Saturday, March 31, 2012

Post #230 - Visit to Laleh Land

More about the last stop on our 2006 trip:

Intercontinental (now Laleh) Hotel
Quite unexpectedly, we were asked to come to the swank, originally American-built Laleh Hotel in north Tehran for a meeting with Mr. Esfandiar Rahim Mashaai, Vice President for Cultural Heritage and Tourism [now a close adviser to President Ahmadinezhad]. When I served in the Peace Corps, this hotel (known then as the Intercontinental) was way beyond my price range. Elaine Sciolino, a reporter who arrived in Tehran on the plane carrying Ayatollah Khomeini in from France on the first of February 1979, stayed at the Laleh many times, and talked of it in her book Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran:

"Today the Laleh (which means “tulip, “ the symbol of martyrdom), is owned by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture, which also finds the hospitality business a good way to monitor the comings and goings of Western journalists…We lived through those heady and scary days when rival factions shot up the hotel looking for would-be enemies…the French Rotisserie [restaurant] stayed open even when armed leftist militias used its windows for target practice and hotel employees had to douse the leftists with fire hoses…"

After a short wait for the Vice President’s entourage to arrive at the conference room where we had been seated, Richard Deats, one of our group leaders, a past executive director of FOR and author of books on Gandhi, King and Muriel Lester, made opening remarks on behalf of the group and each of us introduced ourselves briefly.

Mr. Mashaai greeted our group, explaining that he had changed his plans in order to meet us. He said that he was supposed to be traveling with the Iranian President and a number of ambassadors, but believed that God wanted him to meet with the group from America because peace and goodwill between our nations is so critically needed.

The subject of the meeting – which lasted over two hours -- was our presence in Iran, the impressions we gathered, the message we sought to convey, and how tourism and other types of exchange might bridge the great divide that yawns between our two peoples. But in the backs of all our minds was the historical and political context in which we spoke. As Santayana said: “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” Our binational history includes certain facts:

  • My country is now [during the Bush era], and has been for some years, unpopular, unloved and feared in much of the world – after a long period of being admired and emulated.

  • Despite its rhetoric of freedom, my country has supported and encouraged a long string of tyrants and despots around the globe – unsavory people like Ferdinand Marcos, Idi Amin, Manuel Noriega, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan currently and, of course, Saddam Hussein.
  • Despite its cherished democratic ideals, my country has helped engineer the fall of democratically-chosen leaders – leaders like Salvador Allende in Chile and Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran – and has failed to endorse the democratic process when it leads to unpalatable results like Hamas’ recent victory.

  • My country has done more invading of other countries than any other nation during the past hundred years: the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq, to name just a few, and has now embraced a “first-strike” option -- “preemptive” war on our own initiative.

  • My country has been the nation with the deadliest and most complete arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, the only nation to use nuclear weapons in war, and currently the only one threatening to do so.

  • More specifically, the United States has built up a military presence on every one of Iran’s borders – Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east, Saudi Arabia to the south, Iraq and Turkey to the west and Kazakhstan to the north.

On the other side of the coin are actions by the Islamic Republic and its supporters that have helped drive the wedge between our peoples:

  • The bloodletting in the early months of the revolution – executions of individuals suspected of various offenses – serious or trivial – after hurried tribunals, stoning of those who transgressed the new rules of orthodoxy, morality or propriety.

  • The persecution – legal and non-legal – of Ba’hai’s and other minorities.

  • The suppression of dissent in the press and in the universities, and installation of “approved” staff in a variety of different civil institutions.

  • The U.S. Embassy takeover and the holding of fifty-two hostages without due process for 444 days and nights, and continuing incidents of the apprehension and prosecution of individuals on trumped-up charges.

  • Links between factions in the Islamic Republic and groups in the middle East such as Hezbollah.

Azar Nafisi, who lived in Tehran during the mid-nineties wrote about how things felt in 1995 (in Reading Lolita in Tehran:

"Life in the Islamic Republic was as capricious as the month of April, when short periods of sunshine would suddenly give way to showers and storms. It was unpredictable: the regime would go through cycles of some tolerance, followed by a crackdown."

One has the sense – from observing life on the Iranian streets, conversing with the common people, hearing from religious minority spokespersons and reading the press – that the swings of official mood are not as erratic or as wide these days as they were eleven years ago. Who can say what the future holds, but the country is young and the young are coming of age. It may well be the time for rapprochement between our countries, if it can be done carefully and with great wisdom and sensitivity.

The vice president, when asked a direct question about alternate ways to establish a meaningful dialogue, such as a congressional delegation from America, said that this sort of initiative would be welcome on the Iranian side.

We ended our most interesting day, as guests of the Vice President for dinner (though he had to be elsewhere) at the hotel’s swank rooftop “Tiki” restaurant, in good spirits, if slightly bewildered by the turn of events.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Post #229 - Wait for the Bombs, or Take Action

Mark Johnson, FOR executive director
In 1914, an ecumenical conference was held in Switzerland by Christians seeking to prevent the outbreak of war in Europe. Before the conference ended, however, World War I had started and those present had to return to their respective countries. At a railroad station in Germany, two of the participants, Henry Hodgkin, an English Quaker, and Friedrich Sigmund-Schultze, a German Lutheran, pledged to find a way of working for peace even though their countries were at war. Out of this pledge Christians gathered in Cambridge, England in December 1914 to found the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The FOR-USA was founded one year later, in 1915.

FOR has since become an interfaith and international movement with branches and groups in over 40 countries and on every continent. Today the membership of FOR includes Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and people of other faith traditions, as well as those with no formal religious affiliation.

