Sunday, July 27, 2008

Persia: Ancient Soul of Iran (National Geographic)

Marguerite Del Giudice has an excellent, comprehensive article on Iran at National Geographic. I have reprinted the entire article below, but I highly suggest visiting the National Geographic site to see the pictures and take the Iranian Culture Quiz.

Persia: Ancient Soul of Iran
A glorious past inspires a conflicted nation

by Marguerite Del Giudice

What’s so striking about the ruins of Persepolis in southern Iran, an ancient capital of the Persian Empire that was burned down after being conquered by Alexander the Great, is the absence of violent imagery on what’s left of its stone walls. Among the carvings there are soldiers, but they’re not fighting; there are weapons, but they’re not drawn. Mainly you see emblems suggesting that something humane went on here instead—people of different nations gathering peace­fully, bearing gifts, draping their hands amiably on one another’s shoulders. In an era noted for its barbarity, Persepolis, it seems, was a relatively cosmopolitan place—and for many Iranians today its ruins are a breathtaking reminder of who their Persian ancestors were and what they did.

The recorded history of the country itself spans some 2,500 years, culminating in today’s Islamic Republic of Iran, formed in 1979 after a revolution inspired in part by conservative clerics cast out the Western-backed shah. It’s argu­ably the world’s first modern constitutional theocracy and a grand experiment: Can a country be run effectively by holy men imposing an extreme version of Islam on a people soaked in such a rich Persian past?

Persia was a conquering empire but also regarded in some ways as one of the more glorious and benevolent civilizations of antiquity, and I wondered how strongly people might still identify with the part of their history that’s illustrated in those surviving friezes. So I set out to explore what “Persian” means to Iranians, who at the time of my two visits last year were being shunned by the international community, their culture demonized in Western cinema, and their leaders cast, in an escalating war of words with Washington, D.C., as menacing would-be terrorists out to build the bomb.

You can’t really separate out Iranian identity as one thing or another—broadly speaking, it’s part Persian, part Islamic, and part Western, and the paradoxes all exist together. But there is a Persian identity that has nothing to do with Islam, which at the same time has blended with the culture of Islam (as evidenced by the Muslim call to prayer that booms from loudspeakers situated around Persepolis, a cue to visitors that they are not only in a Persian kingdom but also in an Islamic republic). This would be a story about those Iranians who still, at least in part, identify with their Persian roots. Perhaps some millennial spillover runs through the makeup of what is now one of the world’s ticking hot spots. Are vestiges of the life-loving Persian nature (wine, love, poetry, song) woven into the fabric of abstinence, prayer, and fatalism often associated with Islam—like a secret computer program running quietly in the background?

Surviving, Persian Style

Iran’s capital city of Tehran is an exciting, pollution-choked metropolis at the foot of the Elburz Mountains. Many of the buildings are made of tiny beige bricks and girded with metal railings, giving the impression of small compounds coming one after the other, punctuated by halted construction projects and parks. There are still some beautiful gardens here, a Persian inheritance, and private ones, with fruit trees and fountains, fishponds and aviaries, flourishing inside the brick walls.

While I was here, two Iranian-born American academics, home for a visit, had been locked up, accused of fomenting a velvet revolution against the government. Eventually they were released. But back in the United States, people would ask, wasn’t I afraid to be in Iran?—the assumption being that I must have been in danger of getting locked up myself.

But I was a guest in Iran, and in Iran a guest is accorded the highest status, the sweetest piece of fruit, the most comfortable place to sit. It’s part of a complex system of ritual politeness—taarof—that governs the subtext of life here. Hospitality, courting, family affairs, political negotiations; taarof is the unwritten code for how people should treat each other. The word has an Arabic root, arafa, meaning to know or acquire knowledge of. But the idea of taarof—to abase oneself while exalting the other person—is Persian in origin, said William O. Beeman, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Minnesota. He described it as “fighting for the lower hand,” but in an exquisitely elegant way, making it possible, in a hierarchical society like Iran’s, “for people to paradoxically deal with each other as equals.”

Wherever I went, people fussed over me and made sure that all my needs were met. But they can get so caught up trying to please, or seeming to, and declining offers, or seeming to, that true intentions are hidden. There’s a lot of mind reading and lighthearted, meaningless dialogue while the two parties go back and forth with entreaties and refusals until the truth reveals itself.

Being smooth and seeming sincere while hiding your true feelings—artful pretending—is considered the height of taarof and an enormous social asset. “You never show your intention or your real identity,” said a former Iranian political prisoner now living in France. “You’re making sure you’re not exposing yourself to danger, because throughout our history there has been a lot of danger there.”

Geography as Destiny

Indeed, the long course of Iranian history is satu­rated with wars, invasions, and martyrs, including the teenage boys during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s who carried plastic keys to heaven while clearing minefields by walking bravely across them. The underlying reason for all the drama is: location. If you draw lines from the Mediterranean to Beijing or Beijing to Cairo or Paris to Delhi, they all pass through Iran, which straddles a region where East meets West. Over 26 centuries, a blending of the hemispheres has been going on here—trade, cultural interchange, friction—with Iran smack in the middle.

Meanwhile, because of its wealth and strategic location, the country was also overrun by one invader after another, and the Persian Empire was established, lost, and reestablished a number of times—by the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and the Sassanids—before finally going under. Invaders have included the Turks, Genghis Khan and the Mongols, and, most significantly, Arabian tribesmen. Fired with the zeal of a new religion, Islam, they humbled the ancient Persian Empire for good in the seventh century and ushered in a period of Muslim greatness that was distinctly Persian. The Arab expansion is regarded as one of the most dramatic movements of any people in history. Persia was in its inexorable path, and, ever since, Iranians have been finding ways to keep safe their identity as distinct from the rest of the Muslim and Arab world. “Iran is very big and very ancient,” said Youssef Madjidzadeh, a leading Iranian archaeologist, “and it’s not easy to change the hearts and identity of the people because of this.”

They like to say, for instance, that when invaders came to Iran, the Iranians did not become the invaders; the invaders became Iranians. Their conquerors were said to have “gone Persian,” like Alexander, who, after laying waste to the vanquished Persia, adopted its cultural and administrative practices, took a Persian wife (Roxana), and ordered thousands of his troops to do the same in a mass wedding. Iranians seem particularly proud of their capacity to get along with others by assimilating compatible aspects of the invaders’ ways without surrendering their own—a cultural elasticity that is at the heart of their Persian identity.

Welcome to Aratta

The earliest reports of human settlement in Iran go back at least 10,000 years, and the country’s name derives from Aryans who migrated here beginning around 1500 b.c. Layers of civilization—tens of thousands of archaeological sites—are yet to be excavated. One recent find quickening some hearts was unearthed in 2000 near the city of Jiroft, when flash floods along the Halil River in the southeast exposed thousands of old tombs. The excavation is just six seasons old, and there isn’t much to see yet. But intriguing artifacts have been found (including a bronze goat’s head dating back perhaps 5,000 years), and Jiroft is spoken of as possibly an early center of civilization contemporary with Mesopotamia.

Youssef the archaeologist, an authority on the third millennium b.c., directs the digs. He used to run the archaeology department at the Univer­sity of Tehran but lost his job after the revolution and moved to France. Over the years, he said, “things changed.” Interest in archaeology revived, and he was invited back to run Jiroft. Youssef thinks it may be the fabled “lost” Bronze Age land of Aratta, circa 2700 b.c., reputedly legendary for magnificent crafts that found their way to Mesopotamia. But thus far there’s no proof, and other scholars are skeptical. What would he have to find to put the matter unequivocally to rest? He chuckled wist­fully. “The equivalent of an engraved arch that says, ‘Welcome to Aratta.’?”

Prospects for more digs at the thousands of unexplored sites seem daunting. In Iran the price of meat is high, there aren’t enough jobs, the bureaucracy is inscrutable, bloated, and inefficient, and state corruption—as described to me by three different people—is “an open secret,” “worse than ever,” and “institutionalized.”

“The country has many needs,” Youssef said, “and certainly archaeology is not the main subject.” But since Jiroft, “all the provinces are interested in excavating, and every little town wants to be known around the world like Jiroft. They’re proud, and there are rivalries.”

Youssef was slouched happily in a faux-leather chair in the offices of his publisher, munching tiny green grapes while musing about why Iranians are the way they are. As much as anything else, he thought, it was the geography, for when the Iranians were being overrun time after time, “where could they go—the desert? There was no place to run and hide.” They stayed, they got along, they pretended and made taarof. “The tree here has very deep roots.”

Superpower Nostalgia

The legacy from antiquity that has always seemed to loom large in the national psyche is this: The concepts of freedom and human rights may not have originated with the classical Greeks but in Iran, as early as the sixth century b.c. under the Achaemenid emperor Cyrus the Great, who established the first Persian Empire, which would become the largest, most powerful kingdom on Earth. Among other things, Cyrus, reputedly a brave and humble good guy, freed the enslaved Jews of Babylon in 539 b.c., sending them back to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple with money he gave them, and established what has been called the world’s first religiously and culturally tolerant empire. Ultimately it comprised more than 23 different peoples who coexisted peacefully under a central government, originally based in Pasargadae—a kingdom that at its height, under Cyrus’s successor, Darius, extended from the Mediterranean to the Indus River.

So Persia was arguably the world’s first superpower.

“We have a nostalgia to be a superpower again,” said Saeed Laylaz, an economic and political analyst in Tehran, “and the country’s nuclear ambitions are directly related to this desire.” The headlines are familiar: A consensus report of key U.S. spy agencies—the National Intelligence Estimate—concluded last December that a military-run program to develop nuclear weapons in Iran was halted in 2003. Iran continues to enrich uranium, insisting that it wants only to produce fuel for its nuclear power plants, but highly enriched uranium is also a key ingredient for a nuclear bomb. As a deterrent, the UN has imposed increasing economic sanctions. But Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative hard-liner, is giving no ground while at the same time making frequent threatening remarks about nearby Israel, denying the Holocaust, and, according to the U.S. government, sending weapons and munitions to extremist militias in Iraq that are being used against Iraqis and U.S. forces there.

