Archive for the ‘Iran’ tag
New York- Regarding the planned nuclear deal to be reached by late June, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani announced “Today is a day that will remain in the historic memory of the Iranian nation.” Could a statement like this indicate the Islamic Republic is finally falling back into line with the Great Power political order after decades of U.S. estrangement? Possibly. Are there leagues of people who desperately seek to derail such an initiative? Undoubtedly.
Without getting into the granular details of the proposed quid pro quo arrangement whereby Iran will cull centrifuges in exchange for the letting up of sanctions, my angle is how the battle for Tikrit in neighboring Iraq and the coming battle for Mosul factors into this.
Part of what I suspect has changed the decades long game in toxic U.S.-Iran relations is the rise of the Islamic State. President Obama met one of his campaign foreign policy goals by fully withdrawing American military personnel from Iraq (minus those protecting the gargantuan embassy in Baghdad). Guantanamo hasn’t closed and Afghanistan is still festering. Iraq seemed like something of an accomplishment. But when I visited Iraq in mid-2013, it was clear to me that the Pentagon had left behind a fractious mess that was vulnerable to infiltration by non-state groups working to undermine both the Kurds and the then highly divisive Maliki government.
Then we have the twitter-fueled IS takeover of Mosul with a nascent state building to create a salafi-hihadi entity bent on perpetual warfare until an apocalyptic utopia can be achieved. Now as things stand, the Americans and Iranians are working together if purely by default. Notorious militias like the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl al-Haq have been battling IS with bravado during the siege of Tikrit. Of course, American military planners don’t want to work with Iranian-backed war fighting groups in Iraq. War, however, is not about the ideal. It’s much more often about the pragmatic.
Military planning is constantly a re-evalutation of the lesser of evils on the battlefield. The least worst option always seems better than total defeat. In the Second World War, the Allies partnered with Stalin to defeat the Axis and achieve the near term goals of eradicating fascism from Europe and Pacific. This led to the death of tens of millions of Soviets both in the Red Army on the battlefront and then those who were felled in the Great Terror, Great Purge, ethnic deportations of nationalities collectively accused of Nazi collaboration and the Gulag system. The Cold War and the nuclear arms race immediately followed the Axis defeats.
For the US to preserve what little is has left in Iraq, it will have to work with those it has been fighting in the mid-2000s. This is not to the liking of the Israelis and their vast support network here in the United States. Nor does it please King Salman and the House of Saud who operate in a bizarre realm where the theological and geopolitical are conflated to the detriment of an entire region. In turn the U.S. is supporting the un-imaginitively named Operation Decisive Storm to rout the Houthis in Yemen which sort of proves that the Americans aren’t taking sides in ancient Sunni-Shia fitna. The Israelis and the Saudis have traditionally had a common goal of keeping the Iranians isolated by the U.S. but this paradigm looks to be both shifting as well as no longer sustainable.
I’m not saying the decades of mistrust will suddenly evaporate in a few months time. But the de facto cooperation for lack of a better term on Tikrit may be a prelude to the eradication of IS from Mosul. The Iraqi military simply isn’t up to the task. It has neither the willpower nor the esprit de corps to effectively carry out this mission in my view. One thing endemic to battlefields is that alliances shift with time owing to perceived necessity.
New York- In the summer of 1999 I embarked on an ambitious backpacking trip attempting to travel from London to Lahore entirely overland/water. The second to last leg of this rambling adventure was securing a visa for the Islamic Republic of Iran, the preferred exonym of the country’s post-1979 clerical revolutionary rulers. I anxiously applied for a transit visa (a tourist visa would’ve been much harder to come by at the time) at the Iranian embassy in Ankara and was gruffly informed the process could take as long as several weeks-which seemed like an eternity at that age.
In the interim I travelled extensively around southeastern Turkey/Kurdistan, skirting along the Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Azeri, and Armenian borderlands. I was just scratching the surface of both Eurasia’s utterly complex, divisive histories and my interest in photography. For I wanted not to be a photojournalist showing the world bursting at the seems, but a photographer using gorgeous imagery composed of diverse human and physical geography that emphasized man’s commonalities.
If I had envisioned myself as a war correspondent then I would have gotten myself into Kosovo that summer, rather than giving the Balkan conflict a very wide berth in circumambulating through the Italian peninsula when traveling from Budapest to Athens. To me at the time, wars were transitory events and historical epochs seemed eternal.
