Archive for February, 2009

Iran’s Presidential Elections, Part I: The Landscape

February 28, 2009

Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Second National Congress of “Fajr Afarinan,” honoring Muslim political prisoners before the revolution. January 29, 2009. Photo/TehranBureau.

Los Angeles
Tehran Bureau | election coverage

Iran will hold its presidential elections on Friday, June 12, 2009. Although some Iranians, particularly those who live in the diaspora, may dismiss the elections as being ineffectual and devoid of any possible meaningful consequence, the truth is that the significance of the upcoming elections cannot be over-emphasized. The reasons are twofold. One is that at no time in the past 100 years has Iran faced as many problems and crises as it is grappling with now. (I will return to this point shortly.) The second reason has to do with the fact that no other election in Iran has held such importance in the contrasting and fundamentally different views it represents in the path Iran should take domestically, as well as internationally.

One side espouses a fundamentalist, confrontational approach to both domestic and international problems. Internally, it wants to suppress all the dissidents, even among its own ranks, and silence any voice of moderation. Internationally, it advocates an aggressive and uncompromising approach. In contrast, the opposite camp favors an open society at home, which can move on a democratic path, albeit slowly, while advocating a rational and sober diplomatic approach to the international problems that Iran is facing.

Therefore, no election in Iran has ever been so polarized.

In this article and the sequels, I discuss the main players in Iran’s upcoming elections, the messages that they have, the political groups that support the candidates, and the possible implications of the victory of the reformist or fundamentalist candidates on Iran’s future. In the present article, I describe Iran’s political landscape; that is, present conditions, on both the domestic and the international level. Part II will describe the political groups in Iran, and the extent of popularity that they enjoy. Part III will describe the main candidates and their chances for getting elected. Part IV will discuss the implications for Iran of the victory of each of the main candidates.

The International Landscape

Consider first the situation and problems that Iran is currently facing in the international arena. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there have been many developments in the Middle East that have benefited Iran and its national security. Although in his infamous speech of February 2002, former U.S. President George W. Bush made Iran a charter member of his absurd “axis of evil,” and even though the situation looked totally bleak for Iran after Saddam Hussein was easily overthrown by the British and American forces in April 2003 and Bush declared “mission accomplished,” we now know that the invasion has benefited Iran’s national security. While Iraq’s invasion was illegal, and has resulted in the destruction of much of Iraq’s infrastructure, human loses and suffering at catastrophic scales, its net result for Iran has been the elimination of its arch foes Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi branch of the Ba’ath Party (the Syrian branch has been in a strategic alliance with Iran over the past 30 years). The fact that the Shiite groups that spent their exile years in Iran and were supported and armed by Iran are now in power in Iraq can only benefit Iran. Moreover, because of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has been in no position to pose a serious military threat to Iran, at least in terms of a land invasion.

At the same time, the overthrow of the Taliban in the fall of 2001 eliminated another of Iran’s bloody enemies on its eastern borders. Recall that Iran and the Taliban almost went to war in September 1998, after the Taliban murdered 8 Iranian diplomats and a journalist. Given that the enmity between Shiite Islam and the Wahabi sect of Islam, to which the Taliban (and al-Qaeda) adhere, has deep historical roots, elimination from power of the Taliban was also greatly beneficial to Iran. Although the Taliban are now resurgent, they are mainly preoccupied with defeating the Western forces; and from a military point of view, they do not yet pose a major threat to Iran’s national security.

The steep increase in the price of oil, rising to almost $150 a barrel in the summer of 2008, could have also been beneficial to Iran, both economically and strategically. But while the economic benefits to Iran of the oil boom has been minimal (see below), its strategic significance cannot be overlooked. For the next few years at least, the world would not be easily able to replace Iran’s oil exports if they are eliminated from the international market by military attacks on Iran, for example. This fact, together with Iran’s effective control of the Strait of Hormuz, implies that Iran will continue to play an important role in the energy sector.

Therefore, given such developments, it would be natural to think that Iran, with its size, natural resources, young and dynamic population and strategic position, is on its way to become the most powerful nation in the Middle East. While Iran does have such potentials, it also faces major hurdles, many of which have to do with the aggressive, yet what I consider naïve, foreign policy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in particular, and the Iranian fundamentalists, who control all major centers of power, in general. To see this, consider two of the most complex issues that Iran is facing, namely its confrontation with the West over its nuclear program, and the possibility that Israel may attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, especially now that a far-right government is emerging in Israel after its recent elections.

Even during its peak revolutionary zeal in the first several years after the 1979 revolution, Iran was not the subject of so many intense discussions and speculations at the international organizations. There were no United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions against it. In fact, aside from going to the UNSC to express its grievances against the United States or Iraq, it was neither forced to go to the UNSC to defend itself, nor was it condemned at the UN General Assembly. Aside from the United States, no country of any importance had imposed any significant sanctions on Iran.

Compare that with the present situation. There are four UNSC resolutions against Iran, namely resolutions 1737, 1747, 1803, and 1835, all filed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter that deals with peace and international security. Although solid arguments can be made against the legality of the resolutions, the fact is that they are there, and so as far as a significant part of the international community is concerned, Iran must abide by the resolutions’ demands, which Iran has so far refused to do. The resolutions have also imposed some economic sanctions on Iran that have begun to hurt the ordinary people in Iran. At the same time, gross violations of human rights in Iran have been the subject of debate at the UNGA and the Human Rights Council of the UN.

The February elections in Israel have brought to power a coalition of right-wing and ultra-right wing parties that are hell bent on attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. If the attacks do take place, they will not only give rise to a war that would engulf the entire Middle East, but also threaten Iran’s territorial integrity, not to mention the great destruction that the war would inflict on Iran. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric about Israel (even though what he said about Israel disappearing has been mistranslated), his denial of the Holocaust, and the Holocaust conference that he held in Tehran, only exacerbated the animosity between the two nations.

But that is only half the story. Pakistan has been in a chaotic state for at least 2 years. The Pakistani allies of the Taliban have made great gains, particularly in the Swat valley, to the point of being able to force the Government of President Asif Ali Zardari to sign a peace treaty with them, and allowing them to impose the Islamic Sharia in the regions that they control. The possibility that Pakistan’s Sunni fundamentalists might overthrow the government and take control of the 60 or so nuclear warheads that Pakistan has is truly terrifying. Add to that the fact that a low-intensity war between the great Sunni majority and the relatively small Shiite minority has been going on in Pakistan for several years, and recall that the separatist Jundallah forces have been staging terrorist attacks against Iran in the province of Sistan and Baluchestan, and the result is a huge threat to Iran’s national security.

The Internal Landscape

Iran is in a terrible economic situation. Since 2005 it has earned at least $250 billion, and probably as much as $300 billion, from its oil exports. Yet now that the price of oil has collapsed and is hovering around $40 a barrel, the government has difficulty meeting its domestic obligations. Iranian economists predict a budget deficit of at least $30 billion for the new Iranian year that will begin on March 21.

