Why the Islamic Republic Has Survived

April 1, 2009

A cleric in his car on February 11, 1979, day of the victory of the revolution. (Abbas/Magnum Photos)

A U.S.-based Iran scholar argues it was not the eight-year war, a reign of terror, oil revenue, or the strength of Shiism that sustained the regime — but populism.

Middle East Report

“Upcoming decades will test the regime’s ability to juggle the competing demands of these populist programs with those of the educated middle class—especially the ever expanding army of university graduates produced, ironically, by one of the revolution’s main achievements. This new stratum needs not only jobs and a decent standard of living but also greater social mobility and access to the outside world—with all its dangers, especially to well-protected home industries—and, concomitantly, the creation of a viable civil society. The regime may be able to meet these formidable demands if it finds fresh sources of oil and gas revenues—but to do so it will need to markedly improve its relations with Washington so that economic sanctions can be lifted. Without the lifting of sanctions, Iran cannot gain access to the technology and capital needed to develop its large gas reserves. If new revenues do not materialize, class politics will threaten to rear its head again. For 30 years, populism has managed to blunt the sharp edge of class politics. It may not do so in the future.”

Continue reading…

The Hero and Heroin (Part 3)

April 1, 2009

Photos/Kamin Mohammadi

var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-6470445-1”);
pageA war veteran loses the drug battle.


Tehran Bureau | dispatches

Click here for Part 1, Part 2.

‘During the war,’ says Farideh, ‘the days were dark and the nights were light in Abadan.’ Farideh now lives in Shiraz, one of the millions of refugees displaced by the war. I am in Shiraz — famous for its verdant gardens, springtime orange blossom and great poets — to talk to refugees like her and try to get a sense of what it was like for Ebby when they left a burning Abadan to escape the war.

Like the tens of thousands of other civilians who fled the fighting, Ebby’s family, as well as all our other aunts, uncles and their families, left Khuzestan throughout 1980 and 1981, and headed to cities such as Shiraz, Tehran and Esfahan (during the two-year Iraqi foray into Khuzestan, the government had to shelter up to 1.5 million refugees). The government had set up refugee reception areas in these cities and provided accommodation to refugees — Ebby’s father decided to keep his wife and young children in the lodgings provided by the government. Like my other uncles, Ebby’s father had to return to Abadan to work and only visited Shiraz when he could get leave every few weeks. It was here, as a 12 year old, that Ebby first started to dabble with drugs. ‘All these families were mixed up together,’ Farideh says, ‘and a mother couldn’t possibly control who her kids came into contact with.’

Life in Shiraz then was not easy. The locals did not take kindly to these new arrivals. Rationing was in force and Shirazis resented extra resources being handed out to the refugees. There was discrimination at every turn and Farideh, whose eldest son is the same age as Ebby, tells me that they were isolated at school, distinguished by their Abadani accents and teased and taunted by the other children. ‘And remember none of our children had their father standing above them,’ she says, ‘Our men were obliged to stay in Abadan and could only visit irregularly. It was hard for Ebby’s mother, she had six children and she was in refugee housing, not with us. It was a hard time.’

Shiraz is now a lively city of more than one million people, but back in 1980, ‘there was hardly anything here,’ says Farideh. ‘We came from Abadan, remember, which was built by the British. We had lovely lives, we were sophisticated. To us Shiraz seemed very provincial so it was very insulting to us to be treated this way by these people. On top of everything else.’ She shows me pictures of her wedding. The young couple captured in black and white are handsome and carefree. A slim Farideh pouts at the lens, her skirt several inches shy of the knee, her black beehive dropping teased curls on her brow while beside her my youthful uncle seems filled with confidence of the future. You can almost hear the money jingling in his pockets, an air of immense well-being pervading the scene. ‘Ah,’ Farideh sighs, ‘Those days in Abadan. Dances at the yacht club, parties at the Abadan Hotel…’ Farideh still possesses cheekbones to swing off, but her hair is hennaed to cover the grey and her figure long ago permanently shrouded in a shapeless dress.

She is suddenly fierce. ‘When they first bombed Shiraz, I was happy,’ she declares, referring to the first ‘war of the cities’ in 1984 when Iraq bombed 30 key Iranian cities for two weeks. I stare at her in surprise. ‘Because finally they understood what we had lived through,’ she explains. ‘Finally they understood that the war was real, that we hadn’t made it up.’

It may be 20 years later and she may still be living here, but Farideh has never forgiven the Shirazis.


Although the eighth-century martyrdom of Imam Hossein drives Iran’s Shi’ism, with thousands collecting during the month of Moharram to commemorate Imam Hossein’s death, flagellating themselves, beating their chests and crying, in reality, most Iranians didn’t want to be martyrs, most mothers weren’t praying that their sons be killed for the glory of Allah. Iran liberated Khorramshahr in May 1982 and in June, Iraq called a ceasefire which was rejected by Iran. The Iranian Chief of Staff General Sayed Shirazi vowed to ‘continue the war until Saddam Hussein is overthrown so that we can pray at [the holy Shi’ite town of] Karbala and Jerusalem.’ This marked a turning point in the war, when Iran turned on the offensive, trying to push into Iraq.

For Iran’s new Revolutionary government, the war may have served a useful purpose of allowing it to consolidate its power and see off opposition groups. The Revolution had empowered many disenfranchised Iranians and the war held them together. For the world’s powers, the Iran-Iraq war ensured a weakened Iran, one unable to spread its fundamentalist fervour throughout the region. At different times through the eight years of the war, various western powers supplied arms to both sides though Iraq received the most conspicuous help, in both armaments and economic aid.

By 1984 it was reported that some 300,000 Iranian soldiers and 250,000 Iraqi troops had been killed, or wounded. Saddam started using chemical weapons against the Iranians in 1982 with use of non-lethal tear gas but its success in disabling the Iranians led to many more chemical attacks where mustard gas and Sarin nerve gas were used. Iran charged Iraq with 40 uses of chemical weapons between May 1981 and March 1984 and in 1986 UN secretary general, Javier Perez de Cuellar, formally accused Iraq of using chemical weapons against Iran. Citing the report of four chemical warfare experts whom the UN had sent to Iran in February and March 1986, the secretary general called on Baghdad to end its violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol on the use of chemical weapons.

Iraq attempted to deny using chemicals, but the evidence, in the form of many badly burned casualties flown to European hospitals for treatment, was overwhelming. According to a British representative at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in July 1986, ‘Iraqi chemical warfare was responsible for about 10,000 casualties.’

According to his wife, Ebby didn’t want to be a martyr. By the time he was called to the front, war weariness had set in among Iranians and the troops. With Iranian troops called to push into Iraqi territory, many of the soldiers had lost their zeal: they had wanted to defend their own land, not invade Iraq’s. The battles were horrific and losses heavy: mass graves harboured thousands of bodies and tales of drug addiction in the trenches was rife. Away from the front line, Iran’s economy was suffering — by 1987 nearly one in two Iranians was unemployed and shortages of basic commodities grew worse. The population had boomed, nearly tripling in the years since the Revolution to 60 million by the end of the war. The five ‘wars of the cities’ had spread the terror to all of Iran’s main cities and nowhere felt safe.

From Abadan’s cemetery we drove back into town with Esmael and Ebby’s sisters. His wife departed for home in a nearby town, she was rushing back to make dinner for her children. They didn’t know where she was, years ago she had told them that their father worked in another town and could never get time off, so she hadn’t yet told them what had happened, couldn’t show them how upset she was. ‘At least,’ she told me, ‘I think my son may have guessed. He is 12 now and I have a feeling someone has said something to him.’ I asked her when she was planning to let them know and she fixed me with a blank stare: ‘How do I tell them? What do I tell them?’

Sitting around dinner with my cousins, no one talked of Ebby’s life, his drug addiction. Afterwards when the other guests had departed and we sat over steaming black tea and almond and rosewater sweets, I asked them to tell me about him. Esmael sighed and took a deep breath. ‘I was in the war too,’ he said, ‘But I was lucky not to be at Shalamcheh. Ebby was scared. He was weak already,’ he was referring to his dabbling with hashish in Shiraz. ‘And he saw too much. He once told me about the night before one of those ‘human wave’ attacks. No one was sleeping, they were praying and weeping and most were really scared. There were suddenly loads of drugs around — hashish, opium, everything — Ebby said that it really helped. Maybe that was how he got into the heavier stuff…’

I had certainly heard plenty of anecdotal evidence about drugs and even alcohol at the front. Maybe that is how Ebby became addicted to opium, but we will never know. All they knew for sure is that by the end of the war, when Ebby came home, he had a habit and his parents, worried and not knowing what to do, protected him.