“At one time the area of the country was triple what it is now, and it was a stable superpower for more than a thousand years,” said Saeed, a slender, refined man in glasses and starched shirtsleeves rolled to three-quarter length, sitting in his elegant apartment next to a lamp resembling a cockatoo, with real feathers. The empire once encompassed today’s Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Jordan, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and the Caucasus region. “The borders have moved in over the centuries, but this superpower nostalgia, so in contradiction to reality,” he said, “is all because of the history.”

At the foundation of which, again, is Cyrus, and in particular something called the Cyrus Cylinder—perhaps Iran’s most exalted artifact—housed at the British Museum in London, with a replica residing at UN headquarters in New York City. The cylinder resembles a corncob made of clay; inscribed on it, in cuneiform, is a decree that has been described as the first charter of human rights—predating the Magna Carta by nearly two millennia. It can be read as a call for religious and ethnic freedom; it banned slavery and oppression of any kind, the taking of property by force or without compensation; and it gave member states the right to subject themselves to Cyrus’s crown, or not. “I never resolve on war to reign.”

“To know Iran and what Iran really is, just read that transcription from Cyrus,” said Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. We were in her central Tehran apartment building, in a basement office lined with mahogany-and-glass bookcases. Inside one was a tiny gold copy of the cylinder, encased in a Plexiglas box that she held out to me as if presenting a newborn child. “Such greatness as the cylinder has been shown many times in Iran,” but the world doesn’t know it, she said. “When I go abroad, people get surprised when they realize that 65 percent of the college students here are girls. Or when they see Iranian paintings and Iranian architecture, they are shocked. They are judging a civilization just by what they have heard in the last 30 years”—the Islamic revolution; the rollbacks of personal freedoms, particularly for women; the nuclear program and antagonism with the West. They know nothing of the thousands of years that came before, she said—what the Iranians went through to remain distinct from their invaders, and how they did it.

For instance, she said, after the Arabs came, and Iran converted to Islam, “eventually we turned to the Shiite sect, which was different from the Arabs, who are Sunni.”

They were still Muslims, but not Arabs.

“We were Iranian.”

In fact, the first thing people said when I asked what they wanted the world to know about them was, “We are not Arabs!” (followed closely by, “We are not terrorists!”). A certain Persian chauvinism creeps into the dialogue. Even though economically they’re not performing as well as Arab states like Dubai and Qatar, they still feel exceptional. The Arabs who conquered Iran are commonly regarded as having been little more than Bedouin living in tents, with no culture of their own aside from what Iran gave them, and from the vehemence with which they are still railed against, you would think it happened not 14 centuries ago but last week.

I met a woman at a wedding who gave off the air of an aging movie star, her dapper husband beside her wearing his white dinner jacket and smoking out of a cigarette holder, and it wasn’t five minutes before she lit into the Arabs.

“Everything went down after they came, and we have never been the same!” she said, wringing someone’s neck in the air. And a friend I made here, an English teacher named Ali, spoke of how the loss of the empire still weighed on the national consciousness. “Before they came, we were a great and civilized power,” he said, as we drove to his home on the outskirts of Shiraz, dodging motorcycles and tailgaters. Echoing commonly stated (though disputed) lore, he added: “They burned our books and raped our women, and we couldn’t speak Farsi in public for 300 years, or they took out our tongues.”

The Cult of Ferdowsi

The Iranians spoke Farsi anyway. The national language has been Arabized to some extent, but Old Persian remains at its root. The man credited with helping save the language, and the history, from oblivion is a tenth-century poet named Ferdowsi. Ferdowsi is Iran’s Homer. Iranians idolize their poets—among many, Rumi, Sa‘id, Omar Khayyám, H?fez (whose works are said to be consulted for guidance about love and life as much as, if not more than, the Islamic holy book, the Koran). When the people were oppressed by the latest invader and couldn’t safely speak their minds, the poets did it for them, cleverly disguised in verse. “Sometimes they were executed,” said Youssef the archaeologist, “but they did it anyway.” So today, although Iran is home to many cultural denominations (and languages) other than Persian—Turkmen, Arab, Azeri, Baluchi, Kurd, and others—”everyone can speak Farsi,” he said, “which is one of the oldest living languages in the world.”

The poet-hero Ferdowsi, a sincere Muslim who resented the Arab influence, spent 30 years writing, in verse with minimal use of Arabic-derived words, an epic history of Iran called the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings. This panorama of conflict and adventure chronicles 50 monarchies—their accessions to the throne, their deaths, the frequent abdications and forcible overthrows—and ends with the Arab conquest, depicted as a disaster. The most heralded character is Rostam, a chivalrous figure of courage and integrity, a national savior and “trickster hero,” according to Dick Davis, a Persian scholar at Ohio State University who has translated the Shahnameh into English. “The stories of Rostam are their myths,” he said. “This is how the Iranians see themselves.”

The tales involve feuding kings and hero-champions, in which the latter are almost always represented as ethically superior to the kings they serve, facing the dilemmas of good men living under an evil or incompetent government. The work is haunted by the idea that those ethically most fitted to rule are precisely the ones most reluctant to rule, preferring instead to devote themselves to humankind’s chief concerns: the nature of wisdom, the fate of the human soul, and the incomprehensibility of God’s purposes.

The original Shahnameh is long gone, and all that’s left are copies, including one in Tehran’s Golestan Palace museum. Its caretaker, a sweet-faced young woman named Behnaz Tabrizi, cleared a large table and covered it with a green felt sheet. She retrieved a black box from a safe in an adjoining bulletproof room equipped with fire and earthquake alarms and climate control and laid a red velvet cloth on top of the green felt cloth, because the Iranians like to make little ceremonies out of everything, if they can. I had to wear a surgical mask to protect the manuscript from stray saliva and the condensation from my breath, and Behnaz put on white cotton gloves. She gently lifted the book, which dates to about 1430, out of its box and gingerly turned the pages with the tips of her fingers while I examined its 22 illustrations with a magnifying glass. They depicted scenes the collective cultural memory is steeped in—someone tied to a tree while awaiting his fate; Rostam unwittingly killing his own son, Sohrab, in battle; men on horseback with spears fighting invaders on elephants—all precisely drawn and vibrantly colored, using inks that were made from crushed stones mixed with the liquid squeezed from flower petals.

It is said that just about anybody on the street, regardless of education, can recite some Ferdowsi, and there are usually readings going on at colleges or someone’s apartment or traditional Persian teahouses, like one in south Tehran called Azari. The walls were covered with scenes from the Shahnameh, among them the one of Rostam killing Sohrab. A storyteller did a one-man dramatic reading, and afterward musicians played traditional music and sang about yearning for the love of a woman or for the love of Allah. People sat together at long tables or stretched out on platforms covered with Persian rugs, smoking their tiny Bahman cigarettes and clapping to the music, while waiters brought dates and cookies and tea in delicate little glasses with little spoons, followed by kebabs, yogurt milk, pickles, and beet salad. Children danced on the tabletops as the patrons cheered them on and took pictures with their cell phones.

“They Can’t Control What’s Inside Us”

Thanks to Ferdowsi, the Iranians always had their language to unite them and keep them different from the outside world—and they also took pains to safeguard their cultural touchstones.

Take the New Year: Nowruz, a 13-day extravaganza during which everything shuts down and the people eat a lot, dance, recite poetry, and build fires that they jump back and forth over. It’s a thanksgiving of sorts, celebrated around the spring equinox, and a holdover holiday from Zoroastrianism, at one time the state religion of the Persians. Zoroastrianism’s teachings—good and evil, free will, final judgment, heaven and hell, one almighty God—have influenced many reli­gions, including the world’s three main faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. By the time the Arabs arrived, bringing what was for them the new idea of worshipping a single God, Persians had been doing it for more than a millennium.

These days some officials see the bond with antiquity as a focus for hope. “We are a nation with such a history that the world could listen to us,” Iranian Vice President Esfandiar Rahim Mashaee told me. “We hope that by taking pride in our archaeological sites, the people realize their capabilities, and it imbues the soul of the nation.” But conservative Islamists who have no interest in reviving Persian identity can still hold sway. At times the government has tried to diminish the importance of Nowruz or replace it with a different New Year, such as the birthday of Imam Ali, the historical leader of the Shiite Muslims. “They would bring forces and arrest people,” my friend Ali said. “But they couldn’t get rid of Nowruz because we’ve been practicing Nowruz for 2,500 years! They don’t really control us, because they can’t control what’s inside us.”

That has never stopped Iran’s leaders from trying, or foreign powers from interfering—particularly after the country was discovered, around the turn of the 20th century, to be sitting on what Iran claims is an estimated 135 billion barrels of proven conventional oil reserves, the second largest in the world after Saudi Arabia. Adding to the drama is that the Persian Gulf is located along Iran’s southern border. On the other side lies much of the rest of the world’s crude, in the oil fields of Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. There’s also a hairpin waterway in the gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil passes every day. So Iran is in a unique position to threaten the world’s oil supply and delivery—or sell its own oil elsewhere than to the West.

