Kobani: What’s In A Name?

Kamran MatinA guest post from Kamran Matin. Kamran is a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex, where he teaches modern history of the Middle East and international theory. He is the author of Recasting Iranian Modernity: International Relations and Social Change (Routledge, 2013), and recently of ‘Redeeming the Universal: Postcolonialism and the Inner-Life of Eurocentrism’ in the European Journal of International Relations (2013). Kamran is also the incoming co-convenor of the BISA Historical Sociology Working Group, and a management committee member at Sussex’s Centre for Advanced International Theory. He is currently working on a paper on the origins of the current crisis in the Middle East, and a larger project on the international history of the Kurdish national liberation movement.

Kobani Fighters

The city of Kobani’s epic resistance against the genocidal assault of the Islamic State (IS) has entered its thirtieth day. So far the response of the western left has been generally one of solidarity. However, the left seems divided on the best way to support Kobani. Invoking anti-imperialist and anti-war principles a considerable part of the left has been shying away from demanding military and logistical support for the main defending force of the city, i.e. People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women Protection Unites (YPJ), the armed wings of Democratic Union Party (PYD), by the US led anti-IS coalition. Moreover, with some exceptions such as David Graeber, many western leftists have neglected the historical significance and transformative political potentials of the success of Kobani’s resistance.

In what follows I argue that pressuring western powers to provide arms and logistical support to YPG/YPJ is legitimate and justifiable, and that in the battle for Kobani the left has a unique opportunity to contribute to an important shift in the regional balance of power in favour of a radical democratic and egalitarian project with transformative ramifications for the entire Middle East.

Kobani, the Kurds, and the West

With regards to the discomfort of the left with the idea of western military support for YPG/YPJ the important preliminary point to be made is that the Kurds have repeatedly claimed that they do not want or need direct military intervention by either coalition forces or Turkey. They’ve repeatedly said that they only need anti-tank weapons, ammunition and the opening of a corridor for fighters, food and medicine to reach Kobani. This request has been echoed by the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who warned of a repetition of the fate of Srebrenica in Kobani if such a humanitarian corridor is not established.

In its demand for a limited tactical western military support for YPG/YPJ the left by no means loses sight of the fact that at its root Islamic State is the fascistic faeces of western imperial metabolism, a direct product of the American conquest of Iraq, the deliberate manipulation of sectarian differences, and the destruction of the social fabric of Iraqi society. But surely, none of these should obviate the recognition of the vital significance of protecting an actually existing and functioning radical left experience at the heart of the Middle East from eradication, notwithstanding its unavoidable flaws and limitations.

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Clinton’s World

As part of the Canada 2020 conference, Hillary Clinton will be giving a lunch-time talk at the Ottawa Convention Center on Oct. 6. The subject of her speech is yet to be announced, but I imagine due attention to “Canada-U.S. relations in a changing world” will be given. I also imagine the event will be sold out despite high ticket prices (495 Canadian dollars per person + sales tax).  The main reason is that the former U.S. Secretary of State—former front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, former U.S. Senator, and former First Lady—is also the most likely person to succeed Barack Obama as POTUS (according to the American and British bookies at least).

By my count, this will be her fourth visit to Canada’s national capital region, and the first since 2010, when she swung by to attend important meetings in nearby Wakefield, Quebec. But where exactly is my city in Clinton’s world?

To answer this question, I turned to Hard Choices, her second memoir published earlier this year, and I read it through the lens of Saul Steinberg’s 1976 New Yorker cover, “View of the World from Ninth Avenue,” a famous Manhattanite mappa mundi from the era when the Vietnam War was a fresh trauma and Jimmy Carter was making an unexpected splash in the Democratic presidential primaries.



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Secrecy and Spectacle in the Overthrow of Mossadegh

Chris Emery LargeA guest post from Christian Emery, Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Plymouth. Chris completed his PhD at the University of Birmingham and has held teaching positions at the University of Warwick and the University of Nottingham. Between 2010 and 2013 he was a Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics. His research covers several areas but is primarily situated at the intersection of International Relations, Diplomatic History, and Foreign Policy Analysis. He is interested in all aspects of post-war US foreign policy, with specific expertise in US policy in Iran. His latest book is US Foreign Policy and the Iranian Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan, coming this October) and he is also the author of pieces in Cold War History, The Iran-Iraq War (Routledge, 2013) and commentary in The Guardian. His next journal article will appear in Diplomacy and Statecraft.

