Tag: Iran

Unleashing an Internet Revolution in Cuba

By now the name of Yoani Sánchez has become common currency for those who follow Cuba. Through the use of New Media (blog, Twitter and YouTube) Yoani has challenged the Castro regime in a way that various U.S. government-sponsored efforts have  failed to do before, earning the respect and tacit admiration of even those who continue to sympathize with the Cuban regime. As my colleague Ian Vásquez put it a few months ago, Yoani keeps speaking truth to power.

Although she’s a remarkable individual, Yoani is not alone in fighting repression with technology. Other bloggers are making their voice heard, and that makes the Castro dictatorship nervous. As Yoani wrote in a paper recently published by Cato, despite the many difficulties and costs that regular Cubans face when trying to access Internet,

… a web of networks has emerged as the only means by which a person on the island can make his opinions known to the rest of the world. Today, this virtual space is like a training camp where Cubans go to relearn forgotten freedoms. The right of association can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and the other social networks, in a sort of compensation for the crime of “unlawful assembly” established by the Cuban penal code.

As recent events in Iran and elsewhere have shown, once a technology becomes pervasive in a society, it is extremely difficult for a totalitarian regime to control it. A new paper published today by the Cuba Study Group highlights the potential of technology in bringing about democracy and liberty to Cuba. The document entitled “Empowering the Cuban People through Technology: Recommendations for Private and Public Sector Leaders,” also recommends lifting all U.S. restrictions that hinder the opportunities of companies to provide cell phone and Internet service to the island. For example, the paper reviews the current U.S. regulatory framework on technology investment in other repressive regimes such as Iran, Syria, Burma and North Korea, and finds that “the U.S. regulations governing telecommunications-related exports to Cuba are still some of the most restrictive.”

By removing these counterproductive restrictions, Washington could help unleash an Internet revolution in Cuba. More Yoanis will certainly bring about more change in the island than 50 years of failed U.S. trade and travel bans.

Technology vs. Tyranny

The Wall Street Journal reports Saturday that Turkey and Pakistan are blocking, monitoring, and threatening such websites as Google, YouTube, Facebook, Yahoo, and Amazon. At least you’ve got to give them credit for going after the big guys! The Journal notes, “A number of countries in the Islamic world, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, have banned Internet content in the past for being sacrilegious. But those countries have authoritarian governments that closely monitor the Internet and the media.” Of course, it’s not just Islamic countries that try to protect their citizens – or subjects – from dissenting thoughts. China has been involved in well-publicized battles with Google, Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV, and other media companies.

But it’s hard to make your country a part of the world economy and keep it closed to outside thoughts and images. North Korea may be able to do it – though recent stories suggest that even the benighted people of the world’s most closed society know more about the world than we have previously thought. Countries that don’t want to be North Korea have a harder time. The latest example: Thomas Erdbrink reports in the Washington Post that Murdoch’s Farsi1 satellite station is

pulling in Iranian viewers with sizzling soaps and sitcoms but has incensed the Islamic republic’s clerics and state television executives.

Unlike dozens of other foreign-based satellite channels here, Farsi1 broadcasts popular Korean, Colombian and U.S. shows and also dubs them in Iran’s national language, Farsi, rather than using subtitles, making them more broadly accessible. Its popularity has soared since its launch in August….

Satellite receivers are illegal in Iran but widely available. Officials acknowledge that they jam many foreign channels using radio waves, but Farsi1, which operates out of the Hong Kong-based headquarters of Star TV, a subsidiary of Murdoch’s News Corp., is still on the air in Tehran.

Viewers are increasingly deserting the six channels operated by Iranian state television, with its political, ideological and religious constraints, for Farsi1’s more daring fare, including the U.S. series “Prison Break,” “24” and “Dharma and Greg.”

Those who want to build a wall around the minds of the Iranian people denounce Murdoch and his temptations:

Some critics here hold Murdoch responsible for what they see as this new infestation of corrupt Western culture. The prominent hard-line magazine Panjereh, or Window, devoted its most recent issue to Farsi1, featuring on the cover a digitally altered version of an evil-looking Murdoch sporting a button in the channel’s signature pink and white colors. “Murdoch is a secret Jew trying to control the world’s media, and [he] promotes Farsi1,” the magazine declared.

“Farsi1’s shows might be accepted in Western culture … but this is the first time that such things are being shown and offered so directly, completely and with ulterior motives to Iranian society. Does anybody hear alarm bells?” wrote Morteza Najafi, a regular Panjereh contributor.

The Iranian state – Akbar Ganji calls it a “sultanate” in Weberian terms – has tried to block access to Farsi1. It jams foreign channels, it sends police out to confiscate satellite dishes, but it can’t seem to prevent many citizens from tuning in to officially banned broadcasts.

