Archive for November, 2008

The Hero and Heroin (Part 1)

November 27, 2008

Photo/Kamin Mohammadi

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pageTracker._trackPageview();A war veteran loses the drug battle.

Tehran Bureau | dispatches

It is Friday and Abadan’s graveyard is busy. The second day of the weekend, this is when many Iranians head to the cemetery to pay their respects to their dead. Families come en masse, bearing flasks of rosewater and boxes of sweetmeats to hand around to other mourners. The graves are raised stone platforms topped by a gravestone or often, a picture of the deceased set in a glass case. Beyond, the recent rain has turned the marshland into fields of mud, palm trees swaying in the breeze.

I am here with my cousin Esmael and his wife and we are bearing trays of homemade halva, honey biscuits, rosewater and fruit. In the martyr’s section of the cemetery there are special prayers taking place, the flags placed above each grave flapping in the wind that wafts round the scent of the rosewater used to wash down the graves. We are here for the rituals marking 40 days after my cousin Ebby’s funeral, hence the special collection of funereal sweets we are carrying.

We walk past the martyr’s section to another part of the cemetery because, although Ebby was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, he died not martyred on the battlefield, but 16 years later in an abandoned slum in Abadan, a homeless heroin addict with AIDS and Hepatitis.

Already gathered around his grave are his two sisters and estranged wife. His sisters – my cousins – leap sobbing into my arms and his wife, a moon-faced woman in a voluminous black chador, her face washed clean by tears, mutters quiet words of grief and gratitude for my presence. After years of feeling alone in their struggle with Ebby and his addiction, they are touched that I have made it from England. Neither Ebby’s sisters, his wife nor his brother Esmael had seen or had contact with Ebby for years before his death. Finally they could lay aside their anger and grieve. Not just for his death, but also for his life.

I take my place by their side, crouching in the mud by the grave (washed of the dust of Abadan earlier that day by Esmael), which is set like a table at a party: white gladioli make up the centrepiece surrounded by dishes of dates, halva, fruit, sweets dripping with honey and biscuits. I eat some obligatory halva, and pass on the sweets to the others who come to pay their respects. There is some shaking of heads and mutters of a wasted life, but no-one talks about Ebby’s ignominious death, the drug addiction that soared out of control after he came home from the frontline of the war.

The last time I saw Ebby was seven years ago, when he still shared a home with his wife and two children. I had returned to Abadan, the town of my birth, for my first visit in nearly 20 years, and in the multitude of family celebrations that followed, my grandmother insisted on Ebby’s presence. Reluctantly, my uncles tracked him down and one night, Ebby, Mina and their two children joined the party. Mostly I remember that Ebby, another cousin and I, all around the same age and childhood playmates, sat cross-legged on the floor late into the night, while Ebby chain smoked, his foot twitching uncontrollably against the floor, as he tried to talk of everything but the war, the war that filled the gap between each sentence, the silence after each breath.

No-one mentioned his drug addiction, but it was obvious. Soon afterwards I heard that Mina and the kids had left him to move back in with her parents, that Ebby had lost the house and there was no news of him. Until last summer when a cousin who had a job near Abadan, found him begging on the streets, riddled with disease, his hair dreadlocked to his waist. The same cousin occasionally visited him and bought him food until, paralysed and unable to score the drug that was so necessary to his body, he died of withdrawing from it. He was 38.

Ebby was the second child of my eldest uncle. Although my parents moved away from our native Abadan soon after my birth, the rest of my family mostly remained and I recall many holidays and celebrations all gathered together in my grandmother’s house, us children all firm friends. Ebby was a lovely, scruffy boy with his nose always running, more gentle and loving than the other, rougher who were always getting into scrapes. In the years after we left Iran, Ebby grew up to be an equally affectionate adolescent, according to everyone I spoke to. ‘Despite everything,’ I heard over and over again, ‘Ebby was the nicest man.’

I was haunted by memories of the snotty-nosed kid and his ignominious death. I decided to return to Iran to see if I could find out what had happened to change so dramatically my cousin’s destiny.

* * *

‘Abadan: don’t call it Abadan; call it Paris’. So ran a local song 30 years ago when Abadan was in its heyday. The centre of Iran’s boomingoil industry, this small town in the province of Khuzestan sitting on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab waterway was then home to Iran’s largest and most important refinery. From its small airport one could step on a plane for London, New York and, indeed, Paris. Now, it supports only a few internal flights a week.