One of their newest campaigns is an Iran Pledge of Resistance. The pledge reads this way:
If the United States applies increased sanctions, invades, bombs, sends combat troops or drones, or otherwise significantly escalates its intervention in Iran or the region directly or through support of its allies, I pledge to join with others to engage in acts of legal protest and/or nonviolent civil disobedience to prevent or halt the death and destruction which U.S. military actions would cause to the people of Iran, the Middle East, our communities at home, and the planet itself.

FOR asks those who visit them on-line (at for identifying information, along with some questions:

Are you...

-- willing to participate in nonviolent civil disobedience and/or civil resistance?
-- willing to participate in legal protest to stop a war on Iran ?
-- interested in organizing with friends to form a local Affinity Group?
-- interested in connecting with other Pledge signers from my area?
-- interested in coordinating and/or initiating local organizing around the Iran Pledge of Resistance?
-- interested in hosting a public sign-on event in your community?

A related campaign was done around the Persian New Year, which falls near the end of March each year and signals the start of Spring -- the biological beginning of a new annual cycle of life. They say, in their public outreach:

Norouz mubarak! Norouz is the Persian/Iranian New Year. It represents love, life, and freedom. Norouz, which begins today, is based in the renewal of the earth. But crippling sanctions and the daily threat of war are not giving Iranian families the best opportunity to celebrate the rebirth of nature with our generous Mother Earth.

This Norouz, join with the Fellowship of Reconciliation; join hands with our Mother Earth to call for respect for life and rebirth. This Norouz join FOR to say Yes to Life and No to Death and Destruction.

Join the Fellowship of Reconciliation by contacting your congressional representatives to invite them to celebrate Norouz with you. Invite them to respect our Mother Earth’s demand for peace among all of her children.

This Norouz is an opportunity for a call for diplomacy. With the renewal of the earth, our politicians can revisit their policy on Iran. Call or write your representatives in the House of Representatives and the Senate -- our allies at FCNL have provided a toll-free number for this purpose: 855-NO WAR (855-688-6927)
Urge your legislators to respect life by finding ways to support diplomacy with Iran rather than issuing threats of war and increasing sanctions.

Download supporting materials from FOR’s website. We have assembled several resources into one simple and downloadable PDF document to help you engage your congressional representatives’ offices by phone, mail, or email. You will find talking points on the political conflict between our nations, a fact sheet on Iran, and a recent statement by FOR on Iran.

Leila Zand, FOR Iran Program director
We also encourage our supporters to support the campaign against war with Iran being led by United for Peace and Justice, of which FOR is a national endorsing organizational member, and to sign and join the Iran Pledge of Resistance initiative that UFPJ has launched.

P.S. Can you chip in $5 to support our campaign to prevent war with Iran? Please put “Iran Norouz” in the “In Honor Of” field — thank you!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Post #228 - Modern City, Ancient Faiths

Continuing our 2006 trip, back in Tehran...

Delegate Ona Owen, who had traveled extensively in her native Canada, Singapore, the UK and countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa, was in Tehran during the reign of the last Shah as a member of the Canadian foreign service. She and I both noticed obvious changes – a population that has grown to almost 70 million, better streets (hence, less dust) with more traffic, extensive and ongoing construction in the northern part of the city, and more landscaping and beautification. But, in other ways, the city remained the same: there are still the jubs or water channels running beside most streets, the bazaar merchants still bargain with their customers, the snow-covered Alborz mountains still loom above the city skyline. The air pollution in the capital was minimal as we toured the city, but later in summer it will again sting the eyes and may even force a shut-down of the capital on the worst days. Part of Iran's isolation, due to the sanctions, is lacking access to pollution control technologies and environmental planning ideas.

§ § § § §

Back at the Howeyzeh Hotel (where we had stayed at the beginning of our tour), I managed to get on-line and saw a report of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting on Capitol Hill. I was encouraged by the fact that experts on Iran were at least getting a hearing. Dr. Robert Einhorn (Center for Strategic and International Studies) said: “We must recognize that regime change is the prerogative of the Iranian people, not the policy of the United States.” Kenneth Pollack, director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy (Brookings Institution) counseled avoidance of sanctions and military intervention. Sen. Dodd of Connecticut explored the appropriateness in the present circumstances of tactics such as those used in the Israeli strike against Iraq’s nuclear facility in 1981. Sen. Biden of Delaware asserted that direct negotiations were, for this administration, “not simply a wise choice, but a requirement!”

§ § § § §

In the last of our private group gatherings to share experiences and help one another make sense of them, members like Nancy (“Jo”) Lane, who has been active with Neighbors for Peace and Code Pink, marched with Cindy Sheehan and worked with people in the barrios of East Los Angeles, wondered how we would translate all we had seen and heard into something coherent for “the folks back home” (in her case, South Pasadena, CA).

§ § § § §

Arash Abaie
At a synagogue near the center of Tehran – one of twenty in Tehran, we met with Mr. Arash Abaie. He is part of the second oldest Jewish community (after the land of Israel). Jews have lived in Iran for some 2,700 years; they were welcomed by Persian emperor Cyrus the Great, who liberated them from bondage in Babylon. About 25,000 now live in the country (only about 12% of the number who lived there before 1979); nominally Sephardic, but with some Ashkenazi traditions. Contrary to some misconceptions held in the West, Jewish-Iranians – who Mr. Abaie said are “first Iranian, then Jews,” most of their culture being Iranian – have the option of attending their own or mainstream schools (those attending public schools, about 60%, may still opt for Jewish instead of Islamic religion classes, and may still attend Hebrew school weekly). Jews have played a major role in the preservation and performance of traditional Iranian music, as Islam has placed restrictions on Muslims doing so. Abaie edits a Jewish magazine, gives lectures, prepares curricula for Jewish students, and participates in interfaith dialogue. (Interestingly, for us, distinctions of Orthodox, Reform or Conservative Judaism do not exist in Iran.)

