Friday, February 29, 2008

Shia Delight

To get a feeling of why the Shia risk life and limb to make the pilgrimage to Karbala in Iraq (often from Iran) see this 15 minute video. Unfortunately, I am unable to follow the sub-titles or the words that are sung. But I still find it moving (although I am an atheist). I gained access to this via Iraqi Mojo's blog.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Factors Shaping Politics : Part 4 Of "Understanding Iran"

When they are free to do so, Iranians who oppose the current regime but don't wish to be associated with the symbolism of the previous Shah, opt for this earlier Civic Flag in place of the current State Flag which appears below. (H.B. 13.4.08)

Part 1 of this series on "Understanding Iran" appears here, with Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

The strength of national sentiment is one of the factors which shape Iranian Politics. But there is also a complex interplay of other factors at work.

(1) Nationalism

Iran has experienced three major shifts in its overall political make-up since the end of the Second World War. These occurred (1) under Mohammed Mossadeq's democratic premiership (1951-53), (2) under the Shah's dictatorship (1953-79) and (3) from the time of the Islamic revolution in 1979. Although the nation's politics have lurched dramatically in differing directions with each of these shifts, the bulk of the Iranian population have always shown a strong sense of national identity. This arises from their long history and their long term coherence as a single unit. The most recent exception to their operating in a common structure goes back to the relatively short-lived consequences of the Anglo-Russian invasion during the second world war, which produced foreign controls and a split in the administration of the nation.

Further factors adding to this sense of national identity is the size of Iran and what it perceives to be its status in its region. It has not seen the break-ups and re-alignment of some of its neighbours and has held a strategic position as the only nation on the eastern bank of what it calls the "Persian Gulf". On the other hand the remaining bank is currently shared out between seven different nations. The Gulf itself also having the presence of the US fleet.

The next two factors, also add to Iran's sense of national identity.

(2) Shia Islam

98% of Iran's population are Muslims, with 89% being Shia. Given Iran's size, coherence and status as an Islamic Republic, this makes it the world leader of the Shia version of Islam. The only potential rivals to this position are the Shia of Iraq. The territory dominated by the Iraqi Shia contains most of the Holy centres of this faith. However, the Shia of Iraq have just recently emerged from under the totalitarian dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. They operate inside a nation in turmoil, in which their fellow believers in Iran play a role which is seen by some as supportive and others as interference. Indeed it is only just over a quarter of a century since Saddam Hussein launched an attack on Iran which led to a hideous eight year conflict between the two nations and between the two Shia camps. All of these factors help to keep Iran and not Iraq, at the forefront of the Shia world.

The majority of Iran's Shia clerics come from mainly urban petite bourgeoise families, but they are also widespread throughout society and tend to retain close links with people from their own backgrounds - which include the working classes.

(3) Anti-Imperialism

In 1953, the US Central Intelligence Agency played a major role in restoring the Shah to power. The Shah ran an oppressive regime which was backed by the US and other Western powers. When the Shah attempted to modernise and westernise Iran, he did this in a highly oppressive and exploitive way which included the use of a hated secret police force.

Further aspects of the conflict between the USA and Iran will be examined later. But from the Shah's period it has always been possible for Islamic forces (in particular) within Iran to spread the notions that liberal values from the West are invariably intermingled with forms of decadence and exploitation. What the USA, in particular, sees as forms of liberty are often seen by Islamic peoples as being mere licence and immoral excess.

It needs to be remembered, however, that when it comes to issues such as the way women dress and whether they should have open access to the same life-style as men, then anyone in Iran who is in their mid-40s or over will have experienced the norms of a more Westernised (but corrupt) regime. As Iran is a young population, this is a minority of the population. On the other hand, younger people with middle class lifestyles face the excitements of an illicit Western culture. There is, for instances, a high number of Iranian bloggers and a current dispute over how their activities should and can be subject to control. So whilst Iranians tend to share strong anti-Imperialist feelings, for many this does not spill over into say a full grown anti-Americanism.

(4) Diversity

It isn't inevitable that the above factors of Nationalism, Shia Islam and Anti-Imperialism will lead to a monolithic society; for different people will give different weights and interpretations to each factor. On top of this there are numbers of divisions within Iranian society which persist and challenge tendancies towards a uniform outlook on life. Such divisions will not necessarily lead to splintering. In favourable circumstances they could aid democratic and pluralist developments.