The Iran-Iraq war destroyed much of Iran, but the areas on the border with Iraq suffered the worst and still Khuzestan is struggling to come to terms with its devastation. Situated in the South-West of Iran, sharing a border with Iraq and dipping its toes into the Persian Gulf to the south, this is an area of immensely humid heat and salty soil, and, aside from a few pre-Islamic ruins at Choqa Zanbil and Susa, it does not have much else to recommend it. But this dusty earth harbours the source of Iran’s wealth – and much of its troubles – oil. It was here that, at the beginning of the last century, a British government-backed Australian named William Knox D’Arcy found the first well and so, in 1908, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was born.

Abadan lies on an island of the same name along the eastern bank of the Shatt al-Arab, some 30 miles from the Persian Gulf. The island is bounded on the west by the Shatt and on the east by the Bahmanshir – an outlet of the Karun River. Legend has it that Abadan was founded by a holy man, ‘Abbad’, in the 8th century, and it was a prosperous coastal town in the Abbasid period, known for its salt and woven mats. Silt deposits extending the delta of the Shatt Al-‘Arab caused the coast of the Persian Gulf to gradually recede from Abadan so by the time the town was visited by the Arab geographer Ibn Battutah in the 14th century, it was described as little more than a large village in a flat, salty plain.

Iran and the Ottomans tussled over Abadan but Iran definitively acquired it in 1847. In 1909, when the Anglo- Persian Oil Company established its refinery at Abadan, it was still just a village. The refinery began operating in 1913, and by 1938 it was the largest in the world. By 1956 Abadan had become a city of more than 220,000 souls, with a booming economy almost entirely based on petroleum refining and shipping and a sophisticated population of foreigners and Iranians. The refinery complex was served by pipelines running from oil fields to the north, and eventually, all the way to the capital Tehran and to Shiraz. By the late 1970s Abadan’s population was hovering just under the half million mark.

My family had been in Abadan since the 1930s when Reza Shah had consolidated his power by stripping the local khans of their land and absorbing them into local government. My great-grandfather, from a family of khans ruling the southern Gulf province of Busheir, had gladly escaped the play of politics for a top job in the local government of Khuzestan, based in Abadan. Soon after, he had given his precious only daughter, my grandmother, to a local merchant in marriage and they proceeded, over the next 24 years, to produce 12 children, the eldest of which was my uncle and Ebby’s father.

Within this vast family, us kids grew up close. Even after moving away, we would visit for prolonged stays several times a year and I remember long lunches at my uncle’s house, falling in the dust as we kids chased each other outside, Ebby helping to pick me up and divert me from my bleeding knees as he led me inside to be attended to by his formidable mother. My uncle was a gentle person with springy hair and soft eyes, keen on tinkering with his car and always ready with a laugh and a hug.

After we left Iran, I never saw my uncle again. He had died before I made it back. Like all my other uncles and everyone else employed by the oil company, he was not allowed to leave his post during the war and he stayed in Abadan throughout the bloody eight years. A few years after end of the war, he died of cancer, followed swiftly a few months later by his wife.

When I last saw Ebby, he had grown from the snotty-nosed kid to a man in his 30s with an uncanny resemblance to my beloved uncle. He told me that he fought along the border for the last 18 months of the war. ‘I can’t even describe the things I’ve seen,’ he muttered when I tried to ask him about his experiences. Eight years after the war, he was still suffering from nightmares. ‘There were the Iraqis, large men you know, much bigger than us, and they had the latest arms, brand-new kalashes, shiny tanks… You felt – here’s a war where there are bigger powers against us. And us, just disorganised and poor.’

Ebby insisted that the effects of the war went on, unrecorded. He and his family lived in a small town an hour away from Abadan, but he wanted then to move. ‘Saddam used chemical weapons you know,’ he pointed out. ‘In the last few years two members of our family have died of cancer.’ He was referring to his father and another uncle of ours. Ebby worried about the water, the soil, the health of his children. His brow was constantly furrowed. I was not surprised that he was one of Iran’s growing army of heroin addicts.

Click here for Part 2.

An abridged version of this article first appeared in the Financial Times magazine.

Kamin Mohammadi’s first book, a family memoir and modern history of Iran, is slated for publication in the spring of 2010.

