Middle East

Egypt and Iran: Diplomacy and documentary

For the last few months, we’ve been hearing about an imminent reconciliation between Cairo and Tehran. Ahmadinejad and Mubarak had pledged to swap full ambassadors, and diplomats had agreed to a renaming of the street in Tehran named after Anwar Sadat’s assassin, Khaled Eslamboli. For those of you updating your Open Streetmaps, its now called Intifada Street.

Then two weeks ago, news breaks of an Iranian documentary called “Execution of a Pharaoh” which portrays Sadat as a tyrant, vilifies him for signing Camp David, and carries a dedication to the “soul of the martyr Captain Ahmad Shuqi Khaled Eslamboli and his fellow warriors.”The film, produced by the “Cultural Committee for Commemorating Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement” is now up on YouTube.Here’s part 1:


The one tiny detail left out of English language coverage of this story is that the documentary was produced in Arabic not Farsi, which gives a much clearer idea that it was aimed at Arab audiences.

And its audience, evidently, was not pleased. Online article comments sections were flooded with negative comments, and the state press and TV were all over the story. Egypt summoned the Iranian Charge d’Affairs for a chewing out, canceled a soccer match with Iran, while an Iranian source was quoted in Al Ahram Weekly as saying, “the significance of the issue of the film is that it confirms the worries of some Egyptian officials who complain that Iran has multi centres of decisions, which makes negotiations difficult.”

This week there is news that the editor of the Egyptian NDP mouthpiece Al-Watani Al-Youm will produce a documentary titled “Imam of Blood” smearing Khomeini. The AP is also reporting that the Cairo offices of the Iranian-backed Arabic satellite channel Al-Alam have been shut.

Not 100% sure what to make of it yet, but I wanted to pull together what I’ve got so far. Since all films made in Iran must, officially, go through the Supreme Leader-linked Ershad Ministry, the government at some point put a stamp of approval on the film. Keep in mind that it has been Ahmadinejad – not Khamenei – who has been calling loudest for revival of ties with Egypt. So perhaps in Iran we have a President/ Supreme Leader division on the subject.

Egypt’s government, for sure, has decided to make a big deal of this. Is it simply officials having second thoughts about reviving diplomacy with Tehran’s “multiple power centers” or is there something else, maybe pressure from Washington, involved? From the looks of it, the Sadat film did seem to create a popular backlash, but it seemed like a popular backlash the government was keen to stoke.

I don’t think we’ll see IranAir flying to Cairo anytime soon.

UPDATE: This video has proved not legit, or at least not what it was purported to be. (Thanks Zeinobia). Actually I think this makes the story much more interesting. More on this in a few days.

Middle East

Blackouts in Iran

It was hard to miss the dramatic picture and headline screaming “Blackouts becoming longer” in Etemaad-e Melli. It alleges the Energy Ministry is minimizing the real impact of the blackouts, citing unofficial reports that power cuts are now reaching eight hours in some places. It’s shaping up to be a hot summer and its not even August yet.

Ahmadinejad’s gas rationing program, which caused riots when it was introduced in June of last year, is still in effect, and is reported to have stoked the black market for petrol. Former energy minister Kazem Vaziri Hamaneh warned that Iran was facing an energy “catastrophe” as he was replaced in a cabinet reshuffle two months later.

This type of storyline tends to arouse those in the US Congress who see energy as a pressure point and the nutty idea that America could enforce some type of gasoline blockage against Iran, which would make them give up nuclear. Given that Iran argues it needs a self-sufficient nuclear power capacity to ease its energy problems and hedge against foreign energy meddling, I doubt this would work.

View from Iran has more on Iran’s economic situation, and Iran Nuclear Watch is closely following the extremely misguided HR 362 sanctions act that would require the U.S. to lead an “international effort” to blockade petroleum products going into Iran.

