Friday, March 26, 2010

A remarkable story about one of the United States and Iran

Every once in a while a news story shakes up your comfortable view of what the world is like. I have my cliché views of Mississippi, backward and conservative, and though I am not nearly so paranoid about Iran as most people in North America, it is a place with a repressive government, tremendous economic problems, which poses certain dangers to people in countries that its government disapproves of.

Before you read this, I would not have expected to hear that people in the state of Mississippi and the Islamic Republic of Iran were cooperating on a project to bring Iranian public health techniques to Mississippi. Since I think that a serious commitment to public health is practically synonymous with "civilization," this article in the Times Online both flabbergasted and pleased me.

An excerpt:


...with Congress acrimoniously debating the reform of healthcare, it is to Iran that one of America’s poorest communities is turning to try to resolve its own health crisis.

A US doctor and a development consultant visited Iran in May to study a primary healthcare system that has cut infant mortality by more than two-thirds since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Then, in October, five top Iranian doctors, including a senior official at the health ministry in Tehran, were quietly brought to Mississippi to advise on how the system could be implemented there.

The Mississippi Delta has some of the worst health statistics in the country, including infant mortality rates for non-whites at Third World levels.

“It’s time to look for a new model,” said Dr Aaron Shirley, one of the state’s leading health campaigners.

“Forty years ago, when I was a resident at Jackson hospital, I was in charge of admitting sick babies and was astonished at all the children coming in from the delta with diarrhoea, meningitis, pneumonia.

“After years of health research and expenditure of millions of dollars, nothing much has changed.”
...
Facing shortages of money and trained doctors at the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, the new government launched a system based on community “health houses”, each serving about 1,500 people.

Locals were trained as health workers known as behvarz, who would travel their area, dispensing advice about healthy eating, sanitation and contraception as well as monitoring blood pressure and conditions such as diabetes.

It was a stunning success, reducing child mortality rates by 69% and maternal mortality in rural areas from 300 per 100,000 births to 30. There are now 17,000 health houses in Iran, covering more than 90% of its rural population of 23m.

Miller contacted Shirley, who is seen as a community health pioneer in Mississippi and had recently converted a deserted shopping centre in Jackson into a “medical mall” for the poor.

“I thought if the Iranians could do it with a fraction of resources we have, then why shouldn’t we?” said Shirley.
...
Shirley and Miller visited Iran in May and were astonished to be welcomed with open arms. When they went to remote villages to see the health houses, the Iranians were equally amazed.

“They told us this is a miracle,” said Miller. “Not only were Americans coming here, but also they were learning from us rather than telling us what to do.”

One villager exclaimed: “We always knew rain fell down but never knew it could fall up.”

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A curious, moving memoir of an Iranian mother

I have just started following the blog IranWrites, though it has been around for a while. Today a post called A Woman by Her Own Rights showed up. It would be impossible to make a representative excerpt, so I will just recommend it to you.

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Sunday, February 07, 2010

"All the fuss we made over these writers, as if what they said was a matter of life and death to us."

I have just finished reading one of the most remarkable books I've read in a very long time: Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is a difficult book to describe; one might say it is a memoir, perhaps somewhat fictionalized, of an upper-class Iranian woman, partly raised in Britain and the United States and now living in the USA, which focuses on what it was like to teach English literature in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq. In particular, she talks about her interactions with some of her students during this period. Nafisi comes across as a secular person, and she sees the Islamic revolution as nothing but a disaster. For instance page 119, when she talks to one of her students, a Khomeini supporter, about the trial of a supposed counterrevolutionary:

I told him they had no proof that the gentleman in question was a CIA agent, in any case I doubt if the CIA would be foolish enough to employ someone like him. But even those whom he called the functionaries of the old regime, regardless of their guilt, shouldn't be treated this way. I cannot understand why the Islamic government had to gloat over these people's deaths, brandishing their photographs after they had been tortured and executed. Why did they show us these pictures? Why did our students every day shout slogans demanding new death sentences?

Mr. Bahri did not respond at first. He stood still, his head bent, his hands linked in front of him. Then he started to speak slowly and with tens precision. Well, they have to pay, he said they're on trial for their past deeds. The Iranian nation will not tolerate their crimes. And these new crimes? I asked as soon as he had uttered his last word. These new crimes? Should they be tolerated in silence? Everyone nowadays is an enemy of God -- former ministers and educators, prostitutes, leftist revolutionaries: they are murdered daily. What is his and his had these people done to deserve such treatment?

His face had become hard, and of the shadow of obstinacy has colored his eyes. He repeated that people had to pay for their past crimes. This is not a game, he said. It is a revolution. I asked him if I too was on trial for my past. But he was right in a sense: we all have to pay, but not for the crimes we were accused of. There were other scores to settle. I did not know then that I had already begun to pay, that what was happening was part of the payment. It was much later that these feelings would be clarified.

This book has been criticized for giving a very negative view of the Islamic Republic of Iran, of women and even more men in Iran and even of Islam itself. Notably, Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran by Fatemeh Keshavarz (another Iranian academic based in United States and writing in English) accuses Nafisi of promoting a neo-Orientalist agenda and confirming all the old clichés of the backward, static and exotic East. I don't see it myself. There's nothing exotic about the presentation of life in Tehran in this book, and there's plenty of action and change. What is really wrong with the criticisms I've heard is that they assume that Nafisi had to write the book that the critics wanted to read, or have other people read. This is a very personal memoir, not the history of revolutionary Iran. It tells Nafisi's story of how the revolution affected her as a teacher and scholar, and how it seemed to affect some of her more memorable students -- and not just the ones he liked. I have yet to read a review that picks up on what I think is very important point: this memoir might easily be about the Cultural Revolution in China, or the Jacobin revolution in France, or any other number of similar upheavals.

The quotation at the head of this post tells the story as I read it. It is about reading, teaching, learning, speaking about intellectual subjects when it is really important and far from easy. Again, p. 338:

I said to him that I wanted to write a book [after she left Iran] in which I would thank the Islamic Republic for all the things it had taught me -- to love Austen and James and ice cream and freedom. I said, right now it is not enough to appreciate all this; I want to write about it. He said, you will not be able to write about Austen without writing about us, about this place where you rediscovered Austen. You will not be able to put us out of your head. Try, you'll see. The Austen you know is so irretrievably linked to this place, this land and these trees. You don't think that this is the same Austen you read with Dr. French -- it was Dr. French [probably at U. of Oklahoma], wasn't it? Do you? This is the Austen you read here, in the place where the film censor is nearly blind and where they hang people in the streets and put a curtain across the sea to segregate men and women. I said, When I write about all that perhaps I'll become more generous, less angry.

If you like that sample of Nafisi's writing, there is lots more where that came from.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Messing with the flag?

Above is a representation of the Iranian flag. Note the green stripe.

