Iran bans online chats between men and women: True? Or false?

I'm gonna wash that man right offa your screen. Or not.

I’m gonna wash that man right off of your screen. Or not.

This started four days ago, cropping up all over Twitter in that mushroomy fashion, as if it had rained. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, had used “his own website” to issue a fatwa barring men and women from chatting together online, “given the immorality that often applies to this.” The story got retweeted by real human rights activists, like Suzanne Nossel, head of the PEN American Center:
nossel fatwa copyAnd by fake ones, like Ben Weinthal, paid to propagandize for an Iran war by the so-called Foundation for Defense of Democracies:
weinthal fatwa copy Robert Spencer, the highly profit-making one-man Islamophobic road show, seized on it:
spencer fatwa copy And for some reason, the story seems to have been a big hit in Indonesia, where perhaps it allowed believers in a notoriously syncretic Islam to laugh at those crazy Iranians:
indonesia chatting iran copyHere’s my question, though: Is this true? Because there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it is.

First off, some definitions are in order. For many Americans and Europeans, “fatwa” carries implications of draconian bloodthirstiness, largely because the only one they’ve heard of was the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death decree against Salman Rushdie in 1988. In fact, a fatwa can be about anything. It means any interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence issued by a qualified scholar, usually in response to a believer’s question. Twelver Shi’ism — the branch of Shi’ism that derives legitimacy from a line of twelve imams who succeeded the Prophet, and is the prevailing faith in Iran — has a much more defined and rigorous clerical hierarchy than almost any other strain of Islam. Even the highest clerics are kept on their toes answering regular questions from their lay followers, in part because just this busywork vindicates their scholarly relevance. You can compare this to Roman Catholicism, which similarly has survived for centuries owing to its intense pastoral involvement in its believers’ lives, and the authoritarian structure underpinning that engagement. The Internet age only encourages all this. Almost any major cleric has a website with a Q & A section, a running Dear Abby column advising the faithful on the do-and-don’t minutiae of their daily lives. The subjects run from Banking, holidays for, and Inheritance, cognatic cousins and, to Secretions, bodily, disposal of, and Weddings, music at. And everything in between.

Ayatollah Khameini has two websites: one in his capacity as Supreme Leader (www.leader.ir) and another (farsi.khamenei.ir), which I hesitate to call “personal” — it carries no suggestion of a private life — centering rather more on his religious and cultural activities; it might resemble a campaign website, if the man ever had to run for anything. Each contains its own section of fatawa. I spent two nights online with an Iranian friend, going over these websites in some detail, concentrating on the main, Farsi pages but with some attention to the English sections as well. We found nothing resembling the fatwa against men and women chatting. An Iran expert who had searched for it as well confirmed her inability to find it. As several people have observed, there is no legal ban on men and women conversing face-to-face in Iran; long-distance chats seem comparatively antiseptic.

I’m not saying for a certainty the fatwa isn’t there — the websites are ill-organized, and we didn’t visit absolutely every crevice. But if anyone has seen the fatwa with their own eyes, I’d like to hear about it, because I don’t see any trace that it ever existed. So far, it sounds like a fraud.

(That Khameini or his subordinates posted it, then took it down in embarrassment after it hit the news, is unlikely. The Islamic Republic is resistant to embarrassment. If the second-highest execution rate in the world — probably the highest per capita — doesn’t bring a tinge of shame to its cheeks, nothing would.)

Where did this story come from?

Its origins should have been enough to raise scepticism from the start — at least, to make journalists turn to Khameini’s actual websites to try to find the text, as I did. So far as I can see, it comes from two sources, each with a reputation for misrepresentation and bias. The first, apparently, was the website of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The NCRI is a political mouthpiece for the Mojahedin e-Khalq (MeK, the People’s Mojahedin), an exile organization with the attributes of a cult that demands absolute loyalty from its members, enforces allegiance to its semi-deified leaders, and stands accused of extensive human rights abuses. The MeK and NCRI have long specialized in disseminating sensational fictions about Iran that capture public attention and create a propaganda storm. In 2005, the NCRI played a major role in spreading unsubstantiated rumors of “gay executions” in Iran to a gullible Peter Tatchell and others. They’ve been a recurrent source of alarmist rumor about Iran’s nuclear program, serving sometimes as a proxy and puppet for both the US and Israel to get their own versions out — but, as Patrick Cockburn writes about the “strange, highly disciplined, cult-like organisation,”

