Behind the Persian Curtain

After two years, three “final” deadlines and a cabinet-level bike wreck, we have a deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. In Tehran, Boston, and the Security Council chamber it felt like a time to celebrate. This week, we asked just what does a deal mean?

Our friend, the journalist/historian Stephen Kinzer, has dreamt of a “reset” that would change the strategic chess and bring Iran and the United States back together. He said that both sides are fighting a long and traumatic history, but new restraint (informed by that history) seems possible:

This Iran operation in 1953, in which the CIA destroyed forever — at least up until now — Iranian democracy seemed like a success at time. We got rid of a guy we didn’t like, Mohammad Mossadegh, and we replaced him with a guy, the Shah, who would do everything we wanted. So, it seemed like the perfect solution at the time. Now when we look back, and we see that the Shah’s increasing repression caused huge problems inside Iran. It led to the explosion which produced the mullahs’ government and produced another 35 years of repression. We’re slowly coming to realize that these interventions hurt us in the long run… [Obama’s] biggest failures in foreign policy have been times when he’s been seduced into intervening, whether it’s South Sudan or Libya. And his greatest successes have been places where he’s restrained himself… What I’m worried about is what happens after Obama. Is the pendulum going to swing back?

Kelly Golnoush Niknejad is the Iranian-American editor-in-chief of the Tehran Bureau, an independent organization delivering honest, anonymous news and comment from inside Iran via (of necessity) Niknejad’s Newton home. She said that domestic change may come gradually as the regime co-opts and catches up with two different post-revolutionary generations:

A lot of young people do not remember the revolution. Those who came of age with the Internet and satellite television and the reformist administration of Khatami in the 1990s — where there was a brief period of about two years where there was a lot openings in terms of cultural freedoms and newspapers printing — a lot of people became very political and idealistic during that period. And we also have another generation coming about that wasn’t really part of that. They came about during Ahmadinejad. They have very different political awareness, and I think most of their ideas of freedom are probably what they see on satellite television.

“Slow” was the keyword of our Iran talks. The anthropologist Narges Bajoghlid, who wrote recently about hiphop as Rouhani’s latest propaganda tool, said that those young Iranians want reform, not revolt. Kinzer agreed: having weathered their own revolution and witnessed the excesses of the late Arab Spring, Iranians prefer the devil they know.

And Chas Freeman, our favorite US Foreign Service wiseman, cracked that the negotiations stopped an Iranian nukes program that didn’t exist, solving a problem we didn’t have. But the exercise was worth it anyway if it underlines the folly of military interventions. We should have been learning, too, that sanctions stiffen resistance and strengthen target governments — in Cuba as in Iran. And we should be learning patience and restraint long-term and short.

For one thing, the opening to China, strategically important and useful as it was, did not produce Sino-American cooperation on any level for about six to seven years. It took time to begin to make it possible for us to cooperate. So, I wouldn’t hold my breath for a major improvement in US-Iranian relations. We have to be patient, and we have to be creative. But the lesson…is that statesmanship, skillfully conducted, can really make a difference.

So tell us: Are you ready to walk through the Persian curtain?

The Sound of the US-Iran Relationship

How did America and Iran get to yes? A relationship defined by a CIA-backed coup, a revolution, and a hostage crisis seemed permanently poisoned — even before President George W. Bush placed Iran in his “Axis of Evil.” There was more than a little venom and proxy violence over half a century. The sound of this relationship is more than tough talk though. These bites (most from a brilliant 2009 BBC documentary) reveal a sad game of geopolitical phone tag between two rivals who should probably be friends. Whenever one calls, the other isn’t ready to talk. And vice-versa, for forty years — until now.

Head to our SoundCloud page for more info on each track.
—Pat Tomaino.