Oil was at the root of a 1953 event that is still a sore subject for many Iranians: the CIA-backed overthrow, instigated and supported by the British government, of Iran’s elected and popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh had kicked out the British after the Iranian oil industry, controlled through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later BP), was nationalized, and the British had retaliated with an economic blockade. With the Cold War on and the Soviet bloc located just to the north, the U.S. feared that a Soviet-backed communism in Iran could shift the balance of world power and jeopardize Western interests in the region. The coup—Operation TP-Ajax—is believed to have been the CIA’s first. (Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., Teddy’s grandson, ran the show, and H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the father of the Persian Gulf war commander, was enlisted to coax the shah into playing his part. Its base of operations was the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the future “nest of spies” to the Iranians, where 52 U.S. hostages were taken in 1979.) Afterward, the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was returned to power, commercial oil rights fell largely to British and U.S. oil companies, and Mossadegh was imprisoned and later placed under house arrest until he died in 1967.

To Iranians like Shabnam Rezaei, who has created the online magazine Persian Mirror to promote Iran’s cultural identity, Operation TP-Ajax set the stage for later decades of oppression and Islamic fundamentalism. “I think if we had been allowed to have a democratic government,” she said, “we could have been the New York of the Middle East—of all of Asia, frankly—a center for finance, industry, commerce, culture, and a modern way of thinking.”

For the Love of God

The shah had his own uses for Persian identity. He was big on promoting Persepolis and Cyrus while at the same time pouring Western music, dress, behaviors, and business interests into Iran. One attempt to instill nationalistic pride, which backfired and helped turn public opinion against him, was the ostentatious celebration he staged in 1971 to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of Persian monarchy. It featured a luxurious tent city outside the entrance to Persepolis, VIP apartments with marble bathrooms, food flown in from Paris, and a guest list that included dignitaries from around the world but few Iranians.

The shah’s vision apparently involved too much modernizing too fast, and many Iranians bristled. “We were getting westernized,” said Farin Zahedi, a drama professor at the University of Tehran. “But it was superficial, because the public had no real under­standing of Western culture.” Iranians experienced it as a cultural attack and rebelled in the press and with street demonstrations. The more paranoid the shah became, the more heavy-handed were his secret police—SAVAK, created in 1957 with the help of American and Israeli advisers. At least hundreds of people are believed to have been executed by SAVAK; many others were imprisoned, tortured, and exiled, and more than a thousand were killed by the army during demonstrations. So when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini spoke in the late 1970s of liberating the people from this latest yoke, they were moved by his eloquence and moral rectitude, and for a time the reemergence of religion after the shah’s relentless modernism felt like a cleansing.

Yet many Iranians by nature are not particularly religious, in the sense of being mosque­goers and fasters. “They have a powerful soul and spirit,” said a carpet salesman named Arsha, “but that is not the same.” There’s a tendency to follow more of a Zoroastrian model from antiquity, with its disdain for rules and for the presumption that an intermediary, such as a mullah, is required to know Allah. The spiritual journey has tended to be more inward, in keeping with the Persian proverb “Knowledge of self is knowledge of God.”

So while Iranians at first were open to the idea of an increased role of Islam in public life, they weren’t prepared for it to be forced on them with such rigor, especially given the Koran’s specific instruction that there should be “no compulsion in religion.” They certainly didn’t expect the clerics to take over commerce, government administration, the courts, and day-to-day life, down to and including how to go to the bathroom and how to have sex. Punishments reminiscent of the Dark Ages—public stonings, hangings, the cutting off of fingers and limbs—were put into effect. The central government now discourages some of these archaic practices, but stubborn conservative mullahs out in the provinces cling to the old ways. Beneath it all is the spiritual aim to serve Allah and prepare for paradise.

“They’re forcing heaven on me!” Ali said.

At his home one night, half a dozen friends sat in a circle and confided how awful it was to be trapped in an environment of fear and secrecy, not knowing if a friend or a loved one has been put in a position to make reports on what you’re thinking and saying and doing.

“The ayatollahs and the ordinary people—everyone has to pretend,” said a soft-spoken locksmith with a huge mustache named Mister D. “You don’t know who is telling the truth; you don’t know who is really religious and who isn’t.”

The Persians have a saying: The walls have mice, and the mice have ears.

“You can’t trust your own eyes,” Ali said.

“If you breathe in or breathe out,” Mister D said, “they know.”

The Generation of the Revolution

As for the revolution’s effect on Persian identity? A typically Iranian thing seems to have happened.

For ten years the doors to the West were closed, and conservative clerics running the government went about trying to minimize any cultural identification that was pre-Islamic, a period referred to in much of the Muslim world as Jahiliya, age of ignorance. In official documents, where possible, references to Iran were replaced with references to Islam. Zoroastrian symbols were replaced with Islamic symbols, streets were renamed, and references to the Persian Empire disappeared from schoolbooks. For a time it seemed that Ferdowsi’s tomb—a big, pale-stone mausoleum outside the holy city of Mashhad, with a beautiful reflecting pool leading up to it and chirping birds racing about the columns—might be destroyed. Even Persepolis was in danger of being razed. “But they realized this would unite the people against them,” Ali said, “and they had to give up.”

The people had welcomed the removal of cultural junk from the West, said Farin, the drama professor, as we sipped tea in her tasteful Tehran apartment. “But we soon realized that the identity the government was introducing also was not exactly who we were.” In the cultural confusion, “elements of the old culture”—traditional music, Persian paintings, readings from Ferdowsi—were rekindled. “We call it ‘the forgotten empire.’?”

A young underground Persian rap singer named Yas joined us then. He had black spiky hair, stylishly long sideburns, handsome eyebrows shaped like two black bananas, and around his neck he wore a silver fravahar, the Zoroastrian winged disk that signifies the soul’s upward progress through good thoughts, words, and deeds. He’s part of the Generation of the Revolution, who grew up after 1979 and account for more than two-thirds of the country’s 70 million people. Variously described as jaded and lacking belief in their futures—”a burned generation,” as Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi put it—they are increasingly leaving for Europe and elsewhere. Some have a rich consciousness of their Persian past while at the same time supporting the idea of Islamic unity; some feel only Persian or only Islamic; and others immerse themselves in Western culture through television programming received on illegal satellite dishes. Farin said: “They’re schizophrenic.”

Yas raps about Persian poets, grandparents, and the history of Iran. One of his most popular cuts, “My Identity,” was in response to the movie 300, about the famous battle at Thermopylae between the Spartans of Greece and the so-called Persian immortals. “The Greeks were portrayed as heroic, innocent, and civilized,” Yas said. “The Persians were shown as ugly savages with a method of fighting that was unfair.” The movie set off a tirade from Iranians here and abroad, who experienced it as a cultural attack. In defense, Yas rapped about Persepolis and Cyrus but also chastised his fellow citizens for resting on the laurels of greatness past.

An irony is that the Islamic revolution—at times referred to here as the “second Arab invasion”—appears to have strengthened the very ties to antiquity that it tried so hard to sever; it has roused that part of the national identity that remains connected to the idea, memorialized in places like Persepolis and Pasargadae, of Iranians as direct descendants of some of the world’s most ancient continuous people. A civil engineer named Hashem told me of a recent impromptu celebration at Cyrus’s tomb. People text messaged each other on their cell phones, and a couple of thousand “coincidentally” showed up, buying multiple entrance tickets to support restoration of the tomb. The celebration was informal. No speeches, no ceremony. “Just to honor Cyrus and show solidarity.”

As Farin put it, shaking her lowered head with an air of world-weariness, “there has been this constant onslaught on our identity, and the reaction has always been to return to that deepest identity. Inside every Iranian there is an emperor or an empress. That is for sure.”

Irancove @ July 26, 2008

Saturday, July 26, 2008

MinnPost - After Obama's triumphant week abroad, voters get to assess trip's impact on candidate, foreign policy

MinnPost - After Obama's triumphant week abroad, voters get to assess trip's impact on candidate, foreign policy

Iran: Cryptic stands still unclarified
Looming over Obama's stops in Iraq and all of the Middle East are questions about he would handle tension with Iran.

In Israel, Obama told the Jerusalem Post that he would do "everything in my power" to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Obama has said he would engage in discussions with Iran; however, he also reminded the Post, "I would not take any options off the table, including military."

Professor William Beeman wishes he knew how Obama's tough campaign talk would translate into policy if the Democrat took office. Beeman chairs the Anthropology Department at the University of Minnesota. He has worked extensively in Iran. His latest book about the country is "The 'Great Satan' vs. the 'Mad Mullahs': How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other."

"The plain truth is that any politician in the United States, whether Democrat or Republican, who talks about trying to improve relations with Iran through some kind of relaxation of the really hard line that the United States has taken are setting themselves up as a target for their opponents," Beeman said. "No politician has ever lost a vote by attacking Iran."

So Beeman discounts some of Obama's tough talk.

Recent Bush administration moves to at least open the door to meeting with Iranian officials were hard fought, Beeman said, because they were opposed by hardliners inside and outside government offices.

"Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had to jawbone and fight and cajole over more than a period of a year," he said.

If Obama became president, though, he would be in position to take the talks much further, "because diplomacy is made in the White House," Beeman said.

While Obama has consistently advocated a more open dialog, he has been cryptic about how far he would go in any direction on the politically treacherous issue. And his trip didn't clarify his intentions.

Pakistan: Perhaps the most urgent issue
Also unclear, Beeman said, is how Obama would deal with Pakistan. Arguably, that is the most urgent issue facing the next administration because the Taliban and al-Qaida have moved to regroup in Pakistan's rugged mountain regions.

Everywhere he stopped on the trip, Obama called for stepping up military efforts in neighboring Afghanistan. And he leaned hard on Europe to do its part in that NATO-led effort.

But much of the problem is in Pakistan where the government has been in turmoil all year.

"It is very clear that the United States needs to have a complete re-evaluation of our relationships with the government of Pakistan," Beeman said. "Right now there is no incentive for the Pakistani government to aid the United States in trying to curtail the Taliban or al Qaida."

The havens for those groups are in Pakistan's remote and rugged regions, "where the urbanized and educated Pakistanis don't ever go and they don't care much about," Beeman said.