The problem with the US-Iranian proxy war is that neither side quite controls their own proxies to the degree the other side imagines. It is all very well working through surrogates to retain deniability, but these have their own interests and may, in addition, be incompetent, corrupt or simply crazed.

Please keep laughing until I pay you to stop: Handsomely reimbursed Rudy Giuliani engages in horseplay with MeK cult leader Maryam Rajavi (see http://www.ibtimes.com/mek-only-way-stop-iran-giuliani-214368)

Please keep laughing until I pay you to stop: Handsomely reimbursed shill Rudy Giuliani engages in crazed horseplay with MeK cult leader Maryam Rajavi (see http://www.ibtimes.com/mek-only-way-stop-iran-giuliani-214368)

The NCRI published an article about the alleged fatwa on its website on January 7 — the posted time is 13:45. (The NCRI’s website is apparently hosted in Michigan, in the US, but its clock seems to be set to the time of the NCRI’s Paris headquarters.)

Next to come, it seems, was Al Arabiya, the giant Saudi news channel, which posted a story about the alleged fatwa on its English site at an unlisted time on January 7, and on its Arabic site at 21:02 GMT (that would be about eight hours and fifteen minutes after the NCRI story, if all the times are correct). It doesn’t mention the NCRI version, but my guess is that’s its source.

Creeping shari'a, on all fours: "Sex Jihad," from Frontpagemag.com

Creeping shari’a, on all fours: “Sex Jihad,” from Frontpagemag.com

Al Arabiya has its own reliability problems. Members of the Saudi royal family launched jt in 2004 to compete with Qatari-owned Al Jazeera for the hearts and minds of the Arab audience. Despite all the petro-funding it’s had only limited success — it comes in second to Al Jazeera even among Saudi viewers — but it’s becoming to the American right wing what the earnest Jimmy Olsens of Qatar are to certain US lefties: a convenient confirmer of prejudices. The insecure Saudi regime is deeply nervous about both the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran; their fears reinforce the US neocons’ own. Al Arabiya, for instance, bore partial responsibility for a trumped-up story in 2012 that Egypt’s Brotherhood planned to legalize necrophilia. It also helped spread viral tales this summer that the Brotherhood was sponsoring “sexual jihad” in both Tunisia and Egypt: recruiting young women to provide erotic encouragement to warriors in Syria or even in the streets of Cairo. These stories were almost wholly imaginary. But they still circulate on extremist American websites like Frontpagemag.com.

In other words, you’ve got two culprits with a record of making things up. By the evening of January 7, the right-wing Jerusalem Post carried the story, in a short piece by Ariel Ben Solomon, citing Al Arabiya. This outlet is one of the loudest drummers, in Israel or outside, for war against Iran. Ben Solomon serves as “Middle East Correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, covering regional developments and Israeli Arab issues” —  at the PostIsraeli Arab issues a) can’t be covered by Israeli Arabs b) because they’re “Middle East,” that is foreign, issues.  Thank you, Avigdor Liberman. This past autumn, snooping down those “regional developments,” Ben Solomon bought into mistranslated initial reports that Kuwait’s proposed gender-identity screening was a “ban on homosexuals”; that suggests the limits of his Arabic research capacity. The Jerusalem Post was probably the story’s conduit to US and UK media.

Later on January 7, the story made Fox News (without attribution to other media sources), which means hitting the big time: “The latest religious edict from Iran’s supreme leader takes aim at the Islamic Republic’s lonely hearts.” By the next day it was on Breitbart.comthat guardian of truth and the American way: “This latest fatwa from Khamenei makes clear that Rouhani is merely the smiling theater mask of a stern, forever frowning dictatorship guided exclusively by Khamenei’s hand.” Breitbart at least suggested they had checked somewhere and failed to find the fatwa: 

The Supreme Leader often answers questions from the public on his website, Khamenei.ir, though the English-language side of the site currently has no new announcements.

