Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A School for Persian, a Center for Iranian Heritage


A personal look at the diaspora’s first accredited Persian-language educational institution.

When the Iranian School of San Diego was founded in 1988, I was only two years old, living in Shiraz following the Iran-Iraq War. Having moved to America, my experience with ISSD began in 2005 when I audited several classes and led a few as a substitute. I started teaching regularly at the school the following year -- as I had no formal teaching background, a few eyebrows were raised. Receiving a steady stream of résumés from impressive applicants -- many of whom have taught in Iran -- Ali Sadr, ISSD’s principal, identifies passion as a fundamental element that drives teachers to constantly seek to improve, to take and give constructive criticism, and most importantly to ignite the same fire among their students: a passion for discovering Iranian culture through learning Persian. Passion has been inscribed into the school’s DNA.

ISSD is a place where nobody’s talents go unnoticed. I was recruited to write for Peyk, the bilingual publication of the Persian Cultural Center of San Diego, the school’s parent organization. Later, I served on the Center’s board of directors. I jokingly warn my Iranian friends, “No matter what you’re good at, if you go near ISSD, you will be recruited!” Our strong alumni base attests to this tradition. Kourosh Baradaran, for instance, works both as a teaching assistant and santour instructor while attending conversation classes designed for alumni who wish to continue practicing their Persian. Back when I was pursuing a degree at community college, I had no idea ISSD would determine my ultimate career as an educator. Having left San Diego to pursue their own collegiate adventures, several of my former students visited me recently. It was the sort of reunion that suggests the importance of the ISSD experience, which inspires a community built around a common love: Persian language and culture.

Registered as non-profit, non-political, and non-religious educational institution, ISSD adheres to adhere to no religious, nationalistic, or politically partisan curriculum. While autonomy has many advantages, it also presents challenges. Chief among them is the question, Who evaluates the school? ISSD has had to rely on its own community for self-correction and growth, encouraging and sponsoring its teachers’ participation in training workshops at San Diego State University, New York University, National University, and other institutions of higher learning. During monthly meetings, the school’s entire teaching corps meets to discuss assessment and teaching methods.

Rather than rely on the standard Persian-as-a-second-language textbooks employed in the United States, ISSD has strived to design a curriculum crafted for the school’s unique environment. In the process of developing the advanced-level curriculum, I traveled to Iran in January 2009 to meet with Dr. Shokufeh Shahidi, the program director at the Dehkhoda Institute and International Center for Persian Studies. In Italy that August, I met with Riccardo Zipoli, professor of Persian language and literature at Venice University. Their insights and advice were invaluable to the publication of Advanced Persian Textbook for Heritage Learners (Persian Cultural Center, 2009), which has been adopted by many Persian-language schools worldwide.

Founded by Shahri Estakhri (principal, 1988-92) and Mozayan Bagherzadeh, ISSD is now the only accredited Persian-language school outside of Iran, keeping their vision of serving the whole of the Iranian community alive. With its expanding scope, the institution, whose original venue was a church, can now hardly be accommodated by its current host, Mount Carmel High School. Offering classes on various language levels, Persian music (setar, santour, daf, etc.), theater, dance, painting, and social activities ranging from parenting classes to stress management workshops, ISSD relies on a tireless body of volunteers in both its administration and PTA team. The school’s yearbooks, consistently growing in size, narrate one story: the community’s need for a center. Joined by other cultural organizations in San Diego, the Persian Cultural Center has started a campaign to raise funds to make a center that ISSD and its greater community can call home. While the institution itself is still renting for the moment, I call the Iranian School of San Diego my home outside of Iran.

Copyright © 2012

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Reflections on a Photograph of a Mother and Child


A mirror held up to an entire world of women’s issues.

A photograph of Licia Ronzulli, an Italian representative to the European Parliament, taken in September 2010 was recently recirculated online, generating much discussion among young Iranian feminists. The bone of contention seems to be what a feminist should think of the image. On one hand, it is a loving picture of a mother and her newborn that cannot but generate sympathy. On the other, the fact that the young mother is a politician and is captured here in a public forum -- a parliament session in Strasbourg -- seems to be jarring to some feminists. Those who are offended apparently wish to project and affirm professional personae unencumbered by patriarchal models that define women as properly mothers alone, like that celebrated and imposed, for example, in the Islamic Republic of Iran (in many ways a gender apartheid state).

Feminism, in any of its many variations and whatever its other goals, strives to empower women. Women's reproductive rights are obviously crucial: if women have the civil right to form families and voluntarily bear children when they choose to, then it becomes imperative that they are able to nourish their children in ways that correspond with their overall situation. While most of us are acutely aware of patriarchal value-systems (religious, secular, or ideological) that abuse women’s reproductive ability to bear children to curtail their rights and confine them to lesser roles, it is also important to remember that while we fight for equal rights in the realm of law and society, we must not forget that if and when women voluntarily choose to have children, then those same laws and norms should apply to their need to, for example, breastfeed wherever they may happen to be.

Until recently in many cultures, breastfeeding was deeply taboo and even explicitly prohibited in public. Often the same societies that have little practical qualms with capitalizing on women’s bodies in pornographic contexts, still deem it unseemly for a mother to openly feed her child in the most natural manner. A publicly bared breast is thus deemed acceptable for male recreational consumption but not for its primary biological function. Not long ago, female members of the British Parliament were asked to breastfeed in public toilets, while on the streets outside, the newsstands were draped with magazines promoting women’s naked flesh.

Increasingly, women have to fight the devastating marketing policies of breast-milk replacement companies such as Nestlé, which are reportedly responsible for the death of countless children around the world, to provide their children with their own milk, which is medically proven to give children the best start in life. Hence the introduction of sophisticated electric and handheld milk pumps that help mothers store and refrigerate their milk so, when they need to be away from home, someone else can feed their children nutritiously.

