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Dec. 29 2009 - 2:00 pm | 27 views | 0 recommendations | 7 comments

Some Iran Questions Without Answers


Zaid Jilani’s concern on the current Iran crisis is well-taken: that if the most hawkish voices in American foreign policy speak too quickly, and thoughtlessly, about the crackdown that’s currently underway, they risk complicating the Iranian opposition’s task, by “giving Iran’s hardliners exactly what they need — a foreign nemesis to rally against.”

But shutting up, Jilani’s request, isn’t likely to happen. People talk. Moreso if placed in front of cameras. More yet when paid to do so either directly — foreign policy speeches bring curiously high appearance fees — or indirectly, by advancing an expert’s profile.

So the question I asked myself after reading Zaid’s argument was: “given that people will talk, and some percentage of them won’t know anything useful, but will talk anyway, what would we want them to address?

For starters, we know some things about these sorts of events. We know the kind of information that has proven useful to understanding them. During the 1989 Tiananman Square massacre in China, a question reporters asked often was whether then-President George HW Bush, a former Ambassador to China, had phoned the Chinese leadership, and if so what they’d discussed. Bush said at the time he hadn’t called Beijing, which led to wondering why not, or if that were a lie, why hiding any contact was or wasn’t the right choice.

During the protests leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall, we knew roughly what kind of orders the East German border soldiers were receiving — thankfully, the orders were to not shoot the people breaking the wall.

Even during the Burma uprisings earlier this year, we had a sense who led the opposition (Buddhist monks) and where the Burmese government got the weapons it was using against them (primarily, though not exclusively, China).

In the mid-1980s, the world might not have known exactly what was happening in Central America, but the basic contours of the situation, and eventually the breaking of the Iran/Contra affair by a Lebanese newspaper, and the El Mozote massacre by an American one, were fairly common public knowledge.

These are important facts not just for their own sake, but because at the time they allowed us to ask better questions about the events, and decide how, or whether, to shape a response.

Jilani’s concerns struck me as important because of why the kind of war talk he fears exists. In part, it seems, it’s because there isn’t any hard information to take its place. This is not to suggest another lament about “too much white noise on the internet.” It’s to say that with Iran, it is noticeable what facts aren’t in play. Here is what I found myself wondering after reading Jalani’s post:

Does Iran manufacture its own small arms?

Does Iran manufacture its own electronic equipment?

If not, who provides the small arms and electronic equipment most essential to the success of the current crackdown?

What is the relationship of the Iranian Army to the Iranian police? Are they separate bodies? Do they have complementary motivations? What are the factions inside the Iranian police and military structure? Are there cracks?

Why are militias active? Does the Iranian government feel it necessary to distance themselves from the crackdown in this way? If not, what is the relationship of the militias to the uniformed security forces?

How many police are there and how heavily armed are they?

How hard is it to get a gun in Iran? Has the opposition made any statements regarding its opinions on force or violence?

Is the Iranian military clearly loyal to the current government?

Iran recently tested a missile it claimed was capable of hitting Israel. What is the Israeli response to the current crisis, officially and otherwise?


This photo is purported to depict Iranian opposition members routing police. Why do Iranian police vests identify the wearer in English?

Iran and Iraq recently fought over a facility on their border. What is being said by regular Iraqis about the Iranian situation? How does the Iran situation affect Iraq?

What do Arab leaders think and how are key figures behaving?

How does health care work in Iran? Is a person involved in the crisis likely to go to a hospital if injured or ill, or to avoid it, to avoid authorities?

How are Iranian Kurds responding? Iraqi Kurds?

If electronic communication is unavailable, is there evidence of efforts to communicate by traditional means, like telephones or physically delivering information across borders?

Who, other than Mousavi and Ahmadinejad, is important in this story?

I base that list on suppositions. It’s brainstorming, in public.


There’s an arrogance to having been a reporter of any sort. It’s perhaps most noticeable on the international desk. It takes a particularly unappealing level of self-regard to believe that extraordinary world events require your presence. They don’t. I usually agree with Zaid: shutting up is usually the right thing to do.

