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The ministers of foreign affairs of France, Germany, the European Union, Iran, the United Kingdom and the United States as well as Chinese and Russian diplomats announcing an Iran nuclear deal framework in Lausanne on 2 April

[update below]

I should have had this post up at least ten days ago but Greece and other things (e.g. work) got in the way. I’m not sure I have anything original to say about the Iran deal—a.k.a. the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—as, to paraphrase my friend Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, just about everything has already been said on the deal and will continue to be said over and over again. I was naturally happy when the deal was announced and think it’s a good one. Not that I possess the expertise to evaluate the technical details, as arms control agreements—and nuclear weapons in general—have never been my thing. So like most people out there, I’ve been depending on the assessments of specialists (arms control or Iran) who have followed the dossier closely and whose sensibilities on the issue I trust, e.g. Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey professor Avner Cohen—author of the leading academic works on Israel and nuclear weapons—who had an op-ed in Haaretz arguing that the JCPOA is a good deal (and particularly for Israel; which is likewise the view of members of the Israeli security establishment), and Georgetown University political science MENA specialist and friend Daniel Brumberg, who, in a Washington Examiner op-ed, asserted that failure in Vienna was not an option (for any of the parties to the negotiations). As for nuclear weapons/non-proliferation experts, e.g. Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Aaron Stein of the Royal United Services Institute, they “love the Iran deal,” say “it’s a damn good deal,” and quite simply have a “very positive” assessment of the deal. One may also take a look at the forum in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in which “top international security experts with a variety of perspectives and backgrounds [were asked] to offer their [instant] assessments of the [deal]” on the day it was announced (note in particular the contributions by Oliver Meier, Chuck Freilich, Sharon Squassoni, Lawrence Korb and Katherine Blakeley, Kingston Reif, Siegfried S. Hecker, and Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian). On the technical side of the issue, all this is good enough for me.

As for the opponents of the deal—US Republicans, the Israelis, US Democrats who unconditionally support Israel (who will side with Bibi Netanyahu, the leader of a foreign state, against their own president and from their own party), and Gulf Arab regimes—they were clearly going to be against anything that could have possibly been negotiated at Vienna, as they don’t want a deal with Iran, period (the flagrant proof: prominent Republican senators rushed to denounce the deal before they had even seen it). They want war with Iran but, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias correctly observed, cannot publicly admit that. Yglesias, in engaging a Commentary magazine pundit in debate, delved into their arguments—notably those of Elliot Abrams and Ron Dermer, which were recommended by the pundit—against the JCPOA, after which Yglesias concluded that “they’re utter nonsense.” One argument I read was a WSJ editorial which, in lambasting “Obama’s false Iran choice,” argued that a third option—between the JCPOA and war—could have been put on the table by the US, something the WSJ editorial writer called “coercive diplomacy.” As if the US, in taking an intransigent hard-line with the Iranians and making demands that the latter would never accept, could have dragooned along the rest of its E3+3 partners, and notably the Russians and Chinese, in a posture that would have resulted in certain failure in Vienna (it was and is striking how the American right and other neocons have seemed to view Vienna as a bilateral negotiation between the US and Iran, forgetting—or simply dismissing the fact—that there were other major powers at the table and with whom the Americans had to coordinate a consensus position). The Times of Israel founding editor David Horovitz wrote an op-ed in much the same vein as the WSJ’s, “No, we don’t want war, and yes, there was a better deal.” This passage said it all

A country led by a regime that secretly pursued nuclear weapons, that fosters unrest across the region, that calls for the elimination of Israel, that finances, arms and trains terrorist armies in Lebanon and Gaza, that orchestrates terrorism worldwide, that works to bring Europe and North America into the range of its missiles, that criminalizes homosexuality, that discriminates against women, that jails, tortures and executes political opponents, that executes more juvenile offenders than any other country on earth… that Iran must not be allowed to become a more dominant regional power.

N.B. When it comes to mistreating political dissidents, women, homosexuals, and juvenile delinquents, in financing terrorism (i.e. groups Israel is in conflict with) and engaging in other such disreputable behavior, Iran is hardly the worst offender in the region, let alone the world (and if I were a woman, gay, dissident of any sort, or even a Jew, I would rather find myself in Iran than in Saudi Arabia—and definitely if I were a Jew!). And in any case, none of these things have anything to do with an arms control agreement. And the Vienna negotiations were about arms control, tout court.

And then there’s Michael Oren, Israel’s ex-ambassador to Washington, who wrote in Politico on “What a good Iran deal would look like.” In his view, such would have involved “intensified” US sanctions—and with foreign companies violating these barred from doing business in the US—and a “credible military threat.” In other words, by being “tough”—an American right-wing fetish word—and rattling the sabres, the US would have caused the Iranians to cry uncle, all while intimidating the US’s E3+3 partners, via the threat of economic retaliation (one smiles at the image of Washington snapping its fingers at Beijing here; China, pour mémoire, being Iran’s largest trading partner and by far, e.g. here and here), into falling in line behind the tough US position.

