Monday, March 31, 2008

Battered Basra

This map is from News Guardian and, to the best of my judgement, covers the area on the southern bank of the Shatt-al-Arab where I was stationed as an 18 to 20 year old during my National Service. See here for the larger version.

I lived in Basra for 20 months in 1955 and 1956. I was undertaking my National Service in the RAF and was a Movement Units Clerk stationed in a small camp on the banks of the Shatt-al-Arab river. Our camp was surrounded by a much larger camp which initially accommodated Iraqi Levies, who were Iraqi Troops under the control of British Officers. When this force were disbanded as part of the arrangements under what was called the Baghdad Pact, they were replaced by the Iraqi Army.

I moved about the area freely, both as part of my work and in my spare time. I regularly visited the railway marshalling yards, the docks, the railway station, ships anchored in the river, the Anglican Church (until I became an atheist), the town centre (with a weekly visit to its English Book Shop) and even took a trip down the Shatt-al-Arab to the Fao Peninsula on a Navy Frigate to play for our camp cricket team against the English management at the oil terminal. I visited the nearby RAF camp at Shiaba and went back and forth by rail to Baghdad on visits to the RAF camp at Habbaniyah (where the vehicle I then travelled in from the Capital passed through Fallujah.)

These activities gave me regular contacts with Iraqis, which was supplemented by the fact that we were outnumbered on the camp by locals from Basra who worked mainly as clerks and in a variety of labouring jobs.

In all of this time, I only ever heard one shot fired in anger. An Iraqi Army soldier escaped from their prison and dived into the Shatt-al-Arab. Those pursuing him took a pot shot from the banks, but missed.

As anyone reading this blog will know I try to follow the current developments in Iraq closely. This is especially the case with the current situation in Basra. I observed Basra and its river from the air in April 2006 when flying from Erbil in Northern Iraq to Dubai in the Gulf, trying to work out where my old camp had been situated. I have also had the privilege of meeting Trade Union leaders from Basra both in Erbil and in meetings in this country at the TUC and the Commons.

Below is an extract from an item in yesterday's Observer which brings the situation home to readers at the personal level. Given current circumstances and my age, it is hard for me to imagine that I will ever again set foot in Basra. But one has to live in hope, especially for the future well-being of the Iraqi people.

From "Trapped in their homes, families fall victim to sickness and hunger" by Arif Sarhan in Basra.

It took eight years for Nur Muhammad, 35, finally to fall pregnant with the child she desperately wanted. Last week, Ali, her pride and joy, became the youngest victim of the upswing in violence.

The four-month-old baby boy fell ill last Monday with a fever, the day fighting broke out in Basra, the second-biggest oil city of Iraq. The street where the family lives became a battlefield, imprisoning them in their home, unable to get help.

'The disease spread so fast. My husband tried to leave our home to look for help but he was shot in his leg in front of our house,' Muhammad said. 'My only child was seriously sick and I also had to look after my injured husband. I was forced to use a knife sterilised with a lighter to take the bullet from his leg.'

No one was able to reach the house with medicine or food until Friday afternoon. Ali had died in the morning. 'It took me a few hours to realise my son had become an angel. He was shining and had a smile on his face,' she said. 'I waited all my life to have my baby and now a ridiculous political fight for supremacy took him away from me.'

Muhammad, tears streaming down her hollow cheeks, was in deep shock. 'I don't have a reason to live anymore. My husband threatened to divorce me if I didn't give him a child and now I doubt he will stay married to me now that Ali has been taken.'

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Our Man In Iran

Trade Unionists (in particular) should join in this Amnesty Campaign to assist Mahmoud Salehi of the Bakers' Union in Saqez. He is ill, imprisoned, on hunger strike and abused by the Iranian authorities for pressing for free Trade Unionism.

The Latest From Baghdad

Yesterday I provided a link to an important item posted by "Last-Of Iraqis" on the impact which the current conflict is having on life in Baghdad. He has added a key update. Anyone interested in what is taking place in Iraq should link to what I see as being the best blog from within Iraq which is written in English.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Heat Rises Once More In Iraq

The British media are concentrating on (a) Maliki's action in taking on the Mehdhi Army in Basra and (b) the rocket attacks on the Green Zone in Baghdad. There is, however, a Reuters' report on clashes in Sadr City leading to 14 being killed and 140 wounded. But to get a wider picture of the impact of the current conflict in Baghdad, once more we have to turn to the blog of "Last-Of-Iraqis" and to this report of the response from the man opposite to the situation.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Football's Coach And Horses

This is the Coach and Horses pub at Dronfield. If you are 71 years old and use a walking stick, it is 15 minutes walk from my home. The pub is owned by Sheffield FC, the oldest football club in the world. It is next to the Club ground which also used to be called the Coach and Horses, but in these days of sponsorship has been renamed the Bright Finance stadium. It is commonly known as the Stadium of Bright, which appeals to me as a Sunderland supporter.