Thus we learn that Breitbart a) has no access to any Farsi speakers anywhere in the world; b) won’t be deterred from publishing by the total lack of evidence. What a surprise. 

Only Time ever expressed some doubts about the invisible fatwa, asking “Did Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, just ban online chatting between unrelated men and women?”

Both the Jerusalem Post and the exiled opposition group People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran website — not exactly unbiased sources on Iranian affairs — say he has.  …  But a religious ruling does not an official ban make. Fatwas, or religious opinions disseminated by clerics, are not binding. So while Khamenei might discourage his followers from online chatting, for fear that it might lead to flirtation, or worse, he is not likely to order Iran’s religious police to start patrolling chat rooms and looking over texter’s [sic] shoulders.

Stop looking at me that way: Khameini speaking in front of predecessor's picture

Stop looking at me that way: Khameini speaking in front of predecessor’s picture

Three points stand out about all of this.

1) Prove it. As I say: maybe there is a Khameini anti-chat fatwa lurking out there. I can’t be positive there isn’t, and indeed I’d be happy to know this isn’t all a viral fantasy. But the burden is on the people who wrote and Tweeted about it, to prove it. Nobody except Time seems even to have tried seriously checking on the fatwa‘s existence before clicking “publish.” Surely it’s time for them to start looking.

2) If the fatwa exists, there are more important things. Really. Time raises the interesting question whether such a mandate would even be enforceable. The answer is perhaps a little more complicated than they suggest. When the Islamic Republic of Iran decided thirty years ago to embody its law in a criminal code, it took a step radically at odds with the history of Islamic jurisprudence, which is cumulative, common-law-like, and ill-disposed to codification. A settled, finalized corpus of law is a different beast to the traditional compilation of interpretations; it can no longer be altered simply by the opinions of a scholar. The parliamentary decision and the court ruling displaced the fatwa as the fount of legislation. (Asghar Shirazi has addressed these dilemmas brilliantly in his superb work on Iran’s constitution.)

Offsetting this, Ayatollah Khomeini carried enormous prestige both as a recognized scholar and a revolutionary politician. Khomeini’s personal fatwas had a charisma that could to some extent supersede the criminal code. However, Ayatollah Khameini, plucked from the middle ranks of the clerisy to serve as Supreme Leader, has no such mojo, and his fatwas are correspondingly less final. This is not to say Iran is a rule-of-law government these days, a Rechtsstaat; it’s not. Anything Khameini writes carries some weight. That doesn’t mean it’s legally enforceable, though, as opposed to just advice to the perplexed.

Khameini also issues fatawa on masturbation (in case you were wondering, it’s bad, but pardonable if done with medical approval), but even the feared basij have not made a priority of hunting down wankers. If he did put out a fatwa about chat, it would matter whether it appeared on his Supreme Leader website, or his less official oneIt would matter whether instructions to the religious police accompanied it — and there’s absolutely no indication of any such thing. Even if the fatwa exists, absent something turning it into a legal order, it’s simply moral exhortation. And how broad can its public impact be if it’s so hard to track down?

The real problem: Iran's proposed "National Internet." ©  Kavehadel

The real problem: Iran’s proposed “National Internet.” © Kavehadel

I don’t think the fatwa’s real, in which case you have to ask: why invent imaginary offenses for a government that’s committed ample real ones? Why spin fantasies about hijabi women dragged from Internet cafes when the execution rate keeps rising? It seems just a convenient propaganda gesture for the moment, to keep up pressure on Iran while other news stories are in abeyance. But even if the fatwa‘s real, why focus on it? There are plenty of other things as repressive on Khameini’s websites: for instance, his opinions on what might constitute pornography (look out for, but don’t look at, photos of Western women in fashion magazines), or the rules for satellite dishes.

