Monday, October 29, 2012

Post #368 - Games People Play

White House Situation Room
An interesting exercise was hosted recently in Washington by Newsweek Magazine. Below is a report on tt by Dan Ephron (with Sara Begley), published 10/8/12. It points up several important aspects of the imperfectly-foreseeable future: 1) Israel, through its actions/inaction in the near term, has the ability to hurt President Obama, but not to help either candidate; 2) Iranian response to an attack would likely be not just asymmetrical, but not even attributable, giving that country a "PR" advantage in much of the world, as the victim of a preemptive strike; and 3) (if this is not belaboring the obvious) "Washington could quickly lose control of events after an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities."

Iran War Game  

Will America get pulled into another Mideast war? We hosted a ‘war game’ with former U.S. officials to find out.


It’s 5 in the morning when the phone rings at the beachfront home of Dan Shapiro, the American ambassador to Israel. On the line is Rafi Barak, the head of Israel’s foreign ministry, sounding tense. Israel has struck six Iranian nuclear facilities overnight, causing extensive damage, he says. Israeli’s foreign minister will soon be calling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with details.

Thirty minutes later, Shapiro and a team from the U.S. Embassy that includes the military attaché and the CIA station chief arrive at Israel’s Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv for a briefing. Operation Whirlwind, they’re told, involved dozens of Israeli warplanes; covert landings in Ethiopia, India, and Saudi Arabia; and a complicated choreography of electronic jammings and midair refuelings. One Israeli plane went down during the offensive, but the rest of the operation, a huge undertaking for Israel, went off cleanly.
In Washington, President Obama’s national-security adviser quickly convenes a meeting of top aides and cabinet secretaries. The president is on the campaign trail, but he wants his team to discuss the crisis and make recommendations by noon. Early in the discussion the advisers rule out American military action, for now at least, and agree that Washington’s aim is to lower the flames in the region. “The goal of short-term policy should be not to escalate, to try to contain this,” one of them says. In their memo to the president, they list the administration’s top objectives, including protecting Americans in the region, minimizing the impact on the world economy, and defending Israel from Iranian reprisals.

Open Zion's Peter Beinart offers his prediction on whether Israel will attack Iran soon. 

But as the discussion winds on, the scenarios in which America finds itself dragged into the conflict seem to multiply. By the end of the meeting, one participant puts the odds at 50 percent of the U.S. having to use military force against Iran in the aftermath of Israel’s assault. Others suggest it’s even higher. “We could be at the front end of a major escalation to a Mideast war,” one of the advisers observes.

An Israeli attack on Iran would present the United States with one of the most complicated and vexing situations the country has faced in decades. The scenario outlined above—the outcome of a recent simulation conducted by Newsweek—offers one version of how events might play out. The simulation, known among military planners as a “war game,” aimed to understand what factors would shape the decision-making in the Obama administration. Specifically we wanted to know: what would happen if the Israelis strike before the U.S. election in November?

Although in recent weeks it has looked like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is backing away from an attack, an October surprise cannot be ruled out. In some ways, the perception that an Israeli operation is no longer imminent makes the coming weeks a more appealing window for Netanyahu to order military action. “The hour is getting late,” the Israeli leader told the United Nations General Assembly in September. “Very late.”

As part of the war game, Newsweek convened seven former political and military officials and staged a mock meeting of the “Principals Committee”—the team the president calls on for recommendations about matters of the highest importance. Assuming the roles of Obama’s key advisers, including his chief of staff, his national security adviser, secretaries of state and defense, directors of National Intelligence and the CIA, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the panel was roughly analogous to the group Obama consulted before ordering the operation against Osama bin Laden last year.

Former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack, now at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Mideast Policy, prepared detailed briefing papers on the Israeli attack, during which Israeli strikes knocked out some facilities but left other key parts operational. The documents indicated that Israel had set back the Iranian nuclear program with its attack but hadn’t managed to destroy it. They also outlined international responses to the operations: denunciations across Europe, rocket attacks on Israel by Iran and the Lebanese Hizbullah group, and small-scale street protests around the Muslim world.

The “principals” filed into a boardroom at the Brookings Institution in Washington at 8 a.m. on a recent Friday, as newspaper headlines announced two new developments in the Persian puzzle: riots in Iran over the plunging value of its currency and heightened tensions between Iran ally Syria and its neighbor to the north, Turkey. The team included two former CIA deputy directors, Richard Kerr and John McLaughlin; two people who served in senior positions at the Pentagon, Rudy deLeon and Bing West; the former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta and the veteran diplomat Thomas Pickering.

The men had all crossed paths in Washington over the years and seemed comfortable with each other—two of them bantered before the meeting about their experience during the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. All came in jackets and ties but shed a layer before the discussion got underway.

Running the meeting, in the role of Obama’s national-security adviser, was Bruce Jentleson, a Duke University political scientist who advised the State Department during the Clinton and Obama administrations. In opening the discussion, he compared the Iran situation with the Cuban missile crisis—America’s nuclear standoff with Russia in 1962. “Our predecessors in the Kennedy administration ... had their own pressures in time, with their own huge stakes. Yet they were careful and creative and shrewd,” he said. “We want to do at least as well, if not better.”

Pollack, in his memo to the team, -wanted answers to several questions, including: Should the U.S. join the attack or stay out? What should Washington do to protect Israel from reprisals? And, if the administration decided to hang back, what actions by Iran could essentially press Obama into war in the region—America’s third in 11 years?

Principals Committee meetings often start with assessments by intelligence directors. In ours, Kerr, as the CIA chief, predicted worse things to come: Iran would likely step up its attacks on Israel, and, viewing Washington as implicitly involved, could try indirectly to strike at American targets as well. The easiest ones might involve U.S. troops in western Afghanistan or in Iraq. In both cases Iran would likely operate through proxies, keeping its fingerprints off the operations. Kerr, who in real life helped manage the nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan in 1990, said the administration should also brace for Iranian cyberattacks, another way for Tehran to lash out at Washington from behind a wall of anonymity. “They will be very cautious about a direct confrontation with the United States, but there are a number of things ... they might be able to do,” he said.