Iranian society is formal and much store is set by respectability. A drug-addicted child is a problem that affects every member of the family: Ebby had two marriageable sisters and so he was sheltered and supported by his parents who gave him money to feed his habit, having no idea what else to do — at that time there was no formal support for addicts or their families.

When he met Mina, her parents were against the marriage, they had heard the rumours and wouldn’t allow it. Yet Mina was strong-minded and for a year she refused to marry anyone else. ‘From the first I loved only him,’ she told me. After their marriage, like many young Iranian couples, they lived with Ebby’s parents. Ebby worked and held his life together. Their son was born after a couple of years and a few years later, they had a daughter. ‘We were happy,’ Mina dabbed at her eyes. ‘We were ordinary.’

They were living back in Abadan where Ebby’s family had returned after the end of the war in 1988. Abadan was a ruin and the economy was a mess but Iran restarted petroleum refining and petrochemical production in Abadan on a smaller scale using reconstructed plants and the city’s port reopened in 1993. As Mina says: ‘There was work and we had a small comfortable life.’

It was after the death of my uncle and his wife that the situation began to change for Ebby and Mina. In their own home, Ebby started a cycle of battling the drug. His elder sister got married and her husband, who was a friend of Ebby’s, would periodically find a house in to which they would take Ebby to help him go through the trials of withdrawing. But he would always start again. As the years dragged on the strain started to tell on the relationships, Ebby’s brother and sisters started to draw away from him and Mina, who they accused of encouraging him. I asked her if she too was involved with drugs and she looks horrified. ‘Of course I wasn’t,’ she pursed her lips. ‘Look, we weren’t like that, like those people you see on the streets.’ Then she grew a little sheepish. ‘But after his parents were no longer here, I did buy the drug for him sometimes.’ She looks down at her nails. ‘I had to, he was my husband and he couldn’t do without it. I loved him and it made him happy…’

They may not have been ‘like that’ then, but eventually Ebby ended up on heroin and on the streets. Soon after I saw Ebby for the last time, Mina’s parents insisted that she leave him, and she took his children and moved back into their house. She got a job and got on with life as a single parent. She never divorced him, though within Iranian law she easily could have on account of his addiction. I asked her why and she said simply: ‘Because I loved him.’


Abadan is no longer the sophisticated city of pre-revolutionary days. The grand Abadan Hotel where my parents would dance the night away is now a broken down shell of a building. Braim, the residential area of the oil company still has clean streets and rows of bungalows but the entrances to its streets are now fenced off to prevent locals coming in. The refinery is still at work — in 1997 it reached the same rate of production as before the war — and the waters of the Shatt still flow gently between the town and Iraq’s fields of palms, but the main town is a dusty relic of its former self, the pavements half unpaved, and streets with their neon shop fronts a mixture of new buildings, shambolic old buildings, and gaping holes where bombed out ruins have not been rebuilt.

My cousin Milad is taking me on a tour of Abadan. He is a young man in his early 20s, typically Abadani, with slicked back hair and a pair of Ray Bans permanently fixed on his face. He speaks with an Abadani accent, his Farsi peppered with English words (another legacy of Abadan’s cosmopolitan past) and he is wearing pointed shoes — the latest fashion — and he takes great care over his clothes. Khuzestanis have ever been thus: they have a reputation for being fond of looking good and having a good time, the fashion for slicked back hair and Ray Bans stretching back to the glory days of Abadan. (In our home in London there is a 1960’s picture of my youthful father after a decade of living in Abadan. His hair is slicked back and he is wearing Ray Bans. He is not from Khuzestan but it is infectious.) It was Milad who came across Ebby a year ago, begging on the streets, and it was Milad who identified Ebby’s body when he noticed him missing from his usual post.

It is early evening and and as it is winter, the climate is at its best, balmy and breezy with no sign yet of the hellish humidity that besieges Khuzestan nine months of the year. He points out the various bazaars that bring in goods from Kuwait, brand goods that people clamour to buy, from shampoo to coffee whitener. He points out the area called the Kuwaiti bazaar, opposite the cordoned off site of the old infamous Cinema Rex, historically the starting point of the Revolution: on 20 August 1978, the Cinema Rex was locked from the inside and set on fire, resulting in 430 deaths. It was widely believed that the government of the Shah was responsible: there were several dissidents inside. This sparked mass demonstrations against the Shah, who was overthrown six months later. Recently there was another fire on the site and now it is being prepared to become a new shopping mall, selling shoes. Milad tells me that several sets of bones have been unearthed since the work started.

Turning down a side street, Milad shows me where Ebby used to sit, outside a shop selling brightly patterned blankets. ‘He was cold at the beginning of the winter,’ he says, ‘so I bought him a blanket here.’ Across the street, on a corner outside the bank where Ebby would post himself through the mornings begging for money, stand his ‘friends’ — other addicts clustering around a blind cigarette seller with an Arab scarf around his neck. They are in various degrees of narcosis: one man is standing, leaning at a dangerous angle, another is crouching on the ground, head falling forward, shoulders hunched. Everyone knew Ebby, Milad says, and they let him do whatever he wanted. They knew he had AIDS, they didn’t want to go near him.

There are an estimated 2 million drug addicts in Iran though some put the real figures as high as 6 million. 200,000 are injecting drug users. This is a high proportion of a population of 68 million — the United States, for instance, has one million opiate addicts in a population of around 270 million. Last October, Reza Sarami, who heads the anti-addiction programme of the national anti-narcotics trafficking body, reportedly said drug use was rising by eight percent annually, at this rate Iran could be counting nine million addicts — one seventh of the population — in 20 years.

Iran borders Afghanistan, the world’s largest producer of opium and the drugs come through Iran on their way to lucrative western markets. Historically there has been a tradition of opium smoking in Iran in which older men would gather at home to talk and share an opium pipe. This was a social activity and the opium smoking wouldn’t interfere with their lives. The big change is the move to intravenous heroin use, a change that can be partly attributed to opium prices skyrocketing after the Taliban’s ban on growing the poppy and heroin became cheap and available instead — a hit of heroin costs less than a packet of cigarettes. Add to this the largely young population of Iran, living with high unemployment rates, scant opportunities for recreation, fiercely contested, limited university places and growing rates of depression and you can see why there is such cause for concern.

With intravenous drug use comes HIV and Hepatitis, and sure enough, AIDS is now being seen as a real problem in Iran. The first reported AIDS case dates back to 1987, when a six-year-old haemophiliac child was diagnosed to have been infected, resulting in the establishment of a National Committee to fight AIDS. Since then, there have been 4,237 reported cases of HIV/AIDS. Of this number, 626 have developed full-blown AIDS and 585 have died.

But these figures are nowhere near accurate and even the government acknowledges that a better estimate is around 20,000. The figures don’t include the likes of Ebby, who was never treated or registered as an AIDS patient. Last summer, my uncle, Milad’s father, came to Abadan and took him to a local drug clinic. They refused to take him in, he was too infectious. There was no hope for him, they said, better not to risk other lives for one that could not be saved. Ebby returned to the streets with his swollen legs and the weeping sores on his feet.

Ebby had had full-blown AIDS for a few years. The majority of Iran’s AIDS sufferers — 65 percent — are men who have contracted the virus through contaminated needles. Prisons are the main source of HIV infection; addiction is a crime and addicts possessing 5gms of heroin or 30gms of opium are routinely jailed. Some 180,000 people are incarcerated in Iran’s prisons, more than half on drug charges. Up to 100 inmates reportedly share a single needle. Ebby had been regularly in and out of jail over the years.

‘After Mina left and he became homeless,’ Milad continues, ‘Ebby would sometimes try to get jailed so he would have somewhere warm and dry to sleep.’ After he was so obviously suffering from AIDS, he literally couldn’t get arrested and Shapur Park is where he would mostly spend the night, sleeping by a cedar tree.

According to other addicts, getting heroin inside prison is easy. Experts have called for a more moderate approach in order to curb the spread of drug-related AIDS, most notably by way of the free distribution of syringes to avoid contamination. A recent law has made it possible for pharmacies to supply free syringes to registered drug addicts signifying a sea change in the Iranian governments’ policy. Until recently the emphasis was on reducing the supply of heroin — now it is shifting to reducing harm.

In the deprived streets of southern Tehran, I turn into a dusty cul-de-sac to find a door that I have been told has no sign. There is a curtain hanging across the open doorway and lifting it, I look down into a small courtyard filled to bursting with men, queuing. On the other side of the courtyard, there are steps leading to a gallery and the queue snakes up here, filtering to the right where, from small window, someone hands out methadone. I squeeze up the steps, turn left at the top and am ushered into a small office, also bursting with people, three desks and stacks of boxes.

