Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Sentence #6

A sign with a the silhouette of a sheep marks the place where two men sweat over a massive cooking pot filled with snouts, toes, brains, and tongues.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Sentence #5

Qom is the beating heart of Iran’s revolutionary regime: filled with seminaries, clerics, politicians, and truck stops.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Sentence #4

Oh God, please help me control my aversion to uninvited physical contact is the prayer I said as I waited in line to board Iran Air, walked through the airlock, and on to a plane full of Semitic faces: a plane full of men who could have been asked off of a flight in America just for having one eyebrow.

Sentence #3

Yet when I finally board Iran Air for the trip from Amsterdam to Tehran, the only thing that scares me is knowing that I am going to spend time in a culture where the buffer zone of personal space I manage to maintain between myself and others – even the people I love – will be shattered by people who are more comfortable speaking nose to nose.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Sentence #2

Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport is shabby and unimaginative: perfect for trench-coated men who could lurk behind its wide columns or in its dark wooden payphone booths.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Not my sentence...

Zarah Gharaman's:

"With so many joyful people on our side, it was impossible to believe that those who despised happiness could ever prevail over us."

Thanks for the link, Marie.

#1 sentence of the day

I love this blog by Jane McGonigal called The Best Sentence of the Day. I have decided to copy her model and present sentences (and maybe even paragraphs) from the book I am writing about my experiences in Iran. That way, I can blog without taking away from my writing time. So here is the first sentence:

After so many days crammed from early morning to late night with work and packing and goodbyes, it is a relief at last to sit in this office and let Javanmard take care of our problems while we talk about Genghis Khan and drink tea.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The arranged marriage

This article about an Iranian yenta from Nazila Fathi of the New York Times made me wonder: do expat Iranian women ever return to Iran to find a husband?


''But I do not like to be called a matchmaker,'' he said, laughing. ''It reminds me of old women.''

In business for the last three years -- and swamped since newspaper articles publicized the opening of his office three months ago -- Mr. Ardabili is doing a unique job in a country where, after the 1979 Islamic revolution, dating was banned and extramarital relationships became subject to severe punishment. Some restrictions eased after the election of President Mohammad Khatami, a moderate, in 1997.

Still, Mr. Ardabili is careful to work within approved Islamic standards. His Web site has links to statements of permission from half a dozen prominent Iranian clerics.

''I just want to be a true cleric, and as a cleric my job is to help bring balance and happiness to people's lives,'' he said, adjusting a white turban over his clumsily dyed brown hair. That, in Persian culture, means marriage and having children.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I'm a stumbled upon fool

And an apology to all those folks who got emails from me...

Okay, I am a complete idiot. I hope some of the designers of Stumble Upon read this so that I can tell them how pissed off I am. I read something like: "add your contacts and see who else is on stumble upon." SU showed me a page of people I knew. I clicked on "add" or something like that and it added every single contact in my address book.

Years and years of effort to avoid sending spam, automated emails, and other annoying bullshit down the drain. I've avoided opening viruses, avoided sending on chain letters, avoided joining endless annoying viral networks only to have all my credibility ruined by a misleading interface. Am I alone?

Where can I complain about the horrific information design?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Why isn't the blog fun anymore?

Afshin asked me that question in an email. He's right. The blog is not fun anymore. So look at this video from
Abjeez instead. They are fun.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Oppression is weak

"In an open society it is impossible to kill, jail, or occupy everyone who disagrees with you." (Bill Clinton speaking at the World Affairs Council)

The regime in Iran is a house of cards. Many may talk about their strength. I’ve heard it: money is rolling in because of the high price of oil. Yes. That is a strength. The revolutionary military supports the current president. Many in the Arab world and beyond see Ahmadinejad as a damn against the tide of Western imperialism. Another strength. They are acting boldly. Another strength. The world is paying attention. Yep, yet another.

Why do I say they are weak? A government that stones a man for adultery, sentences a woman to lashings for promoting the rights of women, imprisons professors, blocks social networking sites, and locks up union leaders is weak. W-E-A-K. We know now how weak the revolution was when Iraq attacked in the early 80s thus uniting the population behind the regime. That revolution was so weak that it tortured, killed, and imprisoned nearly all of the political thinkers and activists in the entire country.

Weak regimes respond with violence. Weak regimes keep their populations in a state of fear.

Read about the weaknesses here:
Listen to Halleh Esfandiari
talking to NPR about her imprisonment

Kamangir writes about the sentencing of feminist Delaram Ali

Here is an account of the stoning of the man put together by Hamid Tehrani at Global Voices

Read a report from the OpenNet initiative on Iran

Friday, November 09, 2007

Covering Iran from Khatami to Ahmadinejad

This interview is with the journalist Angus McDowall, who Kamran and I met while we were in Iran. We always enjoyed his articles and his stories about reporting in Iran.

1. Why did you decide to report from Iran in the first place?

I decided on Iran for several reasons. When I first went there, I was very inexperienced having only worked as a staff writer on an economic magazine writing about Saudi Arabia. But I really wanted to be living in an exciting country with lots of culture and history and reporting for big newspapers on interesting stories. I sat down with a friend who has won several big reporting awards and she told me I should go to Iran, Iraq (this was just before the war) or Algeria. She said Iraq would be the biggest story and anyone who had been there since before the war could really make a name for themselves, but that it would be very hard to report while Saddam stayed in power. She said in Algeria I would meet people who made me feel proud to be alive and that there was a delicious edge of raw danger (she's a little nutty that way), but I'd need very good French. In Iran she said I'd find a country that was mesmerising in its own right, but also a really big and underreported story. How right she was!

2. Did you ever feel any anti-British hostility? If yes, can you describe it to us?

I certainly did feel anti-British hostility. But because Iranians are so polite - and often very willing to separate British people from their government - I was rarely made to feel unwelcome. Only a couple of times did I meet people who turned their anger directly on me. One was a taxi driver who wanted to charge an outrageous sum - some three or four times the normal rate for a city journey - and told me he was trying to take back all the money my people had stolen from him over hundreds of years. He started shouting and it was very embarrassing. He was a little out of control. Another time I was interviewing people down near the court off 15 Khordad street and someone started shouting at me because of the British government.

When I first arrived in Iran I used to argue with people who said Britain was behind everything. I thought it was a ridiculous idea (I still cannot see that the UK has had any say in Iranian domestic politics since before the revolution, or that it has had any chance to steal Iranian oil) and imagined I could talk people out of it. That was a mistake and occasionally people became quite upset with my insistence that although Britain had a shameful colonial past, and although its present foreign policy has a terribly imperialist slant, it has no control over Iran at all. After a year or two, I stopped arguing and started just to enjoy the notoriety. I'd always laugh knowingly when someone hinted at British plots and slip the old line about it all being the work of the English.

3. Were you ever scared while you were there?

3) I was never scared during protests and things like that because my adrenaline was up and I was pretty sure that the worst that could happen to me was that an untrained policeman would give me a few knocks before carting me off to prison for a couple of hours. I did get quite frightened during my arrest with Gareth [Angus and a friend were arrested for inadvertantly wandering into an unmarked military area] because it seemed qutie plausible for about 48 hours that we would be charged with spying or something and imprisoned for a couple of years. When I was in Garmsar I dreamt incessantly about life in prison. It was really no joke.

But the most regular frights I had in Iran - like everyone else, I expect - happened on the roads. I have really never seen driving like it in any of the dozen Arab and African countries I have spent time in. Simply terrifying.

4. What was your biggest tarof blunder?

When I had recently arrived in the country I was with a couple of people reporting an oil conference. They were all new to me but we were getting on well. One said she was going to see a concert that night and asked if anyone wanted to come. Everyone else politely said they were busy but I immediately said I'd love to (in mitigation, I had only been in Iran about six weeks and was going insane with boredom because I hadn't yet made a single friend and the prospect of another night wandering around the market by myself drove me nuts). But how embarrassing - it was her uncle giving the concert and the whole family was there with me sitting at the front next to them as the only interloper.

5. Can you tell us a bit about the most unusual story that you covered while you were in Iran? (even if it was not published)

The most unusual story was the one I never did cover but always wanted to: the Japanese Yakuza. I kept hearing hints about these guys who were part of the big work migration to Japan in the early 90s. Because so many of them were big, tough kids from south Tehran, they slid seamlessly into the Japanese underworld, pushing drugs, pimping girls and generally acting as the muscle for Japanese gangsters. Many of them - I'm told - have those fantastic tattoos you associate with Yakuza, as well as other picturesque (!) motifs such as missing finger parts to do with honour rituals or something. They were all kicked out along with the other Iranians in the late 90s and came back to Tehran where they doubtless continued their eccentric but highly criminal careers with less flamboyance.

