Archive for the ‘Afghanistan War’ category

Iran and Its Neighbors

January 26, 2007

Iran’s relation to the new state of Azerbaijan to the north is complex. On the one hand the country was for many years a province of Iran. Its people are largely Azerbaijanis with a language and culture close to that of the more larger Azerbaijan section of Iran. Most of the independent Azeris belong to the same branch of Shi’ism as the Iranians (being converted by the Safavids at the same time). On the other hand, generations of Soviet control has changed the country. Its leaders are post-Soviet secularists and its language Russified. These leaders have also been courted by the Americans, as has been the case with the leaders of most of the post-Soviet Republics. Iran also has lingering fears that the existence of an Azeri state on its borders may fuel separatist ambitions on the Iranian side of the line. The counter-intuitive result is that the Iranians have developed very close relations with the new Armenian state, especially after Ahmadinejad’s election. A new highway and tunnel connecting the countries will be built. Iran is helping with the building of a new power plant and laying a new gas pipeline into the country. It is hoped that a new pipeline bringing in gas from Turkmenistan will reduce the price enough to make this feasible.

Iran has been working for several years on developing a closer relationship with Tajikistan in Central Asia. Although they have no common border, the countries have a close historical relation. The Tajiks speak a language almost indistinguishable from Modern Persian, although the introduction of large numbers of Russian loan words an the use of the Russian alphabet has set them apart. Iran is investing in a new power plant, the reconstruction of the country’s power network, and helping to construct a new tunnel. The countries are laying plans for the construction of a road connecting the Tajikistan with Iran through Afghanistan, thereby ultimately opening up improved access of the country to the Indian Ocean. There is also talk of a free trade zone that would include Afghanistan and Turkey. Tajikistan and Iran have also agreed to help Pakistan with its looming energy crisis by making available excess power and other means.

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Promoting Democracy: Rethinking Priorities

January 23, 2007

The threat of a Kabul court a few months ago to execute a man for converting from Islam to Christianity raised in an especially clear form the contradiction between “democracy” as we understand it and “democracy” as it may reasonably be understood by others.

Democracy was understood by ancient Greek scholars and the Founding Fathers to be a dangerous form of government. They saw it as mob rule, and they knew that a mob could easily be swayed one way or another by emotions, often stirred up by demagogues. Many of these Fathers saw the French Revolution as a confirmation of their opinions, which most of the them (with the partial exception of Jefferson) saw as a lesson to be avoided.

In this climate of opinion, they drew up a plan for a nation based on a Constitution that circumscribed the political rights of ordinary people in several ways. First, political power was to be exercised through elected representatives rather than directly. In addition, the senate and the president were to be indirectly elected. Today, the electoral system allows for a clearer expression of the popular will than it did originally, but our constitutional system still limits the ability of the people to directly affect how the country is run, especially in the short term. Most important, the Constitution established a system of rights guaranteed by courts presided over by judges that at least at the top were not elected and served for life. The rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were effectively “set in stone”. The Constitution could be changed, but changing it was a lengthy process. The amendments that were accepted over the course of the next 200 years expanded guarantees of freedom and equality, but did not fundamentally change the structure the Founders had created.

When American representatives proclaim in international forums that they support the universality of democracy, they appear to be asking all peoples without democracy to change their systems of governance in three rather different directions. First, they are seen to be asking other countries to accept a political system similar to ours. Or they are understood to be asking other peoples to establish political systems in which “free and fair” elections are the essential ingredient. Or, they are asking other peoples to institute political systems that guarantee international human rights, particularly those characterized as civil liberties. It is seldom pointed out to other publics or understood by American communicators that these three aspects of democracy can contradict one another.

In the Islamic world, America’s promotion of democracy becomes especially problematic. Many Islamic countries are quite prepared to establish electoral systems for choosing the people who will lead them. But they understand that those elected should be limited in their decision power, much as they are in our own Constitution, by courts established on the basis of operative legal traditions. In their case, the best known legal tradition is Islamic, and the highest courts may be Shari’ah courts, courts based on principles and ideas that are quite different from those prescribed by modern definitions of human rights. Islamic leaders might well note that American democracy is even today not always on the side of what are now considered international human rights, particularly in areas such as polygamy and capital punishment. In America, “the people” are free to enact legislation violating international standards. This legislation remains the law of the land as long as it is not countermanded by our courts. On the other hand, our non-elected judges are also free to decide against international standards on the basis of what they understand to be American legal tradition.

So in bringing “democracy” to Islamic countries, we are faced with the fact that an Islamic people may through electoral processes decide on laws and procedures that go very much against our modern concept of democracy, such as prescribing the stoning of adulterers. We also must face the fact that accepting the American idea of an independent judiciary would seem to lay the basis for enshrining in law and practice Shari’ah provisions that are simply not “acceptable” to the modern West. It is very difficult to say that in instituting democracy in this way, they are not adopting at least one of the proffered definitions of democracy.

This suggests that those of us who promote democracy should step back and rethink what we are about. Two changes appear to be necessary. First, we should be clearer in our own minds about what changes should have highest priority in moving the world toward greater freedom. It would seem to me that the first priority must be the creation of a world of responsible states that progressively exhibit increasing respect for international human rights while preserving their capability to secure the peace internally and within their regions. Given this change of focus, we should be less enthusiastic in our promotion of “democracy” without qualification in Islamic countries. America’s democratic role should be to increase respect for human rights in such countries, building the bases for the emergence of a true western-style liberal democracy sometime in the future. Secondly, when we campaign for an expansion of democracy, we should stop defining our goal primarily in terms of elections. We should make it understood that we understand a democratic society to be one based on modern liberal institutions. In our democracy campaign, it will also be helpful to deemphasize American models, asking other peoples to consider a wider range of models, some of which are more decisively in the modern liberal tradition than we happen to be. It is particularly important that we not identify capitalism with democracy. While capitalism with a variety of qualifications has characterized our own democratic success, other countries have succeeded as democracies with governments and peoples much more dedicated to egalitarianism and a larger degree of governmental intervention in the economy than has characterized the United States.

With this approach, we will be less likely to seem brazenly inconsistent in our advocacy of democracy, as we have been characterized after we effectively rejected the coming to power of Hamas in Palestine through free and fair elections. We will also have created a more understandable platform from which to criticize the human rights performance of Afghan or Iranian governments that have established ostensibly democratic constitutional systems under our tutelage.

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.)