Thursday, October 6, 2016

Kaine, Pence and Their VP Debate Fact-Checkers Are All Wrong on Iran

(David Goldman / AP Photo)

If anything was made clear during the Vice Presidential debate between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence it's that neither man knows much about the Iranian nuclear program. And neither do the fact-checkers tasked with judging the candidates' own statements about it.

During the course of 90 excruciating minutes, Tim Kaine accused Iran of "racing toward a nuclear weapon" and repeatedly boasted that his running mate Hillary Clinton was responsible for "stopping" that "nuclear weapons program without firing a shot." Meanwhile, Donald Trump's veep pick Mike Pence kept insisting that the Iran deal, signed by six world powers and Iran in July 2015, effectively guaranteed that "Iran will someday become a nuclear power because there's no limitations once the period of time of the treaty comes off."

None of these claims is even remotely true.

Obviously, claims put forth by both Kaine and Pence rest on a wholly false presumption: that Iran is/was desperately trying to acquire nuclear weapons and has/had an active "nuclear weapons program" to achieve that goal.

As I have written endlessly:
International intelligence assessments have consistently affirmed that Iran has no nuclear weapons program. What Iran does have, however, is a nuclear energy program with uranium enrichment facilities, all of which are under international safeguards, strictly monitored and routinely inspected by the IAEA. No move to divert nuclear material to military or weaponization purposes has ever been detected. This is consistently affirmed by U.S., British, Russian, and even Israeli intelligence, as well as the IAEA. In fact, the IAEA itself has said there is "no concrete proof" Iran's nuclear program "has ever had" a military component.
Eventually, due to the distinct and consistent lack of evidence for any nuclear weapons program, the United States echo chamber sidelined accusations of an active militarization program in favor of the round-about, jargon-laden claim that Iran was "intending to obtain the capability" to make nukes, rather than actually trying to make nukes. This, conveniently, put Iran in the position of having to prove a negative, despite being under the strictest IAEA inspection regime in history and providing access to its facilities above and beyond what was required by law.

The rhetorical bait-and-switch was plain for all to see when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta admitted in 2012, "Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No." For good propagandistic measure, however, he added, "But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability, and that’s what concerns us."

Around the same time, an unnamed U.S. intelligence official told the Washington Post that no decision had even been made in Iran to pursue nuclear weapons, explaining, "Our belief is that they are reserving judgment on whether to continue with key steps they haven't taken regarding nuclear weapons."

Early the following year, Panetta begrudgingly reaffirmed this assessment on Meet The Press. "What I’ve said, and I will say today," Panetta told Chuck Todd, "is that the intelligence we have is they have not made the decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon. They’re developing and enriching uranium. They continue to do that." He added, "I think-- I think the-- it’s a clear indication they say they’re doing it in order to develop their own energy source." The NPT guarantees signatory states the right to enrich uranium for nuclear energy production. There is nothing illegal or sinister about this and Iran has operated its enrichment program openly and under IAEA safeguards.

Panetta, in response to Todd's repeated goading, eventually disputed the entire premise so often repeated by politicians and pundits: "I can’t tell you they’re in fact pursuing a weapon because that’s not what intelligence says we-- we-- we’re-- they’re doing right now," he said.

U.S. intelligence assessments have consistently affirmed this. In 2012, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Congressional committee, "We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons." This finding has been repeated year in and year out.

Even the final report on outstanding allegations made by the United States and Israeli governments by the IAEA, released last December, was sensationalized to the point of absurdity. At most, the agency found, the "Possible Military Dimensions" of its nuclear energy program or the "Alleged Studies" that Iran had long been accused of conducting turned out to be merely "feasibility and scientific studies"(of nuclear and non-nuclear technology that has proven civilian uses), not active procedures or policies directed at making atomic bombs.

Moreover, and more importantly, this supposed research involved absolutely no diversion of nuclear material for non-peaceful uses, and therefore were not violations of either Iran's commitments under its safeguards agreement with the IAEA or a breach of the NPT itself.

By actually assessing the facts, it is beyond clear that, despite decades of alarmism, hype and hysteria, Iran never violated the NPT, and there has never been any evidence of the existence of an "Iranian nuclear weapons program."

Beyond this, Tim Kaine's claims that Hillary Clinton was the driving force behind diplomacy with Iran are absurd. Quite the contrary, the breakthrough for talks - that is, the Obama administration deciding to drop the "zero enrichment" demand that had soured diplomatic efforts since 2005 - occurred despite Clinton's insistence that Iran be denied their inalienable nuclear rights. This shift in policy was due primarily to the efforts of John Kerry, both as Senate Foreign Relations Chair during Obama's first term and then as Secretary of State after Clinton left the office. 

But Kaine wasn't alone in his mistakes. Even fact-checkers didn't get their facts straight.

For instance, in response to Kaine's claim that Clinton "worked a tough negotiation with nations around the world to eliminate the Iranian nuclear weapons program without firing a shot," PBS National Security Correspondent Mary Louise Kelly wrote this:
The deal slowed but does not eliminate Iran's nuclear weapons program. Iran agreed to eliminate its stockpile of medium enriched uranium, to dramatically cut its stockpile of low enriched uranium, and to allow international inspectors to visit nuclear facilities — in exchange for relief from sanctions.
Again, Iran didn't have a nuclear weapons program for anyone to eliminate. Furthermore, there is no such thing as "medium enriched uranium," according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. There's only low and high - Iran has never, ever, enriched uranium close to weapons-grade levels. Also misleading is Kelly's assertion that the deal allowed "international inspectors to visit nuclear facilities," considering that IAEA inspectors already had access to Iran's nuclear infrastructure long before the deal was struck.

