The Iran Deal Brings Us Closer to Midnight

With the signing of the deal between the P5 plus 1 world powers and Iran, the world can “breathe a sigh of relief,” says Russia’s President Vladimir Putin:  this, from the leader who, in an act of aggression on a scale not seen since the 1930s, annexed Crimea just over a year ago.  And why wouldn’t Putin be upbeat at the signing of the deal?  Russia has come out a winner:  the deal ends the isolation of Iran, Russia’s key ally in the Middle east; it allows Russia a major role in developing Iran’s civilian nuclear program; and it reopens the arms market to Russia.  President Obama, apparently, was surprised at Putin’s co-operation in helping to achieve a deal with the Iranians!

Has anyone bothered to adjust the minute hand on the Doomsday Clock since the deal was announced, I wonder?  the Doomsday Clock, that symbolic clock-face which represents the countdown to a global catastrophe?  The closer the minute hand to midnight, the closer the world is to a global disaster.  Set up in 1947 by atomic scientists, the Doomsday Clock, hanging on a wall in the University of Chicago, originally represented the threat to the world of a global nuclear conflagration.  The threat has been expanded to include climate change (but of course).  The minute hand of the clock was last moved on 22 January 2015 when it was set to three minutes to midnight.

If I were given the task of resetting the minute hand, I know where I would move it:  I would move it closer to midnight (despite Putin’s assurance that the world can now breathe more easily).  Four days before signing the deal, Iran celebrated Quds Day.  Held annually on the last Friday of Ramadan, Quds, or Jerusalem, Day was inaugurated by the late Ayatollah Khomeini in August 1979 as a way to express solidarity with the Palestinians, and to demonstrate Iran’s opposition to the very existence of Israel.  Sponsored and organized by the Iranian government, Quds Day celebrations typically draw thousands into Iran’s public squares where they chant “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”; trample on US and Israeli flags; and incinerate effigies of America’s and Israel’s leaders.  Such fun!  You would have thought Quds Day would be different this year in Tehran, that there would have been some attempt by the government to restrain the rabble in some way, with negotiations between P5 plus 1 and Iran coming down ‘to the wire’.  Wrong.  There were the same calls for America’s and Israel’s destruction.  Protesters set dummies of President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu on fire.  Not only did the government not restrain the crowds, Iran’s President Rouhani was present and raised no objection to what was going on.  Neither did the Obama administration, desperate for a deal above all else.

Iran’s intention to destroy Israel continues unabated.  If anything, the deal has turned Iran into a much more formidable foe of Israel.  No longer crippled by economic sanctions and armed by Russia, Iran will pose an even greater existential threat to Israel.  And with Russia as its ally and arms dealer, why would Iran need to develop a nuclear bomb anyway, since Russia possesses an entire arsenal of nuclear bombs?  People were shocked when US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford recently claimed that Russia presents the greatest threat to [US] national security. If that’s the case,  just imagine, then, what Iran and Russia, working together, could do to destabilize the Middle East, indeed, the whole world.  No, President Putin, the world definitely cannot breathe more easily now.

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The Lausanne Deal: Peace, but Only for a Time

There’s an unsettling feeling shared by many that the world has just entered another ‘Neville Chamberlain’ moment in time, a suspicion that the six major world powers who participated in the Lausanne negotiations have been outmanoeuvred and ‘outfoxed’ by a wily Islamic Republic of Iran. Neville Chamberlain, you will recall, was the well-meaning but naïve British Prime Minister who thought he could do a deal with Herr Hitler. When Nazi Germany threatened to take over all of Czechoslovakia unless Britain supported its plans to annex the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland, Chamberlain went to Berchtesgaden to meet with Hitler personally. Der Fuhrer promised not to make any further territorial demands if he was given the Sudetenland. In a shameless act of appeasement, Chamberlain granted Hitler his wish. On 29 September 1938, Britain, France, Italy, and Germany signed the Munich Pact which transferred the Sudetenland to Germany. Czechoslovakia was never even consulted. Upon his return to Britain, a triumphant Chamberlain announced, “I believe it is peace for our time.”

We all know how that worked out. In March 1939, Germany annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia. Years later, it was revealed that it had been Benito Mussolini, representing fascist Italy in Munich, who proposed the plan that came to be implemented by the four world powers–a plan written, in fact, by the German Foreign Office.

Neville Chamberlain has been vilified as a pathetically-naïve dupe of der Fuhrer. In fairness to Chamberlain, however, how many world leaders at the time–apart from an astute Winston Churchill–perceived the gravity of the threat posed by Hitler and his Third Reich? It is often forgotten that Chamberlain returned from Germany to public acclaim and cheering crowds in Britain.