6. Most interesting person you met?

It's really hard to isolate just one interesting person. My friend Dr Khateri is a very interesting man. He joined up to fight as a child from Kermanshah and endured several years of the war. A true idealist, he joined a seminary and flirted with extremist Hezbollah-style groups in the early 1990s, getting to know people like Massoud Dehnamaki the filmmaker. But when he quit the seminary to become a medical doctor, specialising in chemical weapons treatment, his world view started to change. And when he travelled to foreign countries he positively mellowed and now has a pretty liberal world view. He took me to Kurdistan several times to travel, to report and to share a fascination with phenomena like dervishes. I really miss him come to think of it.

7. Most memorable interview?

Most memorable interview is also a hard one. It's probably one of the interviews I did after the earthquake at Bam. It wasn't memorable because anything particularly fascinating or unusual was being said: it was simply the intensity of the pain, shock and anguish that stayed indelibly with me. I still shudder to recall it.

8. What do you miss most about Iran?

Friends most of all, of course. But more generally I miss the bread, I miss the sound of Persian and the pleasure of trying (ineptly) to speak it. I miss little excursions out of Tehran. Most of all I miss the body language and facial expressions such as the disdainful flick of the head to mean 'no'.

Monday, October 29, 2007

War, no war... part two

Part two.

He is on a scholarship trip in the Netherlands for a couple of months. I did not know he was here until a common friend asked me if I had seen Namver (not his real name). I call him right after I talked to our common friend.

We are both doing some research on two different projects. We agree to meet another friend of his who is a long-time university professor and researcher at a well-known institute in Amsterdam.

“You just have to agree with whatever he says; otherwise we will be here for couple of days.” Namver tells me. I agree and walk to meet his friend in that institute. Not even two minutes pass after we meet and start our conversation that I start scratching my head.

“There are a lot of power struggles in the Iranian government at this moment,” he says.

I think dinggggggggggggggggggggggg, you don’t have to be rocket scientist to know that. It is so simplistic to come up with this again.

Yes we do have a power struggles in Iran, and we have had them for a long time, since the first days of our recorded history. What is new about this? I think to myself.

Are any of those involved with this power struggle worthy of trust? Are they really so diffirent from each other? Or do they just want the same thing but have different ways of getting it?

“Maybe this power struggle will end up in war,” the professor continues.

Bush is getting ready for war I am thinking...

They are counting minutes


When I talk to my friends most of them, like I am, are against war (At least in public).

Not only because they think war is devastating, but also so that they can tell everybody later that “I told you so” when things go wrong. And you know, things always do go wrong.

Power struggle or no power struggle, Iran should get ready for a nasty war, I think by myself quietly. There will be war. I have been saying this for almost two years, but I don’t want to tell anybody, “I told you so.”

“Americans are seeing that the option of diplomacy is not getting them anywhere. You can see that clearly. There are still some people in the Iranian government who believe we should be more willing to work things out with the European negotiators, but those people are not inside the power lines,” the professor tells us. “Look at history, and you can get your answer. Those mullahs don’t make deals until things get really bad.”

I don’t think this any more. This time I don’t believe they will compromise. Ahmadinejad said, “We don’t need experts; we need believers.”

Believers in what?

We all agree that if Iran is attacked and there is the possibility of regime change that we would see months of horrific bloodshed in the streets of every big city in Iran. Mobs will go wild and tear apart Teheran. The regime must know this. Just look at these pictures Kamangir found.

We talk about what might happen: pardons, arrests, riots, etc.

“What about 125,000 revolution guards forces?”

“Will they target us?” my friend adds. “What will happen to the MEK? Can you imagine if they get power?”

We all decide not to think about it.

I don’t personally know any Iranians outside Iran who would openly say that he wants the US to attack Iran. I am sure there are many in US who are just jumping up and down waiting until the day the US bombers attack Iran. Most of those are not people who care about the lives of Iranians that may be lost in case of war as long as this regime gets the lesson they deserve. Those people are just waiting to take power for themselves and steal more of our resources and money.

In Iran I met many people who could not wait to be (freed) by America. In the last two years I heard many Iranians say that they cannot take it anymore and that living cannot be worse than what they have even if there is attack.

I hate to admit that most of those people who I spoke to felt I had a direct line to the white house and wanted me to tell Mr. Bush “please just don’t hit my house.” One guy said that he wanted to paint an American flag on the roof of his house. “America. Friends,” he said he would write under the flag.

I don’t think it is a question of if there will be an attack but more of when. One friend says, “If it’s war or the regime, maybe war is not so bad.” Then my wife says, “What if it is war and the regime?” We both look at each other, and we are just shocked.

The sanctions and the talk of war are pushing Iran closer to Russia and China, some may think, but most Iranian don’t believe that Russia is there to help us. Russia is like poker player who is holding his cards close so that he has more options. Later they can say, “we were the only friend you had in those hard days when you were under attack from all over the world.” Or they can say to the US, when we realizes the danger of Iran with the N weapon, we took the right side. (Listen to this interesting interview with Steve LeVine on Fresh Air)

A couple of months ago when I met a friend here in Amsterdam who just married a nice Iranian girl, I was shocked to hear a different story. He told me that there are a couple of other possibilities. “Imagine Khameneie would get really sick from whatever he has and die in the next couple of months and there is a fight for his replacement and a lot of people are putting Rafsanjani forward since most of the people believe Ahmadinejad is not able to deliver what he promised two years go. He would be in power, and he would make a deal with US. End of story,” he told us with a small smile but self-confident face.


I told him, “Imagine Rafsanjani would die long before Khameneie.” When I told him this scenario, he was not happy. He told me, “You Iranians are always unpredictable.” I shook my head and told him that is the problem with the west, you only see things in black and white.

He was clearly frustrated with me. Yes there are a lot of options out there, but none as effective as a military attack.

His boss, a professor at a university in Amsterdam, told me a couple of months ago during a dinner, that there is 3rd option: the West could find a way to live with a nuclear Iran.

“Like they live with Pakistan?” I asked. “What about if things change in Pakistan, and you don’t have a president like Mosharaf who changes his polices in one night from not worried about terrorists at all to commando in chef of the war on terror in the region?” The professor had to leave after my question, so I never heard his answer.


“Dadash jan Khoobi?” I asked my brother when I called him yesterday.
I can’t wait to ask him how he and his family is doing, but I asked him first, “Are the people getting ready for war?”

“Which war” he asked.

“Here in the west everybody thinks there will be a war or better put: an attack.”

“Na dasash jan (No my dear brother ) don’t worry, there would be no attack. Nothing will happen,” he is confident. Why? I don’t know. “Na dadash jan, nothing would happen,” he changed the subject. I don’t know if he does it because he is worried he is being recorded or he just wants to make feel better.

“Iran said that they would fire 11,000 rockets in the first few minutes if they are attacked.”

“How many?”


“What would they do when those are finished?”

“Fire 11,000 more?

“How is your wife?”

“I miss you too.” This time there is no way I can change the subject

I hung up the phone, stretched, flexed my muscles like a bodybuilder would, looked out the window happy to have heard his voice but worried very much about whether he and his family would be okay when and if an attack starts.

I would never forgive anyone who would attack and harm my family and friends. That is why I hate and can never forgive the Iranian government for killing and imprisoning and torturing of a lot of my dear friends. They killed the dreams of millions.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

To war or not to war

I was walking in the park with an Iranian friend who prefers to remain anonymous, so let’s call him Reza. Reza just returned from several years in Iran. We argued about the benefits of war. “Things are just getting worse. People have all the hope sucked right out of them. You just cannot believe the corruption and the government – what government? – can you really call it a government? – they are just a bunch of criminals. Sometimes I think the only thing to do is bomb them.”

Reza is serious. We have argued this point so many times. Reza wants the US to attack Iran. I think it is a mistake. Reza has family in Iran. He loves them. But he is just so fed up with what he sees as the destruction of Iranian culture and society. Reza thinks it’s worse and getting worse. “It’s not that I think that Iran will actually use a bomb,” he tells me. “I think they’ll just use it as blackmail.” He goes on to tell me that anyone who thinks that the current government of Iran is not pursuing a bomb is living in a dream world.

We argue a bit. I tell him that while Iranians may not greet war as an attack on Islam the rest of the world will. I argue that it will lead to increased radicalization and terror. “Maybe,” he admits. Then he goes on:

“What if you had a husband who beat you? You try to reason with him. For a while he stops. You think things are better. You have children. He beats you again. You try to do things his way, get him to stop. Then he beats your children too. Now this is too far, so you go to his family and friends to get them to help you, but they do not want to hear this about your husband. They don’t want to believe it. You take him to court. The court tells him to leave you alone, but he follows you. He threatens you. He threatens your children. What would you do?”

