Author Archives: Scott H

A Grave View of US-Iran Relations

In some countries, mine included, today is remembered as “Veterans’ Day” or “Armistice Day.” Juan Cole sensibly wrote earlier today that “The most patriotic way to honor future veterans of foreign wars is not to create any unnecessarily.”
Fellow “Wahoo” and good friend Barin Kayaoglu, writing in the Turkish Weekly, goes a step deeper in considering the state of US-Iran nuclear negotiations.
Barin neatly anticipates the standard arguments from partisans on both sides, accusations of intransigence vs. bullying, terrorism vs. imperialism, then arguments over what to do, of all the reasons to be hard-headed, to fight the “necessary war.”
Barin trumps such verbal combat by considering the stakes from a very different vantage point, that of the grave. He takes us to the two sprawling national cemeteries of America and Iran, Arlington and Behesht-e Zahra. I’ve been to both; somber places where the two nations, where families, mourn their losses, the lives cut short. Barin concludes:

“The graves of fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters at these places are somber reminders of the real price of war.
So before Iranian and American policy-makers make up their mind about the next step, it would be humane for them to spend some time at Behesht-e Zahra and Arlington. Nothing can bring back the dead. But there is no good reason to start another Middle East war that would create new ones.”

Well said Barin. Amen.

Iran’s Capital Idea

The BBC this morning carries a curious item about Iran moving its capital city away from Tehran. It’s not a particularly new idea, and a geo-physical argument exists to support such a dramatic change.
Yet recent political earthquakes may also be involved in the calculation. The article buys into the misleading, if all too common Western sense of Tehran being more “liberal” and politically restive than the rest of the country. Right-o…. Tell that to Tabrizis.
In any case, maybe now we know the “real reason” why urban planners are such hot potatoes inside Iran. Hey, maybe this news could provide a “constructive” pathway to free Kian Tajbakhsh — to help with this whopper of an urban planning project.

MTV-U’s Poet Laureate: Simin Behbahani

MTV (Music Television) “University” has selected Simin Behbahani, “the poet who never sold her soul or her pen,” to be its second poet laureate.
For a visually challenged 82-years-young Iranian, how cool is that?
Beginning Monday, Nov. 2nd Behbahani’s poems will be featured on MTV-U in a series of 19 short films.
Why would MTV do this? Is it political? In the The Wall Street Journal, MTV senior Vice President Ross Martin explains:

“Her poems speak to us because they are from a part of the world that is front of mind and confusing… We know there’s a groundswell on U.S. campuses advocating freedom and an end to oppression in Iran. mtvU has a responsibility to hear that cry and respond to it.”

Amid Iran’s post election tumult, millions around the world heard Behbahani’s timeless lament at the death of Neda Soltani:

You are neither dead, nor will you die
You will always remain alive
You have an eternal existence
You are the voice of the people of Iran

Yet it is Behbahani, the reputed “Lioness of Iran,” who will now re-introduce millions of the world’s youth to Iran, through the medium of rock ‘n roll, music television, in her universal voice.
When Iran’s President Ahmadinejad dismissed those who protested the election’s legitimacy as mere “dirt,” Behbahani hurled the insult back, with the pen:

If the flames of anger rise any higher in this land
Your name on your tombstone will be covered with dirt

Yet MTV’s featuring of Behbahani should not be interpreted as adding to the cacaphony of voices pining for more invasions, war, sanctions, bloodshed. Nearly 30 years ago, Behbahani wrote of her horror in seeing a martial fever for war arise in her students then:

Oh, the child of today
If war is what you want
I am the child of yesterday
To me, war is shameful


MTV’s Ross Martin further explains the choice of Behbahani on his own blog,

“Behbahani’s poetry champions women’s rights and acts as a voice of peace and freedom during a time of political and social upheaval. Twice, she has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Poetry. Her poems illuminate not only the struggle of Iran but also the extreme beauty of the land, its people, and its history.”

Martin also notes how none of this would have been possible were it not for the literary skills and devotion of Professor Farzaneh Milani. Her translations bring Behbahani’s “iconic” poems to life in English. If Behbahani is Iran’s national poet, Milani has rendered her the world’s.

To stay alive, you must slay silence,
to pay homage to being, you must sing….

