August 12, 2014
For the last few days my wife and I attended the semi-annual meeting of the International Society for Iranian Studies. It was held in Montreal this time. Several panels were devoted to Iranian foreign policy. At one of them, scholars outlined Iran’s strategic isolation and the limited choices available to it.
The fourth panelist then launched into a comparison of what she called contextual cultures and textual cultures. I found myself thinking about the textualism of Justice Scalia and the contextualism of his more liberal colleagues. But this speaker’s point was that Iran was a contextual country in which it was the listener’s job to figure out the speaker’s meaning from surrounding circumstances. By contrast, she said, America was a textualist country, where, quoting an old saying, we “say what we mean and mean what we say.” Given that contrast, it was no wonder that we find the Iranians inscrutable and untrustworthy. Read the rest of this entry »
July 22, 2014
Returning from a meeting of historians, I’ve been thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in historical terms. Israeli settlers in the West Bank are reminiscent of the movement of settlers to our own Indian frontier until the frontier was closed in the twentieth century. Settler conflict with Native Americans over land and atrocities on both sides was continual. This isn’t the whole story but it is important.
Allies are crucial. For a century, Britain prohibited settlement west of the Appalachians and protected Indian rights in the territory they had occupied for millenia, largely preventing Indian War, except, of course, against the French. Regardless of our dispute with King George, aspects of British Indian policy were both wise and decent. Read the rest of this entry »
November 19, 2013
At Persepolis, stone carvings bear witness to tribute paid to Persian kings by other great rulers and former empires. Iran was once a great breadbasket of the world. But the Greeks stopped their advance and much of Iran is now a desert. But not America.
The great civilization of Greece disintegrated. Alexander the Great conquered much of the then known world, burning Persepolis along the way. His empire fell apart. But not the world’s only superpower.
Rome ruled from the Mediterranean to the Indus Valley. Its armies over-extended, it was conquered by barbarians. But America can keep the world at bay.
The Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloans in the American southwest suddenly deserted their cliff houses and their civilization disappeared. Unfavorable climate change contributed to the loss of their homelands. Not long before a similar fate befell the Maya who ruled much of central America, and boasted sophisticated mathematics, writing, and science. They too largely disappeared, to reemerge, perhaps, as the underlings in new nations conquered by Europeans.
The same fate befell once powerful civilizations across the great Silk Road, the Indus Valley and China, in Africa and the Americas, as they weakened themselves with war and could not control the environment which decreed that it was the turn of some other people to enjoy the right proportions of sun and rain.
But it couldn’t happen to us. Read the rest of this entry »
July 23, 2013
I recently attended a meeting of former Peace Corps volunteers who had served in Iran. We shared the fundamental perspective that Iran should be an ally, not an enemy, and that the current standoff is the result of government mistakes on both sides.
Iran has a democratic tradition going back to 1906, with an elected legislature or Majlis. It also had a democratically selected Prime Minister, until deposed with the U.S. C.I.A. taking credit. Iranians never forgot–their attachment to democracy is one of the strongest in the Middle East. Read the rest of this entry »
November 27, 2012
Iran’s position looks a bit stronger once the war in Gaza shifted everyone’s gaze. But let’s use the breather to understand the bombast about Iran which will surely return.
Public bombast is not an effective or accurate way to get so-called messages to the other side. What goes on in private is vastly different. Diplomacy is private until public deals are reached and announced. Read the rest of this entry »
November 6, 2012
I keep hearing that many people are blasé about voting in this election. The great American historian Gordon Wood described liberty in the Revolutionary era as meaning the right to vote, the great right of a free people.
My wife and I worked in Iran in the mid-1960s. Read the rest of this entry »