Aside from its fundamental structural flaws, Iran’s terrible economic conditions have mostly to do with the mismanagement — some say incompetence — of President Ahmadinejad’s government, which appears to have no long-range plans for the country. It has scuttled Iran’s 4th five-year development plan, started by former President Mohammad Khatami, and has even ignored the so-called Twenty-Year Outlook — a long-range vision for Iran’s economic development proposed by the Expediency Council and approved and supported by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Close to 60 of Iran’s leading economists warned Ahmadinejad in an open letter that his policies would ruin the economy, but he ignored their advice. The Ahmadinejad administration has dissolved many of Iran’s fundamental institutions, even some that had survived the revolution of 1979, such as the Organization of Budget and Planning.

Many of Ahmadinejad’s actions and policies have been opposed even by some in his own cabinet and administration. He has so far replaced 10 of his ministers, and three Central Bank governors. If he replaces one more minister, there would be a constitutional crisis, because he would have to obtain the approval of his entire cabinet from the parliament again. The Iran parliament, which is supposedly controlled by Ahmadinejad’s supporters, has also fiercely opposed some of his policies.

The Ahmadinejad administration has also been embroiled in one scandal after another. Many of the senior positions in his administration have been filled by young, and relatively inexperienced people. Each Minister who was fired went on to harshly criticize the government and reveal some behind-the-scene developments that the public was unaware of. One of Ahmadinejad’s ministers, former Interior Minister Ali Kordan, turned out to have not only a fake doctoral degree, but also fake M.S. and B.S. degrees, and was forced to resign. His vice president for parliamentary affairs, Ali Reza Rahimi, is strongly and credibly rumored to also have a fake doctoral degree. Another vice president, Esfandiar Rahim Moshaei, who is also a close relative, spoke favorably about Jewish people, and was harshly attacked for it. The present Interior Minister, Sadegh Mahsouli — the third under Ahmadinejad — is known as the “billionaire minister,” for the wealth (close to $200 million) that he has reportedly amassed illicitly. Ahmadinejad’s chief spokesman, Gholamhossein Elham, holds three official positions, which is against the law. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly replaced deputy interior minister for political and security affairs, who is also in charge of administering the elections. Elham’s wife, Fatemeh Rajabi, has been attacking viciously and with immunity all the reformist and pragmatist leaders, from Khatami to former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; others, who have criticized the government or its policies, have been jailed.

Politically, Ahmadinejad’s government has been repressive. It has closed all but a few reformist newspapers, which are however heavily censored. It has banned many university student organizations, has jailed many student activists and has clamped down hard on the activities of advocates of respect for human, women, and children rights. Two months ago, the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, founded by the Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, was closed, her law office was attacked, and she was viciously criticized by right-wing newspapers. No major reformist group is allowed to publish a newspaper, but there are tens of right-wing newspapers and publications. Bloggers have been increasingly attacked and jailed, and the parliament is contemplating a law that would make it a capital punishment to cross certain red lines.

It is against this bleak backdrop that the Iranian presidential elections are going to take place in June. Part II of this series will describe the main political groups, their positions and their likely roster of candidates.

Replay: Student Protests

February 26, 2009

Tehran Bureau | briefs

As widely reported, dozens of Iranian students were arrested Monday after they protested a government decision to rebury troops who died in the Iran-Iraq war on the grounds of a Tehran university. 32 years ago, this very month, another form of Iranian student protest was captured in the mainstream media. The caption says it all: A CAPTIVE MISS LIBERTY: Banners reading “Free the 18” and “Down with the Shah” hanging from the crown of the Statute of Liberty yesterday [Feb. 15, 1977] as demonstrators from Iranian Student Association and American Revolutionary Students Brigade took over the statute and chained themselves inside. They were protesting arrests of opponents of Iranian government.

Are we missing a lesson?

Notes from Underground

February 24, 2009

Mohsen Namjoo farewell concert. Artaud Theater, San Francisco. Oct. 4, 2008. Photo for Tehran Bureau.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Tehran Bureau | vitrine

On a drive home from dinner not too long ago, I was introduced to the music of Mohsen Namjoo.

The setting for the first song, Biaban, or Desert — was appropriate: nightfall in Dubai. A mix of fog and construction debris had settled thickly over the desert city. From the comfort of the passenger seat, scenes of a semi-cloaked metropolis rolled past the window. As my friend fumbled through his CD collection for the perfect soundtrack, he described “an underground Iranian musician” whose songs were a mix of traditional and modern; they spoke the language of the great Persian poets, but had “a strain of Jimi Hendrix running though them.”

I didn’t want to be rude, but I dislike most Iranian pop music. Even in the 1970’s, when my aunt watched Rang-a-Rang, the popular music video program on TV, I fled from the room. For my dear friend, I held back and smiled politely.

As the song began to stream through the loudspeakers, a playfulness in the opening of Biaban faintly recalled the faux-American 1960’s melodies of Serge Gainsbourg, not the Iranian pop of Los Angeles. But I was not won over until Namjoo began to deliver the lyrics:

Biaban ra sarasar meh gerefteh ast
Biaban ra sarasar meh gerefteh ast
Cheragheh qaryeh penhan ast
Mojee garm dar khooneh biaban ast
Biaban ra sarasar meh gerefteh ast
Biaban, khasteh
nafas besh-khasteh
dar hazyaneh garmeh meh
aragh mirizadash ahesteh az har band

The translation does not do it justice (and I will make changes if any good suggestions come through):

Mist has blanketed the desert, all over
Mist has blanketed the desert, all over
The village lights are hidden

A warm wave pulsates through the desert veins

Mist has blanketed the desert, all over
the desert, weary

slowly perspires from every pore in the delirium of the mist

The lyrics are from an Ahmad Shamlu poem called “Mist.” It was published by Shamlu in “the choking social and political atmosphere dominating Iran after the 1953 coup d’etat that resulted in the overthrow of the popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, and the subsequent suppression of political movements in Iran,” according to Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak and Kamran Talattof in their book on Nima Yushij.

Anyone can lift great poetry and sample it to song, but that would not begin to do Namjoo justice. Even when the lyrics are not his own, he delivers them with the authority of someone who wrote it, or as my friend put it more passionately, “as if he were there at the moment of creation.”

Another immediate favorite was “Toranj.” The haunting howl in the beginning of that song is transcendental. A few playful notes at the piano, and then boom!– it’s as if the hypnotic beats of a nearby zoor-khaneh flowed in and gripped him. The lyrics, as later explained to me, are a combination of Hafiz and Khajooye Kermani. The seamless rearrangement of the verses underscores Namjoo’s mastery of Persian poetry. Unlike others, however, he doesn’t put the masters on a temple and go down on his knees. He seems to play and live among them. When the inspiration hits him, they are also infused with his own lyrics. To the untrained ear, it’s often hard to tell where one leaves off and another takes over. Overall, what is created is essentially his own. If he is sampling, after all, he is getting at its DNA and splicing it.


Namjoo is hardly underground these days. His albums can be purchased on iTunes and dates for upcoming performances in Canada and Sweden can be found here.

U.S.-Iran: A Good Precedent

February 23, 2009

The Peace Palace at the Hague. Photo by Docski.

A channel for U.S.-Iranian diplomacy.

Tehran Bureau | comment

About 28 years ago, the United States and the fledgling Islamic Republic of Iran made promises to each other that they put down in writing: “It is now and will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran’s internal affairs,” stated the 1981 Algiers Accords, the executive agreement signed by Ronald Reagan. In return for that promise (among others) the Iranians released the 52 Americans that they held hostage for 444 inglorious days.

