A Conversation with Kourosh Ziabari

The Global Conversations project is a Popular Discourse initiative to bring together voices from various countries, backgrounds, and areas of expertise to discuss issues that matter. This week, we are fortunate enough to bring you a conversation with Kourosh Ziabari, a correspondent at Fair Observer, Iran Review, Middle East Eye, Your Middle East, and other outlets. Ziabari has won several awards and fellowships for his work, including the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Fellowship in Cultural Journalism, the East-West Center’s Senior Journalists Seminar Fellowship, and the Iranian National Press Festival’s first prize for political journalism. In July 2015, Ziabari was awarded a Chevening Scholarship by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to pursue his master’s study in the UK. The scholarship is granted to gifted students with leadership potential from more than 140 countries around the world. Currently, Kourosh is a MA International Multimedia Journalism student at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent, Medway Campus.


By MEGHAN BODETTE || September 30, 2016

Popular Discourse: The nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 was signed over a year ago, and the future of the US-Iran relationship is a topic of discussion and disagreement in both countries. How do you envision the future of this relationship? Do you think it is likely to improve?

Kourosh Ziabari: If we look at the troubled history of Iran-U.S. relations and grasp the delicacy of their mutual engagement over the course of the past 40 years, it turns out that what was achieved in July 2015 was an extraordinary  step forward. Whereas for a period of four decades, even the lowest-ranking officials and diplomats of the two countries would hysterically evade each other in public, and rush to deny the rumors that they had accidentally run into each other, met each other, shook hands or simply exchanged a few words of greetings – even when those rumors were true – one can dare call it a revolution that the presidents of the two countries had a 15-minute phone conversation back in September 2013, and the two foreign ministers became the most intimate friends that would simply call each other on first name basis. Some reports even went so far as to claim that the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif spent more time together in 2014 and 2015 than any other two foreign ministers in the world! So, even though such a development appears to be symbolic and unsubstantial, it carries a lot of weight after four decades of absolutely non-existent mutual relations between the two countries on any political and diplomatic front. You may want to call it a jump!

The nuclear agreement, as the officials of both countries have emphasized, was not meant to solve all the differences keeping Iran and the U.S. apart. That’s true. But I think everybody agrees the two adversaries should have started from a certain point to ease the tensions. It’s really impossible, impractical and unrealistic to expect this huge bulk of misunderstandings, animosity and grievances accumulated between the two nations during such a long period to go away in a jiffy. And moreover, the differences between the two nations have been so entrenched and extensive that they either remain there forever, or are simply settled through dialog and a sustained commitment to realize constructive dialog.

I’m hopeful about the future of Iran-U.S. relations, because history has proven that animosity won’t last forever, even if it’s so deep-rooted. Countries are practicing how to talk to each other even when they don’t agree on everything. Even sometimes, they totally differ in terms of ideology, nature and ideals, but they have come to terms with each other, and it means the limits of international relations are defined in accordance with facts on the ground, neither fantasies, nor vague mottos.

Take, for example, Saudi Arabia. The UK firms have sold around £5.6 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since 2010. Saudis do not resemble any of the values that the British society characterizes. They’re each literally standing on the two most extreme ends of the spectrum. Even the UK Home Office considers the Saudi Arabian students as “high-risk students” needing to register with the police within 7 days of arriving in the UK to study there. But you can see they’re getting along quite well, enjoying a mutually benefiting relationship, and at times, maintaining their differences and arguing over them. This is how international relations work – which is putting national interests above anything else, and I really hope Tehran and Washington will learn to practice some tolerance and pragmatism and understand that even the closest, most loyal allies have their differences at times, and just try to minimize or conceal them. Again, look at the U.S. and Israel, think of their affectionate, special relationship and consider how much conflict they’ve had in the recent 3-4 years. So, here we go! Iran and the United States should not expect themselves to embrace each other as true lovers after forty year of unremitting enmity. They have to take the steps one by one, and I’m confident they’ll move to the stage of full normalization one day. Maybe that day will happen 100 years later. I don’t know. But could anybody imagine President Obama paying an official trip to Havana and taking those fancy photos with President Raul Castro after half a century?

 

PD: Iran’s next presidential election will occur in 2017. What issues do you think will be most important in this election?