So there is little internal political pressure to confront the menacing groups. Meanwhile, as long as the groups remain a problem, the United States channels money to the Pakistani government. So there is no real economic incentive either.

Beeman worries that Obama "is very thin on the ground" in terms of foreign policy advisers regarding Pakistan as well as Iran. And he saw nothing in Obama's trip to reassure him on that count.

"I'm really quite worried about this, because I think he is not particularly well informed," Beeman said. "And this is potentially his biggest trouble in the long run."

Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

William O. Beeman--Success in U.S. Iranian Negotiations Depends on Cultural Knowledge - New America Media

Success in U.S. Iranian Negotiations Depends on Cultural Knowledge - NAM

New America Media, News analysis,

William O. Beeman, Posted: Jul 24, 2008

Editor's note: On July 19, 2008, U.S. and Iranian representatives met for the first time in almost 3 decades. Nothing substantive happened, and yet, as according to NAM contributing editor William O. Beeman, it was a diplomatic watershed. The event brings Iran closer to the conditions they eventually want for these talks--namely having the United Sates and Iran meet on equal terms.

Iran and America met openly in diplomatic talks on Saturday, July 19 in Geneva for the first time in 28 years. U.S. officials called the event a failure, for which they blamed Iran.

The Iranians, on the other hand, declared the event a success. The difference in assessment is due largely to a massive clash in cultural styles of negotiation. In this case, the event favored symbolism over substance--anathema to American negotiators. However, if both sides learn from this how better to talk to each other, future talks will be more productive.

Aside from European negotiators, the attention of the world was focused on William J. Burns, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief secretary of its Supreme National Security Council, and by virtue of this office, the chief nuclear negotiator of Iran.

American expectations were undoubtedly too high. These talks were not in any way meant to be definitive. At best they were a prolegomena to a preface to an introduction of substantive talks to be undertaken in the future. Additionally, Mr. Burns was on a short leash as an "observer" only allowed one trick--to bark "Iran must suspend its uranium enrichment." Apparently he didn't even do that, so his presence could have only been symbolic.

Mr. Jalili gave a speech, and handed the European negotiators a two-page response to earlier proposals. The Europeans were disappointed that Iran didn't immediately acquiesce to demands to suspend uranium enrichment, gave Mr. Jalili two more weeks to respond and the meeting was essentially over. It did seem as if nothing much had happened.

However, the symbolism of the meeting was deeply significant for both the United States and Iran. The United States wanted to avoid what it saw as unfavorable symbolism in favor of immediate substantive agreement, while Iran wanted the event to be almost entirely symbolic in nature.

For Iranians, just to sit down face to face with an American official without having to acquiesce to pre-conditions was a diplomatic watershed. The event brings Iran closer to the conditions they eventually want for these talks--namely having the United Sates and Iran meet on equal terms.

The Bush administration has resisted this equality of status tooth and nail. President Bush worried publicly about giving Iran prestige as if the United States at this point had any prestige to confer to anybody, and when pressed, his administration made desperate, absurd analogies to "appeasement," invoking British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's acquiescence to Hitler.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who likely had to fight hard to allow Mr. Burns to appear at these talks, was noticeably frustrated. She reported in a public statement in the United Arab Emirates on July 21 that Iran had "given the runaround to envoys from the United States and five other world powers." She reported that instead of responding directly to U.S. and European demands, Mr. Jalili had delivered a "meandering" monologue full of irrelevant "small talk about culture."

As for Mr. Jalili, of course symbolism was all he had to show for this round of talks, so his statements to the Iranian press constituted a fine old Iranian tradition of verbal obfuscation, described by one of my Iranian friends as "chert o pert," roughly, florid nonsense. This is a form of discourse that every Iranian knows well, since it is used whenever someone doesn't know what to say and wants to put the best face on the situation. Mr. Jalili was at the height of his inspiration in his rhetoric, rambling on in an elaborate poetic metaphor about how the talks were analogous to weaving a Persian carpet where each tuft must be slowly incorporated into the whole "beautiful" pattern.

But no one should be fooled. A great deal transpired. It is the fact of the meeting that is important, not the substance of the discussion. We have very poor diplomats indeed if they don't understand this basic truth. Additionally, the Iranians scored a teeny little point getting Burns to the table. The point was not lost on Haaretz, the left-leaning Israeli newspaper going so far as to label Mr. Burns' minimal presence at the talks "détente" with Iran on July 23.

This prelude of a meeting also shows that if negotiations go forward, they will be protracted—as long as it takes to weave Mr. Jalili's rug, and then to sell it.

That analogy—buying and selling rugs—is overused when speaking of the Middle East, but in this case it is apt. Anyone who has ever bought a rug knows how lengthy and involved the process can be. The buyer and the seller drink endless cups of tea, they feign indifference, they shout, they walk away, they come back, they misdirect, and they finally come to a conclusion. American diplomats despise this kind of process, favoring quick and direct dealings based on the hard logic of mutual self-interest. However, the rug-buying process may be the only basis on which common ground for negotiation with Iran can proceed.

People can only imagine what they can imagine, and if one is serious about dealing with Iran, one has to understand at the very least where the Iranian imagination about negotiations is coming from. Mr. Jalili is an intelligent man—a Ph.D. scholar (as are Mr. Burns and Secretary Rice)—but he cannot escape his culture any more than Secretary Rice or Mr. Burns can escape theirs.

William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minn. He is President of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association, and former Director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. His most recent book is The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other, University of Chicago Press.

Monday, July 21, 2008

William O. Beeman--Playing Games with Iran--(Foreign Policy in Focus)

Playing Games with Iran

William O. Beeman | July 21, 2008

Editor: John Feffer

Foreign Policy In Focus

By now the structure of the U.S. game with Iran is clear. In the first move, the United States and Iran make some small progress toward improved relations. In the counter move, hardliners in the United States and Israel launch attacks against Iran in order to sabotage these improving relations.

In the latest iteration of this game, the U.S. State Department has made an interesting gambit. It announced that Undersecretary of State William Burns would sit at the table on July 20 as members of the European Union entered into talks with Iran over its nuclear program. At the same time, the United States has been reported to be considering opening a formal American Interests Section in Tehran. These two actions will be the first serious public diplomatic activities between the two nations in nearly three decades. (Three earlier meetings in Baghdad between U.S. Iraqi Envoy Ryan Crocker and Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Hassan Kazemi-Qomi focused on security in Iraq).

The counter-moves came fast and furious. First, former UN ambassador and prominent neoconservative John Bolton launched a jeremiad against the U.S. government on July 15 in the Wall Street Journal. Criticizing the administration for failing to act militarily against Iran, Bolton placed his hopes on Israel to carry out the military attack that he fervently desires. “Instead of debating how much longer to continue five years of failed diplomacy, we should be intensively considering what cooperation the U.S. will extend to Israel before, during and after a strike on Iran,” he wrote.
Following closely on Bolton’s editorial, The New York Times printed another attack against Iran on Friday, July 18, just one day before the opening of the European talks, by Benny Morris, an historian at Ben-Gurion University. Like Bolton, Morris presents an Iranian nuclear weapons program as an established fact, implies that Iran would make a first-strike attack on Israel, and thus justifies pre-emptive military action on Israel’s part.

Both Bolton and Morris base their attacks on false premises. Diplomatic dealings with Iran have, in fact, succeeded on the few occasions they have been tried. There is no proof anywhere that Iran actually has a nuclear weapons program at present, a fact underscored by the National Intelligence Estimate of December 2007. In fact, Iran’s nuclear experiments are still at a primitive level, far from any possibility of manufacturing weapons. Iran has never directly threatened Israel and is not likely considering a first strike against Israel.

Such attacks have followed every minuscule improvement in U.S-Iranian relations during the Bush administration. Every first move in a warming trend – such as Iranian support for the U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, U.S. aid to Iran during the Bam earthquake in 2003, and Iran’s formal offer to enter into comprehensive negotiations with the United States in 2003 – has been followed by sharp criticism from both inside and outside of the Brush administration. Detractors have countered these advances with accusations of Iranian support for Hezbullah and Hamas, and support for “special groups” attacking U.S. forces in Iraq. True to form, the U.S. military announced the launching of a new crackdown on weapons smuggling from Iran to coincide with the Saturday talks,

None of these accusations, along with the Iranian weapons program and plot to launch a first-strike against Israel, has ever been proven. The most memorable of these attacks was the labeling of Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil” in President George Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address, just as Iran’s military aid to the United States was beginning to create a climate of trust between the two nations.

Bolton, Morris, and their ilk may represent the last, weak gasp of the hawks who would embroil the United States and Israel in a disastrous confrontation with Iran. Indeed, for the time being, it seems that cooler heads are prevailing. Though Western commentators described the talks at the one-shot Saturday meeting negatively as a “deadlock,” William Burns’ official presence at the table was an important benchmark. Iran did not accept the Western proposals on the spot, but was given two weeks to respond. The Iranians appeared pleased. Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief negotiator, called the negotiating process a “very beautiful endeavor.”

Despite this progress, the power of the American and Israeli extremists should not be underestimated. They still have the ear of Vice President Dick Cheney and a dwindling coterie of his supporters in the Department of Defense. A group of Israeli politicians, including Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi, have arrived in Washington, according to Mother Jones magazine, presumably to convince the Bush administration to allow them to carry out their attack.

Hostile rhetoric against Iran also plays into the U.S. electoral process. For American politicians, Iran is a universal bogeyman, useful in an election year as a device to show elected officials as tough on foreign miscreants. Indeed, since the Iranian Revolution U.S.-Iranian relations have been a centerpiece in election debates. Conspiracy theorists believe fervently that the Republican Party engineered an “October Surprise” in 1980 with Iranian officials – delaying the release of the American Hostages until after the U.S. Presidential election – and thus denied Jimmy Carter a second term. The purported event -- true or not -- has supplied a permanent political term for American elections.

