Shadow Government

Hand-wringing while the Middle East burns

As the Syrian civil war drags on, and Israel moves ever closer to attacking Iran's nuclear sites, the Obama Administration seems fixated on just one objective: delaying anything from happening in the Middle East before Election Day. The White House remains passive as Bashar al-Assad continues to up the military ante against the opposition. And it continues to send high level officials to Jerusalem bringing gifts of more military machinery that, it is hoped, will assuage the Israelis for the next few months.

Despite assistance from Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, with some sotto voce help from Turkey as well, after eighteen months the rebels still have been unable to dislodge Assad. Supported by Iranians on the ground, and the Russians and the Chinese in the UN, the Syrian dictator has shown no compunction about killing as many men, women and children as it takes to quell the rebellion.  He continues to play the ethnic card as well: his Kurdish PKK allies have stepped up their terrorist attacks in southeastern Turkey, while Syria's Christian communities, long protected by Assad and his father, remain nervously neutral.

At the same time, Assad's Alawi supporters are hedging their bets. They have begun a process of  ethnically cleansing those enclaves where they are in the majority. It is presumed that if all else fails for the Alawis, they will withdraw to their mountain fastnesses, and take Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons with them, so as to deter any attacks from the majority Sunnis that will have come to power. Indeed, the increasingly ethnic nature of the Syrian conflict has already spilled over into both Lebanon and Iraq, promising a major regional convulsion that would likely drag in Iran, Turkey, the Gulf States and perhaps Israel as well.

Israel, in the meantime, continues to express its frustration with the lack of progress in the diplomatic talks with Iran, even as Tehran continues to upgrade its centrifuges, build more of them, and increase the number of cascades to enrich its uranium; fortify its facilities, especially at its underground Fordo site; and play cat-and-mouse with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) whose reports increasingly are confirming Israel's worst fears. As if that were not enough, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have stepped up their exterminationist rhetoric, calling for the removal of the cancer that is Israel.

Washington's passivity has only aggravated both situations. The Syrian civil war calls for more drastic American action. After all, when rioters initially threw stones at Assad's men, his forces responded by using light weapons against the demonstrators. When the rebels obtained light weapons, Assad's military resorted to heavy weapons. As the rebels began to use mortars, the Syrian Army attacked with tanks. And so it has gone until now, when Assad has called in his air forces to bomb the opposition into oblivion. While there is no immediate need for American military intervention, the United States could certainly do more to strengthen the hand of the rebels. Washington could ship more, and more sophisticated, arms to the rebels via their allies, who certainly can afford to pay for American equipment. And the United States could also provide more intelligence support, if not directly to the rebels, then indirectly through Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. By failing to step up its support of the rebels, the Administration undermines its credibility, both with the rebels whom it professes to support, and with Assad, whose departure it so vocally seeks.

As for the impasse with Iran, here too, the key to achieving American objectives is the credibility of American pronouncements.  There is more than Washington can do as it attempts win the trust of Israel's key decision makers on any Israeli attack-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Supplying missile defense systems is simply not enough for a nation that cannot tolerate even the most minimal probability that a nuclear weapon could penetrate those defenses.

To begin with, the Administration should not backslide on the question of Iran's ability to enrich uranium. The original US position was that enrichment should terminate; any indication of a more pliable position simply reinforces the view in both Tehran and Jerusalem that Washington is not serious about stopping the Iranian program. In addition, the Obama Administration should close the massive loopholes that it has created in the sanctions program: there is no reason why exceptions should be made for China or any of the other seventeen countries that continue to buy Iranian oil without penalty. Washington's willingness to look the other way further intensifies Israeli fears that, at the end of the day, Iran will develop a nuclear capability while America and the West wring their hands.

An Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is likely to prove counterproductive. Even an American attack may not shut down the Iranian program.  As with Syria, so with Iran and Israel: the only way to achieve American objectives is to restore American credibility in the region. It does not help at all that the Administration not only continues to talk of a "pivot" to Asia, but is prepared to tolerate a massive reduction in American defense capability, which will surely signal an abrupt end to American presence in the region. Unless and until the Administration recognizes that it is futile, and dangerous, both to tread water until November, and treat the U.S. defense program as a hostage to tax increases, the situation in the Middle East will continue to deteriorate, to the point where, possibly as soon as October, it may well spin out of anyone's control.



Shadow Government

Execution awaits the Non-Aligned Summit

By Amir Abbas Fakhravar and G. William Heiser.

As the Non-Aligned Movement holds its summit this week, we can expect more than the usual finger-pointing at the United States and its allies. This time, the summit is in Tehran. Iran's ruling mullahs plan on using the summit -- and the expected presence of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon -- as cover to snuff out the life of one of their most principled political opponents. 

On August 31, unless the U.N. leader and others intervene, the Islamic Republic will impose a death sentence on the sickly but courageous dissident writer Arzhang Davoodi. If all goes according to standard practice, an executioner will place a cable around Arzhang's neck, haul him off his feet by a crane, and slowly strangle him.

