Ten surprising things about Iran
- Stirrings near Iran's oil fields in Khuzestan
By Iason Athanasiadis
Monday, October 17, 2005
The Daily Star
The genteel two-storey summer retreat at the back of the Institute of
Political and International Studies in one of North Tehran's most
exclusive neighborhoods may seem like the perfect place of retirement
for the Islamic Republic of Iran's more intellectual diplomats.
But the senior Iranian diplomat and several-times former ambassador
that I'm meeting there today still keeps his ears firmly to the
ground. He worries over the discreet Israeli presence in North Iraq
and Tel Aviv's alleged support for an independent Kurdistan that would
grievously destabilize the region and separate Iraq into three ethnic
entities. At the same time, he identifies an encroaching foreign
presence in the region, a new imperialism that is not just limited to
America but Europe as well.
"For the Europeans it's a very important region. You're next to Iran
which straddles the Persian Gulf and the Caspian, you're on China's
border and close to energy-rich Central Asia. NATO is a good excuse
for them to be in the region."
There is no triumphalism in his voice as he states the obvious fact
that Washington and its British ally are foundering in the Iraqi
morass. Their difficulties were demonstrated once again, last month,
as the pressure was turned up in the predominantly Shiite south which
is under British military control. Early this month, British Prime
Minister Tony Blair publicly mused that Tehran might be behind attacks
that have killed eight British soldiers recently and noted that the
timing coincided with the breakdown in nuclear negotiations between
Iran and the EU-3.
While Tehran denies any role in Iraq, Iranian officials privately
confess that they are deeply involved in Iraq and that their western
neighbor must neither be allowed to fully stabilize, nor fall apart.
They point to Western collusion in the sudden spike this year in
ethnic unrest in the strategic, oil-producing province of Khuzestan
and describe it as proof of a shadowy war that is receiving far less
coverage in the international press than events in Iraq. Since the
beginning of 2005, riots and a bombing campaign timed to coincide with
the June presidential elections rocked Khuzestan's major cities.
Iranian Kurdistan has also seen violent protests and clashes with the
central government. In September, a visiting TV crew was treated with
suspicion in many Kurdish-dominated areas, despite being accompanied
by well-regarded locals. Their guides explained the frosty reception
as proof of the tensions with central government that the province is
As diplomatic tension mounts on Tehran over its nuclear energy
program, the Bush administration insists that its spy planes are not
over-flying Iran to electronically map its target-rich environment - a
Pentagon planner's dream after the sparse pickings of Iraq and
Afghanistan. But Scott Ritter, a former U.S. Marine who was head of
the United Nations inspection team in Iraq, insists that the war with
Iran has already started. Not only are covert operations ongoing, he
insists, but the Pentagon's planners are right now drawing up an
air-strike and invasion strategy that will see a period of concerted
bombardment followed by four divisions of U.S. troops invading Iran
through Azerbaijan and heading straight for the Iranian capital.
Although little-discussed by the international media, the Azerbaijan
invasion route is the most practical as it bypasses conflict-wracked
launch-points such as Iran or Afghanistan. It also has the added
advantage of being the quickest route to Tehran.
Last week, the Iranians announced that they are not at all concerned
over the U.S.-funded construction of two sophisticated radars on the
Azerbaijani side of the Caspian Sea. While the development prompted a
European diplomat based in Tehran to jokingly quote Hamlet ("the lady
doth protest too much, methinks") the new radar is equipped with
advanced military tools that can be used to screen the Caspian's
entire southern section for suspect activity, monitor ground
activities in the northern and northeastern parts of Iran (within an
up-to-450-kilometer range) and intercept radio and cell-phone
But rather than panicking, the belligerent-sounding new Iranian
government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been quietly
restructuring its military and carrying out a series of military
exercises to test out its new military dogma. Late last month, more
than 15,000 members of the regular armed forces participated in
exercises in northwestern Iran's strategically sensitive East and West
Azerbaijan border provinces that focused on irregular warfare carried
out by highly mobile and speedy army units.
It's all part of a fundamental transition that Iran's Revolutionary
Guard (RG) is undergoing, as it moves away from focusing on waging its
defense of the country on the borders (unrealistic in view of the vast
gulf that separates Iranian and U.S. military capabilities) and toward
drawing the enemy into the heartland and defeating it with
assymetrical tactics. At the same time, the RG is moving away from a
joint command with the ordinary army and taking a more prominent role
in controlling Iran's often porous borders. One London-based,
opposition group called the British-Ahwazi Friendship Society claims
that the Revolutionary Guard is establishing a 5,000-square-kilometer
exclusive zone along the Khuzestan-Arab border on the Shatt al-Arab
River which will facilitate supporting additional covert operations in
the Basra area.
In another telling development, a second exercise was launched in the
majority ethnic Arab province of Khuzestan, aimed at quelling
insurgencies in areas subject to ethnic unrest and prone to foreign
influence. Involving 100,000 troops, the exercise provided a taste of
how the Islamic Republic will respond to further disturbances in the
strategic, oil-rich province. The exercise came on the heel of news
that the irregular Bassij forces that led Iran's offensives against
Iraq in their nine-year war, are being bolstered by 2,000 Ashura
battalions with riot-control training.