Class divisions are significant in any society. Iran is highly urbanised and has seen the growth of industrial working class occupations. Although this social class draws down from the influences mentioned above, it it can also be attracted towards collective action in pursuit of its common interests. In the past there was clear influence from the Communist-inspired Tudeh Party under the impact of the former Soviet Union which rested on Iran's northern border. Today there are also struggles to organise Trade Unions amongst groups such as the Tehran bus drivers. There is also a high level of graduate unemployment which can act as a recruiting ground for liberal and socialist understandings. Some of the latter move out and back into Iran and help to cross fertilise ideas.

The pull of the views of the Islamic clerics from the time of the events leading up to the Islamic Revolution has been strong amongst the poorer sections of this working class. Numbers of these have moved from agricultural areas and send remittances home to their families who often still live in rural areas.

The growth of the towns has also led to a growth of Bazaars. Those running businesses in these (often with extended family links) plus employees making the goods they sell, have been amongst the stongest supporters and publicists of the norms of the Islamic Revolution.

There is also a class with business, management, professional and financial skills in a mixed economy with a wide area of State, co-operative and foundation structures. Numbers of these have clerical connections and all tend to share concerns to preserve and advance their interests - however, some will seek to do this via more radical avenues then others.


Iran contains numbers of minority ethnic and religious groups. Such divisions are mellowed by inter-marriages and the unifying factors mentioned in sections (1), (2) and (3)above. Divisions can come to the fore, however, in periods of tension such as that of the Revolution itself - for it wasn't clear at the time that the forces around the Khomeini would truimph.

The largest ethnic minority are the Azeriz and since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been the pull of a neighbouring independent Azerbaijan on part of Iran's northern border. Other groups include Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis and Turkmen (with now a neighbouring Turkmenistan). Whilst inter-ethnic relations tend to be reasonably amicable, outside events in neighbouring countries (such as the move to relative autonomy by the Kurds in Northern Iraq) can have an impact on attitudes amongst their related ethnic minorities in Iran.

On religion, the only sizeable minority are the Sunni, who are also strong amongst the Kurds. Developments in Iraq can influence the Sunni of Iran in contrasting ways to their impact on the majority Shia.


Whilst the role of women is seriously restricted by the practices of the Islamic Republic, a number of countervailing factors also need to be considered.

Women have the vote, widespread access to some genuine education and improving health facilities. They played prominent roles in the Islamic Revolution and during the Iraq-Iran War which enhanced their status within what was otherwise an alien setting.

The legal, practical and social restrictions upon women in Iran cannot be ignored. But if other forces begin to work upon their husbands and sons to achieve democratic, libetarian and social advances: then women are liable to be able to press more effectively for their own improvements. The struggle for advancement can then (in numbers of areas) cross the gender divide.

Female undergraduates outnumber males and are often restricted to jobs openings in the teaching profession. It is, however, a key avenue for those wishing to open up the minds of future generations. At the moment the franchise might have its limitations, but it also provides votes from 15 for all - including those taught by female graduates.

Those in Iran who press for civil rights for women, trade unionists, homesexuals, reformers, minority interests and others can benefit from outside pressures organised by groups such as Amnesty. Here is an example.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

In Place Of Nye

At a Labour Party Conference in 1959, Aneurin Bevan said that "Socialism in the context of modern society means the conquest of the commanding heights of the economy". It is telling that Martin Rowson should produce this cartoon in the former (and continuing) Bevanite magazine "Tribune". It is a brilliant response to New Labour's embarrassed nationalisation of the disgraced Northern Rock.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Has The UN Violated The Iraqi Constitution ?

The news item which appears at the end of this post can also be followed on video here. It is from the Real News Network in the USA and appeared on 22 November, 2007. It claims that unless the Iraqi Parliament endorses a United Nations' renewal of the right for Multi-national forces to remain in Iraq in 2008, then under the Iraqi Constitution any such provision would be null and void. The UN Security Council went on to extend the mandate of the Multi-national force on 18 December, 2007 at the request of the Iraqi Government, but not of its Parliament.

I am unable to discover any news item which says that the Iraqi Parliament has ever accepted or requested such a move. (In fact a majority of the Iraqi Parliament wrote to the United Nations insisting that its Constitutional role should be upheld). If anyone else has seen a reference which I have missed, I would be grateful if they would supply me with the necessary link.

