Confident Iran sings its own tune
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - International crooner Chris de Burgh, whose 1986 classic Lady in Red
is popular among Iranian youth, has reportedly been denied a permit to sing in
De Burgh had expressed a desire to perform in Tehran this autumn alongside
Iranian pop group Arian. The subsequent refusal speaks volumes about where
Tehran is heading in its confrontation with the West - specifically, towards
greater domestic radicalization on grand issues, like its nuclear program, and
on smaller ones, like a musical concert by a European singer.
De Burgh's music - apolitical by any standard - would not, or
should not, be banned in Iran, especially considering that the European star
has many fans in Tehran. That explains why the Iranian Ministry of Culture
hurriedly denied the reports, saying that De Burgh had not properly applied -
although members of Arian said he had been given earlier approval to perform.
The singer had been in Tehran last May, recording a song with Arian, but has
never performed there - nor has any Western performer - since the Islamic
revolution of 1979. Earlier, under reformist president Mohammad Khatami in the
1990s, a ban on De Burgh's music (along with other bands like Queen and the
Gypsy Kings) had been lifted, only to be re-instated by the Mahmud Ahmadinejad
administration that came to power in 2005.
Radicalization in Iraq
The radicalization in Iranian politics is best reflected in its war-torn
neighbor, Iraq. In Baghdad, Iran's ally Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, seems to
be getting the upper hand. He currently stands alone at center stage, with
Kurdish President Jalal Talbani in the US, and the Sunni speaker of parliament
Mahmud al-Mashadani in Amman, both undergoing surgery.
News over the weekend, coming out of Maliki's office, speaks of grand
successes, such as 733 insurgents surrendering their arms to the Baghdad
government - a sign that Maliki's security strategy is working. Maliki boasted
of grand security measures to protect Shi'ite pilgrims in Karbala, speaking of
40,000 men, checkpoints at every corner, airplanes hovering nearby, and teams
of female police to body search women suicide bombers.
Thanks to these measures, over 220 Iraqi refugees living in Egypt (out of a
total 100,000) were invited to return home by the prime minister, as testimony
to how safe Maliki's Iraq had become. This caused outcry from Iraqi
non-governmental organizations, which argued that Maliki was leading the
returning refugees to their doom and claimed that he was trying to send out a
political message on his success (at the urging of Iran) at the expense of the
returnees who might be killed, kidnapped, or left to rot in the slums of
All of the returning refugees are Sunnis. Mohammad Askari, the pro-Maliki
spokesman of the Ministry of Defense, added to Maliki's PR campaign by saying
on August 18 that all senior members of al-Qaeda had fled to Afghanistan "due
to the repeated defeats inflicted upon them [by the Iraqi Army]". He continued
- with a completely straight face - that the remaining mid-level commanders
"will be rounded up in no time".
Thamer Uwed, the head of the Awakening Council in Diyali, was arrested by
Maliki's men on the charges of embezzlement. Uwed, a former member of al-Qaeda
who had been emir of jihad in Diyali, Kirkuk, and Salahuddine province, shifted
into the American orbit in 2007 and took up arms and money to fight al-Qaeda
with members of the Awakening Councils.
Maliki, who hates the Awakening Councils because they are composed of Sunni
tribal heavyweights, has repeatedly refused to cooperate with them and
constantly tells the Americans that the councils, which uses US arms, will turn
their weapons on US troops and then the Shi'ites and Iran, once they have done
There has been heavy pressure on him to incorporate parts of the Awakening
Councils into the Iraqi Army. Of their original 103,000 members, Maliki has
agreed to accept no more than 16,000. He warns that taking on a larger number
would legitimize Sunni arms at the expense of the Shi'ites, and if more were to
be institutionalized within the Iraqi state, he would be forced to do the same
with Shi'ite militias, to keep a balance.