Other fact-checkers - from ABC to the New York Times - were similarly wrong on the facts, as noted by longtime Iran watcher Ali Gharib:
Hillary Clinton didn't help to eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons program because the talks weren't about eliminating Iran's nuclear weapons program because Iran didn't have a nuclear weapons program at that time to eliminate. Kaine, therefore, did exaggerate Clinton's role: he credited her with participating in talks that didn't actually do what he said they did.
Pence's insistence that the Iran deal failed at its primary mission was also wholly false. "The goal was always that we would only lift the sanctions if Iran permanently renounced their nuclear [ambitions]," said Pence, adding, "They have not renounced their nuclear ambitions. When the deal's period runs out, there is no limitation on them obtaining weapons."

Everything about this is wrong. Iran has publicly, repeatedly and consistently renounced any and all interest in acquiring nuclear weapons on legal, strategic and moral grounds for literally decades. Therefore, the phrase "their nuclear ambitions," which Pence uses as a dog whistle for "pursuit of nuclear weapons," doesn't mean what Pence thinks it does.

As Gharib has also pointed out, Iran's commitment not to obtain nukes goes well beyond the stipulations of the Iran deal. Even after the terms expire (and some of the most important ones never do), "having a nuclear weapons program will still be prohibited not only by Iran's signature to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but also by express promises the country made as part of the nuclear deal itself. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran deal's formal name) says, 'Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.' It's plain as day, right there in the first paragraph. And there's no sunset clause on that pledge; it stays in force forever."

The facts are plain, and are essential when discussing issues like this. But when it comes to Iran and American politics, there is no depth to which the propaganda won't sink, with fact-checkers being dragged down with it.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Boo! If By Sea: More Scary Tales of US-Bound Iranian Ships

Breathless reports are again circulating that Iran will deploy warships to the Atlantic Ocean. Based on a mid-June announcement by Iranian Navy chief Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, news is spreading that Iran plans to establish a naval base somewhere along the Atlantic coast. Sayyari said, “We have yet to determine which country will assist us regarding the presence of our naval fleet. When the name of the chosen country is confirmed and announced, our strategic naval forces will deploy a training and military flotilla to the Atlantic Ocean.”

Taking this declaration at face value, Al-Monitor contributor Abbas Qaidaari noted that while "Iran's limited fleet is incapable of facing possible threats of much stronger naval fleets... the presence of a middle power such as Iran in the Atlantic Ocean could have a major psychological impact on its rivals, especially the United States." Qaidaari continues, "It thus appears that Iran, just as is the case with its missile program, is trying to use its navy to achieve the goals of its broader gunboat diplomacy," speculating that "countries such as Venezuela and Cuba would be likely hosts."

But this kind of talk from Iranian military officials is nothing new (Qaidaari even points this out in his own report). In fact, news of an imminent Persian Armada docked off American shores has been floating around for years, despite never actually holding water. Here's a quick look back at previous iterations of the same story, beginning with the latest:

Al Monitor, June 30, 2016:

Arutz Sheva, June 19, 2016:

Breitbart, April 4, 2016:

The Algemeiner, March 22, 2016:

Trend, March 18, 2016:

Daily Mail, October 29, 2015:

Ha'aretz, February 9, 2014:

Ynet, February 8, 2014:

USA Today, February 1, 2014:

The Diplomat, January 22, 2014:

ABC News and Fox News, September 28, 2011:

The Iranian bogeyman establishing a foot (or flipper) hold in the Western hemisphere is a tried-and-true trope of right-wing alarmism, seen now for years in Israeli propaganda, the press and overwrought political theatrics. We hear endlessly of Iranian infiltration and expanding influence in Latin America; a Muslim menace wading waist-deep across the Rio Grande to surprise us in our sleep and steal our precious bodily fluids. Just look at these spooky headlines:

In September 2012, Congressman Jeff Duncan, a Republican from South Carolina, argued in favor of passing his own "Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012," warning of an "emerging Iranian-backed terror network here in the Western Hemisphere" and insisting that the "U.S. must have the capabilities to defend itself from a potential Iranian attack on the homeland."

In his litany of nefarious Iranian activity, Duncan lamented, "Since 2005, Iran has increased its embassies from 6 to 11 and built 17 cultural centers in Latin America. Iran's diplomacy has led to soaring trade with Latin American countries. Brazil increased its exports to Iran seven-fold over the past decade to an annual level of $2.12 billion. Iranian trade with Argentina and Ecuador has grown, and economic contracts between Iran and Venezuela have exploded to more than $20 billion in trade and cooperation agreements."

Oh, the horror.

Still, the hysteria worked. Not only did both houses of Congress pass the bill, President Obama actually signed it into law in December of that year. A mere six months later, a State Department assessment concluded that "Iranian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean is waning."

But Duncan hasn't let up his crusade to play Paul Revere warning of the coming Iranian invasion. Hyping the threat of bloodthirsty Iranians lurking beneath our southern border is an obsession of his. On July 9, 2013, he held a House Subcommittee hearing, entitled, "Threat to the Homeland: Iran's Extending Influence in the Western Hemisphere," featuring a who's-who of neocon think tankers like Douglas Farah, Matthew Levitt of AIPAC-offshoot WINEP and Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council.

In March 2015, he held another hearing about the same thing.

