Archive for December, 2008

A Winter Trend? Deck the Halls!

December 31, 2008

Christmas festivities appear to be on the rise in Iran.

Tehran, Iran

Tehran Bureau | correspondent

This year Christmas made its mark in Iran a bit more auspiciously than in the past. In Tehran and other major cities, large decorated Christmas trees appeared not only in Christian-dominated neighborhoods, but large stores, shopping centers and flea markets all over the capital. In the holy city of Mashhad, one of the most revered among Shia Muslims, and even on Naderi Street, near the shrine of the eighth Shia Imam, small decorated Christmas trees were on display in store windows.

Though not quite rising to the status of an unofficial holiday in Iran, Christmas festivities have been increasingly popular among Iran’s young. Holiday greetings were swapped enthusiastically by those who dwell online and in the Persian blogosphere. This in part has a religious basis as Muslims acknowledge the birth of Jesus Christ and recognize him as one of God’s holy messengers. In that respect, Christmas well wishes were not unheard of among Iranian officials, including Majlis’ three Christian members of parliament — and even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose Christmas address to the people of Britain was televised on the U.K.’s Channel 4.

The younger generation may have additional reasons for wanting to partake in Christmas merriment. “I’ve always had the desire to spend Christmastime in church,” says Leila, who is 19 and avowedly Muslim. “It’s such a beautiful ritual. I wish I could be present when the pine tree is being hung with ornaments and decorations.” Christmas also has a playful angle for her in that it invokes cartoon characters like “Daffy Duck” and “Scrooge.”

Manouchehr’s flower shop in north Tehran also caters to Christmas shoppers this season. About half of those who bought Christmas trees this year were non-Christian, he said. “I certainly don’t poll my customers,” he said, “but you can tell from the way some of them act or the questions they ask that they are not Christian.”

On a jaunt to see Santa Claus, purchase Christmas or New Year’s decorations, one may be extended an invitation to a holiday flea market. They are usually set up at a church or an Armenian or Assyrian club. In the past, members of Christian charities spread their ware, which usually consisted of homemade cookies and cakes, jams and conserves, knits and small Christmas decorations. Proceeds were donated to families unable to afford Christmas and homes for the elderly. Today these markets have become a more inclusive public space. With special permission, non-Christians may also operate a booth to sell their own products.

Strolling along Mirza Shirazi Avenue (Nader Shah) or Ostaad Nejat Ellahi (Villa Avenue) one is truck by the number of Christmas trees, both natural and artificial. The stores along Villa Avenue, which lead to the St. Sarkis Armenian Church, were especially aglitter with holiday decorations: golden globes, candy canes, Santa Claus replicas, and the star that goes above the tree. A wide selection of Christmas cards were also available in some of these stores. From Lord Bakery at the beginning of Villa Avenue even the aroma of Christmas delicacies wafted through the air.

According to, a news website, at some childcare centers in Tehran, playtime activities included decorating Christmas trees on school premises. Though private, these childcare centers operate under the authorization of the Islamic Republic and thus prompted negative comments from some officials.

This apparent trend is certainly not embraced by all. “Celebrating Christmas by non-Christians is another form of imitation and not because we have any customs in common. It’s not as if we were Christians before Islam,” said Ziba, 25, who lives in Sari in north Iran. “It’s another strange and foreign behavior that distances us from our own authentic practices and customs.”

Mehdi, who lives in the holy city of Qom, thinks along the same lines. “This is the Westoxification Jalal Ahmad spoke of so extensively in his book. In any event, we’re Muslim. So far I have never met a Japanese who celebrates Christmas. Most of them would probably see it as I do, a commercial phenomenon.”

Another Western practice that has found its way into the hearts of many young Iranians is Valentine’s Day. Over the past decade, heart-shaped oddities and other markers of this Christian-rooted day of love have existed and competed alongside the symbols of the revolution: The first 10 days of February mark its victory.

This year Iranian Christians continued to celebrate the holidays, though authorities have reportedly clamped down on churches clandestinely set up in homes and have jailed those allegedly responsible for the distribution of literature aimed at attracting coverts.

Hamid, a university student in Tehran, says, “These celebrations mark the beginning of the New Year in many places. Acknowledging that in Iran is just a form of being in step with the rest of the world. I know for me it’s an attractive phenomenon since I’ve been exposed to it so much in movies and literature. But of course it should go both ways: Others should respect us and our holidays.”

An American in Tehran

December 18, 2008

Welcome to Mehrabad.

