A letter in response to Now is the time for clarity over Iran

6th-7th November 2007

Dear Mary Riddell,

I am writing about what I feel is a contradiction at the heart of your article in Sunday’s Observer. Logically it made sense, was warning that we risk stumbling into another catastrophic war in the middle east—I wholly agree. Yet you may have been surprised at the response when it was posted on Comment is Free (CiF). Your article is not alone: a series of articles published in the papers on Iran are being critiqued by CiF and (e.g., Max Hastings, is in full cry for Timothy Garton Ash, the Saturday leader and your article).

Here is an extract from AnthropoidApe’s comment on your article:

“We know that Saddam manufactures botulinum toxin much as Skegness makes seaside rock or the WI produces chutney. In the four years since the weapons inspectors left, Iraq’s favoured cottage industry is certain to have become more sinister.”
Mary Riddell in March 2002

“Saddam, as we knew, has chemical and biological weapons.”
Mary Riddell in February 2003

“This time round, the intelligence is just as thin, but the Tehran weapon, unlike the phantom Baghdad bomb, is a real and dreadful prospect.”

Though a contribution of this quality would have a good chance of making its way on the letter page, this kind of analysis is not generally to be found in the print edition. (See also the comments on the article—this letter adds to them but there is much high-quality discussion that addresses many other issues).

This is worth a closer look.

The founder of the Daily Kos blog recently harangued a group of editors about their failure in Iraq, suggesting that the future was in blogs, but as one pundit pointed out on this site, blogs couldn’t operate without the traditional news media (and Guardian Unlimited/CiF maybe one of the very best site to combine both). While much has been made of the way the intelligence was manipulated in the sun up to the Iraq war less has been said about the way sentiment was manipulated, and this at the heart of the issue with seeming to detect a subtle repeat of a pattern we saw in the lead-up to the Iraq war. (Why this is so is an interesting question—social factors? media diet?) Although rationally, (almost) everyone is saying that war would be a disaster, the sentiments have been mixed—our heads and hearts are at war. The liberal establishment view seems to be (crudely): the Iranians are trying to acquire nuclear weapons and those sneaky fanatical brown people must be stopped, but how do we it without a war? The more restrained have cited an arms race in the Middle East (thereby avoiding my jibe) while others have suggested that the IRI can’t be trusted as reasons for taking action.

My point is this. Forget all the head stuff (which won’t decide anything) and consider the sentimental message (which will decide everything). The establishment pundocracy are flatly contradicting the director of the IAEA, in proclaiming as a fact that the Iranians are making a dash for the nuclear weapons, but if the director of the IAEA was one of our top scientists (and white) would we say this? What does it say about our respect for due process and the IAEA, the agency tasked with making this call? (The agency has not and won’t let Iran off the hook until all outstanding have been answered, but Dr Elbaradei has said in no uncertain terms “I have not received any information that there is a concrete active nuclear weapons program going on right now”).

In your article you plead for clarity in order to avoid a war that could spiral out of control, destabilising more than one nuclear power, involving a Christian nation attacking an Islamic state with nuclear weapons for carrying out activities it is guaranteed under the NPT, and in the name of nuclear non-proliferation. Not only are members of the current US administration ‘leaving this option on the table’ but most of the leading presidential candidates have signed up for this (especially leading Democrats) and the American public are starting to egg them on.

This is serious stuff indeed. But what do we find being discussed in your article? ‘Ahmadinejad is a pre-modern despot’ who apparently relishes executing gays while proclaiming that they don’t exist. Isn’t this a bit emotive? What is the real message being conveyed here? Bearing in mind the recent Zogby poll (reporting that half Americans want a war with Iran and half believe it is going to happen) some calm and coherent discussion is badly needed, but this is not really helped by a chorus that says the Islamic Republic of Iran is a pre-modern, despotic, depraved, duplicitous and irresponsible regime, and on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons; wrapping up all the fine words in the world around this message isn’t going to stop a slide to war.

But its all true the pundits seem to be saying. Really? Firstly it is worth pointing out that most of Iran’s immediate neighbours (Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Caspian states, including Russia) seem to be somewhat appreciative of its constructive input in dealing with turbulent problems that some might ungenerously believe originate in the behaviour of countries from outside the region. Indeed Vladimir Putin has likened recent US actions to a madman running around with a razor blade in his hand and curiously enough this has not been laughed out of the court of world opinion. Far from it, to many sane and balanced people, this is downright common sense. And Afghanistan and Iraq continue to burn under their endless hellish civil wars and military occupations. (See the comments on the article for the veritable Forrest of trees in our own eyes.) It will be well to bear in mind that history will probably judge us as serial war criminals.

And what of the president of Iran, his remarks about Gays, the Iranian gay scene and the Iranian criminal justice system. Being Iranian internal affairs, these ought not to figure, but they are intimately related to our complicity in menacing the Iran with nuclear weapons for trying to exercise clauses in treaties we have signed with her. (It should be remembered that unlike Jack Straw, the current PM and FS pointedly don’t rule out military action, which they well know means a possible attack with nuclear weapons by the USA.)