KZ: The most important development affecting the next year’s election, which has just been unfolded, is the strong warning by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei against the ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a well-known demagogue and hardliner, dissuading him from running for president. Ahmadinejad, who ruled Iran from 2005 until 2013 for two consecutive terms, had ambitiously planned to try his chance for a third time – after losing the chance to do so immediately due to constitutional limits, and had been going on lecture tours across the country apparently for no good reason, and while the campaign season has not officially kicked off yet. The Leader recognized that another term for Ahmadinejad in office would be tantamount to the aggravation and enlargement of national splits and divisions, renewed tensions with the outside world after the breathtaking efforts by President Rouhani and his team to get the nuclear controversy settled, and a new shock to domestic economy now that relative stability has started to rule Iran’s troubled market. Ahmadinejad’s record during his eight years in office was one of mismanagement and cluelessness on domestic and foreign policy.

Ahmadinejad is literally obsessed with power and has been long fancying running for the upcoming presidential election in 2017, launching a controversial campaign, winning the vote even with a narrow margin by every possible means and then starting to entertain the same experiences that exceptionally boosted his confidence to the point that he never apologized to his constituency, even once, for the grave mistakes he committed, including drowning the country in an erosive conflict with the entire world over the nuclear issue and virtually leaving Iran’s economy in ruins. Nothing could have stopped him from running, because it’s not the Iranian people or the future of Iran he cares about. It’s his power greed and publicity lust that keeps him stuck to the nation’s political panorama, even four years after his retirement. Only the Supreme Leader could have prevented him from seeking a comeback. And when he got that stern public caution, he didn’t comply out of affection for the Supreme Leader or obedience to him – what Ahmadinejad’s fans falsely believe, or simply pretend to believe he characterizes perfectly, that is unconditional submission to the Supreme Leader. He wrote a reluctant letter of homage addressed to Ayatollah Khamenei, saying that he doesn’t have plans for the next year’s polls. He didn’t mention anything about the future elections, nor did he make any reference to his possible withdrawal from politics. Perhaps he just felt compelled to oblige, or he would have faced a crisis in his fan base.

However, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being cast out of the race, I don’t think of any major rival challenging Rouhani seriously, even though I cannot guarantee he will be able to secure an unproblematic reelection. Rouhani’s disappointing performance on a number of issues the people wanted him to fix quite quickly after coming to office, and his inability to fix them even while he’s nearing the end of his first term, has proven to be a challenge for the moderate cleric, and a disillusionment for his supporters. However, I’m confident the next year’ election will be a competitive, vibrant and exciting race, regardless of the outcome.

PD: As a journalist, you have had the opportunity to travel the world and cover key figures and events in various countries. What is the most important lesson you have learned from this international perspective? 

KZ: Thankfully, since I finished my undergraduate studies, I’ve been able to travel to quite a few places across the globe and gain new experiences. The most important thing these trips have taught me is that a good journalist cannot be confined to his newsroom and expect to become a trained, seasoned and proficient media personality all of a sudden. One has to interact with people of diverse, different backgrounds, grasp the nuances of various cultures that at times appear to be inconsistent and totally dissimilar, learn about what matters to people here and there, and understand the delicacy of global civilizations. I cannot really claim that traveling to a dozen of countries has made me such an erudite and progressive journalist, but I know it’s essential that thriving journos break the barriers that segregate them from the outside world and make them unable to establish long-lasting ties and explore new universes.

Sometimes, journalists are stuck in their preconceptions, and it prevents them from giving a realistic and fair coverage to the current affairs, as well as issues of historical nature that still matter to the public. Again, it’s almost impossible to say journalists do not take sides or are absolutely impartial, because it’s not really the responsibility of the journalists to be totally unbiased – but it’s their responsibility to be honest and adhere to integrity. When they produce stories that are consistent and predicated on honesty, then it’s quite inevitable that the level of impartiality in their coverage will ascend accordingly.

I’ve been contributing to international media organizations since 2008, and I’ve been learning and practicing fresh methods all the time, trying to acquire new knowledge to embellish and uplift my work of journalism. I aspire to become a leading, distinguished media personality respected worldwide – actually it’s my long-term plan, or maybe wishful thinking, and I’m sure these trips have given me a better picture of how the world works, even though with over 200 countries and territories distributed in five continents and some 7.4 billion people living across these regions, it’s almost impossible for any journalist to be able to “completely” discern and understand the subtleties of the entire world. However, we can try and move in the direction of becoming more comprehensive and more understanding media people and narrow down our ignorance. Being able to understand the differences between people and accommodate them is what distinguishes successful and failed journalists, I think.