Guest List
Amb. Chas Freeman
former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Nixon's translator during the famous China visit, and past president of the Middle East Policy Council.
Narges Bajoghli
media anthropologist at NYU, and the filmmaker behind The Skin That Burns, a documentary about chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War.
Reading List
Iran deal is a step toward reimagining the Middle East
Stephen Kinzer, Boston Globe
Kinzer makes the case for the deal as a positive step toward more pragmatic foreign policy for America, haunted all the same by unreasonable memory:
Opposition to this accord in Washington is based less on Iran’s actions than on its demonic image. Memories of its past sins — especially the hostage crisis of 1979-80 — burn in American hearts and blind us to our national interest. We take at face value what Iran’s bitterest enemies tell us. We see Iran as a country that has caused us great harm, and overlook the harm we have caused Iran. Obama has ruptured this paradigm. His new accord is about more than Iran. It is welcome proof that sometimes, the United States can change when the world changes.
How the Iran Deal Serves America
Scott McConnell, The American Conservative
Meanwhile, the Burkean isolationists at The American Conservative are also in support of the deal, chalking the big progress up to preserving American flexibility in the Middle East:
The deal means something far more than outside supervision of Iran’s reactors. President Obama and his foreign-policy establishment want, I believe, at least to explore the possibility that Iran can fit into the roster of American diplomatic options in the region, where reliance on our traditional allies has run into a dead end... The turn to Iran was foreshadowed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11—when Tehran was the only city in the Muslim world in which there were public and spontaneous displays of sympathy for the United States, and shortly thereafter there was some considerable on-the-ground cooperation in Afghanistan with Iranian intelligence on the overthrow of the Taliban. Of course this cooperation was short-circuited by the neoconservatives in the Bush administration, who persuaded the President to include Iran in the “axis of evil.”
'We'll never regain what we've lost': Iranians react to interim deal
Anonymous Tehran Bureau correspondent
The first of three stories from the Tehran Bureau, Kelly Niknejad's independent news outlet for Iranian reporting. This piece, from April, tells the story of a population under sanctions. They were depressed, depleted, out of work — and falling out of love with the West:
In addition to a noticeable drop in living standards, Iranians have faced a slew of problems that contributed to the severe mental depression of 34.2% of Tehran’s population, according to health ministry figures. Due to a sanctions-induced rise in pollution and shortage of cancer treatment medication, thousands lost family members prematurely. At least 4 million people are jobless, and a legion of bankrupt business owners has resorted to driving taxis to make ends meet. When the nuclear standoff was at its height, Iranians began stockpiling rice and canned food, believing war was inevitable... Until 2012, when the United States spearheaded an internationally accepted sanctions regime targeting Iran’s banking system, the Iranian middle class had “thought of the US as a friend of the Iranian people and a country that really desired democracy for Iran,” added Ardeshir. “But the sanctions changed many people’s minds. We understood then that we didn’t mean anything to the US. They made life more miserable for us than our own leaders ever could have.”
Iran's Stockholm syndrome?
Anonymous Tehran Bureau correspondent
Another story of how Iranian voters bought back into a reformist government in the years since 2009's "Green Movement" took off — and collapsed: Over five years since the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sparked a year-and-a-half-long wave of pro-democracy protests, little physical evidence remains to remind demonstrators of their one-time zeal. The spiralling economic situation and the repressive political atmosphere of the late Ahmadinejad era disappoi
nted hopes of a democratic opening. The election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani absorbed the millions of reform-minded voters who boycotted previous elections back into the political system, but many say the new government has so far failed to deliver on its promises of social change.
How Iran is trying to win back the youth
Narges Bajoghli, Tehran Bureau
An Iranian-American media anthropologist goes deep into the complex messaging of the mullah's regime. They're trying to "keep the revolution alive" for the country's millions of young and skeptical voters. Hence a popular rapper, just out of prison, on a battleship, rapping about a Persian right to self-defense:
With the US invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003, Iran found itself surrounded by military forces and categorised by president George W Bush as part of an “axis of evil”. Unsure of the Bush administration’s next move after the fall of Baghdad, and the meddling of American and Israeli intelligence services fomenting unrest among its ethnic minorities, the Islamic establishment knew it had to shore up public support. ...For the most part, large numbers of young Iranians were not responding to films and books about the war and the past of the Islamic republic as “sacred”. If the United States were to attack Iran, some pro-regime filmmakers pondered, would young Iranians rise up to defend their nation? Fearing that the answer would be no, they took it upon themselves to tweak their historical narrative as one less reliant on religion and more rooted in nationalism.
Tehran's Promise
Robin Wright, New Yorker
The centrist foreign-policy thinker and Mideast watcher writes of a revolution in a kind of easy doubt, and the stark contradiction between Iran's high religious doctrine and the regular, almost Western lifestyle of its citizens:
I remarked on how much Iran had changed since the revolution, when I was nervous driving after dark, because cars were stopped at nighttime checkpoints to verify that the women inside were related to the men. Neighborhood komitehs raided homes suspected of partying and prowled streets to confront women who wore lipstick or exposed their ankles. “You just have to go to this park to understand the state of mind among Iranians today,” Hadian, a political scientist now at the University of Tehran, said. “The revolution is in a midlife crisis. What is a midlife crisis? When you think idealism and youthfulness are gone. The revolution doesn’t want to accept that it has grown older, that it won’t achieve everything it wanted to achieve. Or that it has to adapt to survive.”
Q & A: The Rise And Rebirth Of The Islamic State, with Michael Weiss
Joel Wing, Musings on Iraq
An interesting look at the narrative inside the self-styled Islamic State — leading with the idea that America is pro-Shia, all the way:
What’s the one observational constant for the average Sunni in the cafes of Cairo or the shisha bars of Antakya? “We have been dispossessed, disinherited, ethnically cleansing, all with either the active support or acquiescence of the United States, which prefers the Shia to us.” It’s perhaps the compliment that vice pays to virtue that America always believes that its good intentions trump the darkest imaginings the rest of the world has as to its true motives. Zarqawi had us bungling our way into Iraq to accidentally enthrone the Shia. Baghdadi has done this story one better: America is conspiring with Iran and the Iraqi Shia to keep the Sunnis down, and this has been the grand design from 2003. Why did Obama fail to enforce his “red line” on chemical weapons? Because it was a lie from the beginning. Why did the U.S. oust Saddam but leave Assad in place? Because it supports the regime and a broader project to facilitate Shia hegemony in the region. Why is the U.S. dropping bombs on Sunnis but giving close air support to Qassem Soleimani and his jihadists? Ditto. Why is the U.S. acting as Iran’s lawyer in nuclear negotiations and freeing up hundreds of millions of dollars for Hezbollah and the Quds Force? You get the idea, habibi. Look at ISIS snuff films. People only focus on the horrific mode of execution, and never on the agitprop either preceding or following the main event. They invariably exhibit the carnage, allegedly created by coalition bombs. “Here are dead Sunni babies killed by the infidel West, the Jews and their apostate Arab and polytheistic Shia partners.” It isn’t necessary to persuade the Sunni umma to subscribe to ISIS’s ideology or even believe in the establishment of the caliphate — a task that’s impossible, and ISIS knows it. It’s sufficient, however, to have Sunnis ask why Assad, Iran, America, and Europe are all on the same side in this war, why ISIS is deemed the greater menace to civilization, and to thus keep a distance from those seeking to oust ISIS. There is no credible or coherent answer to this question on offer from Washington, although Samantha Power tweets her heart out.