This is Persepolis, a harm reduction NGO, and Iran’s first methadone programme in a non-governmental organisation. Started in a town in the province of Fars near the historical monument Persepolis in 1998, it was originally a drop-in centre for addicts as part of a GP’s surgery. Dr Bijan Nassirimanesh, the NGO’s founder, was keen to remove the stigma and the amount of referrals it took for addicts to get treatment. After nearly four years, he moved the operation to Tehran and chose the south because ‘there the need was greatest.’

When I drop into one of the three Persepolis day centres now established in southern Tehran, Dr Nassirimanesh is away. I sit down opposite Mr Rouhy, a fast-talking man who runs the centre. He tells me that the lessons learnt in Fars persuaded them that harm reduction was essential, so the centre offers addicts a package of syringes, clean needles, tape, alcohol pads, condoms and distilled water — as well as food, clothes, a bath and medical attention, including wound and abscess management, all for free. The 200 addicts that drop in every day are all homeless and those registered for the syringe package have to bring back the used syringe the next day before they can get another package. ‘It’s part of the education,’ he says, ‘Plus we don’t want the streets littered with used needles.’

The team consists of doctors, a psychiatrist and an outreach team that takes the same packages out into the community. Many of the other staff are former addicts and often they just listen to the addicts’ stories, inspiring them with their own success at beating the drug. Rouhy insists that, despite the need for sensitivity in the Islamic Republic where extra-marital sex is illegal, teaching the addicts about condoms is essential. ‘We try to be sensitive,’ he shrugs, ‘But it is really important. And of course we don’t judge. We don’t force anyone to come off the drugs. We just make sure they are safe.’

There is a kitchen and on alternate days, lunch is offered. Below the office there is a day room where people can sit and drink tea and talk. Until recently, Dr Nassirimanesh tested every addict that came to him for HIV. Of 500 addicts he tested, 25 percent were found to be HIV-positive. However, the centre no longer has the resources necessary to carry this out. Rouhy sighs. ‘There is such a need for what we are doing,’ he says. ‘We have no shortage of people who want to work, no shortage of people needing treatment. What we don’t have enough of is funding. Get me funding and we will happily open a Persepolis in every district in every town.’

Centres such as Persepolis or the 65 ‘triangle clinics’ located in hospitals and prisons concentrating on a three-pronged approach (treating AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and drug addiction at once) are pinpricks of hope in a dark landscape. As is the government’s new approach, in which about half of the approximately US$80 million allotted annually to fighting drugs now goes for supply reduction and half towards decreasing demand. Still, the numbers they are fighting are massive and while the causes for addiction are not being addressed, then people like Mr Rouhy and Dr Nassirimanesh are just fire fighting.

Although there is now better education and families across the whole social spectrum are affected by this epidemic, there is still a stigma attached to having a drug addict in the family. By the time Ebby died, none of his siblings had seen him or talked to him for years. After years of trying to assist him to give up, after all his lies and deceit, they had all finally given up. His elder sister says to me: ‘He stole from me, he lied to me and I still gave him money and tried to help. But in the end, it was impossible to try to find a husband for my sister with Ebby coming around every time he needed a fix. So in the end I had to stop him from coming to me, and eventually when we moved, I never gave him my new address.’ She is crying as she tells me this. ‘He was my brother and I loved him. But what could I do? Our parents aren’t here and we have no family left in Abadan. I had to look out for my sister.’

His younger sister is nursing her first child. She is less emotional. ‘He brought this on himself,’ she declares. ‘For me, Ebby died a long time ago. And even though I told my husband about him after we were married, his family still doesn’t know about his addiction and I have no desire for them to find out. Ebby was a disgrace to us all. At least now that he is dead I can get on and grieve him. But for me, Ebby died a long time ago.’


Twenty miles from Abadan, we alight in Khorramshahr, declared holy ground since the two-year Iraqi occupation. Many buildings are still mere shells, the reconstruction here is slow; the economy has never really recovered from the destruction and depopulation the city suffered during the war. The city centre has shifted since the war as the old city centre has not been reconstructed, meaning that the uncle who accompanies me, takes a little while to get his bearings, even though he knew this area ‘like the back of my hand before.’ We head to the city hall to get a pass for Shalamcheh, the no-man’s land between here and Iraq which saw so much blood shed. Since it has become a shrine to the war, a place of pilgrimage, visits have been formalised: only special taxis make the trip to Shalamcheh and usually the passes are only handed out at the weekends, not during the week, as we went. However we were lucky to find an amenable official who, without looking up, wrote the requisite letter for us in response to our entreaties.

The taxi speeds the couple of miles along an empty two-lane highway, flanked by a flat wilderness, usually dusty and empty, but in the last two days turned to marshes of mud by heavy winter rainfall. As we near Shalamcheh, there are mounted signs extolling the virtues of martyrdom, and there is a burnt out Iraqi tank half buried in the ground. This land used to support many villages but now there are only the straggling remains of one or two. ‘There are still lots of mines here,’ explains our taxi driver, a Khuzestani Arab whose own village is not far.

We come to a small outpost manned by a couple of young guards. The driver hands over our letter while chatting to the guards who he obviously knows well: he is licensed to come here certain days of the week. They usher us through and we turn right onto a long straight road, surrounded by this vast emptiness, the odd shelled-out tank the only punctuation. There are the odd remains of machine guns and the burnt-out shells of tanks abandoned at the side of the road. Occasionally there are large banners bearing the garishly painted images of martyrs who died in the war, of generals, of ordinary soldiers too. We draw into a muddy parking lot, all around us the dips and elevations of trenches and dug-outs still clear in the landscape.

‘Shalamcheh: welcome to Iran’s Kerbala’ announces a sign. Kerbala, in Iraq, is where, in the 8th century, Imam Hossein was martyred. Ahead of us lies a prayer area to the right, just an aluminum ceiling covering the devout from the sun and rows of billboards displaying pictures. The shrine itself lies to the left, a dome covering a cool hall supported by columns and culminating in a centrepiece of a glass case, set in a depression in the floor edged by sandbags and red paper flowers. In the glass case there is the broken remains of guns, helmets, Korans and other relics of soldiers’ lives collected from these killing fields, all watched over by the picture of a dead, bloody soldier.

Outside, there is a path leading to a small graveyard for unnamed soldiers and beyond, a couple of watchtowers, a few metres from border with Iraq. We head up to the watchtowers, passing a couple of guards, all very young men, looking bored and surprised to see us — we were the only visitors. From the top of the watchtower, an Iranian flag dancing lazily in the breeze, I spot an Iraqi outpost on the other side of the border. A lonely guard waves to us. ‘Sometimes,’ says one of the soldiers who has wandered over, ‘they come over and borrow some sugar lumps for their tea, or come and share sweets with us.’ He grins, barely out of his teens, just serving his National Service: ‘You know, we are all friends now.’

I wander off as I’m listening to him, a little way from the path. ‘Stop!’ he shouts after me, alarmed. ‘Mines’ he explains. ‘There are still mines here. All the way to Ahvaz.’ Ahvaz is some 120km away. ‘As soon as we think we know where the mines are, they shift,’ he explains. When it rains like this in the winter, the mines move in the marshy soil. ‘We lost a couple of men just a few weeks ago,’ the young soldier says. He hands us a pair of binoculars. ‘Pity you weren’t here half an hour ago,’ he laughs, ‘The Iraqis were singing and dancing over there.’

Stories abound of shocking incidents the war made commonplace here: half a garrison lying down on an electric fence so that others may go through; a hundred boys throwing themselves in a river to act as a human bridge; the children that ran at Iraqi tanks with Molotov cocktails or hand grenades. You can see why the Iraqis were scared.

There are burnt trunks of date palm trees spiking the flat wasteland, and looking over the scrub and mud, I think about Ebby living through the winter here, waiting in muddied trenches, scared. Rousing religious tunes would be played over Tannoys and mass prayers led before battles to whip the troops into religious frenzy, but by the time Ebby was here, war weariness had set in and volunteers were drying up. Many of the troops were conscripts like Ebby and they didn’t have the same zeal as those who had flocked to enlist in the first few years.

The silence here is eerie and somehow full. Underneath my every step may be the bodies of men and boys: a troop of 400 that came from the holy town of Mashad in the northwest of the country, only to be buried alive by the Iraqis on arrival. Four major battles were fought from April to August 1988, in which the Iraqis massively and effectively used chemical weapons to defeat the Iranians, using nerve and blister agents against Iranian command and control facilities, artillery positions, and logistics points. In the last major battle of the war, played out here, 65,000 Iranians were killed, many with poison gas. The pictures lining the prayer area don’t shy away from any of this: there are bodies, dismembered, beheaded, bleeding, wounded. Men praying in the trenches, looking shell-shocked, men marching, laughing, fighting, bearing their arms and hugging their comrades. Pictures of the dead with their names underneath: some just young boys, some in the height of late 1970’s fashion, frozen forever in their youth. Just as shocking as all this blood and guts is a picture of a troop marching in the area at the start of hostilities: Shalamcheh was like an oasis, green and lush with date trees and all shades of bushes and plants. The men marching through this fecund land are laughing with confidence, convinced of their victory, passionate about their God and their land.