Instead of decrying a purely notional ban on intersex chatting, why not talk about the irregular but intrusive restrictions Iran actually imposes on Internet users? Why not criticize how messaging and information-sharing services like WeChat, Viber, and Instagram have all been blocked by hardliners in recent weeks — apparently against the objections of Hassan Rouhani’s ministry of culture? And if you want to hone in on sexual privacy, how about the police raid on a party organized by “Satanic” homosexuals in Kermanshah last October, when the basij arrested and prosecuted some 80 men? In the West, there’s been at least as much Twitter and mainstream media attention to this chat-centered non-story as to that documented, brutally abusive incident.

3) We like victims, don’t we? Here’s the thing. If you want to talk about the truth, as opposed to easy news stories, it’s complicated. Complicated because you have to recognize that people — the people you want to imagine as helpless victims waiting breathless on your intervention — have capacity and street smarts, and are more than victims, and fight back.

Graffiti in Tehran by street-art group Geo, from https://www.facebook.com/IranGraffiti

Graffiti in Tehran by street-art group Geo, from https://www.facebook.com/IranGraffiti

If you want to deal with Iran’s Internet restrictions, you have to come to terms with the fact that Iranians still use the Internet, including the banned websites, and find all kinds of creative ways to get information in and out. We wouldn’t even know about the scope of the Internet filtering if folks weren’t poking and prodding out ways around it. If you want to address the Kermanshah case and the abuses against LGBT people, you have to face the fact not just that there was a crackdown, but that there was and is a community, which exists in a complicated dialectic between visibility and concealment, and felt sufficiently sure of itself  to hold a party. Life isn’t just the unremitting pressure of repression; it’s myriad daily acts of solidarity and resistance. People carve out spaces where, against the odds, they try to feel safe and celebrate their safety; sometimes these turn profoundly unsafe; that doesn’t mean their solidarities dissipate or their connections shatter, but rather that they’ll keep looking for new places to connect and struggle. The community of “gay” and “trans” people wasn’t broken in Kermanshah. In fact, it did a remarkably effective job of documenting the arrests and getting news to the outside world, ensuring that the accused had help, and staying linked and alert after the disaster. There are other parties going on, elsewhere in Iran.

This is not a popular tale to tell, particularly among the right-wing pseudo-press — Fox and Breitbart, the Daily Mail and the Foundation for Defusing Democracies — who picked up the chat narrative. Which is why they won’t tell it. They’d rather see Iranians as either uranium-grubbing monsters bent on global domination, or helpless victims of totalitarian power too incapacitated even to get their hands on a pair of jeans. Hearing about others’ agency annoys us, because it deflates our own dreams of sovereign, saving, all-encompassing power.

But that imagined power, our power, is repressive too. What counts is how resistance confronts repressive authority; and you can’t arbitrarily lop off either side of that story. Underneath the fatwas, the facts — and people’s everyday dreams and acts — persist. Underneath the paving stones, the beach.

Situationist graffiti, Paris, 1968

Situationist graffiti, Paris, 1968

UPDATE: On the existing, labyrinthine filtering-and-banning Internet policies in Iran, as well as how Iranians get around them, here is a fascinating piece by Ali Reza Eshraghi.

Irresponsibility, ignorance, and self-declared “experts” on Iran

This way, please: Rumor leading the chariot of War (Vincenzo Cartari, 1582)

Go ahead: Google “Stop Iran from Executing Four Homosexual Citizens.”  You’ll get well over a thousand hits. They link to petitions that accuse four Iranian men in the small town of Charam of being gay — a capital crime. The insane activist misbehavior over Iran goes on unstoppably. And those responsible for it take no responsibility at all.

When I last wrote about this, none of the petitions were yet directly addressed to Ahmadinejad and the Iranian authorities. That didn’t take long to change. This one, on CNN’s website, now has 5000 signatures; but beyond that, it comes with helpful e-mail addresses and links so that you can contact Iran’s authorities yourself.

