When in Iran

Legitimacy, the Rule of Law, and Authority in Iran

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Initial student protests in Babol. It's still peaceful at this point.

We should start out with a straightforward question: where do governments gain their legitimacy? From the people? From God? From themselves?

The question of authority and legitimacy is an important one in contemporary issues, but it is often overlooked.

In Plato's Crito, Socrates famously asserts that it would not be alright for him to flee from the death sentence handed down from the Athenian jury even though the particular sentence was clearly unjust. Socrates states that since Athens has "given you birth, nurtured you, educated you; we have given you and all other citizens a share of all the good things we could... You must either persuade [the city] or obey its orders, and endure in silence whatever it instructs you to endure."

So lets see if these principles apply to Iran.

First off, does Iran reasonably provide its citizens with basic opportunities, education, and "good things"? Obviously, it is up for debate, but I do believe that the government of Iran, at it's core, does care for the general well being of it's people. It provides universal education for it students -- even at the university level -- and it subsidizes basic necessities like bread and gasoline. The students you see demonstrating at the University of Tehran, Amir Kabir University or Sharif University all have their tuition paid by the state and other student fees subsidized, including dormitories and food. So I think comparing Iran, for example, to a dictatorship like Saddam's Iraq in which large portions of it's citizens remained without basic necessities not an appropriate comparison.

So when Mir-Hossein Mousavi accepted the legitimacy of the voting process by submitting his name to the Guardian Council, he accepted this much at least. Subsequently, he followed the rules and encouraged participation for the presidential election within the confines of the rules which had been set up; he held mass rallies, speeches, and distributed campaign literature in a lawful and organized manner.

Once the results had been announced, though, Mousavi immediately claimed fraud. Which is fine; that is obviously a valid concern.

However, Mousavi refused to mediate through the Guardian Council and lawful means and instead encouraged people to demonstrate and show civil disobedience. I think what many Iranians found disturbing was: does Mousavi only accept the system only up until the point he disagrees with it?

To turn it around though, from the opposition and Mousavi's point of view, people didn't accept the judgment of the Guardian Council because they fundamentally didn't believe in the system itself. They didn't trust the Guardian Council because they thought the Guardian Council and it's affiliates were the ones who carried out the fraud or were at least complacent in it. They wanted to set their own rules for how their complaints were to be addressed. They demanded a referendum, refused to meet with government bodies, and some (not all) perpetuated violence in the streets. I don't think the movement meant to be violent or burn down a mosque, for example, but eyebrows have to be raised when a suicide bomber attempts to blow himself up at Imam Khomeini's Shrine. There are people who want to spread fear, death and hatred in Iran, such as Jundullah, and the opposition movement has to take that into consideration as to prevent it's movement from being manipulated and taken advantage of. I'm certainly not linking the entire opposition movement to mass violence, but I do think it is a relevant issue and one that actually occurred.

But, again, the opposition had enough trust to place their vote in the first place. They saw enough hope in the democratic process from the years leading up to the election and freedom in campaigning itself to press their fingers to the ink.

Once the ink dried though, the fingers made a V and hit the streets.

Civil disobedience, I believe, is only recognized as legitimate if it opposes unjust applications of the law but not the actual underlying system of law itself -- that's the difference between civil disobedience like the civil rights movement in America and revolutions which overturn systems. Generally, civil disobedience is a strategy employed when people believe their basic human dignity and rights are being violated -- but it is still a strategy which tries to "convince" the state to reform. But when Mousavi didn't give the law a chance, he damaged much of his credibility for the people who actually voted for Ahmadinejad, stood over the ballot boxes, and to the representitives who looked over the procedure.

There are certainly criticisms to be had of Ahmadinejad's policies and rhetoric, but was he assaulting the human dignity of Iranians prior to the elections? Can anyone truly say he clamped down on social freedoms during his first term? I was surprised to see the relative freedom people had when I visited this year in relation to a trip I had four years ago, when Reformist President Mohammad Khatami had just left office -- if not the same, I would say social freedom had even improved a bit.

I am a firm believer that there must be certain reforms within the Islamic Republic. I don't think anyone is fully content with the state of the country and what it could be in relation to it's potential. However, the post election protests severely damaged the country, created rifts, and gave hope to those who wish Iran ill. I'm not questioning whether people have the right to protest or challenge the law... I'm questioning whether the method was legitimate and if tangible and better results could have been achieved if the Green Movement took another route.

Let me be clear; there is plenty of blame to heap on Ahmadinejad and some of the more extreme crackdowns by internal security, and, as I have mentioned in previous posts, I believe there are legitimate, justified and real concerns in Iran which challenge policy and these are issues over which compromise and political inclusion must be reached. Unfortunately, Ahmadinejad has not been able to step up to his post and reconcile.

And I fear that we can achieve neither reconciliation nor justice when both the law and civility for each other are so blatantly disrespected and ignored.


Back in the game

It's been a while since I've posted on Chicago Now. Well, three weeks to be exact, but now that the break's over, I'm planning to start back up if everything turns out alright.

First off, for anyone interested, I will be giving a talk along with Professor Kaveh Ehsani at Loyola University regarding Iran on Oct. 6. My topic is titled: "Why Green? Iran's multifaceted Reform movement, the role of youth, and politicization in the Islamic Republic."

Although my blog from here on out will take on a different theme (more to come on that later), I think it's important to touch briefly on Iran since it's been in the news lately.

The first round of direct talks between Iran and the United States took place today in Geneva. It was important, no doubt and hopefully more talks will take place in the future. But for all the fanfare, it was more of a diluted high level meeting.

Although somewhat direct talks have occurred between the two countries before, this meeting has been given a great deal more attention due to the high stakes and recent developments with Iran's nuclear program.

But hey, how would you feel if you're publicly meeting someone face to face after a rough break up... 30 years down the road?

Talk about awkward.