Tehran matters

November 21, 2008

| Alef Magazine

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Transit Tehran: Young Iran and Its Inspirations
Edited by Malu Halasa and Maziar Bahari

Two thirds of Iran’s population is under thirty years old. The Islamic Revolution, meanwhile, is not yet thirty. This intelligently edited anthology of essays, short stories, photographs and illustrations explores youth culture in Iran’s megalopolis.

There are many Tehrans. We are given martyrs-in-training, a beloved, charismatic imam with his followers, post-Revolutionary spatial politics, interviews with survivors of the Shah’s regime, a glimpse into the indignities of traffic court and much more. A group of female football fans struggles to gain admittance to all-male stadiums; we visit a school for women clerics; there are startling photos of female police cadets like chador-clad action heroines; and a gentle portrait of a transsexual truck driver.

The city’s mean streets, rife with hard crime and drugs, are covered compassionately and unflinchingly in two essays. Contemporary artists like Nicky Nodjumi and Khosrow Hassanzadeh are showcased. Iranian hip hop, grim morality police, dreamy narrators groping for meaning: they’re all here. Too few in the West or East have enquired enough into what makes Iran, a vast and diverse country, tick. Tehran is a good place to start. This is the right book for the right times.Olivia Snaije

More of the same

November 19, 2008

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Tehran Bureau | comment

News this week that Hillary Clinton is a top candidate for secretary of state in the Obama administration should be shocking — or not, if you prescribe to the “more of the same” philosophy about American politics.

The thought of it is extremely disappointing and makes one wonder what that move would do for U.S.-Iran relations.

When I first visited the foreign policy page of the President-elect’s Website, Iran was the first issue discussed. At the time I thought it was a bold move to place that at the top of his public agenda. In less than two weeks it’s slipped, or should I say been re-assigned, to third, after Afghanistan and Pakistan and Nuclear Weapons. Clearly Iran has much to do with those two countries and world fears about proliferation, but how Iran fits into the new administration’s plans is the issue.

Furthermore, by choosing Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, who will be the people advising the State Department on Iran? Will it be someone from among the Iranian self-congratulators, or perhaps an Ahmad Chalabi type who uses disinformation to get us to intervene in Iran?

Whoever it is, we’d like to know, because it will have a huge bearing on how supportive we can be of any “new” Iran policy.

The cartoon was originally published on

The Discreet Charm of the Underclass

November 13, 2008

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Tehran Bureau | correspondent

BOSTON — Despite the many obstacles of visas and security officials, renowned Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi made it to Boston in time for the screening of his newest movie, “The Song of the Sparrows.” His film didn’t.

Lost in transit.

Nevertheless, the Iranian film festival kicked off at the Museum of Fine Arts last week with what looked like a slightly-enhanced DVD copy. It was a shame because cinematography is one of the most beautiful aspects of Majidi’s films. “I suffered throughout the screening,” the director told the audience afterward. Majidi was present to receive the ILEX Foundation Award for Excellence in Iranian Cinema. The sold-out crowd seemed unfazed, perhaps a testament to the overall strength of his work.

Majidi is the only Iranian director who has been nominated for an Oscar. This was back in 1997 for “Children of Heaven,” a movie about a boy from a poor family who loses his sister’s shoes. In the “The Song of the Sparrows,” Iran’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Film this year, we follow the story of another of life’s unsung heroes, Karim, played by Reza Naji, an ostrich farm worker who finds himself out a job when one of the birds in his care escapes and he is unable to find it. He tries everything, even disguising himself as an ostrich roaming the desert.

A trip to Tehran to see if he can have his daughter’s hearing-aid repaired accidentally lands him a job ferrying passengers. Navigating the capital’s highly-chaotic traffic on a dingy motorbike with an array of characters and objects provide some of the best-executed scenes of the film, in my opinion.

Another Majidi film, “Baran” — or rain (also the name of the heroine) – was screened Tuesday night at MIT by the Iranian Student Association. The film is as much a love story as it is an excellent commentary on the plight of Afghan refugees in Iran. “Fortunately, the film played some part in improving the way Iranians view Afghans,” he said during a question-and-answer session afterward. “With all the difficulties, Afghans are better off living illegally than in refugee camps,” he said. “I have visited those refugee camps. They are in a sorry state. No one cares about Afghanistan. These international organizations are just full of mottos. Nothing else.”

Furthermore, the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan had done little, if anything, to curb the cultivation of poppy, he continued. Iran is the main path for the Afghan opium trade, he said. And Iran paid dearly, both in terms of resources to fight traffickers and also because of the young victims who fall prey to heroin.

