Saturday, December 31, 2011

Post #141 - And then things got really bad...

(More on the Limbert book, Negotiating with Iran.)

After the hostage crisis and the revolution, US-relations went into the deep-freeze, or, as Limbert says "an isolation chamber." "Iran expertise and Persian language skills within the bureaucracy were allowed to wither." Moreover, "the United States became a virtual ally of the Iraqis in their war with the Islamic Republic." (I have written in earlier posts about this period and American complicity in its horrors.) "In this situation," Limbert reports, "negotiators came to neglect their own underlying interest in favor of doing maximum harm to the adversary."

It was into this atmosphere of tension and distance that the need to free Americans being held in Lebanon came to the fore. On the Iranian side, their national survival depended on feeding the supply lines to the troops on the Iraqi front and defending Iranian cities from bombardment. In addition, for Americans, the Cold War calculus of always and everywhere preventing a larger quantum of Soviet influence was a factor that further confounded this and many other policy discussions.

A National Security Decision Document drafted in 1985 suggested that the administration should "encourage Western allies and friends [Limbert: i.e. Israel] to help Iran meet its import requirements so as to reduce the attractiveness of Soviet assistance and trade offers, while demonstrating the value of correct relations with the West. This includes provision of selected military equipment as determined on a case-by-case basis." This pertains, we should remember, to a country with which we had no diplomatic relations, and whose active enemy was being subsidized and supplied by the United States and other Western countries!

Robert McFarlane
"Almost twenty years later, [National Security Advisor Robert] McFarlane admitted that this reasoning that a Soviet threat to Iran justified arms sales had no basis in any evidence" -- indeed, "had no foundation in fact of contemporary events or intelligence material." [Limbert quotes Trita Parsi, who interviewed McFarlane.] The U.S. officials "were operating in total ignorance and were relying on the views of a collection of arms merchants, con men, hustlers, and others pursuing their own political and personal goals."

Eventually, over one thousand TOW missiles, Hawk missile spare parts and other armaments were shipped to Iran through Israel, and the funds generated found their way to U.S.-supported rebels in Nicaragua -- an illegal disbursement of government funds. When all this ultimately became known to the Congress and the public, it was a "scandal that nearly brought down the Reagan administration" (as the hostage crisis had contributed to the end of the Carter administration). "As Secretary of State Shultz told congressional investigators, 'Our taken to the cleaners.'"

Eventually, the hostages in Lebanon did gain their freedom. Again, the lessons that come out of this initially bungled and later successful effort:

  • "[T]he parties had to choose intermediaries with great care."
  • "Negotiators had to deal carefully with harsh domestic political climates and with the legacy of bitterness and hostility between Iranians and Americans." Limbert makes clear that the climate was truly "toxic" on both sides during this period.
  • "The Islamic Republic's priority was its own survival." Why should this be surprising? Iran was at war -- eventually losing 100,000 or more of its citizens. Plus, Iranians felt that "the world [was] arrayed against them."
  • "A search for justice remained at the center of Iran's negotiating position." They wanted the world to acknowledge that they were the aggrieved party -- both when outsiders manipulated their internal affairs and when Iraq started a bloody conflict. 

Bazaaris in Tehran, selling "pesteh" (pistachios)
What Limbert finds, in his meticulous sifting of more than a century of history, is that the same themes and gambits recur. Iranians are no strangers to negotiation -- "The reality is that just about every interaction in Iran -- from buying sugar to obtaining a driver's license -- involves negotiation." Americans often fail miserably (and leave disgruntled and befuddled) when they attempt to buy articles in an Iranian bazaar -- the heart of Persian commerce since before history began. It is not that the vendor does not wish to engage them, or that he seeks to cheat them. They are simply ignorant of the long-standing, generally well-known rules and protocols of negotiating Persian-style. (I will do a later post on "chooneh-zadan" - the art of bargaining.)

Legalism -- or, as we like to glorify it "the rule of law" -- was of dubious value in the context of negotiation with Iranians. As one Iranian expert asked, rhetorically, "Had treaty after treaty not proved that international law was simply a political device to ensure Western control?"[Ansari, cited by Limbert]. Further, "foreign powers...frustrated Iranians' attempts to gain control of their own destiny by suppressing the Constitutional Movement (in 1906-11) and by overthrowing Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh's nationalist government (in 1953)." In other words, the West seemed to be saying (like my five-year-old grandson with a boardgame), "play by my rules, unless I decide to change them." "When Britain and Czarist Russia..." Limbert points out, "signed their 1907 treaty that divided Persia into spheres of influence, the preamble stated that both parties pledged to respect Persian independence and territorial integrity. As one contemporary British observor put it, 'Such statements are a sure sign that a country is about to lose both its territorial integrity and its independence.'"

Technical language or provisions came to be associated with the reign of the West-leaning Shah. Therefore, the Islamic Republic, like the Cultural Revolution in China or the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, put a negative valuation on intellectuals and technocrats (further hindering the progress of the country, but emphasizing that a "new day" had dawned).

Rhetoric may be florid and belligerent, but Iranians do respect power and disdain weakness. "Iranians," Limbert notes, " see "fetneh" (disorder) as their worst calamity, far worse than a despot's arbitrary or harsh rule...a powerful ruler is seen as the only safeguard against the anarchy that is always lurking below the surface." However, justice is also a central value. "One early twelfth-century Islamic historian expressed this ideal of the just ruler as follows: 'There is no kingdom without an army, no army without wealth, no wealth without material prosperity, and no material prosperity without justice." Many Iranians believe "that justice should be quick, decisive, and visible" (which explains much of the "reign of terror" that enveloped Iran following the consolidation of Islamic Republic power.

In sum, during the "thirty-year destructive U.S.-Iranian relationship of mutual grievance, hostility, and recrimination, name-calling, finger-pointing, posturing, and sermonizing have had few results." "Neither Americans nor Iranians," Limbert concludes, "should be proud of their country's actions in this sorry history. The American side has justified its 1953 actions by the necessities of the Cold War and fear of Soviety expansion into an unstable Iran; the Iranian side has justified its actions in 1979-80 by the postrevolutionary hysteria and prevailing chaos."

This important and carefully-crafted book ends on a positive note: "[W]e should put aside those prejudices that have convinced us -- before a dialogue has even begun -- that no accommodation (short of surrender) will even be possible. Expect negotiations to fail through the fault of the other side and they probably will. Expect better and success becomes possible."

Let me wrap up this excursion into sanity, by quoting from today's Washington Post op-ed page, a piece entitled "Counter Iran with diplomacy, not threats."  It was co-authored by William H. Luers (former ambassador and past-president of the U.N. Association),  and Thomas R. Pickering (former undersecretary of state and ambassador to Russia, Israel, Jordan and the United Nations):

"The United States must set out on a relentless search for a better way to get at this seemingly unknowable regional power.  Without that patient search for different ways to deal with Tehran, Washington will be stuck with a policy that will not change Iran's practices or its regime and could lead to a catastrophic war."

Post #140 - Give Us the Shah!

(More on the John Limbert book, Negotiating with Iran.)

What lessons for would-be negotiators come out of the debacle of 1953-54?

