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Iran Talks Give Peace a Chance

A perspective on the nuclear talks with Iran and what it means for Iranian people, human rights, and peace. This post originally appeared on Harry’s Place

“Nuclear energy is our indisputable right”

Eight years ago when I last lived in Iran, the slogan: “Nuclear energy is our indisputable right” had become the punchline to a joke. When I shopped for fish at a popular market on Jordan Street in Tehran, the staff greeted me by chanting it in a friendly manner. On a trip to Kermanshah a Kurdish family asked me: “Is nuclear energy only your indisputable right, or is it also ours?” When then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the provinces, he was met by people chanting, “A public swimming pool is our indisputable right.” During the 2009 election campaigns, people sent text messages to each other that read: “Sorry I woke you up at this time of night. It’s nothing special – I just wanted to say that nuclear energy is our indisputable right.”

Taken by Tori Egherman. Share-and-share alike with attribution.

The woman with the video camera is asking me about the right to nuclear energy. Image provided by author.

Framework agreement

On April 2, as Iranians were celebrating the closing day of their two-week New Year’s holidays, the news broke that negotiators had at last come to an understanding about the framework for a nuclear agreement. That framework includes replacing the core at the Arak heavy water plant and decreasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 95%, as well as intensive inspections. It also means that Iran won’t leave the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

Vocal hardliners have been quick to point out the framework’s weaknesses, with some in the US and Israel arguing that it is too soft and those in Iran claiming the country is surrendering. Some have interpreted the celebration of Iranians as meaning that the P5+1 negotiating team cut a bad deal. This shows a lack of understanding of Iran. People there take to the streets to celebrate World Cup losses. Any opportunity for public celebration is welcomed.

What many in Iran seem to particularly long for is rapprochement with the West and with the United States in particular. According to an article by Narges Bajoghli, the majority of those in Iran’s Basij and Revolutionary Guards also look forward better ties to the West. She writes:

In over nine years of on-the-ground research with different factions of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij, I have found that an underlying concern for many, regardless of political leaning, is a desire to create an Iran with more opportunities for their children, and that means the removal of sanctions and better relations with the world.

The role of sanctions

Tough sanctions may have brought Iran to the negotiating table, but what kept them there was the knowledge that the people of Iran wanted engagement with the West. This was made clear in 2009 in the wake of the disputed and flawed presidential elections and again with the election of current president Rouhani. Iranian voters overwhelmingly rejected the candidate seen as representing the Supreme Leader’s foreign policy, then nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. Jalili ran for office specifically on his record of standing firm on Iran’s right to its nuclear program.

There is a strong sense of nationhood and national pride among most Iranians inside and outside the country. The nuclear program, which has been a cause of so much pain and deprivation in Iran, represents accomplishment and security even to those who would seem to be its natural detractors. For a final agreement to be successful, the people of Iran need to have some evidence that their suffering under the sanctions regime was not for nothing. This means lifting sanctions that hurt them the most and making sure to do it with great fanfare. For instance lifting the sanctions on refined petroleum, which have contributed to a dramatic increase in pollution in cities like Tehran, may immediately contribute to cleaner air.

Sanctions also camouflage corruption. They allow profiteers to drive up prices on items such as medicines and create false shortages. They give power to the corrupt and dangerous in society. I saw this every day when I lived in Iran. I saw how poorly the US and Europe communicated both the scope of and the reason for the sanctions to the Iranian people.

Human rights

While most human rights advocates and Iran’s civil society welcome a negotiated agreement, there is concern that hardliners will seek to establish their control by increasing oppressive measures. Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran says:

Iran could be roiled in political tension in the wake of the agreement, and even more so if a more permanent agreement is reached in June. Hardliners will push to maintain political relevancy, while pent up demand for basic rights, long frozen as Iran locked horns with the West, will rise to the surface.

The Iranian government’s record on human rights is disastrous. Ethnic minorities face severe discrimination and suppression of their rights. The rate of execution per capita is the highest in the world. Religious minorities, particularly the Baha’i, suffer. The Baha’i face arrest, harassment, and barriers to education. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, stated that pressure on Iran is especially important: “Iran is the country in the region with the biggest gap between potential [for respect for human rights] and reality.” People in Iran are ready to claim their own rights and are chipping away at the structure that limits them. As one Tehran professor recently wrote in an open letter to the spokeswoman for Iran’s foreign ministry, defending Dr. Shaheed:

The fact is, even if in all of the almost 200 member states of the UN, human rights are violated, and Western countries keep silent against all of them, violations of human rights in the 201st country are still unjustifiable.