There are several seats in the majlis or parliament designated for minorities, based roughly on current population figures (currently two Armenian Christians and one each Zoroastrian, Jewish and Assyrian). Equal employment opportunity, equity in inheritance and allocation of government funds for minority services are now a part of Iranian law. The hijab can be dispensed with in synagogue, and Jews can dance at weddings or other special occasions within their own community. Abaie acknowledged that discrimination does exist, nonetheless, an example being the case a couple of years ago in which thirteen Jewish citizens were arrested and charged for what he said was “no reason”. Also, no direct travel to Jerusalem is permitted, and there are no rabbinical schools within Iran.

The exception to the toleration in law and practice (such as that shown Christians and Jews) are the followers of Ba’haism. Although the sect began in Iran, it is viewed as an aberration and a Muslim heresy; tied up in some minds with stories of foreign manipulation and deceit (and with its world headquarters being located in Israel), this faith community has had the hardest time of it since the revolution, with arrests, voluntary exile and deaths having depleted the Ba’hai population of Iran, though it is still one of the largest minority religions in the country.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Post #227 - Getting Through, Despite Everything

Leaders are supposed to be in a position to know what's they?

(CNN) -- It is not possible to dial an Iranian number from an Israeli telephone. It will simply not go through. That lack of communication stems from the government level, where there is no dialogue between the two countries aside from public speeches meant to carry weighty threats of war to each camp.

That is why it was so difficult for Ronny Edry, an Israeli graphic designer based in Tel Aviv, to get his message across to the people of Iran. "My idea was simple, I was trying to reach the other side. There are all these talks about war, Iran is coming to bomb us and we bomb them back, we are sitting and waiting. I wanted to say the simple words that this war is crazy," said Edry.

Using his graphic design skills and his wife's help (she is also a graphic designer), he plastered memes over pictures of himself, his wife, his friends and his neighbors. He then posted them on the Facebook page of Pushpin Mehina, his small design school, with a resounding message:

we will never bomb your country
We *Heart* You.

The response, said Edry, was overwhelming. "In a few hours, I had hundreds of shares and thousands of likes and it was like something was happening. "I think it's really amazing that someone from Iran poked me and said 'Hello, I'm from Iran, I saw your "poster" on Facebook,' " Edry said. "I thought it was crazy because I never spoke to an Iranian in my life. I woke up my wife: 'There is someone on Facebook from Iran!' " He posted his designs for anyone to take and plaster over their own photos. The photos and posts have been flooding the page.

Edry says he started the campaign to get past the harsh words and talk directly to Iranians to see whether there really was anything to fight about. (Iran's nuclear development program is causing alarm in Israel and its Western allies. Critics in the West say Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon while Iranian officials insist their nuclear program is for peaceful energy generation only.)

Edry has received thousands of messages from people in Iran sending a statement to Israel, he said. He shared one private message from Iran, without revealing the identity of the sender: "We love you too. Your word reaches out there, despite the censorship. And Iranian people, aside from the regime, have no hard feelings or animosity towards anybody, particularly Israelis."

One post on the Pushpin Facebook page says: "We share a common history, have been sharing both our great and ancient cultures, languages and poetry together. ... We are so similar, and politicians cannot cut a tie that has been tied thousands of years ago. I am proud to have you as my friends."

Not all the responses to the campaign were positive, however. One meme says "Iranians We *Heart* You SO MUCH we are coming over."

The first meme was posted Wednesday, and Edry says he hopes the dialogue will not end merely with Iranians and Israelis. He noted the tension involves more than these two countries and he would like to include allies and neighboring countries in the conversation. "The idea is to put the message out there that we don't want this war."

"At the end of it, I will be the one doing this war. Bibi is not going to take the gun," he said, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanhayu, "I will have to. Before I go into another war, maybe I check this one a bit better."

When asked whether this style of campaign could work with Israelis and Palestinians, Edry said that it was probably already past that point, but now Israel has the chance to capitalize on an opportunity to start fresh with another regional neighbor. "We are [right next to] Palestinians, so communication was not a problem. This situation is different because [Israel is] now just starting to talk to Iran," he said. "And maybe just by talking we can end it."

In an Israel Public Opinion survey by Shibley Telhami and the Dahaf Institute conducted February 22-26 among a nationally representative sample of 500 Israelis (margin of error is +/- 4.3%), only 19% of Israelis expressed support for a pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities without U.S. backing. And while 45% believe an Israeli strike would weaken the Iranian government, 44% believe it would actually strengthen it.

The United States has pushed for a nonmilitary solution, including tougher sanctions and diplomatic negotiations. The growing tensions between the two countries have already impacted other countries as well: Israel blamed Iran for a Valentine's Day bombing in Thailand and for a bombing the next day in India that targeted Israeli diplomats.

I know the whole "Rodney King" thing has become cliche, but...really...why can't we all get along??

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Post #226 - A Tale of Two Cities

Continuing with the Qom portion of my trip report...

At the theological school of Jami’at Al-Zahra (Isamic University for Women), we were met by administrators and faculty of this institution that includes 900 foreign students from over 40 countries. After a period of language training, students can pursue a two-year certificate, a BA or an MA in Islamic Spirituality and Shi’ite Studies. Short courses are also offered (in Persian, English, Arabic and Turkish), and other curricula are done for high schools. The seminary serves 4,000 residential and commuter students, and another 8,000 through distance-learning.