"Inequalities between the two sides created contradictory perceptions." (A basic tenet of conflict resolution is that encounters where one side is clearly disadvantaged -- think of a meeting between high school administrators and students that takes place in the principal's office -- has a slim chance of being effective and successful.) Limbert cites another author writing about the crisis: "Neither of the two alternative British demands -- another concession or compensation for operations until 1990 [over 35 years] -- would have been made, let alone succeeded, if Britain's dispute had been with Holland, Sweden, or any other small European country. It was clear that Iran's position was weak, not on legal grounds, but in terms of the country's relative world power." "The British...," says Limbert, "seemed genuinely confused when the Iranians refused to behave as the weaker side should and insisted on remaining ungrateful for past British beneficence...the failure to understand how the Iranians' view of their past was shaping their actions and pushing them into unreasonable positions" was the "larger failure."
"The Iranian side sought an abstraction called justice." -- "The two sides in the dispute...could not establish the all-important objective criteria, acceptable to both sides...against which to measure a settlement." "They had demonized [the other side] beyond all recognition or rationality." Like the hostage-takers in 1979, "rather than play the game by the rules, the British would turn over the board" -- and create a coup. (Additionally, "the United States...was...perceived to be the real power behind, and the daily instructor of the absolute and arbitrary state [introduced by the Shah].")

The overrunning of the U.S. Embassy/Tehran
From there, Limbert moves on to the crisis that most directly involved him -- and which had a profound impact on his life and those of his family members -- The Embassy Hostage Crisis of 1979-81. Underscoring a point he had made earlier in the book, Limbert begins by noting that "When Americans and Iranians deal with each other today, there is symmetry in their respective views of recent history. Each side sees itself as the injured party...the CIA-sponsored coup d'etat...gave Iranians twenty-five years of royal dictatorship [while]...the hostage crisis...lurks behind some American analysts' Nazi metaphors for Iran and descriptions such as rogue state, axis of evil, Iranian threat, and world's number-one state sponsor of terrorism." Stereotypes abound, such as "fanaticism, violence, irrationalism, self-destruction, and disregard to the norms of international relations.:

"At the beginning of foreign eyes Iran appeared stable, and the shah's position appeared secure." (I must admit that I did not foresee his downfall in the late '60's, though there had been demonstrations and harsh reactions to them. I did not, however, that in my entire time in Iran, I only met a single person -- a mid-level eduction official -- who seemed to genuinely admire and laud the Shah. Others, depending on how well I knew them, were either non-commital or critical.)

"When the Shah's downfall came, it came quickly. President and Mrs. Carter spent New Year's 1978 in Tehran" toasting America's primary regional ally. "...just more than a year later, fierce political storms had shattered its surface calm...[by February 1979] the last units of the armed forces supporting the monarchy collapsed, and the revolution had triumphed." "Iranians of widely opposing political views -- nationalists, Marxists, religious ideologues, and others -- had formed a fragile coalition for the sole purpose of removing the shah. Now that he was gone, the real battle would begin," which ended in the creation of the Islamic Republic. "...the middle-class and upper middle-class nationalist leaders had neither the stomach nor the talent for the violent and brutal street fighting that wins revolutionary struggles."

Limbert outlines the decision-making process which allowed Washington to ignore the counsel of the best-placed persons who saw the hazards in admitting the Shah to the United States. Bruce Laingen (then-charge d'affaires at the Embassy, who, through a fluke of circumstance, spent his months of incarceration at the Iranian foreign ministry, rather than at the Embassy compound) warned his superiors in July of 1979: " give refuge to the Shah would almost certainly trigger massive demonstrations against our embassy...there could be no assurance that...Iran's regular military and police forces [can] relied on to apply the force that might be needed to prevent violence against us." (Laingen himself wrote about the saga in 1992, in Yellow Ribbon: The Secret Journal of Bruce Laingen.)

The Carter Oval Office, 1979
The president himself asked the advisors who were pushing a "humanitarian" welcome for the Shah: "What are you guys going to advise me to do when they overrun our embassy and take our people hostage?" (This was reported in Time Magazine -- an issue that Limbert first saw while in captivity in Tehran!) We see that, "Given the history of American-Iranian relations...few Iranians at any level were going to believe that Washington was acting from humanitarian motives to aid a critically ill shah." The extreme religious faction chose to view the hostage crisis as an opportunity "to crush its opponents -- be they nationalist, leftists, or traditional conservatives."

In the long term, Iran paid a price for its "thumbing its nose at international respectability." "With the Islamic Republic having made gratuitous enemies not only of the United States but of its own wealthy Arab neighbors, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE all became important financial backers of Iraq [in the Iran-Iraq war].

Americans "found themselves holding no cards at all." Direct military action was "too dangerous and politically unacceptable," while doing nothing -- "downplaying the crisis, minimizing its importance" -- was equally impossible.

Looking at the hostage crisis in retrospect and with the benefit of a very long opportunity to think about what happened and why, Limbert finds these take-aways:

  • "American officials needed to expect the unusual and avoid the easy assumption."
  • "Officials should have listened to those who knew (even a little). They should have remembered the lessons of history and understood the other side's perceptions of that history."
  • "Patience and timing were everything," in finding a way out of the crisis, and
  • "The parties had to find serious intermediaries." Unlike what happened later in the Keystone Cops Iran-Contra affair, "the professionalism and the credibility of the Algerian intermediaries were to prove crucial."

(My next post on Limbert's book with begin with the Lebanon Hostages.)

Friday, December 30, 2011

Post #139 - Mid-century Madness

(More on the Limbert book -- see previous posts)

As part of his examination of the several situations he has selected, Limbert describes the Iranian perspective on negotiations. "Historical weakness has led Iranians to view negotiations [as an] instrument of survival, often against much stronger adversaries with ambitions against Iranian territory, independence, and resources." (For the latter, read "oil.") "Iran," he says, "could not hope to preserve itself by directly confronting stronger outside powers." During the 1940's, for example, "Iran survived a serious and direct threat to its existence." At its peak, the American wartime occupation involved some 30,000 troops, but Russians and British were also very much present. Their departure was by no means an assured outcome when the special circumstances precipitated by the war came to an end. In this context, "preserving Iran's independence required balancing powerful outside powers against each other -- a doctrine that came to be known as positive equilibrium. Doing so also meant that the successful Iranian politician has to act carefully to avoid aligning himself too closely with any major foreign power while remaining acceptable to all of them." (This situation seems a prescient echo of the dilemma of the Shah in the 1970's -- he was seen by many Iranians as having gotten much too close to the United States.)

"The events of 1945-47 [many of which centered around the Iranian state of Azerbaijan]...illustrate important points and lessons about Iranian negotiating [I am excerpting from the Limbert text, and the parenthetical remarks are mine]:

Ahmad Qavam, 11 times prime minister
  • "In the balance between legalism and nonlegalism, the latter prevailed." (Iranians had too often been "bamboozled" previously by legalistic snares woven by foreigners.)
  • "What appeared to be Iranian cunning may have been just improvisation." (Limbert cites the actions of Iranian leader Ahmad Qavam, who did well in the crisis but who may not always have been sure of what his next move was going to be.)
  • "Despite factional strife, Iranians were united on fundamental questions of national unity." (Many Iran experts have tried to dissuade American planners from the temptation to assume that the current regime will disintegrate with enough outside pressure; the effect often is actually to strengthen the hand of the rulers in power.  Karim Sadjadpour said as much on NPR this evening, December 30, 2011)
  • "Iranian negotiators had to make the most of a weak hand." (An example from recent history is the "constructive ambiguity" created by the internecine power dynamics of President Ahmadinezhad, the Supreme Leader and other clerics; outside observers are not quite sure what to make of it, and therefore hesitant to act; thus, the very seeming chaos of the Iranian scene provides a measure of protection.)