"The real purpose of the hype is to bring the Iranian threat home," writes journalist Belén Fernández, "justifying the increased militarization of our backyard and Iran's in one stroke. It's the same playbook Reagan drew on when he warned that the Sandinistas were 'just two days' driving time from Harlingen, Texas.' Such rhetoric means more money for the defense and border fortification industries, and preemptively validates any eventual Israeli or U.S. aggression against Iran."

Similar propaganda both preceded and followed the Reagan administration's invasion of Grenada in 1983. In a televised speech to the American people, President Reagan declared on March 24, 1983, "On the small island of Grenada, at the southern end of the Caribbean chain, the Cubans, with Soviet financing and backing, are in the process of building an airfield with a 10,000-foot runway. Grenada doesn't even have an air force. Who is it intended for? ... The Soviet-Cuban militarization of Grenada, in short, can only be seen as power projection into the region."

After the invasion, Reagan was triumphant. "We got there just in time," he crowed, claiming that the military mission had prevented a planned "Cuban occupation of the island." Grenada, he said, "was a Soviet-Cuban colony being readied as a major military bastion to export terrorism and undermine democracy."

A week later, news reports told a very story. "In the aftermath of last week's invasion of Grenada," reported The New York Times on November 6, 1983, "it has become clear that Reagan Administration officials and military authorities disseminated much inaccurate information and many unproven assertions. They did so while withholding significant facts and impeding efforts by the journalists to verify official statements." It was soon discovered that breathless claims of the number of Cuban military personnel on the island had been massively inflated, while the purported discovery of warehouses with "weapons and ammunition stacked almost to the ceiling, enough to supply thousands of terrorists" were grossly exaggerated.

American Bathtub

Now, decades later and with no Cold War to keep military fires burning, the Red Scare has been replaced with a Persian Menace. As always, what's also missing from all of these terrifying tales of America-based Iranian argonauts and agents is the fact that Iran - like most nations on the planet - doesn't actually have a single permanent overseas base. When it comes to foreign military outposts, however, no one even comes close to the United States.

"Despite recently closing hundreds of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan," American University professor David Vines wrote last year, "the United States still maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad—from giant 'Little Americas' to small radar facilities. Britain, France and Russia, by contrast, have about 30 foreign bases combined." This means that "the United States has approximately 95% of the world’s foreign bases."

Based primarily on the Pentagon’s annual Base Structure Report, Vines mapped the global footprint of the US military. (Graphic by 5W Infographics / Politico)

Vines, author of Base Nation, explains that "[a]lthough few Americans realize it, the United States likely has more bases in foreign lands than any other people, nation, or empire in history." Consequently, our own imperialism goes unquestioned and ignored as "we consider the situation normal and accept that US military installations exist in staggering numbers in other countries, on other peoples' land. On the other hand, the idea that there would be foreign bases on US soil is unthinkable."

Even the US Navy's own recruitment commercials boast of omnipresence. Not only self-labelled "a global force for good" that's "100% on watch" across the seven seas, the Navy is also positioned as operating without limitation or restraint in the American bathtub known as Planet Earth.

Just check out this creepy ad:

And that's what this hysteria about Iran is all about, really. The threat doesn't actually exist, but the mere implication by Iran that it would dare send soldiers or sailors so far from home and so close to the shores of the US empire is so unimaginable that bills must be passed, sanctions imposed, walls built, troops deployed, and brows furrowed. In essence, all reactions to Iranian pronouncements echo a similar tune: just who do they think they are and why don't they know their place?

So, no, the Iranians aren't coming. But, fear not, more frenzied headlines and incredulous pearl-clutching surely will be.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Revisiting 'Argo', Hollywood's CIA-Supported Propaganda Fable

Through his dogged pursuit of declassified government documents, VICE News reporter Jason Leopold has revealed that the CIA was directly involved in the production of Ben Affleck's Oscar-winning, propaganda fairy tale Argo.

Argo, along with other productions like an episode of Bravo's Top Chef , the USA Network series Covert Affairs; and CIA-related documentaries on the History Channel and the BBC, "all received 'support' from the CIA's Office of Public Affairs (OPA), the division that interacts with journalists and acts as the liaison with the entertainment industry," writes Leopold, who received the documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Additionally, and least surprisingly, the documents also confirm the agency's involvement in the making of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's pro-torture paean to the CIA.

While it's still unclear to what extent the CIA was involved in the production of Argo, Leopold quotes CIA public affairs director Dean Boyd as saying that, beyond protecting classified material and national security secrets, the CIA's engagement with the entertainment industry seeks to guarantee a positive portrayal of American spies - or, as Boyd puts it, "an informed, balanced portrayal of the women and men of CIA."

Leopold also notes that, in the case of Argo and a couple other projects, "foreign nationals 'may have participated in briefings, interviews, and visits provided by the CIA,'" and adds:
However, because of the lack of adequate records, we were unable to determine the extent of the CIA’s support to the eight projects, the extent to which foreign nationals participated in CIA-sponsored activities, and whether the Director/OPA approved the activities and participation of foreign nationals…. Failure on the part of CIA officers to adhere to the regulatory requirements could result in unauthorized disclosures, inappropriate actions and negative consequences for the CIA.
The CIA's support for Argo, which was released in 2012 and went on to win three Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, is not shocking. The film - which purports to tells the "true story" of six American diplomats who escaped the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, and hid out at the Canadian ambassador's house until finally leaving the country with the help of an American spy and a ludicrous cover story - is little more than a love letter to the CIA.