I am grateful for Rwendland for bringing this matter to my attention via my comment box on this thread. His comments led me to check the issue with Brendan O'Leary who had helped with the drafting of the Iraqi Constitution. Brendan himself checked the matter out with a fellow constitutional expert and they are of the opinion that under the Iraqi Constitution, their Parliament is required to decide upon the matter.

The United Nations Security Council claims to have acted under Chapter VII of the United Nation's Charter in extending the mandate for the Multi-national forces in Iraq. Whether Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter can be used to override the provisions of the Iraqi Constitution or not, any decision to by-pass the Iraqi Parliament on this matter is clearly a Constitutional disaster.


"Iraqi MPs demand timetable for withdrawal
Is the U.N. troop mandate defying Iraqi law?

Thursday November 22nd, 2007...


ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER/PRODUCER: On May 24, 2007, President Bush had this to say on Iraq:


GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: We are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government. This is a sovereign nation. Twelve million people went to the polls to approve a constitution. It's their government's choice. If they were to say leave, we would leave.


Iraqi MPs demand withdrawal

NKWETA: A month earlier in a letter to the U.N. Security Council a majority of Iraq's democratically elected parliament had publicly called for a timetable for foreign troop withdrawal. Prime Minister Maliki silenced Parliament by denying them their constitutional right to ratify the U.N. agreement under which the multinational forces operate in Iraq. This contradicts Article 58, Section 4 of Iraq's constitution, which states that the cabinet must gain ratification from Parliament for all international treaties and agreements. Maliki has repeatedly ignored this rule by acting unilaterally to allow multinational forces to operate in Iraq. We spoke with the Iraq consultant for the American Friend Services Committee, Raed Jarrar.


VOICE OF RAED JARRAR, IRAQI CONSULTANT, AFSC: Last year, when the time of renewing the United Nations mandate approached, Maliki cabinet and the Iraqi presidency went ahead and bypassed the Iraqi parliament, despite the fact that the parliament is the entity that has the exclusive constitutional authority over ratifying or approving the international treaties. This year, I think, the situation is different because the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution earlier this year, in May, stating that any United Nations renewal that doesn't come back to the parliament is illegal and unconstitutional. And they sent a letter one month before that to the Security Council to this effect. One hundred and forty-four Iraqi parliamentarians, which is more than half of the parliament, sent this letter saying that any renewal without coming to the parliament is unconstitutional. And they demanded to set a timetable for a withdrawal of all the multinational forces. And the secretary-general's report about Iraq mistakenly reported that the Iraqi parliament's resolution was non-binding. This is completely wrong. In fact, the Iraqi parliament's resolution was binding. It became a law after fifteen days of passing from the parliament, because the president did not veto it, according to the Iraqi constitution. And it's constitutional—even if the Iraqi parliament hasn't passed this law, it's still a constitutional article. That is very clear. I don't think there is a lot of confusion regarding the information, but there is a lot of effort to confuse the public and keep this information a secret and, you know, just pass this U.N. mandate behind closed doors.


NKWETA: Pressure is mounting from Maliki to follow the constitution and have the U.N. multinational forces mandate ratified by Iraq's parliament. We spoke with James Paul from the International Policy Forum, which monitors U.N. agreements.


JAMES PAUL, INTERNATIONAL POLICY FORUM: Prime Minister al-Maliki is caught here between a rock and a hard place, because the United States is putting very heavy pressure on him to agree to a simple renewal of this mandate, and the parliament is saying no, we want to have a say in this, and we want certain conditions imposed on any renewal if there's to be one at all, and those conditions would be setting a timetable for the withdrawal of the MNF [multinational forces]. And the United States doesn't want that to happen, so they're ready to ignore democracy in Iraq and put every possible pressure to bear on the prime minister to go along with what they want. I think the issue of what might happen if it were to run out or not be renewed is very interesting here, because clearly the Bush administration, if it's not renewed, is not simply going to pull out all the U.S. forces, but the U.K. might be forced to withdraw its forces in the absence of a U.N. mandate. I think that's quite likely.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Democratic Sham? : Part 3 of "Understanding Iran"

Part 1 of this series on "Understanding Iran" appears here. Part 2 is here.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran was elected in 2005 for a four-year term of office on a universal franchise of the residents of Iran (male and female). A President can only serve for one set of successive terms. But this provision appears to allow a President who has already served an eight year period to serve more terms as long as these are not successive.