Meeting at Imam Khomeini Education & Research Institute
Among those who spoke with us was Mr. Mohammad Ali Shomali, PhD, head of the Department of Religions at Imam Khomeini Education & Research Institute (and holder of a degree from a university in the UK), his wife Ms. Mahnaz Heydarpoor (one of the school’s deans and author of Love in Christianity and Islam). We also met Mrs. Laurie Pierce, an American Mennonite participating in a Canadian exchange program, in Qom with her husband Matthew and their toddler Ramona. Members of the December delegation (who also met them) had written:

"Laurie, who is studying Persian literature, said that aside from missing family and the bother of having to dress in a chador, life was quite alright. Occasionally she and her husband are asked why they don’t convert to Islam, but once they tell people they are comfortable being Christians, the matter is dropped. When asked if people feel free to talk about politics, Laurie said that’s all they ever talk about!

"She praised the improvements in health and education that have occurred since the revolution. Compared to Egypt, where there is so much poverty, Iranians are better off, she thought. The economic gap is growing in Iran, she added, but for now, no one goes cold or hungry."

§ § § § §

Although Qom is the smallest province in Iran, it is arguably more the center of power than Tehran. A geological feature of the area might hold some symbolic significance for America's dealings with the government of Ahmadinezhad. One writer on the history of the city notes:

Salt Lake outside of Qom
"One of the wonders of this governate is that there is a sandy land near it, which no one can walk in. Whoever enters this land will sink as if he sinks in water and mud and he cannot save himself from that. The river of the city flows until it reaches this sandy land to sink in it."

North of Qom we passed the large Salt Lake -- where it is reputed that the Shah’s savak (secret police) agents once dumped bodies they needed to dispose of, to be swallowed up my the lake and eventually dissolved by its minerals – looking like a vast snowfield in the midst of the desert.

§ § § § §

Later, we passed automobile-sized mounds of earth that were evidence of the vertical shafts dug to connect with "qanats," the underground canals – some centuries old – that feed domestic and agricultural areas with the water from mountain springs. These qanats, which can be as much as twenty miles or more in length, must be planned, dug and kept flowing by individual workers who descended through narrow shafts dug from the surface. Species of fish have evolved in the channels that are colorless and blind, never having seen a ray of sunlight, a bit like some of the Iran "experts" in our State Department, cut off from any direct knowledge of the Islamic Republic.

§ § § § §

Imam Khomeini Mosque (near Tehran)
Imam Khomeini’s Shrine is still under construction beside the highway on the outskirts of Tehran well beyond the city’s busy avenues and neighborhoods. It will be an impressive sight – with minarets of 91 meters tall (commemorating the age of the leader at his death) when completed. But it already seems a bit removed from the life of the people in the capital, who must make a special trip to pay homage to the “father” of the Islamic Republic.

§ § § § §

 Martyrs section, Behesht-e-Zahra Cemetery, Tehran
Before reentering Tehran, our bus pulled off the road, down a cedar-lined lane and into the heart of the huge Behesht Zahra, the main Tehran cemetery. We stopped in the special section for the shahid or “martyrs” of the Iran-Iraq War. Perhaps I had unconsciously expected something akin to the serried ranks of white monuments that one sees at Arlington or other American military graveyards, but I was unprepared for the very different approach taken here. Each of the deceased was the subject of a small, but lovingly elaborated memorial. Most had a locked, glass-front display case at eye-level containing objects of importance only to the martyr’s family or friends – a photograph from carefree days, an medallion of athletic achievement, a souvenir of his studies or hobbies. Below this was a grave marker with inscriptions carved into stone; beside it loved ones had planted shrubs, flowers or vines. Each was as personal as it possibly could be, as individual as each young “martyr” had been in life, and rows of them went on as far as one could see. The dates of births on the markers were sprinkled across the sixties, meaning that many did not see their fifteenth birthday before they gave themselves bodily to the war. Without their sacrifice, would Iran have become a province of Iraq? Would there ever have been a Gulf War or a U.S. invasion of Iraq?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Post #225 - Planning for Prevention

The Council on Foreign Relations, an independent, nonpartisan think tank founded in 1921, published a "Contingency Planning Memorandum" in the fall of 2009, on "An Israeli Strike on Iran." This was part of their Center for Preventive Action contingency planning activity. Written by Steven Simon, it is still relevant today in large part, so I would like to share some excerpts.

In its introduction, the paper states:

"Within the coming year, the Israeli government could decide, much as it did twenty-eight years ago with respect to Iraq and two years ago with respect to Syria, to attack Iran’s nuclear installations in order to delay its acquisition of a weapons capability...

"This contingency planning memo assesses the likelihood of an Israeli strike against Iran despite U.S. objections, the implications for the United States should it take place, the policy options available to reduce the chances of its occurrence, and the measures that could be taken to mitigate the potentially negative consequences."

The author then goes into possible strike plans:

"An Israeli attack would likely concentrate on three locations: Isfahan, where Iran produces uranium hexafluoride gas; Natanz, where the gas is enriched in approximately half of the eight thousand centrifuges located there; and Arak, where a heavy water research reactor, scheduled to come on line in 2012, would be ideal to produce weapons-grade plutonium...[and possibly] other sites...such as the recently disclosed Qom site, whose location is known, or centrifuge fabrication sites, the location(s) of which have not yet been identified....

"Israel is capable of carrying out these attacks unilaterally [the details of likely aircraft and weapons are given, AP]...[but] a coordinated air attack would be complicated and highly risky. The three plausible routes to Iran involve overflight of third countries:...[either] Turkey...Jordan and Iraq [or]...Jordan, Saudi Arabia and possibly Kuwait...if...[one of] these countries...detects Israeli aircraft and chooses to challenge the overflight using surfaceto-air missiles or intercepting aircraft, Israel’s intricate attack plan, which would have a razor-thin margin for error to begin with, could well be derailed....

"The sheer distances involved pose a challenge, as well. The targets lie at the outermost 1,750kilometer range limits of Israeli tactical aircraft...

"A final consideration...would be the effect of explosives on the nuclear materials stored at the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan and the enrichment facility at Natanz...the release of uranium into the environment would almost certainly raise public health concerns due to heavy metal contamination."