Way back in 1979, David Ramsay Steele of the Libertarian Alliance in Great Britain wrote about the changes beginning in China. He quoted authors in the official Beijing Review who were explaining that China would adopt the good aspects of the West – technology, innovation, entrepreneurship – without adopting its liberal values. “We should do better than the Japanese,” the authors wrote. “They have learnt from the United States not only computer science but also strip-tease. For us it is a matter of acquiring the best of the developed capitalist countries while rejecting their philosophy.” But, Steele replied, countries like China have a choice. “You play the game of catallaxy, or you do not play it. If you do not play it, you remain wretched. But if you play it, you must play it. You want computer science? Then you have to put up with striptease.” 

North Korea and Burma choose to “remain wretched.” That’s not the future Iran’s leaders want. But they too will find it difficult to keep their citizens in an information straitjacket while participating in a global economy. 

Footnote: In all this discussion of how authoritarian governments try to protect their citizens from offensive images, alternative ideas, and what’s going on in the rest of the world, I am for some reason reminded of the “30 Rock” episode in which NBC executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) is trying to figure out how to deal with a high-strung performer. Another actress tells him, ”You’ve got to lie to her, coddle her, protect her from the real world.” Jack replies,”I get it – treat her like the New York Times treats its readers.”

The Libertarian Take on Iran

In this video, David Boaz makes an excellent case for tamping down our overblown perception of Iran.

In the clip, Boaz argues persuasively that far from being suicidal, the track record of Iranian behavior shows pragmatism and calculating temperament when attempting to advance its interests in the region. Thus, rather than assessing Iran based on their leaders’ repulsive and provocative rhetoric, U.S. officials should deduce future Iranian intentions based on how it has reacted when confronted with overwhelming force. While no one can predict the future, regional experts—not hawkish, misinformed policy analysts or neo-conservative ideologues who advocate regime change—insist that the clerical regime has valued self-preservation and in the future can be deterred.

My colleague, Justin Logan, argues here that U.S. policymakers must press for direct diplomacy with the Iranian leadership and have a plan “B” in case that diplomacy fails. Of course, the problem is that those who endorse a tougher approach toward Iran insist that we have tried diplomacy before. That is not true. Washington typically offers halfhearted gestures and then falsely concludes that diplomacy does not work. Americans must reject the alarmist rhetoric and tortured rationales that have thus far proved counterproductive for arriving at a long-term solution toward Iran.

Exiled Iranian Journalist Awarded $500,000 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty

Akbar Ganji, an Iranian writer and journalist who spent six years in a Tehran prison for advocating a secular democracy and exposing government involvement in the assassination of individuals who opposed Iran’s theocratic regime, has been named the 2010 winner of the Cato Institute’s Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty.

Ganji may be best known for a 1999 series of articles investigating the Chain Murders of Iran, which left five dissident intellectuals dead. Later published in the book, The Dungeon of Ghosts, his articles tied the killings to senior clerics and other officials in the Iran government, including former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Ganji was arrested for spreading propaganda against the Islamic system and “damaging national security.” He was eventually sentenced to six years in prison, much of it spent in solitary confinement.

Ganji was released from prison in March of 2006 and left Iran shortly thereafter. Many countries around the world offered him honorary citizenship, and he traveled extensively, giving talks promoting democracy in Iran and exposing major human rights abuses by the Iranian government. Despite his battle with Iran’s theocracy, Ganji remains steadfastly opposed to military action by the United States in both Iran and Iraq, saying “you cannot bring democracy to a country by attacking it.”

Established in 2002 and presented every two years, the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty is the leading international award for significant contributions to advancing individual liberty.

The Friedman Prize biennial dinner and award presentation will be held at the Hilton Washington Hotel in Washington, D.C, on May 13, 2010. Reserve your table now to attend.

Does Promising Iran Material Benefits Make a Nuke Deal Less Likely?

I regret not remembering where I found this and therefore not being able to thank the source for the link, but Scientific American writes about research on “sacred values” and negotiations.  Describing “sacred values,” SciAm writes that when an object becomes sacred, it “becomes worthy of boundless reverence, commitment, and protection. As diverse as people are in ascribing sacred status to possessions, they are equally varied in which values they consider sacred, a diversity that can breed substantial conflict. The abortion debate, for example, often presents a divide between those who consider woman’s ‘right to choose’ sacred versus those who consider a fetus’ ‘right to life’ sacred.”

