Talisman Gate

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Three Doors

Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

December 23, 2004 Thursday


LENGTH: 1069 words

HEADLINE: Three Doors

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


The barbarians are at the gates. The Shias are coming. Flee, flee. That was the basic message carried by the excitable king of Jordan during his last visit to Washington. As Abdullah II made the beltway rounds warning of a "Shia Crescent" emerging in the Middle East as a result of a Shia victory in Iraq's upcoming elections, he sought to rehash memories of better days when Iran used to be the menace and people like him still mattered to American interests. What is really on his mind is the Democratic sickle likely to cut a swath through the region.

The elite club of Arab rulers is about to run into affirmative action: it has to let in its first popularly elected member. They had welcomed newcomers in the past, usually midranking military officers who got introduced to the local CIA or KGB station chief and pulled off a lucky coup. All memberships are lifelong, and gender exclusive. Now, the Iraqi who gets the most votes automatically becomes a member and ceases to be one after his or her term - not life - expires. What is the Middle East coming to?

Before the liberation of Iraq, the former foreign minister of Egypt, Amr Mousa, who is the secretary of the Arab League, warned that marching into Baghdad would open up the gates of hell. Sounds bad, but he is absolutely correct if understood in the parlance of Arab rulers: Hell to them is a place where people are motivated by inspiration, whereas their heaven is teaming with citizens motivated by cattle prods.

Democracy in Iraq is going to play out in real time. The whole Middle East will be watching, and its youth are going to be offered the "What's behind door no. 3?" option. Door no. 1 leads the young Middle Easterner to a welcoming committee of Arab rulers: you can immigrate, break down, or get co-opted. If you don't like things as they are, then Stockholm is beautiful this time of year. Otherwise, do drugs or vegetate watching soap operas and rant against Israel. But if you play your sycophantic cards well then you can have the leftovers and the distinct honor of washing the dirty dishes.

Door no. 2 opens up to a damp cave some where near Kandahar. Osama Bin Laden greets the newly arrived Middle Easterner: "Here is the RPG and its user manual, and a copy of the Koran autographed by the author's agent - moi. "You are instructed to make your way back to Arabia and get on with the business of slaying the infidels. In due course, you will die and go dine in the company of the Prophet Muhammad. You will be given the option of "smoking or nonsmoking" as the Angel Gabriel leads you to your table. Should you stay alive, then you get to enjoy the rides of Wahhabi-Land theme park; "pick up your cotton candy and stand in line for the magic act, oh boy, you're in luck, it's a beheading!"

Behind door no.3 is the prospect of a functioning democracy. Sure, it is messy and littered with chads, but you get to keep your dignity. Moreover, you might end up with the opportunity of a better life. Parliament will force that obnoxious royal highness to auction off his Ferrari, and the proceeds may go towards purchasing 30 Hyundais for regular citizens like you. If you are a woman in Saudi Arabia, you will finally get to drive a car. Or, maybe you will put to use that high-tech education and launch your own business. Part of the overhead that was once earmarked for graft and red tape may pay for a Maserati for the owner. Or it may buy a new boiler for the orphanage down the street. It's up to you, young man. And if things don't turn out great, then vent your pent-up frustration at the ballot box or pen a letter to the editor. Just put away the rocket-propelled grenade launcher; things may turn for the better, every four years or so.

There's a demographic bulge of late teenagers in the Middle East, according to the available surveys, and each young man or woman has three options: the status quo, Al Qaeda, or democracy. The lack of public participation in the terror-inspired chaos sought by Mr. bin Laden in Saudi Arabia should be encouraging to many in policy circles. But it is too early for high-fives. The reason that Mr. bin Laden's message has not been gaining ground is that regular Saudi folks are waiting for President Bush to deliver on his new promise of change through democracy. To believe that they will remain content with the status quo is to misunderstand the whole phenomenon of Al Qaeda: people are angry at America in part because America maintains the current order and pays the utility bills at the club of Arab rulers.

Al Jazeera and other press outlets owned and managed by the Arab rulers advise their viewers that they should be angered by Israel and Abu Ghraib. But most ordinary Arab families are discerning hints of the future from coverage of the Iraqi elections: "Is America serious and on my side? Or is it on the side of King Abdullah & Co?"

