Saturday, July 28, 2007

Iran and America: Conflict, Context & Connect (Minnesota Public Radio Broadcast)

Minnesota Public Radio held a forum on July 19th entitled

"Iran and America: Conflict, Context & Connect," a discussion about the U.S.-Iranian relationship with members of Minnesota's Iranian community in which I also participated.
The discussion was broadcast on July 23, and included additional listener call-in remarks. Both broadcasts are sound-archived at the following web site.

Iran and America: Conflict, Context & Connect--Minnesota Public Radio

The discussion was highly enlightening. The Iranian members of the panel were exceptionally articulate and balanced in their views. MPR would likely be open to allowing rebroadcast of the program if anyone were interested.

Monday, July 23, 2007

How To Talk The Talk With Iran--William O. Beeman

How To Talk The Talk With Iran

by William O Beeman

Editor's Note: Face-to-face talks between Iran and the United States over Iraq's future will be fraught with pitfalls unless Washington adopts complex rules of engagement. Key will be mastering the art of "inside" as well as "outside" communication. William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota and President of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. He is author of "Language, Status and Power in Iran" and "The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.

Face-to-face talks between Iran and the United States have a good chance of success if the Bush administration knows how to handle their part of the exchange,

Some denizens of Washington are under the mistaken impression that the Americans can dictate the terms of the conversation and the Iranians will fall in line. They will not.

The first rule in Iranian negotiations is that both sides must exhibit mutual respect, even if they harbor virulent hatred for each other. Iran is a hierarchical society, and negotiations are stabilized by balanced reciprocity in terms of respect. Each party elevates the other party in status and humbles him or herself in turn. In this way hierarchy is preserved, but mutuality is maintained.

Politeness is an exquisite art in Iran; it is especially appreciated in difficult negotiations. One can see this demonstrated in public encounters between Iranian officials themselves. Many of Iran's political leaders and clerics hate each other with a vengeance. Their intense rivalry is always hidden behind a veil of outward respect. This system of encounter, replete with bowing, complimentary language and deference, is called "ta'arof". It is an essential political and social skill.

Second, Iranians will not tolerate accusations or accept blame except from those with whom they have a personal relationship that embodies respect because of their superior social or political position, morality or accomplishments. Even the most exalted individual will tolerate criticism from his or her parent, teacher, spiritual leader or acknowledged patron. The same person will bristle and remonstrate when faced with accusations from some unrelated party, or someone considered to be of equal or inferior status. The Revolution of 1978-79 hinged on this principle. When the Shah's army began firing on unarmed women and youths in public, his superior status vis-a-vis the public - anchored in his implicit pledge to protect his people - evaporated, and he fell like a rock in a matter of weeks.

Third, a resumption of relations after estrangement is especially difficult. Estrangement in Iran is institutionalized. It is called "qahr and involves a period of ritual non-interaction. The resumption of relations usually requires a neutral mediator and even then, reconciliation can be fraught with pitfalls. Either party can quickly test the sincerity of the other party with unreasonable or difficult demands. The only way forward in this situation is to continually demonstrate good will, and present scenarios that show the mutual benefit of the resumption of relations.

Finally, Iranians make a very clear distinction between "inside" and "outside" communication. An appeal to the "inside" values of spirituality, virtue and human feeling is always likely to win the Iranian heart; but such an appeal must be sincere. "Inside" expressions recall the mysticism of Sufi orders, and are redolent with spiritual meaning. Practiced Iranians are quick to detect insincerity, cynicism and overt flattery, all of which are definitely "outside" in nature. Cynical overtures are immediately rejected as a sign of bad faith, and can destroy any delicate negotiation. And no wonder, since the "inside" communication mode is so powerful, and its misuse so despised.

These principles can easily be implemented by the United States for any mutually useful purpose in talking with Iran.

