Persian Miniatures: Inside the Islamic Republic of Iran, 2002-2020

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Persian Miniatures Inside the Islamic Republic of Iran, 2002-2020 PERSIAN MINIATURES    1


have the pleasure to welcome you to the second in a series of e-books recovering the Pepe Escobar archives on Asia Times.

The archives track a period of 20 years – starting with the columns and stories published under The Roving Eye sign in the previous Asia Times Online from 2001 all the way to early 2015. The first e-book tracked the interplay between China, Russia and the US between 2017-2020. The columns selected for this second e-book span 18 years, tracking the Islamic Republic of Iran, in chronological order, throughout the Katami, Ahmadinejad and Rouhani eras. The unifying idea behind this e-book series is to recover the excitement of what is written as “the first draft of History”.

politics and religion, oil and gas games, the JCPOA discussions in Vienna, the volatile post-Soleimani era, Iran as a node of Eurasian integration. The majority of the articles, essays and interviews in this e-book were written in Iran or after multiple visits to Iran. So welcome to a unique geopolitical road trip - organized as if you were perusing a collection of Persian miniatures. Happy travels! Pepe Escobar, Bangkok, September 2020.

Once again, you may read the whole compilation as a thriller, following in detail all the plot twists and cliffhangers; the “axis of evil” tensions, the complex interplay of 2   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


Hazrat-e Masumeh, Qom, Iran. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Knocking on heaven’s door Part 1: Sea of peace or lake of trouble? By PEPE ESCOBAR MAY 24, 2002

QOM - The Grand Ayatollah Saanei’s office in Qom - the second holiest city in Iran after Mashhad and the heartland of the Islamic revolution is a shrine in itself. In a city that welcomes Shi’ite scholars and students from all over the world, and where every single woman is dressed in a head-to-toe black chador, to be received by the Grand Ayatollah is as auspicious an occasion as a visit to the fabulous Hazrat-e Masumeh, the shrine where Fatemah, sister of Imam Reza, the 8th century Shi’ite imam, is buried. 4   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


The Hazrat-e Masumeh is a dazzling complex, with an enormous tiled dome, beautiful minarets and large prayer rooms leading to Fatemah’s shrine - a mesmerizing jig-saw of carved mirrors. To give a measure of its importance, acccording to a famous hadith (saying) - enunciated with pleasure by the guardians of the shrine - we learn that “our sixth imam, Imam Sardeg, says that we have five definitive holy places that we respect very much. The first is Mecca, which belongs to God. The second is Medina, which belongs to the Holy Prophet Muhammad, the messenger of God. The third belongs to our first imam of Shia, Ali, which is in Najaf. The fourth belongs to our third imam, Hussein, in Kerbala. The last one belongs to the daughter of our seventh imam and sister of our eighth imam, who is called Fatemah, and will be buried in Qom. Pilgrims and those who visit her holy shrine, I promise to these men and women that God will open all the doors of Heaven to them.” Ayatollah Khomeini started opening the doors of the Islamic revolution in Qom in 1979 - which, appropriately enough, means “uprising”. He lived in a simple brick house still standing not far from the Hazrat-e Masumeh. He had had plenty of time to build his power base among Shi’ite clerics before being forced into exile in 1963, first to Turkey and then to Najaf in Iraq. In the small waiting room of Grand Ayatollah Saanei’s office, pilgrims from as far as Xinjiang in western China come with questions sealed in envelopes, ayatollahs memorize parts of the Koran for further debate, students arrive for their classes, and a dignified waiter serves endless glasses of tea. In more intimate surroundings than the Hazrat-e Masumeh, this is also an extraordinary place to monitor the power of Shi’ite faith in action. In the absence of Khomeini, the Grand Ayatollah Saanei occupies the Everest of the Shi’ite theological scale. Khomeini’s words on him are framed with two photos above the place where he receives pilgrims and students alike: “I have raised him as my grandson ... I was always very delighted with his words and his knowledge. I believe that he is considered to be one of 6   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

the most prominent characters among the clergymen. He is a learned man, devoted and diligent.” When the Shah’s regime was trying by all means to cast doubt on Khomeini’s position as a Marja’a (a top religious authority), Aayatollah Saanei’s academic weight was a decisive counteractive factor. He knows absolutely everything on Khomeini’s principles of doctrine and views on jurisprudence. And he is also a supreme authority on the issuing of fatwas (religious rulings). On music, for instance, His Eminence has stated that “any sound and lyric and music which does not promote laxity and immorality and does not misguide human beings or blemish the visage of Islam is not forbidden.” On infidels, he has stated that “antagonists who fight Muslims because of their adherence to Islam or their belief in Islam [and not for any other reason] are deemed adversaries in religion who, like a few of the infidels that having gained certainty of the validity of Islam continue to deny it, are bound to be unclean”. Grand Ayatollah Saanei has been a member of the Majlis (parliament), and was chief of justice in the 1980s. Now he is most of all a teacher. A private audience with him obviously does not fall into the parameters of a Western-formatted interview: it’s more like a theological-philosophical exposition, in a very relaxed manner, intermediated with those endless glasses of tea. He spends a long time methodically clarifying main Islamic principles - justice, no discrimination among human beings and most of all “social human rights”. This latter concept is essential and is now being confronted with the concept of “religious civil society” - proposed by the heirs of the revolution who are not clerics. The Grand Ayatollah states that “Islamic law does not allow any discrimination on the basis of race, sex or ethnicity, and in terms of human rights.” He adds that “all human beings are sons of Adam and Eve”. How, then, do we explain the antagonism between Sunni and Shi’ite, between, for instance, wahhabism

and the Shi’ite faith as practiced by nearly 90 percent of Iranians? “The antagonism exists in the way of thoughts, not in the roots and fundamentals of the religion.” So it is all a problem of intepretation. “Some of the theologists do not agree with my thoughts, and some, regarding to laws, want to regulate something other than what is mentioned in the constitution. The constitution will prevent them.” He does not say, though, whether he would be in favor of modifying the present constitution, arguing that this is a political matter. The Grand Ayatollah says, “There is only one difference between men and women. In Islam, we believe we should respect women as well as men, in the same measure. The differentiation regards inheritance. The son will inherit two times in relation to a daughter. In other laws, there is no difference.” This means that when a man is married, he has to split his income with a woman, while a woman’s income from work should belong only to herself, according to the Holy Koran. But the fact remains, says the Grand Ayatollah, that “the principle of ownership in Islam is based upon equality”. An explanation of tajavoz-e farhangi - a concept that can be defined as “cultural aggression” or “cultural invasion” is also crucial. “By cultural invasion, I mean incorrect and improper cultures that are full of loss, not profitable to human beings. Those who know this take the means to shape a culture against those who are ignorant. These kinds of improper and incorrect issues definitely originate unclear benefits and disadvantages. The agressor knows that and takes advantage of the ignorance of those who are not informed.”

the Islamic principle of “fraud” and this aggression is also considered to be “a sin and a crime”. Although refraining from any political judgement during his talk, Ayatollah Saanei remarks that “history shows great powers do not do much for the benefit of the people”. Khomeini once said that “the profession of the prophets is politics, and religion is the same as that kind of politics which arouses the people and leads them to what is in the interest of the nation and the public”. So one cannot help asking the Grand Ayatollah about his reaction to the inclusion of Iran in George W Bush’s axis of evil. “If he means by axis of evil our nation, then our nation will say he is exactly the truest example of evil, not us. If he means our politicians and government bodies, then they will answer him in a straightforward manner, not me, because I’m not a politician.” The Grand Ayatollah makes a point to tell “all human beings that in the Islamic Republic of Iran the aggression of human rights did not exist before and does not exist now. Any superpower which is willing to help our country should learn to respect the freedom of the people and their destiny, and to execute the divine ethics of God.” The Grand Ayatollah bids farewell to his visitor with a message of peace and an invitation for further discussions. “We hope that all mankind will be very aware of all our human rights.” Maybe the invitation should be formally extended to Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, et al.

But who defines what is improper or incorrect? Theologists, of course. “If a foreign aggressor wants to impose a culture war on the people, this is considered to be an injustice.” To fight “a culture which is wrong and improper, we should provide thoughtful information and knowledge”. The Grand Ayatollah acknowledges that “the superpowers have advantages to impose culture and thoughts against oppressed peoples. We consider this as manipulation of thoughts.” He evokes PERSIAN MINIATURES    7

A session of Iran’s Guardian Council. File photo.

The guardian Pepe Escobar has a one-on-one talk with Mohsen Ismaili during the first ever interview granted to foreign media by Iran’s Council of Guardians By PEPE ESCOBAR MAY 2, 2002

TEHRAN - Mohsen Ismaili, 37, is an Iranian lawyer. But not just any lawyer. He is the youngest of the 12 members of the powerful Council of Guardians. Ismaili was appointed by the National Consultative Assembly, or Majlis (parliament), in 2001 for a six-year tenure, and he can be (indirectly) re-elected by the head of the judiciary. The Council of Guardians - created by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - is one of the key institutions of the Islamic Republic of Iran and it was established to protect both Islamic laws and the constitution. The 12 members are split into 8   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


six ayatollahs and six jurists. The real power brokers, though, are the ayatollahs - selected by the supreme leader himself, Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei. Ismaili graduated from Modarres University in Tehran. He proudly admits that at the time he was considered the best university student in Iran for years. He has published five books - on the constitution, civilian law, press law and force majeure in Iran-US relations. He is now a visiting professor at the Imam Sadeg University - built during the Shah’s reign as a sort of Iranian Harvard in northern Tehran. Its current dean is a reformist-inclined ayatollah, Mahdavi Kani. Ismaili received Asia Times at the Imam Sadeg University for the first interview ever granted by a member of the Council of Guardians to a foreign publication. AT: What are the main functions of the Council of Guardians? Ismaili: The Council of Guardians has three main functions. The first is to be a watchdog over the ratified verdicts of the parliament. This screening of laws and verdicts means that they should not be against the constitution and Islamic laws. The second function regards the interpretation of the constitution. There should be no ambiguity. The third function is to act as supervisor of the referendums held inside the country. AT: How were you nominated? Ismaili: The six jurist members of the Council of Guardians are nominated by the head of the judiciary and approved by the parliament. The head of the judiciary acts in consultation with the Supreme Court, which proposes the candidates. AT: But who selects the candidates in the first place? Ismaili: Some institutions announce two or three times the names of the final candidates to the judiciary power. The judiciary power introduces these names to the parliament. And after the parliament the head of the judiciary approves the final six jurists. AT: But which institutions present these names in the 10   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

first place? Ismaili: Any university, any faculty of law can do this. AT: How are the tasks divided inside the council between the six ayatollahs and the six jurists? Ismaili: We have the same functions except in one case, regarding Islamic laws. In this case, it is the faqih - the clerical Islamic canonist - who is the only one in a position to deliver a verdict. Otherwise, everybody is equal. AT: Let’s have a practical example. Suppose the Majlis wants to vote a new press law - to allow more freedom of the press. The Council of Guardians could rule that the new press law is against Islamic law. Based on which criteria does the council establish if a new law is anti-Islamic or not? Ismaili: The function of the Council of Guardians is to impose the legal recognition of laws which are not against Islamic laws. It is not necessary to ratify or reject any new laws. AT: This is a bit confusing. Ismaili: I’d like to give an example. Regarding freedom of the press, the council believes that we should not prevent freedom of the press, because this freedom belongs to the journalists. But at the same time it is considered to be against Islamic law if these journalists trespass legal borders - against national security or against public order or against private individual rights. AT: But if you are an Iranian journalist and you write an article criticizing the Islamic Republic’s regime, is it considered as trespassing the limits? Ismaili: At the very outset, I’d like to tell you that I also have a journalistic background. Press law Article 3 says that publishing a report is a legal right of the press. But you are not allowed to trespass private or family individual rights. AT: But it’s the same in any democracy. The question is about criticizing a regime, not criticizing people. Newspapers and publications are routinely closed

down in Iran because they criticize the Islamic regime. Ismaili: In our laws and regulations we have two kinds of criticism. The first is constructive and the second is destructive. This is also mentioned in the press law. Constructive criticism does not disrupt public order and does not offend the feelings of the people. AT: Coming back to the question: to criticize the regime is destructive or not? Ismaili: Of course constructive criticism is allowed. If you take a look at daily newspapers, it shows that this kind of criticism has been totally accepted. Last week I delivered a lecture in Mashhad. They asked me a question regarding the banning of some newspapers. Unfortunately on that occasion one journalist misinterpreted my speech. He said the Council of Guardians supports the permanent closure of publications. Fortunately before the news was published, IRNA [the Iranian news agency] said that this mistake has been made by them - not us. Only one newspaper printed the offending article in the first page. They wanted to take advantage of this news. Some foreign radios - for example Israeli radios - also took advantage of this speech. So I ask this question: is this kind of criticism constructive? AT: Of course not. But we are talking about intellectual, philosophical criticism of the system that at present is not tolerated in Iran. Ismaili: The Council of Guardians does not have the executive power to limit or ban the press. At the same time, we are watching an increase in the number and circulation of the press. AT: Let’s turn this around. Everybody we talk to in Iran, young people mostly, the first thing they say is that there is no freedom of the press because the regime does not allow criticism. Ismaili: I don’t know what kind of young people you have talked to. I do not agree with this kind of belief among some of our young people. The students of this university - I mean Imam Sadeg University - are also young. With students in some other universities, they do not share this same idea. Yesterday students had a

gathering in front of the Ministry of Culture and High Education. They said they wanted to ask why did the government tolerated so much criticism by the press. AT: But the government does not keep quiet. Publications are closed all the time. Anyway: how do you explain the fact there are so many disillusioned people in Iran at the moment? Ismaili: There is also a great number of people who show their loyalty to the government. AT: So do you consider this to be a viable Islamic democracy - and therefore the system does not need any improvement? Ismaili: We believe there is still a far cry from here to an optimized point. Definitely we need some outstanding changes in our viewpoints and methods. This is not something in contrast with our regulations and Islamic laws. We had been tolerating an unbearable autocracy for centuries. What you call Islamic democracy we call religious, or public democracy. Twenty years is not enough to accomplish this national religious democracy - especially with those difficulties we have experienced in the last few years, like the eight-year imposed war [against Iraq], and the bad effects after the war. We are trying to do our best to achieve a very modern pattern of thought under the protection of democracy, not only here but all over the world. We expect Western countries to not deprive people from these new experiences. For example, the Islamic Republic of Iran is trying to execute its own objectives and purposes. We believe that we need experiences set forth by the West and also by our people to establish a national religious democracy inside our country. By the West, I definitely mean the heads and officials of the US government. Of course we don’t have any problems with Western people, especially from other countries, like in Europe. We do not feel any difficulty with the people of the United States. We think that if the heads and officials of the United States do not interfere in the country’s ruling and do not interfere with our methods, Iran can continue its humankind civilization caravan in its own way. PERSIAN MINIATURES    11

Imam Reda Shrine. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Golden domes and mean streets The dazzling Imam Reza shrine presents a stark contrast to the hellish lives of opium-addicted Afghani children in nearby Golshar ghetto By PEPE ESCOBAR MAY 31, 2002

MASHHAD - The Astan-e Qods-e Razavi - housing the holy shrine of Imam Reza and other haram-e motahhar (sacred precincts) - is undoubtedly one of the most dazzling religious complexes in the world. We are immersed in a celebration caravan featuring golden minarets, blue domes, a fabulous golden dome, a Timurid mosque, a kaleidoscope of calligraphy and floral motifs, museums, breathtaking iwans (courtyards with four vaulted halls, two of them entirely coated with gold), madrassas (schools), libraries, stalactite stucco decorated with multicolored glass, and marvels such as the 30-million-knot Carpet of the Seven Beloved Cities. 12   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


At sunset, lost in the multitude of black chadors (veils) and white turbans occupying every square inch of this huge walled island, the power of the Shi’ite faith hits as hard as the power of Buddhism when one visits the Jokhang temple in Tibet. The shrine complex was built by Shah Abbas at the beginning of the 17th century - and been enlarged ever since. Imam Reza’s shrine itself, where pilgrims from all over the Shi’ite world touch and kiss and weep and cling to a silver cage, is absolutely off-limits to non-Muslims. The public relations officers that care for foreign pilgrims tell us that “your holy host is in fact Imam Reza, the 8th Shi’ite imam, born in Medina in 765 AD and martyred by the Abbasid Caliph Mamoon in 818”. Mashhad means literally “the burial place of a martyr”. It is also big business. The foundation that manages the complex is now an enormous business conglomerate including almost 60 companies. Most of the funds come from donations, bequests and the selling of grave sites beneath the shrine: being buried next to Imam Reza is an invaluable honor. The foundation is heavily involved in charity, runs pharmacies and hospitals, provides housing, builds mosques and develops poor areas in the province of Khorasan. A ziyarah - a pilgrimage to Mashhad - is a key event in the life of a Shi’ite. As a pilgrim to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia receives the honorific title of haji, a pilgrim to Mashhad receives the title of mashti. If a pilgrimage to Mashhad, as some Islamic scholars say, can assure a place in Paradise, a pilgrimage to the “animal crossroads” is more like a vision of Hell. The “animal crossroads” in Golshar district is Mashhad’s Little Afghanistan. In this opium and heroin freefor-all, Iranian informants try to appear inconspicuous under their thick Afghan beards, Farsi is drowned by a linguistic cacophony of Dari, Uzbek and Pashto, and the Mashhad police do everything to make the Afghans feel uncomfortable. We are only four hours by taxi from the Afghan border. There are not many options if you are an Afghan kid in the mean streets of this ghetto. To start with, you 14   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

almost never leave the ghetto itself - perhaps once a week to pray at the dazzling Imam Reza shrine. You can work in a brick factory in a wretched area 20 kilometers from Mashhad - surrounded by other intrepid Afghans. Tiny but heavy bricks are drowned in a mix of adobe and sand and then left to cook for a month in an undercover gallery - under the drowsy eyes of the semi-roasted Afghans. Or you can make rugs in a clandestine workshop - where all the weavers are between 10 and 18. The youngest are on opium, the oldest on heroin. A dose of opium sells for 5,000 Iranian rials (60 US cents). One gram of pure heroin sells for almost $7. The young Afghans earn no more than 12 cents a day. But you can forget about work and simply become a drug addict in the mean streets of Golshar. At least 30 percent of the kids are on opium - production is booming again in “liberated” Afghanistan. Or you can try to study. If you are an Afghan kid and manage to finish high school, this is nothing short of a miracle. Semi-officially, there are now slightly less than 2 million Afghans in Iran. Only half carry a resident permit - which is the key to be enrolled in school. Illegals have to be educated at home or in underground schools - routinely closed by the police. While 98 percent of Iranian kids have finished primary school, illiteracy rates among Afghans remain very high. The days when Ayatollah Khomeini wanted to export the Islamic revolution are long gone. Iran at that time (during the 1980s) was at war against Iraq and it badly needed Afghans to work in industry and agriculture. But in the early 1990s - after the end of the anti-Soviet jihad and the beginning of the mujahideen government in Kabul - Iran decided to get rid of its Afghans. Dreaded “transit camps” proliferated near the Iran-Afghan border, off the road between Mashhad and Herat. Iran may be a multi-ethnic jigsaw puzzle, and Afghanistan may have been a satrapy (province) of the Persian empire - not to mention the Shi’ite faith uniting Persians and Tajiks and Hazaras. But racism is a fact. Most Iranians rule out the option of living in an

apartment block with other Afghan families. And most would not tolerate their offspring marrying an Afghan. Getting married is also not exactly an option for a kid in the Afghan ghetto. According to Afghan tradition, the groom must reimburse the family the total price of the milk consumed by his bride from her mother’s breast. This could amount to anything up to 4 million rials, a fortune at $500. After the Islamic revolution (1979), a flurry of nationalizations, the eight-year “imposed” war against Iraq (no one seems to be able to say imposed by whom), and a certain international isolation, everything in Iran now costs 10 times more than in 1979. Officials admit that the official “back to Afghanistan” policy may not succeed, even with massive unemployment corroding the Iranian economy. It’s not clear that Iranians are willing to take the hard-core jobs now performed by Afghans. Underpaid illegal refugees work night and day in the construction business - the only booming sector of the economy. Late at night, in the streets of Tehran, the father may be working while his daughter roams the closing cafes selling plastic-coated copies of Islamic verses.

stan and the United Nations, 400,000 Afghans should return home in the year 2002. Hariri considers the figure extremely unrealistic, “Return to what? They tell me there are no houses, no food, no water, the prices are high, and there are no jobs. And they say Iran is a good place for refugees compared to Pakistan.” There is some hope that after the loya jirga (grand council) in June in Afghanistan there will be more security - the all-important issue as far as the refugees are concerned. As far as Afghanistan registers in Washington’s worldview, the only thing that matters are pipelines - the new Texas Silk Road in Central Asia. An eventual, selfish American-led commercial corridor may secure more jobs for petro-executives and corrupt officials but certainly not for the mass of Afghan refugees. And there’s nothing Imam Reza can do about it.

Fouzia Hariri is the head of the release committee for Destitute Afghan Refugees in Tehran. She says that at least 1 million refugees still live in south Tehran. Her NGO - financed by Japan and the International Organization for Migration to the tune of $50,000 a year - runs literacy classes and a vocational training center teaching English, computer technology, sewing, carpentry and handicraft-making. The Australian and Dutch embassies are also involved in running programs - in agreement with the Iranian government. Hariri, an Afghan, says that the Afghans face tremendous medical problems, such as tuberculosis. Some need complex operations, but Iranian hospitals charge very high prices. Female heads of families cannot afford rents that go up all the time. Most Afghans hold only a residence permit - which entitles them to no social benefits. According to an agreement between Iran, AfghaniPERSIAN MINIATURES    15

Iran is opening up to the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Encircled Iran’s geostrategic isolation is shifting as demographic and economic pressure grows By PEPE ESCOBAR JUNE 13, 2002

TEHRAN – Iran was once considered by the Soviets as a suburb. Only after the USSR’s demise did Iran’s 1,740 kilometers of borders – including 630 kilometers of maritime border in the Caspian Sea – open up to the Caucasus and Central Asia. With Shi’ite Azerbaijan and Sunni Turkmenistan the affinities go deeper: at least 15 million Azeris and (unofficially) two million Turkmen live in Iran. As for Tajikistan, it is practically an extension of Iran. But Stalin’s demential geo-designs still did not favor Iran’s influence over the ethni16   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


cally close Tajiks: the great Persian-speaking cities of Bukhara and Samarcand – essential to the history of Persia – were annexed to Uzbekistan by Stalin . The Grand Iran Society, founded in Tajikistan in 1991, is in favor of the unification of Persian-speaking populations now living in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, the defense of the Persian language, and a continuous struggle against the penetration of Russian and Turkish. Although historically there has always been bitter ethnic rivalry between the Turkish-speaking and Persian-speaking worlds, it is important to note that the key to the unity of modern Iran was never Persian: it was the Shi’ite faith. Persian-speaking Sunnis in Bukhara, for instance, have been away from Persia for more than half a millennium, when the Safavids institutionalized Shi’ism as the state religion. But university professors in Tehran, speaking off the record, assure that Iran’s Shi’ite identity itself is now being menaced – by demography. Kurdish and Afghan refugees have swelled the ranks of the minority Sunnis, although they make up barely more than 10 percent of the population. Khorasan – the largest Iranian province – is now predominantly Sunni. Although they are mostly Persian speakers, most Afghan refugees do not really become integral parts of Iranian society. Washington may not be aware of it, but the fact is that Iran – forced by economic crisis – stopped long ago financing the spread of Islam, by whatever means, in Central Asia. For starters, Muslims in Central Asia are predominantly Sunni: Tehran realized it would be playing Saudi Arabia’s game. And with high rates of unemployment and inflation, the persistent growth of its own population, plus a substantial part of oil revenues directed to the defense budget, Iran obviously cannot go shopping for influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. But the new Iranian geostrategic game has been successful in its central objective of shattering Iran’s international isolation. Under Ayatollah Khomeini’s messianic universalism, Iran financed the spread of 18   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Islam everywhere in the world – from Algeria to Lebanon. Since the mid 1990s, the emphasis is to catch up in economic and technological terms with the most advanced parts of the developing world. And especially after the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, the emphasis is also to reestablish – even indirectly – a dialogue with the US. The dialogue, nevertheless, remains blocked by the conservatives. Anti-Americanism was one of the building blocks of the Islamic revolution of 1979. And it is arguably the last remaining reason to refuse the dialogue the reformists want. Obviously the Americans do not help with the John Wayne theology of “axis of evil”. Kazem Jalali, a member of the majlis (parliament) in Tehran and self-defined supporter of Khatami, considers this accusation “a very great insult to the people of the Islamic Republic. If today the population wants democracy and human rights, other nations should help Iran, not insult us.” As far as Tehran is concerned, the advance of Islam in Central Asia is an extremely long-term project. One example is the lack of enthusiasm Tehran had for the Islamists in Tajikistan in the 1990s – because it feared the establishment of a great Tajikistan spreading itself from Kabul to Bukhara. American and Russian fears of fundamentalists supported by Iran creating an Islamic state uniting Afghanistan, Tajikistan and parts of Uzbekistan now are no more than science fiction scenarios. Iran, though, is very much present in the Caucasus - in Azerbaijan - but for a very good reason: a prosperous and powerful Azerbaijan under the influence of Turkey is considered to be a menace for the Islamic Republic because those 15 million Azeris living in Iran (60 percent of them don’t even speak Persian) would soon start voicing their political grievances. Tehran still suspects that Afghanistan under the rule of Hamid Karzai is nothing but a Trojan horse for Pakistan and the US to curtail its influence and interests in Central Asia. But Iran has been cooperating with the US all along. In the beginning of the new Afghan war, in October 2001, Iranian, Turkish and American secret

services had a meeting in Ankara to coordinate their annihilation of the Taliban, but it was also agreed that Iran would not admit an indefinite American presence near its borders. Tehran and Moscow absolutely agree on that, but the geostrategic situation is slowly shifting. If during Taliban times there was a certain convergence between Iran and the US, it was because they had two enemies in common: the Taliban and Saddam Hussein (both, by the way, formerly supported by the Americans). Now they have only one – Saddam – and the US is determined to get rid of him with no help from anybody. There was even a brief time when the rapprochement between Iran and the US opened the possibility of the cheaper and faster Iranian route for the distribution of Caspian wealth. The rabid Israeli lobby in the US killed the brief honeymoon – for nobody’s benefit except the lobby’s. Any energy specialist worth his name knows Iran is the best and the absolutely inevitable route for distributing the wealth of Central Asian states: for instance, routes and railroads from Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan’s capital, to Mashhad in northeastern Iran are essential for Turkmen exports.

regarding military equipment, meaning that Iran in fact now is fully in charge of the security of Persian Gulf pipelines. The peaceful Iranian nuclear program keeps being developed with its Russian partner. Iran promised no less than US$560 million in five years for the reconstruction of Afghanistan – which gives it a right to closely monitor what’s happening in its eastern borders. There are no Iranians whatsoever in al-Qaeda. And al-Qaeda’s money does not transit Iran – which the US still lists as a “terrorist state” and a member of the axis of evil – but through Pakistan, an ally of the US. To present Tehran as a danger to American national security is beyond rubbish. The fact of the matter is that Washington will have to realize it simply cannot snuff out a crucial player – politically, economically, culturally - in the New Great Game.

Tehran still has every reason to believe the US wants to keep it isolated. The record shows this is no paranoia. The Taliban were just one piece of the puzzle. There are many others: Turkey; the massive American military presence in the Persian Gulf; Iran’s exclusion from pipelines carrying oil and gas from the Caspian; and the new American muscle displayed in Central Asia, especially the new cosy relationship with Uzbekistan’s ruthless dictator Islam Karimov. Not to mention the frozen Iranian accounts in the US, the economic sanctions imposed in 1996, the American veto of Iran’s admission to the World Trade Organization, and the relentless, vicious anti-Iranian campaign by the Israeli lobby in the US. Even though the odds are heavily against Iran, 2,500 years of Persian diplomacy and refinement are a tremendous asset. After 20 years of bilateral tension, a security treaty with Saudi Arabia was signed in 2001. Also in 2001, Iran and Russia signed a crucial contract PERSIAN MINIATURES    19

Iranian women pass their time in a shopping mall on Kish island, a free trade zone Iran hopes will compete with Dubai for Muslim tourists. Photo: Atta Kenare / AFP

Iran: Tough talk and temptresses Iran is a land of contrasts and color as external political pressure builds By PEPE ESCOBAR AUGUST 25, 2005

I just wanna watch Dylan live I won’t fly into the Pentagon alive - My Sweet Little Terrorist Song, by Iranian rock band 127

TEHRAN - Scene 1. The brand new Imam Khomeini Airport - or IKA, its code in the travel industry - is spread out on a deserted plain near the Tehran-Qom expressway, 35 kilometers south of the capital. On a weekday afternoon, it is nearly empty. There’s just one flight arriving from the 20   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


Gulf. Not a single, crass billboard softens IKA’s steely austerity: perhaps yet one more sign of the struggle against “cultural invasion”, one of the pillars of Iran’s clerical oligarchy (although “invaders” such as Samsung, LG, Daewoo, Nokia, Peugeot and Moulinex are making a killing in the Iranian market). Outside the airport, a billboarded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the Islamic revolution of 1979, sporting the faintest of smiles, welcomes visitors to the Islamic republic. A ride into town costs US$8. In the European Union - promised land of migration for many an Iranian - it would cost at least six times more. Scene 2. Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the new Iranian president, has announced an eight-point plan for his new government. In central Tehran’s cramped sidewalk kiosks, though, the main topic of discussion is the poor performance of the national soccer team against Japan. Both teams had already booked a place for the Germany 2006 World Cup, but the poor performance was inexcusable - a national shame much worse than Washington accusing Tehran of harboring a secret nuclear program. The papers duly include a measure of discussion of the eight-point plan. Ahmadinejad promises to “end corruption” and “use the latest modern technical and technological advancements” to improve the life of Iranians. He wants to “establish justice throughout the world by reviving Islamic civilization”. But he also wants “social and economic justice consistent with strict religious teachings”; he will only “allow freedoms conformant to Sharia” (Islamic law); justice as well has to be meted out “in strict accordance to Sharia”; and he wants to help “humiliated nations” striving against terrorism and war (a reference to Iraq?). A reader in front of a kiosk sighs: “There’s not a single reference to democracy.” Mohammad Soltanifar, the managing editor of Iran News, is not impressed either, “We are in 2005 and not the immediate post-revolutionary period of 1979.” He simply cannot believe that Ahmadinejad “has insisted 22   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

that economic development should be founded on the instructions of the Holy Koran”. He does not believe in the competence of the people appointed by the president to form his cabinet - heated confirmation debates in parliament started Sunday: “They have no experience to manage large and hugely complex government ministries.” His final verdict: the plan is “too general, vague and slogan-oriented” to succeed. Scene 3. A shared taxi - the quintessential, rickety Paykan - crossing from south to north Tehran. Nadr, the mute driver, proud father of a baby girl - photo on the dashboard - gestures a whole political program to the foreigner: those bearded people (the mullahs) are no good; here it’s no good; I want to fly away; yes, to England. The chances of Nadr, a proletarian from south Tehran, making it to IKA are virtually nil. It doesn’t matter: his enthusiastic pantomime sparks a tumultuous debate in the taxi. South Tehran voted for Ahmadinejad in the recent presidential elections. North Tehran voted reformist. The passengers are basically south and central Tehran. When they refer to mullahs and politicians, the expression inha (roughly meaning “those people”) is recurrent. They press the point that “those people” also make a very clear distinction themselves, between the khodiah (“our people”) and the gheyreh khodiah (the rest), the insiders (daroune nezam) and the outsiders (biroune nezam). All in the taxi consider themselves biroune nezam. And they all voted for Ahmadinejad which implies their belief that the new president may be able to protect them from “those people”. Scene 4. An army of Angelina Jolie clones is roaming north Tehran, from the malls and cafes of trendy Vanak Street to the upper class suburb of Eliyaheh. Jolie is the ultimate feminist symbol in Tehran. The reason is simple: she looks Persian. And she embodies the image of the ultimate temptress - the bete noire of the Islamic regime, obsessed with female virtue. The black chador, compulsory from 1979 onwards, was

supposed to master the legendary power of seduction of the Persian woman. In south Tehran, the chador still ranks a roughly 50% approval rate. But on the other side of town, the preferred composite look goes something like this: colorful Chanel or Hermes scarf, barely disguising a fashionable hairstyle; tons of make up (preferably Mac); Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses; a short, tight, light overcoat posing as a chador; designer jeans; and illegally imported Ferragamo shoes. The miniskirt is not back, yet, but some more adventurous temptresses are already showing off golden ankle bracelets, something that in Khomeini times would have landed them in jail. No wonder testosterone levels are on red alert: Tehran men simply can’t stop talking about “all the pretty girls”. A pretty young lady from Eliyaheh, drenched in Chanel and Hermes, wouldn’t be caught dead shopping in “medieval” Tehran bazaars, “over there” in the south side of town (and local taxi drivers wouldn’t even know how to take her back to north Tehran): a megamall in Dubai would be a different proposition entirely. On Thursday nights the pretty young one takes ecstasy at US$2 a pop and goes cruising in dad’s made-in-Iran Peugeot on secluded, tree-lined Fereshte Street, listening to Russian techno. On her holidays, she goes to Goa in India or Malaysia, and if dad is really part of “those people”, London or LA (or Tehrangeles, as it is locally known, the largest Iranian population in any city outside of Iran). To master the killer Jolie look, she just needs to buy a pirated video CD of Mr and Mrs Smith, a Jolie-Brad Pitt movie, for less than $3. Talk about “cultural invasion”. Scene 5. Friday jumma prayers at Tehran University. A huge operation: heavy police presence, sealed perimeter, body searches, the whole neighborhood coming to a standstill. On stage, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sartorially magnificent, a portrait of Khomeini hanging by his side attached to a purple curtain. From the point of view of a lone foreigner lost in a crowd of Shi’ite believers, it’s always an arresting experience - especially when the rhyth-

mic, incantatory chanting - Ali! Ali! Ali! Ali! - starts to weave its magic. The crowd overspills through all the alleys leading to the giant hangar where the gathering takes place: aerial shots make for great TV. It’s a mix of religious assembly and political rally, right in the middle of the most important university in the country: like the Christian right taking over Harvard. The crowd includes many of “those people”, many bazaris (merchants), a few bassijis (Islamic vigilantes loyal to Khamenei), but mostly the average Tehrani, wearing plain white shirts and wornout sandals, sometimes carrying his own small prayer mat and the small round tablet of sacred clay from Najaf touched by his head when he kneels down to pray. They all wear an expression of profound concentration under the blazing sun. The women, of course, are invisible, on the other side of the hangar. Ahmadinejad is also present, sitting down cross-legged on the floor in the first row inside the hangar, wearing his new trademark beige light jacket, a simple Shi’ite worshipper surrounded by the regime’s top clerics. After a few minutes, the Supreme Leader’s speech takes a sharp turn and the key themes are easily discernible - “Khomeini”, “Palestine”, “America”, “terrorism”, “Iraq”. He says “the US has been defeated in Iraq and there is no doubt about it.” He praises the new popular government in Iraq (“The Iraqi nation, the progressive clergy and religious authorities wanted this”). He identifies Palestinian resistance as the reason why Israel handed over Gaza. (“The Palestinian nation and the jihadi groups of Palestine should know that negotiations did not liberate Gaza, and will never liberate anywhere.”) He calls for a referendum so Palestinians may choose the government they want. And then comes the clincher - straight from the mouth of the most powerful man in Iran, the only one whose voice is absolute and intangible: Iran is not after a nuclear bomb. And Iran has not breached any international laws. “We have been acting with moderation, logic and tolerance. But we have said this before and I repeat it, the Iranian nation will not give in to bullying and blackmailing by anyone.” PERSIAN MINIATURES    23

The Supreme Leader justifies what Iran is doing: “The uranium we enrich in the fuel cycle is only 3% to 4% rich while for an atomic bomb it should be enriched up to 99%. We are using our own uranium, our own facility to make a 3%, 4% enrichment for supply of fuel to the unfinished nuclear power plant in Bushehr. We want our own fuel production for our nuclear plant but they [the West] tell us to purchase fuel from them so that we would eventually become dependent on them.” And in a dramatic coup of political theater - unfortunately lost in translation, so the sound bite cannot reverberate across the world - he urges Europe not to be influenced by the US: “America neither has goodwill towards you or towards Iran. So do not give up under US pressure.” The huge crowds disperse, the youngest on their way

to a game of badminton and a late burger or pizza in neighboring Laleh park, dreaming of striking up a conversation with a group of Angelina Jolies. A group of young men, “no, we are not students” (and not the religious police either) approaches the foreigner with immense curiosity. A discussion ensues over who has and who has not the right to nuclear power. Their point, in a nutshell: “Your” [the West, seen as a whole] Bush invaded Iraq because he said Iraq had nuclear weapons. It was a lie. Now he [Bush] says Iran wants a bomb. It’s also a lie. So it all comes down to this: who’re you gonna trust, George W Bush or Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel signs a document at the G7 summit in Taormina, Sicily, Italy, on May 26. Photo: Guido Bergmann / Handout via Reuters

It might be easier to bet on the winner of the Germany 2006 World Cup.

The nuclear rap Frantic speculation about the end of the American century is idle. What matters is the facts, which spell out progressive, and inexorable, integration across much of the world By PEPE ESCOBAR AUGUST 26, 2005

TEHRAN - “Nuclear power is our right,” the boys go. And the blackclad girls immediately sing along: “Independence and freedom is the belief of our people!” It sounds great in Persian, flowing “like a poem”, comments a smiling observer. This - how to call it, an Islamic revolutionary rap? - goes on for a while. The show is live, under the blazing sun, at three in the afternoon in the most crowded area in central Tehran, a literal traffic-stopper. And it happens to be right in front of the French Embassy. 24   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


And there are some banners too. “Recognition of our peaceful nuclear technology - an obligation of the IAEA”. “NPT - We will leave you soon”. These are references to the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Iran is a signatory. Then there is the perennial “Down with the USA”. The nuclear rap fades out, and two speakers take over, amid a solid diplomatic police presence. It’s a simple operation - roughly 200 people plus a truck customized with loudspeakers. The boys and girls are of course segregated - boys ahead, girls behind the truck, all wearing full-length black chadors, some brandishing photos of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. One speaker reads a concise story of neo-colonial exploitation - saying essentially that rich countries now oppress developing countries not directly, with their physical presence, but by preventing them from becoming technology-savvy. Another speaker makes it clear: “No negotiations on Isfahan” - a reference to the uranium conversion plant in historic Isfahan that transforms yellowcake - concentrated uranium - into gas, then introduces it into the centrifuges of the Natanz plant, 100 kilometers north of Isfahan. Iran recently resumed its uranium conversion after suspending activities while negotiating with the EU-3 - Britain, Germany and France - over its nuclear program. Tehran says that it has the right under the NPT to develop nuclear technology for energy purposes. The US suspects that Iran wants to develop the bomb. The speaker goes on: “We are not afraid of sanctions,” as has been threatened if Iran’s case is taken to the UN Security Council. Then comes the chant, very loud: “Death to the evil governments of France, Germany and England!” Unless he’s using earplugs, the French ambassador is not having a proper nap today. Suddenly it’s time to move. The boys, the truck and the blackclad girls start marching, singing their song under the blazing sun along the conveniently blocked streets toward the German and British embassies, which happen to be only a few minutes away. Repeat of the whole operation. In one hour and a half it’s all over, and cen26   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

tral Tehran resumes its own, polluted, hyper-congested self. The man in charge of all this is Ibrahim Motavalian, a soft-spoken surgeon, who crucially happens to be in charge of all university bassijis in Tehran. The bassijis are everywhere - in the Revolutionary Guard, among students, workers, office employees. They have all carried at least one week of military training. And they all respond to Khamenei. Their motto, inscribed beside their logo, says it all: “The 20 million army”. Motavalian says that the message today is that “we have the right to develop nuclear technology by ourselves.” He emphasizes the moment is important, “The University of Tehran is closed, because of the summer holidays, and you see the students here.” He is unfazed that the demonstration might not go down very well in Europe. “We are protesting against the French Foreign Ministry, which said that Iran should abandon fuel enrichment, and buy enriched uranium from Europe. Nuclear technology is our right.” If the nuclear negotiations with the EU-3 collapse, and sanctions are imposed, “we will monopolize the media”. He believes this could be the beginning of a true, nationalist, popular movement.

Why this demonstration right now, running the risk of alienating public opinion in France, Germany and Britain at the same time? Cynics say it’s because of the ongoing debate in the majlis (parliament) on the cabinet nominees appointed by new President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The televised morning debates are making it plain to most Iranians that many of the candidates are not up to the job, and practically none have managerial experience. According to the majlis energy committee chairman, Kamal Daneshyar, no fewer than 10 of the proposed ministers are seriously running the risk of being rejected by parliament: in this case Ahmadinejad will have to propose alternative candidates. Officials at the Ministry of Culture say at least the proposed ministers of education, health and oil will be vetoed. Whichever way one looks, this is already a setback for Ahmadinejad. So this demonstration comes in handy, diverting public attention from what’s happening in parliament. Nevertheless, the all-important nuclear issue simply won’t go away. Soon the boys and girls will be back in the streets singing their nuclear rap. Not to mention the rest of the “20 million army”.

The Iranian population is extremely well informed about the nuances of the current nuclear impasse between the EU-3 and Iran - certainly more informed than Europeans or Americans. Every night on prime time on government-owned Channel Three there’s a 15 minute-program, a kind of crash course on the nuclear fuel cycle, where everyone learns the difference between water and heavy water, the meaning of yellowcake and what centrifuges do. But this is the first coordinated demonstration in front of the embassies of the three EU countries involved - after roughly 4,000 people demonstrated last week in both Isfahan and Natanz, threatening to build human chains if sanctions are applied or if Washington entertains plans of bombing Iran’s nuclear sites.


Waiting for the Mahdi, Part 1 Sistani.Qom: In the wired heart of Shi’ism By PEPE ESCOBAR AUGUST 31, 2005

QOM - Secular voices in Tehran are adamant: Ninety percent of the political power in Iran is in Qom. One may be tempted to add that at least 70% of the political power in Iraq is also situated in Qom. It’s only a small room, one of its walls plastered with blue cabinet files containing e-mail printouts from all over the world. Behind a glass wall, five youngsters scan documents non-stop. Appearances are deceptive. This is the room housing, arguably the nerve center of Shi’ite Islam today, run by a soft-spoken, scholarly looking man, Ali 28   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


Shabestari. Some grand ayatollahs may be grander than others. Since the war, invasion and occupation of Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - based in Najaf, 160 kilometers south of Baghdad, but born in Sistan-Balochistan province in Iran - has become the paramount voice of Shi’ism. The victory of the Shi’ite-led coalition in the January elections in Iraq was basically a Sistani victory. Most of his closest aides are based in Qom, in Central Iran about 200 kilometers south of Tehran. Sistani’s unquestioned moral authority has put the limelight on nothing less than a silent battle for the core of the Shi’ite soul. Sistani’s website, in five languages, receives an average of 15,000 visitors a day, and “700 to 1,200 e-mails every single day”, according to Shabestari. “There were so many page visits and e-mails from predominantly Sunni, Wahhabi Saudi Arabia that the Saudi government blocked the site,” he says with a chuckle (10% of Saudi Arabia’s population is Shi’ite, living in the oil-rich Persian Gulf). From non-Arabic visitors to Sistani’s website, e-mails are mostly about Iraqi politics; nowadays overwhelmingly about the federation of Iraq. Shabestari shows some e-mail print outs and the relevant response handwritten by the grand ayatollah himself. The question is inevitable: who is the most authoritative voice in Shi’ite Islam today? Is it the discreet, almost recluse Sistani in Najaf, Iraq who forced the American superpower to bow to his wishes? Or is it the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei? Who has the upper hand, Najaf or Qom? Pick your marja’a Hojjatoleslam Mahdi Hassan Zadeh is the director of the Aalulbayt World Assembly, dedicated to “spreading Shi’ite culture around the world”. He explains that “in a meeting 14 years ago, Shi’ite scholars from more than 100 countries decided to set up a center to propagate Shi’ism.” Today, according to the center’s figures, there are close to 150 million Shi’ites worldwide. These 30   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

include 2 million in Western Europe (out of 10 million Muslims); 5% of these 2 million were born in Europe. In Asia there are 1 million Shi’ites, mostly in Xinjiang and Beijing in China, and 3 to 4 million in Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar). India, Pakistan and Bangladesh account for almost 70 million. In the US, since 1990, 4 million Americans have converted to Islam; of a minimum of 10 million Muslims, 2 million Americans are Shi’ite. The figure of the marja’a - a source of imitation by the faithful - is at the center of Shi’ism. The marja’a represents Imam al-Mahdi, the hidden Imam who will reappear one day to save mankind. Marja’as are also at the center of the barely disguised rivalry between the holy cities of Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran. Zadeh says that previously Najaf was the center “because there were more marja’as. Under repression by Saddam Hussein, most of them migrated to Qom, and now they are mostly here. Imams predicted in books that the center [of the Shi’ite faith] would move to Qom.” According to Zadeh, there are now eight marja’as, all of them grand ayatollahs. Only Sistani is based in Iraq, in Najaf. The others are Khamenei, Makaram Shirazi, Fazel Lankarani, Tabrizi; Bahjat, Safi Golpaygani, and Shirazi. All the Iranians are close followers of the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. Zadeh adds that “in each time there is a supreme marja’a. Now it is Ayatollah Khamenei.” But who were they before Khomeini? Zadeh points to a list of all marja’as since the 7th century. Zadeh says, “All marja’as have a duty to establish an Islamic government. And this government should be established according to the will of the people. Imam Khomeini was ready; people wanted it.” This implies that Sistani in Iraq was just delivering what the Shi’ite majority of the population wanted. Iraq may not become an Islamic republic, but at least none of its laws shall contradict Sharia, or Islamic law. Zadeh explains that velayat-e-faqih (the ruling of the jurisprudent) is “the duty and belief of all marja’as. The fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] should be running politi-

cal and social life.” The devil, of course, is in the details. “Shi’ites in practice believe that state and religion go together.” Does that mean the absolute preeminence of Sharia law? “Islam says we have solutions for all aspects of life. And all Iranians accept this.” But it’s important to remember that when the concept of velayat-e-faqih was erected as the basis of Iran after the revolution, it was opposed by Ayatollah Khoei in Najaf (a traditionalist), Ayatollah Shariatmadari in Qom (a liberal) and Ayatollah Taleqani in Tehran (a “leftist”, meaning progressive). Even with different positions, they all agreed that the marja’a should not mess around with politics. Confronted with the evidence of the Taliban mix of Wahhabism and Deobandi ideology and its disaster in running Afghanistan, Zadeh says, “It’s not the first time in history that we have blunders like that. The Taliban claimed they were running an Islamist state. They were wrong. Shi’ites on the other hand leave a lot of space for popular criticism.” The concept of an Islamic state, according to Imam Ali, for Shi’ites, is still the model of pure Islam. Zadeh quotes a saying by Imam Ali, “With the help of the people we can establish an Islamic state.” But how to adapt from the 7th century to the 21st? “That’s the advantage of Islam. It’s not a religion just for Arabs, but for all mankind. We automatically adapt for change.” As far as the new Iraqi constitution is concerned, the view of the Qom clerical establishment is that “as long as laws do not contradict Sharia, they are acceptable”. Zadeh admits that the situation in both countries is extremely different. In Iran there was a popular revolution, led by a charismatic religious leader, which turned into a regime admitting no dissent. In Iraq there was a military intervention from a Western power, which opened the way for dozens of political parties. “In Iraq they have to contend with other powerful minorities. That’s the beauty of religion.” The conversation inevitably turns to Imam Mahdi, the heart of the Shi’ite faith. Zadeh says that “all religions seek a savior. We in Shi’ism have the hidden Imam. Why are we all waiting for him? We are tired of wars, of corruption. So we must prepare and be ready

for when the imam comes.” The conversation is enlivened by the arrival of Ayatollah Mohsen Araki, a senior personage who until recently was the representative of the Supreme Leader in London. In fluent English, Araki says, “Al-Qaeda bombings represent the absolute opposite of Muslim ideology, of humanity. Nobody can accept these kinds of actions. We have condemned them.” Araki equals al-Qaeda with American politicians: “They use democracy. It does not mean that democracy is killing people in Afghanistan and other countries.” Al-Qaeda, for its part, uses Islam: “It does not mean Islam accepts these kinds of actions. All Islamic instructions are the opposite of killing people without aim.” The Islamic Center of England, according to Araki, has done its best to publish leaflets and books and organize conferences with European scholars explaining the difference between Islam and terrorism. Pick your holy city The heart of Shi’ite proselytizing is Aalulbayt’s global information center. It houses three websites, plus The main site is available in no less than 27 languages, boasting huge archives, everything translated by a group of students, native speakers, in Qom. There are Afghans, Tajiks, Russians, northern Africans; they have been transferring all Shi’ite textbooks online for three years now. Zadeh says this is considered the number one Shi’ite website, and number seven among all Muslim websites. It has an average of 250,000 visits a month, from as many as 133 countries. The other sites are www. - only about the Koran, the whole book translated in 27 languages, plus interpretations; and, with a collection of Imam Ali’s sayings in 22 languages. The center also has offices in major world cities, from London and New York to Karachi and Istanbul. Aalulbayat’s information center is officially managed “under the supervision of the office of His Eminence, PERSIAN MINIATURES    31

Grand Ayatollah Sistani”. This makes him in fact the electronic grand ayatollah par excellence, with unparalleled power to reach all corners of the Shi’ite world, something that implies a most uncomfortable question to be posed to Qom clerics: the fact that Khamenei, in spite of all his political and financial muscle, has never managed to impose himself as the undisputed supreme authority in such a manner - neither among the clerical hierarchy, neither among the faithful. Certainly not in Qom, but in Tehran reformists refer to him not as grand ayatollah but as “Seyyed Ali Shah” - in an extremely unflattering parallel with the late shah who was ousted in the Islamic revolution.

in Tehran. It’s not a question of Tehran influencing Qom; the point is the overwhelming influence of Qom over Tehran. In Iraq on the other hand, there will be no velayat-e-faqih: in a “republican, parliamentary, democratic and federal” Iraq, Islam in the proposed Iraqi constitution, is “a main source of legislation”. The verdict is open on which model - Iran or Iraq - best reflects the aspirations of nearly 150 million Shi’ites worldwide. NEXT: Part 2 - Waiting for the savior

Asia Times Online has confirmed in the Shi’ite neighborhoods of Beirut how Khamenei is regarded as a supreme marja’a - but the feeling is far from unanimous. For instance, Ayatollah Hossein Fadlallah, the supreme Shi’ite authority in Lebanon, is a very active critic of the theory of velayat-e-faqih; he insists the faithful are absolutely free to choose who is their marja’a. This “battle” between Sistani and Khamenei extrapolates to the extremely fluid interplay between Najaf and Qom. During Saddam, Qom all but eclipsed Najaf. Qom was lavished with funds from the Iranian state attracting teachers and students alike to its well-funded hawza (seminaries and religious schools). Najaf, though, kept enjoying the advantage of being totally independent from either Baghdad or Tehran. Now free, Najaf is shining again as a center of autonomy and free criticism - thanks to Sistani’s spiritual role - while Qom is inextricably linked with political power

Waiting for the Mahdi, Part 2 A vision or a waking dream? By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 1, 2005

“Iran is the country of Imam al-Mahdi.” - Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the Islamic revolution in 1979

QOM - Shi’ism is an eschatological religion that has codified its own, complex (happy) end of history. Intellectually, from a non-Shi’ite point of view, its appeal is derived from the fact that it is a romantic religion, a religion of the despaired and the dispossessed, and a religion of messianic waiting. The wait is for the expected leader, Imam al-Mahdi, the 12th 32   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


hidden imam of Shi’ism who will come one day to, in essence, save mankind from itself. Without understanding this long waiting it’s impossible to understand post-revolutionary Iran. And nowhere else than in the holy city of Qom in central Iran about 200 kilometers south of Tehran is one able to feel the full power of the faith. Hojjatoleslam Masoud Pour Seyyed Aghaei, a soft-spoken, black-turbaned top cleric, is the head of the Bright Future center - an educational and research institute set up to prepare the Shi’ite faithful, especially young people, for the arrival of Imam Mahdi. He quotes as evidence United Nations figures according to which the social gap between rich and poor has been extending non-stop since the 1950s, so that now 80% of the world’s population is excluded from its wealth. “This proves that the intervention of a higher power - God - is necessary.” Seyyed Aghaei shows how the Internet is central to Shi’ism’s formidable capacity of regimentation and conversion. On its own premises, a house in one of Qom’s narrow alleys, the center publishes a magazine, Intizar Nojavan, soon also digitally, and operates a website - - about Imam Mahdi and other saviors in all religions. The center in fact multiplies itself in a number of sites -, and Their religious program leads to a PhD in four years, including disciplines like history of Islam and knowledge of the Koran and other religions. After that, graduates can become teachers. All foreign students must learn Farsi. Soon the center will also sponsor an electronic university. Centers like Bright Future can count on substantial budgets distributed by the Art and Cultural Activity Center of City Hall in Tehran. Seyyed Hassan Mirhosseini supervises the imposing library, which also collects all the PhD theses. Apart from Farsi and Arabic, there are books in English and French. According to Seyyed Aghaei, there are eight research groups at the center. He points out the crucial four differences between globalization - whose study 34   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

is not neglected - and globalization of Imam Mahdi: fundamentals, goals, infrastructure of government and methodology. All studies at the center are directly related to Imam Mahdi. There are more than 100 candidates at the beginning of each term. After passing an entrance examination and an in-depth interview, about eight to 10 are approved each time. The center pays special attention to kids. Seyyed Aghaei shows how in a series of gorgeously drawn allegories, a small group comprising a psychologist, a painter and a poet managed to illustrate six crucial concepts: dreaming about a “city of wishes”; “the birth of a person who will get these wishes”; absence (the person is hidden); love in the absence of this person; “the city of Heaven” (when the person appears); and what Seyyed Aghaei calls “green waiting”, a kind of utopia of a world ridden from injustice. Interaction is key. The center maintains a question and answer department where questions sent by e-mail or by phone are answered immediately (or the center calls back). The digital team is extremely young, well-educated and hyperactive. Within minutes, Asia Times Online’s visit is already online at In a basement filled with computers, the team grills this correspondent with all sorts of questions regarding religion and literature and how Islam is perceived in the West. Among the team we find someone like Muhamad Sadegh Dehghan, a young Hazara born in Kabul who fled Afghanistan with his family in 1980 and grew up in Iran. He recently revisited his hometown and was impressed by the poverty - ie, the absence of reconstruction since the US deposed the Taliban in late 2001. He’s studying for a Master’s degree in international law at the University of Tehran and wants to remain in Iran. A vision or a waking dream? The Shi’ite tradition in Qom teaches that when the world has become psychologically ready to accept the government of God and when worldly conditions are

ready for truth to prevail, God will then allow Imam Mahdi to launch his final revolution. This is the absolute heart of Shi’ism - messianism meets the revolution. Fervent Shi’ites are inherently prophets and revolutionaries.

from heaven to pray, the vanguard marching towards Iraq and the imam settling down in Kufa, 20 minutes away from Najaf. The so-called “victorious armies of Islam” taking over the world will present humanity with a stark choice.

The immensely respected Ayatollah Muhamad Baqr al-Sadr - founder of the Da’wa Party, father of the fiery Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and slain by the orders of Saddam Hussein in 1980 - wrote that the idea of Imam Mahdi as the ultimate savior is found not only in up to 400 narratives of Prophet Mohammed, but through countless analysis by both Sunnis and Shi’ites. Ayatollah al-Sadr also clarified that the materialization of the 12th imam was supported by both Islamic and scientific evidence.

According to Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini in his book Al-Imam al-Mahdi - The Just Leader of Humanity (Ansaryan Publications, Qom), “on seeing the fulfillment of many of the signs promised in the traditions, a large number of unbelievers will turn towards Islam. Those who persist in their disbelief and wickedness shall be killed by the soldiers of the Mahdi. The only victorious government in the entire world will be that of Islam and people will devotedly endeavor to protect it. Islam will be the religion of everyone, and will enter all the nations of the world.”

The story of Imam Mahdi is a fascinating one. He was born in 868, during the Abbasid empire, in Samarra - today in turbulent Iraq. He became the 12th imam at the age of five, after his father Hasan al-Askari, the 11th imam, was poisoned at the age of 28. Then comes what the Shi’ites call Lesser Occultation. The Abbassids wanted to kill him, so he disappeared for 69 years: that’s how God wanted it. This was a kind of prelude to the Great Occultation, which has been going on for 11 centuries. No one - except God - knows how much longer it will last. During this period, only qualified faqihs - jurisprudents - are able to defend Islam. This is expressed in the controversial concept of velayat al-faqih. When Iran became an Islamic republic in 1979, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini mingled the concept with the institutions of a nation-state. So the main duty of the state-supported Shi’ite clergy in Iran is to proselytize and prepare for the advent of the savior.

The full powers of persuasion of Shi’ism are in splendorous evidence when Seyyed Aghaei tries to convince this correspondent that after all failed attempts of mankind to correct injustice, only Imam Mahdi presents a comprehensive solution. One tries to point out that for Westerners brought up in an intellectually critical environment, it’s not easy to accept a messianic utopia. But after hours of fruitful discussion, it’s impossible to deny the appeal of this beautiful dream. For Seyyed Aghaei and tens of millions of Shi’ites, this is not a dream: one must prepare and be prepared because it will inevitably happen. And the savior comes for all. “We cannot accept America as savior,” Seyyed Aghaei said. “They always want everything for themselves.”

The theological and eschatological ramifications concerning Imam Mahdi are complex. In the body of hadiths - the sayings of Prophet Mohammed - expectation of Imam Mahdi is as important as (defensive) jihad in the cause of Allah, for example in Iraq and Palestine.

The Bright Future center is only a few minutes away from the magnificent Hazrat al-Masumeh, the shrine in honor of Fatemah, the sister of Imam Reza, the second most sacred shrine in Iran after Imam Reza’s in Mashhad (and where President Mahmud Ahmadinejad held his first cabinet meeting last week). Historically, Fatemah is no less than the aunt of Imam Mahdi. “This shows how respected women are in Islam,” said our companion, Hassan Zadeh, a top cleric in Qom.

The savior will come with a bang - no less than a worldwide revolution started by the imam and 313 disciples by the Kaaba in Mecca, with Jesus coming down

The fabulous golden dome is glistening under the sun. The courtyard is full of pilgrims. The shrine itself is off-limits to non-Muslims, but thanks to the author’s PERSIAN MINIATURES    35

companions he manages to get in. The effect is as dazzling as a visit to Imam Ali’s shrine in Najaf or Imam Reza’s shrine in Mashhad. The walls and the roof are covered in an apotheosis of mirrored crystals. Ecstatic Hazara, Tajik, Gulf Arab faces say their prayers and then touch and caress the sumptuous grilled metal box housing the body of Fatemah. In the huge, adjacent prayer room pilgrims sit down for hours, absorbing the uplifting atmosphere. One is tempted to forget all the “sound and fury, signifying nothing” outside and beyond, and concentrate on the dream of a single man reappearing to liberate us all.

Naghshe Jahan Square, Isfahan.

