Omid Memarian

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Q&A:A Holiday in Iran
My interview with blogger and globe-trotter Michelle May (First appeared on IPS New Agency)

OAKLAND, California, Aug 26 (IPS) - When Michelle May, an avid traveler, returned to New York's John F. Kennedy airport after a seven-week trip to Iran this summer, she says she was closely questioned and her luggage searched after officials read on her customs card that she had been to the Islamic Republic.

When May asked why she was being subjected to such scrutiny, a customs agent said, "They were the ones who attacked us."

"This response embarrassed me as an American -- to think that there are people in my country who still today are so confused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and who perpetrated them," May told IPS correspondent Omid Memarian in an interview.

The number of U.S. citizens who visit Iran is less than a 1,000 a year. During her 10-week trip in June and July, May posted pictures of herself with ordinary Iranian people on Facebook, a popular social networking website, and continuously updated her blog, drawing considerable comments and attention.

Although U.S. citizens are not allowed to travel in Iran without an official government-approved tour guide with them at all times, May used her Irish passport and was able to travel independently.

May, 35, has traveled to 48 countries over the past decade. Her latest journey included Iran's northern Caspian Sea and border region with Turkmenistan, to Kurdistan along the border of Iraq, and finally to the dangerous region of Baluchistan.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: How were you welcomed in Tehran's International Airport, as an American, and at JFK airport, as somebody who was coming back from a member of the "axis of evil" club?

MM: In Tehran, I quickly passed through immigration and customs, with fellow passengers helping me carry my luggage, and kind smiles from chador-clad female Iran customs agents.

In contrast, back home at JFK I was treated with great suspicion. One customs agent even asked me if the U.S. government had given me "permission" to go to Iran. In fact, I do not need my government's "permission" to go to Iran. Given the fact I have passed through customs over 100 times in my life and never been searched at all until now leads me to suspect that I was treated this way simply because I was coming from Iran.

IPS: What was your impression about Iranians' opinion of the United States and Americans?

MM: Time and time again I was told by Iranians of varying walks of life that they "love" Americans and they badly want a "relationship" with Americans. I never felt unwelcome and I never felt unsafe. In fact, most people I spent time with seemed to be "proud" of me -- for lack of a better word. Many expressed that they wished there were more American tourists.

IPS: What were their opinions of U.S.-Iran relations?

MM: Many expressed that regardless whether they agree with the U.S. government or not, their feelings about my government's acts have no bearing on how they view the individual people of America. Many said they were sad that they could not have more relations with the everyday people of America due to serious visa constraints on both sides prohibiting much tourism.

IPS: As a woman you have to wear a hijab headscarf and mantou, which covers your body. What was your feeling about it and also the women in different parts of Iran?

MM: At the end of two months, I had gotten used to it and see its benefits -- just as many women of Muslim countries do. It is a great deterrent for unwanted male attention, it shelters you from the intense sun, and lastly, it takes the guesswork out of what to wear each day.

In different parts of the country, the hijab changes. In some parts like Kurdistan, and Baluchistan the hijab is much more colourful and casual. While in urban centres black seems to dominate though many times it comes in the form of a skin-tight mantou, in addition to extremely heavy makeup, and bleach blond hair popping out from under the headscarf. The Iranian hijab is open to personal interpretation, unlike other countries in the region.

IPS: You traveled from Iran's Baluchistan, which has been a target by rebels in recent years, groups like Jondollah, who have carried out a series of kidnappings. Weren't you afraid of being kidnapped?

MM: Everyone told me I should be afraid, but I was also told that if I went that I would have a police escort with me anytime I left my guest house, as well as a police motorcade if I decide to travel from one city to the next. I went and found this to in fact to be true. The police made sure that nothing happened to me.

IPS: What do people think of these groups?

MM: The people I spoke with are scared of them and do not travel to that region because of these groups. Those who believe that the U.S. is funding these groups are angry that an outside force is disrupting the peace in their country.

IPS: Do they follow the U.S. elections?

MM: Yes. Many expressed they felt [Democrat Barack] Obama was a man of peace and therefore the man for the job, while others felt that [Republican John] McCain was their preference since he has a "heavy hand". I was surprised to meet some people who agree with the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan; however, the majority of people I met are very sad about what is happening to their neighbours. They know that the outcome of November's elections may affect them.

IPS: What's people general opinion about their government, and particularly President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

MM: Most people I met said they do not feel that Ahmadinejad represents them. Most said that since he came to power their country has gone backwards and that they are suffering, especially economically. They do not simply blame him, however; most I met blame the mullahs who they feel truly call the shots.

IPS: What kind of people did you meet, and how religious did you find ordinary people in different cities to be?

MM: I met a variety of people, but most I met do not consider themselves to be "very religious." Still, they love Islam and the Koran, yet they do not go to mosque every day; among the younger set, I did not meet many who even pray every day. The "very religious people" I did meet were very kind and open to me; they seemed very tolerant.

IPS: What are major differences you saw in Iran versus neighbouring countries?