If the talks are to be about stability in Iraq, the United States must not bias them by making pre-conditions about other issues - such as Iran's nuclear program. It must acknowledge that Iran has an equal and respected position in creating stability in the region. Language must be unfailingly polite and humble.

The United States must avoid making accusations against Iran. Frankly, from Iran's perspective, the United States has no standing to make such accusations. It is neither respected as a social or cultural superior, nor has it acted as an acknowledged patron of Iran or its people. If talks are productive, the accusatory matters can be handled once relations are on a more even keel.

In dealing with Iran, the United States must be prepared for the fits and starts that accompany the 28-year estrangement between the two nations. Iran will feint, pull back, charge forward with seemingly helpful suggestions, only to withdraw them. This is normal, expected and part of the process of reconciliation.

Finally, the United States must speak with sincerity about mutual desires to cooperate with the Iranian government on matters of mutual interest. Nothing could be more essential to both nations than stability in Iraq. There can be ho holding back here. The message must be from the heart, and unqualified.

Only then will the long chill between Iran and the United States begin to abate.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Economist editorial "The Riddle of Iran" --Why was it Written?

The Economist editorial "The Riddle of Iran" --Why was it Written?

William O. Beeman

The mystery of the Economist "editorial" about Iran, entitled "The Riddle of Iran" is why it was written at all, and why now? The editorial once again attacks Iran for its nuclear development program. It contains absolutely nothing new--nothing that was not already in the press and in the editorial pages a year ago or more. It gives prominence to the demagoguery of likely future Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, spouting the same anti-Iranian rhetoric he has been pushing on Fox News for the past two years. It also contains the same falsehoods about the illegality of Iranian actions under the NPT. However, the Economist employs a trick that the New York Times and others have used. They get away with publishing outright untruths, but in an editorial, where it is "opinion" and not news reporting. The underlying "special report" referred to in the editorial is also dismally stale, containing nothing at all of note, except to advertise that the American Enterprise Institute is trying to publicize companies who are doing business with Iran in some vain hope that Washington might somehow find a way to enforce the economic sanctions against Iran, the better to generate some minimal pressure on the Iranian leadership. The sanctions are foolish and unworkable, but presenting a picture where all is copasetic is the White House line, lest they endure another dismal and embarrassing failure of strategy. We had Minnesota Republican Senator Norm Coleman in a speech here in the Twin Cities recently, accompanied by AIPAC Handlers (who reportedly sponsored the event) giving exactly the same talk to a pre-selected audience--"the economic sanctions are working, Iran is feeling the pain, etc.". Of course it is nonsense. It is wearying to hear the same tripe over and over again, and surprising in the extreme to see such a respected journal as The Economist joining in--especially with a cover story no less with virtually no news inside. But every time these lies are repeated, it makes me fearful that the administration hawks and the neocons are on a tear to soften up the American public for their cherished military strike.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Beeman--The National "Intelligence" Estimate

The National "Intelligence" Estimate

William O. Beeman

I cannot begin to express my dismay at the announcement of the cowardly and anemic national intelligence estimate today. The operative sentence, reported at least in the New York Times, was “These assessments, which are based on incomplete or at times fragmentary information, are not a fact, proof or knowledge." Boy howdy. It is not only the information that is fragmentary, it is the "terrorist network" itself. The administration continues to do its best to present a monolithic picture of terrorism when all evidence points to isolated groups with intensely parochial interests operating without any central control, except perhaps a kind of franchise label to make them seem part of something bigger than they really are.

