Tag: Iran

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.”

Well.

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.

Monday Links

The Hopelessly Stupid Politics of the Iran NIE

The Washington policy establishment is now pulsing with excitement over news that the intelligence community (IC) is revising its 2007 statement that “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons” and that this halt “lasted at least several years.”

Funny story: The day the NIE came out, Ted Carpenter and I were arriving in Los Angeles to give at talk at the LA World Affairs Council on Iran.  Immediately on our deplaning, the questions started coming: “What do you think about the NIE?  How does this change things?”  “What NIE?” I asked.

So amid our last minute preparations for the talk, I was scrambling to get hold of a copy, but being the Luddite I am, I couldn’t manage to get my computer to work, or to get the .pdf to open right on my Blackberry.  But I was ultimately able to pull up the first sentence, quoted above, and to look at the first footnote.

That was all anybody needed to do.  The footnote read:

For the purposes of this Estimate, by “nuclear weapons program” we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.

Well, this is like saying Iraq had weapons of mass destruction because we found a few degraded mustard gas shells out in the middle of the desert.  That wasn’t what anybody was referring to when “Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction” were a topic of conversation, so it proves only that if you redefine things you can change conclusions.  Much of the nuclear infrastructure that is in dispute in Iran is contained in “civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment,” so the new definition does not include much of what people speaking in the vernacular are including when they say “Iran’s nuclear program.”  So at the talk that night in LA, I said this:

the headline splashed all over the newspapers with respect to the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) is that Iran in 2003 suspended, and kept in suspense, its nuclear weapons program; however, it continues to operate facilities like that at Natanz which could at some point in the future be used as part of a nuclear weapons program. So it really becomes a definitional problem in the context of what components of Iran’s industrial infrastructure are included in this nuclear weapons program and which of them are kept outside of it. From my reading of the news reporting I think that it has been at least mildly misleading.

Predictably, American neoconservatives began rending their garments and gnashing their teeth, whipping each other into a frenzy, decrying the “politicized intelligence” at the CIA (do they ever tire of that?).  But really, is it too much to ask of journalists who write about national security (and, to be fair, their headline writers) to read one footnote in a document that contains about three pages of text?  I’m not the smartest guy in the world, and I managed to figure out what the deal was while in a big time crunch, without access to the full document, and without a sizeable rolodex of insiders I could call to help me figure out what was going on.  Still, the American journalistic community splashed headlines like “NIE: Iran halted nuclear weapons program in 2003” and such.  So in a sense, the neocons were right: the inferences people drew from reading the reporting on the NIE were inaccurate.

But this is, more than anything, a critique of the American journalistic establishment than it is the IC.  Writing in the first sentence of a three-page document a provocative claim and then footnoting a definition that dramatically alters the implications of the claim is not really all that tricky.  The people who assemble news stories, who did not exactly cover themselves in glory in scrutinizing government claims before the war in Iraq, were either lazy or stupid in this case as well.  Given the benefits the neocons reaped from the media’s laziness or stupidity in the Iraq case, the spluttering outrage in this case was always a bit much to take.