Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Enemy of my Enemy

Is the enemy of my enemy my friend? Innumerable examples of this from Osama bin Laden to Soviet Russia in World War 2, indicate otherwise. In the volatile Middle East in particular, shifting alliances cause problems for everyone but the most able political manipulators. 

In 20th century Iran there is a prevalent theme of doomed alliances. In the oil-nationalization dispute with Britain, Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq's National Front was made up of several nationalist political parties. Due to several factors including external meddling (Soviet, British and American), gaps soon appeared between the parties. Some of these parties ended up working in conjunction with the British and Americans to overthrow Mossadeq in 1953. This same theme of broken coalitions was perhaps most important in the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Nearly every part of Iranian society was upset with the Shah's increasingly despotic rule and all worked together to ensure his fall. There were Islamists, Marxists, Communists, Socialists, Intellectuals and others, all working together because they shared a common enemy. In the end, one group won at the expense of all of the others. While the most significant gaps at the time were between the religious, the seculars and the Marxists/Communists, even amongst the religious groups which supported Ayatollah Khomeini there were huge ideological gaps. 

The dismissal of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri as the successor to Ayatollah Khomeini several months before Khomeini's death is an important example of the ideological gaps between the religious factions. There are several reasons why Montazeri was dismissed from his position. First he was not a very astute politician, but probably more importantly, Hashemi Rafsanjani (chairman of the Majles at the time, and President shortly thereafter) and the current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (President at the time) worked together to undermine the authority of Montazeri so they each would have a chance to gain more power. While Rafsanjani and Khamenei were once allied in their opposition to Montazeri, their own personal and political differences have since then made them fierce rivals, if not outright enemies. After the disputed 2009 Iranian Presidential Election Rafsanjani expressed marginal support for the reformists and has since criticized the Islamic Republic many times. Since then, several of his children have been jailed, assaulted, and forced to resign from their jobs. Rafsanjani himself was removed as the chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the group responsible for electing, supervising and theoretically removing the Supreme Leader. There can only be one winner, and for now, Rafsanjani is not it. This may change a bit in the Iranian Presidential election this June, but given the fractious state of Iranian politics, this is difficult to predict.

Moderates, seculars and former regime insiders are not the only ones who have been betrayed by their former allies. The United States has also been burned by former partners so many times in the Middle East it is puzzling why the government seems unable to learn from their mistakes. Today support from Congress for the Islamo-Marxist terrorist cult MeK (Mujahedin-e Khalq) is just as troubling. This support is based purely on parallel mutual enmities between the US and Iran and the MeK and Iran. While trumpeted as a "democratic" alternative to the IRI, opinion polls show support amongst Iranian-Americans for the MeK under 1%. I would hope that Washington has learned from the lessons of Iraq and Ahmed Chalabi. The lack of action in Syria by the Obama Administration is a cause for both concern (innocents are being slaughtered), but it is also somewhat encouraging as there is not a rush to give armed support to groups that have the potential to harm us in the future. Perhaps the lessons of Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan circa 1979 may have taught us something after all?

As cartoonist Howard Taylor wisely pointed out: "The Enemy of my Enemy is my Enemy's Enemy, no more, no less." Hopefully this is taken to heart by policy makers in the future as they are not the ones who suffer from their mistakes, we all are.

UPDATE 1: I am embarrassed to admit that I misread the poll on Iranian-Americans and the 5% (that support the MeK) I initially quoted was actually 5% OF THE 15% who openly state that they DO support an opposition group. So the poll responses indicate that 6 people out of the 800 who participated in the survey stated that they support the MeK, resulting in a total of .75%. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

An (American) Iranian hero.

There are not many who are liked in both the United States and Iran, with a few exceptions. 104 years ago today, Howard Baskerville, an American missionary and school teacher, died in Tabriz, Iran. He died thousands of miles away from Nebraska where he was born, and thousands of miles away from Princeton where he attended university. He died for something he believed in; the concept of democracy. 

He did not seek his death. He did not try to kill innocents. He fought even though he hated war, because he believed his fight would lead to a better future for others. 

Many Iranian children, (especially in Tabriz) know who Howard Baskerville is. There are even streets named after him, but he is more or less unknown in the United States.

Howard Baskerville was an American hero. Every American schoolchild should learn his story.

More information on Howard Baskerville can be found on Princeton's web page marking the 100 year anniversary of his death. 