The Majilis, Iran's parliament of 290 members are also elected on a universal franchise. Elections are currently pending. There is also a wide range of elections for Local and Town Councils under the same form of franchise.

BUT - there are a series of controls and restraints upon the above operations, which undermine the democratic credentials of the Iranian constitutional and political system. These are covered next.

The Democratic Deficit

This arises from Iran being an Islamic Republic with strong theocratic controls.

(1) The Supreme Leader And The Assembly Of Experts: It isn't the elected President in association with the Majilis who has the final say within the Iranian system. This position is held by the Supreme Leader. Currently this is Atytollah Khamanei. He was elected for life in 1989 by the Assembly of Experts, who consist of 86 Mullahs and are the only body who can intervene to replace the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Leader is commander-in-chief and appoints the heads of the judicary, the police, the military and the State radio. He also operates overall supervision under the provisions of the Constitution.

(2) The Guardians Of The Constitution: The Assembly of Experts are themselves an elected body, but the whole of the electoral system (including elections of the President and the Majilis) is subject to a significant power of veto by a body called "The Guardians of the Constitution". This is made up of twelve jurists. Six have specialisms in Islam and are appointed by the Supreme Leader, whilst another six are jurists whose names are put forward by the Head of the Judiciary (who is himself appointed by the Supreme Leader) and are then elected by the Majilis. The Guardians are ruling out a whole host of candidates at the moment who had intended to stand in the General Election for the Majilis. In 2004, some 2,000 such candidates were excluded. Those barred from standing are mainly radicals who wish to see reforms within the political system and are more likely to be supporters of progressive social reforms. The Guardians also supervise the operations of elections. This gives them openings to further interfere in the electoral process.

(3) Presidential Powers Over The Majilis: Although the President's grant of power under the Constitution is secondary to that of Supreme Leader, he still has a position of significance in that he (a) appoints the Heads of a wide range of posts and Ministries outside of those controlled by the Supreme Leader and (b) can block legislation passed by the Majilis. Although there has been a recent case in which the Supreme Leader has acted to override such a Presidential veto.

(4) Loss Of Civil Liberties: For democracy to flourish, there is the need for a wide range of freedoms (a) to express conflicting viewpoints, (b) to enable people to organise into competing political parties and pressure groups and (c) to be able to demonstrate peacefully for their concerns. Iran has a poor record in these areas and the situation is currently worsening. Human Rights Watch covers the situation in Iran on pages 472 to 477 of its "2008 World Report". It set the scene with the following comments - "Respect for basic human rights in Iran, especially freedom of expression and assembly, continued to deteriorate in 2007. The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad routinely detains people for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association, and regularly tortures and mistreats those detained. The judiciary, which is accountable to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is responsible for many serious human rights violations. The government increasingly cites "national security" as a prexext for silencing expressions of dissent or calls for reform."

(5) Extra Restrictions On Women's Rights: Although women have the vote and a small number have been elected to the Majilis, they are excluded from seeking the offices of Supreme Leader, President or membership of the theocratic bodies mentioned above. They are also invariably barred from associating with men in large groups, whether this on demonstations or in attending football matches.

The Dichotomy At The Heart Of The Iranian System

The Iranian Constitution attempts to marry together a system of regular and universal voting, with theocratic controls. This is an arrangement which can only work smoothly when the bulk of the electorate find themselves in conformity with the norms and values of their religious leadership. When wide groups feel economically deprived and Iran's young population throws up student groups with radical viewpoints and global pressures import values of free association; then social tensions are likely to advance. Pressures can then emerge to improve the democratic arrangements and to try to use them to usher in social change. Whilst some elements of the clerical and economic elites may then seek to compromise with such pressures, others will be given to using and extending theocratic controls. Such tensions could arise, especially, around a future Presidential election and over whom is entitled to stand. As indicated in Part 2, there is also a strong sense of national indentity throughout Iran. When the country is under pressure (as in the Iraq-Iran War) such nationalism can be mobilised for internal political ends as it was by theocratic elements in the 1980s. This is relevant to the conflict between the USA and Iran, which we will examine in a later section.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Help Iranian Trade Unionists

Support the international trade union movement in their campaign to release Mansour Osanloo and Mahmoud Salehi from their false imprisonment in Iran by signing up here. (The fact that the photos are not the same size is due to my lack of technical skills.)

