Friday, August 31, 2012

Post #327 - Kaplan, continued

This is the third part of the excerpt from the new book The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflict and the Battle against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan, begun in post #325:

Again, what makes the clerical regime in Iran so effective in the pursuit of its interests, from Lebanon to Afghanistan, is its merger with the Iranian state, which itself is the product of history and geography. The Green Movement, which emerged in the course of massive anti-regime demonstrations following the disputed elections of 2009, is very much like the regime it seeks to topple. The Greens were greatly sophisticated by the standards of the region (at least until the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia two years later), and thus another demonstration of the Iranian genius. The Greens constituted a world-class democracy movement, having mastered the latest means in communications technology -- Twitter, Facebook, text messaging -- to advance their organizational throw weight and having adopted a potent mixture of nationalism and universal moral values to advance their cause. It took all the means of repression of the Iranian state, subtle and not, to drive the Greens underground. (In fact, the Iranian regime was far more surgical in its repression of the Greens than the Syrian regime has thus far been in its own violent attempt to silence dissent.) Were the Greens ever to take power, or to facilitate a change in the clerical regime's philosophy and foreign policy toward moderation, Iran, because of its strong state and dynamic idea, would have the means to shift the whole groundwork of the Middle East away from radicalization, providing political expression for a new bourgeoisie with middle-class values that has been quietly rising throughout the Greater Middle East, and which the American obsession with al Qaeda and radicalism obscured until the Arab Spring of 2011.12

To speak in terms of destiny is dangerous, since it implies an acceptance of fate and determinism, but clearly given Iran's geography, history and human capital, it seems likely that the Greater Middle East, and by extension, Eurasia, will be critically affected by Iran's own political evolution, for better or for worse.

The best indication that Iran has yet to fulfill such a destiny lies in what has not quite happened yet in Central Asia. Let me explain. Iran's geography, as noted, gives it frontage on Central Asia to the same extent that it has on Mesopotamia and the Middle East. But the disintegration of the Soviet Union has brought limited gains to Iran, when one takes into account the whole history of Greater Iran in the region. The very suffix "istan," used for Central and South Asian countries and which means "place," is Persian. The conduits for Islamization and civilization in Central Asia were the Persian language and culture. The language of the intelligentsia and other elites in Central Asia up through the beginning of the 20th century was one form of Persian or another. But after 1991, Shiite Azerbaijan to the northwest adopted the Latin alphabet and turned to Turkey for tutelage. As for the republics to the northeast of Iran, Sunni Uzbekistan oriented itself more toward a nationalistic than an Islamic base, for fear of its own homegrown fundamentalists -- this makes it wary of Iran. Tajikistan, Sunni but Persian-speaking, seeks a protector in Iran, but Iran is constrained for fear of making an enemy of the many Turkic-speaking Muslims elsewhere in Central Asia.13 What's more, being nomads and semi-nomads, Central Asians were rarely devout Muslims to start with, and seven decades of communism only strengthened their secularist tendencies. Having to relearn Islam, they are both put off and intimidated by clerical Iran.

Of course, there have been positive developments from the viewpoint of Tehran. Iran, as its nuclear program attests, is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the Middle East (in keeping with its culture and politics), and as such has built hydroelectric projects and roads and railroads in these Central Asian countries that will one day link them all to Iran -- either directly or through Afghanistan. Moreover, a natural gas pipeline now connects southeastern Turkmenistan with northeastern Iran, bringing Turkmen natural gas to Iran's Caspian region, and thus freeing up Tehran's own natural gas production in  southern Iran for export via the Persian Gulf. (This goes along with a rail link built in the 1990s connecting the two countries.) Turkmenistan has the world's fourth-largest natural gas reserves and has committed its entire natural gas exports to Iran, China and Russia. Hence, the possibility arises of a Eurasian energy axis united by the crucial geography of three continental powers all for the time being opposed to Western democracy.14 Iran and Kazakhstan have built an oil pipeline connecting the two countries, with Kazakh oil being pumped to Iran's north, even as an equivalent amount of oil is shipped from Iran's south out through the Persian Gulf. Kazakhstan and Iran will also be linked by rail, providing Kazakhstan with direct access to the Gulf. A rail line may also connect mountainous Tajikistan to Iran, via Afghanistan. Iran constitutes the shortest route for all these natural resource-rich countries to reach international markets.

So imagine an Iran athwart the pipeline routes of Central Asia, along with its sub-state, terrorist empire of sorts in the Greater Middle East. But there is still a problem. Given the prestige that Shiite Iran has enjoyed in sectors of the Sunni Arab world, to say nothing of Shiite south Lebanon and Shiite Iraq -- because of the regime's implacable support for the Palestinian cause and its inherent anti-Semitism -- it is telling that this ability to attract mass support outside its borders does not similarly carry over into Central Asia. One issue is that the former Soviet republics maintain diplomatic relations with Israel and simply lack the hatred toward it that may still be ubiquitous in the Arab world, despite the initial phases of the Arab Spring. Yet, there is something larger and deeper at work, something that limits Iran's appeal not only in Central Asia but in the Arab world as well. That something is the very persistence of its suffocating clerical rule that, while impressive in a negative sense -- using Iran's strong state tradition to ingeniously crush a democratic opposition and torture and rape its own people -- has also dulled the linguistic and cosmopolitan appeal that throughout history has accounted for a Greater Iran in a cultural sense. The Technicolor is gone from the Iranian landscape under this regime and has been replaced by grainy black and white. Iran's imperial ambitions are for the time being limited by the very nature of its clerical rule.

Some years back I was in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, from whose vantage point Tehran and Mashad over the border in Iranian Khorasan have always loomed as cosmopolitan centers of commerce and pilgrimage, in stark contrast to Turkmenistan's own sparsely populated, nomadic landscape. But while trade and pipeline politics proceeded apace, Iran held no real magic, no real appeal for Muslim Turkmens, who are mainly secular and are put off by the mullahs. As extensive as Iranian influence is by virtue of its in-your-face challenge to America and Israel, I don't believe we will see the true appeal of Iran, in all its cultural glory, until the regime liberalizes or is toppled. A democratic or quasi democratic Iran, precisely because of the geographical power of the Iranian state, has the possibility to energize hundreds of millions of fellow Muslims in the Arab world and Central Asia.

Sunni Arab liberalism could be helped in its rise not only by the example of the West, or because of a democratic yet dysfunctional Iraq, but also because of the challenge thrown up by a newly liberal and historically eclectic Shiite Iran in the future. And such an Iran might do what two decades of post-Cold War Western democracy and civil society promotion have failed to -- that is, lead to a substantial prying loose of the police state restrictions in former Soviet Central Asia.

With its rich culture, vast territory and teeming and sprawling cities, Iran is, in the way of China and India, a civilization unto itself, whose future will overwhelmingly be determined by internal politics and social conditions. Unlike the Achaemenid, Sassanid, Safavid and other Iranian empires of yore, which were either benign or truly inspiring in both a moral and cultural sense, this current Iranian empire of the mind rules mostly out of fear and intimidation, through suicide bombers rather than through poets. And this both reduces its power and signals its eventual downfall.