The power of a name

I am incredibly tired since its nearly 5 am here, but a few last thoughts before I go to sleep.

I am no expert on Chechnya, and I am unfamiliar with customs and practices there, such as the practice of naming children.

I do know that the first president of Chechnya (someone who would be seen as a very important person, or a hero), was named Dzhokhar Dudayev and he apparently died in the mid 1990s.

Logically doesn't it make sense that the person who has been identified as one of the Boston Marathon Bombers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, would have been named for someone his parents admired?

He was born in 1993 or 1994, around the height of the Chechen president's popularity.

Read this obituary on Dzhokhar Dudayev, and tell me that this doesn't seem like a person a proud nationalistic Chechen would name their son

Thursday, April 18, 2013

My thoughts on election finances (circa 2005)

I wrote this when I was still in high school and forgot about it until Eric Garland's wonderful Twitter rant yesterday (reproduced in blog form in his website). 

In America politicians create laws.  Although our officials are democratically elected, they do not necessarily represent the average American.  Political campaigns run on dollars.  It is effectively impossible to win any significant election in this country without access to a personal fortune, or friends with great wealth.

In our society, money is often valued more than “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.  People make political contributions only to causes that they believe in strongly, or feel will help better their own lives, often monetarily.  Big business and high rollers will not provide money to candidates who might hurt their interests.  A prospective candidate can garner political donations by making promises to these special interests, guaranteeing advocacy of legislation that promotes their business and thirst for money. American politics and democracy are not about applying the will of the people, they are about advancing the agenda of the wealthy elite who run our society, often into the ground.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

You are what you read

One of my school projects which I am most proud of is a statistical study of presidential voting patterns versus urban population in the 2000 US Presidential Election. I made a fantastically well-designed study with great methodologies, and I ended up finding statistically significant results (If someone actually cares I can explain to them why this study was so well-considered, but its a bit technical so I'll hold back for now). My research questions was whether urban voters (or counties heavy in "urban" populations), as designated by the US Census Bureau, voted for the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, or the Republican candidate, George W. Bush. The only significant problem with my study was Ralph Nader, but overall he did not receive too many votes (with the except of one county which I then had to exclude). Surprisingly, at the time of this project (I believe it was Fall 2007), there were ZERO serious papers that addressed the topic of urban versus rural voting patterns. It is always assumed that urban voters are more liberal because of their increased likelihood of being in a heterogenous environment, but at this time it had not been addressed. Since then journalist Bill Bishop wrote an excellent book, "The Big Sort" about how populations are clustering based on ideological values. 

The results of my study were that urban voters were statistically significantly more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate rather than the Republican candidate. Bishop's book took this idea a step further in saying that it is more than just urban/rural people that are clustering, but also within this areas a similar smaller-scale clustering is happening.

Recently I've become more and more active on Twitter. Though typically outspoken, and likely to tell someone when I disagree with them, I try to keep my arguments civil and merit-based, rather than personal. Yesterday someone who I almost always disagree with wrote something thoughtful and respectful (for a change) and so I wished to jokingly tell this individual that we finally agree on something, hell must have frozen over blah blah blah. When I went to this person's Twitter page it would not allow to me reply to the tweet or even send tweet in general. Apparently this means the person has blocked me. I know people often block other people that they find annoying or who have sent nasty messages (and spammers of course), and while I am not the most innocent of Twitter users, I found it shocking that someone has blocked me for no apparent reason. 

It really made me wonder why someone who openly speaks of themselves as progressive would actively work to silence someone with a dissenting opinion, no matter what that opinion is. If we are excluding people because we disagree with their politics, we are only causing further problems. I myself follow people and organizations I do not like or agree with, but because they command some respect from a variety of other people or may be important some how, I like to know what they are saying and thinking. Of course I am not perfect, and I really dislike MSNBC and Fox and will rarely watch either of them, but this is also because there are better quality sources with similar enough opinions that I am able to access. If you cut off a source and prevent yourself from being exposed to others how can you be considered progressive? How can you be considered "worldly"? How can you understand the other side if you do not even know it? 