Nearly every fact about what really happened was either glossed over or totally reimagined in order to present a Manichean tale of American heroism and ingenuity triumphing over Iranian savagery and buffoonery, all but omitting any historical context for the Iranian revolution and deliberately downplaying the vital role of ambassador Ken Taylor and the Canadian government in the whole affair.

Indeed, even former President Jimmy Carter felt compelled to acknowledge that "90% of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian [while] the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA... Ben Affleck's character in the film was only in Tehran a day and a half and the real hero in my opinion was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process."

Taylor, who passed away last October, himself lamented in 2013 that Argo's Hollywood version of history demonized Iranians, playing into the long-maintained American narrative that Iran is merely "one long revolution and riot."

"The movie maybe didn't give a chance that there's another side to Iranian society which is unfortunate — that is a more conventional side, a more hospitable side and an intent that they were looking for some degree of justice and hope and that it all wasn't just a violent demonstration for nothing," Taylor said, describing the embassy takeover in realistic terms.

Summing up his own characterization of the film, Taylor added, "The amusing side is the script writer in Hollywood had no idea what he's talking about."

This view, from someone who actually spent three years in Iran, is strikingly different than that of Ben Affleck, who directed Argo. In an interview with Rolling Stone, when Argo was first released, Affleck described the embassy takeover and hostage-taking as having "no rhyme or reason," while in a Huffington Post interview, he claimed that he "tried to make a movie that is absolutely just factual."

But the fingerprints of the CIA were all over Argo and, despite their covert protocol, little was done to wipe them clean.

When he won the Best Director Golden Globe in February 2013, Ben Affleck praised the "clandestine service as well as the foreign service that is making sacrifices on behalf of the American people everyday [and] our troops serving over seas, I want to thank them very much," a statement echoed almost identically by co-producer Grant Heslov when the movie won Best Drama later that night.

"I want to thank the folks from the clandestine services who don't always get the credit that they deserve, but they do a lot of great work. And thank you to them as well," said Heslov, who once co-starred as a CIA intel officer opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in James Cameron's 1994 action blockbuster True Lies, which is widely regarded as one of the most Islamophobic and anti-Arab films ever made. That film "probably will stand the test of time as one of the most racist movies Hollywood has ever produced," said film scholar Jack Shaheen, author of Reel Bad Arabs, a study of Middle Eastern stereotyping in cinema.

The following month, Argo screenwriter Chris Terrio won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. In his acceptance speech, Terrio saved his most heartfelt gratitude for CIA agent Tony Mendez, the spy who - the story goes - concocted a clever ruse to help get the six Americans out of Iran. "I want to dedicate this to a man named Tony Mendez. 33 years ago, Tony, using nothing but his creativity and his intelligence, got six people out of a very bad situation," he said. As those close to the actual operation have already pointed out, Mendez was only in Tehran for a single day; he came, not alone, but with a partner; and he hardly did anything.

Oh, and the "fake movie" he and his Hollywood buddies invented to fool unwitting Iranians? That cover story was never actually needed - it was never tested, as the actual departure of the diplomats from Tehran was fairly uneventful. "The truth is the immigration officers barely looked at us and we were processed out in the regular way," recalled one of the actual diplomats involved. "We got on the flight to Zurich and then we were taken to the US ambassador's residence in Berne. It was that straightforward." No angry mobs, no phony storyboards, no high-speed chase down the tarmac. Even Mendez himself noted the whole operation was "as smooth as silk." The only glitch? The flight departure time was delayed by an hour. Harrowing.

When Argo won the Best Picture Oscar at the end of the night, Ben Affleck took time not only to also thank Mendez, whom Affleck himself portrays in the film, but also "our friends in Iran, living in terrible circumstances right now." What?

Even before that, however, the cat was out of the bag. Shortly after the movie's release, Terrio said during a Hollywood Reporter's Writers Roundtable discussion that, in researching the story, "I spent a bunch of time with Tony Mendez and also bunch of other CIA officers."

Right before the movie came out, Affleck was interviewed on Fox News by Bill O'Reilly. The "serious aspect" of Argo, the director said, "was that this is really a tribute to the folks and our clandestine services and diplomats in the foreign service who are risking their lives over there... [and to] what they give up to serve us and to serve our country."

Responding to O'Reilly description of Argo as "a Valentine from Ben Affleck to the Intelligence Community - the same people who water-boarded, the same people who renditioned," Affleck said, "I've been to the CIA. I met General David Petraeus. These are extraordinary honorable people at the CIA. Make no mistake about it." He then went on to say that he "wouldn't oppose military action" against Iran in the event that "they need to be whacked."

Jason Leopold, in his article on the CIA's support for film and television projects, writes, "On the CIA's website, the agency says its entertainment industry liaison helps producers, screenwriters, directors, and authors 'gain a better understanding of [CIA's] intelligence mission.'" It continues:
"Our goal is an accurate portrayal of the men and women of the CIA, and the skill, innovation, daring, and commitment to public service that defines them. If you are part of the entertainment industry, and are working on a project that deals with the CIA, the Agency may be able to help you. We are in a position to give greater authenticity to scripts, stories, and other products in development."
Far from proving "greater authenticity," however, with the CIA's help, the producers of Argo spun truth into mythology. The "based on a true story" patina gives cover to a deluge of lies, carefully crafted and amplified to show noble American spies and diplomats vanquishing the bumbling barbarians of revolutionary Iran. As Salon's Andrew O'Hehir so deftly put it, Argo's supposed "authenticity" is "all elaborate window dressing for a propaganda fable," a "patriotic fantasy" and a "totalizing fiction" that "turns a fascinating and complicated true story into a trite cavalcade of action-movie clichés and expository dialogue."