Questions put to Majidi revolved around the recurring themes in his movies. Why, for example, did he focus so much on children? In “Sparrows,” the young pack is led by Karim’s son who wants to become a millionaire selling goldfish. He is not dissuaded from this goal by practicalities or any other concern, including the occasional beating from his father. “We are a nation of young people,” Majidi responded, referring to the post-revolutionary baby boom, a population under 30 years of age that now accounts for 70 percent of Iranians living in the country. Majidi said he hoped to see more investment in youth-centered films and programs. “They are the future of our country,” he said.

Both at the museum and at MIT, he was told by a member of the audience that he cast Iran in a negative light by choosing to portray those in the lower social strata. Majidi disagreed. “These people may be invisible to most, but they are no less grand,” he said. “Like sparrows, they are a source of great adoration, even though they may lack the most beautiful song.” Majidi said more people relate to his movies because they are about ordinary people. “I too was born and grew up in that class,” he added.

“There was a time when Iran was known only for rugs and pistachios,” he said. ”Now we are known for the humanity portrayed in our films.” In “Sparrows,” when Karim is unable to earn a living after an accident, it is not only his wife and children who pitch in, but the entire community. “What’s your idea of beautiful? Walls and skyscrapers? With today’s technology you can get on the internet and see whatever you want. Besides, we do show parts of North Tehran in our films,” he said, referring to the more affluent part of the capital.

It’s true, and when he does – as when Latif, the hero in Baran, catches a glimpse of a bourgeois couple flirting – it serves only to deepen the existing gulf between the haves and have-nots.

Reality check, anyone

November 12, 2008

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| Tehran Bureau Comment

SAN FRANCISCO — I’m as excited as everyone about Obama’s victory, but as far as U.S. -Iran relations go, I think we must wait and see. Furthermore, as citizens of both countries, we need to take some responsibility in how it will unfold. Ascribing mythical status to any leader, before his reign even begins, is dangerous. Iranians should know that better than anyone.

It’s generally accepted now that although the two nations need each other badly they won’t talk under their current leaderships. It’s natural then that as observers with a vested interest in reconciliation we see signs of hope. The truth is, though, that we’ve seen similar signs before and while bestowing Shiite symbolism upon Obama may be popular right now, it is supremely unfair and can only backfire. It’s the kind of simple thinking that has gotten people in trouble for eons.

Most will laugh at the idea, but after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, some Iranians likened George W. Bush to the Hidden Twelfth Imam, or the Mahdi, wondering when he would make the order to “liberate” Iran from the mullahs. Of course now they say it was all a joke, but this was a theme I heard often between 2001 and early 2003.

Finding a populace that is more pro-American than the people of Iran, especially in terms of culture, values and sociability is difficult. In the face of thirty years of harsh talk against their government by the U.S., often spilling into demonizing the people, Iranians have always maintained a strong respect and admiration for all things American. In my more recent trips to Iran, especially since the U.S. intervention in Iraq began to fail, I’ve seen a skepticism developing that I never experienced before.

As elated as many people in Iran I’m sure were upon Obama’s election, if we are going to be honest about it, has little bearing on the day to day existence of the average Iranian: inflation and unemployment are still soaring, and while they’d like to see a different form of government, they’re too busy figuring out ways to feed their families. What goes on in Washington is an abstract idea that only the privileged can stop and ponder.

The kind of hyperbole the media is attaching to Obama’s election doesn’t help anyone. It will only serve to disappoint in the long run.

From my perspective the one immediate thing that Obama’s election succeeds in doing is breaking the idea that the U.S. government is under the ruthless grip of a cabal of old white men. Many in Iran, and for that matter the rest of the world (including right here in the U.S.), have long held that belief and this should go a long way to waking people up to the fact that the American system, when people participate, can work.

Still, for any real dialog to take place between the two governments it will have to happen in an air of mutual respect; unfortunately these two nations have distorted and inflated self-images. Ahmadinejad’s letter, for example, is designed in such a way that no American president would ever respond to it the way the writer wants. There’s a heavy-handed, “strings attached” approach that both governments are famous for, and no matter what kind of name the U.S. president has, nor what color skin, until the leaders are able to display the kind of hospitality and civility their people are known for, our dialog will remain between us: the people of the two nations.

Despite limited direct contact, Iranians and Americans have for years had their own dialog in the face of their governments’ opposition. We meet online, some of us financially support Iranians or make purchases for them here in the U.S., and we travel back and forth sharing personal insights about the other.

