Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Iran's Defense Posture

Juan Cole makes an important point about Iran's possible nuclear weapons ambitions:
"The USG Open Source Center translated remarks to Iranian television of General Hoseyn Salami, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Air Force concerning Iran's Monday missile tests (Islamic Republic of Iran News Network Television (IRINN), Monday, September 28, 2009):

"Gen. Salami said, 'as long as our enemies act within a political domain, our behavior will be completely political. However, if they want to leave the domain of political action and enter the domain of military threat, then our action will be exactly and completely military.'...

"Many Western media reports implied that the missile tests were launched along with threats to wipe out Israel. But note that the commanding officer overseeing them explicitly restated Iran's 'no first strike' pledge...

"Salami linked the tests strongly to Iran's defensive needs and pointed out they came before the anniversary of Iraq's 1980 attack on Iran, which kicked off a highly destructive 8-year war that killed on the order of 250,000 Iranians. (The United States supported Iraq in that war.) The trauma of being invaded by a rapacious enemy at a moment of national weakness after the 1979 revolution has deeply informed Iranian political leaders' views of the world ever since."

I do believe that Iran wants at the very least the "break out" capacity to develop nuclear weapons quickly. However, there's nothing whatsoever to suggest Iran is interesting in actually using such weapons, or waging any major wars of aggression. It is simply a rival of Pakistan and Israel, both nuclear powers.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Tablighi Jama'at in Tajikistan

I'm used to reading about Central Asian crackdowns on Hizb ut-Tahrir, but now Tajikistan is going after Tablighi Jama'at. Here's the case:
"An official from the interior ministry who asked not to be named told IWPR that Tablighi Jamaat did represent a real danger, although he did not offer evidence that members were involved in subversive activity within Tajikistan, apart from distributing Islamist pamphlets.

"'They’re extremists,' he said. 'Tablighi Jamaat wants to create an Islamic state. The movement is banned by the justice ministry, and the ban is there because they’re dangerous. They’ve studied illegally in Pakistan, and since they were there illegally, it’s more than likely they received training in terrorist camps.'

"On the group’s general aims, he said, 'They have dangerous plans. There’s intelligence information implicating Tablighi Jamaat members in acts of terrorism in India and Pakistan. In addition, supporters of the movement who have been detained in Dushanbe have been found to be in possession of propaganda leaflets and religious literature.'

The focus here is clearly on the group's ideology, despite some vague references to some members possibly being involved in terrorist activity in other countries and a credible assertion that it serves as a gateway to more militant organizations and networks. This also fits Tajikistan's pattern of trying to bring non-governmental religious organizations under control.

What does make the TJ case somewhat interesting is the idea, mentioned later in the article, that its loose organizational structure leads to recruitment of radical militants who try to take control of local branches. Most of what I know about this group comes from Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori's Muslim Politics, where it was an example of transnationalism and an example of the ways in which transnational groups often become localized. The people allegedly radicalizing the group in Tajikistan are coming from Pakistan and Afghanistan, though, which seems to put a new spin on the "localization" theme.

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Sunday, September 27, 2009


I took this in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, though I can no longer remember exactly where.

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Iran's Soft Power

Reidar Visser, in a post about the Iranian consul in Basra's influence, mentions this:
"Earlier this week, the head of the Daawa-led Basra provincial council announced that a solution for Basra’s freshwater crisis was in the making. Specifically, he had signed a deal with Iran’s consul in Basra, Muhammad Rida Baghban, according to which Iran will supply Fao with 1,000 tons of drinking water on a daily basis to compensate for changes the Iranians made to the river flow of the Karun (which empties fresh water into the Shatt al-Arab near the head of the Gulf and thereby affects the saline content of the water.) The water supplies will be shipped to Basra by Iranian vessels."

Many Iraqis, of all religious backgrounds, actually worry about possible Iranian influence in their country, even as the ruling parties all have close ties to Tehran from their exile during the Saddam years. However, Iran has proven apt over the years at providing support for infrastructure that meets the real needs of people in target areas, such as hospitals and reconstruction aid in southern Lebanon, roads and energy in western Afghanistan, and projects like this in Iraq. Those looking to understand Iranian influence would do well look as closely at these projects, and perhaps consider imitating them.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Eid al-Fitr Politics

I'd read about this somewhere else, but forgot to blog about it:
"Several Shi'ite clerics have disagreed with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the date of Eid al-Fitr, the three-day Islamic celebration that marks the end of Ramadan, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reports...

"Khamenei announced that the fast finished on September 20, while a number of prominent Shi'ite clerics, such as Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, have said the proper date for the ending of Ramadan was September 21. Sunnis and Shi'a often end their month-long fast on different days, but a Shi'ite conflict with the supreme leader over the date is unprecedented in Iran.