Simon moves on, then, to assessing the chances of such an attack by Israel:

"The likelihood of this contingency depends on Israeli assessments of U.S. and international resolve to block Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability; the state of the Iranian program; the amount of time a successful strike would buy to be worth the expected risks and costs, a point on which there is a spectrum of Israeli views, from six months to five years; whether Israel believes there is a clandestine Iranian program, which would lead some Israelis to conclude that an attack would not buy any time at all; and the effect of a strike on the U.S.-Israel relationship...

"If Iran were to agree to ship the bulk of its uranium to France and Russia for enrichment...Israel’s incentive to accept the risks of an attack against Iran would probably diminish. Should diplomatic initiatives run aground, the likelihood of an Israeli attack could be expected to increase accordingly.

"[Iranian statements regarding] Holocaust denial and the inevitable disappearance of Israel only strengthen the hand of attack proponents within Israel by justifying fears about Iran’s intentions...

"Israeli officials are aware that no conceivable Israeli strike could completely eliminate the nuclear threat posed by Iran and that an attack might only intensify longer-term risks as Iran reconstituted covertly...

"In assessing the likelihood of an attack, it is useful to look back on the origins of the Six Day War in 1967 and the raid on the Osirak reactor in Iraq. In each case, Israel attacked only after a long period of procrastination. In 1967, Washington’s hands-off posture tipped the balance in the cabinet in favor of preemption. In the case of Osirak, the Carter and Reagan administrations’ unwillingness or incapacity to intervene left Israel feeling cornered and compelled to act unilaterally. One lesson to be learned from this is that Israel is more likely to use force if it perceives Washington to be disengaged.

"Finally, if the Russian analysis is correct—namely, that the sort of crippling sanctions that would help stave off an Israeli attack would also drive Iran out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) — then the probability of an Israeli strike would be correspondingly higher, since Iranian withdrawal from the NPT would itself be a casus belli. Moreover, Iran’s withdrawal would diminish the diplomatic opportunity cost of an attack."

What are the consequences Simon sees following an attack?:

Some...would view an Israeli beneficial to U.S. counterproliferation objectives and ultimately to U.S. national security...At the same time, an Israeli attack—even if operationally successful—would pose immediate risks to U.S. interests.

"First, regardless of perceptions of U.S. complicity in the attack, the United States would probably become embroiled militarily in any Iranian retaliation against Israel or other countries in the region...

"Second, an Israeli strike would cause oil prices to spike...[they] might hit $200/bbl (up from the current level of around $77/bbl) for a short period ....

"Third...U.S. efforts to foster better relations with the Muslim world would almost certainly suffer... A narrative less infused by anti-Americanism...facilitates counterterrorism goals and, from a longer-range perspective, hedges against regime change. The perceived involvement of the United States in an Israeli attack would undercut these interlocking interests, at least for a while.

"Fourth, the United States has a strong interest in domestically generated regime change in is more likely that Iranians of all stripes would rally around the flag...[and] the opposition Green movement would be undermined, while the ascendant hard-line clerics and Revolutionary Guard supporters would face fewer constraints in consolidating their hold on power.

"Fifth, an Israeli attack might guarantee an overtly nuclear weapons capable Iran in the medium term.

Sixth, Israeli-Palestinian final status accord remains elusive -- an Israeli strike, especially one that overflew Jordan or Saudi Arabia, would delay fruitful renewed negotiation indefinitely.

Finally,...[e]ven if an Israeli move on Iran did not dislocate the bilateral relationship, it could instead produce diplomatic rifts between the United States and its European and regional allies...

And what can the United States do to forestall a strike? Simon suggest several things, including that we:

"-- make progress toward a verifiable, highly transparent agreement with Iran that will make it very difficult to produce highly enriched uranium and/or weapons-grade plutonium, and secondarily to weaponize...

"-- [develop] a presidential visit to express solidarity with Israel and emphasize measures the United States is taking on the nuclear issue would be helpful.

"-- extend to Israel the option of a defense treaty with the United States...[including a provision that would give] unambiguous security guarantees to Israel that it would be covered by the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” so as to deter Iran...[though] other states that felt threatened by Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would likely demand similar coverage if it were extended to Israel. Finally, the United States could also consider the option advocated by former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, that of the United States actively impeding an Israeli attack once it is under way. It is hard to imagine, however, that the United States would risk the severe—even per-manent––damage such action would incur on its longstanding strategic relationship with Israel."

The author delineates possible policy options in the event that a strike does occur; he says that "the United States must also plan for managing and minimizing the crisis that would ensue if the primary policy fails and Israel does in fact attack Iran. Such planning should include the following steps:

". work with basing countries—especially Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—on first response, consequence management capacities, and intelligence exchanges;

. ramp up air defenses and force protection in the Gulf and Iraq;

. discuss the possibility of Iranian retaliation and responses with Iraqi president Nuri al-Maliki
and senior Iraqi security officials;

. approach Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait with requests to increase oil production should Iran attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz, attack shipping, or damage transloading facilities or offshore installations;

. ensure the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve is sufficient to offset shortages if necessary;

. use diplomatic and intelligence channels to urge increased readiness levels in friendly countries
where there is an Iranian Revolutionary Guard or a Hezbollah presence; and

. provide additional ballistic missile defense capabilities to Israel to defend against potential Iranian
retaliation. "

In order to facilitate these kinds of measures, Simon recommends that "the United States and Israel should establish a high-level back channel to explore the issues raised by Iran’s behavior and share views about managing them... keep up the pressure on Iran...[and] begin preparing for an Israeli attack on Iran and Iranian retaliation. This will be a thorny process insofar as defensive measures the United States takes in the region, or urges its allies to take, could be read in Tehran as preparation for an attack and thus cast as justification for further destabilizing Iranian action."