MM: From what both Sunni and Shiite people told me, it seems Shiite people are more modern in dress, and more flexible in their interpretation of their religion than their Sunni neighbors. Women also are more present in Shiite society, and seem to be a bigger part of the workforce than the neighbouring countries I have been to. At night-time, society is very alive -- parks are packed with families enjoying meals and music; women are out late, laughing, enjoying themselves, and even smoking hookah

Monday, August 25, 2008

There is no win in Iraq : "Avoiding the V Word"

John McCain who thinks the surge is working in Iraq and the U.S. forces are about to win this conflict has praised Gen. David Petraeus repeatedly, a man who is not sure about the level success in Iraq. Simply because beyond the political gimmicks, there is not a single fair person who thinks there would be wining in Iraq is a short time, should the U.S. pursue the current path there. Petraeus cautions against premature declarations of victory in an interview with Newsweek magazine. I think he is, mainly, pointing out John who has made the "V" in Iraq the major talking point of his foreign policy agenda:
"Gen. David Petraeus has no intention of doing a victory lap on his way out of Iraq. So when his aides proposed a valedictory interview with NEWSWEEK, they made it clear the theme would not pick up from our 2004 cover, "Can This Man Save Iraq?" As "the boss" (which is what his subordinates call him) heads off next month to take over the U.S. military's Central Command, which is in charge of Afghanistan, as well as Iraq, there would be none of this, "So Did This Man Save Iraq?" No surprise there, from a military leader wise enough to quote Seneca in his guidance to the troops and media-savvy enough to warn them, "Don't put lipstick on a pig." (Read the rest of the story here)

" McCain vs Biden: Not All "Foreign Policy Experience" Is Created Equal"

I think Arianna Huffington's piece about Biden-McCain contrast, is one of the most articulate pieces about the Democratic VP pick:
"The past seven-plus years have shown us that "foreign policy experience," in and of itself, isn't all it's cracked up to be. For Exhibit A of this look no further than George Bush's most "experienced" foreign policy advisor: Dick Cheney. How's that working out? And Don Rumsfeld had spent lots of time on foreign policy practice field too.

What's great about the Biden pick isn't just that he has "foreign policy expertise," it's what kind of expertise he has, how he uses it, and how useful his expertise is for the unique challenges we currently face around the world. His approach favors diplomacy and engagement - backed up by a toughness that allowed him to confront Milosevic face-to-face." (Read the rest of the piece here)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"The New Great Game"

This is really a new great game! Russia-Georgia conflict has certainly changed the power discourse in the Central Asia. It has already affected the US- Russia fragile coalition to deter Iran. Now, the U.S. has to think of a new set of policy to reframe Iran's role in the region, and also and deter Russian's endless ambitions. Surprisingly, there is one common feeling between the United States and Iran, at least at this particular time, which is their mistrust about Russia. On the other hand, Iran and Russian's alliance is not based on strategic foundation. During the past two hundred years ago, Iranian have suffered from the Russian Empire repeatedly. But will the U.S. take advantage of the new situation? Read Newsweek's article addressing this issue below: 
"History, especially Caucasian, Caspian and Central Asian history has restarted with a vengeance. The dynamics of confrontation and conciliation in Iran's neighborhood are now every bit as complicated as they were in the 19th century, when an expanding Russian empire came up against the intrigues, alliances and sometimes overt military actions of imperial Britain in the rivalry that became known as "The Great Game." What's needed as we start reshaping American policy to fit the new circumstances is a reality check or, perhaps better said, a realpolitik check." (Read the rest of the story here)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Joe Biden, Obama's VP!

Finally Barack Obama, announced his VP last night, a man who is well kwon mostly for his credentials in foreign policy. Although, Senator McCain and Senator Biden, both embrace a long time involvement in FP issues, they do have seprate and fundementaly different styles. The below video shows, for instance, how he looks at Iraq war:

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Friday, August 22, 2008

"No medals for the IOC"

Minky Worden Minky, media director at Human Rights Watch and editor of "China's Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges," that I interviewed her weeks ago for IPS, has published an op-ed piece in the International Herald Tribune about China, Olympics and the pledges that did not come true. She says in spite of pledges of media and Internet freedom made to the International Olympic Committee while bidding for the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese authorities are continuing to block access to Web sites of some international human rights organizations, press freedom groups and overseas Chinese-language news Web sites:
"The IOC is no stranger to creating new structures to deal with its failings. In the 1980s, major doping scandals led to negative headlines and the forced return of the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson's gold medal. To save the Olympic movement, the IOC helped set up the World Anti-Doping Agency.

The corruption scandal that tainted the awarding of the 2002 Winter Games to Salt Lake City led to the expulsions and sanctions of some 20 Olympic committee members. The IOC set up an ethics committee in the wake of the public outcry." (Read the rest of this piece here.)

Exclusive Premiere: An Anthem For Change

New Obama ad featuring a number of celebrities has just come out. It's beautiful and touching, however long and repetitive. Worth watching though! Read Dave Stewart's story about this video here...