"The dispute led many Iranians -- namely those that support the 'green movement' that backed presidential candidate Mir Hossein Musavi and who continue to protest against the reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- to observe one extra day of Ramadan."

Despite his political position, Khamene'i's traditional religious credentials are weak. His opponents can use that against him.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Whither Rafsanjani?

What is former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani up to? Last week, many interpreted his call for Quds Day protests as a clever means of supporting the opposition. Rafsanjani did not, however, mention the Iranian election in his call. He has also been calling for national unity behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, and joined in the Eid al-Fitr prayers led by the Khamene'i. Finally, the Assembly of Experts, which he chairs, has declared its loyalty to Khamene'i.

What does all this mean? It's hard to say. Rafsanjani was never convincing as an idealistic reformist, and probably supported Mousavi only because Ahmadinejad was bad for the economy, and the principlist anti-corruption campaign personally threatening. On the other hand, I'm not convinced that he's completely given up the reformist cause, and may be working behind the scenes to knit the sides together, as he says. If this is the case, then the Quds Day protest may have been a signal that a significant part of the Iranian public remains disgruntled.

Rafsanjani is clearly, however, allying himself with Khamene'i in some fashion. The implications of this then depend in part on how much control Khamene'i has over the principlists surrounding Ahmadinejad. Is he a figurehead, or a partner? If the former, might he be considering ways to enhance his real power by a deal with some reformists? If the latter, are some considering throwing Ahmadinejad under the bus? I suspect he could be removed, and many of the powers to which he is linked could still retain their political and economic influence.

Rafsanjani's moves deserve close scrutiny.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

After the Pig Cull

Cairo, or at least part of it, has apparently been having a sanitation crisis owing to disputes between the Giza Cleaning and Beautification Authority and an Italian firm in charge of collecting garbage. My immediate reaction to this was a total lack of comprehension as to why a government would grant a concession to a foreign firm for something as basic as garbage collection. Do people in Italy really have a comparative advantage in that field?

However, the immediate crisis came after the government decided to kill all the pigs:
"The nationwide pig cull upset the equilibrium, says Yasser Sherif, general manager of Environics, an environment consultancy firm. 'The problem is that the zebaleen were collecting the organic material to feed to their pigs as part of an efficient system of recycling garbage. Now that we don't have any pigs, nobody's really sure what to do with all the organic waste.'

"Once the incentive to recycle organic waste was removed, the zebaleen stopped processing it, and the volume of rubbish reaching the curb increased sharply. Some zebaleen sought to recover the losses to their recycling and pig-raising operations by charging households additional fees for collection. To avoid paying, many residents have resorted to dumping their trash illegally.

"The larger volume of garbage has put more pressure on Cairo's waste management firms. Bins must be emptied more frequently and fines are levied whenever municipal officials discover piles of dumped rubbish. The firms are floundering, and citizens complain that the city has become a giant landfill."

Perhaps Cairo city officials need to read up on the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilization, which had an efficient public waste management infrastructure.

UPDATE: See also Arabist


Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Survey Course

One of my biggest frustrations in higher education is that freshmen often need the most help to get started with college ways of thinking and working, and yet we pack them into the biggest courses where it's difficult, if not impossible, to provide the type of individual attention that would really do them good.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hisham's Palace

This is the entrance to the palace of the Umayyad caliph Hisham near Jericho.


Khamene'i and the IRGC

One ongoing question in Iranian politics is the relative power of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and the IRGC. In an interview with RFE-RL, Mahmud Tehrani, Khamene'i's nephew, supports the view that the Supreme Leader might not be so supreme:
"I think Khamenei -- who is my uncle -- is either a toy in the hands of Ahmadinejad, [Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi], and the Revolutionary Guard, or he shares their crimes.

"There is nothing he can do. If he backs off from his comments even one step, he will lose his leadership and the whole [conservative] camp will disintegrate.

"I don't think Ali Khamenei has a lot of power, it's likely that all of this is being run by the Revolutionary Guard, and Ali Khamenei is forced to deal with the [Revolutionary Guard] in order not to lose his role as the supreme leader. He can't do anything and he won't say anything [substantial]. Since June 14 we haven't heard anything from Khamenei other than repeating Ahmadinejad's comments."

This isn't entirely true, since there has been some tension between Khamene'i and Ahmadinejad, and Tehrani doesn't say what his views are based on. Still, they're plausible, and he appears to have some sort of family sources he's in touch with.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Sacred Fires

Today people draw a sharp line between Iran and Pakistan, calling one the "Middle East" and the other "South Asia." World history textbooks almost always read this back into ancient times, even when the material clearly suggests other groupings. One example of this is the migrations of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-Europeans into the Iranian plateau and northern India. The common linguistic heritage brought with it a common culture, seen partly in religion.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the importance of fire in Zoroastrianism. According to Mary Boyce, the preeminent historian of Zoroatrianism, cults of the hearth fire began with the earliest Indo-Iranian sedentarization, and with all sacrifices, a portion, usually fatty, went to the fire. Similarly, the historian of Hinduism A.L. Basham wrote that all ancient Vedic sacrifices were mediated through Agni, the god of fire, and involved offering butter to the hearth fire in each home.