A nuclear (mis)adventure in Isfahan Pepe Escobar tries to negotiate the complexities of entering a nuclear research facility in Iran By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 2, 2005

ISFAHAN - It is one of the most sensitive sites in the world, a compound 15 kilometers north of beautiful Isfahan, on a back road skirting a rocky mountain. The blue panel, in white lettering, says “Isfahan Nuclear Production Research Center”/”Atomic Energy Organization of Iran”/”Nuclear Production Branch”. Anti-aircraft guns are strategically positioned along the road, which is far from the busy Tehran-Isfahan highway. Security at the main gate consists of only one uniformed, unarmed official carrying a walkie-talkie. 36   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


It’s 5pm on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Everything is calm, except for a white SUV carrying International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors waved inside through the main gate. That’s exactly the problem. They can get in. We can’t. Looking at the peacock’s tail It had been a very tense day of waiting and waiting since early in the morning. Our fixer, tireless Mahmoud Daryadel, had spent most of it glued to his mobile, placing and receiving a frantic series of calls. Three days earlier Ivan Sahar, an official tied to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, had promised Asia Times Online a visit to the controversial Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF). Chances of success were evaluated at “85%”. The UCF, one of Iran’s key nuclear sites, is at the center of the Iran-EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) nuclear negotiations. It converts yellowcake - or concentrated uranium oxide into a gas that can be enriched to produce reactor fuel. We were supposed to receive a morning call giving the go-ahead for the visit. The call never came; something was going on; there was official talk from the management at the Isfahan site about “obstacles”. We had to wait for clearance. There is hardly a better place in the world to spend a tense waiting day than the pearl of Shah Abbas, which in the 17th century reached its full splendor, impressed in the famous rhyme Isfahan nesf-e jahan (“Isfahan is half the world”). By a strange twist of fate, Isfahan in the early 21st century is now synonymous with nuclear confrontation. At Jolfa, the Armenian quarter, which also dates from the 17th century, the Vank cathedral is an apotheosis of mixed Christian and Islamic art. On graceful Khajoo bridge, which is also a dam, young Iranians hang out under the arches while families have picnics on the grass. And then there’s the wonder of reexploring stunning Imam Khomeini Square, still locally referred to as the Meidun, built in 1612 and one of the larg38   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

est squares in the world - the Persian answer to Saint Mark’s in Venice. There’s the Imam Mosque, covered, inside and out, with the trademark Isfahan pale blue and yellow tiles; the two madrassas (seminaries); and the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque, whose dome tiles progressively change color, from cream to strong pink as the day goes on (and our crucial call does not come). Inside the mosque, under the dome, there is a famous painted peacock; as the light changes, the reflection forming the peacock’s tail also moves. One can spend hours contemplating this living example of the architecture of light. Especially when a mobile ringing tone does not disturb the peace. At the fabulous bazaar that envelops the Meidun, Hossein Peyghambary of Nomad carpets, speaking fluent Spanish, displays the best tribal patterns straight from villages in Balochistan. The Cultural Heritage Organization in Iran is planning to register Iranian nomad’s summer migration - by Balochis, Bakhtiaris, Qashqaiis and Azeris - on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. As far as Balochi nomad carpets are concerned, they are hard to beat as tangible masterpieces themselves. By mid-afternoon we have lost almost any hope of getting a permit for the visit. The back channels try to untangle the “obstacles” to no avail. It seems a group of IAEA inspectors showed up impromptu at the UCF; according to an agreement between the Iranian government and the UN agency, no journalists may visit the UCF while there are inspectors on the premises. This is to prevent any information leak. Indeed, foreign media are allowed inside the UCF only in exceptional circumstances. Finally we get a call at 4pm: go, someone will meet you on the way. This doesn’t happen, and we have to find the way by ourselves, with the help of plenty of Isfahani motorists. As we arrive at the main gate, we get

another last-minute call, from security inside the plant: you cannot get in. You are only allowed to film outside. A security guard arrives in a van to lay down the rules. No filming inside. No filming the road. No filming of faces. But we are not TV: we write stories. Makes no difference: no talking to anybody. Please leave. Exactly on cue, the white SUV carrying the IAEA inspectors crosses the main gate. Hours later, on the road back to Tehran, we learn that our (mis)adventure took place exactly as the rules of the game were being changed in Tehran. So apparently no one is to blame: there would be no question of allowing foreign media inside the UCF at such a delicate juncture. Time to make a move Following the nuclear confrontation from Tehran is like following a game of chess - a game, by the way, invented by the Persians. It has become a national sport and the recurrent conversation theme on all occasions. These have been the most recent key moves: Hassan Rowhani, the widely respected former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and Iran’s former top nuclear negotiator, dismisses Iran’s referral to the UN Security Council: “If this does happen it will only indicate that the IAEA has diverted from its legal path and succumbed to US pressure.” Nuclear spokesman Hussein Musavian stresses that Iran’s decision to resume uranium conversion at Isfahan is irreversible (“The Isfahan UCF is not at all related to nuclear weapons production.”), adding that enrichment at the Natanz plant was still suspended and that Iran still remains committed to talking to the EU-3. Iranian officials for their part keep stressing that work at Isfahan will never be suspended again. The EU-3 suspends talks with Iran that should have taken place this past Wednesday in Paris. Iranian officials learn that the US is heavily lobbying the 35-member board of IAEA governors - especially

Russia, China, India and South Africa - against Iran. The IAEA board is to receive a key report on Iran this Saturday from IAEA head Mohammad ElBaradei. None of these four key countries is keen to send the matter to the UN Security Council, as the IAEA has not found that Iran has breached the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad announces a new breakthrough, a constructive proposal to advance the negotiations. After two days, it’s finally settled that the proposal will be unveiled at the UN summit in New York on September 14-16 (provided the US issues a visa to the Iranian president). Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi says that Iran will continue to negotiate with the EU-3, “but on the other hand we will not restrict our negotiating partners to just these three countries”, adding that Iran has also been talking to Japan, Malaysia and South Africa. Iran’s position changes tack: now “it is up to the Europeans not to remove themselves from the negotiations”. This new directive seems to have come from a meeting last week between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. Asefi says that Ahmadinejad’s new proposal will “enshrine Iran’s right to master the fuel cycle and will also include objective guarantees” that Iran is not building nuclear weapons. New top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani meets ElBaradei in Vienna and says that negotiations should not be “exclusive”. He accuses countries mastering the nuclear fuel of trying to create a fuel cartel like the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and stresses that Iran is against this “nuclear apartheid”. On the day of Asia Times Online’s aborted visit to Isfahan, Tehran announces that its main interlocutor in the confrontation is not the EU-3 but the IAEA. The EU-3 demands, qualified as “conditional negotiations”, are rejected. Ahmadinejad reappoints Gholam-Reza Aqazadeh as head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization. The former oil minister, from 1985 to 1997, calls the EU-3 package “a joke”. PERSIAN MINIATURES    39

So the next crucial steps are ElBaradei’s report this Saturday; what could be the sensational debut of Ahmadinejad on the world stage, at the UN in New York next week, delivering a new proposal to end the stalemate; and the meeting of the 35-member IAEA board of governors on September 19, which will examine not only ElBaradei’s report but Ahmadinejad’s solution.

Iranians work on a section of a pipeline linking Iran and Pakistan. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

Meanwhile, anyone contemplating a visit to the UCF in Isfahan will have to settle on contemplating the peacock’s tail at Sheikh Lotfollah’s dome.

Iran takes over Pipelineistan Understanding the complexities of Iran’s energy paradox By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 10, 2005

TEHRAN - The black chador-clad secretaries behind rows of flat computer monitors at the Petroleum Ministry building in central Tehran are all smiles. Not to mention their bosses. No wonder. According to the ministry’s latest estimates in August, Iran will export at least US$60 billion in oil in 2005 - more than $10 billion more than the June estimate. And with oil hovering about $70 a barrel, it could be even more. Internal turbulence, though, was the norm during the first days of the presidency of Mahmud Ahmadinejad. His appointed oil minister, close 40   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


friend, tea and carper trader and former acting mayor of Tehran, Ali Saeedlou, was rejected at parliamentary hearings, shown nationwide on live TV. Ahmadinejad had pledged to rid the country of what he called “oil mafias” and vowed to better distribute Iran’s oil wealth. So he appointed an outsider, Saeedlou - who was revealed to be too much of an outsider: he got his geology degree only in 2003 from one Hartford University, a virtual, Internet operation. Saeedlou was expected to “purge” the state-run National Iranian Oil Co (NIOC), the fourth-largest oil company in the world, but somewhat inefficient and riddled with bureaucracy. After Saeedlou’s rejection, Ahmadinejad hinted he would be the acting oil minister, only to nominate a caretaker, Karem Vaziri-Hamaneh - a former deputy oil minister, member of the NIOC board and thus an industry insider all over again. Ahmadinejad has up to three months to come up with another name to be ratified by the majlis (parliament). Get me to an oilfield on time As far as both oil and gas are concerned, Iran has everything going for it: 13% of the world’s total fossil fuel reserves (132 billion barrels of crude oil and gas liquids, 27.4 trillion cubic meters of gas), which makes it the second-largest oil-and-gas rich country in the world and second-largest Organization of Petroleum Exporting Country (OPEC) producer, behind Saudi Arabia. According to the ministry’s own estimates, Iranian oil will last from 70 to a maximum of 86 years, while gas may last longer than 200 years. But internal consumption of oil products and gas is growing at a rate of 5.2% a year. The country is already forced to import refined products. That’s one of the key reasons, Tehran argues, for its civilian nuclear program.

in the maintenance of oil and gas installations; lack of rebuilding of installations destroyed during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war; years of non-relations with foreign companies; terrible management; and crucially, American sanctions. Iran is currently producing 4.3 million barrels of oil a day. It used to be 6 million in 1978, immediately before the Islamic revolution. According to OPEC’s current quota system, Iran will only reach this level again in 2025. The Petroleum Ministry for its part argues that Iran will be producing 7 million barrels a day by 2015. To increase production and efficiency, estimates by the Office for Planning at the Petroleum Ministry have projected an annual investment of at least $4 billion until 2012. Where will all this money come from? Ahmadinejad has pledged to favor domestic investors in the oil industry (there are not many, apart from NIOC). But every player in the industry at large knows the key for Iran is to be able to attract much-needed foreign investment. As far as the optimistic Petroleum Ministry is concerned, “The stage has been set for as much exploration as possible for oil and gas in the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea.” This means “introduction of exportable onshore and offshore blocs for the discovery of new oil and gas resources through attraction of foreign capital”. Global Big Oil just can’t wait to get access to the giant Yadavaran and Azadegan oilfields. (Azadegan, with 36 billion barrels of proven reserves, is the largest discovered oilfield in Iran for the past 50 years.) The axis of oil

Just as top officials from Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey were opening the much-hyped, American-supported Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, Iran started to advertise its counterpunch: an oil pipeline between Iran, Iraq and Syria. True, they are substanIf the current trends persist, Iran will be forced to sus- tially different. BTC will carry Caspian Sea crude to pend its oil exports before 2020. This stunning paradox Europe, while the Iranian route would initially carry is caused by a multitude of factors: lack of investment Caspian Sea crude to Asia. 42   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

But Iran has a tremendous potential to supply Europe as well - as France’s TotalFinaElf, Italy’s ENI and Anglo-Dutch Royal Dutch Shell know more than anyone. The Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline arriving at the Syrian port of Ladicia perfectly fits the bill. Iran thus can swap Caspian Sea crude to be refined in the country and then deliver the final product to the Mediterranean. The killer argument: as far as both Asian and European customers are concerned, the cost of using this pipeline route is way lower than using BTC - something that even American oil industry insiders recognized long ago. As much as the Bush administration may recoil in horror, regarding this pipeline as an oil version of the axis of evil (or an evil version of the axis of oil), negotiations are ongoing. The pipeline was seriously discussed during Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari’s visit to former president Mohammad Khatami. And it was again seriously discussed during Syrian President Bashar Assad’s recent visit to the just-elected Ahmadinejad. Iran and Iraq had been negotiating for months the construction of a pipeline between Abadan and Basra, which are practically neighbors. Now they have signed an agreement, and the pipeline is a given. Iraq will send crude from Basra to be refined in Abadan, and in exchange will get oil derivatives. Iraq’s refineries remain in a disastrous state. The country has to import $300 million of oil derivatives a month. Jaafari’s government had no problems agreeing to Iran investing in its petrochemical industry. Tehran insists that despite the Iraqi chaos and the avalanche of pipeline sabotage by the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement, it is fully committed to revitalizing Iraq’s petrochemical industry. An oil swap deal between them is practically inevitable: this way, Iran gets Iraqi crude in Abadan and delivers the same amount to Iraq at its oil terminal on the island of Kharg. Caspian Pipelineistan

from Washington - built a small pipeline to northern Iran. The next inevitable step was to swap with Kazakhstan - negotiations had been going on for years. For this purpose, Iran built a new terminal at the Caspian port of Neka and a new pipeline to Tehran, as well as two new refineries capable of processing 500,000 barrels of Kazakh crude a day. Pipelineistan’s greatest hit in the Caspian, from Iran’s point of view, starts in Kazakhstan along the eastern Caspian shore, through Turkmenistan, crossing to eastern Iran, and down to Bandar Abbas. Any official at the Petroleum Ministry or NIOC will recite the same mantra: Iran can get Caspian crude to any market at a fraction of the price of BTC. And there’s absolutely nothing the Bush administration can do about it. As Mahmood Khagani, a former Iranian director for Caspian affairs used to say, “The ‘golden gate’ from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf is now open.” Iran has its eyes set on Asia. It’s not only the muchhyped multibillion dollar deal with China. Iran is also extremely active in the South Asian front. Bush administration pressure notwithstanding, Iran, India and Pakistan are starting trilateral negotiations before November on the mammoth $7.2 billion Iran-Indian pipeline. The project could start by April 2006. India is considering three proposed pipelines - from Iran, Qatar and Turkmenistan, but its deal with Iran is a certainty, according to India’s Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar. Iran, Pakistan and India have to decide whether they launch separate consortiums or a joint consortium. This pipeline should run 1,115 kilometers in Iran, 705 kilometers in Pakistan and 850 kilometers in India. A clear worry in New Delhi is to make sure that Pakistan will not be able to disrupt the flow of oil from Iran - considering the South Asia neighbors’ turbulent and sometimes torrid relationship. India wants the pipeline secured by World Trade Organization rules on freedom of transit.

Iran has been swapping oil with Turkmenistan since early 2000 after the Turkmens - against cries of horror PERSIAN MINIATURES    43

It’s a gas, gas, gas The pillar of Iran’s gas program is the gigantic offshore South Pars field - on the Persian Gulf, 300 kilometers from Bushehr and 580 kilometers from Bandar Abbas - which by itself contains no less than 9% of the world’s proven reserves. A substantial part of its production will be exported as liquefied natural gas (LNG), which will convert Iran in one of the world’s top exporters of LNG. Tehran wants the Pars Special Econo-Energy Zone, established in 1998, to become “one of the most important industrial energy poles of the Middle East”. Turkey for the moment is the only importer of Iranian gas, according to the International Affairs bureau at the Petroleum Ministry. This is about to change - and radically. Iran’s gas exports to Europe - estimated to be 300 billion cubic meters annually - will start most probably in 2009. A gas pipeline to Greece via Turkey is already in construction, but Iran can also use a different route through Bulgaria and Romania. As the need for Iranian gas is more than pressing, the list of Western European buyers is inevitably huge. Turkey wants to buy gas from Iran and sell it to

Europe. But Iran wants to skip the middleman. So the Iranian option is to go through Ukraine. A cooperation agreement has already been signed between Tehran and Kiev. They are now discussing the volume of gas to be exported. A crucial meeting between Iran, Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia and Russia is to be held this month. According to deputy Oil Minister for International Affairs Mohammad-Hadi Nejad-Hosseinian, Russia’s approval of the project will get things going fast. Ukraine has proposed two pipeline routes to Iran: number one is Iran-Armenia-Georgia-Russia-Ukraine-Europe, and number two Iran-Armenia-Georgia-Black SeaUkraine-Europe. Win-win situation Whatever happens to the Petroleum Ministry as well as NIOC, Iran’s energy policy under the Ahmadinejad presidency will remain substantially the same. This means in practice the full support by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei - Ahmadinejad’s protector and the ultimate decision-maker - to any policies that lead to Iran becoming a big economic power. And this of course implies ample foreign investment in Iran’s oil and gas

Why Iran can’t become the new China Unlike China, Iran can’t divorce itself from ideology By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 14, 2005

TEHRAN - Ibrahim Yazdi was the man who convinced Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to wear a bulletproof jacket on the chartered Air France flight that took the imam from Paris to Tehran to consolidate the triumph of the Islamic revolution in January 1979. He was one of the Westernized, Islamic non-turbaned princes of the revolution himself. He was the man who “translated” Khomeini to the international media. Then he became foreign minister in the first, post-revolutionary Mehdi Bazargan government. He fell out with the system after Khomeini’s death 44   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


and was inevitably branded a counter-revolutionary. As the leader of the liberal, secular Iran Freedom Movement, Yazdi saw his party banned and party candidates routinely excluded from standing for office. He was even dismissed himself for not holding a higher education degree - when in fact he’s a PhD. His latest disqualification - by the Council of Guardians - was for the June presidential elections. He has been repeatedly thrown in jail - facing accusations like “attempting to convert the velaii [jurisprudence] rule into a democratic rule”.

total amount of Iranian capital flight may now exceed US$600 billion. Lessons from the Middle Kingdom

Yazdi deconstructs the idea exposed by many “rightists” of Iran rising to become the new, Muslim China. “There are three components - economic development, social freedom and political expression. The Iranian authorities are only equipped for suppression. Social freedoms in China - like freedom for boys and girls Yazdi, arguably Iran’s top dissident politician, received to get together - are no problem in China, as long as Asia Times Online at his residence in the comfortthey don’t involve anything political. The dress code able middle-class neighborhood of Valiasr to deliver was never an issue. The Iranian government, on the a devastating indictment of the regime. Yazdi is the other hand, keeps hammering an Islamization of social quintessential Islamic republic version of a “leftist”. Ira- behavior. Even novels are censored - there is no kissing nian “leftists” are in favor of total freedom of speech, in novels published in this country.” liberal democracy, deregulated economy, a strong role Yazdi appreciates how “the Chinese divorced themfor private enterprise and foreign investment, a strong selves from the Cultural Revolution. They put Mao’s voice for women and a strong civil society. In sum, [Zedong’s] widow and her cohorts in prison. They post-modernist Islam. released liberals, and invited them to government. The Yazdi divides the new government of President Mah- Communist Party decided to remove any ideology. mud Ahmadinejadin into three groups. The first group Only nationalism remained. Can Iranian authorities “are those in charge of economic matters, qualified, divorce themselves from Islam? No. They do have a with a proven record. They know what they want - a problem.” He adds, “The Chinese understand the world market economy, support for the private sector, reduc- superbly, how to explore all international opportuniing the size of government”. The second group, bunties in favor of implementing their goals. They have dled as security/intelligence/culture, “represents exextended their economic relationship with the US.” He treme, repressive forces, displays a disbelief in human compares it with Iran’s Kish Island, a free zone in the rights and advocates harsh treatment” of any dissent. Persian Gulf shores that is “a separate entity, and was The third group is composed of technocrats, in minisnot supported enough to set an example”. tries like health or communication, “individuals with Yazdi says that from the beginning the revolution good academic records, but not a management record. has evolved a variation of the same theme: “They [the A good professor is not necessarily a good minister.” conservatives] were insisting they should have total Yazdi sees a glaring internal contradiction in this power. We always said this is very dangerous.” This has new cabinet. The first group, pushing for privatizaled to what Yazdi considers the crucial problem, the tion, knows that capital only flows to places under isolation of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamepolitical stability, “They cannot help the privatization nei. “During the revolution, the slogan was ‘we are all drive while confronting the suppressive group. If the together’. After the revolution , the slogan was switched hardliners - in the ministries of information, interito ‘all with me’. This phenomenon gradually eliminated or, culture and Islamic guidance - want to continue everyone, one way or another. Those dedicated to the in their harsh ways, capital will flow elsewhere.” The cause of the revolution gradually left. ‘All with me’ has 46   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

been the slogan all the way up to this last election.” Yazdi points out that even Khamenei’s closest associates, such as former speaker of the parliament Mehdi Karrubi, were sidelined (Karrubi, who maintains that the June 17 elections were stolen, has started a new political party). “This means that the leader is alone. None of the old comrades are with him anymore. So we have reached a critical point. The history of Iran offers several examples of the caliph surrounded by squabbling groups. At the moment Khamenei feels that he has total power. But lessons from our own history show how dangerous this could be.” Montazeri rules It all comes back to the holy of holies, the problem of Khamenei’s legitimacy. Yazdi is extremely attentive when he learns about the official list of eight marja’as - sources of imitation - according to the clerical establishment in Qom. “So Montazeri is not on the list? But he’s the most influential of them all.” Yazdi remembers how, five years ago, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri literally opposed the Supreme Leader, saying, “You are not qualified to issue a religious verdict.” On top of it, Montazeri always insisted that the Supreme Leader must be a spiritual guide, and that control of the police, state security, armed forces and state media is certainly not part of his attributes. Montazeri - who was Khomeini’s most prized colleague and political confidante - remains a giant thorn in the side of the regime. He was to be Khomeini’s successor - as designated by the imam himself, and confirmed in 1984 by the Council of Experts. But three years later he was already enmeshed in a web of revolutionary intrigue branding him a “liberal”, ie, counter-revolutionary, just like Bazargan and Yazdi. When Khomeini died in 1989 there was what secular Iranians call nothing less than a coup d’etat: a triumvirate composed of Khamenei, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmad Khomeini, the imam’s son, changed the constitution. From now on, one would not necessarily

have to be a marja’a to assume the functions of the velayat-e-faqih (the ruling of the jurisprudent). So a sort of junior cleric, Hojjatoleslam Ali Khamenei, became the new leader, while he was not even an ayatollah, much less a revered marja’a. Montazeri happens to be one of the world’s leading authorities on velayat-e-faqih - a doctrine that is the Shi’ite theological version of Plato’s philosopher-king. He was the president of the assembly of experts that drafted the constitution of the Islamic republic. And the constitution was explicit: the faqih must be a marja’a. As Supreme Leader, Khamenei has centralized total religious and political power. To doubt it is to risk a Shi’ite inquisition. Yazdi says, “For Khamenei’s supporters, he is the leader of all Muslims. At most, he is the leader of the Shi’ites.” And he adds to the chorus pointing out that “many Shi’ites object to it as well. Fadllulah [the Lebanese ayatollah] objects to it openly. Khomeini has been an ayatollah long before becoming a political leader. Others recognized his title as a genuine gift. Khamenei on the other hand got this title as an ‘honorary degree’ by the Council of Experts.” Yazdi stresses the example of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq. “He does not believe in velayat-e-faqih. This is how he earned the power to bring together Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds. It’s completely different from the Iranian authorities.” The dilemma of the ruling class So now, for Yazdi, as far as the regime is concerned, “They say ‘we are the ruling class, and we are equal to Islam’. To stay in power is more important than the daily life of Iranians. But now that they have full power, how can they keep it? In the Japan of the Meiji emperor, the conservatives had full power. To keep it, they made changes.” But however hard the struggle, he remains an optimist: “Intellectual power in Iran is strong. We are the youngest nation in the world, 70% of the population is younger than 30. In Iranian university classes, women account for 80% of the students. PERSIAN MINIATURES    47

Women are active in all walks of life. They don’t believe in this regime. And the government is helpless to do anything about them. They may try something harsh, but will have to retreat.” As a former foreign minister educated in the US, Yazdi sees the non-stop Iran-US diplomatic conflagration centered on two themes: nuclear activity and human rights. “Iran has no other choice but to accept IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] resolutions. Many Iranians believe we should stop uranium enrichment and solve the crisis.” That’s not exactly the feeling one gets in the mosque, in the bazaar or in the teashop, where Iran’s nuclear program is viewed as an assertion of national will.

On human rights, Yazdi is convinced “there’s no way out of the global village. This is not an American design. America is also trying to adjust. Even the US cannot compete if it has a backward government. Some Iranian authorities blame it all on American democracy. There is no such thing. Even if Iran succeeds in its nuclear program, the human rights question will remain. That’s why the rightists cannot do whatever they want.” Or can they? One may ask the collective leadership in Beijing. But the only one with a definitive answer may well be the Supreme Leader himself.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is interviewed in Tehran. Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency

Travels in Ahmadinejadland A look at the leader who inspires fear and praise in equal measures By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 14, 2005

TEHRAN - Imagine the photo opportunity: US President George W Bush and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad meeting face-to-face in New York. But it won’t happen. Blame the public relations machine in Washington and the Islamic guidance handlers in Tehran. Yet it would be so much easier if the two leaders would talk. Ahmadinejad, just weeks into his new job, enters the world stage with a bang this week, telling the United Nations General Assembly of his new proposals to try to resolve the Iranian nuclear controversy. In Tehran, he kissed a copy of the Holy Koran before boarding his flight to New York and said that nuclear energy “was a gift from God” available to all of humanity. As Bush claims to have a direct line to the “Man Upstairs”, surely both presidents cannot fail to find common ground. 48   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


Instead, the world is served the standard confrontation menu. While Bush has strongly lobbied Chinese President Hu Jintao against Iran, Tehran is lobbying nations of the Non-Aligned Movement. The all-important showdown remains the crucial board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency next Monday in Vienna. After this, Iran’s case could be sent to the UN Security Council, where China’s veto would be critical in any US-inspired move to impose sanctions on Tehran. A pious man If Bush is a president spiraling down to lame-duckhood, Ahmadinejad is surely ascending to sainthood. His reservoir of popular goodwill - or “political capital”, according to Bush - is tremendous. He started with all the right moves. A pious Shi’ite Muslim, his first cabinet meeting was in the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad. No ostentation: he ordered all the splendid Persian carpets at the presidential palace to be removed. Equality rules: he promised to fight against the huge salary gap between managers and ordinary people. The heart of Ahmadinejadland is Tehran’s lower middle-class neighborhood of Narmak. It’s a leafy area pinpointed by about 100 small squares. Off the 72nd square, there it is, in Hedayat Alley, 90 square meters, a two-storey house on the right side: Ahmadinejad house. The president lives - or used to live - on the first floor, with his family (he has two sons, one 19 and the other in his early 20s). The second floor is for his father, a former blacksmith. Ahmadinejad was practically forced by state security to relocate to more palatial surroundings. Only a five-minute walk from his house, on Samangan Avenue, one finds Jami mosque. His mosque. Right in front of it, imprinted on the asphalt, urban graffiti to defy anything that ever came out of the New York Bronx: three giant, colored flags, American, British and Israeli. Traffic steadily rolls over them. They were painted three years ago by the mosque and have been there on the asphalt ever since. Every once in a while, they are repainted. Inside the mosque, a resident says Ahmadinejad 50   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

usually came for the evening prayer, by himself. A man named Karami, principal’s assistant at Danishmand High School, says Ahmadinejad was “a good student since his childhood. He was admitted to Sharif University, this is something very difficult.” In the ante room, under a tapestry of a gorgeous Imam Hussein Muzzaffar Salak (“people call me Ali”), the mosque’s caretaker for the past 38 years remembers young Ahmadinejad coming to prayers with his father, and the grown up Ahmadinejad coming to prayers with both his sons. It’s a very active mosque - usually 600 people during evening prayers. “Three of the prayer leaders were martyred during the Iran-Iraq war [of the 1980s].” Ali is a member of the bassijis (Islamic vigilantes) just like Ahmadinejad. He lists the three main tenets of the bassijis: study hard; be a good sportsman (daily exercise is a must); and exercise religion, which is the same as being a good Muslim. The president carries an identity card issued by the mosque. On both presidential polling days last June, Ali was beside the president. His expectation is the standard response from the average Tehrani: he wants cheap goods and hopes the social situation calms down. “Tehran is very expensive.” What is Ahmadinejad’s secret? “They mostly like him because he’s honest. And a simple man. Everybody likes him because he looks after the poor.” It’s also “very important that he keeps coming back to the mosque.” Like most people in the neighborhood, Ali does not follow the nuclear controversy. “The president said we need it for peaceful purposes.” So the government’s incessant message is definitely coming across. Ali’s foreign policy views are typical of Narmak: “We don’t accept Israel. And Britain and America is the same thing.” A shrine for the new saint Navab, in south Tehran, is full of low-rise apartment blocks selling for US$50,000 a piece, with 30 years to pay. That’s lower middle class, and once again, Ahmadinejad territory. The Ahmadinejad-worshipping working class congregates at the spectacular, 13th-century Abdulazim

Shrine, which used to be very small, with an annex cemetery; now, to have a family member buried there, one must spend at least $50,000. The shrine is at the heart of Ray city, which used to be physically separated from Tehran and is now incorporated into the urban sprawl. Shi’ite pilgrims to Iran inevitably must visit the triumvirate of Mashhad, Qom and Ray. Historically, Ray has been a business entrepot. There are countless warehouses in the area. When the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, plenty of Afghan exiles were hired as construction workers. The shrine with the inevitable bazaar annexed beams with communal life. After prayers, whole families go shopping or eating falodeh - a shredded white pudding soaked in lemon juice. The men retire to Abdullah’s teahouse to smoke their ghelyan - the Iranian hookah pipe. The teahouse is protected by the Cultural Heritage Organization of Iran. A 100-year-old woman from Zanjan province sits down for her glass of tea. Her figure cuts an interrogation mark, but she’s healthy. Her mother died at 115. She voted Ahmadinejad, of course. “He’s an honest man.” The teahouse patrons agree: “He’s not rich, he’s not corrupt, he doesn’t spend money for self-promotion,” which in Tehran means he’s not billionaire Hashemi Rafsanjani, who even hired Hashemi cheerleaders - “without their hejab [veils]” - to distribute pamphlets to unsuspecting motorists. Rafsanjani still lost in a second-round runoff with Ahmadinejad. “He’ll do something for poor people,” they add. “After 25 years of revolution [actually 26], we are still poor. But now this is the first really Islamic government.” At a huge, “international” carpet exhibition - a cluster of hangars dripping with rugs - the Islamic republic’s relative cultural isolation is more than evident. The atmosphere is not exactly international - apart from Iranian firms based in Hamburg or Istanbul. There’s hardly a foreigner and practically nobody speaks a language other than Persian. Instead, we have upper-middle class Tehran involved in a favored ritual - family carpet buying. This means a whole family sitting on a pile of carpets eating kebab

out of plastic boxes and watching two men unravel another pile of carpets. Prices are steep - $3,000 for a standard silk Qom. Bazaaris say, optimistically, that 10% of the Iranian population - roughly 7 million people - can afford to buy silk carpets, personal computers and travel abroad. Virtually everybody - buyers and sellers alike - voted Ahmadinejad. The explanation is always the same: “We’re tired of corruption, and he’s an honest man.” In the middle of all the haggling, Fariba Bloorieh glides by. Her older sister graduated in carpet design - a traditional profession for women - in Kerman, in the best school in Iran. Fariba went one step ahead, graduated in English literature and wants to pursue her master’s in England (“but it’s so expensive!”) She voted for a reformist in the first round and Ahmadinejad in the second round. “We want our rights,” she says. “We want more convenience in our daily lives. We are tired of paying up for everything, and nothing works.” She had plenty of hopes during the eight years of previous president Mohammad Khatami. Those were not fulfilled. “I will hope for four more years.” ‘Westoxication’ Ahmadinejad and his followers would likely not be amused if they visited the Gandhi area in north Tehran: a two-storey mini-mall filled with smart coffee shops and businesses selling chic, made-in-Turkey or made-in-China counterfeit Zara, Mango and Gap. Here is the reign of “Westoxication” and pretty in Persia - the absolute antithesis of the Abdulazim Shrine. Most sales girls bear the signs of the indispensable nose job - $1,200 at least - and sport a casual, ultra-colorful made-in-India scarf as hejab. Liposuction and breast enhancements are also on the menu; Abdullah Abbasi, the “must” plastic surgeon in Tehran, has performed no less than 14,000 operations in the past nine years. Fashion icons are J Lo and Britney, and of course the unbeatable Angelina Jolie. Guys hang out drinking melon juice - alcohol is strictly forbidden - and listening to The Doors. Girls PERSIAN MINIATURES    51

stop at the coffee shops to gossip, but basically to be able to smoke in public and to play the seduction game - which in Iran in 2005 is not a bit as racy as in mid-America in the 1950s. A gorgeous Azerbaijani girl selling Buddhas in an art shop wearing a scarf from Goa trembles because of Ahmadinejad and the new hardliners at the Ministry of Islamic Guidance: girls have already been ordered to wear a tight-fitting scarf, and the order to wear a full black chador may not be too far ahead. The juice guys agree: “This atmosphere of freedom could end soon. We are expecting a crackdown.” The answer is to plan the next escape to Antalya, in Turkey, which the regime sees as a Mecca of sin. The regime cancelled direct Iran Air flights, so Turkish Airlines was quick to corner the extremely profitable market. There are no fewer than 60 flights a week between Tehran and Dubai - Iran’s Hong Kong. That’s where Iranian businessmen park billions of dollars and control a substantial part of the retailing business. And that’s where the girls in upscale Eliyaeh neighborhood buy their Hermes scarves, Dolce and Gabbbana sunglasses and tons of Mac maquillage, which they later display at private parties where navel visibility is high and the consumption of Absolut vodka rivals Russian standards. The effect is somewhat bizarre: many 18-year-old girls look like Cher in her big-hair 1980s phase. Meet ‘the chicken’ “The chicken”. This is how Mr Shiravi, on the other - upscale - side of Ahmadinejadland defines the president. And that’s somewhat deferential. When Ahmadinejad became a media phenomenon, the running joke in Tehran was that he looked like the yellow monkey featured in the pack of the Iranian version of Cheetos (cheese snacks). The company had to pull out their TV ad because of the avalanche of jokes. Shiravi, cultured, sophisticated, US-educated, very well connected, is the quintessential upper mid52   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

dle-class Tehrani. Unlike the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Islamists in Iran have never thought of liquidating their elites. But they had to be kept under control. They had to be politically framed. Shiravi unlike many of his peers who controlled the economy and the administration during the Shah - decided not to leave Iran. But he also decided not to be framed and speak his mind, which in Iran means being very careful not to say anything controversial in public, while letting rip in private. Shiravi’s comfortable apartment in Eliyaeh is surrounded by a mushroom forest of - still illegal - satellite dishes. A whole set - dish plus receiver - retails for about $150. The cheap sets now come - of all places - from “liberated” Iraq. In rural villages police still confiscate them. Shiravi - like most of Tehran’s secular elite - is terrified of Ahmadinejad’s godfather, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi in Qom, who “believes he can convert all of America to Shi’ism” and who issued a fatwa ordering all of the alleged 20 million bassijis to vote for Ahmadinejad. Mesbah is Ahmadinejad’s marja’a (source of imitation). He’s above all the grandmaster of the isolationist Hojjatieh sect (something he always denies), which was pushed out of government by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the early stages of the revolutionary government. Shiravi does not believe Ahmadinejad will be able to complete his four-year presidential term, because Mesbah will keep on pushing the ultra-hardline envelope.

want to go back to the Stone Age”), whom they identify as people-brainwashing mullahs who oppose anything modern - TV, cinema, parties. Rafsanjani, on the other hand, is defined by Shiravi as “clever and well-connected”, which does not mean an endorsement. Shiravi laments that reformists are now “a silent majority in parliament”. Mullah’s got a brand new bag How to sell Ahmadinejad - and this new regime - to the rest of the world? Maybe the answer lies with Ahmad Haneef, a swingin’ black Canadian now studying Islamic sciences in a hawza in Qom. Haneef was a “seriously radical” Marxmeets-Guevara student in Toronto at the time of the Islamic revolution in 1979, after which he was “illuminated” by the Koran, converted to Shi’ism and moved to Iran. Any day now he can become a hojjatoleslam “doesn’t matter when, it’s up to you to decide when you are worthy to wear a turban”. Haneef is a certified hit every time he appears on Iranian TV. “I blow the mullahs out of the floor.” If the ayatollahs in Qom and the politicians in Tehran had any flair for a global public relations blitz, they would promote Haneef as the new face of Shi’ism - a cool, bright, extremely articulate black man both in English and Persian. The James Brown of Shi’ism. This would be an absolute smash in the US. Unfortunately, it won’t happen. Unlike Memphis soul legend Rufus Thomas, nobody will ever see pious Ahmadinejad do the funky chicken.

Shiravi reflects current consensus among Western diplomatic circles in Tehran that the presidential election was a silent coup - carried by the Revolutionary Guard and the Hojjatieh, with support from bassijis the so-called “army of 20 million”. The new intelligence minister, Hojjatoleslam Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejehyi, is a graduate from the Haqqani hawza - founded by the Hojjatieh. Same for new Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi, who the guys and girls in Gandhi are beginning to call “the Taliban”. Tehran’s secular upper middle class is terrified of these muttehajar (literally “fanatics” or “those who PERSIAN MINIATURES    53

About 30% of the Lebanese are Shiites and live mainly in the areas controlled by Hezbollah and as well as the Amal party. Photo: Laurent Perpigna Iban / Hans Lucas

exclusion, a dramatic vision of history and social and economic marginalization. But now Shi’ites finally have acquired political representation in Iraq, have conquered it in Lebanon and are actively claiming it in Bahrain. They are the majority in each of these countries. Shi’ism is the cement of their communal cohesion. It’s a totally different story in Saudi Arabia, where Shi’ites are a minority of 11%, repressed as heretics and deprived of their rights and fundamental freedoms. But for how much longer? The Shi’ite sanctuary

The myth of the Shi’ite crescent Understanding the true identity of non-Iranian Shi’ites By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 30, 2005

TEHRAN - A specter haunts the Middle East - at least in the minds of Sunni Arabs, especially Wahhabis, as well as a collection of conservative American think tanks: a Shi’ite crescent, spreading from Mount Lebanon to Khorasan, across Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf and the Iranian plateau. But facts on the ground are much more complex than this simplistic formula whereby, according to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait, Tehran controls its allies Baghdad, Damascus and parts of Beirut. Seventy-five percent of the world’s oil reserves are in the Persian Gulf. Seventy percent of the Gulf ’s population is Shi’ite. As an eschatological - and revolutionary - religion, fueled by a mix of romanticism and despair, Shi’ism cannot but provoke fear, especially in hegemonic Sunni Islam. For more than a thousand years Shi’ite Islam has been in fact a galaxy of Shi’sms. It’s as if it was a Fourth World, always maligned with political 54   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Shi’ism has been the state religion in Iran since 1501, at the start of the Safavid dynasty. But with Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic revolution, for the first time in history the Shi’ite clergy was able to take over the state - and to govern a Shi’ite-majority society. No wonder this is the most important event in the history of Shi’ism. Asia Times Online has confirmed in the holy Iranian city of Qom that as far as major ayatollahs are concerned, their supreme mission is to convert the rest of Islam to what they believe is the original purity and revolutionary power of Shi’ism, always critical of the established social and political order. But as a nation-state at the intersection of the Arab, Turk, Russian and Indian worlds, as the key transit point of the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Indian sub-continent, between three seas (the Caspian, the Persian Gulf and the sea of Oman), not far from Europe and at the gates of Asia, Tehran on a more pragmatic level has to conduct an extremely complex foreign policy. Diplomats in Tehran don’t say it explicitly, but this is essentially a counter-encirclement foreign policy. And not only because of the post-September 11 American military bases that today encircle Iran almost completely. Iran rivals Turkey for influence in Central Asia and rivals Saudi Arabia for hegemony in the Persian Gulf with the added complexity of this being a bitter Sun-

ni-Shi’ite rivalry as well. Rivalry with Pakistan - again for influence in Central Asia - subsided after the Taliban were chased out of power in Afghanistan in 2001. But basically Tehran regards Pakistan as a pro-American Sunni regional power, thus not exactly prone to be attentive to Shi’ites. This goes a long way to explain the Iran-India alliance. It’s impossible to deal with Iran without understanding the complex dialectics behind the Iranian religious leadership. In their minds, the concept of nation-state is regarded with deep suspicion, because it detracts from the umma - the Muslim community. The nation-state is just a stage on the road to the final triumph of Shi’ism and pure Islam. But to go beyond this stage it’s necessary to reinforce the nation-state and its Shi’ite sanctuary, which happens to be Iran. When Shi’ism finally triumphs, the concept of nation-state, a heritage from the West, will disappear anyway, to the benefit of a community according to the will of Prophet Mohammed. The problem is that reality often contradicts this dream. One of the best examples was the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Saddam Hussein invaded Iran first. Iranians reacted culturally - this was a case of Persians repulsing an Arab invasion. But Tehran at the same time also expected Iraqi Shi’ites to rebel against Saddam, in the name of Shi’ism. It did not happen. For the Shi’ites in southern Iraq, the Arab nationalist impulse was stronger. And still is. This fact undermines the neo-conservative charge that Iran is fueling a guerrilla war in southern Iraq with the intention of breaking up the country. The Ba’athist idea of integration of Iraqi communities under a strong state, in the name of Arab nationalism, persists. Few in the Shi’ite south want a civil war - or the breakup of Iraq. Azerbaijan - where 75% of the population is Shi’ite could not be included in a Shi’ite crescent by any stretch of the imagination, even though it was a former province of the Persian empire that Russia took over in 1828. Azeris speak a language close to Turkish, but at the same time they are kept at some distance by the Turks PERSIAN MINIATURES    55

because they are in the majority Shi’ites. Unlike Iran, the basis of modern, secular Turkey is national - not religious - identity. To complicate matters further, Shi’ism in Azerbaijan had to face the shock of a society secularized by seven decades of Soviet rule. Azeris would not be tempted - to say the least - to build an Iranian-style theocracy at home. It’s true that Azeri mullahs are “Iranified”. But as Iran and Azerbaijan are contiguous, independent Azerbaijan fears too much Iranization. At the same time, Iran does not push too hard for Shi’ite influence on Azerbaijan because Azeri nationalism - sharing a common religion on both sides of the border - could embark on a reunification of Azerbaijan to the benefit of Baku, and not of Tehran. And if this was not enough, there’s the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, an enclave of Armenian people completely within Azerbaijan, where Iran supports Armenia for basically two reasons: to reduce Turkish influence in Azerbaijan and to help Russia counteract Turkey - perceived as an American Trojan horse - in the Caucasus. A fair resume of this intractable equation would be that Azerbaijan is too Shi’ite to be totally pro-Turkish, not Shi’ite enough to be completely pro-Iranian, but Shi’ite enough to prevent itself from becoming a satellite of Russia - again. On Iran’s eastern front, there are the Hazaras of Afghanistan, the descendants of Genghis Khan. In the 17th century Hazarajat, in central Afghanistan, was occupied by the Persian empire. That’s when it converted to Shi’ism. Hazaras have always suffered the most in Afghanistan - totally marginalized in political, economic, cultural and religious terms. Under the Taliban they were massacred in droves - as the Taliban were surrogates of Saudi Wahhabism: that was a graphic case of rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia being played out in the heart of Afghanistan, as much as a case of pro-Pakistan Pashtuns against pro-Iranian Hazaras. Hazaras compound a significant 16% of the Afghan population. As far as Tehran is concerned, they are supported as an important political power in post-Taliban Afghani56   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

stan. But once again it’s not a case of a Shi’ite crescent. Iranian military aid flows to the Shi’ite party Hezb-eWahdat. But there are more important practical issues, like the road linking eastern Iran with Tajikistan that goes through Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan and bypasses Hazara territory. And there’s the strong Iranian political influence in Herat, in western Afghanistan - the privileged fiefdom of warlord Ishmail Khan. When Khan was jailed by the Taliban in 1997 in Kandahar, he was liberated thanks to Iranian mediation. Khan is now energy minister in the Hamid Karzai government, but he still controls Herat. The road linking Herat to the Iranian border was rebuilt and paved by Iranian engineers. People in Herat can’t get a single TV program from Kabul, but they get three Iranian state channels. Western Afghanistan is as much Afghan as Iranian. Meanwhile, in South Asia ... The Moghul empire in India was heavily Persianized. The Moghuls had been speaking Persian since the 14th century - it was the administrative language of the sultans and the empire’s high officials in Delhi, later carried as far away as Malacca and Sumatra. India - as much as Central Asia - was extremely influenced by Persian culture. Today, Shi’ites concentrate in northern India, in Uttar Pradesh, around Lucknow, and also in Rajastan, Kashmir, Punjab, the western coast around Mumbai and around Karachi in Pakistan. Most are Ishmalis - not duodecimal, like the Iranians. Pakistan may have as many as 35 million Shi’ites, with a majority of duodecimal. India has about 25 million, divided between duodecimal and Ishmalis. The numbers may be huge, but in India Shi’ites are a minority inside a minority of Muslims, and in Pakistan they are a minority in a Sunni state. This carries with it a huge political problem. Delhi sees the Shi’ites in Pakistan as a factor of destabilization. That’s one more reason for the close relationship between India and Iran. Trojan horses in the Gulf Seventy-five percent of the population of the Persian

Gulf - concentrated in the eastern borders of Saudi Arabia and the emirates - is Shi’ite, overwhelmingly members of a rural or urban proletariat. Hasa, in Saudi Arabia, stretching from the Kuwaiti border to the Qatar border, has been populated by Shi’ites since the 10th century. That’s where the oil is. Seventy percent of the workforce in the oilfields is Shi’ite. The potential for them to be integrated in a Shi’ite crescent is certainly there. Another historical irony rules that the bitter rivalry geopolitical, national, religious, cultural - between Iran and Saudi Arabia has to played out in Saudi territory as well. A Shi’ite minority in the land of hardcore Sunni Wahhabism - and the land that spawned al-Qaeda has to be the ultimate Trojan horse. What to do? Just as in Iraq under Saddam, the Saudi royal family swings between surveillance and repression, with some drops of integration, not as much promoting Shi’ites in the kingdom’s ranks but heavily promoting the immigration of Sunnis to Hasa. Deeper integration has to be the solution, as the access to power of Shi’ites in Iraq will certainly motivate Saudi Arabian Shi’ites. Kuwait lies north of Hasa. Twenty-five percent of Kuwaitis are Shi’ite - natives or immigrants, and they provoke the same sort of geopolitical quandary to the Kuwaiti princes as they do to the Saudis. Although they are a religious, social and economic minority as well, Shi’ites in Kuwait enjoy a measure of political rights. But they are still considered a Trojan horse. South of Hasa, in Qatar, where also 25% of the population is Shi’ite, is the exact same thing. And then there’s Bahrain. Sixty-five percent of Bahrain is Shi’ite. Basically they are a rural proletariat. It’s the same pattern - Sunnis are urban and in power, Shi’ites are poor and marginalized. For decades, even before the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran had insisted that the Shi’ites in Bahrain were Iranians because the Safavid dynasty used to occupy both margins of the Persian Gulf. Tehran still considers Bahrain as an Iranian province. The Shi’ite majority in Bahrain is prone to turbulence. Repression has been inevitable - and Bahrain is helped in the process by, who else, Saudi Arabia. But there are some encouraging signs. The small Bah-

rain archipelago is separated from Saudi Arabia by just a bridge. Every weekend in the Muslim world - Thursday and Friday - Saudis abandon Wahhabi suffocation in droves to relax in the malls of Manama and its neighboring islands. Women in Bahrain are closer to women in Tehran than to Saudi. They wear traditional clothes, but not a full black chador, they drive their own cars, they go about their business by themselves, they meet members of the opposite sex in restaurants or cinemas. For them, there are no forbidden places or professional activities. The locals tend to believe this is due to the relative modernity of the al-Khalifa family in power. Even the South Asian workforce is treated much better than in the neighboring emirates. Bahrain is not particularly wealthy - compared to the other emirates - and unlike Dubai it does not strive to become an economic powerhouse. There are plenty of schools and a good national university - although most women prefer to study in the US or Lebanon. But all this can be illusory. Shi’ites won’t stop fighting for more political participation. Six months ago there was a huge demonstration in Bahrain, demanding a new constitution. Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei are extremely popular in Bahrain. There are only 6% of Shi’ites in the wealthy United Arab Emirates. But they can compound a problem as acute as in Kuwait or Qatar because of the enormous trade and business Iranian influence in Dubai. The whole equation of Persian Gulf Shi’ites has to do with a tremendous identity problem. The key argument in favor of them not being an Iranian Trojan horse is that first and foremost they are Arabs. But the question remains in the air. Are they most of all Arabs who practice a different form of Islam, which the Sunni majority considers heretic? Or are they Shi’ites bound to pledge allegiance to the motherland of Shi’ism, Iran? The answer is not only religious; it involves social and political integration of Shi’ites in regimes and societies that are basically Sunni. Shi’ism in the Arab Gulf may be “invisible” to the naked eye. Only for the moment. Sooner or later the sons of Imam Ali will wake up. PERSIAN MINIATURES    57

Visitors walk near the Massoumeh shrine in Iran’s holy city of Qom. Photo: AFP

consider the last legitimate descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. Sunnis as well as Western scholars consider them Shi’ites. But many Islamic scholars are not so sure. Since the early 20th century, Syrian nationalists have never accepted the creation of Lebanon, Jordan and much less Palestine - which became Israel. Alawites - a persecuted minority for centuries - have reached their current enviable position in Syria thanks to the Ba’ath Party ideology, which has always been secular and nationalist. Ba’ath ideology exalted Arabism. So Alawites joined en masse both the Ba’ath Party and the army. The result was inevitable: at the end of the 1960s they took over power in Syria. The incarnation of this process was strongman Hafez Assad. Sunnis in Syria always felt they had been “robbed” of power. But Assad never feared the Sunnis as much as he feared Islamic fundamentalism.

Who’s in charge, Qom or Najaf? The Shi’ite dream embodied by Iran, or at least the ayatollahs in Qom, keeps burning By PEPE ESCOBAR OCTOBER 1, 2005

TEHRAN - Syria, Lebanon and Iraq are crucial protagonists in the specter of a Shi’ite crescent, according to the Saudi royal family, King Abdullah of Jordan and conservative American think tanks. Once again, the facts on the ground are much more complex than a simplistic formula. Syria, although 86% Muslim, is a multiethnic and multiconfessional country. The Sunni majority cohabits with 13% of Alawites (who are Shi’ites), 3% of Druze and 1% of Ismailis. The Alawites derive from a schism in the 9th century around the 11th imam, al-Askari, who they 58   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Damascus is close to Tehran. In Lebanon - to counteract Christian Maronite power - Syria has always supported the Shi’ites. Does that mean that Alawite-controlled Syria is part of the Shi’ite crescent? Not necessarily. Lebanese Shi’ism is practically the same as in Iran. But for the Iranian ayatollahs in Qom, Alawites themselves are heretics. In the 1980s, in Damascus, there was plenty of official talk about a Shi’ite “international” from the Mediterranean to Pakistan. But Assad - coming from a sect considered heretic - could never be the head of such an entity. The point now with Hafez’s son Bashar is whether he will be able to keep the Alawites in power by remodeling the state’s upper echelons. Not if Washington neo-conservatives can have a word on the matter. Regime change in Syria may remain a priority in Washington. But nobody knows how Syrian unity would be affected - the country could become another factionalized Lebanon, or another factionalized Iraq - or what the consequences would be over the stability of Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Shi’ites in Lebanon are predominant in two non-con-

tiguous regions, the south and the northeast near the Syrian border. Lebanese Shi’ites finally achieved political representation as they have become the predominant Lebanese community (about 60%). They woke up from decades of political and social torpor, their political consciousness determined by the fact that they were Shi’ites. This extraordinary, painful process has served as an example for Shi’ites in Iraq, and may serve as an example for Shi’ites in the Persian Gulf. Lebanese Shi’ites essentially want to be able to co-direct the country along with the Christian Maronites - the financial power. This could only happen in a Lebanon free from the current confessional, institutional model, something that is unlikely in the short term. The only possible solution for Lebanon would be a broad agreement between the Maronites (the financial power), the Shi’ites (the demographic power) and the Sunnis (the link with Saudi financial power, and until recently with Syria as well). With former premier Rafik Hariri’s son as the new prime minister - which means the Saudi connection is intact - that seems unlikely to happen. The point is that for Lebanese Shi’ites, Lebanon is the most important thing, not a Shi’ite crescent, even though Iran and Hezbollah remain extremely active. Breaking up (Iraq) is hard to do Under whoever was in charge - the Ottoman empire, the Hashemites, the British, the Ba’ath Party, Saddam Hussein - Shi’ites in Iraq were always denied political influence. That was the main reason, at the end of the 1950s, for the creation of the Da’wa Party - which became the expression of Shi’ite specificity. Now a Da’wa member, Ibrahim Jaafari, brother-in-law of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has become prime minister of Iraq, probably to be reconfirmed in the December elections. History has delivered it: this is what Iran had wanted in Iraq since the Islamic revolution in 1979. The Ba’ath Party and Saddam wanted to create a strong, secular, Arab Iraqi nation. They had everything they needed: a sea of oil, lots of water (unlike any other PERSIAN MINIATURES    59

Arab country) and a significant population. In this ambitious project there was no room for religious or ethnic affirmation. So Kurds as well as Shi’ites were immolated in the altar of this concept - a modern and secular Iraq. During the 1980s - because of the appeal of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution - Saddam’s ultimate nightmare was seeing Iraq break up in three weak statelets: a Kurdistan, a “Shi’itestan” and a Sunni center with no oil. That was a key reason for Saddam to launch the Iran-Iraq war in the early 1980s. The pretext, according to Saddam himself, was to recover what Iraqis call Arabistan - the Iranian province of Khuzistan, where most of Iran’s oil lies. George Bush senior, as is well documented, decided to keep Iraq intact. He knew that the inevitable consequence of an implosion of Iraq would be a Kurdistan and a Shi’itestan near the Gulf. That spelled the death sentence for the Shi’ite uprising after Saddam’s armies were defeated in early 1991 in the first Gulf War. Sunni repression was horrendous: more than 40,000 Iraqi Shi’ites were killed and hundreds of thousands had to flee to Iran. It’s Western wishful thinking to believe that Iraqi Shi’ites will ever forget this betrayal. In the early 1990s, the Americans, the “international community”, Arab regimes, nobody wanted to see the Iraqi state break up. By another cruel historical irony, the Bush junior administration’s actions could produce exactly this outcome. A smatter of Sunni Arab politicians meeting last week in Amman in Jordan proclaimed that Iraqi Sunni Arabs were facing genocide. They fully agreed with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal’s recent claim that Iran was destabilizing Iraq. Saudi Arabia never tires to fuel the myth of the Shi’ite crescent. Iraqi Shi’ites for their part know very well that al-Qaeda wants civil war. They are determined not to succumb to provocation. Sistani has issued a fatwa in full support of the constitution to be voted in mid-October. Shi’ites know they have the numbers to win the general election in December. That will seal the arrival of Shi’ites to real power in Iraq. 60   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

This is not about religion - or a Shi’ite crescent. It’s about power. A civil war in Iraq is already on. And the Holy Grail is power. The US wants power over the whole Middle East. The Sunnis don’t want to lose the power they thought was theirs in Iraq by divine will. Other Sunni Arab regimes in the Middle East obviously hate to see a Shi’ite renaissance. The Shi’ites are about to reach power after centuries of suffering. And al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers wants power as well, in the form of an Islamic emirate of Iraq, Taliban-style, possibly controlled by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who may or may not be a cipher. Zarqawi was forced to moderate his call of “total war” against Iraqi Shi’ites. Most of the Sunni Arab resistance - led by Iraqi nationalist, former Ba’ath Party military officers - totally rejected it. A resistance communique last week, signed by the First Army of Mohammed, the Islamic Army, the al-Qa’qa Brigades, the Army of the Mujahideen of Iraq and the an-Nasir Salah ad-Din Brigades, proclaimed that “the aim of the Iraqi resistance is the expulsion of the occupation, making it an example for anyone who might dare to think in the future about occupying any Arab or Islamic state”. And according to the powerful Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, “The Shi’ites of Iraq do not bear the guilt for the brazenly open sectarian policy that the government is pursuing with American blessings. They are not at fault for the naked aggression carried out by the government forces against Tal Afar and other cities, nor for the terrorist crimes against peaceful people.” The Washington-Najaf axis Sistani said that even if half of Iraq’s Shi’ites were killed, there would be no civil war. The message could not be clearer: hold on, power is at hand. It was much easier for Sistani to deliver this message with the knowledge that the Americans have left “his” holy Najaf for good. Najaf security is now the responsibility of the Badr Organization (previously Badr Brigade), the paramilitary wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which

rules the whole of Najaf province. This means that the Iranian-trained Badr, by themselves, have to protect Sistani’s life and have to face whatever turbulence is caused by Muqtada al-Sadr’s anti-occupation, anti-establishment Mehdi Army. The Washington-Najaf axis is a neo-con dream. It would fit in a pattern of divide and rule, splitting the Arab world between Sunnis and Shi’ites perpetually at each other’s throats. This would include, of course, Shi’ites fighting Sunnis in Hasa, in Saudi Arabia. That’s a graphic case of neo-con thinking encouraging the rise of a Shi’ite crescent as a means to weaken the Arab world. The neo-cons should beware of what they want. It may be exactly what al-Qaeda wants: civil war in Iraq leading to mini-civil wars in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and ultimately regime change, but to the benefit, in al-Qaeda’s point of view, of Salafi jihadi regimes. As Washington wrestles - at least for public relations purposes - with the dilemma of controlling Iraqi oil or bringing the troops home, the temptation persists of an attack against either Syria or Iran. All scenarios seem to come straight from Pandora’s box. One from the heart No Shi’ite crescent - and no Shi’ite “international” - to speak of may exist because the Shi’ite galaxy, with the exception of Iran, remains fragmented, polymorphous, an archipelago. Even Shi’ism itself can be fragmented in many factions - Iranian or Arab, with or without a powerful clergy. The only thing that unifies Shi’ite communities everywhere - and that’s been the case for almost 1,400 years - is opposition to “illegitimate” Sunni Islam and rejection of other religions.

opposed to the concept of velayat-e-faqih (the ruling of the jurisprudent), the Khomeini-concocted base of the Islamic republic’s political system. That’s why the renaissance of Najaf - the site of Imam Ali’s tomb, the holiest city of Shi’ite Islam - can be so problematic. Sistani, arguably the most important religious authority in Shi’ism today, although an Iranian, sits in Najaf. If the center of gravity of Shi’ism goes back to where it was before - in Iraq - Iran’s influence will be tremendously reduced. And Shi’ism - traditionally apolitical - will be back to where it was before the Islamic revolution. Speculation about an imminent Iranian nuclear bomb have been circulating for at least 10 years. It’s fair to speculate on what would be the meaning of a hypothetical Shi’ite bomb. Shi’ism in this case will have not only a political sanctuary, but a nuclear sanctuary. With Iran practically invulnerable to an outside attack, would the religious leadership be tempted to again start exporting its vision of pan-Shi’ism? Meanwhile, the Shi’ite dream embodied by Iran, or at least the ayatollahs in Qom, keeps burning - the revolutionary power, the aspiration to be the flag-bearer of the misery of the world, a kind of beggars banquet, or the ticket for the beggars to finally accede to a banquet, the last hope for the damned of the earth. No wonder Sunnis fear the power of this idea, which for Shi’ites comes straight from the heart. It’s not unfit that in the 12th century the great Persian poet Nezami Ghanjavi, in the famous Haft Peykar, wrote that “the world is the body/and Iran is the heart”.

Of course there is the Iranian Shi’ite “sanctuary”, sophisticated Iranian diplomacy and still a pan-Shi’ite Iranian dream. But national and theological antagonisms prevail. The best example is the renewed rivalry between Qom in Iran and Najaf. Iranian ayatollahs are extremely concerned by the ramifications of Shi’ites PERSIAN MINIATURES    61

A gas flame is seen through a bus window in the South Pars gas field facilities in the southern Iranian port of Assaluyeh. Photo: AFP/Behrouz Mehri

nized by the Institute of International Energy Studies and the Institute for Political and International Studies. There could not be a better place to meet and discuss oil-and-gas geopolitics with an array of scholars and executives from Iran, China, Pakistan, India, Russia, Egypt, Indonesia, Georgia, Venezuela and Germany. And their overall message is unmistakable: the interdependence of Asia and “Persian Gulf geo-ecopolitics”, as an Iranian analyst put it, is now total; the nuclear row should be solved diplomatically in the next few months; and Asian integration has everything to gain from Pipelineistan linking the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, South Asia and China. It’s a gas, gas, gas The heart of Iran’s gas strategy lies in the gigantic South Pars field, responsible in itself for 50% of Iran’s and 8% of the world’s natural-gas reserves. South Pars is strategically located between Bushehr to the west (where Russia is helping Iran to build its first civilian nuclear power station) and the Persian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas to the east.

In the heart of Pipelineistan South Pars at full capacity could deliver 28 billion cubic feet of gas a day By PEPE ESCOBAR MARCH 17, 2006

TEHRAN - Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki may have captured all the headlines when he announced that Iran would not use the oil weapon in the event it was slapped with sanctions by the UN Security Council. But in the world of Pipelineistan, the nuclear row waged by the US, the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany), the United Nations and Iran is just a detail. The heart of Pipelineistan itself has been transposed to Tehran for the International Conference on Energy and Security: Asian Vision, orga62   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

According to Gholamreza Manouchehrie, chief executive officer of PetroPars Co, South Pars at its full capacity could deliver 28 billion cubic feet of gas a day. But not all of its 19 blocks have been negotiated for exploration. Iranian participation stands at 60%. Join ventures are common; for instance, the liquefied natural gas (LNG) operation is shared at 50% each by the state-owned National Iranian Oil Co (NIOC) and TotalFinaElf. But much more foreign investment is needed. “We are 10 years behind Qatar,” said Manouchehrie, referring to the neighboring gas emirate. “There is cooperation between our experts, but it’s still not enough. But we will catch up with them in production by 2012.” South Pars’ enormous strategic importance is that its production will be exported to Asian countries - after the construction of a pipeline to the Pakistani border and then to India, pumping 150 million cubic meters of gas a day. As for North Pars, it’s an independent

field, 100 kilometers to the north, and geared for domestic consumption. Manouchehrie said that “this pipeline controversy has been going on for 10 years. Now it’s a compelling geo-economic reality. China also wants to be a beneficiary.” Most agree that the pipeline should be finished as soon as possible. For Asia, it’s the most feasible and the most cost-effective. Welcome to IPIL High-level negotiations between India and Iran started on Tuesday in Tehran. According to Seyyed Alavi, an Iranian oil executive, a final agreement between the three countries (Iran, Pakistan and India) will be reached “by June or July”. The tentative schedule is for the pipeline to be concluded in five years and three months. Pakistan needs to build 1,000km of 48-inch pipeline, plus the infrastructure, and India needs to build 600km. Farshad Tehrani, an Iranian oil executive based in Norway, is in favor of the project being called the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline (IPIL), a joint venture with a cross-section of ownership. Tehrani finds many reasons for India and Pakistan to switch from oil to gas: they reduce their oil imports; they opt for cleaner fuel; they save foreign currency. For Iran, it’s also inevitably about geo-economic power: “Iran is the only country in the world with more than 15 neighbors. Iran wants to be a true regional power - we are in West Asia after all. Besides, all our neighbors can swap gas with Iran as well,” said Tehrani. Maqsud Hassan Nuri, a senior research fellow at Islamabad Policy Research Institute, agrees with all the benefits. But he preferred to single out President George W Bush’s recent visit to South Asia, where once again it was clear that “the US does not want stable relations between Iran and India and Pakistan”. The Pakistani perspective - shared by Pakistani oil executives in Tehran - is that the ongoing nuclear row could be solved within the International Atomic EnerPERSIAN MINIATURES    63

gy Agency (IAEA), and not the UN Security Council, which is this week deliberating moves to reprimand Tehran over its nuclear program. The Pakistanis agree that Iran is a factor of stability in the region. They also agree with Iranian and Egyptian executives that the current standoff won’t be frozen in time - just as it did not between India and Pakistan regarding their dispute over Kashmir. As Tehrani, the Iranian oil executive, put it, “In the subsequent months there will be some kind of arrangement whereby the West is satisfied and Iran’s legitimate rights will be respected.” Nuri added a conditionality: “Nuclear weapons take care of the strategic ego, they don’t solve our economic problems. Forty percent of South Asia still lives below the poverty line.” Rafiullah Azmi from the Institute of Islamic Studies in New Delhi stressed that IPIL would reach way beyond South Asia, offering a vital link among the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, South Asia and China, and thus “it goes against the geopolitical game of the US in the Persian Gulf ”. So basically why is Washington so much against it? “The Americans feel it will help Iran; it will set dangerous precedents for other countries to buy gas from Iran; and it will cement friendly ties between Iran, India and Pakistan,” said Azmi. Tehrani said that “it goes back to [former US president] Bill Clinton, when he said that you’re free to buy energy from anywhere, as long as it’s not from Iran”. Azmi stressed that India was creating “a multitude of options” for its energy needs - from nuclear to gas. Nuclear power in 2010 will attend to no more than 10% of India’s requirements. He recalled what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently told the Indian parliament: “We are not part of any push towards regime change in the region.” Azmi is convinced “geo-economics will triumph over geopolitics”. No tapping 64   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

The Trans-Afghan Pipeline (TAP) has disappeared from view - obliterated by the Taliban resurgence - but the project remains in the cards, although the realistic prospects are grim, according to Seyed Shah Bukhari of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. An agreement among Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan was signed last month. India is an observer. The US is very much in favor. But besides the chaos in Afghanistan, it is the reliability of Turkmenistan that is in question. Turkmenistan has signed multiple contracts, especially with Russia and Ukraine, but there’s no guarantee it will be able to supply all of its customers. Bukhari stressed that both India and Pakistan may need more than two pipelines for their needs. That would mean IPIL, TAP and another US$2.7 billion project from Qatar via Oman to Pakistan and then India.