At Sheffield FC home games the crowd are encouraged to patronise the pub at half time and after the game. I need no prompting. You aren't of course able to bring beer back into the ground with you, except in your bladder.

On match day, I need to leave home 40 minutes before the kick-off to give me time for a pre-match pint. This is then supplemented at half-time and sometimes at full-time. I am, however, happy to forgo my third pint if Tom is present and offers me a lift back up the bank. For it is tough walking back up hill and it gets me back home in time for the announcement of the Premiership results.

The Coach and Horses is a fine refurbished (but unspoilt) pub, which serves five fine Thornbridge Cask Ales drawn from its total of seven possibles. I have learnt from experience that it is a mistake to have a full three pints over the period of my football visits if they are serving my favourite, St. Petersberg. It is potent and makes the walk back up the hill more of a problem than usual.

There is then the difficulty of judging when to dash for the pub at half-time. For I neither wish to miss the football, nor get to the back of a huge queue. So this involves a delicate judgement based on the estimated size of the crowd, on when to commence my mad dash for the gate propelled by my walking stick.

The attraction of the Coach and Horses is that it is entirely unlike being at the bar at a League Club, as it does not serve unknown beer from a transparent plastic container.

Denis Clarebrough

There is a fine article in the current issue of "Dronfield Miscellany" (Issue Number 14, Autumn/Winter 2007, £2.50 from the Old Dronfield Society) entitled "Sheffield Football Club (1857-2007) and the Coach and Horses" which was written with the help of the late and great Derek Dooley and Dave Wickens. The author Denis Clarebrough states -

"The ground became the home of Norton Woodseats FC, a leading Sheffield amateur club in the early 1930's. Their finest season came in 1939 when they reached the semi-final of the Amateur Cup, losing by a single goal to Willington, a team from County Durham. The name of the club was changed from 1884 to 1991 to Dronfield United but, unable to meet the rising rent required by the brewery company (Whitbread) who owned the ground, the Norton Woodseats club folded at the end of the 1993-94 season. The Sheffield Club took over the lease and it became their ground and they have since taken over the ownership of the Coach and Horses."

On April 24th Denis is due to address the Old Dronfield Society on "Sport In Dronfield" following the Society's AGM at the Peel Centre, High Street, Dronfield. It costs £1 for non-members to attend his talk. As the centre is only about 300 yards from my home I hope to attend. Luckily it does not clash with a Sheffield FC game. They are due to play Spalding Town at home the evening before.

Four Match Reports Rolled Into One

I have failed to report on the last four games I have attended. I will, therefore, give a synoptic coverage of the lot. If you are crying out for the details of Vill Powell's two fine goals against Carlton Town (or similar classic events), then you need to turn to the Club's Web-Site.

All four games have been closely fought. Two were 3-2 victories and the other two were draws. The pattern of play in each, was similar. The first half tended to belong to the opposition, then Sheffield FC moved in to take an increasing control of the game.

Crowd sizes (and hence my half-time estimate of when to dash to the pub) have varied considerably. 580 turned up for the visit of League leaders Retford United, whilst only 106 made it to a mid-week cup game against Brodworth Welfare.

The status of the opposition has mattered much less then I would have anticipated. Whilst high flyers Retford United were tough opposition, it was Sheffield FC who were looking for the winner near the close of a 1-1 draw. Yet in the cup game, Brodworth Welfare who are in the bottom half of the League below us were a tough nut to crack. We eventually ran out 3-2 winners, only after making three substitutions on the hour.

In fact I am increasingly of the opinion that in the third, fourth and fifth Steps of the Non-League Pyramid there is more disparity inside each League than there is in the general standards between these Steps. Retford United were promoted as League champions last season and are again top in their Unibond Division. We came up in second place and (with games in hand) can now finish third or so. And when we have played teams in the Step above us in cup games, we have never been outclassed.