Middle East

Ansari on Iranian politics

I’m back in the US now on vacation enjoying the delights of microbrew beer and Ben and Jerry’s, and best of all, I can sit in my living room and not hear a single car horn. But I had to interrupt the good times to post this video via Eteraz Online of a talk by Ali Ansari talk at the New America Foundation. I think Ansari does a great job of navigating the minutiae of who’s up who’s down, but keeping it in the perspective of larger trends in Iran’s political development. I also learned that Iranian communists like to name their first born sons Kaveh. Enjoy:


Middle East

My new article on Egypt-Iran film controversy

There have been quite a few interesting developments in the Egypt-Iran diplomatic tiff stemming from “Execution of the Pharaoh”:

Once the film hit YouTube it was quickly discovered to be little more than a series of clips pinched from an older Al-Jazeera documentary. So in addition to being tedious, the Iranian group behind the film, the Committee for Commemoration of Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement, are also plagiarists. It seems they just changed the name and slapped on a dedication to Eslamboli.

Secondly, the group behind the film is now announcing that their site has been banned inside Iran. I think this shows how embarrassing the episode for Iran has been. Also last week, Iranian diplomats at the interest section in Cairo have revealed and offer they made to open a branch of Al-Azhar University in Tehran in an effort to improve Sunni-Shia understanding. It seems like what the Iranians thought to be a charm offensive backfired, and ended up upsetting the Egyptians even more.

I’d been following all these developments but not posting on them because I was doing a freelance article on the subject – cant give away all my golden analysis for free. The piece for ISN Security Watch is now online here. I’d love to hear what you think.

In other news, my family has just purchased a Nintendo Wii. Needless to say posting will be light.

UPDATE: article link was broken due to a site re-design over at ISN.  The new link is now up.

Iran, Middle East

Don’t mind us: US interests section in Tehran

McClatchy is reporting that, following the presidential elections, the Bush administration will announce it intends to open an interests section in Tehran:

The proposal for an “interests section,” which falls short of a full U.S. Embassy , has been conveyed in private diplomatic messages to Tehran , and a search is under way to choose the American diplomat who’d head the post, the officials said.


The senior administration officials said the plan to open an interests section in the Iranian capital isn’t a move to closer government-to-government ties.

Rather, they say, it is an effort to reach out to the Iranian people, many of whom are far less anti-American than their leaders are.

Among other things, the U.S. diplomats in Tehran would facilitate cultural exchanges; issue visas for Iranians to travel to the U.S.; and engage in public diplomacy to present a more charitable view of the U.S.

My guess is that framing this as not a “government-to-government” move is the result of a compromise solution to internal Bush administration debates between Iran isolaters and engagers.  But do they not realize that, for Iran’s leaders, these sorts of activities are not welcome?

As Karim Sadjadpour demonstrated in his report on Khamenei, Iran’s top leader most fears domestic nonviolent subversion from a nexus of foreign powers and internal dissidents.   This fear best explains the pattern of detentions of Iranian-American scholars and NGO workers, which sadly entered a new chapter today.

The US does little to assuage these fears. Prominent voices routinely call for regime change in Iran, and as recently as last year, Radio Farda, an American public diplomacy radio station broadcasting to Iran, was running extended specials on the history of the “color” (read: “velvet”) revolutions in the former Soviet Union.

Given the recent history and Khamenei’s worldview (to say nothing of 1953), something tells me that efforts to “reach out to the Iranian people” will be read a little differently in Tehran than in Washington.

I wholeheartedly support opening an interests section or a full embassy in Tehran, but its primary function should be to support political negotiations aimed at ending the explosive standoff between our two countries.  Public diplomacy, consular, and cultural exchanges could come in concert with political movement, but given the sensitivities surrounding US cultural influence in Iran, I doubt Tehran would see a cultural/consular interest section as desirable or even benign.

Iran, The Gulf

UAE: The geopolitics of excess

courtesy of the Friday in Cairo cartography team
courtesy of the Friday in Cairo cartography team

Let’s read these two articles together.  First from AP second from The Times:

U.S. plans $7 billion missile-defense sale to UAE

The Bush administration is planning to sell the United Arab Emirates an advanced U.S. missile defense system valued at up to $7 billion that could be used to defend against Iran, people who have attended briefings on the matter said on Monday….