People like this individual are a big problem for our society. They consider themselves "holier than thou", think their opinion is correct no matter what, and are unwilling to seek out those who may critique (and therefore IMPROVE) their own arguments. Once again I am not perfect in this matter, I can be quite immodest with my own beliefs and sense of self-worth, but the last thing I would ever want to be accused of is being disinterested in meeting and talking to people are different. We learn and we grow from our experiences, and if we have the same experience every day, what will we ever learn? Reading, television and internet are the most prevalent ways in which many of us are exposed to others, why not read or watch something new? You might learn a thing or two.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Earthquake danger at Bushehr

Despite the problems surrounding the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor after the 2011 earthquake, nuclear work continues at Iran's Bushehr reactor. The plant is based in one of the most earthquake-prone regions of the world, yet work continues. Bushehr is supposed meant to be able to withstand earthquakes up to 7 on the Richter scale (the recent earthquake was a 6.3), but as Iran has not signed the Convention on Nuclear Safety (Even India, Israel and Pakistan who are not NPT signatories, have signed the CNS), it is subject to less oversight and safety measures. Nuclear accidents are potentially a huge problem and a radiation leak can affect millions, why not allow safety inspectors to help? Bushehr has nothing to do with the alleged nuclear weapons program, and has no military dimensions, so why not?

This article does a very good job of explaining internal and external fears of a nuclear disaster at Bushehr.

UPDATE 1: fixed broken link for updated Bulletin of Atomic Scientists website article

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

North Korea is NOT Iran (and Vice Versa)

After all the hullabaloo over North Korea and the unproductive nuclear talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan, certain usual suspects predictably brought out their old arguments about why Iran is so bloodthirsty and must be stopped. One of their favored arguments is the war-mongering nature and overall craziness of the North Koreans and how Iran must be stopped from becoming like them. When I no longer find it amusing, I become disturbed at this nonsense as it is paranoid and problematic in its bellicosity. 

There are a number of reasons why these comparisons between Iran and North Korea are illogical and ridiculous. Firstly, North Korea is not, and will never be Iran. North Korea is the bastard step-child of bastard step-children, isolated from the world. They rely on food aid, while simultaneously spending their budget developing weapons and running massive slave labor camps. As bad as some of the human rights abuses are in Iran, these countries are fundamentally different. No matter what one feels about the way in which Iranian elections have occurred (or not, depending on your point of view), they at least have the semblance of multiple political parties, and representatives from minorities are elected to the Majles (Armenians, Assyrians, Jews, and Zoroastrians). While things are becoming more difficult for Iranians as sanctions cut further into the ability of the state and its citizens to conduct business, it is very very far from becoming anything like North Korea economically. 

The next reason why this comparison is problematic is that North Korea considers South Korea and the South Korean people to be a part of the greater Korea that must be united (The North Korean political front is called the "Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland"). This perceived need for 'unification' perpetuates a conflict-minded state that will not be able to reconciled with its neighbor until one of them ceases to exist (I am counting an overthrow of the Kims in this category). Unlike North Korea vs. South Korea, Iran, and Islam (Sunni, Shia or other sect) are not diametrically opposed to Israel and Zionism. The current governments of the two states often disagree with each other, but they are not inherent enemies, it is not an existential disagreement. 

What people should be afraid of is not an Iranian nuclear weapon, but any nuclear weapon. Any capability to cause so much destruction, no matter how just and restrained the one who controls this power is, is potentially dangerous.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

US officials on Mossadeq and the British: 1952-3

I've been writing a paper on relations between the United States and Prime Minister Mossadeq (there are a million ways to spell his name but this is the one I most prefer). Having done a ton of research, I've come to the realization that most of the scholarly works on the subject are overly political and not nearly as accurate as one would hope. These works have lead to a number of incorrect conclusions by the public (Iranian, American and others) about the United States government, the State Department, the CIA and their roles in the August 1953 Mossadeq coup.

Most scholars ignore some of the most important documents which we have, chiefly the archival documents of FRUS (Foreign Relations United States). They rely too much on the words of people such as CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, whose book Countercoup, is the basis for most their scholarly work, despite the fact that Roosevelt contradicts himself at various points, and his account of the events often clashes with many, including the CIA (see their leaked WIlber Report which the New York Times obtained in 2000), the State Department, etc.

I am not arguing that the US did not play a significant role, but that this role is often exaggerated and misunderstood. Prior to Mossadeq's overthrow, the United States had been supportive of the Iranian leader, to the point where the British were worried that they would turn against them in the negotiations over the oil dispute. What is the most interesting and rarely addressed by academia is what happened to make the United States change their opinion and create a plan to remove Mossadeq from power.