Like Brodworth, Carlton Town lost 3-2. But they were full of impressive running and only tired towards the end. Yet they had a perfectly good goal unrecognised when it came back into play after scrambling over the goal line. It took those two fine second half strikes from Vill Powell to sink them - although they came back with a shot that equalled Vill's.

In each of the games against Brodworth and Retford play was held up for 20 Minutes. Against Brodworth it was due to a floodlight failure and as it was a cup game we also had the prospect of extra time and a penalty shoot out. Luckily we didn't need these and got home well before midnight.

The hold up at the Retford game was towards the end of an exciting match, when their striker was seriously injured in a freak accident. He was eventually stretchered off and taken to hospital. Luckily he was realised that evening.

One of the people who dashed onto the pitch to help was a "Street Doctor". He had earlier appeared in the crowd being sponsored and filmed by the BBC. At least it gave him a mission. I don't think he picked up much trade in the crowd. In fact, Tom's response (well before things turned serious with the accident on the field) was "Oh! If you are a Street Doctor you are just the man. I need the pot-holes mending in our street." Well, anything seems funny after a pint of St. Peterberg.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Baghdad's Socrates

Last-Of-Iraqis has surpassed even himself. First he posted a telling item about the horrors of the down side of life in Baghdad since the invasion. I covered this contribution under my heading "Baghdad's Picasso". Now he has posted a equally compelling item which reveals the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the bulk of his fellow citizens, be they Sunni or Shia. His fine videos and photos of the recent Islamic festival at Adhamiya in Baghdad are only exceeded by his description of both the events and his feelings. People crowded into such enjoyable festive activities in Baghdad will surprise many.

The two posts by Last-of-Iraqis give us the down side of life in Baghdad as his initial thesis and then the up side as the following anti-thesis. I can't wait for him to draw his synthesis from what only the unthinking would judge to be conflicting items.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Baghdad's Picasso

Today is the 5th Anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Here an intelligent, articulate and caring Iraqi blogs from Baghdad on his experiences of life and death in the Iraqi Capital since the start of "Shock and Awe." To me he is Baghdad's Picasso - in words.

Here is an extract (uncorrected) -

"During these 5 years I have experienced everything, two of my relatives kidnapped, 6 of the people I know closely including relatives and close friends have been killed, I can't count the number of people that I know who were murdered, my niece who is 7 years old girl died in an explosion, most of my friends and relatives have left the country, I watched my teachers and college professors being killed or kidnapped one after the other, I have been near an explosion countless times, I have witnessed uncountable number of dead bodies and crying families taking their dead beloved from the forensic medicine building, I have seen 3 men at different times being shot to death in front of me, I have been through militias checkpoints several times, Me and my wife have been targeted by a national guard sniper for a reason I didn't know till this moment, I have seen dead bodies left on the side walk and no dares to bury them, my family have been threatened and forced to leave the country and I joined them and stayed in Jordan/Amman for about a year and then had to return back despite the horrible situation and the extra danger on me being threatened, but what can I do, I tried desperately to find a job there but like most of Iraqis, I couldn't. I'm just one Iraqi and I have such loses, imagine 28 million one like me, how much looses does the Iraqis have?" (Last-Of-Iraqis)

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Female Chartists Of Iran

Iranian Women Rights Activist Ahmadi Khorassani
Chartist meeting on Kennington Common. 10th April 1848. The world's first photograph of a crowd.

The Chartist Movement in Britain organised three massive petitions in favour of adult male suffrage and other democratic reforms in 1838, 1842 and 1848. Numbers of women also campaigned for the objectives of these petitions as they saw them as advancing the say of working class families. Although Chartism had no immediate success, by 1858 one of its demands reached the statute books with the end of the property qualification for candidates. Other successes were to follow.

The struggle for votes for women became a significant force especially under the campaigning of the suffragettes. The Women's Social and Political Union being founded in 1904. By 1928 the bulk of the demands of the Chartists and the campaign for an equal franchise for women had triumphed.

In Iran today women have the vote, but the electoral system is manipulated to block out numerous reformist candidates who would provide an avenue for pressures for women's rights.

As an article in the current issue of Amnesty International points out -

"Women do not have equal rights with men in marriage, divorce, child custody or inheritance. They cannot be judges. Criminal harm suffered by a woman is less severely punished than the same harm done to a man. Evidence given in court is worth half that given by the eyes of the law they are second class citizens."