This week an organisation dedicated to expanding public access to US government information, and publishing its former secrets, released documents proving the CIA’s involvement in an illegal covert action. Sound familiar? In this case, however, the authors had no fear of landing themselves in solitary, a foreign embassy, or (worse still) a Russian airport. The organisation lifting the lid was the National Security Archive (I will not indulge in the ironic use of acronyms) which, despite the official sounding name, receives no government funding. The NSA (ok, just once) fights for greater transparency and accountability in US foreign policy within a legal framework. Its primary weapon in fighting for open government is the Freedom of Information Act, and its bluntness may be part of the reason why others have taken more drastic action. I will return to the prescient topic of government secrecy later on, but first a few words on the content of these documents.

The documents are significant for a number of reasons, but the headline news is this: ‘CIA Admits It Was Behind Iran’s Coup.’ The most significant line taken from these documents is from a CIA internal history from the mid-1970s: “the military coup that overthrew Mossadeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of US foreign policy, conceived and approved of at the highest levels of government.”

A legitimate response is:

Nicholas Cage You Don't Say

Quick historical recap. In August 1953 the CIA (working with MI6) orchestrated the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected leader Mohammad Mossadegh and installed Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in his place. The specific motivation for the coup (codenamed TPAJAX) was that Mossadegh was attempting to nationalise Iranian oil. The more pressing fear was that his government was unstable and Cold War thinking dictated that this made Iran vulnerable to Soviet influence. This anxiety was heightened by Iran’s huge oil resources, geographic proximity to the Soviet Union, and the existence of a large and well established Iranian communist party (the Tudeh). The plot to topple Mossadegh initially failed, spooking the Shah into premature exile, but a few days later US and UK agents managed through a variety of nefarious tactics to put a decisive number of pro-Shah supporters onto the streets. Mossadegh’s supporters were rounded up and the great man himself was sentenced to death (the sentence was never carried out – he died in Tehran in 1967). After the coup, Iran’s concession to Western oil companies was renegotiated and for the first time American petroleum companies were granted access to draw Iranian oil.

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To Yahya

The fourth in our mini-forum on critical methodology and narrative (the full series is here). This entry is authored by A—, a student and activist who shall remain nameless, the political realities and personal dangers of our world being as they are.

To Yahya,

I remember your eyes, your fearful and tired eyes. Your shaking voice is in my ear, repeatedly asking “do you think they want to kill me?” And my desperate answer “no they won’t; we will not allow them”. I am sorry Yahya. When I came to Canada there was no information about you, they had removed you from the…. And took you to an unknown place. We had tried so hard to find you but we could not. I am sorry. I know you thought I forgot you, but I did not. After I heard you were executed I was devastated. Your and other political prisoners’ (who we were trying to help) death embedded in me an incredible pain and weakness. I lost everything that I had believed before, my power, my self-esteem. Everything seemed hollow and reasonless. I lost my faith in humanity, International Law, NGO’s, the UN, Human Rights, the media… and all the places I wrote to and never got any response or any practical help. I see my weakness and I understand that beyond that hollow propagandas nothing actually exists that can do something. After that, I hated all of them, I hated the government and I hated the world for not seeing your pain, for not hearing your voice. Yahya, I hated myself as well. You were such a young and bright man that I could not tell you the truth: that we could do nothing to stop them. That our effort is useless, a waste of time, a waste of life and it does not come from power it only came from the fact that we wanted to make the world see what is happening here. “So what?” you might ask and I do not have any answer for you except to say I am so sorry, I am so terribly sorry.

When I came to Canada, I deliberately tried to keep you and the memory of other prisoners in the distance to avoid the pain. However, your face, your eyes, your fear, your anxiety, are embedded in my mind and will not leave me alone. It creates such a guilt that even If I feel that I am happy for a second, I feel terrible afterward. You come to my mind and I nag myself “shame on you!” and then I think: ‘how afraid were you when they were taking you to hang? Did you scream? Did you cry? How did you feel, Yahya? Because I feel an unimaginable pain in my chest when I think about it. Then everything goes black again and nothing remains to make me happy. Afterward, I feel good about myself, “you had better grieve, A–” I tell myself, “you did not do anything, you deserve to grieve”. Yahya, do you hate me? Do you hate me that I am still alive and you are dead? Do you hate me that you were being tortured but I have not?