It is what it is

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A typical Tehran street.

Being in Chicago and away from Iran has provided me the opportunity to reflect on my experiences outside of the tense, yet admittedly enjoyable atmosphere I had previously been in.

There are, of course, a few things which have to be discussed regarding Iran's presidential election turmoil.

First off, it must be stressed that what took place in Iran's streets wasn't some kind of fantasy revolutionary action I often felt media outlets and others made it out to be. It's wasn't glorious. It was bloody, rough, and scary. Anyone that actually experienced the unrest will testify to this. Civil uprisings are risky and uncertain; many were killed, thousands were jailed, and opposition leaders currently live not knowing if they will be detained.

There is so much complex analysis coming out of think tanks (I may be guilty of this too) and so-called "Iran experts" about why people were protesting, what types of people were marching, and what this means for Iran's political future that we ended up missing some basic points. While these are of course important questions which have to be addressed, we have to look at this situation as it is.

People were marching because they were discontent with the election outcomes. That much is simple. Instead of reading some armchair report on the Iranian protests, I just asked those who were protesting why they were doing it. And really, it was primarily because they believed there was fraud. They didn't want four more years of Ahmadinejad; they couldn't take their wretched economic situation, international embarrassment at Ahmadinejad's behavior, they had demands for more social freedom, and the list goes on.

But whatever their reasons were, they were mad as hell and weren't going to take it anymore.

At this point it's still unclear what the fate of the opposition movement will be. Certainly, its leaders are thinking in the long term, with Mousavi at the helm of his new "Green Path of Hope Association." I really wish all this damage and unrest had not occurred, but since Iranians have taken this route, I hope that in the long run, this turns out to strengthen Iran and push through necessary compromise in order to better the Republic instead of invoke regime change, chaos, and exploitation by others. Nobody is asking for a regime change, only reform -- there is a big difference.

As a nation, we fought, bled, and suffered for the Islamic Revolution and its values; we are not going to abandon it this easily. However, reform is necessary in order to preserve change. We just have to be careful which route and form the reform takes and we can't allow it to be hijacked by the fringes.

Personally, I detested the violence and was utterly disgusted at what I was witnessing on the streets. I saw really vicious beat downs, sometimes at the hands the ill-trained paramilitary. In the protesters' views, these were the men who made Islam harder upon themselves, or who wanted to make themselves appear religious because of the material rewards they would get, misrepresenting Islam along the way. While regular police and riot guards certainly weren't nice, they usually operated within the parameters of their duty to control the crowd -- they didn't beat people once they were down, or take particular pleasure in it.

I happened to experience much of this first hand.

Three days after the election, on Monday, I traveled to Tehran to attend Ahmadinjead's victory speech. Opposition had planned to have a rally during the same time, and at this point accusations of fraud were firmly established and tensions were high; clashes had broken out and people were hitting the streets. On my way to the speech, I encountered a mini-demonstration. Due to the property damage the nights before, the police were given orders to clear out the demonstrations.

As soon as I walked towards Vali Asr square, where the speech was being held, a guard hit me with a baton, at which point I decided it would be wise to run away. Unfortunately I ran straight into tear gas. Thoroughly burned and confused, I went to wash my face. However, in Iran the street water drainage system isn't underground, it's next to the sidewalk in a special curb. I was forced to splash that water into my face. Not as refreshing as one might think. Luckily, a man farther up the street saw the pain we were in and placed an alcohol swab in my nose.

I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it didn't really matter -- there was no way to differentiate between protesters and innocent bystanders.

Through that experience though, I grew much more understanding of the opposition movement. I'm a moderate; while I don't consider myself a Mousavi supporter, I do think at this point he has some value to the political system and for bettering the country if he takes the right steps. While Ahmadinejad has certainly furthered Iran's strategic position in the region and done other positive things in his first term, he botched the economy and appointed too many loyalists to positions which need experience and intellect. Further, it's time to engage in diplomacy with the West, not unnecessarily ratchet up rhetoric -- all of Iran's jostling for position had an ultimate goal: preservation of the Iranian nation, promotion of its interests, and moral defense of the region's Muslims and Shias. It's time to reap those benefits and all the struggle and hard work Iranians undertook.

I think by now, most people in Iran recognize that opposition within the country is not being directly orchestrated by the West. Of course, it is a concern that Western intelligence can have a potential hand in the opposition movement -- especially with the increase in funding and efforts the U.S. and Israel is putting into Iran -- but it has to be recognized that there are real, legitimate, genuine concerns within the country that are independent and justified. This "Green Movement" was genuine. That much is for sure.

As someone primarily living outside of Iran, I don't believe I have the right to define the nation in my own terms, but as an Iranian who went through many of the same experiences other Iranians did this past summer, I have just as much stake over the future of my country as any other citizen. I have tied myself to the fate of Iran. If I have misrepresented the nation or gone outside of my bounds, I am sincerely sorry. But I love my country and its people, and can only see a bright future for Iran.

What's Left to Say?

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I'm in Amsterdam, typing what will probably be my last post.

During my three month stay, I experienced one of the most turbulent and defining periods of Iranian political history in recent memory. From thousands of people chanting "death to the dictator" in the packed streets of Tehran, to an equally packed and intense Ahmadinejad rally, I saw a nation unleashed.

Gloves cleanly taken off, I witnessed a conflict so intense as to shake the very foundations of the Islamic Republic. And I have a feeling that it's just the beginning; whatever has happened and whatever will happen during these times will come to define Iran for a while.

The legacy of the unrest will be multifaceted; we saw that public opinion in Iran is not unanimous. There is rising class in Iran with rising economic, social, and political expectations clamoring for change. 

And we saw them in droves: attractive westernized youth draped in green wishing "death upon the dictator." The West saw a hope for liberalization in Iran, conservatives within the country saw the influence of years of Western liberalism showing itself in the streets.