The pictures are here as a testament to the glorious values of martyrdom, of the bravery of Iran’s sons. To me they just speak of futility, a waste of young lives and of land as old as time.

The war between Iran and Iraq was one of the great human tragedies of recent history. Perhaps as many as a million people died, many more were wounded, and millions were made refugees. The resources wasted on the war exceeded what the entire Third World spent on public health in a decade. And even now, as those who lived through the war struggle to come to terms with their memories, the war is still claiming its casualties.


In death Ebby has found a status he never enjoyed in life. For many of the men who fought in this war, the only honourable outcome was death and the martyrdom that entailed. For those that survived, living proved too much to bear. For some, it meant reintegrating into a society that every year cared less for their war. For others locking away the war years and striding on with life as if those years never happened was the only way to go on. For the likes of Ebby, that was not an option. Despite support from family, a loving wife and children, Ebby’s love for the drug that helped him forget was stronger than anything and to it he sacrificed his family, his home and, in the end, his life. While still alive, reeling through the streets of Abadan, he was a disgrace to his family, an embarrassment to his country and a shameful testimony to the war that shaped him. In death, Ebby has finally become once again a beloved son, a much-missed brother and a loving father and husband. Another martyr to the war that continues to haunt its survivors.

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

Kamin Mohammadi’s first book, a family memoir and modern history of Iran, will be published by Bloomsbury later this year.

Consider the source

March 31, 2009

RELATED Going nuclear: Before and After

Iran’s Nuclear Program 101.

Los Angeles
Tehran Bureau | analysis

From 2001 to 2003, when the Bush administration was preparing the public for the invasion of Iraq, it supported its lies and exaggerations through front-page articles in The New York Times by Judith Miller, the now discredited reporter who left “the newspaper of record.” Many of her articles were co-authored by Michael R. Gordon, The Times’ chief military correspondent. In fact, from 1998 Miller had been serving as the chief of propaganda for Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, presenting in her articles, based on Mr. Chalabi’s fabrications, accounts of a terrifying Iraq with active programs for producing weapons of mass destruction, which were later proven to be nonexistent. Many internal memos from The Times leaked to the outside world indicated that Chalabi and the neocons were the only sources of Miller’s claims on Iraq.

A particularly glaring example of the lies that Gordon and Miller were propagating was in an article that they published on September 8, 2002, in which they claimed that Saddam Hussein was trying to purchase aluminum tubes for use in Iraq’s uranium enrichment program. The “evidence” was quickly challenged in an article by Joby Warrick of the Washington Post, but the lie was used by the neocons, and particularly Dick Cheney, as “proof” of Iraq’s nuclear program. It turned out later that the neocons had supplied the lies to Gordon and Miller, and then used their articles as the needed evidence for the “smoking gun.” The lie was used repeatedly for quite some time as the primary propaganda tool against Iraq.

Was Judith Miller that gullible and easy to fool? No, she was not. She was sympathetic to the neocons’ cause, despite being considered a liberal on many other issues. At the same time, she had to go along with what she was being told because otherwise she would have probably lost her sources in the administration.

A similar phenomenon is taking place with respect to Iran and its nuclear program. Lies, exaggerations and baseless speculations are rampant about how close Iran supposedly is to making a nuclear bomb. The last round of propaganda started after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its latest report on Iran on February 19, 2009. The report in fact reaffirmed, once again, that (i) Iran had not diverted its nuclear materials to non-peaceful purposes; (ii) there was no evidence of a secret nuclear weapons program or secret nuclear facility, and (iii) all of Iran’s nuclear facilities are monitored by the IAEA and its nuclear materials are safeguarded. The report also contained an important positive signal from Iran in that it stated that the Islamic Republic had not increased significantly the number of centrifuges that were producing low-enriched uranium (LEU). This was very likely a signal from Iran that it wished for a detente with the United States under the new administration of President Obama.

All the positive points in the report were however ignored by the usual anti-Iran crowd, because the IAEA also reported that it estimated, as of January 31, Iran had produced 1010 kg of the LEU with an enrichment level of 3.49%. Suddenly there were deafening screams about how Iran could enrich its stockpile of LEU to the level suitable for a single nuclear bomb; that is, to 90% purity. Even if Iran could miraculously do the enrichment and build a nuclear device, it would have to explode it in a test, hence finishing up its entire stockpile! Moreover, converting a nuclear device to a nuclear bomb is in itself a difficult task, and there is no evidence that Iran has such a capability.

But, the War Party has ignored all of this. In its tall tale, Iran’s one ton of LEU is the equivalent of Iraq’s “aluminum tubes.” Its allies in the latest round of propaganda are the usual crowd — the mainstream media, the Israel lobby, and the pundits who are apparently able to read the minds of the Iranian leaders better than the Iranian leaders can themselves.

That the War Party and the Israel Lobby should embark on this latest round of propaganda is expected. What is surprising however is the appearance of an entirely new source to “substantiate” that which cannot be substantiated: speculations, innuendos and skewed interpretations of what the IAEA actually reports, or what Iran may or may not have or do. This new source is David Albright and his Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).

One would think that Albright would use his command of nuclear issues, as recognized by the American Physical Society’s Joseph S. Burton Forum Award, for objective and impartial analysis of Iran’s nuclear program. But he and his Institute have been increasingly distancing themselves from such a position, and wittingly or unwittingly becoming a tool in the hands of the anti-Iran crowd. Let me explain.

Consider, first, the ISIS itself. It monitors the nuclear programs of India, Pakistan and Iran, among other nations. Unlike Iran, the first two have not signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), and have developed nuclear arsenals. Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal, restive population, political instability, and strong influence of Islamic fundamentalists in its military and intelligence services, is one of the most dangerous nations on Earth; yet the main focus of the ISIS in Iran.

The ISIS, which presents itself as a scientific — hence, presumably impartial — organization, does not analyze or monitor Brazil’s nuclear program, whose navy controls its uranium enrichment program and has restricted the IAEA access to Brazil’s uranium enrichment facilities, in violation of its NPT and Safeguards Agreement obligations. Just imagine what would happen if the IAEA were to declare that Iran’s military controls its uranium enrichment program.

Nor does the ISIS analyze or follow Israel’s program. This is the same nation that, (i) has at least 200 nuclear warheads; (ii) has three nuclear submarines that can attack any nation in the Middle East (one is usually in Iran’s vicinity); (iii) kidnapped its own citizen, Mordechai Vanunu, in Italy and took him to Israel, where he was jailed for 18 years because he revealed that Israel had a nuclear weapons program; (iv) has been threatening for a long time to attack Iran and its nuclear facilities, and (v) is the main reason for instability in the Middle East. But, the ISIS apparently believes that Israel and its nuclear program do not require monitoring or analysis.

On its Web site, the ISIS claims that it “works to create a world safe from the dangers posed by the spread of nuclear weapons to irresponsible governments…” (emphasis mine). Given its 41 years of occupation of the Palestinian lands, in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, its massacre of thousands of innocent people in the occupied territories and Lebanon, and the unimaginable destruction that it has caused there, Israel must be a “responsible” government. And Iran, which has not attacked any nation for at least 270 years, and has been the victim of numerous military attacks, invasions, and foreign-sponsored coups, is “irresponsible.”

Then there is the question of the sources of funding for the ISIS. It has a staff of five, and also lists two consultants and two interns. It uses the satellite imagery provided by DigitalGlobe, a private vendor of space imagery based in Colorado. All of this needs funding. On its Web site the ISIS states that, “the vast bulk of our funding comes from public and private foundations,” but I could not find the names of its benefactors. In an e-mail to the ISIS office I asked about the sources of their funding, but I received no response.

One must also consider ISIS’s sources of information. Consider, for example, the IAEA’s reports on Iran. When Mohamed ElBaradei, the Director General, submits his reports to the IAEA’s Board of Governors, their distribution is usually restricted. Yet, the ISIS posts the reports on its sites immediately after they are submitted. Often, even before the submission of the reports, the ISIS seems to know their contents, and numerous times has posted them at the same time that they are submitted.

That brings us to the ISIS President, David Albright, his analysis, and his sources at the IAEA. I am not going to repeat Scott Ritter’s criticism of Albright. Some interpreted Ritter’s expose as a personal attack, and Frank von Hippel of Princeton University wrote a response to his piece, defending Albright.