A female Chartist-style campaign called the Campaign For Equality is under way in Iran (with male supporters) seeking a million signatures to demand an end to discriminatory laws.

International support is being sort for this campaign here. See also the Amnesty International web-site here.

There is no reason why this campaign should not come to have the significance in Iranian politics which the Chartists and the Suffragettes had in advancing democracy, justice, civil rights and social reform in Britain.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Khatami's Reformist Army?

Khatami was the President of Iran from 1997 to 2005. After an obligitary break, he is entitled to stand again for President. But will he? And what other feasible candidate could make the ballot paper and fly the reformist flag?

Now see the "Daily Telegraph" (of all papers)

In the run up to the Iran's problematic elections for their parliament, the Daily Telegraph have been producing a series of telling articles on the politics of Iran. In today's issue David Blair describes the economic difficulties faced by Iran's youthful population. He ends by speculating upon whether the reformist and former President Khatami will seek a come-back and stand for a third term of office in next year's Presidential elections.

Khatami was President between 1997 and 2005. Under the provisions of the Iranian Constitution he was not allowed to stand in 2005 against Ahmadinejad. I was surprised to discover that he is in fact eligible to stand again in 2009. But I now see from the wording of Article 114 of the Iranian Constitution that David Blair is correct. If Khatami can be persuaded to stand it will be a huge boost for the reformers camp in Iran, even if his subsequent policies are again frustrated by the ruling theocracy. For if he stands, it will give the Iranian people a meaningful election to look forward to and will stimulate social pressures for change by the reformists.

Article 114 states "The President is elected for a four-year term by the direct vote of the people. His re-election for a successive term is permissible only once."

I have now corrected my entry alongside Ahmaninejad's photograph here to take account of the fact that Khatami is eligible to stand in 2009.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Shia Revival


This book has a great deal going for it. To start with, the paperback edition which I bought at Waterstones is beautifully published and is a work which book lovers will enjoy handling. Then, the author, Vali Nasr has a compelling, readable and intelligent style. From the introduction onwards we come across memorable phrases, such as "(w)e live in an age of globalisation, but also of identity politics. It is as if the world is expanding and contracting at the same time."

Above all, the book has a compelling theme. It deals with the Shia of Islam, who account for some 10% of the world Muslims compared to the Sunni's 85%. But as the sub-title indicates we are at a cross-roads in history where the Shia are struggling for their place in the sun. Modern developments in Iran, Iraq and the Lebanon where the Shia have prominence, illustrate this.

Although Vali Nasr centres upon the above major trends amongst the Shia, he provides well crafted and helpful background details about Shia history and its wider international canvas. The significance of the festival of Ashoura is handled sympathetically and the spread and variety of Shia activities is shown to accommodate to (amongst others) Hindu practices in India.

Amongst the insights I gained about Shia politics was that they learnt lessons from the growth of the Iraqi Communist Party which had reached its peak in 1959. The bulk of the labourers who moved into work in the oil industry, Baghdad's factories and Basra's port were Shia. An appeal to their class interests and help for them via Shia social services became part of the religious communities conventional wisdom.

The author takes the side of the moderate, quietest and reflective Shia tradition, rather than of the revolutionary, terrorist and totalitarian tradition. So Sistani's advocacy of the power of the franchise in Iraq (then elsewhere) to extend the Shia's political influence is seen as the big hope for peace and prosperity. He looks to this as an avenue to counter the impact of the Khomeini revolution in Iran. If the only solution is to take sides in this internal Shia debate, then it is (of course) the correct side.

Unfortunately as the book progresses, the author's hopes for the Sistani transformation seem to me to falter in two respects.

First, Vali Nasr sees the Shia's struggle for political space as mainly being directed against Sunni influences. So Sunni politics is presented as being one-sided and oppressive, whether it operates under secular Arab leaders or via bodies such as Al-Qeada. The Sunni are never shown to have their own quietest or democratic-leaning side. Yet whilst Sistani was active from the south of Iraq, Jamal Abul Karim al-Dabban was the senior Sunni religious leader in Tikrit from 2004 until his death in 2007. He was considered to be a moderate. (The nearest Vali Nasr gets to sympathy for the politics of the Sunni camp is his admiration for the influence of King Faysal of Saudi Arabia before his death in 1975.)