Arzhang and Amir Fakhravar became the closest of friends as political prisoners in the regime's notorious Evin Prison. His crime, for which he was arrested in October 2003, was his participation in the PBS Frontline documentary, "Forbidden Iran," about how the regime executes its political opponents. Arzhang spoke to journalist Jane Kokan about human rights violations and in support of the Iranian student movement against the mullahs. I was one of the imprisoned student leaders at the time, heading the organization Arzhang had founded. Arzhang spoke out on my behalf, only to end up joining me in prison.

Following a trial in 2005, a Revolutionary Court imposed on Arzhang a sharia sentence of 15 years' imprisonment and 75 lashes for "spreading propaganda against the system," "establishing and directing a student organization called the Confederation of Iranian Students opposed to the government," advocacy in his writings of a secular and democratic government for his country, and participating in the PBS documentary. 

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei needs the U.N. Secretary General and the Non-Aligned leaders to remain unaware of -- or at least quiet about -- Arzhang's execution during their visit. The regime has spared no expense to showcase the Iranian capital as a seemingly prosperous and calm city devoid of population and discontent. 

Despite a collapsed economy, the regime has spent a fortune in preparation. It constructed a lavish conference hall in the affluent Velenjak area of northern Tehran, along with a new hotel expressly for the foreign dignitaries. Authorities "beautified" the shabby routes from Tehran's two airports to the summit site, as well as other thoroughfares the foreigners are likely to use, and purchased two hundred C Class Mercedes Benz sedans to whisk the Non-Aligned and U.N. leaders to their destinations.

On Aug.5, the regime imposed a mandatory "holiday" during the summit to limit the prospect of protests by keeping people off the streets, matched with a gasoline giveaway program of to all who would leave town during the summit. Regime agents forced 1,400 homeless people out of the area. Most tellingly, the mullahs flooded Tehran with 110,000 police and security forces, as well as Basiji militia -- the force that murdered young violinist Neda Agha Soltan three years ago. 

Ahmad Khatami (the cleric who maintained the late Ayatollah Khomeini's death sentence on writer Salman Rushdie) ghoulishly told followers of the reformist Green Movement that he expected no summit-related "occurrences." In the days leading up to the big event, helicopters hovered ‘round the clock over the city as snipers and plainclothes agents deployed on rooftops and in buildings surrounding the conference hall. The government closed local schools for use of security forces. 

Eighty of the 120 presidents, prime ministers and dictators invited to the Non-Aligned summit will not attend. Only 51 countries will send high-level delegations. 

The mullahs now risk embarrassing the U.N. leader and other dignitaries thanks to Amnesty International, which exposed the plan to kill Arzhang Davoodi. In an urgent action notice released on Aug. 23, Amnesty reported that Arzhang had been transferred in June to Section 209 of Evin Prison, where he was likely tortured. At an Aug. 28 court hearing, the regime imposed a new charge against Arzhang: "enemy against God" (moharebeh), a crime that can be punishable by death.

Few Americans have ever heard of Arzhang Davoodi, but he has sent messages of gratitude to the people of America. Early last year, at great personal risk, he secretly recorded a video from a smuggled mobile phone in Iran's Rajee-Shahr prison. In the video, he addressed the participants of the first Iran Democratic Transition Conference organized and conducted by the Confederation of Iranian Students at the George Washington University, just blocks from the White House and State Department. With Arzhang's approval, attendees were able to view the video as he delivered his illicit message from captivity. 

Days later, Arzhang's jailers savagely beat him and banished him to solitary confinement. 

This is what Arzhang was beaten and banished for telling the conference: "In the name of God, the Almighty, happy New Year to all.

"From Rajee Shahr prison, I salute all freedom lovers of the world and cordially send my special regard to the great American nation, particularly all those who in the last three decades have never doubted in this principle that, at any rate, does not allow any sort of compromise with the reactionary sword-minded regime that holds no respect for the international community and has taken us Iranians as hostages.

"Hereby I thank all good hearted people who care about others and do their best to let freedom and democracy flourish all over our small planet. I thank all those who strongly believe that freedom is an indispensable right for us. For each and every human being living upon the good earth. I have a dream, I am sure that in the near future we Iranians share our everlasting freedom celebration with Americans. Yes, I have this dream. God bless you all and all those who truly sacrifice for a free Iran.

"God bless our small planet, God bless you all."

That statement was the entirety of Arzhang Davoodi's crime as an "enemy of God," for which he will pay with his life. Unless Secretary General Ban and the 51 national leaders personally intervene.

Amir Fakhravar is Secretary General of the Confederation of Iranian Students and a former political prisoner of the Iranian regime. He is presently a Research Fellow and Visiting Lecturer at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of international affairs in Washington, DC.

G. William Heiser is a former official in the Reagan National Security Council Staff and currently is an advisor to the Confederation of Iranian Students.