SEND THIS LETTER TO SUPREME LEADER OF THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN ALI KHAMENEI BY COPYING AND PASTING HERE  … ALSO, SEND THIS LETTER TO VARIOUS OFFICIALS OF THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC REGIME AS WELL AS THEIR EMBASSIES AROUND THE WORLD BY USING THIS LINK. 

The suggested missive not only affirms the men’s gayness, and hence guilt, but makes a weird link to Iran’s nuclear program. With the Flame virus spreading like, well, wildfire, it’s hard to imagine what could be more incendiary; the drafters might as well just brand the four men Israeli spies:

Your Excellency, This is a petition to bring to your attention to [sic] case of four gay men in Iran who are sentenced to be hanged for “sodomy…

If this execution goes forward, it will constitute a crime against humanity in the eyes of the international community, as well as a profound affront to the international standards of justice and norms of modern cilivization [sic] as codified in human rights treaties and conventions to which Iran is a signatory state.

Unavoidably, the question arises: if the Islamic Republic cannot be trusted to honor its human rights obligations under international treaties and covenants, how can it be trusted to honor its commitments in other areas of pressing urgency such as nonproliferation? [emphasis in the original]

In fact, the last paragraph is really the most revealing. Whoever dreamed up this language, it’s clear, isn’t thinking about whether the men live or die. He or she is thinking about Iran’s nuclear program; the men’s fates are a propaganda tool. None of this is doing any good for the men. Nearly all of it is poised to do them harm.

tweet them out

Now, it’s worth repeating: we still have zero information suggesting that the men are “gay.” But none of these petitionmongers cares much about facts. On one page, I see, comments from a Morocco resident who raised doubts about the story have simply been deleted.

What, in truth, do we know now?  One human rights activist in Iran reported to the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO) that “The four individuals are related and come from the same tribe. They’re among the thugs in the area. About two and half years ago, they have ‘cornered’ a young man of 18-19 and raped him.” He added that HRANA (the Human Rights Activists News Agency), the Farsi-language source of the original story “received th[is] original version too, but intentionally altered it to create media uproar.”

There is recurrent mistrust of HRANA’s reliability among sexual-rights activists and some other human rights campaigners in Iran. Still, after this circulated, on May 17 (28 Ordibehesht 1391), HRANA published an elaboration, based on an alleged interview with a relative of one of the four. This article states that the actual charge was “lavat beh onf,” or rape. The interviewee told HRANA that  “the families of all four” believed that the victim actually had consensual sex with the men, but had turned this into a rape claim, enlisting two other sexual partners as witnesses against them.

Makwan Mouloudzadeh

What we have, then, is characteristic confusion caused by a dearth of information. An editor at JOOPEA, an Iranian sexual-rights platform, wrote me, “5 adults are involved [presumably including the alleged victim]. We don’t know this was a rape, normal sex, a game or something.” It’s an article of faith among the Peter Tatchells and Doug Irelands of the world that male-male rape never takes place in Iran, and that all alleged incidents are “really” consensual homosexual acts. In promoting this version of the famous 2005 case where two youths were hanged for the rape of a 13-year-old, Peter’s then organization OutRage! both belittled the violence and defamed the victim, accusing him of wanting the sex and then lying about it. Of course, while mounting these allegations, they knew nothing about the victim, not even his name — and very little about Iran; nonetheless, Gay City News, Doug’s employer, intoned back in 2006 that “rape of men by men is comparatively rare” worldwide, an astonishingly ignorant generalization. (Underreporting, mainly due to stigma, means that almost no country has statistics on male rape that can be considered reliable. One Australian psychologist estimates that only one out of eleven cases there is reported.) In fact, in several years of interviewing Iranian LGBT people, I talked to dozens of men who had been sexually assaulted or sexually abused by other men — in jails, in schools, or in families. Children were particularly at risk; and “effeminacy,” looking or acting somehow unmasculine, made them vulnerable.

