Archive for November 2006

Negotiating with the Iranians

November 28, 2006

The media are discussing the desirability of negotiating with the Iranians. This is thought to be a real possibility now that the Administration has more or less admitted that it has to try something new in Iraq. All of this comes at a time when the United States and Iran are locked in a serious war of words over (1) Iranian support of terrorism, particularly Hezbollah in Lebanon and (2) the willingness of the Iranians to defy the American demand that they cease their nuclear energy program on the basis that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon. Some groups in Washington talk of the need to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities sooner rather than later. Many commentators have concluded we would be attacking Iran now if it were not for the Iraq fiasco. Seymour Hersh tells us that the United States is secretly supporting anti-Tehran forces in Iranian Kurdistan in the west and Balochistan in the southeast. This is in addition to supporting the planning and propaganda of mainline anti-regime elements based in the West. All of this against the background of a relationship that includes a continuing absence of diplomatic relations because of an incident dating back to 1980. One is reminded of the cake for Tehran scandal in the mid-sixties when another Administration decided that they needed to develop communications with Tehran, and were willing to risk exposure of Administration duplicity to attain what were quite short-run objectives at best.

I suggest that we need to take a deep breath, reconsider out relations, and then set out to fundamentally restructure the American relationship with Iran.

We should recall that official American policy, reinforced recently by a Senate vote, is to support the development of nuclear energy in India, a country that openly broke the ban on nuclear proliferation. Because of the known relationship of Pakistan and India, the fact that Pakistan has also developed a nuclear weapon has also been accepted without letting this damage our relationship with that country. Turkey on the west is part of NATO, an alliance that depends on nuclear weapons for deterrence. It is an open secret that Israel, a country that has often announced the need to “do something” about Iran has nuclear weapons. I do not know if the Iranians will or will not develop a nuclear weapon if they continue their nuclear program. But I do know that it is unlikely that Iran, whether ruled by mullahs or democrats, will feel that the United States has justice on its side in the nuclear dispute. This being the case, it is unlikely that threats or sanctions will in the long run arrest the development Iran wishes; indeed, it may even give added ammunition to those Iranians who want nuclear weapons so that the country might more easily stand up to the Americans.

We should recall that after 9/11 the Iranians has shown itself to be much less involved in terrorism directed against the United States and Europe than its neighbors. In fact, Iran assisted the American effort to defeat the Taliban in Iraq. Since Al-Qaeda and its extremist allies are also extremist in their anti-Shi’a diatribes, Iran is in many ways a natural ally of the United States in this part of the anti-terrorist “war”. We should also recall that Iranians have been largely absent from the list of terrorists that have been arrested for terrorist activities in Europe and the United States. I note there have been North Africans, Saudis, Egyptians, Gulf states, and, also and especially, Pakistanis among the accused. The terrorists frequently seem to train in Pakistan. We should note that the United States and Pakistan have been close allies during the Cold War and the War Against Terrorism, as odd as this may seem. It is true that Iran has been involved in helping Palestinians and their allies in their struggle with Israel, but regardless of our ties to Israel, this is not a struggle with which we should identify American interests.

Iran has a greater interest than any other country outside the American Coalition in the outcome of the chaos in Iraq. Its interests are three-fold. First is its historic record as a dominant power in the area now occupied by Iraq. Second is its domination by Shi’as, the national religion of Iran and the dominant religion in more than half of Iraq. The relation of the societies through the Shi’a bond goes back to the conversion of half of Iraq to Shi’ism by the Iranians in the 15th and 16th centuries. The overwhelming majority of foreigners who visit the holy cities of Iraq are Iranians. We remember that Ayatollah Khomeini plotted his victorious return to Iran from his exile in Iraq. Third, is the natural desire of Iranians to make sure that a powerful Iraqi state dominated by Sunnis never again threatens Iran as it did in the 1980s. In retrospect, the United States was simply wrong to support Saddam Hussein in his war with the Iranians. We backed the wrong horse and we have had to pay for it.

Given these facts, the United States should develop diplomatic relations with Iran as soon as possible. We should then discuss our common interests, including the concessions that each side can reliable make. Let us mention a few possibilities: there are many more. We should accept Iran having a major interest in Iraq. In return for curbing the violence of some of the Iraqi actors often said to be aligned with Iran, such as the Mahdi Army, we should accept their role in training and equipping security forces in Iraq, especially in Shi’a areas. We should encourage Iran to accept the existence of a semi-independent Kurdistan, on the understanding that the United States will not support new revolutionary activity among the Iranian Kurds.