In what could easily cause shock waves to the world economy, Kerr also warned about Iranian attacks on ships in the Persian Gulf. (Some 20 percent of oil traded worldwide flows from the Gulf out through the Straits of Hormuz.) “I don’t think they’ll try to close the Gulf, but they can make the Gulf a difficult place to operate in, and raise the cost for everybody,” he said.

McLaughlin, in the role of director of National Intelligence, said street protests in the Muslim world could precipitate the kind of violence that killed four Americans in Libya last month, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Not everyone agreed. Kerr estimated that the Gulf countries would be happy to see Tehran cowed and that Sunni Muslims would not come out for Shia Iran. But McLaughlin pointed out that the ouster of autocrats across the region in the past two years meant the Muslim street was less predictable. “When the street would get a little wild, Mubarak would send out his henchman and would take care of it,” he said, referring to the former Egyptian president. “That doesn’t exist anymore.”

The assessments helped frame a main quandary of the discussion: how to scale back the tension without signaling to Iran that the U.S. was weak or hesitant, a message that might tempt Iran to actually escalate the violence; and how to put distance between the U.S. and Israel, which explicitly defied Obama in launching the operation, without emboldening Iran and, again, potentially raising the flames.

Pickering, as secretary of state, outlined a plan to protect Americans, including locking down U.S. embassies in the region and calling on U.S. citizens to leave Muslim countries at once. The panelist with perhaps the most direct experience in the region, Pickering had served as the ambassador to Israel and Jordan and represented the U.S. at the United Nations. Others around the table discussed how the U.S. would respond if Iranian speed boats attacked American ships in the Gulf. “They can cause a huge tanker to go down, or hit one of our ships and cause us to lose 100 or more Americans in a minute,” remarked Bing West, in the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He said the military didn’t like the idea of waiting around to be attacked and would rather take the initiative—essentially proposing the U.S. attack Iran preemptively. “If you’re going to say you’re going to defend your citizens, you’re going to defend your forces ... then the military is telling you, you need to do that by operational offense, not defense.”

West proposed a 10-day military campaign to neutralize much of Iran’s offensive capability. Others ruled out such an operation for the time being but agreed that an Iranian attack on an American ship would trigger a broad military response against Iran’s Navy. “We have multiple ways of taking on their assets,” said Rudy deLeon, in the role of defense secretary. Podesta, as Obama’s chief of staff, asked lightheartedly if the uranium--enrichment plant at Fordow was part of the Iranian Navy. In other words, he wanted to know if the U.S. would see an Iranian provocation as an opportunity to destroy those parts of Iran’s nuclear program still standing after the Israeli attack. The question raised chuckles, but Podesta predicted later in the discussion that an escalation would likely result in American strikes on Iran’s remaining nuclear facilities.
So, while the team would urge Obama to focus on de-escalation, it was also acknowledging that much depended on Iran’s actions after the Israeli operation. An Iranian attack on American targets would inevitably lead the U.S. to war.

The participants had some disagreements over how to deal with Israel—no surprise there, given the Obama administration’s difficult relationship with Netanyahu. DeLeon said the U.S. should be ready to resupply Israel with whatever weapons it needed. (The U.S. maintains depots of reserve munitions in Israel and can make them available to Netanyahu on short notice.) He also suggested the U.S. tender to help rescue the Israeli pilot whose plane crashed in Iranian territory—an offer other panelists felt was imprudent.
DeLeon and Podesta argued for a firm statement of support for Israel and its security. “We need to be clear on the security relationship with Israel,” deLeon said. “Even if we’re angry [with Netanyahu], we need to show we have their back.” But Pickering said the U.S. should be careful not to include words that Israel would construe as a blank check for further military action. He advocated a more subtle message emphasizing that de-escalation was in Israel’s interests. “You don’t say, ‘Israel can do anything it wants and we’ll continue to support them and there is no red line.’?”

Their differences aside, the panelists agreed any Iranian reprisal that killed large numbers of Israelis would trigger American military action against Iran—and, again, put the U.S. on a possible path to war. “That Rubicon would be presented to us if the Israelis suffer massive casualties,” McLaughlin said.
In perhaps the most startling remark of the meeting, McLaughlin estimated there was a 10 percent risk Iran would use chemical weapons against Israel in response to Operation Whirlwind, assuming it could mount chemical warheads on its medium-range missiles. In that case, he said, the administration had to take into account the possibility that Israel might launch nuclear weapons at Iran. (Israel is thought to have an arsenal of at least 200 nuclear warheads, though its policy is to neither admit nor deny it.) “I think the Israelis would then have to say, ‘Do we stay conventional?’ And that’s almost unthinkable. But they would have to ask that question.”

A consensus was starting to form around five objectives that Obama should aim to achieve: protecting U.S. citizens, avoiding participation in another war, preventing tremors to the world economy, keeping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and protecting Israel and other U.S. allies from Iranian reprisals. Jentleson, the national-security adviser, pointed out that some objectives might come into conflict with others and suggested the participants prioritize them. Pickering put protecting U.S. citizens at the top and defending Israel at the bottom, though he said objectives two through five were all closely ranked. “If you’re conveying it in a proper fashion, you put the first one across the top and put each one [of the rest] in a box underneath,” he said. The conversation drifted elsewhere before the others could offer their own prioritizing.

Several participants voiced concern that the Israeli assault would, perversely, undermine Washington’s ability to keep Iran from getting the bomb. They estimated that Tehran would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) after the attack and expel international observers from their facilities—something Iranian leaders might have been looking for an excuse to do. “I think there’s a chance this is a gift to the Iranians,” McLaughlin said, describing the Israeli operation as a possible “get-out-of-the-NPT-free card” for Iran. Without the observers, the U.S. would have a harder time determining what Iran was doing at Fordow, Natanz, and the other sites, and, specifically, at what level it was enriching uranium, a key component of nuclear weapons. On top of that, given international anger at Israel over the attack, the broad weave of international sanctions against Iran that Washington has pulled together over the past year would likely fray. “We have to avoid the rapid unraveling of sanctions,” Podesta said.