All of that, naturally, is under the advice of the Iranians. According to
Professor Juan Cole's blog on Iraq,
US officials in Baghdad are
genuinely worried that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has become
"over-confident" about his military capabilities and has therefore become
unreasonably difficult to deal with ... he now firmly controls the intelligence
apparatus and has military operations centers under his authority throughout
That is, of course, thanks to the funds and
support he is getting from the Iranians. In other words, Maliki is looking the
other way when the Americans ask him to reconcile with the Sunnis and work with
groups like the Awakening Councils and the Iraqi Accordance Front, which walked
out on his government in August 2007. Over the weekend, the US pressured Maliki
to come up with solid evidence to back their claims that the Iranian Quds
Brigade is arming insurgents in Iraq. Maliki turned a deaf ear.
According to the Iranian government, its exports to Iraq reached US$1 billion
in 2007-2008 - another temptation for Maliki to bet on the Iranians. Arab
states are worried that Iraq is slipping out of their hands and further into
Iran's. Even worse, the US is incapable of doing anything to prevent this
transition. By all accounts, even the Iraqi prime minister is not taking the
current administration too seriously, knowing that its days in Washington DC
The 2,000-strong Georgian contingent has meanwhile been evacuated from Iraq
(the third-largest force after the US and UK) due to the war with Russia. This
has come much to the displeasure of the White House. Further, the UK has
announced that it might be reducing its troops to 2,500 in 2009 (they currently
stand at 4,100). That might explain why King Abdullah II of Jordan hurried to
Baghdad this month, the first Arab monarch to visit Iraq since the toppling of
Saddam Hussein in 2003. Saudi King Abdullah cannot make the visit (it's simply
too dangerous for the leader of the world’s largest oil-producing kingdom) so
he has delegated his ally, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora to do so in
late August 2008.
Radicalization everywhere else
Last weekend, Iran opened two administrative offices on the Abu Musa Island (a
disputed area that is legally the property of the United Arab Emirates),
further angering Arab states in the Gulf, along with the Arab League. The
provocative move came just weeks after Iran broadcast a film accusing former
President of Egypt Anwar al-Sadat of being a traitor for signing peace with
Israel. The film sparked anger throughout Cairo, which has had not had full
diplomatic relations with Tehran since 1979.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), furious at the provocation, summoned the
Iranian representative in Abu Dhabi and handed him a strongly worded protest
letter calling on Iran to change course and settle the issue by arbitration.
Saudi Arabia seconded the UAE claim, but Iran turned a blind eye to their words
and refused to close down the offices.
Adding insult to injury, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mohammadi
said that Arab Gulf states and rulers would soon be facing a crisis of
legitimacy (in clear reference to both the UAE and Saudis), noting, "The Middle
East will remain as a center of developments and crises so long as the royal
regimes in the Gulf remain in place, and conflicts will not be resolved without
the disappearance of these traditional regimes."
Twenty-four hours later, Tehran launched an Iranian-made satellite-carrier
rocket called Saffir (Ambassador), in anticipation of sending another one, this
time for telecommunications, called Omid (Hope). Reza Taghipour, head of Iran's
space agency, added that Iran plans to send more satellites into space by 2010
and send a spy satellite by 2015.
Ahmadinejad, who was present at the event, proudly boasted, "Sanctions have not
isolated us. Instead, we have become more independent." Iranian Defense
Minister Brigadier General Mustapha Mohammad-Najjar sent shockwaves throughout
the Arab world and the US, by adding, "Iranian scientists are always reaching
new peaks in scientific and technological progress. The successful launch of
Saffir shows that Iran has access to the ultra-modern technology required to
manufacture, launch and track satellites as well as transmit and receive
information from them."
This only served to further cement Western fears that Iran is developing
long-range ballistic missile technology, which can be used to launch nuclear
weapons. Gordon Johndroe, the White House spokesman, commented that Iran's
latest action is "troubling and raises further questions about their
If anything, the radicalization of Iran - and the policies of Iraq's Maliki -
are testimony that Tehran feels strong and that Iran can do whatever it wants
and get away with it. There is a feeling in Tehran and Baghdad that the Bush
administration is beginning its long march into history and is too weak and too
distracted to pursue any foolish new adventure in the Persian Gulf.