Tehran, Iran
Tehran Bureau | passport

As I sat squashed, dehydrated, and inhaling stale air on Air France flight 554, I worried that I had bit off more than I could chew. Possibly because I had been traveling for 30 hours now, but maybe it was something else. I had been to many places as of late, but never to a country that appeared as exotic, closed and unknown as Iran. Luckily I was sitting next to a nice burly 50-something mustached Iranian man upon whom I could release some of my anxiety by asking nervous questions, such as: “How is my hejab?” “Believable?” “Will I pass the immigration test?”

As he gulped down his last beer of freedom, he nodded, urging me to appear as clean-cut as possible in front of the immigration officers. As I had heard before, this is the most difficult test in Iran — if you pass the airport immigration standards, you can stay. If you fail, you are as good as on the next flight back home. Taking out my nose stud would be a start, he suggested. As I twisted my nose stud out, he politely looked away and posed a question: “Why would you want to go to Iran, when you could have Paris!???”

A typical question. Insert whatever country other than Iran, and I have heard it before. “Why on earth would you want to go to Burkina Faso? Is there a beach there?” or “You have to bring your own food to Ethiopia, right?” Most people don’t get it. I was too nervous about my arrival to Tehran to get into a philosophical debate, so I instead shifted back to practical matters: My passport. It is clearly written that I was born in the United States; was this going to be a problem? Although my passport is Irish, I had heard of others, U.S. citizens with dual nationality, who were humiliated, called traitors and sent home on the next plane, never getting to experience the entrancing unknown that is Iran.

To distract myself from all the “what ifs” I wound a colorful turquoise scarf over my head. I thought I better get comfortable with this because this is how life will be while I am in Iran. I had planned to practice wearing the headscarf in order to wear it with classic elegance, fitting in like a local, but instead, here I was: 30 minutes to landing with my hair popping out of the scarf, neck being choked by wrapping it too many times, lipstick clearly smudged. I made one last trip to the bathroom to get myself in check. The colorful turquoise, hot pink, and gold striped headscarf was in stark contrast to the black one-pieces that other once-scantily-clad female passengers now donned. Luckily, in my insecurities I remembered that I did pack a solid navy blue “back-up” scarf in my carry on, just in case. An added bonus was that the back-up scarf was long enough that I could use it to also cover up all the decorative turquoise beading detail on the Indian shirt I was wearing. Clearly, what was I thinking when I thought of such an ensemble. Although long enough to cover my bottom, I now realized it was wildly inappropriate with its relatively speaking “plunging neckline” which revealed my clavicle bones.

Off the plane, down the air-gate steps into the dark night, and through the glass doors into blinding fluorescent light, we arrived at the airport immigration. Once it was my turn to go through immigration I was “buzzed” through a stable-like gate up to a young male immigration officer. Little did he know, my choice of his line was calculated. I thought he would be easier on me than someone twice my age. I imagined he must watch illegal MTV or have a favorite European football team; somehow making some strange association between them and me, hence letting me pass immigration swiftly and trouble free. Those thoughts were quickly dashed when he immediately questioned my visa: “What is this?” he said, pointing to two parts of the visa which rain-drops had gotten on back in Germany when I was careless and worry-free. I answered him factually, with hand motions: “Rain.”

Without making any eye contact he told me to go to a different office to get a stamp to approve the rain marks. I was scared, but obedient, doing whatever it was going to take to get in. From behind a dull, dirty glass window with a vase of dusty fake flowers in it, I interrupted a bearded man watching a chador-covered lady reading from some papers on a TV news program. Pictures of Imam Khomeini were behind him, looking down at me suspiciously, like a grumpy grandpa. The rain marks on my visa were enough to capture his interest from the government-sponsored news. He sat up, switching from mild to militant: “Who does that?!” he shouted. “Sir, who does what?” I asked, wide eyed and virginal. “Who stands outside in the rain with their visa?” “I do, sir.” His eyes bugged out: “That’s not,” he paused, “normal!!” At home I would never put up with this. I would take off on a tangent about what’s wrong with not being normal, and how I thank God I am not “normal,” because normal people are a bit scary. But here at the Tehran Mehrabad International airport at 11PM on a Sunday, I instead offered a very believable yet scared: “I’m sorry!” knowing that I needed to play the game. Submit & let him dominate. Once I am out of here I can do what I want, I thought. He shouted back at me “Don’t tell me you’re sorry!! Tell him you’re sorry!!!” pointing back to the young man at the customs stall who had just sent me over.