Secondly when the first edition of this book was published in 2006, it left us with high hopes for coming Shia democratic and civic practices. However, by the second edition arrived in 2007, the author had to accommodate his views to the seriously deteriorating security position which arose across Iraq following the destruction of the Shia Mosque at Samarra. So he produced an "Afterword" which finds Sistani retreating to his tent to concentrate on religious texts, whilst Sunni-Shia sectarianism bounds forth. If matters have improved somewhat recently (with the tactics around the US surge), they have not yet put Vali Nasr's initial high hopes back on track.

There are only just over 250 pages of text in the book and the two problems I have listed above did not come to my attention until I reached the final 50 pages. In the meantime, Vali Nasr work impressed as a readable and worthwhile introduction to an essential topic which otherwise would be difficult to grasp. For once, I read a book mainly about the Middle East where I didn't become confused by names of the secondary characters, for each argument and analysis fitted into the books overall framework. It was only in the "Afterword" that the author was forced into a fresh situation. It was at least good to see that he did not duck from this task.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ya'qub Mehrnehad

Support this Amnesty Campaign to save the life of Ya'qub Mehrnehad the Baluchi civil rights activist in Iran. Peter Tatchell explains the situation here and provides a series of important links.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Changing The Agenda : Part 7 Of "Understanding Iran"

For Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.

Ayatollah Khamenei is the 2nd Supreme Leader of Iran. He followed on from late Ayatollah Khomeni who was the father of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. One path of reform which Iran could seek to follow would be a process to turn the Supreme Leader into a Constitutional figure-head with no real powers. I conclude this series with responses to the two questions raised at the close of Part 6.

1. What Are The Avenues Of Reform In Iran?

Before deciding what the West's responses should be to the situation in Iran, we need to understand as much as we can about the Iranian people and the situation they find themselves in. The first four parts of this series were structured to that end. For instance, in Part 4 whilst it was pointed out that nationalist, anti-imperialist and Shia Islamic values were a powerful mixture, it was also argued that this did not necessarily produce a monolithic and unchanging society. It is a nation with clear class divisions and other distinctions of interest, including significant struggles for women and workers' rights.

There have already been ebbs and flows in internal Iranian politics even since their Islamic Revolution. Although a Conservative theocratic line has often dominated, there has also been important reformist trends.

We are approaching the 8th election to the Majilis since the revolution. The reformists had influences or majorities after three of the first four elections. Then next year will see a new Presidential election. Ahmadinejad is the 5th President since the revolution. Two of these fell (within the context of their times) into pragmatic/reformist positions, even if they were not always successful. These were Rafsanjani (1989-97) and Khatami (l997-2005).

As shown in Part 3, candidates for the Majilis and the Presidency can be vetted and excluded by the Guardians of the Constitution. Political Parties are also obliged to register and must stand by the Constitution which gives final political control to the religious Supreme Leader, who is not subject to direct appointment nor removal from office by the votes of the people. Yet elections to the Majilis, the Presidency and for Town and Local Councils provide a focus for serious reformist pressures to emerge. The Supreme Leader and the other theocratic elements of the Constitution may feel that they rule by a sort of "divine right", but their power could be eroded via Constitutional reforms which will only come if pushed for in a determined way by the people. If in our history in England, the power of the Monarchy was changed from that of an attempt at absolute rule to that of an eventual figure-head, there is no reason why Iran can't go down a similar path in relation to its Supreme Leader.

2. How Should Those Outside Iran Respond?

A Military attack upon Iran by the West would be a disaster. The national, anti-imperialist and Shia consensus would dominate any attempts at occupation. In 2008, Iran can not be subjected to the coup tactics of 1953.

Selected bombings of nuclear and other targets would also be counter-productive, strengthening the very trends which need to be tamed by internal reformism. The Iranians would also work to see that their nuclear provisions were re-built and protected.

When contemplating lesser actions such as sanctions and patrolling the Gulf, there also needs to be an awareness of how this will play on the internal political scene. The restoration of US-Iranian diplomatic relations has more mileage, as long as this is realistic and no sell-out by the West.

There are clear areas where such arrangements must avoid anything approaching compromises and sell-outs. We have to take actions which will assist reformist and democratic forces to make their own headway in Iran. Human Rights considerations need to be the top priority. This is why the international efforts by human rights groups, women's organisations, student bodies and the trade union movement need to be central. For instance, here is today's agenda.

Western Governments will be in a better position to press such agendas to the extent that they put their own houses in order on the human rights front. A Democratic victory in the US Presidential elections would help.