“Kill him.”

“Write that in your blog,” Reza says.

“Iran is different.”

“How? These guys now, if they get anymore power, they are like Stalin.” Reza speculates that the opposition in Iran will get completely shut down. “They are even arresting mullahs,” he says. The reformists are going to find themselves harassed, arrested, dead: that’s how little opposition the hardliners will tolerate. Reza tells me.

It’s hard not to believe him. It’s hard not to despair.

For more on war and propaganda read:

Zakaria in Newsweek:

In a speech last week, Rudy Giuliani said that while the Soviet Union and China could be deterred during the cold war, Iran can't be. The Soviet and Chinese regimes had a "residual rationality," he explained. Hmm. Stalin and Mao—who casually ordered the deaths of millions of their own people, fomented insurgencies and revolutions, and starved whole regions that opposed them—were rational folk. But not Ahmadinejad, who has done what that compares? One of the bizarre twists of the current Iran hysteria is that conservatives have become surprisingly charitable about two of history's greatest mass murderers.

Jahanshah Rashidianon the roots of the current problems on campuses all over Iran:

Under the IRI, nobody is allowed to claim that students’ rights should override any religious and ideological considerations. Actually, the issue of whether Iranian students have the right to have modern and secular universities stands against the Islamic philosophy of IRI’s constitution.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Talk of war: Part 1

He just got back from a month wonderful vacation in Iran. I never thought he would ever step a foot in Iran as long as the IRI was in power.

“Oh man it was so fun,” he says.

“One day we went for lunch at the well-known Alborz restaurant in Tehran, and we had to wait for more than an hour to be seated. Can you imagine that?” he continues.

“When we got our food, the length of the kebab we ordered was longer than my arm.”. He straightens his arm in our direction and he says, “So big. I don’t understand why Iranians complain! They have such great kebab!”

He is tall and has a long arm.

The rest of us in that small room during the birthday party for my friend’s son were sitting like school kids, following his lovely story about his first trip to Iran after 20 years.

“I am very glad you finally went to Iran,” I tell him. “Now you know how it is.”

“Iran has changed so much. It is much more modern than when I left, even considering the fact that they have not spent too much money on development of my home town Ahwaz. It was still very nice to see how beautiful Ahwaz is.”

Somebody says, imagine if all of that oil money was really spent in Ahwaz and the surrounding area instead of going into the mullahs’ pockets… Everybody shakes their heads.

“In the first days, when you are in Iran, everything is wonderful. You get to see people who you have not seen for a long time, eat good food, take a two-hour nap after every lunch, and at night drink from a bottle of whiskey that is finished in two minutes.” He puts his hand on his big stomach and says, “I am still the same size.” We all look at each other and smile. “But after couple of days you start seeing things different,” he tells us. Everybody was telling him, do not compare Iran to your lovely city in Holland. After 20 years he could not understand why he could not compare Ahwaz with his small city in Holland. He became mad like every other expat Iranian who spends more than a week in Iran.

What he saw after a week of visiting and eating was enough to make him angry. He was so shocked to see how Iran really was: all those corruption stories, tales of bad management in every aspect of life in Iran, lack of work for young people, the pressure the Arab Iranians face in the south, and the danger of new war.

“There will be no war. I am sure of it,” he says with confidence. “Iranians don’t believe US and UK would ever attack them.”

“This is all to make Iran scared so they would accept whatever the US wants,” another person says.

“The US is not in a position to attack Iran. They don’t have resources and the American people do not have stomach for it. They have lost too much in this war with Iraq and Afghanistan.”

I think: where have I heard this before?

“THEY CANNOT ATTACK IRANIANS because this government was put in power by the US AND UK.” I look around and give a dirty look to the nice guy who said that and respond with, “Oh please don’t give me that bullshit!” He starts laughing and telling us that he was just kidding.

“But don’t you think America had an even worse situation during the Vietnam war, yet they still attacked Cambodia?” I ask.

There is a silence in the room. The funny guy who speaks with a south-Iran accent yells from the back of the room, “Let us say, if they do attack, what would be the worst?” He walks to the front of the room where we are sitting and continues:

“Don’t you guys see who is running our country? Don’t you see that they are making every aspect of daily life miserable for everybody? What can be worse than this humiliation we are living with? Iran is a rich country with a lot of resources, full of smart and educated people who are very successful in the rest of the world when they get out, but we don’t have even the basics of human rights. I am not talking about human rights like we have here. I am not saying we have a government like the Taliban in Afghanistan, but if we cannot compare Iran to a modern industrial western government, we should also not say, oh we have it much better than a lot of other countries.” His face gets red.

The hostess says, “Take it easy. Eat some cookies.” She hands him an open beer. “Here, you drink this.” She looks at me and said, “I am sure you started all this.”

I shake my head, not sure if I disagree with him or her.

The discussion is getting hot. I really want to know what these Iranians think of war. It seems that a lot of my friends don’t dare to say what they really feel.

“We want a different government that’s for sure,” one says.

“Even if that means we will have to be attacked by the US arm forces?” somebody asks.

I say, “Iranians always want everything at the same time. But they don’t want to pay for it.”

“Oh yeah,” another says.

Ham khar mikhad ham gorma. (You want a donkey and dates at the same time.)

Everybody thinks that is funny.

I go out to smoke a cigarette. Most of the guys come out with me.

One goes to sit by the women’s table. Tori wants to be a part of our conversation and looks at me with a questioning expression of what is going on?

“I am against all wars, I feel really bad for the Iraqis. Iraq is not far from where I come from and when I see on TV how many people are killed everyday I get really upset and don’t want Iranians to be killed. But then when I am alone at home and think of the situation in Iran I am not sure if getting rid of this government is such a bad idea.”

“Americans would not kill Iranians even if they attack,” one guy says.

We are looking at him and thinking which f**king planet are you from? He also leaves the back yard and goes back to the room where the food is ready for us. “Come. Come the food is ready,” the hostess calls.

My friend who just came back from Iran let everybody to go first and tells me, the situation is really bad and I am afraid that the people in Iran are not ready for it.

They may have months of food stocked in freezers and kilos and kilos of rice stored in closets, but they still cannot imagine that war is at the doorstep.

A lot of people I talked to think Iran would agree with the international demands at the last moment, but I am not sure of it. I think an attack is imminent.

With Larijani’s resignation, I am now sure that there is no compromise. They see compromise as the end of their government.


Larijani's resignation

Forum on Iran, Target Iran with lots of different opinions from people who rarely get to visit Iran

"The United States is in serious trouble, its economy is in trouble, the army is badly damaged, the morale of its soldiers is not exceptionally good."

A North American Affairs professor in Tehran quoted from Chris Gelken's blog and repeating the commonly held view that American cannot attack Iran.

Adm Michael Mullen, who took over as chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff three weeks ago, said diplomacy remained the priority in dealing with Iran's suspected plans to develop a nuclear weapon and its support for anti-US insurgents in Iraq.

But at a press conference he said: "there is more than enough reserve to respond (militarily) if that, in fact, is what the national leadership wanted to do".

The official US viewpoint quoted from the Telegraph.

About the problems of Ahwazi Arabs

Links to articles about war from us

Radio Open Source discussion of war with Iran.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Entertainment is the new propaganda...

...and the old propaganda...

Slightly Off Religious Path, Iranian TV Finds Viewers

They say the government appears to have realized that political programs, such as those showing confessions extracted from democracy advocates in prison, have not achieved its goal of building domestic unity at a time when the country is under intense international pressure for its nuclear program.

“They have learned that if they want their programs to be effective, they should send the message indirectly,” said Abol-Hassan Mokhtabad, a journalist and news media expert. He added that “it is very natural” that the government would “pursue its political goals through them, too.”

One popular mini-series, called “Zero Degree Turn,” depicts the Iranian Embassy in Paris during World War II, when employees forged Iranian passports for European Jews to flee to Iran. The series is built around a love story between an Iranian-Palestinian man and a Jewish Frenchwoman he helps escape to Iran.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Doris Lessing on political correctness

Doris Lessing on political correctness from an article she wrote in 1992 for the NY Times:

There is obviously something very attractive about telling other people what to do: I am putting it in this nursery way rather than in more intellectual language because I see it as nursery behavior. Art — the arts generally — are always unpredictable, maverick, and tend to be, at their best, uncomfortable. Literature, in particular, has always inspired the House committees, the Zhdanovs, the fits of moralizing, but, at worst, persecution. It troubles me that political correctness does not seem to know what its exemplars and predecessors are; it troubles me more that it may know and does not care.