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Post #224 - Words from the Mouth of God

Continuation of my 2006 trip report:

Next stop: The Holy City of Qom – the “Vatican” of Shi’ite Islam, and under Muslim control since just 25 years after the flight of Mohamad to Medina – where most of the senior leadership of Iran had their theological training. The town has tripled in population since the Islamic revolution, to a present-day one million – not counting as many as half a million Afghan and Iraqi immigrants and thousands of foreign students. We were booked into the International Hotel, just a stone’s throw from the major shrines and mosques of Qom.

§ § § § §

From the hotel, we walked through gathering twilight as the multicolored electric lights of the bazaars and mosques came on. Our first meeting with a Muslim cleric took place near the Astaneh (“holy shrine”) of Hadrat e Fatima Ma’soumeh, which receives some 15 million visitors annually. The subject of the shrine was daughter of the one of the imams of Shi’ism, and sister and aunt of his successors (7th, 8th and 9th imams); it has been said that this shrine is “the cornerstone of the city, and [the place] by which the birth certificate of the holy city had been written.” We were offered tea and cookies, gift-wrapped selections of publications on Islam, and then conversation with Mr. Rahim Samadi, a member of the Islamic International Foundation of Cooperation, a sort of outreach to the world by Qom’s “secretariat”.

We learned that one need only utter the "adhan" (“There is no God but God, and Mohamad was his prophet”) in order to be considered a Muslim. Samadi explained that Islam rests on three main principles: the unity of God, Mohammad as his prophet, and the faith in resurrection following final judgment. Further, he indicated that Shi’e Islam includes a belief in the "imamat" (or leadership by specially-distinguished holy persons), and the concept of divine justice. Two books – the Holy Qoran and what is sometimes called “The Keys to Paradise” – prayers, conversations and visitations – constitute the main Islamic scriptures. He spoke of the contexts in which supplications might be offered: certain days, certain places of significance, on certain occasions, and by certain persons (such as those who are repentant, lovers, etc.). The conversation about theology was continued over dinner, as two Islamic scholars joined us at the hotel restaurant – one of them, Sheikh Ahmad Hanif, had been born in Trinidad, Jamaica, but had moved with his family to Toronto as a boy. He converted to Islam under the influence of Malcolm X. Hanif had been studying in Qom for over twelve years, and lived there with his wife and four children.

In his recent book (No God But God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam), the young Iranian-American scholar Reza Aslan asserts: “One could argue that the clash of monotheisms is the inevitable result of monotheism itself. Whereas a religion of many gods posits many myths to describe the human condition, a religion of one god tends to be monomythic; it not only rejects all other gods, it rejects all other explanations for God.” Yet, Aslan writes in another passage, “Muhammad never claimed to have invented a new religion. By his own admission, Muhammad’s message was an attempt to reform the existing religious beliefs and cultural practices of pre-Islamic Arabia so as to bring the God of the Jews and Christians to the Arab peoples.

"‘[God] has established for you [the Arabs] the same religion enjoined on Noah, on Abraham, on Moses, and on Jesus,’ the Quran says (42:13).” And, Aslan says “because neither ethnicity nor culture nor race nor kinship had any significance to Mohammad, the Ummah [the Muslim community at Medina], unlike a traditional tribe, had an almost unlimited capacity for growth through conversion.”

It is difficult to assess the actual degree of openness to religious tolerance, ecumenism and interfaith dialogue that exists among the leadership of the Islamic Republic. Because it is both a political entity and a center of Shi’e Islam, one cannot easily weigh the importance of a Persian history of peaceful co-existence, the passions aroused by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the sometimes contradictory utterances of IRI officials. It has been suggested that “constructive ambiguity” is almost a tool in the diplomatic toolbox of Iranian leaders, since having outsiders off-balance can be a source of strength, balancing superior force of arms or economic clout enjoyed by their antagonists.

§ § § § §

A special after-hours tour of Qom Astaneh Museum gave us an opportunity to see examples of the various arts associated with Islamic culture in Iran, from textiles to metalwork. (The representational art of the miniature and romantic Persian book illustrations were absent, from the museum, though they are omnipresent in the bazaars.)

Fittingly, for the first time since I had arrived in Iran, here in Qom I heard the muadhdhin’s voice carrying the adhan or call-to-prayer to the ears of believers – the dawn prayer which ends with “prayer is better than sleep.” It stuck with me as I took the breakfast buffet with my fellow-delegates – bread, yoghurt, melons and tea, and Western add-ons like cereal and sausage.

The Library of Ayatollah Sayed Shahab Al-Din Marashi Najafi was one of the most amazing things we saw in Iran. This repository of old manuscripts stands as a memorial to the selfless dedication of its founder and namesake, a teacher and scholar who was originally from Najaf, in Iraq. Najafi, according to our host and guide, Library president Dr. M. Mar’ashi, collected money over many years of poverty and deprivation to purchase priceless items that otherwise might have been destroyed or lost to museums and libraries in far-flung parts of the world: Coptic texts in Amharic from the 12th Century, an 800-year-old Latin psalmestry, a play by Shakespeare in the bard’s own hand, meticulous and beautiful Arabic calligraphy of the Holy Qoran and examples of Persian poetry and prose. He was an embodiment of the Sufic expression about service: “I will not serve God like a laborer, in expectation of my wages.” [Rabia El-Adawi]. To gather these treasures, Najafi worked multiple jobs, fasted and prayed as a surrogate for others – while writing some 150 books himself. His own donation of over 30,000 manuscripts began what today is a precious collection, kept in prime condition by a team of scientists and artisans who literally fill the holes left by bookworms or reverse the damage done by mold, termites and neglect. When he passed away in 1990, three days of mourning were declared and millions mourned his passing. His worldly wealth at the time of his death amounted to less than $10.