Limbert next trains his microscope on the events of the early '50s, when popular leader Mosaddegh pushed back against the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and was, in the end, forced from power. He describes the outcome this way: "[Iran's] British and American adversaries won a Pyrrhic victory that would culminate in a disastrous defeat twenty-five years later" -- the Islamic Revolution. The events of mid-century had "the result of converting the United States, in many Iranians' eyes, from their friend to their enemy." We became "just another outside power determined to control Iran for its own purposes."

This shift was not without foundation; "The events also reinforced a deep cynicism in the nation's political culture. Many Iranians were now convinced," after their elected leader was overthrown by the CIA, the British and the monarchy, "that every evil in their society was the fault of the foreigner and that Iranians were not, and ever could be, masters in their own house. Thus, as masters of nothing, they were responsible for nothing."

The elements at issue were complex: who owns natural resources -- the people, the state or the corporate entities that extract and transport them? Limbert notes that in 1948, Venezuela was able to secure a 50/50 profit-sharing arrangement with oil extractors and exporters; in 1950, Saudi Arabia did the same. Iran had guarantees only of a 4-shilling-per-barrel royalty, a 4% tax, a guarantee of a minimum annual payment and some promises to employ more Iranians. The leaders of the country did not even have access to the company's books, in order to know how much was being made in profits. If fact, the oil agreements and the ways in which they were implemented made Iranians feel that "the British regarded them as inferior human beings."

Mohammad Mosaddegh
Into this arena of festering discontent rode Mosaddegh, whose "appeal lay in his outspokenness, his patriotism, his absolute incorruptibility, and his record of long and consistent opposition to Pahlavi [the Shahs' monarchical dynasty] authoritarianism. He was particularly famous for his refusal to award positions to or otherwise favor members of his extended family." "...with the approval of both the parliament and the shah, Mosaddegh became prime minister with a mandate to implement oil nationization." Unfortunately, Mosaddegh and his British interlocuters "each saw the other as an infinitely devious, crafty, and ruthless adversary that was determined at any cost to impose its will and humiliate the other side. In so doing, they both confirmed negative preconceptions and created self-fulfilling prophecies."

In that era, it was not that Britain had no "Iran experts." The problem was that "the Persianists were breathtaking in their arrogance...Implict in their views was the assumption that they...knew what was best for Iran and Iranians." Limbert cites James Bill (an modern-day Iran expert who is a professor emeritus at my alma mater, The College of William and Mary) in his book, The Eagle and the Lion:

"The British felt their influence in Iran was benign and that without English technological support Iran would have remained a backward desert land. Their many interventions in the past had served to protect Iran from its aggressive Russian neighbor to the north. Therefore, even some of the most learned of the 'old Persian hands' in Britain professed horror at the ingratitude displayed by Mosaddegh and the Iranian nationalists." (Limbert points out that "Prime Minister Clement Atlee's socialist government, which had nationalized much of British heavy industry, could not well oppose the Iranian oil nationalization on principle.")

So, after President Eisenhower approved the project, a million dollar of CIA funds (big money in those days) for the Tehran "station" to use in the overthrow of the Mosaddegh government. Up to $11,000 per week were allotted for the "buying" of cooperation from the majlis (parliament). By August of 1953, the shah was able to return to Iran (he fled for a time to Baghdad and then Rome). When the dust had settled, there was a new entity -- the National Iranian Oil Company -- Mosaddegh was gone -- and the United States was much more of a player in the extraction of oil from Iranian soil.

"Now, " Limbert says, "everything the shah did, for good or evil, was interpreted as done in obedience to American commands." In a 1964 speech about a law that would essentially exempt all Americans in-country from Iranian law, Khomeini said the government of Iran had "reduced the Iranian people to a level lower than that of an American dog.* If someone runs over a dog belonging to an American, he will be prosecuted. Even if the Shah himself were to run over a dog belonging to an American, he would be prosecuted. But if an American cook runs over the Shah, the head of state, no one will have the right to interfere with him." (For this Khomeini was exiled -- until his triumphal return in 1979.)

*Note: one must take into account, when reading these words, the status of canines in Iranian culture. Nearly all of the dogs in Iran at that time were, for all intents, feral; most of them were rabid. and would be greeted with a thrown stone rather than an affectionate petting. Iranians, unless they were well-to-do and Westernized to some extent, did not have dogs as pets (the one exception being sheepherding families who used dogs as an essential partner in the movement of herds across large distances). One of the worst insults that might be tossed off in heated argument or a fracas surrounding a fender-bender was "son of a dog" -- somewhat worse than the close equivalent in English.

(In my next post, the lessons that Limbert derives from this nadir of US-Iran relations.)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Post #138 - Continuities and Contradictions

(More on John Limbert's book on Negotiating with Iran.)

Iran's history has not only been a series of defeats and losses. Iranians have, out of necessity, developed coping mechanisms to deal with adversity. Limbert: "This adaptability and openness to the ways of outsiders has been a key to Iran's survival as a distinct nation for more than twenty-five centuries. Foreign conquerors and foreign ideologies could change but not destroy the Iranian identity....From the Arabs, Iranians took religion, script, and much vocabulary, and in return gave the new Islamic world their great creativity in politics and in the arts and sciences...In more recent times, Iranians have taken enthusiastically to two other foreign imports -- the art cinema and the Internet."

I often say that Arabic found with Persian is a bit similar to the presence of the Romance languages in modern English. We can talk about a man taking a cow to market using only Germanic/Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, but it is nearly impossible to talk about art, culture, science and civilization (all words that came from Norman French) in such terms. So it is with Persian -- the nomenclature of religion, philosophy and the like is dominated by Arabic-derived terms, but conversations about daily life can be done with nothing but pure Persian. In modern times, we see French words or fragments (such as "mini-jube" for miniskirt), Russian terms (such as "samovar") and English terms (such as "blog"), but the things described are brought into a determinedly Iranian context.

The modest house where Khomeini lived in Tehran.
"Religion," Limbert writes, "has always been at the heart of Iranian society and politics." Yet, he points out, "if Iran is a land of faith, it is also a land of heresy and heterodoxy, where the people, unsatisfied by the straight-forward answers of the orthodox, have often rejected conventional wisdom in a search for a more subtle, complicated, and ambiguous divine truth." Mazdakism (5th C.), Shi'e Islam (now the dominant faith in Iran), and Baha'ism (begun in the mid-19th C. and now anathema for the Islamic Republic's ruling class) all represent departures from the contemporary dominant belief structures. Additionally, Limbert says, "A deep religiosity permeates the Iranian national spirit, but there is also a parallel strain of anticlericalism...Khomeini himself drew his public admiration as much from his modest lifestyle and his personal and political from his religious credentials."

The acoustics of Khajoo Bridge - perfect for a love-song
"...there is continuing tension between...religion -- which frowns on music, images, and mysticism -- and...Iranian cultural tradition that elevates all three." Indeed, even today one sees the famous Persian miniature still being produced and all sorts of music being played -- from traditional songs of romantic love to modern Western hip-hop or rock (on knock-off CD's hawked on the sidewalk of Tehran). Poetry, the most quintessentially Iranian art-form, is still hugely popular, even though most of the themes do not derive from the theologically-correct ideas of the regime.