I saw something else.

I saw a nation so used to masks, deception, and misrepresentation finally showing its true face; you were either for or against the protests -- there was no in between. Hell, we even had a highly respected Grand Ayatollah indirectly call Ahmadinejad a bastard.

However, immediately following the election, it was hard to form a concrete opinion: we in Iran were all in general shock at the way things ended turned out. There was and still is no proof there was a mass organized fraud, but that didn't matter. Some people were mad as hell and were not going to take it any more.

It was as if there were two completely different visions for Iran's future. There was a genuine fear on both sides that the if the other got elected, Iran would go up in flames. The Old Guard feared an unchecked increase in social freedoms which would rock Iran's traditional culture. The Reformists feared four more years of international disgrace because of Ahmadinejad. But really, they feared how they would be viewed by the West, since, in reality, Ahmadinejad has greatly improved Iran's perception in the Muslim world.

The unrest only served to confirm and further these suspicions for both sides.

Personally, I felt I grew not only in my understanding of Iran, but more broadly as a person. Experiencing getting beat in the streets, seeing my fellow countrymen attack each other, seeing the poverty and hardships people live with not only made me grateful for what I had, but encouraged empathy, compassionate understanding, and a drive for a higher purpose. But most importantly, I experienced my culture firsthand and grew close to my people, understanding what it means to be an Iranian. That is priceless.

I can't claim to know what Iran's future will entail, but I know it will be bright... it has to be.

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Night of the election. Notice the goodwill.


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The night after the election. Notice the lack of goodwill.



Mashhad 2

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I think Mashhad's starting to grow on me. Outside of Imam Reza's shrine, there are many other attractions which I've been visiting these past few days. I've gone to Mashhad's famous Shandis restaurant, the tombs of poets Omar Khayyam and Attar, and other various parks.

Although, it goes without saying that the central attraction of the city is the Imam's shrine.

I'm leaving Iran in about three days, and I have to admit I've grown used to the country, it's people, and daily life. The more I see Iran, the more I grow attached to it.

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The Shrine at night.

 

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The poet Attar's grave.

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Omar Khayyam's grave.

Mashhad

 


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One of the gates of the shrine.

I'm the important Iranian city of Mashhad, host to the shrine of Imam Reza. Shias from all across the Middle East pour into this city to pay their respects to the eighth Imam, and I encountered many Arabic speaking pilgrims, although the vast majority of pilgrims are Iranian.

It's an interesting town, mixing both religious sites with general tourist attractions. The great Iranian poet Ferdowsi is buried here, there's water and amusement parks, and famous restaurants encircling the city. Mashhad is also notorious for its slick swindlers; immidietely after landing, for example, the taxi and hotel tried charging us extra. But then again which tourist/pilgrim city doesn't?

Despite a strong liberal middle and upper class, Iran is still a highly religious country with deep-rooted Shia Islamic traditions. And despite Iran's countless tourist attractions, Mashhad is probably the most popular vacation site in Iran -- at least partially indicating where Iranians' priorities lie.

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One of Mashhad's other attractions, "Stone Mountain."

 

 

Midnight Snacking

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Last night, I had an interesting midnight snack: roasted heart and kidney. Yummy... kind of.

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Good Evening, Tehran.

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Tehran's gorgeous skyline.

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Not Cool

This report by Reuters reflects the mounting pressure Western powers are trying to place on Iran. However, it's not the just the economic pressure I'm concerned with -- which is seriously harming the people of Iran -- but the way they're going after it.

Israel, for example, accused ElBaradei of "of deliberately understating the case against Iran to undermine the U.N. sanctions drive," according to the report.

So essentially, the big powers are trying to pull a standard G.W. Bush and coax a political response out of a supposedly non-biased U.N. agency. It's this kind of politicized and biased pressure which makes Iran doubt the alleged fairness of the whole procedure.

Besides, the sanctions are frankly ridiculous. They're harming the people of Iran by preventing their economic progress, all while Iran forges ahead with its nuclear program. How about some real diplomacy instead of some kind of infantile carrot-and-stick approach. We're all grown-ups here. At least I hope so... I still have my doubts about Avigdor Lieberman.

Ramadan in Iran

Today is the first day of Ramadan, the month in which Muslims fast from dusk until dawn.

I've never been outside of the United States during Ramadan, and I'm excited to see what it's like in a Muslim country. During this month, Muslims are supposed to forge brotherhood, fight with their desires and refrain from the luxuries in life they usually indulge in.

I hope this feeling of Islamic goodwill and forgiveness will spread around to appease the tense political situation, but I doubt the tensions will fall anytime soon.

In other news, Obama released a Ramadan message. Although I couldn't see most of it due to the slow internet connection here in Iran, I'm sure it was a positive message.

 

Omidvar Brothers

I actually just visited this exhibition last week, and took this picture:

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Kind of looks like Obama at first, doesn't it?

Etemad-e Melli

This morning, I went to the newsstands to get my daily dose of Persian news, but was surprised that a leading opposition paper, Etemad-e Melli, run by Karroubi, wasn't present.

The newsstand owner said the paper had been banned by the government. But I just read this article. This is a great example of politics in action: very little is clear and both sides contradict each other. Welcome to Iran.

A Quick Summary of My Trip

It's been over two months since I've come to Iran, I've taken thousands of pictures, talked to countless people, and experienced Iran as an Iranian should.

And although I have about two weeks left in Iran, I think it would be apt to post some pictures from the places I've been and events I have encountered.

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The famous Azadi Monument in Tehran.

I've been in Tehran for probably a third of my trip. It's of course the capital of Tehran and the central location of the post-election protests. Most of my interesting personal experiences have taken place in Tehran at the peak of the political turmoil. Overall, I've grown to love the city despite it's pollution, overcrowding, and sometimes dishonest store owners. For example, I waived down what I thought was a taxi the other day but when I offered the driver cash, he refused; he was just driving in the direction I was going and told me it was his duty to help me out.