Amiriya : 17 Years Ago Today In Iraq

Lest The West Forgets.

See this from "Treasure Of Baghdad" and view the telling video at the close.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Making Up For Lost Time

I am standing alongside part of the display for Sheffield FC at Nike at Oxford Circus in London. The Club was founded in 1857 and the photograph I am next to was assumed to be one of the team taken in its early years. This claim has recently been challenged as is explained here and here. I spoke to Richard Tims the Chair of the Club recently and he had himself come to the conclusion that this is not a photo of Sheffield FC. He tells me that the Club are seeking to sort out an early photo of the team to act as a replacement for this one. They had firmly believed the photo to be geniune and their use of it had been an honest mistake. I am happy to stand by it until it is swapped.

Now to turn to the modern game.

Meanwhile At The Stadium of Bright

Sheffield FC went into its home game against Alsager Town on Saturday with no less than ten games in hand of Carlton Town who are immediately above them in the League. The backlog is due to a run of postponed games, cup runs and the earlier celebratory games for our 150th anniversary.

The game against Alsager was only our second home game since I last reported on what was a 4-3 victory over Stockbridge Park Steel on Boxing Day.

"Q" Is For Quorn

I missed reporting the 0-0 home draw against Quorn on 26 January (Crowd 352). I thought that it was best to try and forget it, which I have almost done by now. With our postponements perhaps we had forgotten how the game was played.

On the other hand it could have been the soggy pitch which led to such a soggy football match. A sign that it was an uninspiring game is that the spectators were restless and kept walking to and fro in front of me. Trips for mugs of tea and pies and peas or calls to the toilets, were the order of the day.

The Most Memorable Moment Was Tom's Joke.

Tom : "I didn't make it to the away game at Gateshead because the wife landed the car in the living room."

Concerned spectator : "I hope she wasn't hurt. How on earth did it happen?"

Tom : "She turned left at the kitchen."

Then there were cracks about Quorn's name. Were they vegetarians and could they be found on the shelves at Sainsburys? We were all getting a bit desperate by then.

Yet we had the home debut of Jamie Smith our new striker from Gainsborough Town. He isn't to be confused with our full backs, Gavin and Paul Smith. But it makes life easier for all we need to shout is "come on Smithy!".

Jamie is a big lad with large feet and boots that curl up at the toes. Perhaps these are designed to act as webbed feet on our soggy pitch. They may have contributed to the fact that he kept hooking the ball over the bar.

Things Could Only Get Better

Saturday's game against Alsager Town was more like it (Crowd 256). We now had a new goalkeeper, Danny Haystead. He was in goal for Quorn in the above goaless draw. Our manager must have been impressed by the fact he kept a clean sheet. But then so did our own keeper in that game.

But Danny is an interesting character. He regularly shouts instructions out to the rest of our team, even when they are up attacking the visitors' goal.This is helped by the fact that when we are not under attack he comes out of the penalty area and advances nearly a third of the way up the pitch. It worked in this game and he appeared to push the team up into attacking - no-one wanted to lag behind him.

He was also commanding in his area when Alsager attacked. Apart from the occasion he dived forward into a ruck of players and knocked his own defenders over, with the ball running loose. For some unbelievable reason, it was the only time he didn't shout out to denote his presence.

Its Those Smiths Again

Jamie Smith was playing again, but he seemed to have a fresh pair of boots that didn't curl up at the ends. Either that or someone had been jumping on his toes. It still did not prevent him from hooking the ball over the visitor's bar.

Tom and the Manager seem to be alone in having great faith in Jamie. So I'm waiting for them to be proved right.

The other two Smith's (our full backs) had fine games being turned into attackers to get away from our goalkeeper who would otherwise have been yelling down their necks.

The Goal Rush

Sheffield won 3-0 with a goal rush over an eight minute spell. Asa Ingall got the first two in the 31st and 33rd Minutes. The first when a corner was headed down to him and the second from a flick on.

Then Vill Powell was upended in the penalty box. Vill never goes to ground when he can't help it, not even when he has been clearly fouled. So sometimes he doesn't get the free kick he deserves. This was clearly a penalty, coverted by man-of-the-match Paul Smith.

Sheffield had even more of the play in the second half, but more goals didn't arrive.

What Does The Future Hold?