Yet, if one were to isolate a single hinge in calculating Iran's fate, it would be Iraq. Iraq, history and geography tell us, is entwined in Iranian politics to the degree of no other foreign country. The Shiite shrines of Imam Ali (the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law) in An Najaf and the one of Imam Hussain (the grandson of the Prophet) in Karbala, both in central-southern Iraq, have engendered Shiite theological communities that challenge that of Qom in Iran. Were Iraqi democracy to exhibit even a modicum of stability, the freer intellectual atmosphere of the Iraqi holy cities could eventually have a profound impact on Iranian politics. In a larger sense, a democratic Iraq can serve as an attractor force of which Iranian reformers might in the future take advantage. For as Iranians become more deeply embroiled in Iraqi politics, the very propinquity of the two nations with a long and common border might work to undermine the more repressive of the two systems. Iranian politics will become gnarled by interaction with a pluralistic, ethnically Arab Shiite society. And as the Iranian economic crisis continues to unfold, ordinary Iranians could well up in anger over hundreds of millions of dollars being spent by their government to buy influence in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. This is to say nothing of how Iranians will become increasingly hated inside Iraq as the equivalent of "Ugly Americans." Iran would like to simply leverage Iraqi Shiite parties against the Sunni ones. But that is not altogether possible, since that would narrow the radical Islamic universalism it seeks to represent in the pan-Sunni world to a sectarianism with no appeal beyond the community of Shia. Thus, Iran may be stuck trying to help form shaky Sunni-Shiite coalitions in Iraq and to keep them perennially functioning, even as Iraqis develop greater hatred for this intrusion into their domestic affairs. Without justifying the way that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was planned and executed, or rationalizing the trillions of dollars spent and the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the war, in the fullness of time it might very well be that the fall of Saddam Hussein began a process that will result in the liberation of two countries; not one. Just as geography has facilitated Iran's subtle colonization of Iraqi politics, geography could also be a factor in abetting Iraq's influence upon Iran.

The prospect of peaceful regime change -- or evolution -- in Iran, despite the temporary fizzling of the Green Movement, is still greater now than in the Soviet Union during most of the Cold War. A liberated Iran, coupled with less autocratic governments in the Arab world -- governments that would be focused more on domestic issues because of their own insecurity -- would encourage a more equal, fluid balance of power between Sunnis and Shia in the Middle East, something that would help keep the region nervously preoccupied with itself and on its own internal and regional power dynamics, much more than on America and Israel.

Additionally, a more liberal regime in Tehran would inspire a broad cultural continuum worthy of the Persian empires of old, one that would not be constrained by the clerical forces of reaction.

A more liberal Iran, given the large Kurdish, Azeri, Turkmen and other minorities in the north and elsewhere, may also be a far less centrally controlled Iran, with the ethnic peripheries drifting away from Tehran's orbit. Iran has often been less a state than an amorphous, multinational empire. Its true size would always be greater and smaller than any officially designated cartography. While the northwest of today's Iran is Kurdish and Azeri Turk, parts of western Afghanistan and Tajikistan are culturally and linguistically compatible with an Iranian state. It is this amorphousness, so very Parthian, that Iran could return to as the wave of Islamic extremism and the perceived legitimacy of the mullahs' regime erodes.15

12 Vali Nasr, Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World, Free Press, New York, 2009.
13 Roy, p. 193.
14 M. K. Bhadrakumar, "Russia, China, Iran Energy Map," Asia Times, 2010.
15 Robert D. Kaplan, The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century, Random House, New York, 1996, p. 242.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Post #326 - Kaplan, continued

This is the second part of an lengthy excerpt from the new book The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflict and the Battle against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan, begun in my last post:

The medieval record both cartographically and linguistically follows from the ancient one, though in more subtle ways. In the eighth century the political locus of the Arab world shifted eastward from Syria to Mesopotamia -- that is, from the Umayyad caliphs to the Abbasid ones -- signaling, in effect, the rise of Iran. (The second caliph, Omar bin al-Khattab, during whose reign the Islamic armies conquered the Sassanids, adopted the Persian system of administration called the Diwan.) The Abbasid Caliphate at its zenith in the middle of the ninth century ruled from Tunisia eastward to Pakistan, and from the Caucasus and Central Asia southward to the Persian Gulf. Its capital was the new city of Baghdad, close upon the old Sassanid Persian capital of Ctesiphon; and Persian bureaucratic practices, which added whole new layers of hierarchy, undergirded this new imperium. The Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad became more a symbol of an Iranian despotism than of an Arab sheikhdom. Some historians have labeled the Abbasid Caliphate the equivalent of the "cultural reconquest" of the Middle East by the Persians under the guise of Arab rulers.5 The Abbasids succumbed to Persian practices just as the Umayyads, closer to Asia Minor, had succumbed to Byzantine ones. "Persian titles, Persian wines and wives, Persian mistresses, Persian songs, as well as Persian ideas and thoughts, won the day," writes the historian Philip K. Hitti.6 "In the western imagination," writes Peter Brown, "the Islamic [Abbasid] empire stands as the quintessence of an oriental power. Islam owed this crucial orientation neither to Muhammad nor to the adaptable conquerors of the seventh century, but to the massive resurgence of eastern, Persian traditions in the eighth and ninth centuries.7"

As for Shiism, it is very much a component of this Iranian cultural dynamism -- despite the culturally bleak and oppressive aura projected by the ruling Shiite clergy in these dark times in Tehran. While the arrival of the Mahdi in the form of the hidden Twelfth Imam means the end of injustice, and thus acts as a spur to radical activism, little else in Shiism necessarily inclines the clergy to play an overt political role; Shiism even has a quietest strain that acquiesces to the powers that be and that is frequently informed by Sufism.8 Witness the example set by Iraq's leading cleric of recent years, Ayatollah Ali Sistani (of Iranian heritage), who only at pivotal moments makes a plea for political conciliation from behind the scenes. Precisely because of the symbiotic relationship between Iraq and Iran throughout history, with its basis in geography, it is entirely possible that in a post-revolutionary Iran, Iranians will look more toward the Shiite holy cities of An Najaf and Karbala in Iraq for spiritual direction than toward their own holy city of Qom. It is even possible that Qom will adopt the quietism of An Najaf and Karbala. This is despite the profound differences between Shia of Arab descent and those of Persian descent.

The French scholar Olivier Roy tells us that Shiism is historically an Arab phenomenon that came late to Iran but that eventually led to the establishment of a clerical hierarchy for taking power. Shiism was further strengthened by the tradition of a strong and bureaucratic state that Iran has enjoyed since antiquity, relative to those of the Arab world, and that is, as we know, partly a gift of the spatial coherence of the Iranian plateau. The Safavids brought Shiism to Iran in the 16th century. Their name comes from their own militant Sufi order, the Safaviyeh, which had originally been Sunni. The Safavids were merely one of a number of horse-borne brotherhoods of mixed Turkish, Azeri, Georgian and Persian origin in the late 15th century that occupied the mountainous plateau region between the Black and Caspian seas, where eastern Anatolia, the Caucasus and northwestern Iran come together. In order to build a stable state on the Farsi-speaking Iranian plateau, these new sovereigns of eclectic linguistic and geographical origin adopted Twelver Shiism as the state religion, which awaits the return of the Twelfth Imam, a direct descendant of Mohammed, who is not dead but in occlusion.9 The Safavid Empire at its zenith stretched thereabouts from Anatolia and Syria-Mesopotamia to central Afghanistan and Pakistan -- yet another variant of Greater Iran through history. Shiism was an agent of Iran's congealment as a modern nation-state, even as the Iranianization of non-Persian Shiite and Sunni minorities during the 16th century also helped in this regard.10 Iran might have been a great state and nation since antiquity, but the Safavids with their insertion of Shiism onto the Iranian plateau retooled Iran for the modern era.