The ink was hardly dry before President Reagan and CIA Director William Casey started to fund operations against Iran by different exile groups — one headed by the shah’s former naval commander, then the Paris-based Front for the Liberation of Iran. While the Reagan administration was in secret negotiations with Iran, the CIA was providing a miniaturized television transmitter to Reza Pahlavi, son of the late Shah, for a clandestine broadcast into Iran.

On Sept. 5, 1986, the programming of two Iranian television stations were interrupted for 11-minutes, during which the heir to the Peacock Throne vowed his return. In its response in a radio broadcast, Tehran called the shenanigans a “puppet show” put on by “the terrorist government of Reagan.”

It was an extraordinary show. According to historian Theodore Draper’s book, A Very Thin Line, the United States was entertaining Ali Hashemi Bahramani — an officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hashemi Rafsanjani’s nephew — and so was a fellow by the name of Lt. Col. Oliver North.

Despite the fiasco known as the Iran-contra affair, successive U.S. administrations have adopted some form of its “sticks and carrots” approach in their dealings with Iran. As Iran moderated its ways over the next two decades — after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini — sanctions against it got tighter and U.S. regime-change talk nastier.

When Condoleezza Rice went to Congress requesting $75 million in “emergency funds to promote democracy in Iran,” a reporter from the BBC Persian Service questioned the sanity of such a plan. Wouldn’t this precipitate an Iranian crackdown on its fragile civil society? “Don’t you think that there will be a more sophisticated and better way to approach this issue?” he asked.

Apparently not. The U.S. State Department even posted the full transcript of the “off-the-record” background briefing on its Web site and prominently linked to it from its homepage that week in 2006. Almost on cue, Iranian officials stepped up pressure, clamped down on NGO’s, students, reformists, women rights activists, union leaders, doctors, academics, scientists, students, ethnic minorities, visiting Iranian Americans, journalists and many others, accusing them of being U.S.collaborators.

With the country surrounded by U.S. troops on three sides (in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf), and media stories about alleged U.S.-funded covert attacks against Iran by disaffected minority groups, the Iranian regime’s paranoia hardly needed to be further inflamed by U.S. “sticks.”

It may be that the United States cares so much for the “great Iranian people” it wants them to take up arms against their elected government. Certainly, the sanctions the United States has effected through the United Nations and elsewhere have affected the lives of ordinary Iranians far more than Iran’s own officials or its own Westernized elites.

So far, Barack Obama has maintained these policies, though with some calibration. As his administration makes overtures to Iran, he keeps “all options on the table,” appoints a Democratic hawk — remember Hillary Clinton’s talk of “obliterating” Iran last year? — to head the diplomatic arm of his government. There is now talk of appointing a more hostile hawk– Dennis Ross — as Iran envoy.

But there is a little hope for change (“we can believe in”) from these three tumultuous decades. The Algiers Accords that Iran and the United States adopted as a procedure for resolving disputes after the 1979 revolution has produced the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal. Since July1, 1981, representatives of Washington and Tehran have been engaged in fruitful negotiations. (A prominent international law scholar at Boalt Hall told me, “It’s the most successful example of international law in a century.”)

If the two arch-foes have enjoyed such a good track record in court — an acrimonious forum to begin with — why would diplomacy be a stumbling block?

The United States has stood by the letter of the law in the Claims Tribunal. When former hostages filed suit against Iran, the U.S. State Department stepped in to have it dismissed. And the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the Accords. The United States could show the same level of commitment in diplomatic talks — instead of the old method of “carrots and sticks.” Carrots and sticks is not diplomacy. Imagine the arrogance it carries when the idiom is explained in translation.

President Obama has said he was willing to meet with the leaders of Iran. Why not? Take all options off the table. Sit down to tea. Forget Clinton and Ross. Forget Ahmadinejad, or even a potential reformist president. Obama meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would be a profoundly new and genuine form of diplomacy.

And waiting is the Claims Tribunal, an open and transparent mode of cooperation between the two countries. (It even has its own Web site.) If diplomatic negotiations were newly opened, the Tribunal could be used to develop diplomatic processes.

It is quite possible that the United States could someday acknowledge Iran as an ally. Dropping “carrots and sticks” and adopting open and highest level diplomatic dialogue could accomplish this hope and great change for the Middle East region and the world.

And the Claims Tribunal is a potential starting point. It is a framework for agreement already in place.

Copyright © 2009 Golnoush Niknejad – distributed by Agence Global.

The Latest IAEA Report: Iran’s Peace Overture to the U.S.?

February 20, 2009

Photo by David Yaghoobi.

Los Angeles

Tehran Bureau | a⋅nal⋅y⋅sis

The International Atomic Energy Agency just released its latest report on Iran’s nuclear program. The most important aspect of IAEA’s latest report on the program, overlooked or ignored in the propaganda against Iran, is that Iran has slowed down increasing the number of centrifuges in Natanz that are operating to produce low-enriched uranium. According to the IAEA report, as of February 1, 2009, Iran had 3936 centrifuges that were being fed with uranium hexafluoride, 1476 centrifuges installed and under vacuum (in preparation for being fed), and 125 installed but not under vacuum, for a total 5537 centrifuges, a number somewhat smaller than around 6000 centrifuges that many experts had expected. But, most importantly, the number of operating and productive centrifuges has not increased dramatically over the past many months.

There are two plausible explanations for the slow down, which are in fact complimentary. One is that Iran is waiting to see how the Obama administration is going to approach the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program in particular, and U.S.-Iran relations in general. This is totally consistent with the conciliatory messages and signals that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has been sending since the election of Barack Obama in November 2008. Surely, in addition to their desire for improving Iran’s relations with the United States under the present devastating global recession, the prospects of negotiating with a U.S. president whose middle name is Hussein, the name of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson and one of the most revered figures in Shi’ite Islam, is intriguing and enticing to the Iranian leaders.

The second explanation is that there are behind-the-scene negotiations between the United States and Iran, of which the public is unaware. Even if there are no such negotiations, the fact is that both sides have been sending positive signals, that it may be responsible for what Iran has done regarding its uranium-enrichment program.

Take, for example, the recent announcement that the U.S. State Department has declared PEJAK, a Kurdish rebel group that launches raids into Iran from the Kurdish region of Iraq, a terrorist organization. PEJAK (which stands for Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan) is, in fact, the Iranian branch of the Kurdish group PKK that has been fighting with Turkey for decades, and has been classified a terrorist organization by the United States. In addition, PEJAK forces have apparently been expelled from the region near the Iran-Iraq border. Given the close cooperation between the Kurdish forces in Iraq and the United States, it is difficult to imagine that this could have taken place without at least tacit U.S. consent and support. Thus, Iran may be returning the favor to the United States by not increasing the number of centrifuges that are actually producing low-enriched uranium.

In addition, the IAEA report states that all of Iran’s nuclear materials, research, and development are being monitored and safeguarded by the Agency. There has been no divergence of nuclear material, in line with Iran’s repeated contention that its nuclear program is peaceful. Thus, Iran has carried out its obligations under the provisions of its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA.