The administration has tried desperately to link the original Al Qaeda to Iran, to the Iraqi insurgency, to Hezbollah, to the Taliban, to Anwar al-Islam and even to Hamas and various North African splinter groups. The term "affiliated" should be seen for what it is when used to link Osama bin Laden to any of these other groups--a fudge factor designed to support a mythology of the Bush administration's own creation. None of these groups can be approached with the same strategies that must be applied to the others. They do not use the same tactics. They don't have the same ideologies. Most importantly, they do not have the same leadership, nor political survival strategies. Hamas and Hezbollah are political entities in their own countries. Hamas is fighting Israel and the supporters of Al-Fatah; Hezbollah is fighting Israel and its own Lebanese central government. The Iraqi insurgency is rebelling against its own central government and the United States. The Taliban once housed Al-Qaeda, but they are primarily interested in regaining control over Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda itself in the far-away hills of Pakistan may launch verbal volleys at the United States, but it still seethes at the Saudi Royal Family. And we are now to believe that all of these entities, with all of their local concerns and investments in local conflicts are ganged up with the sole purpose of attacking the United States on its shores? This may satisfy an ego- and ethno-centric American public but it makes no logical sense at all.

Of course, the all purpose logical glue for some in Washington is to claim that Iran is masterminding everything. This is either wishful thinking, or a diabolical deceit of the American public.

The very saddest realization of all is that every one of these groups pre-existed the 9/11 tragedy. Their interests and their struggles go back decades. If Americans only had minimal education about the region, they would see this charade for what it is--a serious attempt to fool and scare the American public into granting this administration yet another loan extension on our national lives, liberties and treasure--just to "get them through the next few months," when they can dump the whole mess they have created on the next poor saps, and go off to Crawford or wherever and pontificate about how they acted on "principle" rather than "politics."

Friday, July 13, 2007

Iran's Press TV to give Alternative View--LA Times,1,3696911,full.story?coll=la-news-a_section&ctrack=4&cset=true

Iran's Press TV to give alternative view

The 24-hour satellite news channel will compete with Western outlets to counter what Tehran sees as propaganda.

By Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi, Special to The Times
July 13, 2007

TEHRAN — Host Susan Modaress is trying to get London correspondent Roshan Mohammed Saleh on the satellite link to talk about the tasks ahead for Britain's new prime minister, Gordon Brown.

"Hello, London?" says the host of the show "Four Corners" on Iran's new English-language news channel, Press TV. "Can you hear me, London?"

Silence and darkness gape back.

She quickly moves on, trying to reach Tony Benn, a former member of Parliament with Brown's Labor Party. He's also not on the line. And neither is Robert Ayers, of the British think-tank Chatham House. But Modaress doesn't lose her cool.

"OK," she says in near flawless American-accented English. "We're having some technical problems. Let's take a break."

In fits and starts, Iran this month entered the business of providing 24-hour English-language satellite television news programming, competing in a field that includes BBC World, CNN International, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, Al Jazeera International and France 24.

The government aims to use Press TV to counter what it sees as a steady stream of Western propaganda against Iran as well as offer an alternative view of world news.

"We are the target of global media war, and there is hardly any media delivering on its commitment," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said during a July 2 ceremony marking the station's launch. "We cannot help but be attentive to the agony of our fellow human beings. Even if one day our country is not the target of a bullying power, we will not be indifferent to the world and to oppression."

Iran has eagerly used satellite television to deliver its message, usually to reach out to people in times of crisis. It has launched stations aimed at Afghans, Bosnians and Arabs in their homelands.

But Press TV, housed in a modest and drab five-story apartment building on a quiet street of north Tehran, is said to be the most expensive project ever undertaken by Iranian broadcasting, which is wholly controlled by the state.

"Now the international circumstances are changing and we want to make an impact on the international developments," said Mohammed Sarfaraz, director of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting's foreign language department. "That is the reason we are launching Press TV."

The station has a staff of more than 400, including more than two dozen reporters around the world, to produce a total of 48 news bulletins for each 24-hour cycle. It has correspondents in Moscow, Rome, Cairo, London, Brussels and Beijing. It has bureaus in Beirut, Gaza and the West Bank and is seeking a Baghdad correspondent.

The staff also includes correspondents in Washington and New York, said Shahab Mossavat, a spokesman for the channel.

"It was very difficult to get them accredited," he said, citing a law passed during the Clinton administration.