Sheffield have lost the least number of games in the League. But this is because they have played the least. They are 9th in a League of 18. Massively clear of the single relegation spot. The top team Retford United beat us 5-0 in a recent cup game and seem to be destined for the automatic promotion spot. But there are 4 play -off places. The nearest team to catch to get into the play-offs are Gresley Rovers, who are 7 points ahead of us yet we have 8 games in hand of them.

It promises to be a football feast as we catch up on the missing games. Then glory be, when I get back home I discover that Sunderland have defeated Wigan 2-0 and are pulling away from the relegation zone. So there could be a great final fling to the football season - as long as Sheffield's new Smithy sorts his boots out.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Alternative Childhoods In Iraq

These are two alternative photographs of children in Iraq. The first one shows young girls at school. The other shows young boys of ten or so being trained by Al-Qaeda. See here for a video on the latter as posted by "Treasure of Baghhad". And here are his telling comments about it.

To me the video re-inforces my general approach to the situation in Iraq, which (in differing ways) is spread throughout much of the international scene. Namely,there are two massive opposing forces who feed off each other. (1) Al-Qaeda style fascism and (2) a Western-style imperialism linked to the interests of powerful elites.

How can we tackle this duel and interconnected problem? Mainly by the long haul of seeking to encourage the advance of those elements throughout the world who try to further democratic and co-operative practices. Some such people will have votes in avenues such as the American Presidential election, whilst others will struggle to get their voices heard in countries such as Iraq. There is no means of circumventing this task. We can, for instance, support the efforts of the Teachers' Trade Union in Iraq which works to provide the children of Iraq with the understandings and values which are the antithesis of those shown in the video. We need the conditions shown in the first photo to replace those shown in the second photo.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Internal Make-Up : Part 2 of "Understanding Iran"

Part 1 of "Understanding Iran" appears here.

For the source of this map and the larger original version see here.


(1) First Things First

There are a number of heated questions about Iran. (a) What role does and should Islam play in its politics? (b) Are its democratic arrangements anything more than a sham? (c) How bad is its human rights record? (d) Is it seeking to develop Nuclear Weapons and the missile capacity to deliver them? (e) Is it implicated in terrorist activity? (f) Is it a de-stablising influence in Iraq and other Middle East nations? (g) What are the rights and wrongs in connection with its disputes with America? (h) If Iran is at fault in such areas, then how should other nations respond?

Before turning our attention to such matters, it is first worth clearing the ground by examining some relevant but less contentious matters about its make-up. That is the purpose of this section. The above issues will arise in later sections.

(2) Sense Of Indentity

Iran (known formerly as Persia) is one of the oldest continuous major civilisations in the world. Although the shape of what was at one time known as the Persian Empire has altered over time, the modern boundaries of Iran have a strong similarity to those established at the onset of the Safavid Dynasty in 1501. This long heritage gives the people of Iran a particularly strong sense of national identity.

In certain respects this contasts with the experiences of some of their Arab (and Jewish) neighbours in the region, whose national boundaries were shaped by the actions of Western powers after the first and second world wars. Yet these Semitic peoples also have traditions which go well back in the Middle East. These experiences (and even more powerfully those of the Iranians), contrast strongly with those of another of today's key player in the Middle East - the USA. America as an immigrant-based nation, having only come into existence with the issue of its Declaration of Independence under 250 years ago.

(3) Size

It is over 6 times the size of the UK; or the size of France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and the UK combined. It is a sixth the size of the USA and the 18th largest nation in the world.

(4) Population

It has a population of 70 million, which is 10 million more than the UK. Its population is currently approaching a quarter of that of the USA, but it is expected to double in the next 20 years.

Some 50% of its population are under 16, whilst the equivalent in the UK (which is seen as having an ageing population) is 20%. In terms of ethnic background, just over half of the Iranian population are Persian. Azerbaijan is to the north of Iran and almost a quarter of the population in the highly urbanised north-west of Iran are Azeriz. Minority groups include Kurds (7%) and Arabs (3%). Paramilitary and political pressures to establish an independent Kurdistan which would take in neighbouring areas of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran impact upon Iranian politics and their military.

(5) Religion

89% of Iranians are Shia Muslims, 9% are Sunni Muslims - the remaining 2% cover "other religions", primarily Zoroastrians, Christians and a shrinking number of Jews. Anyone who is an atheist or an agnostic keeps the information to themselves. Iran is an Islamic Republic and religious matters will re-emerge in more details in later sections which deal with Constitutional and Political matters in Iran.