Does political correctness have a good side? Yes, it does, for it makes us re-examine attitudes, and that is always useful. The trouble is that, with all popular movements, the lunatic fringe so quickly ceases to be a fringe; the tail begins to wag the dog. For every woman or man who is quietly and sensibly using the idea to examine our assumptions, there are 20 rabble-rousers whose real motive is desire for power over others, no less rabble-rousers because they see themselves as anti-racists or feminists or whatever.

A professor friend describes how when students kept walking out of classes on genetics and boycotting visiting lecturers whose points of view did not coincide with their ideology, he invited them to his study for discussion and for viewing a video of the actual facts. Half a dozen youngsters in their uniform of jeans and T-shirts filed in, sat down, kept silent while he reasoned with them, kept their eyes down while he ran the video and then, as one person, marched out. A demonstration — they might very well have been shocked to hear — which was a mirror of Communist behavior, an acting out, a visual representation of the closed minds of young Communist activists.

Again and again in Britain we see in town councils or in school counselors or headmistresses or headmasters or teachers being hounded by groups and cabals of witch hunters, using the most dirty and often cruel tactics. They claim their victims are racist or in some way reactionary. Again and again an appeal to higher authorities has proved the campaign was unfair.

I am sure that millions of people, the rug of Communism pulled out from under them, are searching frantically, and perhaps not even knowing it, for another dogma.

Read the whole thing

Friday, October 12, 2007

Washington Prism: ایران از دید یک وبلاگ نویس خارجی

س: مهمترین مشکلی که در ایران با آن روبرو بودید، چه بوده است؟

کامران: اگر بخواهم به سادگی توضیح دهم، انسان در ایران احساس می کند که تک و تنها در یک کشتی بزرگ، و در اقیانوسی عظیم سرگردان است. به طوری که هیچ کنترلی بر مسیر کشتی ندارد


Thursday, October 11, 2007

What I learned in Iran...

...What you think you know, you don't. Everything is much more layered than it appears: not just Iran.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Censorware...Just say no

Long-term readers may know how I feel about internet filtering companies that sell to oppressive governments. For those of you who do not know, you can read a post about it here. For others hoping to reach people behind the filtered curtain, here's some advice here.

From: When US-made 'censorware' ends up in iron fists

The filtering software, in fact, may have given the Burmese regime enough of a false sense of security to allow Internet access in the first place, some suggest.

"Without [Internet filtering tools], there wouldn't have been access to begin with because [citizens] wouldn't have been trusted with it," says Bill Woodcock, also with the Packet Clearing House. Nor does pressure for censorship always come from the top, he adds. "In much of the world, the Internet is seen as this horrible sewer that is bringing things in that the government [feels popular pressure] to stop."

Internet-censorship tools can be defeated with the use of proxy servers. But many people living under repressive government are not going to hear about, or dare to try, methods to get around Internet fire walls, say experts.

"Some people say [censorware] is ineffective because dissidents can get around it," says Seth Finkelstein, a programmer and anticensorship activist. "I say political control doesn't have to be 100 percent to be effective. Controlling the ability of the vast majority of the population to see outside information is still very effective for the goals of the totalitarian regime."

Monday, October 08, 2007

My life in the Panopticon

Translated into Persian

پانوپتیکن نام زندانی است متعلق به قرن ۱۹ که دارای معماری ویژه‌ای است. همه سلول‌های این زندان رو به سوی برج نگهبانی آن طراحی شده بود. نگهبانان در برج می‌نشستند و از آن جا همه سلول‌ها را کاملاً تحت نظر داشتند؛ اما زندانیان نمی‌توانستند نگهبانان را ببینند. آن‌ها حتی نمی‌دانستند که آیا نگهبانی در برج هست یا نه؟ آن‌ها چه دیده می‌شدند یا نه، این احساس را داشتند که مراقبان آنان را می‌پایند. این عقیده در ذهن زندانیان نقش بسته بود که همیشه و در همه حال دیده می‌شوند و به این ترتیب خود زندان‌بان خود شده بودند.

Original at Reconstruction.

If I react, the stories will stop

It's hard to believe that there are still horrifying stories from the Holocaust left untold. But there are. Here is the story of a priest traveling through the Ukraine collecting the stories of the murder of approx. 1.5 million Jews there.

"People talk as if these things happened yesterday, as if 60 years didn’t exist,” Father Desbois said. “Some ask, ‘Why are you coming so late? We have been waiting for you.’”

Read it first at normblog.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Question 12: What do you miss most about Iran?

This answer changes all the time, so I plan to answer it regularly. Today's answer:

Talking to Strangers.

Tell me, where can I go to talk to strangers again?

Monday, October 01, 2007

Refuge in Iran

Thanks to members of a discussion group I belong to, I tracked down a fascinating account of one Polish woman's experiences during World War 2. Helena Woloch Antolak worked in forced labor camps in the Soviet Union before making her way across the world and settling, finally, in Scotland. On the way, she and thousands of others spent time in Iran:

After a month, we were sent to the first transit camp in Tehran. There were 107 of us cadets and six instructors. The Persian population received us lovingly. We were given a large hall carpeted with Persian rugs, on which we slept all together as a group with our teaching staff. We were so happy to have left the Soviet Union that we seemed to be breathing in the whole of Persia with every breath we took.

If you, dear readers, know of any other refugees who travelled through Iran during the second world war, please contact me! responses (AT) or leave a comment here.

Very cool paintings

from Iranian artist, R.D. Tolouee up at Mideast Youth.

Here's a taste:

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Zero Degree Turn: Episode 5

Habib is one of 3 Iranian men studying philosophy in Paris. One is sympathetic, a nice guy, and a good friend. The other is the son of an intelligence official, pro-Nazi, and very nosey.

Habib takes a job at the embassy in order to pay his tuition. It turns out that Mr. Jahangir is the ambassador (did not quite get that from earlier episodes). You will remember him as the husband of the former fiance of the detective and the recipient of a letter from Habib's brother-in-law. His wife approaches Habib at the embassy and tells him that she has a message for the detective: "Tell him the house sitter is dependable," she says. (You might remember that her house was being used by the Jewish conspirators who murdered the Tehrani rabbi.)

Mr. J is pleased about the coming war.

After work, Habib delivers his third letter: the one from the rabbi. He arrives at the home of a Jewish man who opens the letter to discover the news of his murdered friend.

As he is discussing the letter, Sarah (the Jewish student who Habib has been sparring with in philosophy class) enters. "My niece," the man introduces. She is short with Habib. "Forgive me, I do not know your Europe," Habib says. Sarah leaves the room.

Her uncle explains that Sarah's father was killed on Kristallnacht (The night of knives is what they say in Persian, but I think Kristallnacht was meant. Anyone have any ideas?).

In his new role as embassy staff member, Habib finds himself at a party thrown by the German ambassador. Mr. J wonders what he is doing there. Mrs. J tells him that she invited him. She walks over to Habib. "I wish the politicians would talk to women before starting wars, then there would be none." Habib respectfully disagrees.

He sees two classmates at the party: a German boy and a French girl who are dating. It turns out that his uncle works for the Germany embassy.

Off to philosophy class where Sarah and Habib are officially reconciled: "I thought all Iranians took Hitler's side," Sarah explains to Habib. They chat, flirt... Habib teaches her an Iranian children's game. The other students laugh at them. "You should be ashamed of yourself," the pro-Nazi Iranian says.

At home, Sarah urges her mother to eat. "Night is the worst time," her mother says. "It's then that I miss your father the most." Her uncle is disturbed. He tells her that Russia and Germany signed a treaty and that Poland has been invaded. "I worry about the Jews in occupied countries," he tells his niece.

In the embassy, the German ambassador meets with Mr. J. "Iran is not taking sides: why not?"

At the university, we learn from the German classmate that Germans must leave France. They are now considered enemies. He urges his French girlfriend to leave with him. She refuses. They break up. In class, they are confronted by the terminally optimistic Habib who makees a speech that brings them back together to the joy of the class.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Stayin' Alive

If you don't know the story of Stanislav Petrov, then this is the day to read it and thank him that we are not all living in a post-nuclear holocaust world.

Thanks to this story at Wired (The Man Who Saved the World by Doing ... Nothing) for reminding me of this amazing man.

Mr Ahmadinejad; Practice what you preach

It's time for Mr. Ahmadinejad to stop preaching. He may think that his military buddies in Iran love to listen to his religious rantings, but the rest of the world is not. If he is serious about love and peace and beauty, he could start at home. Since he has been president of Iran, attacks on universities, other thinkers, students, and workers have increased. Instead of increasing the love, he is increasing the angst. Even people from his own gang disagree with his economic policies.