The P5 plus 1 (the six permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) and Iran have been meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland for the past eight days in an attempt to hammer out a deal which would restrict Iran’s nuclear activity to peaceful purposes. Iran, in return, would have the sanctions imposed on it by the international community lifted. At one stage in the negotiations, with the possibility of a preliminary draft agreed to by all seven countries looking increasingly unlikely, the P5 plus 1 lowered their expectations. They would be content now with a joint ‘statement of goals’.

Hasn’t Iran already stated its goals to anyone paying attention? In a recent speech marking the Persian new Year, the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, didn’t hesitate to join with the rabble calling for America’s destruction. When people started hollering “Death to America” as is their wont, Khamenei responded: “Of course, yes, death to America, because America is the original source of this pressure [not sure what ‘pressure’ he meant].” And the response from the Obama white House? Pay no attention; it’s only “intended for a domestic audience.”

Then, on Tuesday, the commander of the Basij militia of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRG), Brigadier General Naqdi, announced that “erasing Israel off the map is non-negotiable.” The brazenness of Iran’s spiritual and military leaders in calling openly for the destruction of America and the annihilation of Israel–at the very time that the P5 plus 1 negotiators were meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister–is ‘jaw-dropping ‘ in its audacity. One thing to be said in Neville Chamberlain’s defence: He didn’t know what Hitler had in mind for Germany’s neighbours, indeed, for the rest of the world. The P5 plus 1, on the other hand, unlike Chamberlain, will never be able to plead ignorance.

Word has just come that the P5 plus 1 negotiators, along with Iran, have drafted what they are calling “the framework of an agreement” which sets the stage for a final agreement to be reached by June 30. The hard work of writing the final text now begins. Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif claims the agreement will show that Iran’s nuclear program is “exclusively peaceful, has always been and always will remain exclusively peaceful.” An upbeat President Obama asserts with confidence that the deal cuts off “every pathway that Iran could take to build nuclear weapons.” This “historic” deal, President Obama insists, leaves the US, its allies, and the whole world safer.

I for one won’t be breaking out the champagne just yet. Has Iran indicated that it has given up its intention to eliminate the ‘Zionist enemy’ as it refers to Israel? That it will stop funding terrorism? Or cease fight proxy wars? By boasting that this deal “cuts off every pathway that Iran could take to build nuclear weapons,” President Obama has in effect issued a challenge to Iran’s scientists, mullahs, and military leaders to prove him wrong. Until Iran accepts the existence of the Jewish state, no framework, or deal, or agreement–whatever name you want to give it–will make the world any safer.

Volleyball and Other Vices

volleyball

Hard to believe in this day and age but shockingly true: If you go to watch a men’s volleyball game in Iran, and are a woman, you can end up in jail for a year. This is what has happened to Ghoncheh Ghavami, a 25-year-old woman from London with dual Iranian-British citizenship. On 20 June Ghavami, along with a dozen or so like-minded women, attempted to enter Azadi Stadium in Tehran to watch the Volleyball World League match between Iran and Italy. What the women tried to do is illegal in the Islamic Republic of Iran. When Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah in 1979, one of the measures he imposed was a ban on women at football matches. In 2012, the ban was extended to volleyball games as well. In the thinking of Iran’s theocrats, such a ban is necessary in order to protect women from the lewd behaviour of the male fans at sporting events. (I suppose it never occurred to Iran’s leaders to deal with the lewd male behaviour). Only one other country bans women from male sporting events and that other country, not surprisingly, is Saudi Arabia. Oh, and the women were guilty of breaking a second law that day: They wore white hijabs or headscarves when Iranian law required dark-coloured hijabs.

Ghavami and the other women were arrested outside Azadi Stadium, allegedly beaten, and then released. When Ghavami went back to retrieve items of hers that had been confiscated, she was rearrested when her dual citizenship became known, and she was put on trial. Now languishing in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin Prison and on a dry-hunger strike [no liquids], Ghavami apparently is unaware yet of the one-year prison sentence imposed by Iran’s judiciary. Her incarceration and sentence have nothing to do with attending a volleyball match, Iran claims; rather, Ghavami is guilty of “propagating against the ruling system,” of “spreading anti-regime propaganda.”

Iran’s judiciary claims its ban on women at male sporting events is all about protecting women. This is the same judiciary that has set the legal age of marriage for girls in Iran at age 13 and allows girls as young as 9 to be married off with permission from a court. In 2012, at least 1,537 marriages of girls under 10 years of age were registered. The girls were given in marriage to males at least ten years older in age than they. Legislation has also been ratified that allows an Iranian man to marry his adopted daughter. Some protection of women!

Outside Iran, Ghavami’s prison sentence has been met with shock, disbelief, and outrage. The Volleyball World League (FIVB) has sent a letter to His Excellency Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran, but has yet to receive a reply. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has sent a letter to the National Olympic Committee of Iran, but there has been no response so far. Letters are a start, but just a start. International sporting associations must take a stand against gender discrimination and ban any country-member that imprisons or penalizes anyone–whether male or female–for attending, or simply trying to attend as in Ghavami’s case, one of their sporting events. Until Ghavami is released, Iran should be ousted from all international sporting associations.

