Archive for March, 2009

They Say, We Say

March 21, 2009

Bench outside of the Peace Palace at The Hague. No hand, but a step forward.

Please click here for the full report in English.

March 21, 2009

Speech by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to a gathering at the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, on the occasion of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year.

Regarding the foreign affairs of our country, I would like to mentions one point, and that is the issue between us and the United States. One of the main challenges for the Revolution, right from the beginning, was the same issue. Right from the first day of the Revolution’s victory, a phase was opened for the Iranian nation, as a major test in its relations and interactions with the government of the United States of America. This major and important test continued for the past 30 years. The US Government faced this Revolution with an angry and frowning face, and opposed us from the beginning. Of course, they had the right to do so, considering their own calculations. Before the Revolution, Iran was in the hands of the United States, its vital resources were in the hands of the United States, its political decision-making centers were in the hands of the United States, decisions to appoint and depose its vital centers were in the hands of the United States, and it (Iran) was like a field for the United States, the US military, and others on which to graze. Well, this was taken away from them. They could have expressed their opposition in not such an aggressive manner. But from the beginning of the Revolution, both their Republican presidents, and the Democrats, did not behave well toward the Islamic Republic. This is not secret from anyone.

(People chant: “Death to America”)

Pay attention, the first measure taken by the United States was to provoke the scattered opposition groups of the Islamic Republic, and to support terrorism and disintegration in the country. They started this right from the beginning. In any parts of the country, where there were grounds for disintegration, the United States had a hand, we noticed their money, and at times their agents. This cost our people much. Unfortunately, this continues. The bandits in the Iran-Pakistan border areas, we know that some of them — as we have their voices (as received) — are in touch with Americans.

They have wireless communications, and take orders from them. Bandits, terrorists, murderers, are in touch with US officers in a neighboring country. Unfortunately, this still goes on. This was the beginning of what they started. Then it was the confiscation of property and goods belonging to Iran. The former regime gave a large amount of money to the United States to buy airplanes, helicopters, and weapons from them. Some of them over there were prepared, and when the Revolution took place, they did not deliver them. They did not give back the money, which amounted to millions of dollars. And the strange point is that they kept these goods in a store, and considered storage charges for it, which they claimed from the Algeria Agreement. To take away some goods from a nation, confiscate them, and fail to deliver them, and then claim storage charges for it! This is the kind of behavior started then, which continues. Our possessions are still there. They belong to the Iranian nation. They are in the United States and also some European countries. We referred to them over the past years, and asked them to give us what belongs to us and what we paid for. They said that since they are under the license of the United States, the United States does not allow them to do so; they cannot return them to us, and they are still there.

They showed Saddam (late Iraqi president) a green light. This was another plan by the US Government to attack Iran. If Saddam did not have the green light from the United States, he would have not attacked our borders. They imposed eight years of war on our country. About 300,000 of our young people, our people, were martyred in this eight-year war. In these eight years (Iran-Iraq war), particularly in the last few years of it, the United States constantly supported Saddam and helped him financially, with ammunition, and political advice. They provided him with satellite information. They had information facilities. They recorded the movements of our forces by satellite, and transferred this information the very same day to Saddam’s HQ to use against our young people and forces.

They (the United States) closed their eyes to Saddam’s crimes. The Halabcheh (southern Iranian town bordering Iraq) incident took place, hitting various towns of our country with missiles. They destroyed houses, they used chemical bombs on the frontlines, they still closed their eyes. They did not object at all. They helped Saddam. This was another one of the acts of this government over the years toward our country and our nation.

(People chant)

Then, please pay attention; there is a lot of time for chanting. Toward the end of the war, a US officer hit our airplane on the Persian Gulf with a missile from a warship. Some 290, about 300, passengers were in this plane, and they were all killed. And then, instead of punishing that officer, the US President of that time awarded that officer and gave him a medal. Now, should our nation forget this? Can it forget?They supported criminal terrorists who killed men, women, people, great scholars, even little children in our country. They (the United States) allowed them (terrorists) to be active in their country. They constantly released aggressive propaganda against our country. Constantly! In the past years, US Presidents, particularly during the eight years of the former president (referring to President George W. Bush), whenever he said something against the Iranian nation, against our country, against our officials, against the Islamic Republic system, he said something absurd and nonsensical. He did not respect the Iranian nation. It was always like this over the years. They disturbed the security and peace in our region, security in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They brought massive quantities of weapons to the regional countries, in order to stand against the Islamic Republic, in fact to fill the pockets of armaments factories.

They unconditionally supported Israel, the cruel Zionist regime. You witnessed one example of its (Israel’s) cruelty in Gaza in the past two, three months. What a disaster they created. How many children they killed, how many men and women they killed. In 22 days they killed 5,000 people in Gaza with bombardments, missiles, and direct shootings. In the meanwhile they supported it. The US Government supported it until the very last moment. Whenever the Security Council wanted to issue a resolution against the Zionist regime, the United States stepped forward and defended (Israel), and did not let it happen. It (the United States) threatened our country on any occasion. It constantly said that it will attack us. They said that they had a military plan ready on the desk, they will do this, and they will do that. They constantly talked against our country and threatened our nation. Of course, these threats did not affect our nation, but they showed their enmity by doing so. They insulted the Iranian nation, the Iranian government, and the Iranian president, over and over again. Some years ago, an American said that the Iranian nation must be eradicated. In the past few years, a US official said that a nice and moderate Iranian is one that was killed, who is dead. They insulted this great and honorable nation, the nation whose only fault is to defend its identity and independence in such ways.

They imposed sanctions on our country for 30 years. Of course, these sanctions were in our benefit. With this regard, we must thank the United States.

If they had not imposed sanctions on us, we would have not reached this level of science and progress. Sanctions constantly made us aware, made us think about ourselves, and be innovative. But they did not mean to serve us like this. They wanted to be antagonist. This is how they treated the Iranian nation for 30 years, and now the new US Government says that they would like to negotiate with Iran, that we should forget the past. They say that they extended their arm towards Iran. What kind of a hand? If it is an iron hand covered with a velvet glove, then it will not make any good sense. They congratulate the Iranian nation on the occasion of the New Year (Iranian New Year started 20 March 2009), but in the same message call the Iranian nation supporters of terrorism, who seek nuclear weapons, and accuse it of such things.

I would like to say that I do not know who makes decisions for the United States, the President, the Congress, elements behind the scenes? But I would like to say that we have logic. Since the beginning, the Iranian nation moved with logic. Regarding our vital issues, we are not sentimental. We do not make decisions based on emotion. We make decisions through calculation. They tell us to negotiate, to start relations. They have the slogan of change. Where is the change? What has changed? Clarify this to us. What changed? Has your enmity toward the Iranian nation changed? What signs are there to support this? Have you released the possessions of the Iranian nation? Have you removed the cruel sanctions? Have you stopped the insults, accusations, and negative propaganda against this great nation and its officials? Have you stopped your unconditional support for the Zionist regime? What has changed? They talk of change, but there are no changes in actions. We have not seen any changes. Even the literature has not changed. The new US President, from the very moment of his official appointment as President, made a speech, and insulted Iran and the Islamic government. Why? If you tell the truth, and there are changes, where are these changes? Why can we see nothing? I would like to say this to everyone. US officials should also know that the Iranian nation cannot be fooled, or scared.

(People chant)

First of all. (Interrupted by chanting)

Changes in words are not adequate; although we have not seen much of a change there either. Change must be real. I would like to say this to US officials, that this change that you talk about is a real necessity; you have no other choice, you must change. If you do not change, then divine traditions will change you, the world will change you. You must change, but this change cannot be in words only. It should not come with unhealthy intentions. You may say that you want to change policies, but not your aims, that you will change tactics. This is not change. This is deceit. There can be true change, which should be seen in action. I advise US officials, whoever is the decision-maker in the United States, whether the President, Congress, or others, that the US Government has not worked to the benefit of the American people. Today, you are hated in the world. You should know this, if you do not already. Nations set fire to your flag. Muslim nations across the world chant “Death to America.”

(People chant: “Death to America”)

What is the reason behind this hatred? Have you ever studied this? Analyzed it? Have you learnt from it? The reason is, that you treat the world like a pupil, you talk snobbishly, you want to impose your own will on the world, you interfere in the affairs of other countries, and you implement double-sided criteria. When a young Palestinian is forced to perform some act of martyrdom, because of the pressure he is under, you bombard him with a mass of propaganda, and on the other hand you ignore the crimes of the Zionist regime, while it creates such a disaster in Gaza for 22 days. You call that young man a terrorist, and you say that you are committed towards the security of such a terrorist regime. These are the reasons that they hate you around the world. This is advice to you. For your own benefit, for your own good, for the future of your country, restrain from your snobbish attitude, hegemony, and your lecturing attitude. Do not interfere in the affairs of other nations. Be happy with your own rights. Do not define benefits for yourself in various parts of the world. You will see that the United States will gradually lose its hated image in the world. These deed have made you hated. Listen to these words. This is my advice to US officials, the President, and others. Listen well to these words, and have them translated for you. Of course, do not give it to the Zionists to translate for you. Consult healthy people, and seek their opinions.