I leave it to the readers of Ritter’s article to gauge for themselves whether his arguments have any merit. I have never met Ritter, but have tremendous respect for him and his courageous stand regarding the illegal invasion of Iraq and what the Bush-Cheney cabal tried to do to Iran. At the same time, leading an extensive and active research program in physics and engineering has given me a degree of objectivity.

I believe that Albright has made many valuable contributions to the debates on nuclear arms, nuclear materials, etc. Albright relies, however, too heavily on baseless (not educated) speculations, and, quite often, nothing more that mere guesses. Moreover, he has been silent on important and sensitive issues that any experienced analyst and expert should be able to comment on. And he has published on the ISIS Web site analysis that seems to serve one and only one purpose — adding dangerous fuel to the debate over Iran’s nuclear program. These may not have been a problem by themselves, but we are talking about a serious international issue, namely Iran’s nuclear program and the fact that the War Party, the Israel lobby, and Israel itself are looking for any excuse to provoke and justify military attacks on Iran. In such a situation, anything other than solid, objective scientific analysis, backed by legitimate documents and credible sources is extremely dangerous. But, unfortunately, when it comes to Iran, Albright has increasingly distanced himself from being such an expert and analyst. Let me explain.

To begin with, let me point out that an analyst of Iran’s nuclear program, and the president of a supposedly impartial and scientific institution, cannot consort with AIPAC, the leading Israel lobby in the United States and an organization that is behind practically all the anti-Iran rhetoric that is coming out of Washington and, at the same time, present himself everywhere as an objective and impartial analyst. But, that is exactly what Albright did. On March 5, 2006, he spoke to AIPAC, making a presentation entitled, “Nuclear countdown: what can be done to stop Iran?” That, by itself, is very revealing, but Albright has not stopped there.

When it comes to talking about Iran’s nuclear program, Albright either sensationalizes the issue without putting much substance behind it, or tells half the story, leaving behind important details. As an example of the former, consider all the nonsense that he said about the Parchin site near Tehran in September 2004. This is an industrial complex in southeast Tehran that has been producing conventional ammunition, high explosives, and rockets for Iran’s armed forces for decades, going back to the 1950’s. In an article, Albright and Corey Hinderstein made all sorts of allegations about how Parchin was being used by Iran for nuclear-related work. But, the IAEA visited the site in January 2005, and reported no discovery of nuclear-related activities. What did Albright and Hinderstein do? Instead of retracting what they had written, they demanded further visits to the site!

More examples of how Albright is telling only half the story, consider the following. On the question of how much yellow cake (the uranium oxide that is converted to uranium hexafluoride for enrichment) Iran has, Albright has been saying recently that it is enough to make tens of bombs, but does not say that going from the yellow cake to the bomb is a long, tortuous process, fraught with all kinds of scientific difficulties, requiring advanced nuclear technologies, many of which Iran does not currently have, or at least there is no evidence that it does. When he is asked about Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium, he responds that it is enough to make one nuclear bomb, but does not usually say that what Iran has is LEU, not highly-enriched uranium (HEU) that is needed for the bomb, and that so long as Iran’s enrichment facilities and stockpile are safeguarded by the IAEA, there is no way that Iran can obtain the HEU, even if it wants to (there is no evidence that it does), or has the facility for producing it (which it does not). It is clear that if Iran were ever to enrich its LEU to HEU, it would not do it at the well-known Natanz site. But, even if it were to do so, Iran must do extensive re-piping and some redesigning, which it would not be able to do under the watchful cameras of the IAEA.

In a recent interview, Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor at http://www.CFR.org, said to Albright, “You’ve been following Iran’s nuclear activities for years. Could you provide an update on its progress so far?”

Here is his response:

Iran continues to move forward on developing its nuclear capabilities, and it is close to having what we would call a ‘nuclear breakout capability.’ That’s a problem because once Iran reaches that state then it could make a decision to get nuclear weapons pretty rapidly. In as quickly as a few months, Iran would be able to have enough weapons-grade uranium for nuclear weapons. And if a breakout occurred, they would not likely do so at the well-known Natanz enrichment plant. Rather, the Iranians would most likely take low-enriched uranium that’s produced at that plant and then divert it at a secret facility that we wouldn’t know anything about. And at this secret facility, the Iranians would produce this weapons-grade uranium. And so if you were in the camp that said, ‘Well, we’ll have to strike militarily,’ you won’t actually know where to strike because you won’t know where that secret facility is. Whatever camp you are in, the situation is bound to grow more tense. So for 2009, probably the big technical issue is when Iran establishes this breakout capability. It could be soon. They don’t need that much more low-enriched uranium before they reach the first level of breakout capability, namely enough low-enriched uranium to make one nuclear weapon.

To the untrained eyes of a layman, the above paragraph seems very “innocent” and, at the same time, very “authoritative.” It is neither, however.

(1) Albright’s statement about the breakout capability is misleading, because he does not mention a lot of important details. A nation has that capability when it has enough LEU for conversion to HEU to make a bomb, and the facilities to do so. But as I discussed above, the process of converting LEU to HEU is long and tortuous. Even if Iran has everything in place, and everything works without any glitches or outside intervention, the breakout time — the time needed to convert the LEU stockpile to HEU — is 6 to 9 months, ample time for the international community to negotiate with Iran.

(2) But, that is not the most misleading part of Albright’s response. He knows that the Natanz facility is not currently equipped to enrich the LEU to HEU and, even if it were, Iran could not convert the LEU to HEU there. So, he says, with seeming 100% certainty, that the process of converting LEU to HEU will take place in a secret facility. That is, he is sure that such a facility already exists. The IAEA has certified time and again that there is no evidence of the existence of a parallel enrichment program in Iran. So, apparently Albright knows something that the rest of the world does not. I’ll come back to this point shortly. He also does not mention that Iran’s stockpile of the LEU is safeguarded by the IAEA. So, the only way for Iran to actually produce HEU from LEU is, (a) to leave the NPT and expel the IAEA’s inspectors from Iran, and (b) to take the LEU to the secret facility so quickly that all the satellites that are hovering over Iran, watching every move, would miss such a monumental event.

(3) All Albright is talking about is one nuclear bomb. So, assuming that Iran could fool the entire world, that it has everything that it needs, and with tremendous luck produce one nuclear bomb — after going through another difficult process (and there is no evidence that Iran does have the capability to do so), namely, converting a nuclear device to a nuclear bomb — it would have to explode it to test it. That would finish off Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium!

Still, Albright did not stop there. The ISIS recently posted an analysis in which it claimed that Iran was running out of yellow cake. When Albright was asked by Gwertzman about this issue, he responded by saying,

Iran has never really had the uranium resources to support an indigenous nuclear electricity program. So they are dependent on importing the fuel. If you consider the Bushehr reactor, that’s what they did. They bought the reactor from Russia, and they bought the fuel for at least ten years.

Assuming that the first part of Albright’s response is correct (which it is not), the second part is totally misleading. Iran bought the fuel for the Bushehr reactor because when it signed the agreement with Russia, it had no enrichment plant. In addition, Iran bought the fuel for ten years, because it would take that long (at the current pace) to set up an industrial-scale enrichment plant with 50,000 centrifuges.

Then, he continued,

From our point of view, the best thing they can do is work out a solution with the international community so they can proceed with the nuclear electricity and import the low-enriched uranium fuel that they need for those reactors.

Aside from suggesting that Iran should give up its rights under Article IV of the NPT, Albright makes one wonder whom he is talking about when he says our point of view. If he is talking about himself and the ISIS, that is all right. But, if he considers himself part and parcel of the U.S. government and more generally the West, then he should stop all pretense to leading an impartial scientific institution, interested only in objective analysis of solid facts.

Albright and the ISIS have continuously published analysis in which they insinuate preordained conclusions based on totally unrelated facts. An example is a recent analysis by him, Paul Brannan and Andrea Scheel entitled “Iranian Entities Illicit Military Procurement Networks.” They describe a network of companies that allegedly purchases items that cannot be exported to Iran. There is not a single item in the analysis that has anything to do Iran’s nuclear program. Even they do not make such a claim. In a second analysis, Albright et al. claimed Iran was illicitly procuring a vacuum pump for its uranium enrichment program. No shred of evidence, no matter how flimsy or indirect, was presented for the claim. Even a cursory check of the Wikipedia, indicates that there are at least 16 very different usages of such pumps (and, importantly, Wikipedia does not even list centrifuges as one of them). But Albright and company decided on their own that this purchase must have been for Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Any reasonable expert would object to such so-called analysis because, (i) they are utterly unscientific and based on sheer speculation. (ii) They have little to do with the stated mission of the ISIS. (iii) The time of their release is very suspicious, and (iv) therefore, they can have one and only one goal: to add dangerous fuel to an already heated debate over Iran’s nuclear program.