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  • Andrew Winson

    Audio isn’t up yet?

    • rosmedia

      Andrew: It doesn’t exist yet! The show tapes tonight at 9pm on WBUR. (What should we be talking about?)

  • Potter

    I’m with Steve Kinzer on this one- there is no one coming down the pike here in the US that is going to be mature, patient and rational and less political. Hillary Clinton still puts her finger to the wind ( but she looks stunning doesn’t she?). Jeb Bush is personable but he would be a disaster.

    I so much enjoyed Kelly Golnoush Niknejad on this show. And from the Globe article you link above I feel very positive about John Kerry who is not running. We don’t need Iran as an enemy, and he knows it too ( along with Obama).

    I can’t listen anymore to the negativity about this Iran deal. The negativity makes no sense. It’s all about politics- something or yet another thing to be against, to fear. People, voters, who are vulnerable to this kind of thing get caught up in it.

  • theCrowdisUntruth

    I see Old Bill’s face, and I think of you cats in the north. I think of mom taping all those ROS shows cause of her short term memory loss. At least I should thank you for keeping on keeping on…with a comment section that works where one can speak. Speaking of speaking…

  • Pete Crangle

    Thank you Chris, team ROS, and guests for an interesting and informative discussion. Countries tend to organize their activities and rhetoric around strategic self-interest; people on the other hand, both individually or in small groups, can organize their lives around other concerns beyond such narrow confines. Democratic populations must apply pressure to focus their country’s policies on these other concerns, which often dovetail into robust strategic self-interests, but not always for the current players in power. U.S. examples of hard power, in particular post Nine Eleven examples, of these aggressive policies have been a mixed bag of success and failure; mostly failure IMO. These policies have certainly damaged our credibility and reputation for human rights. And regarding the middle east and near east, they have helped regimes emerge into powerful regional players (ISIS and Iran among a cast of many).