A Conversation with Dr. David Priess


By MEGHAN BODETTE || September 16, 2016

The Global Conversations project is a Popular Discourse initiative to bring together voices from various countries, backgrounds, and areas of expertise to discuss issues that matter. This week, we are fortunate enough to bring you a conversation with Dr. David Priess, a former CIA officer during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.  Dr. Priess is also the author of The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Daily Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama. The book lays out the history of the President’s daily intelligence brief through interviews with former Presidents, Vice Presidents, CIA directors, national security advisers, secretaries of state and defense, and other relevant personnel.

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Dr. David Priess

Popular Discourse: Your book, The President’s Book of Secrets, tells the story of the President’s daily intelligence brief. What fact or anecdote in the book do you find most interesting?

David Priess: While some serious documentary research went into this book, the interviews with former president and vice presidents and others were most revealing.

I expected to find plenty of examples of presidents and other top officials getting real insight from their daily book of secrets–things that helped them make some of the toughest national security decisions this country has faced. And those examples showed up, for sure.

But you asked for the most interesting anecdotes, and most of those had to do with less serious moments. Two stand out.

First, when George H.W. Bush was president. You have to remember–he’d been CIA director, he’d been vice president for eight years … so he was no stranger to intelligence. Maybe that’s why he was so comfortable with his daily intelligence briefers, willing to have not only no-kidding serious conversation with them about the highly classified information in the PDB but also some fun moments. Like the time his CIA briefer conveyed the analysts’ assessment that the incumbent would win an election in Nicaragua. President Bush added it up differently, and he offered a wager to the CIA briefer that the analysis was wrong. It was–the challenger won, as Bush predicted–and the briefer brought an ice cream cone to the Oval Office to pay up.

Second, when Bill Clinton was president. He was surprised on his 50th birthday to open up his PDB and start reading about crisis after crisis around the world, all caused by things that he had said and done in the preceding days and weeks. It took him a few articles in the book before he realized they were pulling his leg, having a little fun with him.

I like those examples because they show that this very serious business of providing classified intelligence analysis to the president remains a very personal process, with real personalities and real human moments.

PD: How has the intelligence community adapted to technological and political changes since the administrations in which you served? Has it adapted well?

DP: Much has been written elsewhere about the expanded flow of information to analysts, especially in the realm of social media. I’ll focus instead on a narrower topic: the delivery of daily intelligence analysis to top customers.

Between administrations, and within each one, the intelligence community adapts to the needs of its customers and to the personality of its First Customer, the president of the United States. These adjustments have traditionally succeeded when built on a foundation of solid communication between intelligence officers and the recipients of their products. Absent a robust relationship, those changes become guesswork.

The biggest change with the President’s Daily Brief itself involves the medium of delivery. For decades–since the CIA started producing it for Lyndon Johnson in 1964–the PDB has been page after page of Top Secret intelligence assessments printed in a book. The format of that book has changed, but it’s been ink on paper.

But not anymore. President Obama gets his PDB, now from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, on an iPad. The PDB still contains analysis of various international issues based on all-source intelligence, but the new format allows for variations like embedded multimedia presentations that can enhance impact.

PD: What, in your analysis, is the best way of delivering daily intelligence to the president and other top policymakers?

DP: There may not be one best way. We have to remember–no one gets to the presidency or another top-level office without figuring out what learning style works best for him or her. And these folks have no shortage of advisers to help them get the most out of their time. The preferences of each president or other senior officer should drive how he or she receives daily intelligence analysis.

That said, even as an avid reader myself, I find it hard to see how the full benefit of daily intelligence can be captured without in-person briefings. A president or other senior official forgoing such briefings increases the chances that a senior adviser who is not intimately familiar with the nuances of intelligence will skew the information–deliberately or inadvertently–or otherwise prevent an objective assessment of the facts on the ground from reaching that official. Any risks arising from the direct contact between intelligence officers and senior customers can be mitigated.

An in-person briefing has a huge upside. It allows the customer to discuss with a trained intelligence officer issues regarding the sources behind the daily assessments, alternative points of view, and implications of the judgments on the printed page. A deeper understanding results. Plus, it gives the intelligence community a much better sense of the customer’s needs and challenges, which helps in the development of future products.

 


Special thanks to Dr. Priess, who was open to providing meaningful commentary to a new, growing media journalism project run by young college students. We are indebted to the time he devoted to helping us out. 

A Conversation with Noorjahan Akbar

The Global Conversations project is a Popular Discourse initiative to bring together voices from various countries, backgrounds, and areas of expertise to discuss issues that matter. This week, we are fortunate enough to bring you a conversation with Noorjahan Akbar.