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Response to 9/11 Offers Outline of McCain Doctrine

An extensive review about McCain's war enthusiasm in the New York Times. This article shows what kind of president McCain would be, should he go to the office this January.
"Whether through ideology or instinct, though, Mr. McCain began making his case for invading Iraq to the public more than six months before the White House began to do the same. He drew on principles he learned growing up in a military family and on conclusions he formed as a prisoner in North Vietnam. He also returned to a conviction about “the common identity” of dangerous autocracies as far-flung as Serbia and North Korea that he had developed consulting with hawkish foreign policy thinkers to help sharpen the themes of his 2000 presidential campaign." (Read the rest of the article here)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

My Interview With Deborah Campbell: How Hezbollah's Triumph is Blowback for U.S. Policy
(First published on Huffington Post)

Why after the Israel-Lebanon 34-day war two years ago, and particularly after the Doha accord in May, which restored Hezbollah to the Lebanese government and essentially gave it the veto power it demanded, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been the most popular figure anywhere in the Arab world?
After returning from months in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, Deborah Campbell the author of This Heated Place, a narrative exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia, in an interview with me spoke about the meteoric rise of Hezbollah in the aftermath of the 2006 war, the Doha agreement and the prisoner exchange with Israel.

Campbell has written for The Economist, New Scientist, Ms. magazine, the Guardian and Asia Times, and recently reported for Harper's on the two months she spent "embedded" with Iraqi refugees. Over the past seven years, she has extensively chronicled the fault lines in the Middle East from Iran to Palestine, immersing herself for extended periods in the societies she writes about.

Omid Memarian: How did the 2006 war with Israel affect Lebanese society?

Deborah Campbell: Obviously it was devastating, both in terms of the economy and the psychology of the society. That summer, Lebanon finally appeared to be recovering from the years of civil war and was anticipating a banner year for tourism. Instead, the country endured billions of dollars in infrastructure destruction and once again the tourists fled, as did Lebanese themselves. Twelve hundred Lebanese were killed, the vast majority of them civilians. And the divisions in the society returned to the forefront, with part of the population supporting Hezbollah as their defenders against Israel and another part blaming Hezbollah for provoking an Israeli attack. At the same time, the fact that Israel, with one of the world's strongest armies backed by the military and diplomatic power of the United States, was unable to defeat a small band of a few thousand Hezbollah fighters came as a shock to the entire region.

In a single month Israel managed to lose its mythical aura of invincibility, which was just as important, and perhaps more important, to its security than its nuclear arsenal. Israel has yet to recover, and now we see Olmert stepping down. I would say his resignation has just as much to do with the failures of that war, where Israeli soldiers were so unprepared that they had to raid Lebanese shops for food, as his corruption investigation. It was the soldiers themselves who led the protests against him after the war.

OM: Given that, as you say, part of the Lebanese society sees Hezbollah as the cause of the vast destruction in southern Lebanon, two years after the war and particularly after the recent prisoner exchange, how is Hezbollah perceived?

DC: There is no question that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is the most popular figure anywhere in the Arab world, and he's not even the leader of a state. For many Arabs, including Lebanese, he is the only person who has successfully stood up to Israel, starting by ending Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, then by forcing the Israeli army to a standstill in 2006, and finally through the prisoner exchange. What did Israel get out of this deal? Two dead soldiers. When I went to the south of Lebanon in July I saw posters that read "Nasrallah is the guarantee of freedom. Olmert is the guarantee of humiliation." Another, regarding the prisoner exchange, read, "Lebanon is shedding tears of joy. Israel is shedding tears of pain." The scene in Beirut on the day of the prisoner exchange, with cars racing through the street waving flags and girls hanging out of the windows, reminded me of a country that had just won the World Cup.

But particularly among the Sunni community in Lebanon there are those who feel enormously threatened by the shifting balance of power caused by the rising esteem and influence of the Shia population. For decades the Shia were seen as the shoeshine boys and street-cleaners, and now not only have the Shia had their honor restored but they are becoming educated and rising in social status. Hezbollah provides scholarships for young Shias to the best universities in Lebanon--not so they can join the military side or even the party, but so they can return to their communities and help them develop.

All of this is challenging the social order, which is very threatening for some people, particularly Sunnis, who are traditionally second only to the Christians in this sectarian-based society. Now you are seeing a very dangerous trend where some Sunnis are developing jihadist tendencies, with the reported support of Saudi money, which is practically limitless given the price of oil. In some Sunni villages women are even veiling their faces. This is new. At the same time other Sunnis openly support America and Israel. Essentially, any ally they can find against Hezbollah.

OM: Is Hassan Nasrallah popular among Muslims or Christians?

DC: I talked to a Sunni economist, educated at the London School of Economics, who calls Nasrallah a demi-god. "The right man for the right moment" is how he characterized him. His sentiment, shared by many, is that Nasrallah never makes a promise he doesn't keep, and that he's incorruptible. This distinguishes him from the rest of the power elites in Lebanon, many of whom are ex-warlords who keep recycling back into power. These guys live like rock stars. On the Christian side you have a huge number, the supporters of Michel Aoun, who are the main allies of Hezbollah. They don't seem at all threatened by the rise in Shia influence and don't think it will mean an end to girls wearing bikinis on the beach. This is about power, not religion.