We need to concentrate on the types of issues which lead to internal pressures for reform in Iran. These relate to matters such as concern about regulations on wearing the hijab, shortages of provisions in the universities, workers whose wages are outstanding, petrol rationing, the impact of inflation, unemployment and a stagnant economy. In supporting the forces for social and democratic improvement within Iran, we have to refrain from actions that will unleash social forces which will make their task more difficult. This does not, however, mean leaving reformers to their own devises, they need our solidarity and support. The trick is working out the practicalities in shifting circumstances - understanding Iran is the prerequisite to undertaking any such tasks. Unfortunately too few people understood Iraq when it was about to be attacked. Which ,unfortunately, applied to many of those opposing the invasion as well as the bulk of its supporters.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Assessing Bush's Assessment : Part 6 of "Understanding Iran"

See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

Last Wednesday, President Bush met with Sada Cumber, the first US envoy to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference - a hopeful body referred to in Part 1 and also in "Criticism 1" below.

At the close of Part 5, I listed four major criticisms which the US Administration levels against Iran. I will now examine each of these in turn.

Criticism 1 : Iran Undermines The Israel/Palestine Peace Process.

This process is at a pretty low ebb at the moment and Iran's response to the current situation in the Gaza Strip is likely to confirm the Bush Administration in its entrenched position.

On Sunday Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamanei called upon the Islamic people to rise up and for their leaders to hit Israel "in the face with their nation's anger". This follows recent actions which have led to over a hundred Palestinians (including children) being killed in the Gaza Strip in retaliation to terrorist rocket attacks on Israel. He also condemned the US for supporting what he called the "Zionists... unforgivable sins".

In response to the escalating violence in the Middle East, America has deployed USS Cole and two other warships off the coast of Lebanon, where there has been a history of American naval shelling at targets in that country. The tensions rises.

The language seeking to calm the situation has come from the United Nations Security Council who have called for an end to attacks, and by the European Union who have condemned Israel's response as being disproportionate and contrary to international law. The EU has also urged all parties to use restraint.

If there is ever to a serious advance of the Peace Process, then there needs to be pressures from those closest to the protagonists which seriously press for restraint. America's links with Israel need to be used to pull her back from indiscriminate responses. Whilst bodies such as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (mentioned in Part 1) need to use their position to seek to rein in upon the rhetorical support and military aid which certain Islamic nations and/or splinter groups provide to Hamas, Hezbollah and their equivalents.

Iran has undoubtedly been involved in such activity. At official level this was more likely to be to the fore when revolutionary and theocratic elements initially came to the fore. Some restraints on this action arose in periods when more democratic and reformist elements entered the political game.

It also needs to be remembered that politics is never static. Political changes via both the coming US and Iranian Presidential elections can aid the needed developments.

Criticism 2 : Iran Supports International Terrorism

Outside of the immediate Palestine situation, the US Administration additionally claims that Iran supports violent oppositional activities in nations such as the Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq. On the latter this is seen as being via organisations such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Further afield terrorist backing is even claimed in areas such as Latin America around attacks on Israeli Embassies and Jewish Cultural Centres.

Such claims tend to be based on intelligence data and many will see such a source as problematic given the since disproven claims about Saddam Hussein holding Weapons of Mass Destruction. On the other hand, Iran has a track record of seeking to exert militant influences amongst the Shia population of Iraq which goes back to events around the Iran-Iraq War.

President Ahmadinejad has recently completed a two day official visit to Baghdad. As Iran now enjoys sound diplomatic and commercial links with the Iraqi Government, its support for militant activity may decline if it comes to be viewed as counter-productive.

Western Government's will continue to feel a need to build safeguards against Iranian links with militant groups in nations with significant Shia populations. But in acting in this, the West will need to look for avenues which will not push the populations concerned even further into the hands of extremists.

Criticism 3 : Iran Is Developing Nuclear Weapons

On Monday, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution placing its third set of sanctions upon Iran whom it claims is constructing a heavy water reactor to produce plutonium and is seeking to enrich uranium. These are key ingredients in the production of nuclear weapons. The sanctions are restricted to those which will hinder or block such developments.

Moving to such a nuclear weapons capability is contrary to Iran being a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran denies that it is involved in such activities and claims merely to be developing a nuclear energy capacity which it is permitted to do under the Treaty.