Akbar is a writer and human rights activist who has shared her story with the world in order to raise awareness for women’s rights issues in Afghanistan. She is the founder of Free Women Writers, a group that amplifies the voices of Afghan women seeking equality and justice in their societies.

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Popular Discourse: What inspired you to found Free Women Writers?

Noorjahan Akbar: I started Free Women Writers in 2013. It was originally just a small anthology of Afghan women’s writings in Persian named Daughters of Rabia, after the Afghan poetess Rabia Balkhi. My friend Batul Moradi and I published the book because we were fed up with the fact that most of the books available for free or for a cheap price in Kabul and other large cities in Afghanistan were radicalizing and misogynistic. We wanted there to be an alternative. People loved the book. In fact, within a month, we ran out of all our 1500 copies. It was distributed by volunteers around the country.

The warm welcome made me think of creating a bigger platform that continued the work of the book in highlight women’s stories and voices. That is how Free Women Writers was created. For most of the past three years it has been a social media blog, largely in Persian with some Pashtu articles here and there. Last year, I started translating some of the articles to English, and this year I formed a collective and recruited a few volunteers to help out with editing, translation and content creation.

I started a blog for Afghan women because I have always loved writing. I started blogging when I was a teenager and I still remember the way I felt when my first article was published in an Afghan newspaper. Afterwards, the newspaper’s editors invited me to attend the weekly meeting scheduled to discuss the publication along with my sister. I was probably fourteen and sitting in a room with more than a dozen adults who critically analyzed each other’s pieces. When it came to my piece, someone who didn’t know I had written it began shredding it to pieces. It made me feel so proud because it was a sign that my piece was being taken seriously- not dismissed as child’s play. In some way, it legitimized my writing. I’ve always found writing to be incredibly empowering, so I wanted to create the possibility for other Afghan women to read their pieces published on a platform.

PD: In Western media, Afghan women can be mischaracterized as lacking in agency- in fact, women in developing countries as a whole are often mischaracterized in this way. Why do you think this happens? What should be done to change this perception?

NA: The reintroduction of Afghan women to the West happened during the American-led intervention in 2001. From the first days of the plan to attack Afghanistan, the plight of Afghan women was used as a narrative to justify the war. In order to paint a strong picture, leaders-and even some feminist organizations- leaned heavily on narrating the victimization of Afghan women by the Taliban, from images of women getting beat on the street to public execution. The famous Laura Bush speech in November 2001, focused on the oppression of “Afghan women and children,” which equated women to children and implied that both lack agency and are mere victims. This is how in the contemporary narratives of Afghanistan (because lack of historical memory is a reality of our world today) the phrase “Afghan women” became synonymous with violence, maimed bodies, stoning, and cut noses.

The reality, of course, is a little bit more complicated. Violence is a reality for most Afghan women. I would argue, and statistics also show, that most Afghan women face some sort of violence at home or on the streets. However, that is one side of the coin- an important side without a doubt. On the other hand, Afghan women also have a long history of struggling for equality and human rights. Our history did not start in 2001 and it does not depend on Western interventions or efforts. For me as an activist, it is important to have various narratives of Afghan women- instead of a single story- because I know you cannot “empower” women by telling them over and over again that they are “victims.” Stories of Afghan women’s success, introduction of role model women, and studying and understanding the history of Afghan women can help empower us even more than yet another dehumanizing image and story of maimed female bodies. We need a more balanced approach to telling Afghan women’s stories. I think the most important tool we have in changing the current one-dimensional narrative is the voices of Afghan women themselves and that is one of the reasons Free Women Writers now publishes in English as well as Persian: to challenge the dominant victimizing narrative around our lives by telling our own stories in our own authentic voices.

PD: What do you consider to be the goals of the women’s movement in Afghanistan? What progress have you seen, and what steps do you think should still be taken?

NA: I think it is up for debate whether or not we have a coherent women’s movement in Afghanistan, but there are a lot of efforts that are laudable. These efforts have different goals. For me the ultimate goal for any women’s movement is to create an equal society where we won’t need a women’s movement. We are far from that in Afghanistan and around the world.