While I love the gesture in this picture -- that parenthood is an integral part of citizenship and the public workforce -- there is something here to take issue with: the fact that Licia Ronzulli is a member of Silvio Berlusconi's The People of Freedom, which is among the most right-wing, patriarchal political parties in Europe. Before we celebrate or dismiss Ronzulli's act, before we expect one thing or another of women, we must ensure that their rights are secured by law and social practice.

While naturally as a feminist, I too firmly believe that women’s role should never be confined to motherhood, and certainly not to the patriarchal readings of it that have oppressed women since time immemorial, I also believe that once we have won the fight to access free and legal birth control, reproductive health care (including safe abortion), and pre- and postnatal care, and won the fight for the right to work, a minimum year’s paid maternity and paternity leave on the Swedish model, and universal high-quality childcare and education so that parents can actually continue to work, then I see no problem with women choosing, voluntarily, to bring their children to their workplaces. God knows how many times my husband or I -- we alternate “babysitting” duties -- have wanted to attend a conference or an event if only it were child-friendly.

There is an additional class issue here. What Ronzulli did at the European Parliament was a luxury at best, since she could hypothetically pump her milk prior to leaving home and afford to hire someone to look after her child. But she has instead opted to bring her newborn with her to work, most probably because it would ease the delicate phase of early breastfeeding (for me personally, this phase was among the most painful and challenging things I have ever done). It is important to remember that contrary to the rare Scandinavian model, most professional women in Italy (where their numbers are still terribly low) and the United States leave their children with domestic workers from the first or second week after birth, because that’s all the meager maternity leave most employers allow.

The domestic workers that are left to look after professional women’s children have in turn left their own children in their homelands to work in "free market" societies where they lack any labor protections. Many are paid vanishingly small wages, many are abused, and their children back home suffer. Middle-class women's "right" to work is thus largely contingent on the oppression of impoverished Third World women.

The politics of motherhood is complex and before we dismiss or celebrate any aspect of it, we must first place it within the larger picture of women's full reproductive rights -- their right to be or not to be mothers, to choose or not to choose to stay at home with their children, to breastfeed or not to breastfeed, without any cultural or political pressure either way.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a prime example of a state that has utterly politicized and abused the role of motherhood to the disadvantage of most women. It called on them to be revolutionary foot soldiers, and then to return home to raise martyrs and be servants of the state. So I can understand that from an urban, educated perspective, the issues surrounding motherhood may seem insignificant or even a realm that must be denied in order to reject patriarchy. Young women who have access to affordable birth control and reproductive health care may prioritize other aspects of women's rights and even belittle issues involving working mothers. But let us never forget that there are billions of women around the world who simply have no practical (or even legal) access to effective birth control and who simply cannot afford any form of childcare other than taking their children with them to work. We must remember that most women around the world have to work and have no choice in that matter whatsoever. The task ahead of us is huge, but well worth taking on. We all have much to contribute to our understanding of women's vastly different experiences, needs, struggles, and triumphs.

Golbarg Bashi is a feminist professor of Iranian studies at Rutgers University, mother of two young children, and a freelance photographer.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Document Tries to Link Romney to Iran


In 2004, Iran's national oil company paid $2.3 million to the Italian office of Bain & Co., a consulting firm once helmed by Mitt Romney, to conduct a study on how to make the bureaucracy of the state-run company operate more efficiently.

In 2006, a representative from Bain & Co.'s Boston headquarters told Forbes that since Bain's independent Italian unit contracted with Iran, it was not a violation of U.S. sanctions, according to a 200-page Romney opposition research document leaked to the Washington-based conservative website, The Daily Caller.

According to Bain & Co.'s website, the company opened its Italian office in Milan in 1989, which has grown to become "one of Bain's leading offices worldwide," with 350 employees. "Being part of an international group allows us to manage clients and projects at a multinational level," its website says.

Bain & Co., a consulting firm, is a distinct entity from Bain Capital, a private equity firm. However, both were run at one time by Mitt Romney.

Romney worked at Bain & Co. from 1977 to 1985, rising to vice president. In 1985, he left Bain & Co. to help start Bain Capital. In 1990, Mitt Romney became the provisional CEO of Bain & Co. and guided it through a debt restructuring and reorganization to a full partnership, which was completed by June of 1991. He returned to Bain Capital in 1992 until 1999. Mr. Romney has not worked at Bain & Co. since 1992, according to a Bain & Co. spokesman.

By the time of publication, Romney's campaign had not returned a call asking for comment.

This is not the first time Romney's opponents have sought to connect him to Iran. In 2007, the Associated Press reported that,

Earlier this year, Romney played down any lingering connection after The Associated Press reported Bain Capital and Bain & Co., the management consulting firm where Romney used to work, had links to Iranian business interests or deals despite Romney's campaign-trail call for state pension funds to divest from Iran. At the time, a spokesman highlighted Romney's 1999 resignation from Bain, while Romney himself said his divestment call applied only to future activity, not past dealings.

Related | Romney's Iran quotes on the campaign trail.

Copyright © 2012

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Goading Iran toward War, but Uniting the Nation


A close look at a long covert conflict.

[ opinion ] The assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan Behdast, 32, a chemical engineer involved in Iran’s nuclear program, in Tehran on Wednesday is the latest manifestation that not only is the covert war against Iran well under way, but that it is in fact no longer so covert. In addition, it is becoming increasingly clear -- if it was not already -- who the culprits are.

The day before the assassination, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, chief of staff of Israel’s armed forces, told the Israeli parliament that “2012 is expected to be a critical year for Iran.” He cited “the confluence of efforts to advance the nuclear program, internal leadership changes, continued international pressure and things that happen to it unnaturally [emphasis mine].” As reported by progressive journalist Richard Silverstein, who writes an influential blog, the coverage of Gantz’s statement by the conservative Israeli daily Yisrael HaYom “further reinforces the notion that he was referring directly to the ‘mysterious explosions’ that have rocked Iran of late.” Silverstein also reported that his Israeli sources have told him that Mossad and the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization were the culprits behind the latest assassination.