Indeed, revolutionary Iran of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is a fitting expression of this powerful and singular legacy. Of course, the rise of the ayatollahs has been a lowering event in the sense of the violence done to -- and I do not mean to exaggerate -- the voluptuous, sophisticated and intellectually stimulating traditions of the Iranian past. (Persia -- "that land of poets and roses!" exclaims the introductory epistle of James J. Morier's The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan.11) But comparison, it is famously said, is the beginning of all serious scholarship. And compared to the upheavals and revolutions in the Arab world during the early and middle phases of the Cold War, the regime ushered in by the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution was striking in its élan and modernity. The truth is, and this is something that goes directly back to the Achaemenids of antiquity, everything about the Iranian past and present is of a high quality, whether it is the dynamism of its empires from Cyrus the Great to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Who can deny the sheer Iranian talent for running militant networks in Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq, which is, after all, an aspect of imperial rule!); or the political thought and writings of its Shiite clergy; or the complex efficiency of the bureaucracy and security services in cracking down on dissidents. Tehran's revolutionary order constitutes a richly developed governmental structure with a diffusion of power centers; it is not a crude one-man thugocracy like the kind Saddam Hussein ran in neighboring Arab Iraq.

5 Axworthy, p. 78.
6 Philip K. Hitti, The Arabs: A Short History, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1943, p. 109.
7 Brown, pp. 202-03.
8 Hiro, Inside Central Asia, p. 359.
9 Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam, translated by Carol Volk, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992 and 1994, pp. 168-70.
10 Roy, The Failure of Political Islam, p. 168.
11 James Morier, The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, John Murray, London, 1824, p. 5 of 1949 Cresset Press edition.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Post #325 - Geography is Destiny

I will post, in three consecutive installments, excerpts (the portions regarding Iran) from the new book The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflict and the Battle against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan, which will be released next month. Kaplan is with the Stratfor consulting firm, which distributed the material below.

The Geography of Iranian Power

The most important facts about Iran go unstated because they are so obvious. Any glance at a map would tell us what they are. And these facts explain how regime change or evolution in Tehran -- when, not if, it comes -- will dramatically alter geopolitics from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent and beyond.

Virtually all of the Greater Middle East's oil and natural gas lies either in the Persian Gulf or the Caspian Sea regions. Just as shipping lanes radiate from the Persian Gulf, pipelines will increasingly radiate from the Caspian region to the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, China and the Indian Ocean. The only country that straddles both energy-producing areas is Iran, stretching as it does from the Caspian to the Persian Gulf. In a raw materials' sense, Iran is the Greater Middle East's universal joint.

The Persian Gulf possesses by some accounts 55 percent of the world's crude oil reserves, and Iran dominates the whole Gulf, from the Shatt al-Arab on the Iraqi border to the Strait of Hormuz 990 kilometers (615 miles) away. Because of its bays, inlets, coves and islands -- excellent places for hiding suicide, tanker-ramming speed boats -- Iran's coastline inside the Strait of Hormuz is 1,356 nautical miles; the next longest, that of the United Arab Emirates, is only 733 nautical miles. Iran also has 480 kilometers of Arabian Sea frontage, including the port of Chabahar near the Pakistani border. This makes Iran vital to providing warm water, Indian Ocean access to the landlocked Central Asian countries of the former Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the Iranian coast of the Caspian in the far north, wreathed by thickly forested mountains, stretches for nearly 650 kilometers from Astara in the west, on the border with former Soviet Azerbaijan, around to Bandar-e Torkaman in the east, by the border with natural gas-rich Turkmenistan.

A look at the relief map shows something more. The broad back of the Zagros Mountains sweeps down through Iran from Anatolia in the northwest to Balochistan in the southeast. To the west of the Zagros range, the roads are all open to Iraq. When the British area specialist and travel writer Freya Stark explored Lorestan in Iran's Zagros Mountains in the early 1930s, she naturally based herself out of Baghdad, not out of Tehran. To the east and northeast, the roads are open to Khorasan and the Kara Kum (Black Sand) and Kizyl Kum (Red Sand) deserts of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, respectively. For just as Iran straddles the rich energy fields of both the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, it also straddles the Middle East proper and Central Asia. No Arab country can make that claim (just as no Arab country sits astride two energy-producing areas). In fact, the Mongol invasion of Iran, which killed hundreds of thousands of people at a minimum and destroyed the qanat irrigation system, was that much more severe precisely because of Iran's Central Asian prospect.

Iranian influence in the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia is potentially vast. Whereas Azerbaijan on Iran's northwestern border contains roughly 8 million Azeri Turks, there are twice that number in Iran's neighboring provinces of Azerbaijan and Tehran. The Azeris were cofounders of the first Iranian polity since the seventh century rise of Islam. The first Shiite Shah of Iran (Ismail in 1501) was an Azeri Turk. There are important Azeri businessmen and ayatollahs in Iran, including current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself. The point is that whereas Iran's influence to the west in nearby Turkey and the Arab world has been well established by the media, its influence to the north and east is equally profound; and if the future brings less repressive regimes both in Iran and in the southern, Islamic tier of the former Soviet Union, Iran's influence could deepen still with more cultural and political interactions.

There is, too, what British historian Michael Axworthy calls the "Idea of Iran," which, as he explains, is as much about culture and language as about race and territory.1 Iran, he means, is a civilizational attractor, much like ancient Greece and China were, pulling other peoples and languages into its linguistic orbit: the essence of soft power, in other words. Dari, Tajik, Urdu, Pashtu, Hindi, Bengali and Iraqi Arabic are all either variants of Persian, or significantly influenced by it. That is, one can travel from Baghdad in Iraq to Dhaka in Bangladesh and remain inside a Persian cultural realm.

Iran, furthermore, is not some 20th century contrivance of family and religious ideology like Saudi Arabia, bracketed as the Saudi state is by arbitrary borders. Iran corresponds almost completely with the Iranian plateau -- "the Castile of the Near East," in Princeton historian Peter Brown's phrase -- even as the dynamism of its civilization reaches far beyond it. The Persian Empire, even as it besieged Greece, "uncoiled, like a dragon's tail ... as far as the Oxus, Afghanistan and the Indus valley," writes Brown.2 W. Barthold, the great Russian geographer of the turn of the 20th century, concurs, situating Greater Iran between the Euphrates and the Indus and identifying the Kurds and Afghans as essentially Iranian peoples.3

Of the ancient peoples of the Near East, only the Hebrews and the Iranians "have texts and cultural traditions that have survived to modern times," writes the linguist Nicholas Ostler.4 Persian (Farsi) was not replaced by Arabic, like so many other tongues, and is in the same form today as it was in the 11th century, even as it has adopted the Arabic script. Iran has a far more venerable record as a nation-state and urbane civilization than most places in the Arab world and all the places in the Fertile Crescent, including Mesopotamia and Palestine. There is nothing artificial about Iran, in other words: The very competing power centers within its clerical regime indicate a greater level of institutionalization than almost anywhere in the region save for Israel, Egypt and Turkey.