Afghanistan is trying to find itself after nearly five decades of war and conflict. In many ways, we are going back- instead of forward- to a time when women had more rights. In the recent years, despite the Taliban and insecurity, we have made huge progress. Just the fact that 8 million children, 40% of them girls, go to school is something that makes me hopeful. We have more female teachers and university students right now than any time in the history of our country. Women are gaining more political power and more women have jobs than before. Women are now part of the army and the police. They are parliamentarians and musicians and athletes. But of course we have a long way to go. First of all, for any sustainable progress we need a safer Afghanistan for everyone. With the current instability and terror attacks, we fear that we will lose what we have gained. In some parts of the country, women have already made setbacks due to Taliban gaining power. The Taliban are an existentialist threat to Afghan women and the future of Afghanistan and all sustainable change and progress depends on dealing with this threat. For as long as they continue attacking women and communities, more activists, educated elites and professional will risk their lives to leave the country and change in Afghanistan will remain fragile.


Meghan Bodette contributed reporting. 

Meghan is a staff writer at Popular Discourse and a first-year student at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. 

A Conversation with Kori Schake


By MEGHAN BODETTE and THE POPULAR DISCOURSE EDITORIAL BOARD || August 31st, 2016

Experience. Insight. Taking the long view. In national security, few things matter more– and few people can provide perspective on them like Kori Schake can.

Schake’s experience in government spans multiple administrations and agencies. Her career includes time in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, as the director for Defense Strategy and Requirements on the National Security Council, and as the deputy director for policy planning at the State Department. She has seen the policy process firsthand from various viewpoints, at key moments in America’s post-Cold War history– and this week, Popular Discourse had the opportunity to reach out to her with three questions on some more current issues.

Popular Discourse: You, along with many other conservative national security experts, have signed a letter condemning Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and promising not to work for him. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, is welcoming the support of disillusioned Republicans. Do you think this campaign trend will create opportunities for a more bipartisan approach to foreign policy if she is elected? What might that look like?

Kori Schake: It could, but it’s too soon to tell.  Because Clinton is getting conservative national security types for free — the campaign isn’t making any policy compromises to secure our support, she’s just benefitting from our abhorrence of Trump.  But a bipartisan policy would require her to give us reasons for supporting her policies. I’d love to see her stop talking nonsense about TPP as the bellwether.  Stop relying on Republican votes to deliver a trade deal that, if it’s not passed, will be both an economic and foreign policy debacle during her presidency.  

I also think we conservatives have a lot of work to do with our own voters, who have soured on internationalism, both economic and security.  Republican voters are actually more opposed to trade than are Democrats.  And, of course, it’s conservatives who’ve put Donald Trump on the masthead of the party of Lincoln.  It will be insufficient to ignore or repudiate their views; we actually need to win the argument about how engagement with the world benefits Americans.  Because we can’t have sensible bipartisan policies until we reestablish the basis for them on our own team.

PD: What do you see as the most important foreign policy challenge the United States faces in the short term– the next 5-10 years? What about in the long term–10+ years?

KS: I’d say the principal short term challenge is helping the American people to understand how the economy is changing.  Technology is sweeping through economies like a wildfire, and even with all its benefits, people are scared by the rate of change.  Not only are peoples’ jobs going away, entire professions are going away. People are right to be scared, and political leaders aren’t helping them find paths to new work.  We won’t be able to engage confidently in the world until we succeed at that, and there are lots of foreign policy problems that need our engagement if they are not to burgeon into crises or take directions damaging to our security and prosperity.

For the longer term, I worry that we’ve lost the art of building norms and institutions.  Post-Cold War triumphalism at the expense of our power led us to reject lots of modes of cooperation that, tiresome as the doing of them may be, are cost-effective ways for the U.S. to ensure international order and practice that are beneficial to us.  And President Obama’s just as guilty of it as Presidents Clinton and Bush and the Congresses they dealt with were — drone policy is just one example where we’ve over a decade conducted ourselves in ways we will find objectionable in others, yet we made no attempt to position ourselves for a future in which we weren’t the only possessors of the capability.  We don’t compromise enough with others, we don’t utilize the means they favor for getting things done, we don’t enshrine in law or institutions things we want to have done.  It’s drawing down reserves instead of building them up.

PD: What advice would you offer to young people hoping to work in foreign policy and national security?

KS: Don’t worry too much about failure.  I’m struck at the number of young professionals who are preoccupied with making a mistake that derails their career.  Failure is just data.  Don’t give it outsized importance — your career isn’t a medieval morality play.  And you aren’t the only person whose behavior is being judged in any given circumstance, so don’t preoccupy yourself.  Dust yourself off and get back to work.  If you’re tailoring your actions to prevent failure, you’ll sail too close to the shore to achieve all your talents can give.  And while I wouldn’t advise making as many mistakes as I have, it’s emboldening to outrun hostile fortune.  Give yourself license to take risks.