However, being the political equivalent of a moralistic vegetarian among cannibals can be damaging to your health. Three Saudi democrats, Matrouk Al-Faleh, Ali Al-Dumaini and Abdullah Al-Hamed, are finding this out the hard way. Their crime: believing America's promise of a new democratic Middle East, and spreading the word. They are charged with the same slew of bad deeds leveled by King George III against the first American patriots. The Saudi authorities seem to think that these three democrats should rot in jail, where they have been since last March - their lawyer also got arrested recently - while a fellow called Khalid Al-Harbi gets to hobble out of incarceration. Do you remember Mr. Harbi? He appeared on television shortly after September 11 in an audience with Osama Bin Laden to personally convey his congrats. Here's another hint: he had no legs. Well, the Saudi government had the gall to issue a press release saying that he had been set free last month. Apparently, Saudi prisons are not wheelchair accessible. How nice of them to let him go.

This is a slap in the face of Mr. Bush if ever there was one. Adding insult to injury, the club of Arab rulers has made common cause with Al Qaeda against his experiment with democracy in Iraq. Will the sheriff emerge from the saloon guns ablaze, or will a State Department spokesman deliver a sharply worded yet narrowly reported denunciation? Every young Middle Easterner is waiting for the Texan to make his move, before they make their own through one of three doors to the future.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Tea, Sympathy and Sistani

Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

December 16, 2004 Thursday


LENGTH: 1340 words

HEADLINE: Tea, Sympathy and Sistani

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is all for democracy, since he himself was "elected" to the top Shia post. Last week, Iraq's Electoral Commission received a list of 228 candidates called the "Unified National List" that has also been unofficially dubbed as the "Shia List" or the "Sistani List." The names were picked by a six-member committee assigned to this task by Sistani through harried last-minute negotiations with the major Shia-heavy political parties. The top 150 names on the list are virtually guaranteed a seat in Iraq's next parliamentary vote in the last week of next January because the Grand Ayatollah wants it to be so.

And what the Grand Ayatollah wants, the Grand Ayatollah gets. This is a fluid phenomenon that has been 1,000 years in the making. Over the last millennia, the world of Shia Islam has come up with its own version of democracy: the faithful vote with their wallets for whoever is perceived as the most knowledgeable top cleric.

One becomes a top cleric, or marji', through a protracted effort spent studying classical Greek-rooted concepts of logic and rhetoric, and applying them to Muslim religious texts. Some natural talent for mysticism and improvisation is also a plus. At one point, such clerics have to publish their own interpretations of the holy texts and come up with answers to today's everyday challenges and problems. If the lay person likes these answers, then he or she is required to set aside a fifth of their unspent incomes (or a 20% flat tax rate) and hand it over to their favorite guy in a black (signifies genealogical descent from the Prophet Muhammed's family) or white (anyone else) turban.

As the money pours in from hundreds of millions of Shia faithful in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, the ex-Soviet Republics, India, Pakistan, and the Persian Gulf, all places with sizable Shia populations, a sizable fortune accumulates. This money is supposed to be spent, in our modern times, through a trust that subsidizes more religious schools, proselytizing, and a network of charities, each bearing the cleric's stamp of approval. At this time, there are seven recognized Grand Ayatollahs (four in Iraq, and three in Iran) who sit atop their seven respective empires of faith and patronage. Once in a while, among the top clerics, one emerges as the uber-Grand Ayatollah, and this time around, it is an Iranian-born scion of a respected scholarly family who moved to Najaf in Iraq in the mid-1940s to further his education at its most prestigious schools. His name is Ali Sistani.

Although his pictures show him as a stern, frowning and terribly serious authority figure, Sistani is actually a really nice guy. Image in public life is everything, and the marji'ya, or Shia religious establishment, goes for the austere, long-suffering look. A narrow and well guarded alley through Najaf's rundown Old City takes you to a nondescript home with an outer courtyard and an outer waiting room called the barrani, which also serves as classroom and town hall. Tea is served as elderly graduate students bearing the distinctive Mongol features of Afghani Shias sit around leafing through voluminous texts preparing for that day's lecture. You are then led to an inner room with faded blue-green walls that are lit up with white fluorescent tubes. Sistani struggles up to meet you and it is customary to make a show of kissing his hands, which in a sign of humility he denies by quickly jerking them back. With his eyes twinkling mischievously, Sistani articulates witty and light-hearted nuggets of wisdom and political savvy in a heavy Iranian accent while stroking his long, bushy beard.