Greater Iran began back in 700 B.C. with the Medes, an ancient Iranian people who established, with the help of the Scythians, an independent state in northwestern Iran. By 600 B.C., this empire reached from central Anatolia to the Hindu Kush (Turkey to Afghanistan), as well as south to the Persian Gulf. In 549 B.C., Cyrus (the Great), a prince from the Persian house of Achaemenes, captured the Median capital of Ecbatana (Hamadan) in western Iran and went on a further bout of conquest. The map of the Achaemenid Empire, governed from Persepolis (near Shiraz) in southern Iran, shows antique Persia at its apex, from the sixth to fourth centuries B.C. It stretched from Thrace and Macedonia in the northwest, and from Libya and Egypt in the southwest, all the way to the Punjab in the east; and from the Transcaucasus and the Caspian and Aral seas in the north to the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea in the south. No empire up to that point in world history had matched it. Persia was the world's first superpower, and Iranian leaders in our era -- both the late shah and the ayatollahs -- have inculcated this history in their bones. Its pan-Islamism notwithstanding, the current ruling elite is all about Iranian nationalism.

The Parthians manifested the best of the Iranian genius -- which was ultimately about tolerance of the cultures over which they ruled, allowing them a benign suzerainty. Headquartered in the northeastern Iranian region of Khorasan and the adjacent Kara Kum and speaking an Iranian language, the Parthians ruled between the third century B.C. and the third century A.D., generally from Syria and Iraq to central Afghanistan and Pakistan, including Armenia and Turkmenistan. Thus, rather than the Bosporus-to-Indus or the Nile-to-Oxus scope of Achaemenid Persia, the Parthian Empire constitutes a more realistic vision of a Greater Iran for the 21st century. And this is not necessarily bad. For the Parthian Empire was extremely decentralized, a zone of strong influence rather than of outright control, which leaned heavily on art, architecture and administrative practices inherited from the Greeks. As for the Iran of today, it is no secret that the clerical regime is formidable, but demographic, economic and political forces are equally dynamic, and key segments of the population are restive. So do not discount the possibility of a new regime in Iran and a consequently benign Iranian empire yet to come.

1 Michael Axworthy. A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, Basic Books, New York, 2008, p. 3.
2 Brown. The World of Late Antiquity, p. 163.
3 W. Barthold, An Historical Geography of Iran, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, (1903) 1971 and 1984, pp. x-xi and 4.
4 Ostler, Empires of the Word, p. 31.

[To be continued in the next Red Horse post.]

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Post #324 - No Walk in the Park

The following are excerpts from an article by Hooshang Amirahmadi (head of the American Iranian Council, and Shahir Shahidsaless. Though it was written earlier this year (prior to the June round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Moscow), its observations, though clumsily stated, are still relevant today:

The talks will fail if the P5+1 were to insist in [sic] a disproportionate Iranian compromise to abide by the UN resolutions demanding suspension of all nuclear enrichment activities.

The failure of the talks will almost automatically lead to two planned detrimental sanctions to kick in. Effective June 28th, the US will enforce a new law that denies access to the American market for any foreign company that conducts business with Iran’s Central Bank. According to Senator Robert Menendez, the new legislation simply says to the world that, “you can either do business with Iran or the United States, but not both.” Immediately thereafter, on July 1st, the EU will boycott Iranian oil, a significant 20 percent of the nation’s oil exports...

In its April report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) stated that, “[the] list of countries planning to implement import cuts in coming months suggests Iranian output could plummet to 2.6 to 2.8 million barrels a day by mid-summer, unless alternative buyers can be found.” This level of production would be considerably less than the 3.55 million barrels Iran produced at the end of 2011...

There are even more crippling sanctions in the making. According to Debkafile, an Israeli-based security think tank, quoting official sources in Washington on June 4:

"In the fall, the US administration will bring out its most potent economic weapon: an embargo on aircraft and sea vessels visiting Iranian ports. Any national airline or international aircraft touching down in Iran will be barred from US and West European airports. The same rule will apply to private and government-owned vessels, including oil tankers. Calling in at an Iranian port will automatically preclude them from entry to a US or European harbor. This sanction would launch an air and naval siege on the Islamic Republic without a shot being fired."

The Debkafile report is in line with statements on June 4 by the US Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Richard Cohen. While praising the creativity of Israelis in offering ideas with respect to the sanction regimes, he assured the world that, “if we don't get a breakthrough in Moscow there is no question we will continue to ratchet up the pressure." Wendy Sherman, the US negotiator, in return [sic] from Iraq, paid a visit to Israel to reassure Israelis that the US’s positions on negotiations with Iran remains unchanged, meaning, the US will not allow Iran to develop nuclear bombs. The State Department said in a communique that Ms. Sherman was in Israel to “reaffirm our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security”...

[The Western] boycott of the Central Bank [of Iran] has led to the depreciation of the Iranian Rial by over 50 percent relative to US dollar, and suspension of relations with the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) has almost halted Iran's ability to use the international electronic money transfer system. As a result, prices have sharply increased across the board, particularly for Iran’s sizable imports. With unemployment rate already in the high teens, rapid rise in poverty level, and the promised subsidies withdrawn, the mismanaged economy can hardly survive another round of crippling sanctions...

The question is what Tehran will do if its survival is threatened. The US and its European allies seem to believe that under such a condition, the Islamic Republic will surrender. That would have been one possible outcome if Tehran believed it had no other option. Yet, more likely than not, this assumption can prove inaccurate, and all indications point toward a different mood of thinking in Tehran - one of resistance to pressure at any cost...Here are the reasons why:

First, even if Iran’s oil exports were to drop...Tehran can still earn significant revenue from its oil. Iran also has over $100 billion in foreign currency reserves. These funds can help Iran to module [sic] through for at least two years before it hits the red line of economic collapse. Meanwhile, an Iran under threat of survival will speed up uranium enrichment toward developing military capability if it indeed is bent to do so as the US and its allies have claimed.

Second, as many public opinion polls, such as Rand Corporation, have shown the Iranian nuclear program enjoys overwhelming popular support [in Iran]. The nuclear program is often equated with the nationalization of Iranian oil industry under the Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who was overthrown by the US and the UK. That episode has left a scar in the Iranian psyche that continues to trouble Iran-Western relations. Added to this nationalistic sentiment is the country’s culture of resistance particularly to outside pressure...