A bit frustrated, and more brazen due to being overly tired at this point, I charged back to the front of the line with a look on my face of someone who had been scolded but was starting to get pissed off about it. The young customs agent made eyes bugged out, and motioned for me to come in. “He told me to tell you I’m sorry” I whined before I had even gotten to his counter. My fellow passengers were watching, worried. He looked puzzled and asked in a lowered voice. “Where’s the stamp?” I explained to him that there was no stamp, just a “sorry.” He noticed I was upset. So he did what I later learned is typical of many Iranians: he complied in order to avoid seeing me cry. He quickly stamped my passport, wrote some squiggles which I later learned are numbers, and wished me a good time in Iran. I fetched my luggage, and changed my money. The dark clouds lifted: all my dreams were possible again, because I was allowed independent entry to the Islamic Republic of Iran!

I had a few phone numbers of family of friends on me, but due to how I normally travel, I never felt an urgency to call them to see if any of them would want to meet me at the airport or offer me a place to stay. As I looked at all the families feverishly thrusting bouquets of flowers in loved ones faces, hugging, kissing and squealing with glee, I drifted through the crowds in the greeting hall virtually unnoticed, thinking that it would be nice to receive such a reception. Even though the black chador was the look that dominated the fashion landscape in the airport, the people wearing them sure appeared happy and full of joy — more joy than I recall seeing back home in America in some time. Instead my welcome reception team awaited me outside: the illegal taxi drivers. Because I had been through such a long day and felt so incredibly blessed to have made it past the scary man in the office at immigration, I decided to go ahead and splurge on getting ripped off by a taxi-driver without feeling taken advantage of, guilty, or getting into a huge haggle over prices. “The money diet starts tomorrow,” I thought. My driver said he did not speak English, but did speak the international language of grabbing my bags, tearing off to toss them in a beat-up jalopy of a taxi held together by duct tape. I have to admit, that US$25 taxi ride that should have really cost no more than US$3 was truly the ride of a lifetime. The hot oven-like summer air blowing on my face, the seatbelt that did not work which inadvertently liberated me on some subconscious level, the sheer speed and agility of this racecar-like driver, the darkness of night, the stifling pollution still lingering after the day had gone to bed, the glowing green mosques whizzing by…. I pulled my turquoise Indian scarf out of my bag, casually putting it on, over my navy scarf, my bangs still hanging out, lipstick still smeared.

Noruz in Abu Dhabi

December 11, 2008

Desert storm: Emiratis and Qataris flex their muscles (with a little help from their friend).

Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.
Tehran Bureau | notebook

It was back in March, a couple weeks before the Iranian New Year. I had submitted a copy of my passport and press credentials to attend a demonstration of military maneuvers that was to take place at the end of three weeks of exercises between Emirati, French and Qatari forces. When I did not hear back, I was not surprised: though I carry an American passport, it clearly states that I was born in Iran.

Not that it should have been an issue. As officials will tell you, the first joint war games between the three countries had nothing to do with the state of tensions with Iran. Not even when the French-led military exercises coincided with President Nicolas Sarkozy’s tough stance against Iran’s nuclear program. And not even when the exercises were preceded by a visit to Iran by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the U.A.E. and Ruler of Dubai. This was the highest ranking visit by a U.A.E. official to Iran since the revolution 30 years ago.

The day before the exercises were due to take place, I had still not heard back and put in a call. My contact on the other end of the line could not find any of the paperwork I had faxed over more than two weeks earlier. But he clearly remembered my constant pestering and told me to get myself to Bateen Air Base the next morning, where we were supposed to catch a plane to “an island in the Gulf”.

The base failed to appear on the expensive new GPS system that I had just purchased, so I called for a taxi instead. The guards at Bateen were surprised and confused by my appearance. After several calls from the gate, I was escorted to a shuttle bus that was to ferry a small group of journalists to the plane. A contingent of suit-and-tied Frenchmen who spoke their names in hushed tones to the guard were escorted off the minibus when a military attache was unable to locate their names on his list.

“That’s new to me,” said an Arab photojournalist who had arrived from Saudi Arabia. “This is the first time I’ve been on a bus where the brown guys get to stay on, and the white guys have to get out.” We chuckled, as if in admiration for the government of the U.A.E.

We were joined on the plane by Emirati, French and Qatari officers — and later the same group of quiet Frenchmen. The windows from which we could gauge the course of our 45-minute journey were blocked off but I guessed our island was somewhere near the Saudi border. A bigger bus took us to a ceremony on a covered but windy platform. For all the security, my cell phone still worked.

I started chatting with a man who had an American accent in the row below me. He quickly moved the topic of the conversation to Iran. As he continued to escalate his rhetoric, I broke the news to him. “You should probably know that I was born in Iran,” I said. He was visibly shaken. “And they let you in here?” he asked after gaining his composure.

At least he was earnest.