A successful agreement that relieves the state of near-war means that civil society and human rights defenders will gain more space. The state of conflict with other powers and the isolation of the country are often used as excuses for tamping down dissent and arresting human rights defenders. They face charges such as “compromising national security” and “spreading propaganda against the state.” With a final agreement, these spurious charges will become more and more ridiculous and harder to defend. A successful agreement also means that human rights defenders can lobby other powers for support without hearing the response: “All we care about is a nuclear agreement.”

Give peace a chance

Some of you may think I’ve been “irantoxified” as a result of my four-year stay in Iran. I can tell you that I was, indeed, fundamentally changed by the experience. I felt real oppression for the first time in my life. I had to learn to control myself emotionally, physically and verbally. I also became passionate about human rights, not just in oppressive countries like Iran, but in free countries like the United States and the Netherlands. I saw what war does to family and friends and watched as my sister-in-law trembled uncontrollably at the news that American warships were in the Persian Gulf. I met Basiji who valued democracy, a judge who opposed the nuclear program, observant women who railed against forced hijab, a transgender man who read tea leaves, and ruthless profiteers. I was met with kindness and hospitality that were both unexpected and comforting. I buried people I loved there. I left the country wanting nothing less than the best possible future for the people who had welcomed me so unabashedly.

There will not be a linear path to reform and an opening of society. There never is anywhere. Iranians will have high expectations that an agreement will solve their economic and social woes. This is true even as they make jokes about expectations of buying whiskey in supermarkets and going into the streets in shorts.

In summation, if this agreement is to work and if the government of Iran is to be persuaded to permanently give up any efforts to build a bomb, the people of Iran need to be convinced they’ve made the best of all possible agreements. In the wake of the agreement, sanctions need to be lifted quickly and loudly. By publicly clarifying what is no longer sanctioned, the US and Europeans can give the people of Iran the information they need to hold their own government accountable for economic malaise. The sanctions will no longer be cover. The benefits of being part of the international community must be made clear to the people of Iran. They are certainly aware of the suffering that comes from isolation.

#Recipe: My Grandmother’s Chocolate Cake

My grandmother was famous for her chocolate cake. Some relatives joked that the secret ingredient was cigarette ashes, but I’m here to tell you that’s not the case.

When she died, many of her loved ones still had her cakes stowed away in the freezer. One passover, my sister found what she thought was the recipe hand written inside a haggadah. It turned out to be a grocery list.

Recently one of my cousins shared the recipe with us. I admit I was a bit scared to make it the first time. I was afraid it would not live up to the memory. There was nothing for me to fear. The very act of making the cake was enough to bring my grandmother back to life. It didn’t matter whether it was delicious or not.

Those of you heard the KFJC discussion between me and DJ Ruthie might be interested in the chocolate cake we talked about.

The cake (all the measurements are American style):

1 cup butter (I use about 3/4 of a block of butter for this)
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3 cups self-rising cake flour (I find it’s best when I replace one cup of flour with one cup of cocoa powder — yum)
1 large bar (or a little more) of good quality dark chocolate — melted (about 7 ounces–more for chocolate lovers)
5 eggs — separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 mashed bananas (when I make layers, I use 3 mashed bananas and put one between the layers)

Cream together the butter and sugar
add melted chocolate (I put a little bit of olive oil in a bowl and then put in the chocolate and microwave it)
Add the buttermilk and flour
Beat the eggs separately add the yolks
Fold in the whites

Bake at 180 C/350 F

Bake a deep cake about 45 minutes
If you are making layers, 30 minutes

I am not a huge frosting fan, so I don’t add any. It’s delicious with raspberries or powdered sugar on top.

Prayer Goes Out; Food Goes In: Plum Chicken with Bibi Kasrai

The day I spoke with the author of The Spice Whisperer, Bibi Kasrai, she was busy with her new enterprise, a cooking camp for children. She had left a career as a corporate executive to do what she loves: cooking and teaching.

That day the children were making hummus, croque-monsieurs, and popsicles. It’s this mix of cultures that makes Bibi and her cooking special. As she describes in her book, her journey from Iran to the United States took her all over the world, learning to cook, falling in love, and encountering a wide range of cultures.

Five years after the revolution in Iran, when Bibi was a teenager, her family went into hiding. An arrest warrant had been issued for her father, the well-known and well-loved poet Siavosh Kasrai. The family moved from house to house, not wishing to put friends and supporters in danger.

“My family had helped the Jews, the Baha’is and royalist friends escape, but now it was our turn,” she writes in The Spice Whisperer. “My mother came up with a plan to hire smugglers that would hopefully take us to France where all our European dreams would come true; except we ended up in Moscow via Afghanistan.”