The Civilizational Approach: Notes on Iran and Iraq

November 14, 2006

American foreign policy has seemed to reach a dead end. It no longer serves either the needs of the United States or those of the world. A fundamental problem is that our leaders are no longer clear about the nature, abilities, strengths and weaknesses of the United States and American culture. One reason for reaching this dead end is the unwillingness or inability of persons at the top levels of the Department of State or other foreign ministries to understand the ways in which the countries with which we deal view or would prefer to view the world.

Analysts and politicians in these ministries have recently become fixated on Iran and the challenge that it represents. However, the tendency has been to interpret the “Iranian threat” narrowly as a part of the posited war of the West and Islam. For some Arab commentators, it is seen primarily as a rise in the power and influence of Shi’ism, the so-called Shiite crescent.

It would help if both groups of analysts remembered that for millennia Iranians were dominant in a broad region spreading from Anatolia to Uzbekistan, to India, then back along the Persian Gulf to Iraq and Syria. To historically conscious Iranians, Iraq, for example, as been more often an integral part of their country than a foreign state, while much of Afghanistan and what we call Central Asia has long been a center of Iranian culture, centering on the present-day Uzbek cities of Samarqand and Bokhara. Remember that Iran’s Achaemenid Empire was the successor state to the former Empires of Assyria and Babylonia. The identification of Iran with Mesopotamia was further sealed by the Parthian and Sassanian Empires that strove to emulate the Achaemenid. They placed their capital at Ctesiphon, twenty miles from present-day Baghdad. Some believe this to have been the largest city in the world from 570 to 637 A.D. (Readers who see this recitation as “merely” ancient history should reminded of the territorial memories of modern Jews in Palestine or the Serbian special relationship with 14th century Kosovo.)

After the Arab conquest, dominant cultural influences in Mesopotamia were Persian as much as Arabic during the Abbasid period, 750-1258. An Iranian confederacy ruled directly in Baghdad from 934-1055. After the Mongol cataclysm, the Safavids of Iranian background conquered Iran, as well as large portions of Iraq, imposing Shi’a doctrine on the entire area. Safavid and successors ruled from 1500 to nearly 1800. During this period they often controlled Baghdad. Iran continued to rule or have political influence in parts of modern day Iraq up until the 1920s: it was even suggested to the British that they appoint a Persian prince as monarch in Iraq in the 1920s. For another interpretation of this relationship see Farmanfarmaian.

This summer, the Iranian Ambassador to Iraq announced that Iran is committed to working with Iraqi national and provincials governments on a restoration of the great palace at Ctesiphon. (In dealing with Tehran we are not dealing with the Taliban.)

It is to be hoped that American policy makers and future negotiators remember that a lasting solution in Iraq must take into account Iranian interests, interests that go beyond their mutual Shi’ism and the concerns of the day.

U. S. Foreign Policy: A Civilizational Approach

November 7, 2006

Defining Post Number III

Note: This is the third of three posts that explain the initial scope and purposes of the blog. Later visitors can, of course, develop new directions.

American foreign policy has reached a dead end. It no longer serves either the needs of the United States or those of the world. A fundamental problem is that our leaders are no longer clear about the nature, abilities, strengths or weaknesses of the United States and American culture. But another reason for reaching this dead end is the unwillingness or inability of persons at the top levels of the U.S. Department of State or other foreign ministries to understand the ways in which other peoples view or would prefer to view the world.

Analysts and politicians in these ministries proceed on the basis of simple and cliched opinions of other societies. They mistake the short-range interests of other peoples for their long-range aspirations. It is my thesis that a great deal would be gained by looking a little deeper into the histories and cultures of the world. In this site the emphasis will be how a deeper American understanding of Iranian Civilization would help in the development of policy that would be more helpful to both societies than present approaches. At times I will stray into the discussion of other civilizational problems, and I hope that visitors will also take this opportunity.

The Value to Modern Iranians of a Deep Appreciation of Iranian Civilization

November 7, 2006

Defining Post Number II

Note: This is the second of three posts that explain the initial scope and purposes of the blog. Later visitors can, of course, develop new directions.

Iran has a long and sometimes glorious history. Visiting Persepolis and Pasargadae, as well as acquaintance with the Old Testament in the Jewish tradition or Herodotus in the Greek, certainly bring this to mind. German philosophers as different as Goethe or Nietzsche based major works on the Iranian heritage. One of the most admired English poems of the nineteenth century was essentially a translation from Omar Khayyam. Attempts to build on this history were made by the Sassanians when they created their empire during the Roman era and modeled it on the Achaemenid Empire that had existed hundreds of years before them. In quite a different manner, the poet Firdousi collected and put into verse in the 10th century of the Christian era the record of Iran up to his time. Ferdowsi’s Shahnama became an important text for later efforts to resuscitate the tradition. Ferdowsi and the courts that supported his work were able to create a fusion of Islam with pre-islamic Iranian culture, a fusion that resulted in many literary and artistic achievements. But underneath this fusion lay other elements, based on a wish to return to a more purified Iranism. The most recent attempt to achieve this goal was that of Reza Shah and his son Mohammed Reza. Imitating to a degree the nationalistic and scientific ideas then dominant in Europe, they tried to create an Iran in the 20th century that both harkened back to this great tradition and looked forward to a world in which religion would play a much smaller part in the life of Iranians than it had historically. For many and various reasons, many Iranians rejected this effort: the weakness of the hold it had over the people was illustrated by the relatively easy rise of Khomeini and the present Islamic regime.