I've previously noted that the relationship between Hollywood and the military and intelligence arms of the U.S. government has long been cozy.

"When the CIA or the Pentagon says, 'We'll help you, if you play ball with us,' that's favoring one form of speech over another. It becomes propaganda," David Robb, author of "Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies," once told The Los Angeles Times. "The danger for filmmakers is that their product — entertainment and information — ends up being government spin."

Now, thanks to Jason Leopold's FOIA request, we know just how true that really is.

***** ***** *****

UPDATE: It's important to note that the love-fest between the filmmakers and the Central Intelligence Agency was not a one-way street. The CIA, in 2013, took to its Twitter account not only to playfully debunk some of Argo's wilder scenarios (separating the "reel" from the "real"), but also to heap praise on its own personnel - and Affleck himself.


Read my previous articles on Argo here:

10.12.12 - Argo's Asinine Auteur and his American Audience: Are We Hostages to Hollywood History?

02.23.13 - Oscar Prints the Legend: Argo's Upcoming Academy Award and the Failure of Truth

09.13.13 - New Documentary Reclaims “The Canadian Caper” from Affleck’s “Argo”


Friday, April 8, 2016

Location Location Location: The Unintended Symbolism of the White House Haft-Sîn

White House Nowruz, 2015 (Photo: The White House)

This week, Michelle Obama hosted the second annual White House Nowruz, a celebration of the Iranian New Year. Though a relatively apolitical affair, the placement of the reception's traditional haft-sîn, however, should have raised some eyebrows.

Nowruz, which literally means "new day" in Farsi, is an ancient festival of new beginnings, deeply rooted in Zoroastrianism, celebrating the first day of Spring and the Persian calendar.

Of the myriad traditions and festivities associated with Nowruz, the most universally recognizable may be that of the haft-sîn (هفت سین‎), a table arrangement decorated with seven (haft) items – each beginning with the Persian letter S (sîn) – and symbolizing renewal, reconciliation, good luck, and prosperity.

The shindig, MC'ed by comedian Maz Jobrani and catered by renowned Persian chef Najmieh Batmanglij, was held on April 6 – a few days after the official holiday season (which lasts roughly 13 days) had actually ended.

The White House, naturally, had its own haft-sîn on display at its Nowruz party. However, its location in the East Room, where the celebration has been held both years, was a bit curious and (probably) unintentionally laden with symbolism all its own.


The table containing such traditional items as wheat grass (sabzeh), garlic (sīr), vinegar (serkeh), apple (seeb), wheat germ pudding (samanu), sumac berries (somaq), and dried fruit (senjed) was placed - as it was last year as well - right beneath John Singer Sargent's 1903 presidential portrait of Theodore Roosevelt.

haft-sîn in the White House's East Room, on April 6, 2016. (Photo: Holly Dagres / @TheIranist)

One of the principal promoters of American imperialism at the end of the 19th century and in the first decade of the 20th, Roosevelt once wrote, "I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one." Roosevelt's belief was, as he told the Naval War College, "No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumph of war." It is said he carried around a list of six target nations on three continents.

In December 1904, Roosevelt issued his official Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, declaring that the United States would not hesitate to use what he called its "international police power" to destroy and replace regimes deemed hostile to American interests. Though initially used to justify military intervention, invasion and occupation of Western Hemisphere nations such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, Roosevelt sent a similar message to the entire world in late 1907, when he deployed the nation's Great White Fleet to circumnavigate the globe in a show of American power. The fleet consisted of 16 battleships and support vessels, crewed by 14,000 sailors. It sailed for 14 months, covering over 43,000 miles and made twenty port calls on six different continents.

Just as it is common practice today for U.S. presidents to deliver Nowruz remarks to the people, and sometimes leaders, of Iran, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries "American presidents were encouraged to exchange telegrams with the Shah of Iran on the occasion of the Persian New Year's Day."

"In 1902," note scholars Kamran Scot Aghaie and Afshin Marashi, "President Theodore Roosevelt even presented the Shah of Iran, Muzaffar al-Din, and his brother, Zill al-Sultan, with a copy of his book, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, recognizing that hunting was a favorite pastime of the Persian royal family as well."

At the time, Iranian leaders saw the United States - which had no imperial presence in the Middle East at that point - as a potential non-interventionist ally against persistent Russian and British encroachment on Iranian sovereignty. Following the Iranian Constitutional Revolution in 1906, Russia and Britain both occupied Iran in 1907 in an effort to dissolve the parliament and prop up the waning Qajar dynasty, dividing the country between them until 1911. Roosevelt remained neutral, however, a position subsequently maintained by Taft and all successive U.S. administrations through World War II, when Russia and the United Kingdom again invaded and occupied Iran to secure wartime supply routes for the Allied Powers and replaced the then Shah, Reza Pahlavi, with his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Kermit's Coup

On August 19, 1953, Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown in a military coup planned and orchestrated by the United States and Britain after nationalizing Iran's oil industry. Pro-Shah riots were staged, hundreds were killed, newspapers supportive of Mossadegh were ransacked and shuttered, and the prime minister was arrested and tried for treason.

The main architect of the coup, executed at the behest of British petroleum interests and under the guise of pro-active anti-communism, was the chief of the CIA's Near East and Africa division, Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. - grandson of President Teddy Roosevelt.