If the US Government continues its same behavior, method, course, policies against us, as in the past 30 years, we are the same people, the same nation that we were for the past 30 years.

(People chant)

Please pay attention. If you go on with the slogan of discussion and pressure, saying that you will negotiate with Iran, and at the same time impose pressure, threats, and changes, then our nation will not like such words. We do not have any experience with the new US President and Government. We shall see and judge. You change, and we shall change as well. If you do not change, our people became more and more experienced, stronger, and more patient in the past 30 years.

Compiled and distributed by NTIS, US Dept. of Commerce.


March 20, 2009

Robert Wood
Acting Department Spokesman
Daily Press Briefing

Please click here for the full transcript

MR. WOOD: Happy Friday, everyone, happy spring. I’m going to start off with a couple of announcements.


MR. WOOD: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: Happy Nowruz.

MR. WOOD: Happy Nowruz. This one is on Bosnia.

The United States supports the draft constitutional amendment on the Brcko district currently before parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina…

…And with that, I will take your questions.

QUESTION: What do you make so far of the Iranian reaction to the President’s video message?

QUESTION: Robert, can I ask you a question about the statement on Madagascar? How much money is involved in the suspension?

MR. WOOD: Charlie, we’re working to get the figures for you right now, and we’ll hopefully be able to give you that a little bit later today.


MR. WOOD: No, that’s a good question.

QUESTION: Now proceed to —

MR. WOOD: We’re working on it.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Yeah, your – what do you make of the Iranian reaction thus far to the President’s video message?

MR. WOOD: Well, I haven’t really seen much in terms of the Iranian reaction to it. We will – I will see more as the day goes on. But I think the importance of this message was that the President said that we are going to engage in direct diplomacy with Iran. We’re interested in working with the Iranian people, the Iranian Government to improve the relationship. There are still a lot of difficult issues that remain between us, but we’re willing to work through them if the Iranians are willing to work with us. So, you know, I’ll probably have more to say about the Iranian reaction once I have a fuller understanding of how they responded to it.


QUESTION: Do you have anything more on whether U.S. officials will meet with their Iranian counterparts either in Russia for the Shanghai grouping or the one in The Hague, the Afghanistan —

MR. WOOD: No, I don’t have anything more than what I said yesterday, but we’ll certainly keep you abreast if there are changes to that.

James, haven’t seen you in a while. Good to see you.

QUESTION: Good to be back. Robert, is the American policy toward Israel under review?

MR. WOOD: No, our policy toward – are you talking about something specific?

QUESTION: You’ve talked about how the policy in Afghanistan is under review, the policy toward North Korea is under review, Iran is under review. Is the policy toward Israel under review?

MR. WOOD: No, our – look, we have a longstanding, very good relationship with the Government of Israel. We’re – as I said several days ago and I think a couple weeks ago as well, we’re waiting for there to be an Israeli government in place. We look forward to working with that new government on trying to move the peace process forward. And that’s where we’re at.

QUESTION: The reason I ask is because that was an element of the Iranian response which the spokesman for President Ahmadinejad stated specifically. The American Government, he said, should realize its previous mistakes; supporting Israel is not a friendly gesture. But you don’t intend to diminish your support for Israel in any way?

MR. WOOD: Absolutely not.

QUESTION: And another element of the response I want to bring up with you: The spokesman for President Ahmadinejad said that unlimited sanctions against Iran, which still continue and have been renewed by the United States, are wrong and need to be reviewed. How was it that the Administration could make that determination about the need to extend those sanctions against Iran amid an overall policy review toward Iran that is still underway?

MR. WOOD: Well, our concerns about a number of – our concerns about Iranian behavior in a number of areas are still there and is still there. And that hasn’t changed. We want to engage with the Iranians to try to resolve some of the differences between us, but those difficult issues remain. And we look to work with the Iranian Government to try to resolve them.

We’re willing to reach out our hand to the Iranians, as the President and the Secretary have said. But some of those issues, like its nuclear program, it’s not just a concern to the United States; it’s a concern to the larger international community. Iran’s behavior with regard to Iraq, with regard to Hezbollah, Hamas, remain concerns. And so that hasn’t changed. The fact that we want to reach out to Iran, I don’t see a contradiction there. But those concerns remain, and they need to be dealt with.

QUESTION: Robert, on that message, since public diplomacy is what this building does, did the State Department have any input into that message, and do you know who originated the idea for doing it?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know who originated the idea, but obviously the President had an interest in reaching out to Iran, as he has said that he would do. The State Department certainly was aware of the fact that the President was going to, you know, give this message to the Iranian people and its government. So —

QUESTION: But did it help to craft that message, or was it strictly the White House?

MR. WOOD: Honestly, I don’t know where – you know, who had a role in providing language or editing it. I don’t know. But you can – certainly it’s fair to state that the State Department was involved with the crafting of the message in some fashion. I just can’t tell you how.

QUESTION: While reaching out to Iran, Israel still considers Iran to be a primary threat. Can that be sort of a source of friction between the U.S. and Israel?

MR. WOOD: No, I don’t see any source of friction. Iran’s behavior is what both the Government of the United States and the Government of Israel are concerned about. It’s about Iranian behavior that all of us in the international community are concerned about. So no, I don’t see any differences. We share that view. What we have said is that we want to engage the Iranians diplomatically to try to bridge some of these differences. But a lot of concerns remain.

QUESTION: As we pursue a diplomatic route with Iran, can we assume that sort of the Palestinian-Israeli issue will take on a higher priority, it will become issue number one for the U.S. Administration in the Middle East?

MR. WOOD: Well, it is a high priority. We’ve been working trying to bring about a two-state solution for quite some time. We’re going to continue to push that. It remains a priority. We have a number of priorities in the Middle East, but certainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is definitely right up there at the top.

QUESTION: I’m sorry. I have a follow-up on Iran and the video. What – speaking of which, what kind of follow-up do you have planned to this? I mean, what’s the next step? Okay, this is – this is a, you know, public overture, but what does that mean and what’s the intent —

MR. WOOD: Well, that’s a very legitimate question. I think we will be able to respond to that much more fully once the review is completed. And I do expect that that review will be completed, you know, in the very near future. And so let’s wait and see. But obviously, this President is committed to direct engagement with Iran, and this is one example. There will be other examples, but I don’t want to get ahead of the process right now. But I would just say stay tuned.

QUESTION: Obviously, I mean, the review didn’t forestall making – taking this step.

MR. WOOD: That’s right.

QUESTION: That’s fairly significant.

MR. WOOD: But —

QUESTION: So what’s next?

MR. WOOD: Well, certainly, I’m not going to preview it here for you. Let’s see, there will be future steps, and we will certainly make all of you aware of them. But I’m not going to get ahead of the process right now.

QUESTION: Robert, the conference that’s coming up on Afghanistan and the Iranians supposedly invited. They still think they’re not invited. Now, could you – I know you went over this before, but could you explain exactly who issues the invitations and why they —

MR. WOOD: My understanding is that the invitations are being issued by the UN, along with the co-sponsors of the conference, meaning the Government of the Netherlands and the Government of Afghanistan.

Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) question. The U.S. Government has been saying, okay, we’re waiting – we’re making the overtures, we’re extending our hand and we’re waiting for a sign from Iran. What kind of a sign are you waiting for them to – for them to show their willingness?

MR. WOOD: Well, we’re waiting for Iran to reach its hand out and, you know, express its willingness to engage with the United States.

QUESTION: They’ve said so in public themselves, but —

MR. WOOD: They’re also – right. But you know, it’s important – again, we’re at the beginning of this process. The President has clearly – made it clear that we are going to engage diplomatically with Iran. We intend to do that. It will be up to the Iranians how they want to reciprocate. But I also want to emphasize that we still have some very difficult issues that divide us. And what the President has said is that we want to work with Iran on trying to deal with these differences. We’re willing to diplomatically engage. It’s really going to be up to Iran. I can’t give you a specific thing that Iran needs to do. But certainly Iran is aware of our concerns. It’s certainly aware of our willingness to engage diplomatically. And we’ll just have to see what comes from that.


QUESTION: Can I follow up on the language in the message in which the President said that the process will not be advanced by threats? What is the meaning of that?

MR. WOOD: Well, I think what the President was trying to say is that, you know, threats that have been made by the Government of Iran against Israel, you know, threats against neighbors, that type of thing, doesn’t advance dialogue and peace in the region.

And again, the President is extending the hand of the United States to the government and people of Iran. You know, Iran has a very proud culture, a very deep and rich culture. We obviously want to work with the people of Iran on a whole host of issues. But again, making threats, that’s not the language of dialogue, and that’s what he was getting at.

