Archive for the ‘Iraq War’ category

Iran in Iraq

March 21, 2007

In the last few days the Times has given us a summary of the recent economic penetration by Iran into Iraq. We could view this negatively, as many in Washington are wont to do. But from the viewpoint of all but the hardest line Sunnis, it should be considered as a real harbinger of hope for the future.

The stores are full of Iranian produce, air conditioners, automobiles and much else. Several Iraqi cities, including Basra, depend on Iran for their electricity. Iran has loaned Iraq one billion dollars and is establishing a bank in Baghdad. Iran is helping to relieve a severe gasoline shortage in Iraq by bringing gasoline in from Turkmenistan. Iranian trade with the Kurdish region now amounts to one billion dollars a year. Iranian tourism, particularly to the shrines in Karbala and Najaf has added considerably to the economy in some areas. Iran has assisted in the building of tourist facilities in both cities.

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Mujahedin-e-Khalq

March 21, 2007

The New York Times latest report is that “Iraqi insurgents, guerrilla fighters and death squads are being trained in secret camps in Iran with the blessing of top Tehran leaders, an Iranian opposition figure said Tuesday.” After we get beyond the alarming details of how Iraqis are recruited, sent to Iran for training, and then reintroduced to drive the Americans out, we are told that this information comes from the spokesman of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq in Washington. The Mojahedin-e-Khalq (referred to as the National Council of Resistance, PMOI, MEK, MKO etc.) was formed as an anti-government organization under the Shah. It evolved into a syncretic Islamic-Marxist group that engaged in many terrorist acts. Its membership and leaders were decimated twice, once under the Shah and once in the early days of the Khomeini regime. It then resurfaced in Europe and Iraq. Its forces allegedly took part in Saddam’s war against Iran and especially the suppression of the Kurds. How much of this is true is unclear, but clearly the movement was openly supported and maintained in Iraq by Saddam up to the American invasion It appears that most Iranians see it as an anti-national organization. After the American invasion, the military encampment of the group was sealed off by the Americans and partially disarmed, but never destroyed. It is alleged that the Americans are now using persons from the camp to infiltrate Iran. Certainly, much of the information on the Iranians nuclear program (true or not) has been traced to this group. Because it is violently opposed to the current Iranian regime, its cause has been taken up by many conservative Americans in Congress and elsewhere (strange bedfellows: Americans wanting to mix religion and politics allying with Iranians wanting their strict separation, and the radically feminist organization MKO allying with American opponents of the ERA.).

In the 1990s, the organization fell under the control of the Rajavis, Massoud and Maryam, with Maryam elevated to near divine status. She was elected “president” of Iran by a resistance council in 1993. She is to serve as President until elections are held following the overthrow of the Mullahs. The camp in Iraq is described by a New York Times here. The reporter describes a totalitarian cultist center. Family members live apart, and the most personal decisions made by the leadership. No criticisms of the Rajavis or their decisions are allowed. Regular self-criticism sessions are held and taped. Discussants are expected to confess their sexual desires. Informants are everywhere.

I do not know what to make of all this. Obviously, the Iranian opposition within Iran and overseas is split many ways, and many groups hate one another. However, I am inclined to believe the negative descriptions of the Mojahedin by many in the opposition. The American Department of State and many other foreign services see the group as a dangerous far left terrorist group with no real commitment to human rights or democracy. Even if it were a bona fide group, I would examine their intelligence on what goes on in Iran with the utmost care. As it is, I think it is disastrous for American politicians and the even the New York Times to discuss their reports as though they were credible.

Recent Talk on Iran and American Foreign Policy

March 4, 2007

Readers of this blog might be interested in a my Iran Talk that I gave recently at Wesleyan University.

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.

Negotiating with the Iranians

December 23, 2006


Repeated suggestions that the United States should negotiate with the Iranians seem to come to naught. President Bush has somehow gotten it into his head that Iran is an “evil state” on a par with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before our invasion. He wonders how such an evil government can be negotiated with. Sometimes he insists that if Iran changes, or if Iran renounces its present policies, then perhaps we could have something to talk about. One suspects that his demonization of Iran is a reflection through intermediaries of the bitter hostility of Israel to Iran, because of Hezbollah and because of a real fear that Iran might develop a nuclear weapon that would threaten the existence of Israel. The close connection between the thinking of the neocons that has been so influential in this administration and support of Israeli objectives is well known. (Incidentally, it is odd that concern for Pakistan’s already existing nuclear capability remains muted, in spite of the fact that Musharref might be unseated by an Islamist coup at any time and Pakistan has a record of sharing nuclear information with other states.)

Two recent events have affected the possibility and usefulness of negotiations. First, nationwide local elections including an election of the “experts” who choose the actual head of state has resulted in a setback for Ahmadinejad in Iran. The moderates and reformists have made critical gains. This would seem to offer an opening to any power that really wanted to engage the Iranians. Moreover, the exercise itself has once again shown that Iran is in no way in the league with North Korea and Saddam’s Iraq. It is a much more modernized and vibrant state, with possibilities for real choice and discussion, in spite of the continuation of controls over the media and the jailing of opposition figures.

Second, and less promising, the United States and Great Britain have announced that they are increasing the size of their fleets in the Persian Gulf. This reversion to “gunboat diplomacy” will hardly make Iran’s leaders anxious to negotiate about anything. Neither is it likely to be well received by the Iranian opposition that remains hotly nationalist in spite of everything.

At this juncture, two American diplomats who have participated in past negotiations with Iran have published an Op-Ed in the New York Times (December 22, 2006) that argues persuasively that the Iranians are never going to be willing to negotiate about particular items in an American agenda. They have been repeatedly disappointed by narrower agreements. For example, they cooperated with us in the defeating the Taliban, but in the end received nothing in return but hostility. Against this background Iran will need to be offered a broad and open agenda. In particular, it wants security guarantees from the United States and a guarantee that we will respect its borders, and no longer work for “regime change”. (The authors of the Op-Ed tell us that what they print is a censored version of what they wanted to say. But for our purposes here, the question of censorship is irrelevant. Their main points get through.)

As Baker, in discussing his Report, has pointed out: “If you have problems in a relationship, you sit down and discuss them. And you cannot have such a discussion if you insist that your partner yield on major points before the discussion begins.” One can only hope that this administration reconsider the Report’s recommendations for talks, and not just talks to avert catastrophe in Iraq. Iran and the United States share many more interests than that.

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.

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.