In every presidential election since, U.S.-Iranian relations have been featured in presidential debates and campaign ads, with universal negativity toward Iran. This year is no exception with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain all expressing hostile attitudes toward Iran. And this year’s October Surprise is the rumor that the Bush administration will bomb Iran just before the election to give a boost to John McCain. Unless the Israeli hawks get there first.

Foreign Policy In Focus ( contributor William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. He is president of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association and the author, most recently, of The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

William O. Beeman--Bolton Appears to Advocate for Israeli Strike on Iran

Bolton Appears to Advocate for Israeli Strike on Iran

William O. Beeman

The drums of war against Iran are sounding again. Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton has called for regime change in Iran in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, July 15, 2008. The editorial appears to be aimed at facilitating an Israeli attack on Iran.

For Ambassador Bolton, virtually the last of the unrepentant neoconservatives, hope of effecting regime change in Iran springs eternal. But his editorial is not just a wish. It is designed to influence the Bush administration to allow Israel to proceed with a bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities—an action they have been champing at the bit to carry out for some time. Ambassador Bolton writes: “instead of debating how much longer to continue five years of failed diplomacy, we should be intensively considering what cooperation the U.S. will extend to Israel before, during and after a strike on Iran.”

The magazine Mother Jones reported on July 10 that “a parade of high level Israeli officials are on their way to the White House over the next two weeks to discuss Iran policy.” These include Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak and Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi. One of the points of discussion will undoubtedly be obtaining the go-ahead for an Israeli military attack, just as was sought unsuccessfully more than a year and a half ago in as reported by the Daily Telegraph of London on February 25 of 2007.

To their credit American military officials remain recalcitrant. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on July 8 that Joint Chiefs of Staff Head, Admiral Mike Mullen, traveled to Israel specifically to tell Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi that Israel does not have an American ' green light ' to launch an air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities..

You can see the frustration in Mr. Bolton's rhetoric--excoriating the Bush administration for being pusillanimous. His impatience is palpable. He writes: “. . . consider what comes next for the U.S.: the Bush administration's last six months pursuing its limp diplomatic efforts, plus six months of a new president getting his national security team and policies together. In other words, one more year for Tehran to proceed unhindered to ‘the point of no return.’”

To elevate the heat on Washington, Ambassador Bolton is not above trotting out old information about the Iranian situation long decried as misleading or false. He claims that Iranian nuclear weapons development is an established fact, and hints that Iran is close to making a bomb.

Inconveniently for Ambassador Bolton, there is no proof anywhere that an Iranian nuclear weapons program exits. The National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 declares as much, and a series of hearings before the Committee on Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security on April 24 involved a parade of witnesses who verified the findings of the report. Typical was the testimony of research scientist Dr. Jim Walsh of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who stated: . “The fact that Iran did halt its military weaponization efforts, and that it did so because of changes in the international environment ‘indicates Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost- benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.’
Even if Iran somehow did have an active nuclear weapons program, they would still be years away from perfecting even the rudimentary techniques of weapons manufacture. Nuclear scientist Dr. Behrad Nakhai, formerly of the Oakridge Research Laboratories monitors Iran’s nuclear program closely. Having just returned from Iran on July 13, he reported, “Looking carefully at Iran’s nuclear program as it stands at present, it is only reasonable to conclude that Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts have so far been very elementary—effectively just practice runs for the very lowest levels of enrichment.”

Ambassador Bolton has the additional effrontery to call diplomacy "failed" while neglecting to note that the U.S. has engaged in none of it--including a comprehensive 2003 Iranian initiative offering to negotiate all differences between the United States and Iran--which Mr. Bolton presumably had a hand in rejecting..
It is shoddy and cheap for Washington to assert that the diplomacy undertaken by European powers as somehow justifying American frustration with Iran, when we have done nothing, except to host three meetings, in which Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Crocker hurled invective at the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad.

More and more it is looking like the neoconservative agenda of regime change throughout the Middle East as a means to achieve American and Israeli hegemony in the region is going down in flames. Bolton's editorial is the last gasp of this vampire movement, even as more moderate American and Israeli citizens try to drive a stake through its heart.

William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN. He is President of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association, and former Director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. His most recent book is The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other, University of Chicago Press.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Behrad Nakhai and William O. Beeman--Iran’s Nuclear Activity: Don’t Believe the Hype (New America Media)

Iran’s Nuclear Activity: Don’t Believe the Hype

New America Media, Commentary, Behrad Nakhai and William O. Beeman , Posted: Jul 16, 2008

Editor's Note: Rumors that Iran is less than a year away from making a nuclear bomb are false and misleading, argue the commentators, who say that there is little relationship between Iran’s current state of low enriched uranium and the production of a nuclear weapon.

Is Iran a year away from making a nuclear bomb?

This is what is being whispered in Washington as a “parade” of Israeli officials comes to Washington in the next two weeks to consult on Iran, and presumably to renew Israel’s request for the Bush administration’s blessing to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, according to Mother Jones magazine. Visitors will include Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi. Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton published an editorial in the Wall Street Journal with the thinly veiled purpose of convincing Bush officials to let Israel launch its attack. He wrote, “The crucial turning point is when Iran masters all the capabilities to weaponize without further external possibility of stopping it.”

Bolton would have the American public believe that this turning point is imminent, and he is buttressed by other neoconservative alarmists. Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research of the conservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy and senior editor of Middle East Quarterly, told Mother Jones on July 10, “It certainly appears from the last [International Atomic Energy Agency] report that Iran is on track to have enough kilos [of low enriched uranium that can be enriched to weapons grade] within a year…. What most people concentrate on is when Iran would have 600 to 700 kilos of its own low enriched uranium, which is enough to make enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb…. If everything works perfectly, [it would take] two months. If everything doesn't work perfectly, a bit longer. The answer would be the space of a few months."

This would be both ominous and convincing if it were true, but it is false and utterly misleading. Unfortunately Clawson, Bolton, and those who make similar predictions know nothing about nuclear engineering. The truth is that there is little relationship between Iran’s current state of low enriched uranium and the production of a nuclear weapon. There are many intervening steps that would take years to accomplish.

Getting from low enriched uranium (LEU) to high enriched uranium (HEU) not only requires enough quality LEU, but also perfectly tuned working machineries that Iran currently lacks. Contrary to Clawson’s assertions, Iran is far from being at that point. The quality of the LEU is also questionable. Moreover, from all indications, Iran's current setup is fragile and prone to breakage. By some reports the Iranian equipment is almost non-usable even for low enrichment purposes.

Iran is engaged in peaceful nuclear research and not nuclear weapons production — a fact re-affirmed by the National Intelligence Estimate of December 2007. However, the program falls short of even low-level enrichment capability. The nation must still pass through a number of technological stages to gain a useful sustained low-level enrichment capability.

Even if another nation were to provide good quality LEU to Iran, Iran does not currently have the required resources to enrich the LEU to HEU. And if another nation were to provide Iran with HEU, Iran does not have the capability to assemble a test bomb, let alone a threatening bomb.

Commentators like Clawson make it appear trivial to assemble a “bomb” once HEU is obtained. In practice, however, handling of such HEU and the ability to assemble a working bomb is not at all trivial. That is why the United States, Russia and other nuclear nations have atomic tests. Once testing begins, the bomb-making process could never proceed unnoticed — even if conducted underground. We should remember that North Korea’s nuclear bomb tests were unsuccessful. This may be one reason they were willing to relinquish their nuclear program.

Finally, even if Iran were to obtain a bomb, it is not clear how they could provide a delivery system for the bomb with their present level of military technology. Iran has been testing conventional missiles — and not very successfully, as was recently seen in their over-hyped “show of strength” on July 10, when missile launches failed, and had to be “Photoshopped” in to the publicity pictures.

A nuclear loaded missile is a vastly different technological accomplishment from a conventional missile. An airplane might be an alternative delivery mechanism, but Iran has no aircraft capable of delivering a sophisticated nuclear weapon.

Looking carefully at Iran’s nuclear program as it stands at present, it is only reasonable to conclude that Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts have so far been very elementary — effectively just practice runs for the very lowest levels of enrichment. In theory, LEU, with the proper technological equipment and skill, could be developed into a weapon. But this is a bit like saying that theoretically carbon could be made into dynamite. In both cases, it is a long way from the raw material to the finished product. Iran’s LEU is currently of no practical use except as a means to learning the enrichment process. And it is certainly no cause whatever for a military attack.

Dr. Behrad Nakhai is a nuclear scientist. He holds a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Tennessee. He is currently working as a nuclear engineer performing nuclear safety analysis. He was formerly a research nuclear scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and has also been a faculty member at the Center for Nuclear Studies in Memphis, TN, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He has just returned from Iran.

William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN. He is President of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association, and former Director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. His most recent book is “The ‘Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other”, University of Chicago Press.

William O. Beeman--United Nations Resolutions Against Iran have Failed—and for good reason: their basic premise no longer applies

United Nations Resolutions Against Iran have Failed—and for good reason: their basic premise no longer applies

William O. Beeman

The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1696 calling for Iran to suspend nuclear enrichment were passed on July 31, 2006, nearly two years ago. Every sanction and demand placed on Iran since that time has been based on this Resolution and its strengthened re-iteration, Resolution 1737 on December 27.

Clearly after two years the Resolution and its follow-ups have not worked. Iran has not suspended its uranium enrichment activities, and indications this week are that it is not likely to do so in the future. The United States and its reluctant European allies clearly can not put enough pressure on Iran to cause it to abandon what the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran (but not Israel, Pakistan or India) is signatory, is its “inalienable right” to peaceful nuclear development. As long as it does not violate Provision One of the NPT, namely the agreement not to develop nuclear weaponry.