Under a sandstorm warning, with visibility severely limited, it was difficult to understand what was happening in the military exercises: there was lots of dust, lots of machinery and lots of men but the overall objective remained a mystery to me. The simultaneous-translation headphones with which I was provided failed to carry an English translation, apparently not because of technical difficulties either. The interpreter would taper off in the middle of sentences, as if bored or suddenly seized by the realization that the task at hand was beyond his capabilities. Or maybe he couldn’t see anything either.

From what I could make out, there were three friendly countries involved in the exercise. The white country — Qatar — had just signed a business and economic agreement that a fourth country — the “red country” — was angry about, prompting it to invade the whites. The other two countries had come to its aid.

A reporter from Reuters asked during the news conference that followed, “Who is country red?” French General Roger Renard replied, “It’s just a ‘hypothetical’, as in a ‘Hollywood scenario’. Red country is red country.”

“Why had the three countries decided to join forces this year?” I asked. France has long had a presence in the Persian Gulf and has conducted military exercises with both U.A.E. and Qatar separately for a number of years. “We just did,” Gen. Renard said. “It had to happen at some time and it just happened to be this year.”

Iran was unhappy about the exercises, said the reporter who had asked about the red country. The French press attache, sitting to my right, signaled for Renard that he must not answer any “political questions.” Renard tried to dodge the question. “There is always a great temptation to relate an exercise to political matters,” he said. “Our business is to train our people to work together… and to be able to fight together if we have to.”

The threat of a possible war on Iran has been looming at least since the U.S.-led war on Iraq in March 2003, shortly after the beginning of the Persian New Year. It’s been widely covered in the media, so widely I’m not sure what to make of it. Has it deflected an actual strike, or numbed a great number of people to the very idea, thus making an attack all the more feasible.

I was feeling cold and went to stand next to a U.A.E. guard with his back turned to me holding a machine gun. He had found a rare patch of sun and in the desert chill I desperately needed some extra warmth. When he asked me to return to my seat, I remembered the first words of Arabic I had learned as a child in Iranian school the year after the revolution: “Al Shams,” I said, referring to the sun. The guard smiled and made more room for me next to him.

Encyclopaedia Iranica: an Iranian love story

December 7, 2008

Ehsan Yarshater, the founder and director of the Encyclopedia Iranica at Columbia University, stands in front of portrait of Dr. Abraham V.W. Jackson, 1862-1937, a professor of Indo-Iranian language at Columbia University at the turn of the 20th century. (Jim Higdon/CNS)

March 2005

New York City
Tehran Bureau | spotlight

After Sept. 11, 2001, journalists turned to Encyclopaedia Iranica to learn about Afghanistan, part of the “Iranian cultural continent.” The staff of Iranica, headquartered at Columbia University’s Center for Iranian Studies, is now at work on the 13th volume, which includes the letter “I,”–and the current focus: Iran.

Despite his smiling face on the Encyclopaedia Iranica Web site, managing editor Ahmad Ashraf tends to wear a solemn countenance and drives himself and his staff as if they were on a newspaper deadline.

Housed in a small duplex in the back of a stately turn-of-the-century building near Columbia University, the tension is palpable inside. It may not be like the first draft of history that journalists have to rush out, but a race against time nevertheless to pare down centuries of work sometimes known only to an aging few, then struggling with the thankless task of rendering it into clean, lucid English translations from Persian, French, Chinese and other languages.

Billed as “an index of the histories, cultures and accomplishments of Iranian peoples” by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which has been the main source of support for the massive scholarly project, “the articles, according to evaluators, have really broken new ground,” said Helen Aguera, a senior program officer at NEH. Its first volume came out more than 20 years ago, and the project is less than half done.

Twice a week, Ashraf commutes from his home in Princeton, N.J. to New York City. He arrives at his office early Monday morning and returns home late Tuesday night, and works again Thursday morning through Friday evening.

Iranica’s founder and director, Ehsan Yarshater, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia, lives across the hall “and works six days a week, 10 hours a day, for free,” said Fereshteh Bekhrad, a member of Encyclopaedia Iranica’s board of trustees. “Last week he was sick for six days. He worked from bed.”

Executive editor Manouchehr Kasheff, a former student of Yarshater’s who has taught Persian language at Columbia since 1974, said it was certainly not the meager compensation, but the “devotional interest” in the project that drove him and other in-house editors to sit at a desk in a dark, cramped office during the week “where they have no room to hang our coats properly” and to give up their weekends.

In 1990, Yarshater established the Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation and bequeathed to it his entire estate. By 2000, Yarshater had donated to the foundation his personal collection of rare books and art, which included first editions of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “Ulysses,” one of only 750 copies on handmade paper; Islamic art; and works illustrated by Chagall, Matisse and Picasso. Auctioned off, the collection brought more than $1.4 million for the project.