Sure. As any level-headed person could inform Ambassador Oren, his “good Iran deal” is a fantasy, as none of the things he advocates could or would possibly happen. And now with UNSCR 2231, cannot legally happen (sorry, Ambassador Oren, but your “good Iran deal” has been superseded by events). In point of fact, what Horovitz, Oren, and other Israeli and pro-Israel opponents of the JCPOA cannot abide is Iran’s stature as a regional power. To repeat: the Israelis and their unconditional US allies simply do not want a nuclear deal, as this will necessarily reinforce Iran’s regional position. Robert Farley—Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce—thus put it in a post on the Lawyers, Guns & Money blog

No conceivable deal could achieve what [Michael] Oren declares that he wants, but of course the point is that he doesn’t want a deal. He, and other hawks, want the constant threat of US military action, in order to reassure our allies that we will always be prepared to bomb their enemies. There is no conceivable set of nuclear concessions that could make Michael Oren (or [Michael] Doran, or [Matthew] Kroenig, or [Eli] Lake, or [William] Kristol, or [Tom] Cotton, et al ad nauseum) pleased with this deal, because they want military confrontation based on other Iranian foreign policy behaviors.

And those “other” foreign policy behaviors are things that have nothing to do with anything that could have been put on the table at Vienna.

Peter Beinart, writing in The Atlantic, got it exactly right as to “Why the Iran deal makes Obama’s critics so angry.” Money quote

[The Iran deal] codifies the limits of American power. And recognizing the limits of American power also means recognizing the limits of American exceptionalism. It means recognizing that no matter how deeply Americans believe in their country’s unique virtue, the United States is subject to the same restraints that have governed great powers in the past. For the Republican right, that’s a deeply unwelcome realization. For many other Americans, it’s a relief. It’s a sign that, finally, the Bush era in American foreign policy is over.

It should be said that not all commentators on the right side of the political spectrum have denounced the JCPOA. E.g. foreign policy and MENA specialist Adam Garfinkle, who has worked for successive Republican administrations, has a not uninteresting essay—albeit complicated, verbose, and overly long: a Garfinkle trademark—in The American Interest (of which he is editor) on the day the deal was announced. Which is not to say that I’m on the same page with him across the board, e.g. his argument that the deal, which consecrates Iran’s status as an almost nuclear threshold state, will no doubt cause other regional actors—Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE—to develop or purchase nuclear weapons, thereby “making a nuclear war in the region, perhaps involving the United States and perhaps not, more likely, after approximately 15 years.” Mr. Garfinkle should know better than to be making predictions about what will or will not happen a decade down the road, let alone longer (and Abu Dhabi going nuclear? Or any of the other places Garfinkle mentions? Oy vey, GMAB!).

In fact, the best rubbishing of the arguments of opponents of the Iran deal has come from one of their (more or less) ideological kindred spirits, the paleocon Patrick Buchanan, who, writing in The American Conservative, incisively informed his erstwhile political soul mates that “Rejecting the Iran deal would be GOP suicide.” Buchanan is very good here. His TAC has indeed had a number of fine commentaries on the deal, e.g. TAC founding editor Scott McConnell on “How the Iran deal serves America” and the almost daily posts by TAC senior editor Daniel Larison, who has been taking particular aim at the reactions to the deal by GOP presidential candidates, e.g. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul, plus Mitt Romney; Larison’s subtext: on the subject of Iran—and foreign policy more generally—the Republicans are both crazy and don’t WTF they’re talking about.

One matter needs to be put to rest, which is the hostility of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to the deal, indeed to any deal with Iran. As the NYT reported ten days ago based on WikiLeaks revelations, Saudi Arabia has “an obsession with Iran” and which is driven by the Sunni-Shia divide. That is to say, the Saudi hang-up over Iran is existential. It is religious in nature. Which means that it is permanent and timeless. Let us be clear about a couple of things here. First, the United States of America has nothing whatever to do with—and must absolutely not allow itself to get caught up in—the existential angst of the fucking Saudis in regard to Shi’ism. This is not America’s problem. Second, Saudi Arabia is not a friend of the United States, nor is it an ally. Saudi Arabia is a state with which the US has an important relationship but which is based exclusively on realpolitik, i.e. on raisons d’État. America has important interests in Saudi Arabia—economic, strategic—but there is no political or cultural affinity whatever between the two countries. And there never will be, as the problem with Saudi Arabia goes well beyond the nature of its political system. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is a major source of what ails the Muslim world today—and a big source of a lot of the problems in that Muslim world. Saudi Arabia is, as I have labeled it, the Evil Kingdom. And let’s not forget the role of Saudis in 9/11—and which no doubt went well beyond the 15 of the 19 men who commandeered the four airplanes that day. So: the US, in the pursuit of its national interests, must not humor or indulge the existential fears of its interlocutors in Riyadh (or Abu Dhabi, Doha, Manama, or Kuwait).