Khomeini guardian’s jarring question

Iran’s ongoing internal “chess match,” the intense controversy over Iran’s presidential elections and the aftermath, is not only “not over,” it’s getting profoundly interesting. The charges & counter-charges continue to fly, with both sides dredging up extraordinary heavyweights, figuratively and literally, to their cause. A few mind-boggling examples:
Those notables who boycotted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-inauguration included no less than Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the very Ayatollah who led the 1979 revolution. Khomeini was otherwise occupied visiting one Alireza Beheshti, son of a famous clerical martyr from the early years of the revolution. Beheshti had just been released from imprisonment — for being a close aide to Mir Hossen Musavi, the still resisting leader of the green wave.
From another direction, Mohammad Javad Larijani is the newest prominent voice blasting Musavi and Khomeini for “treason,” for betraying the revolution (etc., etc.) Curious. I’ve long followed Javad Larijani’s work. When not being a genuine “theoretical physicist,” he’s been a noted “facilitator” behind various efforts to improve ties to the US. He’s also a member of the extraordinary brothers Larijani (e.g. Ali, current Parliamentary speaker and Sadegh, the new Judiciary Chief).
Topping that comes a pointed question for Larijani from Mohammad Ali Ansari, a keeper of the flame (if you will) for Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini as the director of Khomeini’s Publications. While defending the house of Khomeini, Ansari tosses his own rhetorical doozy:

“how can we criticize a ban on holocaust investigations calling it an undemocratic act, and then adamantly deny a simple demand for a probe into a recent election in Iran?”

What a question.

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Funnel Cakes….

(this is Scott writing…)
Growing up in Pennsylvania, I’d always assumed that a funnel cake was a Mennonite “thing,” something you could only find at a county fair. (I grew up a sheltered “baptist.”)
Alas, nearly every for-profit food stand at this year’s Albemarle County Fair (south of Charlottesville, VA) has its own version of the deep fried summer treat.
I still recommend locals check out the Mennonite funnel cake stand, which has been there for over 20 years. Not just the best, and cheapest, Mennonite funnel cakes are even “good” for you — if you will. All the four food groups are covered; wheat, milk, eggs, sugar, and…. soybeans (oil). :-} They’re “good” too, as they “tickle your tongue.”
If they’re not too busy, you might even find friends who’ve lived a tour or two around Iran and the Middle East.
Reminds me of how various Iranian cities are known for their own wondrous treats, like Esfahani Gaz, Mashhad’s Nabat, Lahijan’s Kulucheh cookies, and one of my favorites anywhere, Sohan from Qom. (Think peanut brittle made with pistachios and saffron. Yum!)
Back to the humble funnel cake: last night, while beating the eggs into the batter, we hazarded to ponder parallels between (Mennonite) funnel cakes and the Middle East — along the lines of delicately woven lattices of hope and promise, threads of sweet human connections, peacemaking tempting fate in holy-charged conflagration — e.g., blistering 400 degree oil.
Get it wrong, soft goo to charred carbon. Cook ‘em just right, so… heavenly.

Up on the Roof…. in Tehran

From the rooftops of Tehran, “Laleh Azadi” sends us an extraordinary essay, a “scream” into the darkness, rich with irony and insight, sadness and hope. Worth pondering in full, consider these excerpts:

“We put all our emotions into screaming “Allahu Akbar” into the night from the rooftops. We must stay under the radar during the day but the night brings a small sense of freedom. The streets are quiet and the heat has subsided so we can breath and use our voices. The calls that begin around 10 p.m. each night have gained strength since last Friday. There are more voices — both desperate and defiant — from young and old, men and women. It is the way we remind each other not to give up all hope, and it is our call for a leader.”

There’s something haunting here. In the west, we tend to associate darkness with fear, foreboding, even evil. The darkness is something we “curse.” Yet for Iranian reformists, the night becomes a sanctuary, a source of courage.
Laleh gives us more than raw emotion; she provides a different window for the outside world to comprehend the terms of the struggle:

“For many, this movement is about reclaiming the spirit and intent of the Islamic Revolution — even if most of us were born after it. We want to fight for the principles our parents fought for thirty years ago — the right to be free from tyranny, the right to choose, and the right to a voice. We see Khamenei and Ahmadinejad moving the Islamic Revolution away from democratic pluralism and towards authoritarianism.”