OM: What are the main foreign forces that directly or indirectly influence Lebanese politics?

DC: Lebanon is a very small country of about 4 million, the size of a middling city, and it has long been manipulated by powerful outside forces. For Lebanese politicians, it's hard to resist the temptation that if you can't win on your own you find a stronger ally who can help you win. Of course Israel is the giant next door, and the reason Hezbollah exists. Hezbollah only came into existence after Israel invaded in 1982 and starting killing the Shia in the south, who had initially welcomed them as a weapon against the unsettling Palestinian presence. Syria, which sees Lebanon as part of its traditional territory, occupied Lebanon until it was forced out after the murder of the billionaire former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Syria still plays an important role, though less so--and there is a growing rapprochement between the Lebanese and Syrian government.

The United States, as in most of the region, remains the senior western power, both as Israel's ally and by supporting, for example, people like Saad Hariri, the son of Rafiq Hariri, head of the Sunni Future Movement party. Though it should be said that US power is visibly waning throughout the region, and France seems more and more influential especially under Sarkozy. I mentioned Saudi money--Rafiq Hariri made his early fortune in Saudi Arabia before privatizing Beirut's prime real estate and transferring it into his own hands. Saudi money is everywhere in the region and one of the most under-reported phenomena, perhaps because they don't exactly give press conferences and perhaps because they are still allied with the US. For now. In affairs of power, most marriage are of convenience.

And Iran has supported Hezbollah from the beginning. You can see posters of Ayatollah Khomeini in the Dahiya, the Shia-dominated southern suburbs of Beirut. The notion that Iran is pulling the puppet strings on Hezbollah doesn't have much merit however--it's a confluence of interests, and Hezbollah runs itself with an efficiency that is absolutely without precedent in the region. As a journalist you quickly understand that you are not dealing with a bunch of rag-tag fighters. These guys are professional, disciplined, and smart. But to some extent you could view Lebanon, like Iraq, as another battleground in the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In both cases, Iran is currently winning.

OM: There have many discussions about the way Hezbollah, as a non-state actor, must be disarmed in order to bring peace to the region. Do people support this idea?

DC: Since the Doha accord in May, which restored Hezbollah to the Lebanese government and essentially gave it the veto power it demanded, nobody is talking about disarming Hezbollah. All of the politicians in Lebanon genuflected in return for photo-ops during the prisoner exchange. This exchange was an enormous publicity coup for Hezbollah, it can't be overstated. You won't find many in Lebanon who will argue that the Lebanese army could take on Israel, and that threat is omnipresent. Of course it would be helpful if all the actors in the Middle East put down their arms, but we live in reality.

OM: Can you see any situation in which Hezbollah would decide to disarm?

DC: Hassan Nasrallah mentioned in a speech recently that he would be willing to work with the Lebanese army on security. During the street-fighting in May between Hezbollah fighters and Hariri's men--who were so badly prepared that I'm still wondering who put them up to this--Hezbollah immediately transferred control of the areas they took over to the army. Perhaps, if Lebanon ever sets aside its entrenched sectarian system of governance--we can dream, right?

OM: In Western countries Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization whereas in Arab countries it is seen as a legitimate force. How have these two polarized views prevented understanding of the realities on the ground?

DC: Well obviously Hezbollah represents a constituency that has legitimate fears and concerns, whatever we think of how they behave as a result. It is always the case that small groups use asymmetrical tactics against armies. As we know, Hezbollah built its strength on its social networks, delivering the services that the government cannot or will not provide to the impoverished Shia population. In the eyes of that population Hezbollah are their only defense against outside aggression, because no one else gives a damn. Labels are being used to dismiss the underlying concerns and until those concerns are addressed you will see non-state actors take over where government fail. At the same time, if a government did what Hezbollah has done, confronting Israel and the US, they would likely be branded as terrorists as well. Ultimately, and we should know this by now, we create peace by talking to our enemies, not our friends.

OM: You were recently in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. How do the Arab populations in these countries view Barack Obama, John McCain and US policy in general?

DC: Interestingly, when I arrived in Jordan I had dinner with a Palestinian businessman who ran security companies in Iraq. He was very pleased that McCain wanted to stay in Iraq for a hundred years--it's good for business. But the man everyone is talking about is Obama. Keep in mind that Arabs are not free of chauvinism against black people. And while some have read his books and most think he is more reasonable than McCain, they aren't expecting miracles. They were up in arms over his statements at the AIPAC conference about an undivided Jerusalem. Palestine is still the raw wound in the Middle East. The news stories of Palestinians living in the prison of Gaza, of Israeli settlers beating elderly farmers, and Israeli soldiers raiding orphanages, schools and shopping malls in the West Bank continue to incite rage at a time when the US is seen as increasingly irrelevant in the region. Meanwhile, if you go to Dubai, who do you see doing deals? The Chinese.