On the Iran deal, I have been particularly interested in the reaction of the E3+3 member that took a particularly hard line against the Iranians during the long negotiating process, which was, of course, France. French policy has been consistently distrustful of the regime in Tehran, and during the Sarkozy and Hollande years both. Now there is a tenacious notion out there among Anglo-Americans who opine on the question that French foreign policy is driven primarily by base commercial considerations, of winning contracts for big French corporations (in the case of Iran, see, e.g., here). Insofar as any principles may be involved, they’re mainly about France trying to cling to the fading glory of its past as a colonial empire. This is, of course, Anglo-Saxon poppycock, and particularly in the case of Iran and its nuclear ambitions, over which the French took, as one knows, a harder line than the US and which has been explicated, entre autres, in recent FP articles by Colin Lynch and Yochi Dreazen, and Joseph Bahout and Benjamin Haddad—and with the latter emphasizing the deep knowledge of Iran in the French foreign policy, intelligence, and defense establishments (and which is certainly greater than that of the US).

For the anecdote, some 2½ weeks ago I participated in a forum in Paris with the presidents of US State Senates—almost all of them were there—plus corporate types, that was organized by this nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. The speaker who preceded me (my topic was immigration in France) was Jean-David Levitte, who spoke to the (exclusively American) audience about geopolitics. As Levitte has been a top person in the French foreign policy establishment over the years—and particularly during Sarkozy’s presidency—I took the opportunity to ask him a question about French policy toward Iran and why France has taken an even harder line than the US. His lengthy answer focused on nuclear non-proliferation as a cornerstone of French policy in the Middle East—as primordial for the French national interest—and, in regard to the negotiations in Vienna, of the need to, as he put it, “get it right,” i.e. to arrive at an agreement that would stop Iran’s nuclear capacity short of the threshold that would provoke its neighbors into trying to acquire that same capacity (he was speaking five days before the JCPOA was announced). At the forum the following day, two of France’s top academic MENA specialists—both quite brilliant and for whom I have the utmost regard—spoke on the region to the audience of Americans. Somewhat to my surprise, both gentlemen expressed deep reservations over an eventual Iran deal. One of them, who is a former diplomat and with personal experience in dealing with the Iranians in an official capacity, emphasized the nefarious role Iran has played in the region (notably in Syria) and evoked Iran’s long history as a sponsor of international terrorism (and with France and Frenchmen having been a target, particularly in the 1980s). The other specialist assured the audience that a deal with Iran that enshrined its status as a nuclear threshold state and ended the sanctions regime and diplomatic quarantine—thereby augmenting Iran’s status as a regional power—would frighten masses of Sunni Arabs into the arms of the Islamic State. No less.

Now I don’t share the views of my esteemed colleagues on this question but found them interesting, as they so closely hued to the official French position. So the fact that the French were fully on board with the JCPOA was, in my book, prima facie proof that the deal was a good one. On this, here is the reaction of François Nicoullaud, a former French ambassador to Tehran and nuclear weapons specialist, speaking to Libération on the day the deal was announced

C’est un bel accord qui doit convenir à toutes les parties et répond en particulier à tout ce que souhaitaient les Américains, dont 80% à 90% des demandes se voient satisfaites (…). Je ne crois pas que l’on aurait pu obtenir mieux. C’est le triomphe de la volonté et de la persévérance, en particulier de John Kerry (…) qui a déployé une énergie extraordinaire, de Hassan Rohani qui a su attendre son heure pendant dix ans [il était déjà le chef des négociateurs iraniens, en 2003-2004] et de Barack Obama qui avait tendu la main à Téhéran après son élection, en 2008.

See as well Nicoullaud’s “Premières leçons de l’accord nucléaire avec l’Iran,” on the Boulevard Extérieur blog. In the days following the accord, I checked out the Twitter accounts of two leading French geopolitical analysts, both Atlanticist in orientation (i.e. not out on the left or the souverainiste and/or Russia-friendly right) and exceptionally smart, to see their reaction. One, François Heisbourg, called the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231 “a remarkable achievement,” though emphasized that the deal was not likely to modify Iran’s policy in the region (see this graphic that Heisbourg retweeted, which suggests that France succeeded in Vienna in pulling the US toward its tougher position). The other, Bruno Tertrais—whose position on Iran was close to that of US neocons—tweeted an op-ed by Ariel (Eli) Levite, who was the principal deputy director general for policy at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission from 2002 to 2007, “The good, the bad and the ugly nuclear agreement,” published in Haaretz and on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website, and with this comment: “In the maelström of reactions emerges a really thoughtful piece”…

The official French commentary on the Iran deal came from foreign minister Laurent Fabius in an interview in Le Monde, which was translated into English by the Worldcrunch website and linked to by my friend Claire Berlinski, in her Ricochet blog post on “France and the Iranian nuclear deal.”