In this case the people I’d prefer to hear speaking aren’t audible. An Iranian photoblog I was going link to here, instead of writing this item, was, this morning, apparently blocked. With it went photos purported to be from the memorial for Moussavi’s dead nephew. The shots were notable because they included archival material of the nephew heading off to the Iran-Iraq war, in the 1980s, and of various opposition officials gathered at his memorial thirty years later. That imagery has been turned off.

The next step, of course, should be to answer my own questions. And I will cop to having the arrogance mentioned above: I probably couldn’t get into Tehran right now, not with a US passport; but I suspect that any competent person sharing my general professional profile could make a dent in the above list of questions, with two days work. It’s during events like this that you understand the real cost of the budgets that used to pay my rent, and more importantly my phone and travel bill, being gone. I’m not even trying to answer those questions today because, in the past, you could make a reasonable investment in such an investigation, and be pretty sure you’d keep the bills paid, at least break even. That’s no longer true.

I’m unsympathetic to complaints about the death of the traditional media at the hands of the internet because I’m suspicious, or at least my own experience led me to believe, that the wound was self-inflicted. Foreign bureaus were shutting down long before anyone had heard the word “web” used in reference to anything but a spider. The decision to spend tens of millions covering Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky instead of Afghanistan, Enron or the tendency of Mississippi River levees to collapse, was not taken under pressure from new technology. Wen Ho Lee wasn’t even remotely guilty; the Congo, meanwhile, lost five million people from 1998 to 2003 or so, and you’d be hard-pressed to sell a story about that, even then.

So when Iran explodes, and there’s a void of information we can only fill with the rantings that worry Zaid Jilani, I’m less apt, personally, to blame Steve Jobs than to blame, just to pick a name, Steve Glass. Public trust can’t take a decade of indifference, we now know. But it’s too late.

I’m sure that will change. It isn’t going to do so in time to understand what happened today in Iran. So there’s little to do but pose the questions that might once have been the starting point of the story, and hope that pinning them up in a public space is sufficient to generate useful answers. I’m skeptical. But it’s a reflex. Feel free to add to the list or answer anything there, if you are someone with a better excuse than I have to be talking about this.


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  1. collapse expand

    Mr. Herman,

    As I noted to Mr. Jilani, it is not a question of remaining silent or speaking, but having something useful to say. The problem with new cons is that what they are saying is useful to the Tehran government and not the demonstrators. The reason is that the new cons do not actually want democracy in Iran, they were quite happy with the Shah and his complete lack of democracy. What they want is not democracy but a regime change to a government favorable western interests, which probably does not represent the will of the majority of the Iranian people. This of course was the new cons tried to do in Iraq, which is why the mullahs are able to effectively pain the opposition as tools the Great Satan.

  2. collapse expand

    Superb post, Marc. I don’t believe that keeping quiet is the answer, because publicity – or the threat of publicity – is one of the few weapons of the oppressed. Perhaps it’s the only aid that a journalist can offer the oppressed.

    The Iranian people don’t need U.S. Marines, but with the state controlling the media, they can use whatever news the outside world can provide.

    Regarding the power of the Iranian security forces, here’s a piece I wrote last June: http://trueslant.com/michaelpeck/2009/06/16/why-irans-mullahs-are-here-to-stay/ Nothing terribly insightful, but my impression is that the mullahs don’t fully trust the Iranian army, so they’ve created a well-equipped parallel army through the Revolutionary Guards.

  3. collapse expand

    A large Iranian diaspora lives in the US. They know exactly what is going on iin Iran. Communication between Iranian expats, throughout the world and in Iran is transpiring daily. They can answer all of your questions listed above. In fact, they can answer even more relevant questions, which no one is even asking them. The answers are amongst us. We appreciate you even caring.


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    About Me

    I am a reporter who has concentrated on foreign affairs, living for awhile throughout Latin America; in Jakarta, Indonesia; and now in Barcelona. My articles have appeared in The Denver Quarterly, Harper's, GQ, Men's Journal, The Believer and GlobalPost.com. I am the author of a book, Searching for El Dorado, which is about South American gold miners. One of the things I am very interested in is how journalism and other writing first published in languages other than English gets ignored in much of the world, even when it concerns important events. You'll be seeing a lot of work here based on non-English and non-mainstream sources, by journalists I've had the good fortune to work with abroad, and by others I'm just meeting through this project. Thanks for reading and participating. Welcome.

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