After 15 days of traveling through vast swaths of Turkey completely devoid of the hordes of ANZAC backpackers frolicking in Istanbul and its party-all-the-time West on the notorious Fez Bus circuit, I was finally granted an Iranian visa. But with my fall university semester quickly on the horizon back out in San Diego and having already traveled to Doğubeyazıt on the Turkey-Iran border, I had to fly to Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport in order to save time and have enough days to travel through nearly all of Pakistan afterward and return to California in time to sign up for that fall’s classes.
Arriving in Tehran, I then embarked on a massive road tour via the country’s bus network that would eventually have me riding in a Balochi smuggler’s Toyota Hi-lux truck to the Mirjaveh/Taftan border and crossing a mind-blowing civilizational boundary separating the Iranian plateau from South Asia on foot. There are richer elements to this story but I am leaving them in my long form, as yet unpublished book project. I stumbled on these photos while working on another project and felt like throwing up a few images to remind myself of this hopeful time period if nothing else.
New York- The Avtomat Kalashnikova assault rifle, known popularly as the AK-47 or Kalashnikov, became one of the defining symbols of Third World national liberation movements and a physical manifestation of anti-imperialist thought in the second half of the twentieth century. The Kalashnikov appears most notably Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO)-designed flag of Mozambique pictured above. Hezbollah has a Kalashnikov-like weapon pictured on its yellow and green flag as a symbol of its persistent resistance to Israeli occupation and military hegemony. During the ‘summer war’ in July and August of 2006, the Ba’athist regime in Syria, one of the Shia group’s principal external state backers, had Hezbollah’s yellow banners flying up and down its Mediterranean coast to drum up Syrian domestic support as well as that of visiting GCC tourists. Syria’s cities were plastered with these what should be incongruous visuals that summer. Anyone who covers the developing world’s violent conflicts is likely intimately and awkwardly familiar with the Kalashnikov’s wood and metal sinews coupled with that unmistakable banana clip.
In going through old photo portfolios this week I discovered an image I’d nearly forgotten I’d taken of a massive Soviet-style Kalashnikov monument on the road in central Iran. I love the photo not for its artistic merit obviously but for what it symbolizes. I tweeted the photo to C.J. Chivers, author of the definitive Kalashnikov book, The Gun. In return he created a kind blog post featuring my snapshot which I’ve reposted below.
New York- In sorting through some old belongings today I found a couple of now ancient-seeming portfolios which I went to a lot of trouble to make at the tail end of the portfolio era. In what turned out to be fruitless, expensive exercises in futility I spent countless hours (not to mention loads of money on ink and specialty papers) printing attempts at gorgeous images. I scanned some of the images and decided to show them here on this blog. Though these images may appear, and perhaps are, somewhat random, they were part of my earliest project concept which I titled “The Fabled City.” I envisioned it as grassroots, multimedia education project to enlighten denizens of American cities about the complex civilizational crossroads where South Asia, Central Asia, and the Iranian Plateau intersect.
The ultimate goal of the project was to then inform the public about the people and socio-cultural history of Afghanistan working past the entrenched framework of Afghanistan clichés as a “buffer state,” “failed state,” or worst of all, “the graveyard of empires.” Could you imagine if a coterie of overeducated policy wonks and far removed armchair historians constantly referred to the country you call home as some sort of “graveyard?” Or in the case of Pakistan, “the world’s most dangerous place?” Or Iran being “evil” in some way? Though all of these terms are or were meant to have a purely geopolitical resonance (in theory), it is a short jump to the demonization of a culture particularly when punditry is then mixed with geographic distance.
I had an idea-somewhat indicative of the era-to do a guerrilla-style wheatpaste poster campaign in the manner of a 1990s New York City street artists like Cost and Revs (who have long since faded into relative obscurity). I thought I could bring awareness to this region-much of which had been cutoff the the outside world since 1979-by starting a one man grassroots poster campaign. I was gearing up to embark upon this idea just as 9/11 shook this city. My plan to photograph Taliban-ruled Afghanistan (ie the Islamic Emirate) after the winter snows thawed in the spring of 2002 morphed into doing war photography in the Islamic State of Afghanistan among the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (ie the Northern Alliance) some six-months ahead of schedule. I still clung to this idea well into the 9/11 wars.