Sometime near the end of the meeting, West offered a catalog of probabilities for the situation the U.S. now faced. He estimated the chances of Israeli deaths in the Iranian retaliation at 100 percent and the likelihood that Israel would strike back at Iran at 50 percent. The odds that the Arab street would erupt were somewhere around 50 or 60 percent, West said, which meant that the risk of “terrorists killing Americans are pretty gosh-darn high.” Those conclusions led West to ponder the chances that the U.S. would end up using lethal force against Iran. “And after listening to the conversation all morning, I put it at ... 50–50, it’s almost a coin toss,” he said. DeLeon’s response: “I think it’s higher.” Pickering: “I agree.”

How closely did the discussion resemble an authentic Principals Committee meeting? Kerr told me in an email later that the simulation took him back to the administration of George H.W. Bush, when advisers had to guide the president through such crises as the invasion of Kuwait or the coup attempt against Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev. Other participants said it felt genuine with one caveat: in real-life meetings, intelligence analysts might not allow themselves to be so opinionated.

I wondered whether the weight of the pending election would not have asserted itself more directly on the discussion, given how high the stakes were for the president.

Obama is in the final lap of a tight race against Mitt Romney, and though his poll numbers have risen in recent weeks the precariousness of a war or a major foreign crisis could cut his lead overnight. The immediate knockoff effects on the economy (a spike in oil prices, a tremor in world markets) would do further damage. When I asked presidential historians about other commanders in chief who faced wars or major security crises late in their terms, they pointed to three: Harry Truman (the Korean War), Jimmy Carter (the Iran hostage crisis), and George W. Bush (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). All three left office with the lowest approval ratings of any president in the modern era (Truman at 32 percent, Carter and Bush at 34 percent).
Jentleson addressed the issue of the election head on, conceding early in the meeting that political considerations were unavoidable. “We know what the date is, we know what the calendar says,” he told the panel. “My sense is that our role is to be politically pragmatic enough not to make recommendations that even we know are politically impossible,” he said, insinuating perhaps that Obama could not realistically turn his back on Netanyahu, no matter how angry the attack made him.

Several analysts I spoke to said that type of discussion would likely come up in smaller forums, between the president and his political advisers, not at a Principals Committee meeting. One Washington insider told me that’s where more hard-nosed considerations might be factored. “You could imagine Obama saying to one or two people that if the imminent election forces him to clean up Netanyahu’s mess, he wouldn’t forget who made the mess,” he said. But Podesta instructed the panelists to ignore the electoral clock. “I think the president will want everyone to be absolutely clear there are no politics in this situation,” he said at the meeting. “There’s going to be an inevitable discussion in the media about what the political effect of whatever we’re going to do is. We just have to largely try to ignore it.”

No matter what role politics play, the upshot of the simulation is a sobering one: Washington could quickly lose control of events after an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. If Iran attacks Americans or goes after Israel too aggressively, even an administration wishing to avoid another war in the Middle East might find itself in the middle of one.

Post #367 - Iranian-American Sentiments

This gives the results of a recent survey done among the membership of the National Iranian American Council.  It shows that even among most of those in the diaspora who oppose the current regime in Tehran, outside intervention is rejected as a viable way to support progress in Iran:

NIAC Member Survey Shows Growing Concern about War and Sanctions
Thursday, October 18, 2012
By: Nobar Elmi - News
Over the last decade, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) has been steadily growing in size, strength and political influence. With approximately 4,000 dues-paying members and 43,000 supporters who subscribe to our emails and attend our events, NIAC is the largest Iranian-American grassroots organization. I'd like to emphasize the word "grassroots." Why? Well, because this word means a lot to me personally and to the organization as a whole.
To put it simply, NIAC could not exist without the support and guidance of our grassroots membership. Not only do they write and/or call in to regularly offer feedback and suggestions, but their financial support provides approximately 70% of our operating budget.
Perhaps what is most valuable is our members' role in shaping our agenda on an annual basis. They do this by participating in our members-only survey.  The results help us determine how best to focus our efforts and resources as well as how to prioritize our policy positions. And, the results of this year's survey are clear.
Concern about war with Iran has only intensified since our last member survey, and our members overwhelmingly chose to keep preventing war as NIAC’s top priority.  Concern about sanctions aimed at the entire Iranian population has also grown, with the issue rising to the second priority. NIAC members made supporting human rights in Iran, supporting the civil rights of Iranian Americans, and promoting Iranian cultural heritage the third, fourth, and fifth priorities, respectively.
Here’s more on the issues:
Preventing War: NIAC members emphatically selected preventing war and promoting a peaceful solution to the US-Iran conflict NIAC’s top priority. 74% made it their top priority, and 15% made it their second highest priority. Asked to rank their priorities 1 through 5, preventing war averaged 1.4, with 1.0 being the highest possible number.
Opposing Broad Economic Sanctions: NIAC members made opposing broad economic sanctions that hurt the Iranian people their second priority, with an average rank of 2.5. 86% of NIAC members “oppose sanctions aimed at Iran’s entire economy,” while only 7% disagreed with this position.
Supporting Human Rights: Supporting human rights in Iran was ranked as the third highest priority with an average ranking of 2.9. A strong majority further supported targeted sanctions against human rights abusers in the Iranian government, and NIAC will continue to support targeted human rights sanctions.
Supporting Civil Rights of Iranian Americans: Supporting the civil rights of Iranian Americans was selected as the fourth highest priority, just behind human rights in Iran, with an average ranking of 3.1.
Protecting Heritage: NIAC members ranked protecting Iranian cultural heritage, such as the Persepolis Tablets, as NIAC’s fifth priority for the year ahead. The issue ranked 3.8.
437 dues-paying members participated in this year’s survey, making it larger than the sample sizes of other surveys done of our community at-large. Although not a scientific survey of the entire community (as the survey measures the views of our active members), past NIAC member surveys have corresponded with the results of scientific community-wide surveys.
Based on the results below, the year ahead promises to be busy and, at times, difficult. But, by unifying as a community to take action and be heard, no hurdle is too high. We all know there is power in numbers, so we look forward to working together to accomplish our goals and increase our community’s political influence.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Post #366 - Whom to Believe?

