US-Iran relations

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.

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.


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.


Preparing the PR Battlefield

I’m neither in the US government nor a Baluchi tribesman so I have no way to confirm the claims in Seymour Hersh’s new article  about clandestine US operations inside Iran.  But I am fairly confident that there is a PR push going on to keep the storyline of possible attack on Iran in the headlines.


Exhibit A is a press conference call I was on last week sponsored by the Israel Project to discuss a new WINEP report called “The Last Resort: Consequences of Preventive Military Action against Iran.”  The people running the call stressed they were not advocating attack at this time, but urged the journalists on the call to consider (read: write stories about) what such an attack would look like and what its consequences would be.  WINEP, for their part, advertise the report on their site as “Thinking about Preventative Military Action against Iran.”  


The goals of this seem to be testing the waters, conditioning public opinion for a possible strike, and pressuring Iran on the diplomatic track.  This doesn’t tell us much about if a strike will happen or how close it might be, but it might help put the building media blitz after the Israeli exercises in the Mediterranean in better perspective.