And third, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei has in [sic] many occasions said that the nation’s nuclear program is inseparable from its national right and dignity and that submission under pressure is more dangerous to the Islamic regime than resisting and risking confrontation with the U.S. Khamenei believes that the U.S. is after regime change and holds that “the end of U.S. pressure and intimidation will only come when Iranian officials announce they are ready to compromise Islam and their popular Islamic Republic.” The Ayatollah has also put himself in a perilous position by appointing Mr. Saeed Jalili, Iran’s nuclear negotiator, as his personal envoy as well, thus rendering himself directly accountable for any menacing outcome.

Thus, in case of a failure [of the negotiations], the Ayatollah will be left with only extreme options in confronting the West. These options could include disruption (not necessarily closure) of traffic flowing through the vital Strait of Hormuz oil route... According to the same Debkafile report:

"Word of the US plan [about introducing new sanctions] prompted a deliberately provocative visit by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari Thursday, May 31, to his forces stationed on the three disputed islands commanding the Strait of Hormuz, Abu Musa, Little Tunb and Big Tunb. … In Washington, Jafari’s visit was perceived as Tehran’s reminder of its repeated threat to close the Hormuz Straits in the event of a blockade to the transit of a large part of the world’s oil."

Another possible action by the Ayatollah would be threatening to exit the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty], an option that is open to all signatories of NPT by giving the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) a three-month advance notice before pulling out. The Ayatollah can condition remaining in the Treaty by [sic] the West lifting certain crippling sanctions. Disruption of the Hormuz traffic along with a retreat from the NPT could quite possibly trigger a tit-for-tat chain of retaliatory events, ultimately leading to a military confrontation that in Defense Secretary Panetta’s words “we would regret.”

A war over the Iranian nuclear dispute is surely a road to hell for all involved ...

The article goes on to suggest that an agreement might be reached that would have Iran commit to the movement of its enriched uranium out of Iran and permit intrusive inspections, in return for Western guarantees of an end to sanctions and assurance of Iran receiving needed nuclear fuel plates for its research reactor. Security concerns then could be addressed in an atmosphere of defused tensions.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Post #323 - Dirty Hands

The following link will take you to a short video presentation on chemical and biological weapons.  Although I cannot independently confirm all the information presented, it generally jibes with what I have heard from former CIA analysts, Iranian-American scholars and representatives of the Iranian society that cares for victims of chemical weapons.  An understanding of this chapter in U.S.-Iran relations is essential to grasping motivation of the Iranian side in the context of recent history:

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Post #322 - The Woman Who Came to Dinner

Phan Nguyen wrote this for Mondoweiss/The war of ideas on the Middle East (8/23/12).  It concerns a person who has made a career out of bridging chasms, between her own Judaism and other faiths, between Americans and people of other countries, most recently taking part in a multi-faith living experiment at the Stoney Point Retreat Center, north of New York City, where I met her. I have found Lynn to be a pleasant, personable, passionate woman who is about as likely to shrink from controversy as the deceptively hardy pansy is to wilt when the winter winds begin to blow:

Veteran peace activist and interfaith dialogue advocate Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb is the latest target in a campaign to attack Barack Obama in the run-up to the US presidential election.

Gottlieb is a cofounder of the Shomer Shalom Network for Jewish Nonviolence and serves on the advisory board and rabbinical council of Jewish Voice for Peace. She was also one of the first women to be ordained as a rabbi and was the first female rabbi in the Jewish Renewal movement.

In 2007, the Washington Post’s “On Faith” column, Ms Magazine editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin named Gottlieb one of America’s “50 Top Rabbis.”

However, on August 21 this year, the Obama–Biden presidential campaign launched its “Rabbis for Obama” initiative, presenting a list of over 613 rabbis who have signed on to support the Obama campaign. According to campaign, “this list of rabbis represents a broad group of respected Jewish leader[s] from all parts of the country. These rabbis mirror the diversity of American Jewry.”

But scouring through the list of 600+ rabbis, the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) zeroed in on Gottlieb, and on August 23, issued a press release “express[ing] profound outrage at the inclusion of radical rabbi Lynn Gottlieb” on the Rabbis for Obama list. The RJC accused Gottlieb of having “a long and troubling history,” citing the following as examples:

  1. Gottlieb is involved with Jewish Voice for Peace, “which the Anti-Defamation League has called one of the ‘top ten anti-Israel groups.’”
  1. Gottlieb has visited Iran. 

  2. In 2008, Gottlieb attended a dinner event with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The RJC also attempted to contrive a connection between Gottlieb’s inclusion in the “Rabbis for Obama” list and Jimmy Carter’s upcoming address at the Democratic National Convention:
The fact that the campaign announced Rabbi Gottlieb’s participation in “Rabbis for Obama” at around the same time that it was announced that former President Jimmy Carter—who has met with Hamas and has been a virulent critic of Israel—will speak at the Democratic Convention, highlights not only the insensitivity of the Obama campaign to the concerns of the Jewish community, but also underscores why Pres. Obama has seen a significant erosion of support among Jewish voters.

The right-wing press then picked up the story and added more supposed examples of Gottlieb’s “extremism.” The National Review labeled Gottlieb “Obama’s Anti-Israel Rabbi” and claims that Jewish Voice for Peace “has even come out against the existence of Israel.” Adam Kredo in the Washington Free Beacon accused Gottlieb of being “a devotee of the far-left J Street,” while Jonathan Tobin in Commentary denounced Gottlieb as “a notorious anti-Zionist” who is “outside even the parameters of what the left-wing lobby J Street would consider ‘pro-Israel.’”

Both Kredo and Tobin point out that Gottlieb expressed support for the Olympia Food Co-op’s boycott of Israeli goods in 2010. Kredo links to a video where Gottlieb gave her support to the Co-op, and he notes that Gottlieb “signs onto the video by giving the traditional Arabic greeting, ‘Salaam Alaikum.’” It is unknown what significance Kredo finds in this traditional Muslim greeting, nor is it known why Kredo considers it more significant than the “Shalom Aleichem” that Gottlieb had preceded it with.

Responding to the charges

On her Facebook page, Gottlieb wrote a quick response to the charges:

I signed on to be a rabbi for Obama. There are no other clergy groups, such as Imams or Priests for Obama. Really, what Jewish person wants to vote for a guy who believes all Jews should move to Israel so that we can all finally convert and bring the end of time and go to heaven or be burned up in the apocalypse?

Being an Obama rabbi AND a member of JVP, I was compared to Jimmy Carter in the context of the Democratic Party’s insensitivity to the concern of Jews. (Jimmy is speaking at the convention, I’m not!) Both Jewish Voice for Peace and I are the objects of scorn in this piece.

I have been part of 2 civilian diplomacy trips to Iran in 2009, and did attend a 350 person dinner hosted by the Iranian Mission to the United Nations to honor interfaith relationships. Every person who spoke criticized the President for his Holocaust denial statements and his statement about wiping Israel off the map which is not helpful when trying to prevent a war between Iran and Israel. My speech is printed in Fellowship Magazine of the F.O.R. [Fellowship of Reconciliation].

I stand with JVP for selective divestment and boycott of settlement products (and support BDS), along with hundreds of thousands of other people, including tens of thousands of Jews, which challenges the message of ‘extreme’. Seems like adopting these tactics are becoming more mainstream all the time.