State-sponsored terrorism

Such cowardly assassinations are nothing but state-sponsored terrorism at its worst. Nothing must distract from this fact, nor from the manifest hypocrisy of the United States and its allies, particularly Israel, when it comes to the question of terrorism. Just as the international community justifiably condemns any terrorist operations against innocent civilians, and in particular those in which Iran is accused of being indirectly involved (such as providing support to the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas), it must also condemn such assassinations in Iran, but it has not. The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn an alleged Iranian plot to kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States last year, but has it taken any action regarding the assassinations? No, and it is highly unlikely that it will ever do so.

Thus, it should be abundantly clear that there are two types of terrorist operations in this world: the “good” ones committed by the West, and the terrible ones perpetrated by the West’s foes, and in particular the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). Just try to imagine the international outcry had an Israeli or American nuclear scientist been assassinated here in the United States or in Israel. We would have had armies of pundits that would have loudly condemned the assassination, attributed it immediately to the IRI, and demanded stronger economic and political sanctions, and even war. But when it comes to murdering Iranian nuclear scientists, they are either mute, or even applaud and support it.

Take, for example, Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he specialized in Iran. After the latest assassination, Clawson said,

I often get asked when Israel might attack Iran, [to which] I say, “Two years ago.” Sabotage and assassination is the way to go, if you can do it. It doesn’t provoke a nationalist reaction in Iran, which could strengthen the regime. And it allows Iran to climb down if it decides the cost of pursuing a nuclear weapon is too high.

The assertion by Clawson regarding the effect of the assassinations on Iranians is so wrong that it would be laughable, if the issue were not so serious. This is the same man who in 2004 suggested that the United States should create large-scale industrial accidents in Iran’s nuclear program, and that such accidents would not cause “a single fatality.” I responded to him at the time, and the response was apparently convincing enough that he stopped advocating that position.

As another example, take David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington. The ISIS always presents itself as a nonpartisan institution. After all, how can science be political? But the ISIS and its president have been anything but nonpartisan. Has the ISIS ever condemned the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists? Absolutely not. And, here is how he talked about Roshan, the assassinated scientist, on PBS NewsHour:

He was possibly...involved in organizing the secret smuggling operation that Iran has been trying to operate worldwide and is banned under U.N. Security Council sanctions. And countries are spending a great deal of effort to try to stop Iranian smuggling operations.... You know, he was a brilliant, in a sense, smuggler. His loss may be significant.

The “great deal of effort” includes, of course, state-sponsored terrorism. Roshan, who had published scientific papers (see, for example, here) was just a “smuggler” in Albright’s opinion. Does he imply that Roshan’s life was somehow not so worthy, because he was a “smuggler?”

How about Rick Santorum, the GOP presidential hopeful? In a campaign appearance in Greenville, South Carolina, Santorum said,

On occasion, scientists working on the nuclear program in Iran turn up dead. I think that's a wonderful thing, candidly. I think we should send a very clear message that if you are a scientist from Russia, North Korea, or from Iran and you are going to work on a nuclear program to develop a bomb for Iran, you are not safe.

So not only does a serious candidate for president of the United States condone state-sponsored terrorism, he thinks of it as “wonderful.”

Here is what Ronen Bergman, a reporter for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, told Jeffrey Brown of PBS NewsHour, on the same program on which Albright appeared:

I would say this. Mossad has a long tradition. The Israel intelligence foreign agency has a long tradition of taking out, eliminating, targeting nuclear scientists working for Israeli enemies. Benjamin Netanyahu many times -- I think stupidly -- but many times compared President Ahmadinejad with Hitler.

And when your adversary is at the size of Adolf Hitler, then all means are justified to stop him. And we have been witnessing in the last five years a series of mysterious mishaps, sabotaging, bombing and, above all, killing of Iranian scientists who were prominent figures in the Iranian nuclear project and the Iranian attempt to build surface-to-surface long-range ballistic missiles.

These assassinations, I would say, are aimed at a three-fold target[:] First, to take out prominent figures from the Iranian nuclear project. [S]econd, to make the Iranians, to force the Iranians to put a lot of effort into trying to prevent the next assassination, screening people, trying to find who are the Mossad moles, guarding the live scientists. And when someone has to invest so much effort into trying to protect, he has a lot less energy to invest in the advancement of the project. And, third, maybe [a] not-less-important target, is to spread fear, grave intimidation among the surviving scientists that they may end up like their friends.

Bergman thus effectively acknowledged that Israel was behind the assassination. He also said, “The outcome of such assassinations are [sic] the actual neutralization[emphasis mine] of the main scientists and the intimidation of those left behind.”

So when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declares, “I want to categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran,” how credible is this denial? Yes, let us assume that the United States had absolutely nothing to do with the assassination. But America is Israel’s strongest supporter and protector -- militarily, economically, and politically -- and there is almost no doubt among the experts that Israel is involved in the assassinations, at least indirectly, even if they do not state so explicitly. Interestingly, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland did not answer a question about whether Washington was involved in the killing, or if the Obama administration viewed Roshan as an innocent victim. Nuland said, "I am not going to speak to who may or may not have done this." she told reporters. Indeed, people in Tehran say of the United States, “They save our sailors [a reference to recent U.S. Navy rescue operations in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman], but kill our scientists," implying that many in Iran believe that the United States is somehow involved, even if it is not.

Timeline of the covert war

Unlike what many think, the covert war against Iran is at least 11 years old. In July 2001, Colonel Ali Mahmoudi Mimand, known as a founder of Iran's missile program, was found dead in his office, reportedly with a bullet in his head.

One facet of the war has involved wooing Iran’s nuclear scientists to defect to the West. In May 2009, Shahram Amiri, a junior scientist who was supposedly involved in Iran's nuclear program, disappeared during a trip to Saudi Arabia. He eventually emerged in the United States, but after several seemingly contradictory videos of him were posted on YouTube, he became an embarrassment to the Obama administration and was allowed to return to Iran.

