Iran

Memoires of a Qajar Persian Prince

Michael Noel-Clarke, who studied as an undergraduate in Esfahan and later served in the British Embassy in Tehran (1970-74), has recently translated the memoires of Prince Arfa, a prominent member of the Persian establishment at the end of the 19th century. The book has been published by Gingko Library as Memories of a Bygone Age: Qajar Persia and Imperial Russia 1853-1902. In this speech given by Noel-Clarke at the book’s launch, he describes the significance of Prince Arfa and the role he played on the national and international stage.

Prince Arfa wrote his memoirs just before he died in 1937, but probably for political reasons they were not published in Persian until 1965. His son and my wife’s grandfather, General Hassan Arfa, gave us a copy in the early 1970s, and my wife suggested that when I retired I should translate them. I hope that the Prince’s memoirs will become a useful secondary source on Iran’s relations with Tsarist Russia, on which I understand that there is not much material in English, and even more so on the social history of later Qajar Iran. Furthermore, there are certain abiding themes in Iranian history which form a backdrop to these memoirs and, at a moment when people are again beginning to travel to Iran and take an interest in its politics, they will, I hope, help to partially explain the emergence of the Islamic Republic and its subsequent development. I also hope that non-academic non-specialist readers will find the book as amusing and interesting as I did. It is packed with various wild and wonderful adventures and witty anecdotes, not all of which end to the author’s advantage. Continue reading

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Great Game, India, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen

Asian Affairs: Summer issue preview – Yemen, India and the Middle East, British in Iraq…

The summer issue of the Asian Affairs Journal is now available online – click here for the contents page. Some articles are free to view by all visitors (as indicated); others are only available for free to RSAA memers/JSTOR/Taylor & Francis/Academic subscribers.

Highlights include “Yemen and the Huthis: Genesis of the 2015 Crisis” – an excellent overview by Dr Noel Brehony, a former diplomat and academic authority on Yemen, as to how the civil war arose, the role of the Huthis, the implications for the wider area and Yemen’s prospects. This article is essential reading for anyone who wants to properly understand the current situation and get beyond the brief nature of the press and media coverage. It is free to view: click here to read. 

Shahshank Joshi of RUSI, a frequent contributor to the UK and US broadsheets, writes on “India and the Middle East”, analysing India’s response to the recent disorder in the Middle East with a specific focus on the security-related aspects of that engagement. He also gives specific attention to relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, and looks at how India might orient itself in the region in the future. Continue reading

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Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, Turkey

The Hour of the Kurds

Manuel Martorell is a Spanish journalist and one of the founders of the national daily El Mundo, where he held the posts of Editor-in-Chief and Foreign Editor. He has been covering the Kurds since 1983 and has published three books on the subject and produced a number of television documentaries.

8 February 2015. This will remain a historic day for the Kurdish people. On that day, French president François Hollande hosted an official reception at the Élysée Palace for two women from Kobani, the Syrian city where Islamic State (IS) had met defeat. One was Asya Abdullah, co-president of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main Kurdish party in Syria. The other was Nesrin Abdullah, who attended the meeting in combat uniform as commander of the Popular Defence Units (YPG), a powerful armed force composed of thousands of men and women under the direction of PYD.

The photo widely circulated by social and press media showing Hollande, Asya and Nesrin talking in the luxurious salon of the Élysée Palace had a three-fold symbolism. First it demonstrated that women in the Middle East were prepared to organise and combat radical Islam. Moreover, both women represented the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an organisation considered by the European Union and the United States to be a terrorist group. This was especially significant because for months American warplanes were supporting Kobani fighters in full view of Turkey, the US’s closest Middle-East ally, whose government favoured an Islamist victory over the Kurds in that city. France and the United States were providing most of the military and economic support to Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq, but so were the UK, Germany, the rest of the European Union and other major countries, including Canada and Australia. This represented, in practice as well as theory, a strengthening of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq and the PKK in Turkey and Syria, because both movements were bearing the brunt of the struggle against jihadism on the ground. Continue reading

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Iran, RSAA member

In Pursuit of the Jewels of Persia

RSAA members Max Lovell-Hoare and Sophie Ibbotson both recently were privileged to be part of a first in the history of travel – they were guides on the first private train to be permitted to cross from Iran to Europe. Here, Max Lovell-Hoare reflects on an unexpected gem he discovered in Iran during the journey.