Ironically Security Council Resolution 1696 reaffirms the right to peaceful nuclear development. Since this Resolution has failed, it is worth looking at it again to examine its flaws.

It is first essential to understand the purpose of the resolution, which is stated clearly in points one and two of the Resolution in which the Security Council:

1. Calls upon Iran without further delay to take the steps required by the IAEA Board of Governors in its resolution GOV/2006/14, which are essential to build confidence in the exclusively peaceful purpose of its nuclear programme and to resolve outstanding questions,

2. Demands, in this context, that Iran shall suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the IAEA

The IAEA Report on which this resolution was based, GOV/2006/14 was formulated on February 7, 2006, now nearly two and one-half years ago.

What is striking about both the IAEA Report and the UN Resolution is that both call on Iran to suspend its enrichment activities to “build confidence” that Iran is not violating Provision One of the NPT.

However, the world seems to have forgotten that the suspension of uranium enrichment was merely a means to that confidence building, and not an end in itself. The Bush administration now focuses on suspension of enrichment rather than confidence building. Since enrichment of uranium for nuclear fuel is clearly allowed under the NPT, this creates a paradox, and is the principal flaw in the Resolution. No one talked about alternative means of confidence building, though imaginative diplomacy would certainly have been able to craft such a provision that would have been acceptable to Iran.

More importantly, in two and one half years, a lot has taken place. Most notably, the United States National Intelligence Estimate was published in December 2007 in which it is clearly stated that Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program. The IAEA continually reaffirms this estimate, and both Russia and China are in agreement as well.

If Iran does not have a weapons program, it is not in violation of NPT Provision One. There is no need for the confidence building called for in Resolution 1696, and therefore no need for suspension of Iran’s enrichment program.

The anger and public denial of the NIE on the part of President Bush, Vice-President Cheney and others in the Bush administration results from frustration with this situation. And no wonder, the basic reason for the Security Council Resolution has now been completely gutted. Bush officials spent hours and hours berating, jawboning and cajoling other nations, particularly European Allies, to go along with these Resolutions, and even to implement further sanctions based on them now to no avail.

The deep irony in the situation is that American intelligence itself has vitiated the very reason for these actions.

Iranians see through this charade. For this reason they refuse to relinquish their treaty rights, and have determined to stand up to the United States. They have earned the anger of the Bush administration, but the admiration—often grudging—of much of the rest of the world.

It is certainly time to revisit the original Resolution 1969 to find new ways to guarantee to the world that Iran is in fact not building weapons. Since there is no evidence whatever that they are, this should be easy, if the United States will only stop trying to force Iran into the impossible choice of giving up an inalienable right in order to satisfy a rapacious U.S. administration bent on its destruction. Appeasement cuts both ways.

William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is President of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. His latest book, The “Great Statan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other was published in April in an updated edition by the University of Chicago Press.

John Bolton calls for Bombing of Iran

Note from William O. Beeman

John Bolton's call for military action in Iran (below) should be blatantly derided by the American public.

For John Bolton hope of effecting regime change in Iran springs eternal. However, my suspicion is that this piece was written to convince the Bush administration to give their blessing to an Israeli attack on Iran. Reportedly this week a passel of Israeli officials are in Washington lobbying hard to get the go-ahead on their military attack. To their credit the Bush officials are recalcitrant. You can see this in Mr. Bolton's rhetoric--excoriating the Bush administration for being pusillanimous. I certainly hope that cooler heads prevail in Washington.

Mr. Bolton is not above citing misleading and utterly false information about the Iranian situation. Of course, he claims that Iranian nuclear weapons development is an established fact when there is still no proof that it exists--including the conveniently ignored NIE Report of 2007 claiming that the weapons program does not exist. He has the gall to call diplomacy "failed" while neglecting to note that the U.S. has engaged in none of it--including the 2003 Iranian initiative, which he presumably had a hand in rejecting..

It is so shoddy and cheap for Washington to claim the diplomacy undertaken by European powers as somehow justifying American frustration with Iran, when we have done nothing, except to host Christopher Crocker hurling invective at the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad--some diplomacy! More and more it is looking like the neoconservative agenda of regime change throughout the Middle East to clear the way for American hegemony in the region is going down in flames. Bolton's editorial is the last gasp of this vampire movement, even as we try to drive a stake through its heart.


Bill Beeman
University of Minnesota
> Wall Street Journal
> Israel, Iran and the Bomb
> July 15, 2008; Page A19
> Iran's test salvo of ballistic missiles last week together with recent threatening rhetoric by commanders of the Islamic Republic's Revolutionary Guards emphasizes how close the Middle East is to a fundamental, in fact an irreversible, turning point.
> Tehran's efforts to intimidate the United States and Israel from using military force against its nuclear program, combined with yet another diplomatic charm offensive with the Europeans, are two sides of the same policy coin. The regime is buying the short additional period of time it needs to produce deliverable nuclear weapons, the strategic objective it has been pursuing clandestinely for 20 years.
> Between Iran and its long-sought objective, however, a shadow may fall: targeted military action, either Israeli or American. Yes, Iran cannot deliver a nuclear weapon on target today, and perhaps not for several years. Estimates vary widely, and no one knows for sure when it will have a deliverable weapon except the mullahs, and they're not telling. But that is not the key date. Rather, the crucial turning point is when Iran masters all the capabilities to weaponize without further external possibility of stopping it. Then the decision to weaponize, and its timing, is Tehran's alone. We do not know if Iran is at this point, or very near to it. All we do know is that, after five years of failed diplomacy by the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany), Iran is simply five years closer to nuclear weapons.
> And yet, true to form, State Department comments to Congress last week . even as Iran's missiles were ascending . downplayed Iran's nuclear progress, ignoring the cost of failed diplomacy. But the confident assumption that we have years to deal with the problem is high-stakes gambling on a policy that cannot be reversed if it fails. If Iran reaches weaponization before State's jaunty prediction, the Middle East, and indeed global, balance of power changes in potentially catastrophic ways.
> And consider what comes next for the U.S.: the Bush administration's last six months pursuing its limp diplomatic efforts, plus six months of a new president getting his national security team and policies together. In other words, one more year for Tehran to proceed unhindered to "the point of no return."
> We have almost certainly lost the race between giving "strong incentives" for Iran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and its scientific and technological efforts to do just that. Swift, sweeping, effectively enforced sanctions might have made a difference five years ago. No longer. Existing sanctions have doubtless caused some pain, but Iran's real economic woes stem from nearly 30 years of mismanagement by the Islamic Revolution.
> More sanctions today (even assuming, heroically, support from Russia and China) will simply be too little, too late. While regime change in Tehran would be the preferable solution, there is almost no possibility of dislodging the mullahs in time. Had we done more in the past five years to support the discontented . the young, the non-Persian minorities and the economically disaffected . things might be different. Regime change, however, cannot be turned on and off like a light switch, although the difficulty of effecting it is no excuse not to do more now.
> That is why Israel is now at an urgent decision point: whether to use targeted military force to break Iran's indigenous control over the nuclear fuel cycle at one or more critical points. If successful, such highly risky and deeply unattractive air strikes or sabotage will not resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis. But they have the potential to buy considerable time, thereby putting that critical asset back on our side of the ledger rather than on Iran's.
> With whatever time is bought, we may be able to effect regime change in Tehran, or at least get the process underway. The alternative is Iran with nuclear weapons, the most deeply unattractive alternative of all.
> But the urgency of the situation has not impressed Barack Obama or the EU-3. Remarkably, on July 9, Sen. Obama, as if stumbling on a new idea, said Iran "must suffer threats of economic sanctions" and that we needed "direct diplomacy . . . so we avoid provocation" and "give strong incentives . . . to change their behavior." Javier Solana, chief EU negotiator, was at the time busy fixing a meeting with the Iranians to continue five years of doing exactly what Mr. Obama was proclaiming, without results.
> John McCain responded to Iran's missile salvo by stressing again the need for a workable missile defense system to defend the U.S. against attacks by rogue states like Iran and North Korea. He is undoubtedly correct, highlighting yet another reason why November's election is so critical, given the unceasing complaints about missile defense from most Democrats.
> Important as missile defense is, however, it is only a component of a postfailure policy on Iran's nuclear-weapons capacity. In whatever limited amount of time before then, we must face a very hard issue: What will the U.S. do if Israel decides to initiate military action? There was a time when the Bush administration might itself have seriously considered using force, but all public signs are that such a moment has passed.
> Israel sees clearly what the next 12 months will bring, which is why ongoing U.S.-Israeli consultations could be dispositive. Israel told the Bush administration it would destroy North Korea's reactor in Syria in spring, 2007, and said it would not wait past summer's end to take action. And take action it did, seeing a Syrian nuclear capability, for all practical purposes Iran's agent on its northern border, as an existential threat. When the real source of the threat, not just a surrogate, nears the capacity for nuclear Holocaust, can anyone seriously doubt Israel's propensities, whatever the impact on gasoline prices?
> Thus, instead of debating how much longer to continue five years of failed diplomacy, we should be intensively considering what cooperation the U.S. will extend to Israel before, during and after a strike on Iran. We will be blamed for the strike anyway, and certainly feel whatever negative consequences result, so there is compelling logic to make it as successful as possible. At a minimum, we should place no obstacles in Israel's path, and facilitate its efforts where we can.
> These subjects are decidedly unpleasant. A nuclear Iran is more so.
> Mr. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations" (Simon & Schuster, 2007).