In Claire’s post there is one little line that caused me to leap out of my chair and to which I must respond. Claire says that “France is objectively the weakest of the P5+1.” Weaker than the United Kingdom? In what respect? Military spending? On this score, France and the UK rank 5th and 6th in the world, with France higher in one ranking (SIPRI) and the UK higher in another (IISS). But the two are essentially at parity here and with comparable ability to project military force to faraway places, and which has been the case for decades. As for economic strength, France and the UK, in nominal GDP, are also ranked 5th and 6th worldwide, with France having consistently been ahead of the UK over the years but with the UK now slightly so in some rankings (mainly on account of fluctuations in the € and £ exchange rates). But again, the two countries are essentially at parity (though in country rankings of GDP at PPP, France is ahead of the UK in all). And when it comes to military strength, France is, of course, well ahead of Germany, and with the French economy being considerably stronger than Russia’s.

One thing about the Iran deal, and which seems obvious, is that, in addition to controlling Iran’s nuclear capacity, it involves a gamble on Obama’s part that the deal will influence the political dynamic in Iran and push the country in a more moderate direction, both internally and in its foreign policy choices. This will, of course, not happen right away—certainly not as long as the Ayatollah Khamenei is Supreme Leader, and Iranian regional behavior may even worsen in the immediate period—but the gamble clearly needs to be made, as, in view of the chaos in the region—of collapse and fragmentation of the core Arab states and emergence of the Islamic State—America and Europe need—or need to hope for—a stable, prosperous Iran, which has ceased financing terrorist groups (e.g. Islamic Jihad), arming non-state actors to the hilt (e.g. Hizbullah), and supporting criminal regimes (e.g. the Syrian Ba’athist), and with which America and Europe can cooperate. E.g. it is hard to see how any kind of solution can be found in Syria—if such is possible (and which I doubt)—without Iran on board. And Iran is clearly a bulwark against the advance of the Islamic State, which, ça va de soi, presents a grave threat to the region and anywhere significant numbers of Muslims are to be found.

Assertion: America and Iran have a vocation to be friends. As one knows well by now, the problem in Iran is the regime and political system, but which are seriously contested within the country and by forces in Iranian society that look favorably to America and Europe. And Iran has a vibrant, sophisticated civil society and with currents far more liberal than anything to be found in the Arab world. As for what the US can do to influence Iran internally, Adam Garfinkle, in his essay linked to above, has this to say

[I]f sanctions relief is to come, it is probably in U.S. interest to rush as much of the roughly $150 billion involved into the Iranian economy as fast as possible. It is likewise in our interest to open the economy to all manner of foreigners as quickly as possible: sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll to the max. If we want to weaken the regime—and its emetic IRGC/Qods Brigade Praetorian guard—we should do our best to serve up maximum feasible Schumpeterean “creative destruction”, the same stuff that KO’ed the Shah. The more social change we help unleash, and generate from a new baseline, the more the inability of the current Iranian regime to adjust will doom it to oblivion.

The regime fears its own people and is doubtless prepared now to crack down hard, lest melting glaciers of pent-up frustration get out of hand. How this will play out is hard to say; it may hurt Rouhani more than help him. In any event, we need to do what we can to undermine or overwhelm the crackdown, and being a little (or a lot) more voluble on Iranian human rights violations—which are massive and ongoing—is not a bad way to go about that given the limited means at our disposal to influence internal Iranian social trends.

In a similar vein, Paul Berman, whom I normally do not link to favorably, had a hopeful commentary in Tablet on “Why President Obama’s deal is not just an act of faith, but a call to arms—of the liberal sort.” Also in Tablet is a must-read article by Samuel Thorpe, a Jerusalem-based writer and translator of Persian, on Tehran University political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam, “The most dangerous man in Iran.” It begins

This past March Tehran University political science professor Sadegh Zibakalam said the unspeakable. In a wide-ranging foreign-policy debate with conservative journalist Seyed Yasser Jebraily at Islamic Azad University of Mashhad, videos of which have circulated widely on the Internet, Zibakalam blasted the Iranian government’s oft-stated goal of destroying Israel.

Sitting with Jebraily at a small, microphone-studded table, Zibakalam, dressed in an open-collared shirt and dark blue sports coat over his trademark suspenders, first argued that conservatives’ anti-American rhetoric was harming Iran’s national interest. Then he turned to Israel, saying that cries of “Death to Israel” do the same.

“Who gave the Islamic Republic of Iran the duty of destroying Israel?” he asked sarcastically to the audience’s thunderous applause. “Did the Iranian people have a referendum and say they want to destroy Israel? Did the parliament pass a law saying that we should destroy Israel?”

When hard-line hecklers tried to interrupt they were quickly shouted down by the crowd. “Twenty-four hours a day you have the radio, the television, Kayhan newspaper, the parliament, the Friday sermons,” Zibakalam boldly replied. “We have two hours here—one for me and one for Jebraily. You are so authoritarian and dictatorial that you disrupt even this.”

Watch the YouTube embedded in the article of Zibakalam pronouncing the above words and note the audience reaction. One would never see such a spectacle anywhere in the Arab world (or in Turkey, or any other Muslim majority country).

