Tag Archives: Iran

Argo: The Truth

Argo, directed by and starring Ben Affleck, was voted best picture at this year’s Oscars. It tells the story of how Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA agent succeeded in helping six US diplomats to escape from Tehran in 1980. As a film, it is excellent, and well deserved its Oscar. However, it is a fictionalised account of real events. How accurate is it as a record of history? This is important because many more people will see the film than will read a book on the subject.

On 4 November 1979 supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic government seized the US embassy in Tehran. Most of the diplomats were taken hostage. Some African-Americans and women were soon released, but most were held captive until January 1980. Six, however, were able to escape; they worked in the consular section which had its own street entrance and exit because it dealt with members of the public. They were Robert Anders, Mark Lijek, Cora Lijek, Henry Schatz, Joseph Stafford and Kathleen Stafford.

The film shows the six taking refuge at the home of Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador. There, they were in constant danger of discovery, which would also put Taylor and his wife at risk of arrest. The Canadian embassy was to be closed in late January, with Taylor and his staff leaving Iran.

Mendez comes up with a plan to get them out of Iran by pretending that they are scouting team looking for locations for a proposed science fiction film called Argo. Parts of Star Wars were filmed in Tunisia, so it was plausible that Hollywood might want to make a science fiction film in Iran.

The six diplomats and Mendez left on a Swissair flight on 28 January 1980, the same day that the Canadian embassy closed. The actual escape was more straight forward and less tense than the film’s version.

At the time, the Canadians were given most of the credit; the CIA’s involvement was not revealed until 1997. The film suggests that the CIA was the main player in getting the diplomats out, but Ken Taylor recently told the Toronto Star, that ‘Canada was not merely standing around watching events take place. The CIA was a junior partner.’

The film omits the role of another Canadian diplomat, John Sheardown, who put up some of the Americans. It also says little about Taylor’s significant role in gathering intelligence about potential escape routes.

A radio programme in the BBC World Service’s Outlook series interviewed Mark Lijek and his wife Cora, two of the US diplomats, and Zena Sheardown, John’s widow.

A further controversy results from a line in the film about the Americans being turned away by the British and New Zealanders. In fact, five of them tried initially to go to the British embassy, but it was surrounded by demonstrators. They spent one night at the flat of the most senior of their group, Richard Anders. The sixth went to the Swedish embassy at first, but later joined the others.

According to the London Sunday Times (no link due to paywall), Bruce Laingen, the US charge d’affaires, who was at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, contacted the British embassy the next day to ask them to find and look after his colleagues. Two British diplomats, Martin Williams and Gordon Pirie, took them to a compound inhabited by British diplomats in the northern suburb of Gholhak.

Iranian militants turned at the compound, but were turned away by the chief guard, Iskander Khan, a former Pakistani soldier. He had been a chauffeur at the 1943 Tehran conference between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. Because of this, the British moved the Americans first to the house of a US diplomat’s Thai cook , and then to Taylor and Sheardown’s houses. The New Zealanders helped to provide the Americans with food and entertainment.

The BBC interview linked above, however, does not mention this and suggests that the diplomats remained at Anders’s hounse until 8 November, when they contacted the Canadians.

The Sunday Times quoted Affleck as telling a  New Zealand magazine that:

I struggled with this long and hard, because it casts Britain and New Zealand in a way that is not totally fair…But I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go. It does not mean to diminish anyone.

Some plot simplification and character amalgamation is probably necessary in a film, and it is inevitable that Affleck felt it necessary to make the escape from Tehran tenser than it actually was. However, there is no excuse for the line claiming that the British and New Zealanders had turned them away, whilst the Canadians should have been shown as more active players in the story.

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US-Iranian Dialogue in Obama’s Second Term – Stratfor

U.S.-Iranian  Dialogue in Obama’s Second Term is republished with permission of  Stratfor.”

Read more:  U.S.-Iranian Dialogue in Obama’s Second Term | Stratfor

By Reva Bhalla Vice President of Global  Affairs

As U.S. President Barack Obama’s second-term foreign policy team begins to  take shape, Iran remains unfinished business for the U.S. administration. The  diplomatic malaise surrounding this issue over the past decade has taken its  toll on Washington and Tehran. Even as the United States and Iran are putting  out feelers for another round of negotiations, expectations for any breakthrough  understandably remain low. Still, there has been enough movement over the past  week to warrant a closer look at this long-standing diplomatic impasse.

At the Munich Security Conference held Feb. 1-3, U.S. Vice President Joe  Biden said the United States would be willing to hold direct talks with Iran  under the right conditions. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi responded  positively to the offer but warned that Iran would not commit unless Washington  shows a “fair and real” intention to resolve the issues dividing the two  sides.