Monday, July 14, 2008

Ahmadinejad favors opening of U.S. Consulate in Tehran

Date: Tue, 15 Jul 2008 00:07:08 +0200
Contact: Hossein Bastani,

Only three weeks after Ahmadinejad and his administration spokesperson claimed that ‎American forces intended to “kidnap or assassinate him in Iraq,” Ahmadinejad identified ‎the perpetrators of his accusation as “Palestinian, Iraqi, Afghan or American.” But that ‎was not Ahmadinejad’s only strange remark in yesterday’s press conference, because he ‎also welcomed the reopening of the U.S. Consulate Office in Iran and insisted that Ali ‎Akbar Velayati, the supreme leader’s foreign policy advisor has no say on the nuclear ‎issue. ‎

The head of Iran’s ninth administration also indicated that his potential kidnappers ‎chanted “anti-American and anti-Iranian” slogans while carrying out their operation. ‎Previously, Ahmadinejad had claimed that “enemies planned to kidnap or assassinate ‎him” in a gathering with a number of clerics from the Qom Seminary School Teachers’ ‎Association, adding, “By changing one or two plans their operation was disrupted, and ‎they only realized that after we had left Iraq.” ‎

Supreme Leader’s Advisor is not Involved ‎

In yesterday’s press conference, in addition to introducing new claims in connection with ‎his previous kidnap and assassination plot, Ahmadinejad also responded to a question ‎about the recent article of Ali Akbar Velayati, Ayatollah Khamenei’s foreign policy ‎advisor, which received much worldwide attention. Ahmadinejad’s response was ‎unprecedented in its kind. ‎

Former foreign minister Velayati’s article was originally published in three European ‎newspapers simultaneously, and was considered in democratic circles as the Iranian ‎supreme leader’s decision to take full charge of the nuclear case and diffuse the crisis in a ‎new way; especially since Velayati is his especial advisor in foreign affairs. ‎

Ahmadinejad, however, had this to say about Velayati’s recent remarks: “Mr Velayati is ‎an esteemed person. He has opinions and he states them. Everyone in the Islamic ‎Republic of Iran is free to state their opinion. However, he is not involved in making ‎decisions in the nuclear case.” ‎

Also, commenting on positive interpretations of Iran’s recent position with regarding ‎talks with the 5+1 Group (five UN Security Council members and Germany), ‎Ahmadinejad said, “Some people wanted to organize a celebration and say that Iran had ‎stepped back but their celebration did not last long.” ‎

Verbally Welcoming Relations with America?‎

Nevertheless, despite his prior stance with respect to Velayati, Ahmadinejad did not ‎oppose America’s presence in nuclear negotiations with Iran, adding, “If the Americans ‎want to come too, they should come. We would not invite them… If America wants to ‎enter negotiations, it must not set preconditions.” ‎

Responding to another question about the ninth administration’s invitation of Houshang ‎Amirahmadi to visit Iran, Ahmadinejad strongly denied secret attempts to establish ‎relations with the United States, adding, “Iran does not need mediators to negotiate with ‎America. Whenever is becomes necessary, we will negotiate with them directly… If it is ‎necessary that we negotiate with the United States, and it is to the benefit of the Iranian ‎nation, I will come myself and say that we will negotiate because it benefits the Iranian ‎nation.” ‎

In an unexpected move, Ahmadinejad welcomed the idea to “reopen America’s interest ‎section in Tehran,” while at the same time denying receipt of any official offer in this ‎respect: “Iran will consider the United States’ request to reopen that country’s interest ‎section in Tehran and favors any action that would result in enhanced ties between ‎nations of the world.” ‎

Friday, July 11, 2008

State Department's Iran Democracy Fund Shrouded in Secrecy

State Department's Iran Democracy Fund Shrouded in Secrecy

By Jason Leopold
The Public Record
Thursday, July 10, 2008

Since 2006, Congress has poured tens of millions of dollars into a State Department program aimed at promoting regime change in Iran.

The ³Democracy Program² initiative has been shrouded in secrecy since its inception and many critics of the initiative (who are also outspoken critics of the Iranian government) believe that it is directly linked to a spate of arrests of dozens of Iranian dissidents suspected of working secretly with the Bush administration to topple the Iranian government.

Up until last November, the program was operated by the State Department¹s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and overseen by David Denehy, the bureau¹s senior adviser. The program was reportedly moved last November to the State Department's Bureau of Iranian Affairs. Denehy did not return calls for comment.

One of the influential figures who helped launch the democracy program was Elizabeth Cheney, the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, who as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, headed the Iran-Syria Policy and Operations Group and, with the financial help of a prominent Republican foundation, the International Republican Institute, financed efforts of dozens of Iranian and Syrian exiles to promote a campaign to overthrow their government leaders. Elizabeth Cheney left the State Department last year to work on Fred Thompson's presidential campaign.

An aggressive effort by the State Department to fund regime change in Iran is ongoing, but the State Department has refused to provide lawmakers with specific details of the program other than to say that the core mission of the initiative is to assist ³those inside Iran who desire basic civil liberties such as freedom of expression, greater rights for women, more open political process, and broader freedom of the press.²

Congress has appropriated more than $120 million to fund the project. The State Department has spent most of the money on the U.S.-backed Radio Farda, Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe, and to broadcast Persian programs into Iran via VOA satellite television.

Some funds, according to State Department sources familiar with the how the program is run, have also been secretly funneled to exile Iranian organizations, and politically connected individuals in order to help the U.S. establish contacts with Iranian opposition groups.

In June of 2007, the State Department said it would spend $16 million on democracy promotion projects that extends beyond broadcasting. However, to date the State Department has not released details on how it intends to obligate or expend those funds.

A State Department spokesman declined to comment for this story.

Carah Ong, an Iran Policy Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said in an interview that because the State Department operates the program under a veil of secrecy ³we don¹t know where the money is going.²

³There is no reporting requirement to Congress,² Ong said. ³There¹s absolutely no accountability at all with this money.²

Next Wednesday, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations will consider the fiscal year 2009 budget that calls for setting aside $65 million for additional regime change and democracy promotion efforts inside Iran.

The State Department has said it intends to spend $1.2 million of those funds to launch Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Azerbaijani in an effort to address the lack of objective and comprehensive news and information for Azerbaijanis, the largest ethnic minority group in Iran.

The $65 million requested by the State Department ³is more than three times the amount appropriated for FY 2008, which is estimated to be $21.623 million,² Ong said of the $65 million in democracy promotion funds for Iran. ³This tripling in Economic Support Funds is the result of several developments. First, some restructuring recently occurred in the State Department and its Iran desk.

³Second, the FY 2008 Foreign Operations bill appropriated $60 million (under Section 693) for so-called "Programs to Promote Democracy, Rule of Law and Governance in Iran." It has been unclear since Section 693 was originally added as an amendment introduced by Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-FL) to the House Foreign Operations Appropriations bill for exactly which programs this funding was meant. Was it meant to increase funding for the Economic Support Fund or the Human Rights and Democracy Fund? Or was it meant to serve as an overall guideline for total spending on so-called "democracy promotion" programs? This is still a question that needs to be answered.²

The State Department has refused to provide specific details on the nuances of the democracy promotion project. The agency told lawmakers that the classified nature of the democracy promotion project serves to protect the identity of Iranian individuals and organizations that have received funding to promote a U.S. policy of regime change in Iran from being harassed or threatened by the Iranian government.

Yet that is exactly what has happened to some Iranian dissidents?even those who have publicly denounced the program.

A letter sent to lawmakers last October by Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, and more than a dozen other Middle East scholars all of whom are critics of the Iranian government, stated that the ³secret State Department ³democracy promotion² funding has enabled Iranian authorities to label those supporting reforms or engagement with the West as foreign agents and traitors. Recent detentions of Iranian-American scholars, journalists, union leaders, student activists, and others are widely viewed as responses to threats posed by U.S.-funded efforts.²

³We believe this program, intended to aid the cause of democracy in Iran, has failed and has instead invigorated a campaign by conservative regime elements to harass and intimidate those seeking reform and greater openness in Iran,² the Oct. 11, 2007 letter says. ³The intended beneficiaries of the funding, - human rights advocates, civil society activists and others - uniformly denounce the program,²

³Rather than promoting democracy, the U.S. funding has narrowed the space for the pro-democracy movement to operate,² Parsi said. ³Today, the conditions for civil society have significantly deteriorated. Executions are at an all-time high. Many human rights workers have been imprisoned.²

Ong said most of the State Department funds have been doled out to organizations outside of Iran, such as Freedom House and Eurasia Foundation because ³no one in Iran will take the money.²

But just the possibility that some Iranians may be linked to American led efforts to overthrow the Iranian government, or have accepted money from the Bush administration, has led to numerous arrests last year. Emaddeddin Baghi, a human rights activist based in Tehran who was sent back to prison in September said ³it is neither wise nor morally justifiable for the U.S. to continue its path² of promoting regime change by trying to give money to dissidents.

Last year, Haleh Esfandiari, was arrested and sent to a prison in Tehran on charges of spying for the U.S. She was incarcerated for eight months, four of which were spent in solitary confinement.

Former Congressman Lee Hamilton told CNN last year that Esfandiari was likely captured because Iranians believed she was linked to the State Department¹s campaign to promote regime change in Iran. Hamilton said Esfandiari did not receive any funds but he said the secrecy surrounding the State Department¹s democracy program was causing more harm than good.

³If the policy of the United States government is to overthrow the government, then the Democracy Fund obviously would be viewed with a great deal of suspicion and hostility by the target government," Hamilton said in May 2007, shortly after Esfandiari¹s arrest.

In an October column published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Esfandiari, the director of Woodrow Wilson Center¹s Middle East program said ³the fact that the identity of Iranian recipients of U.S. aid is regarded as classified information by the U.S. government feeds the regime's paranoia and casts suspicion on all Iranian² non-government organizations.