So, right in the heart of Bali, spellbound after a serious conversation with a dukun — a spiritual master — it struck me: this should be the new Yalta, the perfect setting for a Trump-Xi-Putin summit setting the parameters ahead for the ever-evolving New Great Game in Eurasia. Balinese culture makes no distinction between the secular and the supernatural — sekala and niskala. Sekala is what our senses may discern. Niskala is what cannot be sensed directly and can only be “suggested”. Massive geopolitical shifts ahead could not be more shrouded in niskala.

Tamine Adeebfar, an analyst at the Caspian Energy Politics in Brussels, expected the Middle East to supply energy to East Asia for nearly a century. There’s total interdependence now, but everything “needs to be anticipated and planned now”. This is dawning on the Iranians. Iranian oil executives Alavi and Tehrani make two important points - both of them related to the urgency of foreign and local direct investment in its gas industry. Iran still cannot compete with Russia in exporting gas to Europe - one of its priorities for the 21st century. And incredible as it may seem, Iran still imports gas from Turkmenistan - even though it holds the second-largest gas reserves in the world. Ahmed al-Najar, of Al-Ahram Institute for Strategic and Political Studies in Cairo, prefers to puncture the myth that oil prices are related to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. World demand for oil grew from 76.6 million barrels a day in 2004 to 83.3 million in 2005. In China, it grew from 4.7 million barrels a day in 2001 to 6.7 million in 2005. But in the US it grew only from 24 million barrels a day in 2001 to 25.6 million in 2005.


President Ahmadinejad certainly knows how to work a crowd. Photo: AFP

The ultimate martyr President Ahmadinejad continues to leverage his popular appeal By PEPE ESCOBAR MARCH 31, 2006

TEHRAN and QOM, Iran - Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, has been very quiet lately - at least for his standards. But may no outside observers doubt his popular appeal. After last Friday’s prayers at the University of Tehran, he chose not to use the VIP exit and decided to mingle with the crowd, surrounded by only a few bodyguards. There was nothing to disguise him from the sartorial shabbiness of his audience, except that his face was beaming like a saint’s. There was bread for the famished, and an old gentleman on a soapbox was spraying perfumed water over the masses. In these biblical circumstances the president was so enthusiastic that he almost boarded 66   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

one of the lime-green buses available free of charge for the faithful, until someone in the security detail reminded him that he, after all, was the president.

the supreme leader, Tehran insiders confirm, has in fact downgraded the president from first-class to economy. Ahmadinejad is now a so-called “domestic” affair.

Behesht-a Sahra, the “Paradise of Sahra”, the largest martyr cemetery in the whole of Islam, southeast of Tehran near the highway to Qom, ranks as one the most extraordinary sights in the world: hectares and hectares of tombs of martyrs, or “barefoot soldiers” who reached eternal glory in the name of the Islamic Revolution, now enveloped in an eerie silence barely disturbed by the whistle of the desert winds. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s enormous mausoleum - a sort of Shi’ite cathedral now being renovated into a revolutionary theme park - is only a few minutes away.

It was the supreme leader who proclaimed Iran’s nuclear program “irreversible”. Ahmadinejad only assented - later on. In the past few days, the supreme leader has multiplied public references to the “hard as steel” resolve of the Iranian nation against “global arrogance”. Ahmadinejad, who is currently on his 10th provincial visit - in the southwest - after he launched a campaign of “bringing the government closer to the people”, just sticks to vague accusations against “enemies” who should “apologize to Iran for their insults. They accuse the Iranian nation of warmongering, and this is the biggest insult.”

No wonder virtually every visitor to the Paradise of Sahra nowadays is an Ahmadinejad supporter. In the Islamic Revolution scale of values, to die as a martyr is an even greater honor than to live as a good, practicing - and in most cases poor - Muslim. The president himself might have yearned to die as a martyr; but now he’d rather bask in worldly glory, as the beggars in the (oil and gas) banquet still regard the 49-year-old son of a blacksmith, self-described “street cleaner of the people” as the true believer who keeps the flame of Khomeini. It was not by accident that the first thing Ahmadinejad did after he won the presidency was to pay his respects to the martyrs at Behesht-e Sahra, and then to Khomeini’s shrine. The ultra-pious double act was complemented with a first cabinet meeting - photo opportunity included - staged at the tomb of Imam Reza, the fourth Shi’ite imam, and the only one buried in Iran, in a spectacular shrine in the holy city of Mashhad. The theocratic nationalism power play Ahmadinejad, the former Revolutionary Guard, may reach passionate outbursts ayatollahs can only dream of, but the fact of the matter is that ultimate power in Iran’s theocratic nationalism will always lie firmly in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And

It is the anointed prince (who could not win an election), secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Ali Larijani, who’s in charge of defining the scope of the upcoming US-Iran negotiations on Iraq. Foreign policy - and a “consultant” role in the nuclear negotiations - is the domain of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, the pragmatic darling of quite a few in the West who nonetheless lost the June 2005 elections to Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani is now being rewarded for his own version of martyrdom-lite - to the benefit, of course, of the Islamic Republic. In the second round of the June elections, all classified government polls were declaring Rafsanjani would lose. He was tempted to withdraw. But he didn’t. The White House and the US State Department were on overdrive spinning mode, branding the Iranian elections a sham. Rafsanjani played the part of loser to perfection. When the supreme leader upgraded even more the already-powerful role of the Expediency Council, which oversees every government action, Rafsanjani became the ultimate winner; after all, he is the chairman of the council. It was Rafsanjani who publicly announced that Iran would “break down the colonial taboos against using nuclear energy peacefully” - a unanimous decision made by the council.


As an indication of how north Tehran’s Western-educated upper middle class, as well as diplomatic circles and foreign observers, were detached from the real sentiment in Iran, nobody saw it coming - the pious, the apolitical and the downtrodden voting en masse for Ahmadinejad. But a few cynical Tehran-based analysts have an alternative take. According to them, Ahmadinejad was destined to win from the start, even before the first round.

ing to Shi’ite tradition, if you come to Jamkaran 40 Tuesdays in a row, with no interruption, you will “see” the Mahdi. This particular Tuesday was more special than others; it fell one day before a holy day, the anniversary of the death of the Prophet Muhammad (in the officially proclaimed “Year of the Prophet”, according to the Iranian government) and two days before the anniversary of the death of Imam Reza, the one buried in Mashhad.

The clerical oligarchy knew how unpopular they were. So why not facilitate the emergence of a populist - so the excluded could vent their anger and renew their faith in the revolution? It was a question of renewing the faith in the concept of velayat-e-faqih - the ruling of the jurisprudent - according to which government by the pious and for the pious is nothing but an expression of the will of God; thus it must be isma (infallible). Ahmadinejad’s pious credentials were beyond doubt; and better yet, he was a “street cleaner of the people”.

So no wonder Jamkaran was at fever pitch. The mosque dates from the year 1050, after a very poor farmer claimed he had seen Imam Mahdi and envisaged a mosque built in his honor at the site. Behind the mosque there is a well. Most Shi’ites believe the Mahdi is hiding at the bottom of the well. The well is surmounted by a box over a pillar encased in metal protection. An endless stream of pilgrims bursting into tears write their vows or requests, attach a written supplication and drop them to the bottom of the well while feverishly kissing the square metal protection. The atmosphere is solemn and reverential. But before the Islamic Revolution, not many people came to the well.

Take me to the Mahdi on time Contrary to Western perceptions, the upper echelons of the Islamic Republic dabble in a very complex game involving various competing circles or power. Ahmadinejad may be the perfect embodiment of the militaristic strand of the theocracy. His military background in the Revolutionary Guards formed his world view. He lived the eight-year hell of the Iran-Iraq War in full. He deeply believed that the Islamic Revolution was fighting for its life against the “apostate” Saddam Hussein. At the same time, he is fundamentally a believer in the Mahdi - the 12th hidden Shi’ite imam whose Great Occultation began in the 10th century and whose return is imminent to, in essence, save mankind from itself. It was a rainy Tuesday night in Qom, but the sprawling Jamkaran Mosque in the outskirts of town was absolutely packed with tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over Iran, many of them camping out on the cold concrete with little to no infrastructure. Accord68   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

The president reportedly made a state donation of US$14 million to the holy well. Tehran cynics swear - and theological students in Qom deny - that the president also told his cabinet members to sign a declaration of loyalty to the Mahdi that was duly dropped to the bottom of the well, as millions of pilgrims have done for centuries. Ahmadinejad even has his own roadmap for the return of the Mahdi; he drew it himself. According to Shi’ite tradition, the Mahdi will rise in Mecca - not in Qom - where he will preach to his close followers (Jesus Christ puts on a guest appearance), draw up the armies of Islam and finally settles down in Kufa, Iraq. I will only settle for a caliphate Ahmadinejad’s ultimate spiritual mentor remains Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, who is the dean of the Educational and Research Institute of Imam Khomeini, a very influential hawza (theological school) in Qom.

It’s impossible to interview Ayatollah Yazdi - officially because of “new government rules”, unofficially of his own volition. The crucial election of the Council of Experts (86 clerics only; no women; no non-clergy) will take place this coming summer, by universal vote. It’s the Council of Experts that chooses the all-powerful supreme leader. Influential people such as former presidential candidate Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi and former imprisoned philosopher Shoroush are terrified: according to them, Ayatollah Yazdi is trying to influence the outcome of the elections to take over power. “You see, it’s a circle,” said a ministry official insisting on anonymity. “The people elect the Council of Experts, but only religious people can run. The Council of Experts elects the leader. The leader elects the Guardian Council. The Guardian Council filters the presidential and the parliamentary elections. And people believe they are electing somebody.” In the event of taking over power, Yazdi would implement “real Islam”, as he sees it. He does not believe in Western democracy. He wants a kelafat - a caliphate. Ayatollahs like Yazdi are simply not concerned with worldly matters, foreign policy or geopolitical games; the only thing that matters is work for the arrival of the Mahdi. The ayatollah is on record saying he could convert all of America to Shi’ism. Some of his critics accuse him of claiming a direct link to the Mahdi, which in the Shi’ite tradition would qualify him as a false prophet. US researcher Dr Muhammad Legenhausen, who has lived and taught in Qom for more than a decade, speaks fluent Farsi and is married to an Iranian, is one of the top scholars at Yazdi’s hawza. By telephone, he declined an interview, saying he’s “not interested”. Ayatollah Yazdi is also the spiritual mentor of the Hojjatieh, a sort of ultra-fundamentalist sect whose literal reading of Shi’ite tradition holds that chaos in mankind is a necessary precondition for the imminent arrival of the Mahdi. Ahmadinejad may not be a Hojjatieh himself, but he totally understands where

they are coming from. Ahmadinejad’s slightly more worldly mentor is Mojtaba Hashemi Samareh - his closest adviser. Samareh, also a former Revolutionary Guard, met the president during the Iran-Iraq War, in Khuzestan. Then he came under the wing of, once again, Ayatollah Yazdi, who sponsored him for entering the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (one of his jobs was to teach the “psychology of infidels”). He has also spent many years at the Intelligence Ministry. Samareh’s allegiance is first and foremost to Ayatollah Yazdi - not to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. He’s always right behind Ahmadinejad - a sword of Damocles over every minister, ambassador or high official. Every day they pray together at the mosque at the presidential palace. Hail against the infidels Ahmadinejad, a second-generation revolutionary, ruffled some very powerful, first-generation clerical feathers - extremely zealous of their power bases when he embarked on some sort of pogrom at the Ministry of Foreign Relations, the Ministry of Finance and the provincial governorship level. Most of these key posts were handed over to former Revolutionary Guards - his old mates. That was a bad diplomatic move. A dinner last weekend in north Tehran’s Zafar neighborhood drew in filmmakers, urban planners, businesswomen, economic analysts. There was not a single reference to Ahmadinejad politics. The conversation centered on what’s going on in the great world cities, on poetry, film and literature, and on how Iran looked and felt during the 1970s. Books on Persian art and architecture were carefully reviewed. These men and women are part of the new worldly Iranian elite - the quintessential Islamic Republic version of a “leftist”. Iranian “leftists” are US- or Canada-educated, in favor of total freedom of speech, liberal democracy, deregulated economy, a strong role PERSIAN MINIATURES    69

for private enterprise and foreign investment, a strong voice for women and a strong civil society. In sum, they embody post-modernist Islam. They go on with their lives in spite of Ahmadinejad. Well-connected intellectuals and businessmen in north Tehran cannot help but mock his accent, mock his shabby suits, and even swear Ahmadinejad was personally responsible, in the early 1980s, for summary executions of political prisoners in Evin prison Iran’s version of Abu Ghraib. But as the Revolutionary Guards’ press office in Tehran is more than happy to acknowledge, his countrywide popular base of support remains undiminished, in the tens of millions, from the Pasdaran - the Revolutionary Guards - to the Bassijis, the hardcore paramilitary militia, also known as “the army of 20 million”, and expanding to the pious, apolitical, downtrodden masses, mostly rural but also urban (in sprawling south Tehran, for instance). There’s one huge problem, though. He’s not delivering - in economic terms. As a ministerial government official put it, visibly anguished, “of course he is an honest man. In his declaration of assets, mandatory in our constitution, he put only his old car [a rickety Paykan from the 1970s] and a small house. But he does not have the personality for the job.” The masses were totally excluded from the late shah’s secular, Westernized, petrodollar banquet. They kept getting nothing under the revolutionary, clerical oligarchy that never implemented in practice the rhetorical slogans of Islamic solidarity. Former president Mohammad Khatami, for all the appreciation of his “dialogue of civilizations”, did nothing to put more mutton kebab on people’s plates. Every major decision - even in domestic policy - remains with the supreme leader. The economy remains atrophied, dependent on bazaaris and bonyads (foundations) that ultimately respond to the supreme leader. According to a US-educated economic analyst, who insists on anonymity for his own protection, income tax accounts for less than 7% of the state’s budget, deficits are underestimated, inflation could easily spin out of control and the private sector is atrophied compared with the omnipresent state. 70   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Ahmadinejad’s much-taunted plan last year to “put oil revenues on people’s plates” was ditched: it would lead to an explosion of inflation. He couldn’t even place his own man at the crucial Ministry of Petroleum. As another government official put it, “It’s hard to believe we have to import 60% of our gasoline from abroad. The previous governments built too many mosques and not enough refineries.”

Iranian soldiers in the Strait of Hormuz. Photo: AFP/ Atta Kenare

The worldly, secular Ebrahim Yazdi, former Iranian foreign minister (under Khomeini) and current secretary general of the Freedom Movement of Iran - an opposition party banned from contesting the latest elections - tries to sum it up. “Ahmadinejad has failed his promises of economic justice. Under Khatami, at least we had long-range planning and investment in the private industrial sector. Ahmadinejad is in favor of the welfare state, a 19th-century idea. We have a proverb in Persian: ‘A good year could be judged by the spring.’ Ahmadinejad’s ‘spring’ says it all.” Nine months into the Ahmadinejad administration, Iran’s political apartheid is still more than evident. For all of the president’s populist rhetoric and his outsider posture, it remains a case of the khodiah (our people) against the gheyreh kodiah (the others), insiders against outsiders. In many aspects, foreign outsiders cannot shake the impression of an austere, melancholic, suffocating society carrying the weight of 27 years of a historical, sociopolitical and religious experiment gone wrong. The majlis (parliament) could invoke its constitutional powers and sack the president before this coming summer. Tehran insiders say there’s no evidence of a white coup - at least not yet. The outspoken president may persist - in his own mind - in a battle against infidels, while personifying to the letter the prized Shi’ite cosmology of suffering as the only way to reach paradise. The last thing Iran’s clerical-political establishment need at this delicate moment is for the ultimate “martyr president” to martyr the nation into the status of ultimate global outcast.

The war on Iran Iranian officials are aware the US may go for an initial ‘shock and awe’ attack By PEPE ESCOBAR APRIL 13, 2006

“All options, including the military one, are on the table.” - US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

“I announce, officially, that dear Iran has joined the nuclear countries of the world.” - President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, saying on Tuesday that Iran had successfully enriched uranium for the first time, a landmark step toward its quest to develop nuclear fuel. PERSIAN MINIATURES    71

The ominous signs are “on the table” for all to see. The Pentagon has its Long War, the rebranded “war on terror” that Vice President Dick Cheney swears will last for decades, a replay of the war between Eastasia and Oceania in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. President George W Bush issued a “wild speculation” non-denial denial that the US was planning strategic nuclear strikes against Iran, but Iran considerably upped the ante on Tuesday with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s announcement that Iran had enriched uranium for the first time. In a nationally televised speech, Ahmadinejad urged the West to stop pressuring Tehran, saying that Iran was seeking to develop nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes. Iranian nuclear officials say the country has produced 100 tonnes of uranium gas, an essential ingredient for enrichment. The United Nations Security Council has demanded that Iran stop all uranium-enrichment activity by April 28. Iran has rejected the demand. From the point of view of the Pentagon’s Long War, a strategic nuclear attack on Iran can be spun to oblivion as the crucial next stage of the war on “radical Islam”. From the view of a factionalized European Union, this is (very) bad business; the Europeans prefer to concentrate on the factionalized nature of the Iranian government itself and push for a nuclear deal. Iranian government officials claim that the Germans and the Italians - big trade partners with extensive economic interests in the country - are pushing for a deal more than the French and much more than the British. As much as the EU cannot possibly agree on a unified foreign policy, Europeans in fact reject both sanctions and/or a possible US military strike. Hitler meets Iraqification

a “domestic” president’s role. His vocal, nationalist defense of Iran’s civilian nuclear program follows the leader’s script, and is met with approval because virtually all Iranians regard the issue as a matter of national right and pride. According to a late-January poll by the Iranian Students Polling Agency, 85.4% of Iranians are in favor of continuing with the nuclear program. More than 80% feel the country needs nuclear energy. And about 70% regard the European negotiation side as “illogical”. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, issued a fatwa in the 1980s declaring that production, possession and use of nuclear weapons was against Islam. Russia, China and India still take him at his word. For the Iranian government, the nuclear program is a powerful symbol of independence with regard to what is perceived as Anglo-Saxon colonialism. The view is shared by Iranians of all social classes and education backgrounds. Moreover, Iran is pushing for a leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement, stating that every country has the right to a peaceful nuclear program. What Iran officially wants is a nuclear-free zone in West Asia, and that includes Israel, the sixth nuclear power in the world with more than 200 nuclear warheads. But the issue itself may be beside the point. What’s really at stake is that while the occupation of Iraq might be downgraded, the “invisible” US military bases will consolidate the US presence in Iraq and the Persian Gulf region. Ahmadinejad in this scenario is the perfect Hitler; US troops - and bases - must remain on the ground to prevent Iran from going nuclear and to prevent Iran’s influence in Iraq’s “Shi’iteistan”.

Meanwhile, Washington’s avowed initiative of financing groups to provoke “regime change” from within The demonization of Ahmadinejad in some quaris widely viewed in Tehran as a joke. What Iranians ters in the US as the “new Adolf Hitler” is beside the both in government and in the bazaars and tea shops point. As Asia Times Online has shown (The ultimate - take very seriously is the US lending a hand to Israel martyr, April 12), all crucial decisions in Iran remain squeezing Palestine even more - a development also with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ah- spun in Washington as part of the war on “radical Ismadinejad has been downgraded by the leader to play lam”. The Quadrennial Defense Review - the Pentagon’s 72   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

strategic document calling for the Long War against terror - can be easily interpreted as a call for a war on Islam. The first steps towards war A war on Iran could involve many military scenarios. Iranian officials are aware that the US may go for an initial “shock and awe”. But they play down the possibility of a street revolution toppling the nationalist theocracy, as Washington hopes; the regime controls everything, and in the event of a foreign attack, virtually the whole population would rally behind the government. They also exclude attacking Israel, because they know Israel may respond with a nuclear strike. But they do not rule out the possibility of the US dropping nuclear bombs on Iran. Iran’s current demonology instrumentalizes the UN Security Council, in the name of “peace” and nuclear non-proliferation. But Iranian officials keep complaining that the country’s official nuclear proposal was never examined in full by the EU. It included a provision that Iran would continue to negotiate with the EU-3 (Germany, France and Britain) on uranium enrichment for two more years, and would resume enrichment only if negotiations failed. The next step in the Security Council may be the imposition of “intelligent sanctions” - an oxymoron. In practice, that would mean a partial trade embargo on Iran, excluding food and of course oil and gas. Oil and gas are once again the heart of the matter. A recent energy conference in Tehran (In the heart of Pipelineistan, March 17) made it clear that Iran is a crucial node of a proposed Asian energy-security grid, which includes China, Russia and India. This grid would bypass Western - especially US - control of energy supplies and fuel in a real 21st-century industrial revolution all across Asia. It’s no wonder that many analysts view the war on Iran in essence as a war of the United States against Asia.

The ultimate prize As was the case with Iraq, Iran is being sold as a threat to world peace (it may be pursuing nuclear weapons). Bush - at least vocally - hopes diplomacy will prevail. But the decision to attack may have been made already, just as it was taken regarding Iraq way before March 2003. Iraq had signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but was accused of possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). UN weapons inspectors were expelled on the eve of the 2003 war. Iran has also signed the NPT, but is being accused of pursuing a nuclear-weapons program. UN weapons inspectors still work in the country on and off - but for how long? In 1995, Iraq told UN inspectors, via Saddam Hussein’s brother-in-law Hussein Kamel, about a secret nuclear-weapons program, which had just been scrapped. This did not prevent the regime from being accused of concealing WMD just before the March 2003 invasion. In 2002, Iran told the UN that it had a secret nuclear program - not a weapons program. This did not prevent Iran from being accused four years later by the EU-3 of “concealment and deception”. In November 2002, the US threatened to strike Iraq unless it cooperated with UN inspectors. The US invaded Iraq anyway, without Security Council backing. In January, the EU-3 called for Iran to be referred to the Security Council. Sanctions may be applied. If no diplomatic solution is found, the Pentagon may find the opening it seeks for the next stage of its Long War. Iran is not to be easily intimidated. Few in Tehran take the threat of oil sanctions seriously. Iranians know that even if the US decided to bomb the country’s nuclear sites, they are maintained by Russian advisers and technicians; that would mean in effect a declaration of war against Russia. Russia recently closed a US$700 million deal selling 30 Tor M-1 surface-to-air missiles to Iran - very effective against aircraft, cruise missiles and guided bombs. The missiles will be deployed at the nuclear-research center at Isfahan and the Bushehr reactor, which is being built by Russia. PERSIAN MINIATURES    73

Iranians know Shi’ites in the south and in Baghdad would turn extreme heat on the occupation forces in Iraq. Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, on an official visit to Iran, according to his spokesman, said that “if any Islamic state, especially the Islamic Republic of Iran, is attacked, the Mehdi Army would fight inside and outside Iraq”.

Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks during the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly September 26, 2012 at UN headquarters in New York. Photo: Stan Honda / AFP

Iranians also know they can bypass any trade sanctions by trading even more with China. Anyway, Mohammed-Nabi Rudaki, deputy chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, which sits at the majlis (parliament), has already threatened that “if Europe does not act wisely with the Iranian nuclear portfolio and it is referred to the UN Security Council and economic or air travel restrictions are imposed unjustly, we have the power to halt oil supply to the last drop from the shores of the Persian Gulf via the Strait of Hormuz”. Up to 30% of the world’s oil production passes through the strait. Were Iran to block it, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait would not be able to export their oil. The Pentagon may eventually get its Long War - but not exactly on its terms.

‘Hitler’ does New York Iran President Mahmud Ahmadinejad turned on a carefully calibrated public relations charm offensive during his visit By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 26, 2007

CBS reporter: But the American people, sir, believe that your country [Iran] is a terrorist nation, exporting terrorism in the world. You must have known that visiting the World Trade Center site would infuriate many Americans. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad: Well, I’m amazed. How can you speak for the whole of the American nation? You are representing the media and you’re a reporter. The American nation is made up of 300 million people. There are different points of view over there.

The new “Hitler”, at least for a while, has lodged in a prosaic midtown Manhattan hotel. Contrary to a plethora of demonizing myths, this 74   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


Persian werewolf did not evade his abode to eat kids for breakfast in Central Park. Instead, he turned on a carefully calibrated public relations charm offensive. Whatever his polemical views, for a now-seasoned head of state like Ahmadinejad to turn astonishing US disinformation on Iran, the Middle East and US foreign policy for his own advantage ended up as a string of slam-dunks. Articulate, evasive, manipulative, the Iranian president - even lost in translation - was especially skillful in turning US corporate media’s hysteria upside down consistently to paint those in the administration of President George W Bush as incorrigible warmongers. Both at the National Press Club, via video-conference, and live at Columbia University, Ahmadinejad even had the luxury of joking about fabled Western “freedom of information” - as so many are still “trying to prevent people from talking”. He scored major points among the target audience that really matters: worldwide Muslim public opinion. Contrasting with a plethora of corrupt Arab leaders, Ahmadinejad has been carefully positioning himself as a Muslim folk hero capable of standing up to Western arrogance and defending the rights of the weak (the Palestinians). The way he deflected US ire on the enemy’s own turf will only add to his standing. At the United Nations this week, a remix of 2002 couldn’t be more inevitable: it’s the same soundtrack of tortuous diplomacy with the bongos and congas and special effects of war beefing up the background. By going on preemptive public relations, Ahmadinejad was clever enough not to commit the same mistake of the previous, “invisible” Hitler, Saddam Hussein. He was also clever in preempting ear-splitting rumors of a next war: “Talk about war is basically a propaganda tool.” One of his key points may not have made an impact in the US, but resonated widely around the world, and not only in the Muslim street: “We oppose the way the US government tries to rule the world”; there are “more humane methods of establishing peace”. He assured that no Iranian weapons are flowing into Iraq, adding that “regional countries in the Middle 76   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

East don’t need outside interference”.

You’ve got to change your evil ways

On uranium enrichment, he repeatedly stressed that it is Iran’s right, as a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to conduct a “legal” and “peaceful” nuclear program. “Why should a nation depend on another?” But if the US would engage in peace talks, so would Iran: “International law is equal to everyone.” As for the US and France, they “are not the world” - a reference to both the Bush administration’s and the French saber-rattling. “France is a very cultured society, it would not support war.” Humanitarian imperialist French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was summarily brushed aside: he needs to attain “higher maturity”.

US corporate media’s treatment of the new “Hitler” seemed to have been scripted by the same ghostwriter lodged in the same (White) House. On 60 Minutes, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) was firing on all cylinders for a casus belli - from “There’s no doubt Iran is providing the IEDs” (improvised explosive devices, in Iraq) to “Why don’t you just stop denying that you’re building a nuclear bomb?” Ahmadinejad was bemused, to say the least. CNN for its part could not resist proclaiming, “His state even sponsors terrorism ... in some cases even against US troops in Iraq.”

On Israel, Ahmadinejad said, “We do not recognize a regime based on discrimination, occupation and expansionism,” and he said that country “last week attacked Syria and last year attacked Lebanon”; pretty much what most of the Middle East agrees with. He may have granted that the Holocaust did take place, but the world needs “more research on it”. The Holocaust is not his main point: it always serves as an intro to one of his key themes - why should the Palestinians pay the price for something that happened in Europe? He said he wanted a “clear” answer. No one deigned to provide it. To put in perspective the Iranian hostage crisis in the early days of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, he said one would need to “go back to US intervention in Iran since 1953”. His hosts preferred to change the subject. Humming non-stop in the background noise was the “wipe Israel of the map” myth. No one had the intellectual decency to point out that what he really said, in Farsi, in a speech on October 2005 to an annual anti-Zionist conference in Iran, was that “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”. He was doing no more than quoting the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - hoping that an unfair (toward Palestine) regime would be replaced by another one more equitable; he was not threatening to nuke Israel. Warmongers anyway don’t bother to check the facts.

Ahmadinejad succinctly unveiled to the Associated Press the reasons for so much warmongering - in a way that even a kid would understand: “I believe that some of the talk in this regard arises first of all from anger. Secondly, it serves the electoral purposes domestically in this country. Third, it serves as a cover for policy failures over Iraq.” An even more appalling measure of Western arrogance - also speaking volumes about “us” when confronted with the incomprehensible “other” - is the diatribe with which the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, chose to “greet” his guest, a head of state. Bollinger, supposedly an academic, spoke about confronting “the mind of evil”. His crass behavior got him 15 minutes of fame. Were President Bush to be greeted in the same manner in any university in the developing world - and motives would abound also to qualify him as a “cruel, petty dictator” - the Pentagon would have instantly switched to let’s-bomb-them-with-democracy mode. Ahmadinejad, to his credit, played it cool. Stressing, in a quirky fashion, his “academic” credentials, he unleashed a poetic rant on “science as a divine gift” just to plunge once again into the Palestinian tragedy. He stressed how Iran “is friendly with the Jewish people” which is a fact (at least 30,000 Jews live undisturbed in Iran). Then back to the key point: Why are the Palestinians paying the price for something they had nothing to do with? Iran has a “humanitarian proposal” to

solve the problem - a referendum where Palestinians would choose their own political destiny. In the absence of informed debate, Ahmadinejad stressed his points the way he wanted to. Iran does not need a nuclear bomb. Iran does not want to manufacture a nuclear bomb. But telling other countries what they can and cannot do is another matter entirely. He is more than aware that the nuclear dossier is “a political issue” - a question of “two or three powers who think they can monopolize science and knowledge”. It’s up to a sovereign Iran to decide whether it needs nuclear fuel. “Why should we need fuel from you? You don’t even give us spare parts for aircraft.” He also stressed that Iran is a victim of terrorism - a reference to the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, a micro-terrorist group by any other name, formerly protected by Saddam, now supported by the Bush administration; but he was also referring to destabilizing black ops by US special forces in the strategically crucial provinces of Khuzestan and Balochistan. Ahmadinejad was not questioned in detail on internal repression, intimidation of independent journalists, what his Interior Ministry is up to, from a crackdown on women not wearing the veil properly to more sinister, unsubstantiated “collaboration with America” charges. When executions were mentioned, he quipped, “Don’t you have capital punishment in the US?” - and defended them on the ground that these were drug smugglers. Nobody questioned him on his disastrous economic policies, on the competence of his ministers, on an embryonic pact between Iran and Saudi Arabia to prevent another war in the Middle East, on the upcoming, pivotal summit of the Caspian littoral states in Tehran where Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Vladimir Putin will discuss what happens next - from technical aspects of Iran’s nuclear program to Bush’s warmongering impetus. Anyway, Ahmadinejad made it clear: Iran is “ready to negotiate with all countries”. The same could not be said about the Bush White House.


UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would have liked this UN General Assembly to discuss seriously climate change and the looming water wars. But nobody - not even diplomats - is really paying attention. It’s all about Bush against the “new Hitler”. Gaza is being collectively punished, and Tony “invade Iraq” Blair bleats platitudes about “peace”. About 100,000 brave monks are in the streets of Yangon defying Myanmar’s military junta - and the UN is not even listening (“Bring democracy to the Burmese people,” anyone?). It’s just war, war, war.

US Vice President Dick Cheney watches US President George W. Bush speak following a meeting with his counterterrorism team on August 3, 2007 at the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington, DC. Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP

New Yorkers may have shown the new “Hitler” a very ugly face, but at least they should know the war remix’s hard sell is not dubbed in Farsi.

‘War on terror’ is now war on Iran By stretching its ‘war on terror’ logic to actually naming names, the Bush administration has boxed itself into no other option than regime change in Iran By PEPE ESCOBAR OCTOBER 27, 2007

Scores of middle-aged, mild-mannered, bearded gentlemen - the technocrats of the Iranian military bourgeoisie - are now officially enjoying the status of “terrorists”, at least from a Washington point of view. The demonization of Iran drags on relentlessly as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been officially branded a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and its elite Quds Force a supporter of terrorism. The latter has for months been accused of supplying Shi’ite militias in Iraq with weapons that are killing US soldiers. 78   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


The new round of US sanctions also targets Iran’s Defense Ministry, as well as three major Iranian banks accused of financing “the usual suspects”; Shi’ite militias in Iraq, Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon and - absurd as it may sound - the Taliban in Afghanistan. The banks are the state-owned Bank Melli, Bank Mellat and Bank Saderat. The US State and Treasury departments jointly announced the new sanctions, citing the Islamic Republic’s defiance over its continued nuclear program and its alleged involvement with terrorist organizations. The new restrictions are unilateral and aim to prevent businesses and other groups both within and outside the US - but that do work within the US - from dealing with individuals who are part of any of the banks, military forces and other organizations in Iran that were named, including the IRGC. The move follows President George W Bush’s comments last week that implied that Iran obtaining nuclear weapons could lead to “World War III”, and Vice President Dick Cheney’s speech on Sunday in which he said that “the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences” if Iran does not comply with demands. Sanctions do bite - as some Iranian conservatives have started to publicly admit. But Tehran won’t be in a hurry to mount a hug-and-kiss expedition to Washington. Cuba has been fighting a US blockade and sanctions for almost five decades - and has managed to survive with dignity. The more than 20 companies and individuals affiliated with the IRGC that are now excluded from the American financial system - and nodes of the international banking system - will still have plenty of opportunities of doing business with Russia, China or Arab monarchies. They may barter. They may exchange goods with services. And they may resort to the black market. As far as Moscow and Beijing are concerned, they are hardly shivering with fear in the face of renewed State Department “warnings” to China not to invest and 80   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Russia not to sell weapons to Iran. This new round of sanctions is just one side of the demonization of Iran campaign - as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was once again spinning the other side of the same old scratched vinyl, that of preventing “one of the world’s worst regimes from acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapons”. The International Atomic Energy Agency still has not found any evidence Iran is developing a nuclear program for military use, and has called for the further engagement of Iran, rather than its isolation. Meet the terrorists The IRGC was founded by a decree of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution, in May 1979. In the beginning, in pure revolutionary fashion, it was the “eyes and ears” of the revolution, its trusted popular army fighting the enemy within - which could be, according to revolutionary whim, the deposed Shah’s supporters, communist militants, ethnic minorities like the Kurds in the northwest or Arabs in oil-rich Khuzestan province, or Western-educated, influential intellectuals. The early revolutionaries in 1979 had two fears: a military coup orchestrated by remaining Shah supporters, or an attack by the US. What happened was the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), started by Saddam Hussein with the hardly silent support of the US and the West. So the popular army immediately had to be converted into a parallel - and soon very powerful - fighting army. Almost 1 million IRGC people - pasdaran (soldiers) and bassijis (young militiamen under their control) died in that horrendous war, and are today revered as martyrs. The IRGC today numbers, according to their bureau in Tehran, about 130,000. Ground forces have 105,000 soldiers - four divisions, six mechanized divisions and one marine brigade. The air force has 5,000 men and the navy 20,000, with an undisclosed number of vessels

equipped with anti-ship missiles. Three separate units man the Shahab-3 missiles, with a 1,500-kilometer range; the new Shahab-4 has a range of 2,000 kilometers. The Quds Force of the IRGC - the key target of US ire - may have as many as 15,000 men. They are specialists in surveillance and special operations. It is the Quds Force that trained Iraq’s Badr Brigades, the paramilitary arm of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the party of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim allied with the US. The Badr are firmly ensconced at the Iraqi Ministry of Interior - and it is they who have spawned death squads and accelerated ethnic cleansing in Baghdad. Instead of accusing Iran without any evidence, Washington should take a good look at what its Iraqi allies are up to. The Quds Force has four main bases in Tehran, aside from bases in Mashhad, Qom and Tabriz and a semi-secret base in eastern Lebanon. These bases would in all certainty be hit in the event of an American - or Israeli - strike. It is the IRGC that supplied Hezbollah with the rockets and anti-tank missiles that caused havoc during the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006. In bed with business After the Iran-Iraq war, the IRGC quickly diversified from the battlefield into real estate development. The man who actually gave the go-ahead was then-president Hashemi Rafsanjani, the wily, indestructible pragmatist who is today the actual number two of the regime, behind only Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The business-minded IRGC thrived during the 1990s. Today it controls more than 100 large companies involved in telecoms, road and dam construction, luxury hotels, the auto industry (the Mazda assembly line in Iran) and, crucially, oil and gas exploitation at the giant South Pars field. The IRGC power play is visible in upscale north

Tehran in a cluster of high-security buildings occupied by the revolutionary bonyads (foundations). That’s also where the IRGC elite enjoys itself in restaurants like the Talaie, with its water fountains and tearoom. The foundations - many directed by IRGC people - don’t pay taxes and their budget is under direct supervision of the Supreme Leader. So the IRGC in fact controls an array of both public and private companies, financed by their own network linked to the Iranian Central Bank. They also have extensive connections in the black market - one reason why US sanctions may not bite as much as the Americans believe. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is an ex-pasdaran himself - thus also a “terrorist” according to Bush administration logic. The same applies to no fewer than two-thirds of the members of the Majlis (parliament). Most of the leadership at the Ministry of Interior is also ex-pasdaran. Five IRGC generals are already under United Nations sanctions, as they are responsible for Iran’s nuclear and missile program. The bassijis - essentially a gigantic militia - are the IRGC at street level. They number about 100,000, but in theory could instantly draw on as many as 20 million people - hence they are known in Iran as “the army of 20 million”. The bete noire of the bassijis include students (especially those attracted by the West) and Western-minded women and girls bent on showing off their stylish hairdos, fancy makeup and curves under their chadors. The bassijis’ main bases virtually surround Tehran; they are capable of blockading the whole city in less than half an hour. We’ll bomb you to bits During the years of reformist president Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), the Supreme Leader cleverly manipulated the IRGC for political ends, thus preparing for the arrival to power of Ahmadinejad and his IRGC buddies. Dejected reformists in Tehran swear the IRGC now controls everything: power, wealth and weapons. The IRGC is accused of being involved in all sorts of PERSIAN MINIATURES    81

rackets, from oil smuggling with Iraq to opium trafficking with Afghanistan. Hard evidence is extremely difficult to come by. Investigative reporting in Iran inevitably lands practitioners in jail. What is certain is that the IRGC is flush: US$12 billion in contracts in 2006 alone, including a mega-pipeline and the Tehran metro. A few Iranian ministerial officials, when pressed, admit strictly off the record that the IRGC is in fact a huge industrial-military complex - not exactly like that of the US but rather similar to that of the former Soviet Union - ghostly and as Kafkaesque.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (L) reviews the honour guard with his Pakistani counterpart Pervez Musharraf (R) during his welcoming ceremony in Tehran in February of 2007. Photo: Behrouz Mehri / AFP

Even well-positioned Iranians cannot clearly distinguish who is manipulating whom in the wide net involving the Supreme Leader, the IRGC, the fervent bassiji masses and business and national security interests. By branding the IRGC as terrorist, Washington has in fact declared war on the Iranian power elite. One can imagine what would happen if any developing country branded the US industrial-military complex as “terrorists” - and any number of countries would have plenty of reasons to do so. By stretching its “war on terror” logic to actually naming names, the Bush administration has boxed itself into no other option than regime change in Iran.

How under-the-gun Iran plays it cool Iran is betting on the total ‘interdependence of Asia and Persian Gulf geo-economic politics’ By PEPE ESCOBAR MAY 3, 2008

More than two years ago, Seymour Hersh disclosed in the New Yorker how President George W Bush was considering strategic nuclear strikes against Iran. Ever since, a campaign to demonize that country has proceeded in a relentless, Terminator-like way, applying the same techniques and semantic contortions that were so familiar in the period before the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq. The campaign’s greatest hits are widely known: “The ayatollahs” are building a Shi’ite nuclear bomb; Iranian weapons are killing American 82   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


soldiers in Iraq; Iranian gunboats are provoking US warships in the Persian Gulf. Iran, in short, is the new al-Qaeda, a terror state aimed at the heart of the United States. It’s idle to expect the American mainstream media to offer any tools that might put this orchestrated blitzkrieg in context. Here are just a few recent instances of the ongoing campaign: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates insists that Iran “is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons”. Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admits that the Pentagon is planning for “potential military courses of action” when it comes to Iran. In tandem with US commander in Iraq General David Petraeus, Mullen denounces Iran’s “increasingly lethal and malign influence” in Iraq, although he claims to harbor “no expectations” of an attack on Iran “in the immediate future” and even admits he has “no smoking gun which could prove that the highest leadership [of Iran] is involved”. But keep in mind one thing the Great Saddam takeout of 2003 proved: that a “smoking gun” is, in the end, irrelevant. And this week, the US is ominously floating a second aircraft carrier battle group into the Persian Gulf. But what of Iran itself under the blizzard of charges and threats? What to make of it? What does the world look like from Tehran? Here are five ways to think about Iran under the gun and to better decode the Iranian chessboard. 1. Don’t underestimate the power of Shi’ite Islam: Seventy-five percent of the world’s oil reserves are in the Persian Gulf. Seventy percent of the Gulf ’s population is Shi’ite. Shi’ism is an eschatological - and revolutionary - religion, fueled by a passionate mixture of romanticism and cosmic despair. As much as it may instill fear in hegemonic Sunni Islam, some Westerners should feel a certain empathy for intellectual Shi’ism’s almost Sartrean nausea towards the vacuous material world. For more than 1,000 years, Shi’ite Islam has, in fact, been a galaxy of Shi’isms - a kind of Fourth World of its own, always cursed by political exclusion and im84   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

placable economic marginalization, always carrying an immensely dramatic view of history with it. It’s impossible to understand Iran without grasping the contradiction that the Iranian religious leadership faces in ruling, however fractiously, a nation state. In the minds of Iran’s religious leaders, the very concept of the nation-state is regarded with deep suspicion, because it detracts from the umma, the global Muslim community. The nation-state, as they see it, is but a way-station on the road to the final triumph of Shi’ism and pure Islam. To venture beyond the present stage of history, however, they also recognize the necessity of reinforcing the nation-state that offers Shi’ism a sanctuary - and that, of course, happens to be Iran. When Shi’ism finally triumphs, the concept of nation-state - a heritage, in any case, of the West - will disappear, replaced by a community organized according to the will of Prophet Mohammad. In the right context, this is, believe me, a powerful message. I briefly became a mashti - a pilgrim visiting a privileged Shi’ite gateway to Paradise, the holy shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, four hours west of the Iran-Afghan border. At sunset, the only foreigner lost in a pious multitude of black chadors and white turbans occupying every square inch of the huge walled shrine, I felt a tremendous emotional jolt. And I wasn’t even a believer, just a simple infidel. 2. Geography is destiny: Whenever I go to the holy city of Qom, bordering the central deserts in Iran, I am always reminded, in no uncertain terms, that, as far as the major ayatollahs are concerned, their supreme mission is to convert the rest of Islam to the original purity and revolutionary power of Shi’ism - a religion invariably critical of the established social and political order. Even a Shi’ite leader in Tehran, however, can’t simply live by preaching and conversion alone. Iran, after all, happens to be a nation-state at the crucial intersection of the Arabic, Turkish, Russian and Indian worlds. It is the key transit point of the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Indian

sub-continent. It lies between three seas (the Caspian, the Persian Gulf and the sea of Oman). Close to Europe and yet at the gates of Asia (in fact part of Southwest Asia), Iran is the ultimate Eurasian crossroads. Isfahan, the country’s third-largest city, is roughly equidistant from Paris and Shanghai. No wonder US Vice President Dick Cheney, checking out Iran, “salivates like a Pavlov dog” (to quote those rock ‘n roll geopoliticians, the Rolling Stones). Members of the Iranian upper middle classes in north Tehran might spin dreams of Iran recapturing the expansive range of influence once held by the Persian empire; but the silky, Qom-carpet-like diplomats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will assure you that what they really dream of is an Iran respected as a major regional power. To this end, they have little choice, faced with the enmity of the globe’s “sole superpower”, but to employ a sophisticated counter-encirclement foreign policy. After all, Iran is now completely surrounded by post-September 11 American military bases in Afghanistan, Central Asia, Iraq and the Gulf states. It faces the US military on its Afghan, Iraqi, Pakistani and Persian Gulf borders, and lives with ever-tightening US economic sanctions, as well as a continuing drumbeat of Bush administration threats involving possible air assaults on Iranian nuclear (and probably other) facilities. The Iranian counter-response to sanctions and to its demonization as a rogue or pariah state has been to develop a “Look East” foreign policy that is, in itself, a challenge to American energy hegemony in the Gulf. The policy has been conducted with great skill by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who was educated in Bangalore, India. While focused on massive energy deals with China, India and Pakistan, it looks as well to Africa and Latin America. To the horror of American neo-cons, an intercontinental “axis of evil” air link already exists - a weekly commercial Tehran-Caracas flight via Iran Air. Iran’s diplomatic (and energy) reach is now striking. When I was in Bolivia this year, I learned of a tour

Iran’s ambassador to Venezuela had taken on the jet of Bolivian President Evo Morales. The ambassador reportedly offered Morales “everything he wanted” to offset the influence of “American imperialism”. Meanwhile, a fierce energy competition is developing among the Turks, Iranians, Russians, Chinese and Americans - all placing their bets on which future trade routes will be the crucial ones as oil and natural gas flow out of Central Asia. As a player, Iran is trying to position itself as the unavoidable bazaar-state in an oil-and-gas-fueled new Silk Road - the backbone of a new Asian energy security grid. That’s how it could recover some of the preeminence it enjoyed in the distant era of Darius, the King of Kings. And that’s the main reason why US neo-Cold Warriors, Zio-cons, armchair imperialists, or all of the above, are throwing such a collective - and threatening - fit. 3. What is Ahmadinejad up to?: Ever since the days when former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami suggested a “dialogue of civilizations”, Iranian diplomats have endlessly repeated the official position on Iran’s nuclear program: it’s peaceful; the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has found no proof of the military development of nuclear power; the religious leadership opposes atomic weapons; and Iran unlike the US - has not invaded or attacked any nation for the past quarter millennium. Think of George W Bush and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad as the new Blues Brothers: both believe they are on a mission from God. Both are religious fundamentalists. Ahmadinejad believes fervently in the imminent return of the Mahdi, the Shi’ite messiah, who “disappeared” and has remained hidden since the ninth century. Bush believes fervently in a coming end and the return of Jesus Christ. But only Bush, despite his actual invasions and constant threats, gets a (sort of) free pass from the Western ideological machine, while Ahmadinejad is portrayed as a Hitlerian believer in a new Holocaust. PERSIAN MINIATURES    85

Ahmadinejad is relentlessly depicted as an angry, totally irrational, Jew-hating, Holocaust-denying Islamo-fascist who wants to “wipe Israel off the map”. That infamous quote, repeated ad nauseam but out of context, comes from an October 2005 speech at an obscure anti-Zionist student conference. What Ahmadinejad really said, in a literal translation from Farsi, was that “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the pages of time”. He was actually quoting the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who said it first in the early 1980s. Khomeini hoped that a regime so unjust toward the Palestinians would be replaced by another more equitable one. He was not, however, threatening to nuke Israel. In the 1980s, in the bitterest years of the Iran-Iraq war, Khomeini also made it very clear that the production, possession or use of nuclear weapons is against Islam. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei later issued a fatwa - a religious injunction - under the same terms. For the theocratic regime, however, the Iranian nuclear program is a powerful symbol of independence vis-a-vis what is still widely considered by Iranians of all social classes and educational backgrounds as Anglo-Saxon colonialism. Ahmadinejad is mad for the Iranian nuclear program. It’s his bread and butter in terms of domestic popularity. During the Iran-Iraq war, he was a member of a support team aiding anti-Saddam Hussein Kurdish forces. (That’s when he became friends with “Uncle” Jalal Talabani, now the Kurdish president of Iraq.) Not many presidents have been trained in guerrilla warfare. Speculation is rampant in Tehran that Ahmadinejad, the leadership of the Quds Force, an elite division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), plus the hardcore volunteer militia, the Basij (informally known in Iran as “the army of 20 million”), are betting on a US attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities to strengthen the country’s theocratic regime and their faction of it. Reformists refer to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran last October, when he was received by the Supreme Leader (a very rare honor). Putin offered a new plan to resolve the explosive Iranian nuclear 86   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

dossier: Iran would halt nuclear enrichment on Iranian soil in return for peaceful nuclear cooperation and development in league with Russia, the Europeans, and the IAEA. Iran’s top nuclear negotiator of that moment, Ali Larijani, a confidant of Supreme Leader Khamenei, as well as the leader himself let it be known that the idea would be seriously considered. But Ahmadinejad immediately contradicted the Supreme Leader in public. Even more startling, yet evidently with the leader’s acquiescence, he then sacked Larijani and replaced him with a longtime friend, Saeed Jalili, an ideological hardliner. 4. A velvet revolution is not around the corner: Before the 2005 Iranian elections, at a secret, high-level meeting of the ruling ayatollahs in his house, the Supreme Leader concluded that Ahmadinejad would be able to revive the regime with his populist rhetoric and pious conservatism, which then seemed very appealing to the downtrodden masses. (Curiously enough, Ahmadinejad’s campaign motto was: “We can.”) But the ruling ayatollahs miscalculated. Since they controlled all key levers of power - the Supreme National Security Council, the Council of Guardians, the Judiciary, the bonyads (Islamic foundations that control vast sections of the economy), the army, the IRGC (the parallel army created by Khomeini in 1979 and recently branded a terrorist organization by the Bush administration), the media - they assumed they would also control the self-described “street cleaner of the people”. How wrong they have been. For Khamenei himself, this was big business. After 18 years of non-stop internal struggle, he was finally in full control of executive power, as well as of the legislature, the judiciary, the IRGC, the Basij, and the key ayatollahs in Qom. Ahmadinejad, for his part, unleashed his own agenda. He purged the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of many reformist-minded diplomats; encouraged the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic

Guidance to crackdown on all forms of “nefarious” Western influences, from entertainment industry products to colorful made-in-India scarves for women; and filled his cabinet with revolutionary friends from the Iran-Iraq war days. These friends proved to be as faithful as administratively incompetent - especially in terms of economic policy. Instead of solidifying the theocratic leadership under Supreme Leader Khamenei, Ahmadinejad increasingly fractured an increasingly unpopular ruling elite. Nonetheless, discontent with Ahmadinejad’s economic incompetence has not translated into street barricades and it probably will not; nor, contrary to neo-con fantasy land scenarios, would an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities provoke a popular uprising. Every single political faction supports the nuclear program out of patriotic pride. There is surely a glaring paradox here. The regime may be wildly unpopular - because of so much enforced austerity in an energy-rich land and the virtual absence of social mobility - but for millions, especially in the countryside and the remote provinces, life is still bearable. In the large urban centers - Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and Tabriz - most would be in favor of a move toward a more market-oriented economy combined with a progressive liberalization of mores (even as the regime insists on going the other way). No velvet revolution, however, seems to be on the horizon. At least four main factions are at play in the intricate Persian-miniature-like game of today’s Iranian power politics - and two others, the revolutionary left and the secular right, even though thoroughly marginalized, shouldn’t be forgotten either. The extreme right, very religiously conservative but economically socialist, has, from the beginning, been closely aligned with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Ahmadinejad is the star of this faction. The clerics, from the Supreme Leader to thousands of provincial religious figures, are pure conservatives, even more patriotic than the extreme right, yet generally no lovers of Ahmadinejad. But there is a crucial

internal split. The substantially wealthy bonyads - the Islamic foundations, active in all economic sectors badly want a reconciliation with the West. They know that, under the pressure of Western sanctions, the relentless flight of both capital and brains is working against the national interest. Economists in Tehran project there may be as much as US$600 billion in Iranian funds invested in the economies of Persian Gulf petro-monarchies. The best and the brightest continue to flee the country. But the Islamic foundations also know that this state of affairs slowly undermines Ahmadinejad’s power. The extremely influential IRGC, a key component of government with vast economic interests, transits between these two factions. They privilege the fight against what they define as Zionism, are in favor of close relations with Sunni Arab states, and want to go all the way with the nuclear program. In fact, substantial sections of the IRGC and the Basij believe Iran must enter the nuclear club not only to prevent an attack by the “American Satan” but to irreversibly change the balance of power in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. The current reformists/progressives of the left were originally former partisans of Khomeini’s son, Ahmad Khomeini. Later, after a spectacular mutation from Soviet-style socialism to some sort of religious democracy, their new icon became former president Mohammad Khatami (of “dialogue of civilizations” fame). Here, after all, was an Islamic president who had captured the youth vote and the women’s vote and had written about the ideas of German philosopher Jurgen Habermas as applied to civil society as well as the possibility of democratization in Iran. Unfortunately, his “Tehran Spring” didn’t last long - and is now long gone. The key establishment faction is undoubtedly that of moderate Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former two-term president, current chairman of the Expediency Council and a key member of the Council of Experts - 86 clerics, no women, the Holy Grail of the system, and the only institution in the Islamic Republic capable PERSIAN MINIATURES    87

of removing the Supreme Leader from office. He is now supported by the intelligentsia and urban youth. Colloquially known as “The Shark”, Rafsanjani is the consummate Machiavellian. He retains privileged ties to key Washington players and has proven to be the ultimate survivor - moving like a skilled juggler between Khatami and Khamenei as power in the country shifted. Rafsanjani is, and will always remain, a supporter of the Supreme Leader. As the regime’s de facto number two, his quest is not only to “save” the Islamic Revolution of 1979 but also to consolidate Iran’s regional power and reconcile the country with the West. His reasoning is clear: he knows that an anti-Islamic tempest is already brewing among the young in Iran’s major cities, who dream of integrating with the nomad elites of liquid global modernity. If the Bush administration had any real desire to let its aircraft carriers float out of the Gulf and establish an entente cordiale with Tehran, Rafsanjani would be the man to talk to. 5. Heading down the New Silk Road. Reformist friends in Tehran keep telling me the country is now immersed in an atmosphere similar to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s in China or the 1980s rectification campaign in Cuba - and nothing “velvet” or “orange” or “tulip” or any of the other color-coded Western-style movements that Washington might dream of is, as yet, on the horizon. Under such conditions, what if there were an American air attack on Iran? The Supreme Leader, on the record, offered his own version of threats in 2006. If Iran were attacked, he said, the retaliation would be doubly powerful against US interests elsewhere in the world. From American supply lines and bases in southern Iraq to the Strait of Hormuz, the Iranians, though no military powerhouse, do have the ability to cause real damage to American forces and interests - and certainly to drive the price of oil into the stratosphere. Such a “war” would clearly be a disaster for everyone. 88   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

The Iranian theocratic leadership, however, seems to doubt that the Bush administration and the US military, exhausted by their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will attack. They feel a tide at their backs. Meanwhile the “Look East” strategy, driven by soaring energy prices, is bearing fruit.

Iranian president Mohammad Khatami. Photo: AFP

Ahmadinejad has just concluded a tour of South Asia and, to the despair of American neo-cons, the Asian energy security grid is quickly becoming a reality. Two years ago, at the Petroleum Ministry in Tehran, I was told Iran is betting on the total “interdependence of Asia and Persian Gulf geo-economic politics”. This year, Iran finally becomes a natural gas-exporting country. The framework for the $7.6 billion Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, also known as the “peace” pipeline, is a go. Both these key South Asian US allies are ignoring Bush administration desires and rapidly bolstering their economic, political, cultural, and - crucially - geostrategic connections with Iran. An attack on Iran would now inevitably be viewed as an attack against Asia. What a disaster in the making, and yet, now more than ever, Cheney’s faction in Washington (not to mention possible future president John McCain) seems ready to bomb. Perhaps the Mahdi himself - in his occult wisdom - is betting on a US war against Asia to slouch towards Qom to be reborn.

US-Iran wall of mistrust, Part 1 Obama’s Persian double By PEPE ESCOBAR FEBRUARY 12, 2009

On Tuesday, Iran celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. In this year of celebrations galore - from the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall to the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution why not also dream of a year zero? It’s September 2009. Barack Obama is the United States president. Mohammad “dialogue of civilizations” Khatami is the Iranian president. Khatami flies to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. He bumps into Obama in the corridors of the UN. With fists unclenched, PERSIAN MINIATURES    89

they exchange pleasantries - and retire to a room for some real “face-to-face”. The 30-year - some would say 56-year - wall of mistrust between the US and Iran finally comes tumbling down. If current Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad remains a mirror image of the departed George W Bush, Khatami could not be a more fitting mirror image of Obama. Within the complex parameters of the Iranian system, he is a reformist able to reach out to conservatives and wildly popular among women, the young and progressives of all stripes. He’s running for president in the June elections - and he’s got what it takes to give Ahmadinejad a run for his rials. Khatami is fluent in German and an avid reader of German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and the Frankfurt School of critical theory masters (Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer). He is a former minister of culture (1989-1992) and was elected president in 1997 with a landslide 70% of the vote, with women and young people overwhelmingly behind him, and re-elected in 2001.

evil” by Bush, along with Iraq and North Korea. In Khatami’s Iran, the flow towards more personal liberties and less repression of mores was glaring, but as glaring as the moves by the “system” - embodied by the mullahcracy and the judiciary - to resolutely thwart it. Years later, Ahmadinejad’s definitely non-reformist economic policies proved themselves to be an absolute disaster. Official inflation stands at 24% - and rising. Ahmadinejad, who spends a lot of time in countryside tours, may have done some good to the rural masses by investing part of Iran’s oil revenues on infrastructure building better roads and better schools. But the large Iranian urban middle class is hurting - from students and working professionals to those who depend on a meager state pension, not to mention farmers in the countryside itself. Much worse is the discontent in the bazaar - Iran is still basically a bazaar economy - and that means an organized net of import-export bazaaris, shopkeepers, moneylenders and captains of industry traditionally very close to the clerical establishment.

He was also the man who called for a “dialogue of civilizations”. The Bush administration snubbed him as it was entangled in the failed, Huntingtonian thesis of the “clash of civilizations”.

So economic recklessness is not a privilege of mullahs - it also affects former, non-clerical Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, or Pasdaran, like self-described “street cleaner of the people” Ahmadinejad.

Years later, one day before the 5th anniversary of September 11, 2001, Khatami delivered a landmark speech at Harvard - the temple where Samuel Huntington was a professor. Khatami preferred to fight missiles with words. He presented his concept to an array of global forums, including the UN, which even declared 2001 of all years - the Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations.

Social justice, wealth redistribution and caring for the downtrodden - to the horror of US Republicans remain central tenets of the Islamic Revolution. Thus Khatami has found his opening: he argues that Ahmadinejad’s economic incompetence undermines the every essence of the Islamic Revolution - as defined by the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself. Quite a few conservatives - although not the hardliners - subscribe to this view.

US corporate media did not even bother to debate what Khatami had to say to Harvard. Fight the power This correspondent traveled widely across Iran during the reformist Khatami years, in the late 1990s, and then when Iran was already included in the “axis of 90   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

On top of it, Ahmadinejad is an apocalyptical Mahdist - believing from the bottom of his heart in the imminent arrival of the Mahdi, the “occult” Twelfth Imam. Most Iranian Shi’ites are not Mahdist. The US-imposed sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program also bite. Because of them, Royal Dutch Shell and France’s Total dropped out from developing stretches

of the huge South Pars gas fields - and so far they have not been replaced by (inferior) Chinese or Russian know-how. Khatami for his part remains very popular in Iran. His views are eminently moderate. He blasted Ahmadinejad for his childish Holocaust denial. He favors a normal relationship with Washington. He favors a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. He offered the ultimate diplomatic olive branch to Washington in early 2003 via the Swiss ambassador in Tehran - under the general umbrella of finally defeating Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Even recognizing Israel was on the table. As University of Michigan professor Juan Cole indelibly put it, “[Former US vice president Dick] Cheney is said to have shot down that initiative quicker than he could shoot a friend in the face.” Khatami even agreed - in 2004 - for Iran to temporarily suspend its uranium-enrichment program. His enemies, though, are very powerful - the ultra hardcore extreme right which controls the exclusive 12-member Council of Guardians, and many of the 86-member Council of Experts. For most of these clerics, anti-Americanism in itself is a religion, and the “Great Satan”, even incarnated in Obama’s skin, remains very much alive (and deceptive). What the players want The key questions from now on are who Khatami will be running against - and how not to split the reformist vote. Ali Larijani, the former nuclear negotiator - later effectively ousted by an Ahmadinejad ploy - and currently speaker of the Majlis (parliament), might run against Ahmadinejad. Whatever he decides, Khatami will certainly attract some or even all of his votes. Mohammad Qalibaf, another conservative and a former governor of Tehran, may also run. In this case he will split the Ahmadinejad vote. And Mehdi Karrubi, a relative liberal, may not run, and that would also

reinforce Khatami’s position. What will Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei do? Khatami’s father was close to Khamenei. The Supreme Leader has been paying lip service to Ahmadinejad’s accomplishments. But it’s all very inscrutable in the top echelons. As much as the system deployed all its might in 2005 to elect Ahmadinejad - betting on a pious Khomeinist former Pasdaran instead of a cleric - it may consider it is not time for yet another reformist push. Khatami after all will have to face a similar situation to Obama’s - he will have to face down his hardline Khomeinist foes as much as Obama must face down Washington’s special interests and the entrenched power elite. And what does Obama really want? Taking the president at face value, what he just said at his first White House prime-time news conference is that “we can start sitting across the table, face-to-face”. Obama stressed the “mutual respect” between Iran and the US, so “openings” will lead to negotiations. But it all comes with preconditions attached - such as still defining Iran as a supporter of terrorist organizations (this was a thing of the 1980s) and the unshakeable and unproven - belief that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon. Literally a few hours after Obama’s press conference in Washington, Ahmadinejad delivered his response at the pregnant-with-meaning monster rally in Tehran celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. Sounding very Khatamist, he said the world was “entering an era of dialogue” and negotiations. He mirrored Obama’s words: “The Iranian nation is ready for talks but in a fair atmosphere with mutual respect.” Ahmadinejad even laid out an agenda for talks: terrorism; the elimination of nuclear weapons; restructuring the UN Security Council; and fighting drug trafficking. The US State Department must be working after hours decoding the full extent of this offer. Ahmadinejad also said that changes “have to be PERSIAN MINIATURES    91

fundamental and not tactical. It is clear that the Iranian nation welcomes true changes”. Are Obama’s changes “fundamental” or just “tactical”? The US president has said “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”. Well, the fist in Tehran definitely seems to be unclenched.

