The Shanghai Cooperation Organization

It is not a a household name like NATO and the European Union, but the milquetoast-sounding Shanghai Cooperation Organization may become one of the most important geopolitical blocs in the world. Iran’s recent entry into the Eurasian alliance has given it a rare spotlight in mainstream Western news media.

Founded two decades ago, the SCO is the world’s largest regional organisation, covering three-fifths of the Eurasian continent, nearly half the human population, and one-fifth of global GDP. It originated from a mutual security agreement in the 1990s between Russia, China, and several Central Asian countries (all former Soviet republics), which committed to maintaining “military trust” along their border regions.

But since being announced by member governments in Shanghai in 2001, the SCO has become more integrated along political, economic, and even cultural lines, in addition to beefing up military cooperation beyond simply maintaining border security. The fact that the alliance is led by two of America’s chief rivals, and comprised mostly of authoritarian countries, certainly adds to its image as the principal antinode to the Western-led world order.

No doubt Iran’s membership will add to that perception, though it also joins the likes of India and Pakistan, which became members in 2017, both of which are close (if tenuous) partners with the United States and other Western countries.

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In fact, many analysts warn that the perception of the SCO as an anti-American or anti-Western bloc is vastly overstated. While it is certainly predicated on the idea of a “multipolar” world—coded language for an international order not dominated by the U.S. specifically—the group is far from presenting itself as anything akin to an “Eastern” NATO:

Rather than major political or economic gains, Iran’s main takeaway from this success in the short term may be limited to a boost in prestige and diplomacy.

The main issue with Iran’s approach towards the SCO is that it looks at it as a “concert of non-Western great powers” rather than a modern international organisation, and views it in an anti-Western or anti-US setting, says Hamidreza Azizi, visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

“This is despite the fact that countries such as Pakistan and India are US’s close partners, and even Russia and China have never been willing to openly challenge the US on the global scene,” Azizi told Al Jazeera.

“The combination of these two misunderstandings, and also Iran’s self-perception as a natural hegemon in West Asia, would make the whole thing appear to the Iranian leaders as Iran joining other anti-Western great powers to form a strong coalition that is going to challenge the US hegemony.”

Azizi added that SCO members are reluctant to entangle themselves in Iran’s rivalries, which may be why, on Friday, they also admitted Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt as “dialogue partners” in a balancing effort.

From a diplomatic perspective, the approval is significant.

Indeed, for a country as diplomatically and economically isolated as Iran, joining such a large and imposing regional body, whatever its limitations, is at least good optics.

SCO MAP 10 July 2015 - Including two new permanent members Pakistan and India.png
A slightly dated map showing SCO partners (dark green), observers (light green) and “dialogue partners” (yellow). Source: Wikimedia Commons

The SCO is far from being a full-fledged alliance with formal and binding commitments among its members; there is nothing like NATO’s Article 5, which obligates all members to come to the defense of another member in an attack, nor does it have the level of economic integration of the European Union. As one analyst describes it, the SCO is more of a “venue” for discussion among “high-level dignitaries”—which is perfectly suited for mostly autocratic countries that jealously guard their sovereignty.

Still, many powerful regional blocs like the EU did start from humble beginnings, growing from diplomatic talk shops to fully institutionalized arrangements over the span of decades. A wide array of countries have expressed interest in joining the group or are currently engaged with it in some way, including NATO members like Turkey and strategic partners like Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen if the SCO will ever become as tightly integrated as its Western counterparts, though this is unlikely given its explicit commitment to nonintervention in members’ affairs—which ironically makes it all the more appealing for certain countries to join.

America the Upstart

The United States is one of nearly 200 countries. Americans are less than five percent of the world’s population. Our nation just turned 244 and has been a superpower for only about 80-100 years—a drop in the bucket in humanity’s 250,000-year history. Iran alone is heir to several empires spanning over 2,000 years, including one of the first in history, the Achaemenid. One of them, the Sassanian Empire, was a global superpower for four centuries, rivaled only by the Roman-Byzantine Empire (which it continually fought for 400 years). Egypt was forming into one of the world’s first and most powerful civilizations back when woolly mammoths were still around.

For much of the last 2,000 years, about a third of all humans lived in what is now China, and perhaps another third in what is now India; until just two hundred years ago, they jointly made up half the world’s economy. The bulk of all humans who ever lived—and thus the bulk of human activity, art, invention, ideas, political intrigue—were in two places that are barely a blip to the minds of most Americans. Similarly, there was a time when Islamic civilization was the pinnacle of human progress and power, such that even non-Muslim rivals and combatants conceded its ascendancy.

My overall point is that history is a product of hindsight: Looking back on it—which most people can’t or don’t—makes it easy to forget that we are part of the same continuing processes and narratives. Americans, as in many powerful civilizations before, view ourselves as the center of the world. But that can and will inevitably change, and probably very quickly (at least by historical standards)—just as it did for our dozens of predecessors, many of which were longer lived and more powerful for their time. We would do best to learn not only from history—which is a predictable, if still unheeded lesson—but also from those nations that have a lot more to teach us by virtue of their age and experience.

