July 2009

The woman question

The protesting women of Iran, much celebrated on this blog for their courage and virtue, have caught the attention of American academics:Der Spiegel cover

On Monday, the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington assembled an all-star panel of analysts for perspective on the role of women in the recent Iran election and post-election upheaval.

So our brave heroines can be noted, analysed and celebrated at a beautiful conference with views over the river, coffee breaks, media coverage, glossy packs for attendees, useful networking opportunities and placement of future articles. Everybody goes home exhilarated and gratified.

The beginning of the end

There are doubters with a certain greyness of eye and dullness of purpose who say it that it is all over, that there are no more events, that Pinocchio holds all the cards (electric batons, Goon armies), that evil reigns in this world and always will. What dismays me in all this is the tone of quiet satisfaction. Is this some sort of voluntary despair? Were they ever freedom-fighters at heart?stern_cover

I am happy to view the universe through the marble eye of a believer, to see things that are invisible to others, to crown this shabby body with a pennant of bravery, to weep with those who must be tortured and who will never recover, to reach a quiet hope which comes as a blessing when no hope was ever to be expected.

It is true that I cower at what often seems the gibbering, menacing, nihilistic obscenity of the modern world. But as William Blake wrote,

We are led to believe a lie

When we see with not thro’ the eye [1]

and the spiritual eye sees that which is invisible. Certain lessons and precepts may already be observed:

1. It is imperative that green protesters not engage in any unarmed confrontation with the armed and ruthless dictatorship.

2. It is essential that we resist all temptation to take action of any kind.

3. Let us be clear: the victorious blow has already been struck, the snapshot (see below) indelibly imprinted on the retina of the whole world.

4. Ever since 1989, we have seen principled dissent rule the airwaves and bring down the crumbling regimes of dust.

5. All their clubs, batons, tanks, goons, tear gas, censorship, torture chambers, inquisitions, fantasy elections, grinning headlines, backroom paranoia and airbrushed histories are all in vain. As Solzhenitsyn said, One word of truth will overcome the whole rigmarole of the evil state.

6. Inside the dictator’s circle, there is a huddle of closed talk. “If we don’t hang together, we will hang separately.” It is the Committee of State Security, born again, the politics of the modern age.

Fairyfeller's Masterstroke - Dadd

7. But the modern age is behind us. We now live in a contemporary age of velvet information, shining flanks, green eyelids. If you touch us, we flinch. If you cut us, we bleed. The battle of information has already been won.

8. In the Committee of State Security, where unsmiling ideologues play with equations of terror and virtue, all await the knock on the door, the first bullet, as the conspirators disappear one by one and betray each other.

9. All dictatorships fall because of their internal contradictions. It is no fun dominating the world when nobody loves you. Money, power and arms are combustible, materials for the inevitable bonfire.

So take hope. Do absolutely nothing. Cock an ear for the sounds of crumbling. The Fairyfeller’s Masterstroke [2] has already been struck in the sublunar world of the leaden mirror. Keep an eye open for the cracks. An eye greets an eye. A smile recognises a smile.

You are the new rulers of Iran. On your youthful shoulders weighs an incomparable responsibility, the responsibility of being right. Government is a very dull business, thank God. In a democracy, everyone dies of boredom or old age. When you enter your palace, ride around it on a scooter like Václav Havel.

But first and last let us treasure the bright memory of the dead, the sacrifices of the innocent, whose spirits beat at our eyes and ears, our doors and windows, whose youthful promise is consumed like flowers burned to ash. Let us celebrate the doctors, the nurses, those who opened their doors, who showed pity. Let us embrace the victims of night brutality in their dormitories, those bloodied in the streets, those arrested with green paint, those who gave unlucky answers during interrogation.

Let us hold close in our hearts the victims of torture. By one of the few moral absolutes to be met with on this tarnished earth, they are the ultimate wronged ones.

Today is Bastille Day. Only seven persons were in the fortress when it was stormed and none of them was a political prisoner. A tiny guard successfully resisted a force of hundreds, killing 80 peasants with no loss of life to themselves, before the governor surrendered. This governor was then brutally decapitated and his body exhibited. The French revolution had begun. This was to be the model for the Russian and the Iranian revolutions, amongst others.