NEXT: Will Obama say ‘we’re sorry’?

US President Barack Obama. Photo: AFP

What is certain is that the Pentagon, the Israel lobby in Washington and whoever wins the Israel elections, even Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Kadima, belong to the clenched fist bunch. They are already vociferously pointing out the successful launch last week of an Iranian satellite - Omid (Hope, in Farsi) - hammering home that the same rocket technology can also deliver warheads. And most importantly; what does the Supreme Leader think of all this? He is, after all, the ultimate decider in Iran. First of all, national pride is of the essence. In a meeting this past weekend with Iranian air force commanders, Khamenei said, “This revolution has transformed the nation of Iran into a nation of willpower, strength and dignity, a nation capable of influencing other societies.” His - or the system’s priorities - could not have been made more clear: “In the past 30 years, world powers have tried everything to hinder Iran’s progress, but despite the many years of sanctions imposed on our nation, we have made achievements, such as the Omid satellite, and we have acquired the technology to enrich uranium, a technology only a few countries possess.” And as for the Khomeinist credo of an exportable revolutionary idea, it seems to remain more alive than ever: “The popularity of the message of the revolution can be clearly witnessed in what happened in Gaza and before that in the 33-day war in Lebanon. The wellequipped Israeli army backed by the US was incapable of defeating a handful of besieged youth [Hamas and Hezbollah] and who had nothing but their faith in God.” Fasten your seat belts; it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.


US-Iran wall of mistrust, Part 2 Will Obama say ‘we’re sorry’? By PEPE ESCOBAR JANUARY 10, 2020

If United States President Barack Obama is really serious about “unclenched fists” in a new US-Iran relationship, he’s got to take a serious, unbiased look at the US record. Former US secretary of state Cordell Hull’s classic comment about Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo - “He’s a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch” - has been the norm for decades. From the Somozas in Nicaragua to Saddam Hussein in Iraq, from Indonesia’s Suharto to the shah of Iran, US foreign policy over the past decades has enshrined a hefty SOB gallery. PERSIAN MINIATURES    93

This gallery symbolizes the official Washington policy of US neo-colonialism - always indirect and non-ostensive, contrary to historical examples of European colonialism. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has demanded apologies from the US as essential for smashing the wall of mistrust between Iran and the US. He has a point. If president Jimmy Carter had apologized to Iran for the fact that the US since president Harry S Truman supported Mohammad Reza Pahlavi - aka the shah of Iran - and his tyranny; if he had promised not to subvert the Iranian revolution; and if he had committed to give back to the country the up to US$60 billion stolen by the shah, his family and acolytes, the infamous Iranian hostage crisis would have been solved swiftly. But a weak Carter - often perceived as a country bumpkin Hamlet - was not the real power anyway. The real power behind the throne was David Rockefeller. German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt was right when she wrote that after 1918, political power, except revolutionary power, is pure operetta. Do the Rockefeller shuffle The shah’s banker was David Rockefeller. He was the man responsible for the entry into the US of the “ailing” shah in 1979, which led to the attack on the US Embassy in Tehran (the “nest of spies”) and the interminable hostage crisis. Rockefeller at the time stressed the “patriotism”, “independence” and “tolerance” by the shah towards women and religious minorities and stressed his “modernization” of Iran - this when Amnesty International and even the US State Department itself were amassing stacks of documents showing the shah as one of the most brutal rulers in modern history. But Mohammad Reza provided excellent dividends to then Chase Manhattan. Rockefeller was duly taking the interests of his shareholders into account. In the late 1940s, the shah did not even live in Iran. He preferred New York and the French Riviera - while 94   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Iran was fermenting with democratic and nationalist ideas. These ideas led to the emergence of Mohammad Mossadegh’s party, who was later elected prime minister. Mossadegh committed the enormous sin of nationalizing the Iranian oil industry - so he was duly deposed via a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) inspired coup; thus Mohammad Reza was invited to become the new CIA puppet in Iran (during the Mossadegh affair he was no more than a de luxe refugee in Europe). During the Cold War, stressing how easily the Soviet Union had occupied Iran earlier, the CIA trained the Savak, the shah’s secret police. Being Muslim but not an Arab, Mohammad Reza also rendered a great service to the US: he did not share Arab hatred of Israel. He even sold oil to Israel (one of the reasons that later fomented ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s popularity). In sum, the shah was the perfect gatekeeper of US political and economic interests in the Persian Gulf. The shah used to be no more than a playboy. John F Kennedy, who met him on the Rivera party circuit before he became US president, thought he was a dangerous megalomaniac. As president, Kennedy anyway supported him, suggesting a little harmless reform here and there. The shah made a few cosmetic overtures towards women, for instance declaring non-obligatory the use of the chador. But this only concerned the wealthy and the Iranian upper-middle class, the small consumer society created by the multinational corporations to whom the shah opened up the country. What the shah and his secret police did with relish was to persecute all political parties, as well as Kurds, one of the very “minorities” David Rockefeller said was protected. And just like president George W Bush a few decades later, Mohammad Reza started to believe in his own propaganda and regard himself as king of kings. Especially because he was instrumental behind the spectacular rise in the price of oil in 1973 of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). This - the real story - will never be featured in the mainstream US media.

Now do the Kissinger shuffle The shah got his green light from national security advisor cum secretary of state Henry Kissinger. In 1972, president Richard Nixon had introduced the Nixon Doctrine (pity no one never asked Alaska governor Sarah Palin about that). Based on the US defeat in Vietnam, and convinced he would never be able to directly combat all the global subversion nodes springing up against US interests, Nixon started to promote global “gatekeepers”. No gatekeeper was more essential than the one in charge of the Persian Gulf. The shah gladly accepted the role, but complained he was broke - he could not buy the weapons the US was trying to sell him. The wily Kissinger found out how: the rise of OPEC oil prices. This is how Kissinger - employed by the Rockefellers - drove to the roof the profits by US Big Oil, which at the time consisted of five of the Seven Sisters, and especially Rockefeller Big Oil (Exxon, Mobil and SoCal, three of the four majors, the other being Texaco). And all this with an added big bonus. Japan, Germany and the rest of Western Europe depended on Persian Gulf oil much more than the US; thus Kissinger also found out how to undermine the devastating industrial and commercial competition to the US by especially Japan and Germany. A case can be made that the whole shah/Kissinger racket inevitably led to the fall of the shah. The shah - like Somoza, Suharto or an array of Latin American dictators - never understood that he was no more than a puppet. He spent tens of billions of dollars on American weapons. His multinational model fit the obvious pattern seen all over the developing world: a minority swimming in gold and conspicuous consumption while the absolute majority faced dire poverty. The shah pushed for cash crops instead of conducting a real agrarian reform that would guarantee the subsistence of millions of Iranian peasants - all of them diehard Shi’ites and most of them illiterate. These peasant masses in the end got the boot from

the countryside by American agribusiness; for the Americans, they were nothing but a “superfluous” workforce, non-adaptable to a Western, mechanized, selective model. It was those miserable masses, flooding Tehran and other large Iranian cities in a fight for survival, who composed the mass base of Khomeini’s revolution in 1979. The rest is, of course, history. Save us from these barbarians The US ruling class simply could not - and still cannot - acknowledge the power of Third World nationalism; there’s the risk American public opinion, if well informed, could sympathize with nationalists everywhere. That’s why the Vietnamese were portrayed as puppets of Beijing; after taking out Indochina, they would - according to the domino theory - invade the Philippines and in the end Los Angeles and San Francisco. US corporate media endlessly denounced the horrendous crimes of the genocidal psychopath Pol Pot in Cambodia; but US public opinion was never told that it was Nixon and Kissinger who destroyed neutral Cambodia in 1970, thus allowing the Khmer Rouge to flower and take over power, destroying it even further. As for the Iranian revolution against the oppressive, mega-corrupt shah/US multinational corporations regime, it was relentlessly depicted as “subversion” perpetrated by an old religious fanatic and a demented mob (the CIA at least got it right in 1978, depicting Khomeini in a memo as “a sort of moralist, a philosopher-king”). In 1978, the whole US corporate media were hammering that the shah was invincible; that the Khomeinist mobs were a minority; and that the shah was a “great modernizer” opposed by “Muslim fanatics”. Then, after the revolution, American guilt for the life and “work” of the shah was psychologically replaced by hatred of Iran because of the American hostage crisis. It’s never enough to remember today: virtually everyPERSIAN MINIATURES    95

thing happening in the world during the Cold War had to have behind it the hand – and the gold - of Moscow. Why didn’t Carter block Iran - whose oil Japan and Europe badly needed? It was fear that Khomeini would fall into Moscow’s arms. The Islamic Revolution was received with supreme perplexity in Washington. The perplexity remains to this day - the 30th anniversary of the revolution. The process inevitably went through the paranoia of a (frustrated) attempt to blame it all on Moscow. Recent history has shown - from Vietnam to Iraq - that the “policies” concocted by the Washington establishment never matched reality, and that’s why they spectacularly failed. Added to the inevitable decadence of empire, it has become increasingly difficult to hide the stark consequences from American public opinion. Nevertheless, it’s still taboo in the US to acknowledge September 11, 2001, as blowback for US foreign policy in the Arab and Muslim world. So how far would Obama really go to explain in detail to US public opinion how the CIA coup against Mossadegh in 1953, and the support for the shah dictatorship, led to the 1979 Islamic Revolution and 30 years (or 56 years?) of mistrust? Hail to the revolution Thirty years after the fact, the shadow of the Smasher of Idols, the Glorious Upholder of the Faith, the Sole Hope of the Downtrodden, the Vicar of Islam, His Holiness Grand Ayatollah Haj Sayyed Ruhollah Mussavi Khomeini still looms large over Iran. He was no less than a living essay on hieratic severity. After 16 years in exile, back to Iran to lead his revolution, he said he felt “nothing”. A few months later, on April 1, 1979, an astonishing 98.2% of Iranians, in a national referendum, endorsed his dream of an Islamic Republic. Khomeini had the genius to brand himself as the 96   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

incarnated utopia of a world where the weak would be strong, where the law of god would erase the injustice of man, where faith would be knowledge, where the certitude of tradition would trump the angst of progress. Even the Arab masses were seduced; they did not understand any talk of class struggle or plus value, but Khomeini talked in terms of god and satan - the global language of the downtrodden. This dream of a world devoid of contradiction and conflict, united under the watchful eye of Allah, died with the death of Khomeini - by a fabulous twist of history on the day in 1989 Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s squads were smashing students in Tiananmen Square, thus, in Deng’s view, preventing luan (“chaos”) from hijacking the Chinese economic miracle. Khomeini adopted “neither East or West”, neither the Great Satan nor communism. He offered redemption through martyrdom - sending hundreds of thousands of young martyrs to certain death into a horrendous war in the 1980s against Saddam that of course he did not want but in the end fully adopted, deploying an incendiary rhetoric of death and proclamations. The victims were in the end the same mostazaffin - the oppressed - whom he claimed to defend.

under which terms Iran will talk to Obama. Still, those apologies remain in order. Like the Airbus from Iran Air, flight 655, destroyed by two Standard ER2 missiles shot from the USS Vincennes under the orders of Captain Will Rogers, killing almost 300 civilians in 1988 (that was one of the key reasons that led Khomeini to accept an “ignominious” ceasefire ending the Iran-Iraq war). If Obama really wants to make the effort to understand Iran he could do no worse than read the great Iranian philosopher Daryush Shayegan, a former professor at the University of Tehran. When Khomeini died, Shayegan identified him and the shah as the two juxtaposed Irans: imperial Iran and the painful Iran of the blood of the martyr, “a juxtaposition that symbolizes an unreal dream: as the 12th century mystical poet Ruzbehan from Shiraz would say, this ‘dementia of the inaccessible’.” The good news is that from Obama’s point of view, the “inaccessible” can become more than accessible with just a simple “we’re sorry”.

Khomeini deployed instant tribunals and suicide commandos, the human waves of the Iran-Iraq war and the hostage crisis humiliation. Carter lost his re-election because of the hostage crisis. Iran ridiculed the US with Irangate. Against the terrorism of the Great Satan, Khomeini deployed sacred terrorism. None won. Everyone lost. For the past two decades, the “dream” has been carried out by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, born in 1940 in Mashhad into a family of preachers, and just a second-tier cleric. When Khomeini died, he was not even an ayatollah, not to mention an imam: just a hojjatoleslam, a student. He had studied the Koran in Najaf under Khomeini. Today his grip on absolute power is tighter than ever. Iran today is not a theocracy or a democracy: it’s a clerical autocracy, where Khamenei is indeed supreme. He will decide PERSIAN MINIATURES    97

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks live on television after casting his ballot in the Iranian presidential election in Tehran June 12, 2009. Photo: Reuters

Requiem for a revolution So in the end there was neither reform nor revolution, just drama By PEPE ESCOBAR JUNE 30, 2009

PARIS - It was the Tehran spring. It was dreamed as a remix of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In the end, the Tehran wall didn’t fall. Beyond the blood, sweat and tears; the presidential election - stolen or not; the green revolution - legitimate or a foreign spy operation, as the regime insists; beyond losing candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, re-elected President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; what really happened? What happened was the cementing of a dictatorship by the mullahtariat supported by the military. The world, the Western world especially, will still have to live and deal with Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and an ultra right-wing faction of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) for years to come. So it’s essential to understand where these “ultras” are coming from. 98   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


An iron-clad cast The key man to watch is Major General Mohammad-Ali Jafari. In 2006, he became the IRGC’s top commander. At the time he was already thinking in terms of the enemy within, not an external enemy. He was actively working on how to prevent a velvet revolution. It’s essential to remember that only a few days before the election, Brigadier General Yadollah Javani - the IRGC’s political director - was already accusing Mousavi of starting a “green revolution”. He said the Guards “will suffocate it before it is even born”. The IRGC has always been about repression. They literally killed - or supported the killing of - all secular political groups in Iran during the 1980s, especially from the left. After the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, died in 1989 they split into two sides. One side thought Iran needed a (slight) opening; they were afraid of a popular counter-revolution. Today, they are mostly reformist leaders or reform sympathizers. The other side was, and remains, ultra-conservative. They include the already mentioned Jafari and Javani, as well as Ahmadinejad and his current Minister of Interior, Sadegh Mahsouli, the man who oversaw the election. The religious strand runs parallel and overlaps with the military strand - this is always about a military dictatorship of the mullahtariat. So one must refer to the Hojjatiyeh, an ultra-sectarian group founded in the 1950s. Khomeini banned them in 1983. But they were back in force during the 1990s. Their spiritual leader is Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, known as “the crocodile” in Iran. Two weeks before the elections, Yazdi issued a fatwa legitimizing any means necessary to keep Ahmadinejad in power. That was the green light to steal the elections. It’s essential to remember that Ahmadinejad replaced no less than 10,000 key government bureaucrats with his cronies in these past four years. These people were in 100   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

charge of the maze of official organizations involved in the election and the vote counting. Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi believes that Iran’s supreme leader is chosen by Allah - when Allah tells the 86 members of the Council of Experts to find the leader. That’s how Khamenei was “found” in 1989 - even though he was (and remains) a minor scholar, and never a marja (source of imitation). What Yazdi wants is an oukoumat islami - a hardline Islamic government sanctioned by none other than Allah.

a bitter war at the very top of the regime. The ultras want Yazdi, or one of his proteges, as the next supreme leader. Smells like a revolutionary rose If this military dictatorship of the mullahtariat continues to appease its working-class support base with a little redistribution of oil revenues, they can stay in power for a long time.

Who are the devout disciples of Yazdi? Well, a lot of the current key players, starting with Ahmadinejad. Then his Intelligence Minister, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehei; Ahmadinejad’s top counselor, Mojtaba Hashemi Samareh; Saeed Jalili, the head of the National Security Council and now chief nuclear negotiator; many of the top IRGC commanders; the Basiji paramilitary militia, starting with their leader, Hassan Taeb, down to their lumpen proletariat millions. And of course the Iranian judiciary system.

The West may try to boycott them - but not Russia and China, as both made it clear in no time. Both are the driving force of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which Iran is an observer and sooner, rather than later, will be a member. Iran’s oil and gas are absolutely crucial to Europe - not to mention Asia. Nobody’s going to embargo Iran’s oil exports. So the military dictatorship of the mullahtariat will be able to repress and suppress whatever comes its way, using or not using Shi’ite eschatology to justify it.

Now, these ultras are in the process of smashing the old, first-generation leaders of the revolution, like former president and pistachio king Hashemi Rafsanjani. The IRGC are now taking over the bulk of Iran’s economy. It’s a monopoly. Rafsanjani is a very wily and well-connected billionaire. The IRGC as a business conglomerate doesn’t want any competition.

There are echoes of the former Soviet Union in all of this. But what happened in the streets is more like Prague 1968 - and not the turbulence before the death of communism in 1989. In the end, the revolution was not YouTubed and Twittered simply because there was no revolution. The army - the IRGC - didn’t support the people. And the bazaari merchants and the oil and gas industry workers didn’t go on strike.

This will be an even more repressive, hardcore Islamic government - wave bye bye to the republic. Officially, this is a country that defines itself as the Islamic Republic of Iran. The loss of the republic is one of the key reasons behind the street protests. Allah, of course, still has to choose the next supreme leader. Khamenei is ill. Mojtaba Khamenei, his mysterious but very powerful son, is behind the ultras, but does not have what it takes to become a leader. And Rafsanjani is the head of the Council of Experts, which actually chooses the leader under the auspices of Allah. Rafsanjani is trying to conduct his own mini-revolution in the holy city of Qom going against Khamenei. The ultras will try everything to squash him. This is

People were angry because they felt their vote had been stolen: there was nothing ideological about that. When they took to the streets they made clear that they wanted a better economy, less unemployment, a less stifling regime, a little more freedom of speech and of dress for women, less fiery rhetoric from Ahmadinejad, in sum, a better life. But on the other side of the spectrum there were the millions of pious Basiji - who are very happy with the meager and shabby existence the revolution grants them and who remain deeply, deeply alienated from Western culture.

this temptation as the people in the streets of Tehran were supported by the West en masse. But to believe that Iran’s national interest and the aspirations of the excluded Iranian masses will be defended by this new military dictatorship of the mullahtariat is to completely miss the point. Yes, the ultras are paranoid. They know they’re virtually encircled by the US military machine. They know about the George W Bush administration’s US$400 million deployed for regime change. They have exploited their fears to the fullest - blaming Western foreign powers and foreign media for everything. What they could not foresee was the force of a spontaneous movement. Iran’s civil society counts on around 28,000 associations. But they are not strong and structured enough to anchor a protest movement. Iranian unions have been smashed. Mousavi was the vessel that channeled a lot of disparate, pent-up rage and frustration. With or without him, the road will be long. From now on, civil disobedience will be key, from silent protests to strikes. The sound of “Allah-O Akbar” will be echoing from the rooftops for days and weeks and months. When Khamenei sided with Ahmadinejad, he shelved his cloak of supreme arbiter and turned into a gang leader. The social contract between millions of Iranians and the revolution was broken. In the long run, there will be blood, yes - and there will be resistance. Iran is a very sophisticated society. There can be no turning back. But it will be a long and winding road. So in the end there was neither reform nor revolution. And then, all that tremendous drama, all the sound and fury was drowned by the death of the “no matter if you’re black or white” man in the mirror. The West, transfixed, resuscitated the moonwalk. But as Irish poet William Butler Yeats said, “Let the Earth bear witness”; those that lived - and will continue to live - the dream of a better Iran should not and will not be forgotten.

This doesn’t mean this was a Gucci, YouTube, Twitter uprising of the petit-bourgeoisie. It’s easy to fall into PERSIAN MINIATURES    101

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani casts his ballot in a 2012 parliamentary election in Tehran, with an image of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini looming behind him. Photo: Reuters

New Great Game revisited, Part 1 Iran and Russia, scorpions in a bottle By PEPE ESCOBAR JULY 25, 2009

HONG KONG - Things get curiouser and curiouser in the Iranian wonderland. Imagine what happened last week during Friday prayers in Tehran, personally conducted by former president Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, aka “The Shark”, Iran’s wealthiest man, who made his fortune partly because of Irangate - the 1980s’ secret weapons contracts with Israel and the US. As is well known, Rafsanjani is behind the Mir-Hossein Mousavi-Mohammad Khatami pragmatic conservative faction that lost the most 102   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


recent battle at the top - rather than a presidential election - to the ultra-hardline faction of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei-Mahmud Ahmadinejad-Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps. During prayers, partisans of the hegemonic faction yelled the usual “Death to America!” while the pragmatic conservatives came up, for the first time, with “Death to Russia!” and “Death to China!” Oops. Unlike the United States and Western Europe, both Russia and China almost instantly accepted the contested presidential re-election of Ahmadinejad. Could they then be portrayed as enemies of Iran? Or have pragmatic conservatives not been informed that obsessed-by-Eurasia Zbig Brzezinksi - who has US President Barack Obama’s undivided attention - has been preaching since the 1990s that it is essential to break up the Tehran-Moscow-Beijing axis and torpedo the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)? On top of it, don’t they know that both Russia and China - as well as Iran - are firm proponents of the end of the dollar as global reserve currency to the benefit of a (multipolar) basket of currencies, a common currency of which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had the gall this month to present a prototype at the Group of Eight (G-8) meeting in Aquila, Italy? By the way, it’s a rather neat coin. Minted in Belgium, it sports the faces of the G-8 leaders and also a motto - “Unity in diversity”. “Unity in diversity” is not exactly what the Obama administration has in mind as far as Iran and Russia are concerned - no matter the zillion bytes of lofty rhetoric. Let’s start with the energy picture. Iran is world number two both in terms of proven oil reserves (11.2%) and gas reserves (15.7%), according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2008. If Iran ever opted towards a more unclenched-fist relationship with Washington, US Big Oil would feast on Iran’s Caspian energy wealth. This means that whatever the rhetoric, no US administration will ever want to deal with a hyper-nationalist Iranian regime, such as the current military dictatorship of the mullahtariat. What really scares Washington - from George 104   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

W Bush to Obama - is the perspective of a Russia-Iran-Venezuela axis. Together, Iran and Russia hold 17.6% of the world’s proven oil reserves. The Persian Gulf petro-monarchies - de facto controlled by Washington - hold 45%. The Moscow-Tehran-Caracas axis controls 25%. If we add Kazakhstan’s 3% and Africa’s 9.5%, this new axis is more than an effective counter-power to American hegemony over the Arab Middle East. The same thing applies to gas. Adding the “axis” to the Central Asian “stans”, we reach 30% of world gas production. As a comparison, the whole Middle East - including Iran - currently produces only 12.1% of the world’s needs. All about Pipelineistan A nuclear Iran would inevitably turbo-charge the new, emerging multipolar world. Iran and Russia are de facto showing to both China and India that it is not wise to rely on US might subjugating the bulk of oil in the Arab Middle East. All these players are very much aware that Iraq remains occupied, and that Washington’s obsession remains the privatization of Iraq’s enormous oil wealth. As Chinese intellectuals are fond of emphasizing, four emerging or re-emerging powers - Russia, China, Iran and India - are strategic and civilizational poles, three of them sanctuaries because they are nuclear powers. A more confident and assertive Iran - mastering the full cycle of nuclear technology - may translate into Iran and Russia increasing their relative weight in Europe and Asia to the distress of Washington, not only in the energy sphere but also as proponents of a multipolar monetary system. The entente is already on. Since 2008, Iranian officials have stressed that sooner or later Iran and Russia will start trading in rubles. Gazprom is willing to be paid for oil and gas in roubles - and not dollars. And the secretariat of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has already seen the writing on the wall - admitting for over a year now that OPEC will be trading in euros before 2020.

Not only the “axis” Moscow-Tehran-Caracas, but also Qatar and Norway, for instance, and sooner or later the Gulf Emirates, are ready to break up with the petrodollar. It goes without saying that the end of the petrodollar - which won’t happen tomorrow, of course - means the end of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency; the end of the world paying for America’s massive budget deficits; and the end of an Anglo-American finance stranglehold over the world that has lasted since the second part of the 19th century. The energy equation between Iran and Russia is much more complex: it configures them as two scorpions in a bottle. Tehran, isolated from the West, lacks foreign investment to upgrade its 1970s-era energy installations. That’s why Iran cannot fully profit from exploiting its Caspian energy wealth. Here it’s a matter of Pipelineistan at its peak - since the US, still during the 1990s, decided to hit the Caspian in full force by supporting the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and the Baku-Tblisi-Supsa (BTS) gas pipeline. For Gazprom, Iran is literally a goldmine. In September 2008, the Russian energy giant announced it would explore the huge Azadegan-North oilfield, as well as three others. Russia’s Lukoil has increased its prospecting and Tatneft said it would be involved in the north. The George W Bush administration thought it was weakening Russia and isolating Iran in Central Asia. Wrong: it only accelerated their strategic energy cooperation. Putin power play In February 1995, Moscow committed to finishing construction of a nuclear reactor at Bushehr. This was a project started by that erstwhile, self-proclaimed “gendarme of the Gulf ” for the US - the shah of Iran. The shah engaged KWU from Germany in 1974, but the project was halted by the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and hit hard between 1984 and 1988 by Saddam Hussein’s bombs. The Russians finally entered the picture

proposing to finish the project for $800 million. By December 2001, Moscow also started to sell missiles to Tehran - a surefire way of making extra money offering protection for strategic assets such as Bushehr. Bushehr is a source of immense controversy in Iran. It should have been finished by 2000. As Iranian officials see it, the Russians seem never to be interested in wrapping it up. There are technical reasons - such as the Russian reactor being too big to fit inside what KWU had already built - as well as a technology deficit on the part of Iranian nuclear engineers. But most of all there are geopolitical reasons. Former president Vladimir Putin used Bushehr as a key diplomatic peon in his double chessboard match with the West and the Iranians. It was Putin who launched the idea of enriching uranium for Iran in Russia; talk about a strategic asset in terms of managing a global nuclear crisis. Ahmadinejad - and most of all the Supreme Leader - gave him a flat refusal. The Russian response was even more foot-dragging, and even mild support for more US-sponsored sanctions against Tehran. Tehran got the message - that Putin was not an unconditional ally. Thus, in August 2006, the Russians landed a new deal for the construction and supervision of two new nuclear plants. This all means that the Iranian nuclear dossier simply cannot be solved without Russia. Simultaneously, by Putin’s own framework, it’s very clear in Moscow that a possible Israeli strike would make it lose a profitable nuclear client on top of a diplomatic debacle. Medvedev for his part is pursuing the same two-pronged strategy; stressing to Americans and Europeans that Russia does not want nuclear proliferation in the Middle East while stressing to Tehran that it needs Russia more than ever. Another feature of Moscow’s chessboard strategy never spelled out in public - is to keep the cooperation with Tehran to prevent China from taking over the whole project, but without driving the Americans ballistic at the same time. As long as the Iranian nuclear program is not finished, Russia can always play the wise moderating role between Iran and the West. PERSIAN MINIATURES    105

Building up a civilian nuclear program in Iran is good business for both Iran and Russia for a number of reasons. First of all, both are military encircled. Iran is strategically encircled by the US in Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and by US naval power in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Russia has seen the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) gobbling up the Baltic countries and threatening to “annex” Georgia and Ukraine; NATO is at war in Afghanistan; and the US is still present, one way or another, across Central Asia. Iran and Russia share the same strategy as far as the Caspian Sea is concerned. They are in fact opposed to the new Caspian states - Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. Iran and Russia also face the threat of hardcore Sunni Islam. They have a tacit agreement; for instance, Tehran has never done anything to help the Chechens. Then there’s the Armenian issue. A de facto Moscow-Tehran-Erevan axis profoundly irks the Americans. Finally, in this decade, Iran has become the third-largest importer of Russian weapons, after China and India. This includes the anti-missile system Tor M-1, which defends Iran’s nuclear installations. What’s your axis? So thanks to Putin, the Iran-Russia alliance is carefully deployed in three fronts - nuclear, energy and weapons. Are there cracks in this armor? Certainly. First, Moscow by all means does not want a weaponized Iranian nuclear program. This spells out “regional destabilization”. Then, Central Asia is considered by Moscow as its backyard, so for Iran to be ascendant in the region is quite problematic. As far as the Caspian goes, Iran needs Russia for a satisfactory juridical solution (Is it a sea or a lake? How much of it belongs to each border country?) 106   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

On other hand, Iran’s new military dictatorship of the mullahtariat will react savagely if it ever had Russia fully against it in the UN Security Council. That would spell a rupture in economic relations - very bad for both sides - but also the possibility of Tehran supporting radical Islam everywhere from the southern Caucasus to Central Asia. Under these complex circumstances, it’s not so farfetched to imagine a sort of polite Cold War going on between Tehran and Moscow. From Russia’s point of view, it all comes back to the “axis” - which would be in fact Moscow-Tehran-Erevan-New Delhi, a counter-power to the US-supported Ankara-Tblisi-Telaviv-Baku axis. But there’s ample debate about it even inside the Russian elite. The old guard, like former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, thinks that Russia is back as a great power by cultivating its former Arab clients as well as Iran; but then the so-called “Westernizers” are convinced that Iran is more of a liability. They may have a point. The key of this Moscow-Tehran axis is opportunism - opposition to US hegemonic designs. Is Obama - via his “unclenched fist” policy wily enough to try to turn this all upside down; or will he be forced by the Israel lobby and the industrial-military complex to finally strike a regime now universally despised all over the West? Russia - and Iran - are fully committed to a multipolar world. The new military dictatorship of the mullahtariat in Tehran knows it cannot afford to be isolated; its road to the limelight may have to go through Moscow. That explains why Iran is making all sorts of diplomatic efforts to join the SCO. As much as progressives in the West may support Iranian pragmatic conservatives - who are far from reformists - the crucial fact remains that Iran is a key peon for Russia to manage its relationship with the US and Europe. No matter how nasty the overtones, all evidence points to “stability” at this vital artery in the heart of the New Great Game. Next: Iran, China and the New Silk Road

New Great Game revisited, Part 2 Iran, China and the New Silk Road By PEPE ESCOBAR JULY 26, 2009

HONG KONG - Does it make sense to talk about a Beijing-Tehran axis? Apparently no, when one learns that Iran’s application to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was flatly denied at the 2008 summit in Tajikistan. Apparently yes, when one sees how the military dictatorship of the mullahtariat in Tehran and the collective leadership in Beijing have dealt with their recent turmoil - the “green revolution” in Tehran and the Uighur riots in Urumqi - reawakening in the West the ghostly mythology of “Asian despotism”. PERSIAN MINIATURES    107

The Iran-China relationship is like a game of Chinese boxes. Amid the turbulence, glorious or terrifying, of their equally millenarian histories, when one sees an Islamic Republic that now reveals itself as a militarized theocracy and a Popular Republic that is in fact a capitalist oligarchy, things are not what they seem to be. No matter what recently happened in Iran, consolidating the power the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad-IRGC axis, the relationship will continue to develop within the framework of a clash between US hyperpower declining as it may be - and the aspiring Chinese big power, allied with the re-emergent Russian big power. On the road Iran and China are all about the New Silk Road - or routes - in Eurasia. Both are among the most venerable and ancient of (on the road) partners. The first encounter between the Parthian empire and the Han dynasty was in 140 BC, when Zhang Qian was sent to Bactria (in today’s Afghanistan) to strike deals with nomad populations. This eventually led to Chinese expansion in Central Asia and interchange with India. Trading exploded via the fabled Silk Road - silk, porcelain, horses, amber, ivory, incense. As a serial traveler across the Silk Road over the years, I ended up learning on the spot how the Persians controlled the Silk Road by mastering the art of making oases, thus becoming in the process the middlemen between China, India and the West. Parallel to the land route there was also a naval route - from the Persian Gulf to Canton (today’s Guangzhou). And there was of course a religious route - with Persians translating Buddhist texts and with Persian villages in the desert serving as springboards to Chinese pilgrims visiting India. Zoroastrianism - the official religion of the Sassanid empire - was imported to China by Persians at the end of the 6th century, and Manichaeism during the 7th. Diplomacy followed: the son of the last Sassanid emperor - fleeing the Arabs in 670 AD - found refuge in the Tang court. During the 108   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Mongol period, Islam spread into China. Iran has never been colonized. But it was a privileged theater of the original Great Game between the British Empire and Russia in the 19th century and then during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union in the 20th. The Islamic Revolution may at first imply Khomeini’s official policy of “neither East nor West”. In fact, Iran dreams of bridging both. That brings us to Iran’s key, inescapable geopolitical role at the epicenter of Eurasia. The New Silk Road translates into an energy corridor - the Asian Energy Security Grid - in which the Caspian Sea is an essential node, linked to the Persian Gulf, from where oil is to be transported to Asia. And as far as gas is concerned, the name of the game is Pipelineistan - as in the recently agreed Iran-Pakistan (IP) pipeline and the interconnection between Iran and Turkmenistan, whose end result is a direct link between Iran and China. Then there’s the hyper-ambitious, so-called “NorthSouth corridor” - a projected road and rail link between Europe and India, through Russia, Central Asia, Iran and the Persian Gulf. And the ultimate New Silk Road dream - an actual land route between China and the Persian Gulf via Central Asia (Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan). The width of the circle As the bastion of Shi’ite faith, encircled by Sunnis, Iran under what is now a de facto theocratic dictatorship still desperately needs to break out from its isolation. Talk about a turbulent environment: Iraq still under US occupation to the west, the ultra-unstable Caucasus in the northwest, fragile Central Asian “stans” in the northeast, basket cases Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east, not to mention the nuclear neighborhood -Israel, Russia, China, Pakistan and India. Technological advancement for Iran means fully mastering a civilian nuclear program - which contains the added benefit of turning it into a sanctuary via the possibility of building a nuclear device. Officially,

Tehran has declared ad infinitum it has no intention of possessing an “un-Islamic” bomb. Beijing understands Tehran’s delicate position and supports its right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Beijing would have loved to see Tehran adopt the plan proposed by Russia, the US, Western Europe and, of course, China. Carefully evaluating its vital energy and national security interests, the last thing Beijing wants is for Washington to clench its fist again. What happened to the George W Bush-declared, post-9/11 “global war on terror” (GWOT), now remixed by Obama as “overseas contingency operations” (OCO)? GWOT’s key, shadowy aim was for Washington to firmly plant the flag in Central Asia. For those sorry neo-cons, China was the ultimate geopolitical enemy, so nothing was more enticing than to try to sway a batch of Asian countries against China. Easier dreamed of than done. China’s counter-power was to turn the whole game around in Central Asia, with Iran as its key peon. Beijing was quick to grasp that Iran is a matter of national security, in terms of assuring its vast energy needs. Of course China also needs Russia - for energy and technology. This is arguably more of an alliance of circumstance - for all the ambitious targets embodied by the SCO - than a long-term strategic partnership. Russia, invoking a series of geopolitical reasons, considers its relationship with Iran as exclusive. China says slow down, we’re also in the picture. And as Iran remains under pressure at different levels from both the US and Russia, what better “savior” than China?

East to Central Asia - this was more than enough to imprint the message: the less dependent China is on US-subjugated Arab Middle East energy, the better. The Arab Middle East used to account for 50% of China’s oil imports. Soon China became the second-largest oil importer from Iran, after Japan. And since fateful 2003, China also has mastered the full cycle of prospection/exploitation/refining - thus Chinese companies are investing heavily in Iran’s oil sector, whose refining capacity, for instance, is risible. Without urgent investment, some projections point to Iran possibly cutting off oil exports by 2020. Iran also needs everything else China can provide in areas like transportation systems, telecom, electricity and naval construction. Iran needs China to develop its gas production in the gigantic north Pars and south Pars fields - which it shares with Qatar - in the Persian Gulf. So no wonder a “stable” Iran had to become a matter of Chinese national security. Multipolar we go

Enter Pipelineistan. At first sight, Iranian energy and Chinese technology is a match made in heaven. But it’s more complicated than that.

So why the stalemate at the SCO? As China is always meticulously seeking to improve its global credibility, it had to be considering the pros and cons of admitting Iran, for which the SCO and its slogan of mutual cooperation for the stability of Central Asia, as well as economic and security benefits, are priceless. The SCO fights against Islamic terrorism and “separatism” in general - but now has also developed as an economic body, with a development fund and a multilateral economic council. The whole idea of it is to curb American influence in Central Asia.

Still the victim of US sanctions, Iran has turned to China to modernize itself. Once again, the Bush/Dick Cheney years and the invasion of Iraq sent an unmistakable message to the collective leadership in Beijing. A push to control Iraq oil plus troops in Afghanistan, a stone’s throw from the Caspian, added to the Pentagon’s self-defined “arc of instability” from the Middle

Iran has been an observer since 2005. Next year may be crucial. The race is on to beat the clock, before a desperate Israeli strike, and have Iran accepted by the SCO while negotiating some sort of stability pact with the Barack Obama administration. For all this to happen relatively smoothly, Iran needs China - that is, to sell as much oil and gas as China needs below market PERSIAN MINIATURES    109

prices, while accepting Chinese - and Russian - investment in the exploration and production of Caspian oil. All this while Iran also courts India. Both Iran and India are focused on Central Asia. In Afghanistan, India is financing the construction of a US$250 million road between Zaranj, at the Iranian border, and Delaram - which is in the Afghan ring road linking Kabul, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif. New Delhi sees in Iran a very important market. India is actively involved in the construction of a deep water port in Chabahar - that would be a twin for the Gwadar port built in southern Balochistan by China, and would be very helpful to landlocked Afghanistan (freeing it from Pakistani interference). Iran also needs its doors to the north - the Caucasus and Turkey - to channel its energy production towards Europe. It’s an uphill struggle. Iran has to fight fierce regional competition in the Caucasus; the US-Turkey alliance framed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; the perpetual US-Russian Cold War in the region; and last but not least Russia’s own energy policy, which simply does not contemplate sharing the European energy market with Iran. But energy agreements with Turkey are now part of the picture - after the moderate Islamists of the AKP took power in Ankara in 2002. Now it’s not that farfetched to imagine the possibility of Iran in the near future supplying much-needed gas for the ultra-expensive, US-supported Turkey-to-Austria Nabucco pipeline. But the fact remains that for both Tehran and Beijing, the American thrust in the “arc of instability” from the Middle East to Central Asia is anathema. They’re both anti-US hegemony and US unilateralism, Bush/Cheney style. As emerging powers, they’re both pro multipolar. And as they’re not Western-style liberal democracies, the empathy is even stronger. Few failed to notice the stark similarities in the degree of repression of the “green revolution” in Tehran and the Uighurs in Xinjiang. For China, a strategic alliance with Iran is above all about Pipelineistan, the Asian Energy Security Grid and the New Silk Road. For China, a peaceful solution 110   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

to the Iranian nuclear dossier is imperative. This would lead to Iran being fully opened to (eager) European investment. Washington may be reluctant to admit it, but in the New Great Game in Eurasia, the Tehran-Beijing axis spells out the future: multipolarity.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was warned by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva that it was “not prudent to push Iran against a wall.” Photo: Reuters

Iran, Sun Tzu and the dominatrix The United States’ unilateral style of diplomacy does not win friends By PEPE ESCOBAR MAY 22, 2010

Let’s face it: Hillary Clinton is one hell of a dominatrix. At first the United States Secretary of State said the Brazil-Turkey mediation to get Iran to accept a nuclear fuel swap was destined to fail. Then the US State Department said it was the “last chance” for an agreement without sanctions. And finally, less than 24 hours after a successful agreement in Tehran, Hillary whips the UN Security Council into submission and triumphantly proclaims to the world a draft resolution for a fourth UN round of sanctions against Iran has been reached. She framed the drive towards sanctions as “an answer to the efforts undertaken in Tehran over the last few days”. Wait a minute. Immediately after PERSIAN MINIATURES    111

a genuine - and fruitful - mediation on a very sensitive dossier by two emerging powers - and honest brokers - in the multipolar world, Brazil and Turkey, Washington and its two European Union allies at the Security Council, France and Britain, torpedo it. Is this what passes for global “diplomacy”? No wonder key US allies Brazil and Turkey, both non-permanent members of the Security Council, and both key regional powers, were fuming after such a public slapping. Brazil at first said it would not even discuss sanctions at the UN. Then Brazil and Turkey sent a formal letter to the UN, asking to be part of the negotiations of the “Iran Six” about the sanctions “to prevent the adoption of measures going against a peaceful solution”. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva - who had personally told Clinton earlier this year that it was “not prudent to push Iran against a wall” - could not help but blast the outdated Security Council, stressing it was not predisposed to negotiations after all. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned the new sanctions package would “spoil the atmosphere”. And Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stressed the move seriously damaged the credibility of the Security Council - not failing to wryly remind everyone of the absurd notion of five nuclear-armed permanent Security Council members seeking to dismantle the legal civilian nuclear program of a developing country. As for “US credibility”, it’s biting the dust once again not only as far as Lula and Erdogan are concerned, but across the developing world - the real, flesh and blood “international community” following this interminable charade. Whipping enrichment to a frenzy Over the past few months, dominatrix Clinton relentlessly accused Iran of rejecting a similar fuel swap agreement proposed by the US last October. That’s part of the usual Washington script - to behave with text112   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

book deviousness, insisting sanctions “have nothing to do” with enrichment when only a few weeks ago it was the lack of an enrichment deal that was the key reason for more sanctions. And it gets worse. As Gareth Porter has revealed (Washington burns its bridges with Iran Asia Times Online, May21, 2010) Washington only proposed a fuel swap last October because it wanted from the start to force Iran to agree to suspend all its uranium enrichment (to which it has a right as per the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But this was never announced publicly. Iran anyway will continue to produce 20%-enriched uranium (it has a right to it, according to the NPT), and will start the construction of a new enrichment plant about the same size as Natanz’s. This is part of a plan to build 10 new plants, announced last year by the Mahmud Ahmadinejad government. Moreover, the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant is under final testing and will be inaugurated this summer. These are irreversible facts on the ground. Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Saeed Jalili, the de facto top Iranian nuclear negotiator, may soon meet with the European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Turkey. Ashton, the “international community’s” designated negotiator, is as representative of global public opinion as a BP press release on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Specially because the EU is bound to issue its own unilateral sanctions against Iran. Same for the US Congress, as Senator Chris Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, has confirmed this week. So apart from the Security Council, Iran will also have to face extra sanctions from the US-led coalition of the willing right-wing, mired-in-decay European poodles. China and Russia pull a Sun Tzu Ancient Chinese military general, strategist, philosopher and author of The Art of War, Sun Tzu said, “Allow your enemy to make his own mistakes, and don’t correct

them.” China and Russia, both master strategists, are applying this maxim with panache regarding the US. The current 10-page UN draft sanctions resolution was already diluted to death by permanent members Russia and China - and whatever bellicose language remains will be further shot down at the Security Council by non-permanent members Brazil, Turkey and Lebanon (without unanimity at the Security Council new sanctions are for all practical purposes dead). There’s no way Washington can coerce the rest of the Security Council to sign up for a new sanctions round when Iran is actually engaged in cooperation. As it stands, the current sanctions package punishes Iran’s import of conventional arms; curbs imports related to ballistic missiles; freezes assets of key members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps; and sets up cargo inspections in seaports and on international waters. Most of these sanctions are voluntary - or non-binding – and will have zero interference on Iran’s global trade of oil and gas. Beijing and Moscow are not exactly licking Clinton’s whip. Immediately after her bombastic announcement, the Chinese ambassador at the UN, Li Badong, said the draft resolution “did not close the doors on diplomacy”, once again emphasizing “dialogue, diplomacy and negotiations”. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made sure to talk to Clinton over the phone arguing for a deeper analysis of the fuel swap deal mediated by Brazil-Turkey. Lavrov also stressed Russia didn’t like one bit the extra US and EU unilateral sanctions. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the unilateral sanctions would include measures “of an extraterritorial nature, beyond the agreed decisions of the international community and contradicting the principle of the rule of the international law, enshrined in the UN charter”. So we have come to a situation whereby a real, Iran-approved nuclear fuel swap is on the table at the International Atomic Energy Agency while an offensive towards sanctions on Iran is ongoing at the UN. Who is the real “international community” going to

trust? Erdogan could not have put it better; “This is the time to discuss whether we believe in the supremacy of law or the law of the supremes and superiors ...” Most of all, what the developing world sees is the past - US, France, Britain, Germany - fighting against the advance of the future - China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia. The global security architecture - policed by a bunch of fearful, self-appointed Western guardians - is in a coma. The “Atlanticist” West is sinking Titanic-style. We want war and we want it now Only the powerful pro-infinite war lobby in the US is capable of framing a first step towards a full nuclear agreement with Iran as a disaster. That includes the largely discredited pro-Iraq war New York Times (the Brazil-Turkey mediation is “complicating sanctions talk”) and Washington Post (Iran “creates illusion of progress in nuclear negotiations”). For the pro-war lobby the Brazil-Turkey-mediated fuel swap is a “threat” because it is on a direct collision course with an attack on Iran (initiated by Israel, then dragging the US) and “regime change” - the never-reneged Washington desire. At a recent Council on Foreign Relations speech in Montreal, luminary Dr Zbigniew “let’s conquer Eurasia” Brzezinski warned that a “global political awakening”, along with infighting among the global elite, was something to be deeply feared. The former US national security adviser remarked that “for the first time in all of human history mankind is politically awakened that’s a total new reality - it has not been so for most of human history”. Who do these politically awakened upstarts such as Brazil and Turkey think they are - daring to disturb “our” rule of the world? And then uninformed Americans keep asking themselves “Why do they hate us?” Because, among other reasons, unilateral to the core, Washington does not hesitate to lift its middle finger even to its closest friends.


An Iranian flag flies outside a building housing the reactor of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in the southern Iranian port town of Bushehr. Photo: AFP

Do the bomb Iran shuffle Are we on the road to ‘Shock and Awe’ once again? By PEPE ESCOBAR NOVEMBER 11,2011

Get ready for a flurry of fuzzy satellite ‘’intelligence’’ of generic warehouses all across Iran frantically described as segments of a nuclear bomb assembly line (Remember a famous ‘’secret nuclear facility’’ in Syria not long ago? It was a textile factory.) Get ready for a flurry of crude diagrams depicting suspect devices, or the containers that hide them, all capable of reaching Europe in 45 minutes. Get ready for a flurry of ‘’experts’’ on Fox, CNN and the BBC endlessly 114   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


dissecting all this extended black ops dressed up as ‘’evidence’’. For instance, former UN weapons inspector David Albright, now at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), has already pulled his return of the living dead stunt, displaying his ‘’bomb Iran’’ credentials complete with diagrams and satellite intel. Forget Iraq - it’s sooo 2003. Hit the new groove; hyping overdrive for the war on Iran. Turning Japanese First of all, ditch common sense. If Iran were developing a nuclear weapon, it would be diverting uranium for it. The report released by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) this week - as politicized as it may be - flatly denies it. If Iran were developing a nuclear weapon, UN inspectors working for the IAEA would have been thrown out of the country.

As for the origin of most of the IAEA’s self-described ‘’credible’’ intel, even the New York Times was forced to report that ‘’some of that information came from the United States, Israel and Europe.’’ Gareth Porter offers the definitive debunking of the report. Moreover, expect major pressure on the CIA to renege the crucial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which established - irrefutably - that Tehran had ditched a nuclear weapons program way back in 2003. All this dovetails with the dogs of war already barking. European minions may be incompetent enough to win a war in Libya (they did it only when the Pentagon took over satellite intelligence). They may be incompetent enough to manage Europe’s financial disaster. But France, Germany and the UK have already started barking - calling for further stringent sanctions on Iran.

Iraq did not have a nuclear weapons program in 2002. And yet it was shocked and awed. The same rationale applies to Iran.

In the US, Democrats and Republicans alike are calling not only for sanctions; in the case of wacko Republicans, which of course, is an oxymoron, they’re calling for a new version of Shock and Awe.

What Tehran may have conducted - if the compromised intel used in the IAEA report is to be believed - is a bunch of experiments and computer simulations. Everybody does it - for instance countries which have renounced the bomb, such as Brazil and South Africa.

It’s never enough to repeat how things work in Washington. The Banjamin Netanyahu government in Israel tells the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee what to do, and the AIPAC orders the US Congress what to do.

What the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) - in charge of the civilian nuclear program certainly wants is a deterrent.

That’s how the House Foreign Affairs Committee is considering a bipartisan bill that is essentially a declaration of war.

That is, the possibility of building up a nuclear bomb in case they face an unequivocally established threat of regime change, provoked, most likely, by a US attack and invasion.

According to the bill, neither President Barack Obama, nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, nor in fact any US diplomat can engage in any kind of diplomacy with Iran - unless Obama convinces the ‘’appropriate congressional committees’’ that not talking would mean an ‘’extraordinary threat to the vital national security interests of the United States’’.

Doubts swirl about the competence - or the impartiality - of the new IAEA head, the meek Japanese Yukya Amano. The best answer is in this WikiLeaks cable. 116   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

‘’Appropriate congressional committees’’ happens to

define exactly the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which gets its martial marching orders from Bibi in Israel via AIPAC in Washington. Try telling any of these Israeli-firsters at the United States Congress what are the real immediate consequences of an attack on Iran; the Strait of Hormuz closed within minutes, at least 6 million barrels of oil out of the world economy (already in recession in the industrialized North), a barrel of oil hitting $300 or $400. It doesn’t matter; they’re incapable of doing the math. Prep well, and stick to the agenda

and drones. And South Sudan is in the bag. That leaves - for hardcore practitioners of Full Spectrum Dominance doctrine - the enticing possibility of a successful attack on Iran as the ultimate creative destruction move, reshuffling all the cards from the Middle East to Central Asia. The ‘’arc of instability’’ terminally destabilized. How to accomplish it? So simple - as the warmongers see it. Convince Obama that instead of being whacked around, conservatives will kiss his brogues and he’ll be canonized as the re-energizer of the US economy if he just went to fight another war. Anyone for Occupy Iran - literally?

Rumors swirl about the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) recently claiming, according to the Fars news agency, that only four Iranian missiles can deter Israel. These missiles might - or might not - be Soviet Kh-55 nuclear cruise missiles from the Ukraine and Belarus, with a maximum range of 2,500 kilometers, that Iran may have bought years ago in the black market. The IRGC, of course, is mum. That only feeds the fog of (pre)war - as nobody exactly knows how well defended Iran is. It’s an open secret in Washington that regime change in Iran is being war-gamed by the Pentagon since at least 2004. The favorite neo-con 2002 road map still applies, the targets being Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia and Sudan - all key nodes in the Pentagon-coined ‘’arc of instability’’. Imagine PhDs in warmongering examining the chessboard. Iraq was duly shocked and awed (even though the US is now being booted out). Syria is too hard to crack for incompetent North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Lebanon (Hezbollah) can only be captured if Syria falls first. Libya was a victory (forget about a protracted civil war). Somalia is containable with Uganda PERSIAN MINIATURES    117

The Shah of Iran in 1973. Photo: WikiMedia

The myth of an ‘isolated’ Iran, Part 1 Key moments in US-Iran history over the last half century BY PEPE ESCOBAR, WITH INTRODUCTION BY TOM ENGELHARDT

JANUARY 19, 2012

These days, with a crisis atmosphere growing in the Persian Gulf, a little history lesson about the United States and Iran might be just what the doctor ordered. Here, then, are a few high- (or low-) lights from their relationship over the last half-century-plus: Summer 1953: The Central Intelligence Agency and British intelligence hatch a plot for a coup that overthrows a democratically elected government in Iran intent on nationalizing that country’s oil industry. In its 118   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


place, they put an autocrat, the young Shah of Iran, and his soon-to-be feared secret police. He runs the country as his repressive fiefdom for a quarter-century, becoming Washington’s “bulwark” in the Persian Gulf - until overthrown in 1979 by a homegrown revolutionary movement, which ushers in the rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the mullahs. While Khomeini & Co were hardly Washington’s men, thanks to that 1953 coup they were, in a sense, its own political offspring. In other words, the fatal decision to overthrow a popular democratic government shaped the Iranian world Washington now loathes, and even then oil was at the bottom of things. 1967: Under the US “Atoms for Peace” program, started in the 1950s by president Dwight D Eisenhower, the shah is allowed to buy a five-megawatt, light-water type research reactor for Tehran (which - call it irony - is still playing a role in the dispute over the Iranian nuclear program). Defense Department officials did worry at the time that the shah might use the “peaceful atom” as a basis for a future weapons program or that nuclear materials might fall into the wrong hands. “An aggressive successor to the shah,” went a 1974 Pentagon memo, “might consider nuclear weapons the final item needed to establish Iran’s complete military dominance of the region.” But that didn’t stop them from aiding and abetting the creation of an Iranian nuclear program. The shah, like his Islamic successors, argued that such a program was Iran’s national “right” and dreamed of a country that would get significant portions of its electricity from a string of nuclear plants. As a 1970s ad by a group of American power companies put the matter: “The Shah of Iran is sitting on top of one of the largest reservoirs of oil in the world. Yet he’s building two nuclear plants and planning two more to provide electricity for his country. He knows the oil is running out - and time with it.” In other words, the US nuclear program was the genesis for the Iranian one that Washington now so despises. 120   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

September 1980: Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein launches a war of aggression against Khomeini’s Iran. In the early 1980s, he becomes Washington’s man, our “bulwark” in the Persian Gulf, and we offer him our hand - and also “detailed information” on Iranian deployments and tactical planning that help him use his chemical weapons more effectively against the Iranian military. Oh, and just to make sure things turn out really, really well, the Ronald Reagan administration also decides to sell missiles and other arms to Khomeini’s Iran on the sly, part of what became known as the “Iran-Contra Affair” and which almost brings down the president and his men. Success! March 2003: Saddam Hussein is, by now, no longer our man in Baghdad but a new “Hitler” who, top Washington officials claim, undoubtedly has a nuclear weapons program that could someday leave mushroom clouds rising over US cities. So the George W Bush administration launches a war of aggression against Iraq, which like Iran just happens to - in the words of deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz “float on a sea of oil”. (Bush officials hope, in the wake of a “cakewalk” of a war to revive that country’s oil industry, to privatize it, and use it to destroy the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, driving down the price of oil on world markets.) Nine years later, a Shi’ite government is in power in Baghdad closely allied with Tehran, which has gained regional strength and influence thanks to the disastrous US occupation. So call it an unblemished record of a kind not easy to find. In more than 50 years, America’s leaders have never made a move in Iran (or near it) that didn’t lead to unexpected and unpleasant blowback. Now, another administration in Washington, after years of what can only be called a covert war against Iran, is preparing yet another set of clever maneuvers - this time sanctions against Iran’s central bank meant to cripple the country’s oil industry and crack open the economy followed by no one knows what. And honestly, I mean, really, given past history, what

could possibly go wrong? Regime change in Iran? It’s bound to be a slam dunk and if you don’t believe it, check out Pepe Escobar next, that fabulous peripatetic reporter for Asia Times Online and TomDispatch regular. Let’s start with red lines. Here it is, Washington’s ultimate red line, straight from the lion’s mouth. Only last week Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said of the Iranians, “Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that’s what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is do not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us.” How strange, the way those red lines continue to retreat. Once upon a time, the red line for Washington was “enrichment” of uranium. Now, it’s evidently an actual nuclear weapon that can be brandished. Keep in mind that, since 2005, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has stressed that his country is not seeking to build a nuclear weapon. The most recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran from the US Intelligence Community has similarly stressed that Iran is not, in fact, developing a nuclear weapon (as opposed to the breakout capacity to build one someday). What if, however, there is no “red line”, but something completely different? Call it the petrodollar line. Banking on sanctions? Let’s start here: In December 2011, impervious to dire consequences for the global economy, the US Congress - under all the usual pressures from the Israel lobby (not that it needs them) - foisted a mandatory sanctions package on the Barack Obama administration (100 to 0 in the Senate and with only 12 “no” votes in the House). Starting in June, the US will have to sanction any third-country banks and companies dealing with Iran’s central bank, which is meant to cripple that country’s oil sales. (Congress did allow for some “exemptions.”)

The ultimate target? Regime change - what else? - in Tehran. The proverbial anonymous US official admitted as much in the Washington Post, and that paper printed the comment. (“The goal of the US and other sanctions against Iran is regime collapse, a senior US intelligence official said, offering the clearest indication yet that the Obama administration is at least as intent on unseating Iran’s government as it is on engaging with it.”) But oops! The newspaper then had to revise the passage to eliminate that embarrassingly on-target quote. Undoubtedly, this “red line” came too close to the truth for comfort. Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen believed that only a monster shock-andawe-style event, totally humiliating the leadership in Tehran, would lead to genuine regime change - and he was hardly alone. Advocates of actions ranging from air strikes to invasion (whether by the US, Israel, or some combination of the two) have been legion in neocon Washington. Yet anyone remotely familiar with Iran knows that such an attack would rally the population behind Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. In those circumstances, the deep aversion of many Iranians to the military dictatorship of the mullahtariat would matter little. Besides, even the Iranian opposition supports a peaceful nuclear program. It’s a matter of national pride. Iranian intellectuals, far more familiar with Persian smoke and mirrors than ideologues in Washington, totally debunk any war scenarios. They stress that the Tehran regime, adept in the arts of Persian shadow play, has no intention of provoking an attack that could lead to its obliteration. On their part, whether correctly or not, Tehran strategists assume that Washington will prove unable to launch yet one more war in the Greater Middle East, especially one that could lead to staggering collateral damage for the world economy. In the meantime, Washington’s expectations that a PERSIAN MINIATURES    121

harsh sanctions regime might make the Iranians give ground, if not go down, may prove to be a chimera. Washington spin has been focused on the supposedly disastrous mega-devaluation of the Iranian currency, the rial, in the face of the new sanctions. Unfortunately for the fans of Iranian economic collapse, Professor Djavad Salehi-Isfahani has laid out in elaborate detail the long-term nature of this process, which Iranian economists have more than welcomed. After all, it will boost Iran’s non-oil exports and help local industry in competition with cheap Chinese imports. In sum: a devalued rial stands a reasonable chance of actually reducing unemployment in Iran. More connected than Google Though few in the US have noticed, Iran is not exactly “isolated”, though Washington might wish it. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has become a frequent flyer to Tehran. And he’s a Johnny-come-lately compared to Russia’s national security chief Nikolai Patrushev, who only recently warned the Israelis not to push the US to attack Iran. Add in as well US ally and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. At a loya jirga (grand council) in late 2011, in front of 2,000 tribal leaders, he stressed that Kabul was planning to get even closer to Tehran. On that crucial Eurasian chessboard, Pipelineistan, the Iran-Pakistan (IP) natural gas pipeline - much to Washington’s distress - is now a go. Pakistan badly needs energy and its leadership has clearly decided that it’s unwilling to wait forever and a day for Washington’s eternal pet project - the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline - to traverse Talibanistan. Even Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently visited Tehran, though his country’s relationship with Iran has grown ever edgier. After all, energy overrules threats in the region. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member Turkey is already involved in covert ops in Syria, allied with hardcore 122   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

fundamentalist Sunnis in Iraq, and - in a remarkable volte-face in the wake of the Arab Spring(s) - has traded in an Ankara-Tehran-Damascus axis for an Ankara-Riyadh-Doha one.