QUESTION: And so that language was directed toward Iran and no other party? Was it directed at the United States itself? Was it directed at any other party?

MR. WOOD: Look, the United States has not been making threats. I think you’ve seen threats coming from Iran on a number of subjects. And what the President was trying to say is that let’s get beyond this threatening language, let’s try to work together to resolve our differences, and that the United States is willing to reach out and engage.

QUESTION: Saying stop your nuclear program or we’re going to proceed with sanctions is not a threat?

MR. WOOD: Look, this – Iran’s nuclear program is a concern to not just the United States, it’s a concern to a number of countries. We’ve offered Iran a package of incentives. When I say we, I mean the P-5+1. And we want Iran to take up that offer. That’s not a threat. That’s an offer. And that’s what we’ve been saying to Iran for quite some time. And that package of incentives is important and should be looked at by Iran. But as I said, that’s not a threat. That was an offer.

QUESTION: Isn’t the package carrots and sticks? Sticks probably being a threat that if you don’t follow through with what we’re asking for.

MR. WOOD: Well, all I can tell you is that we have, with our partners, tried to reach out and deal with this issue diplomatically. That’s what we want to do. We’re not in the process of threatening Iran. But clearly, you know, this issue is not going to go away. We want Iran – if Iran is interested in peaceful nuclear energy, the international community can make provisions for that. But there are a lot of suspicions about what it’s trying to do with its nuclear program. And what we’re trying to do is resolve it diplomatically.

You know, Iran is under a number of Security Council resolutions, and it needs to comply with those resolutions. No secrets there. So I don’t view it as the United States making threats. This is the international community calling on Iran to live up to its obligations.

Talk to Me

March 21, 2009
Taghi Amirani’s impressive selection of cellphones.

“Today Iran, the UK and the US — tomorrow, The World,” first appeared on Taghi Amirani’s blog on March 10.

Tehran Bureau | comment

When I visit my home country Iran, I take an old Nokia 6320i with me. It uses an Iranian SIM with my Iranian number. Reception is great in almost all corners of the country. The phone, which carries my 300 or so contacts out there, is pretty basic, has some useful features including an OK camera. Of course this Nokia listens to me speaking Persian all the time and witnesses all manner of peculiar conversational gymnastics and maneuvers, that make communication between Iranians one of the most complex and multi-layered puzzles in the world. Try to decipher at your peril. You can talk to an Iranian for an hour and not receive or impart any useful information whatsoever. Or you can utter a short sentence and speak volumes with depth, meaning, poetry and emotion all wrapped in subtle and delicate nuance. It’s frustrating but I love it! This Nokia is well versed in “Persian speak” and can soon negotiate its own way around the maze of linguistic challenges. It has had a pretty hard time on my last two visits researching the “Fatherland” documentary.

When in the US I use a Nokia 6030 with my American T-Mobile SIM and number. This phone is so basic and innocent I have just recently introduced it to the joys of text. It has all my US-based friends and work colleagues on it and its ring-tone is the jingly ring ring, like the ones your hear in B&W movies with Bogart and Bergman. The conversations this phone listens to are often over-excited and long (me), are about arranging brunches all day, every day, and take place at airports, car rental offices, railway stations, and sometimes are with PBS/Nat Geo people and cool filmmakers. These American conversations are generally “what you hear is what you get” with two exceptions: US Foreign policy* (see below), and talking to Iranians (see above). But most of my US calls normally leave me uplifted and light. It’s that American upbeat, can do, positive thing, or it’s just me projecting. Either way this phone has a pretty easy time most of the time.

When in the UK, which is where I spend most of my time, I’m on the Nokia 6300 on the Orange network, which has a great reputation for supporting British cinema and filmmakers. This phone is slim, elegant and easy to use. Its camera is actually quite good, taking pictures with a certain level of grain that gives the photos a textured painterly look. It has hundreds of contacts on it covering just about everyone I know, including late night pizza and curry delivery joints, friends from 20 years ago to the new dentist I called today for an appointment. This Nokia gets the English version of me, sometimes witty in a self-deprecating way, sometimes bitingly sarcastic, but usually restrained. The 6300 has heard it all; late night calls from friends with a broken heart needing a listening ear, me talking nervously in clumsy Woody Allen style to girls I’ve had a crush on, me ranting at the plumber for not showing up, cold calls from marketing weirdoes, me pitching ideas to BBC execs…the lot. Boy, if this Nokia could talk…

Now, we can have a whole lot of very profound and complex discussions about cultural identity, how the language we speak shapes our personality, the different masks we wear, or how we think, feel or even experience the world depends on what language we speak. But that’s another blog.

My multi-phoned split identity world changed on 2nd February 2009 at the TED Fellows opening reception when the lovely Afdhel Aziz, Nokia’s Senior Marketing Manager, Global Sponsorships and Partnerships, pulled a fantastic magic trick out of a gift bag: Ladies and gentlemen, he gave us the Nokia E71.

The surprise sound of the fellows’ jaws dropping on the deck was deafening. Apparently this device can do just about everything short of making the tea in the morning when you wake up. And as if that wasn’t enough Nokia have also unlocked it so it can work anywhere in the world.

And THERE is my chance at last. No more 3-phone Tags. Now that I can merge all my contacts from Iran, UK, US and all over, into one single phone with unlimited contact memory; now that I can talk to any of them at anytime from anywhere from one phone, anything could happen. I applied to the TED Fellowship on the premise that if the TED community is to survive and flourish it needs someone like me bridging East and West. Making peace and love between Iran and the US first, and the West in general.

Let my new Nokia E71 be the metaphor for that bridge, let it connect people by talking via me. Let it bring peace to all mankind and women who are just as kind.

My friend and TED Fellow Rom Feria (Mac Genius) has just emailed to say I need to update the firmware on my new phone. What? Is this thing out of date even before I’ve opened the box?!


*In the dark days of Bush foreign policy in relation to Iran, whenever he said “all options are on the table”, that meant we’re willing to bomb the hell out of people, if they don’t do as we say. Now the options on Obama’s table seem to include talking to everyone. Why even just this week he said he would consider talking to the Taliban. Well, bombing the hell out of two ancient civilisations in the Middle East doesn’t seem to have made them love Americans more. So talking may be an option. Afdhel, sponsorship and partnership opportunities here for Nokia?!

Taghi Amirani is a lapsed Iranian physicist, devout documentary filmmaker, and TED Fellow 2009.

Obama’s New Year message and the nuclear nettle

March 20, 2009

(ABC News Photo Illustration)

Sooner or later, the U.S. president must move to specifics with Iran.

Middle East
Tehran Bureau | comment

Barack Obama’s Nowruz message to Iran is pushing important buttons. As Iranians go about the ancient rituals of their New Year, many will feel a warm pride that the U.S. president has praised their “great civilization.”

Obama’s message is in marked contrast to George Bush’s inept call for Iranians not to vote in the 2005 presidential election, when Tehran state TV relayed his words again and again in order to draw people to the polls.

Against Bush’s designation of Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” Obama quoted the 13th century poet Saadi: “The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence.”

Now Iran will ask, where’s the beef?

Ali Akbar Javanfekr, an advisor to president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has quickly welcomed Obama’s broadcast, stressing Iran’s interest in “the overcoming of the problems between the two nations, the solving of issues that run deep.”

But Javanfekr also reiterated demands of the U.S. – that it apologize for past behaviour including support for Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran, and that it end sanctions. And he noted that U.S. backing of Israel was not “a friendly gesture.”

This was a predictable response. Until serious negotiations begin, both sides will continue to reiterate how the other should change.

The most pressing issue, which has led to the tightening of sanctions against Iran in recent years, is the nuclear one. And here there are certainly no signs of any change in the U.S. position. Gordon Brown’s speech on Tuesday at Lancaster House in London, repeated the demand, shared with the U.S., that Iran suspend or even end its uranium enrichment, the most sensitive part of its nuclear programme.

Brown acknowledged Iran’s “absolute right to a civil nuclear programme,” but he did so in the context of its Bushehr reactor, built with Russia. This, he said, was as an appropriate means for it to realize its “absolute right.”

Brown knows perfectly well that Russia has itself enriched the uranium for Bushehr and will subsequently remove the spent nuclear fuel – and that therefore Tehran does not see Bushehr as an alternative to its own enrichment of uranium in a self-sufficient atomic programme. Indeed, Iran has never wavered in its insistence that it has the right not just to a nuclear programme but one in which it enriches its own uranium.

Although Tehran did suspend enrichment during talks with the European Union between 2003 and 2005, it made clear this was temporary, what Iran called a “good will gesture” and what its enemies and critics called playing for time.

But Iranian officials at that time made repeated references to their willingness to compromise. Various accounts surfaced – from both Tehran and from European diplomats – of discussions of a compromise in which Iran would agree to limit, but not to end, its uranium enrichment. In other words, Iran would restrict the number of centrifuges it used for the enrichment process to what was called “laboratory level” enrichment. This would be done under full UN inspection, including the snap-inspection system of the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (Iran has not implemented the protocol since 2006, when the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency referred it to the UN security council).