Jewish Voice for Peace has previously responded to the ADL’s false charges against the organization, and other commentators have made similar critiques of the ADL.

Gottlieb did in fact visit Iran twice, and none of her current critics have bothered to explain what they found so problematic about it. The trips were sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), and as Gottlieb explained to me, the purpose was “building cross cultural and religious relationship among ‘enemy’ peoples so peace has a better chance of rooting itself among the nations. The global interfaith effort that is currently taking place reaches out to faith based individuals and communities without regard to their national identity.”

In fact, as part of the trips, the FOR delegation visited Iran’s Jewish minority community, attending services in three synagogues in Tehran, visiting a Jewish communal organization in Shiraz, and meeting with other Jewish individuals and youth.

As for Gottlieb’s “Dinner With Ahmadinejad” (which was the title of Kredo’s article), none of her critics bothered to provide details of the gathering and of what had transpired there on September 25, 2008. Kredo’s headline suggests that it could have been a personal and intimate evening between Gottlieb and Ahmadinejad, when in fact it was a gathering of hundreds, with several speakers criticizing the Iranian president.

The text of Gottlieb’s own speech that night is available online. As she states in the preface to her speech:

Meetings organized by peace and non-violence organizations and individuals with Ahmadinejad do not mean those attending agree or support specific Iranian governmental policies that are in conflict with the values of the peace community or the accompanying rhetoric about Israel, Jews or the United States...

At the Thursday dinner, most speakers who addressed and questioned the President took the opportunity to challenge him on several issues. They berated Ahmadinejad for his failure to state unequivocally that he mourns the death of six million Jews during the Holocaust, asserted their opposition to all nuclear weapons, bemoaned the Iranian record on human rights and in particular the execution of juveniles, the lack of religious freedom of expression, the persecution of the Bahai community and Iran's denial that Israel has a right to exist as a nation state...

Ahmadinejad may be gone from power by June due to their elections. Whether he is or is not, those in the inter-faith peace community are looking to open channels with Iranians in the Department of Inter-religious Dialogue. For those of us in the Jewish community, it is important for us to note that, unlike most other Middle Eastern countries, Iran still possesses a small but significant Jewish community. Somewhere between 12,000 and 25,000 Jews reside mostly in Teheran, Shiraz and Esfahan. As the oldest extant Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel, how do we protect them, reach out to them and nurture their Jewish life in Iran? The possibility of real engagement is difficult in an atmosphere of aggressive rhetoric which does nothing to create a climate of rapprochement.

And here is an excerpt from her speech:

Peace is not envisioned as a quietist or passive stance. Rather shalom, the condition of harmony and well-being for the whole of society and the human heart of the believer is a condition that must be actively sought and publicly acknowledged for the sake of preventing violence and building peace.
That is why I stand here today, even when many of my co-religionists are dismissing, demeaning or boycotting this important conversation. I want to make clear that there are many thousands of Jewish people within my community whose voices are not heard, but nonetheless support dialogue as both a religious obligation as well as a way to give witness to hope...

As you are well aware, I come from a community that has experienced the genocidal results of hate speech leading to hate action. I know the country of Iran recognizes the Holocaust as I understand that there was a widely viewed television series dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust this past year in Iran which was watch by millions of people. I would like to remember for a blessing all those who have died in our world, on account of war.

I mourn the death of all young men and women sent to soldiering in conflicts not of their making.

I mourn one half a million Iranians who died in the Iran Iraq war,

I mourn the millions of Iraqis have been killed, injured and displaced by a war the United States initiated in Iraq.

I also mourn the forty million people who died in the second world war, including two million Armenians, one million Roma, tens of thousands who died on account of sexual orientation as well as those who were targeted for murder based on special needs. And of course, I mourn my own extended family, six million Jewish people who were murdered because European historical anti-Semitism made it acceptable to see us as less than human. Because of the Holocaust, I learned from the rabbis who ordained me and guide me, to be active in preventing further suffering of all human beings as a primary religious call to action. That is why I, like thousands of Jewish Americans, Israelis and Europeans have joined with other peace activists across the globe to work tirelessly for Palestinian human rights, as well as Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation through the path of non-violence.

As Gottlieb later explained to Larry Cohler-Esses for the New York Jewish Week, “I said what I had to say without insulting [Ahmadinejad] ... I wanted to isolate him but not insult him. It’s tricky. It’s a fine line ... because I wanted to keep the channels open.”

The real reason for the attacks

Why are right-wing groups attempting to smear Gottlieb based on innocuous or commendable actions from years past? Although the focus is on Gottlieb, the goal is to strike at Obama. By highlighting Gottlieb’s name among 600+ rabbis, and by calling on the Obama campaign to “immediately remove her from any formal or official involvement in the campaign,” the right is employing the same tactics it had used against Obama in the previous presidential election cycle.

In 2008, the targets were the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, prominent sixties radical Bill Ayers, and Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi. All were smeared and portrayed as “extreme”—Wright was portrayed as a “racist” “firebrand pastor,” while Ayers and Khalidi were described as “terrorists”—and their connections to Obama were exaggerated.

The purpose was to put Obama on the defensive and force him into a lose–lose situation: That is, if Obama did not repudiate his association with these people, he could be accused of “palling around with terrorists,” which would create a distraction for his campaign. At the same time, if he denounced his associations with these people, then it would give credence to the original accusations that Obama had previously been palling with terrorists and also undermine his attempts to build a base of support.

The right was willing to try to destroy these individuals in order to take Obama down a notch. However, in the case of Lynn Gottlieb, a.k.a. “Obama’s Anti-Israel Rabbi,” the connection is much more tenuous, and it remains to be seen how far the right is willing to smear Gottlieb before they give up and move on to the next target whom they suspect of being Obama’s weak link.

Update: Bill Kristol has written a letter on behalf of the Emergency Committee for Israel calling on Obama to “repudiate” several “anti-Israel figures” on the Rabbis for Obama list, including Gottlieb, although he does not specifically name the supposed problem rabbis. Meanwhile Haaretz has a brief interview with Gottlieb over her decision to endorse Obama.

As a person who, like Lynn, has twice traveled to Iran, has met with Ahmadinezhad and talked with his vice-president, who tries to preserve and honor the memory of all those who suffered and died in the Holocaust, who is voting for President Obama, and who fervently hopes that we can avoid war with Iran, I want to make clear that a place will be set for her at our dinner table any night she might wish to drop in.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Post #321 - As the Stars Align (or Not)

This article, by Kaveh Afrasiabi (former political science professor at the University of Tehran, and former advisor to Iran's nuclear negotiation team) comes from the Opinion page of the New York Times (8/23/12):

Gathering Hope in Tehran

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS — The Nonaligned Movement’s much-heralded summit meeting next week in Tehran — featuring dozens of leaders from the developing world, including President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, as well as the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon — will elevate Iran as the movement’s new president for three years and enhance Tehran’s regional and international clout.

Tehran wants to seize this opportunity to neutralize Western-imposed isolation over its nuclear efforts and to defend its program, which has been consistently supported at past Nonaligned Movement summits as well as by Nonaligned countries in the International Atomic Energy Agency. Concurrent with the Tehran summit will be a new round of Iran-I.A.E.A. talks in Vienna that holds out the promise of greater nuclear transparency by Iran.