As everyone well knows there is an active gay scene in Iran, and gay sex (like many crimes) is a capital crime in the Islamic Republic and (roughly) this is because Iranian Law is based on Islamic scripture which is regarded as immutable. However, the way that the law is interpreted and applied is most certainly not fixed. Practically speaking (translated into terms that we would understand) it is being retired. This was explained by Ayatollah Khatami on a trip to the USA. For this capital crime there is a very high standard of evidence, requiring multiple observers (4?) to directly witness the act. Clearly, if this evidential requirement is strictly adhered to, nobody being discrete will be bothered by this law.

From what I can tell, nobody has been executed in Iran for gay sex since July 2005. Ahmadinejad, as you will know, was elected in August of 2005. In any case the President of Iran can’t order the death of anyone, that being the province of the judiciary. While devoutly religious, the President is actually not a cleric, so (as far as I am aware) can and never will be able to take part in prosecuting any legal proceedings whatsoever. Far from being a ‘pre-modern despot’ President Ahmadinejad was a surprise victor in the 2005 elections, his anti-corruption, redistributive message striking a cord. The President of Iran is in no position to dictate much, power being quite distributed, the figure with the most power, and the commander in chief, being the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

You might be surprised to read this comment added to Timothy Garton Ash’s Friday article:

Ahmadinejaad, is not a bad guy, he gets a terrible press in the biased and one sided media here and elsewhere…He is the first non-mullah president in Iran since 1979…I think he is a very decent man and talks more sense than many other presidents in this destructive world…he wants good for Iran and Iranians… we do not want to be bullied and cornered any more and this is ultimate aim… we will overcome these dark and uncertain days…

(Ahmadinejad tried to get family enclosures set up in the football stadia so that women could attend football matches, but the clerics opposed him.) Encouraged by this hint some had a go at explaining why he would be saying some of the things he does about Israel, the Holocaust and so on in the succeeding comments (see comments on Facing disaster in Iran, Europe must finally make the hard choices) and I have attempted a more extensive explanation is a letter to Jimmy Carter posted on my blog.

I am told that in practice homosexuality is widely but discretely practised, that there is a certain amount of social stigma attached to it (the account I heard sounded similar to my own observations in some conservative Christian communities in the USA), but its not a big deal. Apparently there is a problem for adolescents as many young women are determined to preserve their virginity until marriage so young men find alternative channels for their sexual energy, and I have seen some reports that corroborate this. It sounds to me like the Iranian scene in some ways makes our look quite repressed!

And so on to the famous gay-denial comments at Columbia university. He actually said: “We do not have homosexuals in Iran of the kind you have in your country” (see Getting Lost In Translation: Ahmadinejad And The Media). The last clause is crucial: the way that the gay scene and the legal system of Iran works is so dramatically different from ours that the comparison can only be done once Iranian culture is understood. Now I think that it is safe to say that the general Western understanding of Iranian society and legal system is zero so President Ahmadinejad was quite right: there was really no point in him trying to discuss the issue. In his Columbia visit he was trying to open a dialogue with us but he has also exposed deficiencies in our collective listening skills; some remedial attention here (and maybe a little more humility) might help dissipate misunderstandings and hey, it might even prevent a few wars. We and the president of Columbia University haven’t cover ourselves in glory, but very few people seem to be even remotely aware of this. (I have discussed other ways in which President Ahmadinejad has been misunderstood; see, for example, A Letter to Jimmy carter).

In the recent Stop the War Coalition AGM, Somaye Zadeh, an exiled dissident with no warm feelings for the regime, got shouted down while trying to explain that the Islamic Republic of Iran is not anything like as repressive as generally depicted, dissidents knowing that this demagoguery is a poison that the war party is relying on to disarm all opposition on the left when the right starts to scream for Iran to be ‘taken out’ before it starts World War III.

Do you know what President Ahmadinejad chose to talk about at Columbia university? Immediately after some prefatory comments protesting Lee Bolinger’s mostly ill-informed, bullying attack he cut straight to an elegant scriptural and philosophical discourse on why humanity has a duty to use science responsibly. Did you know that Ayatollah Khomeini has issued a fatwa declaring nuclear weapons un-Islamic. I will think of that discourse and all my Iranian friends while we continue to look on from the side as Darth Vader runs his nuclear wrecking ball over the next member of the axis of evil.

Thank you for your patience and for your excellent and intelligent writing,

Chris Dornan

P.S. One of the calmest, best researched and incisive analysis of the Iranian and Israeli foreign policy is Trita Parsi’s (see his website and recent article). Parsi argues (convincingly) that both Iran and Israel have always been rational state actors pursuing realistic foreign policies, that have been packaged ideologically, and that it is clear from the interviews that he has conducted that senior officials on both sides know this very well.