This rather unsettlingly ambiguous report was published on Huffington Post (10/20/12) by Chris Gentilviso:

"U.S.-Iran Nuclear Talks: White House Denies Report Of 1-On-1 Meetings"

The White House has denied a report of the U.S. and Iran agreeing to one-on-one nuclear talks.

On Saturday evening, the New York Times released a piece claiming that the two nations had agreed to take this step for the first time. The paper cited "intense, secret exchanges" between officials from both countries that had been developing since President Barack Obama took office -- culminating less than 48 hours before 2012's presidential debate on foreign policy.

Shortly after the Times' report went live, the White House released a statement from National Security Council Spokesperson Tommy Vietor, calling the report "not true."

"It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections. We continue to work with the P5+1* on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally. The President has made clear that he will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and we will do what we must to achieve that. It has always been our goal for sanctions to pressure Iran to come in line with its obligations. The onus is on the Iranians to do so, otherwise they will continue to face crippling sanctions and increased pressure."

Back in late September, both Obama and Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered speeches at the U.N. General Assembly. Obama directly addressed nuclear weapons, noting that while the U.S. prioritizes diplomacy as its top path with Iran, the time to reach an agreement "is not unlimited."

"Make no mistake: A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained," Obama said on Sept. 25 in New York. "It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear arms race in the region and the unraveling of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That is why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that is why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."

A day later, Ahmadinejad charged that his nation was threatened by "uncivilized Zionists," appearing to point a finger at the United States. [Ed. note: it is unclear why the author would not have assumed this was a reference to the Government of Israel, -- AP]

"Are we to believe that those who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on election campaigns have the interest of the people of the world at their hearts?" he said.

So, the truth of the matter is not immediately evident -- perhaps we will never know. One can only hope that things are developing as they did during the scary thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis -- with individuals who possessed cool heads and feeling hearts working behind the scenes to avoid armageddon.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Post #365 - Double-down on Denial

This was published on-line by the American Jewish Committee (10/18/12):

"AJC Urges European Parliamentarians to Cancel Deplorable Iran Visit"

Brussels – AJC is calling on members of the European Parliament to cancel their planned visit to Iran this month.

“For European lawmakers to make an official visit to Iran is shockingly absurd when the 27-member European Union has unanimously imposed ever-tightening sanctions on Iran for its reckless behavior that endangers global security,” said Daniel Schwammenthal, director of AJC’s Transatlantic Institute in Brussels.

“The EU’s latest sanctions package, adopted on Monday, is a dramatic reminder that relations with Iran cannot be business as usual,” Schwammenthal added. “The European Parliament delegation is, in effect, undermining the EU’s efforts.”

The reported 15 European Parliamentarians from six countries are slated to arrive in Tehran on October 27 for a six-day visit. European lawmakers last visited Iran in 2007.

The Europeans plan to discuss with Iranian leaders several issues, including human rights and drug trafficking. In July, Iran hosted an international conference on drug trafficking at which Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi delivered a vile anti-Semitic speech.

In August, Iran hosted the Non-Aligned Movement summit, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, despite vociferous objections, participated. “Even the UN Secretary General could not persuade Iran to change its positions on its fast-moving nuclear program, support for the Assad regime in Syria, calls for Israel’s annihilation, and violations of human rights. Just as his visit was counterproductive, so will be the European delegation’s overture,” said Schwammenthal.

Among the most disturbing meetings on the draft schedule for the visiting Europeans is a session with Iranian Chief Justice Sadegh Larijani, who was sanctioned by the EU in March for his role in human rights violations. “European officials reaching out to the regime will be a blow to the morale of dissidents suffering in Iranian prisons and throughout the country,” said Schwammenthal. 

Also on the draft schedule is Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president of Iran. An Argentinian judge issued an arrest warrant for Rafsanjani, in 2006, for his role in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.

No self-respecting Western officials should offer any legitimacy to the Iranian regime which defiantly ignores the will of the international community,” said Schwammenthal. “How can they even think of going to Tehran at this time?”

My response would be "How can they NOT think of going to Tehran at this time? There are various ways to get into a war and a variety of ways to avoid going to war. The latter usually includes elements such as patience, clearheadedness, willingness to take risks and humility. To talk with one's adversaries or antagonists is clearly a step that can lead to movement toward peace. The old saw says "familiarity breeds contempt" -- but it takes isolation and ignorance to breed real hatred.  Since diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States were severed almost twenty-five years ago, things have certainly not improved for any of the players in this drama; isn't it time for a different approach?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Post #364 - Man on the (Tehran) Street

This comes from Frontline's Tehran Bureah (10/18/12).  Consider that those interviewed have supposedly been operating in a news vacuum, with information controlled by their government....

"The US Election as Seen by Iranians"

If there were global statistics regarding which nations have been paying the most attention to the U.S. presidential campaign, Iran would probably be at the top. The crushing sanctions imposed over the past year aimed at forcing Iran to curb or abandon its nuclear program have created more pain than ever for average Iranians. They see President Barack Obama as prepared to effectively destroy their country's economy even as he has shown that he is not eager to launch a military strike on the Islamic Republic.

On the other hand, they consider former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as George W. Bush redux, and many believe that, if elected president, he will order a military attack on Iran.

"I believe it would be better if Romney was elected. We will suffer for a month, and then we will be all set," says Ali Reza, 34, who peddles jeans around Rah Ahan Circle in south Tehran. What if armed conflict turns Iran into another Iraq? I ask. "That would be a catastrophe, by God!" he replies. "What can I say? They are both awful choices. Our luck here is that whichever way we turn, it's a misfortune."

Heading up to Vali Asr Square, I get into the front seat of a cab. The driver, Mahmoud, is playing a pop tune on his stereo. I ask him who he prefers, Obama or Romney. "This Islamic Republic that we see here needs a fist over its head. Obama has made a fool of himself for four years. Someone has to come and put these guys in their places."

