Iran General NewsMideast conflict a setback for Iran reform movement

Mideast conflict a setback for Iran reform movement


New York Times: The Israeli onslaught in Lebanon and Hezbollah’s daily victories in the regional public relations war over the conflict threaten to claim a victim in Iran: whatever hope remained of resurrecting the political reform movement. The New York Times


TEHRAN, July 31 — The Israeli onslaught in Lebanon and Hezbollah’s daily victories in the regional public relations war over the conflict threaten to claim a victim in Iran: whatever hope remained of resurrecting the political reform movement.

Day by day, even as Iran’s officials assess the military setbacks of Hezbollah, they have grown more and more emboldened by the gathering support in the Islamic world for the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia on the front line with Israel. They have grown more and more emboldened by what they see as a validation of their confrontational approach to foreign policy — and in their efforts to silence political opposition at home.

That is the view of at least some opposition figures, analysts and former government officials who say they find themselves in the awkward position of opposing Israel and sympathizing with the Lebanese people, yet fear what might happen should Hezbollah prevail.

Such an outcome, they say, would strengthen the hand of the hard-liners now in control of Iran’s government, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose firebrand opposition to the West has taken Iran back to the early days of the Islamic Revolution, when the country’s leadership focused more on exporting its revolutionary ideas than on integrating Iran with the rest of the world.

In the tense environment, where anyone who questions the leadership’s full-throated support for Hezbollah can face public vilification, few people who express such opinions are willing to be quoted by name. But the anger, the feeling of conflicting concerns and the fear of a future political crackdown appear to be spreading.

“A victory of violence in this region will make it more difficult for all of us,” said a former official who served in the government of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. “Of course, I would prefer a Hezbollah victory over an Israeli victory,’’ he said, “but …”

The perception that Israel has lost the battle for hearts and minds, and that Hezbollah and Iran have won, was reinforced by the Israeli attack on the Lebanese village of Qana, which killed dozens of civilians, including many children. That notion has not changed the dynamics in Tehran so much as intensified them.

Even before the fighting broke out, a political crackdown was under way, with newspapers under pressure to present the government line, and academics and intellectuals increasingly fearful of arrest.

Ramin Jahanbegloo, a prominent scholar, has been held in Evin Prison for months on a charge that he was trying to “incite a velvet revolution,” seemingly an allusion to the nonviolent popular uprising that overthrew Czechoslovakia’s Communist government in 1989.

On Sunday, Iranian news agencies reported that Akbar Mohammad, a student leader jailed since 1999, had died in a hunger strike.

“It looks like, if Hezbollah gains victory, this crackdown will intensify against all those forces opposed to the current establishment,” Behzad Nabavi, a former deputy speaker of Parliament who has called for dialogue with the United States, said in an interview.

“If Iran succeeds in its goals in the conflict in Lebanon,” Mr. Nabavi said, “it can strengthen the hand of the establishment,” which he defined as the clerical leadership, including the Guardian Council, and the military, including the Revolutionary Guards and the Basiji militia forces.

Iran is not part of the Arab world, and across Tehran — home to more than 20 million people, rich and poor, conservative and secular — many have expressed feelings that this war in Lebanon is an Arab, not an Iranian, fight.

There are pockets of people who say they want to go to Lebanon and fight for the Islamic cause, and as the fighting spreads, their enthusiasm has grown. The war in Lebanon has also fueled a growing anti-American sentiment, which barely existed on the streets of Tehran before.

Even so, many people here say they do not consider this to be their war. That has infuriated the nation’s conservative leadership, which has pinned its regional policy on the Israeli onslaught being viewed as a plot by Israel and the United States against Hezbollah and all Muslims.

The conservative daily newspaper Kayhan, which is close to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently ran an editorial under the headline “This Is Our War.”

Then, on Saturday, it printed an attack on the daily newspaper Aftab-e Yazd, which had been anonymously publishing opinions criticizing Iran’s support for Hezbollah. Kayhan said those opinions were “in line with the Zionist regime’s propaganda campaign against the support for the oppressed people of Palestine and Lebanon.”

In fact, many here see the war in terms of what it means for Iranians — not the Iranian nation, but the Iranian people. That means their economy, their political freedoms and their relationship with the rest of the world.

From academic offices to newspapers, those concerns are spreading, however quietly. They have fueled a fear that what is happening in Lebanon threatens to stifle whatever democratic movement remained in Iran and to empower those, like President Ahmadinejad, who have declared that liberal democracy is a failure.

“The events in the Middle East will have a negative impact on democracy in Iran,” said Ibrahim Yazdi, secretary general of Freedom Movement, an opposition political group. “Some might ask Hezbollah why it took those two soldiers hostage. Based on what kind of predictions did it take such a measure?

“But no one can deny the large-scale invasion of Lebanon by Israel and the destruction of its infrastructure and the crimes it is committing against civilians, women and children. Such acts strengthen Ahmadinejad’s position.”

The widespread destruction in Lebanon may help the president turn the tide of public opinion toward his vision of this being Iran’s war. But more immediately, political analysts said, it helps to win him support in a more crucial arena: Iran’s inner circles of power.

On the most important issues facing the country, consensus must be reached across multiple constituencies within the elite, from moderate clerics like Mehdi Karroubi, the former reformist speaker of Parliament, to the more hard-line Guardian Council.

But there is a feeling among some political analysts that the events in Lebanon will, at least for now, strengthen the hand of those who, like Iran’s president, have equated democracy with tyranny and international integration with surrender.

“It seems that the law is the law of the jungle and such acts strengthen the position of those countries which favor violence,” said Hermidas Davoud Bavand, a political scientist at Tehran University. “It gives a free hand to radical governments to say that they will not be attacked if they have powerful military capability to act as a deterrent force for them.”

The reformist newspaper Etemad Melli said in an editorial on Monday that the carnage in Lebanon had united the region and that even if Hezbollah was defeated, “Muslims will deal a blow” to the United States and Israel. Then, reflecting on the broader significance of that prediction, it said: “This silence will cost a lot for the West, a price that might not be good for humanity and the stability of the region.”

Nazila Fathi contributed reporting for this article.

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