By day, the loudest voices of protest presently come from senior clerics, something Laleh wishes to explain:

“It might seem surprising to outsiders that the loudest voices of dissent are coming from the religious seminaries and Muslim clerics in Qum, but this is not unusual for Iran. Since the revolution, human rights activists, feminists, and even left-leaning politicians have found their greatest ally in Islam. Hence, the use of the color green — the color of Islam — for this resistance movement. It is as if to say to the conservative clerics who rule the country, “You cannot suppress us with religion. The martyred Imam Hussein is our example and Islam is our religion. It protects us, gives us a voice, and compels us to be compassionate for all humanity.”

In Laleh’s real world, all is not black and white, nor is it velvet. It’s green.

Iran battle lines 101

Quick items for keeping up with the ongoing legitimacy crisis within Iran:
1. Excellent IPS review by Farideh Farhi of the fault lines in Iran, as revealed in Rafsanjani’s Friday Prayers speech and blistering reactions.

It is now clear that the Islamic Republic’s ever-present political frictions and cleavages can no longer be managed in ways they have been in the past, either through behind-the-scenes lobbying at the top or selective repression or some combination of the two….
Adding to the drama was the immediate appearance on Rafsanjani’s personal website of a headline in which he recalled the early years of the revolution. “The term fear has no meaning for us,” it said. “For every generation, there is a test. Issues related to society and people are the most important tests.”

Note especially Farhi’s emphasis on the eclectic and yet unified nature of the opposition movement. Echoes of 1979.
2. Further quotes and analysis by Muhammad Sahimi of critiques from Leader Khamenei and reformist rebuttals.
For the Leader, it seems “the real people… those with real intellect…. think about and follow God….” the riotous corrupt by contrast are castigated as slaves to the foreign body. For Musavi,

“Many of the prisoners are well-known and have served the political system and the country for years. Who is going to believe that they colluded with foreigners to sell out the country’s national interests? Is this not an insult against the nation?”

3. Call by ex President Khatami for a “referendum” as the only way to resolve the crisis:

“I would like to add a point here and declare explicitly that, the only way out of the present crisis is relying on people’s vote and holding a referendum.”

4. Ayatollah watch: Sahimi’s run-down this morning of hotly contradictory clerical statements regarding the recent elections. Contrary to an absurd commentary put out by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy earlier this month, Iran’s clerical centers have neither been silent nor unified.
5. For the puzzled, I highly recommend a lively hour with my mentor, Professor R. K. Ramazani, available via podcast here. Many of the questions are basic — yet profound.

Tehran Showdown: Rafsanjani Speaks (full text)

The fissures that have opened up at the center of the Islamic Republic are again much on display.
Influential Iranian politician Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s appearance today as Tehran’s Friday Prayer leader was even more profound and stunning than billed. As I’ve posted here before, when Rafsanjani speaks, people listen. And today, he had much to say.
Officially, the former President, Parliamentary Speaker, and close aide to Ayatollah Khomeini, now heads both the Expediency Council, a body that often reconciles log-jams within “the system,” and the Assembly of Experts, the body entrusted with appointing and even supervising the Supreme Leader.
Yes, he’s controversial. Many of the same reformists and leftists who today count the “pragmatic” Rafsanjani as an ally four years ago could not bear to support him against current President Ahmadinejad. Times change. In one of the debates just prior to the election, Ahmadinejad threw mud at Rafsanjani, hoping to taint reformist candidate Mir Hossein Musavi with the corruption smear by extension.
Since the controversy over the June 12th Presidential elections, Rafsanjani has been largely silent, and skipped a turn or two as Friday Prayer Leader. But not today.
As there are several very “thin” instant translations circulating, I post to the extension below a complete translation of Rafsanjani’s second sermon, as provided by BBC/OSC.
Last night, I’d heard from friends in Tehran who were worried that Rafsanjani “would pull a Khatami” — and talk about unity and preserving the revolution, while selling short the ongoing disquiet over the elections..
Quite the contrary, Rafsanjani’s speech was remarkably bold and unprecedented (for him). Rafsanjani has set out markers about legitimacy, “the people” and Islamic governance that will be of interest not just for Iran’s system, but for Islamists everywhere to consider.

“Everything depends on people…. The title of Islamic Republic is not just a formality…. If it looses its Islamic aspect, we will go astray. If it looses its republican aspect, it [The Islamic Republic] will not be realized. Based on the reasons that I have offered, without people and their vote there would be no Islamic system.”