While President Khatami famously hoped to start a dialog among civilizations, the idea that this is achieved at the state level undermines the work that thousands of people in Iran and the United States have been doing for years to promote friendly, people-to-people dialog between the two societies. Both heads of state would be wise to take a cue from their civilian populations and explore the commonalities, of which there are many, between the U.S. and Iran before we try to settle our differences.

For the record

November 11, 2008

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“Not only does Iran maintain that the Gulf is Persian in name.”
— The Economist

Not only?

In the Nov. 6 issue of The Economist, in an article about the GCC, “Caught in the middle but still perky,” a list of apparent grievances against Iran includes the right it maintains to call the Persian Gulf by its long-established name: Persian Gulf.

I have included an entry from the Associated Press Stylebook for those re-writing their own stylebooks as they go along. The AP is after all “the essential global news network, providing distinctive news services of the highest quality, reliability and objectivity with reports that are accurate, balanced and informed.”

Ahmadinejad’s letter to Obama

November 10, 2008

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Here is a copy of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s letter to the President-elect. Caveat: The file I got was a scanned (image) file, so using “OCR” (Optical Character Recognition) we turned it into a Rich Text Format to be able to cut and paste. There may have been several errors in the scanning process.

Unofficial Translation

Islamic Republic of Iran

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

His Excellency, Barak H. Obama
President-Elect of the United States of America

I would like to offer my congratulations on your election by the majority of the American electorate. As you know, opportunities that are granted by the Almighty to human beings are inherently temporary, and can be used both in the Interest of nations for the betterment of mankind or – God forbid – In the path of wrongdoing and against humanity. I hope that you will be able to take fullest advantage of the opportunity to serve and leave behind a positive legacy by putting the real interest of people as well as equity and justice ahead and above the insatiable demands of a selfish and unworthy minority.

It is the general expectation that your administration will accord the highest priority in its policies and practices to addressing clearly and speedily the demand of the American people as well as the people across the globe for fundamental change in the domestic and foreign policies of the United States Government.

The American people, who have strong spiritual tendencies, expect that the full potential and capabilities of the Administration should be employed In order to serve the people, overcome the current economic crisis, recover their spirit and restore their dignity and hope, eradicate poverty and discrimination, respect human dignity, security and rights and strengthen the foundations of family across the territory of the United States: values which are all among the common teachings of Divine Prophets.

At the same time, the people across the world expect that policies and practices based on justice and respect for the rights of peoples and nations, coupled with friendship and non-Interference in the affairs of others replace policies founded on war, occupation, coercion, deception, intimidation of nations, and Imposition of unequal and discriminatory bilateral and global relations; policies and practices that have enraged all nations and many governments against the US Administration and tainted the image of the American people.

Particularly, It is expected that the unjust practices of the past six decades in the sensitive Middle East region are reversed in order to achieve the full restoration of the legitimate rights of nations, specially the aggrieved nations of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The great civilization-building and Justice-seeking Iranian nation would welcome real, equitable and fundamental change in policies and practices, particularly towards this region.

If the path of righteousness and the teachings of Divine Prophets are followed, it is hoped that the Almighty will help and the Immense losses of the past will be somewhat remedied.

May the Almighty bestow His blessings of well-being, health, honor and prosperity upon all peoples and nations; and may He bless the leaders of societies with the courage to learn from the mistakes of predecessors, and the ability to use every opportunity to serve the people, obey His commandments, eradicate oppression and coercion and promote empathy, compassion and justice.

Mahmood Ahmadinejad

Don’t call it a comeback

November 9, 2008

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Tehran Bureau | correspondent

The man on the cover is indeed not Mohammad Khatami, the former Iranian president. It’s King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. This was the cover of last November’s Diplomat magazine, published by the Saudi foreign ministry – not exactly the greatest admirers of Iran’s leaders. All the more amusing that they should appear to covet Khatami’s title. Maybe he should run to reclaim it.

The Iranian presidential election is coming up in June. As widely reported, there is a chance Mr. Khatami will announce his candidacy, if his allies get their way. Hooman Majd, the author of the new book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, is a great admirer. During a talk he gave at the New America Foundation, in Washington D.C., a former UN Ambassador questioned his support for him. “I really can’t think of anything that he accomplished when he was president,” he told Mr. Majd.

