Tuesday, February 01, 2005


And more conversation.

A note from our rising star--the prolific Praktike, his own very self:

[…] it appears that the Sy Hersh article mayhave been wrong in some parts.
Notably, the MEK partthat you so ably mocked. As such, the article may well
have been of a piece with the Bush team's ineptattempts to pressure the Iranian
government, apreemptive strike by opponents of using the MEK, a CIA-Pentagon
turf battle ... or I suppose it couldhave been the Gospel truth. In any case,
I think that the cards all lie now with Iran, which has succeeded in isolating the Bush administration diplomatically rather than the other way 'round.

That's to be expected, as all the Bush team understands is force, you see ... our
national dialogue here is so debased it's shameful. 911 really fired the lizard brains ofmany of my countrymen.

Do keep an eye on the Iranian "pro-democracy" groups that are bound to spring up out of nowhere in the next few weeks and months.

Anyway, here's Bob Novak (conservative columnist):

"We are not going to war against Iran,'' a senior Bush administration official told me this week. This declarative statement came from an official who is not known for rash declarations and is inclined to guard his comments. It followed heavy static in Washington about U.S. intentions toward Iran set off by President Bush's second inaugural address.

If Iranian intelligence were monitoring American''chatter'' the way the United States listens to its adversaries, Tehran might well think something was up. A famous investigative reporter claims commandos areworking behind the lines in Iran. The president's address seems to proclaim a global crusade for democracy, with Iran a probable target. The vice president goes on an off beat radio talk show and speculates about Israel attacking Iran.

Yet, as the senior official confirmed, U.S. military action against the Iranians is not a realistic option.Pentagon and State Department sources say a single blow could not eliminate Iran's nuclear capability, and an attempted change of regime in Tehran would entail a military effort the United States cannot undertake. The problem of Iran deepens for the world's only superpower when rhetoric outstrips reality.

After Bush's 2002 State of the Union address linked Iran with Iraq in the ''axis of evil,'' Secretary of State Colin Powell behind the scenes warned how difficult it would be to attack Iran. Powell told of Pentagon planning during the early 1990s when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Iran, with four times the land area and three times the population of Iraq, posed a massive challenge to a U.S.-led army.

Moreover, public support for the Iranian theocracyappears much greater than the popular backing for Saddam Hussein's secular dictatorship. Indeed, U.S. intelligence shows opposition to the rule of the mullahs has declined from a high level just six months ago. Change of regime from within seems most unlikely. The sense of being threatened by the West may have strengthened theocratic rule.

That threat was heightened by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh's article in The New Yorker indicating U.S. Special Forces operatives are behind the lines in Iran, preparing for possible air strikes against nuclear facilities. Sources have told me highly secret units operate inside Afghanistan and perhaps elsewhere, but not in Iran. Any such information could be gathered more easily inside Iran by Kurdish rebels who often cooperate with U.S. intelligence.

That set the stage for Vice President Dick Cheney' sun expected appearance Inauguration Day on the nationally syndicated ''Imus in the Morning'' radio talk show, known for ribald and outrageous materialand often engaged in Bush-bashing and Cheney-bashing. Don Imus asked Cheney to comment on the Hersh article's suggestion ''that you all are up to something in Iran.'' Cheney did not specifically address Hersh's contentions but asserted that ''Iranis right at the top of the list'' among the world's''potential trouble spots.''

''Why don't we make Israel do it?'' asked Imus. Instead of laughing that off, Cheney replied that''one of the concerns people have is that Israel mightdo it without being asked.'' He said ''the Israelis might well decide to act first and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards.''

Had Cheney used a more respectable venue for speculation, it would have received more attention. Checking with sources at State and Defense, I was surprised that many were not aware of exactly what the vice president said. They told me there was no intelligence to predict an Israeli strike. One official who is on top of the details said Iranian nuclear development is so dispersed around the country that the threat could not possibly be eliminated by a single bombing stroke, as Israel did on June 7, 1981,when its bombers took out Iraq's only nuclear reactor.

Apparently, Cheney next thought better of his Israeli prediction and said of the Iranian problem that itwould be best ''if we could deal with itdiplomatically.'' That is precisely what Powell preached the last four years and what is dictated by military realities. The vision of spreading democracy gives way to the less dramatic goal of negotiatingwith Iran over nuclear arms.

And our British visitor has this to say:

[…]I'll start with the easy stuff. My persian teacher over here - I did write 'Farsi' but have recently seent hat this is regarded as incorrect. (??) He would express sharmandeh [Shamed,expression of regret] whenever he had to teach me a word with an Arab origin. So many Iranians were at pains to inform me that they were not Arabs, and the emphasis on the Iranians' Aryan origins culminated one bizarre evening in a discussion of the Swastika, which I had seen on someone's architectural drawing.