Rafsanjani goes on to emphasize the plausible presence of “doubt” in the minds of Iranians about the legitimacy of the recent elections. This “bitter” doubt, “the worst disaster” — “a plague” – was not put there by foreign media, but by shameful behavior from within, by Iran’s own supervising Guardian Council and its state controlled TV media.:

“We are independent… Do we not have 30-year experience of running the country? Do we not have ulema? Why should our Sources [of Emulation, meaning senior clerics], who always have been supportive, and our seminary schools, which have never had any expectations for their efforts, be upset today.”

This is a not so subtle challenge to the very legitimacy of Supreme Leader Khamenei — in referencing the fact that several of Iran’s most senior Grand Ayatollah’s have been letting their displeasure be known. (a fact woefully missed or ignored in a recent WINEP essay)
Rafsanjani’s suggestions for restoring “trust” in the system (something hardliners don’t admit is lacking) boil down to:

1. Act strictly within the law. (e.g., especially law enforcement)
2. Promote dialogue and foster climate for free thinking and reason to prevail.
3. Free all those arrested amid protests.
4. Compensate those harmed in the disturbances.
5. Ease up on the media.

Rafsanjani does reference the need for unity, and he hopes his words will be “a turning point for the future,” to resolve the present “crisis.” That may be optimistic.
Ball now back to Leader Khamenei’s court.
(Full text in extension below:)
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Molavi’s question

In a July 4th Washington Post oped, the excellent Iranian-American journalist Afshin Molavi writes of how Iran’s fitful struggle for freedom is well in-grained within Iran’s history and political culture.

“It’s important to recognize the Iranian struggle for what it is: a grass-roots, vital movement for greater liberty enriched by more than a century of struggle against foreign powers, autocratic kings and repressive theocrats. Iran’s rulers would have the world believe that the protesters are a minority inspired by foreigners, but this denies a fundamental piece of Iranian history.”

I agree. Molavi then asks the question of the day — “Who will stand with Iranians?”

“Last month I attended a candlelight vigil to honor those who died fighting for freedom. The gathering was somber yet hopeful, but it was still too narrowly Iranian. We need more Americans… If there is one issue that politically polarized America ought to be able to rally around, it is the gallant struggle of Iranians.”

I concur in part; most of the protests thus far are far too… “Iranian,” perhaps because of the organizational model of most Iran focused interest groups. (To get invited, it helps to be “Iranian.”) In the western protests thus far, we often can see demonstrators splitting along factional lines, sometimes violently, as largely incompatible political agendas of monarchists, mujahedin, komali, liberals, secularists, etc. come to the fore.
Yet if such divides could be surmounted in common support for Iranians, what exactly would Molavi have us do?
Human rights groups are planning mass rallies in the west for July 25th. What exactly will be the message of such solidarity? How will such rallies help?

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Reading Independence Day in Iran

(this is Scott Harrop writing)
Keyed to Ameica’s 4th of July celebration, I have the pleasure of publishing an essay with R.K. Ramazani that is appearing in multiple outlets via Agence Global. One version can be found here. Between us, we’ve condensed about eighty years of studies of the American and Iranian revolutionary experiences into a few short paragraphs.
Our core observations in this essay boil down to:

1. Americans and Iranians have much more in common with each other than either side realizes.
2. Both nations have “revolutionary” traditions that first and foremost were about achieving independence. I wrote in greater detail about the American side two years ago here at justworldnews.
3. Even as both countries over time believed that their revolutions stood for distinct values that they’ve offered to the world, both America and Iran have painful track records of not fully living up to their own norms. Professor Ramazani recently wrote about Iran’s freedom deficit here.
4. International legitimacy… matters. Both societies care deeply about their reputation in the world, even as leaders in both countries have conducted themselves in manners than have hurt their nation’s prestige before the world. The world indeed is watching.
5. Howard Baskerville was right; Americans and Iranians do share many ideals, of independence, constitutionalism, justice, faith, and yes, liberty. (See my backgrounder on the 100th anniversary of his “martydom” in Tabriz)
6. Iran’s present crisis is home grown; lasting solutions to the present crisis must come from within. Yet it’s one Americans can recognize and empathize with from the outside.

Consider reading the actual whole text and give us your feedback. This is just the first hints of larger works being hatched.