Grand Ayatollah Montazeri Dies, Senate Considering Hotlining Iran Sanctions Bill

There are times in history when events, like a river diverge from their expected course and disaster follows. At those times, one says “if only,” and wonders what might have been. This is the case with the death today of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Iran’s leading dissident cleric who had once been Ayatollah Khomeini’s designated successor. Shortly before the latter’s death, there was a major falling-out between the two and Montazeri inherited ostracism and demonization instead of the reins of power.

One wonders what might have been had Montazeri instead of Ayatollah Khamenei become Supreme Leader. Of course, it’s always possible that once in power Montazeri would have behaved in the same obtuse, obstreperous way the current leader does. But given the flintiness and independence of Montazeri’s personality in the face of his years in the cold, wondering what could have been is not an idle pursuit.

In thinking about Iran after Montazeri, I’m reminded of the death of another defrocked former leader whose death led to tremendous national turmoil: the death of China’s Hu Yaobang in 1989. This event, and the mourning of his loss galvanized China’s youth into political mobilization for change. Though the movement was eventually quashed, its effect reverberates to this day in contemporary China.

Will the same thing happen in Teheran? Hard to say. As in China, in today’s Iran there is a stark division between pragmatist/reformers and hardliners. Unlike in China then, where there was a period of hesitancy in which the pragmatists seemed to have the upper hand, the hardliners in Iran at least for the moment seem to exert more control. But every day is a potential powder keg in today’s Iran. The death of the leading symbol of defiance of the radical clerics could strike a lightning bolt through the reformers.

Roger Cohen has written another one of his eminently sensible columns about U.S. policy toward Iran. His advice is essentially: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” He argues that the best stance for us to take toward Iran is neutrality and silence. This will take away from the hooligans in power the cudgel of the American devil to use against the reformers.

Cohen argues firmly against sanctions as a viable policy and argues that they are a sledgehammer from another era, not a useful tool that will bring a desired response from Iran.

Though I’m in agreement with Cohen, there is one point that was missing from his column and which was emphasized by the panelist at the Town Hall conference I organized this week: human rights. Prof. Sahimi emphasized that human rights is a universal principle which Iran will find it hard to dispute if the U.S. raises the issue in an international context. We can, as a nation, demand that Iran honor its commitment to human rights. This does not have to become a partisan issue. It has enough universal sway that raising it would be perceived by most Iranians as legitimate, even if the current rulers would not see it that way.

Peace Now is circulating an urgent message that Senator Harry Reid has circulated a “Hotline” item to members asking for unanimous consent to proceed to a vote on the Iran sanctions bill without debate. The group released this statement opposing the bill:

“We strongly urge Senators to object to this attempt to short-circuit debate (and potential amendments) and fast-track a piece of complex and far-reaching legislation – legislation that would impact virtually every aspect of and every option for US policy toward Iran now and in the future.

We have opposed many of the sanctions included in S. 2799 – particularly those focused on Iran’s access to refined petroleum products – since they were first suggested. We believe these sanctions reflect a misguided and potentially self-defeating approach for the US to the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear program.”

A representative of Cleveland Peace Action adds this compelling criticism:

“…The bill [would] compel Presidential action rather than leaving such action to his discretion. They also require that no sanctions be relieved unless the President testifies that there has been complete cessation of Iran’s Uranium enrichment (which Iran categorically refuses), again essentially removing discretion for any other UN nuclear negotiation. Also, almost no one believes that refined petroleum sanctions will be very effective or will change Iran’s nuclear stance, but many point out that it will hurt the Iranian people, and has been opposed as harmful by Iranian reformists and human rights activists. I personally add the warning that many who know this bill will be ineffective still press for its enactment because it will justify military action when it fails.”

Fast-tracking would be disastrous for those who wish to derail or modify the current legislative proposal. Local Seattle activists have clarified the situation through Sen. Maria Cantwell’s office and heard this:

“Bert Sacks, a NPPI steering committee member, contacted Jonathan Hale of Washington’s Senator Maria Cantwell’s office, who states this won’t be acted upon until next year, but he’s checking with a colleague in Harry Reid’s office to verify that this is correct – or that is has been “hotlined.” Further, Jonathan has written: ‘I checked and some Senators are holding it up at a this point not allowing it to move out of the Senate without debate. It is not possible to determine which Senators are involved, but I believe it’s more than one.'”

Contact your senator to oppose hotlining this bill. While you’re at it tell him/her about your objections to the current provisions of the legislation. We mustn’t do something just for the sake of doing something. This is far too dangerous a situation for such empty rhetoric. We should remember that bellicosity and empty gestures in a powder keg environment could provide the match that blows everything to smithereens.

[cross posted to Tikun Olam]

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