But no longer. In the contemporary age that we live in, of moral grandeur and information, the model revolutions must be those of 1989, in which ‘people power’ overwhelmed wolfish dictators without any shedding of blood, in which brutal regimes grew tired of themselves, in which bad people were no longer able to put good people in prison, and tanks which had been decorated with flowers in 1968 finally grew cobwebs. The power of the poem, the word, was listened to.

People started to form parties of the like-minded and to vote for them. We must do likewise. Nobody who lies all the time can be considered religious. A future of peaceable routine and greyish debate is to be preferred to the present black and white. Moral consciousness will not go away, but need not always be on trial. This quiet victory will have been won by the courage of the ordinary crowds, the followers without leaders, above all by those with a conscience who have recognised other human beings.

[1] ‘Auguries of Innocence,’ c. 1803.

[2] A painting by Richard Dadd (1817-1886) once owned by Siegfried Sassoon. See image.


Supreme cub

During the especially brave recent street protests (on 9th July), a new name was heard on the lips of the protestors:

[A] new phrase entered the lexicon on Thursday that referred to Mojtaba, the son of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei: “Mojtaba bemire, rahbariroh nagiri,” they chanted: “Die, Mojtaba, so you don’t become the supreme leader!” During the past week, rumors have surfaced that Mojtaba has taken over the pro-government Basij militia and that his father is grooming him to be the next supreme leader. Thursday marked the first time protesters chanted against him.

Mojtaba was first flagged up here on 24th June. He had helped Ahmadinejad with his re-election campaign and is now said to have taken over command of the Basij Militias. No wonder the Supreme Donkey proclaimed himself “especially close” to the Ahmadinejad candidacy.

These three are now prepared to stand, in a naked military dictatorship, against even their own turban support, the serried ranks of black-clad mullahs in Qom and elsewhere, who are apparently opting for a quiet life.

The Goon Show

The Basij are volunteer recruits, mainly in plain clothes, who charge into crowds of their fellow-citizens on motorcycles, wielding batons. Their chain of command places them under the Pastoran, the Revolutionary Guard, who are the principal power  ─ commercial and military ─ in the land. Often the Basij are bussed in from the provinces. As a reward for their efforts, they are given places at the University of Tehran. Consequently, the university is full of informers and disaffected students have to go to great lengths to ensure privacy.Basiji

More evidence of fraud

A statistician, Walter Mebane, from the University of Michigan, who has analysed many sets of election results, now advances three further arguments that support a prima facie case of fraud in the June 12th election in Iran.

  1. Benford’s law states, in the case of elections, that the number 1 occurs 30% of the time in second place. The ballots for Ahmadinejad and two minor candidates did not conform to the expected pattern.
  2. People adding extra votes to a count often forget to add invalid ones. Towns with few invalid votes showed least conformity with Benford’s law and greater majorities for Ahmadinejad.
  3. Comparing the 2009 results with those from 2005, Mebane found that his model produced an unexpected number of outliers, 172 out of 320 towns. Ahmadinejad did better than expected in most of these towns.

Trial of seven Bahá’is

The Iranian regime regularly harasses, imprisons and tries members of this world faith on trumped-up charges. With all previous leaders arrested or destroyed, these seven have stood in as administrators for their co-religionists. They too have therefore been arrested and imprisoned for more than a year. Their trial – on charges of engaging in anti-regime propaganda and ‘spying for Israel’ – is, of course, a farce. After eighteen moths of unjust confinement with access to defence lawyers prohibited, we hear today (13 July 2009) that the hearing scheduled for 12 July 09 has now been adjourned sine die, as we say here.

One of the charges is that the accused are ‘corrupt of the earth’. Imagine a death penalty here following a successful prosecution for being a smelly toe-rag.

There is considerable, well-practised (unfortunately) international support, especially at international level (United Nations). Among the supporters of the seven, in addition, have been Roxana Saberi, the US journalist recently tried (for espionage), sentenced to imprisonment and released, Cheri Blair, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). There is a reasonable summary of events here. Roxana Saberi shared a cell with an imprisoned Bahá’i at one point: hence her interest.

