Nine Windows on Iran

by Ed Kinane

Will the US attack Iran?

The question is obscene. But recently, SPC's monthly forum grappled with it. One presenter, an articulate and knowledgeable Iranian-American, doubts that the US will attack. SU political scientist Mehrzad Bouroujerdi offered numerous reasons why doing so would be ill-advised.

Professor Bouroujerdi's remarks would be reassuring if US foreign policy were rational. But US policy tends to be driven not by reason but by the greed and vanity of a mostly unaccountable few.

As John Amidon and others at the SPC forum pointed out, war looms when
the polls of a president plummet;
the scion of a political/corporate dynasty lacks moral compass;
the supreme chicken hawk glories in being commander-in-chief;
so-called "Christians" get Armageddon on the brain;
when the public needs to be distracted from failed policies at home and from quagmires abroad.
War especially looms when the target sits on one of the world's larger oil reserves.

Bush, Inc. may know its weapon systems. But it seems oblivious to the history, culture and people of Iran (formerly Persia). It's oblivious to the human factors that will likely upset its grandiose schemes.

Aware of my own vast ignorance, I've been reading up on Iran. In the following I want to mention some books that other PNL readers might also find fascinating. Each provides a window on Iran.

Historical Background
To put US/Iran relations in context, I read Stephen Kinzer's All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. Here in the US few recall the 1954 CIA coup against Iran's populist and democratically-elected leader, Mohammad Mossadegh. Trouble is, Iranian memories aren't so short or so convenient.

Nor can Iranians forget the US-owned regime that succeeded Mossadegh. Ryszard Kapuscinski's Shah of Shahs tells of the rise and fall of Reza Pahlavi - his imperial ambition; his squanderings; his attempts to militarize, industrialize and secularize Iran; his brutal secret police, the SAVAK; his isolation from his people; his exile.

The Shah displaced Mossadegh; in turn, Ayatollah Khomeini and his mullahs displaced the Shah. Robin Wright has written widely on Iran. Her In the Name of God: the Khomeini Decade interprets that tumultuous era and the charismatic figure who inspired his people and made the western world tremble - at least with rage. Probably no US journalist knows more firsthand about Iran and its people than the intrepid Ms.Wright.

So far I've mentioned only western authors. But we need to hear Iranian voices. One such voice - a singular one - is that of Massoumeh Ebtekar. Dr. Ektekar is an immunologist, partly raised in the States. Her Takeover in Tehran: The Inside Story of the 1979 US Embassy Capture, published in Canada, provides a perspective seldom heard in the US. Dr. Ebtekar, then an undergrad, was the on-site English-language media contact for those students who (more or less nonviolently) took over the Embassy and held its large staff captive for 444 days.

Thanks to the foregoing titles I could more critically read Kenneth M. Pollack's The Persian Puzzle: the Conflict between Iran and America. Although Pollack has never been to Iran and can't read Farsi, for seven years he was a CIA Persian Gulf military analyst. One of his earlier books made the case for invading Iraq. Nonetheless The Persian Puzzle is a challenging, scholarly tome - valuable for seeing how some US military strategists think.


Iran's Majority: Women
In the early eighties, egged on by the US, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. The long war led to hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers. Today most Iranians (and most Iraqis) are women. Many have lived hardscrabble lives in isolated rural enclaves.

In Women of Deh Koh: Lives in an Iranian Village, anthropologist Erika Friedl provides 12 interconnecting narratives. The narratives are intimate but unsentimental. The harsh realities aren't sugarcoated.

The women of Deh Koh probably can't even imagine the affluent, westernized women of Tehran's northern suburbs. Two such urban women have produced extraordinary literature, extraordinary mirrors of their privilege and of their secularized sensibilities.

Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books was a New York Times bestseller. It tells of Nafisi's clandestine group of university women studying the forbidden novels of James, Austen, Nabokov, and Fitzgerald.

I devoured Reading Lolita, an engaging and literary page-turner…but it angered me. Nafisi portrays women of a particular sliver of society evading the ayatollahs' patriarchal repression. But she glosses over the Shah's regime - a regime whose patronage helped generate that sliver and whose arrogance provoked the Islamicist backlash.

Marjane Satrapi is also of the elite. But her eye is ironic, self-penetrating, and class conscious. Satrapi's wry and elegant memoirs have been translated from Farsi into English. She conveys her edgy life in black and white comic book drawings accompanied by sparse text.

Satrapi's Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis 2 derive their titles from the ancient capital of Persia. They portray the artist as a young woman, a woman with a social conscience. She comes of age under oppression and within a family and society torn between east and west, between tradition and modernity. Like Iraqis, Iranians are more complex, diverse and cultured than George W. ever dreamed of. Like Iraqis, Iranians will surely be formidable foes if the US attacks. Before we let our tax money be used to maim and kill these proud people, we might make their acquaintance.
Book notes
(in the order mentioned; all paperback)
All the Shah's Men. Stephen Kinzer. 258 pp. Wiley, 2003.
Shah of Shahs. Ryszard Kapuscinski. 152 pp. Vintage, 1985 (orig. in Polish, 1982).
In the Name of God. Robin Wright. 286 pp. Simon & Schuster, 1989.
Takeover in Tehran. Massoumeh Ebtekar. 256 pp. Talonbooks, 2000.
The Persian Puzzle. Kenneth M. Pollack. 540 pp. Random House, 2004.
Women of Deh Koh. Erika Friedl. 237 pp. Penguin, 1989.
Reading Lolita in Tehran. Azar Nafisi. 257 pp. Random House, 2003.
Persepolis. Marjane Satrapi. 154 pp. Pantheon, 2003.
Persepolis 2. Marjane Satrapi. 188 pp. Pantheon, 2004.