Anyone hoping for success in Iraq should thank their lucky stars for the existence of a man like Sistani at this historical juncture.

Sistani and the marji'ya in Najaf are a pillar of Iraqi civil society. They do not wield political authority or seek it, but they have immense influence on those who do, perfectly in line with the very essence of the Iraqi perception of civil society institutions. The pope sitting in the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church do not run Italy's customs offices, but they certainly carry clout and can make themselves heard in the same manner as the socialist-controlled trade unions. Understanding the intricacies of marji'ya and how it works may be too much to ask of Western journalists and stringers sniffing around for stories in liberated Iraq, but they can see the marji'ya in action when even a hint of Sistani's opinion on a certain matter can send hundreds of thousands of Iraqis demonstrating peacefully on Baghdad's streets.

And Sistani wants them to demonstrate and support the vision he shares with the Bush administration: a peaceful, democratic, and just Iraq. This vision is anathema to the fellows running the insurgency, or in other words, the Sunnis. See, Iraq's Sunnis are in a bind. Their power structure and monopoly of all facets of the state, inherited from their role as flunkies for the Ottoman Empire and then on from their role as willing "collaborators" with the British occupation post-World War I, has totally collapsed. They found themselves in a world that they cannot understand. Their surnames, Tikriti, Rawi, Aani, Duleimi and their earlier versions, Pachachi, Kaylani, and Al-Sadoun, no longer ring of authority.

But the concept of power is undergoing a paradigm shift in the Middle East, and Iraq is the first Arab incubator for this newborn revolution. Power now is all about votes and voter turnout.

The Arab Shias of Iraq are the majority sect in their country, whatever the Sunnis claim to the contrary. And not for lack of trying; the Sunni sectarian apartheid regime deported hundreds of thousands and experimented with outright genocide to bring down Shia numbers. This particular fear of the "Shia majority" is precisely why the Arab Sunnis are terrified of elections a la the new American promises of democracy. The Sunni agenda is thus muddled and riddled with confusion and a sense of shock at losing power. It is an agenda rooted in fear of the future and that fear turns them into hesitant and resentful partners in a new and democratic Iraq, an Iraq they do not recognize and, as yet, understand.

The Shias have sighted the Promised Land of democracy over the horizon and, shepherded by Sistani, are ready to subscribe to P. Diddy's dictum of Vote or Die. Of course, they can also get to power through the short-cut of civil war and its evil logic of killing more of the other side and winning. The Sunnis, in desperation, have tried to lure the Shias into that time-buying gambit. What happened during the religious commemoration of Ashura within the holy shrines of Kazimayn and Kerbala last year was an event as traumatic and dangerous as September 11, 2001, from the perspective of Shias worldwide. It is as if a terrorist blew up the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Were it not for a fatwa from Sistani calming people down and instructing them not to take out their justified anger on their Sunni brethren, then that event would have been the spark of a civil war that would have seen the Sunnis evicted from Baghdad and witnessed the consequential dismemberment of Iraq. Recent fatwas against vigilante action in the newly-labeled Triangle of Death north of Babil province, where Sunnis and Shias live side by side, have also averted a disaster.

The American-led and now defunct Coalition Provisional Authority circulated a memo dated February 18,2004,whereby one of its staff, identified as "Mehran Riazaty, Iran Analyst," sought to correlate Sistani's activist statements with those made by Ayatollah Khomeini prior to taking power, seemingly hinting that history is about to repeat itself. Khomeini, though, modeled his Vilayet-el-Faqih concept of power on divinely-inspired totalitarianism, whereas Sistani is inspired by his own democratic rise to prominence.

Americans scrambling for a new Iraq should again thank the heavens for having a nice guy with democratic leanings like Sistani as their partner.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Trouble in the Land of Moab

Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

December 9, 2004 Thursday


LENGTH: 1420 words

HEADLINE: Trouble in the Land of Moab

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


All is not well in the Kingdom of Jordan. The sudden change in the line of succession for the Hashemite throne of the Kingdom of Jordan is a troubling sign that this oasis of stability in the Middle East may be about to pop a geyser.

On paper, Jordan, even by Middle Eastern standards, should not be a stand-alone country. Not only does it not have oil or some other viable natural resource, it doesn't even have enough water. Named for the biblical Jordan River, where John the Baptist and Jesus Christ waded some 2,000 years ago, its namesake is no longer even a rivulet, but rather more of a sluggish, shallow stream. Yet, its capital of Amman - built around the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Philadelphia - is one of the Middle East's prettiest, trendiest, and cleanest cities.