Russia supplies uranium to Iran for use at its Bushehr power station, but this is done under an agreement which returns the spent uranium fuel so that it can not be reprocessed to produce plutonium. Perhaps to facilitate Russia's signature to the sanctions decision of the UN Security Council, Bush has stated that the arrangement is satisfactory.

Iran's case for developing nuclear power (which it is entitled to do) is that it needs to provide for its future. Its hoped for growth (with an expanding population) could lead to a situation where its annual output of oil for domestic purposes would not meet its own energy requirements. Nuclear energy for internal use would also allow it to expand its export of oil for revenue purposes. Then in an estimated 75 years time its oil will run out, so it needs to prepare for its long term future energy requirements.

Its (unspoken) interest in developing nuclear weapons is that they act as a deterrent against attacks from outside. It is surrounded by US military fire power and four of its near neighbours hold nuclear weapons, including Israel with whom it has a hostile relationship.

The dangers of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons (even without them adopting threats to use them) are that this would undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, with Arab nations in the region then moving in on the act. Yet only last December the American Intelligence Agency claimed that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons programme back in 2003.

There is always a problem with the current regime in Iran that pressures upon them (such as the UN Security Council's sanctions programme) will prove counter-productive, with Iran digging in its heels and undertaking exactly that which others seek to prevent. On the other hand, a sanctions programme against Iran will be seen by many as preferable to the bombing by the USA of their relevant installations.

Criticism 4 : Iran Has A Shameful Human Rights Record

Even although the USA has its own dismal record over Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, Abu Ghraib prison and the nature of its attacks on Fallujah; it is still the case that Iran has a particularly shameful human rights record. In part 2, I quoted from the "2008 World Report" of Human Rights Watch which spells this out.

Iranian authorities systematically suppress freedom of expression by journalists, editors, academics, students and others. Peaceful protests over women rights, for social improvements and for trade union recognition are suppressed. Iran has a high death penalty rate which includes public hangings (with some until recently being shown an television), the stoning to death of women on charges of adultery and the execution of juveniles. Those who renounce their Islamic faith are open to jail sentences, hard labour or even the death penalty. An Iranian Government Minister has recently defended the torture and executions of homosexuals.

The Ershed patrol (or modesty police) enforce dress codes for women, placing many into detention. Many Iranians are, however, prepared to stand out against such provisions - as is shown here.

Iran is not alone in the operations of the above forms of abuse. Saudi Arabia has a particularly damming record in these areas. This indicates that a common approach needs to be adopted in seeking to overcome such practices wherever they are discovered.


Part 7 will be the conclusion of this series on "Understanding Iran". I will pursue two final questions - (1) What are the avenues of reform in Iran? (2) How should those outside of Iran respond?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Great Satan v The Axis Of Evil : Part 5 Of "Understanding Iran"

See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Or could this be the shape of things to come? Ryan Cocker, US Ambassador to Iraq met with his Iranian counterpart Hussan Kazemi Qomi in Baghdad in May 2007 to look for common ground to help the Iraqi Government to help to end the daily bloodshed. Whilst today Ahmadinejad, Iran's President arrived in Baghdad for two days of talks with Iraqi leaders. Iran is lending £500million to Iraq for projects which are to be handled by Iranian companies.

Halcyon Days

Prior to 1953, the USA had a close and friendly relationship with Iran. At that time the two world powers with a track record of interference in Iran's internal affairs were Britain and Russia. These two powers even divided Iran up into differing areas of influence between 1907 and 1917. Then they occupied Iran between 1941 and 1946, dividing the territory between themselves. When the Soviet Union was reluctant to leave after the 2nd World War, it was American pressure which secured their departure.

The Break-Up

In 1951, Iran nationalised the British owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and a tussle for power took place between the Shah and the democratic majority in the Majlis led by Mosaddeq. The Shah was initially obliged to flee Iran, but he was restored to power in a coup engineered by the British MI6 and the American CIA with Mosaddeq (Iran's nationalist and democratic hope) spending the remainder of his life in prison and then under house arrest. Whilst Iranians were used to such forms of action by Britain, they were deeply shocked and offended by the actions of the USA. The Shah allowed a Western Oil consortium to run Iran's Oil Industry with American involvement. America continued to be closely involved with the Shah's regime and supplied him with arms. As the Shah operated an increasingly oppressive regime, both he and the US Government became increasingly unpopular amongst Iranians.