Chinese President Xi Jinping with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: AFP

It is even planning on hosting components of Washington’s long-planned missile defense system, targeted at Iran. All this from a country with a Davutoglu-coined foreign policy of “zero problems with our neighbors”. Still, the needs of Pipelineistan do set the heart racing. Turkey is desperate for access to Iran’s energy resources, and if Iranian natural gas ever reaches Western Europe - something the Europeans are desperately eager for Turkey will be the privileged transit country. Turkey’s leaders have already signaled their rejection of further US sanctions against Iranian oil. And speaking of connections, last week there was that spectacular diplomatic coup de theatre, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s Latin American tour. US right-wingers may harp on a Tehran-Caracas axis of evil - supposedly promoting “terror” across Latin America as a springboard for future attacks on the northern superpower - but back in real life, another kind of truth lurks. All these years later, Washington is still unable to digest the idea that it has lost control over, or even influence in, those two regional powers over which it once exercised unmitigated imperial hegemony. Add to this the wall of mistrust that has only solidified since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Mix in a new, mostly sovereign Latin America pushing for integration not only via left-wing governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador but through regional powers Brazil and Argentina. Stir and you get photo ops like Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez saluting Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

The myth of an ‘isolated’ Iran, Part 2 US sanctions on Iran could well push the country into China’s open arms By PEPE ESCOBAR JANUARY 19, 2012

Washington continues to push a vision of a world from which Iran has been radically disconnected. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland is typical in saying recently, “Iran can remain in international isolation.” As it happens, though, she needs to get her facts straight. “Isolated” Iran has $4 billion in joint projects with Venezuela including, crucially, a bank (as with Ecuador, it has dozens of planned projects from building power plants to, once again, banking). That has led the Israel-first crowd in Washington to vociferously demand that sanctions be PERSIAN MINIATURES    123

slapped on Venezuela. Only problem: how would the US pay for its crucial Venezuelan oil imports then? Much was made in the US press of the fact that Ahmadinejad did not visit Brazil on this jaunt through Latin America, but diplomatically Tehran and Brasilia remain in sync. When it comes to the nuclear dossier in particular, Brazil’s history leaves its leaders sympathetic. After all, that country developed - and then dropped - a nuclear weapons program. In May 2010, Brazil and Turkey brokered a uranium-swap agreement for Iran that might have cleared the decks on the US-Iranian nuclear imbroglio. It was, however, immediately sabotaged by Washington. A key member of the BRICS, the club of top emerging economies, [1] Brasilia is completely opposed to the US sanctions/embargo strategy. So Iran may be “isolated” from the United States and Western Europe, but from the BRICS to NAM (the 120 member countries of the Non-Aligned Movement), it has the majority of the global South on its side. And then there are those staunch Washington allies, Japan and South Korea, now pleading for exemptions from the coming boycott/embargo of Iran’s central bank. No wonder, because these unilateral US sanctions are also aimed at Asia. After all, China, India, Japan, and South Korea together buy no less than 62% of Iran’s oil exports. With trademark Asian politesse, Japan’s Finance Minister Jun Azumi let Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner know just what a problem Washington is creating for Tokyo, which relies on Iran for 10% of its oil needs. It is pledging to at least modestly “reduce” that share “as soon as possible” in order to get a Washington exemption from those sanctions, but don’t hold your breath. South Korea has already announced that it will buy 10% of its oil needs from Iran in 2012. Silk Road redux Most important of all, “isolated” Iran happens to be a supreme matter of national security for China, which 124   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

has already rejected the latest Washington sanctions without a blink. Westerners seem to forget that the Middle Kingdom and Persia have been doing business for almost two millennia. (Does “Silk Road” ring a bell?) The Chinese have already clinched a juicy deal for the development of Iran’s largest oil field, Yadavaran. There’s also the matter of the delivery of Caspian Sea oil from Iran through a pipeline stretching from Kazakhstan to Western China. In fact, Iran already supplies no less than 15% of China’s oil and natural gas. It is now more crucial to China, energy-wise, than the House of Saud is to the US, which imports 11% of its oil from Saudi Arabia. In fact, China may be the true winner from Washington’s new sanctions, because it is likely to get its oil and gas at a lower price as the Iranians grow ever more dependent on the China market. At this moment, in fact, the two countries are in the middle of a complex negotiation on the pricing of Iranian oil, and the Chinese have actually been ratcheting up the pressure by slightly cutting back on energy purchases. But all this should be concluded by March, at least two months before the latest round of US sanctions go into effect, according to experts in Beijing. In the end, the Chinese will certainly buy much more Iranian gas than oil, but Iran will still remain its third biggest oil supplier, right after Saudi Arabia and Angola. As for other effects of the new sanctions on China, don’t count on them. Chinese businesses in Iran are building cars, fiber optics networks, and expanding the Tehran subway. Two-way trade is at $30 billion now and expected to hit $50 billion in 2015. Chinese businesses will find a way around the banking problems the new sanctions impose. Russia is another key supporter of “isolated” Iran. It has opposed stronger sanctions either via the United Nations or through the Washington-approved package that targets Iran’s central bank. In fact, it favors a rollback of the existing UN sanctions and has also been at work on an alternative plan that could, at least theoretically, lead to a face-saving nuclear deal for everyone.

On the nuclear front, Tehran has expressed a willingness to compromise with Washington along the lines of the plan Brazil and Turkey suggested and Washington deep-sixed in 2010. Since it is now so much clearer that, for Washington - certainly for congress - the nuclear issue is secondary to regime change, any new negotiations are bound to prove excruciatingly painful. This is especially true now that the leaders of the European Union have managed to remove themselves from a future negotiating table by shooting themselves in their Ferragamo-clad feet. In typical fashion, they have meekly followed Washington’s lead in implementing an Iranian oil embargo. As a senior EU official told National Iranian American Council President Trita Parsi, and as EU diplomats have assured me in no uncertain terms, they fear this might prove to be the last step short of outright war. Meanwhile, a team of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors has just visited Iran. The IAEA is supervising all things nuclear in Iran, including its new uranium-enrichment plant at Fordow, near the holy city of Qom, with full production starting in June. The IAEA is positive: no bomb-making is involved. Nonetheless, Washington (and the Israelis) continue to act as though it’s only a matter of time - and not much of it at that. Follow the money That Iranian isolation theme only gets weaker when one learns that the country is dumping the dollar in its trade with Russia for rials and rubles - a similar move to ones already made in its trade with China and Japan. As for India, an economic powerhouse in the neighborhood, its leaders also refuse to stop buying Iranian oil, a trade that, in the long run, is similarly unlikely to be conducted in dollars. India is already using the yuan with China, as Russia and China have been trading in rubles and yuan for more than a year, as Japan and China are promoting direct trading in yen and yuan. As for Iran and China,

all new trade and joint investments will be settled in yuan and rial. Translation, if any was needed: in the near future, with the Europeans out of the mix, virtually none of Iran’s oil will be traded in dollars. Moreover, three BRICS members (Russia, India and China) allied with Iran are major holders (and producers) of gold. Their complex trade ties won’t be affected by the whims of a US Congress. In fact, when the developing world looks at the profound crisis in the Atlanticist West, what they see is massive US debt, the Fed printing money as if there’s no tomorrow, lots of “quantitative easing”, and of course the Eurozone shaking to its very foundations. Follow the money. Leave aside, for the moment, the new sanctions on Iran’s central bank that will go into effect months from now, ignore Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz (especially unlikely given that it’s the main way Iran gets its own oil to market), and perhaps one key reason the crisis in the Persian Gulf is mounting involves this move to torpedo the petrodollar as the all-purpose currency of exchange. It’s been spearheaded by Iran and it’s bound to translate into an anxious Washington, facing down not only a regional power, but its major strategic competitors China and Russia. No wonder all those carriers are heading for the Persian Gulf right now, though it’s the strangest of showdowns a case of military power being deployed against economic power. In this context, it’s worth remembering that in September 2000 Saddam Hussein abandoned the petrodollar as the currency of payment for Iraq’s oil, and moved to the euro. In March 2003, Iraq was invaded and the inevitable regime change occurred. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi proposed a gold dinar both as Africa’s common currency and as the currency of payment for his country’s energy resources. Another intervention and another regime change followed. Washington/NATO/Tel Aviv, however, offers a different narrative. Iran’s “threats” are at the heart of the present crisis, even if these are, in fact, that country’s PERSIAN MINIATURES    125

reaction to non-stop US/Israeli covert war and now, of course, economic war as well. It’s those “threats,” so the story goes, that are leading to rising oil prices and so fueling the current recession, rather than Wall Street’s casino capitalism or massive US and European debts. The cream of the 1% has nothing against high oil prices, not as long as Iran’s around to be the fall guy for popular anger. As energy expert Michael Klare pointed out recently, we are now in a new geo-energy era certain to be extremely turbulent in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. But consider 2012 the start-up year as well for a possibly massive defection from the dollar as the global currency of choice. As perception is indeed reality, imagine the real world - mostly the global South - doing the necessary math and, little by little, beginning to do business in their own currencies and investing ever less of any surplus in US Treasury bonds. The US can always count on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates - which I prefer to call the Gulf Counter-revolution Club (just look at their performances during the Arab Spring). For all practical geopolitical purposes, the Gulf monarchies are a US satrapy. Their decades-old promise to use only the petrodollar translates into them being an appendage of Pentagon power projection across the Middle East. Centcom, after all, is based in Qatar; the US Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain. In fact, in the immensely energy-wealthy lands that we could label Greater Pipelineistan - and that the Pentagon used to call “the arc of instability” extending through Iran all the way to Central Asia, the GCC remains key to a dwindling sense of US hegemony. If this were an economic rewrite of Edgar Allen Poe’s story, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, Iran would be but one cog in an infernal machine slowly shredding the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Still, it’s the cog that Washington is now focused on. They have regime change on the brain. All that’s needed is a spark to start the fire (in - one hastens to add - all sorts of directions 126   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

that are bound to catch Washington off guard).

The US is now forcing the EU to cut off Iran from Brussels-based SWIFT – the independent telecom mechanism/clearinghouse used by every bank in the world to exchange financial data.

Remember Operation Northwoods, that 1962 plan drafted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to stage terror operations in the US and blame them on Fidel Castro’s Cuba. (President John F Kennedy shot the idea down.) Or recall the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, used by president Lyndon Johnson as a justification for widening the Vietnam War. The US accused North Vietnamese torpedo boats of unprovoked attacks on US ships. Later, it became clear that one of the attacks had never even happened and the president had lied about it. It’s not at all far-fetched to imagine hardcore full-spectrum dominance practitioners inside the Pentagon riding a false-flag incident in the Persian Gulf to an attack on Iran (or simply using it to pressure Tehran into a fatal miscalculation). Consider as well the new US military strategy just unveiled by President Barack Obama in which the focus of Washington’s attention is to move from two failed ground wars in the Greater Middle East to the Pacific (and so to China). Iran happens to be right in the middle, in Southwest Asia, with all that oil heading toward an energy-hungry modern Middle Kingdom over waters guarded by the US Navy. So yes, this larger-than-life psychodrama we call “Iran” may turn out to be as much about China and the US dollar as it is about the politics of the Persian Gulf or Iran’s non-existent bomb. The question is: What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Beijing to be born?

US wants SWIFT war on Iran Iran could be cut off from the (formerly) independent clearinghouse used by every bank in the world By PEPE ESCOBAR

Note 1. The BRICS countries are Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

FEBRUARY 17, 2012

What was the parade of European poodles thinking - that Tehran would just roll over and absorb the European Union’s oil embargo, scheduled to start on July 1? No wonder Brussels was caught as a Gucci deer in the headlights when the news started to flow that Tehran would pre-empt the move and immediately slap its own embargo of crude oil exports to six European Union countries - deeply in crisis Club Med members Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain plus recession-hit France and the Netherlands. PERSIAN MINIATURES    127

It took virtually no time for Iran’s Oil Ministry and then the Foreign Ministry to deny it; such a decision, technically, would have to be officially announced by the Supreme National Security Council, which also deals with the nuclear negotiations. But only the deaf, dumb and blind wouldn’t understand the message; blowback for the ridiculously counter-productive European sanctions/oil embargo package will only plunge vast swathes of Europe further into deep economic pain. Iran supplies 500,000 barrels of oil a day to the EU. The mere threat of an Iranian embargo has already provoked an oil price spike. Assuming Club Med countries would be able to get oil from other sources - and that’s not a given; Saudi Arabia wants high oil prices with a vengeance - they would have to reconfigure their refineries to process it. Inevitably there would be shortages of gasoline; the average Italian, for instance, is already furious with the skyrocketing price of gas at the pump. Perhaps those tens of thousands of useless Brussels bureaucrats carrying their multicolored files up and down should do something meaningful and send a letter to Washington officially congratulating the Americans for further impoverishing tens of millions of EU citizens. When in doubt, slap more sanctions Yet the vultures, jackals and hyenas of regime change/ war can never be appeased in their sanction lust. The US is now forcing the EU to cut off Iran from Brussels-based SWIFT - the independent telecom mechanism/clearinghouse used by every bank in the world to exchange financial data (its official name is Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications). Iran’s Central Bank itself may become a victim. In a nutshell, SWIFT is the wheel that moves global financial transactions and trade. So if this is not an extended, remixed declaration of hardcore economic war against one country - nothing else is. 128   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Will it work? Hardly. It will certainly represent more devastation unleashed over “the Iranian people” - the vague entity of choice against which the US has “no quarrel”. More than 40 Iranian banks use SWIFT to process financial transactions, and Iranians use it like everybody else in a globalized economy. It will drag SWIFT’s carefully maintained reputation for trust and neutrality through the mud; imagine other member countries’ reaction to the fact they can also be totally marginalized according to the US’s whims. Not to mention that Washington cannot tell SWIFT what to do; thus it is not so subtly applying “pressure”, Mafia-style, on the Europeans. The “message” was delivered in person by David Cohen, the US Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. And all this for what? According to the relentless, suffocating barrage of spin in Western corporate media, to “perhaps” buy some time so the Obama administration can “persuade” the warmongering, nuclear-armed Likud government in Israel not to attack Iran this coming spring. Watch that American camel Meanwhile, according to Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, the country has developed fourth-generation centrifuges made of carbon fiber that are “speedier, produce less waste and occupy less space” as they spin at supersonic speeds to purify uranium. And the first made-in-Iran 20% enriched fuel rods have been installed at the Tehran Research Reactor - not a bomb factory but a civilian plant designed to produce medical isotopes for cancer treatment; this should allow the Research Reactor to operate independently of any foreign interference. To top it off, Tehran sent a letter to the EU “welcoming” the P5+1 - the UN Security Council veto members plus Germany - if they seriously want to go back to the table for meaningful negotiations about the

Iranian nuclear dossier. Let’s see what this means. It’s a very sophisticated Persian miniature - to be decoded by the Europeans who bother. Tehran is saying; we sincerely want to talk to you; but we won’t give up on our civilian nuclear program; and if you keep treating us like dogs, with these sanctions, embargo and now the SWIFT move, we can apply a lot of pressure on your already stricken economies. Anyone betting on clueless European politicians and their sherpas understanding this is hardly guaranteed to hit a jackpot. Then there’s the stupid argument that the recent bombings and failed bombings in Delhi, Georgia and Bangkok represent Tehran’s retaliation for the murder of five civilian nuclear scientists in Iran - conducted by the Iranian terrorist group MeK under the orders of the Israeli Mossad. If and when Tehran decides to target Israeli interests, it may be able to do it closer to home, and it has the competent operatives to do it without a trace. The notion that Tehran would send Iranian agents to friendly Asian countries such as India and Thailand - and in the case of the Three Stooges in Bangkok openly displaying their passports and even rials - is ludicrous beyond belief. These are patsies; the question is to find out who’s manipulating them. If the Washington/Tel Aviv-promoted hysteria is already at fever pitch, wait for March 20, when the Iranian oil bourse will start trading oil in other currencies apart from the US dollar, heralding the arrival of a new oil marker to be denominated in euro, yen, yuan, rupee or a basket of currencies. That would suit Asian clients - from BRICS members India and China to US allies Japan and South Korea, not to mention NATO member Turkey. But that would also suit European clients, to pay for oil in their own currency. Tehran - as well as many key players in the developing world - does want to sink the petrodollar. That may be the straw to break the American camel’s back. PERSIAN MINIATURES    129

Forcing Iran into a corner might well accelerate the move away from the ‘petrodollar.’

Iran won’t crack Treating Iran like a pariah cannot possibly end well By PEPE ESCOBAR JULY 7, 2012

Let’s start sledgehammer style. Iran won’t crack. Iran won’t crack. Iran won’t crack. No sledgehammer, though, is likely to perforate the limitless fog of delusion hovering over a US elite that a relentless propaganda campaign tries to sell as “the international community”. See, for instance, this bland op-ed, where we discover that “the international community is now on watch for cracks in Iran’s defiant stance: Will increased sanctions compel Tehran to make real concessions and allow 130   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


for a diplomatic solution to the standoff?” Here’s your short answer: no. For starters, the “international community” is not the NATOGCC compound plus Israel. Not only the BRICS group of emerging powers but also de 110-plus members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) - that is, the absolute majority of a de facto “international community” - are appalled at how Iran has been treated as a pariah in its negotiations with the P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. The piece goes on, noting that “the Iranians didn’t seize the opportunity” to essentially submit to Washington’s roll over and die brand of diplomacy on show at the nuclear negotiations. “Instead, they demanded recognition of their right to enrich”. Of course they have the right to enrich uranium - as subscribers of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). What makes this op-ed noticeable is that it was not written by a rabid neocon. The author is “an international affairs professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, a former deputy national security advisor and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.” If this is a measure of the level of intellectual debate prevalent in the revolving door between academia, punditry and policymaking, US elites can’t help seeing the future as worse than the Black Death. Watch your step Now for the real world - where facts collide. Russia favors a “step-by-step approach” in the ongoing nuclear negotiations. This means Iran would gradually increase cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and in return sanctions are gradually revoked. Take a long hard look at this document, leaked earlier this week by Iran’s mission to the UN. It contains the essence of the Iranian position, calling for a “long-term cooperation” that would finally demolish the wall of 132   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

mistrust erected between the US and Iran since 1979. Every informed observer and participant knows this interminable geopolitical drama goes way beyond Iran’s nuclear dossier. But a solution has to start somewhere - and the “somewhere” is the recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium, and then the progressive easing of sanctions. It’s exactly the rational “step by step approach” favored by Moscow. The next-to-final step would be “a comprehensive agreement on collective commitments in the areas of economic, political, security and international cooperation”. This means recognizing Iran’s sovereignty and rights - instead of demonizing and punishing it because the NATOGCC compound plus Israel abhors/fears a Shi’ite majority Islamic Republic. It does not take a cushy job at the Kennedy School of Government to see Washington’s response will be a resounding “no”. Washington, London, Paris and Berlin - but not Moscow and Beijing - will prevent the negotiations going anywhere without Iran abdicating from uranium enrichment. It’s crucial once again to backtrack to May 17, 2010, when Brazil, Turkey and Iran, after non-stop 18 hours of grown-up diplomacy in Tehran, reached an agreement; Iran would send its low enriched uranium to Turkey and would get enriched fuel for a nuclear research reactor. Even some Arab countries - including GCC members - were in favor, as well as Paris. Moscow and Beijing were wary - because they saw it as Iran abdicating from its NPT rights. Anyway, the day after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton torpedoed the deal - essentially because it allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium. Cracked actors

nation. Regardless of the wishful thinking fog enveloping neocons and fake liberals alike, this “strategy” won’t work with Iran. Even if Iran is now selling less oil, and even if it is de facto cut off from the international financial system, Tehran will find ways to revolve the new EU sanctions/ oil embargo and drive up oil prices. China will remain a steady client - paying less for Iranian oil (in yuan) but buying more. The eurozone will not break up - for now, so its demand won’t fall. Most of all the Iranian Majlis (Parliament) may soon pass the bill allowing inspections of tankers carrying oil along the Strait of Hormuz to countries that are part of the embargo. Even if this amounts to routine police inspection, the effect will be to drive up oil prices. The top patsy will be - once again - the EU, confirming Brussels’ infinite capacity to act against the national interests of member states. If one crisscrosses Kaveh Afrasiabi (Iran’s Persian Gulf gambit takes shape, July 5, 2012) with Chris Cook (Introducing the E-3, July 4) here at Asia Times Online, one can fully explore the multiple dimensions of “Iran won’t crack”. The Obama administration has to make a real decision; it’s either the “roll over and die” school of diplomacy, or real negotiations. Treating Iran like a pariah will only lead to a blunder equaling the Bush administration’s - whose Shock and Awe ended up with a Baghdad closely aligned with Tehran (while the US didn’t even become “the new OPEC”, as savant warmonger Paul Wolfowitz would have it). But this will pale compared to Iran, Russia and China trading energy in other currencies (as they are already doing); the beginning of the end of the petrodollar as the pillar of global energy politics, and thus of American hegemony. Time for the Iran cracking gang to go back to school.

Washington “softened” up Iraq for over a decade with extremely hardcore sanctions before it could launch Shock and Awe and destroy a debilitated, fragmented PERSIAN MINIATURES    133

Mehdi Sanaei, the director of the Russia Studies Group at the University of Tehran and the director of the Iran and Eurasia Research Center (IRAS), greets Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: / Creative Commons

War fever as seen from Iran The West could inadvertantly be pushing Iran to proceed full throttle toward mastering nuclear technology By PEPE ESCOBAR AUGUST 22, 2012

Absent the possibility of joining the Curiosity rover on Mars, there’s nowhere to hide from the “Bomb Iran” hysteria relentlessly emanating from Tel Aviv and its Washington outposts. Now that even includes thirdrate hacks suggesting US President Barack Obama should go in person to Israel to appease the warmongering duo Bibi-Barak [1]. So it’s time for something completely different - and totally absent from Western corporate media; sound Iranian minds rationally analyzing what’s really going on behind the drums of war - regarding Iran, Turkey, 134   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


the Arab world and across Eurasia. Let’s start with ambassador Hossein Mousavian, a research scholar at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, a former spokesperson for the Iranian nuclear negotiating team from 2003 to 2005, and the author of The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir . Writing at the Arms Control Association website [2], Mousavian goes straight to the point; “The history of Iran’s nuclear program suggests that the West is inadvertently pushing Iran toward nuclear weapons.” In seven key steps, he outlines how this happened - starting with Iran’s “entrance into the nuclear field”, owed largely, by the way, to Washington; “In the 1970s, the Shah [of Iran] had ambitious plans for expanding the nuclear program, envisioning 23 nuclear power plants by 1994, with support from the United States.” Mousavian stresses how, from 2003 to 2005, during the first Bush administration, Iran submitted different [nuclear] proposals, which included a declaration to cap enrichment at the 5% level; export all low-enriched uranium (LEU) or fabricate it into fuel rods; commit to an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement and to Code 3.1 of the subsidiary arrangements to the agreement, which would provide the maximum level of transparency; and allow the IAEA to make snap inspections of undeclared facilities. This offer was intended to address the West’s concerns regarding the nature of Iran’s nuclear program by ensuring that no enriched uranium would be diverted to a nuclear weapons program. It also would have facilitated the recognition of Iran’s right to enrichment under the NPT. In exchange for these Iranian commitments, the Iranian nuclear file at the IAEA would be normalized, and Iran would have broader political, economic, and security cooperation with the European Union. Furthermore, Iran was interested in securing fuel for the research reactor in Tehran and was ready to ship its enriched uranium to another country for fabrication into fuel rods. 136   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

The Bush administration refused everything. Mousavian recalls “a meeting I had at the time with French Ambassador to Iran Francois Nicoullaud, he told me, “For the US, the enrichment in Iran is a red line which the European Union cannot cross.” So “the West was not interested in solving the nuclear issue. Rather, the West wanted to compel Iran to forgo its enrichment program completely.” This could only lead Tehran to “change its nuclear diplomacy and accelerate its enrichment program, as it sought self-sufficiency in nuclear fuel.” ‘Zero stockpile’, anyone? Fast forward to February 2010. Tehran proposed, “keeping its enrichment activities below 5% in return for the West providing fuel rods for the Tehran reactor. The West refused this offer.” Then, in May 2010, “Iran reached a deal with Brazil and Turkey to swap its stockpile of LEU for research reactor fuel. The deal was based on a proposal first drafted by the Obama administration with Brazilian and Turkish officials under the impression that they had the blessing of Washington to negotiate with Iran. Regrettably, the United States trampled on their success by rejecting the plan; the UN Security Council subsequently passed additional sanctions against Iran.” Every unbiased observer following the Iranian nuclear dossier knows these facts. Another flash forward, to September 2011, “when Iran had completely mastered 20% enrichment and had a growing stockpile, it proposed stopping its 20%-enrichment activities and accepting Western-provided fuel rods for the Tehran reactor. Once again, the West declined and made it necessary for the Iranians to move toward producing their own fuel rods.” Moving on to this year’s talks in Istanbul and Baghdad, Mousavian stresses, “with each blockage and punitive Western action, Iran further advances its nuclear program.”

And it gets worse; “A comparison of the June 19 statement in Moscow by Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief and lead negotiator for the P5+1, with her April 14 Istanbul statement reveals a major difference. The P5+1 is now giving more emphasis to Iran’s compliance with its international obligations, namely, UN Security Council resolutions, rather than focusing on the country’s obligations under the NPT. This is a clear setback from the Istanbul position. It indicates a focus on suspension of Iran’s enrichment activities, a demand that has been a deal breaker since 2003.” The bottom line is “not only has the West pushed Iran to seek self-sufficiency, but at every juncture, it has tried to deprive Iran of its inalienable right to enrichment. This has simply propelled Iran to proceed full throttle toward mastering nuclear technology.” The conclusion is inevitable; “The progress of Iran’s nuclear program is the product of Western efforts to pressure and isolate Iran while refusing to recognize Iran’s rights.” Washington and its European followers simply can’t understand that “sanctions, isolation, and threats would not bring Iran to its knees. On the contrary, these policies have led only to the advancement of Iran’s nuclear program.” With even more devastating sanctions and the “Bomb Iran” fever turning into an attack, one consequence, says Mousavian, is assured; “Iran would be likely to withdraw from the NPT and pursue nuclear weapons.” What makes it even more absurd is that there is a solution to all this madness: To satisfy the concerns of the West regarding Iran’s 20% stockpile, a mutually acceptable solution for the long term would entail a “zero stockpile”. Under this approach, a joint committee of the P5+1 and Iran would quantify the domestic needs of Iran for use of 20% enriched uranium, and any quantity beyond that amount would be sold in the international market or immediately converted back to an enrichment level of 3.5%. This would ensure that Iran does not

possess excess 20% enriched uranium forever, satisfying the international concerns that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. It would be a face-saving solution for all parties as it would recognize Iran’s right to enrichment and would help to negate concerns that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Will Washington - and Tel Aviv - ever accept it? Of course not. The dogs of war will keep on barking. A new security game It’s also quite refreshing to examine Iranian analysts’ take on Syria. Mehdi Mohammadi, writing at the IranNuc.IR website [3] notes “the fear that the Sunni majority has of a Salafi minority is a very important, and often censored, reality about the situation on the ground in Syria. It is the same reality which has prevented the opposition to accept any form of negotiations or even free elections”. This fact is absolutely anathema in Western corporate media’s coverage of Syria. Mohammadi correctly evaluates the discrepancies among different Muslim Brotherhood (MB) factions inside Syria; one hardline faction wants Sharia law; another is convinced the future of the whole region is essentially at the hands of the MB anyway, so they are on a mission from God; but the majority wants to extract as much money as they can from Saudi Arabia while allied with France, the US, Sunnis in Lebanon and Jordan; “this part forms the spine of the armed opposition in Syria”. The bottom line is that even in the best-case scenario, the MB “is making a dire strategic mistake ... Even if Assad’s government falls, the Americans will not allow the Syrian government to fall into the hands of that part of the Muslim Brotherhood which seeks to continue and even give more depth to the existing conflict with Israel.” Mohammadi also observes, right on the money, how the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey “reached PERSIAN MINIATURES    137

the conclusion that the best way for preventing Arab Spring developments to serve Iran’s increasing power in the region was to turn the whole situation into a conflict between Shi’ites and Sunnis.” Essentially, how does Tehran see it? According to Mohammadi, “there is a high degree of confidence that the Syrian government will not fall in medium term.” On top of it, “it is very unlikely that Russia and China will reach an agreement with the West over Syria”, and “even on Iran’s nuclear dossier”. So Tehran is betting on the strategic achievement of a “reliable anti-West front consisting of Russia and China”. His conclusion; “The strategic equation of the region as a result of the ongoing developments in Syria has by no means changed to the detriment of Iran.” In an interview to the Iranian Diplomacy (IRD) website [4] former ambassador and strategic analyst Mohammad Farhad Koleini comments on how “some Arab countries, which have very bleak records in the field of human rights, have joined hands with the United States in the current equation in Syria in order to define a new security game. This security game, however, has been so mismanaged that it will certainly taint the international image of the United States.” Koleini notes that as the West goes for a new security arrangement in the Mediterranean, Moscow is trying “not to allow the West to impose its geopolitical monopoly.” So the Russian approach to Syria “is not necessarily focused on what is actually going on inside the country, but it stems from a regional package and how Moscow aims to regulate that package in relation to its interactions with the West.” That explains why Russia “will never allow Western states to impose a no-fly zone region over Syria”. Is this confrontation? Not really; “Russia is doing its best to avoid outright confrontation by any means. China has also shown all along the way that it is following the same policy.” Mehdi Sanaei, the director of the Russia Studies 138   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Group at the University of Tehran and the director of the Iran and Eurasia Research Center (IRAS), writing at the Tabnak News website[5] goes way deeper; Moscow is now working under “unprecedented suspicion of the United States’ goals and intentions in the Middle East and Eurasia.” So forget about the famous “reset” between Washington and Moscow. Sanaei refers to the famous foreign policy article [6] published by Putin on the eve of the Russian presidential election: “Putin took a direct shot at the United States by accusing Washington of deception and abuse of the UN structure and resolutions, applying double standards to various global issues in different countries, as well as seeking its own interests under the cover of advocating democracy.” Sanaei also correctly describes how Russian analysts see the Obama administration’s foreign policy as “based on two theories: ‘ultimate realism’, and ‘new liberalism.’ As a result, the Americans actually believe that world countries are simply divided into the United States’ friends and enemies. Hostile countries, therefore, should be weakened and their presence in global and regional strategic arenas should be limited and even suppressed in political, economic and cultural terms.” So, for Moscow, “a new wave of the world order has been initiated by the United States in order to create a new version of the past unipolar world system. The main targets of this wave, Moscow maintains, include North Africa, the Middle East, Iran, Eurasia, and finally China and Russia.” Koleini, this time writing for the Tehran Emrooz daily [7], introduces the Pipelineistan theme in the Iran-Russia relationship; “Despite its cooperation with Iran’s nuclear energy program, Russia has been always willing to cut Iran’s hand in the European natural gas market. Therefore, Russia has been interacting with Turkey and certain Eastern European countries on the Blue Stream project. This proves beyond any doubt that Russia is trying to take the lead in engineering

security structure in Europe through its energy policy and reduce Europe’s reliance on other energy sources.” All this while “trying to play a balancing role in Iran’s nuclear case.” Koleini also outlines the main challenge to the “Eurasian policy” laid out by Putin before his election; “The point is that the West is designing new political games, especially in Central Asia to give new problems to Russia and divert Moscow’s attention from Eurasia to traditional spheres of the former Soviet Union.” Egypt and Iran kiss and make up Iranian intellectuals are carefully monitoring neighboring Turkey. Turkey and Caucasus expert Elyas Vahedi observes how “the Turkish government came up with such concepts as ‘neither state religion, nor religious state,’ ‘secular government, not secular man,’ ‘civilizing the constitution,’ ‘democratic openness / Kurdish openness / Alawite openness,’ and ‘civil control and supervision over the army’ and has been using them to strengthen and maintain the political clout of the Justice and Development Party.”

Moreover, Turkey’s foreign policy “has also nurtured speculations that Ankara has joined the Shi’ite-Sunni conflict which has been fostered by the West. The damage that this notion will do to Turkey’s regional and international standing and prestige will be too costly for Ankara.” Vahedi sees Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as just following the West, which is leading from behind, Obama-style. Turkey “has apparently read the West’s mind and is trying to accept that role on behalf of the West in return for certain concessions.” But it won’t work - as, for instance, facilitating Turkey’s accession to the EU over immense French and German objections. Not to mention that Ankara “is facing scathing criticism from nationalist figures. They allege that while the rights of Turks are being ignored in Karabakh as well as in the Balkans through the oversight of the Western powers, the government of Turkey has made defending the rights of the Syrian people its first and foremost priority.”

Ali Akbar Asadi, from the International Relations Dept at the University of Allameh Tabatabaei, expands on the key event of the next few weeks: the renewed And of course, before the Arab Spring, all talk was diplomatic relationship between Iran and Egypt about “zero problems with our neighbors” and Turkey’s which is drawing Washington’s unmitigated wrath; the “strategic depth” doctrine. State Department, in a childish move, is even saying that Iran “does not deserve” to host the summit of the But now that Turkey is stuck in Syria, the AKP govNon-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran, which will ernment is “trying to justify its failure by claiming that be attended by Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi. [8] the policy of minimizing problems with neighboring countries has just entered is second phase ... Turkey beAsadi goes to the jugular - the Gulf Cooperation lieves that the main feature of the second version of this Council (GCC) petro-monarchies are terrified that policy is interaction with people in neighboring coun“Egypt may renew relations with the Islamic Repubtries rather than interaction with their governments.” lic of Iran or even enter into strategic relations with Turkey, thus working to undermine the influence and It simply doesn’t hold, says Vahedi: “This viewpoint, clout of the GCC in the new balance of regional powdespite some shortcomings, was somehow justifiable in er.” some countries like Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, but this is not the case in Syria.” Besides, Ankara “remained So the GCC is doing what it usually does; showering silent toward the predicament of people in Bahrain, a bit of cash. “They want to keep Egypt, as a big and under the pretext that political protests in Bahrain are important Arab political player, on their own side.” not popular.” Besides, they are demanding from Morsi and the MB PERSIAN MINIATURES    139

that “they do not take any step to export their revolution and activate affiliates” of the MB in the GCC. And they “expect Cairo to avoid adopting a new approach to strengthening Hamas against Fatah, helping Gaza and the Palestinian population there, and taking an adamant stance against the Israeli regime.”

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that getting involved in another war would lead to ‘unintended consequences.’ Photo: AFP

The GCC policy, supported by the West and Israel, is “to keep Egypt entangled in its domestic challenges” and thus unable to exercise its” historical claim to leadership of the Arab world.” This is just a sample of the level of intellectual discussion going on in Iran. Compared to the bombing hysteria in Tel Aviv and Washington, it does look like it’s coming from Mars. Notes: 1. An Obama Visit to Israel Could Stall Iran Attack, Bloomberg, August 21. 2. See 3. See 4. See 5. See 6. See Russia and the changing world, RIANOVOSTI 7. See 8. US says Iran doesn’t deserve to host summit of Non Aligned Movement, Washington Post, August 21.

War against Iran, Iraq AND Syria? Once again, it’s all about Pipelineistan: time to round up the usual jihadis By PEPE ESCOBAR JULY 23, 2013

Amidst the incessant rumble in the (Washington) jungle about a possible Obama administration military adventure in Syria, new information has come to light. And what a piece of Pipelineistan information that is. Picture Iraqi Oil Minister Abdelkarim al-Luaybi, Syrian Oil Minister Sufian Allaw, and the current Iranian caretaker Oil Minister Mohammad Aliabadi getting together in the port of Assalouyeh, southern Iran, to sign a memorandum of understanding for the construction of the Iran-IraqSyria gas pipeline, no less. 140   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


At Asia Times Online and also elsewhere I have been arguing that this prospective Pipelinestan node is one of the fundamental reasons for the proxy war in Syria. Against the interests of Washington, for whom integrating Iran is anathema, the pipeline bypasses two crucial foreign actors in Syria - prime “rebel” weaponizer Qatar (as a gas producer) and logistical “rebel” supporter Turkey (as the self-described privileged energy crossroads between East and West). The US$10 billion, 6,000 kilometer pipeline is set to start in Iran’s South Pars gas field (the largest in the world, shared with Qatar), and run via Iraq, Syria and ultimately to Lebanon. Then it could go under the Mediterranean to Greece and beyond; be linked to the Arab gas pipeline; or both. Before the end of August, three working groups will be discussing the complex technical, financial and legal aspects involved. Once finance is secured - and that’s far from certain, considering the proxy war in Syria - the pipeline could be online by 2018. Tehran hopes that the final agreement will be signed before the end of the year.

years”. If that happens, bye-bye pipeline. One wonders what those Pentagon intel wizards have really been doing since early 2011, considering they had been predicting Bashar al-Assad’s fall every other week. Now they have also “discovered” that jihadis in the Syrian theater of the Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) mould are actually running the (ghastly) show. Shedd admitted there are “at least 1,200” disparate “rebel” factions/gangs in Syria, most of them irrelevant. Attesting to the appalling average IQ involved in foreign policy debate in the Beltway, still this information had to be spun to justify yet another military adventure on the horizon - especially after President Barack “Assad must go” Obama declared he would authorize the “light” weaponizing of “good” rebels only. As if the harsh rules of war obeyed some Weapon Fairy Godmother high up in the sky. Into the ring steps General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On the same day that Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus were talking seriously about the business of energy, Dempsey wrote to US senators of the John McCain warmongering variety that the US getting into yet another war would lead to “unintended consequences”.

Tehran’s working assumption is that it will be able to export 250 million cubic meters of gas a day by 2016. When finished, the pipeline will be able to pump 100 million cubic meters a day. For the moment, Iraq needs Dempsey wrote that weaponizing and training the up to 15 million cubic meters a day. By 2020, Syria will “good” rebels (assuming the CIA has a clue who need up to 20 million cubic meters, and Lebanon up to they are) would cost “$500 million per year initially”, 7 million cubic meters. That still leaves a lot of gas to require “several hundred to several thousand troops” be exported to European customers. and risk weaponizing al-Qaeda-style jihadis, as well Europeans - who endlessly carp about being hostages as plunging Washington, according to Dempsey’s of Gazprom - should be rejoicing. Instead, once again Pentagonese, into “inadvertent association with war they shot themselves in their Bally-clad feet. crimes due to vetting difficulties.” Want war? Here’s the bill Before we get to the latest European fiasco, let’s mix this Pipelineistan development with the new Pentagon “discovery” - via the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), David Shedd, according to whom the proxy war in Syria may last for “multiple 142   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

In case the Obama administration caved in to the warmongers’ favorite option - a no-fly zone - Dempsey also said “limited” air strikes would require “hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers”, to a cost “in the billions”, and all that to achieve little else than a “significant degradation of regime capabilities and an increase in regime desertions”. Dempsey at least was frank; unlike Gaddafi in Libya,

Bashar al-Assad’s forces would not fold because of a no-fly zone. And nothing substantially would change because the Syrian government “relies overwhelmingly on surface fires - mortars, artillery, and missiles”. And even a limited no-fly zone - what former State Department star Anne-Marie Slaughter euphemistically defined as a “no-kill zone” - would cost “over $1 billion a month”. And who will be paying for all this? China? Even with Dempsey playing god cop and sporting the voice of reason - something quite astonishing in itself; but anyway he’s been to Iraq, and saw first hand the ass-kicking by a bunch of towelheads with second-hand Kalashnikovs - US pundits are still relishing the internal debate in the Obama administration over the “wisdom” of yet another war.

themselves get away with it. So much for European ignorance/arrogance. So what’s next? It’s not far-fetched to imagine the EU totally forgetting about a pipeline that will ultimately benefit its citizens and issuing - under US pressure - a directive branding Iran-Iraq-Syria as a terrorist axis; lobbying for a no-fly zone applying to all; and recruiting jihadis all over for a Holy War against the axis, supported by a fatwa issued by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. But first they would need Washington’s approval. As a matter of fact, they might even get it.

Round up all the Prada jihadis And while the “wisdom” debate is slated to go on, the European Union decided to act; meekly bowing to US and Israel pressure, the EU - itself pressured by the UK and the Netherlands - blacklisted the armed wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The pretext was the bombing of a bus carrying Israelis in Bulgaria in 2012. Hezbollah said it had nothing to do with it. Bulgarian investigators said positively yes; then maybe; and now they admit even circumstantial evidence is shaky. So the pretext is bogus. This is the EU - after the despicable denying of overflying rights to the Bolivian presidential plane - once again meekly playing poodle, with the Brits and the Dutch trying to weaken Hezbollah just as it has staked its ground in the Syrian/Lebanese border and has actually fought those jihadis of the Jabhat al-Nusra and AQI kind. As a graphic illustration of utter EU cluelessness some might say stupidity - Britain, the Netherlands and France, especially, followed by the others, have just branded the organization that is fighting jihadis on the ground in Syria/Lebanon “terrorists”, while the jihadis PERSIAN MINIATURES    143

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani gestures during a news conference in Tehran, Iran. Photo: Reuters/TIMA

Rouhani surfs the new WAVE Iranian President, unlike every ‘coalition of the willing’, proposes a global program against extremism By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 25, 2013

He came. He listened. And he surfed. “I listened carefully to the statement made by President Obama today at the General Assembly... [I’m] hoping that they will refrain from following the short-sighted interests of warmongering pressure groups and we can arrive at a framework to managing our differences.” Then he outlined what has always been the official Iranian position: “Talks can happen; equal footing and mutual respect should govern the talks.” Then he addressed the expectation (actually, the world’s): “Of course, we expect to hear a consistent voice from Washington. The dominant voice in recent years has been for a military option.” But now he had another idea. So he sets the stage for the punch line: It’s WAVE time. WAVE as in World Against Violence and Extremism. Not in Farsi, lost in translation; in English. “I propose as a starting step... I invite all states... to undertake a new 144   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


effort to guide the world in this direction ... we should start thinking about a coalition for peace all across the globe instead of the ineffective coalitions for war.”

mascus if anything goes wrong with the Syrian chemical weapons disarmament. And this for the “interests of all” - as in Israel and the House of Saud.

So the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has just invited the whole planet to join the WAVE. How come no “coalition of the willing” leader ever thought about that?

The overwhelming majority of the real world, though, is busy reminding the US president that America is not exceptional at all, from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in the case of secrets whistle-blower Edward Snowden and the Syria tragedy to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who in a stinging speech qualified NSA spying as an “affront”. It’s not by accident that all the original four BRICS, Brazil, Russia, India and China, have been spied to kingdom come.

Talk about a rockin’ entrance on the world stage (Here’s the full Rouhani speech, in English, which deserves careful reading). Rouhani was measured and composed - but forceful enough to debunk the “imaginary Iranian threat propaganda”, stress the horrible effects of sanctions, and still remain hopeful that the 34-year Wall of Mistrust between Washington and Tehran can be torn down. Obama, to his credit, had tried hard not to be upstaged. It took no less than 60 years for an American president to finally admit Washington had a hand in overthrowing the democratically elected Mossadegh government in 1953 (although the ghost-written formulation in his speech was extremely sloppy). Obama officially recognized the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa against nuclear weapons (imagine the George W Bush administration doing it). And he said on the record that Washington is not seeking regime change in Tehran - thus speeding up former vice president Dick Cheney’s next heart attack. Obama even mentioned the key words “mutual respect”. As for the cinematic coup de grace - the “casual” meeting or handshake in the corridors of the UN - it could never have happened so soon. Both Rouhani and Obama are under enormous pressure from hawks on both sides, and so far there’s nothing substantial on the table. Yet even while trying to send all the right signals to Tehran, Obama simply could not resist the urge: “I believe America is exceptional, in part because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all.” The corollary: he kept plugging for a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the bombing of Da146   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin share a toast. Image: AFP via Zuma

Will WAVE drown the hawks? After the UN catharsis, the stage is now set for the real heavy work to start this Thursday, when US Secretary of State John “Assad is like Hitler” Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in the cadre of the multilateral P-5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany). The key points of the road map ahead are clear. Total clarification of details regarding Iran’s rightful peaceful nuclear program should proceed with dismantling of sanctions. Washington’s nasty financial blockade of Iran’s oil sales is not working; no one, from China to India and beyond, will stop buying Iranian energy because the US says so. And Iran should also be reinstated in the global bank exchange mechanism.

All in play in the New Great Game

Here, Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, makes an extremely important point. Timing - by a series of circumstances - may be perfect, but the window of opportunity is not going to last very long.


It all comes back to the same drama; will Obama and his team have enough balls to stare down the Israel lobby, the House of Saud, the neo-cons and assorted armchair warmongers across the Beltway? If not, the War Party victory will mirror the anti-Rouhani hardline victory in Tehran - with devastating consequences. So yes, the stakes could not have been higher. What the world needs now, is WAVE after WAVE after WAVE.

How Putin and Xi can ‘protect’ peacemaker Obama DECEMBER 23, 2013

The big story of 2014 will be Iran. Of course, the big story of the early 21st century will never stop being US-China, but it’s in 2014 that we will know whether a comprehensive accord transcending the Iranian nuclear program is attainable; and in this case the myriad ramifications will affect all that’s in play in the New Great Game in Eurasia, including US-China. As it stands, we have an interim deal of the P5+1 (the UN Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany) with Iran, and no deal between the US and Afghanistan. So, once again, we have AfghanPERSIAN MINIATURES    147

istan configured as a battleground between Iran and the House of Saud, part of a geopolitical game played out in overdrive since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 along the northern rim of the Middle East all the way to Khorasan and South Asia. Then there’s the element of Saudi paranoia, extrapolating from the future of Afghanistan to the prospect of a fully “rehabilitated” Iran becoming accepted by Western political/financial elites. This, by the way, has nothing to do with that fiction, the “international community”; after all, Iran was never banished by the BRICS, (ie Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the Non-Aligned Movement and the bulk of the developing world. Those damned jihadis Every major player in the Barack Obama administration has warned Afghan President Hamid Karzai that either he signs a bilateral “security agreement” authorizing some ersatz of the US occupation or Washington will withdraw all of its troops by the end of 2014. Wily puppet Karzai will milk this for all it’s worth as in extracting hardcore concessions. Yet, whatever happens, Iran will maintain if not enlarge its sphere of influence in Afghanistan. This intersection of Central and South Asia is geopolitically crucial for Iranian to project power, second only to Southwest Asia (what we call the “Middle East”). We should certainly expect the House of Saud to keep using every nasty trick available to the imagination of Saudi Arabia’s Bandar bin Sultan, aka Bandar Bush, to manipulate Sunnis all across AfPak with a target of, essentially, preventing Iran from projecting power. But Iran can count on a key ally, India. As Delhi accelerates its security cooperation with Kabul, we reach the icing on the Hindu Kush; India, Iran and Afghanistan developing their southern branch of the New Silk Road, with a special niche for the highway connecting Afghanistan to the Iranian port of Chabahar (Afghanistan meets the Indian Ocean). 148   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

So watch out for all sorts of interpolations of an Iran-India alliance pitted against a Saudi-Pakistani axis. This axis has been supporting assorted Islamists in Syria - with nefarious results; but because Pakistan has also been engulfed in appalling violence against Shi’ites, Islamabad won’t be too keen to be too closely aligned with the House of Saud in AfPak. Washington and Tehran for their part happen to be once more aligned (remember 2001?) in Afghanistan; neither one wants hardcore jihadis roaming around. Even Islamabad - which for all practical purposes has lost all its leverage with the Taliban in AfPak - would like jihadis to go up in smoke. All these players know that any number of remaining US forces and swarms of contractors will not fill the power vacuum in Kabul. The whole thing is bound to remain murky, but essentially the scenario points to the Central-South Asia crossroads as the second-largest geopolitical - and sectarian - battleground in Eurasia after the Levantine-Mesopotamian combo. Zero energy from our neighbor? As much as India, Iraq is also in favor of a comprehensive deal with Iran. And to think that Iran and Iraq might have been engaged in a silent nuclear arms race with one another at the end of the last century, just for Baghdad now to fiercely defend Tehran’s right to enrich uranium. Not to mention that Baghdad depends on Iran for trade, electricity and material help in that no-holds-barred war against Islamists/Salafi-jihadis. Turkey also welcomes a comprehensive agreement with Iran. Turkey’s trade with Iran has nowhere to go but up. The target is US$30 billion by 2015. More than 2,500 Iranian companies have invested in Turkey. Ankara cannot possibly support Western sanctions; it makes no business sense. Sanctions go against its policy of expanding trade. Moreover, Turkey depends on inexpensive natural gas imported from Iran. After deviating wildly from its previous policy of “zero problems with our neighbors”, Ankara is now

waking up to the business prospect of Syrian reconstruction. Iraq may help, drawing from its oil wealth. Energy-deprived Turkey can’t afford to be marginalized. A re-stabilized Syria will mean the go-ahead for the $10 billion Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline. If Ankara plays the game, an extension could be in the cards - fitting its self-proclaimed positioning as a privileged Pipelineistan crossroads from East to West. The bottom line is that the Turkish-Iranian conflict over the future of Syria pales when compared with the energy game and booming trade. This points to Ankara and Tehran increasingly converging into finding a peaceful solution in Syria. But there’s a huge problem. The Geneva II conference on January 22 may represent the nail in the coffin of the House of Saud’s push to inflict regime change on Bashar al-Assad. Once again, this implies that Bandar Bush is ready to go absolutely medieval - plowing the whole spectrum of summary executions, beheadings, suicide and car bombings and all-out sectarianism all along the Iraqi-Syrian-Lebanese front. At least there will be a serious counterpunch; as Sharmine Narwani outlines here, the former “Shi’ite crescent” - or “axis of resistance” - is now reconstituting itself as a “security arc” against Salafi-jihadis. Pentagon conceptualizers of the “arc of instability” kind never thought about that. Missile nonsense, anyone? Adults in Washington - not exactly a majority - may have already visualized the fabulous derivatives of a Western deal with Iran by examining China’s approval and the possibility of future Iranian help to stabilize Afghanistan. For China, Iran is a matter of national security - as a top source of energy (plus all those myriad cultural affinities between Persians and Chinese since Silk Road times). Threatening a country to which the US owes over $1 trillion with third-party, Department of the Treasury sanctions for buying Iranian oil seems to be

off the cards, at least for now. As for Moscow, by coming with a diplomatic resolution to the chemical weapons crisis in Syria, Vladimir Putin no less than saved the Obama administration from itself, as it was about to plunge into a new Middle Eastern war of potentially cataclysmic consequences. Immediately afterwards, the door was opened for the first breach since 1979 of the US-Iran Wall of Mistrust. Crucially, after the Iranian nuclear interim deal was signed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov went for the jugular; the deal cancels the need for NATO’s ballistic missile defense in Central Europe - with interceptor bases in Romania and Poland set to become operational in 2015 and 2018, respectively. Washington has always insisted on the fiction that this was designed to counter missile “threats” from Iran. Without the Iranian pretext, the justification for ballistic missile defense is unsustainable. The real negotiation starts more-or-less now, in early 2014. Logically the endgame by mid-2014 would be no more sanctions in exchange for close supervision of Iran’s nuclear program. Yet this is a game of superimposed obfuscations. Washington sells itself the myth that this is about somewhat controlling the Iranian nuclear program, an alternative plan to an ultra highrisk Shock and Awe strike to annihilate vast swathes of Iranian infrastructure. No one is talking, but it’s easy to picture BRICS heavyweights Russia and China casually informing Washington what kind of weaponry and material support they would offer Iran in case of an American attack. Tehran, for its part, would like to interpret the tentative rapprochement as the US renouncing regime change, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei paying the price of trading elements of a nuclear program for the end of sanctions. Assuming Tehran and Washington are able to isolate their respective confrontational lobbies - a titanic task - the benefits are self-evident. Tehran wants - and PERSIAN MINIATURES    149

badly needs - investment in its energy industry (at least $200 billion) and other sectors of the economy. Western Big Oil is dying to invest in Iran. The economic opening will inevitably be part of the final agreement - and for Western turbo-capitalism this is a must; a market of 80 million largely well-educated people, with fabulous location, and swimming in oil and gas. [1] What’s not to like? Peacemaker or just a trickster? Tehran supports Assad in large part to combat the jihadi virus - incubated by wealthy sponsors in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. So whatever the spin in Washington, there’s no possibility of a serious solution for Syria without involving Iran. The Obama administration now seems to realize that Assad is the least bad among unanimously bad options. Who would have bet on it only three months ago? The interim deal with Iran is the first tangible evidence that Barack Obama is actually considering leaving his foreign policy mark in Southwest Asia/Middle East. It helps that the 0.00001% who run the show may have realized that a US president globally perceived as a dancing fool engenders massive instability in the Empire and all its satrapies. The bottom line is that Obama needs to respect his partner Hassan Rouhani - who has made clear to the Americans he must secure non-stop political backing by Khamenei; that’s the only way to sideline the very powerful religious/ideological lobby in Tehran/Qom against any deal with the former “Great Satan”. So “Great Satan” needs to negotiate in good faith. A realpolitik old hand (with a soft heart) would say that the Obama administration is aiming at a balance of power between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. A more Machiavellian realpolitik old hand would say this is about pitting Sunni versus Shi’ite, Arabs versus Persians, to keep them paralyzed. Perhaps a more prosaic reading is that the US as a 150   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

mob protector is no more. As much as everyone is aware of a powerful Israel lobby and an almost as powerful Wahhabi petrodollar lobby in Washington, it’s never discussed that neither Israel nor the House of Saud have a “protector” other than the US.

Laleh Park in Tehran is crisscrossed by stray Persian cats volleyball and badminton players and pram-pushing families. It’s a good place to discuss the finer points of one of the great surviving narratives; Shi’ism and Khomeini’s concept of velayat-e-faqih. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

So from now on, if the House of Saud sees Iran as a threat, it will have to come up with its own strategy. And if Israel insists on seeing Iran as an “existential threat” - which is a joke - it will have to deal with it as a strategic problem. If a real consequence of the current shift is that Washington will not fight wars for Saudi or Israeli sake anymore, that’s already a monumental game changer. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin see it is in their interest to “protect” peacemaker Obama. And yet everyone remains on slippery territory; Obama as peacemaker this time really honoring his Nobel Prize - may be just a mirror image. And Washington could always march towards regime change in Tehran led by the next White House tenant after 2016. For 2014 though, plenty of signs point to a tectonic shift in the geopolitical map of Eurasia, with Iran finally emerging as the real superpower in Southwest Asia over the designs of both Israel and the House of Saud. Now that’s (geopolitical) entertainment. Happy New Year. Note: 1. Iran Deal Opens Door for Businesses, Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2013.

Pure War in Tehran Crisscrossing Tehran from north to south armed with a Paul Virilio classic By PEPE ESCOBAR OCTOBER 8, 2014

I’ve just spent a frantic week in Tehran. Before departure, I had made a conscious decision; only one book in the backpack. Maximum concentration. I ended up choosing Pure War, the 2008 reprint by Semiotext(e) in LA of the 1983 Paul Virilio classic I had picked up at the revamped Foyles in London a few days back. For a roving correspondent, going to Iran is always extra-special. Getting a press visa approved usually takes ages. This was my sixth trip - and I had no visa. Just a number, tied to a visa at the airport. Until the last PERSIAN MINIATURES    151

minute, I thought I’d be deported from Imam Khomeini International - back to Abu Dhabi, which is now pretending to bomb The Caliph. Then, a small miracle; a VIP room, a visa in 10 minutes and the next I know I’m zooming into an eerily deserted Tehran at sunrise on a Friday, past the psychedelic space station decked in green that is Imam Khomeini’s shrine. Why Virilio? Because he was the first to conceptualize that with the explosion of asymmetrical warfare, Total War had become local - on a global scale. I expanded on the theme in my 2007 book Globalistan and in my writings. Washington and Tel Aviv had been threatening to bomb Iran for years. Virilio was the first to assert that “peace” merely extends war by other means. May 1968 as a theatre of the mind - a theatre of the imagination. When society could be an artwork, a performance, with the crowds in the street as the chorus. The last creative reaction against consumerism. “Power to the imagination”. A beautiful sunny morning in front of the Foreign Ministry compound. An exhibition/installation about the “imposed” - as it’s widely known - Iran-Iraq war. A reconstructed minefield; a map of nations weaponizing Saddam; pictures of young fighters/martyrs who wouldn’t have been older than 14. A theatre of painful remembrance. In late 1978, Tehran also had its crowds in the streets as chorus - against the shah. Khomeini was a reaction against consumerism; but was he “power to the imagination”? And then, all was engulfed in a theatre of cruelty - the tragedy of the “imposed” war.

ophobia; sectarianism; and Washington’s blind support for anything Israel unleashes over Palestine: Israel’s national delinquency, or State terrorism. The conference also called for cooperation and understanding between the West and Islam: that implies a struggle against interstate delinquencies. The best defense is to attack; and to attack you must have some ideas; right now there aren’t any ideas. Imagination today is in the image, and the image is in power. There’s no imagination for anything but the image. I have to leave a fabulous open-air traditional Persian dinner to go to Press TV studios for a debate with notorious neo-con Daniel Pipes about ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. We surprisingly agree more than I would normally expect. Well, not hard considering the Obama administration’s non-strategy “strategy”; an image (bombs and Tomahawks) fighting an image (The Caliph’s carefully edited beheading show). Meanwhile, President Hassan Rouhani’s speech at the United Nations kept making waves; “Extremists threaten our neighbors, resort to violence and shed blood.” It’s “the people in the region who can deliver” in the fight against The Caliph. Rouhani was not exactly referring to the made in USA jets allegedly deployed by the Gulf Cooperation Council coalition of the clueless/ cowards; the House of Saud, UAE, Bahrain and associate member Jordan.

War in the journalistic sense is national delinquency elevated to the scale of an extremely important conflict - It’s the equivalent of the “tumults”, as ancient societies called them. We can no longer even speak of wars, they are interstate delinquencies. It’s State terrorism.

In all my conversations, a consensus emerges; the power vacuum of post-2013 Shock and Awe and occupation led to the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq and eventually ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. But even as Tehran and Washington may have flirted about a joint move against The Caliph, Washington then denied it wanted help and Tehran rejected it outright.

In Tehran, my immensely gracious hosts were the organizers of New Horizon: the International Conference of Independent Thinkers. After plenty of twists and turns, the Foreign Ministry ended up also being involved. The conference issued a important resolution condemning ISIS/ISIL/The Caliph; Zionism; Islam-

Still, what Rouhani said in New York kept echoing day after day everywhere in Tehran; weaponizing the “new” Free Syrian Army in Saudi Arabia, of all places, amounts “to train another group of terrorists and send them to Syria to fight”. And Washington’s “strategy” is further enabling hardcore Sunni dictators who’ve made


their careers demonizing Shi’ites. And then that other “unofficial” Caliph, neo-Ottoman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stepped in; there would be no use of Turkish “territory” or “military bases” by the “coalition” if “the objective does not also include ousting the Bashar al-Assad regime”. Who needs Caliph Erdogan to fight Caliph Ibrahim? Major General Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, can do it; his picture, side by side with Kurdish peshmergas, made a splash all over Iran when published by IRINN. The cinema shows us what our consciousness is. Our consciousness is an effect of montage - It’s a collage. There is only collage, cutting and splicing. This explains fairly well what Jean-Francois Lyotard calls the disappearance of the great narratives. Classless society, social justice - no one believes in them anymore. We’re in the age of micro-narratives, the art of the fragment. The joy of Laleh park - a Persian park crisscrossed by stray Persian cats as well as accomplished volleyball and badminton players and pram-pushing families. That’s where Arash Darya-Bandari, medievalist extraordinaire with many years spent in the Bay Area, gives me a crash course on the finer points of one of the great surviving narratives; Shi’ism and Khomeini’s concept of velayat-e-faqih. In Pure Non-War terms, this was always supposed to be about social justice. And that’s why it’s unintelligible to turbo-capitalism. The park as Agora; a garden of intellectual delights. Nearly all my top conversations took place walking across or around Laleh park. And then one night, I went for a solitary walk, just to find a revolutionary movie/performance on a makeshift stage, complete with a trench and mortars. An audience of a few solitary men and some scattered families. The cinema keeping the consciousness of the Iran-Iraq war alive. The end of deterrence corresponds to the beginning of the information war, a conflict where the superiority of information is more important than the capability to inflict damage. The New Horizon conference could not but be about information war. The overall theme was the fight

against the Zionist lobby. Everyone knows what the lobby means and how it operates, especially in the US. And yet, in my short interventions, at the Foreign Ministry and at the conference, I preferred to focus on its global financial/economic reach. Follow the money. That’s the only way to pierce the lobby’s seemingly invincible armory. Another face of information war. Everywhere I went, I had the pleasure to see how Gareth Porter’s book Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iranian Nuclear Scare - was received as a blessing. The book was translated into Farsi by the Fars News Agency, in only two months, with meticulous care, and launched in a simple ceremony. It’s bound to become a best seller - as it conclusively proves, for instance, how the Iranian “plot” to equip missiles with nuclear warheads was entirely fabricated by the terrorist outfit Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and then handed over to the International Atomic Energy Agency by the Mossad. Contrast the respect shown to Gareth in Tehran to the wall of silence of its US reception - just another reflection of the 35-year-old “wilderness of mirrors” opposing Washington to Tehran. Predictably, the usual illiterate morons in the US dubbed the conference as an “anti-Semite hate fest”. Gareth was described as “an anti-Israel journalist” and myself as “a Brazilian anti-Israel journalist”. Obviously the moronic inferno is not familiar with the concept of “foreign policy”. Space is no longer in geography - it’s in electronics. Unity is in the terminals. It’s in the instantaneous time of command posts, multinational headquarters, control towers, etc. Politics is less in physical space than in the time systems administered by various technologies. ? There is a movement from geo- to chronopolitics: the distribution of territory becomes the distribution of time. The distribution of territory is outmoded, minimal. Time to go to the bazaar - the ultimate urban distribution of territory. At the main entrance, a gaggle brandishing calculators and pieces of paper is involved PERSIAN MINIATURES    153

in an incredible racket. With Roberto Quaglia - author of a wicked debunking of the 9/11 saga - we joke this looks like a slaves market. Not really. This is nothing less than a futures market on the course of the rial. With the national currency fluctuating so much because of the sanctions - it lost three quarters of its value in the past few years - the chance to make a bundle is irresistible. We meet the beautiful Zahra - she sells handmade towels but is essentially a killer fashion photographer. And then the ritual I’ve loved since forever; haggling for the perfect tribal rug. In this case, a Zaghol from the 1930s, never to be reproduced because the local nomads are becoming sedentary and there are no new weavers. A case of distribution of territory becoming the distribution of (lost) time. The Pharaohs, the Romans, the Greeks were surveyors. That was geopolitics. We’re no longer there, we’re in chronopolitics. Organization, prohibitions, interruptions, orders, powers, structurings, subjections are now in the realm of temporality. And that’s also where resistance should be. Which lead us, once again, to sanctions. Much had been made of what Rouhani told Austrian President Hans Fisher at the UN - about Iran being ready to deliver gas to the European Union. That’s not happening tomorrow; the last figure I had, in Tehran, years ago, is that the country would need at least US$200 billion in investments to upgrade its energy infrastructure. Rouhani was forced to clarify it. And Tehran won’t sell itself to the EU on the cheap. The end of sanctions is all about chronopolitics. We have entered an age of large-scale terrorism. Just as we speak of petty delinquency and major delinquency, I think the same should be said of petty and major terrorism. ... The military-industrial and scientific complexes continue to function on their own momentum. It’s a crazy engine that won’t stop. Tehran thinks about the crazy engine all the time. I’m sort of “kidnapped” from a meeting and end up in a small think tank with a fabulous map on the wall 154   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

detailing the US command centers. All the students are eager to know what the Empire is really up to with Iran.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (centre L) meets Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (2nd R) at a hotel in Vienna, Austria July 1, 2015. Photo: Reuters

A visit to the “nest of spies” - the former US embassy - is also inevitable. An apotheosis of 1970s technology - immaculately preserved like nowhere else in the world; radio equipment, proto-computers, telephones, telexes, rolodexes, a “forgery room” for fake passports. No wonder Washington could never recover from the loss of this sterling listening post of the whole Middle East. Will this building ever be a “normal” US embassy again? Someone should ask the hick Hamlet who almost turned into a mad bomber. This is why the airport today has become the new city. ? People are no longer citizens, they’re passengers in transit. No longer a nomad society, in the sense of the great nomadic drifts, but one concentrated on the vector of transportation. The new capital is ... a city at the intersection of practicabilities of time, in other words, of speed. The last day had to contain an epiphany. I waited for it all day long - amid myriad interviews and a fabulous Indian lunch in North Tehran with Gareth and Dr Marandi of the Faculty of World Studies, University of Tehran; the ideal Platonic banquet of conviviality and intellect. Then, at night, a mad dash across town to the Rey shrine; working-class neighborhood, foundation stone of Tehran, one of the top pilgrimage sites in Iran alongside Qom and Mashhad. Aesthetic illumination meets sensorial overload meets spiritual pull - with an extra kick because you’re arguably the only Westerner in sight. Tens of thousands of pilgrims honor the death of Imam Ali’s son-in-law. What’s that thing about the death of grand narratives? Not in deep Iran. And then it’s all over, as in a Coleridge dream; did I dream this fleeting Persian interlude, or did Tehran dreamed a little dream of me? I’m back to my default mode - the essential passenger in transit; a nomad carpet, a backpack and a boarding pass. Next stop; a faceless city in an intersection of speed.