The seemingly negative part of the report has to do with the IAEA’s requests to visit certain sites in Iran. Most of the requests by the IAEA to visit the sites in Iran, which have been turned down by Iran, are covered by the Additional Protocol of the Safeguards Agreement, which Iran is not currently implementing, (not with Iran’s Safeguards Agreement). There is a brief history behind Iran’s refusal.

In October 2003, the government of President Mohammad Khatami signed the Sa’dabad Agreement (named so after Iran’s presidential palace) with Britain, France, and Germany (EU3), that committed it to signing the Additional Protocol and carrying out its provision on a volunteer basis, until the Iranian parliament ratified the Agreement. In the Paris Agreement of November 2004, Iran reaffirmed its intentions. In return, the EU3 promised Iran that it would present a proposal that would address Iran’s aspirations for having access to advanced nuclear technology, as well as the EU3 concerns regarding the nature of Iran’s nuclear program.

However, the proposal that EU3 presented Iran in August 2005 was long in a list of demands and essentially nil on concessions to Iran. Among other things, the EU3 demanded that Iran abandon its uranium enrichment program, thus demanding elimination of major “facts on the ground,” namely, the enrichment and related facilities and all the R&D work, in return for some vague promises in the distant future. No sane nation would agree to that.

Thus, after some negotiations, Iran suspended its voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol in February 2006. The United Nations Security Council does not have any legal rights to demand Iran to implement the provisions of the Additional Protocol, because the Iranian parliament has not ratified it, and it is Iran’s sovereign right to refuse implementing an agreement that it has not accepted.

Most of the visits requests stated by the IAEA in its latest report are covered by the Additional Protocol, toward which Iran has no obligations. However, the latest report by the IAEA also states that since March 2007, the Agency has carried out 21 unannounced visits to Iran’s nuclear sites.

Such intrusive and unannounced visits are an important part of the Additional Protocol. Therefore, Iran is still selectively and voluntarily carrying out some provisions of the Additional Protocol.

Regarding the Arak reactor and the IAEA request to visit the under-construction facility, such visits are covered by the modified text of the Subsidiary Arrangements (Code 3.1) of its Safeguards Agreement.

Iran had agreed to the modified text, part of which states that Iran must allow inspection of the under-construction sites. However, because the EU3 reneged on its promises, Iran suspended the implementation of the modified text in February 2006, and went back to its original Safeguards Agreement, signed in 1974. The original Subsidiary Arrangements states that only 180 days prior to the introduction of any nuclear material into a nuclear facility does Iran have the obligation to allow visits and inspection.

Thus, Iran has no legal obligations towards the Agency regarding the Arak reactor.

So overall, despite the propaganda and bogus alarms, the IAEA report actually indicates positive developments in the thorny issue of Iran’s nuclear program.

Iranian Music: An Unexplored Territory

February 19, 2009

Photo by David Yaghoobi.

Why Iranian music has not taken its place on the world stage.

Tehran, Iran
Hafta Music Society | vitrine

Traveling was once the affair of adventurers, tradesmen, explorers and conquerors. On the road for many years, these travelers stayed in different places and had to familiarize themselves with the culture, tradition, art, literature and way of life of the peoples they encountered. They were usually accompanied by servants, guards, carriages, horses, cattle, food and various goods. They also carried with them entertainers — musicians, poets, storytellers, comedians and dancers. They were veritable cultural envoys of their times.

The dialects, manners of speech, new musical instruments, handicrafts and customs of these travelers influenced the way people of different lands saw their own cultures. Music was an important way through which cultures influenced one other.

As one of the key posts along the Silk Road, Iran has played a significant role in cultural commerce. There are ample records of musical instruments traveling from the Iranian plateau to China from the seventh century AD onwards. The flow of music and poetry from Bukhara and Samarkand to the eastern and western parts of the plateau shaped the music and poetry of the region.

With the emergence of new modes of transportation and communication in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, cultural relations underwent major changes, leaving Iranian music, compared to that of the region, on the margins of musical exchange. Did the cultural Airbus fly over Iran in such haste to overlook its rich legacy? What reasons lie behind this omission?

Exoticism in music and the global trend toward new discoveries

In today’s world, where geographical borders are cleared in minutes or hours, rather than months or years, musical styles such as ChaChaCha, Mambo, Salsa, Raga, Saga, Tropic Music, Qawwali, Afrobeat, Griot, Fado or Conga are no strangers to the ear. Central African music has met the South American Aymaras and ragas of India chime to the tune of Scandinavian polkas. The world has always been eyeing new discoveries in music. AfroCuban elements, Bossa Nova rhythms, non-European instruments, including oud and pipe, and Sufi music have a clear presence in pop, rock and R&B. New names such as Desert Blues, Fusion, Bollywood Music, and Sufi Trance have become part of the music lexicon.

Why is it then that we don’t hear the name of tar among the wide array of musical instruments that inform the so-called World Music Scene? The same goes for the Shur scale in Persian music. The rhythmic chahar mezrab is unknown to many. Musical modes that saw continuous expansion from the fifteenth century to the seventeenth are today left by the wayside. Meanwhile, Indian music, which shares numerous features with its Iranian counterpart, enjoys tremendous popularity the world over. Leaving aside aesthetic considerations, I want to offer some reasons for the disparity between the two musical traditions.

Why did the world take note of Indian music?

India, like other countries of the colonial world, accepted and incorporated many features of the colonial mainland. The infiltration of the English language may be taken as the most obvious example. It allowed for momentous interactions between the colonizer and the colonized. Migration to and from the colonies and the slave trade further blended traditions. Nowhere can we see this cultural fusion better than in music.

By the end of World War II, Europe and the United States entered a new phase of international challenges and crises. The division of Germany, France’s problems in Cambodia, the onset of the Cold War and the nuclear showdown, the appearance of a threat named Cuba as a symbol of communism just a few kilometers south of the U.S. border, the emergence of a superpower like China, the Vietnam War, McCarthyism, women and civil rights movements in the United States, all plunged the Western world into a vortex of confusion from the 1950’s onward. The threat of World War III loomed large. The world was on the verge of a meltdown and with it a thirst for peace and calm intensified among a new generation.

Who spoke of peace? What could turn the minds away from torrential crises that hit the shores of the post-War world? The political philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, with its Hindu and Buddhism undercurrents, Eastern mysticism, Sufism, incense burning, Hare Krishna, sexual freedom, psychedelic drugs, among others, offered a way out. For the Western youth, the East, its culture and traditions, its music, was an escape.

Many factors played a catalytic role in popularizing Indian music: The Buddhist propensities of iconic figures like John Lennon and George Harrison, the use of sitar in “Norwegian Wood” from the Rubber Soul; Ravi Shankar’s confluence with Yehudi Menuhin and the production of West Meets East; the mystic magnetism of Jim Morrison and the Doors; the popularity of Psychedelic and Hard Rock and the taste of eastern melodies in the music of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and other rock bands; concerts such as Woodstock and Bangladesh; the friendship between Zakir Hussain and John McLaughlin, and the musical theories of Peter Gabriel after his separation from Genesis are only the most immediate.