'The nazis only targeted the Jews. You killed anyone who got in your way.' Or words to that effect. I have to say that rocked my cosy liberal world.

Of course, Khuzestan has a huge Arab population, and I only realized after I came back and started to research thearea more thoroughly that the Arabs there feel they are discriminated against. Certainly I saw a kind of condescending tolerance towards this sizeable minority. But interestingly, I read that Saddam thought the Arab population in Khuzestan would rise up against the Iranians during the war, and was confounded in this expectation. Naively, and probably romantically, I didn't expect to see an 'oppressed' country having ethnic stand-offs. Surely, I thought, with all those big beasts out for their blood, the Iranians would be standing shoulder to shoulder, regardless of ethnic origins. But you are, as you so lucidly pointed out, a very big country with a very long history, and ethnicity, language, a sense of nationhood is very fluid.

You may have heard that one of our Conservative politicians in the eighties posed' the Cricket Question.' When the Pakistan team comesto play over here, (or the Indians, West Indies etc)who does the British Pakistani, Indian etc support? Being an unreconstructed cricket lover, I found this question utterly reductive - it never worried me thata first or second or even third generation Indianmight support India. It added to the gaity of nations. Perhaps, though, a test of a country's evolutionary development is found in the way it treats its ethnic minorities. A brief addenda - MIS has a tiny Catholic chapel, with a cool, tree filled garden. My mother, a lapsed Catholic, occasionally took us there. One of the most melancholy sights this time was to see the church forbiddingly fenced off with the ever-popular corrugated iron, and a corrugated irondoor padlocked twice. What does that all mean? That the authorities are protecting a target that could betrashed? That they are putting it out of sight, out of mind? Of course, I never found the keeper of the key, who may well have let me look around.

Anyway, onto notions of left and right. You are so exact in your analysis of these complicated positions. As someone who sometimes feels he sees the world from a leftish point of view - though I sometimes fear that age may be slowly ossifying buried prejudices, and allowing them to work their way to the surface, aswell as narrowing the range of flexibility that Istill, uncertainly, see as a strength, […]I suppose I would start by saying that, in the main, the left tend to have secular leanings. I would characterise myself as a creature of the Enlightenment. Despite a pretty good Christianconditioning - religious music still features heavilyin my eight choices for desert island discs! - I am now, to all intents and purposes, an atheist. If I'm honest, I find most religious expression distasteful. No, more than that - I find most religious discourse pernicious. In fact, this discourse creates in me arage that I sometimes feel is not that different fromthat of a fundamentalist religious believer. This rage is part of my confusion. The problem is, I knowI AM RIGHT! and all those poor benighted souls who blindly follow their higher authorities, as sanctionedby god, are WRONG! Recently an ardent Christian friend recounted how she had prayed, in an Indian village, for rain, which had been absent for three years. And lo! Her prayer was answered - within aminute rain came! I looked at her, mouth idiotically open, with amazement. And then I started, withc ontrolled but broiling rage, to try to shatter her illusions. I began with my own experience of returning to Iran.

I noticed, in retrospect, how powerful the sense of Sarnavesht [fate] had been during the journey - if I hadn't gone here, I wouldn't have met him, and if I hadn't met him, then that wouldn't have happened. Surely some higher force was leading me to that street, or that phone, or that hotel, or that taxi-driver. It was a very pleasant feeling, a sense that all was mapped out for me, that these chance encounters were meant to be. Of course, simultaneously, I knew that what I was doing was investing in my journey a particular and personal significance that was completely man-made. Whatever shape my journey took, it would still have resonated profoundly with me. But at least I think I had a glimpse of what comfort there is to be found in a sense of spiritual submission - someone up there is taking care of you.

Reading Richard Dawkins' book -Unweaving the Rainbow - I came across a section describing the behaviour of pigeons - in brief, a pigeon was alerted to food with a red light. It would then push a lever with its beak, and the food would appear. Next, the experimenters broke the chain, so food didn't appear when it was meant to. However, one day, Pedro the pigeon was waggling his head from sideto side when the food appeared. Ah, thought Pedro, ifI waggle my head, food will appear. So poor old Pedro started to waggle his head. Then, apparently, this wasn't enough to guarantee food, so he started to take a step to his left, step to his right, all the time waggling his head all about. Food came! It worked. By then, the dance routine was so firmly embedded inhis pigeonic brain that it simply didn't matter to him whether it worked all the time. As long as it worked some of the time it was enough. All this to the bemused Christian friend, who was looking at the storm in my face with some alarm. 'Tell me,' I said, 'what is the difference between the pigeon, the shaman who does a rain dance, and your prayer for rain? Do you really believe that your prayer brought on the rain? Or possibly sped it along? And, if there was a god,why would he answer your prayer, but not the millionsof prayers directed at stopping the genocide in Rwanda, for example?'