He promised yesterday to invite professors and students at Columbia to Iran to say whatever they want to say. Why doesn't he make that same offer to Iranian professors and students? Hearing him talking about lack of democracy and human rights in the west is just another way of avoiding the realities in Iran. Mr. President, Iranians are dying for basic human rights and for basic democracy: to say what they want to say; to do what they want to do: even within the confines of Islamic law. For the past 2 years in Iran, I saw bright people leave Iran because they just could not take it Iran. Crime is not going down even with all the executions. People have given up hope for the future because they see that the government is now a military government that acts like a 1970s military junta. You said it yourself: this kind of pressure cannot be maintained forever.

If he is really for peace and love he should start that at home. Since he became a President with his military buddies, the number of ngos dropped and human rights activists have been harassed. Ahmadinejad talks about women in parliament; what about women in prison.

This government has created a situation where millions of Iranians who love the country and want to help build a nation do not even dare to step foot into the embassies, let alone the country.

I am really mad because he dares to think that the world stage is a place to lecture the rest of the world about utopian ideals that he cannot even put into place in Iran.

I will leave the political analysis of the speech to the political analysts.

Tori adds: And saying that calamities will befall God's enemies when you are from a country that is the most earthquake prone in the world seems like the ultimate in chutzpah.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Zero Degree Turn: Episodes 3 & 4

Continuing series of summaries of the Iranian mini series about a young Iranian man's experiences in Paris during World War 2. For episodes 1 & 2, click here.

At the start of episode 3, the colonel gives the detective just 48 hours to solve the mystery of the house where the conspirators were found. As soon as the detective is out the door to get started, he receives a phone call from the foreign ministry directing him to keep the investigation open.

Pro-German son-in-law is back from his business trip, which means that daughter Parsa (Saeedeh) will be returning home to her husband. Mother Parsa tries to hint at her son-in-law’s inability to have children. She asks her daughter if she has ever considered the possibility of adopting. “I really want a child of my own flesh and blood,” the daughter answers dismissively.

Boy Parsa (Habib) still does not know that he has not received an exit visa. There are so many secrets in the family.

Cut to the synagogue where the rabbi is quoting Einstein’s reservations about the creation of a Jewish state. Here is the English quote: "Oppressive nationalism must be conquered ... I can see a future for Palestine only on the basis of peaceful cooperation between the two peoples who are at home in the country ... come together they must in spite of all." (John J. Simon, "Albert Einstein, Radical: A Political Profile," Monthly Review May 2005, Questia, 25 Sept. 2007 )

Dr. Parsa finally lets his son know that the exit visas for him and his friend have not been approved. Of course Habib is very disappointed.

Following up on the mystery of the conspirators, the detective follows a group of conspirators identified by a witness. A bout of diarrhea prevents his new, temporary partner from accompanying him on the chase, so he is alone.

He follows them to a secret meeting and overhears a discussion of how the murder has increased the Iranian Jewish emigration to Palestine. One of the men is the escaped thug from the first bloody encounter with the conspirators at the house of the detective’s former fiancé.

The detective foolishly presents himself to the conspirators and has them line up against the wall. The thug smugly says, “You cannot change anything.” We see him raise his finger and then masked men leap out with guns raised and pointed at the detective. A shot rings out. Is the detective dead? No! It’s the thug.

The masked men usher the detective into a car, drive him to a wooded area, and beat him a bit. In a car already parked in the wooded area is -- you guessed it -- the colonel!

“I’m happy to see you,” the colonel says.

The detective accuses him of the murder of both the thug and the imprisoned conspirator. “They knew too much,” the colonel responds.

The colonel tells him of unseen forces that control events. “So what if some Jewish anarchists unintentionally do their work?” The colonel hints that secrets are kept even from the shah. “People in the background are more powerful than we are.”

The colonel wants to involve the detective. In return for his cooperation, he will allow Habib Parsa to study in France.

Cut to the hospital. Wails, mourning, the partner of the detective is dead. The detective wanders aimlessly, beaten and bloody. Mother Parsa, who we have learned is Palestinian, tells him, “We did everything we could.” He says, “Tell Dr. Parsa not to worry about his son’s exit visa.”

Episode 4

Happy Habib learns that he can go. Some in the family attribute it to the work of the son-in-law who has a lot of connections in government, of course. The rabbi comes to say goodbye as does the pitiful friend who will stay behind.

The rabbi gives Habib a letter to take. The son-in-law also hands him a letter. Habib leans into his sister and beseeches her to be nicer to her husband. We wonder, is she really in love with the “pitiful friend”?

His father hands Habib a letter to deliver in Paris. “He went through a lot to get you your visa,” he says. At the station, the detective shows up to see the young Parsa off.

And now we are in Paris with Habib and the others who are hoping to gain acceptance to the University. They spend the summer visiting tourist spots. Only three of them pass the language course and are accepted into the University. Habib is one of the three.

We see them in philosophy class where earnest Habib finds himself in a kind of debate with the Jewish student Sarah.

An Iranian attaché lets Habib know that there will be no scholarship for him because of the actions of his father.

Later in the episode, Habib delivers two of the letters. The one from his brother-in-law is for Homoyun Jahangir who is busy entertaining diplomats while his wife plays the piano. Where did we see his wife before? In the memory of the detective! She is the detective’s former fiancé.

Habib delivers the letter to HJ. The wife comes in. They are introduced. His assistant comes in, “The German ambassador has just arrived.” HJ excuses himself and returns to the party. The wife turns to leave as well. “Actually, I have a letter for you as well.” It’s from the detective. “Do not tell anyone about this letter,” the wife says.

At home, in a corner, she reads the letter. “I cannot trust anyone,” the detective writes. “We had love and passion, but because of your betrayal, I lost it all.” His ring is in the envelope.

Wife & husband fight. She tells him that she put up with everything: even boring diplomatic parties, but there is no way that she will have a child.

Back to philosophy class…where Sarah and Habib seem to be flirting a bit through a discussion of Islam and the kabala. Habib challenges the primacy of Greek philosophy, GASP.

There is some argument, not sure what… “If it were not for Cyrus the Great, there would be no Jews in the world,” one of the Iranian students says.

“Don’t worry, your fascist associates will take care of the rest,” Sarah responds.

There is bit of racist arguing and Sarah excuses herself from the class.

Back to the wife of HJ who is looking at the torn photograph of her and the detective during happier days,

Monday, September 24, 2007

Why are the questions for President Ahmadinejad so simplistic?

(Image by Newsha Tavakolian)

Listening to Ahmadinejad talk at Columbia University a couple of hours ago made me wonder why they don't have an Iranian ask him questions? The president of Columbia University promised to blast hard questions at the Iranian president. But the questions asked, like those asked by many others, were a bit soft. The answers were predictable. An Iranian cab driver would know how to ask questions that would make Ahmadinejad squirm.

Ahmadinejad, like many Iranians, is a master at speaking in an indirect way. His most direct response was about homosexuals: there are none in Iran! If Mr. Ahmadinejad promises not to execute me or my friends, I would introduce him to wonderful gay Iranians.

It was so obvious what the answer to a question about women's rights or support of terrorism or even the question about the holocaust would be. There were too many ways for him to manipulate his response. When Mr. Ahmadinejad questions the holocaust, he denies the direct experience of many holocaust survivors. Why not make it very personal for him? Why always have such abstract questions? His response that the holocaust should have nothing to do with Palestinians was not a response to the question at all. In order to get him to talk, the questions need to be really specific. "Do you deny that approximately 6 million Jews died as a result of Hitler's policies just because they were Jews?" That is the question.

So the secret of Iran is that there is no AIDS, no bird flu, no torture, no baseless arrests in the name of national security, no nuclear weapons ambitions, no hate, and no homosexuals.

Iran is heaven on earth.

Did you know that there are no homosexuals in Iran...?

Hey, you may laugh, (I did) but I have met people in Iran who believe this to be true. So it should come as no surprise that Ahmadinejad believes this as well.

His answer to a question about the execution of homosexuals in Iran was that there were no homosexuals in Iran.

Know Thine Enemy

"The mollahs rule because we're too proud," Hosein continued. "When I visited my family in Turkey before the revolution, I felt pity for them. They'd been Iranian. When I go to Turkey now, I know my family pities me. I pity myself."

"Most Iranians never leave Iran. What do they care what others think?"

"We all feel it. We all know we've ruined the revolution. There's not an Iranian alive who doesn't know it. We were supposed to lead the Muslim world."

(Edward Shirley, Know Thine Enemy: A Spy's Journey into Revolutionary Iran (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998)

Just finished Know Thine Enemy, which is the work of a former CIA agent, Reuel Gerecht, writing under the name of Edward Shirley. I’m a little late, I know. The book was published in 1998.

