Archive for the ‘Blogroll’ category

An Iran – Iraq Project for an International University

December 12, 2006


A recent article has discussed the attempt to raise money throughout Asia for an international university in northern India that would recapture the glory of learning in that area in medieval times. The university is conceptualized as a rebirth of Nalanda University, one of the leading universities in the world during its medieval existence from the fifth to twelfth centuries. It was established to be a center of Buddhist studies but developed programs in the fine arts, medicine, mathematics, astronomy and politics.  This effort, which is being funded from across South and East Asia, reminded me of a similar, more modest but equally high-minded undertaking, the establishment of the University of Central Asia. Begun in the nineties, the university now has  campuses in Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Kazakhstan. It is both private and secular. The inspiration came and basic resources were provided by the Aga Khan and the President of Tajikistan. Its creation reminds us that Central Asia was once the crossroads of civilization, an area that once gave birth to an intense intellectual and cultural life.

This led me to thinking of the remarkable center of learning established by the Sassanian (Iranian) king in the fifth century: Jundi-Shapur in what is now Iranian Khuzistan. Originally seen as a center for medical studies. its curricula and research came to cover many fields. It was a center where scholars from India, Greece, and Syria could work together and exchange information. The original impetus was apparently the expulsion of the Nestorian Christians from the Christian lands to the west. Nestorian scholars were the primary students and translators of the Greek legacy at the time and the Persians wished to profit from their knowledge. Jundi-Shapur established as their new home. Some scholars claim that at the time of the Arab conquest Jundi-Shapur was the leading university in the world. It continued to function for many years after the Arab conquest. But when the Abbassid Caliphate was set up in Baghdad, many of the university’s scholars were brought to Baghdad. Eventually a new university was established in Baghdad for these transplants,  a university sometimes referred to as the Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom). It was in the setting of these two linked universities that the most authoritative translations of the Greek texts into Arabic were undertaken. Greeks, Christians, Jews, Indians, Arabs and Persians worked together on this common scholarly undertaking.

The Iranians have always taken an interest in what is now Iraq, particularly since the capital of their Sassanian Empire was at Ctesiphon near modern Baghdad. (Ctesiphon may have been the largest city in the world in the sixth century.) Their continued interest is suggested by the recent offer of the Iranians to help rebuild the great arch at Ctesiphon. It now occurs to me that sophisticated Iraqis and Iranians might be interested in cooperating on the building of a great international university in or near Baghdad that would be understood to be a direct descendant of both Jundi-Shapur (said to be founded on the model of the Alexandrian academy) and the Bayt al-Hikma. It could be seen as a gift from Iran to the Iraqi people, or perhaps the gulf states could be involved. It should be seen as an attempt to establish an institution that would rise above the sectarian, religious, and nationalist controversies of the day. Obviously, this is not a project to be organized in a day. It might not be acceptable in the sense described here to any of the major players in the current scene. But Iraq and its neighbors need a vision, a future goal that might lift the spirits of those intellectuals who have practically abandoned all hope for the country. Fortunately, there is enough oil money in the area to make the project feasible without significant money from the West.

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Nationalism and the Kurdish Question

December 10, 2006

Nationalism has always been with us. But the modern version of nationalism grew out of eighteenth century thinking. This movement led to many of the countries or countries-in-waiting that exist today. It is characteristic of nationalism that it may both strengthen and tear apart a polity. Spanish nationalism made possible the establishment of the present Spanish state, but it has also led to the increasing threat of the dismemberment of that state as its subdivisions, beginning with Catalonia, are granted increasing political power. In Africa, new nations developing nationalisms on the basis of political subdivisions established by colonial masters, are threatened by nationalist movements that would further subdivide the continent. There is no reason for the international community to reject such movements out of hand. Each must be judged on its own merits, no matter how difficult “merits” may be to establish in such matters.

In the Iranian region the nationalist ideology produced many of the regional nationalisms that exist today, including Iranian and Turkish nationalism. The modern emergence of Turkey and Iran bares some similarity. Turkey is the remainder of the Ottoman Empire after the rest of it was whittled away before and during World War I. For a time, Turkey also represented the only sovereign state left over after the great Turkish diaspora dating back to well before Genghis Khan. Recently, new Turkish states have emerged in Central Asia and the Caucasus after the Soviet collapse. Iran is the renamed successor to the Persian Empire (with many names) that went through several advances and retreats after its emergence at the beginning of the classic period in the West. Its most recent territorial losses were around Herat and in the Caucasus. Although descended from great empires, both polities appear to have settled on the modern nation state as the best alternative for now.

During World War I Turkey embarked on an extreme nationalist policy that granted nothing to minorities. On the west, the Greeks were largely driven out of the country. To the east, the Armenians were driven out and killed in massive numbers in an attempt to create an ethnically pure Turkey. Fortunately, the Armenians have at last achieved a truly independent state of their own in the Caucasus after the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Their attacks on the Armenians combined with their treatment of their large Kurdish minority, has been a major stumbling block on Turkey’s road to membership in the European Union.

Iraq was one of several states carved out of the Ottoman Empire by the victorious Allies at the end of the War. Before 1920, few people understood that they were supposed to belong to an Iraq nationality, although there were several nationalities in the area of Iraq. The Kurds felt that they had been promised a state of their own, but the international community and local interests in the end denied Kurdish claims. The Kurdish people were divided up among Syria, Turkey (the largest number), Iran (the second largest number), and the new state of Iraq. Both Turkey and Iran have struggled to keep their Kurdish subjects down. Eastern Anatolia has been plagued by a Kurdish insurgency for years. In part, this is a response to a Turkish state that until recently denied the existence of Kurds. They labeled them “Mountain Turks”. Kurds were not allowed schools or broadcasts in their own language. The Iranians have been faced with occasional flareups of Kurdish nationalism. After World War II, the Russians sponsored a Mahabad Republic among the Kurds until the Shah and the Americans forced them to abandon the project. More recently, the Islamist state brutally put down Kurdish revolts. Nevertheless, in the Kurdish provinces of Iraq regional states and the international community has come closest to recognizing an entity that has achieved something very close to independence. One should not romanticize the Kurds or their achievements. The long term unity of even this small area and the “democracy” they have achieved are doubtful. Yet it is certainly true that they have demonstrated far more than most peoples in such situations that they really would like to manage their own affairs and may be capable of it.

For more on this, consider a short paper placing Kurdish self-determination in the context of a more general argument. I expanded the question of self-determination in my Freedom in the World: Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 1978, especially pages 180-215.

In spite of vigorous efforts to promote their own rights of self-determination as absolute, the leaders of Turkey, Iran, and Syria have sometimes been unwilling to grant these rights to others. In particular, the leaders appear to fear that if an independent Kurdish state finally emerges in Iraq, this will encourage independence movements in their states that they will be unwilling to abide. However, if these states allow Kurds a reasonable level of communal self-expression and fairly divide power in such a way that their Kurds do not feel dispossessed, there should be little danger. There is now, after all, an independent Azerbaijan next to Iran’s Azerbaijan, and there seems to be little danger that this will lead to an insurrection in Tabriz. It would help the reputation of all three nations were they to see their way clear to welcoming an Iraqi Kurdistan into the community of nations, should events lead to this result. The United States and the world community should not be reluctant to work with them on developing this opportunity in their midst.

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.