An Uneven Record in U.S.-Iranian Diplomacy

This diplomatic  courting ritual between the United States and Iran has occurred a handful of  times over the past several years. Like previous times, the public offer of  talks was preceded by denials of secret pre-negotiations. (This time, Ali Akbar  Velayati, a presidential hopeful and senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader  Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, denied that he met with a U.S. representative in Oman.)  Meanwhile, as a sideshow to the more critical U.S.-Iranian bilateral track, Iran  has announced it will hold negotiations with the P-5+1 group Feb. 25 in  Kazakhstan to demonstrate its willingness to seek a compromise on the nuclear  issue as part of a broader deal. For good measure, Iran has balanced these  diplomatic moves with an announcement that it is upgrading uranium centrifuges  at the Natanz enrichment facility. Though this  will rile Israel, the thought of Iran accelerating its nuclear program could  add just the right amount of urgency to propel the talks.

The first step to any negotiation is defining a common interest. For the  United States and Iran, those interests have evolved over the past decade. In  2003, they shared an interest in bringing Saddam Hussein down and neutralizing a  Sunni jihadist threat. By 2007, it was a mutual interest in relieving  the U.S. military burden in Iraq. In 2011, it was a common interest in  avoiding a war in the Strait of Hormuz. In 2013, as the region fragments beyond  either side’s control, Washington and Tehran are each looking to prevent the  coming quagmire from undermining their respective positions in the Middle  East.

But talks have also stalled many times due to issues of timing, misreading of  intentions, lack of political cohesion or a number of other valid reasons. At  base, timing is everything. Both sides need to create a favorable political  climate at home to pursue controversial negotiations abroad. Complicating  matters, both sides have the mutually contradictory goal of negotiating from a  position of strength. In 2007, Iran could still claim to hold thousands of U.S.  troops hostage to attacks by its Shiite militant proxies in Iraq. In 2011, a Shiite  uprising in Bahrain threatened to upset the balance of power in the Persian  Gulf in Iran’s favor while Iran could at the same time shake energy markets with  military maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran, however, couldn’t hold that position for long. With time, Tehran’s  still-limited covert capabilities in the eastern Arabian Peninsula were exposed.  Meanwhile, the United States built up its military presence in the Persian Gulf.  With minesweepers  now concentrated in the area, Iran now must think twice before carrying out  provocations in the strait that could accidentally trigger a military  intervention.

Before Tehran could recover, the regional climate flipped against Iran. In  2012, the Sunni rebellion in  Syria gained steam, in no small part due to a growing regional imperative to  deprive Iran of its Mediterranean foothold in the Levant. As Iran’s position in  Syria and Lebanon began to slip, the Sunni momentum predictably spilled into  Iraq, where massive Sunni protests against the Shiite government in Baghdad  already are under way.

Now, Iran no longer poses a strategic threat to U.S. interests in the way it  did just a few years ago, and the prospect of Iran solidifying an arc of  influence from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean has evaporated. Iran is  on the defensive, trying to help its allies survive in Syria and Lebanon while  at the same time being forced to devote more resources to holding its position  in Iraq. And while Iran’s overseas expenses are rising, its budget is  simultaneously shrinking under the weight of sanctions. U.S.-  and European-led sanctions over the past two years have gradually moved from  a policy of targeted sanctions against individuals and firms to a near-total  trade embargo that has prompted some Iranian officials to openly admit that  Iran’s oil revenues have dropped more than 40 percent.

At this point, the United States has two options. It could allow the regional  forces to run their course and whittle down Iran’s strength over time. Or it  could exploit the current conditions and try negotiating with Iran from a  position of strength while it still has the military capacity to pose a  legitimate threat to Iran. Iran may be weakening, but it still has levers with  which to pressure the United States. Preparations are already under way for  Alawite forces in Syria to transition to an insurgency with Iran’s backing. In  Afghanistan, Iran has militant options to snarl an already fragile U.S. exit  strategy. So far, the United States has shown a great deal of restraint in  Syria; it does not want to find itself being drawn into another conflict zone in  the Islamic world where Iran can play a potent spoiler role.

It appears that the United States is pursuing the strategy of giving  negotiations another go with the expectation that these talks will extend beyond  the immediate nuclear issue. Iran has frequently complained that it cannot trust  the United States if Washington cannot speak with one voice. For example, while  the U.S. administration has pursued talks in the past, Congress has tightened  economic sanctions and has tried to insert clauses to prevent any rollback of  sanctions. The economic pressure produced by the sanctions has helped the United  States fortify its negotiating position, but the administration has tried to  reserve options by keeping a list of sanctions it could repeal layer by layer  should the talks yield progress.

Seeking Flexibility in Sanctions

Washington could look to Europe for more flexibility for its negotiating  needs. In a recent story overlooked by the mainstream media, the General Court  of the European Union on Jan. 29 revoked sanctions against Bank Mellat, one of  the largest commercial banks in Iran that is primarily involved in financing  Iran’s vital energy sector. Bank Mellat was sanctioned in 2010 based on  allegations that it was a state-owned bank involved in Iran’s nuclear  proliferation activities. But the EU court has now ruled that there was  insufficient evidence to link the bank to the nuclear program. Even so, though  Iran claims that the bank has been fully privatized since 2010, it is difficult  to believe that it does not maintain vital links with the regime. Nonetheless,  rumors are circulating that more EU sanctions de-listings could be in store.