The ouster of Mossadegh, and the reinstallation of the Shah, by American intelligence operatives is a seminal moment in Iranian history and political consciousness, setting the stage for a quarter-century of tyrannical dictatorship propped up by torture, corruption and U.S. military aid, as well as establishing the United States as an interventionist power in the region. Popular backlash against the Shah, and his American backers, culminated in his overthrow by the Iranian Revolution, and the establishment of an Islamic Republic in 1979.

Roosevelt's Shadow

By honoring Iranian culture with a haft-sîn table set under the watchful gaze of Teddy Roosevelt - the godfather of American military intervention and the grandfather of the man responsible for Operation Ajax in 1953 - the White House is unwittingly sending a message of continued hostility and imperial hubris toward Iran.

In his annual Nowruz message, delivered right before his historic trip to Cuba, President Obama said that, "even after decades of mistrust, it is possible for old adversaries to start down a new path." At a time when Iran is fully upholding its end of the nuclear accord, while the residual effects of U.S. sanctions continue to cause problems for Iranians, optics remain important.

One possible step on the path to better relations would be to move the haft-sîn to the other side of the room.


Friday, April 1, 2016

The Mistakes and Missing History of CFR's #ThisDayinHistory Tweet on Iran

As part of its "This Day in History" series on social media, the Twitter account for the Council on Foreign Relations posted the following this morning:

At first glance a couple things are off about this tweet, admittedly minor, but worth noting nonetheless.

For one, the photo used in the tweet - taken by AP photographer Aristotle Saris, was taken not on "This Day in History" back in 1979, but actually on January 19 of that year, at a massive, million-plus person, pro-Khomeini rally against the government of the recently exiled Shah and in favor of the establishment of an Islamic republic in its place.

Also, "This Day in History" is actually yesterday. The advent of an Islamic republic in Iran was announced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on Farvardin 12, a date on the Iranian calendar that corresponds with April 1, except in leap years, when it's March 31.

This being 2016 - a leap year - CFR should have posted the anniversary tweet on Thursday, not today.

More importantly, however, the language used in the tweet's text is somewhat misleading. Of course, tweets are, by design, extremely limited in content - not too much context is possible in a mere 140 characters. Still, completely omitted from this quick retrospective is the fact that an Islamic republic replaced the Pahlavi dynasty - and with it millennia of monarchy - through the will of a popular referendum, not merely imposed by dictatorial mandate.

A Transitional Government, Two Referendums and a New Constitution

Just days after returning to Iranian soil after years of exile, Khomeini appointed Mehdi Barzargan as prime minister of the interim government. In a statement read by none other than Hashemi Rafsanjani, who would go on to become (and remain) one of the most powerful political forces in the country, Barzargan was granted not only "the authority to establish an interim government without consideration of any affiliation to parties or dependence on any factional groups," but also to arrange "a referendum and refer to a national public vote the issues of turning the country into an Islamic republic."

Iranians line up to vote to abolish the monarchy and establish an Islamic republic, March 30, 1979

Less than two months after the Shah was deposed, a referendum vote took place in Iran (and at Iranian embassies and consulates worldwide for Iranian citizens in the Diaspora) on March 30 and 31, 1979 to determine the future nature of the nascent post-revolutionary government. Over those two days, millions of men and women, 16 years of age and over, cast their votes.

Perhaps the outcome was never really in doubt. Placards and posters depicting Khomeini and the admonition, "Only an Islamic republic," were ubiquitous. An Iranian political economy professor, writing from Paris the day before the vote, noted that the "majority is expected to vote for replacement of the monarchy by an as yet undefined 'Islamic republic.'" A number of political and ethnic minority groups around the country boycotted the referendum on the reasonable grounds that not enough choices were presented to the electorate.

The ballot was binary, as described in a March 30, 1979 New York Times article entitled "In Iran Balloting, Only Victory Margin Is In Doubt," filed from Tehran by correspondent John Kifner:
The ballot came in three sections, like a perforated ticket. One section was for registration, the other two were the choices: the section in green, the color of Islam, had the word "yes" printed on it; the other was red, with the word "no."
'In the name of the Almighty,' the red and green choices said, enunciating the question on the referendum, which began today, 'to change the previous regime to an Islamic republic whose constitution will be approved by the people.'
...the voters presented a birth certificate or other identification, had it stamped and took the ballot, which was stamped again on the registration section. They would tear off either the green or red section and deposit it in a box on the table...The unused section of the ballot could be discarded or carried away.
The article also notes that, at that particular voting station, a precinct election judge "showed a visitor a wastebasket at the polling place at midday to indicate how the returns were going. Nothing but red 'no' slips could be found among the hundreds of crumpled papers."

The front page of Kayhan showed voters casting ballots on 11 Farvardin 1358 (March 31, 1979) [source]

Voting hours were extended until 10pm and the margin of inevitable victory grew, amidst some reports of seemingly intimidating polling environments and peer pressure. For instance, one observer "criticized the lack of privacy for voters. There were no booths, and voting was done in the presence of Islamic officials, often amid dozens of posters calling for a yes vote." Also, reported The New York Times:
There were many reports of polling officers tearing off the green-colored "yes" portions of the ballots and stuffing them in the boxes on behalf of the voters, who meekly got their identification cards stamped and left. A number of young voters told reporters that they were afraid to openly vote no in the presence of so many others who felt otherwise.
On April 1, 1979, the result was announced.