Wicked Cool Sustainable Solutions for the Earth: An Activity and Coloring Book for Little and Big People
Becky Johnson. 48 pp. Syracuse Cultural Workers, 2006.

Becky Johnson, back from her educational cross-country tour with the Lil' Grease Beast (her grease powered bus) is on to her next adventure with the recent release of her coloring and activity book, Wicked Cool sustainable Solutions for the Earth. This is perhaps the only coloring book on the market that includes a 23-word glossary and certainly the only that dares to ask the question, "Which way to the composting toilet?"

Johnson has filled her pages with interesting scenes, fun activities and educational materials, all of which teach children about current environmental problems and solutions. It is a great introduction to the environmental issues that the youth of today will be faced with as they begin to inherit the mistakes of our past. Pages that ask children to draw their own gardens, compost, and buses that run on alternative fuels, encourage children to think creatively about environmental solutions. The book also provides instructions for hands on activities such as how to make your own "seed balls" to be used for "guerrilla gardening" (see glossary for definitions).

Johnson encourages teachers to use her book as a teaching tool, and although the book is geared for ages 5-12, adults will learn something too. This book not only encourages our youth to color outside the lines, more importantly it teaches us all that we must think outside the lines in order to enact change and create a truly sustainable future.
- Kimberley McCoy

The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for our Time
Jeffrey D. Sachs. 320 pp. The Penguin Press, 2005.

To this reader, Sachs' offering contained many surprises. Despite the utopian image set forth in its title, the author was able to provide very concrete and practical strategies that could offer a hopeful challenge to the accepted belief that the reality of poverty is largely insurmountable. An even greater surprise was that a data-packed demonstration of the "dismal science" could actually be stimulating to read. It was also refreshing to discover that in spite of Sachs' twenty five years as an economic advisor to governments all over the world, including significant time spent with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, he candidly acknowledges the many instances in which the "structural adjustment" policies employed by those agencies were entirely inappropriate.

In two parallel chapters, the author describes the factors that have contributed to the spread of economic prosperity versus those factors that explain why some countries fail to thrive. Drawing an analogy with clinical medicine (his wife is a practicing pediatrician), Sachs introduces the concept of "clinical economics" which suggests using differential diagnosis for poverty reduction. He argues that when countries can get a foot on the ladder of development, they are generally able to continue the upward climb. But many countries are trapped below the ladder, unable to reach the first rung. Only by receiving aid from the rich countries can they get the necessary start.

Sachs makes clear two related objectives of ending poverty. One focus is the plight of one sixth of humanity that lives in extreme poverty and struggles daily for survival. The other is ensuring that those in moderate poverty have a chance to climb the ladder of development. Much of the discussion is centered on the Millennium Development Goals that all 191 UN member states unanimously agreed to in 2002. The design of goals and the mechanisms for reaching them made possible the end of extreme poverty within a generation. Commitments of the rich countries to help the poor through increased development assistance were seen as sufficient and feasible. The transfer from donor to recipient countries based on 0.7 percent of Gross National Product was set as the standard. However, in the short time since that target was set, the contributions from the rich, especially the US, have fallen far short. Military spending has obviously trumped the noblest intentions. - Dan Sage

The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness
Simon Wiesenthal. Revised and Expanded Edition, 271 pp. Shocken Books,1996.

Rarely have such riches been captured in such a small volume. In the first hundred pages, Simon Wiesenthal recalls the events leading up to and following a pivotal moment during World War II. That moment occurred when, as a prisoner in a concentration camp, Simon was called to the bedside of a young dying Nazi officer who asked Wiesenthal's forgiveness for his crimes against Jews. Wiesenthal paints the moment and its reverberations in the years that follow, with a simple elegance that draws the reader into the struggle he faced: Could he forgive? Should he forgive? And what should he do when, years later, he encounters the officer's mother? I leave his solutions for the reader to discover. But the story just begins there.

In the 150 pages that follow, 46 leading theologians and secularists from across the spectrum of modern thought wrestle with the question of whether, and when, and how to forgive. There are no lightweights amongst this symposium - we have before us the thoughts of the Dalai Lama, Matthew Fox, Joseph Telushkin, Cardinal König, and more. Their answers are never simplistic or dogmatic; they wrestle with the questions and arrive at conclusions that demonstrate the foundations of their beliefs.

Those who read the first edition, published in 1976, will not be disappointed by this new edition, for only ten of the original responses are retained. Some of the essayists frame the question in terms of the possibility of forgiveness, others in the need for it. The matter of the effects of forgiveness on the forgiver and the forgiven are likewise given great attention.

People of every faith and persuasion will find comfort in the answers of some of the essays, and discomfort in others, for the range of reactions is as broad as the pool of contributors. I believe it is in this elegant harmony of comfort and discomfort that Wiesenthal gives us his greatest gift - the opportunity to challenge our own assumptions in the company of friends. No matter what you believe before you begin The Sunflower, prepare to be challenged - and enriched.
- Jim Brulé

Ed is a frequent contributor to the PNL.