Brigadier General Ali Rea Asgari, who was an adviser to the deputy defense minister in the Khatami administration, disappeared on February 7, 2007, in Istanbul. Iran's position is that Asgari was abducted, while others believe that he defected to the West, but was eventually taken to Israel, where he may still be incarcerated.

Amiri, and presumably Asgari, were the “lucky” ones, since they did not lose their lives. Others have been killed, or disappeared entirely.

There was an explosion in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in April 2006, damaging some centrifuges there. The cause turned out later to be faulty electrical equipment that Iran had imported. Another facet of the covert war has been selling equipment to Iran that is meant to malfunction and inflict damage.

On January 15, 2007, Dr. Ardeshir Hassanpour, a world authority on electromagnetism, and a prominent and award-winning figure in Iran's nuclear program, was murdered. Stratfor, the private security and intelligence analysis firm, released a report asserting that Israel's Mossad was responsible.

In February 2007, the Telegraph of London reported that the United States

is secretly funding militant ethnic separatist groups in Iran in an attempt to pile pressure on the Islamic regime to give up its nuclear program. In a move that reflects Washington's growing concern with the failure of diplomatic initiatives, CIA officials are understood to be helping opposition militias among the numerous ethnic minority groups clustered in Iran's border regions. The operations are controversial because they involve dealing with movements that resort to terrorist methods in pursuit of their grievances against the Iranian regime. In the past year there has been a wave of unrest in ethnic minority border areas of Iran, with bombing and assassination campaigns against soldiers and government officials.

Meanwhile, Asia Times reported that the United States had military units operating inside Iran, and that

Iran is fast joining ranks with India and Afghanistan as a victim of trans-border violence perpetrated by irredentist elements crossing over from Pakistan. Tehran, too, will probably face an existential dilemma as to whether or not such acts of terrorism are taking place with the knowledge of [former Pakistan President Pervbez] Musharraf and, more importantly, whether or not Musharraf is capable of doing anything about the situation.

Those two reports gained further credibility in June 2008, when Seymour Hersh revealed that the Bush administration was spending $400 million to carry out a covert war inside Iran, including supporting the minority Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan, the Baluchi groups such as Jundallah, and other dissident organizations. They also include gathering intelligence about Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. According to Hersh,

Clandestine operations against Iran are not new. United States Special Operations Forces have been conducting cross-border operations from southern Iraq, with Presidential authorization, since last year. These have included seizing members of Al Quds, the commando arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and taking them to Iraq for interrogation, and the pursuit of “high-value targets” in the President’s war on terror, who may be captured or killed. But the scale and the scope of the operations in Iran, which involve the Central Intelligence Agency and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), have now been significantly expanded, according to the current and former officials. Many of these activities are not specified in the new [Presidential] Finding [the secret order to authorize the operations], and some congressional leaders have had serious questions about their nature.

In late 2010, Iran’s Natanz nuclear facilities were attacked by the American-Israeli designed computer worm Stuxnet, believed to be the most sophisticated cyber weapon ever deployed. The attack destroyed at least 1,000 centrifuges at Natanz. The Telegraph reported that Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, former chief of staff of the Israeli armed forces, confirmed his country’s role in the Stuxnet attack.

Then came the assassination of Dr. Majid Shahriari, a prominent contributor to Iran’s nuclear program. He was the one who made the necessary calculations that enabled Iran to enrich uranium to 19.75 percent for the Tehran Research Reactor, which provides nuclear isotopes for 850,000 patients annually and is rapidly running out of fuel. On November 29, 2010, he was killed and his wife wounded when a magnetic bomb attached to his car by two unknown motorcycle-riding assailants exploded. On the same day, a similar attempt was made to assassinate Dr. Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, another prominent nuclear scientist, in Tehran, but he survived. Abbasi Davani is currently the president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.

On December 10, 2010, there was a huge explosion at Imam Ali military base in the southwestern province of Lorestan that killed and injured up to 40 people. The base is controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It was reported that a fire had started that had spread to the ammunition warehouse within the base, but there were widespread rumors that a fire was not, in fact, the cause.

On July 24, 2011, Dariush Rezaeinejad, 35, an electrical engineer and a Ph.D. candidate, was killed in Tehran. He had been involved in designing high voltage triggers that have many civilian applications, as well as use in nuclear weapons. He had published his work in open-source scientific journals and, thus, it is highly unlikely that he was involved in the nuclear program. Still, as Der Spiegel put it, “There is little doubt in the shadowy world of intelligence agencies that Israel is behind the assassination.”

Little noticed is the fact that, on the same day that Rezaeinejad was murdered, a physics professor, identified only as "Dr. Boronzi, a researcher with the Rouyan Institute," was also assassinated in Tehran.

On November 12, 2011, there was another huge explosion at a Revolutionary Guard missile base near Tehran, which killed 37 people, including Major General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, a pioneer of Iranian missile development. Though it is not clear what caused the explosion, Time reported that a Western intelligence source said Israel was behind the attack.

On November 28, 2011, the sound of a massive blast was heard throughout the city of Isfahan, the site of a major uranium conversion facility. The blast was reportedly so strong that people, terrified, rushed to the streets. Iran first confirmed the report, but then retracted it. The Times of London flatly claimed that Isfahan's primary nuclear site was "hit by a huge explosion." Time reported on comments made by Israeli military figures hinting that Israel was responsible for the Isfahan event, with the apparent assumption that a nuclear facility was the target:

“Not every explosion over there should be tied to reconnaissance and stories from the movies," Dan Meridor, Israel's minister for intelligence and atomic matters, told Israeli Army Radio. Saying, "it isn't right to expand on this topic," Meridor nonetheless went on to acknowledge that espionage has set back Iran's nuclear program. "There are countries that impose economic sanctions and there are countries who act in other ways," Meridor said.