See also Zibakalam’s “Letter from Tehran” in Politico from last March (linked to in the Tablet piece), “Why Iran’s hardliners fear a deal: A nuclear pact means our regime will have to surrender its No. 1 justification for its actions: anti-Americanism.”

On the question of regime opponents—of which Zibakalam is one—and what they think, see the In These Times piece by Iran specialist Danny Postel of the University of Denver, “Iranian dissidents explain why they support the nuclear deal.” They support it to a man and woman. Of course they do. Why wouldn’t they? One would think that US opponents of the deal would be minimally interested in the views of the pro-democracy, anti-Ayatollah camp in Iran. On this, TAC’s Daniel Larison has a post, “The nuclear deal and Iranian dissidents,” in which he took apart a particularly stupid comment by the reactionary pundit Victor Davis Hanson—and with Larison concluding that the likes of VDH couldn’t care less about the Iranian opposition (reading the bit by VDH that Larison quotes, one is struck—yet again—by the alternate reality in which VDH inhabits, along with most others of his ideological ilk).

The leitmotif on the Iran deal at the moment—in the US at least—is that it has to get through Congress, which is sure to reject it, though most likely will not garner the two-thirds majority needed to override President Obama’s certain veto. If the Congress does override, however, it is being said that the deal will thus be dead, i.e. the Congress will have killed it. But will this be the case? I’ve read the relevant sections of the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231, which, unless I missed something or misunderstood what I was reading—which can happen—do not stipulate that legislative action against the JCPOA in one of the signatory states would result in the nullification of the accord. In other words, UNSCR 2231 will come into effect after ninety days—on October 20th—regardless of what the US Congress does. UN (and EU) sanctions will be lifted and if Iran scrupulously adheres to the terms of the JCPOA, the latter will be implemented, albeit without the United States. The rest of the world will trade with and invest in Iran as the JCPOA allows, and without the US being able to do a thing about it. If I am mistaken on this, please correct me.

UPDATE: Tablet magazine has a useful “Guide for the perplexed: The Iran nuclear agreement” by Thomas R. Pickering, former under secretary of state in the Clinton administration and ambassador to the United Nations, Russia, Israel, and several other countries. Pickering, in short, “defends the most complex and important treaty this century.” See his link in the article to James Walsh of MIT’s “excellent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 25, 2015.”

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Pro-Mosaddegh demonstration, Tehran, March 2 1953

Pro-Mosaddegh demonstration, Tehran, March 2 1953

This post—which I intended to do several months ago but didn’t get around to—has nothing to do with anything that’s happening right now. I am posting it at the present time as part of a social media exchange I’ve been having this past week with a friend, who expressed astonishment at an assertion I made that the CIA did not engineer the coup d’états in Chile or in Iran in 1953. On the Chile coup, I offered my friend my post of last September, Chile’s 9/11: What really happened?, in which I linked to an article in Foreign Affairs by a CIA officer in Santiago at the time, who explained—convincingly, in my view—that the CIA was not implicated in what happened there on that fateful September 11th 1973. My friend, who’s Algerian, remains skeptical, which doesn’t surprise me: Western leftists over a certain age and tiersmondistes the world over are almost politically hardwired to believe that the CIA was responsible for the Chilean coup. It goes without saying. And if people have believed something dur comme fer for over four decades, they’re not likely to change their minds after reading a single article, and by a CIA agent at that.

It’s likewise with the 1953 Iranian coup that overthrew Mohammed Mosaddegh, perhaps even more so, as Kermit Roosevelt—the CIA’s man in Tehran at the time—practically bragged about the role he played in the coup, serious scholars and journalists (e.g. Stephen Kinzer, Ervand Abrahamian) have written books on it, and the US government has acknowledged its involvement. I accepted this narrative pretty much without question—there was no reason not to—until I read an article in the December 8th 2009 TNR by Stanford University’s Abbas Milani, “The Great Satan Myth,” in which he argued that the circumstances surrounding the coup against Mosaddegh were much more complex than the dominant version had it. Milani followed up the TNR piece with one on The National Interest website, dated January 24th 2011, “The Myth of Operation Ajax: America can’t form a prudent policy toward Iran until it exorcises the ghost of Washington’s role in bringing down Mossadegh.” Involvement is one thing, responsibility is another.

Then in the July-August 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs, Washington-based Iran specialist Ray Takeyh had an article—in the same series as the one on Chile discussed in my above-cited post—entitled “What Really Happened in Iran: The CIA, the Ouster of Mosaddeq, and the Restoration of the Shah.” Takeyh’s argument—that the CIA role in the 1953 coup was “ultimately insignificant” and that Mosaddegh would have been overthrown regardless of outside meddling—settles the matter for me. For those too lazy to click on the above link, here’s the text of the article. À chacun de décider ce qu’il en pense.