Before they left Iran, as a last refuge when they had nowhere else to hide, her maternal grandmother took them in, saying, “If they are going to take you, let them take all of us.”

“My grandma was comfort,” Bibi recalls. “She was pure love…. Even when she wanted to teach a lesson, she was mild. Like she would say to me, ‘Bibi, you have a hot temper. When you get really angry take a glass of water and hold it in your mouth.’ I asked, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because when water is in your mouth, you cannot say anything.’”

Read the entire article on The Guardian

Plum Chicken photographed by Sanam Salehian

Iran Elections: Celebration Now, A Long and Unpredictable Path Ahead

Photo from Instagram user alirezamalihi of celebrations in Tehran

This is an excerpt of my latest piece on Global Voices.

In the past few days there have been threats against the families of BBC reporters. The Internet in Iran was slowed to a crawl. The Iranian Cyber Army launched botnet attacks against a number of media sites including BBC, Radio Farda, and Radio Zamaneh. Pundits predicted a win for Saeed Jalili, calling him the Supreme Leader’s favorite. Others predicted a run-off between the conservative mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Qalibaf and the most moderate candidate Hassan Rouhani.

VOA reporter Negar Mortazavi tweeted:

Which prompted this response from the director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center Gissou Nia:

Well…no one was more surprised than Iranians themselves by the results (except for Gissou Nia). Today, Hassan Rouhani was declared president with more than 50% of the votes. The Internet is back on and images and videos are flooding out of Iran.

Financial Times Journalist, Borzou Daraghi writes on Facebook that hardliners had so thoroughly convinced themselves that they really “won” 2009’s elections that they were completely caught by surprise:

When you begin to believe your own lies, you become extremely vulnerable.

Khabar City shares images of voters on their blog along with this tidbit:

به گزارش خبرنگار خبرگزاری فارس از شهرستان ساری، مردم ایران بار دیگر با نشان دادن شناسنامه و حضور در انتخابات لرزه بر اندام دشمنان انداختند. 90 درصد مردم مازندران در انتخابات شرکت کردند.

The Fars News stringer reporting from the city of Sari said that just by voting, the people of Iran have made their enemies shake in their boots. 90% of voters in Mazandaran cast their votes.

Read the rest on Global Voices.

Bare Bones Overview of Iran’s Election System

jalili
Here is a bare bones overview of the structure of Iran’s election system that I am presenting in Amsterdam on June 14, 2013. Hope you all enjoy it.

1953 Passover Seder in Munich

MUNICH-seder-facebook
My father was lucky enough to serve in Germany during the Korean War. In 1953 he attended a seder in Munich. It was held in a huge hall where Hitler had spoken. He has spoken to us (his many children) many times about this seder and wishes he had kept the Hagaddah or had some kind of photograph. There were hundreds of people in attendance, most of them American military. There must be people out there with photos and memories. If you are one of them, please share your memories.

Thank you.

Here are some links to accounts of other seders held after the war:
The Historical Seder in Munich, April 15-16, 1946

An image from the 1946 seder

Why I Love Facebook

Facebook is like that friend you tell your deepest, darkest secrets too who blabs them to everyone and anyone after one glass of wine. (Oh wait, that’s me…) “then pimps you out and sells all that information to the local hustlers.”(1) It’s a privacy nightmare — a deep pit of despair for people who need to protect their own identity and the identity of others. I think of this all the time because of my work with activists. It makes the identification of networks as simple as a smart Facebook graph search and endangers those seduced by the simplicity of sharing information with so many others. Even (or should I say: especially) your “likes” give you away, as an article in The Guardian points out.

And yet, I am irresistibly drawn to Facebook, like a moth to the flame. Oh I know it could burn me, but the light is so very pretty.

While many complain about Facebook feeding our (not-so) latent narcissistic tendencies, its time-sucking prowess, and its utter inanity, I find those features charming. I want to know what you ate for breakfast. I want to read about the conversation you overheard in the diner. I want to see pictures of your dog and your baby (yes even those!). I want to hear the bad joke you heard today.

As someone who lives far away from so many of the people I love, the mundane rewards of casual conversation and the constant, often meaningless updates allow me to feel closer than I ever could when I was limited to letters and telephone conversations. When every communication was fraught with meaning and import, the connection I felt to those I loved diminished. At times, I was made even more lonely by it rather than less so.

Facebook solves this. I get to share in the lives of my far-away family and friends. Like Santa, I know when they are naughty or nice. I know when they wake up depressed. I can share the little and the day-to-day — the things that make us complete human beings.