(6) Urbanised

Only 11% of its working population are employed in agriculture, with the remainder divided between industrial and service trades; covering from construction, automobile manufacturing and petrochemicals to the production and sale of textiles and artisan goods. Tehran has a population of almost 7 million; with Tabriz, Mashhad, Shiraz and Esfahan all having populations of over a million. The western area of the country is more heavily populated than the central to eastern areas.

(7) Living Standards

According to figures from the International Monetary Fund, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per head of population in Iran is just below 25% of that for the UK and below 20% of the USA's. Figures from the University of Pennsylvania indicate that Iran's GDP per head is, however, much greater than those of its neighbours in Pakistan, Iraq and Afganistan - by factors of more than 2.5, 5 and 10. Iranian living standards are, however, under threat from its rapidly expanding population and the factors mentioned next. (See here for details)

(8) Unemployment and Inflation

Official Iranian statistics claim that unemployment stands at 11% and inflation (a more recent figure) is at 19%. But as those women and the elderly who are likely to be looking for work are generally excluded from the statistics, it is claimed that the percentage unemployed could well be as high as 22%. Doubt is also thrown on the inflation figure. It could be as high as 30%.

(9) Imports and Exports

China is a major trading partner and accounts for 12.8% of Iran's exports and 10.5% of its imports. Exports to China are only exceeded by those to Japan - at 14%. Most of the exports to the Far East are of oil.

The main local trade for exports is to Turkey (7.2%) with 9.4% of imports coming from the United Arab Emirates. The latter having a wealthy and diversified economy. A mutual programme of sanctions contains trade between Iran and the USA. Iran holds 10% of the world's oil reserves, yet its export activity means that it operates petrol rationing within Iran itself.

(10) Mixed Economy

Iran runs a mixed economy, with State control of banking, power and other large scale industries. It has a Minister of Co-operatives covering consumer and producer bodies in areas such as agriculture and credit activity. Details about its politically important nuclear developments will be covered in a later section.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Regional Context : Part 1 of "Understanding Iran"

For the source of this map and the larger original version see - here.

NOTE : the reason this series is called "Understanding Iran" is not that I understand it and wish to display my wisdom to others, but the I am writing about it in an effort to understand it myself.


(1) Unstable Regimes

Iran is wedged between Iraq on its western border and Afghanistan and Pakistan on its eastern border. This is, however, a sizeable wedge as Iran is almost seven times the size of the United Kingdom. But the three neighbours I have mentioned are notoriously problematic nations with highly unstable regimes. Furthermore, the USA and Britain have major troop placements in Iraq and Afghanistan, either side of Iran.

In addition, Lebanon and the Palestinian areas of Gaza and the West Bank are only 500 miles from Iran's highly populated western area. This is similar to the short distance between the United Kingdom and Berlin. Lebanon and the Palestinian areas have a tense relationship with Israel. Iran both impacts upon and is effected by the developments in this heated area.

(2) Perceived Threat Of Nuclear Weapons

Iran has a hostile relationship with Israel who hold nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are also held to its east by Pakistan and India who are in conflict over the status of Kasmir - which is also only some 500 miles away from Iran's border. Iran also has fears that fundamentalist Sunni Islamic elements could come to the fore in Pakistan and would then find themselves in opposition to Shia Islamic elements who dominate in Iran. It must always be remembered that Iran was invaded by Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1980, when Iraq's power was seen as being held by a Sunni elite. The war against Iraq then lasted for 8 years and led to lost lives as great as those for the whole of the First World War.

Other nuclear weapons in the area are held by Russia, with whom Iran enjoys a more reasonable relationship. On the other hand, there are perceived threats from Britain and (especially) the USA in the region. The latter have bases in eight nearby nations, plus warships in the Gulf near the border of Iran.

(3) The Islamic Divide

An aspect of the divide within Islam between Shia and Sunni is mentioned above. This needs, however, to be seen in the context of there being a total of 57 nations in the world who see themselves as being basically Islamic and who all share membership of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. These nations cover a wide variety of viewpoints and social structures. Overall, however, Sunni is the dominant Islamic tendency.