In interviews with foreign diplomats that monitor Iran's army, they
made clear that Iran's leadership has acknowledged that it stands
little chance of facing the U.S. Army with conventional military
doctrine. The first step taken by an invading force would be to occupy
Iran's oil-rich Khuzestan Province, securing the sensitive Straits of
Hormuz and cutting off the Iranian military's oil supply, forcing it
to depend on its limited stocks.
The shift in focus to guerrilla warfare against an occupying army in
the aftermath of a successful invasion mirrors developments in Iraq,
where a triumphant U.S. campaign has been followed by two years of
slow hemorrhaging at the hands of the insurgents.
Even while Iran's military is choosing to go low-tech, the country's
leadership is continuing to apply advanced technology to military
uses. Tehran is continuing with development of its long-range missiles
and is forging ahead on its indigenous satellite programme that
centres around Russian-supplied technology.
At the diplomat's academic retreat, our interview is drawing to a
close. It is Ramadan and he has offered me nothing to eat or drink
throughout our two-hour interview, not even the inevitable cup of tea
that is the staple of any social or business meeting in Iran. But he
betrays not a trace of the difficulty of answering my questions at the
end of one of the first, hardest days of fasting. Moving to bring the
meeting to a close, the diplomat fires off his final salvo.
"They [the Americans] were saying that Iraq would be a good lesson for
others in the region," he said. "Now it seems to have become a good
lesson for them."
Iason Athanasiadis specializes in Middle East politics and often
visits Iran. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.
Real Life: Ten very surprising things about Iran
By Angus McDowall
Published: 30 October 2005
Most TV news reports about Iran depict religious revolutionaries who
promote militancy abroad and suppress human rights at home. But this
is only part of the story:
1 Art-house Iranian films by such directors as Abbas Kiarostami and
Mohsen Makhmalbaf wow foreign audiences. But the domestic film
industry also churns out hundreds of more popular pictures. Last
year's big hit The Lizard, drew the clerics' wrath for depicting a
convict escaping prison disguised as a mullah. This year's hit was
Girls' Dormitory, about a psychotic killer terrorising students.
2 In the form of Shia Islam practised in Iran, Muslims are allowed to
enter into temporary marriages with each other, sometimes lasting only
a few hours. Critics say this in effect legalises prostitution, and
women who enter into these sigheh contracts are often ostracised. But
the practice is defended as a legal loophole to provide inheritance
rights for children who would otherwise be born out of wedlock. Sigheh
websites have been set up to offer advice to prospective brides and
3 More than 3,600 Iranians have been killed in the past 25 years
fighting heroin smugglers, whose main trade route to the West passes
through the Islamic republic. Iran itself has a major drug problem,
with more than two million addicts. The government has permitted
radical measures to tackle the problem, including methadone programmes
and syringe hand-outs to prevent the spread of disease.
4 Transsexuals are permitted to have sex-change operations in Iran by
the decree of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself. The founder of the
Islamic republic passed a fatwa allowing one transsexual woman to have
the operation because sexual ambiguity made it impossible for her to
carry out her religious duties properly. Iran now has dozens of people
who have had a sex change.
5 According to the UNHCR, Iran hosts more than one million foreign
refugees - more than any other country on earth. Most of these are
Afghans and Iraqi Kurds, who fled their countries during the 1980s and
'90s. Iran has in the past spent millions providing them with social
security but in return it has acquired a huge workforce prepared to do
manual labour for rock-bottom wages.
6 While official dress codes are very strict, many young Iranians
delight in pushing back the boundaries of what is acceptable. Teenage
girls in Tehran wear the most vestigial of see-through headscarves and
tight overcoats that barely cover the bottom. This season gypsy-style
scarves are in, featuring traditional Turkmen floral designs. Cosmetic
surgery is all the rage, with girls proudly displaying a plaster to
show their nose has recently been "fixed".
7 Skiing is a major pastime in mountainous parts of Iran, with pistes
that rival those in Alpine resorts. Every winter young Iranians flock
to the main slopes near Tehran, where social mores are less tightly
enforced. Iran also has cricket, baseball and women's rugby teams, but
football remains the most popular sport.
8 Iran has one of the only condom factories in the Middle East, and
actively encourages contraception as a means of family planning. Sex
education for married couples and major advertising campaigns helped
Iran to slow its booming population growth.
9 Satellite television is banned in Iran, but receiver dishes sit in
plain view on top of many houses. The most popular channels are run by
Iranians based in Los Angeles, who broadcast Iranian pop music and a
steady stream of anti-regime propaganda - though many Iranians also
scoff at the radical tone taken by the stations.
10 Iran is one of the world's biggest producers of luxury foods. The
country has rights to fish more sturgeon - the source of caviar - than
any other Caspian Sea nation because of its extensive restocking
programmes. It is also the world's biggest producer of pistachios, as
well as saffron.
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