(An excerpt from the interview first appeared on IPS News Agency)

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Georgia-Russia Conflict: Moscow Challenges America's Global and Regional Authority

Not the Taliban in Afghanistan, insurgents in Iraq or even Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestine; but Russia is challenging America's authority worldwide, mocking its supposed leadership in international organizations like the United Nations and revealing an unpleasant double standard image of the United States.

In a Security Council meeting on August 10th, Zelmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, questioned Russia's objectives in expanding aggression beyond the South Ossetia region. He referred to a confidential call between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in which Lavrov had said that the elected president of Georgia "must go." "It's completely unacceptable and crossed the line," Khalilzad said. "Was Russia's objective [a] regime change in Georgia, the overthrow of the democratically elected Government of that country?"

Russia's Ambassador Churkin's response was short, clear and brutally naked: "'Regime change' was an American expression that Russia did not use."

When Khalilzad repeated his question, Churkin mocked him, saying "I have given a complete response and perhaps the United States' representative had not been listening when he had given his response, perhaps he had not had his earpiece on."

Two days after that, the U.N. Inner Press Service said that "Russian media reported that foreign fighters, including Americans, were found among the dead in Tskhinvali. Americans, who were probably either mercenaries or instructors in the Georgian armed forces."
Khalilzad responded to the Russian media reports with
"We hear a lot of propaganda. We've heard the U.S. gave the green light to this operation... I have nothing specific with regards to these reports, but I would not conclude that they are true. We did not have any prior knowledge or were not consulted by Georgia."
In the meantime, reports confirmed arms sales by Israel, America's closest ally in the region, to Georgia:
With the eruption of fighting between Russia and Georgia, Israel has found itself in an awkward position as a result of its arms sales to Georgia, caught between its friendly relations with Georgia and its fear that the continued sale of weaponry will spark Russian retribution in the form of increased arms sales to Iran and Syria.(IPS News Agency)

Russia is a major provider of nuclear and missile technology to Iran and Syria. Just a few month ago Russia vetoed a U.S. backed resolution against Zimbabwe, regarding its latest presidential elections.

Yet the United States accused Russia of something that it does on a regular basis. "Regime change" is a very well-known part of the U.S. foreign policy; people in Washington pursue it in different ways, from Latin America, to Iraq and Afghanistan, and --- if they could -- Iran. Some regime changes are successful; some are not and have disastrous consequences. Seymour Hersh's recent article on the United States' support of armed groups fighting against the Iranian government is the latest example of this kind of foreign policy.

Russians politics, on the other hand, has a tough, rough and pre-internet style.

The fact is that the United States ignores the role of international organizations and pursues a systematic double standard set of policies in areas like human rights and democracy. Therefore, it cannot preach to other powers like Russia and China for committing the same offenses.

The more the United States ignores its own advice, the more it undermines America's global authority, which has been growing since the end of World War II.

During the last 8 years, the moral authority of the U.S. particularly has been undermined by the Bush administration. Continuation of this foreign policy has brought humiliation, failure, mistrust and hatred for America and undermined its efficacy in international organizations.
Consequently, the U.S. alliance with Russia over Iran's nuclear and missile program seems rather fragile. Russia's tone towards the U.S. ambassador is a reflection of a bigger reality that explains why Moscow has never been willing to abide by U.S. demands when it comes to issues like the management of Iran.

Considering all of America's difficulties in the Middle East region , Washington's alienation of Moscow will heighten tensions between the two countries in the Middle East and Central Asia.

France's role in this short conflict also illustrates the emergence of E.U. as an organization enjoying a higher level of moral authority among a larger number of countries. The U.S. is arguably no longer the most effective nation when it comes to interfering, influencing and finally resolving conflicts among nations. This is just one of the lessons the U.S. could learn from the Georgia-Russia conflict. That is, of course, if the "earpieces" are on.

(Video Below: Georgian President Mikheil Saakasvhili tells CNN's John Roberts that how the United States is losing the Central Asia, and what they expect the world and the U.S. to do...)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

US/IRAN:Nothing Behind U.S. Allegations?
Analysis by Omid Memarian (This piece was published in IPS News Agency and reprinted on,, CASMII,, Global News Blog

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 13 (IPS) - While the United States has repeatedly accused Iran of providing lethal weapons to Shiite militias, last week, U.S. officials once again failed to provide solid evidence for this charge, raising questions about the actual level of Iran’s meddling in Iraq.

Last Wednesday, Alejandro Daniel Wolff, deputy permanent U.S. representative to the U.N., accused Tehran of funnelling lethal weapons into Iraq. "During the recent operations in Basra, Sadr city, and Maysan, Iraqi troops uncovered convincing evidence that Iranian lethal aid has continued to flow into Iraq," he said.