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Esfahan's Imam Square.

No tour of Iran is complete without visiting Esfahan, a city rich in cultural history and attractions. Esfahanis have a great accent and I enjoyed just  hearing them speak.

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Persepolis, in Shiraz.

Shiraz is just as great a city as Esfahan, although much hotter. Shiraz is the host to Persepolis, the infamous former capital of the Persian Empire, sacked by Alexander the Great. But Shiraz has many other attractions as well, including a gorgeous mosque, "Char Cherag" or "Four Lights." Shirazis were really nice straightforward, and seemed to enjoy sharing their city with tourists.

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Jamkaran Mosque, outside Qom.

Jamkaran Mosque is believed to have been built on the direct orders of Imam Mahdi, the last of the Shia Imams. Jamkaran is a highly spiritual site in which pilgrims pray in hopes that the Imam will intercede on their behalf to God. In recent years it's experienced rapid growth as people steadily visit it more and more.

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Outside Babol's main university.

Babol is a town of about 400,000 located in northern Iran. The above picture is a gathering of students outside Babol's main university the night after elections. Students at Babol University were known throughout Iran for their steadfastness and opposition to Ahmadinejad.

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Tabriz from above.

I had a great time in Tabriz. Located near Turkey and Azerbaijan, Tabrizis are ethnically Azeri and also speak Azeri. It's a great city that's clean, big, and friendly. It may have just been the people I was staying with but I felt that Tabrizis were genuinely nice.

Iran's a really beautiful country but unfortunately due to the often tense political climate, there aren't many foreign tourists. Fortunately, I was blessed to be able to travel the country and be with its people, especially during these important times.

Above all, of course, it's the Iranian poeple I will miss, who's affection and steadfastness I won't forget. Despite the country's plethora of shortcomings, this trip has convinced me that Iran is mine and I am as much a part of its future as it is mine.

No matter which situation the country is in, I will always be responsible for it and I will always be an Iranian.

My new haircut

I got a haircut in Tehran for 800 Tomans today. That's a whopping 80 whole cents.

I don't know whether I should be glad I saved money or scared that I somehow contracted some kind of unique barbershop virus.

Mashdonald's

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In Iran, it's not McDonald, it's Mash donalds! The description above the happy bear reads "a way to resist homemade food," roughly translated.

I hope they don't actually serve bear. But that would be interesting.

Fraud?

Was there fraud in the Iranian elections? I'm not completely sure. However, I haven't seen any real evidence proving or even casting considerable doubt that there was. At the same time, that doesn't mean it's not a subject worthy of studying.

This is an interesting site laying out some of the more famous claims and counter-claims of fraud. I think some people were in such a rush to latch on to the opposition and fuel the fire, that faulty claims were made, such as this one.

In any case, just because there are discrepancies doesn't mean that a systematic fraud occurred. When nearly 40 million people vote, there will always be discrepancies -- no matter which country the elections are held. But there's a big difference between a discrepancy and fraud. If we want to be serious about investigating claims of fraud, we have to be a lot more tempered.

Before we do that though, the more comprehensive question, in my mind, is why some people would even believe there would be fraud. If they trusted their system, this wouldn't be an issue, and no matter how much the Guardian Council investigates or counts the votes publicly, opposition will never be convinced because they fundamentally distrust the system and government.

So really the issue isn't purely centered around fraud, but rather why certain people would genuinely believe their government could do such a thing. And I think part of the answer lies in the highly politicized and partisan atmosphere of Iran. At times I feel like each side is screaming but they're still not listening to each other. There are various visions for Iran's future all competing with each other: some want Iran to become more "modern" and abandon it's opposition to the U.S. and Israel, while others want Iran to stay independent, traditional and Islamic -- and those in between. But it's reached such an extent that each side thinks the other will absolutely ruin the country if they're at the helm of leadership.

When I interviewed Ali Larijani's representative to Mazandaran and Iran's new Ambassador to the Vatican, Hojj. Nasiri a couple of weeks ago, he mentioned how the claims of fraud were being used as rhetoric for more comprehensive complaints. I'm now beginning to see what he means. 

Back from Tabriz

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An aerial view of the city.

I have to say Tabriz is definitely one of my most favorite cities in Iran. Aside from the genuine hospitality and kind way Tabrizis treated me, the city was generally a lot more relaxed than the rest of Iran. It may have been just the region I was in, but the religious police presence was a lot less visible and people didn't put as much emphasis on pronounced religiosity.

An underlying factor for this may be that Tabriz's culture is different. Due to linguistic and historic ties, Azeris share many cultural values with Turkey and Azerbaijan. In fact, much of the satellite channels I viewed were beaming in directly from Turkey.

Extroverted ethnic tensions aren't really present, but Azeris are proud of their heritage and role in Iran's Islamic Revolution so they don't really take crap from non-Azeris. For example, there was an intense lashback when a newspaper insulted Azeris by comparing them to cockroaches. One of my friends was actually beat up by riot police following the incident.

In any case, the city itself is beautiful; the weather is excellent, scenery is amazing, and it has many general attractions. Below is the "people's park" at night.

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I also visited the city's Bazaar and a few museums.

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Finally, below is a famous drink specific to Tabriz: Ishmaeli yoghurt drink. We don't really have an equivalent in America, but it's absolutely delicious.

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Of course, no trip is complete without learning some local phrases, so tapshiriram! (See I can write a fairly non-political post every now and then.)

In the Breeze... Tabriz

 

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Yesterday, I arrived in northwestern Iranian city of Tabriz. It's a beautiful city with deep roots, culture, and history. Located near Azerbaijan and Turkey, Tabrizis are ethnically Azeri, and often just called "Turks" within Iran.

Azeris compose roughly 1/4 of Iran's populace -- even Iran's Supreme Leader is ethnically Azeri.