(more on Limbert's book in my next post)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Post #137 - Sense and Sensibilities

A gathering of Iranian Americans in a Washington suburb
Finally, after nearly half-a-century of ignorance, stupidity and worse in the foreign affairs community on the subject of the country and people of Iran, some sense is being spoken. Media commentators such as David Ignatius, Farid Zakaria, Christine Amanpour, Robin Wright (now with the U.S. Institute of Peace) and Barbara Slavin (now a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council) have written and reported with a sense of historical context and political savvy and have shed some of the biases inherent in the Western perspective. A handful of political leaders such as Rep. Ron Paul (Libertarian/Republican), Sen. Chuck Hagel (moderate Republican) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (liberal Democrat) have managed to take a more clear-eyed look at US-Iran relations. Diasporan groups such as the National Iranian American Council and Iranian Alliances across Borders have brought balance and rationality to the discourse.

Nowhere is this welcome improvement more evident than in the book Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History. Its author, John W. Limbert, knows whereof he speaks. A former U.S. ambassador, Limbert began his familiarization with Iran some fifty years ago and has never stopped learning. Woodrow Wilson Center Middle East Program director Haleh Esfandiari said about his book, "Written by an author intimately familiar with the Persian language, history and customs, this unique work addresses and sets aside many false but widespread preconceptions about Iran...this study is very timely."

In the foreword to the book, best-selling author Mark Bowden (Guests of the Ayatollah) says: "Iranian true believers see the United States as The Great Satan, a "world-devouring," godless force bent on dismantling Islam and reducing their country to its former vassal status. Patriotic Americans see Iran as champion of the great backward movement of the twenty-first century, a powerful enemy of liberal western values, a sponsor of terror attacks, and increasingly as a direct mortal threat to Israel...Getting past these competing caricatures, both of which have elements of truth, will require skilled diplomacy."

It is this crying need -- for skilled and informed diplomacy -- that Limbert's book seeks to fill. His tone is utterly realistic (this is a man who was held captive for 444 days after the taking of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, while his wife and children languished incommunicado at another U.S. post in the middle east), but also hopeful. "I am not convinced," Limbert says, " that Americans and Iranians are condemned to be enemies for eternity. Each side realizes that the other is not going away soon and that its presence and policies affect conditions in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and other areas that matter to both Tehran and Washington."

Negotiating... examines the whole of Iranian history for lessons that might guide contemporary practitioners. It looks closely at a handful of incidents: The Azerbaijan Crisis of 1945-47 (in which several Western powers had a part), The Oil Nationalization Crisis of 1951-53 (which led to the ousting of Iranian leader Mohammad Mossadeq), The Embassy Hostage Crisis of 1979-81 (which Limbert viewed at point-blank range), and the Freeing of the Lebanon Hostages (which is tied up with what we know as the Iran-Contra affair).

This kind of retrospective is essential, given that "In the decades since 1980, the American government has lost its cadre of Iran expertise...leaving a gap that, with the best will in the world, will take at least a decade to fill." On the Iranian side, too, contact with the West -- especially the United States -- has been much less than it was before the 1979 revolution.

Bas relief at Persepolis, near Shiraz
Deep historical lessons include a recognition that "Iranians have almost never been able to choose their political system...Sultans, shahs, warlords, invaders, foreign governments, and others have usually made Iranians' political choices for them." "In Iran, political systems change quickly; cultural traditions change slowly if at all," Limbert notes; "the Iranian identity has remained intact in one form or another for more than 2,500 years...Throughout that long history...there has remained a core Iranian identity that new invaders, kings, imams, and prophets were able to influence but never to eliminate." It will be, for many of my readers, a revelation to note that "Iran has never demanded conformity in faith or culture as the price of being Iranian." Therefore, as one prominent Jewish leader in Tehran told me, the members of his congregation would "consider themselves Iranian, before they consider themselves Jews." Barely more than half of Iranians speak Persian as their first language. "The Iranian identity of both groups, Persian speakers and non-Persian speakers, is equally strong." Zoroastrians -- now a small minority in the land which spawned their faith -- "have preserved Iranian folkways and cultural traditions -- in music, language, and food, for example -- that the Muslim majority has long forgotten."

The first lesson for would-be negotiators, then, is that in the Iranian mind: "prosperity and stability never endure for long. Decline, chaos, turmoil, and anarchy (all roughly characterized as that great social evil 'fetneh') are always lurking in the wings." Limbert cites another contemporary scholar, Homa Katouzian: "Traditional Iranian revolts involved the active or passive support of all social classes to bring down an 'unjust' arbitrary ruler and replace him with a just one. Invariably, the result was chaos, until one of the contestants for power eliminated the rest and restored absolute and arbitrary government, much to the relief of the common people, who by then were desperately longing for basic peace and security."

(continued in my next post)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Post #136 - Walking Further in Faith

A skeptical view
Believing Christians should actually find it easy to relate to Muslims who are seen as irrational or as shackled by their faith. After all, we experience similar stereotyping right here in America. Those who manifest a readiness to base a life decision on faith, rather than on rationality alone, are often looked at askance -- a scientist who accepts the story of the Creation along with the Big Bang; a nurse who will not participate in an abortion procedure; a doctor who declines to facilitate suicide; a politician who prays. All of them would recognize the type of scorn heard in these words: “Once you become a believing Muslim, you have said goodbye to your rationality...God is like that red line you cannot cross. He says you have to believe in X, Y or Z, and that is the end of your personal decision-making.” These were the judgments of a prominent geneticist, an acquaintance of Fatemeh Keshavarz. She used his comments to point up how such a condemnation effectively prevents any meaningful discussion on important issues. The believer in each case -- whether Christian or Muslim or something else -- is simply ruled beyond the pale by the rabid “rationalist” before the debate even begins. Ayatollah Khomeini said once that those who are detractors of religiosity assume "that religious people have trampled upon the rule of reason and have no regard for it." But, he said, "Is it not the religious people who have written all the books of philosophy and the principles of jurisprudence?"

David J. Goa
As David J. Goa, director of the Chester Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life at the University of Alberta (Camrose, Canada) has written, both the zealous believer and the zealous secularist may have an “appetite for enemies” that prevents them from proceeding in a way that is utilizes the best of their own tradition. He describes zealousness as “spiritual adolescence” -- in which even zealously searching after truth can become a hindrance to finding wisdom. “Our age,” Goa says, “is an age of relativism and absolutism. At least within some quarters of our public life, we have elevated relativism to a public dogma.” Like all dogmas, this can become a hobble which we place on our own legs, then wonder why we have trouble keeping up with the pace and complexity of life. As Goa says, “No wonder St. Isaac says that when we learn what truth really is we will cease being zealous for truth, cease responding as if it were our place to defend and protect truth.”