Iran nuke deal – what’s cookin’ at the Vienna table Music students play Mozart outside the Opera while the French invent ‘constructive robustness’ By PEPE ESCOBAR JULY 3, 2015

VIENNA – As the clock ticks towards a – possible? – Iran nuclear deal, sources very close to Iranian negotiators expressed to Asia Times their frustration about American negotiators; they seem not to be prepared, yet, to make a clear choice between keeping some UN Security Council sanctions and getting an agreement. Asia Times has also learned that the major – extremely contentious – point at the negotiating table concerns the operation of the Joint Commission dispute resolution mechanism. None of the P5+1 players want this to be leaked – yet. As for an overview of the status of negotiations, Iranian officials are cautious; “Still undecided.” A good sign is that the general language on how PERSIAN MINIATURES    155

sanctions are to be lifted, including the “simultaneous and parallel” principle, is already decided. The negotiations advancing towards this make or break weekend are now focused on “operational details”. Still, there are serious divisions within the P5+1, especially over key aspects of what the UN Security Council should be doing; on the complex mechanism through which sanctions would be lifted; and on access – the famous “verification” regime. That leads Iranian negotiators to a quirky formulation; “We can say with authority that they have to spend more time negotiating among themselves than negotiating with us.” At the same time the Iranians acknowledge the problems faced by the Obama administration; “They have to go through so many difficult channels.” Over the past few days, stonewalling by the U.S. side has run – in parallel — with anti-deal lobby machinations now introducing Divide and Rule inside the Iranian political decision system, pitting factions against each other. Every diplomat in Vienna knows that every single day with a deal in limbo is a perfect day for the anti-deal lobby, be it in Washington, Tehran, Tel Aviv or Riyadh. The word in Washington is all over sunny Vienna – mixing with music students playing Mozart outside of the Staatsoper; what must be done to avoid the wrath of the powerful Beltway anti-deal lobby. Iranian-Americans openly comment, “there is so much money available to undermine the deal.” On the key access issue, even though the 24-day period for resolving an access to a particular site inside Iran was already agreed at by the Lausanne framework, French Foreign Minister Fabius has spun it as “Iran wants 24 days” — making it look like this was a new demand by Iran to change the framework agreement. That is entirely false. Well, Fabius is not exactly Talleyrand. On Thursday, he came up with the fabulously vapid French rhetorical formula of a deal based on “constructive robustness.” What a pity Karl Kraus is not alive to write a Last Days of Self-Important Mankind.


Robert Musil to the rescue

An Iranian flag flutters in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna. Photo: Reuters

Iranian negotiators consider that IAEA head Yukiya Amano had a “good visit” to Tehran. They are now breaking it all down as two different approaches in trying to resolve the ultra-contentious issue of access; the “access-based approach,” based on a list of people and places the IAEA wants to interview/visit, or an “issues-base approach.” The US government, during the negotiations, had proposed a list of 18 scientists to be screened/interviewed. Iran said no. “So now we are going back to the issues-based approach,” says an Iranian negotiator. “The problem with that is the access approach had objective criteria for lifting sanctions. In the issues-based approach, the IAEA gets to make qualitative judgments. We don’t want the IAEA to be making qualitative decisions.” That breaks it down to virtually no one in the Global South entirely trusting the highly politicized IAEA. On the by now legendary issue of “possible military dimensions” (PMD) of the nuclear program – or Iran being asked to prove a negative – the Lausanne framework contained language on “an agreed set of measures” (on PMD) to allow the lifting of sanctions. This is the language that is still being negotiated. Here’s the US version. Or at least, was the U.S. version. As the State Department itself admits, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif received a select group of four independent journalists, including this correspondent, for a no-holds-barred conversation of almost an hour and a half this past Tuesday. There was a subsequent meeting on Thursday. All the previous points were touched upon, in detail. Zarif – although immensely tired – exhales an almost Buddhist vibe; he even took time to appear at the balcony of the Palais Coburg in a cheerful mood (“I want to enjoy the sun”). The message, to a global audience, could not be more powerful. What about John Kerry? Is he ready to step up his game, or just remain a pale shadow of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities?

Iran nuke deal: what’s behind the new Vienna deadline How to negotiate the annexes to the 85-page deal which deal with sanctions By PEPE ESCOBAR JULY 6, 2015

VIENNA – The decision mechanism at the UN Security Council (UNSC) is the main sticking point preventing a nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 being reached this Tuesday, a top Iranian official told Asia Times. This is directly related to “the credibility of the UNSC at stake,” after “so many imposed resolutions” considered as unjust and illegal by Tehran. Iranian diplomats insist on a “fundamental shift” at the UNSC; “The Iranian file should not have been sent to the UNSC in the first place,” says another official. And here Iranian diplomats open a complex discussion on two fronts; the politicization of the IAEA, and the UNSC being used PERSIAN MINIATURES    157

to arbitrate on an eminently technical dossier. So it’s no wonder that for Iran, the removal of past UN resolutions is considered “only as a starting point.” Iran has floated the idea of a UN resolution revoking all previous sanctions immediately after the announcement of a deal in Vienna. Iranian negotiator Abbas Araghchi had advanced on Iranian TV the idea that a deal — including the annexes — could be endorsed by the UNSC as early as this week. That’s extremely unlikely; the US Senate would go ballistic — as in US sovereignty being seriously compromised. This does not prevent the fact that the extremely sensitive text of a UN resolution erasing all previous sanctions is being discussed at the negotiating table in Vienna. There are serious ongoing efforts in Vienna to curb misunderstanding. This time, both sides will try to release a joint fact sheet — so there won’t be mutual accusations of spinning. A wealth of bracketed language remains to be cleared in the all-important annexes to the 85-page deal which refer to sanctions. These will be the de facto road map for the easing of sanctions. Araghchi has also clarified that “the day of the agreement would be the day the legal procedures in respective countries have taken their course.” This would set the actual implementation date any day from October to December. Watch the checklist Iranian diplomats recognize the Americans are presumably conducting a lot of legal work to unblock frozen Iranian assets — at a total of $110 billion – all across the world. Another key sticking point in the negotiations is the role of the Joint Commission – Iran and the P5+1 plus the EU — able to intervene in all disputes. Which brings us to the “snap back” mechanism — which “will have to work both ways,” as the Iranians stress. If the Joint Commission rules that sanctions may be 158   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

“snapped back” because of a particular problem, Iran deserves the same treatment in case the U.S./EU/UN don’t fulfill their commitments. A top Iranian official also confirmed to Asia Times the IAEA “will be able to verify all previous issues by the end of the year. They will be check listed” – with Iran subsequently cleared of all commitments. The push is for every examination to be “less qualitative as possible,” and not open to subjective interpretation.

left” – but arguably unlikely to be solved following an ultra-tight schedule up to Tuesday night. Divide and Rule, forever Iranian diplomats are very much aware that powerful opponents of the deal are coordinating all across the spectrum.

One way to — subjectively? — interpret this is that the IAEA’s Yukiya Amano has gotten direct orders from Washington to get things done. It’s no secret that Amano’s de facto handler is John Kerry.

On the internal front, they stress, “the position of the Revolutionary Guards is Khamenei’s position. We can say we have military unity. No institution in Iran is against the deal. What does exist are concerns about the nature of the deal.”

Iranian diplomats insist the country so far has fully cooperated with the IAEA. Still, a final IAEA statement, by the end of the year, might eventually contain ambiguous language of “this installation might serve for dual use” kind. The heart of the matter though is that a final statement is being treated as a face-saving device by both sides.

Inside Iran, everyone knows President Rouhani’s team is crammed with Khatami-era reformists. This opens the field to hardliners – not the IRGC though – blaming Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif for being too soft and desperate to get a deal. Detailed conversations with the Iranian team in Vienna could not offer a more different perspective.

What changed substantially this Monday is that expectations of an imminent breakthrough are being played down. A senior Iranian official said; “If this goes past July 9, it’s not the end of the world.” Iranian negotiators calmly assert at every opportunity they are not under pressure by the timeline.

Divide and Rule, meanwhile, proceeds unabated. Even before Kerry’s quite undiplomatic Sunday pre-empting of the deal — saying it could go “either way” — US corporate media has been actively poisoning the field to blame Iran in case the deal fails.

Once again, they emphasized the concept of “simultaneity” has been agreed upon – Iran and the P5+1 proceeding on parallel tracks. The devil is in the (working language) details. Iranian diplomats also stressed the “privileged relations” with BRICS members Russia and China – which will be discussing Iran and Eurasia at their summit in Urfa this week. They stress Iran is sowing “no divisions” inside the UNSC, and commend the seriousness of all players. On red lines, a senior Iranian official said, “every country has their own red lines. But now the red lines are pretty close.” Three months ago, he added, “a lot of issues were unresolved. Now there are only a few items

The New York Times, blaming Iranian negotiators, referred to a negotiating “tactic to try to squeeze additional concessions or because they have not been able to secure the necessary flexibility from Ayatollah Khamenei.” That’s a flat out lie – on both counts. Insider accounts of what really goes on at the negotiating table, on the contrary, suggests the usual, exceptionalist American posturing. Kerry flash-bombing the deal he’s supposedly coordinating (and which the Obama administration wants so badly) also doesn’t exactly qualify as a diplomatic breakthrough.


Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Photo: AFP / Don Emmert

The Iran nuke stalemate in one tweet Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif quotes Abraham Lincoln and all hell breaks loose By PEPE ESCOBAR JULY 10, 2015

The by now legendary tweet from Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif in which he quoted Abraham Lincoln is the Rosebud deciphering the current stalemate between the US and Iran in Vienna. Zarif tweeted, “Mark my words; you can’t change horses in the middle of a stream.” Well, a privileged Iranian source told Asia Times “changing horses” is exactly what US President Barack Obama abruptly did – in regard to conciliating positions he had agreed upon two days earlier. This happened this past Wednesday night, Vienna time – at the negotiating table. 160   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


Things started to change after a working cocktail party in the State Dining Room in Washington on Tuesday night, when Obama appeared “not at all” concerned about the possible implications of the deal and said the chances “were less than 50-50 at this point.”

So should we all remix America and start singing, “I’ve been to Vienna / in a horse with no deal”?

Even before the cocktail party – on the same day of the missed July 7 deadline — the Obama administration was already on overdrive, dismissing the notion of the president signing any deal just for the sake of a “lone” foreign policy success to be heralded as his legacy.

In a week that was supposed to feature a clinched deal — and now running past three deadlines — the issue of the lifting of a 2007 UN arms embargo imposed on Iran also emerged, with US corporate media blaming Iran en masse for “new demands.”

By mid-week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry doubled down on his previous, undiplomatic tirade of last Sunday — “the deal may go either way” — and came up with the current “we may walk away” shtick, duly reproduced to exhaustion by US corporate media. “Changing horses” confirms everything Asia Times has previously reported from Vienna, after detailed conversations with diplomats and negotiators; as a top Iranian official told this correspondent last week, the Obama administration does not seem to have the political will — at least not yet, if ever — to really commit itself to ending, once and for all, the Wall of Mistrust against Iran. Another Iranian official, in an on the record briefing this past Thursday, complained of a possible “major setback,” although maintaining the official Iranian line that John Kerry is “serious.” And he also confirmed what Asia Times had learned off the record — that the US, the UK and France suddenly started backtracking on key parts of the Lausanne framework. According to the same Iranian official, with direct access to the negotiating table, “it’s not a multilateral negotiation. It looks like you’re doing five bilaterals. Every country has their red line some times.” Tehran, on the other hand, has made its political decisions a long time ago, as Asia Times has reported. And the Iranian official came back to stressing the same point; “What is lacking is exactly the political decision that is needed on the other side.” 162   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

A horse with no deal

ing for lifting the embargo as soon as possible and we will support the choices that Iran’s negotiators make.” This was on the same day that President Rouhani met with President Putin as part of the SCO summit. Iran will inevitably become a SCO member as soon as UN sanctions are lifted. Whatever happens in Vienna, Iran will inevitably expand its role as a vital hub/node of Eurasia integration – from the New Silk Road(s) to the SCO.

That’s bogus. It’s easy to forget that President Rouhani formerly led nuclear negotiations with Europe from 2003 to 2005. He always tried to prevent the transfer of Iran’s nuclear file from the IAEA to the UN. It didn’t make sense — as this was a scientific/technical dossier. But Washington prevailed — leading to the increasing politicization of the IAEA.

Asia Times learned from a senior Iranian official the arms embargo is not an issue that would sink the nuclear deal. What really matters are the economic and financial sanctions. The IRGC has developed on its own a relatively sophisticated Iranian arms industry. Buying weapons from Rosoboronexport – Russia’s weapons export organization – would add to the mix. US opposition has everything to do with the influence of Israel and the House of Saud in the Beltway.

For the Iranian negotiators, UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions are the key; they must be abolished first and foremost because they legitimize all other Western sanctions. The easing off of all sanctions was agreed upon in the Lausanne framework. So that obviously includes the arms embargo, which is a UNSC nuclear-related sanction.

In Ufa, at the BRICS/SCO summit, Russia’s Finance Minister Anton Siluanov also minimized the impact on Russia in case sanctions on Iran are lifted. He said, “injecting new oil to the world markets could impact prices. But the price depends on the global economy at large. If there is enough demand, the impact will be minimal.”

As an Iranian diplomat said this past Monday, “as far as Iran is concerned, we believe … there should not be any place for the arms embargo … There is no evidence whatsoever that the arms embargo has any relation to the nuclear issue.” The spin machine went on overdrive anyway, blaming Russia for bringing up the issue at the negotiating table. As Asia Times has reported, the fact is BRICS members Russia and China have a coordinated position; no to the embargo. The other two P5 members, the US and the UK, are against it. And France is wavering – what with all those profits to be made by its weapons industry. This Thursday, in Ufa – on the sidelines of the joint BRICS/SCO meeting — Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov went straight to the point; “We are call-

Implementing is a bitch Whatever happens in Vienna, the road ahead will be fraught with danger. A deal will consist of three delicate phases; adoption, operation and implementation. Vienna would yield only the main, 85-page agreement text plus the five annexes – which will then be reviewed in Tehran and Washington (now for 60 days instead of 30). Operation means each side proceeding with agreed-upon measures – what the Iranians call a “parallel process” of dismantling parts of the nuclear program in parallel to steps towards dismantling the architecture of sanctions. And then implementation will kick in automatical-

ly; Iran fulfills all its commitments, as verified by the IAEA, and all Western economic, banking and financial sanctions — in theory — vanish. This is what is called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA). It will take at least until the end of 2015 for people in Iran to start feeling at least a bit of progress in their everyday lives. Only a few days ago chief Iranian negotiator Abbas Araqchi sounded so optimistic on IRIB TV. “We have reached a consensus for the removal of financial and economic sanctions on the day of implementing the deal,” he said. Every analyst not blinded by ideology knows that Iran’s nuclear program was never the problem for Washington. Only neo-con nut jobs believe in their own fantasy that Iran’s nuclear enrichment at 5% for its nuclear program masks a 95+% nuclear weapons program. It doesn’t matter that the acronym fest of US intel agencies has repeatedly asserted that Iran has no nuclear weapons program. And that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has repeatedly emphasized a nuclear bomb is anti-Islamic. As it stands – and ultimately because of lack of political will in Washington – the deal may be backtracking to “less than 50-50,” even with a new July 13 deadline. And the whole world can see why. The record is not good. It took over five decades for Washington to start normalizing its relations with heavily sanctioned Cuba. Washington has already alienated the overwhelming majority of 1.7 billion followers of Islam. It has lost most of 1.2 billion Indians – as India joins the SCO. It has lost 1.3 billion Chinese with the pathetic “pivot to Asia” and the nonstop South China Sea saber rattling. It has totally lost Russia, the absolute majority of Latin America and the absolute majority of the Global South. Certainly this is not the Divide and Rule technique inherited from the faded British empire, that the Brits themselves learned from Rome in their Latin classes. This is taking everyone on at once. PERSIAN MINIATURES    163

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (L) and President Hassan Rouhani at a meeting with foreign embassies and diplomatic mission representatives of Iran. Photo: Anadolu Agency

Historic Iran nuke deal resets Eurasia’s ‘Great Game’ Obama strikes a lone foreign policy success: the 12-year ‘nuclear weapons’ charade is over By PEPE ESCOBAR JULY 14, 2015

This is it. It is indeed historic. And diplomacy eventually wins. In terms of the New Great Game in Eurasia, and the ongoing tectonic shifts reorganizing Eurasia, this is huge: Iran — supported by Russia and China — has finally, successfully, called the long, winding 12-year-long Atlanticist bluff on its “nuclear weapons.” And this only happened because the Obama administration needed 1) a lone foreign policy success, and 2) a go at trying to influence at least laterally the onset of the new Eurasia-centered geopolitical order. So here it is – the 159-page, as detailed as possible, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA); the actual P5+1/Iran nuclear deal. As Iranian diplomats have stressed, the JCPOA will be presented to the United Na164   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


tions Security Council (UNSC), which will then adopt a resolution within 7 to 10 days making it an official international document. Foreign ministers pose for a group picture at UN building in Vienna Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has described the deal — significantly — as a very Chinese “win-win” solution. But not perfect; “I believe this is a historic moment. We are reaching an agreement that is not perfect for anybody but is what we could accomplish. Today could have been the end of hope, but now we are starting a new chapter of hope.” Zarif also had to stress — correctly — this was a long-sought solution for an “unnecessary crisis”; the politicization — essentially by the US — of a scientific, technical dossier. Germany’s Foreign Minister Steinmeier, for his part, was euphoric; “A historic day! We leave 35 years of speechlessness + more than 12 years of a dangerous conflict behind us.” Looking ahead, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted now there can be “a focus on shared challenges” – referring to the real fight that NATO, and Iran, should pursue together; against the fake Caliphate of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, whose ideological matrix is intolerant Wahhabism and whose attacks are directed against both Shi’ites and westerners.

The real problem started when Lavrov added that Moscow expects the cancellation of Washington’s missile defense plans, after the Iran deal proves that Tehran is not, and won’t be, a nuclear “threat.” There’s the rub. The Pentagon simply won’t cancel an essential part of its Full Spectrum Dominance military doctrine simply because of mere “diplomacy.” Every security analyst not blinded by ideology knows that missile defense was never about Iran, but about Russia. The Pentagon’s new military review still states — not by accident — major Eurasian players Iran, China and Russia as “threats” to U.S. national security. Now from the brighter side on Iran-Russia relations. Trade is bound to increase, especially in nanotechnology, machinery parts and agriculture. And on the all-pervasive energy front, Iran will indeed compete with Russia in major markets such as Turkey and soon Western Europe, but there’s plenty of leeway for Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) to coordinate their market share. NIOC executive Mohsen Qamsari advances that Iran will prioritize exporting to Asia, and will try to regain the at least 42% of the European market share that it had before sanctions.

Compared to so many uplifting perspectives, Washington’s reaction was quite pedestrian. US President Barack Obama preferred to stress — correctly — that every pathway to an Iranian nuclear weapon has been cut off. And he vowed to veto any legislation in the US Right on cue, Russian President Vladimir Putin Congress that blocks the deal. When I was in Vienna stressed the deal will contribute to fighting terrorism in last week I had surefire confirmation — from a Eurothe Middle East, not to mention “assisting in strength- pean source — that the Obama administration feels ening global and regional security, global nuclear confident it has the votes it needs in Capitol Hill. non-proliferation” and — perhaps wishful thinking? — “the creation in the Middle East of a zone free from weapons of mass destruction.” And what about all that oil? Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed Tariq Rauf, former Head of Verification and Secuthe deal “fully corresponds” with Russia’s negotiating rity Policy at the IAEA and currently Director of the points. The fact is no deal would have been possible Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Program at the without extensive Russian involvement — and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Obama administration knows it (but cannot admit it (SIPRI), hailed the deal as “the most significant mulpublicly). 166   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

tilateral nuclear agreement in two decades – the last such agreement was the 1996 nuclear test ban treaty.” Rauf even advanced that the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize should go to US Secretary of State Jon Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif.

nationals are already positioned to start cracking this practically virgin market with over 70 million people, including a very well educated middle class. There will be a boom in sectors such as consumer electronics, the auto industry and hospitality and leisure.

Rebuilding trust between the US and Iran, though, will be a long and winding road.

And then there’s, once again, oil. Iran has as much as a whopping 50 million barrels of oil stored at sea — and that’s about ready to hit the global market. The purchaser of choice will be, inevitably, China — as the West remains mired in recession. Iran’s first order of work is to regain lost market share to Persian Gulf producers. Yet the trend is for oil prices to go down – so Iran cannot count on much profit in the short to medium term.

Tehran agreed to a 15-year moratorium on enriching uranium beyond 3.67 percent; this means it has agreed to reduce its enrichment capacity by two-thirds. Only Natanz will conduct enrichment; and Fordo, additionally, won’t store fissile material. Iran agreed to store no more than 300 kg of low-enriched uranium — a 96% reduction compared to current levels. The Arak reactor will be reconfigured, and won’t be used to produce plutonium. The spent fuel will be handled by an international team. The IAEA and Iran signed a roadmap in Tehran also this Tuesday; that was already decided last week in Vienna. By December 15, all past and present outstanding issues — that amount to 12 items — should be clarified, and the IAEA will deliver a final assessment. IAEA access to the Parchin military site — always a very contentious issue — is part of a separate arrangement. One of the major sticking points these last few days in Vienna was solved — with Tehran allowing UN inspectors to visit virtually any site. But it may object to a particular visit. A Joint Commission — the P5+1 + Iran — will be able to override any objections with a simple majority vote. After that Iran has three days to comply — in case it loses the vote. There won’t be American inspectors — shades of the run-up towards the war on Iraq; only from countries with diplomatic relations with Iran.

Now for a real war on terror? The conventional arms embargo on Iran essentially stays, for five years. That’s absurd, compared to Israel and the House of Saud arming themselves to their teeth. Last May the US Congress approved a $1.9 billion arms sale to Israel. That includes 50 BLU-113 bunker-buster bombs — to do what? Bomb Natanz? — and 3,000 Hellfire missiles. As for Saudi Arabia, according to SIPRI, the House of Saud spent a whopping $80 billion on weapons last year; more than nuclear powers France or Britain. The House of Saud is waging an — illegal — war on Yemen. Qatar is not far behind. It clinched an $11 billion deal to buy Apache helicopters and Javelin and Patriot air defense systems, and is bound to buy loads of F-15 fighters.

So implementation of the deal will take at least the next five months. Sanctions will be lifted only by early 2016.

Trita Parsi, president of the National American-Iranian Council, went straight to the point; “Saudi Arabia spends 13 times more money on its defense than Iran does. But somehow Iran, and not Saudi Arabia, is seen by the US as the potential aggressor.”

What’s certain is that Iran will become a magnet for foreign investment. Major western and Asian multi-

So, whatever happens, expect tough days ahead. Two weeks ago, Foreign Minister Zarif told a small PERSIAN MINIATURES    167

group of independent journalists in Vienna, including this correspondent, that the negotiations would be a success because the US and Iran had agreed on “no humiliation of one another.” He stressed he paid “a high domestic price for not blaming the Americans,” and he praised Kerry as “a reasonable man.” But he was wary of the US establishment, which to a great extent, according to his best information, was dead set against the lifting of sanctions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Gazprom chief executive officer Alexei Miller (L) as Turkmenistan President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov (C) looks on during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow in 2007. Photo: AFP

Zarif also praised the Russian idea that after a deal, it will be time to form a real counter-terrorism coalition, featuring Americans, Iranians, Russians, Chinese and Europeans — even as Putin and Obama had agreed to work together on “regional issues.” And Iranian diplomacy was giving signs that the Obama administration had finally understood that the alternative to Assad in Syria was ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, not the “Free” Syrian Army. That degree of collaboration, post-Wall of Mistrust, remains to be seen. Then it will be possible to clearly evaluate whether the Obama administration has made a major strategic decision, and whether “normalizing” its relation with Iran involves much more than meets the eye.

Reshuffling Eurasia’s energy deck: Iran, China and Pipelineistan The epic IPI vs. TAPI competition is back with a vengeance, influenced by several geopolitical and geoeconomic imperatives. This time, China will make a difference By PEPE ESCOBAR JULY 31, 2015

Pipelineistan – the prime Eurasian energy chessboard — never sleeps. Recently, it’s Russia that has scored big on all fronts; two monster gas deals sealed with China last year; the launch of Turk Stream replacing South Stream; and the doubling of Nord Stream to Germany. Now, with the possibility of sanctions on Iran finally vanishing by late 2015/early 2016, all elements will be in place for the revival of one of Pipelineistan’s most spectacular soap operas, which I have been following for years; the competition between the IP (Iran-Pakistan) and TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipelines. The $7.5-billion IP had hit a wall for years now – a casualty of hardcore 168   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


geopolitical power play. IP was initially IPI – connected to India; both India and Pakistan badly need Iranian energy. And yet relentless pressure from successive Bush and Obama administrations scared India out of the project. And then sanctions stalled it for good. Now, Pakistan’s Minister of Petroleum and Natural Resources Shahid Khaqan Abbasi swears IP is a go. The Iranian stretch of the 1,800-kilometer pipeline has already been built. IP originates in the massive South Pars gas fields – the largest in the world – and ends in the Pakistani city of Nawabshah, close to Karachi. The geopolitical significance of this steel umbilical cord linking Iran and Pakistan couldn’t be more graphic. Enter – who else? – China. Chinese construction companies already started working on the stretch between Nawabshah and the key strategic port of Gwadar, close to the Iranian border. China is financing the Pakistani stretch of IP. And for a very serious reason; IP, for which Gwadar is a key hub, is essential in a much larger long game; the $46 billion China-Pakistan economic corridor, which will ultimately link Xinjiang to the Persian Gulf via Pakistan. Yes, once again, we’re right into New Silk Road(s) territory. And the next step regarding Gwadar will be essential for China’s energy strategy; an IP extension all the way to Xinjiang. That’s a huge logistical challenge, implying the construction of a pipeline parallel to the geology — defying Karakoram highway. IP will continue to be swayed by geopolitics. The Japan-based and heavily US-influenced Asian Development Bank (ADB) committed a $30 million loan to help Islamabad build its first LNG terminal. The ADB knows that Iranian natural gas is a much cheaper option for Pakistan compared to LNG imports. And yet the ADB’s agenda is essentially an American agenda; out with IP, and full support to TAPI. This implies, in the near future, the strong possibility of Pakistan increasingly relying on the China-driven Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB) for infrastructure development, and not the ADB. 170   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Recently, the IP field got even more crowded with the arrival of Gazprom. Gazprom also wants to invest in IP – which means Moscow getting closer to Islamabad. That’s part of another key geopolitical gambit; Pakistan being admitted as a full member, alongside India, of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), something that will happen, soon, with Iran as well. For the moment, Russia-Pakistan collaboration is already evident in an agreement to build a gas pipeline from Karachi to Lahore. Talk to the (new) Mullah So where do all these movements leave TAPI? The $10 billion TAPI is a soap opera that stretches all the way back to the first Clinton administration. This is what the US government always wanted from the Taliban; a deal to build a gas pipeline to Pakistan and India bypassing Iran. We all know how it all went horribly downhill. The death of Mullah Omar – whenever that happened – may be a game changer. Not for the moment, tough, because there is an actual Taliban summer offensive going on, and “reconciliation” talks in Afghanistan have been suspended. Whatever happens next, all the problems plaguing TAPI remain. Turkmenistan – adept of self-isolation, idiosyncratic and unreliable as long as it’s not dealing with China – is a mystery concerning how much natural gas it really holds (the sixth largest or third largest reserves in the world?) And the idea of committing billions of dollars to build a pipeline traversing a war zone – from Western Afghanistan to Kandahar, not to mention crossing a Balochistan prone to separatist attacks — is nothing short of sheer lunacy. Energy majors though, remain in the game. France’s Total seems to be in the lead, with Russian and Chinese companies not far behind. Gazprom’s interest in TAPI is key – because the pipeline, if built, would cer-

tainly be connected in the future to others which are part of the massive, former Soviet Union energy grid. To complicate matters further, there is the fractious relationship between Gazprom and Turkmenistan. Until the recent, spectacular Chinese entrance, Ashgabat depended mostly on Russia to market Turkmen gas, and to a lesser extent, Iran. As part of a nasty ongoing dispute, Turkmengaz accuses Gazprom of economic exploitation. So what is Plan B? Once again, China. Beijing already buys more than half of all Turkmen gas exports. That flows through the Central Asia-China pipeline; full capacity of 55 billion cubic meters (bcm) a year, only used by half at the moment. China is already helping Turkmenistan to develop Galkynysh, the second largest gas field in the world after South Pars. And needless to add, China is as much interested in buying more gas from Turkmenistan – the Pipelineistan way – as from Iran. Pipelineistan fits right into China’s privileged “escape from Malacca” strategy; to buy a maximum of energy as far away from the U.S. Navy as possible. So Turkmenistan is bound to get closer and closer, energy-wise, to Beijing. That leaves the Turkmen option of supplying the EU in the dust – as much as Brussels has been courting Ashgabat for years. The EU pipe dream is a Pipelineistan stretch across the Caspian Sea. It won’t happen, because of a number of reasons; the long-running dispute over the Caspian legal status – Is it a lake? Is it a sea? – won’t be solved anytime soon; Russia does not want it; and Turkmenistan does not have enough Pipelineistan infrastructure to ship all that gas from Galkynysh to the Caspian. Considering all of the above, it’s not hard to identify the real winner of all these interlocking Pipelineistan power plays – way beyond individual countries; deeper Eurasia integration. And so far away from Western interference.


Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei speaking at the international conference on Palestine in Tehran. Photo: Asia Times.

Letter from Tehran: Trump ‘the bazaari’ The Iranian Parliament just hosted its annual conference on Palestine and, among the dignitaries - that included Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani - and the 700 foreign guests from more than 50 countries was Asia Times columnist Pepe Escobar. By PEPE ESCOBAR MARCH 1, 2017

The art of the deal, when practiced for 2500 years, does lead to the palace of wisdom. I had hardly set foot in Tehran when a diplomat broke the news: “Trump? We’re not worried. He’s a bazaari”. It’s a Persian language term meaning he is from the merchants class or, more literally, a worker from the bazaar and its use implies that a political accommodation will eventually be reached. 172   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


The Iranian government’s response to the Trump administration boils down to a Sun Tzu variant; silence, especially after the Fall of Flynn, who had “put Iran on notice” after it carried out a ballistic missile test, and had pushed the idea of an anti-Iran military alliance comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan. Tehran says the missile test did not infringe the provisions of the Iran nuclear deal and that naval drills from the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean, which began on Sunday, had been planned well in advance. I was in Tehran as one of several hundred foreign guests, including a small group of foreign journalists , guests of the Majlis (Parliament) for an annual conference on the Palestine issue. Not surprisingly, no one from Trump’s circle was among the gathering of parliamentarians from over 50 nations who attended the impressive opening ceremony in a crowded, round conference hall where the center of power in Iran was on display; Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani and Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani. Khamenei proclaimed that “the existing crises in every part of the region and the Islamic ummah deserve attention”, but insisted that the key issue remains Palestine. The conference, he said, could become “a model for all Muslims and regional nations to gradually harness their differences by relying on their common points”. Khamenei’s was an important call for Muslim unity. Few in the West know that during the rapid decolonization of the 1940s and 50s, the Muslim world was not torn apart by the vicious Sunni-Shi’ite hatred – later fomented by the Wahhabi/Salafi-jihadi axis. The Wahhabi House of Saud, incidentally, was nowhere to be seen at the conference. Hefty discussions with Iranian analysts and diplomats revolved on the efficacy of multilateral discussions compared to advancing facts on the ground – ranging from the building of new settlements in the West Bank to the now all but dead and buried Oslo two-state myth. 174   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

On Palestine, I asked Naim Qassem, deputy secretary-general of Hezbollah about the Trump administration’s hint of a one-state solution. His answer, in French; “One state means war. Two states means peace under their conditions, which will lead us to war.” As with most conferences, what matters are the sidelines. Leonid Savin, a Russian geopolitical analyst, claimed that Russian airspace is now all but sealed with multiple deployments of the S-500 missile defense system against anything the US might unleash. Albanian historian Olsi Jazexhi deconstructed the new Balkans powder keg. Muhammad Gul, son of the late, largerthan-life General Hamid Gul, detailed the finer points of Pakistan’s foreign policy and the drive to build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Pyongyang was also in the house. The North Korean delegate produced an astonishing speech, essentially arguing that Palestine should follow their example, complete with a “credible nuclear deterrent”. Later, in the corridors I saluted the delegation, and they saluted back. No chance of a sideline chat though to go over the unclear points surrounding Kim Jong-nam’s assassination. Blake Archer Williams, a.k.a. Arash Darya-Bandari, whose pseudonym celebrates the “tyger tyger burning bright” English master, gave me a copy of Creedal Foundations of Waliyic Islam (Lion of Najaf Publishers) – an analysis of how Shi’ite theology led to the theory of velayat-e faqih (the ruling of the jurisprudent) that lies at the heart of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

with the Shi’ite concept of resistance against injustice and produce a revolutionary ideology capable of politicizing the Iranian middle classes, leading to the Islamic Revolution. That was the background for serious discussions on how Iran (resistance against injustice), China (remixed Confucianism) and Russia (Eurasianism) are offering post-Enlightenment alternatives that transcend Western liberal democracy. But in the end it was all inevitably down to the overarching anti-intellectual ghost in the room; Donald Trump (and that was even before he got a letter from Ahmadinejad). So I did what I usually do before leaving Tehran; I hit the bazaar, via a fabulous attached mosque – to get reacquainted with the art of the deal, the Persian way. That led me to Mahmoud Asgari, lodged in the Sameyi passage of the Tajrish bazaar and a serious discussion on the finer points of pre-WWI Sistan-Baluchistan tribal rugs from Zahedan. The end result was – what else – a win-win sale, bypassing the US dollar. And then, the clincher: “When you call your friend Trump, tell him to come here and I’ll give him the best deal”.

Every time I’m back in Tehran I’m impressed with the surprising number of open avenues for serious intellectual discussion. I was constantly reminded of Jalal Al-e Ahmad, the son of a mullah born in poor south Tehran who later translated Sartre and Camus and wrote the seminal Westoxification (1962). He spent the summer of 1965 at Harvard seminars organized by Henry Kissinger and “supported” by the CIA. He pivoted to Shi’ism only toward the end of his life. It was his analysis that paved the way for sociologist Ali Shariati to cross-pollinate anti-colonialism PERSIAN MINIATURES    175

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

‘The time to invest in Iran is now’ The shift in the global balance of financing power towards Russia, India and China — especially China — is opening up opportunities for Tehran By PEPE ESCOBAR MARCH 8, 2017

It’s a beautiful late winter morning, the snowy Alborz mountains glittering under the sun, and Professor Mohammad Marandi from the faculty of world studies at the University of Tehran is taking me on the road, westbound. Sprawling west Tehran is a decentralization/connectivity spectacular, with its brand new highways, metro lines, artificial lakes and megamalls. While not on the epic scale of the construction rush in Beijing or Shanghai, it is similar in spirit and comparable to what’s going on in Istanbul. 176   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


The professor — arguably Iran’s leading political and cultural analyst —and I had been on a running conversation for days on all aspects of an evolving Russia-China-Iran strategic partnership, the massive Eurasia integration project pushed by China, and its myriad interconnected challenges. Watching west Tehran go by, it was hard not to connect this new normal to the atmosphere of excitement surrounding the Iran nuclear deal struck in Vienna in the summer of 2015. But this had actually started even before President Hassan Rouhani came to power in 2013, “linked to Iran’s stability and rising regional status,” Marandi said. Cue to the former head of the Iranian National Security Council’s Foreign Relations Committee and professor at Princeton, Seyed Hosein Mousavian. He has been adamant that “America’s four-decade push for regime change in Iran is a failure.” On the nuclear deal, Mousavian noted, regarding the Trump administration rumble, “it is 170 pages, too much technicalities, they might not have time to go through different resolutions – and therefore they really don’t know what they’re talking about.” The implementation of the deal should have signaled the acceptance of Iran by the West – hence renewed trade and commerce. Instead, the new normal points towards the China-driven New Silk Roads, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Russia-driven Eurasia Economic Union; and towards Iran, alongside other emerging economies, seeking infrastructure finance and foreign investment from BRICS nations, especially the RIC triumvirate. In sum: look east. Tehran did sign a rash of memorandums of understanding with French industry. But the heart of the trade and investment action is China. When President Xi Jinping visited Tehran in January last year, Rouhani said, “Iran and China have agreed to increase trade to US$600 billion in the next 10 years.” Most deals, of course, involve oil and gas – but cru178   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

cially they also span cooperation on nuclear energy and Iran’s positioning as an absolutely crucial hub of One Belt, One Road. Compared to it, Russia-Iran trade, at almost US$2 billion last year, is not exactly newsworthy, although rising rapidly. Post-sanctions, Russia-Iran signed almost US$40 billion in MoUs – but projects are mostly still only on paper. The problem is the overwhelming majority of Iranian companies are cash-strapped, so financing should come from Russian sources. “Secret code” exports – as in weapons – are back, as in the US$900 million contract for the S-300 defense missile systems, the first batch delivered to Iran last April. The real secret though in reference to incipient trade is that Russia and Iran do not have much to exchange at globally competitive rates. Russia exports mainly metals, wood, electrical machines, paper, grain, floating structures, mechanically engineered products and weapons. Iran exports agricultural and seafood products. With India, the heart of the matter is the development of the port of Chabahar. Here’s where China’s Maritime Silk Road meets India’s drive to connect the Indian Ocean to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Enter Indian investment on the Chabahar-Zahedan railway, ending in Sistan-Balochistan, close to the Pakistani border, as well as in the still-in-planning Chabahar-Hajigak railway, which translates as a direct connection to Afghanistan. All this spells out Iran blooming as a crucial integration/connectivity hub for China, India and the intersection of South and Central Asia. On the energy front, the news is also encouraging. According to the head of National Iranian Oil Company, Ali Kardor, by next month Iran will be producing 4 million barrels of oil a day (there was a peak at 4.2 million before sanctions were tightened in 2011). Iran used to be the second-largest OPEC producer.

Sanctions forced it down to 2.5 million barrels a day and exports of just above 1 million. Now it’s back to OPEC’s number three, behind Saudi Arabia (10 million barrels a day) and Iraq (4.5 million). Natural gas production will reach 1.3 billion cubic meters a day by 2021. For that to happen, NIOC needs to drill at least 500 new offshore wells. The problem is NIOC is deep in US$50 billion of debt; not only because of low oil prices but also bad financial and management decisions. Royal Dutch Shell and Total are keen to strike deals, but nothing has been signed yet. Once again, I got a similar figure to what NIOC provided me roughly 10 years ago; Iran needs at least US$200 billion to upgrade its energy industry infrastructure, and to really start profiting from an astonishing US$7 trillion in gas reserves. It’s fair to assume substantial funds could be provided, eventually, by the AIIB and other sources from Russia and China. Deputy Oil Minister Amir Hossein Zamaninia expects major developments “in a few months.”

ing payment for oil and gas in euros or in a basket of currencies. Iran trades mostly with China, the EU and the UAE. Trump claimed during his campaign that Iran was handed a US$150 billion gift by the nuclear deal. Not true. The Central Bank’s frozen oil funds repatriated since January 2016 from the UAE, Britain, India, Greece, Italy and Norway amount to less than US$10 billion. And only US$12 billion of blocked assets were released from Japan, South Korea and India, on installments. Before we arrived back in Tehran, Marandi told me that all in all, “ I believe whoever invests now in Iran will have an amazing return. The time to invest is now.” The RIC in BRICS are doing it. Europeans are doing it – although not much so far. And Americans are not doing it – at their loss. We wrapped it up at a traditional Iranian restaurant downtown, serving first-class food to middle and upper middle class families. The bill: less than US$30 for two. A fabulous return on investment.

Socially, Iran is not a powder keg. The average standard of living improved roughly 70% since the Islamic revolution. Women accounted for 70% of Iran’s science and engineering students in 2015. The healthcare system, by 2014, was the 30th most efficient in the world, way ahead of the US (in 50th). Much will depend on the upcoming presidential elections. Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was politely dissuaded by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in person, from running again. Marandi confirms President Rouhani, up for re-election, is way less popular than Foreign Minister Zarif, who in turn is less popular than the number one superstar: Major General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the elite Quds Force — who’s not running for office. The reason for Rouhani’s woes; his record on the economy has been far from stellar. Tehran will soon drop the US dollar in its financial and foreign exchange reports. That will certainly imply more currency swap agreements, and Iran only acceptPERSIAN MINIATURES    179

A woman holds a poster of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a campaign rally in Tehran, Iran, May 17, 2017. Photo: Reuters

Iran bets its future on ‘reformist’ Rouhani Incumbent has won a landslide victory over ‘conservative’ Raisi, with a high turnout ensuring the country remains open to the world By PEPE ESCOBAR MAY 20, 2017

In the perennial electoral battle between principlists (conservatives) and reformists, Iranian reformists have once again won handsomely. Iran’s President Hasan Rouhani was reelected in a landslide on Saturday – with at least 56.88 percent of the votes according to the latest count at time of publishing and a projected vote share of 20 million votes (he got 18.6 million in 2013). In the end, as predicted, it was all about turnout; over 70% in the main cities, with around 78% in Qom – the religious heart of Shi’ism. A low 180   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


turnout would have benefitted hardliners and their reliable 20% “true believer” electoral base. Twenty-nine percent of the Iranian electorate is composed by 18-to29 year olds, who are very enthusiastic about voting. History will also register that Iran – a complex mix of theocracy and democracy – went to the polls and once again chose a reformist, open to the world, exactly as President Trump started his first foreign trip, in the Muslim world, by visiting a totalitarian theocracy, Saudi Arabia, that is obsessed with fomenting a Sunni-Shi’ite divide. Follow the leader The rector of the sanctuary of the 8th Shi’ite imam Reza in Mashhad, conservative Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Raisi – a possible candidate to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei as Supreme Leader – was simply no match for Rouhani. The Supreme Leader’s own wishes have, in fact, been a mystery all along. Khamenei did not explicitly endorse Raisi, on the record. But he did attack Team Rouhani on many recent occasions. Raisi is a hardliner who has been carefully groomed by the IRGC (the Revolutionary Guards) as a future Supreme Leader. This major loss in the presidential race does not exactly enhance his CV. Rouhani, for his part, never backed down. During the campaign he went after not only the IRGC but even Raisi’s judicial credentials. When Rouhani was first elected, in 2103, the country’s economic crisis – mostly caused by UN and US sanctions – was acute and there was no nuclear deal on the horizon. Rouhani and his team – led by his extremely able foreign minister, Javad Zarif – delivered the deal on July 2015 in Vienna, despite Khamenei repeated warnings about the impossibility of trusting any promise from Washington. Team Rouhani was unable to deliver on the economy – after all, the post-deal benefits in terms of global 182   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

trade and investment will take a long time to bear fruit. His administration remains dependent on at least US$140 billion in foreign investment flowing in to modernize the country’s energy industry, transportation and telecoms, with most of that investment coming from Asia. According to the Iranian Chamber of Commerce, only US$13 billion materialized in 2016. Iran is, de facto, once again doing deals with the West, yet it remains under threat from US banking/ financial sanctions, which block crucial foreign investment necessary to stimulate the kind of economic activity that lifts the more than 700,000 young people who enter the country’s labor force every year along with it. It does not help that the Trump administration’s rhetoric is unmistakably anti-Iran. Everything is not totally bleak, though. Unemployment, at 12.1% in 2012, was relatively stable at 12.45% last year (although youth unemployment remains at a high 30%). And inflation – at 27.3% in 2012 – was reduced to 8.5% in 2016. Reform, not revolution It’s always enlightening to remember Michel Foucault visiting Iran in late 1978, when the Shah was in the doldrums, and extolling the rise of “spiritual politics”. Iranian politics is shadow play; nothing is exactly what it seems.

(copyright Xi Jinping). It takes time to promote trade and investment, and to boost the middle class while promoting equality. That entails some key reforms inside the system – details of which he prefers to keep secret, for the moment (“I need a vote well over 50% to enact some stuff I have in mind.”) And it entails questioning some key fundamentals of the system as well. Iranian voters are a fairly sophisticated bunch. Political elites must deliver – otherwise they’re kicked back to obscurity. It’s a delicate balance: even as a sizable majority wants serious, gradually evolving reforms, it also does not want more upheaval. Not after you have endured an Islamic revolution and its turbulent aftermath; the horrendous 8-year Iran-Iraq war; those somersault Ahmadinejad years; and, last but not least, the most draconian sanctions regime in the history of humanity, imposed by the West. Team Rouhani, and its reformist allies in the Assembly of Experts, will now have a vast sway over who becomes the next Supreme Leader if Khamenei, now 77, dies in office during the new presidential term. That, in itself, would signal transcendental change. For now, the task is to slowly but surely remodel the system from the inside, and develop Iran as a key node of the coming New Silk Roads Eurasian integration.

Misinformed Western analysts tended to portray the encounter between Rouhani and Raisi as a sort of referendum between an autarchic “Russia-style” authoritarianism and a “Chinese-style” economic liberalism, without questioning the regime itself. The reality is way more complex. In a nutshell, the principlists’ program was about the “resistance economy”, nominal egalitarianism, variations of “Death to America” and a promise of five million jobs and a deluge of handouts. Voters saw though it. Rouhani for his part promises that Iran will eventually benefit from the fruits of an “inclusive globalization” PERSIAN MINIATURES    183

Iran is the key connectivity link in routes through both Central Asia and the Caucasus. Photo: iStockphoto/Getty

Iran turns The Art of the Deal upside down Tehran busy signing massive infrastructure deals with China’s CITIC and European partners By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 16, 2017

As President Hasan Rouhani prepares to address the UN General Assembly in New York and the Trump administration and allies relentlessly lobby for the Iran nuclear deal to be decertified, Tehran is busy clinching deal after deal with Asians and Europeans. For the Chinese government, Iran – and Pakistan – are so geopolitically important that they are treated as Home Affairs nations in East Asia (and not the Middle East, in the case of Iran), alongside Japan and Indonesia.



And just like Pakistan via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Iran is an essential node of the New Silk Roads, a.k.a. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For Tehran, Beijing is a major player in international trade/finance. At the Belt and Road forum in Beijing in May, Iran’s Economic Affairs and Finance Minister Ali Tayyebnia extensively discussed deals with Chinese Finance Minister Xiao Jie. Chinese companies in construction and energy infrastructure equipment – as well as in steel and chemicals – are present all over Iran. Enter the deal just signed between China’s CITIC and a consortium of Iranian banks worth $10 billion in loans. Enter as well a BRI-related railway modernization drive, with Beijing providing $1.5 billion to electrify the Tehran-Mashhad trunk line, and another $1.8 billion for a high-speed rail linking Tehran, Qom and Isfahan. These upgrades fit into two BRI vectors; to increase China’s trade/connectivity not only with Iran – all the way to the port of Bandar Abbas near the Strait of Hormuz – but also with Turkey. Freight trains ideally should be running non-stop between Xinjiang and Istanbul as early as 2020. That should be no mean achievement. Iran is the key connectivity link in routes through both Central Asia and the Caucasus. A key proposed route runs from Xinjiang to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and southeast Turkey. China South Corporation (CSR) – the world’s largest manufacturer of locomotives – expects the whole finished high-speed rail link to cost around $150 billion. All aboard the investment train Austria, Denmark and Italy, as well as Japan, are about to clinch as much as $30 billion in deals with Iran. Europeans are back in the Iranian market with a 186   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

bang. Mercedes-Benz has signed a contract with Iran Khodro to distribute its trucks. Ha Yung-ku, chairman of the Korea Federation of Banks (KFB), and Kourosh Parvizian, head of Iran’s Association of Private Banks (IAPB), signed a banking deal that – crucially – expands trade in their own currencies, bypassing the US dollar. And then there’s movement in another transport corridor essential to landlocked Central Asia – and especially Afghanistan, at the intersection of Central and South Asia; the port of Chabahar. Chabahar is the centerpiece of India’s Southern Silk Road – with a maritime component via the Indian Ocean linked to an overland branch all the way to Afghanistan. There’s fierce discussion about exactly how much the state-owned India Ports Global Limited (IPGL) invested in the development of Chabahar – the port as well as associated roads and railways. That ranges from $500 million (the Indian version) to only $85 million, according to an Iranian firm, Aria Banader, which states to have invested as much as $403 million. Indian officials have already promised Afghan counterparts that wheat transported out of Chabahar should be supplying Afghanistan in a matter of weeks. Complementing this connectivity frenzy some room may be opening for a certified game-changer; a navigable canal between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. There are two potential routes for what is known as “Iran rud” (“Iran’s River”), stretching between 765km to 1,400km, and costing between $6 billion and $10 billion, according to Iranian estimates made four years ago. Even considering the difference in sea level height, technically the canal can be built. The problem, besides cost, is that it might take roughly 10 years to finish. Iran, China and Russia (because of the access by Russian ships to the Indian Ocean bypassing the Bosporus and the Dardanelles), not by accident the three major

poles of Eurasia integration, are interested. This is a classic project that may gain impulse – perhaps under the umbrella of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) – as the interpolation of BRI with the Eurasia Economic Union (EAEU) gathers pace alongside the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) of which Iran, India and Russia are members. Once again; it’s all about Eurasia integration. What about our “global economic embargo”? Now compare all this trade/investment/connectivity drive with the CIA once again obsessed with – what else – regime change in Tehran. Or a document currently circulating on Capitol Hill and in the White House stating President Trump should declare to Congress next month not only that the Iran nuclear deal is no longer in the national security interest of the United States, but also hit Tehran with a “de-facto global economic embargo”. Following a meeting with President Putin in Sochi this past Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif went straight to the point; the (multilateral) nuclear deal is non-negotiable. There’s no way the “RC” in BRICS – the Russian-China strategic partnership – as well as the Europeans involved in the Vienna negotiations (UK, France and Germany) will throw away the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Any possible, further, unilateral US sanctions simply would not be followed by all the other members of the P5+1 negotiating team. Europeans and Asians will continue to invest in Iran. China, India, Japan and South Korea will continue to buy Iranian oil and gas – paying for it in their own currencies or making swap deals. But then we have Return of the Living Dead neocons casually floating the notion that the US “may need to go it alone in a conventional conflict.” Good luck with that, and with the “global economic embargo”. PERSIAN MINIATURES    187

An Iranian woman raises her fist through the smoke of teargas at the University of Tehran during protests that rocked the nation in 2018. Photo: AFP

Why there won’t be a revolution in Iran Regime change is unlikely but what is in play is setting the scene for a further renewal of economic sanctions By PEPE ESCOBAR JANUARY 3, 2018

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani did the right thing going on television and at least acknowledging popular anger over hard economic times. Inflation is high at 12% but down from 40% at the start of Rouhani’s first term. And the recent increase in fuel and food prices by up to 40% has hardly helped. That was part of Team Rouhani’s 2018 budget, which cuts subsidies for the poor – a key feature of the previous Ahmadinejad administration.



Then there is youth unemployment, which hovers around the 30% mark. Similar figures recently came out of Spain, a member of the European Union. Of course, that explains why the bulk of the protesters are under 25 from working class backgrounds. What Rouhani should have explained to Iranians in detail is the direct consequences of hard economic times and United States sanctions, which are affecting the country. These were coupled with financial threats against western firms now back in business, or at least contemplating opening up operations, in Iran. Rouhani did promise after signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, in the Austrian capital of Vienna in 2015 that it would lead to more jobs and stimulate the economy. While that has not been the case, legitimate protests singling out economic problems have never gone away. In fact, they have been part of the Iranian picture for decades. If we consider the Islamic Republic experiment, a sort of “theocracy with democratic characteristics,” the most striking element is how deeply rooted it is in the country. I learned this during my many trips to Iran and it has a great deal to do with the basij, or voluntary militias. They have permeated all aspects of social life from unions to student bodies and civil servant groups. In this respect, there is a strong similarity to China, where the Communist Party is embedded in the very fabric of society. Talking to young people in places such as Kashan or Mashhad showed me how solid the popular base was behind the Islamic Republic experiment. It was certainly more thought-provoking than listening to ayatollahs in Qom. Still, what is happening now in Iran is that legitimate protests related to economic hardships have been hijacked by the usual suspects in a move to influence the 190   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

minority. After all, Rouhani’s administration is comparatively liberal compared to the populist Ahmadinejad government.

US President Donald Trump shows the document reinstating sanctions against Iran after pulling out of the JCPOA in 2018. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

So, what we have is a concerted attempt to turn legitimate protests into a “revolutionary” movement with the aim of bringing about a regime change. In all practical purposes, this would be civil war. Well, it will simply not work. Anyone familiar with Iran knows the country’s civil society is far too sophisticated to fall into such a crude and obvious trap. For a clear take on the foreign influence angle, you should watch Professor Mohammad Marandi, of the University of Tehran, an academic of absolute integrity, arguing with a former BBC employee on the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera television network. Indeed, what is certain is that foreign elements are acting as provocateurs to influence the protests. This “whole world is watching” tone is meant to intimidate Tehran’s response. Yet there has to be a crackdown against the violence as Rouhani strongly hinted. Imagine the police response if the level of violence seen on Iranian streets was happening in France or Germany? Regime change is unlikely but what is in play is setting the scene for a further renewal of economic sanctions against Iran. Possibly, in this case by the EU. Hopefully, it will not fall into this trap. Anyway, Tehran is already gearing up to increase business across Eurasia through China’s new Silk Roads, the Belt and Road Initiative, and the Eurasia Economic Union. In the end, it is up to Team Rouhani to be creative in alleviating the burden on the economic front.

The art of breaking a deal Donald Trump’s decision to leave the JCPOA will not open the path to an Iranian nuclear weapon By PEPE ESCOBAR MAY 9, 2018

Breaking the unwritten rules of global diplomacy, the Trump administration is now in violation of the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or in plain language the Iran nuclear deal. Nuance is notoriously absent in what can only be described as a unilateral hard exit. All suspended United States sanctions against Iran will be reinstated, and harsh additional ones will be imposed. It does not matter that the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, repeatedly confirmed Iran was complying with the JCPOA as verPERSIAN MINIATURES    191

ified by 11 detailed reports since January 2016. Even US Secretary of Defense James Mattis vouched for the stringent verification mechanisms. Facts appear to be irrelevant, though. The JCPOA is the Obama administration’s only tangible foreign policy success, so, for domestic political reasons, it had to be destroyed. President Donald Trump’s opening address to the “Iranian people” during his White House speech also does not cut it. The overwhelming majority of Iranians support the JCPOA, and counted on it to alleviate their economic plight. Moreover, Trump’s regime change advisers support the exiled People’s Mojahedin Organization, or MEK, which is despised beyond belief inside Iran. As a minor subplot, rational geopolitical actors are asking what sort of national security advisor would strategically “advise” his boss to blow up a multilateral, United Nations-endorsed, working nuclear deal? To cut to the chase, the US decision to leave the JCPOA will not open the path to an Iranian nuclear weapon. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the last word, repeatedly stressed these are un-Islamic. Regime change It will not open the path toward regime change. On the contrary, Iran hardliners, clerical and otherwise, are already capitalizing on their interpretation from the beginning – Washington cannot be trusted. And it will not open the path toward all-out war. It’s no secret every Pentagon war-gaming exercise against Iran turned out nightmarish. This included the fact that the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC, could be put out of the oil business within hours, with dire consequences for the global economy. President Hassan Rouhani, in his cool, calm, collected response, emphasized Iran will remain committed to 192   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

the JCPOA. Immediately before the announcement, he had already said: “It is possible that we will face some problems for two or three months, but we will pass through this.” Responding to Trump, Rouhani stressed: “From now on, this is an agreement between Iran and five countries … from now on the P5+1 has lost its 1… we have to wait and see how the others react. “If we come to the conclusion that with cooperation with the five countries we can keep what we wanted despite Israeli and American efforts, Barjam [the Iranian description of the JCPOA] can survive.” Clearly, a titanic internal struggle is already underway, revolving around whether the Rouhani administration – which is actively working to diversify the economy – will be able to face the onslaught by the hard-liners. They have always characterized the JCPOA as a betrayal of Iran’s national interest. Following Rouhani, “others” reacted quickly. The European Union’s big three of Germany, France and Britain made it clear that trade and investment ties with Iran would not be sacrificed. Those views were echoed by the EU’s leading diplomat Federica Mogherini in a statement. Still, the key question now is how, in an interlinked global economy, European banks will be able to manage trade facilitation. Diplomats in Brussels told Asia Times that the EU is already devising a complex mechanism to protect European companies doing business in Iran. This is something that has been discussed between Iranian and the EU3 diplomats. Yet in the event the EU3 capitulates, even with support from Russia and China, the JCPOA will be effectively over with unpredictable consequences. These would include Iran’s possible exit from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. On the crucial oil front, Gulf traders told Asia Times that even with new US sanctions, and the possibility

of crude being priced way beyond the current US$70a-barrel, up to 1 million barrels a day of Iranian oil would simply disappear from global markets. If the EU, which imports 5% of its oil from Iran, buckles under too much pressure, these exports will be relocated to Asian customers such as China, India, Japan and South Korea. The US decision has also cast a shadow over the upcoming US-North Korea summit. The perception in Pyongyang – not to mention Beijing and Moscow – will be inevitable – the US can not be trusted. For all its faults, the JCPOA remains a complex, painstakingly designed multilateral agreement, which took 12 years of diplomacy to broker, and was sanctioned by the UN. Key hub The geopolitical consequences are massive. To start with, strategically, Washington is isolated. The only actors applauding the decision to rip up the deal are Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As Iran is a key hub of the ongoing Eurasia integration process, the trade-investment partnership with both Moscow and Beijing will be even stronger as Asia Times has reported. On the military front, nothing will prevent Russia from supplying Iran with S-400 missile systems or China with its “carrier-killers.” The JCPOA was a dizzyingly complex technical undertaking. In parallel, it is no secret the US establishment never got over the 1979 Islamic revolution. The privileged roadmap in the Beltway remains regime change.

That still applies as seen by the United States Central Command’s recent drive “to neutralize, counterbalance and shape the destabilizing impact Iran has across the region…” Or, in Trump terminology, to curtail Iran’s “malign activities.” CENTCOM commander, Gen. Joseph Votel, went straight to the heart of the matter when he told the US House Armed Services Committee in February that “both Russia and China are cultivating multidimensional ties to Iran … Lifting UN sanctions under the joint comprehensive plan of action opens [the] path for Iran to resume application to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.” In a nutshell, this betrays the entire project which is to thwart the Eurasia integration process, which features Russia and China as peer competitors aligning with Iran along the New Silk Roads. Predictably, we are back to the late Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s book, The Grand Chessboard. “…Potentially the most dangerous scenario would be an ‘anti-hegemonic’ coalition united not by ideology but by complementary grievances … a grand coalition of China, Russia, perhaps Iran … reminiscent in scale and scope of the challenge posed by the Sino-Soviet bloc, though this time, China would likely be the leader and Russia the follower,” he wrote. “Averting this contingency … will require US geostrategic skill on the western, eastern, and southern perimeters of Eurasia simultaneously.” So, Trump has reshuffled the Grand Chessboard. Persians, though, happen to know a thing or two about chess.