Below is a picture of a recent official ceremony in Iran, with a depiction of the flag (in the shape of Iran) in which green is replaced with blue.

Why is this? Is it a technical error? Or has it been changed because the reform movement has adopted green (a favorite Islamic color) to represent itself?

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty this is not the only case of blue/green substitution.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

More than a little familiar?

Has it ever occurred to anyone else that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei looks like Obi-Wan Kenobi with a longer beard and a black turban?

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Professor Ali Ansari explains the religious backgroun of the Iranian situation


From the Times Online:

Ancient power struggle has relevance for today’s Iran
Professor Ali Ansari: Analysis


Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Moharram in the Muslim calendar, is a day replete with symbolism for much of the world’s Shia community. In Iran, in the run-up to the Islamic Revolution in 1979, it acquired enormous political significance as the message of Ashura was redefined for the modern age and the struggle against the Shah. Now it has been reinvigorated and turned against today’s Islamic leadership.

The story of Ashura revolves around the succession to the Prophet Muhammad. According to Shia belief the succession should have devolved to the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, Ali, the first of the Shia Imams. Ali finally assumed the leadership and became the fourth Caliph but after his death the succession should have followed through his family. Unfortunately for them, the leadership was seized by a rival family, the Umayyads. In 680AD one of Ali’s sons, Hussein, with a small band of followers, challenged the Umayyads, who were led by the Caliph Yazid. Hussein was defeated and killed. Ever since Hussein has been hailed as the Lord of Martyrs, the champion of the oppressed. His sacrifice is lamented every year on Ashura.

The Government has tried to portray Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the new Ali, and there is a suspicion that he is seeking to make the title of Supreme Leader hereditary. This has outraged orthodox clergy and many devout Iranian Muslims.


Thus, instead of being the new Ali, Khamanei has been portrayed as the Yazid of the age. With news of fatalities as the clashes continue, it is an association he will find increasingly difficult to shake.


I am fascinated by the "suspicion" noted in the second-last paragraph above. It sounds like something out of a Left Behind novel.

Image: Pious Shia still weep over the martyrdom at the battle of Karbala. Ashura is the most emotional day on the Shia calendar.

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Big deal in Iran

From Juan Cole's Informed Comment:

The BBC is reporting that clashes are continuing into Monday morning between protesters and the regime security forces in Tehran and perhaps other cities, marking the first decisive failure of the basij paramilitary to control the streets by early morning of the day of a big demonstration. The number of protesters allegedly killed by security men rose to 9, with dozens wounded and 300 persons allegedly arrested.

...

The chanting on Sunday turned against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself, not just against President Ahmadinejad. He was castigated as the Dictator and as worse than the old shah, and the very ideological basis of the regime, the doctrine of clerical rule, was chanted against in the streets. The legitimacy of the regime, profoundly shaken by the events since early June's presidential election, is now being shredded further.

Another remarkable dimension of Sunday's events was the sheer number of cities where significant rallies and clashes occurred. Some of those allegedly killed are said to have fallen in Tabriz, a northwestern metropolis near Turkey. Even conservative cities such as Isfahan and Mashhad joined in. Shiraz, Ardabil, the list goes on. The attempt of some analysts to paint the disturbances as a shi-shi North Tehran thing has clearly foundered.

The most ominous sign of all for the regime is the reports of security men refusing orders to fire into the crowd.

But for the movement to go further and become truly revolutionary, it would have to have a leader who wanted to overthrow the old regime and who could attract the loyalty of both the people and elements of the armed forces. So far this key revolutionary element, of dual sovereignty, has been lacking, insofar as opposition leaders Mir Hosain Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have tried to stay inside the Khomeinist framework while arguing that it is Khamenei who violated it by making it too authoritarian. Saying you want slightly less autocracy within a clerical theocracy is not a recipe for revolution.

Najmeh Bozorgmehr reports from Tehran for the FT that on Sunday in the capital, crowds-- bigger than even some of those that assembled in June-- maintained their discipline and proved unassailable by the basij motorcycle and other crowd control techniques. She quotes people in the crowd urging demonstrators to stick together for this purpose. She must be suggesting that the crowds were several hundred thousand strong in the capital.

...

But values come into it, too. Farnaz Fassihi of the WSJ points out that the first month of the Muslim lunar calendar, Muharram, has been considered a month for truces and non-violence. The very name of the month means 'sanctified.' Even the brutal troops of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah or king overthrown in 1979, had not fired on crowds during Muharram. Opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi openly said that even the shah's regime had not behaved on Muharram as clerical Leader Ali Khamenei's had. Hint: in revolutionary Iran, that is a slam.

The regime therefore violated crowd norms, helping account for the vehemence of the pushback.
...

The killing of Ali Mousavi, the 34-year-old nephew of former presidential candidate Mir Husain Mousavi, was also a violation of Shiite values. The Mousavis are putative descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, a sort of caste in Muslim societies called 'sayyid' or 'sharif.'

In fact, in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911, one of the complaints of the crowd was that the Qajar monarchy had had sayyids beaten. So if beating a scion of the House of the Prophet can help spark a revolution, what about shooting one? And, oppositional film maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf maintains that Mousavi was killed by a death squad that came for him in a van rather than just falling victim to random police fire.

Killing a sayyid is a blot on any Iranian government. Doing so on Ashura, the day of morning for the martyred grandson of the Prophet, Imam Husayn, borders on insanity.

Cole also provides a link to Robin Wright's article at the Times Online: Is this Iran's Berlin Wall moment?

Of course questions like this are hard to answer. However, it is clear that for millions of Iranians, the current regime has lost any claim to representing Islam (in other words, justice).

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

No normalcy in Iran, either

Not even the generation-long "revolutionary" normalcy of the Islamic Republic.

From the Guardian, a sample of person-in-the-street commentary:

Meshkat Nourahmadi, 45, nurse

"I have seen patients with bullets in their chests, bullets in their legs, bullets in their heads. Everybody is talking about the violence, whether you are at work, in a taxi or at a family gathering. Something has changed in this country. I don't think this is just about fraud in the election. It's about the blood that has been spilled and people who have been raped or tortured or harassed by this government."

Hoori Ghasemi, 35, lawyer

"In Tehran, even if you have not been beaten by the riot police personally, at least you have a friend or relative who has."

Mohammadreza Kakavand, 62, retired accountant

"I was out in the streets 30 years ago protesting against the Shah because that regime was brutal and savage and today I'm out again, this time older, again seeking justice and standing against dictatorship. I might not see a free Iran in my lifetime, but I'm proud of the battle of today's youth against injustice and dictatorship. It would be an honour to be killed in a fight for freedom."

Bahram Ebrahimian, 30, businessman

"If you are going out today in protest, it means that you are ready to be arrested, it means that you are ready to be tortured or even sentenced to years of prison, but thousands of students are still protesting and I as a normal citizen want to join them despite all the fears."