Unfortunately, the United States and a number of other Western countries have adopted a purely negative approach toward the Tehran summit, going even as far as urging Ban to boycott it since the host nation is in defiance of U.N. resolutions on the nuclear issue. But the secretary general must be lauded for exercising independent judgment in deciding to go to Tehran for the meeting. After all, there are 120 Nonaligned Movement member states in the U.N. General Assembly, and U.N. chiefs have regularly attended Nonaligned Movement summits.

Although the Tehran summit has been mocked as a “bacchanal of nonsense,” it is likely to have significant implications, above all for regional peace and stability. As a case in point, both Singh and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan have stated their intention to meet on the summit’s sidelines to discuss bilateral issues. And though Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, may not participate, the crisis in Syria will be on the agenda and may culminate in a new Nonaligned Movement mediation push to complement the efforts of both the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

At a recent O.I.C. conference in Mecca, Morsi proposed forming a contact group on Syria comprising Iran, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. This idea could now earn the blessing of the Nonaligned Movement and demonstrate how a new Middle East can chart its own destiny after the Arab Spring.

Morsi’s decision to go to Tehran indicates a thaw in Iran-Egypt relations and could be the harbinger of a diplomatic normalization between the two countries that could greatly enhance stability in the region.

With respect to the stalemated nuclear negotiations between Iran and the “P5+1” nations — the U.N. Security Council’s permanent members plus Germany — the Tehran summit is expected to produce some good. As the Nonaligned Movement underscores the extent of international support for Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, the United States and its allies will be pressed to drop their rigid insistence on a complete halt to Iran’s enrichment efforts and take a more nuanced approach to help break the deadlock on the issue.

The Western offer to provide nuclear reactor fuel and aviation parts in exchange for Tehran shutting down its high-grade enrichment work was called “ungenerous” by the International Crisis Group. It is clear that one-dimensional, coercive diplomacy on this matter will not yield a positive result — and that the Western diplomatic approach toward Iran needs to be much more flexible and prudent. 

Practical steps could help a lot. China and Russia both have observer status at the Nonaligned Movement. So why have the United States and the European Union failed to join them by seeking observer status, too? The movement’s goals and aspirations should not be a bar to this; after all, the United States sends observers to O.I.C. meetings that habitually condemn Israel.

The time has come for the West to reconsider its hostility toward the Nonaligned Movement. A small olive branch could be extended if the United States and the European Union requested observer status. And the deep North-South divide could begin to close.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Post #320 - Surprise, Surprise

This link takes you to a podcast of On Point with Tom Ashbrook (8/20/12), entitled: "October Surprise?".  Ashbrook's guests include:  David Rothkopf, president and CEO of Garten Rothkopf, an international advisory firm, R. Nicholas Burns, professor of Diplomacy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government (and former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs), and columnist Roger Cohen (NY Times, International Herald Tribune, Washington Post).

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Post #319 - Good News from NIAC

NIAC Applauds General License for Earthquake Assistance
Contact: David Elliott
Phone: 202-379-1614

NIAC strongly applauds the White House for issuing a temporary general license authorizing charitable organizations to provide direct humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to the victims of the earthquakes in northwest Iran.  

“This humanitarian gesture will empower the American people to help Iranians who’ve lost everything to this terrible natural disaster,” said NIAC assistant policy director David Elliott.  “The White House should be commended for ensuring that emergency relief efforts won’t be held hostage to the bad relations between the two countries.”

The White House’s decision comes after thousands of Americans, 14 members of Congress, and a broad coalition of organizations wrote to the President urging him to issue a general license exempting humanitarian relief efforts from sanctions on Iran.  President Bush issued a similar sanctions waiver after a devastating earthquake hit Bam, Iran in 2003. 

"The onus is now on the Iranian government to put the wellbeing of its people first and eliminate all obstacles for delivering aid to the Iranian people,” Elliott said.

Even though the Iranian government has refused formal aid from the U.S. government, the general license will enable U.S. nongovernmental organizations to provide humanitarian assistance directly to the Iranian people. 

Last week, NIAC worked closely with Congressman Kucinich (D-OH) to advance a letter urging President Obama to issue such a general license and for the “administration to provide public guidance that financial institutions are permitted and encouraged to facilitate all legal transactions that have been licensed by the U.S. Government.”  As that letter made clear, the Obama Administration should encourage financial institutions to facilitate all OFAC-licensed transactions like relief assistance, so that these efforts are not blocked by banks that are overzealously applying the sanctions.

“This general license means that more organizations will be able to provide emergence assistance more quickly” said Elliott.

There are a number of nonprofit organizations working to provide disaster assistance, including Moms Against Poverty, Relief International, Children of Persia, Child Foundation, Iranian American Muslim Association of North America (IMAN).  

National Iranian American Council | 1411 K Street NW, Suite 250 | Washington, DC 20005

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Post #318 - The Irrepressibiity of Desire

Public Broadcasting published the following article by one of its correspondents in Iran (5/22/12), entitled "Iran Standard Time | 'Hitting the Turn'":

At a cursory glance, the Saadat Abad main road looks much like any other in north Tehran: policemen in starched white uniforms and reflective aviators marshal Iran Khodros, Porsches, and everything else around Kaj Square and up the steep road toward where the Alborz Mountains cut though the north of the city. Look a little closer and you'll notice children at the traffic lights clutching boxes of red roses, vying for the custom of the waiting drivers. Closer still, and you'll see pairs of cars regularly slowing down for their occupants to chat and exchange numbers.

Welcome to dore zadan (hitting the turn), the way many young Iranians find a date. Though its utility has diminished over the last decade with the loosening enforcement of Iran's morality laws that officially bar unrelated people of the opposite sex from holding hands in public, and everyone from playing Western pop music at parties, wearing clothes that are too tight, and so forth, the dore zadan is a mainstay of modern life for many young Tehranis. Predominantly practiced in the capital by the middle classes, it is an antidote to another boring weekend.

Having watched this automotive mating dance from the confines of my friend's shop in Saadat Abad, I am a bit apprehensive as I accept a friend's invitation to try it myself. I meet Arash at a northern patogh, a rest stop with an ice-cream van that serves as a pop-up meeting spot for young men and women. He sits perched against the grill of his dad's petrol-blue BMW, ostentatiously smoking a Bahman cigarette with his friend Reza, waiting for his brother Kiarash to arrive. "You circle around looking for cars of girls. If you like the look of them, you slow down and take their numbers. The most important thing is that you get lots of numbers," he explains sagaciously. "Most of the girls are not doing it for real like us and only one in five will see you after she gives her number. It's like nightclubs in the West; the boy's priority is to get laid but the girls' is to have fun or to get attention from the boys."

Kiarash arrives late and alights from a friend's car. He is sporting a T-shirt that reads "G Funk Star" and an oversized Golden State Warriors basketball cap, slanted at 90 degrees. "Let's go and find some bitchez!" he exclaims in English, pulling what would look like an ironic gangster sign if he were not dressed like Ice Cube, circa 1994.