The beauty of the idea – it was never officially formulated – is that it would allow the Iranian leadership to claim “victory” because the west would have recognized its “absolute” right to nuclear technology.

But it would also impose limits on Iran’s programme, which today continues to expand, and it would bring the programme under far closer UN supervision.

Iran’s critics – especially in the American right and in Israel – would resist such an agreement on the grounds that it accepts Iran’s mastery of enrichment technology. They point out, quite rightly, that the same methods used to enrich for energy can be used to manufacture a bomb.
But sooner or later, if Barack Obama is serious about engaging Iran, he will have to decide whether he is prepared for such a compromise over the nuclear issue.

He may well decide that other areas offer a better earlier chance of progress: co-operation over Afghanistan and Iraq, where the two sides have clear common interests, is the obvious choice.
Obama may have already decided that some kind of engagement with Syria, even if it leads nowhere, can deliver a “peace process” that itself seems like a foreign policy success. He may also have already decided to leave any real initiative over Tehran until after June’s presidential election, which may help clarify the balance of internal forces in Iran.

But if engagement is really to succeed, Obama will sooner or later have to grasp the nuclear nettle.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

Iranian Blogger Dies in Prison

March 19, 2009

The New York Times: Human rights groups and an American-financed radio station report that an Iranian blogger, Omidreza Mirsayafi, who had been sentenced to two years in prison for insulting the country’s leaders, died in Tehran’s Evin Prison on Wednesday. Continue reading…

And then there were two

March 18, 2009

Khatami’s withdrawal from the election campaign is bad news for Ahmadinejad.

Middle East

Tehran Bureau | election coverage

The withdrawal of Mohammad Khatami from Iran’s presidential election has disappointed those relishing a Manichean struggle between the forces of light and darkness.

On both sides of the political spectrum, there is frantic readjustment going on. Supporters of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suddenly need a new strategy, one that does not rely on attacking Khatami as a Trojan horse who would willingly or unwillingly undermine the Islamic Republic.

The president’s backers were delighted back in February when Khatami announced his candidacy. Memories of student unrest during Khatami’s presidency of 1997-2005 would, they thought, help rally principlists behind Ahmadinejad, while Khatami’s personal weakness would see him wilt in the heat of political battle.

Now, pressure for unity in the fundamentalist camp has eased. This increases the chances that Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran’s mayor, will run rather than bide his time for a challenge in 2013. It certainly raises the price Ghalibaf can ask for allowing Ahmadinejad a clear run.

On the other side of the spectrum, radical reformists are just as wrong-footed by Khatami’s withdrawal, with some arguing that Mir Hossein Mousavi, whom Khatami has backed, is not really a reformist at all.

Radical student activists in Tehran hoped a Khatami campaign would give them a focus to demand greater social freedom; and they do not feel any enthusiasm for Mousavi, whom many do not remember as prime minister in the 1980-88 war with Iraq.

But is Mousavi less likely than Khatami to win? Many conservatives have long regarded Mousavi as the more dangerous opponent.

For them, Khatami’s day had passed. As a cleric in a black turban marking descent from the Prophet Mohammad, he was an inspired reformist choice to run for president in 1997. Charming, well-dressed and erudite, he passed Guardian Council vetting and beat his right-wing rival by 13 million votes.

But conservatives later argued Khatami was a safety valve, with his appeal to the young protecting the Islamic Republic in the face of student-led unrest. “Mr Khatami came to cool down their exuberance — to curb their demands by partly meeting them,” said Reza Tarraqi, a leading member of Jamiate Moutalefeye Eslami (the Islamic Coalition Association) in 2004. “He articulated their wishes with ambiguous slogans like freedom, reform, civil society.”

Such slogans also appealed to western observers, and it should be no surprise that many now argue Khatami’s withdrawal from the presidential elections is a bonus for Ahmadinejad.

This is clearly not Khatami’s own view. As Mohammad Atrianfar, former editor of the reformist Shargh newspaper and previously an advocate of Khatami’s candidacy, put it, the cleric from Yazd faced two options: he could run for the presidency and face “heavy political attacks without achieving real changes” or he could back Mousavi “who might implement less reforms but has more chance of being elected.”

Away from the “chattering classes” of Tehran and the more radical university campuses, Mousavi’s egalitarian outlook is more likely to appeal to voters than Khatami’s appeals for a “dialogue among civilisations.” As Amir Mohebian, the political editor of Resalat, pointed out some weeks ago, Mousavi is well positioned to challenge president Ahmadinejad’s whole agenda of social justice.

Although Mousavi has been out of the public limelight since the 1980’s, the strict rules giving access to state television during elections will help him get his message across. It should not be forgotten that both Ahmadinejad and Khatami in 2005 and 2007 respectively were relative unknowns when the campaign began.

Even with Khatami out of the race, Mousavi will not carry the reformist banner alone. His meeting on Sunday with Medhi Karrubi has not brought the latter anywhere nearer withdrawal. Karrubi is as thick skinned as former parliamentary speakers tend to be, but he is still hurt by his treatment by fellow reformists at the time of the last election.

In 2005 Moharekat (Participation front), the main reformist party, scoffed at Karrubi’s chances. Its leading members ridiculed as a gimmick his main policy of giving 50,000 tomans ($55) a month to every adult from oil revenue.

Yet Karrubi recognised that the election would turn on everyday economic matters. He out-polled Mosharekat’s candidate Mostafa Moein, who highlighted issues of social freedom and rights for Iran’s ethnic minorities.

Having come third in the poll, behind only Ahmadinejad and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Karrubi was encouraged to establish a new political party, Etemad-e Melli (the National Trust), as an alternative to Mosharekat.

Now, at 71, he is unlikely to easily give up what would presumably be his last crack at the presidency, and he showed in 2005 he could be a wily campaigner.

For Mousavi to beat Ahmadinejad, he must first beat Karrubi.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

Chahar-shanbeh-soori 1386

March 17, 2009

March 2008

Abu Dhabi
Tehran Bureau | dispatches

Every year, Iranians gather to celebrate the end of the old year and the start of the new with an ancient fire-ritual ceremony. And every year, the festivities are shut down by police.

On Tuesday evening, Iranians celebrated in Abu Dhabi to mark the occasion with a determination as strong as the flames that light up the night. Chahar-shanbeh-soori, as it is called in Farsi, is a festival dating back more than 2,500 years. The ceremony is a prelude to Norouz, the Iranian New Year, which begins with the arrival of spring on the vernal equinox.

On the last Tuesday of the year, families and friends gather together at sunset and torch a series of small bonfires. “May your rosy red glow be mine, and my sickly yellow pallor yours,” they chant as they make these sometimes precarious leaps over the fire.

During this purification rite, one asks to be rid of sickness and problems, and to be blessed with warmth and energy in the new year.

“Fire brings us peace,” said Tari, an artist based in Abu Dhabi. “With all its brutality, it’s a source of happiness. It’s good and bad, springing from the same place.”

Tari has been celebrating Chahar-shanbeh-soori in the UAE for 23 years. “At first we used to hold the ceremony on Airport Road, when there was nothing but dirt. We then moved to the area where the palace is. And we’re here now,” she said, referring to a picnic area running along 30th St. and a stretch of water. “Our numbers keep multiplying.”

Every year, however, citing safety concerns, officials shut down the events early. The year before last, revelers were asked to leave the Intercontinental Hotel because of difficulties associated with obtaining insurance and permits.

“The ceremony is very strange for them,” said Proshato, one of the organizers. “They think we’re fire-worshipers.”

The tradition, rooted in Zoroastrianism, predates Islam and holds no religious significance. Attempts to ban Norouz festivities after the Islamic revolution of 1979 were unsuccessful as well. Today Muslims and non-Muslims continue to celebrate throughout Iran.

The fire ceremony transcends age limits, too. Sometimes parents partake in the ceremony more enthusiastically than their offspring.

“It’s a nice culture,” said Saeed, 10, of Lebanon, who had tagged along. His friend, Sepanta, 11, said he missed the more grand Chahar-shanbeh-soori celebrations of the past. “The hotel was fun,” he said. “There were long tables with ice sculptures and things.” He glanced at the picnic tables stacked with plastic containers and bags, and looked a bit disappointed.

“It’s much more difficult to celebrate here,” said Maryam. “We don’t have a real Iranian community here like in Dubai. We have to seek them out.”

Maryam, a mother of three children born in Abu Dhabi, said that it was more important to carry on the tradition when far from home. “Memories formed in childhood resonate in adulthood,” she said. “And the tradition has to be passed on.”

Ghafour, an 83-year-old grandfather visiting from Tehran, was helped out of his chair by his daughter. He made his way slowly to the edge of a bonfire leaning on his cane.