The Great American-Iranian Social Media War

What a time to be alive: the President of the United States and one of Iran’s top military leaders are taking jabs at each other with Game of Thrones-style social media posts. (And HBO weighed in by tweeting “what is trademark misuse in Dothraki?)

I look forward to all our foreign policy pronouncements being conveyed social media through pop culture references.

Of course, Russian state media is more than happy to report the absurdity of this.

How Iranians Use New Media to Empower Civil Society

The tenacity and resourcefulness of the Iranian people–and indeed of oppressed people the world over–is incredible.

One of the latest apps is Hafez, which translates as “to protect”. Named after the famous Persian poet whose words frequently targeted religious hypocrisy, the app offers users a collection of human rights-related information.

Foremost, it is a virtual rolodex of human rights lawyers in Iran, which allows users to access legal information regarding human rights.

However, Hafez is more than just a list of telephone numbers, Keyvan Rafiee, an Iranian human rights activist, told Al Jazeera.

“Users receive daily human rights news; [it] allows them to send news of human rights violations securely; [it] disseminates important legal information to users if they are arrested, and provides the contact information for attorneys who can assist,” said Rafiee, the founder of Human Rights Activists Iran (HRAI).

Rafiee, who has been arrested for his activism six times, said having a record of human rights violations is instrumental for protesters in Iran.

“Monitoring violations that take place on a daily basis can improve human rights conditions since independent organisations are not permitted to work in Iran,” Rafiee said.

Source: Al Jazeera

Iran Opens One of the World’s Largest Book Centers

Iran rarely features positively in any news reports. Yet the nation of over 80 million is young, cosmopolitan, and freer-thinking than its regime (or its enemies) make it out to be. Just one case in point — on top of centuries of rich cultural heritage — is the opening last year of what may be the largest educational complexes of its kind. As reported in Newsweek: Continue reading

The Right to Draw

Cartoonist Gavin Aung Than of Zen Pencils has produced another excellent short comic highlighting the plight and bravery of 28-year-old Iranian artist Atena Farghadani, who was recently sentenced to almost thirteen years in prison for drawing a cartoon that “[spread] propaganda against the system” and “[insulted] members of parliament through paintings”. As with all his works, it is both emotionally impactful and inspirational in its simplicity.

The quote used in the comic is taken from the speech Atena gave at her trial, the entirety of which you can read here.

Unfortunately, the harrowing events portrayed in the comic are not symbolic: as Zen Pencils notes, twelve members of the elite Revolutionary Guard came to Atena’s house, blindfolded her, and took her to the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran, where many other young activist are detained and often torture. According to an Amnesty International report:

While in prison last year, Atena flattened paper cups to use them as a surface to paint on. When the prison guards realised what she had been doing, they confiscated her paintings and stopped giving her paper cups. When Atena found some cups in the bathroom, she smuggled them into her cell. Soon after, she was beaten by prison guards, when she refused to strip naked for a full body search. Atena says that they knew about her taking the cups because they had installed cameras in the toilet and bathroom facilities – cameras detainees had been told were not operating.

After being released last November, the Atena gave media interviews and even posted a YouTube video detailing her horrific experience. For speaking out she was shortly after rearrested and remains in prison. Following a hunger strike to protest the horrible prison conditions, she suffered a dramatic decline in health culminating in a heart attack; she was thereafter forced to eat again.

As of today she has only has two weeks to lodge an appeal. With enough international pressure, it is possible that the Iranian government will relent in its brutal treatment (that is certainly not unprecedented). More from Zen Pencils:

Michael Cavna, comic journalist for The Washington Post, has launched a campaign appealing to artists to help bring awareness to Atena’s case by creating their own artwork in support of Atena and using the hashtag #Draw4Atena. Can a bunch of artists and a hashtag really make a difference and put pressure on the Iranian Government to release Atena? Probably not. But just remember that Atena is currently in prison enduring terrible conditions, and if her appeal isn’t successful, she will be there for another twelve years. FOR DRAWING A CARTOON AND POSTING IT ON FACEBOOK. Don’t we owe it to her to at least try?

At the very least, we can demonstrate some measure of solidarity with someone daring to be expressive and open-minded in a regime brutally opposed to both.

Iran, A Future Global Power

Given its rich historical legacy as a prominent center of power and civilization, perhaps it is fitting that modern Iran retains considerable economic, social, and scientific potential — if it is better governed and made fully a part of the global community.

Al Jazeera makes this point in the context of the continuing nuclear deal with the West, which among other things would lead to the lifting of the decades-long sanctions that have crippled the economy and left the country largely as an international pariah. Despite these external challenges, and years of mismanagement by a venal and authoritarian government, Iran has had a lot to show for itself:

Compared with other developing countries, especially considering the damage of war and sanctions, Iran performs decently on measures of human development. Its average life expectancy increased dramatically, from 54 in 1980 to 74 in 2012; 98 percent of 15-to-24-year-olds are literate; and according to the United Nations, Iran’s overall human development index has improved by 67 percent in the last decade.