Last September, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, (I-Conn.), introduced an amendment to the Senate Foreign Operations Bill, adopted by unanimous consent, that restored the democracy promotion funds to the $75 million requested by the State Department. An earlier version of the bill reduced the funding by less than half.

"This amendment would provide $75 million in funds, the amount requested by the administration; in fact, announced by Secretary of State [Condoleezza] Rice,² Lieberman said in a floor statement last September. ³That announcement, I know from sources I have, was broadly heard and appreciated within the Iranian civil society dissident movement. The committee has recommended one-third of that amount of money. This $75 million would go to labor activists, women's groups, journalists, human rights advocates, and other members of Iranian civil society. It provides Congress an opportunity to demonstrate that even as we condemn the behavior of the Iranian regime, we stand with the Iranian people, a people with a proud history who truly are, in my opinion, yearning to be free. That freedom is suppressed by the fanatical regime that dominates their lives today.²

But Shirin Ebadi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2003, explained that ³no truly nationalist and democratic group will accept² State Department funds to promote a policy of regime change because ³Iranian reformists believe that democracy can't be imported. It must be indigenous.²

³They believe that the best Washington can do for democracy in Iran is to leave them alone,² Ebadi wrote in a May 30, 2007 column published in The International Herald Tribune. Ebadi¹s column was published as Congress approved emergency supplemental legislation to fund the Iraq war, which contained a $75 million earmark for the State Department¹s Iran Democracy project.

³The secret dimension of the distribution of the $75 million has also created immense problems for Iranian reformists, democratic groups and human rights activists. Aware of their own deep unpopularity, the hard-liners in Iran are terrified by the prospects of a "velvet revolution" and have become obsessed with preventing contacts between Iranian scholars, artists, journalists and political activists and their American counterparts,² Ebadi added. ³Thus, Washington's policy of "helping" the cause of democracy in Iran has backfired. It has made it more difficult for the more moderate factions within Iran's power hierarchy to argue for an accommodation with the West.²

The final appropriation for 2008 was set at $60 million to be made available for "programs to promote democracy, the rule of law and governance in Iran."

But a statement that was included with the bill cited only two numbers related to Iran: $21.8 million for Economic Support Funds (ESF) and $8 million for the Democracy Fund. It is unknown how the State Department intends to spend the remainder of the $60 million.

Ong and Parsi have called on the Government Accountability Office to conduct an investigation to examine the effectiveness of the program, which the GAO said it has initiated but could not say when the report would be complete.

Additionally, Ong said she has been trying to educate lawmakers for more than a year on how the program has backfired.

³It¹s difficult to bring the voices of Iranian dissidents to the Hill to explain how the program is hurting their cause because if they speak out publicly they will be arrested when they return to Iran and accused of being spies,² Ong said in an interview. ³I¹ve tried to raise this issue with some members [of Congress] and some listen and some don¹t.²

Monday, July 07, 2008

William O. Beeman---Will the U.S. Support Terrorists to Destabilize Iran? (New America Media)

Will the U.S. Support Terrorists to Destabilize Iran?

New America Media, News analysis, William O. Beeman, Posted: Jul 07, 2008

Editor’s note: All attempts to justify a military attack on Iran have failed and the US is now looking at supporting fringe and terrorist groups to destabilize the country. It won’t work, says NAM contributing writer, William O. Beeman, but it will destabilize the region for years to come. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He is President of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. The second edition of his book, The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other, has just been published by the University of Chicago Press.

Elements of the Bush administration have begun to resemble semi-insane Captain Queeg in "The Caine Mutiny" with regard to Iran. Reckless and obsessive to destroy Iran’s regime, they fondle their ball bearings, and pursue any scheme that they believe will get rid of the mullahs before the inauguration of the new American president in January 2009.

In desperation, they have turned to supporting fringe-level ethnic separatists—all of whom are terrorists and enemies of the United States who are also hostile to Iran. This strategy is truly the last gasp of a failed Middle East policy. It is ill-conceived, and if continued, will foment continued violence in the region for years without affecting the Iranian regime in any significant way.

All attempts to justify a military attack on Iran have failed. Iran’s continuing nuclear program remains the Bush administration’s prime bulwark against Iran, but it is a very weak bulwark. There is still no evidence whatever for an Iranian nuclear weapons program. Last December’s National Intelligence Estimate stated clearly that no current nuclear military program exists. Iran remains unwilling to halt uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes that is guaranteed to them under the Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty, but responded positively on July 4 to European calls for negotiations on the nuclear issue, undercutting the Bush hard line (and effecting a drop in oil prices).

Other accusations against Iran are equally feeble. Claims of its support for attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq have failed for lack of any evidence. Iran’s supposed “proxy” attacks on Israel through Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas strain credulity, since these two groups are acknowledged by all credible experts to formulate their political agendas independently from Iran.

Continually frustrated in their attempts to launch any legitimate attack against Iran, Vice President Cheney and a group of die-hard neoconservatives hovering in and around his office, particularly his former Middle East adviser David Wurmser, have long been rumored to be engineering active support for dissident opposition groups who share their goal to overthrow the current Iranian regime. Many of these groups are aligned with non-Persian ethnic factions in Iran, notably Arabs, Kurds, Azerbaijanis and Baluchis. Serious analysts in the region have tended to dismiss these efforts as silly and ineffective. Nevertheless, neoconservative organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Near East Policy and the Hudson Institute have quietly championed the idea that Iran could be successfully dismembered along ethnic lines.

The American Enterprise Institute has long been a hotbed for debate over these plans. In October 2005, it hosted a conference entitled “The Unknown Iran: Another Case for Federalism?” in which the specter of an ethnic dismemberment of Iran was raised. The AEI has subsequently been host to several conclaves where this idea of fomenting ethnic violence has been discussed, in which representatives from dissident groups are regularly invited to hold forth.

The host of the 2005 conference Michael Ledeen and his cronies Michael Rubin, Danielle Pletka and Myrav Wurmser, the wife of Cheney’s former adviser, David Wurmser, have a curious rhetorical stance regarding Iran’s ethnic dissidents. They write long pieces pointing out that Persians are a minority in Iran, that ethnic groups are restive, that the central government lacks support from the fringe elements in the population. Then in the last paragraph they suddenly deny recommending that ethnic dissident groups be supported. Likewise Ledeen calls incessantly for the overthrow of the Iranian government, then denies that he is calling for military action.

The military continues to entertain the dismemberment of Iran and retired military officer and novelist Ralph Peters proposed the idea in the June 2006 issue of the Armed Forces Journal. His article, ”Blood Borders” champions national independence for every ethnic group in the Middle East, redrawing the borders of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Turkey.

The problem would not be so acute, except for the fact that these groups, now somewhat ineffective, would be truly bad news if provided with significant U.S. aid and weapons. They would never be effective at eliminating the Iranian government, but they could become a source of instability and violence throughout the region for years to come. Because they are basically all anti-American in their orientation, the United States will also be harmed if they are strengthened.

Iran specialists have been aware of these groups for years, and largely discounted them. However, assertions of active United States support for them, awakened by journalist Seymour Hersh in the July 7 issue of the New Yorker, have become real cause for concern. The groups include:

*The M.E.K—Mujaheddin-e Khalq—officially a terrorist group in the United States for having killed Americans before the Revolution. They are Marxist in orientation, and are despised in Iran, since they were protected by Saddam Hussein all during the Iran-Iraq war, and are directly supported by the United States today.

*The PJAK—the “Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan,” a trans-national Kurdish militant organization dedicated to an independent Kurdistan. They are supported by the United States when they launch attacks against Iranian forces, but faulted when they launch attacks against Turkish forces in Turkey.

*The Jundallah—based in Sunni Muslim Balochistan. They are supported by extreme conservative Salafi groups in Saudi Arabia. The Salafi movement also forms the religious philosophy of the Taliban of Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda. Claims of U.S. support for Jundallah are now several years old. In April 2007 Brian Ross and Christopher Isham of ABC News reported that the United States had been aiding Jundallah to attack Iranian targets. Jundallah’s leader, Abdul Malik Rigi, appeared on the Iranian service of the Voice of America, where he was identified as "the leader of popular Iranian resistance movement." More disturbing are Jundallah’s wider connections. As Seymour Hersh points out: “Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is considered one of the leading planners of the September 11th attacks, are Baluchi Sunni fundamentalists.”

Sunni Arab separatists in the Southeast Iranian province of Khuzistan, especially in its capital, Ahwaz, have been active since the time of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. There is no identifiable organization as with the other groups above, but Iranian security forces claim that the current round of violence, which includes the assassination of an Iranian Shi’ite cleric, Hojjat ol-Eslam Hesham Seymari on June 26, 2007, were “trained under the umbrella of the Americans in Iraq." The militants have also been linked with the London-based Ahvaz Arab People's Democratic-Popular Front.

The Southern Azerbaijan National Awakening Movement, SANAM or GAMOH, led by Mahmudali Chehregani was founded in 1995, and is perhaps the weakest of the ethnic separatist movements today. Nevertheless, Chehregani was hosted in Washington by the U.S. Department of Defense in June 2003, according to the Washington Times, and addressed a number of neoconservative venues. One difficulty with this movement is Chehregani’s antipathy to Kurds, whom he calls “guests” in the Azerbaijan region of Iran.

These separatist movements continue to have support in some legislative circles. Two of the most avid supporters are Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, both Republicans. Both favor removing the MEK from the list of terrorist organizations, and Brownback served as host to Mahmud Ali Chehregani in Washington.

No serious analyst of Iranian affairs believes that a strategy of ethnic division would bring down the central government of the Islamic Republic. Iran expert Vali Nasr, who teaches at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University was quoted by Hersh as saying, “Iran is an old country—like France and Germany—and its citizens are just as nationalistic. . . . working with the minorities will backfire, and alienate the majority of the population.” Not to mention serious consequences for the United States.