If in the beginning minor influences of Indian music caressed the ears of European audiences, today its music as a whole is recognized and appreciated. Considered exotic per se, audiences can easily sit and listen to its different tones (in different moods) for several hours. In other words, the transitional phase helped familiarize the audience who was a stranger to India’s musical tradition. It even helped promote the music of neighboring regions, like Tamilnadu (Susheela Raman) and Pakistan (the Qawwali music of Abida Parveen and Nusrat Fatih Ali Khan).

The same can be said about Francophone or Latin American music.

So, why did the world overlook Iranian music?

Iran has been at the crossroads of commerce and at the crossfire of wars and confrontations since time immemorial. Two major conquests (the Arab and the Mongolian) were instrumental in determining how people of the Iranian plateau would face the outside world. Although the country never became a “colony,” its people learned strategically how to serve the invading armies without relinquishing their integrity. In recent history, Imperial Russia and the British Empire tried to parcel the land between them. They met with some success but never achieved total political control.

These are some of the reasons why Iranians, unlike Indians, did not surrender entirely to the invasive culture; instead, they raised their defenses. Even when France, Germany, and more recently the United States, tried to achieve control in seemingly less hostile manners, they were met with resistance. The situation led to national traditions and customs being taken into basements. Iranian modernists chose to “coexist” with foreign influences or, better said, accept the outward appearances of the Western culture. Those who kept true to their ethnic culture chose to lock it in, while modern intellectuals blindly followed the Western model.

In major population centers there are no identifiable Iranian enclaves amidst the different immigrant neighborhoods formed around religious and ethnic registers. Sometimes it is even hard to recognize an Iranian by his/her looks, as Iranians seemingly melt into their surrounding pot. Meanwhile, westerners living in Iran enjoy the famous “Iranian hospitality.” Iranians, contrary to Indians, have prided themselves in playing the role of a host rather than the vanquished. Could it be that the combination of this social softness and the habit of taking traditions into hiding has structured Iranian music as well?

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Iranians who had the opportunity to study in Europe brought back many offerings of Western culture into the country. In music, attempts were made to establish a “scientific” framework for Iranian classical music based on European notation and instrumentation; however, little has come of these attempts. In pop and rock music, too, the same tendency can be observed.

Today, we see strong traces of non-Iranian influences in the contemporary music of Iran. What’s more, the pattern of mass migration, especially after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, has given birth to a generation of Iranians with feeble links to their musical past. Iranian music in exile may use Persian words but it rarely tries to build on the rich repository of its existing musical repertoires.

In the past century, the Qajar preoccupation with the lure of modernity, the Pahlavi attempt to create a secular state a la West, and the Islamic backlash of 1979 has created an identity crisis for Iranian music. We can identify three main tendencies among Iranian musicians: Those who want to preserve traditions at all expense and by ignoring outside influences, those who fully submit to the Western ways in the hope of achieving salvation from traditions, and those who allow for outside influences to shape their music without losing sight of traditions. The first two have been instrumental in obscuring Iranian music from the world stage. Only the third advocates exchange and dialogue between cultures. At the same time, the global mass media has been less interested in what Iranian music has to offer than in exoticizing musicians who belong to the third group, as if they were jewels in an ancient ruin called Persian music.

What does the future hold for us?

The world is looking for the Exotic. But exotica has a short lifespan, it has a date of expiry, though it will eventually leave its mark on the global music scene. World music is in dire need of new material. Ears are desperate to hear new sounds and voices, desperate for new roots, different traditions, and new forms of knowledge. With their current social conditions, many regions around the world show potential for introducing their music and culture to the world. Iran, Afghanistan, Asia southeast, the newly independent countries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are only some of them.

One can visibly see this desire to reach out among Iranian musicians, especially those who have been exposed to Western music through the ages, from the Medieval period to the Classical and more contemporary ones. The Franco-Persian Nour Ensemble, for example, has tried to combine Spanish Cantigas and Gregorian Chants with Kurdish and Persian repertoires. Having performed their music live in Europe and in Tehran since 2000, the Ensemble is actively looking for what has been missing in the evolution of music East and West of the globe. The introduction of notations and the systematization of classical music in the West led to the elimination of certain aspects of music supported by oral traditions. Iranian music, on the other hand, preserved most of its oral, improvisational qualities. As such, Nour tries to introduce into Western music what it had abandoned since the middle ages — the art of improvisation. Collaboration between nice musicians, four of which are French nationals, has thus far led to the release of an album called Alba.

Examples of such cross-cultural music can also be found in the works of a rural band like Jahleh. Jahleh is a clay pot used as a water container in some villages of the Hormozgan province in the Persian Gulf. Next to such folk instruments as ney jofti (a double reed-flute) and dohol (bass drum akin to the Indian mridanga), jahleh gives the music a timbre unique to this region. At the same time, the band makes great use of blues, rock, rap, and reggae rhythms and melodies to bring diversity to the music of the port city of Bandar Abbas, itself greatly influenced by the musical traditions of Ethiopia and Zanzibar.

The Paris-Tehran Project is the name of a 2003 live recording of a joint concert by French jazz players of the Alain Brunet Orchestra and classical Iranian musicians of the Shargh Ensemble on the occasion of the Day of Music celebrated in France on 21 June every year. Hermes Records and the Cultural Center of the French Embassy in Iran organized the concert, which was originally intended to be in three parts. In the first two, musicians of each group were to perform separately, coming together on the stage of Niavaran Cultural Center in Tehran for a third time in a jam session. However, the two groups had such chemistry between them that musicians decided to skip the first two parts.

Backed by ancient history, regional and ethnic diversity, various traditions and customs, and a rich literature, Iranian music surely deserves to be recognized, heard and seen. Today, the world of music awaits a newcomer and Iran may be the landing place for the cultural Airbus.

Ramin Sadighi is the founder of Hermes Records. This article was first published in the The Warwick Review in September 2007. The magazine’s Vol. 1 No. 3 issue was dedicated to Iran.

Who’s Telling the Truth About Iran’s Nuclear Program?

February 18, 2009

Los Angeles
Tehran Bureau | a⋅nal⋅y⋅sis

Since February 2003, Iran’s nuclear program has undergone what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) itself admits to be the most intrusive inspection in the agency’s history. After thousands of hours of inspections by some of the most experienced IAEA experts, the Agency has verified time and again that (1) there is no evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran, and (2) all the declared nuclear materials have been accounted for; there has been no diversion of such materials to non-peaceful purposes. Iran has a clean bill of health, as far as its nuclear program is concerned.

This is not what Israel, its lobby in the United States, and its neoconservative allies had expected. Such a clean bill of health deprives them of any justification for advocating military attacks on Iran. The illegal act of sending Iran’s nuclear dossier to the United Nations Security Council and the subsequent, highly dubious UNSC resolutions against Iran have also not been effective. So what is the ‘War Party’ to do?

It has resorted to an international campaign of exaggerations, lies, and distortions. This campaign involves planting lies in the major media and on the Internet, making absurd interpretations of what the IAEA reports on Iran, and issuing dire — but bogus — warnings about the speed at which Iran’s uranium-enrichment program is progressing. Such warnings have been around for more than two decades. In 1984, West German intelligence predicted that Iran would make a nuclear bomb within two years.