When I talk to my fellow students about political prisoners in Iran I try to be so mature and rational to not make them think I am wounded or emotional. However, I wonder if you guys would hear me in that moment and think that I lost my emotions about you. Sometimes I curl up in a corner of the room and start to create creepy voices as if I am dying, pretend to be dead, just to see if I understand you and others’ feelings when you were being hanged and could not breathe. I am not saying these things to you in self- pity. I am just saying them to make you understand that I did not forget you, I won’t. Your voice is here, all over my head, and I do not want it to disappear, I want to yell and cry out your words, but they stick in my throat and only tears come out.

I am writing this letter to let you know that I am so sorry, that I am in pain as well, that I want you to stay and have a voice. I left my loved ones, Yahya. I know it is not comparable with your pain. But I was punished as well. I forced to be alienated from all that is familiar to me and isolated from all the kindness of my loved ones. I remained breathless like you did Yahya, but my breathlessness was only emotional while yours was both physical and emotional. I was punished like you, for seeking my rights, for helping you, and for having a voice. How odd it is for the people here, you know? How odd it is for an eighteen-year-old boy here to do what you have done. To sacrifice his life for a political purpose. When I see a young boy in my school I remember you. Then, I feel terrible for so many beauties in the world that you did not see, for all your ambitions that you could not achieve, and for all your dreams and lost opportunities. How cruel was the cord that took your breath away and how cruel is the world to not care about that action.

I want to shout, Yayha, that you are always remembered, that you are always part of this world and that you are always part of a beautiful chapter of my narrative. I could not save you but I can save your voice. At least I promise you this time…


I sit on my coach, lean back with a pen and paper on my hand, staring at my white piano that I have not touched for few months. “Where should I start?” I think. I am repeatedly asking this question of myself but every time I try to write I find myself overwhelmed with a painful ache in my heart and tears in my eyes. “Let’s try looking through some pictures,” I think, they could inspire me. I take my phone from the table, and I start looking at my pictures. “I did not take very many pictures in Canada,” I wonder why; maybe I do not have enough time. Suddenly, I stop by the picture of Sahand (a mountain in the northwest of Iran, near the city that I used to live). I took the picture from the airplane while I was coming to Canada, it is the picture of its highest peak surrounded by clouds. My eyes get wet again. When you are being forced to leave a place that you were born and raised, everything about that city or region gets a sacred place in your heart. When you understand that you might not see them again you start missing them so much. Sahand is the highest mountain in the province where I lived (East Azerbaycan) and it is called ‘the beautiful mountain’ because it is full of shaghayegh (Anemone Coronaria) in spring. Shaghayegh is the symbol of dead people in Iran. People in my region take a full fist of the soil of the graves of their dead and spread it on the Sahand to turn their loved ones to flowers, so they can be born again all over the Sahand’s body. My tears start to drop again. Yes, I missed Sahand, but it is something more. Something is digging at me from inside. A sense of being useless, or being guilty. My purpose here is to narrate my own past activism to free political prisoners who were sentenced to death, but something is preventing me. Guilt, this is the emotion, I could not let go. Will I be able to finally forgive myself? To stop punishing myself and to truly justify my deeds? Maybe I am starting from the wrong side, maybe I should justify myself to you, may be I should beg forgiveness from you. Then I could rest, then I could forgive myself…

What We Talked About At ISA: @Hannah_Arendt – A Hypothetical Exploration of Hannah Arendt in Cybersphere

‘Social Media Drawing’ by Tjarko Van Der Pol

This year’s general conference theme for ISA in San Diego centred on ‘Power, Principles and Participation in the Global Information Age’ and, expectedly, gave rise to a proliferation of papers on the value, consequences and effectiveness of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and other social media in the context of international relations and global politics. Having spent the past three years trying to disentangle the thoughts of one of the more intriguing political theorists on power and politics – Hannah Arendt – it has always struck me that she might have had a word or two to say about the supernova that is social networking as such. I couldn’t help picturing her vigorously engaging with a medium like Twitter, firing off Tweets to relevant interlocutors – @karlmarx no, I think that’s where you’re wrong and dangerous: #history is not ‘made’ by men and #violence not the midwife for a new society! Perhaps even: Yep: RT @karljaspers When #language is used without true significance, it loses its purpose as a means of communication and becomes an end in itself – hashtag and all. Or, on the other hand, flatly dismissing platforms such as Facebook as vanity spheres of little or no substance for political interaction. So I pitched in my paper as a playful thought experiment as to how she might have loved or loathed online social networks as viable platforms and public spheres for the creation of power and conduct of politics proper. This is a somewhat abbreviated version of the full-length paper, which can be found here.