The first settlers of Amman in the modern era were Circassian refugees fleeing imperial Russian expansion into the Caucasus Mountains several hundred miles away. The ailing Ottoman Empire, in its role as the inept protector of Muslim peoples, decided to award that inhospitable piece of real estate to the blonde and blue-eyed huddled masses and see if they could eke out a living. The Bedouin tribes in the area of Amman found all this amusing, and eyed another target for their raids of pillage and looting. They soon found out that the Circassians didn't ascribe to the tribal manual of war that stipulated much plunder and few casualties, since blood ransoms were expensive. The warriors from the mountains retaliated with mass murder of Bedouin encampments, which moved further a field from the new den of these feisty immigrants and left them to their own affairs. For them, Amman was a way station until history brought about an end to Russian expansionism and they could go back to their auol, or village, in the mountains. A city was born.

The British inherited the land they called Trans-Jordan from their vanquished foes, the Ottomans, after World War I, and they had a very difficult time giving it away. This was not always the case; many civilizations had fought over this land, roughly known as Moab in the bible, ranging from the Ammonites, the Nabateans, and the Greeks to the Romans. The latter built three major cities in this land, but alas, it was prone to earthquakes and the water was running out. The various Muslim empires, and the Crusaders who came to battle them, treated this land as an outpost for fortified garrison towns. Since that time, it has been underpopulated and forgotten except for some lingering Bedouins, Circassians, and some transplanted urban Arabs from the western bank of the Jordan, or Palestine, who came to cultivate the few arable valleys.

After the Great War, the British had some disgruntled Arab allies to appease. Foremost among them was the Hashemite Sherif of Mecca, who believed that he would become King of All the Arabs after the Ottomans were kicked out. Some enterprising British bureaucrat decided to award the meager prize of Trans-Jordan to one of the Sherif's less fortunate sons, Abdullah the I, who became prince, then king, of the newly fashioned Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, with its capital in Amman. It was supposed to be a temporary buffer state, whose status was to be determined after history had unfolded in the larger Middle East. A country was born.

Amman was a settlement devoid of any large body of water, whether stationary or flowing. Such bodies of water are good for allaying the angst of urbanites flocking to a newly minted city: it put the volume of their tears into perspective. Even today, for all its flashy cars and hot night clubs, Amman is awash with the ambiance of despair and pessimism. The closest body of water is the Dead Sea; not very uplifting.

The genius of the King Hussein, who succeeded his grandfather after his own father was diagnosed as unfit to rule, was to turn Jordan's identity as a buffer state and a way station into a profitable business. His stroke of luck was the creation of the state of Israel across the Jordan River, and the advent of dispossessed huddled masses of Palestinians fleeing the zeal of Zionism. The descendants of these refugees still possess the keys to homes in villages that had been razed long-ago in the turf battles of Jews and Arabs. Jordan was suddenly turned into an overpopulated land much at the center of world attention. And like the Circassians before them, the Palestinians waited for Lady Fortune to smile upon them as they went about eking a living from this inhospitable land. Their talent and hard work transformed Jordan into a modern state. Today, they form the majority of Jordan's population.

The Americans succeeded the British in running the Middle East, and Jordan's status as a country straddling the confluence of many trouble points was useful for intelligence purposes, shady banking, and arms-dealing. The CIA station in Amman was, up to the recent Gulf War, the largest in the Middle East, and in lieu of rent, Jordan got $200 million dollars of American taxpayer money every year.

Today, Jordan is still making a living off the misery of others. It is home to the defeated Iraqi Baathists and their stolen loot, as well as hundreds of thousands of Iraq's upper middle class fleeing the post-liberation chaos. Most of Iraq's allocated reconstruction money is being spent in Amman, as investors and contractors wait out the turmoil sipping margaritas in Amman's trendy bars while endlessly debating and requoting their plans for a new, prosperous Iraq.

But times are a-changing in the Middle East, if President Bush's vision holds. As democracy strikes roots in Iraq, and the peace process is furthered, there will be fewer trouble spots and pan-Middle Eastern misery for Jordanians to profit from. The very fate and identity of Jordan is in the balance: will it continue to be a buffer state and a way station, or will it finally become a home?