A former director of Israel's National Security Council, retired Major General Giora Eiland, told the station the Isfahan blast was no accident. "There aren't many coincidences," he said, "and when there are so many events there is probably some sort of guiding hand, though perhaps it's the hand of God."

In addition to the above, Professor Masoud Ali-Mohammad of the University of Tehran was assassinated on January 12, 2010. Though there is considerable evidence that suggests he was murdered by the security forces, the possibility that Israel was behind the murder cannot be ruled out.

There are other aspects of the covert war that have not attracted as much public attention as they should, yet have been every bit as deadly. In an October 2009 article, I described how the United States and its allies helped the terrorist group Jundallah, which operates in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan on the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mark Perry of Foreign Policy recently described how Israeli agents, posing as CIA operatives, recruited Sunni extremists to carry out terrorist operations inside Iran. Here is what he reports:

Israeli Mossad officers recruited operatives belonging to the terrorist group Jundallah by passing themselves off as American agents. According to two U.S. intelligence officials, the Israelis, flush with American dollars and toting U.S. passports, posed as CIA officers in recruiting Jundallah operatives. [...]

The [CIA] memos also detail…field reports saying that Israel’s recruiting activities occurred under the nose of U.S. intelligence officers, most notably in London, the capital of one of Israel’s ostensible allies, where Mossad officers posing as CIA operatives met with Jundallah officials.... They were stunned by the brazenness of the Mossad’s efforts.

It’s amazing what the Israelis thought they could get away with, the intelligence officer said. Their recruitment activities were nearly in the open. They apparently didn’t give a damn what we thought.

WikiLeaks had already exposed documents that pointed to Israeli efforts of this sort.

And it is quite possible that both Israel and the United States have tried in the past to use fighters of the Party of Free Life for Kurdistan, known as PJAK and listed by the State Department as a terrorist group, to carry out terrorist operations inside Iran.

And, of course, spying on the IRI with airborne drones has continued unabated. One such drone was recently forced down inside Iran, which the IRI celebrated as a victory.

The goals of the war

Some believe that this covert -- and not-so-covert -- war, now over a decade long, is meant to decapitate Iran’s nuclear program and deny it the experts that it needs to make further progress. This is baseless. Some 30,000 people work in Iran’s nuclear program. Most, if not all, have been educated in Iran, and thus are easily replaceable. Murdering a few will not make any difference to the program. Surely, the know-how that men such as Hassanpour, Shahriari, and Rezaeinejad produced has been documented and can easily be implemented by others. Their deaths will not slow down the program even a bit.

Others opine that the covert war -- the assassinations, in particular -- will make the population angry at the ruling hardliners in Tehran, and may eventually help to bring about the demise of the regime. This point of view is even more baseless. The hardliners and the opposition inside Iran agree that the nuclear program must continue. The only difference between the two camps is in how they would handle the international aspects of the program -- negotiating with the West and so forth. Mir Hossein Mousavi is one of the strongest defenders of the program.

In addition, given Iranians’ fierce nationalism and pride, if the assassinations and the covert war have any effect, it will be to make the population angry at the perpetrators and their masters. The people are united about protecting the nation’s resources and assets, and if that means rallying around a regime that a very large portion of them despise, they will do so. At a time when Iran’s hardliners are grappling with increasingly intractable economic problems and need to justify anything they do that costs the nation heavily, the covert war is a sort of “God-sent” present to them.

Still others suggest that the assassinations will force Iranian experts to think twice before joining the nuclear program. But those who work for the program, or those who want to join it, are truly dedicated to it, regardless of their political thinking. An academic source in Tehran told me both Shahriari and Abbasi have made it clear that they voted for Mousavi in the presidential election of 2009, and yet both were and are totally dedicated to the program. Such dedication -- whether due to fierce nationalism and pride, or religious and ideological thinking, or all of the above -- has made it possible for the IRI to make very significant progress in its nuclear program.

If anything, the covert war provides the hardliners with a “reasonable” excuse, under the guise of a threat to national security and territorial integrity, to increase their suppression of opposition forces. Many in the opposition, while they support the nuclear program, oppose the way the hardliners have approached the issue in the international arena. At a time when the IRI is deeply worried about the strength of the opposition and the terrible economic situation, such cowardly assassinations only distract people from the real problem -- the repressive IRI regime.

In addition, the assassinations are totally outrageous because their intended target is the scientific foundation of Iran, without due consideration for human rights, due process of international and national laws, and the lives of innocent people who are the “collateral” casualties of the conflict. The assassinations also leave deep psychological scars, prompting Iranians to demand retaliation and revenge.

Another possible goal of the assassinations is to scuttle negotiations between Iran and the 5+1 group -- the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. Discussions are under way to restart the negotiations soon, possibly in Turkey, as agreed upon recently when Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Tehran.

Yet another possible goal, which I believe is the most plausible, is that the covert war will strengthen the hardliners, potentially provoke them to take some retaliatory action, and hence start a chain reaction that will eventually lead to a war with the United States and Israel. The United States has made it clear to Israel, most recently during the trip by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta -- that it does not intend to attack Iran in the near future, while Israel has wanted a war for years. Therefore, those Israeli military and political leaders may well be trying to create a situation that will compel the United States to attack Iran. Thus, the covert war will only escalate the regional conflicts, and direct it toward a direct military confrontation.

The culprits

There is no question in my mind that Israel is the main driving force behind the campaign of assassinations and other aspects of the covert war. The main country that supposedly “benefits” from such heinous acts is Israel. If, for example, an opposition group inside Iran wanted to wage an assassination campaign for political reasons, it would first and foremost target the political/military/clerical leaders, as the MKO did in the 1980s.

There are, however, other culprits. Even if the United States has had absolutely no direct role in the covert war -- an unlikely prospect -- it still shares the responsibility simply because, as was pointed out earlier, it is the most important supporter and protector of Israel. It shares intelligence with Israel, gives it over $3 billion annually in military aid, shields it in the international arena, and vetoes any United Nations Security Council resolution that condemns what Israel does to Palestinians.