The broadcast is available on numerous satellite frequencies but also through live streaming on its website, . An Iranian television executive said half the 3 million hits on the Press TV site in the months before the station launched came from the United States. Videos also are posted on YouTube.

The newscast itself has surprised observers. Reporters refer to Israel by its name instead of calling it the "Zionist entity," as it is on Persian-language channels. Reports include relatively neutral updates on violence in the Middle East and Iraq, as well as on noncontroversial subjects such as an art gallery in Tehran or living conditions for Muslims in Russia.

"Copies of the Koran are readily available and many mosques are being built in areas with large Muslim populations," the broadcaster says of Russia.

During the launch ceremony, Mossavat said that the station would cover pressing domestic issues, such as human rights, "but not just from the negative side."

"We try to explore all other under-reported aspects of these issues…. We also cover human rights violation in Europe and the U.S."

William O. Beeman, an Iran expert at the University of Minnesota, appeared on a live talk show about the role of the media.

"I thought it was a fine discussion overall, involving a mix of international and very savvy Iranian commentators," he said. "The latter were extremely clever in saying things that were non-objectionable to the Iranian government, but which could easily be read by a sophisticated audience as at least questioning of the current state of the Iranian press."

But critics say that so far Press TV has provided little or no coverage of Iran's domestic troubles, including economic hardship stemming from inflation and stagnant wages.

The news headlines at the bottom of the screen include messages that present a positive picture of Iran's international relations and economy, such as "Iran, Belarus to talk expanded defense ties" or "Iran boosts oil production capacity."

But the ads for upcoming documentaries show the channel's slant. They include "Back From Iraq," a series about Western correspondents who covered the war and are critical of the conflict; "America Countdown," in which Americans speak out against the Bush administration; and "AMIA," a documentary that purports to prove that Israel had a hand in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that has been blamed on Iranian operatives.

Another documentary, "Land of Religions," is said to show how Iran's Muslims, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians live peacefully side by side.

But observers have found themselves more frustrated by the station's irksome programming missteps than its politics.

"First impression is that it is not as slanted as one might expect," said Glenn Hauser, editor of Review of International Broadcasting, an online newsletter. However, "the news headline crawlers are too repetitive. The promos are too repetitive. The upcoming documentaries look interesting, if only we knew when to expect them."

Overall, initial reviews for Press TV in Iran and abroad were positive, but perhaps not what its founders had in mind. Hauser said his favorite segments were the colorful animations of battle scenes, using famous medieval Persian miniatures from various Tehran museums, that fill the time between segments.

At a barbershop in north Tehran, Pooya Ardaroudi said he would use the channel to sharpen his English.

"I am preparing to emigrate to Australia and work as barber there," the 25-year-old said. "I can watch the news and improve my English while I am cutting people's hair."


Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Daragahi from Cairo.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

William O. Beeman--Economic Sanctions Against Iran are Old Hat—and They Have Never Worked--New America Media

Economic Sanctions Against Iran are Old Hat—and They Have Never Worked

New America Media, Commentary, William O. Beeman, Posted: Jul 03, 2007

Editor’s Note: President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin are talking about putting the economic squeeze on Iran to give up its uranium enrichment program. NAM contributing writer William O. Beeman says it won’t work. Beeman is professor and chair of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He is president of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. His latest book is “The ‘Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other” (Praeger Publishers).

Increasing economic pressure on Iran is part of the agenda at this weekend’s meeting between President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. One aim of these talks is to create a unified strategy of trade and economic sanctions that will eventually pressure Iran into giving up its uranium enrichment program.

The two leaders are wasting their time. This strategy will not work with the Iranians.

European attempts to control Iran’s economy and political life are part of Iran’s historic legacy going back nearly two centuries. Culturally, the Iranian people consider these attempts illegitimate, and have no compunctions about frustrating them—even if it means bending the principles of international law and trade to make sure that these efforts fail.