Reyhaneh Aboutorabi, 23, Tehran University student

"Many students are no longer thinking about their exams, their education or their future, they are still thinking about their stolen vote. These demonstrations are going to continue until we can get back our votes and have our classmates freed from Evin prison."

Siamak Pournejati, 31, Tehran shopkeeper

"I'm ready to risk everything to get back my vote. You can smell the blood of innocent and peaceful protesters in the streets of Tehran, the blood of Neda Agha Soltan [killed during election protests], the blood of Sohrab Aarabi [who disappeared and was killed]. This city is no longer like it was last year. It's different and we will change it finally."

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Friday, December 11, 2009

"Crazy stuff" in history


Apocalyptic belief, belief in a revelation of the end of time, usually a revelation that the end of time is just around the corner, probably qualifies for most people as "crazy stuff." Something suitable for more Terminator sequels, a graphic novel, or a heavy metal album. There is always a need for another heavy metal album about the end of the world.

But crazy or not, apocalyptic beliefs are pretty commonplace in real life, and have a stronger influence on politics and culture than most people who don't believe in the apocalypse would guess. Three countries whose politics is strongly affected by the apocalyptic beliefs of some influential people and a proportion of the general population are the United States, Israel, and Iran.

More than once in recent months I have read about the apocalyptic beliefs of the president of Iran. Shiism has always had an apocalyptic logic: roughly, they think that the leadership of the Muslim community was hijacked soon after the death of Prophet, that the true leaders have been in physical or spiritual exile ever since, and eventually that leadership will return to clean up the mess. But most Shiites don't wait with bated breath for the return of the Mahdi, just as most Christians don't think very much about the Book of Revelations (also known as the Apocalypse of St. John) when planning out their weekly activities. And a lot of Jews have given up on the return of the Messiah.

However, as support of the Islamic Revolution has been falling apart in Iran, the true believers in the revolution are turning more strongly to the belief that the end is near.

Here is what Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has to say about the subject:

It's both crazy and dangerous.

Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad believes and acts on the expectation that the reappearance of the Hidden Imam is imminent, and that U.S. efforts in the Middle East are primarily focused on preventing his return. Shi'ite Muslims believe that their 12th imam, the Mahdi, born in 869, did not die but was hidden by God and will eventually reappear as the savior of humankind, ending tyranny and bringing justice to the world. One-tenth of the world's Muslims and 85 percent of Iranians are Shi'a.

In a recent speech in the central city of Isfahan, Ahmadinejad said: "With those [U.S. troops] who came to occupy Iraq, the appearance was that they came just to exploit the oil. In reality, though, they know that something will happen in this region -- a divine hand will come soon to root out the tyranny in the world."

"And they know," he added, "that Iran is paving the way for his coming and will serve him."

Belief in the apocalypse and messianism are nothing new in human history. There are both Jewish and Christian messianic traditions, according to which a king of Israel or messiah will appear to herald global peace. And Shi'ite Muslims, unlike the majority of their Sunni co-faithful, have always believed in the Mahdi.

But Ahmadinejad and his main supporter among the ultra-conservative Iranian clergy, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a member of the Assembly of Experts, do not want to just peacefully hope and wait for the Mahdi. RFE/RL Radio Farda's analyst Majid Mohammadi says Ahmadinejad has introduced a completely new system in the Iranian politics: "a militarist and messianic Islamism."
There's more here.

The third and fourth paragraphs of the excerpt above reminds me very strongly of this version of Pope Urban's speech at Clermont. Surely not what was actually said, but this is what made sense to one informed and learned observer. This is what he thought the Pope should have said when he launched the First Crusade.
Interesting times, interesting times. Don't you just... love it? Well, maybe not.

Image: An impression of the return of the Mahdi to fight the Antichrist.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

More on the war

Yes, there's a war on -- more than one!

Juan Cole at his most optimistic has an article in Salon,
Obama's foreign policy report card.

Matthew Hoh, an American official and ex-Marine with extensive experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, resigns. Why? The war in Afghanistan makes no sense. See
his letter of resignation and the Washington Post article describing his background.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Rafsanjani's Friday sermon in Tehran: the flexibility of religion and ideology

Juan Cole published this morning a meaty analysis of Friday's sermon in Tehran by former Iranian president Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani in my view is a smart opportunist, not a radical, but the kind of guy who always survives the revolution and makes billions in the process (he is in fact now a billionaire). His position as successful profiteer and governmental insider puts him in a difficult position. Whatever may be the totality of his motivations may be, he certainly does not want the Islamic Republic to blow up. Thus he argues for an interpretation of the revolution of 1979 that will allow for compromise and unity between the angry reformists and the intransigent hardliners. Juan Cole explains the religious theories involved (the complete post is here):

The reform movement and its allies among pragmatic conservatives have developed a narrative about Khomeinist Iran. They allege that it is ultimately democratic, and that the will of the people is paramount. It is popular sovereignty that authorizes political change and greater political and cultural openness. Precisely because democracy and popular sovereignty are the key values for this movement, the alleged stealing of the June 12 presidential elections by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for his candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is intolerable. A crime has been committed, in their eyes. A social contract has been violated. The will of the people has been thwarted.

The hard liners hold a competing and incompatible view of the meaning of Khomeini's 1979 revolution. They discount the element of elections, democracy and popular sovereignty. They view these procedures and institutions as little more than window-dressing. True power and authority lies with the Supreme Leader... in this view ... a kind of philosopher-king, who can overrule the people at will. The hard liners do not believe that the election was stolen. But they probably cannot get very excited about the election in the first place. Khamenei and his power and his appointments and his ability to intervene to disqualify candidates, close newspapers, and overrule parliament are what is important. From a hard line point of view, the election is what Khamenei says it is and therefore cannot be stolen.

Rafsanjani desired in his sermon to lay a Khomeinist foundation for the more democratic view. He began by underlining his own role in the revolution and the establishment of the Republic, and his position as a witness to the values of Khomeini. He said Khomeini discouraged the anti-Shah activists of the 1960s and 1970s from terrorism. Instead, he urged a direct appeal to the people in their villages and mosques, and responsiveness to their desires. He represents Khomeini as saying, if the people are with us, we have everything.

Rafsanjani is saying that the 1978-79 revolution was not Leninist. It was not the work of a small vanguard of activists. It was broad and popular and therefore inevitably, he implies, had something of a democratic character.

The authoritarian view of governance in Shiite Islam is anchored by Misbah-Yazdi and his ilk in the theory of the Imamate. Shites believe that the Prophet Muhammad was both temporal ruler and divinely inspired prophet. After him, his relatives also exercised both functions. His son-in-law and first cousin, Ali, is held by Shiites to be the first Imam, the divinely-appointed vicar of the Prophet. But Rafsanjani quotes a Shiite text showing that the Prophet Muhammad said that even Ali could only rule the people with their consent, and without it he should not try. Rafsanjani is reimagining the Imamate not as infallible divine figures succeeding an infallible prophet, but rather as an institution depending on an interaction between God's appointee and the people he is intended to shepherd.