New York Times reporter Gregory Jaynes wrote that "Ayatollah Khomeini was jubilant over the two-day vote on his proposed Islamic republic," quoting the revolutionary leader's published statement: "I am declaring today the day of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and I would also like to declare that such a referendum is unprecedented in history - to establish a Government of righteousness and to overthrow and bury the monarchy in the rubbish pile of history."

As for the turnout and resulting percentages, Jaynes reported that the referendum commissioner Ahmad Noorbaksh said that "97 percent of the electorate had voted for the Islamic republic, out of the 98 percent eligible to cast ballots," though this was an unofficial assessment. Official results would not be released for a few weeks.

Nine months later, when the new Iranian Constitution was adopted, Chapter 1, Article 1 read:
"The form of government of Iran is that of an Islamic Republic, endorsed by the people of Iran on the basis of their long-standing belief in the sovereignty of truth and Qur'anic justice...through the affirmative vote of a majority of 98.2% of eligible voters, held after the victorious Islamic Revolution led by the eminent marji' al-taqlid, Ayatollah al-Uzma Imam Khomeini."
It has subsequently been reported that the total number of voters was 17,129,896. Of those, a reported 16,821,557 (98.2%) voted "yes" in the referendum, as opposed to the 308,338 voting "no."

Another source reports, "According to published records in this referendum 20,288,000 people voted 'Yes' and 241,000 people voted 'No,'" while yet another claims that 20,147,855 voted 'yes' and 140,996 voted 'no." This figure puts the approval rate at 99.3% of voters.

Overall, the voter turnout has been generally placed at 92%, though obviously this "official" number could be disputed.

Nevertheless, with an "Islamic Republic" founded, Iran now needed a new constitution.

According to Iran Chamber, here's what happened next:
The Ayatollah Khomeini regime unveiled a draft constitution on June 18. Aside from substituting a strong president, on the Gaullist model, for the monarchy, the constitution did not differ markedly from the 1906 constitution and did not give the clerics an important role in the new state structure. Ayatollah Khomeini was prepared to submit this draft, virtually unmodified, to a national referendum or, barring that, to an appointed council of forty representatives who could advise on, but not revise, the document. Ironically, as it turned out, it was the parties of the Left who most vehemently rejected this procedure and demanded that the constitution be submitted for full-scale review by a constituent assembly.
After a month-long campaign, elections for this 73-member body - dubbed the "Assembly of Experts" - were held on August 3, 1979, and a new draft of the constitution combining elements of republican and clerical rule was hammered out by mid-November.

On December 2 and 3, 1979, a second referendum was held to adopt the newly-written constitution. It is reported that the new Iranian Constitution was approved by 99.5% of voters (15,680,218 in favor; 78,516 opposed), with a 71.6% turnout.
A newly created seventy-three-member Assembly of Experts convened on August 18, 1979, to consider the draft constitution. Clerics, and members and supporters of the IRP dominated the assembly, which revamped the constitution to establish the basis for a state dominated by the Shia clergy. The Assembly of Experts completed its work on November 15, and the new Constitution of the Islamic Republic was approved in a national referendum on December 2 and 3, 1979, once again, according to government figures, by over 98 percent of the vote.
Obviously, this is too much information to summarize in a single tweet. But knowing the context is important, especially if we are to understand the revolutionary and political history of a nation that is all too often misrepresented, maligned, and marginalized in our own media.


Monday, March 21, 2016

Pandermonium! At AIPAC, Trump Makes Same Promise on Jerusalem We've Been Hearing Since 1972

Breaking news!

The news media is abuzz today with reports that, speaking before the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington D.C. - the annual gathering of rabid right-wing Israel supporters - a presidential candidate vowed to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

So who was it this time? Donald Trump.

"We will move the American Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem," he bellowed, reading from a script written for him by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, publisher of the conservative, pro-Israel weekly The New York Observer. Kushner took over the business from his father Charles, a real estate mogul and convicted criminal once described by The Jewish Week as "one of the marquee names in American Jewish philanthropy."

So why is this news? It's not.

Promising to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's undivided capital and to move the American embassy there is part of Pandering 101 for Oval Office hopefuls. It is one of those litmus test talking points; the thing a politician says to prove the depths of his or her obsequiousness to a minuscule but influential cadre of donors and king (or queen) makers.

Every candidate in the past few decades knows this. It's an easy vow to make, and no one ever pays any political price for inevitably breaking it (since half of Jerusalem remains occupied territory and actually moving the embassy there would be a clear violation of international law (and long-standing U.S. policy, recently upheld by the Supreme Court), which doesn't recognize Israel's claim over the historic city). Making such an absurd promise plays well to the writhing masses at AIPAC confabs, establishes one's Zionist bona fides, and is a quick and easy way to offend indigenous Palestinians living under occupation, apartheid and blockade without actually flipping them the bird.

Nevertheless, the press continues to report on this blustery promise, no matter who utters it, as if it actually merits attention.

While he repeated the promise today for AIPAC, Trump had already said it back in January. And Ted Cruz has too (and even introduced legislation mandating the move in early 2015):

So has John Kasich (though, he's made clear that might not be his first priority when it comes to foreign policy):

And Jeb Bush before him:

So did Mitt Romney in 2012:

And Ron Paul and Rick Santorum the same year before they dropped out of the race:

And Newt Gingrich and Michelle Bachmann (and Herman Cain) before them:

Both John McCain and running mate Sarah Palin made the promise back in 2008:

Four years earlier, John Kerry did the same, while also touting his record of making similar demands during his tenure in the Senate:

Before that was Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. As reported by The New York Times in May 2000:

(Supporters of moving the embassy were subsequently disappointed in Bush's failure to act on his promise.)