Another Chahar-shanbeh-soori tradition is to go door-to-door covered up in a chador or some other form of disguise. Banging pots and pans with their spoons, the real objective may not have been to receive treats, as is ostensibly the case, “but for young single men and women to perhaps get a look at one another”, said Marzieh, who was spending her first Chahar-shanbeh-soori away from family in Iran this year.

The first group of about 40 packed in a few good rounds of fire-jumping before being shut down by police.

“Are you Shia?” the arriving policeman asked.

“Sunni and Shia,” replied 9-year-old Ava, an unlikely interlocutor.

Few of the parents spoke Arabic, and the policeman did not speak English. “You worship fire?” the policeman said.

No sooner had the policemen filed their reports and turned to leave when someone switched on the jukebox and Iranian music started blaring into the air. The bonfires that were meant to keep the sun burning late into the next morning were extinguished, but people had flung their arms into the air and had started moving to the beat of the music. More Iranian families clutching plastic bags of goodies started to trickle in, and the crowd kept swelling.

The Rise and Fall of Mohammad Khatami (Part 1)

March 16, 2009

Under intense watch: President Mohammad Khatami delivers an electoral address to his supporters at the Shiroudi Stadium in May 2001. Photo/Abbas

Part 1

Tehran Bureau | election coverage

At thirty-five, Ali is too young to remember the 1979 revolution. Because he was four when the Shah fell, he also misses by a technicality the post-revolutionary baby-boom classification, a description that seems to fit him well. The baby boom came about after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in Iran and called on the revolutionaries to multiply, to give birth to the future soldiers that would defend the country—and Islam. Many heeded the call. Today, three decades later, about 70 percent of Iran’s 75 million people are under thirty years of age. Shia, but moderate, modern and very well educated, they are a natural antidote to Sunni extremism in the Middle East and Asia—and in that respect, a natural ally to the United States. It was on the force of this generation that the reformist movement came to life.

Ali was born into a very religious Shia family in Tehran. His mother and sisters are chador-clad. His father, a “soft hard-liner,” worked for the government. Unlike the Iranians who fled the revolution en masse, Ali’s family stayed back and helped build the Islamic Republic. Ali is tall and gaunt. Even in appearance—often in a white t-shirt and jeans—he shatters the stereotype of the Iranian man that lingered in my mind for many years: He is neither slick and slathered in cologne, nor does he possess the sallow glow of the clergy-in-waiting type that replaced the disco-decade bourgeoisie.

Ali grew up in a traditional neighborhood, tucked away in the north of the capital. He did well in school and was the first member of his family to attend college. He won a fiercely competitive spot at Tehran University, and pursued training in what is in Iran the most prestigious field: electrical engineering.

He remembers those days at Tehran University, when Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was President, as a particularly oppressive time. “It was eerily quiet,” Ali says. “People were dissatisfied, but they didn’t dare speak out. There were no protests. No dissent was tolerated against the government.” The only student upheaval came when Rafsanjani tried to privatize the medical schools, Ali recalls. (Rafsanjani’s nickname was kooseh—shark. That distinction was not meant to reflect Rafsanjani’s predatory nature, but his lack of facial hair. Like a shark, he had only whiskers.) Luckily for Ali and his generation, there was another revolution on the horizon. Even though it was happening far away, it was powerful enough to put a crack in the Rafsanjani armor.

One almost typical day at the university in 1994, a classmate waved Ali over to a computer screen. He had been sitting there himself intently for a stretch. “I have something to show you,” he whispered to Ali, with great conspiratorial excitement.

H-I, the Iranian boy punched into the keyboard.

“Hi,” came the answer, somewhere from America.

Ali smiles wryly as he recounts the moment. It was as if his world had just opened up and another universe had come bounding in. Though only a handful of schools in Iran had a computer terminal then, and virtual chats were confined to techies at other universities (browsers were not yet in popular usage), all this would quickly change. Meanwhile, from the inception of this technology in Iran, Ali sat at the foot of its trickling fountain, drinking as if after a long trek through a vast political desert.

Upon earning a bachelor’s degree, Ali began his studies anew, this time specializing in information systems. Eager to impart his discoveries, and to put the world at other young Iranian fingertips, he published an article about the Internet and dispersed it among college students. What is the Internet, it was called.

Technology is a sign of great advancement among many Iranians. Aghayeh Mohandes—Mr. Engineer—arguably carries more weight than Aghayeh Doctor. Striving to earn that title has filled the country with many engineers (sadly its brightest engineers are also Iran’s greatest export). Iranians are also quite adept at turning disadvantages in their favor. Iran’s isolation in the world and lack of copyright protection, for example, encouraged Iranians to rely on themselves. Textbooks were translated and circulated widely. Source codes were cracked. Software was reverse-engineered, duplicated and sold on the cheap. As the Internet culture boomed in the United States, it did not lag far behind in Iran. And it took hold not only in Tehran, but other far flung provinces of the Islamic Republic, even some remote villages. Most importantly, it provided Iran’s post-Revolutionary generation a vital link to the outside world.

And with that link came an avalanche of news sources, “a smacking towering wall of information,” Ali described in Farsi. Ali began to scale that wall a word at a time, dissecting an interesting article or Web site by the paragraph. He plugged new words and unfamiliar concepts into the search engine, which brought forth more unfamiliar words and more new ideas. And as each new word and idea became the basis on which to launch new searches, layers of the outside world began to peel back.

“Western democracies have had hundreds of years to develop,” Ali says. “For us it came in one blow, with the advent of the Internet.” Though graduating from the university at a time of crippling unemployment, Ali landed a plum government job. “I think I had a novel approach to job hunting,” he says. “I’d say to myself, ‘such and such a place looks good, it’s a big name.’ Then I’d go and plant myself near the building until the president went by. As soon as he did, I’d go up to him and ask for a job.”

In this fashion, scoping the employed passersby, on the hunt for a sympathetic feature that may signal a soul who might hear him out, Ali got his first job at an Iranian television station. He also knew when to hold back. In college he needed to work part-time to support himself. The department head of a prestigious section also ran a government office. “I couldn’t just go up to him during a conference, so I decided to write him a letter,” Ali says. Rather than hand him a letter after a lecture, as a line of other eager students competed for his attention, Ali approached the director’s kindly assistant who took a liking to the industrious young man. “She later called me about an opening they had in one of the government ministries,” he said.

Ali worked at the ministry part-time. Upon graduation he turned it into a full-time job. His first project was the ministry’s library, which had only a small collection of books. His job was to expand it and to computerize their acquisition system. To do that, he needed to plug the ministry into the Information Age.

“For the first time in the history of the ministry, I put them in contact with foreign publishers. I bought a lot of foreign books, as well as domestic ones,” he said.

Ali had an email account since 1994, but he became much more internet proficient while bringing the ministry up to date. Chat rooms, which initially had a lure, were unable to hold his interest for very long.

“Someone would ask me ‘Where are you?’ I would answer, ‘In Iran.’ The guy would then ask, ‘Where is that?’ I would say, ‘In the Middle East,’ but that didn’t seem to give him a point of reference either.”

Ali used his time online paging through news sites and researching foreign universities. He wanted, quite literally, to go where his browser went. He had been appointed project manager of an information systems project and had in his new post gained an interest in business management. Business was a widely undeveloped field in Iran and Ali wanted to be equipped with all the most sophisticated tools. So he continued to cast his net further—eventually finding his way to the United States.

He was admitted to a prestigious university, where he earned a degree in management. The more he studied business though, the more he felt himself gravitating toward politics. Upon finishing his degree, he started another degree in politics. But even then, he never confined himself to that program. Any chance he got, he crashed courses in other departments.


Mohammad is thirty-five years old as well. And like Ali, he was born into a religious family. His even played leading roles in the revolution. “My father wasn’t as religious as his family,” Mohammad says. To separate himself and his family from the more fundamentalist influences that shaped his own life, Mohammad says his father moved his wife, daughter and two sons from a predominantly working class neighborhood in central Tehran, to the north of the city, where Mohammad grew up among more affluent Iranians.

Even so, from the beginning of his education, Mohammad was shipped off to a private religious school, where he got a solid grounding in Shiism. In high school, Mohammad looked up to a science teacher, who also became his adviser. The teacher described his former pupil to me in a phone interview as “free, wild and creative.” “He wasn’t closed-minded,” said the teacher. “He couldn’t be put in a mold. He was always looking for new venues.”

Upon entering high school, Iranian students must pick a concentration. The brightest students study math to become engineers. Natural science is also very popular because it can lead to a medical career. Students on the verge of failing are relegated to the liberal arts. When Mohammad expressed an interest in studying English, his adviser encouraged him because he knew it would be useful. But, “when he said he wanted to study sociology, I gave him a warning,” he said. “It’s not like engineering, where you can line your pockets with money and make a comfortable living.”