As far as Iranian cities go, Tabriz is crucial. It's in this city where the Iranian Revolution first seriously got momentum. Thus, Azeris have always had an important place in Iran; the Safavi and Qajar dynasties were administered by the Azeris, both of which had signifigant long term influences on the nation.

Azeris also have their own language: Azeri. It's very distinctive, and unlike many of the other regional languages prevelant in Iran like in Mazandarandi, it is identical to the Azeri spoke in Azerbaijan and has deep similarities to the Turkish spoke in Turkey.

In any case, I can actually see the scenery in front of me and breath without coughing while I'm in Tabriz, a great improvement from the pollution in Tehran.

 

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Tehran's Bazaar

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One of the probably hundreds of alleys that make up the Bazaar.

Tehran's main Bazaar is huge. Built on narrow sidewalks, it's about as traditionally Iranian as you can get.

There's a Perisan saying about Tehran's Bazaar that goes: you can find/buy anything "from chicken milk to human life." (It sounds better in Persian, trust me.)

In many ways, the Bazaar is a reflection of an Iran in transition. There are countless stores that have been "in the family" for generations. And yet, although materials are still carried throughout the Bazaar in old fahioned carts, the materials range from dvd players, to western clothes, to stereo players and flashy sunglasses.

The Bazaar is bustling with endless activity and amazing cuisine. If one's not careful, they could easily get hit by a passing cart or yelled at by a hectic store owner trying to haggle with a customer.

But I guess that's what makes it interesting.

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A meal I now regret not having.

 

 

The Trials Begin

 

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A picture of the front page of the Iranian daily, Kayhan regarding the trials.

A few days go, trials for the political prisoners captured in the post-election aftermath began. Incidentally, on that day I was actually at Tehran's main Bazaar, which is near Iran's main judiciary building where the trial was taking place.

Three of the more prominent prisoners present were Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Mohammad Atrianfar, and Behzad Nabavi, all former top Reformist administration officials.

The courts were not set up in a traditional manner, and the defendants' personal lawyers were not representing the defendents. Instead, they gave the podium to a few key opposition figures so they could talk about the post election situation.

Abtahi spoke about how he had made mistakes and how any claims of voter fraud were not true. He also mentioned that 13 million people voted for Mousavi and these were votes that had to be properly regarded... but given that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had said the same thing, it's not that grandiose a statement.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to see any proper legal procedures taking place, but rather dry confessions of those detained.

Some parts of the trial were simply humorous. Abtahee, standing in his prison clothes and visibly much thinner, responded to a question about prison conditions by stating prison is never good but aside from the fact that he was detained, he praised the respectful interactions of his captors and the general standard of living.

When someone like Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, perhaps the most popular of Ayatollahs in Qom, states he hopes [political prisoners] would be freed soon, I can't help but think some of the harsher reactions by the government were in the wrong and it can't treat all political dissidents as enemies of the state. In certain cases, there was definitely an overreaction.

The government needs to be able to distinguish between regular Iranians who have different political opinions and those who truly want to overthrow the government. Otherwise, there's little room for constructive improvement. By extracting "confessions" from high profiles prisoners who have been in unclear conditions for the past month or two, the situation is only getting more strung out and exasperated.

Even Ayatollah Saanei, another very popular Ayatollah and former head of the Iranian Judiciary, has stated these performances shouldn't necessarily be believed because of the unseen potential pressures these men are under.

If Iran is to truly recover and restore trust, it can't allow these scenarios to play out. If reconciliation and justice is to be served, it's certainly not in this form.

Khomeini and the Shah

These past few days, I've been doing some standard tourism around Tehran.

I visited the Shah's old palace complex and Jamaran, where Ayatollah Khomeini used to live. The former Shah's palace complex, Sa'dabad, was so large and illustrious we didn't have time to visit all of it. Here's a picture of just one of many dining halls:


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Khomeini's house, below, on the other hand was extremely modest. His house was connected to an adjacent mosque, also below, where he would often run the affairs of state and sometimes host foreign dignitaries.

I don't know what it was, but I felt a sort of calm as I was visiting Jamaran.

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Ayatollah Khomeini's pulpit. Many of the current I.R. officials used to sit right at his feet.


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His extremely modest house.

I don't think there's much of a question as to the two mens' personal lifestyles and ambitions. Khomeini was largely loved by Iranians because he had an unquestionable personality and pure character; more importantly, he didn't lust after power. The Shah, on the other hand, was caught up in a luxurious lifestyle, went to European schools, and was largely disconnected with Iran.

Whatever became of the Republic afterwards, I think it's just as important to remember the importance of the Islamic Revolution and the popular roots from which it grew.

Gender Relations in Iran

Often, it's hard for people in the United States to comprehend gender relations in comparatively socially conservative countries like the Islamic Republic. In turn, this leads to an overall confusing situation in which faulty accusations are made and realities are disregarded in place of elitist criticism and crucial misunderstandings.

As simple as the following statement may seem, it's fundamental to understanding Iranian social structure: Iran and the United States are different. They have different histories, religious beliefs, cultures, and social structures. So trying to judge the two very different countries by the same standard is just wrong.

What Iranians want is popular sovereignty and the right to live their lives without being told by the West that they are inferior and medieval because they believe in a different social structure and sense of national identity.

In Islam, when two people get married, they enter a mutually binding contract in which certain obligations are laid out for the husband and wife. For example, men have the legal burden of the financial well being of the family, while women have the obligation to provide loving companionship. It's a common misconception that Islam forces women to be stay at home moms -- in fact, a woman can even legally charge her husband for breast feeding their children.

The broader idea isn't that women should be forced to stay at home, but rather, that women shouldn't be placed in a position where they are  forced to work, as they often are in west. Women are completely free to work, and are even sometimes forced to do so, but by and large, it's a decision left up to them; men have the complete financial obligation for the family, and he has no right to demand any income a women may earn.