By Ray Takeyh

Back in 2009, during his heavily promoted Cairo speech on American relations with the Muslim world, U.S. President Barack Obama noted, in passing, that “in the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” Obama was referring to the 1953 coup that toppled Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and consolidated the rule of the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Obama would go on to remind his audience that Iran had also committed its share of misdeeds against Americans. But he clearly intended his allusion to Washington’s role in the coup as a concession — a public acknowledgment that the United States shared some of the blame for its long-simmering conflict with the Islamic Republic.

Yet there was a supreme irony to Obama’s concession. The history of the U.S. role in Iran’s 1953 coup may be “well known,” as the president declared in his speech, but it is not well founded. On the contrary, it rests heavily on two related myths: that machinations by the CIA were the most important factor in Mosaddeq’s downfall and that Iran’s brief democratic interlude was spoiled primarily by American and British meddling. For decades, historians, journalists, and pundits have promoted these myths, injecting them not just into the political discourse but also into popular culture: most recently, Argo, a Hollywood thriller that won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Picture, suggested that Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution was a belated response to an injustice perpetrated by the United States a quarter century earlier. That version of events has also been promoted by Iran’s theocratic leaders, who have exploited it to stoke anti-Americanism and to obscure the fact that the clergy itself played a major role in toppling Mosaddeq.

In reality, the CIA’s impact on the events of 1953 was ultimately insignificant. Regardless of anything the United States did or did not do, Mosaddeq was bound to fall and the shah was bound to retain his throne and expand his power. Yet the narrative of American culpability (more…)

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my_sweet_pepper_land_omu

This is the latest film by Iraqi Kurdish/naturalized French director Hiner Saleem, who directed the well-regarded ‘Vodka Lemon‘—which I have yet to see—, ‘Kilomètre Zéro‘, and ‘Si tu meurs, je te tue‘—which I did see (both good). I greatly enjoyed this one. It’s a genre Western set in Iraqi Kurdistan in the aftermath of the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime. I’ll let Variety’s fine critic Jay Weissberg, who saw the pic at Cannes last year, describe it

The opening sequence shows off Saleem’s deliciously picaresque humor, as independent Kurdistan’s first legal hanging is derailed by faulty equipment. If the scene feels like a Western set in a flea-bitten Mexican border town, the comparison is apt, since the helmer plays with parallels emphasizing the rudimentary infrastructure of the newly autonomous nation and the entitlements of regional warlords. Reluctant policeman Baran (intense-eyed, charismatic Korkmaz Arslan) wants to give up the force, but a brief return home to mother convinces him he needs to get away.

Baran is transferred to a godforsaken settlement near the Turkish frontier, where smuggling is the accepted way of life. Local kingpin Aziz Aga (Tarik Akreyi) offers the lawman protection in exchange for looking the other way, but the upstanding Baran isn’t interested in dealmaking. While unsympathetic to the smugglers, he gives clandestine support to a team of female Kurdish freedom fighters trying to get medical supplies to needy comrades.

The romance angle comes courtesy of returning schoolteacher Govend (Golshifteh Farahani), back in town after convincing her family she’s not ready to be married off quite yet. Frozen out by local parents uninterested in having their kids educated, she’s also a target for Aziz Aga’s salacious crew, which looks to humiliate the independent woman. Baran comes to her defense and gets involved when word gets back to Govend’s father that his daughter is immoral.

The pic’s ungainly title is derived from “Pepper Land,” the name of the local saloon and the only gathering place in this one-horse town. For Saleem, telling his story in an oater format allows him to indulge in a fair amount of genre play along with the Western genre’s longstanding openness to upending gender stereotypes. Govend is the victim of a smear campaign, yet she’s also unwilling to forgo her independence — the joy of freedom beaming from her face while heading back to town and away from the family makes clear her self-confidence and unwillingness to compromise. Adding all-women freedom fighters furthers the femme-empowerment message.

Enjoyable storytelling and sympathetic performances run throughout the story, though for sheer laugh-out-loud absurdism, nothing beats the healthy self-mockery of the opener. A calculated sparseness in the setting acts as a unifying force, especially when scenes tend to have a self-contained feel that doesn’t always create a sense of flow. Visuals favor Sergio Leone-style closeups along with stunning landscapes featuring pink-tinged sunsets and ravines like Utah canyons, showcasing Kurdistan’s natural beauties. Music features a smile-inducing mix of tunes ranging from Elvis to Western twangs to rockabilly, tied together by the multitalented Farahani’s own playing on the steel hang.

Second degré absurdism underlies the whole film, e.g. “sheriff” Baran playing Bach and Elvis in his “one-horse” Kurdish village and the all-female detachment of Turkish Kurdish (obviously PKK) guerrillas. But the pic also takes on more serious themes, such as archaic codes of honor, patriarchy, and forced marriage, which is what the protag Govend resists. And, it should be said, the sublime Golshifteh Farahani is more beautiful than ever, rien à dire. Another theme: the determination of the intrepid, incorruptible Baran to impose the authority of the state and rule of law, here on the outlaw tribal potentate Aziz Aga. French reviews of the film are mostly tops (and particularly those of Allociné spectateurs), as is critic Deborah Young’s in The Hollywood Reporter. Trailer is here. So thumbs up to this one! À ne pas manquer.