Sr. Ellen Francis, once married to an Iranian, had received her master’s in library science from Tehran University; she was gratified to see the advanced techniques of restoration and preservation that are in use at this extraordinary facility. Most of the holdings of the Library have been deposited with the [U.S.] Library of Congress on microfiche to ensure they will never be lost to scholars and bibliophiles.

The curator of the library was presented with several titles in English by delegate Gray Henry-Blakemore, who runs Fons Vitae, a publishing house she started in Louisville, KY, which distributes works on spiritual (especially Islamic) subjects. Gray embraced Islam some years ago, and studied for years at a theological school in Egypt.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Post #223 - The Nail that Stands Up Gets Hammered

Rom Kampeas (a Washington-based reporter/bureau chief for the Jewish news service, JTA) several weeks back wrote this piece, entitled "GOP pols a-Pauled" on the interface between international politics and the American electoral season (I have edited slightly for length). Clearly, some of what he wrote has been overtaken by events, but the information regarding possible impacts of a distinctly different approach to foreign policy are nonetheless interesting. (Some feel that a second-term Obama could be a distinctly different president...)

Ron Paul's unlikely rise in the Republican presidential race has Jewish conservatives on edge.  The Texas congressman had been regarded as a fringe figure whose views, especially on foreign policy - including his opposition to the U.S.-Israel alliance - put him far outside the Republican mainstream.

But new polls show Paul in a dead heat in Iowa with Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives....

In response to Paul's surge, Jewish conservatives have launched a counteroffensive, trying to spread the word among the Iowa grassroots about his views on Israel and Iran, as well as about his past associations with race-baiting rhetoric. Dan Lederman, a state senator in South Dakota who is active in the RJC and remains influential in the Republican Party in neighboring Iowa, his native state, described a typical outreach effort over lunch with Iowa Republican voters.

"I brought up a lot of subjects," Lederman, who backs Gingrich, said in an interview. "His views on national security, the white supremacy thing, foreign policy, the stance that having a nuclear Iran is okay."

The hope among those spreading the word is that Iowans would take these views to Christmas week get-togethers and that Paul's support would recede by Jan. 3, when the Iowa caucuses take place.

The Republican Jewish Coalition has made much of its refusal to invite Paul to its Dec. 7 candidate's forum, attended by all the other main candidates. "He's just so far outside of the mainstream of the Republican party and this organization," RJC executive director Matthew Brooks said at the time, explaining that inviting Paul to attend would be like inviting Barack Obama to speak....

After Paul said in a Dec. 15 Iowa debate that he did not believe that the evidence necessarily supported the contention that Iran was seeking a nuclear weapon, other candidates pushed back. 

"This truly makes me nervous when I hear that type of rhetoric out of Dr. Paul," Texas Gov. Rick Perry told ABC News the next day. "We cannot have a president of the United States that basically is so hands-off to a country like Iran that they say, 'It's not our business, we're not going to get involved.' "

[The controversy surrounding newsletters sent some years ago over Paul's signature were also referenced, but are omitted since they were not relevant to the Iran issue., AP]

Over the weekend, a former longtime congressional and campaign aide to Paul emerged with new revelations. Eric Dondero, who says his mother is Jewish, and who considered challenging Paul for his congressional seat in 2008 - five years after he left Paul's employ under disputed circumstances - wrote an article insisting that Paul is not a racist or anti-Semite, but that he is anti-Israel. "I can categorically say that I never heard anything out of his mouth, in hundreds of speeches I listened too over the years, or in my personal presence that could be called, 'anti-Semite,' " Eric Dondero, wrote on the Right Wing News website. "He is however, most certainly anti-Israel, and anti-Israeli in general," Dondero continued. "He wishes the Israeli state did not exist at all. He expressed this to me numerous times in our private conversations. His view is that Israel is more trouble than it is worth, specifically to the America taxpayer. He sides with the Palestinians, and supports their calls for the abolishment of the Jewish state, and the return of Israel, all of it, to the Arabs."

Dondero also wrote that Paul repeatedly said that saving Jews was not reason enough for the United States to have entered World War II. Paul's campaign dismissed the claims, telling media Dondero was a "disgruntled" fired staffer who had "zero credibility." But Dondero's claim about Paul's hands-off view toward the Nazis and the Holocaust was backed up by Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, a blogger at the conservative BigGovernment website, who recounted an exchange he had with Paul in 2009.

"I wouldn't risk American lives to do that," Shapiro quoted Paul as saying when asked if it would have been worth entering the war "purely as a moral imperative" to save Jews. "If someone wants to do that on their own because they want to do that, well, that's fine, but I wouldn't do that," Paul allegedly said.

Given Paul's views, some are predicting a backlash against Iowa's first-in-the-nation contest if Paul should manage to pull out a win in the Iowa caucuses. The idea that someone with those views could win Iowa have led a number of conservatives to wonder pre-emptively whether the state caucuses are truly representative of the national party. Lending credibility to its image as a promoter of outliers, Iowa's Republican caucuses admit voters who have registered as late as the day of the caucuses - something critics say allows the participation of activists not otherwise sympathetic to the party. "If Iowa can't sniff out such characters, why put it in charge of the winnowing?" said Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post's influential conservative blogger.

Paul, first elected to Congress in 1974, left the party in 1988 to run for president on the Libertarian ticket. He practiced medicine from 1989 until 1996, when he returned to Congress as a Republican - but only after besting a massive Republican establishment effort to defeat him led by Karl Rove, the adviser to then Texas Gov. George W. Bush...

Meanwhile, the website of Pat Buchanan, another cold-on-Israel conservative who upended the party when he won the New Hampshire primary in 1992, has taken up Paul's defense. "The principled, antiwar, Constitution-obeying, Fed-hating, libertarian Republican congressman from Texas stands firmly outside the bounds of permissible dissent as drawn by either the Republican establishment or the mainstream media," said Timothy Carney, a contributor to Buchanan's website. 