The campaign uses all the instruments of the U.S. political establishment to advance its agenda. The Bush administration routinely talked about “Iran’s nuclear weapon program,” or “Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons,” without ever bothering to present any credible evidence for their assertion. Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons has become an article of faith even to President Obama, who, in my opinion, is not pro-war. Leon Panetta, the new CIA director, recently said, “From all the information I’ve seen, I think there is no question that they [Iranians] are seeking that [nuclear weapon] capability.” What information, Mr. Panetta? Enlighten us, please.

An important base for the campaign has been the U.S. Congress. Take, for example, the report by Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the then chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, issued on Aug. 23, 2006. The first bullet on page four of the report stated, “Iran has conducted a clandestine uranium enrichment program for nearly two decades in violation of its IAEA safeguards agreement, and despite its claim to the contrary, Iran is seeking nuclear weapons.”

Not a single word in this statement is true. Iran did not violate its Safeguards Agreement, signed in 1974 with the IAEA, when it did not declare the construction of the Natanz facility for uranium enrichment. The agreement stipulated that Iran was only obligated to declare the existence of the facility 180 days prior to introducing nuclear materials into the facility. Iran did just that in February 2003, and nuclear materials were brought into the facility during the summer in 2003. The assertion that Iran is seeking nuclear weapon was a lie then, as it is now. No evidence of a secret nuclear weapons program has been discovered. Although the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released in early December 2007 stated that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, it did not present any evidence that the program existed prior to 2003.

A caption to a figure on page nine of Hoekstra’s report stated that “Iran is currently enriching uranium to weapons grade using a 164-machine centrifuge cascade at this facility in Natanz.” This was another lie. Neither then nor now, when there are more than 5,000 centrifuges at Natanz, has Iran enriched uranium to weapons grade.

According to the bullet at the top of page 11, “Spent fuel from the LWR [light water reactor] that Russia is building for Iran in the city of Bushehr can produce enough weapons-grade plutonium for 30 weapons per year if the fuel rods were diverted and reprocessed.” First of all, according to the Iran-Russia agreement, the spent fuel will be returned to Russia. Second, the plutonium from LWR spent fuel is not suitable for making nuclear weapons. Even if it were, it should not be labeled as “weapons grade,” because converting it to weapons grade is costly, laborious, and time-consuming. Third, the IAEA monitors the Bushehr reactor operations. There is no possibility of overtly or covertly diverting any nuclear materials.

Such lies and distortions forced the IAEA to take the unusual step of sending an angry letter to Hoekstra. Signed by Vilmos Cserveny, a senior official at the IAEA, the letter took “strong exception to the incorrect and misleading assertion” that the IAEA had removed a senior safeguards inspector for “allegedly raising concerns about Iranian deception,” and branded as “outrageous and dishonest” the report’s suggestion that he was removed for not adhering “to an unstated IAEA policy barring IAEA officials from telling the truth” about Iran.

The U.S. mainstream media, and in particular the New York Times, has played a leading role in the campaign of lies and deceptions against Iran’s nuclear program. One would think that, after all the lies and exaggerations that Judith Miller and Michael Gordon planted in the Times about Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, the Times would learn its lesson. Apparently not.

For example, after the Nov. 15, 2007, IAEA report on Iran, which, once again, gave Iran a clean bill of health, Elaine Sciolino and William J. Broad of the Times declared, “Nuclear report finds Iran’s disclosures were inadequate.” This was while the IAEA report itself stated several times that the information provided by Iran was “consistent” with the IAEA findings. The word “inadequate” was not used even once in the report.

Why did Sciolino and Broad — the “top” interpreters of what the IAEA really says in its reports — think that Iran’s disclosures were “inadequate”? Because, according to them, Iran had asked the IAEA for a meeting in December 2007 to provide information about its P-2 centrifuges, and, therefore, had missed the November deadline. However, the December meeting was about Iran’s current activities on its P-2 centrifuge, whereas the November 2007 report was about Iran’s past activities. In fact, regarding Iran’s past activities on the design of the P-2 centrifuge, the same November 2007 report stated, “Based on visits made by the Agency inspectors to the P-2 workshops in 2004, examination of the company’s owner contract [the company contracted to build the P-2 centrifuge], progress reports and logbooks, and information available on procurement inquiries, the agency has concluded that Iran’s statements on the content of the declared P-2 R&D activities are consistent with the agency’s findings.” So, the IAEA said one thing, but Sciolino and Broad claimed a completely different thing. By the way, the article has disappeared from the Times‘ archives! Even the Times itself does not believe in it.

But Sciolino did not stop there. After the IAEA issued a new report on Iran on May 26, 2008, Sciolino claimed in an article the next day that the IAEA had expressed concerns about Iran’s “willful lack of cooperation.” No such words or their equivalent can be found in the report. The report stated that the IAEA was trying to understand the role of Iran’s military in its nuclear program. Sciolino did not ask any IAEA official why the agency was not concerned about Brazil’s navy controlling its uranium-enrichment program and limiting IAEA access to its nuclear facilities (in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). She did not ask any U.S. official why the U.S. was not protesting Brazil’s violations of its NPT obligations. Instead, she fabricated nonexistent statements about Iran.

The campaign has an international dimension too. The Australian claimed on Aug. 7, 2006, that Iran had tried to import uranium ore from Congo. Nothing came out of this “report.” The conservative British newspaper the Daily Telegraph has made some of the most blatantly false claims. For example, on Nov. 16, 2006, David Blair reported in the Telegraph that Iran tried to get uranium from Somalia’s Islamic forces, in return for arms. To give his report credibility, Blair quoted UN officials about Iran’s military helping Somali forces. But his claim that Iran wanted uranium in return included no direct quote. It was just a lie. Even the Bush hawks did not buy it.

The Telegraph cooked up another falsehood about Iran’s nuclear program, which provoked an angry IAEA response. On Sept. 14, 2008, Con Coughlin, the Telegraph’s liar-in-chief, claimed that the IAEA could not account for 50-60 tons of uranium, which was supposed to be in Isfahan, where “Iran enriches its uranium.” As the Persian proverb goes, “a liar has a short memory.” Coughlin had apparently forgotten the simple and well-known fact that Iran enriches uranium at Natanz, not Isfahan (where the yellowcake is converted to uranium hexafluoride). The IAEA immediately issued a statement through its spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming, rejecting the report. Two days earlier, in another article in the Telegraph, Con Coughlin and Tim Butcher claimed that there were “fresh signs” that Iran had renewed work on developing nuclear weapons.

Typically, Coughlin quoted unnamed sources, the existence of whom can never be verified. In other articles in the Telegraph, Coughlin claimed a link between 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and Iraqi intelligence; he alleged that North Korea was helping Iran to prepare a nuclear weapon test, and said that Iran was “grooming” bin Laden’s successor, none of which turned out to be true.

Then there is the rabid anti-Iran “group” called United Against Nuclear Iran. It is supposedly a “non-partisan, broad-based coalition” from “diverse ethnicities, faith communities, [and] political and social affiliations.” But, the group’s Web site is registered to Henley MacIntyre, who was involved in the Republican National Committee/White House e-mail scandal during George W. Bush’s presidency. Its executive director is Mark Wallace, who worked with John “Bomb-Iran-for-Israel’s-Sake” Bolton when he was the U.S. ambassador at the UN. Others involved are Richard Holbrooke, who is now President Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Dennis Ross, a longtime instrument of the Israel lobby. The group has produced a video asserting that Iran has produced highly enriched uranium, a claim that has been debunked thoroughly not only by the IAEA, but also by others.