While I’m at it, I should mention an Afghan film I saw last fall, ‘Wajma (An Afghan Love Story)’, directed by Barmak Akram, which also deals with patriarchy and archaic codes of honor, but not among tribespeople or villagers but in the educated, urban well-to-do class, here in contemporary Kabul. It’s a bleak, depressing film, and does not offer a very positive image of Afghan society—as I tweeted after seeing it—but is well done and may be seen. Hollywood reviews (good to mixed) are here, here, and here, French reviews (mostly tops) here, trailer is here.

Wajma-une-Fiancee-Afghane

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Islamabad, February 25 2012 (Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

Islamabad, February 25 2012 (Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

The latest NYRB has a must read essay by Malise Ruthven on anthropologist and Islam specialist Akbar Ahmed‘s latest book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, published by Brookings. Money quote:

As an anthropologist with deep knowledge and direct experience of tribal systems, Akbar Ahmed demonstrates in The Thistle and the Drone how richly Tolstoy’s thistle metaphor [of 19th century Russia’s wars with the tribal peoples of the Caucuses] applies to contemporary conditions in regions, distant from urban centers, where clans resist the writ of government while also engaging with it. He points to their “love of freedom” to act without external constraints, as well as “egalitarianism, [and] a tribal lineage system defined by common ancestors and clans, a martial tradition, and a highly developed code of honor and revenge—these are the thistle-like characteristics of the tribal societies…. Moreover, as with the thistle, there is a clear correlation between their prickliness, or toughness, and the level of force used by those who wish to subdue these societies, as the Americans discovered after 9/11.”

Ahmed is especially troubled by the use of drones against Muslim tribal groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, but his analysis of the nature of the state and its relation with tribal peoples has application far beyond the condition of Muslim tribal societies. As he sees it, the use of unmanned aircraft as a leading counterinsurgency weapon has morphed into a campaign against tribal peoples generally, with the US president disposing of “Zeus-like power to hurl thunderbolts from the sky and obliterate anyone with impunity… Flying at 50,000 feet above ground, and therefore out of sight of its intended victims, the drone could hover overhead unblinkingly for twenty-four hours, with little escaping its scrutiny before it struck. For a Muslim tribesman, this manner of combat not only was dishonorable but also smacked of sacrilege. By appropriating the powers of God through the drone, in its capacity to see and not be seen and deliver death without warning, trial, or judgment, Americans were by definition blasphemous.”

There’s this fascinating passage on the Saudi Arabia-Yemen borderlands, and notably the Asir region

Ahmed, by contrast, sees ethnicity or tribal identity as the crucial factors in the recruitment of the hijackers. “Bin Laden,” he states, “was joined in his movement primarily by his fellow Yemeni tribesmen,” ten of whom came from the Asir tribes… Indeed the only one of the nineteen hijackers without a tribal pedigree was Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian architect who led the operation and had much to do with its planning.

The Asiri background is highly significant because of the region’s history. For centuries the terrain, which is divided between rugged highlands with peaks rising to nine thousand feet and the coastal plain, or Tihama, was riven by tribal conflicts, as in the Caucasus and Waziristan. Like the Pukhtun clans of Waziristan, the Yemeni tribes of Asir are organized in “segmentary lineages” (i.e., prone to splitting) without formal leaders. The clans tended to quarrel among themselves when not coalescing in the face of outsiders. In 1906 the charismatic scholar-king Sayyed Muhammad al-Idrisi, connected to the Sufi or mystically oriented Sanusiyya order in North Africa, was invited to settle disputes between these warring tribes. His rule was in many ways similar to that of Shamil in the Caucasus, as described by those Russian observers, better informed than Tolstoy, who recognized that his diplomatic skills were as impressive as his military ones.

Al-Idrisi’s domain grew rapidly as tribes, attracted by his reputation for piety and justice, rallied to his cause against the Ottomans. After backing the Allies in World War I, he hoped that the victors would reward him by preserving Asir’s independence. All such hopes were dashed, however, following his death in 1922, when the region came under the sway of the reinvigorated tribal empire created by the emir of Nejd, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, founder of modern Saudi Arabia. In his aggressive drive for territorial expansion (which included expelling the Hashemite rulers of Mecca), ibn Saud swallowed up most of the region, leaving the southern part to al-Idrisi’s inveterate enemy, the imam of Yemen. Some 400,000 people are believed to have been killed in the course of this conflict.

The Saudi annexation was followed by an invasion of religious clerics who imposed their narrow Salafist practices on Asiri society. Asiri males were known as the “flower men” from the flowers they wore in their hair (an indication perhaps of their status as cultivators rather than nomads). Even their turbans were adorned with flowers, grasses, and stones. Asiri women were clothed in spectacular explosions of color, their headdresses glittering with coins and jewelry. The Saudi clerics forced young males to remove their “un-Islamic” locks and headgear as well as the traditional daggers that symbolized their masculinity. The women were obliged to adopt the niqab (full facial veil) in place of the traditional headscarf.