Similarly, both Zoroastrianism and Vedic worship involve three levels of fire, as well as a sacred beverage, either haoma or soma. Finally, while the sacredness of the cow is well known in Hinduism, cattle are the "sixth creation" in Zoroastrianism (fire is the seventh), and under the special protection of Ahura Mazda.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Yemen Crisis Intro

Yemen has quietly been slipping into a crisis, but I haven't commented on it much because its definitely one of my weak points. Brian O'Neill, however, has a good intro to the country's conflicts:
"Three separate crises—the newly intense Huthi rebellion in the north, an increasingly violent secession movement in the south, and the pervasive threat of the second generation of al-Qaeda—are tearing Yemen apart. Moreover, Yemen has to deal with these crises against the backdrop of a financial meltdown and a looming ecological catastrophe. It has become conventional wisdom that these three conflicts pose an existential threat to the nation; that, together, they could push Yemen from a fragile state to a completely failed one. This is true, but it also misses a key point: separately, and together, each uprising questions whether Yemen really exists as a modern, centralized state."

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Not Quite Frozen

I'm reading coverage of Israel's decision to build 455 new settler homes that makes it sound like it's all about getting to frozen:
"Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to build 455 new homes in the West Bank achieved its primary goal of rallying support from conservative political allies, paving the way for an expected settlement freeze.

"Though the move stoked frustration in the US, Europe, and especially in Arab countries, Netanyahu appears to have reduced the risk of a right-wing rebellion over what is expected to be a temporary building moratorium. While the US hoped that such a freeze would help jumpstart peace negotiations, the Israeli prime minister was concerned it could have triggered the deterioration of his governing coalition...

"The new housing units help hard-liners like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman argue that the government is actually sidestepping a freeze. 'He said, "We don't mention this word,"' says Tal Nahum, a spokesman for Lieberman's right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party."

The reason this move helps hard-liners argue that the government is sidestepping a freeze is that the government is, in fact, side-stepping a freeze. These units are being added to 2500 others also under construction, meaning that much like Netanyahu has endorsed a Palestinian state that is no state, he's also about to declare a settlement freeze that's still dripping all over the place.

We've seen this movie before, during the 1990's. Netanyahu will talk the language of peace while quietly, or sometimes not so quietly, taking steps that undermine negotiations and prejudice a final settlement. Olmert may have wanted to move dramatically toward peace but was unable to due to his coalition. Netanyahu, however, isn't even that interested in making real moves.

UPDATE: Comment from a friend: "It's just the defrost cycle."

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Sunday, September 06, 2009

Iran Protests Continue

Much of the coverage has shifted to trials of reformist leaders and Ahmadinejad's government, but it's worth remembering that protests are continuing in Iran:
"Opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi has called for continued protests over Iran's disputed June election, two days after MPs backed most of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's new government ministers.

"Musavi, remaining defiant over a poll he says was rigged in favor of the hard-line president, urged his supporters to create a wide opposition network using meetings such as family and union gatherings, as well as sporting and cultural events.

"'In order to achieve our cause, I do not recommend anything but the pursuit of the green path of hope which you have followed in the past few months...through small and large gatherings,' he said in a statement on a reformist website."

My best guess is that Mousavi wants to have his movement ready in the event of either a crisis they can mobilize more people around, or the next elections for some level of government.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Saturday, September 05, 2009

Cuyahoga River

It's been a busy first week of class, so I'm in the mood for a memory of relaxation. This is the Cuyahoga River in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, near Cleveland.


Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Qadhafi and Armand Hammer

This week Libya is marking forty years since Moammar Qadhafi came to power in a coup against King Idris. One aspect of Qadhafi's early regime not getting much attention is the role he played in the progress of the transformation of the international petroleum market into one which favors governments in countries which have crude oil. When he came to power, the global oil industry was dominated by a group of interlocked oil majors called the "Seven Sisters." Libya's oil, however, was discovered fairly late, and the contract somehow wound up in the hands of Armand Hammer's Occidental Petroleum, which had no other sources of oil with which to meet delivery commitments. When the Qadhafi government started demanding higher prices, Occidental had to play along. Qadhafi's move was seen as highly risky, since the last nationalist threat to Western corporate control over Middle Eastern oil, Muhammad Mosaddeq, was deposed in a CIA-arranged coup. Perhaps because of its involvement in Vietnam, and U.S. didn't move against Qadhafi, and a new precedent was set which the Shah of Iran quickly took advantage of, followed by other OPEC nations.

On another note, Laila Lalami remembers Libya's political prisoners.

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