Prince Hamza would have a made a fine new king for a fine new Jordan. However, his older brother, the current king, Abdullah II, defrocked him last week of the title of crown prince and heir apparent. King Hamza I was to be the embodiment of the late King Hussein's vision of for a Jordanian homeland; 'the darling of my eye' he used to call his younger son, and in effect placed the untested elder son as a temporary regent until young Hamza was old enough, and wise enough, to rule and reform. Hussein took the added step of leaving his accumulated fortune to Hamza as an added safety mechanism to ensure his succession. Some Arab commentators have pegged greed and infighting over this king's ransom as the reason for Abdullah's sudden change of course.

Longtime observers of Jordanian affairs like Rob Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy have spun Abdullah's gambit as his own coming of age. The move is supposed to reflect his maturity and the stability of his reign. But Mr. Satloff is way off the mark. Abdullah has demonstrated that he is listening to the counsel of a gaggle of advisers who have embarked on this rearguard action to lock Jordan in its current, unviable identity. These advisers, who are mostly Circassians and "real Jordanians," that is descendants of the Bedouin tribes and the farming communities of pre-Israel East Bankers, are busily protecting and helping themselves to the coffers of Jordan's long-standing business of being a temporary haven rather than a home.

Hamza is interested in a Jordan of the future, where the descendants of the Palestinian refugees, or the younger generation he grew up with, can also claim to be "real Jordanians." The village keys will remain a venerated family relic, but the keys jingling in their pockets fit their homes in the apartment blocks of modern Amman. Young Hamza, handsome, smart, forward-looking, and the spitting image of his much-beloved father, was privately making his views known and mapping out a vision for a democratic Jordanian homeland, where new misery-free avenues of wealth and prosperity, as well as water shortages, were to be shared by all. He was becoming too popular, and too much of a shining foil for the current insecure set-up, and as such was deprived of his chance to lead.

Abdullah II is in Washington for talks with President Bush, and he should be asked: Will it be retro or reform? Stability will come when more Jordanians have a stake in the future of the land of Moab, and through Hamza's vision, all Jordanians, regardless of where they came from, can shout, "the kingdom is dead, long live the kingdom."

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Red and Blue States in the Middle East

Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

December 2, 2004 Thursday


LENGTH: 1280 words

HEADLINE: Red and Blue States in the Middle East

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Plenty of interested parties are freaking out as the elections approach in Iraq. The January 30 deadline is looming large and some, mostly Sunnis and Arab governments, are counseling a delay. The White House and the Shias are against the delay and as such share a common agenda, but there is increasing wariness within the American government about who among the Shia would actually win the elections and what that would mean for American interests in Iraq and any future policy course on another Shia-dominated country, Iran.

Polls that have been recently conducted in Iraq are closer in spirit to alchemy than science, and are being tailored to influence policy back in Washington. Most polls are now showing that the Iran-backed Islamic (Shia) parties such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Da'awa Party are poised to carry the vote in the upcoming elections. These two parties are beholden to the powerful theocrats in Iran.

Even the most talked-about and likely candidates for the post of prime minister are current Finance Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi and ex-nuclear physicist and political prisoner Hussein Shahrestani, who has emerged as the troubleshooter for Grand Ayatollah Sistani's ambitious and increasingly meddling son, Muhammed Ridha. Both Mr. Mahdi and Mr. Shahrestani are close to the Iranians; close not in the "let's meet some time for a drink" sense, but rather "Sure, I'd be glad to help you move" type of bosom-buddy close. Hint, hint; wink, wink. I won't say any more because the finance ministry may revoke my food ration card, which is a prerogative of his excellency the minister.

Such Shia religious parties are indeed popular, since they carried the anti-Saddam banner when Shias were being persecuted for their sectarian identity. However, this popularity will wane as more Shias feel less threatened by the Iraqi state, which is likely to be dominated by them after the votes are tallied.

Yet the subtle feedback from whoever (likely has something to do with Baghdad's CIA station) is subsidizing and tweaking the poll results is that beyond January 2005, Iran will be in effective control of Iraq. This is being used as another argument for delaying the elections.