Keshavarz cites the resolution offered by 12th century Islamic theologian Ghazali: “...the contest between the two [is] irrelevant and unnecessary...Since the human rational faculty is a manifestation of the divine light, putting it to use is absolutely necessary and a form of obedience to God.” She draws on other sources of Islamic thought to suggest the needed constraint on our use of rationality -- “they propose that understanding the limits of rationality is the only guarantee that the tool is used properly.” The goal of thought, they say, is to lead us to the “house of the King [God]”-- who is ishq, or love. Anything which does not lead in that direction is wrong use of our capacities. “The Muslim mystics,” writes Keshavarz, “say, 'I love, therefore I am.'” St. Paul wrote, "Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all knowledge...but have not love, I am nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:2)

Post #135 - Who is Your Father, Brother?

"It is the will of God that we be tolerant of those who disagree with us about the will of God." (Fr. Richard John Neuhaus)

"God alone will judge between them in their differences on the Day of Reckoning." (Koran, Sura 2:113)

Many church-going Christians condemn both religious and cultural “relativism”, holding that accepting the one true faith precludes giving any other belief system a place at the table, and that American culture is the acme of human civilization. While I am secure in my faith in Christ (except for, to be completely honest, all the times I am beset by doubts -- an inevitable part of any serious spiritual journey), I prefer to leave the sorting out of who has heard His message and lived it to God. As the Koran says, “God chooses whom He likes for His grace; and the beauty of God is infinite.” (Sura 2:105)

Author Huston Smith
Some, like Huston Smith, a scholar of world religions who was the focus of a five-part television series with Bill Moyers, see an evolving mindset that cherishes Christian identity while refusing to reject the authenticity of other faith traditions. He holds that "nonexclusivism," while not today embraced by a majority, has nonetheless "been affirmed throughout Christian history." He perceives "a new mood in Christendom, a more conscious, general recognition that though for Christians God is defined by Jesus, He is not confined to Jesus." In Norway this year, a Muslim and Christian umbrella groups signed a joint declaration, the first of its kind, supporting an individual's right to convert between faiths without violence, harassment or discrimination. Can this not be a step toward deeper mutual respect -- not synthesis, but a mature and compassionate "neighborliness?"

American poet Coleman Barks laments the exclusivity of the all the Abrahamic religious doctrines -- "The ONLY begotten, the CHOSEN people, the LAST prophet" as an "insult to the soul" -- part of what keeps the soul from "expanding and deepening in love, and living the truth of expressing that."

In the Book of Micah, one passage is the most familiar: that which contains the famous prophecy of transformation: “swords into plowshares...spears into pruning hooks.” But the verses that come after that passage give a positive vision of what is to follow:

"And every one shall rest under his vine, and every on under his fig tree; and there shall be none to alarm them: for the mouth of the Lord Almighty has spoken these [words]. For all [other] nations shall walk every one in his own way [The King James has it “in the name of his god”], and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever." (Micah: 4:4-5)

This does not sound to me as though “our God” will cause everyone to reject his or her own beliefs as a prerequisite for peace being accomplished. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant theologian who ultimately had his life cut short by Hitler, has been quoted as saying, "The will of God is not a system of rules established from the outset. And for this reason a man must forever re-examine what the will of God might be. The will of God may lie deeply concealed beneath a great number of possibilities." Recently, many have captured the same idea by cautioning that "we should not read a period where God has placed a comma."

I have known individual Hindus, Muslims and Zoroastrians, Jews, agnostics and even professed atheists who are exemplars of wisdom and morality; surely their goodness did not come from the Evil One. Does this fit with the exclusivity of faith allegiance that so many feel is essential? I do not claim to know – nor do I feel it is my job to know. My job is to be one who “loves his neighbor.” And who is my neighbor? – the Samaritan as well as the Israelite; the Muslim as much as the Christian, Iranians as surely as the folks next door (come to that, the neighbors I live beside, one house away in four directions, happen to be Jewish, Muslim, Southern Baptist and Evangelical fundamentalist).

Book by Fatemeh Keshavarz
Fatemeh Keshavarz relates the story of her (Iranian) uncle, who hears his friends debating the fate of a virtuous man of their community, who happened also to be a Baha'i (which is unacceptable to Muslim orthodoxy); would he, they wondered, be admitted to heaven, or not? Her uncle's oblique but transcendent comment was: “Fortunately, our closet is not large enough to keep God locked inside.” I have heard learned and well-respected Orthodox Christian hierarchs say essentially the same thing – “Ours is the right path...but the others' paths? -- we leave that to God to sort out.” Getting such a view down into the local parish hall may take a bit longer.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Post #134 - Jihad...or Jihad?

Many Americans have, by now, heard of jihad -- for Muslims “exertion or striving in the path of God” -- and even perhaps of the two jihads: the external jihad, and the internal (or “great”) jihad. It is the latter which is seen as the more important one, as our struggle to conquer our own demons, whether we are Christians or Muslims, is the toughest battle we will ever fight. Gandhi used to say that he had a formidable opponent in the British colonial government, an even more formidable opponent in the Indian people, but the worst and most intractable enemy he fought was Mohandas K. Gandhi. The greater jihad is, in the words of Prof. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “the inner battle to purify the soul of its imperfections, to empty the vessel of the soul of the pungent water of forgetfulness, negligence, and the tendency to evil and to prepare it for the reception of the Divine Elixir of Remembrance, Light, and Knowledge.” It is also the daily battle to balance piety, responsibility, charity, emotion and rationality, and never to flag or falter in one's duties.

Popular perception of Persians
The lesser jihad has, in the West, often been associated with rampaging hoards of scimitar-swinging Muslims, sweeping across desert vastnesses with blood in their eyes -- in other words, with “holy war.” We would do well to keep in mind that 1) in ancient times jihad was not waged against Zoroastrians, Jews, Hindus or Christians to convert them to Islam, even in Arabia, 2) jihad has almost never been carried on outside of Muslim lands (unlike the transcontinental Christian crusades of the Middle Ages), and 3) the great majority of modern-day Muslims feel that the acts perpetrated by Osama bin Laden and his kind to have nothing whatever to do with jihad. Moreover, it cannot be legally originated as aggression, nor as an expression of hatred or rage, but only in defense – especially within the Shi'ite tradition. Islamic scholar Vincent Cornell has said that violent Islamists present a type of Islam that can be characterized as "radically superficial." It is the "Islam for Dummies" approach that emphasizes finding a way to fight back against cultural assaults on Islamic societies, in the same way that neo-Nazism provides a home for those (many who call themselves Christians) who feel disenfranchised by a multicultural America. To focus on this brand of Islam as though it were Islam writ large is, in Nasr's memorable phrase, to "absolutize the transient."

Nasr retells the story (from Book I of the Mathnawi of Rumi) of hand-to-hand combat between an early Muslim prince and a powerful opponent. Although nearly assured of victory, the prince, 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, stops himself and steps back when the other spits upon him. As he sheaths his sword, 'Ali explains to his foe that he had been fighting for the Truth – until the insult of the spitting turned his motivation into anger. He ceased battling because he did not want to fight out of personal rage. “I am the Lion of the Truth,” he says, “not the lion of passions,/My action is witness to my religion.” Whether the story is historical or legendary, its moral is clear.