Another piece of evidence for the popular character of the Islamic Republic, Rafsanjani says, is Khomeini's own haste to establish lay, elected institutions and to implement a republican constitution. He maintains that Khomeini actually strengthened some of the popular institutions when he made suggestions for revision of the draft constitution. Even having a constitution is a bow to popular sovereignty, he implies, and he contrasts the haste with which revolutionary Iran established a rule of law and popular input into government with the slowness of these processes in countries such as Algeria.

... But Rafsanjani's point is that even the Supreme Leader, whom some see as a theocratic dictator, derives his position from the operation of popular sovereignty.
Note that Rafsanjani's theory of the Islamic Revolution, like that of many reformers, is democratic without being seculer. It is a theory that grows out of Islam and the Iranian Shi'ite tradition, or at least is being reconciled with that tradition. Ditto for the hardline position. Despite the sweeping innovations brought in by Khomenei, specifically clerical rule and the idea that there can be a Supreme religious Leader in the here-and-now, important foundation stones for the hardline view are identified by its followers with the oldest manifestations of Islam and the Shi'ite traditions of the leadership of the family of Ali (and of the Prophet).

If have not picked a side in this quarrel and adopted a religious, Islamic justification for your position, it is hard to say that either of these positions is "more authentic." Both positions have evolved over the last 30 years, and especially the past couple of months. It might be very hard for a learned Iranian Shi'ite of 200 years ago to recognize either as Shi'ism. Note what Juan Cole says about Rafsanjani's presentation, which he backed up with his authority as an eyewitness to the Revolution, the foundation of the Islamic Republic and the role of Khomeini in both:

So is what Rafsanjani is saying about Khomeini and Khomeinism true? Probably only partially. Khomeini is notorious for having rejected popular sovereignty as a principle. But he did put an elected president and parliament into the constitution, and he surely knew what would follow.
One might say that Rafsanjani, the Iranian Thermidorian, is making it up as he goes along. On the other hand, who knows what Khomeini might say today?

The whole situation reminds me of an insight I had nearly two decades ago, when I was reading a short history of world Buddhism. As I went through the book I realized that somewhere, sometime, just about any religious position you could imagine had been defined by somebody as "true Buddhism." I think this dawned on me when I found out that one influential Buddhist had said that true Buddhism meant that no one should be a monk and everyone should get married.

Thinking about this situation, I eventually came to the conclusion that the inherent variety of human experience and dispositions means that any religious tradition that has any degree of success in recruiting and maintaining itself over time has to contain contradictory elements, and be open to new interpretations. Otherwise it will become completely irrelevant and die out.

This further means that the kind of wild and careless generalizations that are often made about religion and culture and their consequences for today, -- e.g. what political structures will result from Confucian or Roman Catholic or Mormon traditions -- should be treated with the utmost suspicion. (Phil Paine has written about this recently.) A very particular instance is Iran today. A week's diligent reading will tell you quite a bit about what Iranian Shi'ites have valued in the past. Faced, however, with a live Iranian Shi'ite, you or I or Juan Cole will not know what she or he thinks, unless we ask. And even then, what that means for his or her future actions will remain to be seen. As Charles Kurzman might say, when life is no longer going along its routine groove, who knows what will happen next, what you will do next? You make it up as you go along, using existing materials in whatever way seems possible or necessary.

Image: Rafsanjani, photo from Wikipedia.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Tehran: the cats are happy

Juan Cole passes along this "final dispatch from Tehran," which I don't dare summarize. Don't miss it.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A History of Modern Iran, by Ervand Abrahamian

This short and recent book (2008) doesn't tell you everything you might want to know about 20th century Iran, for instance it says little about the Iran-Iraq war, but it very usefully focuses on a consistent theme, the building of a modern state in a country where governmental power was extremely limited in 1900. Except for occasional long lists of personal names that will not mean a lot to most potential readers, the book is quite well-written. The author has a talent for the appropriate quotation, and it seems that Iranians over the years have had a talent for producing those quotations. For instance, an opponent of Mossadeq in the early 1950s expressed his opposition thus (page 116-17):
Statecraft has degenerated into street politics. It appears that this country has nothing better to do than hold street meetings. We now have meetings here, there, and everywhere -- meetings for this, that, and every occasion; meetings for university students, high school students, seven-year-olds, and even six-year-olds. I am sick and tired of these street meetings...

Is our prime minister a statesman or a mob leader? What type of prime minister says "I will speak to the people" every time he is faced with a political problem? I always considered this man to be unsuitable for high office. But I never imagined, even in my worst nightmares that an old man of seventy would turn into a rabble rouser. A man who surrounds the Majles with mobs is nothing less than a public menace.
Abrahamian also likes economic and social statistics, but he uses them well. The growth and development they document is impressive.

One theme I followed with interest was the role of elections and the Parliament or Majles in Iranian politics since 1906. Some of this sounds pretty familiar, for instance this discussion of how Reza Shah controlled all the elections in the 20s and 30s (page 73):
Reza Shah retained the electoral law but closely monitored access into parliament. He personally determined the outcome of each election and thus the composition of each Majles ... the control mechanism was simple. The shah -- together with his chief of police -- inspected the list of prospective candidates, walking them is either "suitable" or "bad,"... the suitable names were passed on to the interior minister, who, in turn, passed them on to the provincial governor-generals and the local electoral boards. The sole function of these boards was to hand out voting papers and supervise the ballot boxes. Needless to say, these words were all appointed by the central government. Unsuitable candidates who insisted on running found themselves either in jail or banished from their localities. Consequently, the successful candidates were invariably "suitable,"...
Cambridge University Press has an "e-widget" that gives you a preview of the book.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

The spectator's dilemma

Over at Accumulating Peripherals, this thoughtful piece: human sympathy and a lack of posturing.

...But the most difficult cases Parfit considers concern various kinds of Prisoner’s Dilemmas, especially ones with a complex range of outcomes and large numbers of participants....

For example, let’s say that if you participate in a protest march of 1 million people and the Army mutinies and prevents bloodshed, then there will be a “velvet revolution”-type peaceful transition to a democratic system. But if you participate in a protest march of 1 million people and the Army doesn’t mutiny, then 1,000 people will be massacred and the regime will become more repressive; and there is no reason to believe that this outcome will lead to a democratic transition any sooner than might have happened otherwise. And meanwhile, one of those 1,000 people massacred could be you, or secret police might identify you at the rally and kick your sister out of university, or whatever. Should you join the march?