Despite all of the bad reviews on Amazon, I loved the book. Gerecht clearly understands what it means to fall in love with Iran. He writes: “Iran seduces through contradiction, through her ugliness as much as her beauty. Heaven is married to Hell. Isfahan and Tehran. Rumi and Khomeini.”

Reading the book, I could not help thinking that Gerecht would be awfully jealous of me and my 4 years in Iran, where I had many conversations similar to those he had: conversations that surprised me with their candor and their blasphemy. And where I traveled freely without fear, speaking to anyone and everyone. Ha.

I, on the other hand, am jealous of his knowledge of Iran. Why oh why didn’t I study the country and its history more before I lived there? Why did everything have to come as such a surprise to me? I was an Iran-ignoramus when I first step foot in Iran. It’s only been since returning that I have started to read about the country and its history.

If you are interested in Iran, the book is really interesting and easy to read. And while I’ve read that some find his memory for conversation suspect, I would counter by saying that the conversations he reported were incredibly similar to those that I heard during my four years in Iran. If you are interested in the way that the CIA works, you are in for more of a treat. Unless the book is a clever bit of disinformation designed to make the CIA look less formidable than it is, it really de-mystifies the workings of the agency… As if the intelligence blunders surrounding the events of 9-11 were not enough to convince us all that something had gone desperately wrong... His book makes me wonder if there was ever a time when the CIA played a valuable role in gathering intelligence?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Zero Degree Turn: Episodes 1 & 2

Kamran and I started watching Zero Degree Turn yesterday. For those of you interested in plot summaries here goes. There will be no editorializing in our summaries, just summaries. I don’t have the names down yet… so descriptions will have to do:

Episode 1:

A rabbi is killed on the streets of Tehran. The detectives speculate that the Germans may have been involved.

We are introduced to the Parsa family: a tolerant, Muslim family with political ties. The son-in-law is pro-Nazi, but gets a firm talking to from his father-in-law. The mother is a nurse. The daughter is a voracious reader of foreign literature. The son has just passed his exams for study overseas. Parsa, the elder, meets with another rabbi to discuss the murder. He is told that it is possible that a rival Jewish group assassinated the rabbi so that Iranian Jews will feel unsafe and leave for Palestine.

By the end of Episode 1, the detectives have followed the only witness to the murder as he is forced into a car and brought to an empty house for questioning by a group of masked men spouting pro-Nazi propoganda. The detectives burst-in, a fight ensues. The masked men are de-masked at which point the witness recognizes a fellow Jewish boarder and the murderer. The third man is anonymous. During the fight, the murderer, the nameless man, and one of the detectives are shot. The murderer and the nameless man are killed.

Meanwhile, the son has met a fellow-test taker at a photo studio and has struck up a friendship. Father Parsa, who was somehow influential in the promotion of the lead detective, is approached by said detective and told that because of an indiscretion in his own past, his son will not be allowed to study overseas. The indiscretion: the organization of an Islamic congress without permission while the father was a diplomat in Egypt. The conference was against British and Zionist policy in Palestine. The friend also has a family indiscretion: a brother, who is also the caretaker of the family, in prison because he is a member of the communist party.

Episode 2:

We meet a colonel with suspect motives who is subtly undermining the lead detective’s investigation of the Rabbi’s murder. The wounded detective is being treated by Mother Parsa, a nurse, who is not altogether optimistic of his chances for survival. The one remaining conspirator refuses to talk. Someone slips a gun into his cell that the conspirator uses to take a hostage and attempt escape. The detective attempts to negotiate, but the colonel kills the conspirator. “You just killed our only witness!” The detective admonishes. “The life of my personnel is more important than the life of the conspirator,” The colonel calmly responds. Still, the colonel promises to follow-up personally.

Meanwhile, the pro-Nazi, nationalist son-in-law is told by Father Parsa, who is now a doctor, that he cannot have children. The son-in-law worries that his wife will want a divorce, but Father Parsa recommends adoption instead.

As yet, neither the son nor his friend knows that family indiscretions will prevent them from studying. Everyone else knows, which causes some awkward moments.

The detective discovers that the deed to the house used by the conspirators is missing from his office. After searching for it he questions the role of the colonel and rushes to his office where he finds the colonel looking at the document. In this last scene, the colonel tells the detective that his former fiancé married another and now lives in Germany. It was her house, he reveal, given to her by her husband, which was used by the rabbi-murdering conspirators. They are faced with a conundrum: how to deal with this without creating an international incident?


NPR's story

Episodes available for download: Persian Hub (Thanks to commenter Azadeh for sending us to Persian Hub)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Political Paralysis

"We love Americans; we just don't love your government," Iranians everywhere told me over and over and over again. "We have the same problem: bad governments," many added. When they did, I invariably responded: "The American government represents the people: you should hold us responsible for the actions of our government." It was kind of a mini civics lesson.

The fact is that most Americans do not know the extent and effect of American foreign policy. We are mostly concerned with domestic issues. And now, on top of that, most are *not* represented by the current government.

What I found most distressing during my recent stay in The US was the extent to which Americans had become more "Iranian." In Iran I met people frustrated with the system who had given up affecting it. I encountered a lack of will, a kind of political exhaustian in Iran. What I did not expect was to encounter this same phenomena in America. I have never ever ever experienced an America so at odds with its government and at such a loss about what to do about it.

Even though I met a couple of Bush supporters, most of the people I met in America were just paralyzed by mistrust and disgust. People are afraid there will be a war with Iran, they are sick of the war in Iraq, they are tired to the bone from lies.

What's next from this seemingly unstoppable administration?

More Links:

Peggy Noonan

Michael Winship

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dirty, cheating, lying democracy...

“Our generation has lost,” Kamran said to a dear Iranian friend.

“Yes, we have.”

Our friend has lived in Iran all these years, trying to make a life for himself, terminally optimistic about the future of post-revolutionary Iran. Kamran, on the other hand, left during the early 80s when internal purges began and the war with Iraq was just getting under way. “I felt so bad for my friends and family,” Kamran said to our friend. “It got to the point that I could not read their letters anymore. When they wrote me about the war, how could I respond with my adventures at a café? Or the beautiful girl I met the night before? I could never be free from feeling that somehow I did not deserve this life.”

Funny that despite all of Iran’s problems they are currently engaged in the very messy act of building a democracy. What we all tend to forget is that it is indeed a messy process. Democracy/free speech are not neat little products as compact and clean as iPods or toasters. It does not come wrapped up like a gift. It is easy to dismiss the democratic process in Iran because of the religious element, candidate elimination, vote tampering, corruption, and our disapproval of the results. This does not mean that it should be dismissed. I keep pointing people to the last city council elections in Iran and how voters sent a clear message to the current government or Iran. That was democracy in action. It’s not a nice process. It’s just the best of the worst as Churchill would say.


Podcast of Vali Nasr’s talk to the Commonwealth Club (listen to it!)

My post on Tehran’s city council elections

More on the city council elections:

From Open Democracy

From Payvand

From CBC

From Kamangir

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Zero Degree Turn

Kamran keeps sending me articles about Zero Degree Turn: the new Iranian serial about a world war 2 era love affair between an Iranian man and a French Jewish woman and how he helps her escape the Nazis with the help of Iranian diplomats. It's on YouTube now, so we can all watch it.

If you are interested, we are summarizing episodes as we watch them. Click here for the first two episodes.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

L'Shana Tova

Last year, I was in Tehran for Rosh HaShana where I was feted by a dear, dear family who took me under their wing and protected me from loneliness on many a Jewish holiday. My heartfelt thanks to them. After their traditional ceremony, one of the (Jewish) women attending said, "We have the best new year. What could be better than the Spring Equinox? You know who has the worst? The Christians. Who wants to celebrate the new year freezing to death in the middle of winter?" She had a point.

While I love this time of year, we Jews do have a kind of joyless New Year. It's more of a meditative process than anything else: one that I find useful despite my secular ways.

I count myself incredibly lucky to celebrate 3 new years. Each one has a bit of a different focus. So to those of you who care, Happy New Year.

I know that I will spend another year working for peace. Wish us all luck.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Liberal Islam...

Last night I spoke at the Champaign Public Library where a member of the audience told me that in Champaign Shia and Sunni pray side by side. "Well that's really American," I replied. "We forget our pasts quickly here. We don't hold centuries-long grudges."

Once again, I spoke to a really attentive and curious, albeit small, group. I am amazed by the way many Americans are trying to understand Iran.