Following I have attached quotes directly from FRUS (although due to the documents mainly being telegraph transcripts, adding prepositions and conjunctions is often necessary) so that you can see some of the words of American officials in the time leading up to the 1953 coup. These are the same types of cables that Wikileaks released in their "Cablegate". Top secret, secret or otherwise classified, they were not intended for public consumption and were not meant to influence the contemporary public in any way.

Bold print is my emphasis

Ambassador Loy Henderson to the Department of State, 5 January, 1952
[It is] not necessary in this telegram [to] try [to] prove [that the] British have been systematically misjudging [the] Iran situation for at least [the] last two years. Research analysis of documents in [DoS's] files will show that [the] British have been stubbornly refusing [to] recognize [the] dynamics [of the] situation here. London still seems of [the] opinion [that the] forces of nationalism are temporary phenomena which will disappear in due course." 

Acting Secretary of State Harrison Matthews to the US Embassy in the UK, 30 January, 1953
Preliminary reaction to… was one of disappointment that Mossadeq at this stage would again attempt to alter the basis upon which we have all worked in an effort to secure [an] agreement. Further study, however, leads us to believe that we should not accept this change in a spirit of defeat but should continue under same compulsions as before to attempt to reach [an] agreement… 

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, 10 February 1953
Also and again because of commercial factors outlined above, we believe British bargaining position will become worse in future, as regards Iran, than it is at present. It seems to us that this factor as well should be carefully analyzed by British before present negotiations are allowed to fail. 

Memorandum of Discussion at the 135th meeting of the NSC (National Security Council), 4 March 1953
The probable consequences of the events of the last few days, concluded Mr. Dulles, would be a dictatorship in Iran under Mossadegh. As long as the latter lives there was but little danger, but if he were to be assassinated or otherwise to disappear from power, a political vacuum would occur in Iran and the Communists might easily take over. 

The second course of action proposed by the Secretary of State was for the United States to disassociate itself, regarding Iran, from the British in an effort to regain popularity on the merits of a policy of our own… But, he said, it was known that our unpopularity in Iran is largely a derivation of British unpopularity and our previous association in the minds of Iranians with unpopular British policies. The trouble with such a course of action was this was whether we should not lose more by going it alone, in the face of British opposition in many other areas of the world, that we should gain in Iran itself. 

It was quite likely, therefore, that they [the Soviets] would increase their pressure in Iran to secure its control as rapidly as possible by a coup d' ├ętat. Such a course of action might constitute the miscalculation, which we all dreaded which would cause the beginning of World War III. Could not he British be made to see this dangerous potentiality?"

"If", said the President (Eisenhower), "I had $500,000,000 of money to spend in secret, I would get $100,00,000 of it to Iran right now."

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to US Embassy in the UK 7 March, 1953
"There should be no large US purchases [of] oil. However, we should be tolerant of minor measures sufficient to keep Mosadeq barely afloat and thus attempt [to] avoid disastrous possibility of Communists replacing him. 

These excerpts do not seem like the words of a country plotting to overthrow a government. In fact, they appear to be the opposite of this. It is true that there were significant incidences of unrest in Iran in the spring of 1953 which may have changed the opinions of some in the government, but they are not addressed so well in the FRUS documents. In my mind the words here are much more convincing than the words of a fanciful liar like Kermit Roosevelt, but maybe that is just me. They still doesn't explain what exactly changed for the US government between March 1953 and August 1953 which made them want to overthrow Mossadeq.

FRUS files for Iran can be accessed here: University of Wisconsin Digital Collection

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Early Islamic Cartography

I have been fascinated by maps for as long as I can remember. I would spend hours staring at maps as a child. No matter how dull or poorly-constructed they were, I was always interested. So when one of my undergraduate classes had a field trip scheduled to the University of Minnesota Map Library I was ecstatic. When we got to the library we had a short presentation. At one point my professor put a slide up on the screen with an image of an ancient map and asked us to identify it. I immediately shouted out "it is the Middle East!". My classmates were shocked at how I could so quickly identify what it was. One of the reasons why they all had trouble recognizing it was because the map was "upside-down" with South being at the top and North at the bottom. Turns out that this was a reproduction of a map that is approximately 1000 years old. Westerners almost always put North at the top of the map and think of North as "up". This has been the standard for centuries, so challenging this idea seems strange to many of us. Why should we do something differently after doing it the same way for so long?