Carney said things would get "ugly" for Paul should he win Iowa. Paul's campaign website returns the favor, quoting liberally from Buchanan's writings. It is not clear if Buchanan - who himself bolted the Republican Party in 2000 for a Reform Party presidential run - is endorsing Paul.

Paul's staying power is allowing Democrats to depict Republicans as unwilling to forcefully repudiate the congressman for his foreign policy views. "The Republican National Committee and Jewish Republicans need to pivot quickly from rhetoric to an education campaign in Iowa to ensure that Republican voters who care about the U.S.-Israel relationship understand where Paul stands on Israel," David Harris, the National Jewish Democratic Council president, wrote on The Huffington Post.

In fact, the RJC and others have aggressively pushed back against Paul in recent weeks. While Paul has led the pack among young voters in Iowa, some expect that the state's large number of evangelicals could prove to be a stumbling block for him. "They are very upset with his position on Israel," said Harlan "Bud" Hockenberg, an RJC activist who for decades has been a leader in the state's Republican politics.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Post #222 - Where the Collateral Damage Lives

More from our 2006 trip:

Dave Robinson
Reaching Natanz proper, we parked in a quiet neighborhood at the Jom’e Mosque, a smaller mosque, but one full of interesting examples of Persian calligraphy and tilework, largely intact. Dave Robinson of Pax Christi, a national Roman Catholic peace group, posed next to a niche in one wall of the mosque, taller than himself, which had once been a mihrab (an alcove indicating the direction of Mecca) decorated with fine examples of Islamic decorative art; it is now only bare cinder blocks, the colorful ceramic tiles having been stolen and reinstalled in a gallery in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

§ § § § §

After leaving the mosque, we crossed the small courtyard to a pottery shop and atelier, where I bought a small vase. I didn’t notice when I bought it, but it was later pointed out to me that on it, in stylized calligraphy, were words from a poem of Hafez: “My heart tells me that someone like Jesus – with the breath of life – is coming my way.”

§ § § § §

We were expected for lunch at the Allameh Majlesi girls home. This private facility, set up by a kindly mullah is operated for girls or young women who are orphaned, or whose families cannot provide support and guidance for them. The most delicious food of our trip was spread out on a sofreh (a cloth covering the floor, around which guests are seated) – fesenjoon (a stew of goose, ground walnuts, pomegranate syrup, sugar and spice), tahchin (chicken, with crusty, tasty rice), mast o khiar (a seasoned yoghurt and chopped cucumber mixture), sangak bread still warm from the open-hearth oven and the ubiquitous Iranian tea. After dining, a series of challenging and fearless questions from the girls, and gracious hospitality of the cleric, Mr. Ansari, who runs the home, left us all with a warm memory to cherish whenever the name “Natanz” comes up. Robinson, in a report he made to his Pax Christi membership, wrote:

"Noora is seventeen years old. She wants to be an engineer. A victim of parental abuse by her drug addicted parents, Noora lives at Alame Majlesi…She and the other two dozen teenagers that live [there] are like teenagers anywhere. They share the same hopes, fears, dreams and aspirations that all young people have.

"These young women…are anonymous participants in this unfolding fiasco. Few people have ever heard of Alame Majlesi. But everyone has heard of Natanz. In a patch of desert just 10 miles outside town lies the Uranium Enrichment Facility (UEF) that has become the fulcrum point in the standoff with Iran over the future of its nuclear energy program. It is also ground zero in the U.S. plans to wage another preventive war.

"Physicians for Social Responsibility modeled an attack on these facilities, concluding that 2.6 million people would die within the first 48 hours. From the PSR report:

From our map we can see that within 48 hours, fallout would cover much of Iran, most of Afghanistan and spread on into Pakistan and India. Fallout from the use of a burrowing weapon such as the B-61-11 would be worse than from a surface or airburst weapon, due to the extra radioactive dust and debris ejected from the blast site. In the immediate area of the two attacks, our calculations show that within 48 hours, an estimated 2.6 million people would die. About two-thirds of those would die from radiation-related causes, either prompt casualties from the immediate radiation effects of the bomb, or from localized fallout. Over 1,000,000 people would suffer immediate injuries including thermal and flash burns, radiation sickness, broken limbs, lacerations, blindness, crush injuries, burst eardrums and other traumas. In the wider region, over 10.5 million people would be exposed to significant radiation from fallout, leading to radiation sickness, future excess cancer deaths, genetic abnormalities in future generations, as well as high rates of stillbirths, miscarriages, malignancies and hypothyroidism. Most if not all medical facilities near the two attack sites would be destroyed, or located within the radiation ‘hot zone’ and thus unusable. Little or no medical care would be available to the injured in the aftermath of an attack, leading to many avoidable deaths.

Robinson concludes:

"So where does this all leave Noora and the other young women of Alame Majlesi? Their future is a stark question mark. If the U.S. succeeds in gaining international economic sanctions against Iran, they will surely exacerbate the impact on the already weakened Iranian economy, further cutting off job opportunities, perhaps cutting back on Alame Majlesi’s ability to maintain its current services (they were the first such home for abused teenagers in Iran 10 years ago) and probably even strengthen the conservative Iranian regime and precipitate a backlash of ultra-conservatism that will additionally marginalize women in the Islamic state. If the U.S. mounts a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, Alame Majlesi and the young women it serves will be vaporized in a millisecond.

"In the last century, 62 million civilians were killed in wars, versus only 43 million military personnel. So it is today in Iraq, with the number of civilian casualties – Iraqis and others -- mounting with each month that goes by. Iran, if that country is subject to nuclear attack, will be worse."