Citing his personal example, Yarshater has convinced the consulting editors to work without pay. Forty-three scholars from major international academic institutions serve as consulting editors. There are seven in-house editors, three of them part-time. Of these, Yarshater and three others are of Iranian origin.

In an interview in his second-floor office, 84-year-old Yarshater rattles off events in detail and names in full without a pause. Yarshater’s small paneled office, decorated with antiques and lined with books and encyclopedias, has a Parisian aura. A Persian rug and framed Persian art and calligraphy infuse the space with the warmth of his homeland.

“Since my student days,” Yarshater said in a quiet, melodic voice, “I was aware of the fact that there wasn’t a reliable, accurate source in a single work to which one could go to if one had questions about various aspects of Persian history, Persian art, Persian literature and Persian culture in general.”

The first volume, with 285 contributors, came out in 1982. Twelve volumes, tallying information from more than 1,000 contributors–ranging from the Oriental Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, to the University of California at Berkeley, to the Institute of Ismaili Studies in Istanbul, Turkey–have been published so far. The entries are written by professors–Iranian and non-Iranian alike–at major universities and research centers around the world, each with a particular specialty on some aspect of the “Iranian cultural continent.”

How many volumes remain? It depends on whom you ask: 10, 20–perhaps 30 more volumes.

“Persia has at least 5,000 years of written history if we count Elamite civilization in southwestern and central Persia, and of course many more millennia of prehistory,” Yarshater said. “Persian culture has been a fertile one–not in all spheres–but in most. It has given the world great literature, distinct art and superb mystical poems. So all together, there is a great deal to cover. And this will require, not one volume, not two volumes, not three,” but at least “40 volumes.” And it will not stop there. Revisions, updates, biographies of those who have since passed away, will fuel future volumes.

“It’s an ongoing process,” Yarshater said, “a permanent institution.”

“The idea about the Encyclopaedia,” he said, “is that it should answer all relevant questions about Iran and Iranian life and culture, about its history, its literature, its art, its religions, its mystical philosophy, its folklore, it’s music, its economy, its educational system, flora and fauna, in unexpected detail, even Persian cuisine–sometimes with recipes.”

The complexities of the project are clear from the very first entry. Ab–water–the essence of life, a basic element in Islamic purification ritual, has been among the first three words taught in Iranian first-grade texts since the days of the shah and through the Islamic republic. Made up of the first two letters of the Persian alphabet, Ab commands 14 meticulously researched entries in the Encyclopaedia, from Ab Ghusht, a staple Iranian dish, Ab Ghureh, a popular cooking ingredient, to Ab Nahid, “Nahid of the Water,” a Zoroastrian woman’s name that first appeared in a poem of the late Parthian period, according to that entry.

On a trip to Iran in the 1970s, Yarshater met with Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda and convinced the government to fund the project. For the first four years, Iranica carried out its research without any financial difficulties. In 1979, the project was derailed by the Islamic revolution. Faced with the prospect of the project’s collapse, Yarshater had to find financial resources elsewhere. He approached the National Endowment for the Humanities at a time when the hostage crisis was going on in Iran.

According to Aguera, Iranica is one of very few long-term projects that continues to receive funding from NEH. The continued support is based on the first-rate quality of the scholarship, she said. “Among the encyclopedia projects, it’s singular in scope. In terms of sheer volumes projected for the series, it’s one of the most ambitious.” To date, Iranica has received more than $4.7 million from NEH.

Ashraf’s ambitious plan is to have the main entries completed within 10 years.

“Many scholars are late and they are not punctual,” Ashraf said during a recent interview over a hurried cafeteria lunch. “We must publish four fascicles”–divisions in a series–“per year. It is not easy,” he said, noting the difficulties in culling entries from sources that are not always so easy to track down. “Right now we’re behind schedule.”

Though Iranica has provided “the best documented and most detailed entries on the Shiite branch of Islamic faith,” Yarshater said the Islamic government has never supported Iranica, “because we treat minorities exactly as others. In fact, we make a point of redressing the neglect of the ethnic, religious and other minorities,” including the Baha’is, Yarshater said, referring to a religious movement originating in Iran in the 19th century.

“Some publications in Iran have accused us of subverting Islamic values,” he said. “We have been called freemasons, Zionists, communists and CIA agents. They never wait to see if these attributes are compatible.”

Much of Iranica’s work is topical. After Sept. 11, 2001, journalists went to Encyclopaedia Iranica to learn about Afghanistan. And calls from the BBC, Voice of America and journalists are common, said Dina Amin, assistant director of the Center for Iranian Studies, which encompasses Iranica.