Three days before boarding my flight to Tehran, I still didn’t have a visa. The Iranian authorities’ wariness of foreigners with journalist credentials is well-known (and, frequently, justified), but their principle reason given for stalling my own application was that I had reported for the Wall Street Journal from Tehran in 1982. Given that I would have been six at the time and hadn’t set foot in Iran before or since, this did cause me to raise an eyebrow, but the point seemed to have passed over a plethora of bureaucrats, and even once I spelled it out, my application still hung in limbo as no one wanted to countenance the fact that an internal intelligence report might be wrong. Quite whose common sense prevailed I cannot be entirely sure, but I am forever grateful. I was summoned in person to the Iranian Embassy in Dublin, the paperwork was stamped, and 48 hours later I was on yet another flight, this time to Tehran via Istanbul.

Completing the journey under steam in Budapest, Hungary (c) MEP

Completing the journey under steam in Budapest, Hungary (c) MEP

I flew to Iran to join the inaugural tour of the Golden Eagle Danube Express, the first European private train to be allowed into the country. Built in the mid 20th century to transport senior Hungarian officials around the Balkans, this was the train’s first foray east of Istanbul, and its arrival marked both an up-tick in Iran’s diplomatic relations with the West, but also gave the clear message that Iran is once again fully open for tourism. The reception we received from Iranian officials, the media and from ordinary people, was ecstatic.

Figurative bas relief carvings at Persepolis, Iran (c) MEP

Figurative bas relief carvings at Persepolis, Iran (c) MEP

In my mind, it was Persepolis that would be the highlight of the tour. The majestic ruins, set amongst an arid landscape, did not disappoint, but neither did they quite marry with the images I had first seen in National Geographic as a child. Instead, the place which utterly fascinated me, and which I could visit time and again, was somewhere had never even occurred to me might exist. It was the extraordinary Vank Cathedral in Isfahan.

Cherubs in Vank Cathedral, Isfahan, Iran (c) MEP

Cherubs in Vank Cathedral, Isfahan, Iran (c) MEP

Shah Abbas I relocated a substantial number of Armenian refugees from the Ottoman Wars to Isfahan in the early 17th century. He gave them permission to build a cathedral church in their new homeland, and the resulting building is a remarkable fusion of Islamic and Orthodox architectural and artistic styles. The sanctuary is typical of a Safavid-era mosque, but the accompanying dome is very much from the Orthodox tradition. On the walls are finely glazed tiles with geometric patterns and floral motifs, but also exquisite figurative frescos depicting scenes from Revelations, and gilded cherubs with beatific smiles. A faint smell of incense lingers in the air, and throughout most of the day a solitary priest prays unhurried at the altar.

The cathedral, small though it is, is a haven of peace in an otherwise frantic city. Perhaps it is this contrast which made its discovery such an unexpected delight, though I think at least part of the charm was that it overturned my own preconceptions about what I’d find in Iran. Logically, I knew there was still a Christian community in Iran, but it took meeting with it face to face to realise not only does it still flourish, but its cultural heritage is treasured and preserved not only by Iran’s Christians but by the population at large.

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Afghanistan, Balochistan, Guest blogger, Iran, Pakistan

Balochistan through the Afghan back door

Karlos Zurutuza is a freelance reporter who contributes to a number of media channels including Al-Jazeera. Here, he writes on the complexities of covering one of the most off-the-radar conflicts worldwide: Balochistan.

