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.

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.

Taste of Iran: Lari Kebab Made as a Stew

I loved the concise flavors of this dish, but learned that in order to replicate them I had to have the best ingredients.

Taste of Iran: Lari kebab recipe

Iranian student in Italy recreates a traditional dish – with a twist

Lari kebab
Lari kebab served with salad and jasminebasmati rice. Photograph: Tori Egherman

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is lit against the night sky, the square empty save for a couple walking hand in hand and a man with a dog by his side. In a top-floor apartment a few blocks away, Peyman Majidzadeh is putting the finishing touches on his favorite dish, Lari kebab, made on the stove instead of the grill and with chicken instead of lamb. It might be a stretch to call it Lari kebab, but that’s what Peyman calls it and so will I.

During the four years I lived in Iran, not only did I never eat Lari kebab, I had never even heard of Lar, the county seat of Larestan in Fars province. Four hundred kilometres from Shiraz, the province’s best known city, it’s not one of the more visited corners of Iran.

Larestan sits in the desert, close to the other Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. It has its own dialect, but it has no oil and little in the way of other mineral resources. It has no sites of particular interest to tourists or pilgrims. Very few Iranians from elsewhere in the country have ever been to Lar. Any who do go are likely to be surprised by the small city’s wealth and the fact that it is served by an international airport and a six-lane highway.

Read the rest on The Guardian

Blast from the Past: Thoughts on Rafsanjani’s 2005 Campaign

I wrote this piece in 2005 when the elections for Iran’s next president were in full swing. During the campaigns, I walked through my neighborhood with my headscarf around my shoulders. Music blared from black SUVs. A three-story banner of former president Rafsanjani graced the corner building that housed some of his campaign staff. It was a strange time and a bit of a break from the relentlessness of the Islamic Republic. You’ll note I don’t even mention Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His campaign was nearly invisible in Tehran. It wasn’t until the run-offs that I noticed his candidacy. This was originally published on Marketing Profs.

The Hashemi Brand in Iran’s 2005 Elections

The elections in Iran are in full force, with only a few days left until the Friday ballot. Iranian television is filled with interviews with the candidates, sound bytes and advertisements about the vote. Movies are interrupted every few minutes by voting reminder message; in the middle of intense emotional scenes, bells ring and an animated ballot dances across the screen.

Candidates’ Web sites tout the politicians’ credentials and attributes, while blogs debate who is genuinely democratic-minded–or, conversely, true to the tenets of the Islamic Revolution.

The presidential campaign in Iran is short: about one month. There are a lot of rumors and discussions before the official start of the campaign season, but it really goes into gear once the Supreme Council announces the list of approved candidates. This year there are six.

One of the candidates, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (www.hashemirafsanjani.ir), has done more than the others to market his particular presidential brand. In this brief article, I discuss the tools that his campaign has used to create the Hashemi brand.

Guerilla Marketing

Jay Conrad Levinson is often called the father of guerilla marketing. He defines it this way: “It is a body of unconventional ways of pursuing conventional goals. It is a proven method of achieving profits with minimum money.”

While I cannot speak for the actual costs of the Rafsanjani campaign, the methods that the campaign is using are, indeed, unconventional. They are particularly unconventional for post-revolutionary Iran.

The Rafsanjani campaign has employed Iran’s hip youth as its army of unpaid campaign workers. They wrap themselves in Hashemi stickers, tape his poster on their backs, celebrate soccer success in his name, attend performances at the candidate’s Tehran headquarters and participate in skating events. They wear Rafsanjani campaign materials like fashion accessories.

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This army of hip youth may be politically apathetic in large part, but that does not really matter. The Rafsanjani campaign has grabbed the image of youth and energy for itself. You might say that the Rafsanjani generation and the Pepsi generation are one. In other words, it may not matter to Pepsi whether the Pepsi generation drinks Pepsi, as long as Pepsi’s sales are robust; similarly, as long as Rafsanjani wins the election, who cares who voted for him.

The Graphic Image

Rafsanjani is his own brand. Because of his uncommon looks, he is, arguably, the most recognized cleric in the world. As with every other candidate in Iran’s presidential election, his image covers entire walls.

The campaign puts forth several images of Rafsanjani: the official site features a photo album [no longer available] that highlights his revolutionary achievements, while the popular photo-sharing site Flickr displays a very different view of the candidate.

The posters with his image are conservative and traditional, while the popular Hashemi sticker is really quite radical. On it, the Iranian flag is reduced to an abstract mark. His name, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is reduced to Hashemi.

Hashemi

In a country where wives often call their husbands by formal names like Engineer (Mohandes) or Mister (Agha) and young girls are often called Little Miss (Dokhtar Khanum), the use of a name other than the surname is more than familiar: it is intimate.