The next volume, which will include “I” for Iran, may in some respects prove the most complicated. Until earlier this month, the staff could not settle on an expert on Iranian literature. For the Iran-Contra affair, the editors approached Gary Sick, who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. Sick directed them to an expert at the U.S. National Archives for an entry, Ashraf said.

Three years ago, prompted in part by the loss of three Iranists in the span of six months, Iranica changed strategies and began soliciting submissions irrespective of the alphabet. These entries are first published online–and searchable at–and later when their turn comes, in print editions.

Yarshater is also rushing to try to make sure the project has enough money to be completed. The endowment fund he began in 1990 needs to grow. That’s one reason he will not accept a salary.

Drawing a salary, Yarshater is afraid, will diminish the fund-raising power of the editor. “There is always the idea in the back of people’s mind that so and so is helping himself,” he said. Therefore, “I’m anxious that before I become incapacitated the endowment fund reaches its target of $15 million. Once this target is reached, I will rest in peace knowing that the Encyclopaedia Iranica project can be continued on a self-sustaining basis.

“With a little help from here and there, we’ll manage,” he said.

John Bolton Reads ‘Em and Weeps

December 5, 2008

Tehran Bureau | washington dispatch

It was an extraordinary scene at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, where John Bolton read ’em and wept. There is, he said, no way to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

His conclusion, stunning in its finality: “We are going to have to deal with a nuclear Iran.”

In so saying, Bolton — among the hawkiest of hawks from the now neoconservative-movement-in-exile — broke ranks with many of his neocon colleagues. Most of them haven’t given up on stopping Iran, as evidenced by a raft of new reports from neocon-linked thinktanks. And they’re busily calling for stepped-up sanctions, making bellicose threats, and warning of military action by the United States and Israel. But Bolton is folding his cards.

“Iran’s going to get nuclear weapons,” said Bolton, to an audience at AEI that seemed shocked into silence. “We have lost this race.” If you don’t believe me, you can watch the video.

According to Bolton, the idea that Iran can be deterred from going forward by applying economic sanctions won’t work. Had it been tried earlier, he said, it might had an impact. “Sanctions could have dissuaded Iran,” he said. “But that time is past.” Europe doesn’t have the will to impose tough sanctions, he said. He lamented his encounters with the German ambassador to the United Nations, during Bolton’s tenure as US ambassador there, and he said that the Germans and other European countries won’t take action to cut off their lucrative trade with Tehran.

But Bolton also said that neither the United States nor Israel will attack Iran to stop its nuclear program. “Neither one is willing to use military force,” he said. Bolton said that until recently he believed that there was a small chance that Israel, on its own, might attack Iran before January 20, when Barack Obama becomes president. But Israel is mired in political confusion in advance of its coming elections, and there is no political will in Israel to go to war against Iran, he said.

Bolton also said that the likelihood of a US attack on Iran under Obama is nil. “Under an Obama administration, that possibility is essentially zero,” he said. “After January 20, the chances are zero.”

If strong action had been taken in the past, say, starting five years ago, Iran could have been stopped, Bolton said. Tough sanctions then would be biting now, he said. Alternately, the United States could have adopted a policy of “regime change,” supporting ethnic minorities, disaffected youth, and Iran’s youth, to create revolutionary unrest, even though nearly all experts on Iran have argued that regime change was never a viable option. Said Bolton: “If we had started it five years ago, we might be in a different place,. It was a good policy option. We should have pursued it. We didn’t pursue it.”

After Bolton spoke, I encountered a very senior neoconservative strategist, who’d served in the Department of Defense, and who was quietly observing the proceedings at the back of the AEI meeting room. I asked him if he agreed with Bolton’s assessment. Preferring not to speak on the record, he said:

“Well, I think what he said is basically true. We’re going to find ourselves in a position not unlike the one we faced with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. We will have to contain them and deter them. The problem is, that Iran will feel empowered, and we’ll have an increasing level of tension in the Persian Gulf.”

What does that mean? I asked. According to this former official, it looks ominous. “Eventually, we’ll probably have to do something. But doing it later will be a lot harder than doing it now.” And by doing something, what do you mean, I asked.

“It might come to a war.”

Head of State

December 3, 2008

Tehran Bureau | comment

It’s becoming ever more clear that U.S. Iran policy is destined to fail unless the conversation is quickly and dramatically restructured, which seems unlikely with Hillary Clinton assigned to serve as top diplomat. At the moment the United States is obstinate that under no circumstances can Iran become a nuclear power and Iran knows that nearly all direct American military threats to them made over the past thirty years have ultimately proven to be idle ones.

For America to achieve any level of compliance from Iran, the struggle should be re-framed to one of mutual respect. Whether real or perceived, Iran considers itself a major power, worthy of respect in a volatile part of the world. They simply will not submit to American demands; doing so would signify a crumbling of one of the regime’s main pillars.