Until Ghavami’s imprisonment, I had never considered the freedom to attend a sporting event–regardless of one’s gender–as one of our treasured freedoms in the West. I was at a football game this past weekend. It was cold and rainy, and the match went into overtime. I was so cold that I just wanted the game to end–I no longer cared which team won. But I didn’t let on. I hooted and hollered along with the rest of the spectators. There were no ‘lewd’ men to be seen anywhere, just men totally focused on the game. Must have been the weather.

Iran’s Rhetoric: A Response

I am convinced now more than ever that people learn nothing from history. Monday night, the Iranian government hosted a lavish dinner buffet in the delegates’ dining room at the UN to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Hundreds of delegates and their guests were in attendance, among them UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Flat screen televisions showed video clips of Iranian rocket launches and bombs as part of the celebration. Three months earlier, Iran’s supreme religious leader referred to another UN member country as an “unclean rabid dog” and its prime minister as “the sinister mouth of the filthy, rabid dog of the region.” Three days before the party at the UN, Iranian state television aired a film depicting a computer-simulated attack on that same country. But none of that seemed to deter people from celebrating alongside the Islamic Republic of Iran on Monday night.

The next day throughout Iran crowds at celebratory rallies shouted, “Death to America.” There were some chants not heard before: “Death to Kerry,” “Death to Sherman.” (Wendy R. Sherman is the lead US negotiator in the nuclear talks.) People carried posters which read, “We are ready for the great battle.” The rally in Iran’s capital Teheran was a rather bizarre affair combining bellicose rants with elements of ‘family fun night’ at the local school. Clowns explained to the children the importance of brushing their teeth. Parachutists dropped candy into the crowds. Actors re-enacted scenes from the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s (Iran’s idea of family-entertainment?).

As is customary with the Islamic Republic on the anniversary of its revolution, Iran showcased its growing military capability. This year’s commemoration included the test-firing of two new domestically-made missiles. An even more spectacular achievement for the Islamic Republic was that, for the first time ever, Iran dispatched a flotilla of warships into the Atlantic. The flotilla included the Khark, a helicopter-carrier warship, and the Sabalan, a destroyer. Countering the US presence in the Persian Gulf by having their own ships ply the waters just off the US marine boundaries has been Iran’s goal since 2011.

A lesser-known event that took place on the 35th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution was a press conference called in Rome by Iran’s ambassador to the Holy See, Mohammad Taher Rabbani. To the journalists gathered there Rabbani expressed a strong desire for the Holy See and Iran to collaborate for the sake of peace. There is a role for religion in international diplomacy, claimed Iran’s ambassador. Since the Holy See and Iran hold common views on a number of issues such as the Syrian crisis, Christianity and Islam should therefore work side by side to address problems, urged Iran’s ambassador. He praised Pope Francis for his “modesty and high morality.” According to Rabbani, “when the circumstances are favourable, we hope to plan a meeting between His Excellency Dr. Hassan Rohani and the Holy Father Pope Francis.” (I wonder how many at the press conference realized that February 11 was also the date of the signing of the Lateran Pacts between Mussolini’s fascist government and the Holy See eighty-five years earlier.)

I believe Pope Francis will engage the Islamic world in a significant way soon. Such engagement could very well include Iran’s president, given Iran’s growing clout in the Middle East. The Pope, one recalls, chose the name ‘Francis’ because of his great admiration for Saint Francis of Assisi. One of the things for which the 13th century saint is remembered is his bold outreach to the Muslim world. In 1219, in the middle of the Fifth Crusade, Francis crossed enemy lines to gain an audience with the Sultan of Egypt, Sultan al-Kamil. Opposed to war, Francis thought that if he could only convert the Sultan to Christianity, then peace would follow. Francis failed to convert the Sultan. In fact, it was Francis who changed. Francis, impressed by the Moslem call to prayer five times a day and Muslim prostration at prayer, called for Christians to follow suit on his return from the Sultan’s camp. Francis brought back only one gift from Egypt: an ivory horn used by the muezzin to call the faithful to prayer, which Francis then used to summon Christians. After spending time with the Sultan, Francis appeared to have lost his former missionary zeal. Rather than trying to convert Muslins, Christians were required now only to live harmoniously with them.