But the potentially important part for international politics is that

When people are asked to trade their sacred values for values considered to be secular…they exhibit moral outrage, express anger and disgust, become increasingly inflexible in negotiations, and display an insensitivity to a strict cost-benefit analysis of the exchange. What’s more, when people receive monetary offers for relinquishing a sacred value, they display a particularly striking irrationality. Not only are people unwilling to compromise sacred values for money—contrary to classic economic theory’s assumption that financial incentives motivate behavior—but the inclusion of money in an offer produces a backfire effect such that people become even less likely to give up their sacred values compared to when an offer does not include money. People consider trading sacred values for money so morally reprehensible that they recoil at such proposals.

If right, this is obviously an important challenge to those of us who have proposed offering Iran a grab-bag of goodies in exchange for opening its nuclear program to invasive international inspections.  I haven’t read the study the article is drawn from very carefully, but I have a few immediate doubts.

  1. The authors’ discussion of the “sacredness” of the Iranian nuclear program is pretty nebulous.  They reference how “the nuclear dispute is essentially framed as an ongoing resistance with deep historical context.”  They talk about how Iran asserts its “inalienable rights” and how it pledges it “will not retreat one iota.”  But lots of disputes are couched in these sorts of terms.  Are they all over “sacred values”?
  2. They code respondents as holding Iran’s nuclear program as a sacred value if they select the statement that Iran shouldn’t give up its nuclear program “no matter how great the benefits are.”  Isn’t it possible that the respondents see the United States as untrustworthy and fear that their country will get tricked into accepting a deal that can be easily broken?  That there are no benefits that are great enough to offset an indigenous, autonomous nuclear capability?
  3. Most importantly, if the authors are right, we’re probably in big trouble.  They write that “in conflicts involving sacred values, symbolic compromises which may lack any material benefits, such as apologies for past disrespects, may be key to solving the issue.”  My sense is that the Right in America has been winding up American nationalism so high that the Obama people are in no mood to confront it head on.  From lapel pins to “apology tours,” to claims that Obama may be an “alien” and therefore an inherently illegitimate president, to claims that he doesn’t recognize that al Qaeda is an Enemy, to the Nobel prize, and on and on, apologizing to Iran probably isn’t something the administration is particularly keen on.  So if apologizing to Iran for something or other is the key to solving the nuclear puzzle, get ready for trouble.

Charles Krauthammer, Rocket Scientist

Last evening on FoxNews, host Bret Baier reported that the Iranians had launched a rocket carrying ”a mouse, two turtles, and a can of worms” into space. He asked the panelists to speculate on the implications.

Charles Krauthammer inveighed “if you can put a mouse into space, you can put a nuke in New York, in principle.” Given that they are clearly developing the technological capabilities that would allow them to nuke New York, Krauthammer concluded, “our only hope on the nuclear issue or any other is a revolution and to help that revolution ought to be our task.”


To her credit, Jennifer Loven of the AP wasn’t having any of it. “It’s an incredibly large leap,” she pointed out, ”between a mouse in space and a nuke in New York….[I]t’s a…ginormous gap.”

How “ginormous”? The analogies are imperfect, but I can throw a football a fair distance. In principle, I could start in the Super Bowl.

More seriously, there are modest parallels to the subject of my first book – the mythical missile gap of the late 1950s. The missile gap was precipitated by the launch of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957. Millions of Americans became convinced that the beeping silver sphere orbiting the earth signified that the Soviets could, in principle, drop a nuclear weapon on any city in the United States. This misconception was helped along by some opportunistic fearmongering by, chiefly, Democrats who delighted in embarassing President Dwight Eisenhower. And the ploy worked. The Dems rolled up huge victories in the mid-term election of 1958, and John F. Kennedy capitalized on the missile gap to help get elected president in 1960.

The actual missile gap – in the U.S. favor – was irrelevant. It would have been equally irrelevant if the roles were reversed, with the Soviets in possession of hundreds of ICBMs, and the U.S. with only a handful of shorter range weapons. Even if the Soviets had perfected the ability to throw a nuclear warhead onto U.S. territory, what ultimately prevented them from doing so was not technological but psychological – they were deterred by our vast arsenal. And they continued to be so deterred for decades until the entire edifice of Soviet power came crashing down, from within, without any significant assistance from the United States.

Would Krauthammer contend that Eisenhower’s refusal to overthrow the Soviet regime in 1958 was “an embarassing failure?” The Soviets did, after all, actually have nuclear weapons, many of them. The Iranians have none, and have not even mastered the enrichment cycle, let alone the long process toward weaponization.  By implying that the only thing that stops the Iranians from immediately nuking New York is their technical capabilities, Krauthammer demonstrates a shocking ignorance of some of the most basic principles of international relations, beginning with deterrence. This makes him a horrible political scientist.

But as a rocket scientist, he’s even worse.

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