Revolutionary Fervour

The 1979 revolution against the Shah's regime, initially united a wide range of differing interests inside Iran who all hoped to make considerable political advances with his departure. Ayatollah Khomeini's populist appeal rested on his being Anti-Shah, anti-imperialist, having a high Shia religious status and living a simple life-style (a sharp contrast with the Shah). Rather like Lenin during the Russian Revolution of 1917, he found that power could be taken by those who were organised and disciplined around the telling national ideology of its time. He was assisted by two important developments which are dealt with in the next section.

The Heat Rises

First, there was the student invasion of the American Embassy in Tehran in which apart from the hostages who were held, documents were seized whose contents were turned against the USA. As a consequence of hostage crisis, the USA instigated trade sanctions against Iran and ended diplomatic relations. Iran responded in kind. Whilst Khomeini was able to use the crisis to advance his version of theocratic beliefs and structures, a second dramatic event then occurred which he made considerable use of. Saddam Hussein's Iraq attacked Iran in 1980. This enabled Khomeini to mobilise Iran in a war which lasted until 1988. The West was seen to be sympathetic to Saddam Hussein's invasion. This made it easier for Khomeini's views on the immorality of Western life-styles, the need for Shariah law and his condemnation that the USA was the "Great Satan", to become part of Iran's conventional wisdom.

Both Sides Fan The Flames

In 1983 hundreds of members of a peacekeeping force in the Lebanon were killed at their barracks when truck bombs were exploded. The majority of these were US Marines. The US accused Iran of assisting Lebanon's Hezbollah in this and similar attacks, which had equivalents in other areas of the Middle East and were also focused against Israel. On the other hand, Iran tends to see bodies such as Hezbollah and Hamas as being freedom fighters on a par with the ANC in the period of its struggle against apartheid. When the USS Vincennes patrolling for America in the Gulf shot down an Iranian Airbus killing 290 people including children, this reinforced such feelings amongst the people of Iran.

Recent Tensions

In 2002, President Bush included Iran within his "Axis of Evil" speech. The USA then invaded a neighbouring nation, Iraq which Bush also claimed was part of this Axis. America has also accused Iran of using its nuclear energy programme as a cover for developing nuclear weapons in conflict with Iran's commitment to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty which it signed up to in 1968. The UN Security Council has adopted various targeted sanctions against Iran's nuclear programme and is currently examining whether it should update these. Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President has also upped the rhetoric in this dispute by saying that Israel should "be wiped off the map".

Are There Any Silver Linings?

A problem with the mutual boycott between the USA and Iran is that it blocks programmes such as the exchange of students, holiday visits and a general cross fertilization of ideas between the two nations. This makes it more difficult for views to emerge which help to bridge the gaps between the two administrations. There are, however, regular informal diplomatic links which operate via the Swiss and Pakistan embassies - and occasionally more direct approaches, including the one in the photo above. Deals eventually arose over the hostages and the USA has helped with disaster relief when Iran was hit by major earthquakes. Even the invasions of Iran's immediate neighbours has its plus side. Iran supported the Northern Alliance in Afganistan and fought a horrendous eight year war against Saddam Hussein. Althoughthe circumstances are difficult, the Shia of Iran can now visit their
holy shrines in southern Iraq which had been blocked to them by Saddam Hussein. Within the next year there is also the prospect of Presidential changes in both the USA and Iran which could lead to improved relations.

How Should The West Respond?

When Clinton was President, he made three major criticisms of the Iranian regime. (A) Iran was hostile to the (then active) Arab-Isreali Peace Process. (B) Iran actively supported international terrorism. (C) Its pursuit of a nuclear energy programme had the objective of developing nuclear weapons. From its vantage point of having bases and troops surroundingt Iran, the Bush regime presses these points even more vigorously and probably now makes more out of a further point. (D) This is the claim that Iran has a hideous human rights record, involving an excessive use of the death penalty and a harsh interpretation of Sharia Law. I will examine these matters in Part 6 and respond to the question "to what extent are these claims correct?".

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Hope In Baghdad - In Context

On life in Adhmiya, Baghdad between 2003 and 2008 see these telling descriptions, photos and video from "Last of Iraqis" who is a dentist living in the Iraqi capital. It also provides access to several other important videos which mainly relate to Baghdad. It ends with some signs of hope. But if you look back on the other fine items on this blog, these place the signs of hope in Adhmiya in context.