So for everyone who writes about the damage Facebook is doing to our society and how they and their friends are busy committing Facebook suicide and re-connecting in the physical world, I say good for you. You have the luxury of living near the people you love. Must be nice. For the rest of us, there is Facebook.

(1) Thanks to my real friend Hollis for articulating the obvious so well.

Five Tips for Super-Charging Creative Teams

There is a lot of hype about design and creativity in big out there. Teams should be filled with oddballs and wanderers. They should be given permission to play and to fail (or iterate, depending on who is writing). Bring in philosophers and engineers, writers and office managers. The more diverse the points of view, the better. These articles share one common characteristic, and it isn’t insight. They are like the written version of candy. Sweet and easily digestible but essentially empty.

When I read the articles I feel like they are written by people who have very little experience with teamwork. They seem to be tourists in the land of the creative team, barely skimming the surface of what it means to be either creative or part of a creative team.

I’ve been working in teams most of my life now, and at times it’s been difficult, disappointing, frustrating, and exciting. I remember listening to a bunch of museum directors wax poetic about the powers of ideas, when, in reality, ideas are the easiest thing to come by for any creative team. It’s challenging those ideas and the hard work of making them take shape that’s difficult.

Here is an overview of what I’ve learned over the years.

1. It takes two to tango. My experience shows that the best teams are small — teams of two, in fact. Any larger and you need a project manager.

2. Survival of the loudest. Research shows that teams are most likely to follow the first one to speak — the extrovert, the bossiest, the most (over) confident. This has certainly been my experience with teamwork over the years and accounts for the multiple ways in which it’s been a failure.

3. Shared leadership makes for a productive team. In a team of two leadership is shared. Ideas are shaped and reworked in a truly collaborative and exciting manner. The team of two has room for reflection, introversion, and iteration. I learned this working at Cooper in the late 1990s.

4. Teams of two have super powers. Given the right support a small team can get work done quickly and efficiently. Think of how hard it is to make decisions about dinner or a movie with a group of people. Now imagine how much more effective a team of two can be at solving problems and creating innovative design.

5. Successful multi-tasking is a myth. I think we all know what happens when we multi-task. Nothing gets full attention. Living in a world filled with stimuli makes that painfully obvious. Team members should be allowed to focus on their work, one problem at a time. And I don’t need to tell you to close Facebook, do I?

The Force of the Small Team is Strong

When I look back at the work I did with my team partners way back in the caveman days of the internet, I don’t cringe. It’s definitely withstood the test of time. There’s work we did over a decade ago that could be implemented today with little or no revision. Unfortunately, most of the work was for start-ups that never implemented it — perhaps because it was too innovative for the time. We designed a purchasing application for media buyers with data visualizations that I’d love to have today. There was the planning application for manufacturers that allowed them to collaborate all along the supply chain, but was seen as too revolutionary by the software giant that requested it. Trust me, they have learned since that those ideas were not at all revolutionary but instead filled an existing and real need.

The Yin and Yang of a Good Team

A good team needs two types of people: one should be good at generating ideas and the other should be good at riffing on them. At least one member of the team needs to be empathetic — able to embody other people. One should be a good writer. The other should be able to draw. At least one needs to understand what’s possible and have a handle on the limitations.

Both need to be able to listen.

They need to be people who love puzzles. People who can see and understand the outlier. People who can anticipate the future.

Both team members should be capable of creating mental models — envisioning the whole problem and using that vision to create design work. I often tell people to practice creating mental models on something they already know well: their bedroom, their motorcycle, their neighborhood. One team member may be better than the other, but both should have an idea.

Support Your Teams

To be really successful, the team should be embedded in a supportive organization with other teams working on similar and different problems. That way when they hit a snag, they can grab others to help them untangle it. They shouldn’t be alone.

They need administrative support. They need the help of others who can make appointments, smooth ruffled feathers, proofread, and other essential tasks. The team shouldn’t be expected to do it all — even though they often are.

You Can’t Do it Alone

Good design is just good design if there’s no buy-in.

There are times to bring in larger groups. The design team needs the support of engineers, marketing, the works. Those people should be brought in regularly to increase buy-in. You can’t leave them out and expect the work to succeed on its own merit.

The work needs to be built. Its value may be clear to you and your teammate, but it still needs to be sold to the others. You’ll be most successful if you ask for help at key moments. By doing so, you give others outside the team a sense of ownership. They can and will bring ideas that are useful. They may have key insights that will surprise you. While you may not want to spend eight hours a day at the whiteboard with them, an hour or two here and there can go a long way to making the work successful.

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