One of the most contentious issues between Iran and the IAEA is the laptop that was supposedly stolen in Iran and turned over to the United States, which allegedly has incriminating evidence of Iran’s non-existent nuclear weapon program. The IAEA has repeatedly called on the United States to provide Iran copies of the documents that were supposedly in the laptop. The Americans have refused. The computer has never been analyzed for its digital chain of custody to reveal the dates in which the documents were stored in the laptop. These are two crucial issues that go to the heart of the subject. Yet, Albright has been totally silent about them. Why? The answer brings us to last piece of the puzzle, namely, Albright’s source at the IAEA.

Albright’s current contact at the IAEA, with whom he is “extremely tight” (in the language of several sources), is Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s deputy director for safeguards, who is in charge of the current inspection in Iran. Heinonen, who tries to deceive people into believing that he is impartial by reminding them that he is from Finland, has been leading a crusade against Iran. Against the IAEA protocol for his high position, Heinonen constantly leaks sensitive information to the press, and spreads baseless or at least unproven allegations about Iran’s nuclear program.

As one example of Heinonen’s bias, consider the following: In February 2008, ElBaradei submitted a report to the Board of Governors of the IAEA in which he declared that Iran’s six minor breaches in its Safeguards Agreement have been addressed to the IAEA’s satisfaction and that, as a result of Iran’s cooperation, the IAEA had gained a better understanding of the history of Iran’s nuclear program. Right after that report, Heinonen made a provocative and tainted presentation to the Board of Governors, based entirely on the laptop. “Alarming,” he called it. This enabled the U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA, Gregory Schulte, who is a master at exaggerations and innuendos, to declare that
As today’s briefing showed us, there are strong reasons to suspect that Iran was working covertly and deceitfully, at least until recently, to build a bomb. Iran has refused to explain or even acknowledge past work on weaponization. This is particularly troubling when combined with Iran’s determined effort to master the technology to enrich uranium. Uranium enrichment is not necessary for Iran’s civil program but it is necessary to produce the fissile material that could be weaponized into a bomb.

In addition to Schulte’s utter arrogance in deciding that Iran does not need its own uranium enrichment, one must ask, how can Iran explain a document that has never seen? How can Iran acknowledge something that it has not done? It is really straightforward to confront Iran on this issue: Present copies of the documents to Iran, and analyze the laptop’s digital chain of custody.

What is Albright’s position regarding all of this? Silence! He probably knows that at least some of the documents were fabricated and inserted in the laptop and, therefore, an analysis of the laptop’s digital chain of custody would easily reveal that. He knows most definitively that given Iran’s history of having its scientists assassinated, its experts would not carelessly reveal the names of important personnel in a memo, which is supposedly in the laptop. But, Albright has kept silent because he is “tight” with Heinonen. Just like Judith Miller, if Albright says anything about this issue that Heinonen does not like, he will lose his source inside the IAEA, the same source who presumably gives him ElBaradei’s reports on Iran and other information that are not supposed to be distributed publicly.

Heinonen is “tight” with Albright because he realizes that leaking information to Albright and ISIS to present to the public gives it a veneer of legitimacy. It is better for a former UN weapon inspector and nuclear expert and his “scientific, non-profit” institution to spread unproven “facts,” than the deputy IAEA chief for inspection. Heinonen is a true heir to Pierre Goldschmidt, who served in the IAEA in the same capacity, and who has made many ridiculous statements regarding Iran since moving to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In addition to Albright and Heinonen being “tight,” there might be another factor at play. Many times in the past Albright claimed that Iran could not reach certain milestones in its nuclear program, because it just does not have the technological and scientific capabilities. Yet, time and again he was proven wrong. That is because he and other Western experts have a hard time accepting that Iran, a nation that has been under the most severe U.S. sanctions for more than two decades, has succeeded in setting up a complete indigenous cycle for producing nuclear fuel. As the author told William Broad and David Sanger of The New York Times in an article that was published in the Times on March 5, 2006,
We’ve made mistakes in underestimating the strength of science in Iran and the ingenuity they show in working with whatever crude design they get their hands on.

Some may point to Albright’s opposition to attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities as an indication that he is against war with Iran. But, if the article by Albright, Paul Brannan, and Jacqueline Shire, is studied carefully, one finds that it is not that they are against war per se, but that they do not think bombing will solve the “problem.” Instead, they advocate sanctions. But sanctions are low-intensity wars. Sanctions killed at least 500,000 Iraqi children in the 1990’s. The number of civilians killed as a result of invading and occupying Iraq ranges anywhere from 200,000 to 1 million, which is completely comparable with the number of the Iraqi children killed in the 1990’s.

It would be a pity if David Albright continues down this path and allows himself to be used as a tool like Judith Miller. He can still contribute usefully to the debate on Iran’s nuclear program, provided that he does not sacrifice objectivity for the sake of having a source at the IAEA — and a discredited and prejudiced one at that.

The Afghan War Rationale

March 28, 2009

Some Strategists Cast Doubt on Afghan War Rationale.

Washington, D.C.
IPS | analysis

The argument for deeper U.S. military commitment to the Afghan War invoked by President Barack Obama in his first major policy statement on Afghanistan and Pakistan Friday — that al Qaeda must be denied a safe haven in Afghanistan — has been not been subjected to public debate in Washington.

A few influential strategists here have been arguing, however, that this official rationale misstates the al Qaeda problem and ignores the serious risk that an escalating U.S. war poses to Pakistan.

Those strategists doubt that al Qaeda would seek to move into Afghanistan as long as they are ensconced in Pakistan and argue that escalating U.S. drone air strikes or Special Operations raids on Taliban targets in Pakistan will actually strengthen radical jihadi groups in the country and weaken the Pakistani government’s ability to resist them.

The first military strategist to go on record with such a dissenting view on Afghanistan and Pakistan was Col. T. X. Hammes, a retired Marine officer and author of the 2004 book “The Sling and the Stone,” which argued that the U.S. military faces a new type of warfare which it would continue to lose if it did not radically reorient its thinking. He became more widely known as one of the first military officers to call in September 2006 for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation over failures in Iraq.

Col. Hammes dissected the rationale for the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan in an article last September on the Web site of the “Small Wars Journal,” which specializes in counterinsurgency issues. He questioned the argument that Afghanistan had to be stabilized in order to deny al Qaeda a terrorist base there, because, “Unfortunately, al Qaeda has moved its forces and its bases into Pakistan.”

Hammes suggested that the Afghan War might actually undermine the tenuous stability of a Pakistani regime, thus making the al Qaeda threat far more serious. He complained that “neither candidate has even commented on how our actions [in Afghanistan] may be feeding Pakistan’s instability.”

Hammes, who has since joined the Institute for Defense Analysis, a Pentagon contractor, declined to comment on the Obama administration’s rationale for the Afghan War for this article.

Kenneth Pollack, the director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution, has also expressed doubt about the official argument for escalation in Afghanistan. Pollack’s 2002 book, “The Threatening Storm,” was important in persuading opinion-makers in Washington to support the Bush administration’s use of U.S. military force against the Saddam Hussein regime, and he remains an enthusiastic supporter of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

But at a Brookings forum Dec. 16, Pollack expressed serious doubts about the strategic rationale for committing the U.S. military to Afghanistan. Contrasting the case for war in Afghanistan with the one for war in Iraq in 2003, he said, it is “much harder to see the tie between Afghanistan and our vital interests.”

Like Hammes, Pollack argued that it is Pakistan, where al Qaeda’s leadership has flourished since being ejected from Afghanistan, which could clearly affect those vital interests. And additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Pollack pointed out, “are not going to solve the problems of Pakistan.”

Responding to a question about the possibility of U.S. attacks against Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan paralleling the U.S. efforts during the Vietnam War to clean out the Communist “sanctuaries” in Cambodia, Pollack expressed concern about that possibility. “The more we put the troops into Afghanistan,” said Pollack, “the more we are tempted to mount cross-border operations into Pakistan, exactly as we did in Vietnam.”

Pollack cast doubt on the use of either drone bombing attacks or Special Operations commando raids into Pakistan as an approach to dealing with the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. “The only way to do it is to mount a full-scale counterinsurgency campaign,” said Pollack, “which seems unlikely in the case of Pakistan.”

The concern raised by Hammes and Pollack about the war in Afghanistan spilling over into Pakistan paralleled concerns in the U.S. intelligence community about the effect on Pakistan of commando raids by U.S. Special Operations forces based in Afghanistan against targets inside Pakistan. In mid-August 2008, the National Intelligence Council presented to the White House the consensus view of the intelligence community that such Special Forces raids, which were then under consideration, could threaten the unity of the Pakistani military if continued long enough, as IPS reported Sep. 9.