Another tactic of the War Party has been spreading rumors and innuendoes about the existence of an internal row in the IAEA over Iran. For example, in February 2008, just as the IAEA was going to report that it had clarified Iran’s past nuclear activities, unnamed “senior Western officials” started being quoted saying that some experts within the IAEA were not happy about the report to be released. It forced the IAEA to depart from its routine mode of operation and have a senior official call Reuters to deny the rumors.

In yet another exaggeration of Iran’s nuclear potential, much has been said recently about the accumulation of low-enriched uranium (LEU) in Iran. The suggestion is that Iran can enrich its stockpile of LEU to highly enriched uranium (HEU) for bomb-making. This claim has been thoroughly debunked. Briefly, all of Iran’s LEU is safeguarded by the IAEA. Its conversion to HEU would require extensive new designs, reconfiguration, and reconnection of the centrifuges in Natanz, none of which can evade the IAEA’s watching eyes. Even if Iran could somehow do all of these things, it would only be enough HEU for one nuclear device, which would have to be detonated in a test. Going from a device to a bomb is a difficult task by itself.

In the latest attempt to cast doubt on Iran’s nuclear program, suddenly cyberspace and the mainstream media are full of stories about Iran running out of uranium. Up to now, Iran has been using the 600 tons of uranium oxide, or yellowcake, it purchased in the 1970s from South Africa for conversion to uranium hexafluoride and enrichment at Natanz. The stories are based on a report by Mark Hibbs in Nuclear Fuel (Dec. 15, 2008). The Rupert Murdoch-owned Times of London, another British newspaper in the business of fabricating stories on Iran’s nuclear program, picked up the story and ran with it. Then there was a third report by the Institute for Science and International Security to the same effect. The argument is that if Iran does not have enough yellowcake and cannot import it, then why does Iran bother to have a uranium-enrichment program, unless it is for bomb-making?

Iran has been constructing a facility in Ardakan, which will come online sometime this year, for processing uranium ore into yellowcake. Clearly, had Iran thought that it would not have enough uranium ore, it would not have undertaken the construction of the Ardakan plant. In fact, in December 2006, Iran announced that there are 1,400 uranium mines in Iran, and last month it announced the discovery of uranium ore reserves at three new sites in central Iran. While many sources put Iran’s known reserves of uranium ore at about 3,000 tons, the actual number is at least 30,000 tons.

The above is only a small part of all the lies, exaggerations, and distortions of the facts about Iran’s nuclear program. All the sound bites about the West respecting Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear technology are just that, sound bites. The truth is, the West does not want Iran to have access to advanced nuclear technology. Now that Iran has succeeded in setting up a domestic nuclear fuel cycle, including designing new centrifuges, the West wants Iran to dismantle them. Why should Iran give up its legal rights under the NPT and its sovereign rights to develop its uranium resources and indigenous nuclear industry?

Intel Estimate Muddied Iran’s Nuclear Intent

February 17, 2009

Washington, D.C.
Tehran Bureau | dispatches

President Barack Obama and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair did not appear to be on the same page this week when they talked about Iran’s nuclear intentions. Obama referred in his news conference to Iran’s “development of a nuclear weapon or their pursuit of a nuclear weapon,” but Blair said “we do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.”

Both statements are a reflection of the confusion left by the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran over Tehran’s intentions regarding nuclear weapons. That estimate was immediately attacked by the Republicans and disowned by the George W. Bush administration because it revealed that Iran had halted work on nuclear weapons in 2003.

The real problem with the NIE, however, was that it failed to clarify whether the Islamic Republic is determined to have nuclear weapons or only to have the capability to build them as a “hedge” against possible future developments.

The difference between those two possible Iranian strategies can hardly be overestimated. If Iran is actually pursuing nuclear weapons, the United States would have to choose between coercive diplomacy on Iran or accepting its status as a nuclear weapons state and seeking to deter it.

If Iran has a “hedging strategy,” however, the United States could take diplomatic steps that would maximize the incentives for Iran to remain a non-nuclear weapons state indefinitely and not risk an international confrontation.

The “scope note” for the 2007 NIE indicated that it was supposed to answer the question, “What are Iran’s intentions toward developing nuclear weapons?” But the contents of the estimate itself do not address the issue, according to an intelligence source who has read the entire 140-page estimate. The source could not be identified because he is not authorized to speak about the NIE.

The estimate was drafted primarily by specialists on nuclear weapons in the CIA who have little interest and no expertise in Iranian intentions, according to the source. CIA and State Department analysts on Iran, who do have such expertise, were brought into the discussion only after it was drafted.

Despite the absence of any substantive analysis in the body of the estimate, the “key judgments” of the estimate published in early December 2007 did address the question of Iran’s intentions. But those statements revealed two sharply opposed views that could not be reconciled.

On one hand, the document states that ending of the weapons program in 2003 “indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs.”

That straightforward statement of the “hedging” interpretation of Iranian strategy is followed by the suggestion that Iran would extend the halt to its nuclear weapons program if it were offered “credible” opportunities to achieve its “security, prestige and goals for regional influence.”

But that view is contradicted by the next paragraph, which says it would be “difficult” to get the Iranian leadership to “forego the eventual development of nuclear weapons.” The reason cited is the alleged “linkage that many within the leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iran’s key national security and foreign policy objectives.”

Unable to reconcile the two views, the document also expresses uncertainty about which is more accurate. “We do not have sufficient intelligence,” it says, “to judge confidently whether Tehran is willing to maintain the halt of its nuclear weapons program indefinitely while it weighs its options, or whether it will or already has set specific deadlines or criteria that will prompt it to restart the program.”

The analysts struck a series of other compromise formulas, beginning with a summary statement in the lead paragraph of the key judgments that assesses “with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.” That formula managed to include both views of Iran’s intentions in the same sentence.

The statement, “[W]e do not know whether [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons” represents yet another compromise in the NIE.

The 2007 estimate was not the first that was supposed to address the issue of Iran’s strategy, only to produce a muddled compromise conclusion. The same thing happened on a 2001 estimate on the nuclear program and a 2005 “Note to Holders” which updated the 2001 estimate. In both cases, Robert Walpole, the NIO for Strategic and Nuclear Programs, was responsible for drafting, with the assistance of weapons analysts from the CIA’s Weapons Intelligence Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Center (WINPAC).

That lead role gave the weapons analysts a crucial political advantage in the process, according to Paul Pillar, the national intelligence officer on Near East and South Asia during that period. “Who has the lead can make a difference in what gets in the estimate,” Pillar said in an interview.

That skewed the estimates by minimizing the attention given to Iranian intentions, because the weapons specialists had no expertise in analyzing the issue. Equally important, weapons analysts saw their main clientele within the government as being the military services and the Pentagon, according to Ellen Laipson, who was involved in the NIE process as a former national intelligence officer for Near East and South Asia and as acting assistant director of Central Intelligence for Analysis and Production in 2001-2002.