In their eyes, they have their own set of demands, which are equally warranted and pressing, and ones that America continues to publicly ignore. I suspect that should the United States decide they are willing to negotiate with Iran, most of these wants have a price tag that could be paid in dollars.

Simply put, the two sides are having their separate conversations and it’s become a pattern of talking one another.

For this reason the dialogue must change from the present one, marked by a very confrontational tone, to one of symbioses and shared goals. It shocks me that the easiest ways to establish direct contact with Iran have been overlooked by nearly all American policy makers and commentators. It points to a complete lack of understanding of Iranian society and its values. It will all lead to more of the same.

The long overused mantra that “time is running out” for a satisfactory solution to Iran has become laughable. Well, to the Mullahs who have been hearing it for years, anyway.

The cartoon was first published on

From Turkey with Love. But…

December 2, 2008

Dear Iran, we are scared of you.

Tehran Bureau | comment

It is not that we don’t appreciate Kiarostami. Nor it is that we don’t admire Rumi or Ferdowsi. In fact tickets were sold out for Persepolis. We have always known that Iran is more than just Ahmadinejad. It is Shahriar, it is the Shahnameh, it is the sound of tanbur, setar and santur. Forgive us for the fear runs deep, and please don’t take it personally. Perhaps we are scared of ourselves, and you are just a mirror?

In late October, the Turkish and Iranian state broadcasting organizations–namely, the Turkish Radio and Television Cooperation (TRT) and the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB)– made an agreement to foster cross-cultural dialogue through an agreement to boost television cooperation.

Tehran Times reported that the agreement aimed to “exchange films and TV series, develop international and educational cooperation, and make joint productions.” The promise for cooperation came after Ezzatollah Zarghami, director of the IRIB, paid an official visit to TRT, upon his Turkish counterpart Ibrahim Shahin’s invitation.

The meeting was lucrative. The two parties discussed how to promote cultural ties, as well as prospects for joint production of films and music, and publishing books. Ertugrul Gunay, the Turkish Culture Minister, said that the friendship should be strengthened, and Mr. Zarghami “presented the TV series of ‘Shahriar’ as the ‘first step of bilateral cooperation.’” He mentioned that the IRIB would propose to the TRT a number of Iranian shows produced for the month of Ramadan.

The news found some coverage in Iran. However, the story hit the Turkish media like a meteor. Worried that Turkey’s mostly secular media would be under Islamic influence by IRIB’s Ramadan series, Turkish newspapers started to criticize the TRT’s decision. Vatan, a largely-circulated paper, highlighted that Mr. Zarghami made it mandatory for Iranian TV series to include scenes of prayers, and TRT’s shaking hands with him was unacceptable. The newspaper also drew attention to Mr. Zarghami’s proposal to include educational prayer instructions in TV programs for children.

Vatan wasn’t alone.

A well-respected online news portal,, talked to TRT’s spokesperson Birol Uzunay, who said that Turkey would only resort to Iranian footage “if it’s really necessary.” Uzunay also said that “our country is a democratic, secular country. We are tolerant. It is Iranians that aren’t tolerant, and they should think about [what to do with] the [Turkish] footage they agree to broadcast.”

Yucel Yener, the former executive director of the TRT, said that Iranian programs are against the TRT’s broadcasting principles and since Iran is an Islamic Republic, television is an instrument of propaganda.

What was it that made the Turkish public so anxious about a seemingly simple broadcast agreement? What at the outset seems like agitation is perhaps a certain paranoia that runs deep in the public’s psyche, because Turkish mental associations about the word “Iran” has always been more than just “next door neighbor.” It is in fact deeply political and has roots in preserving the principles of the Kemalist revolution against the so-called influences of “Islamization.”

Ever since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the country has undergone a tremendous social and political change to assume a western visage. Numerous reforms by Ataturk, ranging from the abolition of the Caliphate to the Hat Law of 1925 that introduced Western understanding of fashion to the public almost resulted in burning bridges with whatever laid in the East.

Although Turkey and Iran have close economic ties today, the two remain at odds politically. Modern Turkey watched the Islamic Revolution with concern, and Turkey dealt with various forms of Islamic movements and organizations that pointed at Iran as their primary influence. The Constitutional Court also shut down political parties in the past–such as Welfare Party and the Virtue Party in years 1998 and 2001 respectively–due to their Islamic agenda.

In fact, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had roots in the Welfare Party, has had to try really hard to make Kemalists believe that he has “changed,” (meaning, he was less Islamist and more secular), when he started the now-ruling party “Justice and Development.”