There are two other culprits. Such assassinations cannot be carried out without the collaboration of some Iranians. The only group that has been willing to work with any nation opposing the IRI, ranging from Saddam Hussein to Israel, is the MKO. Precisely due to its cultish culture, whereby its members blindly follow their leaders’ orders, the MKO is the only organization willing to help assassinate Iran’s national resources and assets. Those in Washington who claim that the MKO no longer carries out terrorist operations should rethink their position.

The final culprit is Saudi Arabia, a country that not only has advocated military attacks on Iran, according to the documents released by WikiLeaks, but is widely believed to provide financial support to MKO and the Jundallah.

Some claim that at least some of the assassinations have been carried out by Iran’s security forces for one reason or another. While it is impossible to rule out such a possibility completely, its likelihood is close to zero. Why should the IRI want to assassinate Shahriari, when he helped developed the country’s capacity to enrich uranium at close to 20 percent? If Abbasi Davani were a suspect in the eyes of the Iranian authorities, to the extent they attempted to kill him, why did they elevate him to be the president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran? Why should the IRI want to kill Roshan, when he was reportedly a member of the Basij militia and had helped Iran’s nuclear program, even if -- as some have argued is a reason for the authorities wanting him dead -- he had opposed the importing of uranium ore? Such claims simply do not add up.

The international community, and in particular Iranians, must oppose such cowardly terrorist acts, regardless of what they think about Iran’s nuclear program and its repressive regime.

Copyright © 2012

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Opinion | The Covert War on Iran ... And the Open Conflict that Could Follow

The hazard, hubris, and hypocrisy of a potential attack on the Islamic Republic.


Lately there has been much talk of Israel and/or the United States attacking Iran. The most recent conversation started with a column published (in Hebrew) on October 28 by Israel's most influential journalist, Nahum Barnea (though as far back as 2007, Seymour Hersh wrote in the New Yorker that the Bush administration was planning to attack Iran). Barnea contends that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are conspiring to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Haaretz later reported that Netanyahu and Barak recently persuaded Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who had previously opposed attacking Iran, to support a military strike. There's currently only a "small majority" left in the Israeli cabinet who oppose such a move.

Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, who opposes a war with Iran, said, "I decided to speak out because, when I was in office, [former security service chief Yuval] Diskin, [former armed forces commander Gabi] Ashkenazi, and I could block any dangerous adventure. Now I am afraid that there is no one to stop Bibi [Netanyahu] and Barak."

Parts of the American media establishment have already begun a campaign urging war with the Islamic Republic. Foreign Affairs recently published articles with titles such as "Time to Attack Iran" and "Why Obama Should Take Out Iran's Nuclear Program."

Salon blogger and lawyer Glenn Greenwald notes how the media evidently didn't learn their lesson after the invasion of Iraq not to rely upon "anonymous government sources" to disseminate "unverified fear-mongering accusations." He points out how the Washington Post is doing exactly that, which they've been criticized for in the past. The New York Times is often no better. As Greenwald writes, "[T]here is a concerted campaign under way in Washington to demonize the Iranians and to blame them for almost every world evil, real and imagined." The utterly ridiculous "Iranian Plot" is a perfect example of this.

Many other articles have been published recently arguing that a "covert" attack on Iran has in fact already begun.

Timeline of the covert war

In the winter of 2010, Iran's Natanz nuclear facilities were attacked by the American-Israeli designed Stuxnet worm, "the most sophisticated cyber weapon ever deployed," which destroyed about one-third of Iran's centrifuges. Israel's role was privately confirmed by Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi.

Last July, an Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated, which marked the fourth such attack. According to Haaretz, "The attacks seem to be focused on taking out key people involved in the last and most important step on the road to nuclear weapons -- the group known as the weapons group." An article in Der Spiegel claims, "There is little doubt in the shadowy world of intelligence agencies that Israel is behind the assassination."

On November 12, a Revolutionary Guard ballistic missile base in Iran's Isfahan province was bombed, killing 17 people, including Major General Hassan Moghaddam, who was a pioneer of missile development in the Islamic Republic. A Western intelligence source said Israel was behind the attack. On the 28th, another mysterious explosion in Isfahan was reported.

On November 13, Ahmad Rezaei, the son of Mohsen Rezaei -- the secretary of Iran's Expediency Council, a former Revolutionary Guard commander, and a presidential contender -- was found dead at a hotel in Dubai. The death was described as suspicious and reportedly caused by electric shocks.

Also in November, the United States, Great Britain, European Union, and Canada each announced they were imposing more (futile) sanctions on Iran. In response, Iranian protesters stormed the British Embassy in Tehran. The U.K. then expelled all Iranian diplomats from Britain.

Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Bahrain have all urged the United States to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear program, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables.

Seymour Hersh writes that "Israeli fighter pilots have been training for years at the Hatzerim airbase, in the Negev, and at a foreign site, for a potential raid on known and suspected nuclear-weapons facilities in Iran."

Dan Plesch, director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London, says that "[the Americans] are gearing up totally for the destruction of Iran. U.S. bombers and long range missiles are ready today to destroy 10,000 targets in Iran in a few hours."

Roger Cohen of the New York Times writes that "it would take tremendous naïveté to believe these events are not the result of a covert American-Israeli drive to sabotage Iran's efforts to develop a military nuclear capacity."

Jordan Michael Smith, at Salon, warns, "A full-scale war is inevitable if things don't change."

International relations theorist Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy asks, "What will happen if Iran tries to fight back against these covert strikes? They'll be accused of starting it."

Iran and nuclear weapons

Many have been saying for decades that Iran is on the brink of having nuclear weapons. In 1992, Netanyahu claimed Iran would have nuclear weapons in three to five years. Shimon Peres insisted Iran would have nukes by 1999. In 1995, the New York Times claimed Iran was only five years away from obtaining them.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Iran, "You do not have a right to obtain a nuclear weapon. You do not have the right to have the full enrichment and reprocessing cycle under your control." However, the United States, as well as Britain and France, are all in violation of the 1995 U.N. nuclear nonproliferation treaty that mandated eliminating all nuclear weapons within five years.