In the 19th century, Iran was virtually ruled by Russia on the north, and by Great Britain on the south. The Russians controlled customs operations on Iran’s northern borders. They paid nominal fees to the Qajar Dynasty that ruled Iran, and collected customs duties in both directions.

Great Britain by 1820 had secured a General Treaty with the small sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf which turned them into protectorates of the British Empire. Britain’s purpose was nominally to control piracy in the transit route to India. However, from these outposts, the British wrested control of the shipping lanes and the ports from the Iranians.

At the time, the struggle between Great Britain and Russia over Iran was part of the “Great Game” for control of Asia that raged throughout the 19th century. Although Moscow and London saw this as competition, the Iranians saw it as European oppression.

Oil and technology were not the issue at that time. Commodities not grown in Iran at the time, such as tea, became the prime object of increased trade restrictions, but imported manufactured goods from Europe were also part of the mix.

The Iranian response to the economic pressure exerted by these great powers was, first, to play them off against each other. As the Russians increased tariffs in the north, the Iranians imposed their own tariffs on the British in the south to offset them. Late in the 19th century the Qajars began to sell economic concessions to the British or other Europeans to offset the Russian influence, and trade concessions to the Russians to offset Western European influence.

Additionally, the Iranians used transshipment via free ports, notably Dubai as a way to circumvent direct European economic influence. They also tolerated smuggling.

Today the United States has replaced Great Britain in the Iranian mentality, and Russia, having gone through the Soviet period, is once again Russia in Iranian eyes. For the Iranians the European oppression of the 19th century is still alive and well, and must be resisted. The sentiment was expressed once again on June 30 by Iranian spiritual leader Ali Khamene’i in a meeting with government officials, who reaffirmed that Iran would continue to take a proactive stance in foreign policy matters, and would not be controlled by European and American policy concerns.

Iran continues to play competing sides against each other today. Its first nuclear power plant, started 30 years ago with American blessings but built with Russian technology, has yet to open. This delay is due largely to obstacles arising from American objections to any Iranian nuclear development. The plant, which cannot practically generate any weapons grade material, promises to be lucrative for the Russians for many years to come, and will set the stage for future Iranian-Russian economic cooperation. President Putin knows that this prospect is in danger if he capitulates to President Bush’s demands for unified sanctions against Iran. Iran, for its part, already has a favorable trade balance with both India and China, and is ready to deal further with them despite American attempts to frustrate these relationships.

At times Iran need do nothing at all to set its rivals against each other. The Bush administration tried to use the notion that Iran posed a danger to the world, and presumably to Russia as a pretext for establishing long-range missiles in the Czech Republic. This was such a stretch that it was immediately denounced by Russian officials, including President Putin. Russian officials know that Iran poses no perceptible danger for them, and no amount of alarmist rhetoric on the part of President Bush could convince them to approve a missile base on their doorstep.

In short, Iran has many time-worn tools in its political arsenal to withstand attempts to control its economy and politics. Its enormously long borders are porous on all sides. The northern border in particular, which Iran shares with former Soviet states Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan—not to mention the vast Caspian Sea—are particularly open. Pakistan and Afghanistan to the west—both with new land routes into Central Asia and China–are uncontrolled by the West. Dubai and other Gulf free ports, as well as newly developed facilities on the Sea of Oman guarantee that needed goods will flow into the country if severe trade sanctions are enacted. Even the present chaos in Iraq guarantees free flow of goods across the Iranian border.

The lesson that the Bush administration refuses to learn is that Iran will not respond to pressure. The only route to Iranian cooperation is face-to-face dealings with no preconditions, where Iran is treated respectfully as an equal partner. This proposition sticks in the craw of the Bush administration—to the point where the irrational call for military action becomes preferable in some quarters.

However, Iran knows that historically when it is able to exercise its strength to resist control by outsiders, it eventually achieves the respect it requires. Until that time, all other strategies aimed at changing its behavior will fail.