The question arises as to how modern Iranians should view this record. A choice of many Iranians is to live in so far as they can in a modern technological world that rejects most of this tradition. This life may be lived in the West with ease. But even in Iran I suspect many Iranians choose this alternative, making their peace with the present politico-religious order as best they can. Another choice is to see Iran as an integral part of the Muslim world, with or without an emphasis on its special role as the leading Shi’ite state. Nationalism for these Iranians is expressed in large part through the identification of Shi’ism with Iran since the Safavids. But there are others who think that Iranian and surrounding peoples would be benefited by buying into the deeper tradition that once made the Iranian area a center of both scientific and religious creativity. In this way, people may be able to more easily develop positive relations within the region and to overcome the sense of cultural inferiority that historically afflicted many peoples who have encountered the Western Civilization that at least temporarily had leaped out ahead of the rest of the world.

The Iranian Cultural Area

November 7, 2006

Defining Post Number I

Note: This is the first of three posts that explain the initial scope and purposes of the blog. Later visitors can, of course, develop new directions.

Iranian civilization has had a remarkable continuity within a large area that includes the southern part of Central Asia and the southern Caucasus on the north, extends through Pakistan and far into India on the east, and into Iraq and Turkey on the West. The Achaemenid Empire that existed between 600 and 300 B.C. reached at its greatest extent into Egypt on the West, far out into Central Asia, and the Indus Valley in the east. The Parthian and better established Sassanian empires that lasted until the victory of Islam in the seventh century covered much the same ground, although in the west, they were in continual struggle with the Roman Empire, a struggle centering on Syria, eastern Anatolia, and western Iraq. These Empires generally extended their sway into the Caucasus to Georgia, including what are now the independent states of Armenia and Azerbaijan. To the south, their rule extended down the south side of the Persian Gulf, and even to Yemen. In the eighth century, the Abbassid Empire developed to the eastern part of the Islamic world under heavy Iranian influence. As the Abbassids weakened a new Persian language and culture developed in the east to replace the old Pahlavi. In the classical Iranian region, the dominant culture (if not political system) became the new Iranian. This was true from the Mughal Courts of Delhi to the Ottoman court in Istanbul. Persian was only driven from its place as the official language in India in the 19th century by the British. Bukhara and Samarqand in present-day Uzbekistan were noted centers of Persian learning.

Today the influence of Persian culture within the historical Iranian region is much less than it was. If we look at existing Iranian languages, we find that Iranian languages are divided into Western and Eastern. Modern Persian, in the first group, is spoken by nearly all people in Iran as a first or second language, and Dari (sometimes called Tajik) spoken by about a third of Afghans as a first language, by perhaps two thirds as a second language. Modern Persian is the literary language of the country. In Tajikistan, the principal language is called Tajik. These three (Persian, Dari, and Tajik) are quite similar, and the written language of all three is essentially the same. Tajik has, however, had many Russian words incorporated into the language and the official script is Cyrillic. although there are movements to go back either to Perso-Arabic or a Latin script used between the 1920s and the 1950s.
There are many other dialects of Western Iranian. The most important are those we might group together either as “Kurdish” or Balochi. These are more distinct from Modern Persian and one another than Persian, Tajik, and Dari, and only in Kurdish is there significant publication. In the Eastern Iranian group we find Pashto, the dominant spoken, if not written, language of Afghanistan and the NWFP of Pakistan. Again, there are many dialects of Eastern Iranian, including Ossetic in the Caucasus.

There are still Persian speakers in Pakistan and Uzbekistan, and Persian literature still plays a role in the cultural life of many peoples along the periphery. This is perhaps most evident in Azerbaijan. The northwest portion of modern Iran is called Azerbaijan, and Azeri is the spoken language of most of the people living there. But the people are highly Persianized. The same people make up the great majority of those in the independent country of Azerbaijan across what was formerly the border of the USSR. In addition, the Armenian language has incorporated so many loan words from Modern Persian, that at one time it was thought to be an Iranian language. (It is actually more closely related to Greek.)