On November 8, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report that is being used by many hawks in the United States and Israel to call for war. The report says that Iran has carried out activities "relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device," but does not explicitly state that Iran is currently trying to build nuclear weapons.

Journalist Gwynne Dyer points out the political nature of the report, which is based on information from Western intelligence sources: "The same intelligence agencies are producing the same sort of reports about Iran that we heard eight years ago about Iraq's nuclear ambitions, and interpreting the information in the same highly prejudiced way." He also points out the hypocrisy that "[IAEA head Yukiya] Amano will never publish a report about America's nuclear weapons. [...] He hasn't said anything about Israel's, Britain's and France's weapons of mass destruction either."

WikiLeaks documents reveal that Amano is extremely pro-American, and is "solidly in the U.S. court" when it comes to "the handling of Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program."

Journalist Eric Margolis points out that the United States pays a quarter of the costs of the IAEA and has put its own people in positions of influence in the agency.

There is indeed ample reason to believe that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons program, but there's also reason to believe they're not, and the latter is receiving almost no media exposure, thus warranting an examination.

Academic Fareed Zakaria notes that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the highest political and religious authority in the country, issued a fatwa in 2004 describing the use of nuclear weapons as immoral, and later said that "developing, producing or stockpiling nuclear weapons is forbidden under Islam." President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has quoted the regime's founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who asserted that such weapons were "un-Islamic." Zakaria acknowledges that they could simply be lying, but ponders how "it seems odd for a regime that derives its legitimacy from its fidelity to Islam to declare constantly that these weapons are un-Islamic if it intends to develop them. It would be far shrewder to stop reminding people of Khomeini's statements and stop issuing new fatwas against nukes."

The two most recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimates both concluded that there is no firm evidence that Iran has been pursuing a nuclear bomb since 2003. The Defense Intelligence Agency said that when Iran did have a nuclear weapons program before 2003, it was aimed at Iraq, not Israel, the United States, or Europe.

The Iranian enrichment program is monitored by the IAEA, and Natanz and all of Iran's major nuclear installations are under extensive video surveillance. Inspectors "have been unable to find any evidence that enriched uranium has been diverted to an illicit weapons program."

Seymour Hersh writes that "despite years of covert operations inside Iran, extensive satellite imagery, and the recruitment of many Iranian intelligence assets, the United States and its allies, including Israel, have been unable to find irrefutable evidence of an ongoing hidden nuclear-weapons program in Iran."

A more likely goal

Some more thoughtful commentators have reached a different conclusion about Iran's nuclear ambitions, saying that Iran probably wants a "latent" nuclear capability. In other words, Iran wants the capability to quickly produce nuclear weapons without actually building them. This would create a powerful deterrent against an attack, and would also be cheaper than actually producing the bomb.

Gwynne Dyer postulates that "Iran wants the knowledge and equipment that would let it build a nuclear weapon very quickly if necessary: an Israeli nuclear threat, a military coup in nuclear-armed Pakistan that brings young Shia-hating officers to power, whatever." Dyer also points out that this is entirely legal under IAEA rules.

Stephen Walt writes that Iran could do this "while making it clear to others that it had not crossed the line," so as to avoid an arms race or sanctions.

The rationality of Iranian actions

Even if Iran is developing nuclear weapons, many would say this is a very rational policy for a state in its position. Despite its constant vitriolic, anti-Semitic rhetoric, which is used to pander to domestic voters, and its grimly oppressive domestic policies, Iran's international actions are actually quite rational and not particularly aggressive.

As Stephen Walt writes, the United States and Israel "ramp up sanctions, talk openly of regime change, conduct various acts of sabotage and/or covert action against them [...] and basically behave in ways that we would regard as acts of war if anyone did them to us. And then we wonder why Iran's leaders are so reluctant to end their nuclear program."

Journalist Mehdi Hasan explains the perspective of the Iranians:

On your eastern border, the United States has 100,000 troops serving in Afghanistan. On your western border, the US has been occupying Iraq since 2003 and plans to retain a small force of military contractors and CIA operatives even after its official withdrawal next month. Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation, is to the south-east; Turkey, America's Nato ally, to the north-west; Turkmenistan, which has acted as a refuelling base for US military transport planes since 2002, to the north-east. To the south, across the Persian Gulf, you see a cluster of US client states: Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet; Qatar, host to a forward headquarters of US Central Command; Saudi Arabia, whose king has exhorted America to "attack Iran" and "cut off the head of the snake."

Then, of course, less than a thousand miles to the west, there is Israel, your mortal enemy, in possession of over a hundred nuclear warheads and with a history of pre-emptive aggression against its opponents.

According to the Global Peace Index, a list of the most peaceful countries in the world published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, Iran (ranked 119) actually scores quite a bit higher than Israel (145).

Glenn Greenwald points out that "in the past decade, the U.S. and/or Israel have invaded, air attacked, and/or occupied Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip." During this same time period, Iran hasn't invaded, occupied, or attacked anyone. In fact, Iran hasn't invaded anyone in over 200 years, and the current regime has absolutely no history of attacking its neighbors. As one scholar writes, "Iran's foreign policy has been fairly risk-averse since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989."

Greenwald asks his readers to "just imagine the massive retaliatory response that would be triggered if Iran were found to be flying drones over American soil, let alone simultaneously killing U.S. scientists, causing explosions on U.S. soil, backing U.S. terrorist groups, and launching cyber attacks on U.S. nuclear facilities, all while occupying Canada and Mexico with more than 150,000 troops." No wonder Iran wants to protect itself.