I have known several appealing young democratic activists in autocratic countries inspired by visions of creating “velvet revolution”-style transitions to democracy. In conversations with them, one inevitably feels compelled by empathy to offer one’s opinions about what they should do. And I generally wind up making it implicitly clear, just out of empathy, that I don’t think they should be engaging in pro-democracy activism. The issue depends, for me, on the question of how large the democracy movements in their countries already are. Where such movements are quite substantial, then participation makes intuitive sense. But in countries with tiny, irrelevant dissident movements, where autocratic governments are in firm control and there seems very little likelihood of change on any scale shorter than the generational, I think it’s not worth the risk. I can’t sit across from someone I find appealing and intelligent and wish for them anything other than that they keep their heads down, get a well-paying job, read widely and have informal unrecorded discussion groups with close friends, and wait for the moment twenty years down the road when some kind of shift may become possible. I can’t wish for them that they make an example of themselves and wind up jailed, their reputations and careers ruined, with exile the only promising option — an option that generally renders all their attempted activism irrelevant.

But sometimes, the brave ones go ahead and do it anyway. And in those cases I don’t think Parfit’s moral math or my wimpy skepticism even matter, because I don’t think such people are chiefly motivated by consequentialist thinking. I think that the Iranians who go out to protest are chiefly motivated by considerations like honor and hope [emphasis SM].

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

An authoritative religious critique of the situation in Iran

Ayatollah Montazeri is one of the highest-ranking religious scholars in Iran, though he holds no political office. The following statement was posted on the Iranian-American blog, niacINsight. It takes only a little imagination to see how such an analysis might harm the religious legitimacy of the current Iranian government:

Montazeri said “I have been involved in the struggles against the previous (Shah) regime and the establishment of the Islamic Republic as much as I can. I feel ashamed in front of the people and clearly announce that beloved Islam…is different from the behavior of the current rulers. These actions and policies being done under the banner of religion will certainly cause large segments of people to become cynical regarding the principles of Islam and theocracy and will ruin the hard and valuable work of the Islamic ulema.”

Montazeri harshly criticized the militarization of the society saying “In a country and a regime which is proud of being Islamic and Shiite, and only 30 years after the victory of the revolution when people still remember the last scenes of the past regime, how could they turn Tehran and other large cities into a big garrison while the world is watching? They have put our brothers in the armed forces against the people. By using plainclothes agents, who are reminders of baton-carrying agents of Shah, cowardly shed the blood of the youth and men and women of this land.”

Montazeri then posed questions to authorities asking “was this the strategy of Prophet Mohammad and Imam Ali? They never cursed and accused their enemies and didn’t silence them by the sword…Now, a group of people thinking that they can commit any crime because they see themselves as being close to the government; attack student dorms, beat them and throw them down the building, commit chain murders and terrorize intellectuals of this nation and be immune from punishment; this is not compatible with any religion and custom.”

Montazeri advised the people to “pursue their reasonable demands while maintaining their calm.” He also advised the authorities, asking them to stop using harsh and irrational measures which destroys people’s trust and exacerbates the separation between them and regime. “[The authorities] should not create divisions among the people, apologize for their past mistakes, and understand that worldly positions are not permanent.”

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Women and the English Peasants' Revolt of 1381

Jonathan Jarrett directs me to the blog Bavardess, which I have missed up till now. Its author has an interesting post on the role of women in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, saying, among other things:
While most historical accounts up until the 1980s (at least) discuss the revolt as an almost wholly male enterprise, source documents including trial records and pardons show women were very much active participants, and even instigators and organisers of rebellion.
At left, for example, is an extract from a commission of Oyer and Terminer (‘hear and determine’) held in Essex directly after the revolt to seek out those responsible. Amongst the people accused of riding armed through the countryside and inciting the commons to rise against the king is one “Nichola Cartere who was lately taken as wife by William Dekne of South Benfleet”*. In another case, records from the court of King’s Bench describe Johanna Ferrour as the “chief perpetrator and leader” of a rebel group from Kent who burnt the Savoy and executed Sudbury and Hales**[an extraordinarily important episode--SM].
A good insight -- and there is more good stuff about the gendered language of revolt in the original post. When it comes to women's participation, I am reminded of how much the Peasants' Revolt reminds me of the earliest stages of the French Revolution of 1789. John Ball's list of demands makes me think that he would've loved The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. And of course 1789 was famous for the inspiring/scandalous political participation of women, which was not unprecedented even if they went much farther in 1789.

Then there is Tehran, 1979 and 2009, both times when women's initiative was/has been a key factor...

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

It's not a show for the spectators

US coverage of world events is very Washington-centric. Like domestic political issues, international ones are usually seen as an opportunity to show that one is on the right side, or that one's domestic opponents are on the wrong side, or if you're a journalist, to write a real horse-racing style piece-- who is ahead, who fell on his or her face. This all too easily slops over on us next door.

Joe Klein, a political columnist at Time, wrote a column today which in part says what I feel about this tendency. As others have put it, "it's not about us," what Iranians are doing comes from their own needs and perceptions, although it is important to us and the rest of the world and we will be affected. We should remember that simple phrase while we wait to see what emerges from Iran.

Joe Klein:

Again, the crucial fact about the protesters is this: they may hate the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime--who wouldn't?--but that doesn't make them particular fans of the United States. I have yet to meet an Iranian who does not believe that the United States gave poison gas to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, gas which injured thousands upon thousands of Iranian men, who still live, incapacitated, in the shadows of that society. (Indeed, the attention Ahmadinejad has paid to the Iran-Iraq war veterans and their families is a major source of his extensive support among the Iranian working class.)

The protesters admire our freedom, but they are appalled--and insulted--by our neocolonialist condescension over the past 50 years. The reformers, and even some conservatives, consider Ahmadinejad the George W. Bush of Iran--a crude, unsophisticated demagogue, who puts a strong Potemkin face to the world without very much knowledge of what the rest of the world is about. This was an anology that came up in interview after interview, with reformers and conservatives alike.

Certainly, Bush the Younger, McCain and the rest of that crowd have absolutely no idea who the Iranian people are. The are not Hungarians in 1956. They do not believe they live in an Evil Empire. They still support their revolution. They shout "Allahu Akbar" in the streets, which was the rallying cry of 1979. They are proud of their nuclear program, even if many have doubts about the efficacy of weaponizing the enriched uraniam that is being produced. They want greater freedom, to be sure. And they believe that the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad forces--and the militarized regime they have empowered, the millions of basiji and revolutionary guards--is a profound perversion of that revolution. They are right. They deserve our prayers and support. But they don't need grandstanding from an American President, and they certainly don't need histrionics from blustery old John McCain.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Following events in Iran

I am following events in Iran, in so far as that is possible, but I don't think I have any special insight, except this: it is the end of the Islamic Republic of Iran as it has existed for the last 20 years or so. It's likely that in 2029, middle-aged Iranians will all know where they were today, no matter how things turn out.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Rights of Man...and Woman

Andrew Sullivan links to an interesting column in the Times Online by Danny Finkelstein. Why Finkelstein associates his values with Neoconservatism I don't know; I associate it with indiscriminate aerial bombardment. Nevertheless, I agree with much of what he says here:

For years we have been told, we neocons, that other cultures don't want our liberty, our American freedom. Yankee go home! But it isn't true. Because millions of Iranians do want it. Yes, they want their sovereignty, and demand respect for their nation and its great history. No, they don't want foreign interference and manipulation. But they still insist upon their rights and their freedom. They know that liberty isn't American or British. It is Iranian, it is human.