Can the Catholic Pope truly partner with Iran’s president to address the many problems in the Middle East and in the wider world, as the Iranian ambassador to the Holy See suggests? Those who think that Rouhani’s election signifies a gentler, more moderate Iran should think again. The rhetoric that keeps coming from Iran’s leaders reveals their goals remain unchanged. There has been a change in strategy, not substance. Some–like those who attend buffet dinners hosted by the Iranian government on February 11–seem prepared to overlook the vile, dehumanizing language coming from Iran, perhaps regarding it as just an ‘Iran thing’. History should have taught us that dehumanizing language is merely the prelude to something much nastier. It would appear it hasn’t.

Can We Trust the Twelvers?

In late November, the world learned that an interim nuclear agreement had been reached in Geneva between the P5 +1 countries–the five UN Security Council members plus Germany–and Iran. Under the terms of the agreement, Iran has agreed to dilute its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to no more than 5 percent enriched uranium. In return, Iran will gain access to previously blocked overseas funds valued at $7 billion. Access to these funds will be linked to Iran’s progress in completing the dilution process. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will monitor and verify Iran’s compliance with the terms of the accord.

It would be a profound relief to think that, with this agreement, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran has been eliminated. But unless Iran’s leadership has given up its ‘Twelver’ eschatology along with its right to enrich uranium to whatever level it so chooses, the threat that Iran poses to its neighbours and the rest of the world remains.

The P5 + 1 countries signed a deal with Iran, a nation whose supreme leader subscribes to Twelver Shi’ism. So does 85 percent of Iran’s population. ‘Twelvers’, as they are often referred to, look forward to the coming of the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, a messiah-like figure who will usher in an era of worldwide peace and justice based on Islam.

The Twelfth Imam was born Muhammad Ibn Hasan Ibn Ali in Samarra, Iraq in AD 868. When the eleventh imam died, his successor disappeared at the age of five or six. His body was never recovered. Some think that he fell into a well in Samarra. Twelvers believe that the Twelfth Imam never died, but that he has been hidden from human sight all this time. From the time he disappeared up until the year 941–the period of time known as the ‘Minor Occultation’–the Twelfth Imam contacted his followers via deputies who acted as agents between him and his followers. Since 941 and up to the present day–the so-called ‘Major Occultation’–the Twelfth Imam has not been heard from. Nevertheless, Twelvers are convinced that the Twelfth Imam is not dead but merely hidden, and that at the End of Days, in a time of massive world upheaval, Allah will reveal him.

Although the vast majority of people are not likely to be familiar with Twelver eschatology, many no doubt have heard of the Mahdi, the ‘Islamic messiah’. The Mahdi is not Jesus’ counterpart, however. At a time of cataclysmic world events, the Mahdi emerges to lead the armies of Islam to victory. After a certain length of time (Twelver scholars don’t agree on the exact time), Islam’s ‘Jesus’, the Prophet Isa, returns to earth. Isa comes as a faithful Muslim following strict Islamic law. He functions as the Mahdi’s subordinate. One of his actions will be to break the cross or, in other words, to put an end to Christianity. Isa will marry, have children, and after dying a natural death, will be buried alongside the Prophet Muhammad.

Just how strongly does Iran’s current leadership hold to these ideas? There’s no doubt that Aytollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, is a devout Twelver. He is reported to have told his fellow countrymen that he met personally with the Twelfth Imam. As for the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, it’s not yet clear where he stands. Rouhani has been touted as a “moderate” by many in the West. Compared to his outspoken predecessor Ahmadinejad, he appears so. Rouhani, a trained Shia cleric, has been critical of Ahmadinejad’s comments, many of which have no doubt made the faithful squirm, like Ahmadinejad’s assertion that the deceased Hugo Chavez would return along with Jesus and the Mahdi!

Despite his criticism of his predecessor, there has been a recent indication that Rouhani does indeed share the End Time ideology of Ahmadinejad. In the main media outlet of the regime, Rouhani credited his win of the presidency to the Mahdi. “This political election was due to the kindness of the last Islamic messiah [the Mahdi],” he is reported to have said. And, as others have pointed out, Rouhani would not have been allowed to run for president if he had not been thoroughly vetted by the Ayatollah, a vetting which would have included his theological beliefs. Only time will tell if Rouhani is the moderate some believe him to be.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because Twelvers believe that the Mahdi will emerge at a time of great world upheaval. It matters because many Twelvers think that the time of the Mahdi’s appearance is near. And it certainly matters if the current Iranian leadership feels, as did Ahmadinejad, that it is the responsibility of the Iranian government to prepare the way for the Mahdi’s return. “Iran must become the platform for the appearance of the Lord of the Age [the Mahdi],” claimed Ahmadinejad.

If the Mahdi comes at a time of chaos, then Iran, if it is to provide a “platform” for the Mahdi, must somehow create the necessary conditions for his appearance. What will hasten his return? A nuclear strike against the Little Satan (Israel)? Against the Great Satan (the US)? Iran, a country run by Twelvers, should be enriching no uranium. The interim agreement signed in Geneva in November has only made the world a more dangerous place.