Even the Council on Foreign Relations, composed largely of U.S. government officials, says that it's entirely reasonable for Iran to want nukes:

[N]ow that Washington has proved willing to put its provocative doctrine of military pre-emption into practice, Iran's desire for nuclear weapons makes strategic sense. And Tehran cannot be entirely faulted for rushing to acquire them. When the Bush administration invaded Iraq, which was not yet nuclearized, and avoided using force against North Korea, which already was, Iranians came to see nuclear weapons as the only viable deterrent to U.S. military action.

Even Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, himself recently said that if he were an Iranian leader he would want nuclear weapons.

Would a nuclear Iran be the end of the world?

If Iran did obtain nuclear weapons, it would not necessarily lead to an arms race. When Israel got their bomb, it didn't lead to an arms race, and neither did North Korea's nukes. The nuclear domino myth could also become a self-fulfilling prophecy if simply taken at face value as being self-evident.

It's also worth pointing out that nuclear arms are defensive weapons, not offensive. As Stephen Walt tells us, Iran "could not use a bomb against us or against Israel without triggering its own destruction, and there is no sign that Iran's leadership is suicidal. Quite the contrary, in fact: the clerics seem more concerned with staying alive and staying in power than anything else." He also explains that "nuclear weapons are good for deterring attacks on one's own territory (and perhaps the territory of very close allies), but that's about it. They are not good for blackmail, coercive diplomacy, or anything else."

Another scholar writes that Iran "is unlikely to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon because Israel's atomic arsenal is orders of magnitude larger than whatever infant capability Iran could muster in the foreseeable future. Moreover, Israel is believed to possess a secure submarine-based second-strike capability that could devastate Iran" even in the wildly unlikely event that Iran could destroy all of Israel's nukes on the ground.

According to an April 2010 report to the U.S. Congress from the Defense Intelligence Agency, Iranian military doctrine is strictly "defensive, designed to slow an invasion and force a diplomatic solution to hostilities," and Iran has only "a limited capability to project force beyond its borders." Regarding their nuclear strategy, "Iran's nuclear program and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy" [emphasis added].

It's also baseless to conclude that Iran would hand over a nuclear bomb to a terrorist group such as Hezbollah. As one scholar writes in Foreign Affairs, "No nuclear state has ever turned over its most prized military asset to a subsidiary actor or surrendered its exclusive control over a weapon that it worked so hard to obtain. More important, if Hezbollah were to acquire and use a nuclear weapon against Israel, there would be no doubt about the weapon's provenance and Iran would immediately face devastating retaliation." Another writes that "it is hard to think of a scenario in which Iran would benefit from a terrorist client possessing a bomb."

The perils of an attack on Iran

Many experts agree that an attack on Iran would not be a simple matter of a few quick airstrikes, and would have devastating consequences.

Stratfor predicts that an Israeli airstrike would result in Iran mining the Strait of Hormuz, through which almost 20 percent of oil traded worldwide passes. The United States would have to get involved, because only they could engage the Iranian Navy and clear the strait of mines.

Journalist and Middle East expert Robert Dreyfuss writes in the Nation about what an attack on Iran would likely look like:

[A]n Israeli attack would lead to a regional conflagration, in which Iran would use its proxies and allies and, most likely, terrorist units against US and Israeli targets across the region and even worldwide. Hezbollah, in southern Lebanon, would strike Israel, leading to what would end up being an Israeli war against both Syria and Lebanon. Iran's allies in Iraq and Afghanistan could launch attacks against US and NATO forces there, and there's a strong likelihood that Iran would try to attack the oil facilities of the Arab countries across the Persian Gulf. The ripples would spread from there, including soaring oil prices (in the range of $150 to $200 per barrel). For all these reasons, without definitive proof that Iran has actually acquired a bomb and that Iran is planning to use it, an attack by either the United States or Israel makes no strategic sense, especially since many analysts believe that even a sustained attack might not succeed in doing anything more than delaying Iran's program while convincing Tehran to accelerate it and to move its facilities underground into hardened sites, as it appears to be doing in its new facility outside Qom.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said attacking Iran would set back Iran's alleged nuclear program only a year or two, garner the Islamic Republic much-needed regional support, and have a devastating effect on an already weak global economy.

Meir Dagan, the recently retired head of the Mossad, said last January that an attack on Iran was "the stupidest idea" he had ever heard, and that it would set off a "regional war."

Stephen Walt writes that a military strike against Iran would "solidify support for the regime, give it even more incentive to get a nuclear deterrent, and unleash all sorts of unpredictable forces within the region."

Middle East scholar Juan Cole also points out that "an Israeli attack on Iran would willy-nilly push Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into the arms of Tehran."

Eurasia Group president and political scientist Ian Bremmer said, "It is extremely unlikely that Iran's nuclear program could be destroyed" with air strikes alone.


If Iran obtained nuclear weapons, it would have much the same effect as every other country that has gone nuclear, which is to say, very little. The North Koreans haven't used theirs, and neither has any other nuclear power, except of course the United States. That is because they are not offensive weapons, and no one would be foolish enough to compel a nuclear power to use their nukes defensively.

Besides, conventional weapons can be just as destructive as nukes, and no one is getting rid of those. Iran's ability to exert any pressure internationally comes from its conventional forces, just like Israel, and would be little changed with a few nuclear weapons. It is war that's destructive, not weapons, and therefore it is war that should be diligently avoided, through robust diplomacy and engagement. If such diplomacy is perceived domestically as "being weak" and loses a few votes at home, so be it.

This diplomacy can't be done with condescension -- it would be political suicide for the Iranian regime to negotiate with the already unpopular and mistrusted Americans (Iranians still remember the overthrow of Mosaddegh) who tell them they "aren't allowed" to have nuclear weapons, and who hypocritically criticize their domestic policies while remaining silent about allies such as Saudi Arabia. They would simply lose too much political capital. Negotiations should be pursued through Turkey, a close U.S. ally that has an amicable relationship with Iran as well. Military strikes must be avoided at all costs.

A version of this article was published at Advokat Dyavola on January 2.

Copyright © 2012 IDÉ