We are used to seeing righteous anger spewing from people of faith, but there is something embarrassing about seeing vitriol spilling from the mouth of an unbeliever. It is not in keeping with a liberal mindset. And it conflicts with our sense of provisionality, our celebration of difference, our much-vaunted tolerance of other worldviews.

A postscript to this encounter, which ended awkwardly. This woman and her friends took a sewing machine to this impoverished (untouchable) village. (There are people deemed untouchable???) Now THAT was a real godsend. By their deeds ye shall know them.
If shehad told me only of this, (and other good works she performed whilst there) I would have been only admiring. And, true, all religions encourage good deeds. But when the great audit in the sky is undertaken, I would bet my house that the harm religion has done would far outweigh the good. So, a secular, left-leaning Westerner, soaked, as you so rightly pointed out, in colonial, (wouldn't it be nice if it was only post-colonial?) guilt, encounters a country he loved as a child, unaware as he was then of this country's complex history, and the role his country has played in that history. What does he want to see?

A country proud of its independence, proud to have thrown off the shackles of its imperial oppressors, celebrating its extraordinary history, confident in its faith system, even if he finds the faith system insufferable. Vive la difference).
He's read about the murders, yes, the state oppression, but this must be taken with a pinch of salt, surely, sincethese are, after all, Western reporters. He arrives. And what does he actually see? A deeply unhappy country. In his limited experience of the world, the most unhappy country he has visited....(Enough of the 'he' stuff! Back to me.)

Before I left I heard Colin Powell characterising yourcountry as unhappy, longing for change. No, you rightwing neo-con (cuddlier version mark 2) don't say that, I thought, since I know this is yet another coded callfor yet another imperial adventure. But his informants were right - Iran is miserable. Its identity fractured. What are its touchstones? Its own imperial past? The arrival of Islam? What are its dreams? Are they American dreams? Western dreams? (Satellite dishes, thick make-up on mostyoung women, alcohol, drugs, casual sex, magazines with glossy models on shiny paper, rock music,FREEDOM!!!)

I remember sitting in a house and watching some rock channel showing lots of scantily clad rock chicks cavorting on Californian beaches -the two young men, and me, were transfixed. This is just one trivial example of what I came to see as a pervasive hypocrisy that permeated the country. Public and private space had no connection. You just needed to be careful enough not to get caught.

So, there I am, finding religion's analysis of human nature and society so very skewed, in an Islamic republic that seems to be loathed by most, even though most are good Muslims - a complex idea in itself (and one that I hope you will understand could equally apply to other faith systems, and an idea I can't bring myself to unravel here, except to say that these were decent people whose faith played an important, but not all-consuming part in their lives.) And all of this identity confusion, all this unhappiness and hypocrisy, all this oppression, seemed, when push came to shove (which one day may come to be characterised as Bush came to shove - sorry, I couldn't resist that) all of this seemed to be our fault.

Now, on this, I am open to persuasion. You only need to look next door to see the awful consequences of ouractions over the last 80 odd years. But Saddam was ghastly (except when he was our friend and bombing thehell out of MIS). So it goes perhaps like this - you created the mess, you sort it out.

Oh lord, here we go again, you've come in with your great big boots and bigger guns and made an even greater mess. 'You support the Mullahs, you could get rid of them.' But on the other hand, woe betide anyone who interferes in our country.

You are responsible, we need you, we hate you, we want you, go away. William Blake has agnomic line - 'the cut worm loves the plough.' It resonated in Iran for me. The abuser and the abused, a depressing dance, a kind of deathly, circling longing for the certainties of the abusive relationship. And how can someone with any compassionabandon the abused?

But what if you are the abuser? Shouldn't you just discipline yourself to get the hellout? Give the victim time to heal. But they need help. Not your kind of help, matey, you're part of the problem, not part of the cure.

My Persian teacher used to lament the coming of oil. And, perhaps a bit cutely and conveniently, in the book I have located the discovery of oil in MIS as thebeginning of a conflict that still has very powerful legs. Iran was not some prelapsarian paradise before the discovery of oil, as you know, nor was it insignificant in Britain's imperial landscape, but I know why he laments. It's a terrible story, and not many people emerge from it squeaky clean.

[...] I hope at least I've given you a littlefood for thought. […]

One final thing - your ability to locate a person'spolitical position within nano-seconds of hearingthem. I encountered this, but part of the analysis was sartorial. Nevertheless, I was amazed to see how quickly someone would say - 'be careful, he is one ofthem.'

I wonder if this identification is morepronounced than our class-system here?