Across from the Tehran City Theater stand three young adults -- two women and a man, students at the nearby Art College. I ask what they think of the American political system. Laleh, 21, says, "The two U.S. parties seem the same to me, except that the Democrats keep their cards over the table, while the Republicans keep them under the table. But the Democrats are quite slick."

I ask for her election prediction. "If Romney wins, Obama's long-term programs will be put aside. But it is clear that Obama will win."

Houman, 24, says that he has enjoyed following the campaign. "It's become complicated. It is very close."

Who does he prefer? I ask.

"There's no difference!"

"Not at all?"

"Their Iran policies match. Obama will have to get fervid too."

I remind him that Romney has criticized Obama for not interceding on behalf of the Green Movement after its rise in 2009. Houman says, "Yeah, I was totally against interceding. It would have made things worse."

I ask if he believes there would have been any difference if Romney had been in office? "Obama chose that position at the request of the Green Movement leaders and their own calculus. If Romney believes in the Green Movement, he should study some of Mir Hossein Mousavi's communiqués."

Mousavi, the reformist former prime minister, issued a series of communiqués during and after Iran's 2009 presidential campaign, of which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner amid widespread accusations of electoral fraud. In his seventh of these statements, Mousavi said that the regime's crushing of domestic media outlets was opening the door to foreign intervention.

In his ninth communiqué, issued in July 2009 after the postelection protests and their violent suppression by the authorities, he added, "No matter how bitter this situation, it's a feud between kindred, and we will regret it if we act immaturely and involve outsiders."

Houman glances at his watch and sees that he has time to continue with the conversation. "The Republicans who attack Obama about the Green Movement didn't speak up back then."
And Romney?

He replies, "He is better than other Republican candidates, more moderate and more realistic." He adds, "He seems to be a more intelligent person compared to George Bush's team."

With no security agents visible in the immediate vicinity, Golnoosh, who appears to be Houman's girlfriend, is clasping his arm. "The issue of Iran has no effect on the U.S. voters," she says. "Look, [former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger in his recent interview said the same things about Iran as [Ambassador to the United Nations] Susan Rice and [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton have said. American foreign policy has never been so homogeneous over the last decade." How so?

"Because they have gone through major crises, like the Iraq war and Bin Laden, and nobody relishes making up new crises."

Houman agrees. "Obama himself knows that this is not the time to attack Iran."

"The Republicans lament that America's greatness has been tarnished around the world," I offer. "Wouldn't a military attack on Iran rejuvenate American supremacy?"

Golnoosh says, "There is no doubt that the U.S.'s prominence has been sullied, but that is due more to the effects of economic difficulties than to foreign policies."

Houman again supports her position. "American supremacy hasn't declined because of Iran or al-Qaeda. If the U.S. attacks Iran, will China shrink? Will Russia? No."

Golnoosh says, "Economically, Obama has acted well. He can restore supremacy without war."
"You saw how Obama played his trump card?" she adds, referring to the U.S. Labor Department's announcement of the drop in the unemployment rate to 7.8 percent, the lowest rate in three and half years.

The next day I talk to Jallil, the owner of an Internet café. He staunchly supports a U.S. military attack on Iran. He jokes, "If Obama promises to attack Iran, he'll have my vote.

"Second, because AIPAC is so abnormally powerful, Israel has become a ridiculous red line for these people [American politicians], while they have no such influence in France, Germany, and England."

Jallil says that he watched interviews with Democratic and Republican politicians during their parties' respective conventions. "These people acted differently as soon as Israel came up, as if Israel has priority over everything else. As you saw, Obama himself has come out and said that 'my country's interests have priority over Israel's.' Imagine, when the president of the United States says such a thing and it's considered weird. Why should it be weird when a president talks about his country's interests?"

Of course, not everyone in Iran is following the U.S. presidential campaign and American political issues so closely. In Ekbatan, a west Tehran neighborhood developed in the 1970s, I meet Mahmoud, an Afghan laborer. As he struggles to lift a heavy stone with a pulley, he says, "I like the black guy. I only ask that someone comes [to power] that makes the economic situation here better." He continues to pull on the rope and I choose not to tire him with more questions.

I go to North Niavaran Street, in northeast Tehran, to meet with a semi-retired opposition political activist for a discussion of democracy and U.S. elections. In a chic residential tower, I ride up in a fully mirrored elevator cab to his floor. For security reasons, I have agreed not to use even his first name -- I'll refer to him as Kourosh. Inviting me into his apartment, he leads me to his office, which adjoins a magnificent library.

Koroush has little praise for the contemporary American version of democracy. He says, "Liberal democracy is generally praised in comparison to its historical predecessor, feudal rule. Of course, liberal democracy is preferable to imperial rule such as Haile Selassie's in Ethiopia. But it's useful to compare the current democratic situation in the U.S. with the original intentions and goals of its founders, the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. As the U.S. has moved away from free competition, free enterprise, and the governing [ideals] of thinkers like Jefferson, Adams, Paine, Lincoln, Washington, and others, and toward huge financial and industrial corporate monopolies, it has equally moved away from liberal democracy."

I ask of his view of the American electoral system. Koroush suggests that most people around the world are unaware that the U.S. president is elected not by popular ballot but by an electoral college that runs counter to the idea of one man, one vote.

He shifts to a different theme. "Right-wingers and totalitarians have a strong affinity with [U.S.] Republicans. That means, there's no doubt that the war-mongering faction, of cold and hot varieties, pray day and night that someone gets the job who can aim all regional and worldwide weapons onto Iran."

My 57-year-old host says, "Conservative forces suffer from Democratic policies in the United States: peace, cordial coexistence, human rights, diversity, et cetera."

