Friday, October 18, 2013

Reasons for Optimism? Iran and the Media

With all the babble in the media over the P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva, Switzerland, one very important event slipped through the cracks of most major papers. BBC Persian's Bahman Kalbasi noted that non-state-sponsored Iranian news organization's reporters had accompanied Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to the talks.
Suppression of free speech has been a cornerstone of the Ayatollah's domestic 'population management' program, and any loosening of this, is potentially a drastic shift. 

Recently Iran has been in the process of developing and implementing a 'Halal' intranet which would be a completely isolated internal network. Understandably, this plan has been heavily criticized by free speech and human rights activists. Major social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are blocked (even though major regime figures maintain a social media presence on these same sites), and access to this as well as other services such as those of Google, is often only available with VPN or other filter-breaking techniques. 

Iran has also maintained a tight grip over the print media, forcing liberal papers to close, and removing editors that allowed 'too much' to be printed. The forced closure of popular papers such as Zanan, the feminist women's production in 2008 is a prime example of this. 

During the campaign for President and immediately following his victory, Hassan Rouhani indicated that he wished to loosen these restrictions, in particular access to social media, and also releasing prisoners. With a few exceptions (perhaps accidental), this has not exactly been the case. Some political prisoners and activists languishing in Evin prison have been released, but others such as opposition figureheads Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have remained under house arrest for over 2 a half years despite health problems (reportedly conditions of their house arrest are 'improving', but I find this laughable, they are still under house arrest).

While only a small step, the inclusion of reformist reporters on the Geneva trip looks to be an encouraging sign. It remains to be seen if this continues, or if this is merely a means of appeasing a restive domestic population, and international human rights activist groups.

UPDATES 1 and 4: Neshat, a reformist paper banned in 1999 has evidently been allowed to publish once again. (This may have been cancelled).
UPDATE 2: Bahar (Spring), another reformist paper has been banned again.
UPDATE 3: Another reformist paper, Hammihan, has been banned according to the Iranian paper, Shargh. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Who's afraid of the NSA? The Roles of Government and the Corporation

Throughout the series of NSA surveillance scandals, what has surprised me the most is the public's response. While out and about I have heard people talking politics, something that has rarely happened to me in America. Everyone cares, and everyone has an opinion. While overhearing these shockingly loud (perhaps Americanesque is the best term for this phenomenon) conversations, I have also noticed something which troubles me. People are angry with 'the government' for this perceived slight, yet at the same time are ok with voluntarily giving the exact same personal information to big corporations (Facebook, Google, Apple, etc). Why would people be afraid of the government and not of the corporation, when they are doing very similar, if not the exact same things? Who is accountable to whom?

The role of government in its citizens' lives is relatively straightforward. It exists to protect its citizens, and to provide services. Its legitimacy may be derived in a variety of ways, which is dependent on the form of the government. In America, our representative constitutional republic holds elections where we either directly or indirectly select decision makers for ourselves. The government is not out there to 'get us', it has no reason to individually seek out and destroy certain parts of our society unprovoked. All the government asks is that we participate in the democratic process, fund it by paying our taxes, and do not try to overthrow it or create civil disorder. Government's role in its citizen's lives can be quite different than this, especially when it is not a democratic institution and it does not derive its authority from a popular mandate. It is also common for government officials and legislative bodies to work to maintain or augment their power, primarily in the form of being re-elected, but occasionally by other means. However, even with this potential case of abuse of power, the persecution or repression of individuals is not a guarantee.

Contrast this with the relationship between citizens and corporations. A corporation's sole purpose is to make money for its shareholders and owners. It does usually provide some sort of service to its customers (whether this service is essential, useful or even beneficial is another matter), but its motivating factor is profits. The customer has something which the corporation wants (money), and is ACTIVELY trying to get. This is not the symbiotic (and often mutually beneficial) relationship between a government and its people. 

So why be afraid of one's government? Sure there are many examples of dictatorial regimes around the world suppressing even the most basic voting rights of its population, but this is a far cry from the domestic situation in the United States. The United States of America was not created to oppress people, or to exploit them, but to free them from the colonialism of the British. The true problem is when corporations impose their interests on elected officials or other governing bodies. By exerting their influence (whether this is through political contributions or PR campaigns), they can corrupt the role of government as steward of the people. This does NOT make a government inherently evil or malevolent, but is more than anything a reminder of the motivation of for-profit companies and the potential for abuse, especially if they work to affect political change. Before blaming 'the government', consider the other potential perpetrators who have more to gain and more reasons for acting against your interests.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What to Expect from Netanyahu's UNGA Speech

What to expect from Netanyahu's speech tomorrow:

More of the same. His political situation at home is not very good, his diverse ruling coalition is fragmented on serious issues such as the economy, the ultra-orthodox, and everything involving Palestinians. As long as Iran is on everyone's mind, the real existential issues for Israel will not be debated, and he will continue with the status quo (which while not optimal for anyone, includes him as the Prime Minister's home). 

Repeated references to Iran's naughty behavior. This will likely focus on terrorism (IRGC and Hezbollah) and Syria, with a special emphasis on Burgas, and the attempted attacks in Thailand, India, Georgia and Cyprus. He is also likely to bring up Iran's non-compliance with the IAEA in providing full access to Parchin (where some, including the IAEA, believe some nuclear weaponization testing has occurred), and its 'deception' (the legality of Iran's actions is disputed by the various parties) in not disclosing the existence of Natanz and Arak until the MeK revealed it in 2003. Lastly he will mention the attempts to infiltrate and target the country through Ali Mansouri. The timing of the release of this information by the Israeli press was certainly not coincidental (corroborated by an unnamed Israeli police official). Israel's press is subject to strict censorship laws on national security issues (on other topics it is quite open) and revealing this episode just after the United States and Iran seem on the edge of a diplomatic 'breakthrough' (quotations because at this point even agreeing to talk is 'progress') and just before his own speech is likely intended to sour the goodwill. 

Fiery rhetoric. I am probably not the only one who looks forward to Netanyahu's speeches. He is eloquent, and comes up with very interesting phrases. While I usually disagree with him, I very much enjoy his clever turns of phrase such as the 'insatiable crocodile of militant Islam' from the 2011 UNGA speech.

No matter what Mr. Netanyahu ends up saying, it is certain to be a major news item because of the importance of Israel and Iran to the American news media. There seems to be some flexibility from Israel on Iran's nuclear program, but I am hesitant to state unequivocally that Netanyahu's speech will contain the same malleability. Netanyahu's Israel has long been the 'bad cop' in the relationship with the US/EU against Iran and I do not think that this is likely to change too much in the near future.