United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Robin Wright's Blog

Iran's Dinner Diplomacy

Robin Wright (for The New Yorker)

           Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, did not shake hands with Barack Obama at the United Nations this week, a year after their celebrated cell-phone chat. The two men didn’t even pass each other in the hallway. But Rouhani did give a quiet dinner at his hotel on Tuesday for twenty former American officials—including a secretary of state, three national-security advisers, and a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—from all six Administrations since the 1979 revolution.

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Iran's Dissidents, Released But Not Freed

Robin Wright
(Excerpt from The New Yorker)

            Rouhani’s victory, an upset, spawned great expectations of change. A pragmatic centrist, he campaigned on the promise of “hope and prudence.” After the election, in a series of speeches and tweets, he pledged new freedoms and challenged past practices, including censorship. His quasi-official account tweeted, “Web filtering unable to produce results. Which important piece of news has #filtering been able to black out in recent years.” Rouhani was particularly tough on the country’s state-controlled television, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (I.R.I.B.):

            Over the past year, though, Rouhani has conspicuously failed to uphold his promise.

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Singing Amy Winehouse in Tehran

Robin Wright (for The New Yorker)

      For decades, both before and after his 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini railed against “Westoxication”—the poisoning of Iran’s Islamic society by Western culture. The new theocracy banned everything from music and dancing to modern art. Tehran’s National Museum of Contemporary Art crated away Picassos, Pollocks, Warhols, and Mirós worth billions. Even chess, a game with local roots, was banned. The Islamic Republic has been consumed ever since with its own clash of cultures.

            But female singers still face the toughest taboos. “Women’s voices should not be heard by men other than members of their own families,” Khomeini decreed. But when I was in Tehran, the fat woman literally sang in Iran—and Western pop songs, no less. To cheers and whistles in Tehran’s elegant opera house, Ghazal Shakeri belted out “Back to Black,” a provocative Amy Winehouse song. The lyrics had to be modified, but only a bit. Instead of “kept his dick with,” Shakeri sang “kept his lips with.” The performance was one of a dozen Western numbers incorporated into “The Last Days of Esfand,” an Iranian musical about a female psychiatrist treating a troubled young criminal. The two leads, Shakeri and a man named Ashkan Khatibi, sang several duets, including Abba’s rousing “The Winner Takes It All,” a poignant version of “Autumn Leaves,” and a spirited “Those Were the Days, My Friend,” which includes lines about raising “a glass or two” and singing and dancing forever. They were accompanied by three female backup singers (left).

Click here for the full article in The New Yorker.

Photo credit: Robin Wright

Javad Zarif on Iran’s Nuclear Negotiations

Robin Wright (for the The New Yorker)

      Iran and the six powers must address points of contention on virtually every aspect of a nuclear deal, from the future of suspect facilities to accounting for past programs, but Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has been noticeably upbeat about prospects for a breakthrough. I asked him how difficult it would be to reach an agreement. The red lines—particularly between Washington and Tehran—often seem insurmountable.
      “It’s going to be both hard and easy,” he said. “Easy, because ostensibly we have a convergence of views on the objectives. We don’t want nuclear weapons, and they say the objective is to insure Iran does not have nuclear weapons. So, if that is the objective, in my view it’s already achieved. We just have to find mechanisms for agreeing on the process.”
Click here for the full article in The New Yorker.

Photo credit: Robin Wright

Thousands Suffer from Chemical Weapons Quarter Century Later

            The following article first appeared in Time magazine.