I ask Jallil about his view of U.S. democracy. After acknowledging that his perceptions are naturally limited because, after all, he is seeing things in America from a great distance, he continues. "In judging it from afar, two things have always bothered me about the United States. First, they are so dumbly religious. As Richard Dawkins has said, American's fathers, Washington, Franklin, and Lincoln, would have certainly acted differently if they knew that their country would get to a point that it would be political suicide if a politician announced himself a
Kourosh fetches an ashtray and lights up a cigarette. I ask him bluntly if he believes a Democratic or Republican victory would be better for Iran.

"Frankly, Democrat! Perhaps their contemplative and patient ways will not satisfy the 'opponent crushing' Republicans in face of Iran's adventurous policies, but true reformists will definitely welcome Democrats. The priority for the region, and Iran, is maintenance of peace, even a fragile peace. Other issues, such as our form of government, rulers and and their relationship with the people, managing nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes, overcoming slow development, and so forth, are issues we can take care of ourselves."

He concludes, dismissing the prospect of intervention with a sarcastic edge, "We don't need to burden the gents there!"

At the Azadi subway station, I wait for a train to Mirdamad. The platform is packed and, as is common in the Tehran metro, strangers fall into conversation with each other. A woman approaches to ask me about the direction of one of the trains. I'm unable to answer her question, but maybe she can talk to me about the U.S. election?

Azita, 34, is a photographer. I summarize some of Kourosh's thoughts for her, and ask if she thinks Romney is dangerous for Iran. She asks me in return, "Isn't Obama dangerous? Wouldn't he strike Iran if it comes to it? Wouldn't he?"

Before I can respond, she poses another query. "Have you forgotten Clinton's attack on Sudan?"

I ask if she is referring to the 1993 battle in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, known to Americans as Black Hawk Down.

No, she means the 1998 missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan. She continues, "Didn't the U.S. participate in attacks on Libya under a Democrat? Not just a few Democratic presidents have started wars.... Obama would also attack Iran. Have no doubt."

In a secluded coffee shop off Yousehabad Avenue, I meet with a young political activist, Adel. I ask him about the fact that for over 150 years, only Democrats and Republicans have been elected to the White House.

"Well, not just any party can gain power in every democracy," he responds. "And these two have got roots. The problem is when they really, actually prevent someone from [engaging in] political activity, which I don't think is so.

"By the way, Mr. [Karl] Popper, the liberal philosopher, preferred two-party systems over multiparty ones."

Adel continues, "I don't think Romney will get the job. If he does, he will be more aggressive than Obama, but he will not attack either.

"Given the situation, it would be foolish to attack, unless it was instigated by Israel. I mean, why should the U.S. waste its budget starting another war while sanctions are producing such good results?"

Those "good results," of course, are reflected in a steadily worsening Iranian economy. Hamid Reza, an insurance broker, after complaining at length about current economic conditions, says, "The U.S. is the most important country in the world. For this reason, it needs a president who's able to be a multitask mule, like Obama. For us, Obama doesn't differ from Romney. The U.S. will not step beyond sanctions, nor will it step back from them."

And then there are those, such as 42-year-old Mehdi, a family counselor, who see American electoral politics as essentially a show, a pretense. "Do you really think that Obama or Romney are truly in charge of U.S. policies?" he asks. "Everything there is managed behind the scene," he says. "Oil cartels choose who comes and who goes."

Monday, October 15, 2012

Post #363 - Before Video Games

This story, by Gina Nahai, was published in the (10/10/12).  Nihai left Iran in 1974. An author and a professor of creative writing at USC, her column appears monthly on the Journal. Her latest novel is Caspian Rain (MacAdam Cage, 2007). This piece harks back to a time now gone, when child labor created many woven treasures.

Indigo: Remembering Iran

By Gina Nahai

You’re in school six days a week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or later, and afterward, you have hours of homework every night. The only time you’re on your own and without a task to perform is on the walk to school and back, and sometimes in the middle of the night, when you wake up and go to the edge of the third-floor terrace of the house where you live, look over the 10-foot, golden-brick wall into the street immersed in moonlight and watch the cars speed through the red light at the intersection.

You’ll often think of this — the sky of Tehran in winter, the glassy liquid quality of the light, the blue of the mountains in the North. You don’t know yet, but this is how you will remember the city of your childhood, how you’ll hold on to it even after it’s lost, how you’ll make your peace with the memories.

At home, you head directly up to the second-floor dining room, drop your books on the heavy, wooden table, and go to work without changing out of your uniform or taking a break until dinner. You sit cross-legged on the floor, on top of a red-and-blue Persian rug — a rose garden afloat in a sea of indigo — raise yourself up on your elbows and read the lines of whatever poem or prayer you’ve been ordered to memorize that night. It’s an essential part of your education, this process of training your mind to retain all the words and numbers thrown at it every day, but it comes easily to you, because of the girl who sits across from you on the other side of the rug and listens to you recite the lines.

She’s always there, this girl who must be about your age — 5 years old, in first grade — but who has the earnest look and the concentration of a much older child. She wears a short, flared skirt over a pair of baggy pants and ties a white scarf around her face and neck. She crouches on the reverse side of a horizontal loom, staked to the ground and onto which a multitude of thick, woolen threads are tied from end to end in both directions. She has a soft, round mouth and dark eyes and the physical tension of a small creature that can bear a weight many times its own. The room behind her is sparse and poorly lit. There are other people — younger children, old women — in the background, but the girl never turns around to look at them. Nor does she seem aware of you or your siblings who live on the other side of this net that divides you. Her mind is entirely focused, and her hands are lightning fast as she ties one minuscule knot of dyed thread after another onto the rows of colorless wool thread. She’s weaving the rug you’ll one day sit on, and though you’ll never know her name or hear her voice, she’ll put into it enough of herself — of her youth and health and quiet, lasting talent — to give it, if not herself, near-eternal life.

No matter how late you go to bed or how early you wake up, the girl is awake and at work. The only time she leaves the loom is when the indigo is in bloom. Then she goes into the fields with an army of other girls, picks off the leaves to bring home to her mother to boil. This is how they obtain the dye for the many shades of blue they use on the rugs. Persian indigo, it’s called, but you don’t know this yet.