In Iran, there are certain beliefs about gender roles which western liberal traditions simply can't seem to grasp. Many social liberals can't fathom the idea that because a social structure differs from their own highly ideological notions of an equitable society, that the opposing social structure is anything but oppressive, backwards, and in need of comprehensive change.

Who is willing to say American gender and family roles are perfect, or even highly satisfactory? Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Children are often born out of wedlock, and single moms are forced to work just to provide food for their kids. I'm not nearly ready to say Iran doesn't have its own social problems, but I am ready to say the problems are much different. Family is placed in such a high priority that married couples sometimes stay together so their children won't have to experience a split family.

"To Muslim women elsewhere in the strictest parts of the Islamic world, the Iranian woman riding to work on her motorbike, even with her billowing chador gripped firmly in her teeth, looks like a figure to envy," says writer Geraldine Brooks. "'They are our superwomen,' said Imam Fadlallah... she spoke wistfully of Iranian women's opportunities to study and work. 'We have to struggle to be as strong as they are.'"

And indeed Iranian women are strong; they compose a majority of students in universities, have a presence in the workplace if they choose so, and have sacrificed endlessly for their country. Further, according to the World Public Opinion Survey, "Large majorities of Iranians endorse the principle that women should have equal rights with men and that over the course of their own lifetimes, women have gained greater rights."

This is not to say woman's rights are not an issue in Iran, but rather, that they are not a central issue and the nation isn't nearly as confused as the United States on the roles of women in society. Liberalism has certainly provided women with opportunities for work in America, but it has come at a high cost: the disrespect for women who choose to stay at home, the de-emphasis on the importance of family and family values, and the structuring of society as to place equal burdens placed on both men and women -- often ignoring that they have different needs. Of course, that was a choice made as a society in America and it is one that must be respected in terms of national self determination, but it is a choice nonetheless unique to America -- not Iran.

When I look at Iran, I see an excellent example of how progress can be balanced with healthy cultural values. This, in my opinion, is one of the biggest challenges for any country: to balance social and economic progress with sound and positive traditional beliefs. Persian culture is such an extraordinarily strong and rich current throughout Iran's history and has provided for the type of political culture which led to the 1906 Constitutional Revolution, 1979 Islamic Revolution, and current demands for government accountability, that it must be regarded with respect. The Islamic Republic is still trying to find the "balance," but the worst thing it can do at this point is implement the kind of radical reform being advocated by liberal ideologues, with all it's unintended consequences.

Well That's Good

I hope this kind of news keeps on coming.

It's Getting Real Hot

In a series of further confusing internal events, some deep resentment has been forming against Ahmadinejad from conservative ranks following his appointment of Esfandiar Mashaei as his Vice President.

It's no secret: Ahmadinejad is a very convinced man who has an extraordinarily high amount of self confidence. However his refusal to dismiss Mashaei even after the Supreme Leader issued a letter urging him to do seems to be going over the edge. Mashaei himself ended up resigning (he wasn't dismissed), and in a further slap to those opposed to Mashaei, Ahmadinejad appointed him as his chief of staff. I won't even go into the irony of Ahmadinejad so staunchly defending a man who made sensitive statements towards Israel, but it is interesting to note Ahmadinejad's son is married to Mashaei's daughter.

To go even further, Ahmadinejad dismissed three of his ministers after they protested over Mashaei's appointment (although in this recent article I read, he may have reversed two of the dismissals, Ejei not included... it's just a confusing situation overall). One of them, Gholam-Hussein Mohseni-Ejei, was Minister of Intelligence -- a highly sensitive post which shouldn't, in my opinion, be subject to whimsical political disputes.

From a political survival standpoint, the dismissals seem to be a very foolish move (note the self confidence I mentioned earlier) especially since Ahmadinejad would have submitted new cabinet appointments to Majles in a couple of weeks. In other words, he didn't need to dismiss the ministers: their terms would have expired anyway. However, there's something in Ahmadinejad's personality which sometimes prevents him from being a calculating politician. Often he just forges ahead with what he believes to be right; he's that convinced in himself and his beliefs.

However, the most explosive and exciting development by far is this: according to the constitution, if "more than half of the members of Cabinet are replaced, 'the government must seek a fresh vote of confidence from Parliament,'" wrote PressTV. That means Ahmadinejad could face a vote of of no confidence from Majles and become dismissed as the president of Iran.

This is huge.

It's essentially a golden opportunity to directly challenge Ahmadinejad through completely legal means. Although the chances of the vote actually occurring seem to be quite slim due to time constraints, the possibility still exists.

Following the post election turmoil and Ahmadinejad's apparent clash with staunch conservatives -- including the Supreme Leader, his political strength has been severely sapped. I personally feel that most Iranian moderates and many conservatives who were on the line concerning Ahmadinejad have now become opposed to him following the election. Case in point is in fact the person which declared Ahmadinejad's cabinet sessions as illegal in the article above, conservative Vice Speaker of the Parliament Mohammad Reza Bahonar

Although Mousavi's insistence at opposition after the election at times seemed futile, I think it's becoming more and more clear that Mousavi made a fairly stable political move -- the opposition to Ahmadinejad, especially within the establishment itself has proved to be much more powerful than initially anticipated and with Ahmadinejad making such brash and un-calculated moves, he's only making it easier for the opposition to work against him.

In one of my first posts following the election, I mentioned that "
the biggest immediate challenge facing the Ahmadinejad administration will be to reconcile with the opposition, learn to compromise and not completely 'have it their way'... although Ahmadinejad won the election, there was legitimate opposition which has to be paid more attention."