The Iran Zamin is the most established and popular circuit in Tehran but the Saadat Abad has the "classiest girls," Arash explains. Saadat Abad is sometimes even closed by police during the dore zadan rush hours -- Wednesday and Thursday nights -- ostensibly due to maintenance, but it is widely seen as an effort to curb practices that have become the Iranian equivalent of the mating call. During summer months, when the Gasht-e Ershad (Guidance Patrol -- the morality police) are out in force, the break in the road on Iran Zamin is closed to stop cars from turning around, taking the "dore" out of dore zadan.

It is time to head off and I am offered the front seat after about three rounds of ta'rof. As we head toward Iran Zamin, Arash expounds on the rules of dore zadan: if the girls pull their windows down at the same time, they are too keen and not to be pursued; if you can get away with it, you should invite them all to your place there and then; and lastly, always have a few fake numbers at hand, "so they don't become upset."

Reza, the youngest and quietest of the group, is not sharing in the excitement of his two friends. "We get bored. There's nowhere to go. You can't go to a bar, so you find girls with your car," he says. "I don't like it. It's all about money: you need a nice car and nice clothes to get any numbers, but my parents are very strict and won't let me go to house parties so I don't have a choice." Reza says his next-door neighbor attends his university, but he cannot give her lifts because it would arouse suspicion and impact her reputation when she's ready to get married.

Kiarash is exploding with excitement, banging his huge forearms against the front seats. He leans over to plug in his iPhone and a ubiquitous track by Iranian pop stars BaroBax and Gamno jolts on loudly. He grabs Reza's face and presents it to me. "This guy," he triumphantly announces, "this guy is a pimp!"

Joining the motorway, it does not take long to spot what we are looking for. Several groups are surveying one another in the thick traffic, checking their mirrors for any prying Gasht-e Ershad. Arash slows down alongside a car with four heavily made-up young women; designer sunglasses with dyed fringes protrude from their colorful hejabs. The front passenger pulls down her window and coquettishly smiles at Arash. "Azizam!" he purrs -- my dear -- handing her a pre-prepared handwritten number. Emboldened by the prospect of competition, Kiarash leans over Reza, opens the back window, and scattershots at the girls' car, "You're beautiful! I want to go around you!" Bemused, they speed off.

After two aborted attempts to make another contact, Arash and Reza lower their windows to start up a conversation with a group of girls. We slow down to a crawl, and the driver of a white SUV honks his horn, impatiently edging forward, trying to get by us. After some maneuvering, the apoplectic driver races past and, to the boys' relief, our cars rejoin for Arash and Reza to pick up where they left off. Numbers are exchanged. Reza looks particularly happy with the result. "She was really nice. I'll call her tonight and invite her to walk in the mountains." He beams.

Having picked up a number myself, I contact Sepideh to ask her about her experiences with dore zadan. "It can be dangerous," she explains. "One time I was shouting over the music and it cut out. I heard another motor -- a man on a motorbike between our cars heard everything. We drove off though the side streets and thought we'd lost him, but then there was a knock on the window and it was the guy! He said, 'Do you have no respect for yourselves, sisters? Stop playing this game and go to your homes.'"

Before the Revolution, Imam Khomeini once declared, "Sexual vice has now reached such proportions that it is destroying entire generations and corrupting our youth...they are all rushing to enjoy the various forms of vice that have become so freely available and so enthusiastically promoted." I wonder what he would say of the Islamic Republic of 2012.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau
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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Post #317 - After the Games are over

Well, the dust has settled from that frenetic, delightfully loony Closing Ceremonies in London (never thought I'd ever be missing the Spice Girls, but I do now).  And, the medal counts are complete and entered into the Olympic rolls.  We know that the world's giants (United States, China and Russia) cleaned up big-time, and Great Britain did remarkably well for a smallish country ~ good on them!

Iran ended in 18th place, with a dozen medals having been won by the athletes who competed under its flag.  This was a match for (even slightly better than, if you dig down into the stats) Jamaica, whose runners received such massive media attention.  The numbers place Iran number three in Asia (behind China and South Korea), and ahead of all the Scandinavian countries.  They eclipsed giant India and Olympic progenitor Greece (where they have not been able to concentrate on sports of late).  Iran earned twelve times the glory of its regional rival Saudi Arabia (handicapped partly because of its reticence when it comes to feminine participation).

Iran's neighbors Iraq and Pakistan did not medal in these games, while Afghanistan took home a single prize (a bronze).  Iranians won more than the Turks, Tajiks, Kuwaitees, Uzbeks and Armenians combined.

What does this all mean?  I haven't the faintest idea.  But talking about who beats the pants off of whom in athletic contests is so infinitely more palatable than contemplating who might destroy more infrastructure or inflict more death and mayhem on another people that I wanted to take a few minutes to ponder it, even if it doesn't matter to anyone at all.  After a pin at a wrestling match, everyone gets up and lives to fight another day; they may even go away friends.  After a war, even the victors are never the same again.

God save us from our competitive instincts.  Blended with fear, they are a devil's brew -- "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from us."

Friday, August 17, 2012

Post #316 - Earthquake Relief

Many are wondering how Americans can be helpful to the people of Iran who were affected by the serious (6.5. Richter) earthquake in northwestern Iran.

Today, members of the White House staff, responding to a call from the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and the West Asia Council, held an off-the-record conference call to clarify factors related to economic sanctions that affect the public's ability to engage in philanthropic response to the disaster. The call was announced by D. Paul Monteiro, Associate Director, White House Office of Public Engagement. Representatives of the State Department, Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Agency for International Development were on the call to answer questions.

A summary of the content of the call was distributed by NIAC afterwards:

"During the call, the Treasury Department indicated that they have received very few applications from nonprofit organizations seeking to contribute to earthquake relief efforts. NIAC believes the expense and complication of applying for specific licenses has deterred many organizations from providing relief assistance, and NIAC reiterated the recommendation that the administration issue a general license that would facilitate more rapid disaster assistance from more organizations.

Official guidance is posted here:

NIAC went on to say: "This week, NIAC also worked closely with Congressman Kucinich (D-OH) to advance a letter urging President Obama to issue such a general license and for the 'administration to provide public guidance that financial institutions are permitted and encouraged to facilitate all legal transactions that have been licensed by the U.S. Government.'
"The Kucinich letter was also signed by Representatives Keith Ellison (D-MN), John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), Henry C. “Hank” Johnson, Jr. (D-GA), Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), Donna F. Edwards (D-MD), Jackie Speier (D-CA), Michael M. Honda (D-CA), John L. Mica (R-FL), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), John W. Olver (D-MA), Jim McDermott (D-WA), André Carson (D-IN) and Barbara Lee (D-CA)."

Other non-profits seeking to help include:

Moms against Poverty (they obtained a license to provide temporary shelter, food, medicine, and trauma counseling)
Relief International (application pending)
Children of Persia (application pending)
Child Foundation (shipping emergency supplies)
Iranian American Muslim Association of North America (shipping emergency supplies)

American Red Cross is not accepting funds for Iranian relief efforts, at this time, because it Iranian counterpart, The Iranian Red Crescent, is not yet accepting aid from other Red Cross entities.