The year before, while beginning her campaign for New York's Senatorial seat, the then-First Lady Hillary Clinton weighed in on the matter herself:

The next summer, as election day neared, Clinton repeated her pledge, adding that "the embassy should be moved from Tel Aviv before year's end."

Every Republican Party platform in the past 20 years has maintained the fiction that the embassy would be moved to Tel Aviv at the earliest convenience. The 1996 platform even vowed that the next "Republican administration will ensure that the U.S. Embassy is moved to Jerusalem by May 1999," while four years later the party promised that "the next Republican president will begin the process of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel's capital, Jerusalem."

In the mid-1990s, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich similarly pandered like pros:

Before that, in 1992, the Clinton/Gore campaign hit the incumbent Bush administration for balking at the official recognition of "Israel's sovereignty over a united Jerusalem." Their campaign promised voters that "Bill Clinton and Al Gore will... support Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel."

Even Mike Dukakis tacked to the right of both the outgoing Reagan administration and George H.W. Bush campaign in 1988:

Al Gore, who tried to win the Democratic nomination for president that year, reportedly said in September 1987 that "he would consider moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem."

In April 1984, during a heated Democratic primary season, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart bent over backwards to assure voters in New York City that they too supported moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (a position even Israelis themselves understood as hollow political posturing).

The New York Times reported at the time:
Walter F. Mondale said he had supported such a move for 20 years, and he asserted that Senator Gary Hart had changed his position on the issue five days ago. In the past two weeks, Mr. Hart has denied that he suddenly changed his position, but has said his position has ''evolved.'' He has said firmly that if he became President, he would move the embassy to Jerusalem.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson is the only one of the three candidates who opposes moving the embassy. The Reagan Administration also opposes such a move because the status of Jerusalem has long been disputed and the United States does not support Israeli sovereignty over the city.
Despite efforts by New York Senator Daniel Moynihan and California Congressman Tom Lantos to introduce a bill mandating the move, Reagan was adamant about not relocating the embassy, as such a divisive policy would, according to his Secretary of State George P. Shultz, "be very bad for the United States" and "damage our ability to be effective in the peace process."

The pandering was so thick, however, that a month later the Reagan administration had to pretend to consider supporting the move in order to stave off losing votes in the upcoming election.

Though the bill eventually stalled, Los Angeles Times syndicated columnist Nick Thimmesch, who called the proposal "one of the dumbest ideas to be advanced in Congress this session," lamented that "some of the election-year pandering in the Republic verges on the obscene" and credited the ill-conceived gambit to the lawmakers' "blind obedience to the Israel lobby (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee)." That was October 3, 1984.

By 1986, another bill was introduced to move the embassy, this time brought to the Senate floor by segregationist Republican Jesse Helms.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan attacked the Carter administration for abstaining from a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel's attempted annexation of East Jerusalem and calling upon all countries to remove their embassies from the city.

But even by the mid-1980s, though, this was an old political ploy. The New York Times pointed out that the 1976 Democratic Party platform - on which Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale ran for office - declared:
We recognize and support the established status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, with free access to all its holy places provided to all faiths. As a symbol of this stand, the U.S. Embassy should be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Before that, on March 17, 1972, Michigan Congressman Gerald Ford, then the Republican Minority Leader, told a Zionist Organization of America regional meeting in Cleveland that the Nixon Administration should transfer the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

Two years later, after first replacing Spiro Agnew as Vice President and then becoming President himself following Nixon's resignation, Ford backtracked on his previous position. "Under the current circumstances and the importance of getting a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, that particular proposal ought to stand aside," Ford said at his very first presidential press conference on August 9, 1974.

It's been over four decades since then and, sadly, while Palestine remains under brutal occupation, Israeli colonies continue to expand with impunity, and Palestinians are subject to ongoing oppression and violence, election-year pandering and blind obedience to the Israel lobby has become more obscene than ever.



March 22, 2015 - In his own grotesque AIPAC speech today, Ted Cruz reiterated his promise regarding moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

"On my very first day in office," he declared, "I will begin the process of moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the once and eternal capital of Israel," using the AIPAC-approved epithets always used by fawning politicians to describe the historic city.
Nodding with acknowledgement of the fact that this vow is an repeated refrain for presidential hopefuls, Cruz sought to dispel any doubt that he would act on his illegal and immoral promise. "I recognize for years a whole bunch of presidential candidates, both Republicans and Democrats, have said that," he told the assembled Zionists. "Some have said that standing here today. Here's the difference: I will do it."

Thankfully, here's the thing: no, he won't. In fact, since he'll never ever be president, he'll never even get the chance.



September 28, 2016 - During a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in New York City for his annual propaganda stand-up routine before the United Nations General Assembly, Donald Trump again declared his intention, if elected president, to have the United States government officially "recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the State of Israel."

Such recognition would clearly violate both domestic and international law, as Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 is considered illegal and illegitimate by the entire world, including the United States.

Trump's declaration - a common campaign promise by presidential hopefuls and constant refrain of AIPAC-funded Congressional blowhards - goes hand-in-hand with another absurd pledge routinely made by politicians: that the U.S. Embassy will be relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

It's a pandering platitude signifying nothing. But what else should we expect from this gilded nightmare?

(Credit: GPO)