In the following passage from Birds Without Wings, Louis de Bernieres recreates a lesser-known "clash of civilizations:"

"Ever since the year 1189 in the Muslim calendar, which was 1774 in the Christian, the Russian Empire had exercised a policy of religious expurgation every time that it expanded into newly conquered lands. In the Crimea, in the Caucasus, in southern Ukraine, in Azerbaijan, Kars-Ardahan and Laz, the Russians massacred and displaced the Muslim populations, swamping the Ottoman Empire with refugees with which it could not cope. It is impossible to calculate the number of deaths, or to imagine the manner in which these murders were perpetrated. It was perduring holocaust, but, unlike the more famous one of the Second World War, it is uncommemorated by the world because it received no publicity at the time or afterward. No monuments have been raised, no dates of commemoration have entered the calendars, no religious services have been held, and no hindsighted pieties have been repeated for our edification. The Russians replaced these slaughtered populations with Christians, preferably of Slavic origin, but in the absence of Slavs they made do with Ukrainians and Armenians.
"It is curious that the Russians, calling themselves Christians, and like so many other nominal Christians throughout history, took no notice whatsoever of the key parable of Jesus Christ himself, which taught that you shall love your neighbor as yourself, and that even those you have despised and hated are your neighbors. This has never made any difference to Christians, since the primary epiphenomena of any religion's foundation are the production and flourishment of hypocrisy, megalomania and psychopathy, and the first casualties of a religion's establishment are the intentions of its founder. One can imagine Jesus and Mohammad glumly comparing notes in paradise, scratching their heads and bemoaning their vain expense of effort and suffering..."

[We should note, however, that some 9 million Muslims today live within the Russia Federation, with their rights basically protected.  One can hardly say that the native peoples of North America fared as well during the early centuries of European settlement. Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, has been quoted as saying that "the reduction of the North American Indian population from an estimated 12 million in 1500 to barely 237,000 in 1900 represents a 'vast genocide . . . , the most sustained on record.'" ]

Robert Traer, who teaches ethics at Dominican University and led the International Association for Religious Freedom from 1990 to 2000, wrote an article entitled "Speaking Truth" (Current Dialogue, World Council of Churches, #49). In it, he traced some of the history of both the pacific and belligerent strains of Christian and Islamic faiths, concluding:

"The contemporary Christian attempt to characterize the Christian tradition as more peaceful than the Islamic tradition is largely self-serving. As Christians, we know too little of Islamic history and have forgotten too much of Christian history, to make any such comparison. Moreover, most Christians in the United States do not realize that the war against terrorism, which is presently being waged by the Bush administration, on behalf of U.S. interests, is perceived by many in the world, and especially by Muslims, as a Christian crusade."

Michael Scheuer
The line being everywhere purveyed today is that radical Muslims seek to "destroy our way of life" and hate "our democratic values." Yet, the senior CIA person looking for Osama bin Laden starting in 1996, Michael Scheuer, wrote in 2004 (in Imperial Hubris) that "bin Laden has been precise in telling America the reasons he is waging war on us. None of the reasons have anything to do with our freedom, liberty, and democracy, but have everything to do with US policies and actions in the Muslim world." We must not forget, then, to ask the question of why any of our leaders would want us to think that it was for another reason. Simply, I would submit, because that alternate explanation absolves us any responsibility, removes any reason for us to examine our own assumptions or behavior, and puts the onus exclusively on those who oppose us. They must be opposed, we feel, because what they seek is nothing less than the end of our most cherished ideals. So, we say "bring it on," and go in with both barrels blazing. Unfortunately, as Jason Burke says (in Al Qaeda) "Every use of force is another small victory for bin Laden" [the Scheuer and Burke quotes were taken from Noam Chomsky's Failed States].

Post #133 - Take My Life....Please
The suicide bombers we all hear about have come from places such as Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom, not from Iran, but Iranians fully appreciate the overwhelming imbalance in the technology of war between the United States, the U.K. and Israel on the one side, and everyone else on the other. As in Algeria, when Algerians fought the French, or in France, when the people of Free French fought the Germans, those who fight with little in the way of armaments may feel themselves justified in using virtually any means available. This is not to excuse such tactics; Christians should condemn every instance of disregard for the sanctity of human life. It is simply to appreciate how the word "martyr" can mean the devout and pacific St. Stephen to one group of people (Christians), and the car-bomb driver to another group (some Muslims); a saboteur can be the hero in one context (such as service in the French underground) or the hotel-bomber (from Menachem Begun's Irgun) in another. Few Americans who watched Jim Brown drop bombs on German and French party-goers in a Nazi bunker (in the Robert Aldrich film The Dirty Dozen) felt that those guys were terrorists. The reason, of course, is that those whom they killed, even the women who had no direct role in the German war effort, were portrayed as emblems of evil -- deemed unworthy of compassionate consideration.

Jim Wallis writes in his recent book: “There is no symmetry in the violence of the Middle East today....Despite this lack of proportionality, there is no moral or strategic justification for the terrorist Palestinian violence targeted against civilians in response to Israeli domination,” and that is quite true. But, when one looks at those nations who do not enjoy “superpower” status (that is, all the other six billion-plus people on the planet), it is easy to grasp that tactics such as suicide bombing have come into existence where conventional means of waging a struggle are simply not available. The objective circumstances of the young Palestinian create the mental climate that makes suicide missions seem tenable. As James Baldwin said about ghetto-dwellers in our own country, "The most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose."

In modern times, suicide bombing began among the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, according to a study of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, but we can also point to the European anarchist bombers of the early twentieth century, Chechen separatist hostage-takers, or ghetto militants firing on police stations during the “long, hot summers” in America’s cities in the '60s, as manifestations of that which Baldwin warned of. Labels like "terrorist" or "freedom-fighter" should not be allowed to obscure the basic equivalence of human cost. Loss and suffering are experienced by human beings similarly, whatever the means of their infliction, be it crude IED's or sanitized high-tech weaponry. In any event, it is not a settled issue within Islamic thought, that suicide-homicide is ever permissible, even under the most extreme circumstances of defense-of-others. There are strong Koranic injunctions against both suicide and against the taking of innocent life. “He who slayeth anyone, unless it be a person guilty of manslaughter or spreading disorders in the land, shall be as though he had killed slain all mankind.” (Koran, Sura 5:34)

Cluster bomblets used in Southern Lebanon
Sacrifice was an element in the 2006 confrontation between Hezbollah and the Israel Defense Force in southern Lebanon. Israel's head of military intelligence at the time commented (according to Jimmy Carter) on the fact that the message – a highly-effective one, as it turned out – of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah to his followers was “to regain lost readiness to sacrifice, readiness to suffer.” And, there was the same imbalance in results: the death toll in southern Lebanon last year was 27 Israeli civilians killed in the bombardment with Hezbollah rockets and more than 800 Lebanese civilians dead or missing, with a million displaced for some period of time, according to former president Jimmy Carter.

It is important to note that people in what is termed the Muslim world are not predominantly supporters of suicide bombings directed at civilians. This spring's Pew Global Attitudes survey showed wide variance; grouping the results between positive (justified "often" or "sometimes") and negative ("rarely" or "never" justified), the Washington Post reported these findings:

Egypt         8% vs. 83%
Pakistan     9% vs. 81%
Indonesia   10% vs. 90%
Morocco   11% vs. 78%
Turkey      16% vs. 65%
Ethiopia    18% vs. 73%

(There were other countries that were higher in the "positive" column, but only in the Palestinian Territories did the "positive" percentage represent over half of the respondents. Moreover, the "negatives" -- those opposed to suicide bombings -- grew between 2002 and 2007 in nearly every country, including Palestine.)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Post #132 - Water that Burns, Bugs that Exterminate People

Kim Phuc, center, after napalm attack
The use of chemical and biological agents as weapons has been with us since ancient times, at least since the Peloponnesian Wars. In the 7th century C.E. “Greek fire,” a forerunner of what is used in a flame-thrower, was invented. Mustard gas, first used in 1917, was one of the aspects of the First World War that led so many to yearn for an end to war. During that conflict over a million persons fell victim to chemical agents, with 90,000 of them dying. The Vietnam War brought us “agent orange” (not intended as an anti-personnel weapon, but it proved curiously unable to distinguish between plants and persons) and an incendiary agent called "napalm."