This idea that the critics of neocons advanced so vociferously, that liberal democracy can't be “transplanted” on alien soil - what does it mean to the people of Iran who have thronged the streets to express their will?

Does it mean that we think the morality police is just part of Iranian culture? Just their way of doing things? For the thousands of protesters it is not. It turns out that they don't think it's right for young girls to be arrested, snatched from the streets for wearing the wrong coat. And they don't think there is a cultural defence to beating these girls until their parents arrive with a “decent” garment.

They don't think that public hangings are Iranian, either. Nor arbitrary detentions of doctors who dared to organise conferences on Aids, nor keeping human rights activists in solitary confinement, nor sentencing trade union leaders to five years in jail for trying to organise fellow workers. They don't think there is anything culturally valuable in sentencing political activists to death after secret trials lasting less than five minutes, or returning lawyers to jail again and again for opposing the death penalty or “publishing insulting material with unacceptable interpretation of Islamic rules”.

It is not part of their precious heritage that someone be charged with a capital offence for circulating a petition on women's rights. Nor that nine-year-old girls should be eligible for the death penalty, and children hanged for their crimes. There is no special Iranian will, even given their religious conservatism, that students should be flogged in public for being flirtatious, and homosexuals hanged in the streets.

The protests for Mr Mousavi do not just expose the lie of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's landslide victory. They expose the lie that there is something Western in wanting democracy and human rights. [The best line!--SM]

And what of the other leg of the neocon argument? What of the idea that peace comes through the spread of liberalism and democracy? Can anyone really doubt that should the reformists succeed, even a little bit, the world would be a safer place? A democratic Iran would stop financing world terrorist movements, it would stop obsessing about external enemies and foreign conspiracies, it would stop threatening its neighbours. It would still oppose Israeli policy, it would still want to acquire nuclear material, but the threat of violence would recede.

The mistake the neocons made is that we were not conservative enough, not patient enough. Such impatience with dictatorships is understandable, indeed laudable. But the frustrating truth is that there are limits to what can be achieved by outsiders. Instead we have to wait as national movements, one by one, stand up for their rights. And sometimes, tragically, we even have to stand aside as those movements are crushed by their oppressors.


Comments welcome.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Iran coverage, June 16

From Laura Secor at the New Yorker (excerpt):

What are Khamenei’s options? With protesters yelling “Down with the dictator” in the streets of nearly every city in Iran, his position could not be more precarious. He has staked his very legitimacy, and perhaps that of the edifice he sits atop, on forcing Iranians to accept Ahmadinejad’s supposed landslide victory. He can continue to try to force that down their throats with a show of raw power, or he can bend, which would show the opposition that he and the system are not really so powerful after all, that they are vulnerable to pressure from below. If he takes the latter road, it would be a radical departure from his style of governance up until now. This is the regime that violently quelled protest movements in 1999 and in 2002, crushed the hopes of reformers under Mohammad Khatami from 1997 through 2005, and apparently could not tolerate even the possibility of a Mousavi Presidency. But if he chooses the path of violence, he will transform his country into a crude and seething autocracy.

This is uncharted territory for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Until now, the regime has survived through a combination of repression and flexibility. The dispersal of power throughout a complex system, among rival political factions, and with the limited but active participation of the voting public, has allowed a basically unpopular regime to control a large population with only limited and targeted violence. There have always been loopholes and pressure points that allow the opposition and the regime to be dance partners, even if one or both of them is secretly brandishing a knife behind the other’s back. That has been less true under Ahmadinejad than in the past. But the culture of the organized opposition under the Islamic Republic has tended to remain cautious and moderate. Many of the protesters of recent days are not calling for an end to the Islamic Republic. They are calling for their votes to be counted. More nights like last night, however, when some seven protesters were allegedly shot, could swiftly change that.

So is there any way Khamenei can dial the situation back even to the unhappy modus vivendi of June 11th?...
Iason Athanasiadis and Saeed Kamali Dehghan at the Guardian, article entitled At opposite ends of Tehran's great avenue, the two Irans gathered:

"What you're seeing is the result of 30 years of pressure and strangling," said Hossein Rahmati, a 68-year-old carpet seller wearing an old-fashioned 1980s suit to attend the march. "Iran is like a dam about to burst."

Standing in the cool of a Tehran ­afternoon, his rimmed glasses held on by a cord, Rahmati was surrounded by crowds, some dressed in the green of Mir Hossein Mousavi's street revolution, ­others in black with scarves over their faces and mobile phones in hand to capture the occasion.

Across the capital, a few miles to the south, it was a different rallying cry. Batol Mojahedi, 55, a housewife, stood with one hand holding her black hijab, the other a poster of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "My son was martyred in the Iran-Iraq war. I don't want to lose our Islam. We did not participate in 1979, in the revolution, to have this kind of freedom that Mousavi supporters claim they want.

"We don't want the freedom they want. Ahmadinejad is a courageous president. There was not any rigging in Friday's election. What's happening now is just [being influenced] by foreigners."

Tehran was a city literally divided yesterday as rival rallies for incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his defeated centrist challenger Mousavi took over either end of Vali Asr Avenue, the city's north-south spine. In a study in opposites, some districts appeared deserted while traffic was gridlocked elsewhere. The words from both camps were equally stark, each seeing the other as the cause of the greatest tension the Islamic republic has witnessed in 30 years.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

The Big Picture on the streets of Tehran

See Iran's Disputed Election.

I've picked out three images:

Plainclothes revolutionary militia members or Basij -- all volunteers -- breaking into Tehran University to attack pro-opposition students.


An opposition rally supporting(!) presidential candidate Mousavi (he's centre in glasses and gray shirt).


A pro-Ahmadinejad rally.




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Another aspect of the turmoil in Iran

Shireen Hunter, a well-published expert on Iranian and modern Islamic politics, reminded me in an interview on CBC One's "The Current" that some of the prominent opposition leaders in Iran are former hardliners. It's not just the post-revolutionary generation against those who remember the revolution, nor the big city against the small towns and villages.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

The election in Iran -- two sets of comments

Juan Cole: Class v. culture wars in Iranian elections.

Gary Sick: Iran's political coup.