Today, I read this great article from Borzou Daragahi, An American Muslim in Cairo. The article reinforces what the anonymous man told us last night. Here's an excerpt:

"In college we're all one big group," he said. "In the mosque we're all together. Where I come from, there's no, 'that's the black mosque and that's the Pakistani mosque.' "

Often under the tutelage of liberal-minded clerics, he was also encouraged to question the Koran and its teachings. He found himself leery of the ways of coreligionists with roots abroad, especially the older generation. Often, he said, they tried to impose their own cultural habits as religion.

"They say a tattoo is haram," or sinful, he said. "Why? Where is that in the Koran? They say, 'Well, the prophet never had tattoos.' I say, 'Oh, do you drive a car? Did the prophet drive a car? I don't see you riding around on no camel.' "

Btw... L'shana Tova and Successful fast to my readers who celebrate Rosh HaShana or Ramadan...

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Questions 9,10,11 & Beyond: What flavor of ice cream do Iranians like?

Update below

"The best ice cream has a little rosewater in it with pistachios, and you can get it at Bijan Bakery in San Jose," I told the class of 6th, 7th, & 8th graders at Christa McAuliffe School.

My niece's middle school invited me to talk to their 60 students. As they entered the room, the students greeted me with a handshake and their names. Wow. It was just so polite and welcoming.

"What do you know about Iran?" I asked.

War, children living in misery because of war, how the war in Iraq sometimes spills over into Iran, mud brick buildings, nuclear weapons... came the replies.

"How did you get these ideas?"

The news media...

"What do you know about California from the news?"

Celebrities, surfer dudes, forest fires, expensive....

"Is that what your life is like?"

A resounding NO.

We looked at some of the photographs Kamran and I took in Iran. (Slide shows here) There were questions about the photos and about Iran. Here are some of the questions that were asked:

Are there video games in Iran?

How much are video games?

How old are women when they have to start covering up?

What is free speech?

What is an embassy?

Do non-Muslims have to cover themselves?

Can men wear whatever they want?

So if Iranian women have to cover up, that means they don't wear tight dresses right?

If Tehran is like Los Angeles, does it also have a lot of smog?

How much is a dollar in Iranian money?

How do you keep track of all your rials?

How much does 900,000 rials buy?

Do they all have like five wives and twenty children?

Do women do everything that their husbands tell them to do?

Do bald women have to wear scarves?

How old are they when they can get a driver's license?

When can they vote?

What is the major religion?

What is a mosque?

Why do I only see men praying?

(Maybe I'll actually tell you how I responded to the questions in a coming post...)

This is the fourth time I have spoken to a group since coming to America. I have to say that I am so impressed with the questions people are asking. There is a lot of genuine curiosity. "Americans aren't afraid to ask even the most basic questions," Kamran says, and he is right. The curiosity I have encountered is just fearless. It's a pleasure.

I want to thank the classes at Christa McAuliffe school. Give yourselves a round of applause! Oh, and as promised, slide shows here and here's a little clip about young men and their hair in Iran. Make sure to read the update about this clip:

UPDATE:In preparing to view this video, you and your children should be aware that it contains anti-semitic, homophobic, and xenophobic material. I linked to the video in order to show young Iranian men struggling to exert their individuality, despite external pressure. It also highlights the dichotomy between what these men are doing and the racist message imparted by Iranian State tv. The video is included in the hopes that it will encourage open and frank discussion of all of these issues between you and your children.

As I explained to the class, the Iranian press is neither free nor fair. The Iranians I met in Iran are accustomed to reading messages from the government and in the media in a layered and complex way. They do not accept information unquestioningly. It would be a mistake to assume that negative messages in the clip are blindly accepted by viewers in Iran.

During the past few months, the morals police have been stopping young men with less than conservative hairdos, men wearing ties, and women pushing the limits of the dress code. This clip has several layers to it: 1) it shows the way that young men find to push the limits and 2) it shows the way that the state-controlled Iranian media tries to spin that using homophobia, anti-Americanism, and antisemitism. If you choose to watch this clip, remember that! Here is another link from Current TV that some might find interesting: Culture Cops.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Friday, August 31, 2007

Interview 4: It's the Economy, Stupid

Mountain Steps of Tehran
Originally uploaded by iRAN Project :: By Mahdi Ayat.

On Tuesday, I spoke with a European business consultant who has worked in Iran. My original plan was to follow up on the interview I did with Gary Sick by getting a businessman's perspective on negotiating in Iran. Our conversation really centered on Iran's economy, and I am excerpting a portion of that here in this blog.

On housing:

My wife had a house near the airport, and we went to a real agency to list it. They said that the most we could hope for was 900,000 tumans [approx. $970] a square meter. When we left, we told the taxi driver this. He took our number and the next day we had several offers for a lot more. We sold it for 1,300,000 tumans [$1,400] a square meter. It took just three hours to sell the apartment. On top of that we sold 90% of the furniture to the woman who bought the apartment.

Did you pay the taxi driver a finder's fee?

Unfortunately, we never saw him again.

The price to buy a house has gone up 60% during the past year. Last year, the price of concrete nearly doubled. The government estimates that Iran is several million homes short and still every year there are 800,000 new families formed. So the high costs of housing will be around in Iran for a long time to come.

I guess that is how people make so much money from housing.

The people making a fortune are people who are already rich. You have to be able to self-finance or you have to get a loan in Europe or the US. The cost of financing in Iran is 17%. That is high.

Prices were going up 30% per year
in the years before. To finance construction, many people who build sell the apartments before the building is finished; this means that they do not cash in on the increase in value in the housing market.

To make money, you have to have the cash to pre-finance for a couple of years. Of course permissions cost a lot of money.

On Gasoline Rationing

My sister-in-law tells me that the traffic is still terrible in Tehran even with the gasoline rationing.

Yes, you can always find someone selling usage of a card. The cards are a disaster. A friend bought a car and took it to the gas station and then found out there was no gasoline left on the card. Many people are discovering that the cards for their new cars are empty - if they get the card together with the new car at all. And yesterday [Monday] they discovered a pipeline in the south that was being used to smuggle gasoline out of the country directly to waiting tankers.

They really need to bring the price of gasoline up to market prices. The amount of smuggling is ridiculous.

Yes, especially when you consider that approx. 1/3 state of the state budget is going for subsidizing gasoline.

I wonder who is pocketing the money from the smuggling.

I don't know.

On Sanctions:

It seems that Iran does not even need any sanctions. They are doing a good job of destroying their own economy.

Oh no, sanctions are hurting industry. Not the official sanctions, but the hidden ones, the sanctions that are not official yet. For example talking to the Dresdner Bank or the Deutsche Bank and forcing them not to invest in Iran or doing business with any Iranian company or private person. Now there is no bank in Europe that will issue a bank guarantee to European companies that want to invest in Iran. We can no longer get guarantees for RFPs [requests for proposal].

NPC [National Petroleum Company of Iran] can hardly finance any projects anymore. This is especially after they cancelled a contract with Linde AG for approx. 1 billion dollars

For new projects they do not get western finance, and they do not get foreign companies to invest. This is a disaster for Iran's industry. For instance in the gas fields that they share with Qatar, they do not have the technology installed yet to extract the gas and difficulties to finance new investments. So Qatar is taking much more gas out of the fields than Iran, as a result they are losing money and resources there.

I talked to a finance manager from one of the oil companies, and he told me that the problem is that there is no set economic policy. Every time a new president comes economic policy changes.

That is not the problem. The problem is not the policy but the fact that they do not understand even basic economics at all.

It's really bad. They had some funny things like underestimating their need for phosphates. They said, oh we can produce enough of it ourselves. This is necessary for the production of eggs. So there were fewer eggs and the price went up 40% as a result.

You see, it is not using economics understanding at all. How can you run a country if all the managers are political? They often have no clue about the industry, and on top of that, in 2, 3 years they are gone. There is no incentive to manage well. Good, bad… it makes no difference at all to them. They know they will be gone before anybody can see the results of their decisions.

That probably leads to corruption as well.

Corruption is not the point. We did not find any direct corruption with our projects. I have heard different from other companies, but no one ever approached us. No one ever asked us for an extra percentage or any payment. We did not experience this. This is not the main problem. Of course, you have to pay extra for permissions - either to get "exemptions" or to speed up the process. Then you must pay everybody. This is especially true of construction sites where the police get payments every night. They literally come by every night to say that they need money not to respond to neighbor's complaints about noise. It costs about 10 euros a night.

The major problems in Iran are the missing long-term thinking, no global understanding, and a lack of understanding of economics.


If this interests you, you might want to read other posts on Iran's economy:

On Iran's economy

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Interview 3: Gary Sick talks about negotiating with Iran

This is a long post, but I learned so much from my interview with Gary Sick, and I am certain my readers will also be interested.