Kim in 1995, with son Thomas
Though efforts have been made time and again to ban them, such weapons continue to be developed, refined and deployed. The United States stockpile of lethal chemical warfare munitions consists of various rockets, projectiles, mines, and bulk items containing blister agents (mustard H, HD, HT) and nerve agents (VX, GB), stored at eight sites throughout the continental United States. (We agreed, under international conventions, to destroy much of it by April 29, 2007; I am seeking confirmation of that.) In a 1998 assessment by the Federation of American Scientists, the United States exceeded “sufficient level” in every category -- production, dissemination, detection and defensive systems.

Eric Margolis, author of War at the Top of the World: The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet, wrote an article (April 1, 2007) on the subject of Iraqi chemical weapons for the Toronto Sun, where he is a contributing editor. Margolis, who served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and holds a degree from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, has reported from, and written on, the Middle East for many years. He calls himself “an Eisenhower Republican.” He confirms much of what Lando told Amy Goodman:

"'Chemical Ali' [sentenced to death in Baghdad in June 2007] was a brute of the worst kind in a regime filled with sadists. I personally experienced the terror of Saddam's sinister regime over 25 years, culminating in threats to hang me as a spy.
"Saddam Hussein and his entourage should face justice. But not in political show trials just before U.S.-'guided' Iraqi elections nor in Iraqi kangaroo courts. They should be sent to the U.N.'s war crimes tribunal in The Hague [and also] charged with the greatest crime he committed -- the invasion of Iran, which caused one million casualties.
"Britain, the U.S., Kuwait and Saudi Arabia convinced Iraq to invade Iran, then covertly supplied Saddam with money, arms, intelligence, and advisers. Meanwhile, Israel secretly supplied Iran with US$5 billion in American arms and spare parts while publicly denouncing Iran for terrorism.
Who supplied 'Chemical Ali' with his mustard and nerve gas? Why, the West, of course. In late 1990, I discovered four British technicians in Baghdad who told me they had been "seconded" to Iraq by Britain's ministry of defence and MI6 intelligence to make chemical and biological weapons, including anthrax, Q-fever and plague, at a secret laboratory at Salman Pak...Italy, Germany, France, South Africa, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Brazil, Chile and the USSR all aided Saddam's war effort against Iran...
"What an irony it is to see U.S. forces in Iraq now behaving with much the same punitive ferocity as Saddam's army and police -- bombing rebellious cities, arresting thousands, terrorizing innocent civilians, torturing captives and sending in tanks to crush resistance. In other words, Saddamism without Saddam..."

Our hands are far from clean.

Survivors of a chemical attack 25 years ago
In Tehran, in 2006, I spoke with officials of the Society for Victims of Chemical Warfare, and met survivors of the attacks on Iran's western border regions, like the father and daughter at left; she is a pulmonary cripple; he lost his wife and son on that day. Iraq used mustard gas (1800 tons), nerve agents like sarin (740 tons) and conventional bombs in such numbers that health systems and facilities in western Iran were overwhelmed. The atrocities documented to the United Nations and International Red Cross were repeatedly investigated, but the official UN findings came (uselessly) in August of 1988 -- after the war’s end. In a war crimes tribunal held in the Netherlands, a Dutch trader was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for his part in facilitating the mayhem, but no Americans were indicted. These crimes – second only to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the number of civilians affected -- oddly played no part in the judicial proceedings that recently led to the execution of Saddam Hussein. There are lakes in the western region where still no fish can survive today due to the residual contamination by WMD materials – chemicals and biological agents originally supplied by countries like the United States (e.g. American Type Culture Collection, a Virginia company) and Germany.

The Society's medical director, Dr. Shahriar Khateri, noted that despite international conventions to ban chemical weapons going back to the early 1800’s, “the demon [of WMD’s] is not dead, but only sleeping; we don’t know when it might be awakened.”

Another member of my delegation to Iran, Melissa Van, put it this way when writing to some members of her community back home in Staten Island: "[for Iranians] the idea of another war is...horrible. Everybody I talked to lost family members in that war – brothers, cousins, uncles, nephews – the war was incredibly devastating to the country. There are 50,000 still suffering from the effect of the chemical weapons Iraq used during the war."

Representatives of the Physicians for Social Responsibility (the U.S. affiliate of an international group that won the Nobel Peace Prize in the 1980's) and other U.S. groups have met with Dr. Khateri about finding ways to allow more Americans to know the facts of this period of Iranian history.

Post #131 - Martyrdom and Mayhem

When Ali, Hassan and Hossein (the cousin of Prophet Mohammad and his sons) were killed, they became, for Shi'ites, the foremost Muslim martyrs. One of the holiest days in the Shi'ite calendar (Ashura) is to this day a commemoration of the death – the martyrdom – of Hussein. As Reza Aslan puts it: "For the Shi'ah, the Muharram rituals signify a moral choice; they are a public statement that, in the words of one participant, 'if we had been there at Karbala [the site on the banks of the Euphrates of the battle in which Hussein died in 680 CE, in what is now Iraq] we would have stood with him and shed our blood and died with him.' " According to an Indian Muslim writer, Syed Salman Chishty, the significance of Karbala is today embodied in non-violence. In a January 2008 article, he quotes his countryman, Mahatma Gandhi as saying, "I learned from Hussain, how to be oppressed yet victorious." A Shi'ite believer in Tehran was quoted in another article as saying, "When they [the United States] bully us about our nuclear program, they use their might to impose their will upon us. Like Imam Hussein, we will stand up against oppression."

A VMI cadet named Garland, killed at New Market
For today's Iranians, the term "shahid" (martyr) most frequently means one those, mostly young men, who gave their lives during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Their age, and the ways in which they died are off-putting for many Americans partly because we have never, as a nation, faced a war for national survival. A comparison, though, could be made with the way many Virginians feel about the schoolboy cadets of the Virginia Military Academy who left their books and games and marched out to battle in support of the Confederacy. For Southerners, that was a battle for survival, and those youngsters are held up by many as brave martyrs for the cause (I grew up in Virginia and received the Southern version of the War Between the States with my milk and cookies).

A boy killed on the Iraqi front
David D. Perlmutter is political communications head at the prestigious Manship School of Communication of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge (where I have helped organize meetings for international journalists). He has written, “A basic definition of the mass killing of teenagers by other teenagers as directed by their elders.” During the bloody, eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, thousands of boys, aged 9 to 19, went into battle ill-trained and ill-equipped, leading the charge on difficult military targets, or clearing minefields simply by running into them. They literally “laid down their lives” for their fellow Iranians. Many of them are interred in a vast cemetery outside Tehran, which I have visited. Unlike our own armed forces cemeteries with their serried ranks of nearly identical white marble markers, this cemetery is a collection of highly-individualized memorials. Each of the dead lies almost shoulder-to-shoulder with his fellows. Their memorials, sheltered by corrugated fiberglass canopies, are maintained by the families of the departed. Each tombstone is inscribed with name and dates of birth and death, and carries a photo-etching of the person buried beneath, like the head-shot stapled onto a young graduate's resume. A glass-front cabinet holds memorabilia -- a high-school yearbook, a candle, photos of the young man with his friends, a medal earned in a swimming tournament. Fresh flowers adorn each grave, bringing to mind the cliché: “felled in the flower of his youth.”