Despite that warning, a commando raid was carried out on a target in South Waziristan Sep. 3, reportedly killing as many as 20 people, mostly apparently civilians. A Pentagon official told Army Times reporter Sean D. Naylor that the raid was in response to cross-border activities by Taliban allies with the complicity of the Pakistani military’s Frontier Corps.

Although that raid was supposed to be the beginning of a longer campaign, it was halted because of the virulence of the political backlash in Pakistan that followed, according to Naylor’s Sep. 29 report. The raid represented “a strategic miscalculation,” one U.S. official told Naylor. “We did not fully appreciate the vehemence of the Pakistani response.”

The Pakistani military sent a strong message to Washington by demonstrating that they were willing to close down U.S. supply routes through the Khyber Pass talking about shooting at U.S. helicopters.

The commando raids were put on hold for the time being, but the issue of resuming them was part of the Obama administration’s policy review. That aspect of the review has not been revealed.

Meanwhile airstrikes by drone aircraft in Pakistan have sharply increased in recent months, increasingly targeting Pashtun allies of the Taliban.

Last week, apparently anticipating one result of the policy review, the New York Times reported Obama and his national security advisers were considering expanding the strikes by drone aircraft from the Tribal areas of Northwest Pakistan to Quetta, Baluchistan, where top Taliban leaders are known to be located.

But Daniel Byman, a former CIA analyst and counter-terrorism policy specialist at Georgetown University, who has been research director on the Middle East at the RAND corporation, told the Times that, if drone attacks were expanded as is now being contemplated, al Qaeda and other jihadist organisations might move “farther and farther into Pakistan, into cities.”

Byman believes that would risk “weakening the government we want to bolster”, which he says is “already to some degree a house of cards.” The Times report suggested that some officials in the administration agree with Byman’s assessment.

The drone strikes are admitted by U.S. officials to be so unpopular with the Pakistani public that no Pakistani government can afford to appear to tolerate them, The Times reported.

But such dissenting views as those voiced by Hammes, Pollack and Byman are unknown on Capital Hill. At a hearing on Afghanistan before a subcommittee of the House Government Operations Committee Thursday, the four witnesses were all enthusiastic supporters of escalation, and the argument that U.S. troops must fight to prevent al Qaeda from getting a new sanctuary in Afghanistan never even came up for discussion.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam,” was published in 2006.

Official: Iraq to move Iranian opposition group

March 27, 2009

The Associated Press
Iraq says it will move members of an Iranian opposition group from a camp north of Baghdad to remote areas elsewhere and encourage them to leave the country peacefully. continue reading…

Showdown with Iran

Vali Nasr, Hillary Mann, Richard Armitage, Mohammad Jafari, Nicholas Burns, Alireza Jafarzadeh on the MEK

The Iranian Mojahedin
By Ervand Abrahamian

The Hero and Heroin (Part 2)

March 27, 2009

Photo/Kamin Mohammadi

var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-6470445-1”);
pageTracker._trackPageview();A war veteran loses the drug battle.


Tehran Bureau | dispatches

Read Part 1 here.

In the autumn of 1980, Iraqi forces invaded Iran, still in the throes of its 1979 Revolution. Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade was not just an exploitation of Iran’s post-revolutionary vulnerability and attempt to place Iraq as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, but also motivated by the fear that Iran’s new leadership would threaten Iraq’s delicate Sunni-Shia balance and would exploit Iraq’s geostrategic vulnerabilities – Iraq’s only access to the Persian Gulf is via the Shatt al-Arab. The historic animosity between the two countries stretches back to the pre-Islamic rivalry between the Achaemenid and Babylonian empires. More recently, the 1937 treaty between the two countries resolved the ancient dispute about the Shatt al-Arab waterway. However, as the last Shah grew more confident in his power and determination to make Iran the ‘guardian of the Gulf’, in 1969 he overrode the 1937 treaty’s rules on navigation in the Shatt al-Arab, leading to the two countries to deploy military forces along the delta.

However, Iraq and Iran came to terms in 1975 with the signing of the Algiers Agreement, in which the Shatt dispute was settled, terminating the armed confrontation, and Iran promised to withdraw its support from the Iraqi Kurdish separatist movement. According to the agreement, the joint border would be demarcated to imply Iraqi renunciation of its claim to Khuzestan (called Arabistan by the Iraqis).

Enter Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, still bitter over his expulsion from Iraq in 1977 after 15 years in exile in Najaf and vowed to avenge Shia victims of Baathist repression. Once installed, the revolutionary leader started to call on Iraqis to rise up against their leader. By 8 March 1980, relations had deteriorated to the point that Iran withdrew its ambassador from Iraq. Skirmishes along the border followed until, in September, Iraq abrogated the Algiers Agreement and declared full sovereignty over the Shatt al-Arab waterway. On 23 September, Iraqi forces invaded Iran. On 22 October Abadan was besieged by the Iraqi army and on 24 October Khorramshahr – then Iran’s largest port – fell to the Iraqis.

Baghdad planned a swift victory, expecting the native population of ethnic Arabs living in Khuzestan to rise against the new Islamic regime. However, the uprising didn’t come, the Arab minority remained loyal to Iran. Saddam also knew that despite the Shah’s stockpiled arsenal of the latest weapons, Iran had just executed or lost to exile all its top military personnel – between 1979 and September 1980, some 12,000 senior officers had been purged – and so lacked cohesive leadership, and, in the event, spare parts for the equipment as well as the knowledge of how to assemble or use them correctly – the Iranian air force was only able to fly half of its aircraft by the start of the war. Iran’s military was thus depleted and the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) were led by clerics with little or no military experience and often armed only with light infantry weapons and Molotov cocktails, so Iraqi morale was certainly running high in the first few months of the war. In spite of this, it dragged on for eight long years, a protracted and very costly war – a war in which trench warfare was seen for the first time since World War I and nerve gas was used – by Iraq – in combat operations for the first time ever.

What Saddam perhaps underestimated was the extreme passion of his opponents for their land and the strength of the ideology that Khomeini immediately employed to motivate the populace. Iraqi forces were repulsed from entering Abadan by a small Pasdaran unit and its fierce inhabitants and Khorramshahr was only captured after a house-to-house fight so bloody that the town was nicknamed khunistan (town of blood). Some 6,000 Iraqis fell in the battle for Khorramshahr, Iranian death tolls were even higher, with 7,000 dead and seriously wounded.

Another unforeseen factor was the Basij, the People’s Militia, what Ayatollah Khomeini called the ‘Army of Twenty Million’. By the end of November 1980, some 200,000 new Pasdaran and Bajis were sent to the front, troops so ideologically committed that some carried their own shrouds in expectation of impending martyrdom.


In Tehran I meet Hassan, a veteran of the war. Courteous and serious, Hassan has an almost imperceptible limp, a result of the war years. Hassan is from Tehran, so unlike Ebby he never lived through the early horror of the war. Like Ebby, Hassan is from a secular middle class family, not particularly religious. But, as a teenager during the Revolution, he became a fervent supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini. He believed in the Revolution and he believed in the Islamic Republic. He saw Saddam’s invasion as a threat to the values of the Revolution and he longed to defend Iran.

We are sitting in the Laleh Park in central Tehran and I am chaperoned by an uncle: for a devout man like Hassan it would be wrong to be alone with me, an unmarried woman, especially in a park, the setting for so many illicit meetings these days. ‘The Imam called it a “holy war”‘, he says quietly. ‘He promised us that anyone who died in the war would be a martyr and go instantly to paradise.’ He laughs. ‘I know how it sounds now but at the time, whenever a mullah came to talk to us about the war at school, I was burning to join up.’

The regime used aggressive recruiting techniques, particularly in mosques and schools in lower income urban and rural areas where passionate talk of religious sacrifice and martyrdom fired up the populace. Iranian television broadcast pictures of young men – boys – with their red Basij headbands and guns, saying how wonderful it was to be a soldier for Islam, to fight for freedom and your country. There were films of women saying how proud they were that their sons had died martyrs for the cause. The Basiji orders were founded to absorb young men who were not old enough to join the regular military. Although Hassan was 16 when he joined up, he says there were plenty of much younger boys. ‘There was a kid who was 12,’ he says. ‘He lied about his age but they let him join anyway. He said he had his parents’ permission but I can’t imagine any mother would willingly let their child go to war like that.’

The cult of martyrdom is still in evidence in the mass of published books, the towering poster-art billboards in every town with names and pictures of the dead, the street names changed to commemorate the martyrs. In a country where getting ahead is often a matter of who you know, veterans of the war benefit from preferential treatment – university places, government jobs – as do the martyrs’ families. There is a sense of resentment from the general public who tend to exaggerate the benefits, but nonetheless this signifies a change in attitude to the war and those who fought or died in it. Duel, a film made by Ahmadreza Darvish and released last year was remarkable for two things: it was the most expensive film ever made in Iran and, unlike the multitude of earlier war films, it made no attempt to glorify martyrdom and sacrifice. In fact it made a pretty good case for the futility of war.