Pillar recalled in an interview that it was his “personal assessment” that Iran was pursuing a “hedging strategy” rather than a policy decision to make nuclear weapons. Pillar said he and other Iran analysts who had followed the nuclear program over the years did not believe it was only for the purpose of energy, but neither did they believe it was aimed at acquiring nuclear weapons. The decision to build a nuclear weapon, he says, “will depend on circumstances of the time, and that’s a decision yet to be made.”

Pillar and other analysts were also aware of pragmatic arguments made within the Iranian regime against making a bomb. Most of the Iran analysts, according to Pillar, believed that Iran’s decision on manufacturing nuclear weapons would be influenced by U.S. policy — and especially by whether the United States was willing to give Iran a firm security guarantee.

The weapons specialists rejected that argument, Pillar recalled: “Some of them would say, ‘don’t give me that Iranian-decision-yet-to-be-made approach — they’ve already decided!'”

Pillar says those two conflicting views on the question of Iran’s intentions were reconciled through “assessment language that is inevitably a compromise of sorts.”

The “key judgments” in the May 2005 “Memo to holders” on Iran’s nuclear program, declassified as part of the “key judgments” for the 2007 estimate, shows how such fudging language was used to reconcile the deep differences over Iranian intentions.

It said the analysts “assess with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure, but we do not assess that Iran is immovable.” That formula clearly leaned further toward the weapons analysts than toward the Iran analysts.

Pillar admits that he and Walpole “did kind of a crappy job of bridging the two views” in the 2005 estimate.

It’s not clear whether Obama has even been briefed on the distinction between a strategy of manufacturing weapons strategy and a hedging strategy. But given the systematic skewing of intelligence on the issue in the past, he will need to reach beyond Dennis Blair and CIA director Leon Panetta to understand that vital issue.

Iran Night on the Lower East Side

February 16, 2009

KGB Non-Fiction Presents Iran Night
February 17, 2009
7:00 pm – 9:00 pm

85 East 4th Street
New York, NY 10003

Sohrab Mohebbi
is the author of “Hair is for Head-Banging” and a contributor to Urban Iran. A writer/art critic from Tehran, he is currently a student at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, New York, and the founder of the 127 music ensemble.

Charlotte Noruzi was born in Tehran, moving to the U.S. in 1977. She is an author-illustrator-designer based in New York City. Urban Iran is a depiction of everyday life apart from international and diplomatic policies, giving voice to people living and working in Iran today while probing the complexities of contemporary Iran. Described and revealed by photographers, writers and visual artists, from street art to heavy metal bands and book publishing, Urban Iran documents how the Western media gaze influences how much of the world views Iran, but also how this gaze impacts how Iranians see themselves, especially in the realm of the creative arts.

Hooman Majd was born in Tehran, Iran in 1957. He worked at Island Records and Polygram Records for many years, with a diverse group of artists, and was head of film and music at Palm Pictures, where he produced The Cup and James Toback’s Black and White. He has written for GQ, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Observer, Interview, and Salon, and has been a regular contributor to The Huffington Post from its inception. A contributing editor at Interview magazine, he lives in New York City and travels regularly back to Iran.

Manijeh Nasrabadi received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Hunter College. Her essay “Before I Knew Him” won the City University of New York Arts Gala Memoir Prize in 2005. She was a Hertog Fellow that same year and a 2008 recipient of a Hedgebrook writing residency. Her essay, “Souvenir,” appears in About Face, published by Seal Press in June 2008. She is co-director of the Association of Iranian-American writers and teaches creative writing at Hunter College. Her current project is Carry the Sand Away from the Walls, a memoir about her relationship with her Iranian, Zoroastrian, communist father.

A Nation in Love

February 13, 2009

Over the past decade, Valentine’s Day has become increasingly popluar in Iran. Pictured (above), a chador-clad Muslim woman makes a St. Valentine’s Day purchase. Photo by Nima Afshar Naderi. Pictured (below) Qaem Shopping Center, Tajrish, Tehran. Photo by Sharto. All images from 2007.

Iranian V-Day.

Tehran, Iran
Tehran Bureau | dispatches

Red, Red, Red: It’s as if the color were splattered on the city’s stores and shopping centers. Unlike Saudi Arabia, where officials banned florists and gift shops owners from displaying anything red until after Valentine’s Day, Tehran was bustling with shoppers with a penchant for everything heart-shaped and red.

Over the past few years, Western holidays like Halloween and Christmas have caught on in Iran, but none as successfully as Valentine’s Day, which has been making its way into the Iranian consciousness for well over a decade.

True to form, malls in Tehran were flooded with young Iranians in search of the perfect gift. Even the more traditional gold stores and utilitarian drugstores did not escape unscathed and bore some signs of this approaching day of love. The phenomenon has spread from the populous capital to some far flung provinces, including Khalkhal in the mountains in the northwest province of Ardabil, where youngsters seemed giddy with anticipation. In a matter of time, teddy bears imported from China will have made their way to Iran’s smaller villages, where they will be on sale for Feb. 14.

So far this year, authorities seem to be looking the other way. Wednesday evening, in the large shopping district of Gisha-Nasr, even some middle-aged folks joined the ranks of youngsters queuing up to have their purchases of chocolate, stuffed animals and red velvet roses gift wrapped for the occasion. Officers of “Gasht Ershad,” usually on the prowl for inappropriate dress and behavior, looked on passively.

The silence, however, betrays a deep sense of discontent just below the surface. A conservative member of the parliament’s cultural committee said exchanging gifts in a lawful relationship could be the key to solving the problem. “Young men and women entering the university can enter into a ‘temporary marriage’ with a four-year duration,” he said. “After four years, they can get married — or not. It would not be a big deal if they decided against marriage” after this period was over. In the meantime, the MP said celebrating Valentine’s Day in the present form was wrong and inappropriate for Iranians.

Mohammad Reza Zayeri, a conservative cleric active in cultural affairs, was among those who suggested naming the wedding anniversary of Ali, the first Shia Imam, and wife Fatema, the ‘day of love’ in Iran.

Hossein, a student at Azad University, in Roodehen, said there was a massive celebration this year at his school to commemorate Imam Ali’s wedding anniversary. “We were strongly encouraged to carry on this celebration in the coming years and to adopt the occasion as our ‘day of love,’” he said.

So far the proposal has not met with much enthusiasm.

In the south Tehran neighborhood of Imam Zadeh Hassan, smiling young men and women happily handed over blue and green bills for teddy bears coming in a variety of sizes and heart-decorated boxes of chocolates. Still the astronomical hike in the price of decorative flower baskets around Hosseinieh Square in more affluent north Tehran made the unofficial holiday look more like a trend pushed to feed a cropping commercial enterprise than an excuse to express deep matters of the heart.

Valentine’s Day is also a windfall to the telecoms industry, as millions of youth use their cellphones to text messages of love to one another. Still others will resort to the relative anonymity of the Iranian blogosphere to express these sentiments.

Valentine’s Day comes on the heels of Fajr, the first 10 days of February, marking the return of Ayatollah Khomeini from exile and the victory of the revolution. Over the past few years, there have been signs that revolutionary fervor can co-exist with this Christian-rooted day of love. Saloumeh, a photojournalist, took part in the march commemorating the revolution a few days ago. Along her path on Azadi, Zanjan and Azerbeijan avenues, she said she saw “peppered among demonstrators, content-looking street vendors selling colored balloons and bright red hearts.”