The magnificent Shirin Ebadi, human rights lawyer and Nobel peace laureate, will represent them, though she has been denied access to her clients and their nominated advocate, Abdolfattah Soltani, was arrested on June 16 and also disappeared into prison.

One of the seven, Mrs. Fariba Kamalabadi, apparently grew this plant from a carrot head in prison, as a birthday present for her youngest daughter, who is shown holding it.
Fariba's gift to Taraneh from prison

Arab anti-Iranian cartoons

The wonderful MEMRI has rounded up a selection of cartoons satirical of the recent election published in Arab news media. My favourite is reproduced here (cartoonist Jihad ‘Awartani, Source: Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 24, 2009).

So is free speech making inroads into the normally wishful Arab press? Probably not. Hazen Saghieh notes that the youthful ’people’s revolutions’ of Eastern Europe only highlighted

the prevailing  tendencies of Arab political thought to [persist] in their allegiance to despotic ways of thinking … the Arabs looked at the transformation and the forces behind it with doubt and suspicion.

Thus, cartoons aside, Arab intellectuals contemplating ‘the Iranian tumult’ fail to see thatMullah walking on WWW

what is certain is that the events surrounding the election have wrecked the regime of Ayatollah Khamenei and put “change” on the Iranian people’s agenda.


it is most probable that the future is going to belong to the latter groups [of the most dynamic, young, educated and modern sectors], if not tomorrow then the day after … In any event, it is necessary to challenge the very assumption that Ahmadinejad and his cohorts in any way serve Palestinian and Arab causes or interests.

So for observers in the Arab world the question must be:

Is it really possible to combine the cause of democracy and progress with a system of  “national”-collective priorities  where the struggle with Israel dominates Arab minds and actions?

The establishment opposition

The list of prominent figures in the Iranian political firmament who deny the justice of the June 12th election has been enhanced with the trenchant presence of the aged successor-designate of Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Montazeri. Actually the opposition of this frail, 87 year old, already known as the dissident ayatollah, who spent six years under house arrest from 1997 to 2003, having been passed over for the succession in favour of the ill-qualified Ali Khamenei, was already established. But he has now issued a fatwa condemning the entire Ahmadinejad regime!

A regime that uses clubs, oppression, aggression against [the people’s] rights, injustice, rigged elections, murder, arrests, and medieval or Stalin-era torture, [a regime that] gags and censors the press, obstructs the media, imprisons intellectuals and elected leaders on false allegations or forced confessions… – [such a regime] is despicable and has no religious merit … The proud people of Iran know very well exactly how authentic [the detainees’] confessions are; they are like [confessions obtained] by fascist and communist regimes. The nation knows that the false confessions and televised interviews were obtained from its imprisoned sons with threats and torture, and that their aim is to cover up the oppression and injustice, and to [present a] distorted [image] of the people’s peaceful and legal protest.

Avoidance of trouble

Imam Ali, the first holy successor to the Prophet Mohammed, is supposed to have said:

A tyrant is better than trouble.

Does this explain why tyrants are the norm in the Islamic world, including the world of Sunni Muslims? Would it not be better occasionally to take a little trouble and devise a society more in line with the wishes of those who must live in it?

How to undermine yourself

Much of the Republic’s efforts are going towards blaming the British for undermining the regime by fuelling street protests? One hopes that diplomatic vocabulary nowadays encompasses the equivalent of ignoring these efforts rather than reinforcing by paying attention to them.Greens of London

One cannot help but observe that the whole situation in which the regime has been caught with its pantaloons down arises from the incredible catalogue of political errors committed by its own leadership, a posse of people miraculously transported by Doctor Who from the stone age who now stand, blinking and humourless, in front of the world’s media. Of course they do not want to take responsibility for the undermining of their own power, so they must find some scapegoat who, it can be said, has done the undermining for them. One error, as so often, leads to another.

Continuing protest

Now the 18th Tir – the tenth anniversary of the student uprising in 1999 which led to deaths and torture – has been and gone. Incredibly, thousands showed up to protest, not carrying weapons of any sort. Nowadays, demonstrations are not for the faint-hearted. It is reported that some stayed at home, readily confessing their fear; others assembled and dispersed rapidly at one or another location, showing military-style tactics to outwit the Basiji, who will always attack a larger crowd. Reportedly shots were fired in the air but not at protestors.