Despite sanctions, Iran is one of the world’s top 20 economies. For the first decade of the 21st century, annual growth rates hovered around 5 percent, sometimes reaching as high as 7 percent. The 2010 round of sanctions were devastating, but the government has recently announced the return of positive growth. According to an International Monetary Fund forecast, the Iranian economy will grow 2 percent in 2015, an impressive reversal from the 5 percent contraction that occurred in 2012.

Iran, which invests more in scientific research than any other Middle Eastern nation, has seen rapid growth in its high-tech sector. Its elite technical universities are ranked among the top in the world. Sharif University of Technology — Iran’s MIT — was hailed by a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford as the the finest university in the world preparing undergraduate electrical engineers. Iran also stands among the leading countries in cutting-edge sciences such as stem cell research and nanotechnology.

While the Iranian economy is still largely dependent on oil exports, it has also seen significant industrial development. In 2009, Iran’s auto industry became the 11th largest in the world, producing more than 1.4 million vehicles (more than the United Kingdom or Italy). Auto is the second-largest sector, after oil, and offers vast employment opportunities to young workers in Iran. The country boasts significant development in high-tech industries such as machinery, automotive, steel, petrochemicals and medical technology.

Though Iran’s complex, authoritarian, and theocratic framework of government remains firmly entrenched, the current administration is, by historic standards, quite progressive; for example, its cabinet employs more graduates of prestigious American Ph.D. programs than its U.S. counterpart.

So while Iran struggles from a range of political problems at home and abroad, its people have lived up impressively to their proud historical legacy. If the country has managed to come this far in everything from human well-being to scientific research, imagine what it can do for itself and the world when freed from its present sociopolitical predicament.

Time will tell, and at this rate hopefully quite soon. The much-beleaguered, yet persevering, people of Iran deserve that much.

Iran’s Ancient Ice Houses

A yakhchal (“ice pit”) is an ancient type of cooler invented in Iran around 400 B.C.E. to store ice for the summer. The ice would either be brought in from nearby mountains during the winter, or more commonly would be channeled through a qanat (aqueduct) that would run along a wall built close to the yakhchal.

Credit: John Moore / Getty / Business Insider

During the cool winter season, the shadow of the wall would freeze the water more quickly, and the ice would be taken to the yakhchal, which had thick walls composed of a special mortar call sarooj (composed of specific proportions of sand, clay, egg whites, lime, goat hair, and ash). This substance was resistant to heat transfer and almost impenetrable to water. Some yakhchal had windcatchers built at the top to bring down the temperature inside on hot days.

The stored ice would be used to chill treats make a special dessert called faloodeh, one of the world’s earliest kinds of ice cream (made of thin corn starch noodles mixed in a semi-frozen syrup made from sugar and rose water, sometimes with lime or ground pistachios added).

As a testament to their superb engineering, many yakhchal built hundreds of years ago are still around today, like the one pictured above from the town of Abarqu, or the following from Meybod.

Credit: Wikimedia

Five Little-Known Facts About Life in Iran

Cracked has a great piece that shows a side of Iranian culture and society few people in the West appreciate: namely that Iranians — who number around 72 million and span different ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds — are not slavish Islamic radicals with a fetish for hating American.

Yes, there are elements of Iranian society, particularly in the upper echelons of power, who are fanatical, corrupt, oppressive, and otherwise in keeping with the negative stereotypes — but this is a tautology, as every nation and community has its good and its bad. To boil down such a large and diverse country with so rich a history to this two-dimensional caricature of inhuman fanatic is as factually wrong as it is unethical.

So let an otherwise comedic source give you a down-to-Earth perspective on one of the world’s most complex and long-lasting civilizations, like with this observation:

While I had stumbled across one of the largest celebrations of the Islamic Revolution ever, the reality is that the “Death to America” stuff is actually going out of style. Everyone from politicians to newspaper editors has basically said, “Guys, you’re kinda making us look like dicks,” and popular opinion is with them. If you arranged every Iranian presidential candidate since the ’90s on a “Lotsa Death” to “Cool It With the Death” continuum, candidates on the latter end have been vastly more successful than those who have adopted a more expressly pro-death-of-America stance.

For example, former president Mohammad Khatami is best known for pursuing a “dialogue among civilizations” with the U.N. and won his election and re-election through multiple consecutive landslides. Current president Hassan Rouhani ran on a “less death, more talking” platform as well and went home with a respectable 50 percent of the vote, while the more pro-death candidates were stuck scraping the bottom of the voting barrel.

The ultimate lesson here is that there is more to a society or culture than its (often unrepresentative) political system and / or the small and selective glance offered by media or special interest groups.