In his senior year, Mohammad quit the religious school and enrolled in a regular public school. The next year, he graduated from high school and placed in the top 1 percent of students taking the liberal arts concours, the national university entrance exam named after its French counterpart. “That standing gave Mohammad his choice of top schools, and an opportunity to receive an education in a prestigious field,” his friend Saeed said in a telephone interview from Iran. But Mohammad could not be swayed.

He considered politics, but to major in political science meant studying the subject in a vacuum, Mohammad said. Sociology, on the other hand, was dynamic, a field of study drawing from several disciplines, he said. And why go to a top school to impress anyone? He had other priorities.

“Tehran University is in a dirty and crowded part of the city,” he said. “It required a one-hour commute every day. Metros didn’t exist [in Tehran] then. I had to take the bus and taxis. I didn’t need the hassle.” He opted for an Azad, or an “open” admissions university. Like an American community college, the academic requirement for getting in is quite lax. But it’s not inexpensive. Mohammad picked a private university because he wanted to operate on his own timetable. And, “It was so pretty there, full of trees,” he said. “But the sociology department sucked. The sociology department was so bad I became a little hopeless.”

Mohammad was thrown out after six years. Though he had completed two-thirds of his studies, no student may matriculate beyond that time. He had a high A average after his first semester, but his grades had quickly plummeted. “I did really well on the concours because I was motivated. I wanted to prove to everyone that I was smart,” he explained. “I was also competing against a lot of lazy students.”

Like Ali, and scores of others in his generation, Mohammad found solace in computers and the Internet. After he was expelled from school, he founded a web design firm with a friend. A few years later he got married and moved overseas, “because we could,” Mohammad said, “not for political or economic reasons. It was just because it was something new to do.”

Poster Wars

Mohammad first read about Mohammad Khatami when he was the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. While there, Khatami had drawn the ire of Islamists by championing Iran’s new filmmakers then coming into prominence. Two former architect students were behind Iran’s new cinema wave, Mohammad explains as we sit to tea one evening. The pair enjoyed a close relationship with Mir Hossein Mousavi, prime minister of Iran during the 1980’s, and a close confidante to Ayatollah Khomeini.

Khatami was one of Moosavi’s ministers. Through Khatami’s support, these two filmmakers were given some space to develop Iranian cinema in their own vision, said Mohammad. This appalled the conservatives. “The Hezbollahis didn’t like the bleak, abstract outlook of these art films,” Mohammad said. And at one point he read that Khatami had quit his post.

Mohammad never heard of Khatami again until his name was floated as a presidential candidate in the Iranian presidential elections of 1997.


Much of life in Iran takes place behind closed doors and locked gates. Walls wind through much of the capital and the provinces, guarding the rhythms of private life, cloaking rose gardens and the many things that may be labeled a deviance by the Islamic Republic. In the months leading to the 1997 presidential election, Mohammad recalls walking out of the family compound to a blitz of posters of frontrunner Ali Akbar Nategh-Noori, speaker of the Majlis, which were plastered outside all the walls.

“There’s no door-to-door canvassing like there is here,” Mohammad said. “There’s no TV advertising either. The only similarity is the scale of advertising—in terms of billboards and posters. The main drive is word of mouth, information passed on in taxi cabs, mosques, at work, homes, universities.”

Using his power base as speaker of the Parliament, Nateq-Noori was campaigning on promises to improve the economy, and to “keep away the United States and enforce stricter Islamic law,” the New York Times reported. Khatami “the leading underdog,” it said, was pledging “more personal freedoms, more jobs and no more male supremacy.”

“On television, they constantly broadcast pictures of Nategh-Noori going here and there, taking part in ceremonies,” Mohammad said. “It was basically screaming from every door and wall that we should vote for Nategh-Noori. And it got to a point where Ayatollah Khamanei came on TV and said everyone knows who the maslah—the better one—is. Everyone understood that to mean we were supposed to vote for Nategh-Noori.”

But to Iran’s suppressed youth, teeming with testosterone, armed with satellite TV and the internet, there was no competition between the two candidates. To Iran’s persecuted second-class citizens—women—the tremendous support of the conservatives for Nateq-Noori was the strongest reason to vote for any other candidate.

Though Nateq-Noori posters outnumbered Khatami’s by a ratio of 10 to 1, Mohammad said Khatami’s posters were superior. “Khatami had glasses on, the other one didn’t,” Mohammad said. “Khatami’s glasses were key. Later in the campaign, [Noori] also adopted glasses—fake prescription glasses—to appear attractive to women and students.”

Mohammad laughs.

Khatami, “he had a poster like this,” Mohammad said, posing with his chin resting on his hands. “Khatami had great photographers. His posters had a black background. He always had a smile, a big smile that showed off his teeth. Mullahs don’t show their teeth when they smile. At most, they manage something like this,” he said clasping his lips together and faintly turning curving the corners. “Nategh-Noori’s photos were boring—just like photos of the shahs.”


Ali’s recollections of the 1997 presidential campaign are very similar.

“Two months before Khatami was elected, everyone thought Nateq-Noori was going to win, everyone from the BBC and the national press on down,” Ali said. “Noori went to many different cities and towns. He was so well known and so famous that Khatami was just viewed as this mohreh”—a dispensable piece in a chess game.

Campaigning didn’t mean anything until then, not in a Western sense. There was no base that could hire 5,000 people and mobilize them. Any gathering was khod-joosh—simultaneous in a sense, Ali explained. People would seek out pictures of Khatami on their own and spread them around. “It was all very primitive,” he said. “You didn’t know where to go and get these posters. We had no idea where the headquarters were. All of a sudden a friend would show up from somewhere with a stack of Khatami posters.”

One day a stack of these posters found their way to Ali and his friends. They took them back to their neighborhood. “Everyday I would hang a poster of Khatami on our front gate. The next morning it would have a tear in it. I’d put up a new poster, and I’d find it torn again the next day,” he said.

Well aware that word of mouth was the ultimately engine that drove the campaign, Ali set out to do a lot of talking. “I didn’t bother with urban dwellers and university students,” he said. “We were already like-minded. I worked the peripheries, the ‘quiet places’ where many had perhaps not have heard much about Khatami.”

Any relative he could engage in a conversation, he engaged in a debate about the presidential election. “‘Who are you voting for? Why aren’t you voting?’ I would ask.”

Before Khomeini came to power in 1979, rumors spread that electricity and public transportation would be provided for free to the poor. “During the Khatami campaign the rumor was that if he wins, meat”—chunks of meat in thick Persian stew is an indication of a household’s wealth—“would become cheaper,” Ali said. “It’s ridiculous. But when I was sitting there listening to this, I thought, ‘No, I don’t think so,’ but I didn’t say anything. When you’re campaigning, you don’t say, ‘No, no, no, this isn’t so.’ But now I think you should spell these things out for people: If the administration changes, meat is not going to be half price. It may be more expensive.”

Still, “there was something significant about those debates,” he recalls, and “when you went to the parks, there were beautiful girls passing flowers and [pro-Khatami] flyers to passing motorists. These were all significant events. They marked publicly the emergence of a new force, a shift in society.”

Separately, Mohammad adds, “It was a lot like the Howard Dean campaign—anti-establishment, grass-roots, and with no real party backing. It was the hip thing to support Khatami and that’s why a lot of people got involved in politics. Lots of young people had posters of Khatami on their car windows and drove around picking up girls.


According to Mohammad, the government conducts polls in secret, and based on those predictors during the 1997 campaign, the conservative camp sensed doom.

“There were a few polls out toward the end of the campaign—we didn’t know it then, we found out later—that showed Nategh-Noori losing. There are polls in Iran, but they’re confidential. Sometimes certain newspapers with close government sources will reveal something. But polls are generally taken in secret.

Mohammad continues, “Voting was a few days after Ashoora”—a solemn religious holiday where Shiites commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein. “So the right-wing, the Hezbollahis, gathered a bunch of soo-sool boys”—metrosexual types—“supplied them with posters of Khatami to wave, then had them go out to play music and make a lot of noise on Ashoora. They had the girls with them act immodestly. It was supposed to turn off a lot of the religious types that were leaning toward Khatami.

“They filmed a lot of the things [this group] did and broadcast it on the news. I remember seeing it. When they wanted to give a roundup of the Khatami campaign, they showed those scenes. They kept showing a girl leaning out a window. The girls, wearing thick makeup, and in short manteaux, had kerchiefs running down their heads, and were yelling, Khatami! They wanted to say, ‘Look at the [corrupt] types supporting Khatami.’ They wanted Khatami himself to come out and tell these people to stop, therefore turning off the young people. Many people thought this was all genuine. Later we found out it was staged by the right-wing. The reformers, the Khatami people, later exposed them.”

The reformist newspaper Salaam had come out the day before the election and announced a Khatami win, Mohammad remembers. “It’s not a paper I read then, but it came out and said Khatami was winning. I didn’t believe it.”

Ali was just as incredulous.