The real US objective – way beyond the JCPOA’s technicalities – was always geopolitical. And that meant stopping to Iran from becoming the leading power in Southwest Asia. PERSIAN MINIATURES    193

Two men bargain over the price of a carpet in a bazaar in Iran, but would Donald Trump cut a better deal? Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

The other art of the deal, Tehran-style Iran hosted the International Conference in Support of the Palestinian Intifada and poured cold water on Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal By PEPE ESCOBAR MAY 18, 2018

The art of the deal, when practiced for 2,500 years, does lead to the palace of wisdom. I had hardly set foot in Tehran when a diplomat broke the news: “Trump? We’re not worried. He’s a bazaari (merchant trader)” – implying a political compromise will eventually be reached. The Iranian government’s response to the Trump administration boils down to a Sun Tzu variant; silence – especially after the Fall of Flynn, who had “put Iran on notice” after a ballistic missile test that did not infringe the provisions of the Iranian nuclear deal, and the idea of an an194   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


ti-Iran, Saudi Arabia-UAE-Egypt-Jordan mini-NATO. The Iranian naval drills – from the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean – had been planned way in advance. I was in Tehran as part of a small group of foreign analysts, guests of the Majlis (Parliament) for the 6th International Conference in Support of the Palestinian Intifada. No one in Trump’s circle would be caught dead in such a gathering – featuring parliamentary delegates from more than 50 nations, a de facto miniUN. Yet what they missed at the impressive opening in a crowded, round conference hall was the center of power in Iran on display; Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani and Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani. Khamenei admitted “the existing crises in every part of the region and the Islamic ummah deserve attention,” while reinforcing the key issue is Palestine. Hence the conference could become “a model for all Muslims and regional nations to gradually harness their differences by relying on their common points.” The Wahhabi House of Saud, incidentally, was nowhere to be seen. Khamenei’s was a necessary call for Muslim unity. Few in the West know that during the 1940s and ’50s, as decolonization proceeded apace, Islam was not trespassed by vicious Sunni-Shi’ite hatred – it was later fomented by the Wahhabi/Salafi-jihadi axis. Hefty discussions with Iranian analysts and diplomats revolved on the efficacy of multilateral talking compared to advancing facts on the ground – ranging from the building of new settlements in the West Bank to the now all but dead and buried Oslo two-state myth. On Palestine, Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabi Berri offered a gloomy assessment of the three solutions now available; suicide; giving in; or running away from what’s left of Palestinian land. Later on down the hall I asked the deputy secretary-general of Hezbollah, the affable Naim Qassem, about the Trump administration’s hint of a one-state solution. His answer, in French: “One state means war. Two states means peace under their conditions, which will conduct us to war.” 196   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

The road to post-Enlightenment As with most conferences, what matters are the bilaterals. Leonid Savin re-confirmed Russian airspace is now all but sealed with multiple deployments of the S-500 missile defense system against anything the US may unleash. Albanian historian Olsi Jazexhi deconstructed the new Balkans powder keg. Muhammad Gul, son of the late, larger-than-life General Hamid Gul, detailed the finer points of Pakistan’s foreign policy and the drive to build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Blake Archer Williams, otherwise known as Arash Darya-Bandari, whose pseudonym celebrates the “tyger tyger burning bright” English master, gave me a copy of Creedal Foundations of Waliyic Islam (Lion of Najaf Publishers) – a sophisticated analysis of how Shi’ite theology led to the theory of velayat-e faqih (the ruling of the jurisprudent) at the heart of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I’m considering sending the book to voracious reader Steve Bannon. Pyongyang was also in the house. The North Korean delegate had produced an astonishing speech, essentially arguing that Palestine should follow their example, complete with a “credible nuclear deterrent.” Later on in the corridors I saluted the delegation, and they saluted back. No chance of a bilateral though to expand on the unclear points surrounding Kim Jongnam’s assassination.

But it was his analysis that paved the way for sociologist Ali Shariati to cross-pollinate anti-colonialism with the Shi’ite concept of resistance against injustice into a revolutionary ideology capable of politicizing the Iranian middle classes, leading to the Islamic Revolution. That was the background for very serious discussions on how Iran (resistance against injustice), China (remixed Confucianism) and Russia (Eurasianism) are offering post-enlightenment alternatives that transcend Western liberal democracy – a concept rendered meaningless by neoliberalism’s hegemony. But in the end it was all inevitably down to the overarching anti-intellectual ghost in the room; Donald Trump, and that was even before he got a letter from Ahmadinejad. So I did what I usually do before leaving Tehran; I hit the bazaar, via a fabulous attached mosque – to get reacquainted with the art of the deal, the Persian way. That led me to Mahmoud Asgari, lodged in the Sameyi passage of the Tajrish bazaar and a serious discussion on the finer points of pre-WWI Sistan-Baluchistan tribal rugs from Zahedan. The end result was – what else – a win-win deal, bypassing the US dollar. And then, the clincher: “When you call your friend Trump, tell him to come here and I’ll give him the best deal.” Steve Bannon, your call.

Every time I’m back in Tehran I’m impressed with the open avenues for serious intellectual discussion. Once again Tehran proved to be unrivaled all across Asia as a theater to debate all crosscurrents involving post or counter-Enlightenment, or both. I was constantly reminded of Jalal Al-e Ahmad, the son of a mullah born in poor south Tehran who later translated Sartre and Camus and wrote the seminal Westoxification (1962). He spent the summer of 1965 at a seminar in Harvard organized by Henry Kissinger and “supported” by the CIA, and pivoted to Shi’ism only by the end of his life. PERSIAN MINIATURES    197

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during a protest on May 18, 2018 against the recent killings of Palestinian protesters on the Gaza-Israel border and the US embassy move to Jerusalem. Photo: Handout via Reuters

Letter from Iran: Mr. Trump, you have been served Top officials, including former CIA officers, Pentagon officials, US Army officers and former diplomats demand explanation of Israeli actions By PEPE ESCOBAR MAY 19, 2018

In a letter addressed to President Donald Trump, with copies to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the UN Security Council, four top former officials at the highest level of the US government have given him legal notice about his duty to advise the US Congress, the ICC and the UNSC, among others, about Israel’s actions coinciding with the “70th anniversary of the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes.” The letter is signed, among others, by former CIA operations officer Phil Giraldi; former Pentagon official Michael Maloof; former US Army offi198   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


cer and State Department coordinator for counterterrorism contractor Scott Bennett; and former diplomat and author of Visas For al-Qaeda: CIA Handouts That Rocked The World, Michael Springmann. Maloof, Bennett and Giraldi, as well as Springmann and this correspondent, were among guests at the 6th International New Horizon conference in the holy city of Mashhad, eastern Iran. The top themes of the conference’s debates were Palestine and the Trump administration’s unilateral exit from the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As Maloof and Bennett separately confirmed to Asia Times, the letter was written by Giraldi and Maloof at an airport lounge as they were waiting for a flight from Mashhad to Tehran, where it was presented at a press conference this past Tuesday. This correspondent was on a reporting trip in Karaj. We all reunited on Thursday at Mashhad’s airport. The press conference in Tehran was virtually ignored by US corporate media. Visas for the visiting Americans were an extremely delicate matter debated at the highest levels of the Iranian government between the Foreign Ministry and the intelligence services. In the end, the visitors, under intense scrutiny by Iranian media, ended up finding a huge, eager audience all across Iran. A new psyops in the making The letter signatories make a direct connection about Israeli actions that may trigger “and escalate American military actions against Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Russia since these nations are opposed to the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem; and rising tensions already exacerbated by the US withdrawal from the JCPOA.” President Trump is also served legal notice that the letter “will be included as evidence in all matters relating to the US Embassy move to Jerusalem/Al Quds and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The letter is to be listed as “exhibit 1 in any war crimes investiga200   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

tion and prosecution (past, present, future) relating to this matter, at all times.”

Ali Akbar Velayati, a top foreign policy adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is seen at a news conference in Beirut on May 18, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Mohamed Azakir

As Bennett told Asia Times, the main concern is that according to his military sources the current, volatile situation may establish the preconditions for “a new psyops campaign.” Trump has been served legal notice – pursuant to 18 US Code 4, and 28 US Code 1361 – of “national and international legal violations.” The letter also doubles as “a legal notice to the American people” – and is established as legal protection “against any retaliation, detainment, investigation, sequestration, interrogation, discrimination, imprisonment, torture, financial consequences, or any other negative or prejudicial consequences or actions.” Moreover, “any action taken against the undersigned will be interpreted as a violation of the following; 18 USC 242 (conspiracy to deny/violate constitutional civil rights); 42 USC 1983, 1984, 1985 (civil action for rights violations); 18 US 2339A (providing material support to terrorists). The letter may also be interpreted as an olive branch; apart from requesting full whistleblower protection, the signatories offer themselves to fully debrief the President as well as Congress. The letter is copied to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani.

Tehran eyes path ahead after US withdrawal from nuclear pact Iran is considering conducting all trade in euro and yuan amid uncertainty over whether Brussels can challenge the dominance of US law and prevent possible sanctions

There has been no White House response so far. Considering the US embassy transfer to Jerusalem; the unilateral abrogation of the JCPOA followed by a declaration of economic war against Iran; the new narrative on the DPRK — as in there’s only our deal, or you will be destroyed like Libya; not to mention the treatment of whistleblower Julian Assange, the prospects for a fruitful dialogue remain bleak.


The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has monopolized the highest levels of government in Tehran around the clock since the decision was announced on May 9. Prime Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who met yesterday with the European Union’s energy chief Miguel Arias Canete, reiterated that mere words of support from the Europeans are not enough. The JCPOA joint commission meets in Vienna this coming Friday to analyze all options ahead. PERSIAN MINIATURES    201

EU diplomats in Brussels told Asia Times that, contrary to rumors, the European Union is not considering offering financial aid to Tehran in exchange for concessions towards a possible new nuclear deal. What Brussels is desperate to achieve before the first US sanctions kick in from August is to devise a mechanism to contest the dominance of extraterritorial American law – and reassure President Hassan Rouhani, who allegedly has “limited” trust that France, Britain and Germany will affirm an independent foreign policy. Tehran, meanwhile, is considering conducting all its trade and commercial transactions in euro and yuan. Ahmad Bahmani is the Europe and Americas adviser to Ali Akbar Velayati, who happens to be the top foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. So what Bahmani says comes from the highest levels of the Iranian government. Bahmani received Asia Times for an exclusive exchange of ideas in an unassuming office in Tehran. He preferred not to have his picture taken, implying the man in the spotlight is Velayati. The Beltway could do worse than listen to Bahmani. Here are the highlights of our conversation: On the New World Order – Surveying the chessboard since “the first McDonald’s opened in Moscow”, and considering when the world was bipolar (“now there are at least six poles”) Bahmani notes whether, three decades later, Romania and Poland may qualify as “examples of true progress” as “socialist parties in Eastern Europe are the ones steadily advancing.” Meanwhile, all over Western Europe, “people want change.” He evokes Brexit, Catalonia, Syriza (the Radical Left party in Greece), the National Front in France; everywhere there’s “change in classic political divisions.” On Barjam (how the JCPOA is referred to in Iran) – Bahmani is pleased the agreement has been broken – vindicating Ayatollah Khamenei who, on the record, always insisted the Americans cannot be trusted. Yet he’s not sure “the Europeans will align with us. They 202   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

may not have the necessary independence. Europe does $450 billion a year in business with the US, and only $30 billion with Iran. Yet if they back down, it will show their population’s European governments have no independence.” On Iranian psychology – “Here, when we achieve something with great effort, we cling to it in full force. So at the moment, there’s a feeling of untrustworthiness in relation to the West. For six years the core of Iranian diplomacy revolved around Barjam. Soon the EU will have to respond to other issues. We have no illusions.” On Iranian resilience – “The US spent $7 trillion in Afghanistan and Iraq. Commenting on it, Trump said, ‘We just expanded our cemeteries’.” Bahmani evokes Iran’s vast topography – from the hottest spot on the planet to minus 35 degrees Celsius temperatures – to stress, “we know how to defend ourselves.” He makes the connection between Iran’s massive reserves of oil and gas and the capacity of blocking the Persian Gulf in the event of war. And he extols resilience: “It would be better if Iran had no oil. We suffered four decades of embargo. During the 1980s, in the Iran-Iraq war, everyone was against us; we couldn’t buy katyusha rockets for 10 times the price. Never a day without sanctions forced us to become more creative. In 1979 Iran had 50% illiteracy. Now we have 5 million students, compared to 30,000 then; 95% of our villages have access to everything; 93% of medicines are now produced locally – and exported. We managed to convert [that] threat into opportunity.” He does make the eulogy of Made in Iran. And then comes the clincher: “The Americans are not capable of conquering Iran.” On regional alliances – After I reveal US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin let it slip that the Trump administration’s real objective is to press harsher sanctions to get a different JCPOA, Bahmani says that Mnuchin is “already in a position of weakness”. He counteracts with Iran’s alliances across Southwest Asia. Iraq (“We know who the next prime minister will be but we cannot say it”). Hezbollah (“they used to be

supported by a third of Lebanon; after the latest elections they have 60 to 65%.”) Damascus. Saana. Gaza (“there’s new allegiance to Ayatollah Khamenei.”) That “makes six allies, including Iran. Plus sympathizers in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Turkey.” As for Saudi Crown Prince MBS, “he has bought everyone else.” On the near future – “We are not worried. Both systems active during the Cold War failed. We need to create a third system.” After 9/11, “show me one American victory in this region. For four decades they have tried in vain to install a security system in the Middle East.” On Israel – Bahmani stresses that he knows “the history of Israel in detail since 1948.” He emphasizes 1982 in Lebanon was “the last Israeli victory.” Then there was 1986 (“after 16 days they accepted all of Hezbollah’s demands.”) In 2000, “they left Lebanon in a hurry.” He enumerates a pattern of war every two years; 2006; 2008 (“they bombed Gaza for 20 days”); 2010 (“the war of 11 days”); 2012 (“8 days”); 2014 (“51 days”). He mentions Iranian intel monitoring Israeli “financial movements to European accounts. Israelis may be getting ready to leave in case of a land war.” On Israel’s bombing of the T4 base in Syria, when seven top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps military advisers were killed, and the Syrian response, striking four sensitive Israeli positions in the occupied Golan Heights with 20 missiles (this was a Syrian, not Iranian, response; here, in Arabic, is a detailed breakdown of the targets) – “According to the agreement between Israel and Hezbollah after the 2006 war, if Hezbollah launches a missile and Israel does not respond, a skirmish, or a larger war, is over. That was the case between Israel and Syria here. And the ones who played the role of intermediary were the Russians.” I ask whether Tehran should expect further Israeli strikes in Syria. Bahmani: “Not for the moment, no. This is just a chapter. A new one may be opened, in a month or two.”


Dawn comes to Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad. Photo: Asia Times/Pepe Escobar

Iran diary: bracing for all-out economic war While the dogs of war bark, the Ancient – and New – Silk Road goes on forever and a civilization with a long and proud history gets on with life By PEPE ESCOBAR MAY 28, 2018

The minute you set foot in the streets of Mashhad, the air smelling of saffron, a fine breeze oozing from the mountains, it hits you; you’re in the heart of the Ancient Silk Road and the New Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). To the east, the Afghan border is only three hours away on an excellent highway. To the north, the Turkmenistan border is less than four hours away. To the northwest is the Caspian Sea. To the south is the Indian Ocean and the port of Chabahar, the entry point for the Indian version of 204   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


the Silk Roads. The Tehran-Mashhad railway is being built by the Chinese. A group of us – including American friends, whose visas were approved at the highest levels of the Iranian government – have gathered in Mashhad for the New Horizon Conference of independent thinkers. Right after a storm, I’m in a van on the way to the spectacular Imam Reza shrine with Alexander Dugin, which the usual suspects love to describe as “the world’s most dangerous philosopher,” or Putin’s Rasputin. Debating and discussion time We’re deep in debate not over geopolitics but … bossa nova. Exit Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, enter Tom Jobim and Joao Gilberto. Persia traditionally has been a land of serious intellectual discussion. At the conference, after a lunch break, a few of us decide to start our own geopolitical debate, no cameras rolling, no microphones on. Dugin expands on what multipolarity could be; no universality; pluriversal; a realm of pluralistic anthropology; all poles sovereign. We discuss the pitfalls of Eurasian identity, Islamic identity, sub-poles, India, Europe and Africa. A few minutes later Iranian scholar Blake Archer Williams – his nom de plume – is delving into “The sacred community of Shi’ite Islam and its covenantal dispensation.” Karaj is a bustling three million-strong city one hour away from Tehran by freeway. Early one morning I enter a room in a hawza – an Islamic seminary. In my previous travels I have visited hawzas in Qom, but never a female-only school. This one harbors 2,275 active students from all over Alborz province up to PhD level. They study philosophy, psychology, economics and politics. After graduation, some will go abroad, to teach in Islamic and non-Islamic nations. Our Q&A is exhilarating. Many of my interlocutors are already teachers, and most will become scholars. 206   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Their questions are sharp; some are extremely well informed. There’s so much eagerness to know detail after detail about life in the West. High academic standards The next day I visit the Islamic Azad University; more than four million alumni, 1.4 million current students, 29,000 faculty members, 472 campuses and research centers and 617 affiliated high schools. The Karaj campus is the second in importance in Iran. This is an extraordinary experience. The hillside campus may not be a UCLA, but puts to shame many prestigious universities across Europe. Not to mention the annual tuition fees; only US$1,000 on average. Sanctions? What sanctions? Most of the equipment may yield from the 1980s, but they have everything they need. As attested by jovial master architect Ali Kazemi, who spent 16 years in Paris after graduating from Nanterre, the academic standards are very high. Rector Mohammad Hasan Borhanifar – formerly at the University of Kyrgyzstan in Bishkek – opens all the doors at the campus. I’m shepherded by Mohammad Hashamdar, from the Faculty of Languages. I talk to the deans of all faculties and have a Q&A with students, mostly in international relations. Even before the proclamation of the “strongest sanctions in history,” everyone wants details on the US Treasury’s new form of financial war, even more deadly than a hot war. In slightly more than two months, the purchase of US dollars, steel, coal and precious metals will be banned; there will be no more Iranian imports to the US and aviation and the car industry will be under sanctions. Airbus may have to cancel multi-billion dollar orders from Iran. An IT professor tells me Iran can buy excellent Sukhoi passenger jets instead. No Peugeots? “We buy Hyundai.” My interlocutors update me on investments by Total, Airbus, BASF, Siemens, Eni – its branch Saipem signed

a $5 billion deal with the National Iranian Oil Company, NIOC, to develop oil and gas fields and ultimately supply energy to Europe. They confirm that if Total pulls out of the development of the 11th phase of the South Pars gas field, the Chinese CNPC will take over. Almost 70% of Iran’s oil exports go to China and Asia, 20% go to Europe. Almost 90% of what the EU buys from Iran is oil, going mostly to Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Germany and the Netherlands. Iran remains THE Big Prize, as Dick Cheney well knew; an astonishing $45 trillion in oil and gas reserves. A wide gene pool I’m slightly alarmed when, talking to the Friday prayer imam – who is the actual representative of Ayatollah Khamenei in Karaj – he’s clueless about the New Silk Roads. Just as the Ancient Silk Road allowed Buddhism to fertilize Chinese culture, Iran, India and China are bound to cross-fertilize again; imagine a trans-Eurasia lab equipped with a wide gene pool and well-educated young armada searching for creative solutions. The LA freeway hell pales in comparison with being stuck in a monster three-hour traffic jam from Tehran to Karaj, only 25 kilometers. I duly incorporate a Persian imprecation to my vocabulary; kharab beshe, which in polite translation means “going to nowhere.” I miss my requisite geopolitical dinner with Professor Marandi of the University of Tehran; we do it later on Whatsapp – like MBS and Jared Kushner. What daily life in 17 million-strong, congested to death Tehran reveals is the standard of living essentially of a mid-level emerging nation. Everyone has a car, and smartphones and wi-fi are ubiquitous. In parallel, everywhere we feel intimations of a Persian civilization boasting at least a millennium of fabulous history even before Islam was born. And when we talk to the secularized intellectual elite, it’s clear that for them, in comparison, Arabs are nothing but trouble. Everywhere I go I’m back in the ’70s; the whole infrastructure seems decades old, but everything works.

Except for timing; Iran might as well be the land of magical realism 2.0, where the unexpected happens when all hope has been forsaken. A smart, young generation In Mashhad, I’m the guest in a political talk show on Khorasan TV – in a studio immaculately preserved from the ’70s. Yes, this is the heart of the fabled Khorasan – “where the sun arrives from” – that transfixed Alexander The Great. I spend half an hour dissecting the JCPOA; my translator is an over-qualified import-export expert. Khorasan TV’s blockbuster is an American-style cop show essentially covering road accidents in real time; after all, the crime rate is negligible. Real inflation is at 16% a year – so far. Foreign exchange inflation is much higher. Real youth unemployment is at a steep 30%, in a country of 80 million where the median age is 29 and 40% of the population is under 24. One of my translators in Karaj, Ali, is 24; he’s unemployed, learned English by watching DVDs and cannot afford to rent his own place. Under the new rial devaluation, the median regional salary plunged to about US$250 per month. One cannot rent a 40 square meter apartment near Azad University for less than $200 per month. I stop for a late night pizza in Mashhad. The bill reads a whopping 200,000 rials; that’s a little more than $3. The euro in the black market spikes to nearly 80,000 rials. Social media Telegram has been blocked – but still, everyone uses both Telegram and WhatsApp. Some VPNs work, some don’t. The block was not necessarily linked to the spread of anti-government rumors during the January street protests – which actually started in Mashhad. Elaheh, who did her language master in France; Bojan, who has a PhD in economics from San Diego State; or Ayoub Farkhondeh, who works on terrorPERSIAN MINIATURES    207

ism studies at the Habilian research institute, are all amused by the “bizarre” coverage by Western media of all things Iran. The analysis of well-educated people in both Mashhad and Tehran tends to qualify the protests as essentially IMF riots – which happen when the Washington Consensus forces governments to reduce subsidies. Real revolutions, in Iran, involve clerics, middle-class intellectuals and the bazaaris. This time the focus was the grassroots; the working class in small provincial cities. Millions in Iran, after all, depend on government salaries and subsidies. In contrast, Team Rouhani is essentially neoliberal. Of course, there’s government criticism – more towards the clerics than neoliberal Team Rouhani. Businessmen told me of untold ministerial-level corruption – but it’s virtually impossible to verify the numbers. The Pasdaran, as the IRGC is referred to, continue to control a great deal of the economy and to manage a welfare system and client system that distributes favors to millions of people, but also imposes rigid social control. At the same time, not looking at Iran via a windowless cubicle in Washington but actually on the ground, it’s clear that NSC Adviser John Bolton’s plan to revive the Mujahedin-e Khalq, known as MEK, to attempt a color revolution will fail miserably. MEK is universally despised. The whole of Iranian society won’t blame either Khamenei or Rouhani for the incoming economic war. Europe on the spot Persian politeness, hospitality and graciousness always strike a visitor as deeply touching. All that combined with an obsession with the image that the West has of Iran. Iran does not seek “isolation”; it’s Washington politics that wants it isolated. So no wonder Europe is on the spot. The EU will activate a 1996 law which forbids European companies to comply with US sanctions, protecting them “against 208   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

the effects of the extra-territorial application of legislation adopted by a third country.” Still, the question is ubiquitous; “The Europeans will side with us or the Americans?”

Iranians hold anti-US placards and shout slogans during a rally after Friday prayers in the capital Tehran on May 11, 2018, after President Trump withdrew the US from a nuclear accord signed in 2015. Photo: AFP

In parallel, Iranians don’t want to be like the West. And the best way to understand it is by visiting the Imam Reza shrine over and over again – I went early in the morning, after an afternoon storm, and at night. The Imam Reza shrine, known as Astan Qods-e Razavi, is a marvel enveloped in golden and turquoise domes, lavish minarets and 12 courtyards spread over one million square meters. It hosts the largest Iranian NGO; a centuries-old administrative structure encompassing eight general directorates, more than 50 industrial, agricultural and service companies, over 15 cultural and research institutions and more than 12,000 students. The 12th-century library at the shrine is one of the world’s oldest, along with Alexandria, the Vatican and Topkaki. Ayatollah Khomeini ordered its preservation. The public library holds four million books in more than 90 languages. There’s even a lab to “cure book diseases.” Mashhad runs a library in India plus a documentation center with more than 18 million items, including a 1,300-year-old document linked to Imam Ali.

The Syria connection to Iran, Afghanistan and China

Before leaving on a night flight to Doha, I visit the shrine one last time with two fine, steeped in history, Italian observers, ace journalist Giulietto Chiesa and writer Roberto Quaglia. It’s the first day of Ramadan. We’re speechless facing the crossover of aesthetic beauty, spiritual illumination and plain old fun.

Iranian academic spells out Iran’s position in the Middle East and questions US policy toward the region; amid reports that the Qods force is unlikely to disband, and that Daesh (ISIS) is being moved the Afghanistan-Pakistan border

Whole families gather, improvise a picnic, chat, take selfies, kids roam around playing. Instead of being glued to some dodgy version of Big Brother, like most across the West, they prefer to live life in a shrine. It is indeed an organic “third day,” like a government insider told me in Tehran.

MAY 29, 2018

Meanwhile, a Chinese train is snaking along from Mongolia to Tehran carrying sunflower seeds. While the dogs of war bark, the Ancient – and New – Silk Road goes on forever.

By PEPE ESCOBAR A crucial question has been consuming policymakers in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon: Does the Trump administration have a strategic plan for the Middle East or not? Few are more apt to answer than Saadallah Zarei, dean of the Institute of Strategic Studies Andishe Sazan-e Noor in Tehran. Zarei, a soft-spoken, extremely discreet man I met in Mashhad a few days ago, happens to be not only one of Iran’s top strategic analysts but also a key brain behind the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force commander Gen. PERSIAN MINIATURES    209

Qasem Soleimani – the ultimate bête noire outside the Beltway. So US strategists could do worse than paying attention to Zarei. While the US “owns 37 fixed military bases and almost 70 movable bases in the Middle East”, Zarei said, “We do not observe specific and exact strategies.” He stressed his perplexity with “contradictory behavior related to the Shi’ite population. America’s behavior in terms of the Shi’ite population of Bahrain and their rights, the Zaydi Shi’ite population in Yemen and Kashmir and also the Shi’ite population in Lebanon, which is 35% of the total population, is not specified and nobody knows how the Americans think about Shi’ites and how they act.” Zarei also notes that “America does not have a specific policy about the democracies of Turkey and Iran. There is not any specific strategy about democracy in Iraq and Lebanon too. America talks about democracy as an American value and tries to generalize it, but in this region, we see that the best friends of the US are countries where there is no election in their political systems.” The bottom line, according to Zarei, is that “the US strategy is not coherent in the Middle East. I think this is the main reason for the failure of American policies in this region.” Enter the Hazaras Now zoom in from the macro-analysis to the micro-view on the ground. Compare Zarei to Komeil, a 24-year-old Hazara Shi’ite from Kabul. Komeil is one among as many as 14,000 soldiers, all Hazara Afghans, carrying an Afghan passport, which made up the Liwa Fatemiyoun brigade fighting in Syria. We met in Mashhad, where he is spending Ramadan, before going back to the frontlines next month. One of the key founders of Fatemiyoun, in 2013, was Abu Ahmad, killed by a missile, of unknown origin, 210   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

near the Golan Heights, in 2015. At first, the brigade was a religious organization set up “to defend Shi’ite holy shrines in Syria” or, as Komeil prefers to stress, “defend humanity, weak people”. No Fatemiyoun fighters carry Iranian passports – even though some, like Komeil, do live in eastern Iran; he’s been in Mashhad since 2011. Almost all of them are volunteers; Komeil followed “friends” who joined the brigade. He undertook military training in Bagram airbase when he was part of the Afghan Army. Komeil told me he engaged in direct combat with an assortment of Salafi-jihadis – from Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra to smaller outfits that were part of the vast, rambling Free Syrian Army umbrella. He’s been on the frontlines non-stop for three years, fighting mostly in “Sham and Zenaybi” near Damascus, and was also present at the liberation of Aleppo. He described Daesh jihadis as “very difficult” in battle. He says he saw Daesh fighters wearing “American clothes” and carrying American-made rifles. Captured prisoners had “food from Saudi Arabia and Qatar”. He personally captured a “French lady working with Daesh” but did not know what happened to her, saying only that “Commanders treat our prisoners well.” He swears “less than 10%” of Daesh jihadis are Syrians – “There are Saudis, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Pakistanis, English, French and Germans.” In contrast to the propaganda barrage across the Beltway, Komeil is adamant there are no Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) military commanders active with Fatemiyoun, and no Hezbollah. They fight “side by side” – and the Iranians are essentially military advisers. He depicted Fatemiyoun as a totally independent outfit. This would indicate their military training was mostly acquired as members of the Afghan Army, and not via the IRGC. Komeil said the fabled Qods Force commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani did visit the group, but “only once”. Each force is responsible for its own area of operations; Fatimiyoun; Hezbollah; the Syria Arab Army (SAA); the Pakistanis (“strong fighters”); the al-Defae-Watan,

which he portrayed as an equivalent of the Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi (also known as the “People Mobilization Units”); and the Medariyoun also from Iraq. The ‘Shi’ite crescent’, revisited The Obama administration admitted at least that Iranian military advisers, alongside Russia air power and Hezbollah fighters, helped the SAA to defeat Daesh and other Salafi-jihadi outfits in Syria. But, for the Trump administration – in sync with Israel and Saudi Arabia – it’s all black and white; all forces under Iranian command have to leave Syria (and that would include Fatemiyoun). That’s not going to happen; the virtual total collapse of what is loosely defined in the Beltway as “moderate rebels” – al-Qaeda in Syria included – yielded a power vacuum duly occupied by Damascus. And Damascus still needs all these forces to extinguish Salafi-jihadism for good. Iran exerts influence throughout an arc from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. As Zarei analyzed: “The Islamic Republic of Iran has a specific strategy in the region. We have specific principles, friends, and capabilities. In addition, we have a coherent understanding of our enemy and we know where should we stand in the next 20 years. Therefore, we try to use our capabilities carefully and manage the job gradually.” This has nothing to do with a threatening “Shi’ite crescent”, as suggested by Jordan’s King Abdullah way back in 2004. It’s been essentially a slow-motion Iranian countercoup against the US non-strategy across Southwest Asia since “Shock and Awe” in 2003 – as Zarei identified it. The Qods Force – formed during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s – is the extraterritorial extension of the IRGC. I talked to quite a few war veterans in Karaj, where they gather in an association set up in a replica bunker serving delicious osh soup – a Persian equivalent of Tuscan pasta and fagioli – after meetings. Commander Syed Mohammad Yayavi said there is no way the Trump administration’s demand, expressed by Secretary of State Pompeo, for Iran to dismantle the

Qods Force, will ever be accepted. The Qods Force could be described as an equivalent of the US Special Forces and CIA special ops all rolled into one. For Washington, that’s a terror organization. Yet in practice, the Qods Force is as much an arm of Iranian national security policy across Southwest Asia as the Pentagon and CIA enforcing US national security interests all around the world. And there’s remarkable continuity. At the “bunker” in Karaj I talked to Mohammad Nejad, a retired Iranian Air Force colonel who acquired his Iran-Iraq battle experience when he was in his mid-twenties, fighting in Bushher. Two years ago he was back in Syria for two months, serving as a military adviser. All eyes on the SCO The incoherent US strategy in the Middle East described by Zarei also applies to Afghanistan. Another demand by the Trump administration is that Tehran must stop supporting the Taliban. Facts on the ground are infinitely more nuanced. The endless US war in Afghanistan has generated millions of refugees; many of them live in Iran. In parallel, Washington has set up a permanent network of Afghan military bases – which Tehran identifies as a serious threat, capable of supporting covert ops inside Iran. So what happens is that Tehran, with minimal means – and in tandem with intelligence services from Pakistan and Russia – does support small groups in western Afghanistan, around Herat, including some that are loosely linked with the Taliban. But that fits into a much larger Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) strategy. SCO members Russia, China and Pakistan, as well as future member Iran, not to mention future member Afghanistan, all want an Asian, SCO-driven solution for the Afghan tragedy. And that must include a place for the Taliban in the government in Kabul. Now compare that with the avowed Trump adminisPERSIAN MINIATURES    211

tration ploy geared to provoke regime change in Tehran. Saudi Arabia is already on it. Riyadh, via a think tank allegedly supported by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, known as MBS, has been funding a string of hardcore anti-Shi’ite madrassas in Balochistan in Pakistan, which borders Sistan-Balochistan province in Iran. The Saudi plan is to at least disrupt the emergence of Chabahar port, which happens to be the entry point of India’s own New Silk Road to Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan. BRICS member India, alongside Russia and China, won’t be exactly pleased; and India is also a new SCO member, and absolutely adverse to all forms of Salafi-jihadism. Adding even more trouble to this heady mix, the Attorney General for Pakistan, Ashtar Ausaf Ali, on a visit to Iran, received a warning that Daesh “is being moved” to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Who’s doing the moving is unclear. What’s certain is that ISIS-Khorasan, or ISIS-K – that is, Daesh’s Afghan branch – is actually fighting the Taliban. Coincidentally, US airpower is also fighting the Taliban, via Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. One report detailed how “the number of US weapons released in support of Freedom’s Sentinel increased to 562 in April, the highest monthly total of 2018 and the second highest total for any month since October 2011.” So, it’s the Taliban that are getting heavily bombed, not ISIS-K. No wonder SCO nations are on red alert. The real mystery is still to be unlocked by Pakistani intelligence: that is, in what part of the porous Af-Pak border are over 4,000 well-weaponized ISIS-K jihadis being lodged?

Who will rebuild Syria?

A file photo taken in March 2017 shows an oil facility on Khark Island, on the Gulf. The US warned this week that countries must stop buying Iranian oil before November 4 or face economic sanctions. A State Dept official said tightening the noose on Tehran was a top national security priority. Photo: AFP/ Atta Kenare

And that leads us to the ultimate inter-connector: China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Syrian colleague Walid Muallem have a very close relationship. President Xi Jinping is a firm supporter of the Astana peace process featuring Russia, Iran and Turkey. China announced last November that it would deploy special forces to Syria against all strands of Salafi-jihadism; the Chinese goal is to “neutralize” 5,000 Uyghur fighters who have acted as “moderate rebels”, because of concern about militants causing violence if they return to Xinjiang. But most of all, China will be deeply involved in Syrian reconstruction; towns, villages, roads, railways, bridges, schools, hospitals, all connectivity networks. Syria will be rebuilt by China, Russia (energy, infrastructure) and Iran (power grids), not the US or the Gulf petro-monarchies. US and EU sanctions are still in effect, banning commercial operations both in US dollars and euros. This coincides with a meeting in Beijing last week of SCO security council chiefs. Politburo heavyweight Yang Jiechi, director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, discussed matters extensively with top Russian security expert Nikolai Patrushev. The 18th SCO summit will be held in Qingdao on June 9. Russian President Vladimir Putin will be there. India and Pakistan will be there. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani will be there, representing Iran as an observer, and will meet face to face with Putin and Xi. That’s where all Syria-Afghanistan connections will converge.

How the Iran sanctions drama intersects with OPEC-plus Major states buying oil from Iran are unlikely to heed the US call to drop imports; key allies want a waiver to avoid sanctions; OPEC, meanwhile, will have trouble boosting output in the short-term; the puzzle is not solved, but there are dark clouds By PEPE ESCOBAR JUNE 29, 2018

History may have registered stranger geoeconomic bedfellows. But in the current OPEC-plus world, the rules of the game are now de facto controlled by OPEC powerhouse Saudi Arabia in concert with non-OPEC Russia. Russia may even join OPEC as an associate member. There’s a key clause in the bilateral Riyadh-Moscow agreement stipulating that joint interventions to raise or lower oil production now are the new norm.



Some major OPEC members are not exactly pleased. At the recent meeting in Vienna, three member states – Iran, Iraq and Venezuela – tried, but did not manage to veto the drive for increased production. Venezuela’s production is actually declining. Iran, facing a tacit US declaration of economic war, is hard-pressed to increase production. And Iraq’s will need time to boost output. Goldman Sachs insists: “The oil market remains in deficit… requiring higher core OPEC and Russia production to avoid a stock-out by year-end.” Goldman Sachs expects production by OPEC and Russia to rise by 1.3 million barrels a day by the end of 2019. Persian Gulf traders have told Asia Times that’s unrealistic: “Goldman Sachs does not have the figures to assert the capability of Russia and Saudi Arabia to produce so much oil. At most, that would be a million barrels a day. And it is doubtful Russia will seek to damage Iran even if they had the capacity.” In theory, Russia and Iran, both under US sanctions, coordinate their energy policy. Both are interested in countering the US shale industry. Top energy analysts consider that only with oil at $100 a barrel will fracking become highly profitable. And oil and gas generated via fracked in the US is a short-term thing; it will largely be exhausted in 15 years. Moreover, the real story may be that shale oil is, in the end, nothing but a Ponzi scheme. Those were the days when the Obama administration ordered Riyadh to unleash a de facto oil-price war to hurt both Russia and Iran. Yet the game drastically changes when Venezuela loses a million barrels a day in production and Iran, under upcoming sanctions, may lose another million. As Asia Times has reported, OPEC (plus Russia) can at best increase their production by 1 million barrels a day. And that would take time because, as Persian Gulf traders said: “800,000 barrels a day of their cutback is due to depletion that cannot be restored.”


Oil producers don’t want high prices Most oil-producing nations don’t want high oil prices. When that happens, demand goes down, and the dreaded competition – in the form of electric vehicles – gets a major boost. That explains in part why Riyadh prevailed in the price-capping war in Vienna. Saudi Arabia is the only producer with some spare capacity; the real numbers are a source of endless debate in energy circles. US-sanctioned Iran, for its part, is in acute need of extra energy income and had to be against it. The bottom line is that despite the agreement in Vienna, the price of oil, in the short-term, is bound to go up. Analyses by BNP Paribas, among others, are adamant that supply problems with Venezuela and Libya, plus the proverbial “uncertainty” about the sanctions on Iran, lead to “oil fundamentals still…favorable for oil prices to rise over the next six months despite the OPEC+ decision.” Iran’s Petroleum Minister Bijan Zanganeh has done his best to downplay how much oil will really be back on the market. In tandem with Persian Gulf traders, he certainly knows that can’t be more than 1 million barrels a day, and that such an output boost will take time. Considering that in realpolitik terms Riyadh simply is not allowed any “decision” in oil policy without clearing it first with the US, what remains to be seen is how Washington will react to the new, long-term Riyadh-Moscow entente cordiale. As far as oil geopolitics goes, this is in fact the major game-changer. Business as usual The Big Unknown is how the US economic war on Iran’s oil exports will play out. Iran’s Zanganeh has been quite realistic; he does not expect buyers to get any sanctions waivers from Washington. Total and Royal Dutch Shell have already stopped buying.

Iran’s top oil customers are, in order: China, India, South Korea and Turkey.

Russia won’t back down from its intention to invest $50 billion in Iran’s energy infrastructure.

India will buy Iranian oil with rupees. China also will be totally impervious to the Trump administration’s command. Sinopec, for instance, badly needs Iranian oil for new refineries in assorted Chinese provinces, and won’t stop buying.

Japan and South Korea are lobbying heavily to get waivers. According to South Korea’s Energy Ministry: “We are in the same position as Japan. We are in talks with the United States and will keep negotiating to get an exemption”.

Turkey’s Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci has been blunt: “The decisions taken by the United States on this issue are not binding for us.” He added that: “We recognize no other [country’s] interests other than our own.” Iran is Turkey’s number-one oil supplier, accounting for almost 50% of total imports.

In a less Hobbesian world, the EU-3 (France, UK and Germany), plus China and Russia – which all negotiated the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, along with Japan and South Korea, would be telling the US the Trump administration’s unilateral economic war against Iran is, in fact, a violation of a UN-endorsed treaty, totally disregarding nations that have pledged to protect the JCPOA. In the real world though, that’s not going to happen.

And Iraq won’t abandon strategic energy cooperation with Iran. Supply chains rule; Baghdad sends oil from Kirkuk to a refinery in Kermanshah in Iran, and gets refined Iranian oil for southern Iraq.


It’s all about energy

Chinese President Xi Jinping, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a group picture during the 10th BRICS summit on July 26, 2018, in Johannesburg. Photo: AFP/Gianluigi Guercia

Once again, the action to watch will be at the Shanghai Energy Stock Exchange. Petro-yuan contracts started trading in late March. By May, they were already covering 12% of the global market. The price of a barrel of oil, in yuan, has oscillated between Brent and West Texas Intermediate (WTI). China is going no holds barred, betting simultaneously on Saudi Arabia and Iran. China Investment Corp. may well buy 5% of Aramco, at roughly $100 billion. In parallel, China started paying for Iranian oil in yuan in 2012. If the Europeans buckle up, as top Iranian analysts expect, the volume of energy business with China may soon reach $40 billion a year. Iran is firmly linked to the petro-yuan. Iran now may rely on a fleet of supertankers, properly insured, to export its own oil. The Iranian calculation is that Washington’s economic war will spur higher oil prices. So, even if Iran’s exports are bound to suffer, energy income may not be affected. Shaded by all these dramatic eruptions, we find some startling data. Iran – and Russia – may sit on an astonishing $45 trillion worth in oil and gas reserves. US fracking is largely a myth. Saudi Arabia may have at best 20 years of oil supply left. It’s all about energy – all the time. The usual suspects will hardly sit back and relax while endlessly demonized Russia, just like Norway, builds a solid middle class through oil revenue and massive current account surpluses. Alarm bells are about to sound, to the tune of “Putin has taken over OPEC”. In fact, it was Putin who convinced Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) they should fight the US shale offensive together. The OPEC-plus-Iran puzzle is far from solved. Only one thing is certain; the future spells out brutal, covert resource wars.

How BRICS Plus clashes with the US economic war on Iran Rhetorical war has far-reaching consequences, including a potential economic slump via the disruption of global oil supplies By PEPE ESCOBAR JULY 28, 2018

The key take away from the BRICS summit in Johannesburg is that Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – important Global South players – strongly condemn unilateralism and protectionism. The Johannesburg Declaration is unmistakable: “We recognize that the multilateral trading system is facing unprecedented challenges. We underscore the importance of an open world economy.” Closer examination of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech unlocks some poignant details.



Xi, crucially, emphasizes delving further into “our strategic partnership.” That implies increased BRICS and Beyond BRICS multilateral trade, investment and economic and financial connectivity. And that also implies reaching to the next level; “It is important that we continue to pursue innovation-driven development and build the BRICS Partnership on New Industrial Revolution (PartNIR) to strengthen coordination on macroeconomic policies, find more complementarities in our development strategies, and reinforce the competitiveness of the BRICS countries, emerging market economies and developing countries.” If PartNIR sounds like the basis for an overall Global South platform, that’s because it is. In a not too veiled allusion to the Trump administration’s unilateral pullout from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), Xi called all parties to “abide by international law and basic norms governing international relations and to settle disputes through dialogue and differences through consultation,” adding that the BRICS are inevitably working for “a new type of international relations.” Relations such as these certainly do not include a superpower unilaterally imposing an energy export blockade – an act of economic war – on an emerging market and key actor of the Global South. Xi is keen to extol a “network of closer partnerships.” That’s where the concept of BRICS Plus fits in. China coined BRICS Plus last year at the Xiamen summit, it refers to closer integration between the five BRICS members and other emerging markets/developing nations. Argentina, Turkey and Jamaica are guests of honor in Johannesburg. Xi sees BRICS Plus interacting with the UN, the G20 “and other frameworks” to amplify the margin of maneuver not only of emerging markets but the whole Global South. So how does Iran fit into this framework?


An absurd game of chicken Immediately after President Trump’s Tweet of Mass Destruction the rhetorical war between Washington and Tehran has skyrocketed to extremely dangerous levels. Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force – and a true rock star in Iran – issued a blistering response to Trump: “You may begin the war, but it is us who will end it.” The IRGC yields massive economic power in Iran and is in total symbiosis with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. It’s no secret the IRGC never trusted President Rouhani’s strategy of relying on the JCPOA as the path to improve Iran’s economy. After the unilateral Trump administration pullout, the IRGC feels totally vindicated. The mere threat of a US attack on Iran has engineered a rise in oil prices. US reliance on Middle East Oil is going down while fracking – boosted by higher prices – is ramping up. The threat of war increases with Tehran now overtly referring to its power to cripple global energy supplies literally overnight. In parallel the Houthis, by forcing the Yemen-bombing House of Saud to stop oil shipments via the Bab al-Mandeb port, are configuring the Strait of Hormuz and scores of easily targeted pipelines as even more crucial to the flow of energy that makes the West tick. If there ever was a US attack on Iran, Persian Gulf analysts stress only Russia, Nigeria and Venezuela might be able to provide enough oil and gas to make up for lost supplies to the West. That’s not exactly what the Trump administration is looking for. Iranian “nuclear weapons” was always a bogus issue. Tehran did not have them – and was not pursuing them. Yet now the highly volatile rhetorical war introduces the hair-raising possibility of Tehran perceiving there is a clear danger of a US nuclear attack or an attack whose purpose is to destroy the nation’s infrastructure. If cornered, there’s no question the IRGC

would buy nuclear weapons on the black market and use them to defend the nation. This is the “secret” hidden in Soleimani’s message. Besides, Russia could easily – and secretly – supply Iran with state-of-the-art defensive missiles and the most advanced offensive missiles. This absurd game of chicken is absolutely unnecessary for Washington from an oil strategy point of view – apart from the intent to break a key node of Eurasia integration. Assuming the Trump administration is playing chess, it’s imperative to think 20 moves ahead if “winning” is on the cards. If a US oil blockade on Iran is coming, Iran could answer with its own Strait of Hormuz blockade, producing economic turmoil for the West. If this leads to a massive depression, it’s unlikely the industrial-military-security complex will blame itself. There’s no question that Russia and China – the two key BRICS players – will have Iran’s back. First there’s Russia’s participation in Iran’s nuclear and aerospace industries and then the Russia-Iran collaboration in the Astana process to solve the Syria tragedy. With China, Iran as one of the country’s top energy suppliers and plays a crucial role in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Russia and China have an outsize presence in the Iranian market and similar ambitions to bypass the US dollar and third-party US sanctions.

This means a platform integrating the African Union (AU), the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as well as the South Asian Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). Iran is a future member of the SCO and has already struck a deal with the EAEU. It’s also an important node of the BRI and is a key member, along BRICS members India and Russia, of the International NorthSouth Transportation Corridor (INSTC), essential for deeper Eurasia connectivity. Lissovolik uses BEAMS as the acronym to designate “the aggregation of regional integration groups, with BRICS Plus being a broader concept that incorporates other forms of BRICS’ interaction with developing economies.” China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has defined BRICS Plus and BEAMS as the “most extensive platform for South-South cooperation with a global impact.” The Global South now does have an integration road map. If it ever happened, an attack on Iran would be not only an attack on BRICS Plus and BEAMS but on the whole Global South.

Beam me up, Global South The true importance of the BRICS Johannesburg summit is how it is solidifying a Global South plan of action that would have Iran as one of its key nodes. Iran, although not named in an excellent analysis by Yaroslav Lissovolik at the Valdai Club, is the quintessential BRICS Plus nation. Once again, BRICS Plus is all about constituting a “unified platform of regional integration arrangements,” going way beyond regional deals to reach other developing nations in a transcontinental scope. PERSIAN MINIATURES    219

Life carries on in Tehran despite the threat of US sanctions. Photo: Anadolu Agency/ Fatemeh Bahrami

Economic war on Iran is war on Eurasia integration US sanctions on Iran should be interpreted as a piece in a much larger chessboard By PEPE ESCOBAR AUGUST 14, 2018

Hysteria reigned supreme after the first round of US sanctions were reinstated against Iran over the past week. War scenarios abound, and yet the key aspect of the economic war unleashed by the Trump administration has been overlooked: Iran is a major piece in a much larger chessboard. The US sanctions offensive, launched after Washington’s unilateral pullout from the Iran nuclear deal, should be interpreted as an advance gambit in the New Great Game at whose center lies China’s New Silk Road – arguably the most important infrastructure project of the 21st century — and overall Eurasia integration. The Trump administration’s maneuvers are a testament to how China’s New Silk Road, or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), threaten the US establishment. 220   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


Eurasian integration on the rise Eurasian integration is on display in Astana, where Russia, Iran and Turkey are deciding the fate of Syria, in coordination with Damascus. Iran’s strategic depth in post-war Syria simply won’t vanish. The challenge of Syrian reconstruction will be met largely by Bashar al-Assad’s allies: China, Russia and Iran. Echoing the Ancient Silk Road, Syria will be configured as an important BRI node, key to Eurasia integration. In parallel, the Russia-China strategic partnership – from the intersection between the BRI and the Eurasia Economic Union (EAEU) to the expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the solidifying of BRICS Plus — has immense economic stakes in the stability of Iran.

threats of a Venezuela invasion with the only tangible result an amateurish, failed drone attack; 17 years of endless war in Afghanistan, with the Taliban still as immovable as the Hindu Kush peaks; the “4+1” – Russia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, plus Hezbollah – winning the vicious proxy war in Syria — US neocons scream and shout about striking Iran. As with North Korea, Russia and China will send unmistakable signs that Iran is in their closely coordinated Eurasian sphere of influence, and any attack on Iran will be considered an attack on the whole Eurasian sphere. Stranger things have happened, but it’s hard to see any rational actors in Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh wishing to have Beijing and Moscow — simultaneously — as lethal enemies.

The complex interconnection of Iran with both Russia (via the EAEU and the International North-South Transportation Corridor) and China (via BRI and oil/ gas supplies) is even tighter than in the case of Syria in the past seven years of civil war.

All across Southwest Asia, there are no doubts the official Trump administration – and in fact, the whole Beltway – policy on Iran is regime change. So from now on, short of hot war, the new rules of the game spell out stepped-up cyber-warfare.

Iran is absolutely essential for Russia-China for the partnership to allow any “surgical strike” — as floated in Syria — or worse, hot war initiated by Washington.

From Washington’s point of view, in terms of return on investment that’s a relative bargain; cyber-warfare keeps the Russia-China partnership away from direct involvement while in theory digging deeper into the economic collapse of Iran, heavily advertised as imminent by Trump administration officials.

A case could be made that with his recent overture to President Putin, President Trump is trying to negotiate some sort of freeze in the current configuration — a remixed Sykes-Picot for the 21st century. But that assumes Trump’s decision-making is not being dictated or co-opted by the US neocon cabal that pressed for the 2003 war in Iraq. North Korea two? If the situation turns volcanic when the US oil sanctions on Iran kick in by early November, an actual remix of the recent North Korea scenario would be in the cards. Washington simultaneously sent three carrier battle groups to terrify North Korea. That failed – and Trump ended up having to chat with Kim Jong-un. Despite the US record around the world — endless 222   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

The Chinese Foreign Ministry could not be more explicit on the US effort to reimpose global sanctions on Iran. “China’s commercial cooperation with Iran is open and transparent, reasonable, fair and lawful, not violating any United Nations Security Council resolutions,” it said. That echoes the Russian Foreign Ministry on the US sanctions: “This is a graphic example of Washington’s continued violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 and trampling upon the norms of international law.” President Trump for his part has also been explicit: any nation that violates the sanctions against Iran will not do business with the US.

Good luck with having support from Turkey or Qatar – completely dependent on Iran for food, use of civilian airspace and sharing gas exploration in South Pars. Not to mention Russia-China assuring Tehran’s back on all fronts. How not to do business with China? The die is cast. China not only will continue but also will increase its purchase of Iranian oil and gas. The Chinese auto industry – currently with 10% of the Iranian market – will simply take over as the French leave. Chinese companies are already responsible for 50% of auto parts imported into Iran. Russia for its part has pledged to invest as much as $50 billion in Iranian oil and natural gas. Moscow is very much aware of the Trump administration’s next possible step; imposing sanctions on Russian companies investing in Iran. Washington simply can’t “not do business” with China. The entire US defense industry is dependent on China for rare earth materials. Since the 1980s, US multinationals set up their export supply chains in China with direct encouragement of the US government. The EU for its part has enforced a Blocking Statute – never used before, although in existence for already two decades — to protect European companies, even coming to the point of imposing fines on businesses that pull out of Iran because of plain fear. In theory, that shows some balls. And yet, as EU diplomats in Brussels told Asia Times, there’s a major conditional: US satrapies/vassals abound across the EU, so quite a few EU-based companies, as in the case of Total and Renault, in the end, will simply roll over. Meanwhile, what Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said about US unilateralism – the world “is sick and tired” of it – keeps echoing all across the Global South.

The Mother of All Financial Hurricanes Those clamoring for war with Iran cannot possibly understand that the nightmare scenario of a Strait of Hormuz/Persian Gulf energy transit closure – the choke point for 22 million barrels of oil a day – would represent, ultimately, the death of the petrodollar. The Strait of Hormuz can be configured as the Achilles heel of the entire West/US economic power; a closure would detonate the mother of all hurricanes in the quadrillion-dollar derivatives market. Unless China does not buy Iranian energy, US sanctions — as a geo-economic tool — are essentially meaningless. Certainly not, of course, for the “Iranian people” so dear to the Beltway, as more day-to-day financial grief is already setting in, side by side with a sense of national cohesiveness in the face, once again, of an external threat. China and Russia have already pledged to continue to implement the JCPOA, alongside the EU-3; after all, this is an UN-endorsed multilateral treaty. Beijing has already informed Washington in no uncertain terms that it will continue to do business with Iran. So the ball is now in Washington’s court. It will be up to the Trump administration to decide whether to sanction China for its unwillingness to stop trading with Iran. It’s not exactly a wise move to threaten China – especially with Beijing on an irresistible historical ascendancy. Nehru threatened China and lost a big chunk of Arunachal Pradesh to Chairman Mao. Brezhnev threatened China and faced the wrath of the PLA on the banks of the Ussuri River. China is able to cut the US off in a minute from its rare earth exports, creating a US national security catastrophe. Now that’s when a trade war will enter real incandescent territory.


Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan attends a welcome ceremony in Beijing. Photo: AFP/Jason Lee

Pakistan in the middle of Saudi, Iran and rival pipeline plans As US sanctions on Iran come into force, the government of Imran Khan is carefully negotiating its position with neighbors and regional powers, each with their favored pipeline plans By PEPE ESCOBAR NOVEMBER 7, 2018

A tweet roared like announcing a blockbuster premiere and sanctions did engulf Iran on time – despite opposition from Russia, China and the EU-3 (France, Germany and the United Kingdom), who still support the United-Nations endorsed Iran nuclear treaty. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has called this an economic war waged by a “bullying power”. The US has imposed sanctions on Iranian shipping, finance and energy exports, blacklisting 700 people. They target the EU special mechanism 224   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


to facilitate purchases of Iranian oil, a sort of alternative international payment system, and threats persist about cutting Iran completely off the Swift system (although several Iranian banks are already suspended).

Not to mention the extra bonus of watching Pakistani generals talk about international relations across the Global South from what is a center-left, genuinely progressive perspective.

of the New Silk Roads or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Iran is a crucial BRI node as well. Turkey, though, is far from being integrated with Erdogan still studying the chessboard.

There are also “temporary waivers” related to oil exports granted mostly to China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey, plus two Italy and Greece. This means that in the real world, beyond all the bluster, there’s no way to downgrade Iranian oil imports to “zero” without causing a global energy crisis.

The merit for the conference goes to gentleman-scholar Dr Ejaz Akram, professor of Religion and World Politics at the NDU, and a gifted, dedicated team.

Still, an irresistible geopolitical pull – heavily influenced by Washington’s sanctions obsession – would drive Turkey-Iran-Pakistan closer to BRI and trading in their own currencies or in yuan.

The key exemption might as well be Chabahar port in Iran, the cornerstone of India’s own mini-New Silk Road strategy for South Asia and Central Asia, which depends on exports to and across Afghanistan. In the words of John Bolton, the US National Security Adviser, they seek to achieve a “massive change in the regime’s behavior”. But is that ever likely to happen? I got a different take on this when I visited a Pakistani courtyard… Meanwhile, in Islamabad … It’s a balmy night in an Islamabad courtyard and, punctuated by salutary laughs, a geopolitical carousel develops among some of the sharpest minds in West Asia, Southwest Asia and South Asia. They are Junaid Ahmad from the School of Advanced Studies at the UMT in Lahore, Professor Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran, and Tugrul Keskin, a professor of Sociology at Shanghai University. A Pakistani, an Iranian, a Turk and this global nomad. Inevitably our conversation swirls around the tasty possibilities of an Ankara-Tehran-Islamabad rapprochement. We have had the privilege of being part of one of the most extraordinary conferences in recent times, “The Geopolitics of Knowledge and Emerging World Order,” which could not possibly take place in a paranoid West, but only in Asia, at the relatively young National Defense University (NDU) in frontline state Pakistan. 226   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Where else to discuss, in the same breath, the unity of Eastern civilizations in a New World Order, as exposed by Prof. Li Xiguang of Tsinghua University and a member of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Advisory Committee or be rocked by Isa Blumi, professor of Turkish Studies at Stockholm University, totally ripping apart Western silence on the genocidal war inflicted on Yemen by the “Saudi-led coalition?” But for some of us, the real star of the show was a putative, developing alliance that could turn into a crucial game-changer in Eurasia integration. Hopeful signs are on the cards. Presidents Erdogan and Rouhani have a very good relationship and are both deciders in the Astana process trying to solve the Syrian tragedy. Whatever the pressure, Turkey won’t cease to buy Iranian oil. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was in Islamabad last week talking to Prime Minister Imran Khan. Turkey-Pakistan relations are extremely tight. On a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) level, Pakistan is a full member, Iran will soon become a full member and Ankara is very much interested – and so are powerhouses Russia and China to have them all together inside the club. Pakistan and China will start trading in yuan, as announced by Pakistani Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, who has just extolled an expansion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to agriculture and the construction of industrial zones. At the China International Import Expo in Shanghai, Imran Khan defined CPEC as a vital link to the Middle East and Central Asia. CPEC is the flagship project

Spoiler in the room Of course, daunting pitfalls abound. Pakistan’s foreign policy is largely shaped by the army, where a significant faction just can’t get enough of “gifts” from the US industrial-military complex. Imran Khan’s position, on the record, is that Pakistan will defend Saudi Arabia against all enemies – the Pakistanis head the Saudi Islamic Military Alliance and their two militaries are very close. But what if Imran, after visiting China and Saudi Arabia, pulls out a stunner and heads to his neighbor Iran? Iran and Pakistan need a clear understanding about Wahhabi-indoctrinated fanatics using Pakistani Balochistan to wreak havoc in Iranian Sistan-Balochistan, as Imran and Zarif discussed last week in Islamabad. On the energy front, a major soap opera that I have been tracking for years, the Iran-Pakistan pipeline, could finally be sorted out, much to the benefit of energy-starved Pakistan. The Iranian stretch was finished long ago while the Pakistani sector has been derailed by relentless pressure from Washington. And that’s exactly where the ultimate spoiler, the House of Saud, comes in. Pakistani Finance Minister Asad Umar insists Riyadh “did not ask for anything” in return for a crucial $6 billion aid package that includes selling $3 billion in crude oil on deferred payment. Islamabad badly needed it, as its foreign exchange reserves had dropped to a paltry $7.8 billion last week.

Riyadh not asking for anything in return does not cut it. On the energy front, Riyadh is very much aware that last month Tehran and Moscow signed a preliminary agreement with Islamabad to build a 2,775 km-long offshore natural gas pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan. The Saudi counterpunch was not less than spectacular; renewed investment to finally build the Turkmenistan stretch of another such link: the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. The Iran-Pakistan pipeline and TAPI have been in virtual competition since the days of the Dick Cheney regime. Turkmenistan, the ultimate idiosyncratic regime, has had enormous trouble – with both Iran and Russia, for different reasons – exporting its natural gas wealth. Ashgabat’s only secure market is China. Riyadh believes that by helping Turkmenistan on TAPI, Pakistan will not become too heavily dependent on the Iranian pipeline or the proposed offshore pipeline. Yet there’s no guarantee that TAPI will ever be completed. TAPI starts at the Galkynysh gas field in Turkmenistan and goes right through Kandahar province in Afghanistan, which remains largely immune to Kabul’s influence. There’s no way a pipeline can be built there without Taliban acquiescence – and that would mean a negotiating process led by the SCO, which neither Russia nor Iran, for energy market reasons, are fond of. So the key in all these interlocking intrigues is how Imran Khan will decide to position himself – between Iran and Saudi Arabia – for maximum leverage. Riyadh, for all its faults, still carries enormous weight on all matters Pakistani. Meanwhile, deep in the Persian Gulf, a fleet of large Iranian oil tankers, actually “floating storage containers” as traders call them, have their geolocation devices turned off and stand ready to deliver oil on demand to any sanctioned, un-sanctioned or soon-to-be-sanctioned nation. And that’s a reality no roaring barrage of tweets is able to change.


Iranian soldiers take part in National Persian Gulf Day in the Strait of Hormuz on April 30, 2019. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

Why Trump now wants talks with Iran If Tehran blocks the Strait of Hormuz it could send the price of oil soaring and cause a global recession By PEPE ESCOBAR JUNE 5, 2019

Unlike Deep Purple’s legendary ‘Smoke on the Water’ – “We all came out to Montreux, on the Lake Geneva shoreline”, the 67th Bilderberg group meetings produced no fire and no smoke at the luxurious Fairmont Le Montreux Palace Hotel. The 130 elite guests had a jolly good – and theoretically quiet – time at the self-billed “informal discussion forum concerning major issues”. As usual, at least two-thirds were European decision-makers, with the rest coming from North America. 228   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


The fact that a few major players in this Atlanticist Valhalla are closely associated with or directly interfering with the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in Basel – the central bank of central banks – is of course just a minor detail.

A Bilderberg source discreetly let it be known that the result of the recent European parliamentary elections was interpreted as a victory. After all, the final choice was between a neoliberal/Green alliance and Right populism; nothing to do with progressive values.

The major issue discussed this year was “A Stable Strategic Order”, a lofty endeavor that can be interpreted either as the making of a New World Order or just a benign effort by selfless elites to guide mankind to enlightenment.

The Greens who won in Europe – contrary to the US Greens – are all humanitarian imperialists, to quote the splendid neologism coined by Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont. And they all pray on the politically correct altar. What matters, from Bilderberg’s perspective, is that the European Parliament will continue to be run by a pseudo-Left that keeps defending the destruction of the nation-state.

