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Friday, November 28, 2008

Persia, Part 1

Robert Baer, the retired CIA agent and former head of the Lebanese desk recently spent an hour talking to the good folks at CSPAN on the subject of Iran. (As in "Bomb, bomb bomb Iran") and he comes to some disturbing conclusions, at least disturbing to neocons or unreconstructable cold warriors. 

Both he and I agree that Iran is our natural friend. Iran is the home of the Shia branch of Islam, the smaller, but much more structured branch of the religion. The larger sect, the Sunni, are somewhat like evangelical christianity in that every follower is an internally consistent believer, not requiring over-arching structure for validation. Each village and tribe has its own Imam, sometimes several, and each of these holy men his own batch of followers. As in the evangelical community, the competition for followers is intense and drives the preachers to the extreme ends of the faith. The Shia have a much more well defined hierarchy.

As with all theocracies the Iranian Republic can be a bit of a political snake-pit. A committee of Mullas, deriving its authority and legitimacy through its origins in the Islamic Republic of Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 overthrow of the American client government. Before his death Khomeini created a Soviet like council headed by a new Ayatollah. These are the guys that run Iran now. They are the folk who chose the candidates for election to office, and while the elections themselves are surprisingly free, especially by Islamic standards, any real foes of the theocracy can't get on the ballot. All this said, at least there is a structure to negotiate with that generally respects agreements made by previous iterations of the committee.

Iran/Persia is a mind numbingly ancient culture. They suffered needlessly under the Ottomans, British and Shah, but are notably cosmopolitan and well educated despite all the abuse. The President of Iran is a notably powerless figurehead, even though they have the right to annoy and inflame the foreign media. We classify Hesbollah and al Qaeda as pretty much the same sort of organizations, but nothing could be further from the truth. Al Qaeda are batshit crazy Sunni nihilist whack jobs. Hesbollah is a  Shia militia with a hierarchical structure that almost exclusively fights military units. These are people we can deal with, and our allies Israel seem to be determined to wipe them out. Hesbollah has more credibility with the Palestinians than any other group because they are incorruptible and have fought the invincible Israel to a draw in Lebanon. The Iranian controlled group is the key to the Palestinian side of Middle East peace.

Opportunity abounds with the incoming Obama administration if he negotiates with the right people. Do it sooner rather than later.