It’s certainly possible that the four men in Charam are “gay” or hamjensgara, and have been framed. It’s certainly also possible that they raped an “effeminate” victim, and that he is the one who suffered for sexual dissidence. Quite possibly, in fact, that’s the pattern underlying these stories of rape. In other words, conceivably Tatchell, Ireland, and their cohorts have spent all these years speechifying and pontificating in support not of “gays,” but of their persecutors. The point is: We don’t know. All this is speculation. And the only responsible way to defend any of these people from the death penalty is not to make imperial, destructive, and unsupported claims about their sexualities, but to oppose the death penalty itself.

That, however, is not an issue to motivate Western queers.

Down, boy: Sir Calidore and the Blatant Beast

Meanwhile: No one who launched the story has bothered to follow up the facts. Dan Littauer and one of his editors are both on the listserve where the IRQO’s account, and the HRANA elaboration, appeared. You’d think that this might stimulate a further article. You know: New allegations on both sides have been forthcoming, and so on. Naturally, though, there’s been nothing of the sort. The MO of the rumorists is like that of Spenser’s untameable Blatant Beast: Never apologize, never explain.

True, the publicity hounds at Italy’s Everyone Group — who organized similar petitions incriminating Makwan Mouloudzadeh before his execution back in 2008 — did at least respond to me on their website. They title their answer “Gay Persecution under Sharia: the Silence of the West.” The phrase “Silence of the West” endlessly fascinates me. It’s used almost invariably in relation to subjects about which the West will not shut up. What it means is not that the West is neglecting something, but that one discordant voice unsettles the harmony and unanimity. It’s an odd sort of aural hallucination: while the whole Mormon Tabernacle Choir is bellowing out the “Hallelujah Chorus,” a single person whistling “Hava Nagila” softly to herself is enough to drown out lungs and pipe organ alike.

Since Everyone Group did me the favor of a reply, though, I’ll reply to them here in turn. They write:

We are very familiar with Islamic law (Sharia).

No, you aren’t.

An accused person can be sentenced exclusively on the EYE WITNESS accounts of at least FOUR PEOPLE OF ISLAMIC FAITH. The Islamic judges do not consider as evidence the statements given by “infidels”.

Nonsense. As is well known, in Ja’fari shari’a legal interpretation, there are two additional bases for convicting people of liwat/lavat:  a confession repeated four times, or the judge’s personal knowledge of the acts (in Arabic, ‘ilm al-hakim).  The former arguably gives considerable scope to torture to extract confessions; In Iran, the latter has turned into broad leeway for circumstantial evidence to decide cases.

Death kitsch: “Makwan, a Letter from Paradise” by Everyone Group

Anyhow, in this situation we are not discussing first-instance verdicts. The question is how to persuade Iranian authorities to show mercy and suspend an already-decided sentence of death. Everyone Group clings to the unaccountable delusion that telling Ahmadeinjad et. al. the convicts are gay is actually a means to this end.

Then we get into Everyone Group’s favorite bugaboo: the idea that they have an absolute right to use anyone’s name — an asylum-seeker, a refugee, an Iranian facing the death penalty — in any way they want to, without the person’s consent. God forbid you disagree:

Unfortunately, some governments and associations connected to public funding and not to human rights, often seek to prevent (as occured during the National Socialism period) the names of the condemned being published. The real purpose of these policies is to obtain silence on refugees and the persecuted …

It’s true; we’re all Nazis!  Everyone Group has been saying this for years. Back in 2009 they had the same refrain: blanking out the name of an asylum-seeker in a campaign “mean[s] denying, as in Apartheid and slavery, a fundamental right. In this way, a person becomes isolated, he becomes an anonymous figure, a common Mister X or a number and is cancelled out, as happened in the Nazi concentration camps and in the present day jails of fundamentalist Islamic countries.” (Their emphasis.) Of course, you might imagine a person has a “fundamental right” to decide how their identity is represented and their name is used: a right not to have their safety endangered for publicity’s sake. Look at yourself! You think that because you are a racist, an ayatollah, and Heinrich Himmler.

Finally, as far as the Makwan Mouloudzadeh case goes, Everyone Group indulges in a bold rewriting of reality:

As for Makwan, it is not true that the accusers retracted the allegations: the identities of the five accusers have never been revealed, but we do know that they were police officers. The charge of “lavat” against Makwan was never retracted!