“Up to two weeks before the elections, I sometimes thought it was going to be a farce like the previous elections,” Ali said. “But all of a sudden the students started holding discussions, engaging with the public.”

During this time, newspaper kiosks pulsed with new life. Ali went to the newsstands every afternoon and picked papers like wildflowers from a field. He piled a stack of them into his arms and hurried home to bask in every line.

“One week before the election, there was a certain energy in the city,” he said. “At moments it felt like this may really happen. Even so, until the last moment it wasn’t 100 percent that Khatami would win. Nobody believed it.

“Two days before the election, Resalat newspaper carried on its front page a political forecast that the conservatives would win in every town and city—except Yazd, which is Khatami’s hometown.

“Everyone was sure Noori was going to win. Even on the day I went to vote, my friend and I could only dream of a Khatami win. As we were walking to the polls, we entertained fantasies of Nateq-Noori failing to get the votes to sweep the election and we would have to move to a second phase. Though we were among the optimistic, a Khatami win was still an unattainable dream to us.”

“Those who were conducting polls knew Khatami would be elected. Salaam newspaper, which supported Khatami, published a big photograph of Khatami the day before the election with a banner headline that read Salaam bar Khatami”—Hello, or Peace be upon Khatami.

On the morning of the election, Mohammad and a friend went to the polls near his house. “There were a lot of religious people there, a lot of young people, of course, and surprisingly a lot of chic women, too. All had turned out to vote for Khatami—all of them. This was such a great opportunity to say, ‘Mr. Khamanei, we desperately need a change.’ The vote was a message to Khamanei more than anything else.

That morning, Ali had an information systems exam. “At 8 in the morning, I still had no news,” he said. “At 10 a.m., when I left class, the radio announced that in the votes counted so far 6 million were in favor of Khatami, 2 million in favor of Nateq-Noori. It was obvious Khatami was going to win then. It was quite sweet.”

At 9 p.m., when Khatami was officially announced the winner, Mohammad and his friend got in the car and headed jubilantly toward the center of Tehran. “People appeared to be more or less excited,” he said. “Some honked their car horns.”

“Around Taghteh Tavoos,”—a major thoroughfare—“we stopped. We saw a Japanese reporter interviewing someone. I got out of the car to tell this [reporter] how excited we were. We had just won! It was as if we had won a soccer match. All of a sudden though, a Hezbollahi van pulled up and a group of these mean-looking types got out. They were headed for the Japanese guy. We fled. I don’t know what became of that poor guy.”

Mohammad pauses for a moment.

When at the end of the campaign the mille-fueille of posters came down, they were in themselves as thick as a wall, he says, demonstrating the width of the paper wall with a stretch of his thumb and forefinger.

To be continued.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

Will the Principlists rally behind Ahmadinejad?

March 15, 2009

As the June 12 presidential election draws nearer, there is sudden talk of ‘unity’ in the fundamentalist camp

Middle East
Tehran Bureau | election coverage

Once Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the 2005 presidential election, it was easy to forget the fear among fundamentalists during the campaign that their divisions would bring defeat.

For even when Mohsen Rezaei, the former Revolutionary Guards commander, withdrew just two days before the poll, there were still three candidates left who saw themselves as “principle-ists” or fundamentalists.

As many feared, the vote split between them. But as many hoped, Ahmadinejad had just enough votes to beat three reformists and pass through to the run-off ballot when he trounced Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

In office, Ahmadinejad has done little to unify the fundamentalist camp, preferring outreach with ordinary Iranians through provincial tours to bridge-building in Tehran.

His choice of ministers and conduct of government business has often alienated people who should be allies. He annoyed senior clergy in Qom by failure to consult them over decisions including the admission of women to football matches.

And president Ahmadinejad has faced growing difficulty gaining support in parliament. Conservative control of both the presidency and the Majlis has brought not agreed, coherent policies but rather a roller-coaster of spending buoyed by rising oil prices and now followed by sudden retrenchment.

Indeed, next year’s budget is still stuck with deputies, along with the president’s plan to phase out costly universal subsidies, even though the new Iranian year is just days away.

Ahmadinejad is vulnerable on the economy – after all, he won in 2005 on a slogan of “putting oil money on the people’s sofreh” [the dining cloth placed on the floor by poorer Iranians]. This can certainly cost him the election, especially if his opponents move from criticising his government’s economic mismanagement to communicating to Iranians some clear alternatives.

This is partly why Ahmadinejad’s supporters were so pleased by the announcement from Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president between 1997 and 2005, that he would contest the June 12 poll.

No-one is more likely to encourage unity among fundamentalists, who believe that Khatami, however committed to the Islamic Republic, would in office undermine it through encouraging “radical” elements. The fundamentalists’ sense of danger has been suitably sharpened by the likes of Mohammad Atrianfar, former editor of Shargh newspaper and an advocate of Khatami, relishing a “full-fledged confrontation” between Khatami and Ahmadinejad.

Hence the sudden talk in the fundamentalist camp of the need for unity. Amir Mohebian, political editor of Resalat newspaper, recently argued that if Ahmadinejad could “display an appropriate element of flexibility, and his flexibility were not seen as an election [ploy], he would make a very good choice” for all fundamentalists to support.

Mohebian, as ever, shows mixed feelings about Ahmadinejad. On the one hand he recognises the “skill and acumen in understanding the political arena of elections” that brought the blacksmith’s son to office in the first place. But on the other hand, he argues that “the views [of the principle-ist candidate] must be compatible with the consensual views of the principle-ists” .

This has hardly been the case during the four years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, but in recent weeks Ahmadinejad has launched a charm offensive with meetings with Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, a potential challenger, with clerics in Qom and with leading members of Motalefeh, the Islamic coalition party.

Suddenly, there are whispers of realignment with the aim of establishing a government after the election with support of the whole fundamentalist camp.

It is a difficult choice for Ahmadinejad. He has the momentum of incumbency – and when push comes shove, especially if Khatami does not withdraw, fundamentalists may feel obliged to back him. But on the other hand, if a single reformist clearly emerges as a challenger, the fundamentalists may worry they could lose the election.

A key figure in this could be Ghalibaf, the 47-year-old Tehran mayor, who seemed set to offer voters a more consensual style of fundamentalism and who several months back gathered celebrities and economists in his support with a slogan of “restoring tranquility.”

It may be that Ghalibaf, at the right price, will fall in behind Ahmadinejad.

A former national police chief and wartime military commander, Ghalibaf gained 4.08m votes in the 2005 election, missing the run-off ballot by only 1.6m votes, although his slick election style, including broadcasts, alienated many fundamentalists.

As Tehran mayor, Ghalibaf has enhanced his reputation for effective management without capturing the imagination the way he did as national police chief with simple ideas like the 110 emergency line and shifting policemen from Paykans to Mercedes.

So it may be that Ghalibaf can be persuaded to bide his time for a challenge in 2013, when he will still be 51, rather than face a second defeat now and become what one parliamentary deputy called a “burnt pawn.”

The 2009 presidential elections still have a long way to run.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

Blind Luck

March 14, 2009

‘Most journalists have topics about which they are particularly passionate,’ says Mani. ‘One of mine is sport, and another is Iran.’ Pictured: Iranian football star Ali Daei.

From Tehran to the BBC: How I became a sports journalist.


Tehran Bureau | notebook

“The first male journalist to be allowed into any kind of women’s football in Iran.”

That’s the first line of my CV, coming just after my name. It happened in November 2004, and it happened entirely thanks to my blindness.

I was born in Tehran in 1980, just before the start of the brutal eight-year war with Iraq. I lived there until I was four, when I came to England with my family for what was only supposed to be a fortnight to have a sight-saving operation. The operation failed. I became totally blind and I did not return to Iran for another ten years.

Before I left though, I was famous in the family for two things: having a big mouth and watching extraordinary amounts of television. Not just kids’ television, all television: the news, speeches in parliament, coverage of Friday prayers. I was fascinated by the ability to find things out and then tell people about it. Over breakfast, I would tell my parents what the Ayatollahs had said the previous evening. Later, I might tell a visiting uncle or older cousin, there to babysit me, what the generals were saying at the battle front.

It was the seed which usually flourishes into a life of long hours, unreasonable deadlines and having to curb your dislike for someone because you have to interview him or because he is the only link between you and a crucial interview. It’s a life of going where others cannot and asking what they dare not. In short, my curiosity, and desire to tell everyone what it uncovered, led me to journalism.

Not that journalism is the ideal profession for the son of Iranian parents. Luckily, being blind meant that not even the pushiest parents, which in fairness mine are not, could expect a medical career. However, this did not stop my mum and dad suggesting several times how nice it would be for me to be a member of parliament or an international concert pianist, or if all else fails, a teacher. But not a journo…

However, it was the only thing I wanted to do. There was no Plan B. I got my first taste of a newsroom when I was 14. I went for a couple of weeks to my local evening newspaper for a work experience placement. I fully expected to take a day or two to settle in, before becoming an integral part of the team, getting my name in the paper, and within a week or so, being promoted, as I saw it, to the sports desk to write about my true passion.

