At long last, the United States and Iran are engaged in serious talks about Iran's nuclear program. But instead of celebrating the fact that President Obama is keeping his promise to the people who voted for him to pursue diplomatic engagement with Iran, the New York Times has suggested to its readers that Iran's Supreme Leader is uniquely and intrinsically untrustworthy when he says that Iran will never pursue a nuclear weapon. Why? Because, according to the Times, Iran's leaders are Shiites, and Shiites have a religious doctrine called "taqiyya," which allows them to lie.
No scholar or analyst was cited by the New York Times in support of this argument, which should have been a red flag for Times editors for an argument claiming that the leadership of a country against which the United States has threatened war is essentially different from us because they belong to a different religion.
Last Saturday - the same day the United States and Iran were having "constructive and useful" discussions on Iran's nuclear program in Istanbul, according to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton - the New York Times published a piece titled, "Seeking Nuclear Insight in Fog of the Ayatollah's Utterances," over the byline of James Risen.
That piece contained the following paragraph:
Complicating matters further, some analysts say that Ayatollah Khamenei's denial of Iranian nuclear ambitions has to be seen as part of a Shiite historical concept called taqiyya, or religious dissembling. For centuries an oppressed minority within Islam, Shiites learned to conceal their sectarian identity to survive, and so there is a precedent for lying to protect the Shiite community.
Middle East historian and blogger Juan Cole recently wrote a polemic against progressive U.S. critics of the new U.S. war in Libya. In his polemic, he wrote, "I hope we can have a calm and civilized discussion of the rights and wrongs here."
I strongly agree with Juan that it is important for progressive critics of U.S. foreign policy to try to have a calm and civilized discussion about the issues that have been raised by the U.S. military intervention in Libya. In general, it's important to try to have calm and civilized discussions about all issues of public policy, even when - especially when - the underlying issues are matters of life and death. The alternative is nasty polemics, and a principal effect of nasty polemics is to exclude people from discussion who don't want to engage in nasty polemics. In this way the effect of nasty polemics is anti-democratic; nasty polemics tend to demobilize people and cause them to disengage, when what we need is the opposite: more engagement and more mobilization.
In this particular case, the decision of the Obama Administration to engage the country in a new Middle East war without Congressional authorization represents a long-term threat to the U.S. peace movement, because the U.S. peace movement is engaged in a long struggle to try to influence U.S. policy in the direction of less war, and Congress is a key arena in which the peace movement tries to assert influence over U.S. policy. If you take away power from Congress to determine issues of war and peace, you substantially reduce the power of the U.S. peace movement to influence issues of war and peace. Taking away Congressional war powers is to the peace movement like taking away collective bargaining is to the labor movement: a direct threat to our ability to move our agenda on behalf of our constituents.
There is a tradition among some peace activists of striking a pose of annoyed indifference to the question of how to get out of an unpopular war. "There are three ways to get out," goes one waggish response. "Air, land, and sea."
This is funny and emotionally satisfying, and also represents a truth for peace activists: ending the war is a first principle, not something contingent on whether a particular means of doing so satisfies someone else's notion of what is practical.
On the other hand, peace activists can't be satisfied with being right; they also are morally compelled to try to be effective. And part of being effective is giving consideration to, and seeking to publicize, arguments are likely to end the war sooner rather than later. It's not likely, for example, that discussing ways in which the war might be useful for the long-term maintenance of the "capitalist world system" will turn the Washington debate against war in the short run. If, on the other hand, central to the official story is a claim that the war is a war against Al Qaeda, but senior U.S. officials publicly concede that there is no significant Al Qaeda presence today in Afghanistan, that is certainly a fact worth knowing and spreading.
Judging from commentary in the blogosphere, many Americans are already convinced by suggestions that have been carried in the media that the Presidential election in Iran was stolen. [Some press reports have been a bit more careful: the lead paragraph of the front page story in Sunday's New York Times says that "it is impossible to know for sure" if the result reflects the popular will.]
But the evidence that has been presented so far that the election was stolen has not been convincing.
Iran does not allow independent international election observers, and there is a scarcity of independent, systematic data.
But shortly before the election, Terror Free Tomorrow and the New America Foundation published a poll that was financed by the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. Based on this poll, the official result - a victory for Ahmadinejad in the first round - was entirely predictable. "Ahmadinejad Front Runner in Upcoming Presidential Elections," the poll reported.
The poll was conducted between May 11 and May 20, and claimed a margin of error of 3.1%. Among its respondents, 34% said they would vote for incumbent President Ahmadinejad, 14% said they would vote for Mir Hussein Moussavi, 2% said they would vote for Mehdi Karroubi, and 1% said they would vote for Mohsen Rezai. Declared support for these four candidates represented 51% of the sample; 27% of the sample said they didn't know who they would vote for. [This accounts for 78% of the sample; the survey report doesn't explicitly characterize the other 22% of the sample, but presumably they were divided between those who did not intend to vote and those who refused to respond to the question.