Even if he tried to remain at a distance from any agenda reminiscent of political Islam in his first term, Mr. Erdogan reanimated long established fears of Islamization by introducing the legislation to remove the ban on headscarves in universities.

The world watched as thousands of concerned Kemalists filled streets in Ankara, Izmir and Istanbul to protest the government’s steps to legalize headscarves as a democratic right of women, fearing that the AKP aspired to transform Turkey into just another Iran.

In past and contemporary occasions such as this, the famous slogan of Turkish political life– a.k.a. “Turkey will not become Iran!”–has emerged and been repeated zillions of times. More than a simple motto, it is almost an existential statement for some concerned secularists in Turkey. That is why they tend to analyze the present according to trends and political realities of the past. And that is why what at the outset seems like a simple broadcast agreement revives fears of religious radicalism, of creeping Islamization.

Of course, this brief analysis doesn’t justify a national knee-jerk reaction against cultural exchange between the two neighboring countries. However, it does raise important questions that Turkey should be asking herself: Even though television is an influential apparatus, would a few films really catch Turkish secularism off-guard? Why has fear become the national reflex, rather than critical thinking? The series might not be appealing politically or artistically, but maybe they will teach rather than hurt?

Does Turkey prefer isolating its popular culture from the so-called “detrimental” influences to keep its politics intact? How are we to understand Iran and situate Rumi, Ferdowsi, or Shahriar in the mutual cultural heritage then?

The media frenzy is indicative of an insecurity in the Turkish psyche that implies our fear of our own political mechanism, rather than Iran herself.

But as long as Turkey refuses to see the Iran that exists beyond its fears, rosey calls for mutual understanding will fail, regardless of how long established the relations are.

So, dear Iran, sad but true: You’ve been right next to us for years, but alas we perhaps don’t yet know you.

And the beat goes on

December 1, 2008

Tehran Bureau | blog watch

A scroll through feels like a stroll through the capital. Thankfully the virtual tourist is spared the usual traps: the all too prevalent collection of Persian iconography found on most Iranian-themed websites.

Monthly photo installments offer a fresh perspective of living there. Though snapped on a cellphone, the juxtaposition of photographs heighten the aesthetic experience. Rolling as if off a reel, the photo stream hint at the creator’s cinematic roots. As in a serious flick, the lens don’t shy away from the “it’s so ugly it’s beautiful” theme running throughout: Tehran has many eyesores.

LGOIT.COM fulfills several other functions, effortlessly.

It provides political commentary, such as in a caption to a barely standing Chevy Jeep Cherokee, “a left-over of the days when Iran was USA’s biggest ally in the region and American cars were being mass-produced. Their beat-up appearance well represent Iranian-U.S. relations as it stands today.”

Commenting on a photo of a familiar-looking store fridge, filled to the brim with the most American of soft drinks, he is “amazed at how much business both Coke and Pepsi manage to do in Iran through all wars and political sanctions. They’re more powerful than the U.N.”
(Perhaps Coke is a humanitarian necessity, as are exports of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices.)

LGOIT.COM shatters stereotypes. One entry has the blogger sharing a taxi with a veiled young woman listening to American gansta rapper 50 Cent on her mobile phone; the taxi driver is tuned into state radio. “Bitches and hoes and boring Islamic programming don’t mix well!” he laments. Or, “The most stubborn film student I have ever met in my life is also a mullah. He managed to get interviews with most all foreign guests for his thesis film. I expect him to go far in the Iranian film industry.”

The narrator is certainly speaking from a position of privilege. He seems to take a step back from that time to time to put it all in perspective. At a fast-food restaurant, the average meal may cost $6, but “is too much when you factor in the average income.” On a trip to a neighborhood in south Tehran, where his father grew up, “we met this grocery store salesman who was there when my dad was a kid. He said he had never been to Pasdaran, which is our neighborhood in northern Tehran.” North and south rarely mix in Tehran.

After about a year and half in Iran, our hero packs his cellphone and heads back to Los Angeles. He quickly gets himself to an IN-N-OUT Burger for lunch (and dinner), and later stops at a branch of Washington Mutual Bank “to remove the ‘Presidential Ordered Block’ from my account. My bank account was frozen because I had checked my balance on the WaMu website in Iran. I am sure keeping me from paying my student loans is an integral part of fighting terrorism! Can we end Bush’s term already?!”

The L.A. sojourn does not last long. After four months, “I am ready to go back to Iran. As nice and comfortable life in LA can be, it is not yet for me. I need to be where there is more conflict. Conflict in everyday scenarios can and will inspire me. The few emails from visitors who have said, ‘I liked your blog better when you were in Tehran,’ is a testament to that end.”