That may have been the view from here, Mr. Majd replied, but for Iranians, he made a difference. “He opened up Iran and he opened up Iranian society. This idea that Iranians didn’t have to be fearful of the government, that they could have certain social liberties, I think that took hold in his presidency because he was a liberal and he set the tone,” he said.

He conceded that Mr. Khatami had fallen out of favor as his second term came to a close, for the reason stated: “‘What has he done? We thought we were going to be able to have discos and bars and all kinds of stuff happening and it didn’t happen. He was supposed to be able to stand up to the conservatives, he was supposed to be able to stand up to the Supreme Leader, stand up to human rights abuses that were going on under his regime.’

“His attitude, as he explained it to me was that it’s better to fight the system from within than to resign. And he did offer to resign a couple of times. Even though he was unpopular toward the end of his term, I find it interesting that now, three and a half years after his presidency, this time whenever I mention his name in a casual political conversation, even in a taxi cab or a store or shop, people say khoda biamorzash, which means God bless him. We should have kind of appreciated that we had a better life under him.’

“For some people anyway [this is the view]. I’m not suggesting he has overwhelming support of the people. There is a sense at least for people living in Iran that he did do more for Iran—for the standard of living. The economy wasn’t as bad under him, that’s for sure. There weren’t lines at the gas station, electricity wasn’t going off two hours a day. Rightly or wrongly, they attribute that to the current administration.”

There was even a rumor that former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had endorsed Mr. Khatami. “It’s just that, a rumor,” a reporter in Tehran wrote back. “They generally get on well. But Hashemi would never directly align himself with anyone or any position!”

To gauge the mood there a bit more, I asked other friends in Tehran who follow politics closely. Do they think Mr. Khatami will run? Do they support him?

“Well, Khatami seems to be playing with the public the way Rafsanjani did last time,” said one friend I will call Ali. “I am sure he wouldn’t have a better fate if he decides to run. This is against what polls suggest now, but that is just my gut feeling. You may find it strange, but I don’t support him.”

I do find it strange. Ali was a student in Tehran when Mr. Khatami was president, and he was one of his staunchest supporters. He often spoke wistfully of life in Iran during the Khatami presidency. One of my favorite stories was of newspaper kiosks pulsing with new life. Ali went to the newsstand every afternoon and picked papers as if wildflowers from a field. He piled a stack of them into his arms and hurried home to pore over every line. When we had discussions about the reformists back then—I thought they were useless—he would tell me as politely as he could that I was wrong, that I held the warped point of view of an Iranian expat who had grown up in California. I agree with that assessment today.

To my surprise, another friend, Babak, said he doesn’t support Mr. Khatami either. “I don’t like him,” he said. “But I don’t dislike him either. He doesn’t have the temperament for the job, as he has clearly demonstrated.”

Bita, who is in the reformist camp, said she did support him. “Under one condition,” she qualified. “He must not be the Khatami he was. He must be stronger, and braver.”

Is Khatami still the old Khatami? If not, what was he waiting for? A green light from the Supreme Leader? Would he give one?

I don’t expect a clear answer.

“Officially speaking, the Supreme Leader may exercise his power not to confirm a president, even after the election,” a Principlist explained to me. “Of course I don’t see this happening. If Mr. Khamenei tells someone not to run, or if someone thinks the Leader doesn’t want him to run, he won’t. But that won’t happen either. The Leader won’t keep anyone from running, just as he didn’t keep Mr. Khatami from doing so in the past. He won’t this time either. The Leader prefers the process to take its legal and natural course. Using his art and diplomatic skills, he can always manage and guide the president.”

Iranians rejoice over Obama win

November 9, 2008

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Tehran Bureau /correspondent

TEHRAN — News of Barack Hussein Obama’s victory was met with elation here. Among the youth, I would say the reaction was as strong as it was on 9/11, when thousands of Iranians poured into Mohseni Square to express their sympathy with the American people. This was the second such reaction, on this grand a scale, to something that had happened in the United States.

No one took to the streets. But emotions seemed to run just as high. Many Iranians — not just government officials — followed the campaign religiously. Some here mistakenly believe Obama gets to run the show, unchecked. They think he will be able to call the shots on each of the major issues facing the United States. They think everyone will follow in one voice, perhaps deviating only on a tactic here and there.

Still, Obama is seen in a class by himself.

Faraidoun runs a grocery store in east Tehran and knows just about everyone in the neighborhood. He spends a lot of time chatting and discussing issues with customers, from the astronomical rise in food prices to politics. He has his opinions.