I puzzled over this wildness for some while, since the facts of Makwan’s legal situation at least are no secret. In September 2006, three men in the town of Paveh told police that Mouloudzadeh had raped them seven years earlier. During the subsequent trial, they retracted their accusations. Mouloudzadeh was convicted nonetheless, based on a confession he claimed was coerced under torture.

no knowledge, but a lot of expertise

I can only assume that Everyone Group’s error here derives from an attempt to confuse “accusers” with “arresters.”  Yes, the police arrested Makwan, and were responsible, as in most systems, for charging him before the law. But the accusation of rape that came from the three alleged victims was certainly retracted — by the alleged victims themselves. A guilty conscience perhaps informs Everyone Group’s uncertainties about what happened in the Makwan case, but it’s no excuse for confusing matters further.

Finally, it’s inevitable where publicity and Iran are concerned that Peter Tatchell should rear his head. He gets cited in the petitions. And I notice (see to the right!) he is now giving himself a new title: “expert on Iran.” It’s astonishing you can become an expert on a country where you’ve never been, and don’t even speak the language. How do you manage? Perhaps some geek on the Mother Ship transfers the expertise direct from a jump drive into your brain, like in The Matrix. “Can you fly that helicopter?” “Not yet.” “Can you comment on that country?” “Wait, I’m downloading.”


How to become an expert on Iran: One theory

Of course, there are other means. The London Review of Books this week carries a very useful article by Owen Bennett-Jones on the Mujahedin e Khalq or People’s Mujahedin (MEK), a cultlike and exceptionally repressive Iranian resistance group that’s campaigned for years to get itself removed from the terrorist lists of the US and other countries. I recommend the piece to everybody.

The People’s Mujahedin used to be a pet cause of Peter Tatchell. He’s dismissed charges of terrorist violence as a “smear”; he said of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), MEK’s political wing, that “it has played a heroic role in resisting the clerical fascist regime in Iran and campaigning for democracy and human rights.” He compared it to “the African National Congress in South Africa or the anti-Nazi resistance in occupied Europe during World War Two.” He told The Nation it was “a key liberation movement inside Iran that deserves international support.”

The MEK’s generous funding has long been a mystery, though nobody was much surprised by Seymour Hersh’s revelation this year that, despite the “terrorist” designation, the US has been channeling not just money but arms to the group — as well as training them in Nevada. What they do with their CIA-and-other largesse is perhaps even more interesting. In addition to full-time lobbyists, they pay a stable of prominent personalities not just to defend their record, but to lend them mute luster by their mere proximity. Bennett-Jones notes,

Three dozen former high-ranking American officials regularly speak at MEK-friendly events. They include Rudy Giuliani, Howard Dean, Obama’s former national security adviser General James Jones and the former congressman Lee Hamilton. The rate for a speech is between $20,000 and $40,000 for ten minutes. Subject matter is not a concern: some speakers deliver speeches that barely mention the MEK. … The Treasury is investigating whether speakers have been receiving funds from a designated terrorist organisation. … Most of those who back the group do so because they will back anything that seeks to upset the regime in Tehran. They seem unaware that the organisation has been called a cult and have not heard the complaints of former members. A number of the most prominent MEK lobbyists say they agreed to speak because they were reassured by the respectability of those who were already doing so.

Tatchell’s own funding is, of course, also a mystery of long standing. For example, his latest venture, the “Peter Tatchell Foundation,” is not a UK registered charity, and offers no reports on where it gets its monies or how it spends them. Given the MEK’s avidity to recruit celebrities major and minor to flack for it, and Tatchell’s own diehard defenses of the group, one does rather wonder what exactly exchanged hands between them. Expertise, very possibly (perhaps on how to run a cult, perhaps even on Iran). But were there more material aspects to the Vulcan mind-meld?

How to become an expert on Iran: Another theory

Of course, this is pure and simple speculation. But it’s no more speculative than the stuff Tatchell and Ireland have disseminated on Iran in the past. And it has one advantage they don’t. It doesn’t endanger lives.