The potency of social networking sites, as channels of communication and a medium for people from all corners of the world to meet in a virtual realm and engage with shared ideas – political or otherwise – has become indisputable. Not least since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, where bodies and voices were galvanized to part-take in various acts of revolt and revolution in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Libya, facilitated through online networks like Twitter and Facebook, have people discovered the enormous potential for a transnational coming-together in a shared cause. These networks thus appear to present themselves as a global public realm in a virtual space, transcending geographic limitations and boundaries, broadening the scope of possible political impact considerably. But with such a young medium it is perhaps wise to take a step back from the hype and ask how effective are these networks in creating actual political power? In how far can we understand the possibility to mobilize and plan in a non-spatial realm, through social networks, to constitute the generation of power and the actualization of political action? My paper sought to address these questions with an Arendtian lens – for better or for worse.

Inside the Political Twittersphere. Sysomos

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Reality Mining for Population-Centric Computational Counterinsurgency; Or, Feedback Loops Meet Hermeneutic Circles

Drizzled between the gun battles were occasional accounts of villages stabilized and town elders met. But, written as random notes, the accounts were hard to insert into a database. There was nothing consistent, nothing you could plot as a trend over time.

‘These were intelligence reports, not measurable data,’ the source says. ‘The population-centric information wasn’t to be found there.’

So the team widened their search, without much luck. The most reliable data they could find was weekly fruit prices from Jalalabad, a city in northeastern Afghanistan. At least those could be measured over time.

“One assumed there was some secret mound of data to be exploited. But it’s just not true,” the source adds.

Noah Shachtman, ‘Inside Darpa’s Secret Afghan Spy Machine’

Albright has noted that Iran has material to build only 12,000-15,000 centrifuges, and if 1,000 to 2,000 were destroyed, this would hasten the demise of its stockpile. But his and other organizations have also noted that after the centrifuges were replaced, Iran stepped up its enrichment program and its overall production of uranium had actually increased in 2010, despite any effects Stuxnet may have had.

Stuxnet required an enormous amount of resources to produce, but its cost-benefit ratio is still in question. While it may have helped set Iran’s program back to a degree, it also altered the landscape of cyberattacks…In the end, Stuxnet’s creators invested years and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attack that was derailed by a single rebooting PC, a trio of naive researchers who knew nothing about centrifuges, and a brash-talking German who didn’t even have an internet connection at home.

Kim Zetter, ‘How Digital Detectives Deciphered Stuxnet, the Most Menacing Malware in History’

These domestic images must be more than simply one more form of distancing, one more way to remove oneself from the grisly reality behind the words; ordinary abstraction is adequate to that task. Something else, something very peculiar, is going on here. Calling the pattern in which bombs fall a ‘footprint’ almost seems a wilful distorting process, a playful, perverse refusal of accountability – because to be accountable is to be unable to do this work.

These words also serve to domesticate, to tame the wild and uncontrollable forces…The metaphors minimize; they are a way to make phenomena that are beyond what the mind can encompass smaller and safer, and thus they are a way of gaining mastery over the unmasterable. The fire-breathing dragon under the bed, the one who threatens to incinerate your family, your town, your planet, becomes a bet you can pat.

Carol Cohn, ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals’ (1987)

The ways of thinking embodied in institutions govern the way the members of the societies studied by the social scientist behave. The idea of war, for instance, was not simply invented by people who wanted to explain what happens when societies come into armed conflict. It is an idea that provides the criteria of what is appropriate in the behaviour of members of the conflicting societies. Because my country is at war there are certain things which I must do and certain things which I must not do. My behaviour is governed, one could say, by my concept of myself as a member of a belligerent country. The concept of war belongs essentially to my behaviour. But the concept of gravity does not belong essentially to the behaviour of a falling apple in the same way: it belongs rather to the physicist’s explanation of the apple’s behaviour. To recognise this has nothing to do with a belief in ghosts behind the phenomena.

Peter Winch, The Idea Of A Social Science And Its Relation to Philosophy (1958)