One stands in awe at the endurance, courage and wit of this generation of Iranians. They now write ‘Mousavi’ on banknotes and at a given time switch on all their electric appliances, causing a city-wide crash in power supplies. They are now the true government.

Film testimony

By far the most close-up film account I have seen of the protests and the repression is ‘Iran – inside the protests’, shot by Manon Loizeau, a French-Canadian journalist, for Al Jazeera (available here, re-voiced in English, though with colleagues translated as colleges). A student died when attacked with an axe by a Basij in a dormitory at Tehran University. Other students, rounded up and corralled for group humiliation, were sexually abused. A man lies spread-eagled on the street, his head a mass of bloody pulp.

A laughing matter

In the UK a favourable reception has been accorded to an Iranian comedian, Shaparak (Shappi) Khorsandi, who has commenced a series of four programmes on BBC Radio 4 on Thursdays at 18:30 (listen here). She tends to make the same gags on different occasions, but as she is both funny and quick, one may need to hear them more than once in any case. Shappi left Iran at age six when her satirical poet father, see photo, incurred the wrath of the unsmiling regime. In West London schools she learnt to be English, as her new book describes.Hadi Khorsandi

Shappi’s humour does not, as yet, address the current, deadly serious events, but is relevant in the larger context described by one commentator as follows:

Suddenly, the human face of Iran has surfaced internationally, and for the first time it is not clad in swathes of black cloth — it is young, savvy and framed in green, it has an opinion and rights, and the simple desire to have them respected.

The negative perception of foreigners from the Middle East is one theme of Shappi’s, though the BBC’s emphasis on racism seems a bit de rigueur.

92 and counting

Most death toll estimates are highly inaccurate and err on the low side. The countrywide total killed according to human rights sources inside Iran, who are painstakingly documenting each case, is 92 . . . and rising. About 3,500 people have been arrested, some released, others tortured.

We salute the suffering of their astonishing sacrifice.Green uprising

BBC Persian Service has turned its face away

The BBC’s record in the face of Iranian tyrannies of all kinds is honourable. The Shah tried to get David Owen, then foreign secretary, to close down the (radio) Persian Service in the late 1970s, just as the Peacock Throne was losing its feathers. Today, the resolutely factual coverage of the Green Protest has drawn the ire of the mullahs and, indeed, the provision of information feedback to actors is itself catalysing.

But Iranians are currently furious that the (TV) Persian Service ignored the 18th Tir (9th July) protests, arguably the hardiest of the lot so far (see above). Apparently even CNN covered these events creditably. Protestors are seeking to encourage a permanent Tehran office for CNN on the strength of this. Presumably the Beeb didn’t have any film to show, but this did not stop much of the mainstream media providing accurate and credible eye-witness accounts.

Has the BBC been got at? Iranians are reluctant to believe that, with foreign office funding, it could be truly independent. Whatever the truth, David Miliband, Foreign Secretary, and the BBC honchos will be judged on their performance at this sensitive historic moment, in which a people’s mass movement for democracy breathes information as its life’s blood. In a crisis, every action and motive become crystal clear.

Inexorable events

A patient, rewarding analysis of the present ‘green wave’ in Iran is provided here by Asef Bayat, writing in the stalwart Open Democracy. Marxism, with its leisurely turning of abstractions, its distant and unvarying certitudes, has always appealed to the aloof scholar in each of us. It feels as if Bayat is some kind of Iranian ex-leftist, and he rides a slowly advancing tide of categorisations, but he places the development of the present rising in the context of the longer struggle for reform.

Phantom mammoth

Ahmadinejad has surfaced this week, claiming that “we have the healthiest and most open election in the world”. He has cancelled most engagements for fear that his audience would walk out. This they duly did on one occasion he did not cancel. How he fears to lose face, Mamouti (“mammoth”) Mahmoud.Iranian woman gives finger

After only a month, the election can be seen clearly for what it was – a fantasy, like the previous one in 2005.

Uighur resonances

Iranians are asking of their government, You always support Palestine and condemn Israel. Why do you keep silent about your suffering Uighur Moslem brothers in Urumqi? Do you have a secret relationship with the Chinese government?