Things did not quite turn out that way. For one thing, I could not use the computers properly. In those days, text-to-speech software, which makes computers accessible to blind people, was thin on the ground. So I had to memorize keystrokes to save articles and to place them in the required parts of the system. I also needed someone to proofread what I had written, as I could not. This was supposed to be done by one of my teachers who came for a few hours everyday to help me. However, when she was not there, I was effectively hamstrung. Too shy to ask the staff for help, I just sat at my desk and absorbed the buzz around me. I loved every minute of it.

So it was due to that, seven years later, that I did a masters in broadcast journalism. I would have done a journalism degree had my less-than-detailed research into universities revealed that the program I had chosen was taught in the northern industrial city of Sheffield. After a few nights of deep consternation, I decided to leave things as they were. Sheffield, England it was.

No two people get into broadcasting the same way. My way in came through a chance meeting with a friend of a friend in a restaurant one typically drizzly Sheffield evening. This friend of a friend told me that one of his other friends, Cathy, was working as a researcher on a national radio programme called In Touch, which focused on issues relating to blind and partially-sighted people. He asked me if I would mind if she called me up for my views on the “special versus mainstream education” debate, on which they were putting together a feature. I said that would be fine, and a few days later, we spoke. At the end of our conversation, Cathy said that she had heard that I wanted to become a broadcast journalist and offered to mention me to the programme’s producer.

In Touch had always been the suggested first port of call whenever my prospective career came up for discussion with anyone. I was adamant that it would not be any sort of port at all, as I was determined not to be pigeonholed. But when Cathy proposed a meeting between me and the producer, I said yes. A chance to work for network radio while I was still at university? How could I turn it down? This was a case of speculation meeting reality — and not even I was too proud to spot the potential opportunities.

My first report for In Touch was on the lack of commentary at football stadiums. It was rubbish. How it was allowed to air, I will never know. But it was, and they even asked me back. My career in fact had just started.

Most journalists have topics about which they are particularly passionate. One of mine is sport, and another is Iran. The ideal scenario was therefore to combine these loves in a report. The chance came in the autumn of 2004. Ali Daei, Iranian football’s irrepressible goalscorer, was about to become the first man in international football’s 132-year history to score 100 international goals. He was on 98 going into a World Cup qualifier against hapless Laos. There was no doubt that he would break the century barrier.

This was my chance, not only to report on Iran, but to interview my hero. I went to Iran, fully expecting him to fall at my feet. After all, I was from the BBC in London, and not merely the Persian Service either! He ignored all of my calls for ten days. As my frustrations with Daei and my panic at not having a story grew, I decided to try and cover other issues.

I discovered a women’s team in Tehran called Peikan and thought I might go along to interview them for a follow-up piece. I called up the team’s female coach and spoke to her of the difficulties of maintaining women’s football in the Islamic Republic. I ended by asking her if I could go along to one of Peikan’s training sessions to record some atmos and interview her.

“How are you going to do that?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’re a man. You can’t come and watch us play.”

I was ready for this. “There are two reasons why I think you should let me come,” I said. “Firstly, I have come all the way from London to do this report. And secondly, I’m totally blind so I won’t be able to see any of the girls.”

She paused and then, to her eternal credit, said I could go. I was naturally the envy of all my hormone-driven teenage cousins. I turned up at an indoor gymnasium where Peikan trained, with my mum who could not resist the chance to see what it was like. The girls, who were between 15 and 18 years old, came out completely covered up rather than wearing t-shirts and shorts, as normal.

I recorded them practicing for a few minutes before I asked the coach for an interview somewhere quiet. She suggested her office and made for the door. Presumably there had been some doubts about the veracity of my claims to being totally blind. “Would you mind if I hold your arm?” I asked. “I’m sorry, I don’t like being touched by gentlemen,” she said, her reply curt and unequivocal. In a country where disabled people are generally seen as second-class citizens and patronized, a bit of good old-fashioned honesty was, to say the least, refreshing and I respected her enormously for it.

In the end, I had to doorstep Ali Daei after a training session, and he agreed to meet me. I am convinced that it was my white stick that sealed the deal and got me a 30-minute sit-down interview with Daei in the lobby of the hotel at which the players were staying. At that time, I was unaware that one of my cousins was still trying to get a hold of him via mutual contacts. So I was surprised when, three days later and a day before the Laos match, she called me to say that Daei had said I could go to his house after the game and interview him there. “But I’ve already interviewed him, Vida,” I said. Still, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I went anyway.

Daei scored his 100th goal. In fact he scored the first four goals of a 7-0 rout. It happened on a soaking wet night in November 2004, at the national Azadi stadium, which was only a third full. It was history in the making and put Iran on the footballing map. However, people’s irrational dislike of Daei shamefully kept them from witnessing it first hand.

I arrived at his home at midnight. He left the rest of his family to eat their evening meal and took me through to his living room where we did a short interview about his 100th goal. We then chatted of this and that over tea before he suddenly left the room. I took this as a sign that I was outstaying my welcome.

“I’m sorry, Mani jan, this is a bit dirty,” he said upon his return. I had no idea what he was talking about. Then he handed me a sodden football shirt. I hardly dared believe it. “What’s this?” I asked. “It’s my shirt,” was his laconic reply. And it was too. It was the shirt he was wearing when he scored that 100th goal. “You can’t give me this,” I protested. “You’ve got hundreds of other shirts. Give me one of those!” “No, it’s ok. Have it,” he said. So I did, after he had signed and dated it. Even so, I have always regarded it as being on loan to me. Sometimes those long hours and unreasonable deadlines lead to extraordinary spoils.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

Iranica unites Iranians—for an evening

March 12, 2009

Shohreh Aghdashloo at the Iranica Gala in Dubai. May 2, 2008. Photos/Kamran.

This is part two of our ongoing series on Encyclopaedia Iranica. Part one, from March 2005 in New York City, can be found here. Part two is from a report back in May 2008 in Dubai. Check back to this page for upomcing Encyclopaedia Iranica events this year.

Iranica can be accessed free online here.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Tehran Bureau | spotlight

Before many schools and universities were turning to the United Arab Emirates for funding, Manouchehr Houshmand started a grassroots effort in Dubai to help raise money for Columbia University’s Encyclopaedia Iranica.

The massive scholarly project, whose primary support comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities, published its first volume in 1982 with 285 contributors from around the world. It covers what is present day Iran, but also other countries where Persian was spoken. So while it may span thousands of years of culture, art and history, it is topical, and the first place many scholars and journalists turned to learn about Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion there in
2003. Other countries covered include Tajikistan, Baluchistan, Kurdistan, and parts of Pakistan, India and the Caucuses.

In 2002, 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. The first fascicle, or part, of Volume 14 was recently sent to the printers, according to Houra Yavari, an assistant editor at Iranica in New York City.

She was in Dubai for a fundraiser last weekend at the Grand Hyatt. “It was one of the most memorable that I’ve participated in 20 years of my involvement with Iranica,” Ms. Yavari said, referring to the program.

Mr. Houshmand, an entrepreneur, said until now fundraisers had been increasingly successful since he started the Dubai association to help Iranica five years ago. Though the final tally was not in, it was not expected to reach last year’s more than USD $100,000 raised.

“Service is the priority, the amount we raise is secondary,” Mr. Houshman said Wednesday night at a lecture series on Iranica at Knowledge Village. “When we started, 99 percent of Iranians hadn’t heard about Iranica. My goal is to educate people about it.”

Timing may have played a role. It did not appear to help that the fundraiser came at the heel’s of an auction at Christie’s in which wealthy Iranians paid record prices for works of art from Iranian artists. But prospects were expected to improve, especially with a little help from Hollywood — and perhaps one of Dubai’s newest residents.

Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays Saddam Hussein’s wife in an upcoming television drama from the BBC and HBO, “Between Two Rivers,” made her first trip to the U.A.E. with her husband, Houshang Tozie, a theater director. She was nominated for an Oscar in 2003, for her supporting role as Ben Kingsly’s wife in House of Sand and Fog.

“I have turned Iranica into a cause for myself,” said Ms. Aghdashloo. “I’ve been chasing around day and night trying to make sure the last word of the encyclopedia is written before I leave this earth.”

Ms. Aghdashloo said she was eying Dubai as a second home. “I love it, love it, love it,” she said. “The people are very warm-hearted. It’s very clean. And it’s geographic location is great.” Asked whether she was referring to Dubai’s proximity to Iran, Ms. Agdashloo’s smile grew even bigger.

Philippe Welti, Switzerland’s Ambassador to Iran, flew in from Tehran to support the project as well.

“I have a lifelong passion for encyclopedias,” Mr. Welti said. “I have Encyclopedia Britannica, and an Islamic one that I can’t read. I’m excited this is in English. It adds to Iran’s globalization and is an indication of Iran’s potential.”