    The laity population and government of the U.S. will eventually have to adjust it’s world view to frame the world into multipolar seats of power, and not one that can be coerced at the end of the sword, or threats of military options. A difficult habit to break because many of the current crop of power players will be required to shift their policy view. What is still in vogue is hard power exercises and hard line rhetoric, especially among the right who traffic in farcical neo-con rhetoric. President Obama could be a transition figure in this regard. We are seeing not only diplomacy and negotiations restarted with Iraq, but a relaxation of the crusty old Monroe doctrine. The Cuban Flag flies over its embassy in DC! A long overdue moment. The cynic in me is not very optimistic, however, given the current congressional leadership (hyper-obstructionists) or presidential candidates.

    Hello Potter. I agree with your comment, with one possible exception: I’ll take Hillary Clinton’s finger up in the air over the GOP’s head up their collective asses … at least she has the ability to attenuate her hard power strategic policy vision, unlike the GOP which expresses a monomania, hyper-super power ethos vis-à-vis a primitive, Manichean world view. Candidate Clinton is far from the perfect candidate, but she offers what the GOP candidates lack: a professional imperial manager competency. Which is what we’ve had with President Obama. This is an important job requirement at this point. For an example of what incompetent imperial management looks like, we need look no further than the years of 2000 – 2008. A train wreck of foreign and domestic policies.

    • Potter

      Hi Pete- at this point in the coming election I think I can be an idealist and say that there are things I really do not like about Hillary. But yes of course if it was a choice between any on the Republican side and her, I would vote for her out of fear of the alternative. Kerry looks good now, now that he is not running. And too, Bernie Sanders about whom conventional wisdom says no chance.

      There is something about our presidency that requires a candidate to want it just too much and that quality and what it causes a candidate to do, is very unattractive.

  • Majid

    Max, How did you infer “anti semitism” from Ayatollah’s tweet?!

    • James Maxwell Larkin

      Majid, I didn’t mean to suggest that specific tweet was anti-Semitic. But these ones do conjure Goebbels — the propaganda films about global control and bestial qualities:

      I guess he’s trying to thread the needle, so to say, but I don’t think he’s been successful.

      • Majid

        Thanks Max. It seems to me that he is a sworn enemy of Zionism ideology, not Judaism or Semitic people.

        • Cambridge Forecast


          If you want to understand why Iran/Persia is so poisonous, you have to understand the role of Israeli under the Shah before the 78/79 revolution.

          The Shah created a “Gestapo” for Iran called Savak and Israelis designed it and shaped it. Savak was said to be more brutal than the Gestapo!

          The Iranians have a sense—not without merit—that the Zionist project involves a concomitant “Savakization” of Third Word peoples. Otherwise, if the West can “make nice” with Mandela, won’t Arafat become Mandela II? Israeli must manufacture tension and embrace a state of permanent war so that Arabs and
          Muslims can be brutalized within a “clash of civilizations.” Hence the push by
          the neocons and Israel for the Iran War in 2003 and the hoped-for Iran War in

          The Israeli design of Savak:

          This is explained in the following Israeli documentary:

          “Iran – Before the Revolution (HD) – 54 min 09 sec (13 August 2013)

          The untold story of the Israeli paradise in Iran

          “Under Shah Pahlavi’s pro-Western police state thousands of Israelis lived in Iran. Protected by arms deals and complex financial ties, they enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle, willfully
          blind to the corruption and authoritarian cruelty around them. But in 1979 the
          Israeli’s “Persian paradise”, was shattered by the Islamist
          revolution. Through rare archive and potent interviews, this fascinating doc
          cleverly exposes the dark reality of a forgotten slice of history.”


          Lastly: Steven Kinzer’s books (“Overthrow”, etc) are very informative in terms of
          larger contexts.

          Richard Melson

  • Potter

    Why is this so amazing?