Hassan went to the front in 1981. He won’t talk to me about the actual fighting, but I know that in the rain and mud of that winter, Iran first employed what would become a trademark tactic, the suicidal ‘human wave’, when thousands of ecstatic soldiers would storm the Iraqi lines without any artillery or air support, chanting ‘Allahu akbar’. An Iraqi officer once described the effect this had on his men: ‘They come on in their hundreds, often walking straight across the minefields, triggering them with their feet as they are supposed to.’ He said that his men would cry and try to run away from these men – most of them very young: ‘my officers had to kick them back to their guns.’

The Basiji had a piece of white cloth pinned to their uniforms as a symbol of a shroud, and wore a plastic key around their necks, issued as a symbol of their assured entry to paradise. At first they had little or no training and were used mostly as human minesweepers, but as the war raged on, they became more sophisticated in their training and preparation.

In July 1982 Iran launched Operation Ramadan on Iraqi territory, near Basra. Although Basra was within range of Iranian artillery, the clergy – who had taken charge of operations earlier that year – used ‘human-wave’ attacks by the Pasdaran and Basij against the city in one of the biggest land battles since 1945. Ranging in age from only nine to more than 50, these eager soldiers swept over minefields and fortifications to clear safe paths for the tanks. Unsurprisingly, the Iranians sustained an immense number of casualties, and it is from this battle that Hassan has his limp.

Despite what were horrific injuries, he went back a few years later, towards the end of the war. I ask him why and he hesitates. ‘It’s hard to explain if you weren’t there,’ he says, looking into the distance. ‘But it was hard to get back to normal life. People in Tehran were scared of the bombing and my family wanted to go north to be safe. I just kept thinking of my friends and wondering what was happening.’ He looks embarrassed and clears his throat. ‘You know, I felt close to God there.’

As Hassan contemplates this state of higher being, identified by one psychiatrist who has worked with war veterans as a common phenomenon, I watch a young couple walking by. They are giggling and well dressed.

Like most of the girls I have seen, especially in Tehran, this girl’s hejab consists of a short, tight coat that skims her mid-thigh, while the obligatory headscarf perches precariously at the back of a towering hairstyle, all topping off an exquisitely and elaborately made up face. Her man is clean-shaven, his longish locks slicked with plenty of gel and he clutches a mobile phone. They may be married but it is more than likely that they are out on a date, and as they walk by, they throw Hassan, with his short beard and collarless shirt a glance, muttering to each other. These are the children of the Revolution, the under 30s that make up 70% of Iran’s 68 million population. They didn’t live under the Shah and didn’t long for Revolution and didn’t fight in the ‘holy war’. They have grown up in the Islamic Republic and now, the majority are impatient for change.

They watch illegal yet ubiquitous satellite television beaming Persian pop music programmes from Los Angeles, they surf the internet and watch Hollywood films that they buy on the black market. They are tired of uncertainty and repression: they want their social freedoms.

Hassan catches their look and says to me: ‘Look, I have a family of my own and I am a liberal father. But I have friends from the war days who are very devout. And they look at these kids today and they wonder what it was we were fighting for.’ He considers before going on. ‘My children are very respectful but I still don’t talk about the war. I prefer to leave it in the past. But I know when I see some of their friends that they don’t care about our sacrifice. They don’t have respect.’

Click here for Part 3.

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

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

Iran to join talks on stabilizing Afghanistan

March 27, 2009

Los Angeles Times

The Islamic Republic announced Thursday that will join the United States in dispatching official delegations to two international conferences on Afghanistan in the coming days, including one in the Netherlands to which the Obama administration has welcomed Tehran’s presence. continue reading…

The Sequel

March 26, 2009

Media get it wrong, again

March 25, 2009

Editorial: The Daily Star

U.S. President Barack Obama’s effort to begin a dialogue with the Islamic Republic of Iran has already hit a brick wall. But the obstacle that stands in the way of rapprochement is not, as the American media would lead one to believe, the mullahs in Tehran. Rather, it is the American media itself.

U.S. newspapers and television stations reported over the weekend that Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei immediately “rebuffed,” “brushed aside,” “dismissed” or flat-out “rejected” Obama’s recent video appeal for talks. But the reality is something quite different.

Khamenei in fact delivered a carefully crafted address in which he welcomed Obama’s offer for talks, but also set specific parameters in which negotiations can happen. He even identified concrete steps that the United States can take to demonstrate that it is interested in a genuine dialogue based on an open exchange of views. Continue reading

Hot times and cool heads

March 24, 2009

In an unprecedented step, Ayatollah Khamenei responds to President Obama’s Nowruz message himself. Pictured above, before a gathering in Mashhad, his hometown, on the first day of Nowruz. Photo/Leader.ir

As Ayatollah Khamenei endorses possible talks with the United States, Iran’s pragmatic conservatives hope the presidential election will help trim Ahmadinejad’s international role.

Tehran Bureau | election coverage

There are many asymmetries in the U.S.-Iran relationship. The United States is a huge military power and a massive economy. Iranians have a sense of history and geography that Americans simply do not understand.

And there is another asymmetry, at least for now. Barack Obama is a new president elected on a slogan of change — while Iran is approaching a presidential election in June.

The interplay between the international situation and Iranian domestic politics is exorcising the minds of many in Iran’s political class as they contemplate the possibility of talks with Washington.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s measured, and near instant, response to president Obama’s video message to Iranians has signaled that Iran is open to dialogue. Tehran, said the supreme leader, is willing to change if the United States does. This is now well understood in Iran, even if many western commentators claimed Ayatollah Khamenei had “dismissed” Obama’s overture.

For Iran’s pragmatic conservatives, the prospect of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being involved in such a dialogue is an uncomfortable one. This partly explains the current talk in Tehran of broadening out the government after June’s election.

The idea of a “unity” government seems to have originated with Mohsen Rezaie, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, but was taken up last week by Ali Larijani, the parliamentary speaker, who is fast becoming the bête noire of Ahmadinejad supporters.

The experienced hands in Iran’s political class know very well that the maneuvering in the new international situation requires diplomacy and calm heads (even though Iran’s approach will continue to be set by the leadership group, in which Ayatollah Khamenei is pre-eminent). Those acting for Iran should therefore be experienced, trustworthy and reliable.

Ahmadinejad and his closest allies, like Mojtaba Hashemi-Samareh, do not fit the bill. For many regime insiders, talks with the United States should be handled by seasoned hands — the likes of Hassan Rowhani, the former top security official, Larijani or even Rezaie.

Such pragmatic conservatives probably consider it is likely Ahmadinejad will continue as president after June, but they want him as hemmed in as possible. They would welcome a broader range of ministers in domestic portfolios, and they would also like to ensure that what they see as Ahmadinejad’s excitability and populism do not affect Iran’s diplomacy.

In essence, this reflects the dilemma Ahmadinejad has posed for them, and indeed for Ayatollah Khamenei, since he came to office.

On the one hand, Ahmadinejad invigorated Iran’s politics. The 2005 election confounded those expecting a low turnout and showed that a fundamentalist, loyal to the ideals of the 1979 revolution, could appeal to the people.

As president, Ahmadinejad has reached out to every corner or Iran through high-profile trips and made the nuclear programme into a popular mission with an appeal throughout the Muslim world.

But on the other hand, Iran finds itself in a delicate period, potentially more dangerous than at any time since the 1979 Revolution. Washington under Obama may be ready for compromise over the nuclear issue — or it may be ready for further sanctions or even military attacks. And so Ahmadinejad’s radicalism needs to be managed.

The president himself was clearly hoping to breeze through the election campaign by attacking Mohammad Khatami, the former reformist president. The spectre of Khatami sparking “social unrest” — as in his previous presidency — was a nightmare for many fundamentalists and was driving them behind Ahmadinejad.

But Khatami’s withdrawal removed a negative pressure for unity in the fundamentalist, or principle-ist, camp. It eased political tension.

It is now more likely that another fundamentalist candidate — possibly Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran’s mayor — could run, or that some price can be extracted from Ahmadinejad for avoiding such a challenge.

These are busy days for the president. At the same time as dealing with conservative critics, Ahmadinejad needs a new plan to defeat the two surviving reformist candidates, Mehdi Karrubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, both of whom will emphasize day-to-day economic issues rather than Khatami’s “social freedom.” Mousavi is arguing for a kind of “third way” between reformism and fundamentalism, an Islamist version of the Blairite-Clintonesque appeal for the center ground.

As he struggles also to get his budget through parliament, Ahmadinejad has his hands full. His conservative critics hope they will be so full that he will have to keep them away from where they are not wanted.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau