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Monthly Archive: May 2005
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May 28, 2005

By the Thousand
Babak Seradjeh  [info|posts]

pascal.gif In the current presidential election in Iran 1014 people registered as candidates. 1008 were disqualifies initially by the Council of Gaurdians; 2 were re-qualified in a row over the consequences of their disqualification. A simple question arises naturally: Why so many? Apparantly something's wrong somewhere.

The hard-line Council of Gaurdians who are happy to slash anyone not strongly enough aligned with their politics and religious guidelines, the two tightly knit in the Islamic Republic (IR), without accepting any sort of public scrutiny of their processes naturally would argue that the constitutional qualifications for candidacy are at fault. In fact Jannati, the well-known hardliner and the Secretary of the Council, said so yesterday in the Friday prayers (another religious act turned political in the IR). But this is, as I see it, just a new front in the attack against people's freedoms and completely beside the point. The real reason so many people show up for registeration including, allegedly, many who may not even be at a literacy level to read and write, is the political system not the law per se.

Here is the constitutional article in the constitution of the IR pertaining to the qualifications of a candidate for presidency:

Article 115 — The President must be elected from among religious and political personalities possessing the following qualifications: Iranian origin; Iranian nationality; administrative capacity and resourcefulness; a good past-record; trustworthiness and piety; convinced belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official religion of the country.
In fact, except age restrictions (ranging up to 40 years old), most democratic republics do not have a more detailed set of conditions for qualification of candidates than Iran has1.

The argument for blaming the recent phenomenon of mass registeration by apparantly unqualified people on the constitutional qualifications is simply wrong: there is no logical connection between the actual set of qualifiations adopted and the number of people who register. For one thing, it is not true that all the registrants were obviously unqualified from the start; many conventional "politicians" registered too. What is that to be blamed on? For another, what set of conditions is supposed to prevent such outpours when the current strict set does not? The missing link is not the set of qualifications, but the mechanisms through which these qualifications find their proper meaning in the political system in particular and in the society in general.

So, what is at fault is the amorphous nature of the political game in Iran. The mechanisms of an effective democratic process in Iran's politics are lacking and, even worse, blocked by the hard-liners. This has led to the dispersion of the existing political forces. Moreover it has prevented arising ones from formation. The current state is one in which proper means of funnelling economical, political and social demands through the political system have been destroyed, badly damaged, or vehemently resisted. The result: a lot of people who are grieved by their conditions for one reason or another think they should take matters in their own hands. This is also the case, to some worrying extent, for the active political groups and parties, even the reformists.

Of course, this does not mean that the constitutional qualifications are not the source of any problem. They are too broad and very ambiguous. What does it really mean to be "trustworthy" or "resourceful"? This vague wording has been the major justification for the vetting powers of the Council of Gaurdians. But it is meaningless to change them in any way just to hide the symptoms of a disease that is created and continued by the enemies of freedom and democracy. Certainly not by the staunchest of them all, the Council of Gaurdians.

[1] For instance see the rather old and incomprehensive, but detailed database of Country Studies.

May 25, 2005

“You Need Me!” (A Recipe)
Babak Seradjeh  [info|posts]

thumbup.jpg You are the manager in chief of a public company, infamous for your undemocratic behaviour and love for power. This is hurting you and your ambitions. Here's an electiow recipe for you to get out of your situation, if you manage to act well:

1. Announce that you are recruiting for, preferrably, second in command in management, through stockeholders' vote and receive a lot of applications.

2. Set up a review committee who should decide which applicant met the requirements for the post.

3. Tell the review committee to disqualify a certain applicant, Mr. Mo, who is enjoying a sizable popular support and who is supported by the opposite camp to you. In most cases you don't even need to tell them directly, just appoint the right persons and they will do it on their own.

4. When the names of the qualified applicants are announced by the committee, ask one of your cohorts (an easy choice is one that you have indirectly appointed, in a previous electiow, to a legal position in the company with a close family relation to you, say the father of your daughter-in-law) to write you a public letter and ask for a reconsideration of the committee's decision. This is a vital step and must be done carefully and immediately. You should not lose any tempo or your opponents might stage major protests on their own and take the lead away from you.

5. Write a public letter to the committee and ask for a reconsideration of (wait, no, not all the applicants, only) Mr. Mo's qualifications.

6. The committee must duly announce that "following your managerial recommendation," they have now qualified Mr. Mo.

7. [improved] Tell your press rep to publish the news of your managerial order. You have then given both an order and a recommendation, depending on one's taste. This will devide your opponents: those who want to challenge your order will be pressed by those who want to take advantage of your recommendation. Ultimately they cannot not accept the maneuver, since that means they do not accept you as a democratic manager.

8. If you played well, you'd be about done now. Wait. Recuperate. Read and prepare. As the time of voting approaches you may have a lot more to do. Hope for the best.

Find it hard to imagine? Take courage and learn the way from the real-life version.

May 16, 2005

Nuclear Show[down]
Arash Jalali  [info|posts]

iran-atom-logo.jpg A few nights ago, I was watching the round-table program after the news. It is among the few live programs in which the host (Morteza Heydari) has, for some reason, been given permission to ask direct (and at times rather robust) questions. It is nothing like BBC'c Hard Talk, of course, but I guess you can call it the Islamic Republic's Larry King Live. The guests are always regime's officials. The other night's guests: Aghamohammadi, member of the national security council, and Aghazadeh, the head of the Iranian nuclear energy organization. A few days before that, there was another program with Sirus Nasseri (the head of the negotiation team) and a member of the parliament's national security committee as guests.

As you might know, Iran has been involved in intense negotiations with three European countries (Germany, France, and Britain) for the past four months, during which the Uranium enrichment was suspended; and now that the talks have reached a critical point, evidently with no concrete results one way or the other, Iran is threatening to resume the enrichment process. Some serious and not so serious words have been exchanged through the press by both sides, and the question remains: what next? In this post I am going to discuss the answer to this question with respect to what I heard, and didn't hear, from such officials in this show.

Some Facts and Quotes

Sirus Nasseri (Head of the Iranian negotiation team):

  • "In our last meeting in London, everything was going superbly well, and just as we were about to reach very positive results, the atmosphere suddenly changed and then we don't know what happened after that."
  • "Our offer is on the table, and we think we have reached a point for "decision making." We believe this offer, is the only way to go forward with talks or else it would be a waste of time and there will be no point in further negotiation."
  • When asked by the host to provide more details about this offer, Nasseri said: "I am affraid I cannot give you the details because, upon their request, we agreed with the Europeans that the details of our discussions do not get disclosed so that they would have more freedom in decision making without any pressure from the press or the U.S."

    Contrary to Mr. Nasseri's claim, the terms have indeed been disclosed. Look here [PDF file].

  • "The idea that we permanently halt our Uranium enrichment activities is idiotic, and they have gradually learned not to bring it up anymore."
  • "As opposed to two years ago, we are now fully prepared and have contingency plans for every eventuality."

Gholamreza Aghazadeh (Head of the Iranian Nuclear Energy Organization):

  • "This is a major historical point for our nation." He then went on to imply that standing firm on the position that we have a right to have the uranium enrichment process as opposed to agreeing on permanent suspention, is analogous to the distinction between the time when Iran's oil industry was nationalized and when the Turkmenchai treaty was signed.
  • "We are now at a point where people even criticize us and accuse us of being too easy-going with the Europeans."
  • When asked about when the Nuclear power plant will be finished by the Russians, he said: "This is in fact a good example of what happens if we rely on others. According to our contract with them, the Russians are already four years late. They have promissed to finsih the whole thing and bring the power plant to the one mega Watt output by the summer of 2006. But even I as the head of the nuclear energy organization don't know whether they will do it or not. This shows that we cannot trust anything they might offer us."

Ali Aghamohammadi (Spokesman for Iran's Supreme National Security Council):

  • "We never entered negotiations to discuss the possibility of permanent suspension. We entered negotiations because we did not want to permanently halt enrichment and wanted to find a solution to provide concrete measures and assurances to the Europeans and the rest of the world that our program is peaceful. Permanent suspension doesn't even need negotiations."
  • When asked about his view on what the critics used to say all along that the talks would undoubtedly lead to such deadlock as today, Aghamohammadi said: "The difference between now and then is that now we have the popular support... . Now people know that we tried everything to give diplomatic negotiations a chance. Back then there were two questions in everybody's mind, including our people. First, do we have nuclear weapons? Second, how much of this technology is in our hands? By implementing the additional protocol, by allowing for additional inspections, and by letting the inspectors see our facilities now everybody has the answer to both these questions." He went on further to comment on the idea of negotiating with the United States: "Europeans have been our [economic] partners for many years now and we know more or less how to deal with them, and yet look at what came out of the negotiations! This should be a lesson to those who were thinking about direct talks with America. One can imagine what a mess that would be, if we engaged in any direct talks with the Americans."
  • When asked about what will happen next when Iran resumes enrichment and the Europeans interpret it as the violation of the terms of the Paris treaty, he said: "The terms of the Paris treaty have already been violated by the Europeans. It specifically says that the negotiations should demonstrate tangible progress in a short period of time. It hasn't happened. I don't think they can do much. They have threatened to refer the case to the UN security council. So what? We are not going to stand still and watch", he then said: "There were two sides to the NPT. We accepted one side so that we could benefit from the priviledges provisioned by the other side. If they deprive us from the priviledges then we will abandon the other side too."

Reading Between The Lines

Whether these officials are telling the whole truth remains in doubt, although they are undoubtedly also saying things that are not part of the truth. In my opinion, one thing is clear; that they think they have got the popular support, and they are planning to cash in from this support as much as possible, while it lasts. I won't be suprised if they start massive demonstrations in the streets (preferably one that is not tied with the Friday prayers to add to its authenticity).

They seem to be hoping, that such display of public support would ruin any plans by the US and Europe to mount pressure on Iran. Afterall, it has been demonstrated time and again that the Islamic regime has never had any concerns about the well-being of the country per se. Economic hardship brought on by any sanctions, or possible military conflict, woud only harm people and the country's development. None of this is a primary concern as far as the Islamic Republic is concerned. Internal instability arising from public dissatisfaction seems to be their greatest concern, and Western nations' greatest hope for change in Iran.

Given all this, one could infer that the Islamic regime is indeed bracing for a serious show down. They claim, very openly, that they have made preparations for all sorts of eventuality; and as Sirus Nasseri said, unlike two years ago, they now have contigency plans for all outcomes. They seem to be trying to convey this message to the Europeans (and indirectly to the U.S.), that during the time the talks have been going on, they have had time to make preparations of all sorts. Gaining popular support was the last weapon they needed in their arsenal before they could resume their nuclear activities. They are constantly saying that "people are willing to make sacrifices" to hold on to what is now their source of national pride. If things go the way they seem to be going now, the best bad-case scenario is Iran being put under heavy sactions by the UN security council, and the worst-case scenario would of course be a military confrontation.

However, there is another possible side to this story. Aghamohammadi almost let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, when he said: "The Europeans know they made a mistake by leading us to make this decision. Whatever hard stance they take, with the popular support, it will only result in more and more people showing up at the election polls during next month's presidential elections." With Rafsanjani now officially in the race, the only missing ingredient will be a high voter turn-out. A fabricated show-down, with frightening prospects, is just what is needed to give him the edge he needs as a so-called pragmatist who has the power to resolve such sensitive issues.

Whether the whole thing is a masquerade or for real, the Europeans might in fact have made a wrong move, giving IR the internal boost it needs. Yet again, if they are willing to turn a blind eye on one of their own MP's being harassed by the police in Iran just because they don't want to jeopardize their lucrative contracts, they would certainly not mind giving them an easy ride during the elections, charging them (or the people of Iran rather) for their political generocity with yet more lucrative contracts.

May 13, 2005

Oshin, the Role Model
Babak Seradjeh  [info|posts]

oshin.jpg This is the recounting of a history that is well known to most Iranians of all age groups, but I think not so well known to the outside world. It's telling of the experiences of the generations who lived their lives, like most of the authors at FToI, in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution in Iran.

One aspect of the post-revolution life in Iran that is perhaps less known to the outsiders is our experience of the magic box as kids and adolescents. The TV is controlled, like most other things, by the state and is headed by a direct appointee of the Supreme Leader. Though it might be difficult to picture for a Westerner it shouldn't be as difficult to understand what it broadcasts: a lot of religious programs, domestic series on pre-approved themes centered, depending on the times, around the ("sacred") Iraq-Iran war, admitted social problems (drugs), the state's notion of family and, of course, official (Islamic conservative) propaganda in various forms, including the news.