Kenneth Katzman, an expert on the Gulf at the Congressional Research Service, said the UAE has been eager for a “sophisticated antidote” to Iran’s missile capabilities.

“The UAE has been concerned for many years about possible retaliation against it for U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities,” he said.

For Iran, Katzman added, UAE could be an attractive target because of its billions of dollars of infrastructure investments….

The potential $7 billion sale would include anti-missile interceptors, firing units, associated radar sites and training, among other things, a congressional staff member said.

Dubai plans $200bn canal to bypass Strait of Hormuz

Dubai is studying plans to build a $200 billion (£114 billion) mega-canal that would allow oil tankers to bypass the Strait of Hormuz. The Gulf emirate is understood to be considering the idea as a means of reducing Iran’s influence on the flow of oil from the region.

About 17 million barrels of oil a day are transported through the strait, equivalent to 40 per cent of the world’s traded oil.

However, the proposed canal project would be fraught with difficulty. Oil tankers weighing more than 300,000 tonnes would need a route through the mountainous region between Dubai and its Indian Ocean coast….

Iran has hinted repeatedly that, if threatened, it would target commercial vessels in the strait. The navigable tanker lanes are only six miles wide and any disruption could severely limit oil exports from the Gulf.

Engineers are understood to have presented the plans for a 112-mile canal to the Dubai Government. It would link the Gulf coast with the port of Fujairah on the Indian Ocean coast, crossing the Hajar Mountains with a network of enormous locks. The massive cost and complexity of the project is thought to have stalled a decision on the canal, but it could be a popular initiative with other Gulf states….

Abu Dhabi is building a pipeline to Fujairah so its oil can avoid Hormuz. It will carry about 1.5 million barrels a day, but will not have the capacity to transport oil from Saudi Arabia or other producers.

There’s a good new report on the state of sea-based missile defense here.

UPDATE: Pete over at Middle East Media has some important background info on the missile deal and reactions in the Arab press.


Response to Martin Kramer on Ann Lambton

Martin Kramer had a post today on the MESH blog at Harvard pointing out that all the Ann Lambton obits (like this one) glossed over her advisory role in the 1953 US-British coup. A valid and timely point to make, but I think he went a bit too far in saying that Western scholars are shut out from Iran, and that this is because the government is afraid of Westerners exposing the weakness of the regime. With typos corrected, here’s my reply:

In his post today, Martin Kramer is right to highlight Ann Lambton’s role in the Mosaddeq coup. But as an American orientalist who traveled to Iran in April, I must push back on his assertion that “The present incumbents in power in Iran are careful to shut out Western Orientalists, not because they fear the situation in Iran will be misrepresented but because it might be accurately represented, exposing the weaknesses of their regime.”

A couple of points:

1. “Western Orientalists” travel to Iran frequently. As a student for the last two years in a UK university, I personally know British, Canadian, German, Irish, and Italian orientalists who were able to obtain visas for travel or study.

2. A better bet would have been saying that American orientalists cannot travel to Iran. This is closer to the truth, but still not totally there. I recently obtained a visa to travel to Iran for an academic conference, and I am aware of several other cases where American Iran specialists and students of Persian have been granted visas. To be fair, I have had my fair share of visa rejections, but the situation is more fluid than a simple visa ban on Americans or American scholars.

3. So why can other Westerners travel to Iran more freely than Americans? I think the Iranian government’s concern is not that Americans will learn the truth about the regime, but, rather, the perception that overthrowing the Iranian government is a goal of American foreign policy. I am aware that the official position as articulated in US strategy documents is “change in regime behavior.” Yet with the millions earmarked to promote democracy in Iran, American Persian broadcasting highlighting “color revolutions” and the allegations swirling about US covert funding for dissident groups, you can bet that it doesn’t seem that way from Tehran.