The knots she makes are so small, you cannot imagine them ever coming together to form a shape. You cannot fathom the kind of patience, the constancy and meticulousness this girl has to exert to make certain every knot is the right size and in the right place — that months or years later, when the rug is finally finished, every line is perfectly straight and every dome and paisley and petal in the right place. Yet she’s indispensable to the job, a requisite for the finest and most complicated of designs, because the smaller the finger, the more minute each knot will be. She’s going to grow up on this loom, you know, raise it from the ground one twist of a colored thread at a time, knowing all the while that the moment she’s finished — the moment she’s done with this picture that will not be erased by light or force or time — it’s going to be taken away from her and sent to places she’ll never be.

Years later, away from that house and the girl on the loom, you’re reminded of this every time you step on a rug for the first time or drive by the window of a new store in Paris and New York, Berlin and Los Angeles. What did she get, you wonder, in the bargain for her skill and artistry? What did she trade for her childhood, give up school and sleep, the chance to run instead of sit? 

You’ll rue the injustice of a system that robs the creator of her creation, that pays with tin and sells for gold, puts on display in magisterial halls and exalted museums the works of nameless girls in unnamed villages, who start to apprentice around the time that you started school, grow up and grow old in the same mud hut on the slopes of the same blue mountain, become hunchbacked and tubercular and blind before they are forced to stop. The spine curve from being bent forward for countless hours a day, every day of the week. Wool particles destroy the lungs. Bad lighting and the smallness of each knot ruin the eyes.

How is it, you wonder, that so many Persian poets are enshrined and lionized, musicians and miniaturists are recognized and celebrated, while these other artists, no less worthy, live and die in obscurity? How is it that they can leave no trace, claim no ownership, on a canopy of colors that will not fade?

Until one day you learn that this isn’t entirely true — there being no trace of the weaver in the work: Your untrained eye will never notice, you learn, but no Persian rug is ever truly perfect. Somewhere in the web of interconnected or geometric patterns, in the rose garden or on the hunting ground, every master signs her rug with a single, purposeful mistake.

It’s an enchanting secret — this affirmation on the part of the artist that only God is capable of perfection, that true, enduring beauty is achieved only in the pairing of good and bad, faultlessness and flaws. But to you, and perhaps, you hope, to the artist, it will be more than that: It will be a small measure of fairness, a quiet act of defiance, an invisible fingerprint that cannot be removed except by unraveling every thread and opening every knot — a shadow of the master in an ocean of blue light.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Post #362 - Going Home

This article was published on (10/10/12).  It offers a glimpse of the lives of a group not often heard from -- Jewish Iranians:

Under the Tehran sky
by Mojdeh Sionit Afshani

Yom Kippur 2010. The part of the synagogue where I sit is full of women talking with one another, and small kids giggling and playing around. It is extremely hot, and the extra layers of manteau (long outerwear) and the scarf covering my hair add to the intolerable heat.

I try to grab a prayer book for Yom Kippur and concentrate on reading the prayers, but to hear the rabbi, who doesn’t use a microphone on Yom Kippur, amid the constant murmurs of the
In a Tehran synagogue
chitchatting women is almost impossible. But everything seems and sounds so familiar. This is what I grew up with. So now, about 10 years after leaving, I am back home, back in Tehran.

When I left Iran on an early-morning flight in 2001, the minute the airplane started to fly under the star-filled sky of Tehran, even as I was trying hard to hold back my tears, I made a pledge that one day I would come back. Living in Iran as Jews obviously was not as easy as it is in the United States. Sometimes we were afraid of revealing ourselves to be Jewish specifically because of a political situation in Israel. We had to separate ourselves from Israel, stating that Jews and Judaism are different from Israel and Zionism. But my family was never persecuted because of being Jewish. I always wanted to return, at least for a visit, so now, on my flight back a decade later, as the plane touched down, my heart pounded so hard that I could hear it in my ears. Was I dreaming? A short while later, the voice of the officer at passport control saying, “Welcome back,” cast away my doubt.

The taxi driver who drove my family to my parents’ home — including my husband, me and our two daughters, ages 4 1/2 and 2 — was speeding so fast that I felt the vehicle was going to fly.  My parents are, essentially, my only remaining relatives in my country, and this was the first time my father was going to see my younger daughter.

The streets of Tehran seemed different, with so many new roads. Even the airport was not the one that I had departed from. I felt like one of the “Companions of the Cave”; a story from Persian literature about a group of youths who fall asleep in a cave and wake up after 300 years to see that everything has changed.

The money had changed, too, and some coins are now worthless. The price of a magazine or bread was not even close to what I paid 10 years before. It took me a while to learn to decipher the currency, with so many zeros behind the first number. Sometimes it was easier to read the Arabic numeral on the back of the bill, which gave a clue to its dollar worth. For example 1,000,000 rials was now worth almost $100, and you could read the number 100 in Arabic on the back of that bill. (Iran’s currency has since declined in value to almost one-fourth of what it was when I lived there, much of the loss because of recent sanctions.)

Even the street I grew up on was different. There was no trace of the single-family houses with pools and big backyards anymore. All I could see on my street, and later, to my surprise, throughout the whole city, were tall apartment buildings. But the old, three-story apartment in the west part of Tehran where I lived for my whole life before I left, was almost the same, except for a little remodeling my dad had done.

Taxis offered us the best form of transportation, although the newly constructed underground metro was an option. Driving between lane lines didn’t mean anything here, and drivers honked at each other all the time. I decided I could never drive in a city like this. (To see a car marked “Women’s Taxi” was the last thing I would have imagined, but the sign indicated that the driver was a woman and was allowed to pick up women traveling solo.)

We always tried to speak pure Farsi, although we could hear a lot of new words and slang that we weren’t familiar with, but often, our kids speaking English would reveal our foreignness. It took us a few days to get used to the smog. When we first arrived, I thought something was on fire until I realized it was simply air pollution. As a friend told me sarcastically, “This is one of our improvements. Tehran is one of the top polluted cities in the world.”