Now there are beatings in the street.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

More on today's presidential election in Iran

Juan Cole directed me to this Al Jazeera/YouTube video on Iranian-Americans (and Iranian students in the USA) voting in the Iranian election:



What really struck me was the statement by the youngest man that the election was about "democracy and being a citizen of the world" as if they were the same thing. This strongly reminded me of the atmosphere that produced the democratic revolutions of the just pre-World War I period as described by Charles Kurzman in Democracy Denied 1905-1915. Iran, of course, had one of the revolutions in that transnational movement.

Update: photos of voters and leaders from the Big Picture. Clearly, sales of paint and posterboard have gone through the roof.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Tomorrow's election in Iran

And what are people talking about? A clue: it isn't jihad. Read TIME on the "marriage crisis."

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Electoral excitement in Iran


Juan Cole has a long post today summarizing and linking to media reports on the pre-election excitement in Iran.

It is interesting that in many countries where effective elections do not exist, elections, public opinion polls on politics, and so forth are a real if subordinate part of the political system.

Of course in Iran there have been pro-democratic movements since 1905, a fact I imagine enters into the world view of very few non-Iranians.

Image: Yesterday's pro-Mousavi demonstration, from the Wall Street Journal.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, by Charles Kurzman

In this book, Charles Kurzman examine some of the more common causes or retroactive explanations of the Islamic revolution in Iran, and finds them all lacking. He contends that Iranians joined the protest movement against the Shah when and as they decided it was a viable movement. This judgment by Kurzman reflects his view of how people interact. See page 138:

Viability does not explain why the movement turned out as it did. Rather, viability is not predictive. Its focus on the variability and confusion of protest runs counter to the project of retroactive prediction [identifying causes or factors that would allow an observer to predict the outcome]. In this sense, it is not an explanation but an anti-explanation. Instead of seeking recurrent patterns of social life, anti-explanation explores the unforeseen moments when patterns are twisted or broken off. Instead of emphasizing routine behavior, it emphasizes "deviant" cases and statistical "outliers." Focus on the fringe reminds us that the whole fabric of social life -- all behaviors and institutions that we take for granted, that seem unchangeable -- may be vulnerable to unraveling, that the fabric survives only through our collective expectation that it will survive.

What is left when we part from retroactive prediction? Understanding.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Iran's complexities


I owe it to Laura Rozen at War and Piece for directing my attention to this article.

A New York Times op-ed columnist named Roger Cohen wrote an article recently describing the situation of Iranian Jews. He immediately was criticized in a number of places for painting all too rosy a picture. His reply -- that he knows a number of things about Iran, some good some bad -- is here. It contains this important sentence:

I return to this subject because behind the Jewish issue in Iran lies a critical one — the U.S. propensity to fixate on and demonize a country through a one-dimensional lens, with a sometimes disastrous chain of results.
I hope that will tempt you to read the rest.

Image: view of Isfahan (click for a bigger view).

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Cuneiform, politics, and international law


From the Tehran Times:

About 700 Iranologists and Iranian cultural heritage lovers have recently signed a petition asking President Barack Obama to prevent confiscation of Iran’s 300 Achaemenid clay tablets loaned to the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute.

The petition has been organized by the European Iranologist Society (Societas Iranologica Europaea, SIE) in its website www.societasiranologicaeu.org.

The petition reads the artifacts “being cultural property, should not be considered as a common property, whose financial value can be exploited for the purpose of legal compensation.”

“The antiquities belong to the cultural heritage of Iran on behalf of human kind and should therefore remain in public hands.

“We therefore, well aware of the separation of powers, nevertheless apply to you in order that this unconscionable decision with irreversible consequences should be avoided.

“A country such as the United States should not be complicit in the sale of the world’s cultural heritage.”

...

In spring 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Blanche Manning ruled that a group of people injured by a 1997 bombing in Israel could seize the 300 clay tablets loaned to the University of Chicago and the university cannot protect Iran’s ownership rights to the artifacts.

...

The tablets were discovered by the University of Chicago archaeologists in 1933 while they were excavating in Persepolis, the site of a major Oriental Institute excavation.

The artifacts bear cuneiform script explaining administrative details of the Achaemenid Empire from about 500 BC. They are among a group of tens of thousands of tablets and tablet fragments that were loaned to the university’s Oriental Institute in 1937 for study. [My emphasis, SM] A group of 179 complete tablets was returned in 1948, and another group of more than 37,000 tablet fragments was returned in 1951.

Image: One of the tablets, showing Old Persian written in cuneiform.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

30th anniversary


February marks the 30th anniversary of the climax of Iran's Islamic revolution. RFE/RL has an article asking whether this durable revolution can also be seen as a successful one. Well, the question remains unanswered, but there is some good material in the article nonetheless. Also at the same location you can find a collection of famous pictures of the Iranian revolution, or at least the huge crowds that turned out against the Shah. And don't miss the launching of an Iranian satellite, the first such launch without foreign help.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Blood and Oil: Memoirs of a Persian Prince, by Manucher Farmanfarmaian and Roxane Farmanfarmaian

Manucher Farmanfarmaian is a brother of Sattareh Farman Farmaian, author of Daughter of Persia, an autobiography that my students in the History of Islamic civilization are reading is the basis for a paper. Blood and Oil is also an autobiography, and it is at least as well-written as Sattareh's book. Manucher, as a boy, had quite a different experience of their mutual father, and of course quite a different career. Can he ever tell a story! (Roxane, his co-author, is his daughter.)

This book is recommended to anyone who read enjoyed Daughter of Persia, or is interested in Iran, or in global oil politics and the formation of OPEC. Unfortunately, the Nipissing University library does not have a copy. I got mine through interlibrary loan.

Manucher has an eye for telling detail. Here he remarks about the extraordinary generosity of friends in England who, though hardly rich, helped him with a loan when his father's death cut off his fund transfers from Iran temporarily:

Their generosity was all the more poignant because in England at the time racism was rampant. At university foreign students were shunned. We were not allowed to hold student office, and the college deans, at a meeting held at the beginning of each year, went so far as to warn girls away from us, insinuating that we were from base cultures.... it was not just the university but British society in general that held such views, from the foreman of the garage where I worked one summer to the rich lady with the Daimler who had her butler repeat everything I said because it was below her dignity to converse with me directly. All the more extraordinary, then, were the Philipses' confidence and goodwill.


And on his return trip via India during wartime:

Though in England Persians were looked upon as darkies from an inferior race and religion, here [in Bombay] we were regarded as esteemed guests -- of England of course, not India. We were invited to stay in the toniest hotels, and the doors of every chic restaurant were open as long as we wore dinner jackets or tails (which we invariably did)-- though an Indian would be thrashed were he to venture even a glance inside.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Gaza as a domestic Iranian issue


From Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Iran Report:
One man who telephoned RFE/RL's Radio Farda from Isfahan said that authorities "are really killing us" with their efforts to drive home the Gaza crisis and express solidarity with Hamas. "All the programs on Iran's television channels, from channel one to channel seven, it's all about the people of Gaza and support for Hamas," the man said. "Why is it like this in Iran? Why are we caring so much about Gaza? Why we don't care about ourselves?"