Other items of discussion were way more pragmatic – from “The Future of Capitalism”, to “Russia”, “China”, “Weaponizing Social Media”, “Brexit”, “What’s Next for Europe”, “Ethics of Artificial Intelligence” and last but not least, “Climate Change”. Disciples of Antisthenes would argue that these items constitute precisely the nuts and bolts of the New World Order. The chairman of Bilderberg’s steering committee, since 2012, is Henri de Castries, former CEO of AXA and the director of the Institut Montaigne, a top French think tank. One of the key guests this year was Clement Beaune, the European and G20 counselor to French President Emmanuel Macron. Bilderberg prides itself for enforcing the Chatham House Rule, according to which participants are free to use all the precious information they wish because those who attend these meetings are bound to not disclose the source of any sensitive information or what exactly was said. That helps ensure Bilderberg’s legendary secrecy – the reason for myriad conspiracy theories. But that does not mean that the odd secret may not be revealed. The Castries/Beaune axis provides us with the first open secret of 2019. It was Castries at the Institut Montaigne who “invented” Macron – that perfect lab experiment of a mergers and acquisitions banker serving the establishment by posing as a progressive. 230   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Just like Castries and his pupil Macron. The derivatives clock is ticking The great Bilderberg secret of 2019 had to do with why, suddenly, the Trump administration has decided that it wants to talk to Iran “with no preconditions”. It all has to do with the Strait of Hormuz. Blocking the Strait could cut off oil and gas from Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Iran – 20% of the world’s oil. There has been some debate on whether this could occur – whether the US Fifth Fleet, which is stationed nearby, could stop Tehran doing this and if Iran, which has anti-ship missiles on its territory along the northern border of the Persian Gulf, would go that far. An American source said a series of studies hit President Trump’s desk and caused panic in Washington. These showed that in the case of the Strait of Hormuz being shut down, whatever the reason, Iran has the power to hammer the world financial system, by causing global trade in derivatives to be blown apart. The Bank for International Settlements said last year that the “notional amount outstanding for derivatives contracts” was $542 trillion, although the gross market value was put at just $12.7 trillion. Others suggest it is $1.2 quadrillion or more. Tehran has not voiced this “nuclear option” openly.

And yet General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force and a Pentagon bête noire, evoked it in internal Iranian discussions. The information was duly circulated to France, Britain and Germany, the EU-3 members of the Iran nuclear deal (or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), also causing a panic. Oil derivative specialists know well that if the flow of energy in the Gulf is blocked it could lead to the price of oil reaching $200 a barrel, or much higher over an extended period. Crashing the derivatives market would create an unprecedented global depression. Trump’s former Goldman Sachs Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin should know as much. And Trump himself seems to have given the game away. He’s now on the record essentially saying that Iran has no strategic value to the US. According to the American source: “He really wants a face-saving way to get out of the problem his advisers Bolton and Pompeo got him into. Washington now needs a face-saving way out. Iran is not asking for meetings. The US is.” And that brings us to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s long, non-scheduled stop in Switzerland, on the Bilderberg’s fringes, just because he’s a “big cheese and chocolate fan”, in his own words. Yet any well-informed cuckoo clock would register he badly needed to assuage the fears of the trans-Atlantic elites, apart from his behind-closed-doors meetings with the Swiss, who are representing Iran in communications with Washington. After weeks of ominous threats to Iran, the US said “no preconditions” would be set on talks with Tehran, and this was issued from Swiss soil. China draws its lines in the sand Bilderberg could not escape discussing China. Geo-poetic justice rules that virtually at the same time, China was delivering a powerful message – to East and West – at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

The Shangri-La dialogue is Asia’s top annual security forum, and unlike Bilderberg, held like clockwork at the same hotel in Singapore’s Orchard Road. As much as Bilderberg, Shangri-La discusses “relevant security issues”. A case can be made that Bilderberg frames the discussions as in the recent cover story of a French weekly, owned by a Macron-friendly oligarch, titled “When Europe Ruled the World”. Shangri-La instead discusses the near future – when China may be actually ruling the world. Beijing sent a top-of-the-line delegation to this year’s forum, led by Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe. And on Sunday, General Wei laid down China’s unmistakable red lines; a stern warning to “external forces” dreaming of independence for Taiwan, and the “legitimate right” for Beijing to expand man-made islands in the South China Sea. By then everyone had forgotten what Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan had said the day before, accusing Huawei to be too close to Beijing and posing a security risk to the “international community”. General Wei also found time to rip Shanahan to shreds. “Huawei is a private company, not a military company… Just because the head of Huawei used to serve in the army, does not mean his company is a part of the military. That doesn’t make sense.” Shangri-La is at least transparent. As for Bilderberg, there won’t be any leaks on what the Masters of the Universe told Western elites about the profitability of pursuing the war on terror; the drive toward total digitalization of cash; total rule of genetically modified organisms; and how climate change will be weaponized. At least the Pentagon has made no secret, even before Shangri-La, that Russia and China must be contained at all costs – and the European vassals must toe the line. Henry Kissinger was a 2019 Bilderberg participant. Rumors that he spent all his time breathlessly plugging his “reverse Nixon” – seduce Russia to contain China – may be vastly overstated. PERSIAN MINIATURES    231

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani walk as they attend a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Council of Heads of State in Bishkek on June 14, 2019. Photo: AFP / Vyacheslav Oseledko

Iran at the center of the Eurasian riddle President Rouhani blasts US leader Donald Trump as ‘a serious threat to regional and world stability’, offers preferential treatment to SCO companies that invest in his country By PEPE ESCOBAR JUNE 17, 2019

With the dogs of war on full alert, something extraordinary happened at the 19th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) late last week in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Virtually unknown across the West, the SCO is the foremost Eurasian political, economic and security alliance. It’s not a Eurasian NATO. It’s not planning any humanitarian imperialist adventures. A single picture in Bishkek tells a quite significant story, as we see China’s Xi, Russia’s Putin, India’s Modi and Pakistan’s Imran Khan aligned with the leaders of four Central Asian “stans”. 232   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


These leaders represent the current eight members of the SCO. Then there are four observer states – Afghanistan, Belarus, Mongolia and, crucially, Iran – plus six dialogue partners: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and, crucially, Turkey.

The Indian hedge But then Modi canceled a bilateral with Rouhani at the last minute, with the lame excuse of “scheduling issues”.

That’s not exactly a clever diplomatic gambit. India was Iran’s second largest oil customer before the The SCO is bound to significantly expand by 2020, Trump administration dumped the nuclear deal, with possible full membership for both Turkey and Iran. It will then feature all major players of Eurasia in- known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, tegration. Considering the current incandescence in the over a year ago. Modi and Rouhani have discussed the geopolitical chessboard, it’s hardly an accident a crucial possibility of India paying for Iranian oil in rupees, bypassing the US dollar and US sanctions. protagonist in Bishkek was the ‘observer’ state Iran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani played his cards masterfully. Rouhani speaking directly to Putin, Xi, Modi and Imran, at the same table, is something to be taken very seriously. He blasted the US under Trump as “a serious risk to stability in the region and the world”. Then he diplomatically offered preferential treatment for all companies and entrepreneurs from SCO member nations committed to investing in the Iranian market. The Trump administration has claimed – without any hard evidence – that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which Washington brands as a “terrorist organization” – was behind the attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week. As the SCO summit developed, the narrative had already collapsed, as Yutaka Katada, president of Japanese cargo company Kokuka Sangyo, owner of one of the tankers, said: “The crew is saying that it was hit by a flying object.” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had accused the White House of “sabotage diplomacy” but that did not derail Rouhani’s actual diplomacy in Bishkek. Xi was adamant; Beijing will keep developing ties with Tehran “no matter how the situation changes”. Iran is a key node of the New Silk Roads, or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It’s clear for the leadership in Tehran that the way forward is full integration into the vast, Eurasia-wide economic ecosystem. European nations that signed the nuclear deal with Tehran – France, Britain and Germany – can’t save Iran economically.


Yet unlike Beijing and Moscow, New Delhi refuses to unconditionally support Tehran in its do-or-die fight against the Trump administration’s economic war and de facto blockade. Modi faces a stark existential choice. He’s tempted to channel his visceral anti-Belt-and-Road stance into the siren call of a fuzzy, US-concocted Indo-Pacific alliance – a de facto containment mechanism against “China, China, China” as the Pentagon leadership openly admits it. Or he could dig deeper into a SCO/RIC (Russia-India-China) alliance focused on Eurasia integration and multipolarity. Aware of the high stakes, a concerted charm offensive by the leading BRICS and SCO duo is in effect. Putin invited Modi to be the main guest of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in early September. And Xi Jinping told Modi in their bilateral get together he’s aiming at a “closer partnership”, from investment and industrial capacity to pick up speed on the stalled Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor, another BRI stalwart. Imran Khan, for his part, seems to be very much aware how Pakistan may profit from becoming the ultimate Eurasia pivot – as Islamabad offers a privileged gateway to the Arabian Sea, side by side with SCO observer Iran. Gwadar port in the Arabian Sea is the key hub of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), much better positioned than Chabahar in Iran, which is being developed as the key hub of India’s mini-New Silk Road version to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

On the Russian front, a charm offensive on Pakistan is paying dividends, with Imran openly acknowledging Pakistan is moving “closer” to Russia in a “changing” world, and has expressed keen interest in buying Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and Mi-35M attack helicopters.

Bishkek and Dushanbe expanded what had already been extensively discussed at the St Petersburg forum, as I previously reported. Putin himself stressed that all vectors should be integrated: BRI, EAEU, SCO, CICA and ASEAN.

Iran is at the heart of the BRI-SCO-EAEU integration road map – the nuts and bolts of Eurasian integration. Russia and China cannot allow Iran to be strangled. Iran boasts fabulous energy reserves, a huge internal market, and is a frontline state fighting complex networks of opium, weapons and jihadi smuggling – all key concerns for SCO member states.

The Bishkek Declaration, adopted by SCO members, may not have been a headline-grabbing document, but it emphasized the security guarantees of the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone Treaty, the “unacceptability of attempts to ensure one country’s security at the expense of other countries’ security, and condemning “the unilateral and unlimited buildup of missile defense systems by certain countries or groups of states”.

There’s no question that in southwest Asia, Russia and Iran have interests that clash. What matters most for Moscow is to prevent jihadis from migrating to the Caucasus and Central Asia to plot attacks against the Russian Federation; to keep their navy and air force bases in Syria; and to keep oil and gas trading in full flow. Tehran, for its part, cannot possibly support the sort of informal agreement Moscow established with Tel Aviv in Syria – where alleged Hezbollah and IRGC targets are bombed by Israel, but never Russian assets.

Yet the document is a faithful product of the drive towards a multilateral, multipolar world. Among 21 signed agreements, the SCO also advanced a road map for the crucial SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group, driving deeper the Russia-China strategic partnership’s imperative that the Afghan drama must be decided by Eurasian powers. And what Putin, Xi and Modi discussed in detail, in private in Bishkek will be developed by their miniBRICS gathering, the RIC (Russia-India-China) in the upcoming G20 summit in Osaka in late June.

But still, there are margins of maneuver for bilateral diplomacy, even if they now seem not that wide. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has issued the new rules of Meanwhile, the US industrial-military-security the game; reduce imports to a minimum; aim for less complex will continue to be obsessed with Russia as a reliance on oil and gas exports; ease domestic political “revitalized malign actor” (in Pentagonese) alongside pressure (after all everyone agrees Iranians must unite to the all-encompassing China “threat”. face a mortal threat); and stick to the notion that Iran has no established all-weather friends, even Russia and China. The US Navy is obsessed with the asymmetrical know-how of “our Russian, Chinese and Iranian rivals” in “contested waterways” from the South China Sea to St Petersburg, Bishkek, Dushanbe the Persian Gulf. Iran is under a state of siege. Internal regimentation must be the priority. But that does not preclude abandoning the drive towards Eurasian integration. The pan-Eurasian interconnection became even more glaring at what immediately happened after Bishkek; the summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

With US conservatives ratcheting up “maximum pressure” trying to frame the alleged weak node of Eurasia integration, which is already under total economic war because, among other issues, is bypassing the US dollar, no one can predict how the chessboard will look like when the 2020 SCO and BRICS summits take place in Russia.


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif shake hands during a joint news conference following their meeting in Moscow, Russia. Photo: AFP Forum via Sputnik/Valeriy Melnikov

Attack on Iran would be an attack on Russia Moscow is proposing a diametrically opposed vision to Western sanctions, threats and economic war, one that is drawing it ever closer to Tehran By PEPE ESCOBAR AUGUST 3, 2019

Russia is meticulously advancing Eurasian chessboard moves that should be observed in conjunction, as Moscow proposes to the Global South an approach diametrically opposed to Western sanctions, threats and economic war. Here are three recent examples. Ten days ago, via a document officially approved by the United Nations, the Russian Foreign Ministry advanced a new concept of collective security for the Persian Gulf. Moscow stresses that “practical work on launching the process of creat236   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


ing a security system in the Persian Gulf ” should start with “bilateral and multilateral consultations between interested parties, including countries both within the region and outside of it,” as well as organizations such as the UN Security Council, League of Arab States, Organization of Islamic Cooperation and Gulf Cooperation Council. The next step should be an international conference on security and cooperation in the Persian Gulf, followed by the establishment of a dedicated organization – certainly not something resembling the incompetent Arab League. The Russian initiative should be interpreted as a sort of counterpart of, and mostly a complement to, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is finally blossoming as a security, economic and political body. The inevitable conclusion is that major SCO stakeholders – Russia, China, India, Pakistan and, in the near future, Iran and Turkey – will be major influencers on regional stability. The Pentagon will not be amused. Drill, baby, drill When the commander of the Iranian Navy, Hossein Khanzadi, recently visited St Petersburg for the celebration of Russia’s Navy Day, the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces and the Russian Defense Ministry signed an unprecedented memorandum of understanding.

The US Navy, which plans an “international coalition” to ensure “freedom of navigation” in the Strait of Hormuz – something Iran has always historically guaranteed – won’t be amused. Neither will Britain, which is pushing for a European-led coalition even as Brexit looms. Khanzadi also noted that Tehran and Moscow are deeply involved in how to strengthen defense cooperation in the Caspian Sea. Joint drills already took place in the Caspian in the past, but never in the Persian Gulf. Exercise together Russia’s Eastern Military District will be part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) anti-terrorist exercise in Thailand and China early next month. According to the Eastern Military District, the training is part of “preparations for a practical phase of an ASEAN anti-terrorist exercise in China.” This means, among other things, that Russian troops will be using Chinese military hardware. Exercises include joint tactical groups attempting to free hostages from inside official buildings; search for and disposal of explosives; and indoor and outdoor radiation, chemical and biological reconnaissance. This should be interpreted as a direct interaction between SCO practices and ASEAN, complementing the deepening trade interaction between the Eurasia Economic Union and ASEAN.

Khanzadi was keen to stress the memorandum “may be considered a turning point in relations of Tehran and Moscow along the defense trajectory.”

These three developments illustrate how Russia is involved in a large spectrum from the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf to Southeast Asia.

A direct upshot is that Moscow and Tehran, before March 2020, will enact a joint naval exercise in – of all places – the Strait of Hormuz. As Khanzadi told the IRNA news agency: “The exercise may be held in the northern part of the Indian Ocean, which flows into the Gulf of Oman, the Strait of Hormuz and also the Persian Gulf.”

But the key element remains the Russia-Iran alliance, which must be interpreted as a key node of the massive, 21st century Eurasia integration project.


Meir Ben-Shabbat in Jerusalem should be unmistakable: “Iran has always been and remains our ally and partner, with which we are consistently developing relations both on a bilateral basis and within multilateral formats.” This lays to rest endless, baseless speculation that Moscow is “betraying” Tehran on multiple fronts, from the all-out economic war unleashed by the Donald Trump administration to the resolution of the Syrian tragedy. To Nur-Sultan And that leads to the continuation of the Astana process on Syria. Moscow, Tehran and Ankara will hold a new trilateral in Nur-Sultan, the Kazakh capital, possibly on the hugely significant date of September 11, according to diplomatic sources. What’s really important about this new phase of the Astana process, though, is the establishment of the Syrian Constitutional Committee. This had been agreed way back in January 2018 in Sochi: a committee – including representatives of the government, opposition and civil society – capable of working out Syria’s new constitution, with each group holding one-third of the seats. The only possible viable solution to the tragedy that is Syria’s nasty, rolling proxy war will be found by Russia, Iran and Turkey. That includes the Russia-Iran alliance. And it includes and expands Russia’s vision of Persian Gulf security, while hinting at an expanded SCO in Southwest Asia, acting as a pan-Asian peacemaking mechanism and serious counterpart to NATO.

What Russian National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said at the recent, historic trilateral alongside White House national security adviser John Bolton and Israeli National Security Council Adviser PERSIAN MINIATURES    239

An image grab taken from a broadcast by Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting on July 22 shows Iranian Revolutionary Guards in speedboats patrolling the tanker Stena Impero as it’s anchored off the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas. Photo: AFP / HO / IRIB

How Tehran fits into Russia-China strategy Iran continues to sell oil, mostly to China By PEPE ESCOBAR AUGUST 10, 2019

Complex doesn’t even begin to describe the positioning of Iran-Russia in the geopolitical chessboard. What’s clear in our current, volatile moment is that they’re partners, as I previously reported. Although not strategic partners, as in the Russia-China tie-up, Russia-China-Iran remain the crucial triad in the ongoing, multi-layered, long-term Eurasia integration process. A few days after our Asia Times report, an article – based on “senior sources close to the Iranian regime” and crammed with fear-mongering, 240   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


baseless accusations of corruption and outright ignorance about key military issues – claimed that Russia would turn the Iranian ports of Bandar Abbas and Chabahar into forward military bases complete with submarines, Spetsnaz special forces and Su-57 fighter jets, thus applying a “stranglehold” to the Persian Gulf. For starters, “senior sources close to the Iranian regime” would never reveal such sensitive national-security details, much less to Anglo-American foreign media. In my own case, even though I have made several visits to Iran while consistently reporting on Iran for Asia Times, and even though authorities at myriad levels know where I’m coming from, I have not managed to get answers from Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps generals to 16 detailed questions I sent nearly a month ago. According to my interlocutors, these are deemed “too sensitive” and, yes, a matter of national security. Predictably, the report was fully debunked. One of my top Tehran sources, asked about its veracity, was blunt: “Absolutely not.” After all, Iran’s constitution decisively forbids foreign troops stationed on national soil. The Majlis – Iranian parliament – would never approve such a move barring an extreme case, as in the follow-up to a US military attack. As for Russia-Iran military cooperation, the upcoming joint military exercises in the “northern part of the Indian Ocean,” including the Strait of Hormuz, are a first-ever such occasion, made possible only by a special agreement. Analyst Gennady Nechaev is closer to reality when he notes that in the event of growing Russia-Iran cooperation, the possibility would be open for “permanent basing of the Russian Navy in one of the Iranian ports with the provision of an airfield nearby – the same type of arrangement as Tartus and Hmeimim on the Mediterranean coast of Syria.” To get there, though, would be a long and winding road. And that brings us to Chabahar, which poses an interesting question. Chabahar is a deep sea port, on the Gulf of Oman and the key plank in India’s mini-Silk 242   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Road vision. India invested a lot in Chabahar, to have it connected by highway to Afghanistan and Central Asia and in the future by rail to the Caucasus. All that so India may bypass Pakistan as far as trade routes are concerned. Chabahar, though, may also become an important node of the New Silk Roads, or Belt and Road Initiative. India and China – as well as Russia – are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Iran, sooner or later, will also become a full SCO member. Only then the possibility “might” – and the emphasis is on “might” – open for the Russian or Chinese navy occasionally to dock at Chabahar, but still not to use it as a forward military base. Got oil, will travel

that Iran continues to sell, mostly to China. That trial balloon floated in the UAE might well be China camouflaging its continued purchase of Iranian oil. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has been proving again and again his diplomatic mastery, running rings around the Donald Trump administration. But all major decisions in Iran come from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. That also applies to Tehran’s position in relation to multi-level forms of support from the Russia-China strategic partnership. What the past few months have made crystal clear is how Russia-China’s magnetic pull is attracting key Eurasia players Iran, Turkey and Pakistan. And make no mistake: As much as Tehran may be extremely proud of its political independence, it is reassuring to know that Iran is, and will continue to be, a definitive red line for Russia-China.

On Iran, the Russia-China strategic partnership is working in parallel. China’s priority is energy supplies – and Beijing works the chessboard accordingly. The Chinese ambassador to the United Arab Emirates just issued a trial balloon, mentioning that Beijing might consider escorting oil tankers across the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. That could happen independently or – the dangling carrot – as part of Washington’s Operation Sentinel, which for the moment has managed to find only one “coalition of the willing” member: the UK. What’s actually happening right now in the Persian Gulf is way more entertaining. As I confirmed with energy traders in Doha late last month, demand for oil right now is higher than in 2018. And in consequence Iran continues to sell most of its oil. A tanker leaves Iran with transponder off; the oil is transferred to another tanker on the high seas; and then it is relabeled. According to a trader, “If you take two to three million barrels a day off the market by sanctions on Venezuela and Iran, plus the OPEC cutbacks, you would have to see a higher price.” There is no higher price. Brent crude remains near a seven-month low, around US$60 a barrel. This means PERSIAN MINIATURES    243

Brazilian President Lula da Silva is on the left with former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the center and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Tehran on May 2010. Photo: AFP / Wilson Pedrosa / Agenciia Estado

Inside story of the first Iran nuclear deal Lula on fights with Hillary, talks with Ahmadinejad, Obama ‘good but nervous and too young’ By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 6, 2019

As we advanced past the first hour of a historic interview – see here and here – at a Federal Police building in Curitiba, southern Brazil, where Lula has been incarcerated for over 500 days as part of the lawfare endgame in a complex coup, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was on a roll. “Let me tell you about Iran.” He felt relaxed enough to start telling stories of political negotiation at the highest level. He had already set the context. Nuggets abounded – es244   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


pecially focusing on the sometimes rocky relationship between Brasilia and Washington. Here are only three examples: 1) On the overall relationship with the US: “People think that I’m angry at the Americans. On the contrary, we had a very healthy political relationship with the US, and that should be the case for Brazil. But to be subservient, never.” Fights with Hillary 2) On dealing with George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton: “Bush accepted ideas with more fluidity than Obama. Obama was much tougher with Brazil. I’m certain that Hillary Clinton does not like Latin America, and she didn’t like Brazil. I had two big fights with her, one in a meeting in Trinidad-Tobago and another in Copenhagen [at the climate conference COP-15]. She arrived late, bossing everyone around. I said, ‘Lady, hang on. Wait for your turn. I’ve been here for three days.’ The petulance and arrogance of the Americans disturbs me, even if I think that the United States is always an important nation, and we should always maintain a good relationship.” 3) On hybrid war: “We tried to organize intelligence in the Air Force, the Navy, along with Federal Police intel, but among them there were some pretty serious fights. Whoever has intel has power, so no one wants to relay information to the competitor…. I imagined that after it was clear [from Edward Snowden’s revelations about National Security Agency surveillance] that … the United States was investigating Brazil … I imagined we would have a tougher position, maybe talking to the Russians and the Chinese, to create another system of protection. Our main political gesture was Dilma [Rousseff, then the Brazilian president] traveling to the US, but Obama, it seems to me, had very little influence. Obama ‘too young’


Lula and US President Barack Obama, on left, meet with other leaders in Copenhagen in December 2009 at the COP15 Climate Conference. Photo: AFP

“It was fantastic, Obama’s capacity to deliver beautiful speeches, but the next day nothing happened, nothing, nothing. I think the United States was too big for Obama, he was too young, too inexperienced. And you know that the US State Department is very powerful…. I think Obama was a good man. When I went to visit him the first time … I left with a lingering doubt: there was no one remotely similar to him in the meeting. I said to myself, ‘This guy has no one matching him here.’ And in our conversation, I said, ‘Obama, you may be the President of the United States who has the greatest possibility to effect change in this country. Because you only need to have the audacity that black people had to vote for you. The people have already granted you the audacity. Make the best of it.’… But then, nothing much happened.” And that would set the scene for the inside story of the first Iran nuclear deal, clinched in Tehran in 2010 by Iran, Brazil and Turkey, and centered on a nuclear fuel swap, years before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action reached in Vienna in 2015 by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany. History will register that as Donald Trump smashed the JCPOA, Hillary Clinton scotched the original deal less than 24 hours after it was clinched, calling instead for a new round of sanctions against Iran at the UN Security Council. This is how I reported it for Asia Times. Lula, in early 2010, had already told Hillary in person it was not “prudent to push Iran against the wall.” So what really happened in Tehran? Meeting Khamenei, Ahmadinejad “I was in New York. And [then Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad didn’t like me. He showed respect, but his preferential relationship here in the continent was with [Bolivian President] Evo Morales and my friend [Venezuela’s Hugo] Chavez… Then one day in New York, I decided to talk to Ahmadinejad,

because he had said it was a lie that six million Jews had died. And then I said, ‘Look, Ahmadinejad, I came here because I wanted to know if it’s true that you said that the Jews want to be heroes because they died in the war. I wanna tell you something: The Jews did not die in the war. The Jews were victims of a genocide. They were not soldiers fighting. They were free men, women and children who were taken to concentration camps and killed, that’s different.’

love with me because I told him my life story. When I told him that I ate bread for the first time when I was seven years old, I thought, ‘I think I won this guy.’ He lavished extraordinary attention on us. We talked for over two hours. Then I left Khamenei and went to talk to the president of their congress; he looked like a czar. Then I went to dinner with Ahmadinejad, while Celso Amorim was negotiating with their prime minister.

“Ahmadinejad was not getting to the point, and I said, “He said, ‘I know,’ and I said, ‘If you know, tell it to ‘Let me tell you something.’ And we had two interpreteveryone, it’s not possible to deny that six million ers: one who translated him into English, and Celso, people were killed.’ … Well, during this conversation who translated from English to me. I said, ‘You know I said, ‘I’d like to go to Tehran to talk to you about the that I’m here being bashed by the Americans. Hillary nuclear bomb. What do I want from you? I want you to Clinton called the Emir of Qatar to tell me that I could have the same right that Brazil has. Brazil enriches ura- not come, to tell me that I would be fooled. When I nium for scientific and peaceful purposes. I want you arrived in Moscow, [then-president Dmitri Medvedev to do enrichment the same way as Brazil. But if there’s said, ‘Hillary called, asking me to tell you not to go an atomic bomb, I’m against it.’ [because] the Iranians are liars.’ There was even a media joke: They were asking about the chance of a deal. “Then I sent [Foreign Minister] Celso Amorim ahead, Medvedev said ‘10%,’ and I said ‘99% – we are going a few times. We cultivated a relationship with Turkey. there and we are going to do it.’ It was something very funny. I met the great Ayatollah Khamenei, I had a meeting with him, I think he fell in PERSIAN MINIATURES    247

Obama nervous “Then I arrived, I was sitting down with Ahmadinejad, and I said, ‘Hey, little guy [laughs], you know that I’m here, I’m losing my friends. Obama is nervous with me – Obama was the most nervous among them all, Angela Merkel does not want me to be here. The only one more or less favorable was [then-French president Nicholas] Sarkozy, and I came here because I think Iran is a very important country, not only from the point of view of your population but from the point of view of your culture. And I want Iran not to suffer the consequences of an embargo because an embargo is worse than war. In war, you kill soldiers. With an embargo you kill children, you kill people with serious illnesses.’ “It was already 10pm at night and I said, ‘I’m not leaving here without a deal.’ Up to this moment, there was no chance of a deal. Around midnight I was discussing things with my aides at the hotel. I was even imagining the headlines in Brazil, against my trip. Then Celso arrived at one in the morning and said, ‘There’ll be a deal.’ “Then we went there the next day, lots of talking, there was this guy who was an aide to Ahmadinejad and was always whispering in his ear, and Ahmadinejad demanded to change a word. So I told him, ‘Damn, get this guy outta here. Every time he comes here you change your mind.’ Then he said, ‘Lula, can we make a deal without signing it?’ And I said, ‘Nah…. Do you know what Sarkozy thinks about you? Do you know what Obama thinks about you? Do you know what Angela Merkel thinks about you? They all think Iranians are liars. So, in Brazil, we’ve got a thing called ‘black on white’. You gotta sign.’ So he agreed. We signed, Brazil, him [Iran] and Turkey. No talk, no deal “I imagined I would be invited to the White House, or to Berlin by Angela Merkel…. So imagine my surprise when they were so nervous. You know that kid 248   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

that goes to school, gets an ‘A,’ tells his mother and the mother thinks it’s a bad thing? I think they were pissed because Brazil could not possibly have achieved what they did not. They started to diss us, so what did I do? I took a letter that comrade Obama had sent, saying what would be good for the United States. And the Reuters news agency released Obama’s letter. And the letter was the same thing as the deal we clinched.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, at the annual Astana Club meeting in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan last week. Photo: Asia Times / Pepe Escobar

“It happened that Mrs. Hillary didn’t know about Obama’s letter…. Later, I was at a G-20 meeting, I approached Angela Merkel and said, ‘Have you talked to Ahmadinejad?’ I talked to Sarzoky, said, ‘Have you talked to Ahmadinejad?’ No. Approached Obama, said, ‘Have you talked to Ahmadinejad?’ ‘No.’ ‘Damn, how come you want a deal, but you don’t talk? You subcontract the negotiation? Then I understood that the world in the past had had leadership much, much more competent, left and right, people who knew how to discuss foreign policy.” After hearing this story I asked Lula – the ultimate instinctive politician – if he felt Obama had stabbed him in the back: “No,” he replied. “I think, have you ever received a gift you didn’t know how to put it together?” This is the last of a three-part series from a world exclusive interview with Lula, the former Brazilian president, who remains in jail.

Iran’s ‘only crime is we decided not to fold’ Foreign Minister Zarif sketches Iran-US relations for diplomats, former presidents and analysts By PEPE ESCOBAR NOVEMBER 19, 2019

Just in time to shine a light on what’s behind the latest sanctions from Washington, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a speech at the annual Astana Club meeting in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan delivered a searing account of Iran-US relations to a select audience of high-ranking diplomats, former Presidents and analysts. Zarif was the main speaker in a panel titled “The New Concept of Nuclear Disarmament.” Keeping to a frantic schedule, he rushed in and out of the round table to squeeze in a private conversation with Kazakh First PERSIAN MINIATURES    249

President Nursultan Nazarbayev. During the panel, moderator Jonathan Granoff, President of the Global Security Institute, managed to keep a Pentagon analyst’s questioning of Zafir from turning into a shouting match. Previously, I had extensively discussed with Syed Rasoul Mousavi, minister for West Asia at the Iran Foreign Ministry, myriad details on Iran’s stance everywhere from the Persian Gulf to Afghanistan. I was at the James Bond-ish round table of the Astana Club, as I moderated two other panels, one on multipolar Eurasia and the post-INF environment and another on Central Asia (the subject of further columns). Zarif ’s intervention was extremely forceful. He stressed how Iran “complied with every agreement and it got nothing;” how “our people believe we have not gained from being part of ” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; how inflation is out of control; how the value of the rial dropped 70% “because of ‘coercive measures’ – not sanctions because they are illegal.” He spoke without notes, exhibiting absolute mastery of the inextricable swamp that is US-Iran relations. It turned out, in the end, to be a bombshell. Here are highlights. Zarif ’s story began back during 1968 negotiations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, with the stance of the “Non-Aligned Movement to accept its provisions only if at a later date” – which happened to be 2020 – “there would be nuclear disarmament.” Out of 180 non-aligned countries, “90 countries co-sponsored the indefinite extension of the NPT.” Moving to the state of play now, he mentioned how the United States and France are “relying on nuclear weapons as a means of deterrence, which is disastrous for the entire world.” Iran on the other hand “is a country that believes nuclear weapons should never be owned by any country,” due to “strategic calculations based on our religious beliefs.” Zarif stressed how “from 2003 to 2012 Iran was under the most severe UN sanctions that have ever be im250   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

posed on any country that did not have nuclear weapons. The sanctions that were imposed on Iran from 2009 to 2012 were greater than the sanctions that were imposed on North Korea, which had nuclear weapons.” Discussing the negotiations for the JCPOA that started in 2012, Zarif noted that Iran had started from the premise that “we should be able to develop as much nuclear energy as we wanted” while the US had started under the premise that Iran should never have any centrifuges.” That was the “zero-enrichment” option. Zarif, in public, always comes back to the point that “in every zero-sum game everybody loses.” He admits the JCPOA is “a difficult agreement. It’s not a perfect agreement. It has elements I don’t like and it has elements the United Stares does not like.” In the end, “we reached the semblance of a balance.” Zarif offered a quite enlightening parallel between the NPT and the JCPOA: “The NPT was based on three pillars: non-proliferation, disarmament and access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Basically the disarmament part of NPT is all but dead, non-proliferation is barely surviving and peaceful use of nuclear energy is under serious threat,” he observed. Meanwhile, “JCPOA was based on two pillars: economic normalization of Iran, which is reflected in Security Council resolution 2231, and – at the same time – Iran observing certain limits on nuclear development.” Crucially, Zarif stressed there is nothing “sunset” about these limits, as Washington argues: “We will be committed to not producing nuclear weapons forever.” All about distrust Then came Trump’s fateful May 2018 decision: “When President Trump decided to withdraw from the JCPOA, we triggered the dispute resolution mechanism.” Referring to a common narrative that describes him and John Kerry as obsessed with sacrificing everything to get a deal, Zarif said: “We negotiated this deal

based on distrust. That’s why you have a mechanism for disputes.” Still, “the commitments of the EU and the commitments of the United States are independent. Unfortunately the EU believed they could procrastinate. Now we are at a situation where Iran is receiving no benefit, nobody is implementing their part of the bargain, only Russia and China are fulfilling partially their commitments, because the United States even prevents them from fully fulfilling their commitments. France proposed last year to provide $15 billion to Iran for the oil we could sell from August to December. The United States prevented the European Union even from addressing this.” The bottom line, then, is that “other members of the JCPOA are in fact not implementing their commitments.” The solution “is very easy. Go back to the non-zero sum. Go back to implementing your commitments. Iran agreed that it would negotiate from Day One.” Zarif made the prediction that “if the Europeans still believe that they can take us to the Security Council and snap back resolutions they’re dead wrong. Because that is a remedy if there was a violation of the JCPOA. There was no violation of the JCPOA. We took these actions in response to European and American non-compliance. This is one of the few diplomatic achievements of the last many decades. We simply need to make sure that the two pillars exist: that there is a semblance of balance.” This led him to a possible ray of light among so much doom and gloom: “If what was promised to Iran in terms of economic normalization is delivered, even partially, we are prepared to show good faith and come back to the implementation of the JCPOA. If it’s not, then unfortunately we will continue this path, which is a path of zero-sum, a path leading to a loss for everybody, but a path that we have no other choice but to follow.” Time for HOPE

Zarif identifies three major problems in our current geopolitical madness: a “zero-sum mentality on international relations that doesn’t work anymore;” winning by excluding others (“We need to establish dialogue, we need to establish cooperation”); and “the belief that the more arms we purchase, the more security we can bring to our people.” He was adamant that there’s a possibility of implementing “a new paradigm of cooperation in our region,” referring to Nazarbayev’s efforts: a real Eurasian model of security. But that, Zarif explained, “requires a neighborhood policy. We need to look at our neighbors as our friends, as our partners, as people without whom we cannot have security. We cannot have security in Iran if Afghanistan is in turmoil. We cannot have security in Iran if Iraq is in turmoil. We cannot have security in Iran if Syria is in turmoil. You cannot have security in Kazakhstan if the Persian Gulf region is in turmoil.” He noted that, based on just such thinking, “resident Rouhani this year, in the UN General Assembly, offered a new approach to security in the Persian Gulf region, called HOPE, which is the acronym for Hormuz Peace Initiative – or Hormuz Peace Endeavor so we can have the HOPE abbreviation.” HOPE, explained Zarif, “is based on international law, respect of territorial integrity; based on accepting a series of principles and a series of confidence building measures; and we can build on it as you [addressing Nazarbayev] built on it in Eurasia and Central Asia. We are proud to be a part of the Eurasia Economic Union, we are neighbors in the Caspian, we have concluded last year, with your leadership, the legal convention of the Caspian Sea, these are important development that happened on the northern part of Iran. We need to repeat them in the southern part of Iran, with the same mentality that we can’t exclude our neighbors. We are either doomed or privileged to live together for the rest of our lives. We are bound by geography. We are bound by tradition, culture, religion and history.” To succeed, “we need to change our mindset.” PERSIAN MINIATURES    251

Age of hegemony gone It all comes down to the main reason US foreign policy just can’t get enough of Iran demonization. Zarif has no doubts: “There is still an arms embargo against Iran on the way. But we are capable of shooting down a US drone spying in our territory. We are trying simply to be independent. We never said we will annihilate Israel. Somebody said Israel will be annihilated. We never said we will do it.” It was, Zarif said, Benjamin Netanyahu who took ownership of that threat, saying, “I was the only one against the JCPOA.” Netanyahu “managed to destroy the JCPOA. What is the problem? The problem is we decided not to fold. That is our only crime. We had a revolution against a government that was supported by the United States, imposed on our country by the United States, [that] tortured our people with the help of the United States, and never received a single human rights condemnation, and now people are worried why they say ‘Death to America’? We say death to these policies, because they have brought nothing but this farce. What did they bring to us? If somebody came to the United States, removed your president, imposed a dictator who killed your people, wouldn’t you say death to that country?” Zarif inevitably had to evoke Mike Pompeo: “Today the Secretary of State of the United States says publicly: ‘If Iran wants to eat, it has to obey the United States.’ This is a war crime. Starvation is a crime against humanity. It’s a newspeak headline. If Iran wants its people to eat, it has to follow what he said. He says, ‘Death to the entire Iranian people.’” By then the atmosphere across the huge round table was electric. One could hear a pin drop – or, rather, the mini sonic booms coming from high up in the shallow dome via the system devised by star architect Norman Foster, heating the high-performance glass to melt the snow. Zarif went all in: “What did we do the United States? What did we do to Israel? Did we make their people starve? Who is making our people starve? Just tell me. 252   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Who is violating the nuclear agreement? Because they did not like Obama? Is that a reason to destroy the world, just because you don’t like a president?”

A scorched gas station set ablaze by protesters during a demonstration against a rise in gasoline prices in Eslamshahr, near the Iranian capital of Tehran. Photo: AFP

Iran’s only crime, he said, “is that we decided to be our own boss. And that crime – we are proud of it. And we will continue to be. Because we have seven millennia of civilization. We had an empire that ruled the world, and the life of that empire was probably seven times the entire life of the United States. So – with all due respect to the United States empire; I owe my education to the United States – we don’t believe that the United States is an empire that will last. The age of empires is long gone. The age of hegemony is long gone. We now have to live in a world without hegemony. – regional hegemony or global hegemony.”

What really happened in Iran? A fuel tax hike set the country ablaze and triggered a social backlash By PEPE ESCOBAR DECEMBER 7, 2019

On November 15, a wave of protests engulfed over 100 Iranian cities as the government resorted to an extremely unpopular measure: a fuel tax hike of as much as 300%, without a semblance of a PR campaign to explain the reasons. Iranians, after all, have reflexively condemned subsidy removals for years now – especially related to cheap gasoline. If you are unemployed or underemployed in Iran, especially in big cities and towns, Plan A is always to pursue a second career as a taxi driver. PERSIAN MINIATURES    253

Protests started as overwhelmingly peaceful. But in some cases, especially in Tehran, Shiraz, Sirjan and Shahriar, a suburb of Tehran, they quickly degenerated into weaponized riots – complete with vandalizing public property, attacks on the police and torching of at least 700 bank outlets. Much like the confrontations in Hong Kong since June. President Rouhani, aware of the social backlash, tactfully insisted that unarmed and innocent civilians arrested during the protests should be released. There are no conclusive figures, but Iranian diplomats admit, off the record, that as many as 7,000 people may have been arrested. Tehran’s judiciary system denies it. According to Iran’s Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, as many as 200,000 people took part in the protests nationwide. According to the Intelligence Ministry, 79 people were arrested in connection with the riots only in Khuzestan province – including three teams, supported by “a Persian Gulf state,” which supposedly coordinated attacks on government centers and security/police forces. The Intelligence Ministry said it had arrested eight “CIA operatives,” accused of being instrumental in inciting the riots. Now compare it with the official position by the IRGC. The chief commander of the IRGC, Major General Hossein Salami, stressed riots were conducted by “thugs” linked to the US-supported Mujahedin-e Khalq (MKO), which has less than zero support inside Iran, and with added interference by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Tehran, via government spokesman Ali Rabiei, is adamant: “According to our information, the attack on the consulate was not perpetrated by the Iraqi people, it was an organized attack.” Predictably, the American narrative framed Lebanon and Iraq – where protests were overwhelmingly against local government corruption and incompetence, high unemployment, and abysmal living standards – as a region-wide insurgency against Iranian power. Soleimani for President? Analyst Sharmine Narwani, based on the latest serious polls in Iran, completely debunked the American narrative. It’s a complex picture. Fifty-five percent of Iranians do blame government corruption and mismanagement for the dire state of the economy, while 38% blame the illegal US sanctions. At the same time, 70% of Iranians favor national self-sufficiency – which is what Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has been emphasizing – instead of more foreign trade. On sanctions, no less than 83% agree they exerted a serious impact on their lives. Mostly because of sanctions, according to World Bank figures, Iranian GDP per capita has shrunk to roughly $6,000.

The bad news for the Rouhani administration is that 58% of Iranians blame his team for corruption and mismanagement – and they are essentially correct. Team Rouhani’s promises of a better life after the JCPOA obviously did not materialize. In the short Salami also framed the riots as directly linked to “psy- term, the political winners are bound to be the princichological pressure” from the Trump administration’s plists – which insist there’s no possible entente cordiale relentless “maximum pressure” campaign against Teh- with Washington at any level. ran. He directly connected the protests degenerating The polls also reveal, significantly, massive popular into riots in Iran with foreign interference in protests support for Tehran’s foreign and military policy – esin Lebanon and Iraq. pecially on Syria and Iraq. The most popular leaders Elijah Magnier has shown how Moqtada al-Sadr dein Iran are legendary Quds Force commander Gen. nied responsibility for the burning down of the Iranian Soleimani (a whopping 82%), followed by Foreign consulate in Najaf – which was set on fire three times Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (67%) and the head in November during protests in southern Iraq. 254   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

of the Judiciary Ebrahim Raisi (64%). The key takeaway is that at least half and on some issues two-thirds of Iran’s popular opinion essentially support the government in Tehran – not as much economically but certainly in political terms. As Narwani summarizes it, “so far Iranians have chosen security and stability over upheaval every time.” ‘Counter-pressure’ What’s certain is that Tehran won’t deviate from a strategy that may be defined as “maximum counter-pressure” – on multiple fronts. Iranian banks have been cut off from SWIFT by the US since 2018. So efforts are intensifying to link Iran’s SEPAM system with the Russian SPFS and the Chinese CIPS – alternative interbank paying systems. Tehran continues to sell oil – as Persian Gulf traders have repeatedly confirmed to me since last summer. Digital tracking agency concurs. The top two destinations are China and Syria. Volumes hover around 700,000 barrels a day. Beijing has solemnly ignored every sanction threat from Washington regarding oil trading with Iran.

So welcome to Maritime Security Belt. In effect from December 27th. Smack on the Indian Ocean – the alleged privileged territory of Washington’s Indo-Pacific policy. And uniting the three key nodes of Eurasia integration: Russia, China and Iran. Khanzadi said that, “strategic goals have been defined at the level administrations, and at the level of armed forces, issues have been defined in the form of joint efforts.” General Yuanming praised Iran’s Navy as “an international and strategic force.” But geopolitically, this packs a way more significant game-changing punch. Russia may have conducted naval joint drills with Iran on the Caspian Sea. But a complex drill, including China, in the Indian Ocean, is a whole new ball game. Yuanming put it in a way that every student of Mahan, Spykman and Brzezinski easily understands: “Seas, which are used as a platform for conducting global commerce, cannot be exclusively beneficial to certain powers.” So start paying attention to Russia, China and Iran being quite active not only across the Heartland but also across the Rimland.

Khamenei, earlier this month, was adamant: “The US policy of maximum pressure has failed. The Americans presumed that they can force Iran to make concessions and bring it to its knees by focusing on maximum pressure, especially in the area of economy, but they have troubled themselves.” In fact “maximum counter-pressure” is reaching a whole new level. Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi confirmed that Iran will hold joint naval drills with Russia and China in the Indian Ocean in late December. That came out of quite a significant meeting in Tehran, between Khanzadi and the deputy chief of the Chinese Joint Staff Department, Major General Shao Yuanming. PERSIAN MINIATURES    255

Protesters shout slogans against the United States following a US airstrike that killed top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in Iraq on January 3, 2020. Photo: Aamir Qureshi / AFP

US starts the Raging Twenties declaring war on Iran There cannot be a more startling provocation against Iran than what happened in Baghdad By PEPE ESCOBAR JANUARY 3, 2020

It does not matter where the green light came from for the US targeted assassination of Quds Force commander Major General Qasem Soleimani and the Hashd al-Shaabi second in command Abu Madhi al-Muhandis. This is an act of war. Unilateral, unprovoked and illegal. President Trump may have issued the order. Or the US Deep State may have ordered him to issue the order. According to my best Southwest Asia intel sources, “Israel gave the US the coordinates for the assassination of Qasem Soleimani as they wanted to avoid the repercussions of taking the assassination upon themselves.” 256   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


It does not matter that Trump and the Deep State are at war. One of the very few geopolitical obsessions that unite them is non-stop confrontation with Iran – qualified by the Pentagon as one of the five top threats against the US, almost at the level of Russia and China. And there cannot be a more startling provocation against Iran – in a long list of sanctions and provocations – than what happened in Baghdad. Iraq is now the preferred battleground of a proxy war against Iran that may now metastasize into a hot war, with devastating consequences. We knew it was coming. There were plenty of rumbles in Israeli media by former Defense and Mossad officials. There were explicit threats by the Pentagon. I discussed it in detail in Umbria last week with sterling analyst Alastair Crooke – who was extremely worried. I received worried messages from Iran. The inevitable escalation by Washington was being discussed until late Thursday night here in Palermo, actually a few hours before the strike. Sicily, by the way, in the terminology of US generals, is AMGOT: American Government Occupied Territory. Once again, the Exceptionalist hands at work show how predictable they are. Trump is cornered by impeachment. Netanyahu has been indicted. Nothing like an external “threat” to rally the internal troops. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei knows about these complex variables as much as he knows of this responsibility as the power who issued Iran’s own red lines. Not surprisingly he already announced, on the record, there will be blowback: “A forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of other martyrs last night on their hands.” Expect it to be very painful. Blowback by a thousand cuts I met Muhandis in Baghdad two years ago – as well as many Hashd al-Shaabi members. Here is my full report. The Deep State is absolutely terrified Hashd 258   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

al-Shaabi, a grassroots organization, are on the way to becoming a new Hezbollah, and as powerful as Hezbollah. Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the supreme religious authority in Iraq, universally respected, fully supports them.

An Iranian woman wearing a mask walks past a mural displaying Iran’s national flag in Tehran, March 4, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Atta Kenare

So the American strike also targets Sistani – not to mention the fact that Hashd al-Shaabi operates under guidelines issued by the Iraqi Prime Minister Abdel Mahdi. That’s a major strategic blunder that can only be pulled off by amateurs. Major General Soleimani, of course, humiliated the whole of the Deep State over and over again – and could eat all of them for breakfast, lunch and dinner as a military strategist. It was Soleimani who defeated ISIS/Daesh in Iraq – not the Americans bombing Raqqa to rubble. Soleimani is a superhero of almost mythical status for legions of young Hezbollah supporters, Houthis in Yemen, all strands of resistance fighters in both Iraq and Syria, Islamic Jihad in Palestine, and all across Global South latitudes in Africa, Asia and Latin America. There’s absolutely no way the US will be able to maintain troops in Iraq, unless the nation is re-occupied en masse via a bloodbath. And forget about “security”: no imperial official or imperial military force is now safe anywhere, from the Levant to Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf.

Why Iran won’t be broken

The only redeeming quality out of this major strategic blunder cum declaration of war may be the final nail in the coffin of the Southwest Asia chapter of the US Empire of Bases. Iranian Prime Minister Javad Zarif came out with an appropriate metaphor: The “tree of resistance” will continue to grow. The empire might as well say goodbye to Southwest Asia.


In the short term, Tehran will be extremely careful in its response. A hint of – harrowing – things to come: it will be blowback by a thousand cuts. As in hitting the Exceptionalist framework – and mindset – where it really hurts. This is how the Roaring, Raging Twenties begin: not with a bang, but with the release of whimpering dogs of war.

Islamic Republic has weathered the Covid-19 storm and is on the cusp of a US-defying manufacturing revolution JUNE 24, 2020

So what’s happening in Iran? How did the Islamic Republic really respond to Covid-19? And how is it coping with Washington’s relentless “maximum pressure?” These questions were the subject of a long phone call I placed to Professor Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran, one of Iran’s premier, globally-recognized analysts. “Iran after the revolution was all about social justice. It set up a very elaborate healthcare network, similar to Cuba’s, but with more funding. PERSIAN MINIATURES    259

A large hospital network,” Marandi explained. “When the coronavirus hit, the US was even preventing Iran to get test kits. Yet the system, not the private sector, managed. “There was no full shutdown. Everything was under control. The numbers – even contested by the West – they do hold. Iran is now producing everything it needs, tests, face masks. None of the hospitals are full,” Marandi said. Alireza Hashemi, a domestic policy analyst notes, “Iran’s wide primary healthcare system, comprising public clinics, health houses and health centers is available in thousands of cities and villages”, and that enabled the government to “easily offer basic services.” “The Health Ministry established a Covid-19 call center and also distributed protective equipment supplied by relief providers,” Hashemi said. “Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei ordered the armed forces to help, with the government deploying 300,000 soldiers and volunteers to disinfect streets and public places, distribute sanitizers and masks and conduct tests.” The Iranian military, the analyst said, established production lines for producing face masks and other equipment. According to Hashemi, “some NGOs partnered with Tehran’s chamber of commerce to create a campaign called Nafas (“breath”) to supply medical goods and provide clinical services. “Iran’s Farabourse, an over-the-counter stock market in Tehran, established a crowdfunding campaign to purchase medical devices and products to help health workers. Hundreds of volunteer groups – called “jihadi” – started producing personal protective equipment that had been in short supply in seminaries, mosques and Hussain Ilyas and even natural fruit juices for health workers,” Hashemi said. This sense of social solidarity is extremely powerful in Shi’ite culture. Hashemi notes that “the government loosened health-related restrictions over a month ago and we have been experiencing a small slice of normality in recent weeks.” 260   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Workers at a factory at the Eshtehard Industrial Town in Eshtehard, some 120 kilometers from the Iranian capital Tehran, April 14, 2020. Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami/ Anadolu Agency via AFP Forum

Yet the fight is not over. As in the West, there are fears of a Covid-19 second wave. Marandi stresses the economy, predictably, has been hurt: “But because of the sanctions, most of the hurt had already happened. The economy is now running without oil revenue. In Tehran, you don’t even notice it. It’s nothing compared to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey or the UAE. Workers from Pakistan and India are leaving the Persian Gulf in droves. Dubai is dead. “So, in comparison, Iran did better in dealing with the virus. Moreover, harvests last year and this year have been positive. We are more self-reliant,” Marandi said. Hashemi notes another facet: “The Covid-19 crisis was so massive that people themselves have pitched in with effort, revealing new levels of solidarity. Individuals, civil society groups and others have set up a range of initiatives seeking to help the government and health workers on the front line of countering the pandemic.” A relentless Western disinformation campaign has always ignored how post-revolution Iran is accustomed to extremely critical situations, starting with the eightyear-long Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Marandi and Hashemi both adamantly note that, for older Iranians, the current economic crisis pales compared with what they endured throughout the 1980s. Made in Iran soars Marandi’s analysis ties up the economic data. In early June, Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, the official responsible for planning Iran’s state budgets, told the Majlis (Parliament) that the new normal was “to sideline oil in the economy and run the country’s programs without oil.” Nobakht stuck to the numbers. Iran had earned just US$8.9 billion from the sale of oil and related products in 2019-20, down from a peak of $119 billion less than a decade ago.

The entire Iranian economy is thus in transition. What’s particularly interesting is the boom in manufacturing, with companies focusing way beyond Iran’s large domestic market towards exports. They are turning the massive devaluation of the rial to their advantage. In 2019-20, Iran’s non-oil exports reached $41.3 billion. That exceeded oil exports for the first time in Iran’s post-revolutionary history. Roughly half of these non-oil exports were manufactured goods. Team Trump’s “maximum pressure” via sanctions may have driven down total non-oil exports, but only by 7%. Total exports remain near historic highs. According to Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) data published by the Iran Chamber of Commerce, private sector manufacturers were seriously back in business already in the first month after the relaxation of the country’s partial lockdown. The fact is Iranian consumer goods and industrial products – everything from cookies to stainless steel – are exported by small and medium enterprises to the

wider Middle East as well as Central Asia, China and Russia. The myth of Iranian “isolation” is, well, a myth. Some new manufacturing clusters bode well for the future. Take titanium, essential for myriad applications in military, aerospace, marine industries and industrial processes. The Qara-Aghaj mine in Urmia, the provincial capital of West Azarbaijan, part of Iran’s mineral belt which includes the country’s largest gold reserves, has tremendous untapped potential. Iran features in the Top 15 of mineral-rich countries. In January, after getting the technology for deep-level mining, Tehran launched a pilot project for the extraction of rare earth minerals. Still, Washington’s pressure remains as relentless as the Terminator. In January, the White House issued yet another executive order targeting the “construction, mining, manufacturing, or textiles sectors of the Iranian economy.” So Team Trump is precision targeting the booming PERSIAN MINIATURES    261

private sector, which means in practice countless Iranian blue-collar workers and their families are being affected. This has nothing to do with forcing the Hassan Rouhani administration to say, “I can’t breathe.”

and its “stooges” (the House of Saud, UAE, Egypt), the master – Israel – and also Turkey and Qatar, which, like Iran, but unlike the “stooges”, favor political Islam (but of the Sunni variety, that is, the Moslem Brotherhood).

The Venezuelan front

One of these analysts, pen name Blake Archer Williams, significantly remarks, “the main reason Russia holds back from helping Iran (mutual trade is almost at zero) is that it fears Iran.”

Meanwhile, apart from a few scuffles between the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Health Ministry about China’s response to Covid-19, the Iran-China “comprehensive strategic partnership” (CSP) remains on track. The next big test of the partnership will come in September. That’s when Team Trump wants to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran. That will be on top of the threat to trigger the snapback mechanism built into UNSC resolution 2231 if other UN Security Council members refuse to support Washington and let the embargo expire in October. China’s mission at the UN has stressed the obvious. The Trump administration unilaterally abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Then it reimposed unilateral sanctions. Thus it arguably has no justification for extending the arms embargo or going for the snapback mechanism against Iran. China, Russia and Iran are the three key nodes of Eurasian integration. Politically and diplomatically, their critical decisions tend to be made in concert. So it’s no wonder that was reiterated this month in Moscow at the meeting of Foreign Ministers Sergey Lavrov and Javad Zarif, who reportedly get along famously. Lavrov said, “We will be doing everything so that no one can destroy these agreements. Washington has no right to punish Iran.” Zarif for his part described the whole juncture as “very dangerous.” Iranian analysts reveal how they interpret the regional geopolitical chessboard, calibrating the importance of the axis of resistance (Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, Hezbollah) in comparison with two other fronts: the US 262   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a press conference after meeting in Tehran in 2016. Since then, China and Iran have firmed up their relationship. Photo: AFP / HO / Iranian Presidency

“If Trump does not have a Ronald Reagan moment and does not prevail on Iran, and the US is in any event-driven out of the Middle East by the continuing process of Iran’s weapons parity and its ability to project power in its own pond, then all of the oil of the Middle East, from the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, to Iraq, of course, and not least to the oilfields in Saudi Arabia’s Qatif region (where all the oil is and is 100% Shi’ite), will come under the umbrella of the axis of resistance,” he said. Still, Russia-China continue to back Iran on all fronts. That includes by rebuking the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for giving in to US “bullying”, as the IAEA’s board last week passed a resolution submitted by France, Britain and Germany criticizing Iran for the first time since 2012. Another key foreign policy front is Venezuela. Tehran’s soft power, in a spectacular manner keenly observed across the Global South, de facto ridiculed Washington’s sanctions-blockade in its own Monroe Doctrine “backyard” when five of its gas tankers recently successfully crossed the Atlantic and were received by a Venezuelan military escort of jets, helicopters, and naval patrols. That was, in fact, a test run. The Oil Ministry in Tehran is already planning a round two of deliveries to Caracas, sending two or three cargos full of gasoline a month. That will also help Iran to offload its stockpiled domestically produced fuel. The historic initial shipment was characterized by both sides as part of a scientific and industrial cooperation, side by side with a “solidarity action.”

Iran-China pact turbocharges the New Silk Roads China will invest $400 billion in Iran energy and infrastructure but nothing in strategic pact allows for a Chinese troop presence or island handover By PEPE ESCOBAR JULY 10, 2020

Two of the United States’ top “strategic threats” are getting more and more real within the scope of the New Silk Roads, the leading 21st-century project of economic integration across Eurasia. America’s Deep State will not be amused. A sensationalist report, which did not add anything that was not already known about the strategic partnership, nevertheless gained attention when it predictably dog-whistled a major red alert about the military alliance. PERSIAN MINIATURES    263

An Iranian seaman holds up Iranian and Chinese national flags during a ceremony at Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman during Iran-Russia-China joint naval drills. Photo: AFP/Iranian Army Office

in yuan or in a basket of currencies other than the US dollar. Beijing will also invest roughly $228 billion in Iranian infrastructure – that’s where the AIIB comes in – over 25 years, but especially up to 2025. That ranges from building factories to badly needed energy industry renovation, all the way to the already-in-progress construction of the 900-km-long electric rail from Tehran to Mashhad. Tehran, Qom and Isfahan will also be linked by highspeed rail – and there will be an extension to Tabriz, an important oil, gas and petrochemical node and the starting point of the Tabriz-Ankara gas pipeline. All of the above makes total sense in New Silk Road terms, as Iran is a key Eurasian crossroads.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi to a great extent was referring to that report when he blasted as “lies” a series of rumors about the “transparent roadmap” that’s built into the evolving Iran-China strategic partnership. President Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mahmoud Vezi, added that “a destructive line of propaganda has been initiated and directed from outside Iran against the expansion of Iran’s relations with neighbors and especially [with] China and Russia.” Vezi said, “This roadmap in which a path is defined for expansion of relations between governments and the private sectors is signed and will continue to be signed between many countries.” The Iran-China strategic partnership was officially established in 2016, when President Xi visited Tehran. These are the guidelines. Two articles among the 20 listed in the agreement are particularly relevant. Item 7 defines the scope of the partnership within the New Silk Roads vision of Eurasia integration: “The Iranian side welcomes ‘the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ initiative introduced by China. 264   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

“Relying on their respective strengths and advantages as well as the opportunities provided through the signing of documents such as the ‘MOU on Jointly Promoting the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ and ‘MOU on Reinforcement of Industrial and Mineral Capacities and Investment,’ both sides shall expand cooperation and mutual investments in various areas including transportation, railway, ports, energy, industry, commerce and services.” Item 10 praises Iran’s membership in the AIIB: “The Chinese side appreciates Iran’s participation as a founding member of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Both sides are willing to strengthen their cooperation in the relevant areas and join their efforts towards the progress and prosperity of Asia.” The core of the Iran-China strategic partnership – no secret whatsoever since at least last year – revolves around a $400 billion Chinese investment in Iran’s energy and infrastructure for the next 25 years. It’s all about securing a matter of supreme Chinese national interest: a steady supply of oil and gas that bypasses the dangerous bottleneck of the Straits of Malacca, secured with a median 18% discount and paid

High-speed rail traversing Iran will connect Urumqi in Xinjiang to Tehran, via four of the Central Asian “stans” (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan), all the way to West Asia, across Iraq and Turkey and farther on to Europe. This will be a techno revival of the Ancient Silk Roads, where the main language of trade between East and West across the heartland was Persian. The terms of aerial and naval military cooperation between Iran and China, and also among those two and Russia, are still not finalized – as Iranian sources told me. And no one has had access to the details. In a tweet, Mousavi said that “there is nothing [in the agreement] about delivering Iranian islands to China, nothing about the presence of military forces and other falsehoods.” The same applies to totally unsubstantiated speculation that the PLA would be granted bases in Iran and be allowed to station troops on Iranian territory. Last Sunday, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stressed that Iran and China had been negotiating “with confidence and conviction” and that there was “nothing secret” about the agreement.

Iranian, Chinese and Russian negotiators will meet next month to discuss terms of the military cooperation among the top three nodes of Eurasia integration. Closer collaboration is scheduled to start by November. Seamen wave aboard a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy Surface Force vessel moored at Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman during Iran-Russia-China joint naval drills last December. Photo: AFP/Iranian Army Office Geopolitically and geoeconomically, the key takeaway is that the relentless US blockade of the Iranian economy, featuring hardcore weaponized sanctions, is impotent to do anything about the wide-ranging Iran-China deal. Here is a decent exposé of some of the factors in play. The Iran-China strategic partnership is yet another graphic demonstration of what could be deconstructed as the Chinese brand of exceptionalism: a collective mentality and enough organized planning capable of establishing a wide-ranging, win-win, economic, political and military partnership. It’s quite instructive to place the whole process within the context of what State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed at a recent China-US Think Tanks meeting (attended by, among others, Henry Kissinger). Said Wang: “One particular view has been floating around in recent years, alleging that the success of China’s path will be a blow and threat to the Western system and path. This claim is inconsistent with facts, and we do not agree with it. Aggression and expansion are never in the genes of the Chinese nation throughout its 5,000 years of history. “China does not replicate any model of other countries,” Wang continued. “Nor does it export its own to others. We never ask other countries to copy what we do. More than 2,500 years ago, our forefathers advocated that ‘All living things can grow in harmony without hurting one another, and different ways can run in parallel without interfering with one another.’” PERSIAN MINIATURES    265