Let me be clear: I haven't seen such a reconciliation. Ahmadinejad has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the opposition
which was peaceful and failed to make any serious attempts at reconciliation or negotiation with them. I love my country and I want to see the turmoil stop, but for far too long the opposite sides of the Iranian aisle haven't been hearing each other. There simply must be a reconciliation and meaningful dialogue in order to make the Iranian nation stronger and prevent others from taking advantage of internal disputes in order to destroy this young Iranian Republic. This is a great opportunity to improve the country. Let's not let it go to waste.

My interview with Larijani's advisor in Mazandaran/new ambassador to the Vatican

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A previous meeting I had with Mr. Nasiri



Shortly after Friday prayers in Babol, I scrambled to get an interview with HojjatolEslam [sic] Nasiri, Ali Larijani's advisor in the Iranian province of Mazandaran and the newly appointed Iranian ambassador to the Vatican (he's to take up the post shortly.)

While we weren't in the best interview scenario, Mr. Nasiri chose his words carefully and his insights were definitely worth noting.

I'll lay out some of the more important interview questions below.

Q: A few weeks ago, Mr. Larijani noted that people rioting were different than the candidates' real supporters. What did he mean by that?

A: What he meant was those who wished to provoke violence are clearly different from the candidates themselves and the majority of the 40 million people who participated in the election.

Q: In your opinion, why did people hit the streets following the election? And what should be done in the future to prevent such scenarios.

A: Currently, there doesn't seem to be any imminent problems -- especially following the endorsements of the Guardian Council and Supreme Leader. However, initially there were a series of domestic and foreign factors involved and unfortunately the candidates, specifically Mr. Mousavi -- in disregard to the laws and national interest of the country -- drew out the protesters. However, in recognition of the [election verification] of the Guardian Council, the elections were healthy, legal, and provided strength for the country and president.

Q: In your opinion how will these recent protests affect Iran's foreign policy and has Iran's image changed at all internationally in these past few weeks?

A: Surely certain heavy handed foreign powers had heartened and relied on using the protests to create domestic conflict within Iran or internationally. Although, they later realized they had not acted properly and that [the recent turmoil] won't harm this respectable Iranian nation. Further, we got to see the true intentions and face of these powers.

Q: Why hasn't the government been able to convince many of Mousavi's supporters that fraud hasn't taken place?

A: However, the majority of the 40 million people that voted believe the election was fair and they don't carry any allegations of fraud. Others, however, in accordance with their political views have raised other concerns using the rhetorical avenue of alleging fraud but in reality raised other political points.

Q: What was Mr. Larijani's opinion of Ayatollah Rafsanjani's previous Friday Prayer lecture?

A: He had no particular opinion. However, a good point Ayatollah Rafsanjani made was in regards to follow legal routes in solving issues, but he was a bit late in issuing those opinions -- he should have stressed those point when the initial turmoil was flaring up.

Q: What about his request that political prisoners should be freed?

A: If political prisoners were arrested unjustly they have to be swiftly freed. Those who committed mistakes and provoked unrest and threatened other people's safety and assets have to be dealt with within the confines of the law.

Parallel?

In recent devopments in Kyrgyzstan, the opposition leader pulled a Mousavi and declared fraud at the election polls, showing, in my opinion, the reverberating consequences of what is taking place in Iran. 

In a further parallel the opposition leader, Almazbek Atambaev, is a former prime minister, just like Mousavi. Atambaev may have illusions of granduer, but with the precedent of Mousavi's movement, he probably figures "why not?"

It will be just as interesting too see how Obama treats this situation, especially given the human rights reputation Kyrgyzstan has.

In the end, though, I think this situation will provide a compelling example for basic international relations theory. So far, Obama has praised the Kyrgyz president given the strategic importance of the country and necessary future cooperation cooperation with Kurmanbek Bakiye.

As John Mearsheimer points out, the United States will act morally only when it doesn't go against it's own compelling interests. So, with a case like Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. will be much more constrained in it's criticism.

We'll see how Kyrgystan and Iran end up comparing with each other, but it will certainly provide some lessons to be learned; let's just not forget to apply basic similar standards.

Traditional Breakfast

It's no secret: Iranians like a good breakfast.

So here's the breakdown of what a good old Iranian breakfast is:

1. Tea
2. More Tea
3. Fresh hot bread hand made by local bakers
4. Bulgarian cheese
5. Honey, jam, or some other spread
6. Ocassionally some fruit and vegetables such as cucumbers, peaches, and cherries

Here's a picture of the delicious breakfast I had this morning. It's going to be hard to go back to cereal once I'm back in the states.

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Concepts of Privacy in Iran

Let's be honest: people are nosy in Iran. Not because they necessarily have bad intentions, but partly because they have nothing better to do. More convincingly, though, it's the role of the individual in Iran that is drastically different than in the United States.

As Roy Mottahedeh writes in Mantle of the Prophet, in Iran "you had privacy only insofar as you were able to feel private in your mind." This becomes particularly more true in places like Babol where the population is small, banks close at 2, and news travels fast.

In America we respect privacy and individualism; it's in our ideological creed. But in Iran, its more about duty, what others think of you, reputation, and perceptions. Most, if not all of the bedrooms in the houses I've visited in Iran don't have locks and the ones that do have keys, making it a hassle and generally seldom practiced action. 

So much in Iran revolves around "aberu" or reputation, that often one forgets whether they should act in their own self interest or what others perceive to be the best. For example, electrical engineering at Sharif University is the most prestigious major in Iran so the best and brightest Iranian students strive to be electrical engineers -- not necessarily because they like it but because they want the prestige. The liberal arts are openly despised as a lesser science; perhaps that's why there's such a shortage of skilled economists, posing drastic basic economic problems for this third world country.

Much of these issues trace back to Iranian social structure, which places tremendous emphasis on family. The first thing a person considers when they want to marry is whether their potential spouse comes from a good family. Thus, the decisions one member of the family makes effect everyone in the family because of collective "aberu."