In short, says Ahmed, while Western countries were appeasing the Saudis in order to secure their oil supplies, the Saudis were systematically destroying the Yemeni-Asiri culture. During the 1960s this process was exacerbated by the civil war that brought into Yemen 70,000 Egyptian troops who used poison gas alongside conventional weapons. Represented in the West as a Spanish-style conflict between “progressive” republicans backed by Egypt and “reactionary” royalists supported by Saudi Arabia, the war was really a conflict between tribal systems that had been drawn into supporting different sides.

Saudi Arabia: the Evil Kingdom. I’ve said it before and will say it again.

Ruthven’s essay may be read in its entirety here.

Protest against US drone attacks, Sanaa, January 13 2013 (Photo: AFP)

Protest against US drone attacks, Sanaa, January 13 2013 (Photo: AFP)

US drone strikes in Yemen. (New America Foundation)

US drone strikes in Yemen. (New America Foundation)

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Kabul 1962 (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Kabul 1962 (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Check out these great photos of Afghanistan in the 1950s and ’60s, in The Atlantic. Ah le bon vieux temps…

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934017_459945054089885_1676741246_n

Last October I had a post on Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, who I called the front-runner in the June 2013 Iranian presidential election. He ended up a distant second, with 16% of the vote. I hadn’t heard of Hassan Rouhani back then. Not that I’m an Iran expert or anything, loin s’en faut, but, FWIW, my wife asked me a few hours ago, while we were walking to our neighborhood movie theater, what I thought of Rouhani’s stunning first round victory. My instant response: it’s great news (duh), as (a) it shows that the Iranian people are moderate in their majority, want to live normally like any other normal people, and would quite certainly cast off the regime of the ayatollahs and mullahs if they possibly could; (b) it incontrovertibly proves that the 2009 election was fraudulent, as the result in that one was close enough so that the regime could rig it, whereas this one was simply too decisive for that; as we say here, le pouvoir iranien était obligé à se rendre à l’évidence; (c) everyone knows that Ayatollah Khamenei institutionally calls the shots and that the president of Iran is the rough equivalent of a French prime minister hors cohabitation—but without even the formal constitutional powers accorded a French PM—, but that the president can influence domestic policy nonetheless, and, above all, induce a relative liberalization of the moral order imposed (mainly on women) by the basij, who can do what they want when the conservatives have the upper hand, but less so when relative liberals are in the ascendancy (so much as I understand how Iranian politics works); and (d) the already minimal prospect of a US and/or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is now reduced to near zero الحمد لله; with the moderate Rouhani’s victory, it’s just not going to happen, period.

Voilà my 2¢. For a take by a veritable expert, see the instant analysis (2½ pages in PDF) by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Shaul Bakhash, on “Rouhani’s surprising election.”

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Syngue Sabour

Syngue-Sabour-Pierre-de-Patience_reference

My post yesterday on Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s ‘Le Passé’ reminded me of this very good film I saw a couple of months ago (English title: ‘The Patience Stone’) and had intended to write something on. It’s set in an unnamed Muslim country in the throes of civil war that is rather obviously Afghanistan—and specifically Kabul, with the panoramic scenes of the city shot there (the interior and street scenes were shot in Morocco)—, is in the Persian language (called Dari in Afghanistan), and stars the sublime Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, who’s in almost every frame. The film, directed by the Afghan/naturalized French citizen Atiq Rahimi, is based on Rahimi’s best-seller novel of the same title (which won the Prix Goncourt in 2008), about a 30ish woman with two small children whose mujahid husband lies at home comatose (from a bullet in the neck), leaving the woman to fend for herself (and in a war torn society where the status of women, even in the best of times, is one of the worst in the world). For details, see the reviews here and here (and French reviews here). All I’ll say about the film—apart from giving it the thumbs way up—is that Golshifteh Farahani’s performance is a tour de force. She’s one great actress, rien à dire!

For the record, I should mention an Iranian film I saw last fall, ‘A Respectable Family’, by Massoud Bakhshi (who usually does documentaries), about a university professor who returns to Iran after two decades abroad and gets caught up in some sinister scheming of his sleazy, corrupt family (thus the ironic title). The pic is, as one may guess, a backhanded critique of a lot of what goes on in the Islamic Republic, of the moral code—or absence of—that guides the actions of a certain number of people there. The plot is complex and I will admit to getting lost halfway through, which I attributed to briefly nodding off a couple of times—due to fatigue, not the film itself, though its pacing did not exactly have me riveted to the screen (it’s not ‘Fast & Furious 6′, loin s’en faut)—, during which I no doubt missed crucial information. And sure enough, one of the reviews said that “[t]his is one of those movies where you can’t miss a single subtitle” (other reviews are here and here; French reviews here). So voilà. If I come across the film on DVD, I’ll watch it again (and this time wide awake).

a respectable family

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