What I think would be most difficult either to picture or understand is how such an organization handled broadcasting foreign programs, a necessity as the domestic production could not possibly fill in the hours, though little as they were, totaling a flimsy 10 channel hours in the early years. Further additions of channels and broadcasting hours mostly meant reruns of evening programs during the day. This repetitive schedule has had the interesting side effect of binding the generations who grew up in the early post-revolution years (throughout the '80s) through the TV programs they watched over and over again. These days everyone who can afford the costs and the risks is tuned to the waves of the outside world, and watches a mix of Asian/European/American satellite TV.

So, what did they do with all the cartoons, movies and series that were left from the pre-revolution era or were bought in bulk quantities from Japan and Germany? Right, they censored them. But as I discovered later it was not that simple.

An older friend of mine was telling me once that the censorship in the early days after the revolution consisted of a simple darkening of the scenes or parts of the scenes deemed inappropriate. True or false, other forms of such crude methods were and (I'm guessing) still are in use. However, there was (and again guessing still is) another, much more sophisticated method that was gradually developed by the censorship: fake stories.

Among all the Japanese series we were fed, there was one that is probably remembered by any Iranian my age and older who lived in the country at the time. I think they still show reruns of it so there might even be younger people who have seen it. The series, named in Iran The Years Away from Home, was a morning soap known, internationally as well as among the people, by its original title, Oshin. (It has recently reached Iraq it seems.) The story was that of a girl, Oshin, born in a village to a family hit by poverty who had to work her way up in the rough times before and after the World wars. The series was quite long originally, some 300 fifteen-minute episodes.

In its Iranian life however, it was cut down to about a 100 weekly half-hour episodes (two-thirds of the original) spanning over two years. What had caused such a drastic trimming was the adventures of the heroin who had to, in the real series, go through the ups and downs of her life in, sometimes, compromising ways that was not broadcast-able in the Islamic Republic. What we saw on our TV screens, instead, was a hard-working, courageous girl (true) with an unwavering morality (false) determined to reach success (which she did). This extreme make-over was achieved through various acrobatic cuts and pastes that often amounted to a complete rewrite of the screenplay, characters, dialogues, and in short the whole series.

In spite of all the censor Oshin was hugely popular. It was a given that the usually crowded streets were almost empty at the weekly show times — a phenomenon that is probably only rivaled by two other regular events: the evening fast-breakers in Ramadan and the national soccer team play-offs. In a society deprived of almost all the little pleasures of life, deemed decadent and corrupt, and hit badly by a destructive 8-year war with Iraq people were at least happy to have some of their lost chances on TV screens, however grim, and trimmed, the core of the story was. This statement is perhaps still a truism of the life under the Islamic rule of the clergies in Iran. My all-boy grade-6 classmates made little rhymes and limericks on the characters of the series, fascinated by the teenage girl of the rich household where Oshin worked as a child servant. The people in the film having sips of sake helped revive to some extent the bootlegging business.

The drama reached a peak, however, not in the motion picture, but in real life. In 1988 (if I remember correctly) on the religious occasion of passing away of Prophet's daughter, Fatima Zahra, promoted as a role model for girls by the official propaganda, a reporter asked a woman on a live radio show who she thought was a good role model for "the girls of the Islamic society of Iran" — a clumsy, but commonplace, question meant only to receive the intended answer. The respondent surprisingly defied the common and replied ... "Oshin!" When asked by the astonished, and frightened, reporter "But what about Her Highness Fatima (p.b.u. her)?" she boldly replied that she thought such figures were a thing of the past and did not suit the demands of the modern age. (I jumped out of my seat, touching my face to make sure I wasn't dreaming it all up.) The program was cut and the host apologized on spot. It was then announced in the news that the woman and the reporter had both received the "Supreme Leader's Islamic pardon" (then Ayatollah Khomeini) and were released. The rumor had it they were initially sentenced to death.

The skillful maneuvering of the censorship had incredibly found an expression against them in an unforeseen way. The likes of that woman, I think, are still everywhere to find, and may, I'd like to hope, some day seriously challenge the roots of the ridiculous practices of the censorship we were, and sadly still are, subject to.

External Link:

• Ayako Nezu has a note on the "Oshin Phenomenon".

May 06, 2005

Reflections on the State of the ‘Black Gold’
Guest Auhtor: Maryam Farid

oil_drop.jpg I just read a marvelous article ("The real trouble with oil" [requires subscription]) in The Economist magazine. What I mostly like about this magazine is the little note that always appears on the very lower left corner of its first page, reading:

First published in September 1843 to take part in 'a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.'

That was the reason, which mostly propelled me to write a post today — however rudimentary.

The issue of oil is a vast subject of study, and this post does not intend to tap into it. Rather, it is an expression of some of my opinions or perhaps just notes to parts of the above-mentioned article.

Is a technological revolution, for sources of energy, looming large in front of us?

The article starts: "A young Winston Churchill, on the eve of the first world war, took a gamble that changed the course of history [...] he decided to convert the British navy from Welsh coal to imported oil. The resulting gains in speed gave Britain's navy a decisive advantage over Germany's."

Over the years following its advent into the energy market, the 'black gold' and the ensuing power rivalries for its possession have left substantial footprints on the political, economic, military, and social lives of nations and people world-over.

As economic productivity and growth take off around the world, so would demand for energy. In addition, as trade and the markets become ever more globalized, so would intensify the rivalries for the acquisition of energy and its sources. The demands, alliances, advantages and so on, not only could change the rules of the game in the domestic affairs of many nations, but could also largely affect relations among nations. Of the questions that emerge in this era, could be: what would be the role and share of the world's superpower concerning these transformations? (The effects of the price of oil on its economy being just one of the byproducts of this transformation.)

The Economist article seems to see the prospects of America's "energy independence"—vehemently pursued by the Congress—and 'energy security' to lie in "the resilience of global oil markets, in conservation, and in alternative energy sources." It adds how in fact "two-thirds of the world's proven oil reserves lie in the hands of just five Persian Gulf countries," which would mean a rising share of these countries in the market as well as their subsequently greater chances of "disruption" and "embargo." Henceforth, it suggests more emphasis on the conservation and pursuit of alternative energy sources, as more viable options.

If this were to happen, therefore, may the world be soon saying goodbye to oil (as its solely dominant source of energy) like it once did to coal!

May 04, 2005

The Election Hype
Babak Seradjeh  [info|posts]

voting.jpg The presidential election in Iran is just around the corner, set for June 17, 2005. Naturally the event stirs a lot of excitement and there is a lot of talk about whom to vote for, and also a lot about whether to vote at all. The experience of the last eight years has produced different attitudes among those who voted President Khatami into office twice, hoping to make his reformist agenda into reality. That enthusiasm has since quenched due to the dithering of the so-called reform project. The last two rounds of elections (the 2004 parliamentary elections, and the 2003 city elections) saw a drastic drop in the turn-out and a reversal of the outcome, with conservatives winning both. Now some argue that, a revolutionary plan being ruled out for all sorts of reasons, the best and only way to continue with the reforms is to go back to the ballot boxes. But is that really the issue?

The real problem with the failing reform project has not been a dwindling public participation, but a muddy list if demands and a non-existence program to carry them through. If the situation is not remedied, it is irrelevant whether to vote or whom to vote for. Is it clear what the reformists, as a political denomination, want? Is it more social and political freedoms? If so, how are they going to be implemented? What would be the role of religion in deciding what freedoms to give? Or is it a change in the role of the Supreme Leader? Or the judiciary system? Or perhaps it is the creation of jobs? How about fixing the role of women in society? What are the priorities? Given the certain fierce opposition from the conservatives who now also control the Majlis (the equivalent of the parliament, officially: Islamic Consultative Assembly) to any such change, what are the strategies and tactics that are going to be used to push through with those demands?

I am not against voting, but I am not for it either. I don't think that's the issue. The issue is what to vote for. Without an intensive and relentless debate on these questions, it will be of no use whatsoever who will be elected to the office from the reformist camp—the old problems will surely show up again, and the hapless new president will be as resourceless and unprepared as the old one. It is not sensible to tone down the demands, as some suggest (one of the more recent attitudes, a sort of defense mechanism, arising after the disappointing decline of the Khatami vibe, not to get upset when the `high and tall' demands are not met by the elected president), but to make them loud and clear in the first place.

If it is not clear what we are voting for, it is more beneficial not to vote at all, at least to deprive the conservative spin-masters of a good source of propaganda.