Robin Wright

           Hassan Hassani Sa’di has been dying from chemical weapons for almost 30 years. The Iranian still remembers the moment he realized Iraqi warplanes were dropping more than regular bombs. “I knew,” he says, “because of the smell of garlic.” It was the pungent and telltale aroma of mustard gas.
      Death from mustard gas is gruesome; so is survival. It hideously disfigures skin, sears lungs and mucus membranes, and often blinds. Unlike nerve gas, there’s no antidote. Sa’di, then an 18-year-old fighting in the Middle East’s grisliest modern war — the 8-year conflict between Iran and Iraq — survived the Iraqi attack on the strategic Fao Peninsula in 1985. Within hours, his body was badly blistered, and he had gone blind. “The last thing I remember is vomiting green,” he says, during an interview at the Tehran Peace Museum, a facility dedicated to education and the documentation of weapons of mass destruction.
      Iran is today the world’s largest laboratory for the study of the effects of chemical weapons, in part because of the sheer numbers of Iranian victims, but also because of a little-studied phenomenon called low-dose exposure. In 1991, a declassified CIA report estimated that Iran suffered more than 50,000 casualties from Iraq’s repeated use of nerve agents and toxic gases in the 1980s. Mustard gas — in dusty, liquid and vapor forms — was used the most during the war. It was packed into bombs and artillery shells, then fired at frontlines and beyond, including at hospitals.
            Years after the war, however, Iranian doctors noticed that respiratory diseases with unusual side-symptoms — corneal disintegration, rotting teeth and dementia, a combination synonymous with mustard gas — had started killing off veterans who had not always been on the frontlines. Civilians were also dying.
            So in 2000, the government launched a media campaign urging people who had been in certain areas during the war to report for check-ups. The ads didn’t specify why.
The troubling pattern was soon diagnosed as secondary contamination to mustard gas. “We may only have seen the tip of the iceberg. We may not yet have seen the majority of victims,” Dr. Farhad Hashemnezhad told me in 2002. “At least 20 percent of the current patients are civilians who didn’t think they were close enough to be exposed.”
            Numbers have since soared from the lingering, and unanticipated, effects of mustard gas. Dr. Shahriar Khateri, Iran’s leading expert on chemical weapons victims, now says 70,000 are registered, many from low-dose exposure that is now killing them.
            “We now know that the latency period can be 40 years,” says Khateri, who is unsure of his own fate. Khateri volunteered to fight at age 15 after his brother was killed in the war. He was gassed in 1987 during the battle for southern port of Khorramshahr. After the war, he went to medical school and co-founded the Society for Chemical Weapons Victims Support.
Iranian doctors say the final toll of Iraq’s chemical weapons could ultimately rival the 90,000 who died from toxic gases in World War I.
            In the meantime, Iran has struggled to tend to victims. Sa’di has had 8 surgeries to transplant or repair both corneas, but still has to hold his watch to his face, and sunlight is painful. He takes multiple medications to help breathe, but has a hacking cough. He does not work — the state gives him disability allowance — although he volunteers as an occasional docent at the Tehran Peace Museum to tell his story.
            In Tehran, chemical weapons victims often end up at Sasan Hospital, a grim facility that had been the American Hospital of Tehran before the 1979 revolution. Abolfazl Afazali is one of 22 patients struggling for life at Sasan when I visit in December. “One of my wishes,” he says, “is to be able to take a deep breath.”
            U.S. sanctions have complicated treatment, Iranian doctors say. Humanitarian goods are technically exempt, but international banks have often been unwilling to conduct financial transactions with Iran, even when legal, for fear of repercussions.
            Ahmad Zangiabadi represented Iranian victims at the 2013 conference of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. He is no longer mobile, however. He sleeps sitting upright on the floor of his small apartment because the exertion of lying down and getting up is too much for his lungs. He is kept alive on an Airsep New Life Alert oxygen machine, which pushes oxygen into his lungs and makes a thudding sound with every breath. But he has had increasing trouble getting inhalers made by Spiriva and Glaxo Smith Kline. “Life has become a prison the past four months,” he says.
            The lingering impact of a war that ended in a 1988 truce, at a cost of an estimated 1 million Iranian and Iraqi casualties, still defines Iran’s worldview. It has been as important as economic sanctions in pushing Tehran to the negotiating table with the world’s six major powers on its nuclear program. As a result of the war, Iran suffers from “strategic loneliness,” explained Nasser Hadian, a University of Tehran political scientist.
            The primary lesson learned, he said, was that Iran had no allies even when it was a victim of weapons banned since World War I by international norms.Tehran felt a sense of isolation and betrayal after the United Nations verified Iraq’s repeated use chemical weapons, but the outside world still almost unanimously sided with Saddam Hussein. Iran’s neighbors aided him. Europeans and Russians sold him arms.
            The United States was complicit too. Washington provided Baghdad with intelligence on Iran’s equipment and troops strengths to help Iraq retake the Fao Peninsula in 1988. Iraq made widespread use of chemical weapons to win it back.
            The final tally of the war may still not be known for years, Khateri says. “Most of the men exposed to chemical weapons were not registered casualties at the time,” he says. “So almost every day there are new cases — 30 years after the war.”
This article is reposted from Time magazine.
Photo credit: Sajed.ir via Wikimedia Commons


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