This was not a war that Iran had sought. Their adversary was well-equipped by the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, including access to city-smashing missiles and chemical weapons like the ones which Saddam later used on his own citizens. Without these youths' sacrifice, one could ask, might Iran have become an eastern province of Iraq? Would there then ever have been a Gulf War or a U.S. invasion of Iraq? History does not allow “do-overs”, but it begs us to learn lessons. As George Santayana so famously said, “Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.”

George Orwell said, "Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind." Much has spoken and written about the "facts" on which U.S. involvement in Iraq was based. Here is more of the interview with Barry Lando, regarding U.S. aid to Iraq during the 1980's; I quote it at length because it is essential for us to understand what led up to the present impasse:

Amy Goodman: Didn’t senators at that time, including Robert Dole, go meet with Saddam Hussein?
Barry Lando: Right. Senators from the agricultural states went to meet with Saddam, because the US agricultural producers, rice farmers, wheat farmers, were supplying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of grain to Saddam, and they wanted that to continue.
Goodman: This was at a time when they understood that he had used chemical weapons.
Lando: Absolutely. Right. They had reports about what a tyrant he was. But first Reagan and then [G.H.W.] Bush wanted to continue US relations with Iraq. They saw Iraq as a fantastic market for the United States. It had the petroleum wealth...and they thought that U.S. businesses, high-tech corporations, wheat farmers, rice farmers, all could take advantage of these fantastic opportunities [in Iraq's rebuilding after war with Iran]. There were others in the [Bush] administration...who were arguing, “No, this guy, he’s a bad actor, and we should have nothing to do with him.” But George Bush, Sr. and James Baker pushed all along to keep good relations with Saddam and to have hundreds of millions of dollars of loans made to Saddam, so that he could continue to buy, purchase from the outside world, including very sophisticated weapons or material that could be used to construct weapons of mass destruction. There were Pentagon warnings...saying the Iraqis are buying material from us that can be used for weapons of mass destruction, and Bush and Baker made sure that those sales continued to go through, despite those warnings...
Goodman: ...You're talking about the Bush/Reagan years. Let's go back a little further, ... because in 1983, 1984, there's [sic] the two famous visits of Donald Rumsfeld, then the envoy for Reagan and Bush to Saddam Hussein, shaking his hand. Talk about what was known at that time and what he was doing there.
Lando: Well, in 1983 the Iraqis were already using chemical weapons against Iranian troops... They had been at war with [Iran] for about three years. And the Iranians were using kind of mass formations of child warriors running at the Iraqi lines, and so they found chemical weapons were quite effective, the Iraqis did. And the US knew this. And at the time, Iran asked for the United Nations to investigate the use of these illegal weapons. And the United States, I think England as well, helped block any attempt by the United Nations to investigate this. This is back in 1983. This is five years before they used it in Halabja [where many Kurdish were killed and injured].
And at the same time, Donald Rumsfeld was sent, as you say, by Ronald Reagan as a special envoy to talk with Saddam Hussein, because the US didn't have relations with Iraq at that point. They had cut them a few years earlier over the whole Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and that Saddam was apparently supporting terrorists, so the United States had cut diplomatic relations with Iraq. Rumsfeld went there to see if they could warm things up, because the United States wanted to help Iraq. They didn't want Iran to win the war. Also they wanted Saddam's help for political problems that they were having in Lebanon at the time.
So Rumsfeld went there, and he had a warning, a long briefing paper, from the State Department. One of the things concerned Saddam's use of chemical weapons. Rumsfeld talked about that with Saddam's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, but when he met with Saddam over an hour, he talked about all kinds of other subjects, but he didn't bring up the subject of chemical weapons at all.
And so, five or six years later, when Saddam used chemical weapons against the Kurds...the man who became known as Chemical Ali [Ali Hassan Majeed, sentenced to death in Baghdad in 2007], said, “The rest of the world? Who cares about the rest of the world if we use chemical weapons?” In other words, he already knew, in their experience with the Iranians, that the world would say nothing if they continued to use chemical weapons against their own people. And that, in fact, was the case.
...What has amazed me is that the press, particularly the American press, has made not a mention of American complicity in these crimes. Frankly, I don't understand why.... had [President Dwight D.] Eisenhower and [John Foster] Dulles [operating in the region with] the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953 in Iran. Then you had John Kennedy: in 1963, you had a nationalist ruler in Iraq, Qasim, and Kennedy's CIA and the Egyptians, who also didn't like him, joined together and they helped organize a coup in Iraq that overthrew Qasim. The Baath Party...Saddam Hussein was then a junior member of the Baath Party -- came into power.
They were -- the US liked them at the time. They were secular, strongly anti-communist, anti-Soviet. So they were seen as allies by the CIA. When they took over in 1963, the CIA supplied them with lists of suspected communists, militants, left-wing intellectuals, professionals, to be taken care of. They were picked up, tortured, and many of them were killed. We're talking about hundreds, maybe thousands, of people. Saddam Hussein then was one of the young torturers at that time...the Baath fell out of power again in 1968. There was another coup, and they came back in, and Saddam became the power behind the throne. It took him ten years to become formally head of Iraq, of the government in Iraq, but for most of that time he was already seen as the man behind the throne. He ran the secret police, and he used Stalinist methods to take over. He was a great admirer of Stalin. So in 1979, Saddam formally became the leader of Iraq.
Goodman: President Carter's role here?
Lando: ... Khomeini came to power [and] was seen as an enemy of the United States, which he was. And you had the hostages taken...from the embassy in Iran. And so, Carter...wanted to do anything he could to weaken Khomeini. So did the other states of the Gulf. The Saudis, the Kuwaitis were terrified of Khomeini and what he could represent to their hold on that region, because Khomeini viewed them as dictators, and he was for the national -- taking over the oil, petroleum resources of those countries, as well, not for himself, but for the people of those countries. He represented a major threat.
Jimmy Carter encouraged Saddam, via the Saudis, to invade Iran. That started a war, which lasted for eight years, longest war of the 20th century, resulted in at least a million people dying on both sides. And, of course, the United States, other Western countries, Soviets, sold arms, continued to support the Iraqis during that period, and when it looked, though, that the Iraqis might win -- because they didn't want either side to win, really -- they also sold arms to the Iranians, as well. So the battle kind of went back and forth for eight years, with many countries selling arms to both sides. And the United States, in fact, even gave intelligence aid to both sides. And in the end, as I said, a million people died because of that war.
Goodman: Gave intelligence on where Iranian soldiers were, to be gassed by Saddam Hussein.
Lando: Exactly. The US gave satellite information, more to the Iraqis, enabling them to target Iranian troop concentrations, even though the US knew that the Iraqis were using chemical weapons...

(My next blog will be specifically on weapons of mass destruction.)