Before the U.S. election, he said Obama will never become president. “They won’t let him,” he said. “Power is in the hands of whites and Jews in the United States and they won’t let a black man in the White House.”

Today he says Nov. 4, 2008, was like 2 Khordad 1376 in Iran (May 23, 1997, when Mohammad Khatami was elected president). “It’s not what they wanted,” he says, “but it happened.”

Persian-language media and international websites had a larger audience in Iran in the months leading to the election. Among them, Hamid Reza, who is a member of the Islamic Republic’s armed forces. He’s quite pleased with the outcome. He and his colleagues followed the election on an English-language website at work. “We kept score minute by minute, state by state,” he says. “When Obama hit the 270 mark my colleagues and I screamed with joy.”

Why such enthusiasm?

“I think he’ll bring about many changes,” says Hamid Reza. “But to tell you the truth, my colleagues’ support for Obama has a strong emotional component. It’s because he’s black. Perhaps much of this unprecedented support in Iran for Obama has its roots in race. We are influenced by traditional and religious teachings in our culture. Because of that we feel a deep kinship with ‘the innocent.’ We deem Obama as an innocent. Most Iranians tend to rally around the oppressed and disadvantaged. Obama has had many disadvantages to overcome.”

Nahid is a retired mathematics teacher. To her, Obama’s skin color signifies something else. “The fact that a black person couldn’t vote in that country just a few decades ago speaks volumes of the American people and is an indication of just how much they’ve advanced as a nation in that time. Racism is on the wane, democracy is on the rise.”

“This was a testament to the American people,” she continued. “Yes, he is black. His name and family relations have some connection to Islam. And they voted for him anyway!”

Obama’s victory has an economical dimension as well. Its reverberations could be felt in the Great Bazaar of Tabriz (in northwest Iran). Mohammad Ali is a successful merchant trading in silk rugs. He too is excited by Obama’s win. “I hope it stimulates the global market,” he said. “In the past few weeks, our exports have declined even more than usual.”

Though it appears many Iranians were rooting for Obama, John McCain wasn’t without his supporters here. Baran is an activist who has been following the campaign closely for the past two years. “If I were American, I too would have voted for Obama,” she says. “But I’m Iranian and Obama’s foreign policy is most important to me. Obama favors negotiations. But to negotiate on a very high level you have to be well versed in international relations. And that’s just the kind of experience he lacks.”

She continued: “Senator McCain had the necessary foreign policy experience, but Americans chose someone who could improve their tarnished image in the world.”

An Iranian reporter said she believed the conservatives in Iran would have preferred a McCain victory to maintain the status quo, “to keep the two sides at odds with each other, and to use this tension for domestic gain.”

But alas, it’s Obama who has reached the White House. Even as certain groups were marking the 29th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran with celebrations, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sending a letter of congratulations to President-elect Barack Obama.

An Iranian president congratulating an American President? Perhaps change is really under way.

United against Iran?

November 5, 2008

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Tehran Bureau | correspondent

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A brand new assembly of bipartisan hawks, from neoconservative hardliners to liberal interventionists, was launched this fall with a mission to mobilize grassroots Americans against Iran’s nuclear program. The group, the American Coalition Against Nuclear Iran, Inc., describes itself as a “non-partisan, broad-based coalition” whose members include “human rights and humanitarian groups, the labor movement, political advocacy and grassroots organizations, representatives of diverse ethnicities, faith communities, political and social affiliations.” To kick it off, several of its principals authored a September 21, 2008, op ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled: “Everyone Needs To Worry About Iran.”

But so far, at least, the organization seems confined to a propaganda role, uniting ten advocates of a hard-line approach toward Tehran and led by a former Republican political operative, Mark Wallace, who served as deputy campaign chairman for the Bush-Cheney ’04 reelection effort. Wallace, who has specialized in anti-United Nations investigations over allegations of mismanagement, fraud, and abuse, also served as an advisor to Governor Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, during her one and only debate with Senator Joseph Biden, and he is married to Nicole Wallace, the spokeswoman for the McCain-Palin campaign.

Not surprisingly, other leaders of the coalition – which presents itself as United Against Nuclear Iran, or UANI – include such hawkish luminaries as James Woolsey, the former CIA director who is closely aligned with the neoconservative movement; Fouad Ajami, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who was one of the leading voices in support of the war in Iraq; and Karen Hughes, the former aide to George W. Bush in Texas and at the White House, who later led the State Department’s public diplomacy effort in the Muslim world.