Given the impossibility of sealing every legal loophole, perception plays a  vital role in upholding any sanctions regime. Over the past two years, the  United States — in coordination with an even more aggressive European Union —  has signaled to traders, banks and insurers across the globe that the costs of  doing business with Iran are not worth jeopardizing their ability to operate in  Western markets. Enough businessmen were spooked into curbing, or at least  scaling back, their interaction with Iran and known Iranian front companies that  Iran has experienced a significant cut in revenue. But with large amounts of  money to be made in a market under sanctions, it can be very difficult  politically to maintain this level of economic pressure over an extended period  of time. And the more the sanctions begin to resemble a trade embargo, the more  ammunition Iran has for its propaganda arm in claiming sanctions are harming  Iranian civilians. The prospect of additional sanctions being repealed in court  in the coming months could deflate the West’s economic campaign against Iran and  give more businesses the confidence to break the sanctions — but if the  sanctions were intended to force negotiations in the first place, that may be a  risk the U.S. administration is willing to take.

There is no clear link between the recent U.S. offer of talks and the  sanctions de-listing of Bank Mellat. But if the United States were serious about  using its position of relative strength to pursue a deal with Iran, we would  expect to see some slight easing up on the sanctions pressure. This would likely  begin in Europe, where there would be more flexibility in the sanctions  legislation than there would be in the U.S. Congress. Germany,  Iran’s largest trading partner in Europe, has perhaps not coincidentally  been the strongest proponent for this latest attempt at direct U.S.-Iranian  talks. It is also notable that U.S. President Barack Obama’s picks for his  second-term Cabinet include senators Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, both of who  have openly advocated dialogue with Iran.

Iran is now the most critical player to watch. Iran is weakening in the  region and is becoming heavily constrained at home, but even so, the clerical  regime is not desperate to reach a deal with Washington. Reaching an  understanding with the United States could mitigate the decline of Alawite  forces in Syria and the Sunni backlash that Iran is likely to face in Iraq, but  it would not necessarily forestall them. And with general elections in Iran  slated for June, the political climate in the country will not be conducive to  the give-and-take needed to move the negotiations forward, at least in the near  term.

The United States would prefer to reduce the number of unknowns in an  increasingly volatile region by reaching an understanding with Iran. The irony  is that with or without that understanding, Iran’s position in the region will  continue to weaken. Even if Washington doesn’t need this negotiation as badly as  Iran does, now is as good a time as any for a second-term president to give this  dialogue another try.

Read more:  U.S.-Iranian Dialogue in Obama’s Second Term | Stratfor

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Filed under Current affairs

This is the abstract of my contribution to A Military Transformed? Transformation and Innovation in the British Military from 1792 to 1945, a forthcoming book edited by Ross Mahoney, Stuart Mitchell and Michael LoCicero of the University of Birmingham. The chapters are based on papers given at a conference in April 2011. See Ross’s blog, Thoughts in Military History, for more details on the book. He is in the process of adding the abstracts to his blog; they are all tagged ‘transformation.’

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The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918 by Sean McMeekin

The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918 by Sean McMeekin is the story of German attempts to raise a Jihad against the Allies in the Middle East during World War I. Reviews have mostly been positive; negative ones on Amazon are mostly from readers who assumed from the first part of the title that was about the construction of the railway. That is part of the story, but a long way from being the whole of it. The second part of the title, The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, more accurately describes the book.

The story is of the strategy of the Central Powers, so concentrates on them, but the Allied response is not neglected. Russian, British, US and French archives have been used as well as Turkish, German, Austrian ones. An Epilogue discusses the impact of German wartime actions on the modern Middle East.

McMeekin manages to combine the telling of an exciting story with archival research. The number of characters can be hard to follow, but they are well drawn. He points out that German and Ottoman relations were often poor, and that their aims sometimes conflicted, especially in the Caucasus in 1918.
The Germans thought that that could use the power of Islam to bring down the British Empire. In fact, many Muslim leaders took German gold but did little in return, and often tried to play off Germany against Britain.

Logistics were a major problem for the Germans, who could not supply enough arms to their potential Muslim allies. The two main Ottoman victories over the British Empire, Gallipoli and Kut-al-Amara, resulted from German discipline and Turkish tenacity, not Islam. There isn’t a great deal on the main military campaigns.

The number of quotes from John Buchan’s novel Greenmantle are a bit strange in a non-fiction work. The author comments on the historiography of the Armenian massacres, but does not take a clear stance; he teaches at Bilkent University in Ankara, so may be constrained in what he can say. These are minor criticisms. The book is now out in paperback as well as hardback, and it is also available as an e-book.

This review is a slightly re-worded version of one that I originally posted on the Great War Forum, an excellent website for anybody interested in World War I. This link is to the thread that includes my review, and this one is to Forum’s home page.

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16 March 2012 · 5:57 pm