ROVING EYE A frenzied Persian new
year By Pepe Escobar
TEHRAN - March 20 was to have been the day
that Iran was attacked by either the United States
or Israel, according to countless doomsday
predictions. The fateful date has come and gone,
and there has been no replay of "shock and awe".
March 20 was also meant to see the
inauguration of the Kish oil bourse, on which
Iranian oil will be traded in a basket of
currencies, including the euro. But because of "technical
glitches", according to the
Ministry of Petroleum, the launch has been
postponed, with no new date set.
and awe, no oil-bourse shock. Iran, anyway, has
come to a standstill. Not because of geopolitics;
it is just reconnecting with its rich, pre-Islamic
Hardly anything has moved in Iran
since Monday night, except a reduced staff at the
Ministry of Foreign Relations and a special cell
at the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC)
monitoring the nuclear debate at the United
Nations Security Council, where members can't
agree on how to respond to Iran.
ironic that this heated debate in New York happens
exactly at the onset of Nauroz (literally "new
day"), the Persian New Year. This is not only a
celebration for all Iranians, but for all the
Iranian world, from the Caucasus to Central Asia,
and for Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq as well.
Fifteen centuries after the arrival of Islam, the
rhythm of time remains influenced by
Zoroastrianism. And more than 27 years after the
Islamic Revolution, clerics gave up fighting with
tradition; this past weekend they were all hitting
the shops buying gifts and sweets.
in Iran is the beginning of the legal year in the
solar calendar. Practically the whole country
shuts down, in many cases until early April.
Everybody buys new clothes and cleans up his
house. Families gather around a ritual table where
seven fruits, dishes or objects with names
starting with an "s" are disposed; vegetables are
always present, or lentils, which should be thrown
into a waterway on the 13th day of the new year.
On this particular day, every family sets out in a
sort of massive national picnic.
destabilization game Just before Nauroz,
the political temperature was no picnic; it was as
feverish as the shopping. A terrorist attack
convulsed one of Iran's sensitive borders, the
desert province of Sistan-Balochistan, with at
least 23 dead, six injured and 12 missing.
Journalist Akbar Ganji, a
freedom-of-expression icon, was released after six
years in prison and quite a few hunger strikes -
although the official Islamic Republic News Agency
(IRNA) was reporting that would only happen at the
end of the month. This past Saturday, the
combative newspaper Shargh printed a magnificent
photo on its front page of an emaciated Ganji
smiling alongside his wife. Ganji is not making
any political comments; he said he could be again
thrown in jail. His early release was later spun
as a "compassionate leave", so he could be with
his family for Nauroz.
Manouchehr Mottaki, trying to defuse the nuclear
tension, was saying that the government expected
"fair, logical and comprehensive decisions" from
the Security Council over its handling of Iran's
nuclear dossier, while SNSC Secretary Ali Larijani
acknowledged Iraq's call, via the leader of the
Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq
(SCIRI), Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, of a high-level
dialogue between the US and Iran on Iraq.
Larijani, along with his brother, are
extremely influential on high-level policy and
close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Larijani is like an anointed prince, although he
lacked the charisma to muster enough votes and win
last summer's presidential elections. But in
matters of supreme national interest, he wields
more power than President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
The proposed Iran-US talks on Iraq have
done nothing to erase suspicions on both sides. In
diplomatic and government circles in Tehran, the
chronology making the rounds is telling.
Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad, the powerful US
ambassador in Iraq, wrote a letter to Iranian
high-level officials requesting a negotiation. The
letter was written in Persian; Khalilzad speaks
Dari, a Persian dialect. Only afterward, SCIRI
leader Hakim publicly invited Iran to hold talks
with the Americans.
The point is that Iran
does not need to destabilize Iraq or to perform an
"unhelpful role" - as the White House, the
Pentagon and the State Department claim non-stop.
Iranian influence remains strong whichever of the
Islamic parties - SCIRI or Da'wa - leads the next
Iraqi government. Hakim's move, nonetheless,
entails the possibility of the SCIRI positioning
its prime-ministerial candidate, Abdul Adel Mahdi,
in opposition to the current preferred United
Iraqi Alliance candidate, Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
Mahdi has been to Washington and has good US
connections. Unlike Jaafari, he would be
acceptable to both Kurds and Sunnis.
Larijani has already stated that the
Iranians will appoint a delegation to talk to
Khalilzad. But that implies the Iranians will
negotiate in a position of force. Government
spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham stresses that "the
Americans have long been asking us to hold talks
on Iraq" - not exactly the spin coming from
Washington. He adds that "what is important for us
is to bring an end to the Iraqi occupation".
Though certainly not on an Iraqi scale,
Iran is also a victim of terrorism. Last Thursday,
a heavily armed group disguised as policemen set
up a mock roadblock on the Zabol-to-Zahedan road
in Sistan-Balochistan, near the sensitive borders
with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and attacked an
official convoy. People were dragged out of their
cars and gunned down.
government is playing down the possibility of a
drug-related raid. Hardline Interior Minister
Mostafa Purmohammadi said the perpetrators were
the same ones who conducted a series of bombings
in Ahvaz, in oil-rich Khuzestan province, months
ago. The minister told the Iranian Students' News
Agency (ISNA) that "according to our reports, US
and British security chiefs met with rebel leaders
and provoked them to commit the attacks". Iranian
officials are adamant that British and US
operatives are active in destabilizing Khuzestan -
which Saddam Hussein called Arabistan - in a
series of black operations, although Washington
and London have rejected the accusations.
Separatist Arabs and Balochis provoking
unrest looks like a classic "divide and rule"
tactic of trying to destabilize the central
government in Tehran. When the long Nauroz party
is over, one wonders whether the players in the
Iran-US talks on Iraq will really address the hard
questions - who's helping whom in the