Iran called the allegations "absurd" and a "routine practice" on the part of the U.S. "Whereas Iran has proved, time and again, its good intention to help Iraq’s stabilisation, development and prosperity through close cooperation with the Iraqi government in different fields -- as well as to help Iraqi people overcome their immense difficulties -- the U.S. government unwarrantedly insists on its unacceptable behaviour in scape-goating others, including Iran, for its own wrong policies in Iraq," Mehdi Danesh Yazdi, Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. responded in a statement.

Those mistakes include, "the continuation of the presence of foreign forces in the country and certain wring policies and practices on the part of foreign forces there," Yazdi explained.

Meanwhile, Iraqi officials who enjoy a close relationship with their Shiite neighbour have ignored the U.S. accusations, believing that if anything can make Iraq secure, it is diplomacy and negotiation with regional governments.

Hamid Al-Bayati, permanent representative of Iraq to the U.N., who did not specifically comment on the U.S. representative’s allegations, told IPS that there are "terrorists" who are coming across the borders and Iraq’s neighbours could scrutinise these people and put more control on their borders -- expanding the circle of countries who are responsible for the current security situation in Iraq.

"There is a mechanism which is agreed between Iraq and these countries, on what these countries can do through the meeting of interior ministers of these countries, through the expanded neighbouring countries conferences which took place in Kuwait and anther one that is going to take place in Jordan in fall," Al-Bayati added. "We are going to continue these negotiations through diplomatic channels."

Iraq is viewed by many as a proxy for Iran-U.S. hostilities over the past four years, and Iranian officials have called the U.S. presence in Iraq the main reason for sectarian violence. Iraqis have asked both countries not to use Iraqi soil for their proxy war.

When asked whether an improvement in Iran-U.S. relations could help boost security in Iraq, Al-Bayati told IPS that Iraq facilitated three rounds of meetings between Iran and the U.S. inside Iraq and hoped that a fourth round -- which was postponed -- would take place. "We hope that any improvement in the relationship between Iran and the U.S. will help the situation in Iraq," he added.

On the Iranian side, U.S. allegations have been questioned for lack of solid evidence. "It is noteworthy that despite these groundless allegations, to date no single credible evidence has ever been presented to substantiate them," Yazdi stated in response to the recent U.S. claims of Iran’s destructive role in Iraq. "To the contrary, several high ranking Iraqi officials are on record, stressing Iran’s constructive role in the country and rejecting the solid allegation."

"The United States accuses Iran because the two countries have as yet not resolved their outstanding disputes," Dariush Zahedi, a research fellow at the Institute of International Studies in at University of California at Berkeley, told IPS. "The accusation is designed to stem Iran’s rising regional influence, which the U.S. itself helped to enhance by overthrowing two of the Islamic republic’s most implacable enemies -- the Taliban and Saddam [Hussein] regimes."

However, the U.S. claims the activities of Iran’s Islamic Republican Quds force contradicts Iran’s public stated policy of supporting the Iraqi government. "In addition, during these operations, numerous Jish-al-Mahdi militia fighters and leaders of Jish-al-Mahdi-associated highly trained special groups fled to Iran where they received sanctuary," said Wolff in a recent U.N. Security Council meeting.

"As far as the U.S. is concerned, the accusation has the advantage of undermining Iran’s image in the eyes of Iraqi Shiites by blaming Iran for the nefarious activities of the discredited elements in the Mahdi army," explained Zahedi about the nature of U.S. claims against Iran.

"The allegations are also designed to provide credence for America’s narrative that depicts Iran as a deceitful, untrustworthy and hypocritical power which, while professing to support the central government in Baghdad, trains, funds, and arms [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki’s enemies," he said.

"Iran’s role in Iraq is a by-product of U.S.-Iran relations," Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, told IPS. "When U.S-Iran relations have stalled, Iran’s role in Iraq would likely be unconstructive and when U.S.-Iran relations are cooperative, then Iran’s role in Iraq might be cooperative. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the U.S. has to pull out from Iraq."

While U.S. officials accuse Iran of destabilising Iraq, some analysts say the fact that the sectarian violence in Iraq has diminished -- although not extinguished -- since the U.S. troops ‘surge’ is partially because of Iran’s positive role in supporting al-Maliki’s government, a fact that is ignored by the U.S.

"The security situation has improved, not simply because of the surge, but because of a host of other factors, including the successful completion of ethnic cleansing in key areas and America’s success in buying-off former Sunni insurgents," Zahedi told IPS.

Improved "economic conditions, the improving performance of the Iraqi military, the decision on the part of Iran to lend greater support to the Iraqi central government instead of Shiite militias, as well as blunders on the part of al-Qaeda and setbacks suffered by Moqtada al-Sadr," are also key factors according to Zahedi.