This was not always the case. As early Christian maps show, East was often put at the top of maps because Jerusalem, the holiest site for this religion was supposed to be in the center of the world and also higher than Europe. These 'T-O' maps as they are called today, depict a circular world with an ocean around it. Inside the 'O' of the world ocean are 3 continents, Europe on the lower left, Asia on the top, and Africa on the lower right. Bodies of water like the Mediterranean in the center and an unidentified river or passage (Perhaps the Red Sea) make up the "T". Jerusalem was at the center where the waters intersected with the 'T'. As the linked examples show, these maps were not very spatially accurate, although as this example shows, they were close enough where it is not so much of a stretch.

Crude T-O Map
Stylized T-O Map

When the Western world began its descent following the collapse of the Roman Empire it left a void, physical and scientific. What may be surprising to some, is that it was the Islamic civilization which took up from where the West left off. For hundreds of years Islamic science ruled. Initially confined to a small space on the Arabian peninsula, the rapid expansion of Islam inspired multiculturalism as it came into contact with many different civilizations. One of the most important aspects of Islam is praying towards Mecca, which happens five times per day. When Islam was only on the Arabian Peninsula it was easy to tell which direction Mecca was because the physical distance was small. As Muslims moved further and further from Arabia it became much more difficult to be certain, so there was the necessity to always be able to orient oneself. Geographic knowledge was so important to them, that mapping "schools" were established in Baghdad by the Caliph Al Ma'mun. Initially the works produced here were based upon Hellenic works such as Ptolemy's Geographia, but over time they developed their own style through the Al-Balkhi and Al-Idrisi mapping schools. 

Following are some examples of early Islamic maps:
Al-Idrisi World Map (South is up)

Ibn al-Wardi Atlas (North is up)
Stylized Persian Gulf by unknown. East is up but I believe this was turned and South originally was up

Al-Istakhri of the South Caucasus. Mountains are straight, I am unsure why this is different from others

They are distinct for a few reasons. First unlike many of the early Medieval European maps, there are no extraneous "details" such as fantastical sea creatures or angels. It is not exactly clear why this is the case, but a logical answer would be that it has something to do with the Islamic ban on creating representations of figures. The Ottomans did not have a problem with putting figures in their art so it is apparently not out of the question for all Muslims, but it does seem to make some sense that early Islamic works would be devoid of representations of humans or other animate objects. Secondly, the lines are more curved than in Western maps. There are no sharp angles, even the mountains are rounded. This again may be inspired by Islam or the Arabic script in some way, but the connection is unclear. Third, South is almost always at the top of the map. This again is perplexing as Mecca is put neither as the center or the top of the map. So why would this be the case? Mecca was clearly the most important place in Islamic civilization, why not put it at the top or at least at the center of the map? Occasionally it is towards the center of the map, but it is never emphasized as such like the Western maps did with Jerusalem. The Tabula Rogeriana by Al-Idrisi, a Spanish-Moroccan Muslim employed by Roger II of Sicily, shows a more advanced and improved version of most of the Islamic maps, yet it clearly was inspired by the earlier cartographers. It was made for a Western ruler, yet had all of the characteristics of an Islamic map. (here is the Saudi Arabia portion of the Tabula Rogeriana reoriented with North as up)

For several centuries Islamic science was incredibly important, but despite being far more advanced than the contemporary works of the West, the geographic knowledge of the Islamic civilization was discarded by Western scientists. Why was this the case? Why would superior works be ignored? Why would they regress from the emphasis on geographic accuracy and start adding extraneous details? Why would theTabula Rogeriana's groundbreaking work be ignored? Islamic maps had clearly made their way into Europe and as the example of Roger II commissioning the work, one would think there would be at least some interest in the work of the Islamic cartographers.

There are no comprehensive studies of this subject, and even some books wrongly claim that Islamic maps exclusively are oriented (yes this is a purposeful use of 'orient' as it also means 'East'), with East as up, despite there being virtually no evidence supporting this (there are a few maps like this, but the majority of the surviving map copies have South at the top). I find the Islamic cartographic practices to be fascinating. Why this subject has been ignored is beyond me.