The obsession with Iran has been an early CIA activity in Iraq: the first of Saddam Hussein's cronies to be offered a job after liberation were intelligence officers who had handled the Iraqi espionage networks operating against Iran, much like Reinhard Gehlen's ex-Nazis employed by the Americans against the Soviet Union. Even the notorious Mujaheddi-Khalq Organization, Iranian terrorists and murderers hosted by Saddam and used by him from time to time against the ayatollahs in Tehran and Iraqi civilians in places like Kirkuk and Ramadi, have been resurrected as a practical tool for Washington's agenda of annoying the Iranians. The border crossing to Iran from Iraq is the only place where the Iraqi passport officers take your digital photo on the way in and out and seems to be a very sophisticated anti-terror operation; contrasted to the Iraqi side of the Syrian and Jordanian borders where they don't even bother to look at your document before stamping it.

But as the spies are busily collecting whatever scraps of information on Iran they can dredge up, I wonder what the intelligence analysts are saying about Iranian ambitions in Iraq. The CIA already has their own men dominating the interim Iraqi government, and elections are likely to change all that. They are pointing to the turbaned Iranian bogeyman and its track-record of exporting Islamic revolution to forestall Iraq's democracy.

The Iranians have demonstrated that they have three strategies for Iraq: Don't let the Sunnis run things again, make plenty of money off a strong Iraqi economy, and get back on talking terms with the Americans. What is certainly not on their agenda is turning Iraq through hook or crook into an Islamic Republic, and there's a simply reason for that: God does not like the Iraqis, and can't trust them to rule in His name. At least that is what the Iranians think.

The Iranians have long ago given up on turning Iraqis into Iranians. Iraqis are seen as materialistic, money-grubbing hooligans with a penchant for wickedness and blasphemy, whereas Iranians see themselves as hard-working, neat, and God-fearing folk. Iranians at a shrine would beseech the higher powers for nicer real estate in the hereafter's heaven; the Iraqis would demand, and not ask for, a better deal in the here and now, plus an option for a pox to befall their pesky neighbors next door. In fact, the Shia equivalent to the Christian concept of the patron saint, Imam Ali, is on the record some 14 centuries ago berating the people of Iraq as "the likenesses of men" and those who "cannot do battle in the winter for it is cold, or during the summer for it is hot." Some historians believe that such statements are traditional trash-talking of Iraqis planted on the Imam by over-zealous Iranian pamphleteers some centuries ago.

Making judgments on the relative religiosity of nations is a difficult enterprise, much like the recent debate in America delineating Red States high on values and faith, and Blue States likened by some on the extreme rights as Sodom (California) and Gomorrah (New York). But Iraq - even if the Islamic parties whose stated agendas are evident in their names like "Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq" carry the day - is unlikely to turn into an Islamic Republic.

Such intangible reflections can be made while walking through the inner labyrinths of Tehran's Grand Bazaar on a Thursday afternoon. Iranian merchants who operate in the bazaar spend decades making a name for themselves as pious, trustworthy folk whose reputation is beyond reproach. They usually seek to become early philanthropists and community figures through the local mosque and get on good terms with the local mullah. That is why, on the afternoon preceding the Muslim Sabbath of Friday, the ancient and monolithic bazaar is shuttered up as the faithful go about getting themselves in God's good books. How very Iranian.

Take a couple of left turns at the bazaar and you'll end up, by following the commotion, at the Merwi market, or the Alley of the Arabs. This is the hub of the exiled Iraqi mercantile class. They are open for business, and thriving, on Thursday afternoon, and you'll find them peddling their wares on Friday as well. Their measure of success is car, house, and trophy wife. Sounds familiar? This is also the part of town where the odd street urchin will also offer "hashish, whiskey, and women." I also note, with some pride, that Tehran's black-market currency exchange is controlled by Iraqis from my home town of Kazimayn. How typically Iraqi.

Many arguments have been made to suggest that there is a very wide discrepancy between Iraqi Shias and their coreligionists in Iran, even though they share much in common. Old Tehran looks aesthetically and architecturally very similar to Old Baghdad. Iraqis and Iranians like the same food, too, and over millennia have swapped Farsi and Arabic words to spruce up their vocabulary. But that is also true of red and blue towns throughout America that share McDonald's and the English language.

The mullahs in Tehran believe that the upcoming elections in Iraq will ensure that a coterie of unthreatening Iraqis comes to power, and that Iranian good behavior during this period will earn them brownie points with the American government to be cashed in for a benign and long-standing detente. As for their values-challenged Iraqi co-religionists, well, what ever else happens in Baghdad, will stay in Baghdad.