With the plastering Hashemi stickers on ankles, across foreheads and on motorcycle windscreens, the Rafsanjani brand has come to mean that it is offering intimacy and friendship.

Will It Work?
ELECTION FUN NIGHT

Only time will tell how truly effective the Rafsanjani campaign has been. One thing is for certain: Political campaigns in Iran have changed. The Rafsanjani campaign is just one of the many signs of that change. (Check out the Flickr photo tag Election84 for a sense of this visual election.)

The campaign of former police chief Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, who is number two or three in the running, also targets the youth. With his casual and stylish clothes, chic glasses, and sponsors such as Efes Zero Alcohol beer, the Qalibaf campaign directly competes with the Rafsanjani campaign for the hearts of Iran’s youthful population.

The biggest difference between the two marketing styles is this: Rafsanjani’s campaign is fueled by the images of teenagers and 20-somethings wrapped in Hashemi accessories, while Qalibaf’s marketing team has chosen to make the candidate himself the symbol of youth with his new fashionable outfits and attractive image.

We’ll Be Watching

It isn’t just the presidential candidates who are seeking to brand and re-brand themselves–it’s the entire country of Iran.

Plans are in the works for a tourism campaign that will target CNN’s international audience. Payvand News reports that the country is ready for foreign tourists and investors.

Well, we’ll be watching.

Cooking Aubergine Stew with Halleh Ghorashi

(Or as we Americans call it: Eggplant)

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Before going to Iran, I had eaten only stale, tasteless turmeric that added colour rather than flavour. On my first full day in Iran, I had a dish of eggplant stuffed with ground lamb, topped with unripe grapes, and seasoned with turmeric. I thought it was cinnamon, even writing in my diary that it was a different kind of cinnamon, “deeper and more earthy tasting. It isn’t as light or sweet. I guess you could say that it tastes as though it was grown with cumin…”

Now, every time I taste turmeric, I think of those early days in Iran, when I hadn’t yet overdosed on kebab and hospitality, and every meal was rife with new flavours and observations.

Food is a bridge to the past, and the best dishes come accompanied by good stories. This week, I cooked a stew of eggplant and chicken with Halleh Ghorashi, an influential scholar in the Netherlands, who I know came there as a refugee. Among her friends, however, she is more known for her cooking than for any of her academic accomplishments.

“When I cook, I cook with love,” she said. “I think of it like a painting that I compose with care.”

The dish she chose to cook was one that provided an enduring link with her mother and her own troubled childhood. When she cooks her eggplant dish, Halleh can’t help but remember the strain of growing up with a mother who suffered from schizophrenia.

“It was always a painful relationship. Her life was dominated by her sickness and there was a direct connection between her miserable life and me, since her schizophrenia emerged with my birth. From that moment, my mom was never normal like other moms. I was often embarrassed of her sickness. She was fighting all the time with her family, with the neighbours, with my father, with everyone.”

Read the whole article on Tehran Bureau, The Guardian

The Last Days of the Tehran American School

“Everyone wants to go back,” says one former student.

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[ feature ]In 1978, the Tehran American School closed its doors after 24 years in operation. J. Thom McInnis, a high school senior at the time, had a part-time job working for Pan Am. “I remember evacuating many of my schoolmates and their families those last days when I worked at the airport,” he says. “I remember fathers throwing their children over the heads of the crowds at the airport in a bid to get closer to the front of the line for those limited seats out of the country.” 

For Anthony Roberts, author of Sons of the Great Satan, the sudden departure from Iran came as a shock. “I was angry. I was pissed off. I didn’t understand it because I was a teenaged boy. Now that I am older, I understand it was the loss that really made me angry.” Overnight, his whole world abruptly changed. He was separated from his closest friends and uprooted from the place he’d come to call home.

When I left Iran, I didn’t know what happened to any of my classmates for 30 years…. It wasn’t like so-and-so went off to this college and so-and-so went off to that college. It was like 24 hours. You can pack one bag. You have to leave now. Nothing set up on the other end. You’re just going home to set up with relatives and go on from there.

Social networking brought the former classmates back together. They started reaching out to one another and now have several active groups on Facebook. Roberts says, “For some of us there were tears. It was like a 30-year-old weight lifted from us.”

Read more: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2012/11/feature-the-last-days-of-the-tehran-american-school.html#ixzz2CTjICuL1]

The Speech Squeeze

Learning the language of self-censorship

Poker. Rumi. The US Postal Service motto: Neither snow nor rain nor heat…Serendipity. All have their roots in ancient Persia. No matter how much you think you know about Iran, there’s always more. It’s no surprise, then, that you know so little before boarding a plane to take you to Tehran.

