passed away on April 8. As a Prime Minister she left behind a complex legacy, combining  political centralization with an emphasis on the free market and on individualism, and an aggressive foreign policy with a certain insularism. Illustrating the mark that her career left on the public consciousness, the funerals (video) were attended by notable figures from all aspects of public life, from politics to economy and entertainment.

Representatives of the Ladies in White Cuban opposition group finally managed to travel to collect the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded them by the European Parliament in 2005. The Ladies in White is  a Church-based group of wives and relatives of people jailed for political reasons in Cuba.

The new Monarch of The Netherlands, Willem Alexander, was enthroned on April 30 (video). He takes over as head of state after his mother’s, Queen Beatrix’s resignation earlier this year. (An interesting detail: the pop song commissioned to celebrate this event was met with widespread criticism and derision; see video.)

In April, at a distance of just a few days, different parts of Iran were rocked by powerful earthquakes (of 6.3 and 7.8 magnitudes on the Richter scale, respectively).  Iran sits on a major tectonic fault line, and its inner regions have been historically the victims of very strong earthquakes, such as the 2003 one in the Bam region, which resulted in over 25,000 deaths.

What Do Iranians Want?

[Press CC for English subtitles.]