It had been four years since I last met Mr Purdely. The chain of uprisings in northern Africa and the Middle East that started in 2011 had kept me away from Central Asia, but I was finally back in Kabul last September, sitting down over a cup of green tea with Afghanistan´s best known Baloch intellectual.

A former MP during the rule of Mohammad Najibullah (1987-1992), Purdely is a professor and a writer. Among his several books one can also find those being used by the Afghan Baloch schoolchildren in Nimroz Province.

That far-flung spot in the country´s southwest had been the main goal of my trip to Afghanistan in 2010. It´s not just the only the area where Afghanistan´s little known Baloch minority constitute the majority. Nimroz is also the place where the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran collide. If there is a “black hole” in Central Asia, that is certainly Nimroz.

“There are three schools in Nimroz where Balochi – their language – is being taught, which you may want to visit,” said Purdely, after proudly producing the whole set of school books he had released over the last four years. The normalisation of a long neglected language, however, was just one of the stories I wanted to cover during my trip.

Back in 2009 I had travelled to the Baloch populated areas bordering Nimroz in Iran and Pakistan. In retrospect, I have to admit that during the first trip to West and East Balochistan, as Baloch nationalists put it, I was barely familiar with the Marris, the Mengals, the Bugtis and the rest of the clans that make up the Baloch tribal fabric. But I did have a unique chance to detect the fear among regular Iranian Baloch of being hanged by the Iranian regime, or the appalling poverty in Pakistan-controlled Balochistan. Thanks to the help of local activists, I met victims of torture and abuses by the Pakistani security service, relatives of the myriad of missing Baloch –around 20,000 according to local sources. I also spoke to senior tribal leaders such as Khair Bux Marri or Attaullah Mengal, as well as to a few among those fighting in the rugged mountains of Pakistan´s southernmost province.

The outcome of that first visit to the troubled land of the Baloch would be a set of stories for several media wires which would eventually shed some light on this obscure conflict. The collateral effect for me would be a travel ban for Iran and Pakistan. To make a long story short, foreign journalists are prevented from entering the region, deported if they´re caught inside, and eventually beaten. Needless to say it´s far worse for the local reporters, forced to choose between “self-censorship”, according to Ahmed Rashid, or finding their names in the list of “killed and dumped”.

Paradoxically, Afghanistan had turned into my “safest” option to keep reporting on the Baloch and their conflict.

The Wild Southwest

The Taliban insurgency has made it impossible to travel overland across Afghanistan, except for a few spots like the legendary Panjshir valley, which works for a nice day-trip from Kabul. Flying is mandatory when it comes to moving around the country, and air connections between Kabul and Nimroz had slightly improved since my last visit in 2010. Back then, flights to Zaranj -the provincial capital – only departed from Herat, but last September there was a weekly flight from Kabul operated by a newly-established airline.

So I travelled there, met the Baloch teachers, the journalists who run a radio programme in Balochi and many other local activists struggling to revive their long-neglected language and culture. But there was obviously much more Afghanistan´s remotest province could offer to a freelance journalist. Nimroz is literally overrun by migrant Afghans bound for Iran, and it´s also a main hub for all sorts of smuggling: heroine coming from neighbouring Helmand province goes out, weapons come in…

In the country´s southwest I also came across dozens of Pakistani Baloch, either political dissidents or ordinary civilians, fleeing the war at home and seeking shelter in Afghanistan. Another striking story was that of the local Baloch who have found themselves living under the shadow of a border wall erected by the Iranians almost overnight. Many cross-border family ties were cut, and survival based on smuggling goods or growing crops was on the brink of collapse. Local villagers have left in their hundreds, leaving their mud houses behind. Among those who had not yet followed suit, it was not difficult to run into people who have been shot by the Iranian guards.