So people often make decisions not because they personally feel free to do so or are attracted to their decisions but because they have to in order to maintain their reputation and prestige.

Since my trip, I have realized that free will truly has a special meaning in the United States that I have come to appreciate much more; when people are more free to act based on self interest, it often ends up benefiting society as a whole.

I think Iranians could gain a thing or two from the American tradition of individualism.

Rafsanjani's Friday Prayer Lecture

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Outside of Friday Prayers in University of Tehran


Yesterday, I attended my first Friday Prayer in Tehran. It was an undoubtedly important prayer as it was led by Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of Iran's Expediency Council and Assembly of Experts. 

Friday prayers are an important concept in Islam dating back to Prophet Muhammad; they are meant to be a forum through which the Muslim community can meet and form bonds or discuss pertinent issues. Friday is also the Iranian "weekend" when schools and shops are closed.

Before the prayers, the Imam, or leader of the prayer, must give a two-part lecture. There had been much speculation about Rafsanjani post-election which had only been fuelled by his virtual public silence. Many were anxious to see what Rafsanjani had to say, who, after the Supreme Leader is said to be the most powerful political figure in Iran with some saying he has equal or even greater power than Ayatollah Khamenei.

At first, I was unsure whether I was at a political rally or Friday prayer; the entire street outside University of Tehran where the prayers are held had been filled completely with pro-Mousavi supporters, and it's actually in the streets where a large portion of people pray since University of Tehran itself can't hold everyone. 

The slogans on this day were special. They included "Hashemi [Rafsanjani], if you stay silent, you're a traitor," "Death to Russia," "Death to China," "Khomeini where are you, Mousavi's all alone," and "I'll kill my brother's murderer."

It was intense. I'm fairly sure they had said death to Russia since Russia immediately  recognized Ahmadinejad as the presidential victor, and death to China because of the Muslims the Chinese government had recently been killing. In any case, it was an example of why Americans shouldn't misinterpret "death to America": it's only a Farsi expression that reflects dissatisfaction with the governments of those countries, not an actual wish for all Americans to die.

As interesting as these slogans were, though, in (roughly) the words of Rafsanjani when he got interrupted by one of these slogans, "I'm speaking better than you, allow me to speak." 

And indeed he was. The first part of Rafsanjani's lecture had to do with the way Prophet Muhammad governed. Among other things he stressed how the Prophet always put the right of governments at the hands of the people; there is nothing inherent within Islam which forces government or religion upon people. Prophet Muhammad had only accepted the responsibility as head of state because the people he governed accepted him -- the concept of a "social contract" between government and people was much more original than Locke. 

The second half of the lecture had to do with "our situation" as Rafsanjani put it. In his classic pragmatism, Rafsanjani laid out a plan to get the country back on track. Aside from criticizing Iran's governmental broadcasting service, he stated political prisoners had to be freed and only legal routes had to be taken in trying to resolve disputes. 

The biggest informal yet legitimate check and balance to the Supreme Leader and Ahmadinejad is Rafsanjani, who, at this point has vast reserves of political and monetary capital, very powerful connections and appointments, and experience as one of the founders of the Revolution. While partly ambiguous, Rafsanjani chose to seek out a middle route, neither fully endorsing the route Mousavi had chosen nor the response of the government, and ended up criticizing both sides. It's pretty safe to say Rafsanjani lies a bit more in the Reformist camp, but at least publicly, he has chosen a less pronounced position.

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The Challenge

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Carrot juice mixed with ice cream. Outside of Perespolis in Shiraz.

While protests have recently quieted down, I'm still sensing an under the radar unease here in Tehran I haven't really encountered elsewhere. The protests may have stopped but the motivations behind them are still present to a certain extent.

One of the best lessons I've learned since my visit to Iran is just how politically divided the country can be. According to the World Public Opinion Survey in Iran  about 18% of Iranians can be defined as Reformers. However, this 18% tends to be better educated, wealthier, and younger. Just as importantly, Iran's Reformers are enthusiastic, deeply committed and homogenous in opposition to government. 

The biggest political challenge Iran faces, in my opinion, will be the government's ability to appease, give concessions, compromise, and incorporate Reformers/opposition into the mainstream political process. I was recently talking to a college aged friend, who said he didn't accept Ahmadinejad as his president. As an American, I was struck by this statement.

Going through Bush's questionable 2000 victory, I still accepted the legitimacy of our electoral 
system (as flawed as it may be), and thus Bush as my president (as flawed as he was). The fact that approximately 1/5 of the Iran electorate doesn't accept Iran's electoral legitimacy is an extremely negative sign which must be addressed.

Currently, there is a significant portion of the population which feels almost totally excluded from the political process. That is unacceptable. There must be avenues through which opposition can legitimately voice their concerns; they won't get anywhere just protesting.In the United States, I don't agree with the two party system, but I felt that some of my concerns were addressed through some of fielded candidates such as Ron Paul and Mike Gravel. The question remains how to translate that onto the Iranian scene.

Just as importantly, a distinction has to be made between fair critisim which aims to strenghten Iran as a country rather than destabilize it. But with the United States recently pouring hundreds of millions dollars into clandestine services aimed at Iran, it's not making the situation any simpler.

While some post election events were extremely dissapointing for me, I saw just as much positive signs for Iran, not just from its population, but from government insiders themselves. People such as Larijani, Qalibaf, and many others provided moderate, thoughtful, and calm responses. There is a clear difference between regime change and healthy criticsm. To be a successful country we have to be able to make that distinction as hard and complicated as it will be. As one dissenting university professor I recently spoke to put it, "we accept Islam and the Islamic Republic." 

And I think to a certain extent, that's part of the current battle that's being fought within the hierarchy. We saw a bit of a mixed response to the protests from the government not necessarily because they didn't understand what was happening but rather because there were different factions vying for different responses, showing, in my opinion, signs of progress for the young Republic seeking to establish its own political traditions.

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