Iran and Azerbaijan (on Iran's northern border and to the west of the Caspian Sea) are the two most dominant Shia nations in the world. Some 60% of the Iraqi population (mainly from south to mid-Iraq) also share this position. Whilst the populations of the Lebanon, Yeman and Bahrain have Shia populations ranging from over 40% to over 60%. Although only 20% or so of Pakistan's population are Shia, at around 30 million this makes it the second largest Shia population next only to that of Iran.

In recent periods forms of Shia fundamentalism have come to the fore. First around the revolution in Iran in 1979 which brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power. Then with militant elements amongst the Shia in Iraq following the Coalition's invasion of their country in 2003.

In judging the current degree of Iranian influence in the Shia areas of Iraq, two conficting considerations need to be taken into account. On the one hand, southern Iraq is important to Iranians because it contains many of the shrines of Shia Islam. On the other hand, the Iraqi Shia are Arabs whilst Iran is essentially a non-Arab nation of Persians. For instance, the Iraqi Shia and the Iranian Shia were fairly firmly on different sides during the Iraq-Iran War. Both ethnic and national ties can place limits upon having combined forms of Shia activity between the two nations.

(4) The Ethnic Divide

There are 22 nations in the Arab League. All these nations appear on the above map, apart from those in North Africa who are to the east of Egypt and Sudan. They include Saudi Arabia and the nations on its borders. With the exclusion of Isreal. this pattern goes north to Syria. All these Arab nations are also Islamic nations.

There is then, however, a divide within Islam, which cuts across the top part of our map. It is the divide between Arab and non-Arab areas. Turkey, the Kurdish areas within the northern tip of Syria and in the north of Iraq, plus Iran start the divide. Islamic territory which is not Arabic also includes the lands to the north and east of Turkey and Iran, including the section of Russia at the top of the map.

The significance of this division in Islam is that it is only the Arab nations that will find their views expressed via the Arab League or will find influences within their boundaries which seek to press for a form of pan-arabism. Iran is outside of this. This adds to Iran's strong sense of nationalism and independence.

There is a tendency for tribal and extended family links to be a greater force in Arab nations arising from past nomadic traditions. Yet this is not missing on the non-Arab side of the Islamic ethnic divide in the Middle East. It is a strong tradition amongst the Kurds, whilst large extended family groups living a nomadic life-sytle can still be found in areas of Iran.

(5) The Wealth Divide

Some of the nations close to Iran are wealthy, whilst others are impoverished. Qatar and the United Arab Emrates have a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per head of their populations which is similar to our own. They have used their oil wealth to diversify their economies and to build for the future. Yet countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Palestinian areas are a shattering contrast.

At the time Saddam Hussein came to power as President, the GDP per head in Iraq had reached 45% of the UK equivalent. After the consquences of the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf-War, UN Sanctions and invasion; the current GDP per head is well below 10% of our own. And this makes no assessment of other problems effecting the quality of life in Iraq.

Iran has a GDP per head which is some 25% of our own. I will spell out more about its internal position in Section 2. But for our analysis at this point, Iran is in something of a mid-financial position. Wealthier nations attract its professional classes. Whilst labourers from poor nations look towards it (as do numbers of other nations) for menial work - except that they are currently detered by Iran's high unemployment and inflation levels.

(6) Oil v Non-Oil Divide

Oil production can be a mixed blessing. As well as producing wealth, it can attract military and other forms of intervention from other nations. It can also lead nations to concentrate on short-term considerations and to use oil as almost a sole form of revenue for public expenditure.

Iran claims that its nuclear-power programme is part of a policy of economic diversification which takes account of the fact that its oil supplies could be worked out in 75 years.

The nations on the map with substanial oil reserves are the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. Even if we accept the argument that the Coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003 was partly an attempt to establish a democratic system in Iraq, it needs to be recognised that moves to extend democratic arrangments in Iran in the early 1950s with the nationalisation of the mainly British-owned oil industry and the removal of the Shah, were reversed by a coup to re-establish the rule of the Shah which was aided by the CIA and MI6. The Shah's rule then became increasingly autocratic until his removal in 1979, which then led to the initial establishment of a theocratic regime. We will later examine whether this has changed.

(7) US Troops And Mercenaries

There are US bases in three nations around Iran - Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq; with a wide use of unregulated security firms operating in the latter.

There are further US bases situated in the Gulf opposite Iran in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman; along with US Naval power in the Gulf itself. The US also operates from Egypt.