At the height of the war in Takhar Province in early November 2001 I managed to visit the broken columns of the heavily looted Graeco-Bactrian city of Ai Khanoum overlooking the Panj River dividing Afghanistan and Tajikistan. In Iraq in May 2003 I climbed the humongous, spiraled minaret of Malwiya in Samarra before things turned ugly in that country’s nihilistic fitna and anti-occupation war. The minaret was later attacked by insurgents in 2005 after American soldiers carelessly used the ancient monument as a lookout post. From the top of the Abbasid calpihate-era Malwiya, I gazed at the magnificent al-Askari shrine housing the bodies of the 10th and 11th Twelver Shi’ite imams, its gilded cupola shining brilliantly under the Iraqi sun. The sacred al-Askari dome was later demolished by Sunni sectarian fighters in February 2006 and its minarets were destroyed by them in June 2007.
I was digging around in a musty closet and unearthed these decade-old prints which I then hastily scanned in a consumer Epson flatbed scanner. I don’t have much use for these rather benign, old prints now. Maybe I will finally paste them up around the Brooklyn or Queens waterfront as I intended to do exactly a decade ago. The Fabled City was crushed in the collapse of the Twin Towers. Unending war and terror would come to rule the day rather than the elements of architectural elegance and sophisticated history I had hoped to use as tools to foment a better day.
Antakya- Doing some googling to see where some of my recent Syria work might have ended up, I stumbled upon some references to my work from close to a year ago that I missed in the chaos of the time. I put them on my blog in part to create a living catalogue of my work so that I can keep track of it (and possibly add it to my CV). On March 1 of last year while I was in the Libya war, my colleague Chris Zambelis had an article in the March 2011 edition of the CTC Sentinel “The Factors Behind the Rebellion in Iranian Kurdistan” (endnote #8). I was also cited by colleague Peter Lee at Asia Times Online on April 9, 2011 in “China under pressure over Saudi rise.” Love to find these little nuggets after the fact.
Antakya- I’m sitting here typing in a dark, musty hotel room at 5am in the Levant. Hatay to be exact. Hatay may very well be a part of the Turkish Republic but it is also a little talked about corner of the greater Levant. Sometimes journalism is like what they say about war: lots and lots of waiting around doing nothing punctuated by extreme adrenalin rushes. I arrived in Antakya today which was blanketed in fresh snowfall. As the light went descended below the surrounding peaks, a bone chilling cold set in. Thanks to a contact I made on Lightstalkers, I met with a translator whose office happened to be directly across the street from my hotel. He told me that whatever I am trying to do here will not be easy. The local authorities from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs do their best to keep the Free Syrian Army on a tight leash.
I’m waiting to hear from a contact in the Syrian National Council to try and circumvent some of these restrictions. So for now I wait. The border is lined with tanks and snipers watching for anyone crossing in or out of Syria. In some stories that came out in 2011, some of the then newly arrived refugees claimed the snipers were Irani (Iranian), perhaps meaning they were on loan from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As anyone reading this blog might now, Tehran is terrified of losing their air bridge to Hezbollah in South Lebanon and the Bekaa. Syria is the air to land conduit for Iranian weapons and materiel to reach their proxies in the Israeli border. And Hezbollah needs Iran to act as a lever over the Syrians. And the Israelis need the entirely untenable status quo to remain in Syria for the time being for their storm clouds to appropriately gather over Netanz etc.
The transformation of Syria into some kind of a representative state which would mean being governed by its Sunni demographic majority is much too much for all of the regional players save for possibly Ankara. One of the key issues in this region is that everyone is too used to the status quo. Addicted to the status quo is probably more accurate. And that goes for Western analysts from 1967 onward as well. Syria is trying to jump out of the box it has been stuck in since 1970 when Hafez al-Assad came to power.
But the sand is running through the hour glass for the Assad regime. Sure it is still clinging to power and may do so for some time to come, but this is not 1982 Hama. Too much blood has been spilled and this time the revolution is being televised on Youtube. The MB in Hama thirty years ago had no such outlet for that massive crime against humanity that left one of Syria’s principal cities in ruins and sent MB members fleeing to distant corners of the Arab world to escape the Assad family’s wrath. Hafez al-Assad crushed their revolt and that was essentially the end of it…until now.
In short, it is a complicated mess here. A Sykes-Picot nightmare. Better than sitting in New York though…