Regardless of neighbouring countries’ involvement, the mistrust between the Kurds and the Arabs on the one hand and the Shiites and the Sunnis on the other still runs deep in Iraq and, without the requisite political reconciliation, has the potential of unleashing strong centrifugal forces that can once again transform Iraq into a failed state.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

GEORGIA: Saakashvili Asked To Step Down
(My piece about the latest transformations in Russia-China conflict)

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 12 (IPS) - A few hours after the 15 member U.N. Security Council discussed a draft resolution aimed to ask Russia to stop using massive force in Georgia Monday evening behind closed doors, Russia said it would stop military action. This came Tuesday, after five days of bombing and destruction of cities and military bases in Georgia and the deaths of more than 2000 people.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Tuesday that the military had punished Georgia enough for its attack on South Ossetia. Western-allied Georgia had launched an offensive late Thursday to regain control over the Georgian province with close ties to Russia.

The violence prompted the Security Council to meet five times over the course of the past four days to discuss the violence, which was feared to be spreading beyond the South Ossetia region.
Questioning Russia's 'objective' embittered the U.S.-Russia interaction in the Security Council. On Aug. 10, Zelmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., and Vitaly Churkin his Russian counterpart barely avoided a heated exchange when Khalilzad referred to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s phone conversations with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that morning as raising serious questions about Russia’s objectives in the conflict.

Khalilzad mentioned that Lavrov had said that President Mikheil Saakashvili, the democratically elected President of Georgia, "must go". He said that it’s "completely unacceptable" and "crossed the line".

Khalilzad asked Churkin, "Was Russia’s objective regime change in Georgia, the overthrow of the democratically elected Government of that country?" adding that, "The Russian Federation was threatening Georgia’s territorial integrity, and the Council must act decisively to reaffirm it."

In response Churkin described Khalilzad’s statement as polemical in nature. "Regarding the ceasefire, the Russian Federation’s statement had explained the formula that would lead to an end of bloodshed -- Georgia’s withdrawal from South Ossetia and agreement on the non-use of force in South Ossetia and Abkhazia," said Churkin.

"Regime change" was an American expression that Russia did not use, Churkin stressed. (To read the whole story click here)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Protest Against Russia-Georgia Conflict in front of the United Nations

Hundreds of people protested before the United Nations in order to ask for halting the aggression in Georgia by Russia this morning. The Security Council is going to meet at 5 p.m. today. However, regarding Russia's influence in the Security Council it it very unlikely that they change their path and come to any tangible conclusion.... I took the above picture when I was passing by the crowd to go to my office at the U.N.

 More news: 

Friday, August 08, 2008

CHINA: Greening of the Games
(My piece about the Olympics and the environmental concerns, appreared on IPS 

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 7 (IPS) - Though human rights and environmental issues -- such as censorship and pollution in Beijing -- have been the two major focuses of criticism levelled against the Chinese government during the lead up to the Olympic games, Achim Steiner, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is expected to address some of Beijing’s environmental successes during the opening ceremonies.

In continuing support for the Greening of the Games initiative, Steiner will take part in the Olympic Torch Relay before attending the opening ceremony. He will also meet with Zhou Shengxian, China's environment minister, and Wan Gang, the minister for science and technology. (read the rest of the story here)

Thursday, August 07, 2008

6 Reasons Why I Would Vote for Paris Hilton Instead of McCain
(First published on HuffingtonPost)

1- I like a transparent president and damn, Paris sure is. She is eager to share information about anything that happens to her and has almost nothing to hide, as proven by her [in]famous videotape. She is accountable and accepts the consequences of her actions, as shown by her stint in jail a few months ago. McCain, on the other hand, has never admitted that his support of the war has been harmful for millions of people and disastrous for the US economy.

2- Paris is very cool with her fans; she doesn't piss them off. She is a paparazzo's sweetheart. What kind of President can McCain be if he angers a family who is among his hardcore supporters? How can somebody contribute to a campaign that wastes donated money and publicly embarrasses the donors' children?

3- When it comes to foreign policy, I imagine Paris sitting down with world leaders. She definitely won't bore them to death, and they will fully listen to every single word she says. I imagine that for many of them it will be hard to say "NO" to Paris Hilton.

4- Hilton's advertisements are smart, direct, tough, funny, hot and more original than McCain's campaign ad. If Paris's ad team was working for McCain they could make more buzz in the media and solve McCain's problem regarding media attention. I like a president who knows how to approach media.

5- If making simplistic mistakes is supposed to become a tradition after President Bush, I prefer Paris Hilton to Senator McCain. It's more acceptable and fun to hear stupid mistakes from somebody like Paris Hilton than John McCain, who is proud of decades of experience in military and engagement in foreign policy. If she says "Iraqi-Pakistani border," or get confused about the difference between Shiite and Sunnis and even the timing of surge in Iraq, I might smile or laugh because it's easy to forgive her.

6- And, finally, she is "hot" and she will be a "hot" president. And who wouldn't like that?

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Q&A:"Longing for the Past Yet Belonging to the Present"
Interview with Niloufar Talebi, editor of Iranian literature, published on IPS News Agency

NEW YORK, Aug 1 (IPS) - Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, thousands of intellectuals, activists and poets have left Iran, many fleeing to Europe and the United States. A new book brings together the work of 18 Iranian poets from this diaspora to share their experiences with a wider audience.

"Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World" (North Atlantic Books, August 2008) is a bilingual (Persian/English) anthology, edited and translated by Niloufar Talebi, who is passionate about making contemporary Iranian voices heard in translation.

She founded the Translation Project in 2003, a nonprofit literary organisation and production company with innovative projects in books, theatre and multimedia.

Telebi takes translations beyond the text, creating multimedia projects based on translated poetry, drawing on the Iranian tradition of Naghali, or dramatic story-telling. She studied comparative literature and trained in theatre, now marrying the two skills to give Naghali (which traditionally dramatises Classical Persian poetry) new content, and fusing it with Western dramatic elements to reflect the Iranian-American experience in modern society.

IPS correspondent Omid Memarian spoke with Talebi about exile, censorship and the age-old relationship between literature and politics. Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: Can you tell us how the revolution and the political situation in Iran have affected these poets' work?

NT: The poets in "Belonging" left their home country, and are self-defined as exiles, expatriates, immigrants or refugees. So their perspective is naturally politicised, some having more of a political bent than others. So, for the most part, political themes were abundant in their work, depending on how you define 'political'. One can argue that any act of citizenry is a political act. Furthermore, three decades have gone by since the defining political event leading to their migration -- the 1979 Revolution -- and so they also reflect new themes in their work, themes that have to do with their recreating themselves, with their coming to terms with being citizens of the world. As the title of the book suggests, they live in the zone between longing for their past and "belonging" in their present lives. In selecting the poems for this volume, I decidedly featured a balance of political and non-political poems, including erotic, lyrical and humorous poems.

IPS: What are the main characteristics of Iranian poetry after the revolution?

NT: In my research for the anthology, I was able to find 140 poets living outside Iran and reciting in Persian. No doubt this is a partial list, from which I translated about 35 poets, and eventually featured 18 in "Belonging", six from each of the three generations reciting. What I noticed about the work of the poets I studied for "Belonging" is that poets practice a variety of poetic styles, and that the middle and younger generations take great advantage of the artistic freedom they have without the kind of censorship they would be subject to inside Iran, which is different than the ways in which writers inside Iran work around censorship.

IPS: How did you choose the poets and tell me about your criteria?

NT: The poetry was chosen based on poetic strength. The poets were selected with regard to the growth in their work over time.

IPS: Do you think reading Iranian poetry, at this particular time, can be a way to understand the Iranian diaspora better?

NT: Well for one thing, poetry is where the human experience is recorded. So to know a people, it makes sense to take a good look at their poetry. Contemporary Iranian poets are by and large unheard voices, whether they live in Iran or outside, and whether they recite in Persian or in other languages. We've read a number of memoirs by the Iranian diaspora, but seldom have we read their poetry. So I see Iranian poetry as an untapped source of information and illumination, with the power to connect people rather than divide them.

IPS: We don't see much Iranian literature in western countries like the United States.

NT: Bottom line, the literature in translation has to find readership in order to have presence and impact. So the questions to ask are whether enough work appears in translation, whether they are the 'right' works for the readiness of the receiving culture during a particular historical and aesthetic period, and whether the translations are effective. Then there is the question of the editor/publisher's willingness to publish and invest in works of translation (which compose only 0.3 to 3 percent of books published annually in the U.S.).

IPS: Why is such an anthology especially relevant now?

NT: Immigrant or exiled writers who continue to write in their mother tongue don't always have the opportunity to communicate their work to readers in their host countries, since language is the tool of their métier. "Belonging" opens a channel of communication between readers of English and Iranian poets who live outside Iran and recite in Persian. Being a bilingual volume, it also familiarises the Iranian diaspora with the next generation of Iranian poets. The diaspora tends to honour literary figures of the time of the 1979 Revolution and before. Their access to current information is compromised due to the scatteredness of the population, and their cultural knowledge is sometimes frozen in time. Even second-generation, foreign-born Iranians adhere to their parents' set of favourite authors, which is of course important and not to be taken for granted, but it's also important for them to be exposed to emerging voices.

IPS: What do you see as the relationship between literature and politics in Iran or elsewhere?

NT: Literature and art have always played a role in social protest, in political expression, in Iran and elsewhere. Accordingly, censorship is a factor in the relationship between artistic expression and the state. Though art and literature have been suppressed throughout history, works of art have nevertheless managed to be created, persisting under the worst conditions. The same is true of the arts in Iran. Over the past three decades, writers who stayed in Iran have continued creating literature under censorship, the number of women writers has multiplied, and a huge body of criticism about writers living both inside and outside Iran has emerged. Many banned works, or works that are not put through the Bureau of Guidance for publication permission are embedded in blogs, accessible to the whole world, until the blogs are discovered and shut down -- and then they are embedded in new blogs. So all in all, despite tremendous obstacles, Iranians have found ways to express themselves in their art.

IPS: Who is your audience? The Iranian diaspora? Or every literature and poetry lover?

NT: Both! American and Iranian-American readers. I hope the average reader, and not only the poetry connoisseur, is able to connect with "Belonging". Poetry should not intimidate; it should invite readers.