A Tehran-based journalist, who spoke anonymously due to what he described as the "sensitivity" of the issue, told RFE/RL that people in Iran are far from indifferent to the deaths of civilians in conflicts. Many people think the international response in the Gaza crisis has been insufficient, he noted.

But, he said, some also believe the government is exploiting the crisis to divert domestic attention from Iran's worsening economic situation, including spiraling inflation and growing unemployment.

Another recent caller to Radio Farda claimed "the mullahs" use Palestine and other Middle East flashpoints for their own political ends.

"They've created a stick out of Palestine to give a response to all of the people's questions and demands -- whoever says something will be [silenced]," the caller said. "Otherwise we're a country like other countries, we should mind our own business and solve our own problems. Has there ever been a president who has asked, 'How's our country doing regarding issues like health, electricity, unemployment, poverty?'.... All they speak about is Palestine and Lebanon."

See also the comments to the story.

Image: Anti-Israel demo in Tehran.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Rejects


The Los Angeles Times has an interesting article about the most popular Iranian movie ever, The Rejects, which concerns the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Even more interesting is the video feature which shows clips from both Iranian and Iraqi war films. Most of the students in my course on the history of Islamic civilization, I bet, are probably not even aware of this war, but the article and film clips give you an idea of how huge this to people in the region.

Image: Iranian troops in the "big war."

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Monday, July 14, 2008

What Iran wants

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

An attack on Iran?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

What is this and what does it represent?

It's beyond me to explain. Go here, though, and check it out.

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Monday, December 31, 2007

The Middle East at the end of 2007


For any of my readers who might be interesting in summaries of what the Middle East is actually like at the moment -- since just following the headlines, whether or not they are honestly composed, is not very helpful -- I have two recommendations.

The first is from Juan Cole, who posts on Informed Comment a count-down list of Top 10 Challenges Facing the US in the Middle East, 2008. Though formally composed as recommendations to Americans, the analysis is less US-centric that most US political discussions, which focus on "the horserace," i.e., which American political actor is ahead in which media-defined race. Cole actually discusses what foreigners want.

For Iraq, I recommend the last few entries from the blog Inside Iraq by the Iraqi correspondents of the US McClatchy news service. There is a tiny bit of good news, but my non-expert impression is that the civil war is about half over and I have no idea how it will end up.

Image: "The grim world of Warhammer." If only great big hammers were the worst we had to worry about!

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Saturday, December 08, 2007

How close was the USA to war with Iran?


It has been revealed this week that official US claims that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons program were as legitimate as the claims in 2002-3 that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction." Iran is enriching uranium but US intelligence experts believe with a high level of confidence that the weapons program was discontinued four years ago. (And don't for get that the supreme religious leader has issued a fatwa against weapons development.)

The official US claims were clearly a prelude to bombing Iran, resulting in a war which would have devastated the workings of the world economy which, because of corrupt speculation in US mortgages, is in perilous condition anyway. We are all being held hostage to a small group of warmongers in Washington. Just because their shenanigans have been exposed, there is no guarantee that they won't start a war anyway. That would be to assume that normal standards apply to these people.

In other news, from AFP:
Major crude producer Iran has completely stopped carrying out its oil transactions in dollars, Oil Minister Gholam Hossein Nozari said on Saturday, labelling the greenback an "unreliable" currency.

This is not entirely unexpected, since Iran has been cutting back on dollar usage to avoid American financial warfare. But it shows how the American position in the world is eroding. It's one thing to defy the President of the United States. It's quite another to defy the Formerly Almighty Dollar. The current president, thanks in large part to his own policies, no longer has Almighty at his back.

Image: From last April, presidential candidate John McCain amusing a Republican Party get-together by singing "Bomb, bomb, bomb, Bomb bomb Iran." Cute.

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

Here's where it gets really messy

Or should I say, here's where the catastrophe widens unstoppably? I hope that's wrong.

Juan Cole in his blog Informed Comment, points to a story in the UK's Guardian reporting that Turkey, after years of restraint, is threatening to invade Iraq to deal with Turkish Kurd guerrillas (the PKK) hiding there, if the United States doesn't do something about the PKK's hideouts there.

Since the war began, I've been reading (often in blog comments) that "the Turks will do something crazy and then we [= the USA, the West, the world] will be in trouble." It never seems to occur to anyone that the Turks have been, despite great provocation, very uncrazy. No doubt because they actually live in the Middle East (or is it Europe? the eternal question) and know how bad things can get. Certainly they don't want all of Iraq's troubles to spill over their border. Iraq was in terrible shape before the invasion; Turkey is a reasonably stable and productive country that might someday be part of the EU.

But this news out of Turkey is ominous. The man making the demands on the US (which may not be capable of doing anything on the Turkish frontier in any case) is not some general or some editor, but the foreign minister Abdullah Gul.

We'll see.

Back to Juan Cole, whom I cited earlier: this University of Michigan professor has been running one of the great war-related resources for a long time now. He summarizes a lot of material in non-European languages and has links to lots of easier to read news and commentary. He often discusses material that no one in the professional media is discussing in depth. I don't always go along with his opinions, but I read his blog every day I'm by a computer.

Cole has now started a new blog to complement Informed Comment, i.e., Informed Comment: Global Affairs, in which he is teaming up with other observers to comment on a wider number of issues. (And maybe start a TV franchise!). The first blog post on IC:GA was two days ago, and since then it's covered some interesting stories indeed: female genital cutting in Egypt (perhaps some good news on that; at least some perspective); the new amusement park in Qandahar, Afghanistan; and the gasoline shortage and riots in Iran.

The story on Iran brings up some facts not usually discussed, especially that having large amounts of cheap oil in the ground can have disastrous effects on the domestic economy. Canada exports lots of oil and gas, but we do have other things to sell (like wood pulp and nickel, and oh, yeah, a little brainpower). If oil prices dropped dramatically tomorrow it would have some serious effects on parts of the economy, but I bet the federal budget would still be balanced next year. Cheaper energy might reduce the prices of Canadian manufacturing and allow our international customers to buy more of our resources.

If the price of oil dropped tomorrow, the governments of Venezuela, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria would be in serious, immediate trouble. In fact, with oil at or near an all-time high, Iran is already in trouble. The government is hooked on high world prices, and the population is hooked on low domestic prices, which makes life a little more tolerable. Iran is like many other countries where oil is just about the only prop holding up a poorly developed economy.

Canada's economy could use some diversification, both in what we make and who we sell it to, but so far our economy and our government haven't been corrupted by oil wealth.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

June in North Bay

Air conditioning inside the store -- ice pellets falling outside!

Image: These are ice pellets from Iran -- the online National Geoscience Database. A little extra for you former HIST 2805 students.

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