Despite all this, my hometown of Tehran is still beautiful. Trees, hundreds of years old,  on both sides of one of the main streets stretched their branches toward each other, making a lovely, tall, green tunnel. The streets were full of young faces of men and women, so many that an older person was barely noticeable. Although it was against the law, you could see so many young women wearing heavy makeup, nail polish and colorful, tight manteaus; and young men wore the latest European hairstyles and clothing. Their connections to fashion, and more generally to the outside world, came mostly through the more than 300 European and Asian TV channels available via satellite in almost every home. Although many international Web sites are blocked or filtered, software programs have been secretly invented and sold within the populace, allowing access to the blocked sites.

The price of food at restaurants, or uncooked meat and chicken at the supermarkets, was almost the same as what we pay here in the United States.  You could always hear people complaining about the inflation, but, surprisingly enough, the shops and expensive restaurants were packed with people. I also saw expensive and luxurious imported European and Japanese cars on streets; owners must have purchased the vehicles, including an added 100 percent import tax, because there is no such thing as leasing a car in Iran.

Yet it is also clear that sanctions have added to people’s difficulties — one day, when I tried to simply access my PayPal account from an Internet cafe, an alert window popped up reading: “You are trying to access this account from a banned country.” And you could hear those fashionable kids debating and discussing political, philosophical and religious issues on streets, in coffee shops, in Internet cafes and at almost any gathering. Sadly, there were also stories of drugs and addiction. I was surprised to hear that even in the Jewish community, drug addiction has been an issue. 

The Jewish community of Iran, estimated to be between 10,000 and 20,000, is mostly concentrated in Tehran. A few other big cities are home to Jewish families as well, but compared to the approximately 120,000 Jews who were living there before 1979, it’s a minuscule number. There remain quite a number of synagogues in Tehran, which were filled with people during the High Holy Days when my family visited. Several of my Jewish friends, whom I hadn’t seen for so long, were now married, had kids and, despite the political rumors, were trying to live their lives peacefully in their native country.

Ten years away seemed quite long, and now some of the boys and girls I’d known during my years at Tehran’s Jewish student organization had become top authorities and leaders of the Iranian-Jewish community. My family got a chance to meet with two young Jewish artists, brothers who had moved from their hometown of Isfahan to go to art school in Tehran, and were now residing in a small unit attached to an old synagogue in the north of Tehran. Dana Nehdaran was a painter who had become known for his “Mona Lisa”-inspired artworks; Dariush, his younger brother, was a photographer.

We also visited an art gallery in a wealthy neighborhood of Tehran, where amazing paintings were priced as high as $20,000; we were told that the gallery was owned by an Iranian Jew in Los Angeles. Visiting my former work colleagues at Ettela’at, Iran’s premier print-media conglomerate, was another dream come true. I had worked there as a journalist for 10 years, from when I was only 16 until I left the country. On my return, I surprised my boss, entering his office with my husband and two kids.

The Jewish day school where I spent almost all of my childhood school years was still the same, located just steps away from the University of Tehran. It still had the same old brick walls, the same old windows opening onto the street that we took any chance to peek at, and the same blue sign that reads: “Etefagh school complex.”

And finally, in the south part of the city, which consists mostly of low-income, traditional and religious citizens of Tehran, a huge building with a blue sign caught my eye. The sign reads: “Love your fellow as yourself,” in Hebrew and Farsi. This sign is on the entrance of the Sapir Hospital, a Jewish-funded hospital and charity center in Tehran founded more than 50 years ago that serves many low-income patients, free of charge, no matter what their religion.
My return to Tehran left me feeling proud, and rooted, as a Persian Jew.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Post #361 - It Seems So Simple When You Put It That Way

If you only do one thing today related to Iran, take a look at this short video:

Post #360 - Humanity

NIAC Applauds Extension of Earthquake Sanctions Waiver [see for links]
Contact: Jamal Abdi
Phone: 202-386-6408

Washington, DC - The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) applauds the Treasury Department for extending a sanctions waiver to help enable ongoing earthquake relief efforts in northern Iran, and calls for additional steps to ensure sanctions do not continue to block transactions of food and medicine.

Last week, Iranian Americans from across the country visited Capitol Hill as part of NIAC’s annual leadership conference to encourage their Representatives to send a Congressional letter urging the White House to extend the earthquake relief waiver and to take further action to enable food and medicine to reach Iranians.

“Iranian Americans will be encouraged that the Obama Administration’s responded to their calls to address the emergency situation in northern Iran,” said NIAC Policy Director Jamal Abdi.  “But more must be done to address another unfolding emergency – the worsening humanitarian situation created by sanctions that are blocking medicine and food for ordinary people across Iran.”

The earthquake waiver, which was first issued in August after deadly earthquakes struck northern Iran, is intended to allow American charities to send direct humanitarian aid to help with relief efforts in Iran.  In addition to earthquake relief, food, medicine, and humanitarian goods are already legally exempt from sanctions, but are increasingly difficult to export to Iran due to Executive Order sanctions on Iran’s banks.
“Even with the waiver, it is extremely difficult to provide humanitarian relief or even to send authorized items like medicine and food to Iran,” said Abdi.  “U.S. sanctions on Iranian banks are blocking authorized transactions for food and medicine.  The result is food and medicine shortages that are punishing ordinary Iranians who are not even in the earthquake zone.”

Some relief organizations have been forced to fly suitcases of cash into Iran in order to provide earthquake relief.  And reports out of Iran point to shortages of medicine and food as resulting directly from the U.S. banking sanctions on Iran.

“The U.S. must take additional steps to demonstrate that we will not allow ordinary Iranians to be held hostage to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program,” said Abdi.  “We cannot allow for a repeat of the Iraq sanctions that contributed to the deaths of at least 375 thousand children.”

NIAC thanks Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and the eleven cosigners of the letter to the Administration, and calls on the Obama Administration to take the additional steps necessary so that food, medicine, and humanitarian relief can reach Iran.

There are a number of nonprofit organizations working to provide disaster assistance, including Moms Against Poverty, Relief International, Children of Persia, and Child Foundation. The waiver now applies until November 19.