Gary Sick served on the National Security Council under three U.S. presidents: Ford, Carter, and Reagan. He was the principal White House aide on Iran during the time of the Iranian Revolution.

I met Gary Sick for a couple of seconds when Kamran had an assignment to photograph him for an article about the “October Surprise.”(1)
We went to his New York apartment, photographed him outside, and left. He probably does not even remember, but I do.

Gary Sick was in the Carter administration during the taking of the American embassy by revolutionary Iranian students. His discussion of that time, the difficulty of the negotiations, and the analysis of steps, missteps, and surprises is compelling and concise. He was gracious enough to lend me some of his time for an interview. That interview is for the book I am writing about Iran.

With his permission, here are some excerpts from that interview. (All emphasis mine)

You were involved with Iran during a particularly confusing moment. Americans had been taken hostage in their embassy by revolutionary students, and no one was really sure who was in charge. How did this effect negotiations?

It was absolutely the centerpiece of our negotiation efforts. Iran was still in the revolutionary process. There was no real power center. Khomeini was certainly a power center, but he was in the shadows during the early days; his words were important, but he did not exert overt control. I think that was the way he wanted it at the time.

We had no one to negotiate with. We talked to various contacts we had, talked to various power centers, we just had to hope that we could get some word in. Eventually this worked, and we did make contact. We found Bani Sadr and Ghotbzadeh who were the president and the foreign minister at the time, but who turned out not to have any real power. We reached an agreement with them, but it was shut down by Khomeini who ultimately fired Bani Sadr.

Today it may be difficult to deal with Iran, but you know who the power centers are: negotiations have to start with Khamenei, of course, but take into account the majles [Parliament], the office of the presidency, Rafsanjani, and the bazaar, among others.

In Iran, most decisions are consensus decisions, made by a group of power centers.

Negotiating with dictatorships is easy.
In dictatorships, you know exactly who to talk with and where the power is. In Iran this is not true at all. There are many power centers, and those power centers can be opaque. Iranians often use this to their advantage in negotiations.


What about the personal style of a negotiation?

Iranians seem to think they have an extra negotiation gene, a bargaining gene, one that is peculiar to Iran and a source of great pride. The Iranians I dealt with seem to think they can outwit, out-bargain anyone,
and they take great pride in this. This is another way that Americans and Iranians really differ. Americans do not grow up thinking their success or personal identity is determined by how well they bargain or that they can out-bargain or outwit anyone. It's just not part of our culture or our upbringing. It certainly is not a source of national pride.

As a result, Americans put into negotiations with Iranians are often at a disadvantage.


Iranians report that they feel that the West would like to trick them into agreements that end up making them feel cheated. Where do you think this feeling comes from? Do you have any ideas about what is needed to gain the trust of Iranians when negotiating?

The West did try to take advantage of Iran, there are no two ways about that. Look at the British oil deal, which gave an unfair advantage to the British and unfair terms to the Iranians. Look at the great powers kicking out the shah's father. Iranians earned their right to suspicion and paranoia.

That overall sense of grievance, prevalent in Iran and throughout the Middle East in general, that sense that Muslims are discriminated against,humiliated, badly regarded, again repeatedly humiliated in political terms: that grievance runs through the Middle East very strongly. These grievances are important to understanding the rise of political Islam. And it is not totally wrong. It is true that many of these countries have been victimized, but many also acknowledge they have assisted in that victimization. Their own governments have been terrible in promoting and protecting the self-interest of their citizens. They have failed at creating governments that can compete in the global marketplace of ideas. I meet people from the region all the time who desperately want to see better governance. They want better governance.

At least one of the factors that led to these humiliations is that they have been victimized by the rest of the world who portray them as backwards and incompetent and dangerous. This is an idea that they sometimes play into as well: Arabs and Iranians. An example of this is the discussion that occurred in the Arab world after 9/11. Arabs -- and I am talking about educated sources: magazine editors, intellectuals, professors -- claimed that Arabs could not carry out this type of operation. They argued that Arabs are completely inadequate to the task: it was just too complicated. Arabs were too incompetent and that is why the Mossad or CIA or some other organization had to have been responsible for 9/11. This was a serious argument We could not carry out something that big, many Arabs said.

The dilemma, which includes Iran, is that they are aware of their own shortcomings and how these shortcomings make them vulnerable, but they do not know how to address them.


When I was in Iran, most of the processes (both private & public) seemed paralyzed by a general fear/inability to make decisions. Is this also the case at the diplomatic level? Overall, how do you view the Iranian government's decision-making process? What kind of influence do the IR's negotiators have?

Iran is not a decisive culture. This is another contrast between Americans and Iranians. Americans, because of their move West and taking all these big decisions, well this has made it a decisive culture. Americans take big decisions and the responsibility for these decisions. Iranians do not have this same culture. And part of this is because the US history has been that we are rich and growing. Even if we make a mistake we can recover form it. You know what Churchill said, "The Americans always do the right thing...after trying all the other alternatives." Well, once we've tried everything else, we eventually find the right way.

We can make mistakes and get,away with it. In the US we believe that ultimately our strength will get us to a point where we can recover from anything, whether this is really still the case or not is unclear.

In Iran they have a sense that they are living a lot closer to the breaking point. Mistakes made can destroy their lives and even their country.

That does not mean that they do not make decisions. They do make decisions. For example, I believe that Iran has an actual nuclear policy. It's a real policy and they are pursuing it.

When the US decided that preemption was the new policy, the Bush administration immediately published a policy paper announcing preemption as a permanent addition to US national strategy. Iranians on the contrary do not announce their policies. They do not wave a banner and say "This is our policy, come and read it." They are more subtle and indirect.

One of the best descriptions I heard to describe this is that America is a football culture: it's all about confrontation and open head-to-head competition. Iran is more of a chess culture that proceeds with a subtlety of moves. They are always thinking three steps ahead, trying to make the opponent look foolish, trapping somebody so that they think you are doing one thing when you are really doing another.

This is a great source of misunderstanding between us.
Iranians think that we do not mean what we say, that there must be something else behind our words. For out part, Ahmadinejad makes a statement and we think that statement is the policy.


Many people talk about taarof (The Iranian system of manners) and taqieh (a doctrine which permits Shia to lie in order to survive persecution) when they talk about dealing with Iranians. How important do you see these aspects of Iranian culture?

Elements. I don't think that Iran or even Muslims or Middle Easterners are the only people who lie or dissemble or pretend to do one thing when they want to do another. From what I understand about our current dealings with Iran: a lot of what we are doing is pretending to be bigger, stronger and more dangerous than we really are. That kind of dissembling is something we do as well. It's just something we don't do very well. Iran is also trying to make us believe that they are bigger and stronger than they actually are.

Iranians just have more experience and skill
at dissembling than we do.

I do have this worry: because of their bargaining gene, Iranians always feel that they can get another 2 or 3 percent, so they always go for more. When they get an offer that meets 90% of their terms, they think that maybe they can get 93%. In the end this kind of negotiation means that they may lose the whole thing. Squeezing everything out of your opponent may backfire.

And it is not just Iran that does this. I've watched the US negotiate or not negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue for the past 15 years. The kind of deal we could have gotten in 1990 or 91 would look so good to us now, but we wanted more.

We lost 50% of the game, yet we are still maintaining an all or nothing approach to the negotiations.

With regard to Iran...look at what they've done with foreign investment from oil companies. They need the foreign investment, but they squeezed so hard and drove such a hard bargain, that many companies said that it just is not worth it. Why should we do this? We've lost all of our profit margin in negotiations, we'll make ourselves unpopular with the US, who needs it? They walked away. Oil executives told me that the Iranians would negotiate vigorously and endlessly. Negotiate and negotiate and negotiate. When they thought that an agreement had been reached, it would start all over again. Finally Western companies said forget about it; it's just not worth it. They want to be there, but it is not possible. Iran is paying a very high price for this.

Iran has done great damage to its own interests by over negotiating.

There is some worry that the same is true with their nuclear policy with the whole inalienable right rhetoric. Insisting on the right to do something stupid, might not be best policy in the end. It seems that there are some in Iran who care more about the principle at stake than having a functioning nuclear program.


October Surprise refers to a controversial book that Gary Sick wrote after serving on the National Security Council under Ford, Carter, and Reagan. The book documents evidence of secret negotiations between the Reagan campaign and the revolutionary clerics in Iran that ultimately led to a nefarious arms deal involving the Nicaraguan contras, Israelis, and revolutionary clerics in Iran. It is not the only book or article that Sick has written about Iran, he is also the author of the influential All Fall Down: America’s Fateful Encounter with Iran and many articles.

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