Officials at the water supply department in Zaranj told me that Iran is to blame for diverting and storing water from the Helmand River and also responsible for Nimroz´s endemic drought. But accusations went beyond interference in the water supply. The Iranian presence is overwhelming, something which is visibly evident in Zaranj´s massive bazaar area, with hundreds of stalls loaded with Iranian products. Transactions are made in Iranian currency and electricity to Zaranj also comes directly from Iran. Moreover, locals are highly suspicious of Iranian NGOs.

“This is a nest of spies,” could be read in graffiti on the walls of The Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation´s headquarters.

Somewhere in the Mountains

My next stop on my Baloch tour across Afghanistan was Kandahar, so I was forced to fly back to Kabul. A first attempt to leave Zaranj ended up with the aircraft swerving violently across the runway after one of the engines collapsed during take-off. I had experienced something similar during my 2010 trip, so although it was pretty scary, it came as no surprise.

The flight was delayed until 5:00 a.m. the following day but I´d still be in time to fly to Kandahar at 1:00 p.m. Unlike Nimroz, Kandahar is not Baloch land as such but it hosts a significant Baloch community, which includes both Afghan and Pakistani Baloch. The Baloch Language Department at Kandahar´s university and the large number of families that have settled there after fleeing Pakistan´s south would definitely help me complete my stories on culture and refugees. However, there was another powerful reason behind my visit.

Contacts in Kabul had arranged a rare interview with Baloch insurgents from the Balochistan Liberation Army. The meeting point would be “somewhere in the Sarlat mountains”, a rocky massif on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It was a long drive, after which came a long hike. BLA commander Baloch Khan was waiting for me at an undisclosed location, escorted by three fellow fighters. They had walked for 12 hours from the other side of the border.

“Taliban presence in this border area is at its peak but they use their own routes and we stick to ours so we hardly ever come across them,” commander Khan told me. I found his words reassuring, kind of.

The 41-year-old guerrilla told me he felt very close to the Kurds, “as their land is also stolen by their neighbours”. He even admitted ideological parallels between his group and the Kurdistan Workers Party-PKK. Their enemies were seemingly sticking to similar tactics, yet in different degrees. While Ankara has been sending Islamic extremists into areas under the control of the Syrian Kurds over the last three years, Khan insisted that Islamabad was following a similar strategy to tackle the Baloch issue:

“Until 2000 not a single Shia was killed in Balochistan. Today Pakistan is funnelling all sorts of fundamentalist groups, many of them linked to the Taliban, into Balochistan to crush the Baloch liberation movement,” stressed the commander.

Apparently, there are around half a dozen Baloch armed groups operating in Pakistani Balochistan. One of them is the Baloch Liberation Front, a group led by Allah Nazar, a former physician, who today leads his fighters in the southern coastal region of Makran. Obviously I couldn´t travel that far without a visa but I did chat over the phone with Nazar to get his assessment of Pakistan´s alleged support for Islamic extremists. He spoke about the Taliban, and even gave me the coordinates of “at least four training camps”, where members of the Islamic State are reportedly receiving instruction with the help of the Pakistani intelligence services.

“The Islamic State is overwhelmingly present among us. They even throw pamphlets in our streets to advocate their view of Islam and get new recruits,” the former gynaecologist told me, visibly disturbed.

Kabul

Back in Kabul I met Purdely again to compare notes on “Afghan Baloch language and culture”. We both hoped we didn´t have to wait for another four years to see one other again. I also had to say goodbye to the rest of the Baloch who had backed me with info and logistics during my trip. One of them was Guljam, an exile from Pakistan who had been calling me on a daily basis to make sure I was always sticking to the right people.

During my first days in Kabul I had been meeting Guljam at the same coffee shop in a shopping mall to make the necessary arrangements before my departure to the country´s south. Dressed in his shalwar kamiz, the 38-year-old could walk completely unnoticed across the city. He could pass for an Afghan and, like them, he was also familiar with war. Yet his is another war, unfortunately one we barely ever hear of.

 

 

 

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