But the group is comprised of more than just GOP operatives and neoconservative strategists. Among other UANI leaders are two leading Democratic party hawks on Iran: Richard Holbrooke, a former Clinton Administration who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Dennis Ross, who worked in several administrations and served as special Middle East coordinator for President Clinton.

In its mission statement, UANI says: “The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran should concern every American and be unacceptable to the community of nations. … The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is a danger to world peace.” It promises to conduct a wide-ranging propaganda campaign to “inform the public about the nature of the Iranian regime, including its desire and intent to possess nuclear weapons, as well as Iran’s role as a state sponsor of global terrorism,” and it intends to “mobilize public support, utilize media outreach, and persuade our elected leaders to voice a robust and united American opposition to a nuclear Iran.”

So far, at least, UANI’s campaign isn’t going well.

Its website,, is mostly empty. It lists several dozen state chapters, but the vast majority of them have only a single member thus far. By mid-October, the largest state chapter, California United Against Nuclear Iran, had a total of eleven members. The apparent leader of the California chapter, Linda – she doesn’t list her last name – is a Biblical fundamentalist who warns on UANI’s web site that the End Times is near: “We must pray for the peace of Israel, as the scriptures tell us to,” writes Linda. “Ezekiel 38-39 tell us that a nation from the North called Gog/Magog (Russia in modern times), will rise against the small country of Israel, and many other countries will come with Russia in those days. Russia is mentioned as the king of the North, and China is mentioned as the king coming from the East with a 200,000,000 man army!”

The only “event” listed on UANI’s website several weeks after its creation is scheduled for December 31, 2008, when Dr. Kojo Opoku Aidoo will lecture at the University of Ghana about the “potential dangers of Iran’s efforts to ‘nuclearize.’”

Of course, great things have arisen from more humble beginnings. But for an organization whose members include first-rank diplomats and former U.S. officials, UANI seems to have gotten off to a rocky start. They’re also circulating a petition (“A nuclear-armed Iran is a danger to world peace and should be unacceptable to the community of nations. As Americans, we stand united against nuclear Iran.”), raising funds, and offering a newsletter, “Eye on Iran.”

The fact that Holbrooke joined up with a hawkish, neoconservative-inspired group like UANI may not bode well for his desire to be included in an Obama administration, if the senator from Illinois were to be elected. Last year, Holbrooke endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, thus alienating himself from Obama’s circle, and since Clinton dropped out of the race the Obama team has not exactly welcomed Holbrooke. According to a former White House official, who requested anonymity, Holbrooke is close to Biden, Obama’s vice presidential pick, and he is hoping that the Delaware senator might provide entrée into an Obama administration. Its been widely reported in Washington that Holbrooke is vigorously lobbying for an appointment as secretary of state.

Ross, meanwhile, is an Obama adviser. He is viewed with suspicion by many in the Obama circle because of his hawkish attitudes, his reputation as a strong supporter of Israel, and his post at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a staunchly pro-Israel thinktank that has called for a hardline policy toward Iran. Until recently, Ross was several ranks removed from the inner circle of Obama’s team but, according to a highly informed Washington source, lately Ross has become more influential, especially on policy toward Israel and Iran. Though Obama has repeatedly declared his intention to open up a diplomatic dialogue with Iran, he has also warned that he will not rule out the use of force over Iran’s nuclear program and he has called for much more stringent economic sanctions against Iran, including an embargo on imports of gasoline and refined petroleum products by Tehran.

UANI does not address the issue of whether the United States should use military force against Iran. Holbrooke, Woolsey, Ross, and Wallace all co-signed the Wall Street Journal piece, in which they declared, “We do not aim to beat the drums of war.” But they stress that it is “unacceptable” for Iran to possess nuclear weapons, even though some experts question whether Iran is, in fact, moving toward a military nuclear capability as opposed to a civilian enrichment program, and many others say that the United States should start thinking about how to co-exist with, and contain, an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. UANI says that a nuclear Iran poses a “direct threat to the United States and its allies,” and it links the nuclear issue to “Iran’s support of terrorism,” implying that Iran might supply its regional allies, such as Hezbollah or Hamas, with a bomb.

The new organization has attracted virtually no attention in the media, despite its high-profile launch in the Wall Street Journal and the blue-chip credentials of its leading lights. That could change, however, as UANI gets off the ground, and as it attracts more supporters than End Times fundamentalists such as Linda from California.