Maybe you’re nervous. Pulling the unfamiliar scarf close around your head. Tucking in loose strands as the plane rattles over the Alborz mountains for its landing. You expect prying eyes, secrecy, and suspicion. What you don’t expect is the friendly welcome from strangers and family, the chaos at the airport, the sheer number of women in black hijab everywhere you look.

The first week you are in Iran is a revelation. Everyone you meet speaks to you. Strangers try out a few words of English, speak to you in simple Persian. They express opinions. Slam the government. Make jokes about clerics. Shout out: We love you miss, in heavily accented English.

There are people and cars everywhere. You see women in sheer headscarves braving the treacherous pavement in high heels and challenging the limits of acceptable hijab. You see daredevil teenagers roller blading in and out of traffic and up and down the cement steps in Tehran’s largest park.

Read more at Article 19.

The Beauty Regime

When I first started living in Iran, I was a kind of an illiterate, exotic creature who had to learn the alphabet from scratch and could have meaningful conversations only with toddlers. I was tolerated and coddled in equal measures, which made life easier for me. My mistakes were cute and lovable instead of breaches of protocol that could cause catastrophic rifts in the delicate political balance of the family.

It wasn’t just language that messed with me. I was a fashion disaster, ill-mannered and coarse. I must have seemed an oaf to people who’d practiced good manners for millennia.

Nothing made me feel more oafish than the women surrounding me. Most wouldn’t dream of leaving the house looking less than perfect. Their nails were exactingly manicured, their hair straightened and dyed, their bracelets gold, their eyes carefully outlined. At parties they wore low-cut, form-fitting dresses. They danced with flair as though their hips were unhinged, while my moves had been learned in proto-mosh pits. I could slam with the best of them, but anything more refined required concentration.

On top of that, my eyebrows had never been trimmed and my hair was unruly. I had never quite outgrown my tomboy phase and the longest time I’d spent in heels was about two hours: long enough to dance at a friend’s wedding.

In the cafés in North Tehran, women let the obligatory headscarves slip to their shoulders, making a great show of lifting them up over exquisitely coiffed hair. They balanced on heels high enough to make me dizzy, navigating the uneven pavement with grace.

Read more at Tehran Bureau.

Too Much Is Never Enough: Making Ghelye Mahi

Every time we had people over for dinner, my husband would say to me, “Tori, we didn’t make enough food.”

“How can that be?” I’d ask. “There are leftovers.” It wasn’t until we moved to Iran in 2003 for a four-year stay that I understood what he meant. A chicken leg or two is not leftovers. It’s ta’rof — good manners. It’s what the guests leave behind so you won’t think you served them insufficiently. “Enough food” means that another party can be fed with what is left over at the end of the evening.

The first time we were invited out in Iran, we were served omelets, fish, whole roasted chicken, yogurt and cucumbers, yogurt and spinach, tomato, cucumber, and onion salad, salad with iceberg lettuce and Thousand Island dressing, spring chicken kebabs, and chopped lamb kebabs. All of this was brought to the table just before midnight. Kamran whispered, “Do they think we’re cows?”

I tell you this so you won’t balk at the amount of food my friend Zohreh Sanaseri (pictured) prepared for our dinner of ghelye (ghalieh) mahi — a stew of fish, herbs, and tamarind paste. She invited three others to share the stew with us, but made enough for at least ten people.

In four years of living in Iran, I never once encountered ghelye mahi. In fact, it wasn’t until a night out at a Persian restaurant in Amsterdam that I ate it for the first time. The flavor was surprising: sharp, sour, sweet, and fishy all at once. It was made with many of the ingredients found in other stews I’d eaten in Iran, but tasted nothing like them. I searched for recipes and tried making it a few times before giving up. None was as good as my first time…

And then I ate ghelye mahi at the home of my friend Zohreh, who hails from the city of Abadan in southwestern Iran. “It was the Paris of Iran,” the eldest of her two daughters, who were born in the Netherlands, tells me. “Was,” Zohreh emphasizes. “Before the war.”

It was the war with Iraq that drove Zohreh and her family out of Iran. She settled in the Netherlands with her husband when she was just 25. “I had never cooked before in my life,” she says. “I learned everything here.”

Read more at Tehran Bureau.

Unveiling Iran

In 1978 and 1979, life in Iran drastically changed. This was especially true for women and girls, who once again found themselves and their bodies the focus of revolutionary change. Decades earlier they’d been forced to give up the veil in the name of modernity. Now they were forced to put it back on. They could no longer sing or dance in public. Iranian photographers Newsha Tavakolian and Kamran Asthary use their work to respond to a world fundamentally changed…

Read the article and see the images at Neuland Magazin.